--- Dance of Dragons ---
Court life was a headache of intimate gossip, shallow promises, and vicious political affairs. Ayamaro’s court was unusual in that half of it was uniquely isolated from vast outside influences, due to the main powerfront of his palace being hosted directly in the heart of a capital flagship, one of the very few remaining from the great wars some years past. Most of the servants had never so much as left the ship, many of the younger ones having been born and raised on the ship. Certain courtiers and ambassadors were of course more well traveled, but for the most part, things were a rich family’s isolated slice of heaven.
His son, Ukyo, spent a majority of time within the ground palace centered in the midst of a bustling city set in rings of walls. The further out from the center, the worse daily living conditions grew. The city of Armad Toth, so named after a legendary warrior that had supposedly founded the original fortress. Today’s fort was nothing like the simple, sturdy brick foundations of the past; pastel painted plaster walls and delicate gold filigree decorated every inch of the interior, hallways trimmed in exotic woods and floors polished to a healthy shine. The rooms had been furnished to father and son’s tastes; Ayamaro held a small study and a massive greeting room for political debate and courtesies, and enjoyed the luxury of spacious private quarters with several gardens and indoor koi ponds.
His son was more extravagant and tasteless, wasting space on passtime curiosities of hobbies he’d hold interest in for no longer than a week, and an entire wing of the fortress devoted to his most precious collection of rarities; harem beauties. Some came to him as gifts from other kingdoms, some were plucked directly from the town he lived in. A scant handful were forcibly adopted from servant families within the court itself, and still others were taken from their farms in the countryside.
He was altogether an unpopular figure in the eyes of the common folk, and detested quietly by other courts. Complaints were never raised, for all despite his appearances as a flippant and uneducated dunce, the boy had a chillingly cunning side to his mind when he put effort into it. Underneath the white makeup and soft violet eyes, a cruel determination and intelligence lay dormant, waiting for the opportune moments to strike. Mostly, though, he behaved as a bumbling fool prone to impulsive decisions and rash emotional tantrums.
And so it was with much inner resignation and disgust, that Kyuzo Mifune was tasked to guard the spoiled welp during Ayamaro’s visit to a neighboring kingdom for a week-long festival. No emotion was betrayed on his visage when the order was handed down from his Lord, but he privately cursed the logic that bade the most favored of the samurai guards be kept in the city of thieves and assassins to guard the sole heir. It was sound, though his Lord would be in similar danger, visiting a neighboring land surrounded by outsiders of unknown intentions.
However, the young prince’s logic followed a far more dishonorable and wretched path. With both of his favorite samurai carelessly leashed to his command, Hyugo and Kyuzo had become effective criminals bound by honor and oath, to break honor and morality. They did not even have the saving grace of Ayamaro designating a list of rules; in his haste to leave, he had assigned they to Ukyo for servitude, rather than assigning Ukyo to they for management.
It was obvious that Hyugo’s annoyance came from putting up with the prince’s antics, rather than the nature of the tasks they would be ordered to carry out. Kyuzo’s mind quietly went to work shutting down all barriers of emotional interest and locking away what pride he dared. The mental preparation had been in the works since yesterday morn.
He could not afford to let doubts encroach upon his thoughts; hesitations would cost him dearly.
They now sat in a small meeting room affixed with a tea steeping machine and cozy lacquered table. Soft square cushions were arranged around it. Kyuzo had chosen to seat himself in the customary corner beside the doorway, whilst Hyugo made no qualms of the break in normal routine to take a seat directly on the cushion to the right of the prince. The prince had a decided gleam in his eyes as he laid out the route for the trip through the city he intended to take, bothering to name an excuse for the journey as a visit to a popular smith to request his works.
“Now, then, we’ll take this road, which will lead us directly past the brothel…”
Kyuzo closed his eyes, listening without comment and spreading out his senses to focus on the environment beyond the suffocating atmosphere of the tiny room. It was the only form of escape he had.
Chapter 2: Damsel in Distress
Mira stood in an awkward position of having stopped mid-step, her eyes crossed at the hand directly in front of her face. Coming around the bar counter with a tray of drinks in one hand and a platter of food in the other, she wasn’t in a good position to slap away the man’s offending limb. He held an empty mug, his face flushed bright red and eyes glossed over from the drunken stupor. Two other men flanked him to either side, clearly just as drunk as the leader. They’d been no doubt kicked out from another bar, and had only just barged their way into the restaurant here to demand service, both in the form of drink and food, and the more intimate attentions of the sole waitress.
From the kitchen a man came out, dressed in baggy garments that hung off his thin, lanky frame. Youth still tugged at the edge of his features, and tawny copper hair stuck up in odd patches.
“Oi, oi! None of that, get that shit outta here,” he called, waving a spatula at them. “We don’t serve drunks!” While the trio laughed in reply to the scrawny man’s demands, Mira quietly reached down to set the tray of drinks and food onto the tables on either side of her.
“An what’ll ya do if’in we dun wanna leave, eh? Eh?” the tallest of the three asked, his chest bound in cloth and an open orange shirt hanging loosely off his shoulders. The hilt of two katana’s jutted out from beside bony hips, his hand moving to rest on it. The customer’s had gone silent, watching the group. The regulars watched with looks of either boredom or amusement, some having already returned to their meals. Those new to the establishment watched on in horror and discomfort, a select few with sick excitement.
“W-well,” Mira stuttered, feeling her face flush as she feigned a timid step back, turning her body slightly sideways as her eyes looked up at the nearest man from under dark lashes. Her hair was bound tightly back in a small bun, and she wore a simple dark blue shirt with white trim, and a pair of black leggings that reached mid-calf. Her feet were bare and calloused. She mentally shuddered as the man used the hand holding the mug to press against the side of her face. Just as he stepped to move closer, he found himself thrown over a shoulder and dumped on the floor in the next instant. The second man was next, howling in pain as he dropped like a rock, clutching his shattered knee. The look of innocent fear affected for her timid act had washed away into a silent, steely snarl of anger.
Mira’s footsteps danced over the fallen bodies, but found her speed outmatched by the third man who had gotten over the surprise fast enough to draw his sword. The scuffle did not last long thereafter; the sword clattered to the ground as the skinny man’s orange shirt blossomed red from behind, and the tip of a blade jutted out from the center of his chest. Mira looked from the blade hovering an inch away from her neck where her knife was ready to block its path, and back up to his face just in time to see the brown eyes glaze over, and the corpse drop down beside the two yet living hooligans.
Kaite, the cook and shop owner, wiped his blade off on a clean rag, tsking.
“You alright, Mira-chan?” he asked nonchalantly as she sheathed her weapon back into the folds of her shirt, before Kaite crouched down to pat down the corpse for a money pouch. Luck was with him, and from it he tossed a silver nub to a nearby regular halfway through a bottle of sake. “Help her clean this up Yuto-san, aye?”
“Sure thing,” the older man grunted, and pushed up from the bar counter. The man with the shattered knee had fainted, and Yuto roughly grasped the collar of his and the unconscious drunk leader’s shirt to drag them both to the open doorway, passing through the white cloth hung as a door. Mira was left with the lighter corpse, and grimaced at the bloody smear she dragged across the dusty floor.
