The carriage ride home was uneventful, or so Kaoru believed; she remembered little of it. She left her Lord at the front gate, shunning his offered arm as if it could brand her as her new slaves had been branded.
She shook her head from side to side without turning back.
This stopped her, although it took a little while to realize why. His hands were upon her shoulders before it came to her that Kenshin had shouted. In all her months at Darhtia, she had never heard him do so; if he raised his voice at all, it was to ensure that feeble human ears received proper orders if they were too distant.
"Lady, why are you running?"
For a brief instant she leaned her back against his chest and felt the circle of his arms around her waist. Was I running, Lord? It was an almost idiotic thought. She closed her eyes as his cheek brushed against hers. I've not run from you for—
She saw again Raiden's desperate, broken face in the darkness against her lids, heard again Sagara's gentle voice and wrapped it around his mission: We must save the people of Yamidaria. I am here to destroy—
With a harsh, sharp breath, she broke away.
She wheeled around, her cheeks flushed with anger and guilt. "Damn you!"
He took a step backward at the unfamiliarity of the guttural words. A mild surprise flitted across his face—that and something else, both of which Kaoru ignored.
"Why wouldn't you spare his life? You know why he came to me! You could hear every word he spoke!" Her hands shot up to grip the folds of his robes.
Neutrally he said, "Lady, you know the laws of my land."
"I know that they're your laws; you made them, you can break them!"
"And yet you have said that my word, once given, should be binding."
It was true; Kaoru could not deny it. In the first few months of her stay, she had tried so hard to make him understand how the value of the given word, a Lord's promise, would not weaken his rule. His assertion did nothing to assuage her anger; instead, it heightened it.
"That was a question of honour—this is a question of justice and mercy! That man was doing the only thing he could to save his daughter from—"
"In my empire, slaves have no rights to the lives of their children."
"Yes!" She was close to tears. "In your God-cursed, damnable empire!" She threw her hands up, releasing him as if the contact burned her.
We must save the people of Yamidaria. Kaoru, will you aid us? Kaoru, we're here to free you. What's wrong?
Stop it! She brought her hands up to her ears. Just stop it! I know what you're saying!
She felt a roiling darkness within her, as pain mixed with sorrow and fury.
Kenshin stood, completely still, in the silence in front of her.
"Kenshin, please . . ." The anger fell away from her voice. "Please, give me some reason . . ."
"Lady, do not—"
"Give me one reason. Please, if it's not too late, give me this one life. Let me know that you understand."
He caught her hands.
"Lady, why is this one life so important today? You must know that this happens—"
She tore her hands away as he opened the wound of her guilt. "I know what happens!" For so long, the knowledge of all the death and pain that she couldn't see or touch, had eroded the joy she felt when she was able to help.
"Kill him, then. Do what you want, Lord. You're a Servant of the Enemy; it's what you do best."
She turned and fled across the courtyard, sunlight twisting her shadow along the cool, perfect stone. This time he did not stop her. Her words lingered in the air, and around them, the cold of her absence. Once he started forward, stopping himself before he could take a step—and hated the lack of control the action showed, although none but himself was witness to it.
Once she had entered the castle, she leaned against the gray of the walls of the north hall, her cheek cooling against the touch of stone. She longed to escape to her room, but there was one more thing to do: Claim her new slaves from the slavemaster Kadrin's tender mercies. She was exhausted; her hands and arms shook as she pressed them tightly against her body. She took a few moments to steel herself against the pain in the eyes that she walked to meet and brace herself against the gratitude that showed her more clearly than anything else the magnitude of the empire's crime.
The empire, Kaoru? Say rather, the First Servant. Say Kenshin.
Her fist struck the wall and slid downward. She cursed, knowing that the two would be waiting under the fear that she had proved false to her word. She could see the mother's arm wreathed tightly and protectively around the daughter's shoulders, see the way they would cringe upon sighting her, their eyes full of hope and the expectation of the loss of even that.
