Well, here is the long awaited first chapter of Little One. I have resigned myself to that title although there was much debate as to giving it something else. Oh well.
This is a new branch of fiction for me so I hope that everone likes it. There is going to be some violence and adult themes (when is there not?) but its not going to be nearly as dark as some of my previous stories. I think.
Big thanks to Neko-chan and Rikki for looking this over and beta-reading this within a inch of its life.
Warnings: Adult Themes.
Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin.
Something was wrong.
Her lashes were heavy as she forced herself awake, and she had to blink several times to make things focus. Everything swam painfully for long moments. Her body was heavy and dragging; even rotating her neck took more strength thanshe really had. Her breathing was slow and steady and she was staring at bare skin. It was pale gold and seemed to be smoothed over thick muscles of a very firm male chest.
Her eyes swung upwards and stared at the chiseled jawline and strong profile of the man under her. Some of the heaviness was chased out of her system with the shock and she woke up enough to remember what was going on. She was cocooned in light silk sheets that clung to the dried sweat on her body. Propping herself up a little, she took the time to stare at the delicate bone structure of her cousin's husband. That brought her back into reality and something cold shivered down her spine. She wasn't supposed to be in here. It was morning.
Tomoe had been married last night to this man. A foreign Prince who was born in a kingdom that was well known for its power, its magic and its wealth. When he had asked for the heir's only daughter's hand there had been much rejoicing. As far as she knew, they were neighboring countries who had never really seen eye to eye. Two days before the wedding she had been given an offer. Take Tomoe's place in the wedding bed as a virgin, or spend the rest of her life slaving away at the temple fires. She had accepted the bargain with doubts. However, the night was over, she was now missing her virginity and the Prince was still soundly sleeping.
Kaoru felt her eyes droop tiredly, so she rested her head on his shoulder. She had no idea why she was so sleepy. Granted, he had kept her up most the night with his attentions and those strange mumblings of his but there was nothing that should have worn her out about last night. She was used to spending days or more working fires with no sleep.
Kaoru couldn't quite remember the reasons the priests had given her for sharing the night with the Prince. As she slowly drifted back to sleep the scent of magic and pine and ginger tugged at her nose and he shifted in his sleep so his hands were brushing against her back in his sleep. Kaoru yawned a bit and relaxed, wondering at the absurdity of her people's customs of having the first night in the complete dark.
Lying there with a male body comfortingly pressed against her, she was completely unprepared for the cold fingers that roughly dug into her shoulder. Her eyes snapped open as she was jerked away from the prince, her naked body shivering a little in the sudden chill. The Prince shifted a bit as if he was trying to wake up, but the priest who entered her line of vision sneered. "The gods will not allow him to wake up just yet." A rough cloak was wrapped around her shoulders and another rough hand braced her when her knees went weak. She was shoved into a guard who held her up, a look of pity on his scarred face.
"You did well," he told her. Kaoru watched in surprise as the guard watched Tomoe drop her own cloak and crawl into the bed with the sleeping prince. She shot Kaoru a look that was almost venomous and Kaoru found herself gently tugged out of the room. The further she was taken from the room, the weaker her knees became. Something surged through her, hot and dark and she gasped and stumbled a bit. The guard easily kept her up right, his jaw tense. Kaoru wanted to twist against his grip and run screaming back into the room. Her heart was pounding in her chest and she struggled to get a hold of herself. The guard looked around and tugged her into a room and handed her a small flask.
"Here," he murmured. "Drink this."
Kaoru tossed it back and then gagged and coughed as the taste of whiskey ran down the back of her throat, dazing her and warming her where she had been turning cold. She closed her eyes and shuddered until she was able to breathe. She looked up at the man and realized that he was part of Tomoe's elite guard. Scares lined his face and there was gray at the temples and a hardened expression that said he had had seen many battles.
"You did well," he repeated calmly. "It's probably just one of those safety spells that they put on what is theirs that is bothering you, lady." His voice lowered a notch on that; she looked up in surprise. "The whiskey should help."
"Don't call me that," Kaoru softly requested as she handed him back his flask. He gave her a searching look before nodding. She squared her shoulders. The guard opened his mouth but suddenly a priest appeared at her elbow, glowering at both of them. "Come with me," the priest ordered, his bald head shining in the mage-lights that were lit in the early mornings. She was grasped just above the elbow and dragged down the halls.
"You have completed your duties," he informed her icily. "Our bargain is complete." He pushed her into a room that held a small cot and a coarse dress and gawky boots. The plain dress was an ugly brown but it was covering, and she shivered as she changed clothing. When she was done she was motioned to follow him. She did so feeling a bit numb, as if her brain and her feet couldn't quite connect which direction she was supposed to be going. There was something that felt a long way off and the energy the whiskey had given her was fading.