Outside, she hauled the body over to the gutter, knowing it would be cleaned up in just a few hours by the street sweepers. They had made a regular routine of checking here night and morning in the past few months.
“You are one feisty little lady, I’m not sure if I pity or congratulate your future husband,” her cleaning partner said in a gruff voice, grinning lopsidedly. Yuto was tall and stout, the lines of age etched into his bronzed skin and dirty gray hair mussled. A short white mustache and beard enhanced the rugged appearance. He offered out a somewhat clean rag to her, which she gratefully accepted to wipe off the blood from her hands. Her partner frowned. “You got cut?” he asked, pointing to the bloodstain on her waist. Mira shrugged.
“He grazed me when I turned, it’ll be fine. My foot hurts more from kicking the guy’s knee.”
“I bet it would, hey, hold still,” he ordered. Mira obediently waited as he took the rag to wipe at her face. Yuto clucked his tongue in disapproval.
“Go in back and clean up, you’ve got the bastard’s blood all over you.” Despite the grim observation, he sounded amused, particularly at Mira’s grouchy pout.
“I just bought this!” she complained, smoothing out the wrinkled front of her blue shirt. The black sash was the only thing that didn’t show small splatters of blood.
“Wear red, it’ll show less. Your young enough to get away with the color.”
“I like people assuming I’m married,” she grumped, but smiled as she brushed aside the white tarp to invite him entry back into the restaurant first. Yuto returned the expression as he entered, and ruffled her hair with one large hand.
“Keep it up and you never will be, you really wanna waste away here?” His hidden accusation earned a steady glare and silent frown from the young woman as she watched him pass and return to his seat.
The food and drinks she’d been delivering had found their way to the proper table courtesy of Kaite, and Mira returned to work by scrubbing the floor of blood before vanishing into the back rooms to wash up.
“I think there are better prizes to be sought, Ukyo-sama,” Hyugo suggested quietly, crouched down on one knee beside the young prince who was looking out the blinds of his coach with a decidedly manic gleam. Both the samurai and the prince had witnessed the scene of a young woman and gruff old man dragging out beaten ruffians. Hyugo couldn’t tell if it was the old man himself that had dealt with them, for it was only the woman who had blood staining her pale skin. No doubt she had been protected by the shop’s guard.
“Tch, you have no eye for beauty, Hyugo-chan.” Ukyo enjoyed the flinch of the older samurai’s expression at the inappropriate honorific. “It’s your fault for being unable to bring me the true prize, sweet Kirara, my precious flower.” A dramatic hand sweep and arching of the back accompanied the prince’s words as he feigned hurt. Disappointed at the lack of reaction from either samurai, Ukyo gave a mighty pout. He huffed, and gestured casually to the red clad warrior in the corner who knelt with eyes quietly watching the window. “Fine, then - you go fetch her, offer them gold first, threaten the shop second. Bring her to me, I want to see what she looks like cleaned up in silk.”
Without a word Kyuzo rose from his crouch, and slipped out the side door.
“Hmph, he’s so uncreative,” Ukyo muttered, watching the back of the red guncoat as the blond samurai entered directly through the restaurant’s front door.
The building inside was surprisingly well maintained, despite the obvious wear and tear the rough city customers put it through. The atmosphere was comfortable and lively, chatter from the various diners and drinkers filling the humble space. Some paused to assess the new arrival, taking in the grounded stance and calculating gaze. Kyuzo’s red eyes flicked to the older man he’d seen carry out the bodies, sensing his gaze.
Yuto set the cup of sake down slowly, unblinking gray eyes never wavering from the red clad stranger. Kaite stepped out of the back, carrying a steaming plate of roasted meat and vegetables, which he set down at a booth beside Yuto. Kyuzo noted that the two exchanged quiet words, even as he approached.
Red eyes met green, the store owner running a hand through his hair as he assessed the blond stranger.
“Food and drink?” he asked, frowning. Kyuzo simply shook his head minutely, too disgusted with the nature of his visit to speak openly.
“The lord’s son has business,” he said in quiet monotone.
Yuto stood up immediately, face drawing into a sharp featured scowl.
“And what business is that?” he demanded. The customers nearby stopped conversation to look over, just as Mira stepped out from the back room wiping her hands off on a bloodied rag. Kyuzo flicked his gaze over, let it rest on her startled expression, before looking down to Kaite.
“...I see. Let’s discuss this in the back,” the store owner said in a hushed voice.
“Kaite-san, you can’t be considering--” Yuto went silent at the held up hand of the young chef, and watched with narrowed eyes as the two men disappeared behind the counter and stepped past Mira.
“Mira-chan, your grandfather is waiting to be served. I believe he wants the special.”
Her breath hitched and her eyes widened minutely, before she affected an easy smile and nodded, slipping on an actress’s practiced face. Had he not caught her brief falter, Kyuzo considered it likely he’d not have noticed it was an act at all.
“Of course, I’ll see to Yuto-san’s dishware first, though.”
Kyuzo wondered what had caused them to come up with this clever routine, for he had already assessed upon entering the building that all the tables were either finishing their meals or recently served, and the eldest man in the room was Yuto himself. With quiet subtly he let his senses span out, his eyelids drooping ever so slightly as his focus split between his body and the nearby environment. The multitude of auras mingled and interwove in the confined space, and he made no effort to untangle any but the ones which sought his interest; the old man’s, the girl’s, and the stronger aura outside that marked Hyugo’s presence. He found it strange that the girl’s aura seemed to shimmer softly in his mind’s eye, rather than glow like the others. It was a quiet press of her presence against his senses, indistinct and difficult to focus on. Either she was a very weak spirit, or she was self-aware and keeping her presence cloaked, whether instinctually or intentionally was uncertain.
Kaite slowly led the samurai from the kitchen where a few other cooks worked to a small back room that served as both his personal dining hall and the staff lounge. He gave a nervous smile when the samurai made no move to sit.
“Ahhh, some sake, or tea? It sounds like this is going to be a long discussion.”
Kyuzo’s hand sought the inner pocket in his jacket, and withdrew holding a small money pouch which was casually deposited onto the low table. Kaite’s gaze flicked from it to the samurai, Adam’s apple bobbing. The small sack had landed with a noteable thunk.
“I’m, ah, very flattered by what I’m sure is a generous offer, but Mira-chan is not for sale, nor am I the one to speak to regarding her, ah, status to begin with.”
Several phrases ran through Kyuzo’s mind as he calculated an acceptable response, until he realized that nothing he said would matter, alter the outcome, nor lessen the sting to his pride or comfort the anxious man before him. Internally angry at the situation and frustrated at the lack of acceptable words, the time to issue a verbal response passed all too quickly. So instead, he simply turned and strode purposefully out of the room, leaving the money on the table and ignoring the man’s sudden yelp of alarm and order to wait.
As he’d expected, Yuto and the girl were no longer in the front room. However, they were not far away.
Chapter 3: The Lizard's Trail
“Eh? Where is she?” Ukyo asked, straightening up and blinking as he watched the samurai step down from the doorway without a bloodied beauty in tow. Hyugo grunted, and observed as his peer turned towards the building, and leaped from the sidewalk up to the low roof, taking off over it and vanishing from sight behind the building.
“She must have ran,” Hyugo concluded, shrugging. Ukyo sighed moodily.