But even knowing how they must feel, she could not quite gather the strength to leave the silent hall. Bitterly she thought, Am I never to have a moment of life to call my own? Is there never a day when I can lay aside responsibility? Must I always have to be so damnably strong?
The answer returned to her.
Kaoru, you have changed.
And because acknowledgment of that silent voice demanded more strength than facing the slaves, she ran from it, her feet striking the floor. But it echoed within her, the way the worst of fears always does.
Kadrin looked up as Lady Kaoru burst into the room. She could see the faint hint of surprise across his rounded features as the door slammed once against the wall. Taking a deep breath, she schooled her expression.
"Kadrin, I've come to see to the two slaves that were brought in from—from the market."
"They are here, Lady." He rose from behind the desk he occupied, straightening his brown tunic as was his habit. "Wait but a moment, and they will be with you."
She nodded and he left.
True to his word, he was back in a moment, turning to say a few words that she couldn't quite catch to someone the door obscured. He entered the room, and behind him trailed the woman and child that Kaoru had seen earlier.
The woman looked up warily, and in her eyes were all the emotions that Kaoru had expected. The foreknowledge stopped her from flinching.
"Lady." The woman gave a low, cringing bow, one that her child was quick to copy. In the daughter's face, angular and thin, the mother's heritage was obvious. Kaoru watched their foreheads touch the ground at the same moment and shuddered.
She looked away from them to the only other person in the room and met the dark concern of his eyes.
Kaoru, you've got to practice more control. Her mouth folded awkwardly into the semblance of a smile.
"Return to your duties, Kadrin. After I have spoken with these two, I shall send them to you for housing and general instruction."
He bowed. "I understand they are to serve you personally?"
She nodded again, this time more emphatically, feeling the woman's eyes upon her.
"Very well, Lady. Do you wish to use this room to conduct your meeting, or will you speak with them elsewhere?"
The question was pure formula; Kadrin knew well that Kaoru spoke with new slaves in her personal rooms. He gave her a soft smile in acknowledgment of this and was troubled when it slid off her face without changing it.
"I'll talk to them in my rooms." In a falsely bright voice, she added, "They'll have to know some of the geography of the palace, so they might as well begin now. That way they won't be in the same straits I was for my first year or so."
Kadrin smiled, forbearing to correct his lady. It had been perhaps two months before she could wander anywhere in the castle without getting lost.
Again his smile had no effect. "Lady, does something trouble you?"
Her eyes met his, and he took a step back.
"Come," Kaoru said softly, holding out one hand to the child. The girl gave her mother a nervous look, and her mother returned a forcible nod—both of which made Kaoru regret the openness of the gesture. Timidly the girl walked forward and placed one of her hands in Kaoru's. It was cold and shook visibly.
"Come, little one. Your mother follows us. There is nothing to fear."
She said it, knowing that she would not be believed, not yet. But this is what I'm good at. She sighed, taking little comfort from the truth of the thought.
Silent, they walked down the hall toward the steps that led to her rooms. There was a grim air about the walk, as if it were a funereal procession.
Which it is.
She felt tears start and pushed them back in near fury. Why did anyone choose to love in the empire? Its cost was so plain and so unavoidable. She saw it in the face of the two that walked with her, a shadow that no amount of light would ease.
And then she caught the direction of the thought and turned her face away from the child at her side to allow a few meagre tears the escape they demanded.
She could not see the way the girl's face tilted up at the sight of her or the curiosity flickering amid the pain and loss.
They walked in a silence made of bated breath and sorrow.
At length they came to the wing that was Kaoru's. She turned to her young charge and watched her as they passed the various tapestries that lent warmth to stone.
Although the child kept her head forward, Kaoru could see her eyes flicker from side to side, trying to take in the elements of the woven tales all at once. This was one of the reasons they had been put here, and as Kaoru's eyes joined the girl's, she drew on the second reason—memory. For along the walls was much of the history of Noria, from the death of Gallin of Meron, whom all lines could claim, to the founding of the seven lines. She looked at the face of Gallin, so painstakingly, mortally woven, and met his cloth-bound eyes. As always, the contrast of eyes and face surprised her and humbled her, for his features were distorted by extreme pain—one of his limbs was caught in the process of burning away—but his eyes were full of a deep and endless peace.