She recognized the pathway the priest was leading her down. It was a back path to the kitchens and the idea of food both repelled and attracted her. She was sat down firmly in a chair and the priest motioned for something like slop to be dropped in front of her. The cooks all averted their eyes and Kaoru knew they had been forbidden to give her anything else and that it was mortifying the poor cooks. The slop that was in front of her was saved for hungry peasants who came in to do minor favors and then were fed for their pains. She took a spoonful of the lumpy substance and made a face as the lack of taste entered her mouth.
The priest slammed a mug of something in front of her and Kaoru stared at it. "You will drink this," he informed her. Kaoru knew better than to argue with him. The priests were the most powerful force in her religion-based kingdom and they still had a choke hold on her. Her lashes were heavy and sticky, as if she hadn't slept at all, and the porridge-slop in front of her was giving her the energy she needed to think rationally. Sighing she picked up the mug of tea-like substance and knocked it back. She only managed to make it halfway through the cup before she started to cough and gag, forcing her to lean against the table as she attempted to catch her breath. Once she did so she blinked watery eyes and breathed deeply. The priest gave her a nasty look. "Finish it." He warned as he turned and left the place. Kaoru blinked in surprise as a little girl darted out and replaced her bowl with something that looked like it had honey and fruit, dumping the rest of the other stuff into the large pot simmering on the stove.
Reaching for the cup she downed the rest of it and coughed and hacked as it burned all the way down again. Her eyes streamed with it and she felt slightly sick. The sensation lasted for a matter of moments, but when it was done, the sweetness of the honey was welcomed as it sweetened the remaining flavor in her mouth. Once she got through the bowl she felt a bit better and looked up when something steaming and hot was placed in front of her, finally washing the last of what she had been forced to drink from her mouth.
Kaoru remembered the words of the guard and his whiskey bottle and she wondered if the priests were trying to do the same. She let her head fall against the wooden table and breathed in deeply, letting the bit of the wood sooth her. More awake now, she vividly remembered the way his breath had ghosted along her collarbones, the way his lips had moved as his body pressed against hers. She could almost remember the words, but they had echoed inside her more than they had in her ears. She supposed that was what everyone was making a fuss over. It looked like it was going to be Tomoe's problem now. Shivering at the memory of how hot he had been against her, the things he had done to her body, she reached for the drink and downed it.
There had to have been some connection between him and this weakness. Tapping her nails against the table, a sudden thought hit her. She had just eaten her first free meal in five years. She covered a trembling smile and the sudden rush of tears that flooded her eyes and she struggled in an attempt to get a grip on her emotions. She was free. Closing her eyes, she ducked her head and silently allowed her tears to drip down her face. Her frame trembled as she choked on her tears and she struggled to get rid of them. She felt a rough hand rub between her shoulders and the sound of the cook's rough voice as she cleared out the kitchen to give her a moment of peace. It took several moments for her to catch her breath and she wiped her eyes and blew her nose when the cook gave her a piece of cloth.
"There you go dear," the cook soothed. "Go on, let it out. You're fine now. I hear you're quite the little bird who just got her wings back." She patted her shoulder comfortably. "Now, I want you to sit there and think about what you are going to do now." She gave a hard smile and turned and started barking orders, sending pages and serving girls scrambling as the breakfast for the royals was suddenly rushed about.
Kaoru swallowed and realized what the cook had suggested. She stilled as everything sunk in, the implications of what she could do and she choked on the urge to laugh, giggle, to do something to release the emotions that were boiling up her throat. A short giggle erupted from her throat, and she sniffled. Her sword was long gone, melted into someone's throwing knives. It was an old ache she had learned to deal with. Her best bet for the day was to find some sort of physical work to start getting herself ready to go. If her hiding places from her childhood were still in place she was probably going to have some ready cash as well. A slow smile curved her lips. If the Weapon Master hadn't changed in five years she could probably head down there and get put through her paces.
With something like a smile, something like a groan, she kicked away from the table and bowed to the cook. She needed to track down someone's cast off breeches and tunic. If she remembered correctly, the Weapons Master always had a few extra pairs of boots for the kids who came in from the borders to be trained to go back out. They were sent in so they could get the training they needed to go back and be officers in the border guard. The temple required being barefoot or to wear soft fabric that was horrible protection against dust or sharp objects.
"I'm finally free, Daddy," Kaoru whispered as she moved through the palace. "I promise it won't be long now."