“This is why I should have been the one to go greet her, of course she’d run away from such an unfriendly grouch!” Hyugo wisely did not offer comment.
Mira had to admit, she was pretty scared. Yuto had immediately led her out the hidden side door and rushed down the grimy alleyway, leading her towards the Lizard’s Trail. It was one of the most common hidden pathways amongst thieves, messengers, smugglers, and the unusual traveler preferring to avoid the crowded streets for one reason or another, though it was well hidden knowledge from normal city folk.
“That man, I’ve seen him before. He’s the Lord’s pet, him showing up is bad news, I tell you. I dunno what he wants exactly but I’d bet it ain’t good, ‘specially if that cryptic look of his meant he’s here for you. You get mixed up in something you shouldn’ta again, Mira?” he demanded, casting a steely gaze over his shoulder as they ran side by side. There was a bite to his voice that made her heart skip a beat in guilt, even though she knew she hadn’t broken her promise. The situation was as unexpected as a cat giving birth to a bird.
“I’ve kept my oath, Yuto! I don’t know why they’d have an interest in me anymore, that’s all long in the past. What about Kaite?”
“Don’t worry about him, he’ll direct ‘em towards your grandpa--”
“He’d better not! Ojiisan has had enough to do with me, I’ve already told you that.” Yuto only snorted in reply as they rounded a corner and slipped through a narrow gap between two buildings, pipelines and rusted metal siding decorating the crowded alley they now quickly stepped through. Being so wide, Yuto had to sidestep whilst Mira’s smaller frame let her simply walk normally as she led the way.
“There are many people who might wish to claim your life, squirt, but I’ll be damned if--” Yuto stopped mid-step, reaching a hand out to grab Mira’s shoulder as he hauled her close to speak in her ear. “He’s following us. Go to your guild, stay two nights. We’ll meet at the old pipe tower at dawn.” His voice was quiet and serious, making Mira shudder.
“I don’t want to go back there,” she said quietly. “There’ll be people there, I said I was done with that life.”
“It looks like it wasn’t done with you. Now scram, I’ll draw the trail off. Don’t worry, little punk like that ain’t gonna slow me down.”
The wide hand pressed against her back and shoved her forward, and she spared a single glance over her shoulder before taking off on quiet feet. Her heart was pounding as she wove through the dimly lit corridor, that soon branched out into wide intersections of other buildings’ alleyways. A rat once scurried across her path, and it was a good minute before she found what she sought; a broken ground-level window pane with a green lizard in flaking paint above it on the old brick siding. The building was long since abandoned, and wedged between and underneath several towering metal apartment complexes. She slipped quietly through the entrance into the basement, finding herself in an empty brick room with damp cement flooring. It was littered with gutter filth and trash, and altogether unpleasant on the feet.
Fingers searched from the corner of the left hand side, counting bricks until she found the crack in the mortar, then raised her hand up five bricks and continued searching along the seam, hunting for the spot. Just as she indented the right brick, she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up on end. She barely had time to dart into the opened maw of the revealed doorway before fingers grazed her neck and elicited a startled gasp. The brick doorway slammed shut behind as she ran blindly, heart pounding, not daring to risk a look over her shoulder. She knew this path well, and in another several yards there would be a turn, which would lead into an old electrical line tunnel hung with broken light fixtures.
Her ears only now took note of the light tap of running footsteps behind her, far softer than the rapid pat-pat-patt, pat-pat-patt, of her bare feet. She leaned forward into the run and stretched her stride out, arms pumping at her sides. Just a little bit more, just a little bit more, and then there’d be light, and she could fight with better advantage. The faint flicker of light could be glimpsed just ahead.
The turn came and she skidded across the slick grime coating the floor, her arm slamming against the smooth curve of the concrete tunnel’s wall before launching herself sideways and turning, stumbling once before catching her stride again. She’d barely straightened herself before a startled shout and a warm body slammed against her side, someone having just jogged out from a side pass. They tumbled and fell, Mira squashed painfully underneath someone as she struggled to get back up. Adrenaline made her body feel jumpy and electrified.
“What the-- The fuck are you doing back here?” a startled voice demanded, and Mira felt rough hands grip the collar of her shirt to haul her up and slam her back against the wall. “You lookin like you seen a ghost, but I figure that’s so, eh, Windspeaker?” It took her vision a minute to adjust and focus on the face pressed close to hers, and for her rattled mind to place the familiar grating voice of another man. Yellow eyes were set into a gaunt face framed in oily black hair, and his thin frame served as a hanger for surprisingly nice deep gray tunic and trousers. She tried to turn her head to the side to look at the corner she’d just turned, expecting any second for her pursuer to intervene. Her view was fully blocked by her current captor’s face.
“Let me go, Bullet,” she coughed, risking another frantic look to her right at the turn as he adjusted his hold on her. To her relief and confusion, there was no one there. “I’m in a hurry, and trust me, you don’t wanna get caught up in it.” She looked back to see the warring expressions flicking across his sharp gaze. He was angry, relieved, and confused. Perhaps - a bit afraid, too.
She decided he was mostly angry, though.
“I don’t think so, we got unfinished business, yeah? Keh, you don’t look so good without your makeup on, squeakers. Whatcha doing running around with a face like that, eh? Eh? How abouts I bring you on back to-- OUCH! You fucking bitch--!”
His grip loosened with a well placed knee to the groin, but Mira had expected his tolerance. As he grappled for a better hold, she squirmed into position to kick off from the wall and send them tumbling to the ground. A vicious scuffle took place, until it ended quickly with his arm twisted painfully behind his back and Mira’s knee digging into his spine. She fisted her hand in his hair and slammed his head down, hard enough to hopefully knock him out.
As her luck would have it, it didn’t, though he was thoroughly abused to be too slow in getting back up as she bolted. Bullet rolled himself up just in time to watch a blur of red and black leap over his head, and give chase. He cursed after her and slammed a fist down on the ground, giving up on the thought of joining the pursuit as he spat out blood from biting his tongue.
“We ain’t finished with ya yet, two-faced traitor!” he hollered hoarsely, voice echoing down the tunnel after her.
“Buggar off!” Mira called, both in reply to Bullet and as a half-hearted order to the man pursuing her. She was terrified at the speed with which this chase was progressing. Her strongest skill was her ability to outrun and outmaneuver her opponents, but the man behind her seemed to follow her casually. He kept the same amount of space between them, never faltering in step or stride, cleaning dodging the few times she had knocked something off the wall back at him. She wouldn’t be able to make it to her former guild’s corridor with him right on her tail, at the risk of an outsider being privy to its location. She could at least take comfort, Mira thought, in that he must have completely ignored Yuto to chase her. There was no way Yuto would have been killed so quickly.
“Whatever it is you think I did, I swear I didn’t!” she hollered, leaning her weight to skid again across the smooth floor as her hand slapped against a pipe. The momentum carried her sharply around the turn into a side pass, and she barreled on down it. “I finished all my baggage!” Well, mostly.
Mira could feel the way her heart pounded, just a beat too quickly, just a bit too strong. Panic clawed at the edges of her sanity, sinking its talons into her bloodstream and dosing her with another burst of adrenaline.