Did the women who wove your countenance truly capture you so well, or do I imagine you as clearly as the line knows you existed?
He had no answers; at least the lifelike quality did not give him speech, although she often expected it.
She turned to the child, and the child's glance darted almost guiltily away. She did the only thing she could; she kept walking. The girl relaxed.
Yet again Kaoru stopped, toward the end of the hall. And once more, eyes captured her—but this time, they were no mortal eyes.
Kaoru resisted the urge to bow, although she normally did so when unaccompanied. Her free hand went up and stopped just short of the flat, silken face.
Lady Kamiya. A great woman whom Kaoru never met. The Lady looked outward, through her lost granddaughter, and beyond the tapestries that hid the walls on the other side. She was robed in the simplest of white, a gown unadorned by even the circle that symbolized the continuity and wholeness of the line. Her arms fell out to either side upon the knees of the legs crossed beneath her.
And in her palm, a cut that did not bleed lay bare, turned upward to catch a beam of sunlight.
She did not look mortal.
What do you see, Lady? What vision haunts you?
Again no answer. Kaoru expected none, but were this pale visage to speak, she would not be surprised.
Lady why am I here? She searched the face, as she'd done countless times, for some hint of sorrow, anger, or pain; for some hint of triumph, defeat, or planning. But the Lady's eyes touched something that her face could never express.
Nor her words—at least not well. Kaoru sighed once, refusing to give in to the anger that lay beneath the surface of the thought. I am still here, Lady. Some call me Noria's hope. Am I strong enough to live up to their expectations?
She turned and stumbled slightly, then blushed, remembering that her hand was still anchored to a young child.
"Sorry," she said softly. "I, too, find the tapestries distracting. Come, my rooms are beyond the doors."
So saying, she walked up to the set of double doors, freed her hand momentarily, and opened them. She tried not to notice the child shrinking into her mother.
The mother whispered something softly—something Kenshin would have heard from half a hall away—and the child walked quickly forward, following Kaoru's shadow into a large sitting room.
"Come in." Kaoru spoke to the mother. The mother followed without hesitation, eyes darting side to side to see if all was safe, although she knew she could do nothing about it if it were not.
"Please, take a seat, both of you."
A suspicious glance at Kaoru in no way changed the instinctive obedience that followed the request.
Blithely Kaoru continued as if unaware of the tension of her two spectators. "These rooms will be a part of your duties. They're to be cleaned when I leave them in the morning; I'll provide a schedule for you if Kadrin's lost his, which is Likely."
She waited, and after a moment the woman nodded.
"If you would prefer it, you and your daughter may work together in the tasks that are given to you when you are not tending to me; I'll also speak to Kadrin about this."
The child looked curiously at her mother.
Kaoru smiled softly and nodded. When the child made no move, she said, "Go ahead, child. You want to ask your mother a question; feel free to do so."
The girl blushed and her mother whitened.
"It's all right. No question she could ask would give offense, not here."
Still the child remained where she sat.
"Whisper, if you have to. I shan't mind. Well, go on. Consider it an order."
At this, the girl inched toward her mother. Her mother's trembling arm shot out around the girl's shoulder, drawing her closer. The girl whispered something and the woman's brow furrowed. Quietly she shook her head.
Again Kaoru smiled. "Yes," she said softly, catching the girl's attention. "Kadrin is a slave."
She could feel the two sets of eyes upon her as she continued. "He is also slavemaster. He was given the position because he knows—better than the low-born free—what a slave must suffer at the hands of the wrong man or woman. It is up to him to watch his charges carefully."
The woman looked confused, and Kaoru sent out a wave of sympathy, not knowing if it would reach her.
"If you have any difficulties with the visiting dignitaries—" This said with obvious distaste. "—you are to tell Kadrin; he will come immediately to me. I will speak with the people involved to ensure that they understand the rules of this palace."