Kaoru hummed to herself as she braided her thick, dark hair and then tied it into an expert knot at the base of her neck. The priests had threatened more than once to cut her hair in punishment. It was the only promise she had left that she could have kept with her mother and she had reacted violently each time the threat had been made. Instead she was forced to tend the fires for days on end, until they decided that she was allowed a few hours nap and a bowl of gruel every so many hours. She knew they had hoped she would singe her hair and lashes when she became tired, but she had tied damp clothes around her head and made sure to keep it wet. She was quick on her feet and was a bit selfish about her hair and the only link she had to a dead mother.
She knew her hair had once been the envy of a family that now refused to acknowledge her. She rubbed slender fingers along her pants as she walked and felt the way her calloused palms and fingertips caught the edges of her cloth. Her heart clenched as the thought about what had given her the calluses. She looked over the walkway she was standing on and watched as the border-guard drilled. She had once been there as a rising protégé in the ranks. Then her father had been executed on the grounds of treason and her mother had grieved herself to death. Being sentenced to the temple was supposed to have been merciful, but it had only been torture for her. Her hand went to her hip as it had done for four years when she was stressed. Her sword had been a coming of arms gift from her father and when she was thirteen it had entered battle with her.
It hadn't been a few months after that, that her father had been taken in for questioning. The loss of her sword had almost been the same as losing her father all over again. She had nothing to remember him by except for the ideals that he had left her, and those were cold and uncomfortable late at night when she was alone. But now she was finally free and she was able to go out into the world and finally look into the false execution of her father.
"I promise," Kaoru whispered as she had so many times watching the fire. "I won't let you down."
As she finished her walk she considered how much muscle mass she needed to rebuild. She had stubbornly done push up and sits ups for hours in the night. She had taken the wood cutting job as often as possible when she had been in the temple. It had kept the muscles she had feared losingin some sort of shape. She had known it wouldn't be forever before she was released and she had been determined to have her revenge. Even if the odds were stacked against her.
Walking into the building, she was assaulted by the scent of leather, oil and steel. Closing her eyes in satisfaction, she opened them and continued her walk until she found the hulking frame she had been looking for. He was holding a blade in his hand and staring down at it like it could give him the answers he was seeking. The blade was his religion and had always been. "Hello master," Kaoru softly called out. "Do you have time for an old student?"
Harlod Buffleton was a huge man from some distant border. He had come in on a slave ship and won his freedom and then promptly joined the Border Guard and quickly moved up to Weapons Master. He stood at close to six foot tall with thick shoulders and massive arms. As a child, she had always compared him to a giant, and even as an adult she considered him to be one of the scariest people she had ever met.
He was just a gigantic teddy bear at heart. He smiled at her, recognition coming into his face even before he lifted his eyes, scanning her form and landing on her bare feet with a sigh. "The back room still has boots. I suggest you find a pair that fits. There are also swords since I believe you are missing yours." He closed his eyes and continued to commune with his sword. "You have five minutes, soldier." He grasped his large handlebar mustache between his fore-finger and thumb as he proceeded to ignore her after he had spoken.
Kaoru's smile was huge as she moved to do his bidding.
Kenshin slowly woke to the sensation of wrongness. Even with his eyes closed, he could tell that something was off. The naked skin of his wife pressed against his side, but he could find no comfort in it. The sickly, scaled sensation of the priests rolled across him, yet not even that explained why he had the urge to rip someone to bloody pieces with his bare hands. Opening his eyes, he looked down at the dark head of hair that was only a little coarse between his fingers. He could feel the priests waiting for him to wake Tomoe so they could start the ceremony that would acknowledge the blood on the sheets. His lips curled slightly in disgust. How barbaric. The continuous curl of warning rose and zipped down his spine, and he looked around attempting to sense the danger.
The priests were fools who didn't understand real magic, but they weren't a danger. There was none of the tang of black warning in this room. Only the lingering remains of a passion that had fueled his magic last night allowing him to bind the woman in his arms to him. The heat had surprised him. The melting passions, the way she had felt against him. The way her hands had grasped at him and the breathy moan he had been able to steal from her lips with the use of his tongue. The way she had pressed herself against him; he continued to play with the ends of her hair, memorizing the texture. There was something there…something he couldn't quite grasp… the scent of plum blossoms rose from her skin. For some reason his brain wanted to give him the scent of jasmine mingled with the salt of her tears as he had held her exhausted form in his arms. The tears had surprised him, along with the way her nails had bit into his shoulders as she held him, terrified of letting go.
He looked down at the woman who was stirring in his arms. He was strung as tightly as a bow and knew it. He felt a stab of sympathy for her; she had to be exhausted. His binding wasn't kind even for women who were prepared for it. He was thankful that he had been able to use her wedding vows to prepare her body for the force of his magical binding. He buried his nose in her hair and felt unease curl in his belly.