‘No, please, please, anytime but now, oh, god, please not now!’ she begged in her mind, shutting her eyes for one brief moment and praying for the fuzzy tingling in her fingertips to go away. She knew it had to be partially because she was out of shape compared to her prime, but also because she’d missed her meal at work due to scrubbing the floors.
In short, if she didn’t get a break soon, her body was going to throw a fit and send her into unconsciousness. Which would be very bad right now. She counted to ten, feeling a miserable desperation when the tingling feeling in her fingers only became more noticeable and her breath suddenly labored, like she couldn’t breathe enough air. Her head pounded from a steadily growing pressure.
New plan made, Mira suddenly spun around and pivoted on her feet, skidding across the ground as she prepared to pounce at her opponent. His scarlet gaze was unreadable as she made her attack, aiming to duck under his guard.
In the span of a heartbeat he had her pinned down against the ground at an awkward angle with both wrists clenched in once vice-like hand. His knee was pressed into her stomach, enough to make her choke in pain and spasm, until he released the pressure. It was a clear enough warning; she was beaten, and if she didn’t struggle, he wouldn’t press down again.
Between ragged breaths and tears, she snarled out a demand.
“Let - me - go!” she rasped, shuddering. Fear squeezed her chest in painful breaths as her attacker observed her expression with disturbing indifference. She drew her lips back into a snarl and bared teeth at him, her only violent means of expression as her body otherwise fell lax. Tiny pointed canines gave her a hint of a feral look.
“Windspeaker?” he questioned. Mira was more startled than she should have been by the calm, deep murmur of his words. She disliked the pleasant sound it had all the more due to her current predicament. Enemies were not supposed to have soothing voices.
“Yeah, congrats, you caught me,” she bit out. In her head, she was nervously chanting for herself to relax, to calm, to rest, to recoup - if she could just bring down her heartrate and beat away at the fog trying to drag her mind askew, she could come up with the means to retaliate and get out of his hold. A plan was already forming in her mind, even though it was interrupted by one terrifying split second of black vision. She opened her eyes and found her head resting against the dirty floor, body completely lax.
If she could just get free and subdue him long enough so she could get a good running start, if she could make it down the rest of the short hallway remaining, if she could make the turn again, and if she could just pop the latch and slip inside the new tunnel, if she could fend off the lightheadedness just long enough, and if she could close it before he got there...
That was a lot of ifs.
“So I have,” he conceded. When he made no further effort to speak nor move, Mira felt an indignant sort of impatience.
“And?” she prompted, fixing him with her best of hateful glares. There was a small pause, the perfect space in which a person might have spoken, except he only seemed to mentally consider his reply without bothering to share them with her aloud. She watched the subtle flex of his jaw muscle, the tiny shift in his eyelids, before he was standing and hauling her up. As soon as she was straightened, Mira slammed her weight down on his arm that held her wrists together, and --
Found herself falling flat on her back in a startled gasp as he simply dropped her. She had been expecting him to move for a better grip, to contain her, continue his control, that Mira was taken aback and caught by surprise. Her mind further reeled when he simply stood watching her scoot back away from him, pushing herself up with the help of the wall. The slight crouch in his stance, however, told her he was prepared to move without hesitation. The sudden change in elevation made her head swim, and she relied on the wall to support her balance more than she dared admit, even to herself.
She felt like a mouse, caged by a bored feline.
“Well? What the hell do you want?” she bit out. “I don’t read minds, you have to speak,” she continued. Her throat felt dry as she swallowed nervously, distinctly aware of his assessing gaze as it swept slowly down and back up her figure. It certainly wasn’t that he wanted; she told herself that he didn’t seem the type.
“I wish you’d have run faster,” he said seriously. Mira took a shaky breath.
“Why, disappointed?” she snapped. She could go left, or right - right was the safest bet, it led her towards the latched door, but he was also just slightly closer to that side, and with his speed, that so acutely narrowed her chances of getting past...
He held up a hand, and made a gesture for her to follow as he subtly angled his torso towards the direction they’d come. Mira recoiled.
“Why the fuck should I follow you?” she demanded. The steady red-eyed gaze dared her to defy him.
Chapter 4: Outmatched
She made it three paces before an arm snaked around her waist and hauled her feet up off the ground, and before she knew it they were grappling against each other. His strength was overwhelming and absolute. She was pinned just as quickly as the last time, only now she struggled with blind desperation and ignored the pain of her twisted arm as he slowly, steadily, and effortlessly applied pressure against it. She kicked, elbowed, squirmed, and tried to bite until yelping in pain as he suddenly jerked her arm as she made to draw her knife, stopping just a twitch away from snapping the elbow. Her body went stiff and she forced herself to go lax, surrendering. Her hands felt numb, and the cold cement at her back wasn’t helping. He relented immediately, and she involuntarily shuddered at the relief of pain and the wash of lingering sensation in her abused arm. Mira hissed under her breath as she felt him pat her down, and removed the single knife tucked inside the fold of her shirt. It was enraging to watch out of the corner of her eye as the black sheath vanished inside his own coat.
The journey back passed in suffocating silence. They passed two other people on the way, one of whom recognized her whilst the other immediately vanished into a side passage before Mira could see who it might have been. The first had stared at her in open shock, looking between her and the intimidating red shadow looming just behind, before booking it. She mentally noted he was a message carrier for the Twin Feather guild on the west end of the city. She didn’t remember his name, but she recalled having borrowed his services a scant few times.
She almost, almost missed her old life. The reminder that it was the very reason she was in this situation now, however, quickly killed off any pleasant nostalgic reminiscing and reminded her coldly why she’d left in the first place.
When they finally approached the flat brick wall, Mira looked to him. She could feign ignorance, though she was fairly certain he’d just bully her into opening the passage. It surprised her, then, when he simply reached up and indented a brick, causing the doorway to rumble and swing sideways. She was caught gaping in surprise, to which he merely grabbed her shoulder and calmly steered her out the entrance before it could slam shut in their faces.
“You know this passage,” Mira accused. He didn’t answer, only walked across the small, dirty room and waited for her at the ground-level window, which sat at eye-level for her. When she placed her hands on the window sill to haul herself up, Mira froze at the sight of a hand pressing against the dirty wood right next to hers, and felt the heat of his body as he trapped her in a living cage of muscle like living iron. Paralyzed, it took her a moment to remember to breath when his voice spoke quiet in her ear, breath skating along her jaw and making her shudder.
“You will do well to not mention this,” he warned. Then, he stepped back, and Mira gasped when strong hands gripped her waist and hauled her easily up to the window ledge. She scrambled the rest of the way out and shied from his form as he followed immediately after. Her head, at least, had stopped pounding, though her breaths still felt shallow and light. Without a word he straightened and began walking, pausing only to stare at her when she hesitated. This time, they took a different passage back, Kyuzo expecting her to follow a dizzying path along the rooftops and observing her technique for maneuvering. She couldn’t jump as high as he, but she was clever enough in finding handholds to make her way up after him. By the time they reached the main street where Kaite’s restaurant was located, Mira was physically exhausted. She had a funny feeling that had been his exact intention. On the plus side, he had kept a surprisingly slow pace, enough for her to keep up without pushing her body past it’s stubborn limits.