"I think that's about it. I've taken the liberty of having some food sent up to you; it should be here soon."
Kaoru smiled at the shock in the woman's voice. At least she's speaking. "Here. And to be truthful, I didn't exactly arrange the food, Kadrin did. He knows my routines well enough to anticipate me—and he knows I live in terror of Korten." She laughed. "Korten's the head of the kitchen."
The child leaned over to her mother again.
"Child, you can ask me the question, and ask it without fear. I won't hurt you here; no one will."
The mother met Kaoru's eyes, locked on them, and nodded without looking away.
For the first time, Kaoru heard the girl's voice. It was deeper than she would have expected, and she revised the estimate of the girl's age up by a couple of years. It was also smooth, almost melodious. Without nervous cracks—evident between almost each syllable—the child's voice would have been beautiful.
"Is the head of the kitchen a slave?"
The girl took a deep breath and straightened out. Without looking at her mother, she said, "Then why do you call him by name?"
"Because to me he has one. He is my . . . slave. If I choose to name him, that is only my concern now. In doing so, child, I break no laws." Her voice broke on the last word.
The girl was silent a few moments. She bent her head, and when it came up again, her eyes were filmed.
"No slave has a name."
"Not outside of this palace."
The mother hissed out a one-word warning, and the child subsided, with difficulty.
Kaoru stood and crossed the distance between them too quickly to be a menace. When she reached the girl, she knelt in front of her. "Little one, I do all that I can—" She wavered. "—all that I'm capable of." She heard her own voice crack, but continued. "In the palace, by right of rank, I am given the chance to let my laws govern in some small way. But outside of it—"
The woman's eyes widened in recognition and surprise as she realized what Kaoru was asking for. She shook her head in bewilderment, and the movement cleared her mind. For the first time she saw Kaoru as one lone woman, robed in gray with the symbol of a circle glimmering in the fading light.
Kaoru turned her head without rising.
The woman held out a hand, and without hesitation Kaoru accepted it as if it were an anchor. "My name is Mattie. My daughter is Rasel."
The words fell into silence, but the expression on Kaoru's face gave the woman everything she needed.
"Thank you, Mattie."
Rasel turned to look at her mother as if she had gone insane. Both women met her gaze without speaking.
"I think it's all right, Rasel." Her mother's arms reached out in a half circle, but the girl pulled away.
"How can it be all right? This is the crime my father died for!" She leaped up.
She gave a hysterical laugh that fell abruptly into sobbing. She covered her face, huddling downward for a few seconds. As Kaoru approached, the girl's face shot outward like a bolt.
"Why didn't you save him? Why didn't you tell him it was all right to speak his name?"
"I tried, Rasel."
But she was weeping again, not expecting an answer.
Kaoru turned to face Rasel's mother, tightening her grip on the woman's hand to reassure her. Or to be reassured?
"Mistress, he knew what he was doing."
Kaoru nodded mutely.
"We have what—" Her voice cracked, and she shut her eyes. "—what we came for."
"For how long, Mattie?"
"For now. That's all we can ask."
Yes, here in Rennath, that is all you can ask for.
Seeing the woman's muted pain, Kaoru cursed herself bitterly. Her nails bit into the palm of her free hand as she struggled with her thoughts.
We can change this. We can—maybe—bring it all down. If he dies. . .
Perhaps the empire could be changed, if she could make the right choice, if she was willing to help Sagara and her brethren of Noria. The image of Kenshin, seated like ebony upon the throne of judgment, loomed above her. Her imagination needed to add no distortion to the picture: There he sat, and with few words condemned an innocent man to death for the crime of loving his child too dearly in an empire where love exacted so high a price.
But the man's death bought his child's life.
Yes, but if not for Yamidaria, his death would not have been required—if not for Kenshin.
He changes. In several months he has changed much.
And is the price in innocent life worth the hope of change? Can you make that choice and condemn God alone knows how many people?
I do not know.