"You are both awake," the little fat priest Kenshin had taken an instant dislike to suddenly spoke, breaking his concentration. "With your Majesty's permission, we shall complete our wedding rituals and ask for the gods' blessing to be placed upon you."
Tomoe stirred more, giving a little noise as she wrapped herself around him and sighed. His eyes lowered to her face, a faint frown on his face as her tongue swept across his skin. It was a delicate flick, wanton; and completely uncharacteristic of the woman who had shyly returned his kisses. His eyes narrowed as he considered what was going on. Tomoe's toes; now that she had pulled her knees up, her toes brushed his ankles. His lashes narrowed further as he stared at her dark eyes, clearly remembering the ceremony. She had been in flat shoes yet had matched his height. The woman from last night had been petite on all accounts and even when pressed full flush against him, the bottoms of her feet had rested against his ankles. Unease flickered through him again and he scanned the woman for clues.
She made no attempt to hide her nakedness from him or the priests. He had deliberately nipped her collarbones and against the soft skin of her flat belly. Tomoe was not large by any means, but her curves were thicker than the woman whose waist he had almost spanned with his hands. Her breasts were heavier and her stomach was flat but lacked the taut muscles his tongue had worshipped the night before. His jaw clenched and he felt a headache begin behind his temples as the truth began to sink in. There were no bite marks to claim this woman as his, no jasmine lingering on her skin to sooth him. His eyes dropped to her nails. They were perfect. The way the girl had dug them into his shoulders the night before; she would have at least damaged the perfect polish. Anger began to tremble in his stomach and he didn't notice he was growling until Tomoe reached around and wrapped her hand around his wrist.
"Kenshin," Tomoe whispered, looking at him with her cool beauty and wide eyes. "What is wrong?"
No sparks. Nothing. Her touch didn't even raise the hairs on his arms. He jerked his arm away and examined her face with burning eyes. This was not the woman he had shared his bed with last night. Which meant that this was not his wife. The woman he had bound his soul to was no longer in his bed, in this room, and possibly no longer in the palace. That was what had woken him. The anger deepened into a rage and he snarled when she tried to touch him. "What did you do?" he snarled at her, watching as her face paled with the realization that her game was up.
Reaching forward he grasped her hand and stared at it. She jerked a little under his touch, her hand rotating under his grip, but his fingers tightened so that she gasped in pain. The skin of her hand was smooth. She probably filled a glove with lotion and soaked it for the prescribed two hours that had his warrior court laughing at the rumors. These were not his wife's hands. "Where is she?" Kenshin asked his voice almost unrecognizable. He sensed Aoshi approaching even as the priests shifted nervously. He scanned them with his eyes and ignored the way they gasped. One even had the gall to call him a demon under his breath.
"Where is who?" Tomoe asked icily. "Let go, Kenshin. You're hurting my hand."
"My wife," Kenshin asked, lazily rotating her wrist, his expression clearly suggesting he was considering breaking it. "I want to know where my wife is." He looked up as he applied pressure so that her face tightened and her lips pressed together with the pain. "Where is she, Tomoe?"
"Your wife is in bed with you," a priest said as the door opened and Aoshi entered the room, a cool fire resting in his eyes. He scanned the room once with his eyes and then raised a cool brow and turned his attention back to the bed. Distaste flickered across his features at the sight of Tomoe's naked body.
His eyes found Aoshi's as he attempted to control the raging magic his temper brought to the surface. The cold blue of his eyes helped Kenshin gain a little control and he stood, leaving Tomoe to the bed. She was cradling her wrist and barely hanging onto her composure. He was furious enough to shake with the force of it as he jerked on the pants Aoshi tossed him. "Find her," he snapped, his eyes blazing with the force of his magic and temper. The bond was breaking. His eyes snapped to the Priests and he took several steps forward, wrapping his fingers around the fat man's bulging jowls. "What did you do?" he snarled, shaking him.
He was bound to a stranger who was slowly killing herself unaware. The rage ate at him and he only let go of the man's throat when he realized he was turning blue. Aoshi hadn't moved but he was practically oozing threat from where he stood, his eyes staring warningly at the woman in the bed who was watching with furious eyes, her lips bloodless with strain. "I want this castle turned inside out. Tell the caravan to move out now." His words were bitten off and harsh.
"Done," Aoshi said stiffly, continuing his looming. He made a noise of warning when Tomoe tried to move off the bed.
"You knew," Kenshin said softly as he turned back to the priest, his eyes practically burning everything they touched. "You knew how I would react and you knew about my people's ceremonies. There is no way you can't have known. If she dies, I will level this city." Kenshin turned and went to leave the room, not bothering to pull on the tunic or boots. The binding was irreversible.