Kyuzo at last stood expectantly beside a roof ledge, and watched her drop from it to the ground to land in a clumsy crouch. She scowled at his graceful landing beside her, and muttered curses under her breath as he led the way out of the alley. They stepped out onto the main street, now deserted but for a scant few wanderers and the street sweepers. A glance confirmed that the men she’d helped drag outside were gone, and the warm lights of the restaurant still glowed welcomingly. Worry stung sharply, and the cozy storefront felt all too far away for comfort.
“Did you hurt Kaite-san or Yuto-san?” she asked quietly, not expecting an answer. She looked to him, defeated, miserable, and dreading the answer. The crimson gaze met hers only briefly, but she felt some of the pain leave her heart when he shook his head. Up ahead was a strange looking coach, hovering silently above the ground and decorated sparsely. Despite the somewhat humble appearance, it was clearly made from luxury materials. Mira swallowed as they approached, and unconsciously tipped her chin up, squaring her shoulders. Whatever lay ahead, she would take it in stride.
...as long as it wasn’t caused by the unpredictable man of stone who walked beside her, that was so easily able to catch her off guard and startle her.
The door of the coach slid open, and Mira’s gaze was first greeted by a hawkish looking man hunched in the corner. Narrow, rectangular, yellow glasses perched on his beak-like nose, and cool violet eyes regarded her with disinterest. His gaze became only slightly more expressive when he looked to the man in the red coat.
“Kyuzo-dono.” His voice was quiet and unpleasant, and seemed to carry some hidden question she couldn’t guess for the life of her. Mira decided that she much preferred the man beside her, who looked more like a calm killer - swift and capable, hopefully the kind taking pride in a quick kill which meant little torment for her - than a dirty thug. The man with the hawk nose, purpled lips, and thin black hair turned his gaze to her. She met it evenly, jaw clenched. She did not like this man on a level surpassing that of simple opponents. “I don’t see what the young lord sees in her.” He scoffed lightly, and gestured loosely with a gloved hand. “He’s asleep, get in. If we’re lucky we’ll make it to the palace before he wakes.” The soft rasp of his voice made her skin crawl, and Mira glanced once to the man beside her. At the steady gaze, she grunted and quietly climbed into the back of the coach, swallowing as she took note of the only other figure inside.
He was curled carelessly up on a plush white cushion, pale purple hair splayed out like spilt ink. The white face makeup and garish violent pants made her feel like she was looking at a dressed up, life-sized doll instead of a human being. This effeminate shrimp was the lord’s son?
She quietly sat herself down cross-legged on the far end of the carriage, noting that Kyuzo sat unobtrusively between herself and the sleeping prince. The hawk-faced man reached a hand up to hit a button on the top ledge of the roof, and a moment later the coach smoothly pushed forward. Mira sat with a straight back and hands on her knees, chin up as she regarded her captors with open interest. The hawk-eyed man had challenged her gaze, and seemed amused at her stubborn refusal to look away. In the end, he merely scoffed lightly, and returned to peering out between the blinds.
A glance spared to Kyuzo showed him with his eyes open only the barest sliver, and she quickly looked away when the piercing red irises slid to return her gaze. The hierarchy established was clear; Hyugo didn’t care what she did until it became inconvenient, but Kyuzo had already earned his place as alpha. Mira felt an uncomfortable nostalgic sense of familiarity with being all at once shoved to the bottom of the pecking order.
‘You will do well not to mention this.’ His words echoed in her mind, causing more questions than what Mira wanted to think about. Right now, she just wanted to find out what fate they had in store for her, and how she could forcibly change it to her own liking.
Chapter 5: Regal Bearing
In the mirror, an entirely unfamiliar woman stared back at Mira. Wide, blue-grey eyes with painted lashes blinked slowly, taking in the delicate features. Her skin shone with the beauty of youth and grace, and she hadn’t known her hair could be so silken. The hairdresser had tried several styles, twisting and yanking the locks into various loops and buns until finally giving up, deciding for simplicity. Glossy waves rippled down over her shoulders from behind her ears, framing the smooth expanse of skin below her neck. The bangs were left to fall in a soft wave over the right half of her face, giving an alluring air of mystery in the way it partially covered one eye. Two long sections had been drawn to the back of her head and braided together, holding the ensemble in subtle elegance. A silver comb inlaid with seashell and delicate dangling beads was the only adornment. It jingled slightly with every movement, making her ears feel ticklish.
Plush, rosy lips were painted in clear gloss, and her eyelids had a delicate sweep of black kohl. The woman’s neck and collarbone were fully exposed, artfully framed by both her hair and the wide V-neck of the dress that hung off her shoulders. The sleeves wrapped snugly around her upper arm with a thick band of ribbon, before exploding outwards into a voluminous gathered sleeve that ended at the elbows. Pleated fabric belled out over the rest of her arm, and spilled down to almost brush the floor.
At the center of the V-neck was a silk ribbon that held the top shut with a simple bow. She felt at once indecently vulnerable while still being entirely clothed; the rest of her body was hidden from view in the draped fabric that fanned out over her hips. The front of the top was decorated with a simple ruffle of fabric in an upsidedown V, and from underneath the skirt began in a similar fashion, a simple wrap-around deal with a matching ruffled edge. Beneath that was one more layer, a red silk petticoat that was visible only when she walked, and the overlaying skirt split. The rest of the dress was a slinky, shimmering black that matched well against her dark brown hair.
“What do you think, Mira-chan?” the elderly woman asked, looking her up and down with pride. “I can’t say I favor the color, but it does look stunning on you. I don’t think the other girls could pull it off with quite the same elegance. You have such a regal bearing to your posture,” she continued on, clucking her tongue as she tapped Mira’s chin to force her to lift it up.
Mira blinked away the water that had suddenly begun to collect in her eyes, and looked away from her reflection.
“I think I’m more at ease in my comfortable rags,” she said quietly. The old woman sighed, and gently lifted her chin up again with a single gnarled finger. Honey-gold eyes looked into hers, warm and soothing.
“Child, in time, you will come to adore such luxuries. There’s not a woman on the planet who wouldn’t wish for what has been given to you. You’ll have no want for comfort.”
“Then you must have met only very shallow or desperate women,” Mira replied quietly, forcibly turning her gaze away. “I desire only freedom and enough means to get by.”
The old woman’s hand gently patted the top of her head, before she turned away and pulled out a drawer from the massive vanity they stood before. Inside was a delicately inlaid wooden grid, filled with all manner of stoppered crystal vials which she rummaged about.
“Something floral wouldn’t suit you, nothing sweet, tsk, tsk. Ah - here we are. A darker scent, to match your mood and garb.” There was a hint of humor in the words Mira couldn’t help but smile at, but didn’t find the strength to laugh. She politely inclined her head when the woman uncapped the little vial and held it up to her, and carefully sniffed it. The aroma was distinct without being overwhelming, curling against her senses with the unique tang of spiced incense. She found it to be an unexpectedly pleasing scent, reminding her of late nights spent camped out in the woodlands, fire crackling. Mira gave a small nod, obediently holding out her wrists for the woman to dab it on. Small dabs were applied to her ankles and neck, and one drop was dripped between her breasts despite belated protest.