She was too tired to cry; her eyes remained dry even as she shut them. There at the heart of her pain was the indecision of hope.
You have changed, Kaoru.
We all change.
She started to stand, and Mattie clutched almost blindly at her hand. Kaoru returned the pressure and resumed her kneeling position on the floor. What good would pacing do? It couldn't change the course her thoughts had chosen.
I feared to change too much.
Ah, Sagara, Okita, I fear what your coming foretells.
She bent her head, touching the older woman's lap with the cold white of her forehead. Almost absently, the older woman responded to the need that Kaoru unwittingly projected; her hands, soft for all they were callused, began to stroke the auburn head.
"I'm sorry," Kaoru murmured, as Mattie drew her gently into her lap. "I'm so sorry."
"I know, child," Mattie answered, half in amazement that she could know any pity for this lady, this child. For indeed she was little more than a child. "I know."
Then Kaoru heard Rasel's sobs blend with the ones she kept locked between her lips and the lap of a woman who had just lost her husband.
There was a knock at the door. It was light and hesitant, enough so that Kaoru did not hear it at first. Rasel, however, displaying years of rigorous training, fell immediately silent. Hearing this, Kaoru raised her head.
"Someone's at the door."
Nodding, Kaoru drew herself up to her full height. She was embarrassed and ashamed of her need to take comfort from a woman who deserved only to receive it.
"I'll get it," she said lamely, to no one in particular. Her feet dragged across the carpet as she approached the door. She took a deep breath, then another, and her hand gripped the doorknob for support.
The knock came again, no louder than before.
"Who is it?"
She tensed, realizing just how much she did not want to see him, especially not now, with Ranin's wife and child as witness. "Lord, I do not feel up to visitors at the moment."
There was a pause, then he spoke again. "Yet I hear, Kaoru, that you have two."
She felt a small surge of anger, knowing the tone of his voice quite well. "Yes."
She still made no move to open the door, knowing that he would not enter without her leave.
"Lady—" The word was curt. "—I believe a third 'guest' will not harm you. Please allow me to enter."
She turned to look helplessly at Rasel and Mattie; both of them watched her with fear across their closed faces. They had composed themselves as they were able, and Kaoru was guiltily aware that she looked worse than either of them.
"Very well, Lord. You may enter."
"Thank you, Lady."
She felt the doorknob turn and released it, stepping away.
A man stepped into the room; his dark clothing torn and dirty, his hair red-tinted and dishevelled.
Kaoru's jaw dropped, and behind her two women drew breath to cut the silence so sharply it nearly bled.
"Ranin." One word, half-spoken, half-whispered. The man flinched slightly. Unconsciously she reached out to touch the bruises on his face. He bore the touch as she robbed him of his pain.
"Mistress, I am commanded to report to you."
She tried to speak, but words would not come.
"Is there anything you require of me?"
She shook her head, meeting his eyes. There she saw a question too fierce to be expressed verbally. Almost giddily she stepped aside, her arm flying in a wide arc to indicate Mattie and Rasel. He saw them, his expression mirroring the relief of his discovery more eloquently than words could.
Mattie stared at the man who was her husband. Kaoru could see the tension that took her, although she sat perfectly still. Rasel, although younger, showed all of her mother's control—except for the eyes, which were round with hope.
Ranin did so. He walked awkwardly, as if another pulled the strings that moved his legs.
Kaoru gave him a small smile—one that could not express all that she suddenly felt. "Go on, that's an order."
He looked at her then, his face completely open.
Nodding, wordless, he walked to the couch that held the two people he loved in all his world. Rasel contained herself only until he was a foot away, then sprang up, arms flying out, face already touching the breadth of his chest. "Father!"
The word was muffled against the torn coarseness of his tunic. His own arms came out in response, and then he was holding the daughter that he had almost died for.
Mattie's eyes left her husband and child for a moment, to meet Kaoru's. There was an odd wonder in her expression. Again Kaoru smiled, but this time her lips trembled and she looked away to give the three the privacy that they deserved; their reunion, unseen and unhoped for, was not a thing for "noble" eyes to witness.