"I think you are mistaken, husband." Tomoe's voice cut through the air like ice. "You're married to me." She had pulled the sheets up and was watching him with a venomous expression as he and Aoshi paused at the door. "You married me last night."
Kenshin turned and met his burning eyes with his. "I am afraid not." He said acidly. "All I gave you last night were words. Words that I gave no power into backing, words that were meant to be the basis for the spell I wove last night. I used your vows to ready you for the spell that was fueled by the sex and spilling of your virgin's blood." Kenshin raised a brow. "Now, Princess, if you weren't in my bed and you were not a virgin, then how can either of those things be used to bind you to me? I bound a woman to me. That woman is my wife."
Tomoe's eyes flared. "She cannot be yours. She is nothing but a common servant!" Tomoe informed him coldly. "She cannot have married you!" Her voice was outraged and furious.
Kenshin's temper flickered and he allowed some of his power to leak into his eyes. "She is mine, Tomoe. Make no doubts about it. She is mine and when I find her, I will keep her alive and I will take her far from here. I will also never, for as long as either you or your kin rule here, open my borders. Any that try to enter will be killed instantly. If I were you, I would stay out of my way," Kenshin snarled at her, making sure the priests were paying attention by flicking his eyes in their direction. A piece of his soul was dying and his sword-soul was demanding blood. He left the room with a bang, slamming the door behind him and using a locking spell to keep them occupied for a little while.
When he had bound his wife's soul to his he had used up most of his and her magical energy. His little temper tantrum couldn't have helped either of them. Even now he was having a hard time breathing past the rage. The ceremony to bind a woman to a man was always more difficult for the woman. The spells he had used were final, and would have drained her of any magical power she had, and she would have no idea how to deal with it. He had prepared Tomoe's body but had not thought that he would have to do it twice. So instead he had simply taken her magic and his and brushed her soul. She had been too entangled in what he was doing in her body to notice what he was doing to her soul. Even now he could taste her sweetness on his tongue and feel the way she had brushed against him. He had tossed a thick barrier between their emotions and if he took it down then he would be unable to put it back up. Swearing, he practically ripped the door from its hinges. She should have been in his bed being pampered and carefully coaxed into full strength. Aoshi was silent as he followed him.
His spell had gone into her small frame completely unprepared and he had drained her dry believing he would be able to protect her. He slammed his fist into the wall, ignoring his pain, and growled between his teeth as he fought for control, ignoring Misao's startled glances and Sano's alert expression. The priests had struck at the bond deliberately so that it would kill her. If he didn't get to before nightfall she would slip into a coma and she would die, taking a piece of his soul with her.
Rage, white-hot and burning, flooded his mind.
"What…" Misao started but stopped when Kenshin turned to look at her, her green-blue eyes wide with surprise.
"They switched my bride with a servant in the bedchamber." Kenshin managed to get out, his voice low and distorted. "I want this castle searched and I want her found as soon as possible. If she is not in this castle then we take this city apart stone by stone and leave a smoking pile of ruble behind us. Aoshi, find out who she is. Name, age, and exactly what she spent the past ten years doing. Someone has to know something." Kenshin didn't even wait for a speechless Misao to reply. Instead he took off, jerking a shirt over his head as he moved. He was going to start with the top floor and work his way down a room at a time. He would find her.
Kaoru was satisfied with the sense of muscle exhaustion that was running through her body sweetly and she stretched. She was tired, but it was a wonderful sense of tiredness she hadn't felt since the last time she held a sword in her hand. The sense of wonder of holding hot steel and feeling it sizzle through her blood had been a craving that had kept her awake at night. High Noon meant that actual classes started so she had been forced to clean and put her borrowed sword up. Maybe she would be allowed to take it with her when she went on her journey. She was going to need a horse and some better clothing. That was going to require money…tilting her head, she made her way into the kitchens to raid it for something with nutrients. No matter how hard she tried, there was a sense of wonder at the echoing feel of sword play that hummed through her. Shaking it off, she instead looked forward to the bowl of soup the cook kept on the back burners for her staff and the coarse black bread that she also baked for her servants.
The kitchen was in a state of chaos. Kaoru didn't bother to ask what was going on. She was more interested in getting in and getting out. Lunch appeared to be thickly sliced bread and cold ham was carefully piled onto the soft bread the royals ate. Fruit was being cut up frantically and tossed into bowls and then arranged by someone else into pretty designs.
Kaoru slipped stealthily through the crowded kitchens to the back where bowls were set out. There was half a loaf of bread left and Kaoru was in the process of filling her bowl when she noticed him. Cool and dark headed, he was watching everything with flickering eyes. His eyes landed on her and she attempted to ignore him and the way her vision wavered a bit as she felt her hunger catch up with her. There was something almost searching in the air and she felt beads of sweat dripping down her temples and prayed he didn't notice. She didn't expect him to engage her in conversation.