“The young master prefers more feminine perfumes on his ladies, but I don’t think he will begrudge you this,” the woman said quietly as she stowed the oil away. “Dragon’s Blood is more oft worn by men, it tends to have a more musky smell on a man’s skin, but on you it is very delicate, like a summer rose.”
“I thought the prince was the one who wished to flatter me?” Mira replied warily, uncomfortably smoothing out her skirts. Her attendant reached out a hand expectantly, and the young woman reluctantly grasped it. She stepped down off the small pedestal, and let herself be led out the ornately carved room through a splendid hall generously gilded in gold. Outside, a collection of ladies dressed in all manners of clothing from velvet and silk dresses to transparent gauze robes. Mira’s cheeks flushed as she kept her eyes subtly averted from the harem women, and stood silent as they gushed over her transformation.
“Oh, you look just darling! I always love seeing what Obasan does. She left your hair down?” A woman in a low-cut, clingy green dress asked. Mira cleanly side-stepped the reaching hand that made to touch her hair, fixing the violet-tressed offender with a steely gaze. The woman retracted her hand, arching a brow.
“Black though, really? Wouldn’t something more…. colorful be better?”
“Oh, but look at how it matches her hair!”
“I don’t think Ukyo-sama will like it.”
“I think he will, I’m jealous. The top really makes up for your small breasts, god you have huge hips Mira-chan!”
“Lookit her butt!” someone squeaked, giggling when Mira swatted her hand away from trying to smack it. “You’re so cute and curvy!”
Mira’s lips pressed together in a thin line, frozen in place and entirely uncertain how to respond to the gushing females around her. There were at least six currently crowding her, but she had to guess at least sixteen women had filled the comfortable lounge room. The old woman had told her there were sixty-four harem girls in total, not including Mira. Mira had felt no small amount of relief when she had been told she’d not be counted in the harem until she was first bedded.
And that would only happen willingly. Despite his entire lack of reserve or shame in kidnapping, prince Ukyo was determined to woo his ladies into submitting to his charms. Mira was dead set determined to either escape or become a shriveled old lady before she developed stockholm syndrome.
“You’re so spirited, I admire that spark,” Ukyo crooned as she was escorted by the two samurai and the prince into the harem’s side dressing rooms. “Oh, I do love a long courtship, tell me, Mira-chan, what’s your favorite color?”
“The same as your heart; black.” Was her dignified reply. Ukyo only smiled, and called the old woman over to give his instructions for her dressing. Before he departed with his two guards, Ukyo flippantly explained his intentions of wooing her with luxury and the finest of gifts., declaring it would take no longer than a year before she fell for his charm.
Now, she stood silent in a gaggle of females whose world revolved around pleasing themselves and that of their benefactor, the young prince. When it was clear Mira was not going to break out of her hermit shell under the bombardment of questions and chatter, it was the violet haired woman who suggested she be given a tour of their rooms, and more importantly - space.
“Don’t forget what it was like when you first came,” she reminded quietly. “Mira-chan still has to adjust before she’s comfortable.”
Mira was rather surprised by the heated argument that broke out over who would accompany her on the tour, and in the end broke up the fight herself by selecting three girls that seemed…. Well, less airheaded than others. The violet haired woman, whose name she learned to be Yuki, was her first pick. The next was a pixie-like woman even shorter than Mira, who had spiky red hair and an abundance of makeup to match. She was dolled up in a risky orange ensemble of a tiny skirted dress with a red sash. Her name was Tina.
The third, Amaya, was a very tall, very slender woman with heavy breasts and modest hips. She seemed older than the other two, and moved with confident grace in a long violet gown. Mira did her best to pretend that the gown wasn’t transparent in the bright lighting outside the lounge. They led her through the main entrance first, a room full of all manner of ridiculous decor from ginormous pillows to a swinging couch. Large arched doors at the end of the room she was told led to the prince’s personal wing of the palace. Connected to that was a large room full of an abundance of various silks, velvets, and other fine weaves of fabrics in every color imaginable. A few women were cozied up in the middle, calmly stitching together patterns for clothes.
“We make all our own garments, if you want the best clothes, ask Ninnet. She’s always giddy to dress up a new girl, she’ll happily make you something to the prince’s tastes.” Mira kept her mouth shut and simply nodded to show she heard, for the only words she could think to say would likely invoke hostility. “Down this way is the feasting hall, you can eat any time you want. If you start gaining weight, they’ll cut you back.”
Mira listened quietly to Amaya’s gentle voice, trying to ignore the discomfort and miserable mood that clouded her expression. The rest of the tour passed in a hazy blur, hallways and colorful rooms noted idly in her mind in a mental map for future reference. She had little motivation to do more than that. It was during the last part of the tour in the living quarters that Mira finally spoke.
“Do we ever get to go outside?” She thought her voice sounded more miserable than she’d meant it. The three women accompanying her shared a glance.
“Well… Not really, no, unless Ukyo-sama treats you to it. If there was direct access to the outdoors, it’d be very dangerous for us if someone tried to get inside.”
‘Or if someone wanted to get outside,” Mira amended in her mind.
“This will be your room, Mira-chan. We’ll come visit later to see how you’ve settled in. If any of the girls give you trouble, let us know. There’s… Ah, w-well--” Tina stammered, shifting her weight from foot to foot.
“There’s an established hierarchy and they would wish to put me in my place,” Mira said stiffly. “They’re welcome to try,” she added, then stepped into her room and quietly closed the door after murmuring a half-hearted thank you.
She had examined every inch of the space allotted to her. A plush, comfortable bed too soft for her taste, draped in fine gauzy material. Breathtaking murals decorated the wall in a fantastical view of mountains and wildlife, which only made her feel more bitter for the indoors confinement they so cruelly reminded of. She had a full wardrobe, fitted with a selection of dark colored silks and fine cotton weaves. Most of the dresses were knee length or shorter, and a selection of skirts were neatly hung beside matching tops. Various shoes were placed, none of which caught her interest. Too flimsy, too awkward looking for functional walking purposes, let alone running or kicking.
The floorboards had been tested and proved to be entirely solid. The walls were questionable but seemed sound. The ceiling was far too high above her head to matter. The only remaining furniture was an elaborate vanity with a dainty chair, and a small nightstand table. It was three hours of restless pacing and mental plotting before there came a knock at her door, and she quietly sidled over to listen. She could hear women giggling outside.
“Yes?” she inquired.
“Ahhh, you are awake!” came an unpleasantly familiar voice. However, it was just who she needed to see. Mira’s hand lingered on the sliding door’s frame as she prepared herself, straightening her posture and tipping up her chin. Regal bearing, was what the old woman had said.
“Ukyo-sama, hello,” Mira greeted as she slid the door opened. She was surprised to see another man standing nearby, a fat fellow in oranges and beige. He cast a glance her way, looking her over once before pointedly averting his eyes, chewing anxiously on a pipe that wasn’t lit. The prince brought a guard with, how disappointing.
He stepped into the room without invitation, waving to the women outside.
“I’ll see you again soon, my darlings,” he crooned, smiling charmingly at their giggles and disappointed whines as he slid the door shut. The triumphant and appreciative smile he wore made Mira’s blood boil. She retreated subtly, walking calmly over to the vanity and pulling out the chair. She sat, took up a silver comb, and began combing out her hair. Her eyes met his in the mirror.