In the hall outside the door was the First Servant. He looked colder, grimmer than Kaoru remembered. He remained still as Kaoru walked out of the room.
She walked to him then, closing the door to her room. Her hands reached up to touch the ice of his face, and he flinched at the contact, but did not pull away. His eyes, as he watched her, were neutral.
She started to speak, fell silent, and felt herself thaw. The ache of the afternoon vanished as she thought of Ranin's reunion with his family. Were it not for Kenshin's dark countenance, she would have smiled openly. But he was grim. "Why?
In answer, he reached down and pulled her into his arms, pressing his mouth firmly on hers. There was nothing gentle about the motion, but Kaoru responded softly, resting her arms around his waist. She could sense the anger that he held in check, and knew who it was aimed at and why.
"Thank you, darkling. Thank you." She said against his mouth before she buried her face against his chest and after a few moments felt the weight of his chin against the top of her hair.
And as her pain diminished, he knew again the warmth of her light and he relaxed. She held him on all levels, bands of her brilliance touching his face, his arms, and his chest; a smile against his shoulder and with it the warmth of tears that eased her heart.
Ah, Kaoru, the light. His hands came up of their own accord, to smooth her unruly hair. For the moment, he felt at peace, and the moment was enough.
It came at too high a price, but he paid it and knew in the future that he would pay it again—not easily, and only barely willingly.
For you, Kaoru. His arms tightened. He heard the clear sound of laughter and tears that came from behind her closed door, the rustle of clothing and the minute movements of air that spoke of an embrace given and one returned. He wondered, for a moment, if her slaves felt as he did in the circle of Kaoru's arm.
Then the moment passed. What does it matter if they feel thus?
And the answer came quickly. It matters to his Kaoru. It brings her peace.
He felt he would never understand it, and as her face rose from the cushion of his shoulder and he met the brilliant blue of her eyes, he thought it did not matter.
Oh, hells. Kaoru grabbed at the gray silk gown she had chosen for the evening meal. When did the sun go down? With quick, precise movements she tossed off her robe and stepped awkwardly into the dress. It was simple compared to the current court styles of Darthia, but it was still more difficult to negotiate than the simple robes she wore during the tasks of the day. She had half the buttons done when she cursed softly, stepped out of the dress, and went in search of her undergarments. Everything in Darthia was complicated.
She looked out at the muted light that struggled through her curtains.
Why didn't I hear the dinner bells? For she was certain they had chimed. It wasn't the first time she'd missed the call, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. Why on Earth did I tell Kadrin to keep the servants from coming to get me? It was something she only wondered when she was late. She cursed again, knotting one of the ties of the simple cotton undershift.
If Kenshin smirks at me, I'll kill him myself.
She started to smile, then her face froze.
In the half-opened crack of cloth at the balcony a familiar face flickered in the dimming light.
She caught a glimpse of a nervous smile, and then it was gone. Not bothering with the rest of her clothing, she rushed to the window and flung the curtains back, but he was nowhere in sight. She walked out, not particularly caring who would see her; a few people walked casually in all directions beneath her searching gaze—but none of them was familiar.
She returned to her room and continued to dress, but more slowly this time. She listened for any unusual sound, but the room was quiet.
The words of the Servant of the Bright Lord returned to her. If Okita had been at her balcony, she was certain he was within the palace. And he was counting on her, as he had done any number of times when they were serving under Abikaro.
With quiet deliberation she fastened the buttons that remained undone and then headed toward the hall. Once she stopped, shook herself, and resumed walking; her face was set and grim.
Remember the place of judgment, Kaoru.
She walked down the hall, her eyes again falling on the tapestries that lined it. She met the Lady Kamiya, lost in the depth of a trance too difficult for a mortal mind to undertake, and she dropped to her knees in front of her.
Lady, please, please guide me.
Lady, he spared the life of Ranin, because he knew what it meant to me. Might he not, in time, do the same for another?