"Miss?" he asked in a surprisingly mellow voice. "Are you alright?"
Kaoru ducked her head in a mask of servitude she had perfected. "Fine sir." She stumbled, as if she wasn't used to talking to someone of his rank. "Excuse me sir." She ducked around the corner, balancing the bread and soup and ducking out of the kitchen. Ducking into the servants passage, Kaoru moved along the familiar hall until she came to the opening that led her to the servant's garden. She froze and swore when she caught sight of a priest's robe and she ducked into the shadows, mentally swearing.
"Do you think she knows?" an unseen voice asked, pausing by the entrance.
Kaoru licked her lips.
"Probably not. Why would she? She was never raised in that environment and she has been a slave most of her adult life. It's amusing though." Another voice, this one female, answered lightly.
"Yes, this is true. I think the concept of being in a completely pitch room the entire night confused her. Hard to believe she couldn't understand that we sell their virginity long before they are all married; that she is not the only one who has been brought in to share the marriage bed. Stupid idiot had to mess it up." Their voices were silent and then malicious laughter broke free. "Won't know what hit her, will she?"
"No, it's not possible. She can't possibly know." Their voices faded and Kaoru counted to fifty before moving into the light and into the servant's garden for cover. She let the heat melt into her bones and as she carefully sat, enjoying the now lukewarm soup. The bread was a little rough but filling. It was a far better meal than the temple had ever given her and she relished her second meal in freedom and her first in sunlight. 'Now, what were they talking about, Kamiya?' Kaoru mused as she ate.
Children were giggling outside and she smiled at the ones playing tag, clearly finished with their meal. It was common practice to send small children to the palace to earn a free meal. Some families just weren't able to feed every mouth and this was a good substitute. Some of the dirty, little faces she could recognize but most of them rotated in such a way that you only saw them once or twice a month.
'Alright, they were definitely talking about me. Now, the question is what they were discussing, about my not being aware of.' She chewed for long moments before stilling. 'Oh gods…he knows doesn't he? What they are talking about is the punishment he is going to give me. I bet he is furious and is demanding my head in return.' Swallowing, she finished her meal quickly. 'That means I am going to have to avoid everyone and move my plans up quicker than I thought. By the goddess…' Kaoru swore mentally.
She chewed on her lip and wondered if the man in the kitchen knew who she was. He had acted like he was looking for someone and she realized he had to be working for the Prince. Kaoru shuddered at how close she had been to getting caught. Just because she had been walking in what felt like a hot daze all day, the delicious memory of his mouth on the skin of throat burning through her. Shaking off the memory she fought the urge to take a nap. Not only was it sinful activity to sleep during the day, but if she got caught she would be screwed.
Alright, the first thing she had to do was buy a horse, saddle, tack, and clothing. That meant money. She needed to get her hands on something she could barter with. All her family money had been taken and given to the crown. However…she had stashed a few things when it became apparent her mother wasn't going to make it out of her grief. She had sunk into the drugs the priests had brought her and Kaoru was almost certain that she had overdosed and that they had been behind it. Her beautiful, delicate mother with her soft hands and voice…shaking off her memories she began to move with a purpose. There was a small bag of blood-rubies in her mother's bedchamber. She was almost certain that it had been converted into something else, but the jewels should have still been hidden where she left them, out in the open. It was the only reason the priests hadn't found them.
Moving towards the palace room where her mother had stayed while her father had been put on trial, she passed several people with harried looks on their faces. That surprised her, because everyone was moving around frantically, as if they were hiding from something or just plain out avoiding it. Kaoru thought she saw Tomoe, once; at the top of the stairs arguing with someone who was petite and small. They seemed to be snarling at each other and she ducked around the corner and took a different route.
The room she was looking for had probably been redone about five times in the past four years. However, she remembered the way. Sneaking past several maids had been easy, but it was the man tapping at all the doors, his large frame slightly intimidating, that had her worried. His brown eyes were hard as he set about asking questions, his spiky hair and bandana a stark contrast to the usual fair of clothing.
Kaoru slipped into the double set of doors and mentally counted how many doorways were between her and the behemoth before he showed up looking for occupants in this room. She chewed her lip as she ducked inside. If they were working on finding her, they were certainly going all out.