“Do I exceed expectations?” she inquired, and suppressed a shudder as he strode confidently up to the chair, placing his hands on the backboard as he watched her in the mirror.
“I wonder, do you, if I expected you to exceed them?” He reached for her hair, and Mira calmly laid the back of the brush along his hand, and swept it aside.
“That was indecent,” she admonished. “I thought you intended to flatter me with your manners?” She enjoyed the brief shock that flashed across his eyes, before swallowing nervously at the competitive gleam that replaced it. Her heart hammered, and she felt uneasy. The thought of trying to outright kill him while they were alone came to mind, but she had a feeling he wouldn’t be so easily subdued as appearances suggested. If she failed, she’d likely face immediate death by the guard standing outside.
So long as he kept his promise not to touch her intimately without consent, Mira thought she had better chances of seducing her way out rather than a life or death roll of dice.
“Ah, forgive my manners sweet flower, I lose composure when faced by your beauty.” The tone was sickenly sweet, and his smile too innocent. Mira scoffed.
“I suppose I should be pleased with a pet name used on all the women?” The shock on his face was immediate and gratifying, lasting a breath longer than the last glimpse. He leaned down, intimate as a friend might be but otherwise polite in distance kept from her.
“And what do you wish to be called?” he purred. Mira fixed him with a flat gaze, easily affected due to her own distaste in the whole conversation and his very presence. It was an effort, however, to keep malice from her tone.
“And I should see as well you lack imagination? How very poor a prospect in a lover.” She felt, rather than saw, his hands tighten on the chair. It made her nervous to ponder if he was angry, or delighted, by the challenge.
“Then I shall call you Vixen, for you’re more beauteous than the most fanciful images of kitsune, and just as clever.”
“Mm, acceptable,” Mira replied off-handedly, quietly worrying she was too stiff in her acting of indifference as she smoothed her hair. “And what will you woo this Kitsune with, my young lord?” Mental vomiting and cursing was her filter that kept her spoken words honey sweet, with just enough bite to remind him she was displeased to be here.
“Anything I might provide, you have but to ask,” he said with an easy grin. “My precious treasures shall want for nothing.”
“Then you might bring me brush, ink, and parchment, so that I might write a letter to mine family, and you will have it delivered. Then, I might see how well you provide for mine total care.”
‘Smoothly done,’ Mira praised. She enjoyed with giddy satisfaction the cornered look he affected, before her confidence faltered at the easy grin he fixed her with as he leaned over the back of the chair to look at her face directly. There was, without a doubt, a firm challenge in those repulsive violet eyes. She caught herself before she could flinch away, and hid the shaking of her hands with the hair combing.
“And is that all my clever Vixen desires?”
“The most prized of pets require frequent outings to keep them from becoming bored and restless. Take me on walks, and I might come to enjoy your company on them.”
“Then lend me your arm, little Vixen.”
And there it was; his first step at gaining permission over her body, piece by piece. A necessary surrender, but one she loathed. Mira gingerly placed the comb down, ignoring the drumbeat sounding away in her ribcage as she rose from the chair, and pivoted neatly on the balls of her feet to offer her arm to him, chin lifted. There was small satisfaction by the look he wore; she was keeping on par with him. Now she just needed to surpass his games.
“Have you ever seen a royal garden?” Was only the start of his endless list of boastful scenery as he led her out of the room, delighting in his hold on her proffered arm. Her skin shuddered and crawled at every gentle caress and tickling tease his fingers played against it, and she carefully avoided having to hold his hand by turning her palm towards her stomach and hiding it under the ruffles of fabric.
The samurai bodyguard Ukyo had brought with seemed surprised when the door had first opened, but made no comment and only silently fell into step behind them. Mira kept her gaze straight ahead, ignoring the oos and aas of the women out and about in the main entrance of the harem wing. She did, however, take note of whom was fixing her with a smouldering glare of envious contempt. They would no doubt aim to cause trouble later.
For the most part, she tuned Ukyo’s voice out, waiting for information relevant to her interests to bumble it’s way out of his painted face. He turned out to be a surprisingly thorough guide, taking her on a generous tour of his study and hobby rooms, and Mira had to wonder if he was dumb, over confident, or just clueless as to her particular talents. She had growing confidence in perhaps all three, and wondered if the red clad samurai had kept the information from him.
On the other hand, Ukyo’s guard was never more than two steps away.
The royal garden ended up being only a brief part of their tour. She wondered if he was trying to limit her chance of hoping for an escape route, until they left his private chambers and entered a different section of the palace; the guards quarters.
He just wanted to show her off.
It was good that she felt so paralyzed, because Mira was certain it was the only thing keeping her from visibly shaking at the countless suggestive expressions and lustful gazes openly turned over her dolled up figure. The man at her arm spent gradually less time talking to her and more time talking of her, easily jesting and conversing with the men he pulled into conversation. The only gaze that garnered much visible reaction from her was that of a pair of deep crimson eyes. Quietly appraising her as he stood with arms folded, back leaning against the wall, before the blond samurai turned and vanished down a hall. The expression she wore was brief confusion, because Mira couldn’t tell if he had been silently complimenting her composure, or her appearance.
Chapter 6: Loaded Question
He wished she’d have run faster, so that he might not have caught her. Kyuzo had been surprised, to say the least, at her knowledge of the Lizard’s Trail, and further impressed by her agility. It was truth that she’d been no match for his speed, but he could not help but contemplate how differently it may have turned if she’d been properly rested and conditioned. Even before the chase, he had seen how the signs of tire hung heavy over her small frame. The thrill of her daring to challenge him still lingered. She might not have been able to outmatch him, but she had nonetheless required he extend actual effort to keep pace.
In the guise of quiet meditation, his thoughts rolled in turmoil. He sat in an empty dojo room, legs crossed and palms relaxed against his knees. He turned over the scene he’d witnessed at the first T-section turn they’d come to, with the scrawny man who’d named her as Windspeaker.
It was a decently famous name, in certain groups of town. Her reputation preceded her as a clever thief and top class messenger. She had been rumored to be used as a courier on numerous occasions for important letters, particularly during a three-faced guild war. Kyuzo knew of it for Lord Ayamaro had small investment in the affair, as certain members risking their lives were involved in the gathering of information in neighboring kingdoms. This fact, of course, was otherwise entirely unrelated to the whole incident. The guilds were having a scuffle partially over territory, but largely over a dispute between two guild leaders and several subordinates who had tangled themselves up in a petty scandal. All things considered, it was a pathetic reason to go to war over, though they’d been started over less. Though her own guild was not participating, Windspeaker had carried sensitive intel from one guild to another, aiding in bringing down the third participating guild and resulting in its disbandment.
He’d never known, however, that Windspeaker was a woman. The more fanciful descriptions painted her as an intangible shadow with silver eyes, that used wind magic to accomplish great acts of agility and spy on her enemies, warning her of attacks. She was supposedly a member of the Ivory Talon guild, well known in its own respect, but Kyuzo had also heard her to belong to one that was much older, and lesser known by purposeful choice.
Reputation came from somewhere, and he had witnessed with his own eyes her lingering skill in hand-to-hand and the chase itself. The former was sorely lacking in his opinion, though his arm carried a bruise where her teeth had clamped down before he’d twisted her arm to near breaking. Ukyo was not quite so helpless as he wished to appear, though Kyuzo felt confident that if she so wished, Mira could kill him given the opportunity.