Again no answer. She almost regretted Kenshin's change of heart. But she thought of Mattie and Rasel, and the regret drifted. What did it matter if her decision had been made, once again, so difficult? They were happy; they had each other.
Lady, I will do as I am able. Please . . .
She stood and walked quickly down the hall.
She shook herself again as she reached the stairs. There would be people below, and she would have to face them as brightly as ever.
Come on, Kaoru. They're waiting for you. You're late, as usual. Her feet took the steps automatically, bringing the main hall closer.
"Ah, Lady Kaoru."
She turned slowly at the sound of the voice, the hair on the nape of her neck sparking outward. With a patently false smile, she greeted the high priest. He had two rooms in the palace, although he used them infrequently. Tetsuma, for some reason, was one of the few that Kenshin could tolerate.
He returned her smile, failing to notice that she had not used his title. She never used it; he never noticed; it was a game they both played that each heartily despised, although for different reasons.
"I am gratified to note that I am not the only diner to be somewhat tardy. If it would not be too much trouble, I would be pleased to arrive with you." He offered her his arm; she ignored it. Another step in their silent fencing. Nor was he ruffled by her refusal—although that had not been the case when he had first accepted the rank and "responsibility" of his office.
"As you wish." She walked, looking straight ahead.
He fell into step naturally.
"I heard that there was some sort of difficulty in the market today."
She pointedly ignored his "idle" chatter, quickening her walk. Not that it's going to inconvenience him, she thought. He was a full foot taller than she, and she was grateful for the fact that she had never once been forced to keep pace with him.
"Nevertheless, the word I received was that the difficulty in the market had been suitably dealt with."
Kaoru clamped her teeth down. She knew what Tetsuma was doing. He had done all in his power, which was considerable, to assure that the place of judgment was not created. Failing that, he used one of her own famous gambits. He refused to notice the change.
"Come, Lady Kaoru." Ironic inflection coloured every word. "You cannot hope to save every slave in Darthia. It does not befit your station." He was well pleased; to his mind the First Servant gave far too much to this, a ranking member of their greatest enemy. To order the death of a man she saw fit to plead for—yes, Tetsuma was satisfied. Perhaps there was hope for her death yet. But he remembered the cost of the last "hope," and he was not fool enough to undertake its realization.
Kaoru was suddenly angry; of all nights to play at useless confrontations with the high priest, this one was least welcome. She let a hint of satisfaction show through her face as she responded. "Not every slave, Tetsuma. But I did manage to save that one. Ranin is now in my personal service, or didn't your informants tell you that?"
When he did not reply immediately, she pressed the point home. "And yes, I do intend to save every slave in Darthia, if it takes me all my life."
His voice was cold and neutral. Kaoru gave him a sidelong glance, already regretting the words.
He didn't know, and not only did I inform him of the fact that Kenshin went against his word to spare Ranin, but I rubbed his face in it. She felt the juxtaposition of regret and satisfaction. Regret won.
Kenshin, my position here is still not as strong as you would like it. Must I always make it worse?
Still, at least he's stopped talking.
It was true, but it didn't make her feel better; Tetsuma silent was Tetsuma plotting, and although he was too canny to act directly against the First Servant of his God, he was still not a man to antagonize. She knew well that he considered her a weakness, and a dangerous one—the fact that Ranin was still alive proved it yet again.
Master, he thought, this Noranen woman will poison you if she is not ... removed. I have done all I can to lessen her influence, but it has proved useless. Perhaps it is time . . .
He shuddered. Going against the First Servant's orders usually left a man a lifespan that could be measured in seconds. Yet he could not just stand idly by to watch the destruction of the Church at the hands of its enemy—and he was certain as to what this woman child intended; she had never been anything less than clear.
He shook his head to clear it and walked a little more quickly. It still amazed him that one with such power could possess so little understanding of the uses to which it should be put.
"Lady," he said, and she turned. "I believe we must walk more quickly. The Lord has never liked to be kept waiting."
Except by you.