Looking around the room she noticed that most of her hidden treasures were gone. She carefully set out digging through the potted plants, unearthing each little ruby carefully. There were only fifteen or sixteen of them, but that was more than enough for what she needed. The last few she had divided up in the chandelier and she was in the process of getting them down using the ladder they used to change the candles when there was a knocking on the door. Hissing between her clenched teeth she jumped off the top of the ladder and looked for a way out. There was an open window that overlooked the Queen's Garden and there were enough trees to hide in. She sprinted to the window when the beating became harder and grasped the edges of a set of branches and swung herself into the depths of the garden.
Dropping down with a grunt she ignored the banging on the door. She heard him shout something from the other side and paused as she digested his words. Why would he be demanding answers for the High Prince Himura instead of King Yukishiro? Confused she almost gave in to her need to understand, but there was swearing while he opened the door. Finishing her lunge for the window she leapt for a branch and climbed into the thick foliage, her fingers clutching her bag of rubies while she watched the man appear in the window. His expression was confused and slightly disconcerted as he looked around, a frown pulling at his mouth.
Now that she got a good look at him, she realized that he was indeed part of the Mage Prince's Court. She recognized him from the night before. She absently wondered if the Prince was a King now that he was married. Stupid political questions she shouldn't be thinking about. She pressed her hand to her forehead as she felt her body spin dizzily. Shivering with the sudden force of longing that swept through her she leaned into the tree behind her and shook a little as she gained control. 'Where is this coming from?' Kaoru wondered absently. 'It must have been that stupid little drink the priests made me drink.' A sigh left her lips. 'Must have been some mild poison.'
'Get over it, Kamiya. He is a married man and isn't yours. Even if he was, he would only get in the way of finding him.' Her eyes narrowed with fury. That was right. She still had a murderer to catch and a dynasty to destroy. Her beloved family killed because someone else wanted a throne her family never wanted.
Clutching the rubies in her hand, she began the long way to the stables. The day was passing wonderfully and she smiled to herself as she looked at the late afternoon sun that lit her path to the stables. As she arrived, she admired the foreigners' horses. They were a hand or so bigger than the horses her people bred. Their bright eyes and soft mouths proved they were intelligent and very well cared for. Running her hand along the railings of their stalls she hummed as she came to the opening in the back where they kept the horses they were going to sell off.
Kaoru swung up, swayed a bit when another sudden dizzy spell hit her, and watched the horses canter around the paddock. They weren't as beautiful as the horses inside, but they had the look of sturdiness to them. Kaoru watched them for a good half hour before she found the one she wanted. It was a dappled gray with a particularly mean temper. He would take a little work, but she had plans to stay at the palace and hide among the servants or even in the arms hall for at least a month. She needed the time to work with the Weapons Master to get herself back into shape. It would take more than a month but at least he could set her up a regime to practice when she was on the road.
She didn't have any leads yet but she had a vague idea of where to start. She remembered the lawyer that had defended her father. Perhaps he could tell her something of who had gone against him or why. And if he was involved with her father being killed and was unwilling to answer her questions, then she was willing to use a bit of creativity.
"Can I help you miss?" a male voice asked, and Kaoru turned to see the old stable hand. He probably didn't recognize her and that was okay. She didn't need to be recognized, right now.
"I am interested in buying that dapple," Kaoru informed him easily, threading the lies like they were second nature. "My last horse fell into a river and broke his leg. I lost all my tack as well. Do you know somewhere I can get a saddle made to fit?"
The old man watched the horses dance around the corral. "The dapple is a bit much for a young lady like yourself. I would, instead, suggest you pick out a different horse. He has already thrown three riders."
Kaoru grinned at him. "I can handle him. How much do you want for him?"
He raised pale gray eyes to her face and stared at her for a moment, before a small smile flicked across his mouth. "Yes, I suppose you can. I will sell you the gray if you can ride him. Come back tomorrow and we will discuss your riding and prices. If you're interested in having some tack made for you, I will have someone drop by."
Kaoru grinned at him. "I appreciate it." She hopped down and was thankful that she was hanging onto the wood as her head suddenly swam and her body trembled with weakness. Kaoru swayed on her feet, gasping a little and the man whose name she couldn't quite remember frowned at her.
"Are you all right?" he asked, his tone concerned.
Kaoru straightened up and swallowed. "I am fine," she said as she opened her eyes. She smiled weakly. "I think I just overdid it today and in this heat…" She gave an artful little shrug. She was suddenly sweating and a little shaky. "I think I am going to go and get something to eat." She smiled at him and slipped away, the bag of blood-rubies bouncing against her side.
Aoshi was beginning to feel a little annoyed with the woman who had switched places with Tomoe. She had, for all purposes, disappeared. He had set Misao on Tomoe, knowing that if anyone was going to get a name out of the stoic woman it was going to be Misao. He hadn't heard back but he wasn't giving up yet. They had two hours until sunset. When sunset hit, that was when the girl was most likely going to fall asleep and if they didn't get Kenshin to her soon, then it was very possible that she wasn't going to wake up. He had been keeping an eye on the bond all afternoon and had watched with a bit of surprise at how fast she went through the energy it should have produced with the disintegrating.