His oath was sworn to the father, not the son, and he was freed of any obligation to inform the prince of her unique capability by virtue of Ukyo’s own orders. He had been told to fetch her, and so he had. No further inquiry had been made as to why the task had taken so long nor what his thoughts were on the matter.
If she killed the whelp, he would be pleased.
His mind wandered again, drifting through other trains of thought before settling on the scene earlier that evening. He had sensed their approach long before the whispers of their arrival reached his ears, and he stepped outside his room to bear witness. It was frankly quite rare to see the young prince remove any of his women from the safe inner sanctum of the harem, and he wondered at the cause for him to bring so newly acquired a beauty out. It was a strange scene. Both walked with an air of grace, though Mira looked truly elegant and refined in the calm manner in which she walked, head held in proud defiance to the gawking audience. Ukyo was attached to her arm like a leach, gesturing expressively and chattering away. When her eyes met his, Kyuzo thought he remembered her eyes being more of a royal blue. Now, they were a gray-blue, pupils small and eyes narrowed. Dressed as she was, a more basic part of him had to admit she was beautiful.
Like a black rose with hidden thorns, Ukyo unknowingly attached himself to a potential assassin. Taking only a brief moment to assess her composure and absent-mindedly admire her image, Kyuzo left to make his way into the dojo he now sat in.
He wished she’d run faster. He’d accept the loss of pride if it meant such a creature was not wasted on Ukyo’s pampered garden. In the harem life, her fighting prowess and agility would only suffer, and such talent would go to waste.
Had circumstances been different, he might have liked to make a worthy opponent of her.
It was another two weeks before he saw her again, in much the same manner. This time, she was adorned in a dark, red-wine colored dress of a similar silhouette as the black gown he’d last seen her in. A scarlet sash cinched in her dainty waist, and her hair was combed in soft waves to fall back over her shoulders. The only jewelry she wore was a golden chain crown dripping amber tears, and a gold bracelet on either wrist. Her lips were painted deep red, and dark slashes of kohl gave her eyes a cat-like appearance. What was surprising was where he met her.
Sitting beside lord Ayamaro during a private meeting with an ambassador, he had quietly alerted his lord of the approach of his son and current harem favorite, Mira. Ukyo had entered the room in a dramatic flare and little apology. As he happened to come at a time relevant to his presence, the Ambassador had simply requested Ukyo remain for the discussion. A great compliment had been paid when Mira was instructed to enter, and she sat serenely beside the young prince, hands folded in her lap and gaze lowered demurely.
Had he not known the prince as well as he - unfortunately - did, Kyuzo might have thought Ukyo was successfully training the young woman to his command. However, her very presence spoke of a more subtle shift in control. It was a wonder the boy’s father didn’t take more notice.
After that, he saw her frequently. In a matter of weeks it became rare to see Ukyo without his arm decoration, and always she wore a different gown and little adornment. Ayamaro had finally taken notice in his son’s persistent interest, and had requested a private meeting with the girl to assess her education and relationship to his son.
It had been a very enlightening meeting. Kyuzo had been present, and he thought perhaps he had made her nervous. Ayamaro had not seemed to notice the color of fear that creeped behind her grey-blue gaze, or the way her fingers subtly worried the hem of her sleeve. She spoke much without saying much, something which Ayamaro had called her out on with praise. It was a trick he himself often used in political debate and settling disputes.
The harvest festival was only a few months out, and lord Ayamaro and his son both were invited to attend a week long planning event to coordinate the city festivities and, primarily, have an excuse to relax in luxury and enjoy the spoils of another court as guests. It came as a great surprise when Kyuzo was informed he would not be accompanying his lord, and that Ayamaro had conceeded to Ukyo’s one request during the trip; that Kyuzo look after and attend to his favored black Vixen, Mira.
“She visits the gardens daily, and practices brushwork and poetry. On tuesdays I bring her to the library, she has the most beautiful singing voice. I would not suffer my delicate Vixen to wilt in confinement during my trip away.” Something in the way this task was presented to him led Kyuzo to believe Ukyo was convinced placing Mira under his care would work as a severe inconvenience to him. Which, in fact, it was. He had no desire to cater to what sounded like a spoiled pet, and idly wondered if that was what the infamous Windspeaker had indeed become.
He had steadily ignored the suggestion he ‘ enjoy’ in her company, for Ukyo was further under the assumption that he might actually succeed in tempting the samurai out of a strict boundary of abstinence that had begun the day he’d entered Ayamaro’s service. It was not that he held no desire for female attentions, but rather that it placed among the lowest of priorities, and a one night stand or shallow relationship held little appeal.
And as his life was bound to his lord, he held no right nor freedom for courtship. And so, he simply didn’t bother with women.
He did wonder at the appalling thought Ukyo bluntly stated a willingness to share his most precious jewel if she herself desired it. It was not unheard of for Ukyo to share his women, but it was few and far between, and usually with the older women he had long since grown tired of. Certainly not his favorites.
When curiosity led to questions, a just as baffled Ayamaro had explained he had in fact asked his son about the matter, and Ukyo had told him Mira was entirely unyielding in her stubbornness. He could touch no more than her arm, and thought perhaps time spent with another, less charming male would either make her realize how wonderful Ukyo was, or lend an opportunity for ‘breaking in’ if it should go that route. He seemed to think Mira herself had taken an interest in Kyuzo, and was determined to explore it.
All in all, Kyuzo felt entirely distasteful about the whole situation. On the day of departure he had waited at the entrance to the prince’s palace wing, and the door had opened to reveal Tessai, Ukyo, and Mira in the black dress she’d first worn. He had joined them in walking to the coach, seeing Lord Ayamaro and his antagonizing son off, before changing course for the gardens, wordlessly commanding Mira to follow.
“You have not told them,” she said quietly, seated beneath a cherry tree where a small table was set with paper, brush, and ink. He had been both impressed and shocked to know she could read and write - albeit poorly - even before she was abducted, and Ukyo acquired tutors. A literate courier was hard to trust.
“You have not made to leave,” he murmured, watching the ink stain the page as he read over her shoulder. His back was to the cherry tree’s trunk.
‘You’d be surprised,’ Mira thought and sighed sadly. She shaped her brush with a few small strokes to prepare it for the next line of words, touching it to the prepared pot of ink. “Why are you here?” she asked. No verbal answer. Mira guessed it meant he would state only the obvious; he was here to guard her both from being harmed, and trying to leave. She tried a different question. “Are you bored?”
The fact he’d answered both surprised and intrigued her. Mira set down the brush from the letter she was writing, and turned in her seat to look at him. He met her gaze, and she tried to match his silence, imagining in her head that they were actually trying to communicate by blinking in morse code. On impulse, she blinked a repeating pattern for ‘hello.’ His eyes widened the barest fraction, before one slender brow twitched upwards, questioning.
Slowly, deliberately, he blinked. Mira giggled before she could stop herself, and clapped a hand over her mouth, cheeks burning. Clearing her throat and composing herself, she gathered up her papers and tucked them away into the lacquered box that held her writing supplies.
“What would you like to do?” she asked.
Now that, was a loaded question.