What did this woman do?
Aoshi sighed as he stood in the servant's courtyard. Just outside of it there was the temple's garden and chicken house. Aoshi paused from where he was going when he heard the sounds of a little girl crying. Turning his head he located the dirty little girl, carrying a basket of what looked to be eggs, sitting in the dirt nursing several scrapes.
Walking over to the girl, he watched her for a moment as she turned big green-blue eyes up at him. For a moment she reminded him of another little girl, and he was bending to check her scraped knees before he knew it.
"Mister, who are you?" the little girl asked, sniffling painfully.
"My name is Aoshi. Why are you crying?" Aoshi asked her softly, smoothing his fingertips over the red flesh and watching as his healing magic took the redness and scratches out of her delicate skin.
"My nee-san wasn't here to help me scare off the rooster," she mumbled. "The Priests took her away last night and she didn't come back."
Aoshi went still. "Who is your nee-san?"
The little girl sniffled again. "Kaoru."
Aoshi nodded. "Do you know why they took her away?"
The little girls face crumpled again. "The mean lady wanted her for something. They always take my nee-san away when they need something. They make her tend the fires all the time and make her clean out the drudge pits and then even make her help the Lady with her marriage."Her little head ducked. "They hurt her."
Aoshi said nothing as he continued to check her for malnourishment or signs of beatings, but she was a healthy little thing and even managed to lack the fleas that hit the children of this place so hard. "Do you like it here?"
The little girl looked up and suddenly smiled, a gap-toothed smile that paused him in his ministrations. "Yes! I mean, it's only nee-san they're mean to. They're nice to me. Because momma pledges me to the goddess and so they leave me alone." The little girl looked sad again. "Nee-san didn't have a mother to pledge her."
Aoshi was quiet. "Do you know where they might have taken your nee-san?"
The little girl tilted her head. "She has rooms! I don't know where they are though."
Aoshi ruffled her bangs. "Take care."
The little girl nodded and picked up her basket. "Bye bye, Aoshi-nee!"
Aoshi watched her scamper off and went to find Kenshin.
Kenshin was furious. His teeth were so tightly clenched together that he was having a hard time hearing anything beyond the grinding of his teeth. Moving into the room he had been given he stood in there, looking at the bed that hadn't been touched after the scene that had been made that morning.
There had to be something here that could be used to find her, to taste her again. Closing his eyes he searched every corner of the room, looking for something left of her. She had been filled with his seed last night, had given everything into his keeping; there was even blood on the sheets from their tumble. Yet…there was nothing. Nothing but the faint stench of the priests who had come in that morning.
So this was how they wanted to play.
They were deliberately interfering with his investigation. They were doing everything they could to hide her trail, and the servants were so terrified they refused to speak of the girl. He didn't even have a clear picture of her face in his mind. Just that voice. Her voice. He took another deep breath as he attempted to control his fury. Night was in a few hours. He didn't know why he was so determined to find her and save her. He walked to the window and watched children run around the garden. If he just left now, then he would be freed from the bond between them.
Yet…yet, it was the way she had felt, tasted. The sting of salt on his tongue when she wept into his chest afterwards, the press of her hands flat against his ribs while she shook with sobs, the way her hands had tangled in his hair. Cool against his scalp and slightly rough. It was all those things…and more. It was the fact that he had shown her his soul last night and she had returned the favor without knowing what she was doing. It was the memory of that feeling, the way she was all fire and temperance that called to him.
"I think I might have a lead." Aoshi's voice broke his reverie and he turned to face his second. Aoshi looked slightly rugged from running around all day and there was something in his eyes. "I talked to one of the children and I think I know how the priests are hiding her."
Kenshin turned all the way towards him. "Tell me."
Aoshi was quick. "She worked in the temple. For the Priests. Which means there are only so many places she could be housed; we are looking in all the wrong places. There are roughly two hundred servants for the temple but only a hundred of them are female. They attempt to keep it balanced, for the goddess, of course." There was a note of disbelief in his voice. "There are less than fifty that were not pledged to the goddess, just simply given to the temple to make someone disappear or to pay a debt. My guess is she's one. I already have Misao going through the rooms, looking for someone who would have the lingering traces of your magic on their skin but you would be the best for it."
Kenshin nodded his head and moved after him. "Take me to them. They have been interfering with our search all morning and I have a few things I wish to say to them." There was a bite in his voice.
Well, there is the first chapter. As always, let me know what you guys think!