I was in something of a daze when I stepped outside the closet. The first thing I wanted to do, naturally, was talk to Satoshi, but the second he was free, he was dashing off down the hall without a glance back. Not even that was enough to spoil my good mood, though.
He had let me kiss him. He’d actually let me… I put one hand to my lips, brushing over them lightly. I could still feel the warmth from that moment, when my lips had been pressed up against his, when he’d been so soft and pliable against me, sweet and smooth and utterly perfect… I shivered happily. Oh gods, Satoshi… My Sato-chan…
"Shigeru." I nearly jumped as my grandfather set a hand down on my shoulder. "Is something the matter?" he asked, concerned.
"No." I shook my head and couldn’t help smiling. Nothing’s the matter at all, except that I’m desperately in love and he let me kiss him… he called me Geru-chan… As if I were someone special to him. That made me feel warm inside. Beautiful, perfect Sato-chan… I love him…
"Are you sure? You look a bit flushed, Shigeru." He frowned. "Are you coming down with a fever? Or did something happen in that closet that you don’t want me to know about?"
I flushed even more at that. "It’s not important."
He raised an eyebrow. "You’re very attatched to that young man, aren’t you?"
"Yes." Well, there wouldn’t have been much point in denying it; I was being fairly transparent, after all. "Very attatched. I don’t think you’ll be able to marry me off, Grandfather."
"Oh?" He didn’t look surprised. "Why is that?"
"Because," I answered, quite frankly, "I won’t be able to produce an heir."
Grandfather burst out laughing at that. "You really are attatched to him, aren’t you?" He shook his head. "Are you certain that he’s as fond of you as you seem to be of him?"
"Maybe." An hour earlier, I would’ve said ‘No. Not a chance.’ But now… Just the fact that he let me kiss him is giving me hope for the future. He wouldn’t have let me kiss him if he didn’t have at least some feelings for me, right? He could love me…
Grandfather frowned, just slightly. "Shigeru, I feel it’s part of my duty to tell you not to get your heart set on this. I don’t want to see you get hurt…"
"I know." I resisted the urge to sigh impatiently. He was only trying to help me, after all. "But I think this is it, Grandfather. I think he’s the one." I managed a rueful laugh. "The gods know I haven’t been able to even so much as glance at anyone else since I first saw him."
"I don’t mean to be negative," he began, a bit hesitantly, "but you do spend a lot of time fighting with each other, Shigeru. And he wasn’t incredibly thrilled with you at the start of this. Are you positive that you can build a relationship on that?"
"Yes," I answered, quite sincerely. Honestly, I though I could build a relationship from just about any basis, as long as it was with Satoshi. I wasn’t sure I could explain how far I’d go to see love in his eyes – to see that brilliant, passionate spirit directed entirely into feelings for me. It thrilled me just to see it as anger. I could hardly imagine seeing love. to have us together, on equal footing, with an equal amount of devotion for each other that neither of us would ever want to openly display… It would be my paradise; my own heaven on Earth. And, at that moment, it seemed such a plausible dream. I might actually be able to have it come true…
"If he feels the same way about you," Grandfather reminded me, cutting into that beautiful fantasy quite sharply. "And that is not necessarily the case."
"Why are you being so negative?" I didn’t like that intrusion of reality. Sure, it was possible that Satoshi didn’t love me, but he’d let me kiss him, hadn’t he? Surely that was a sign of some kind. It had to mean something. "I’m in love and I’m happy – I mean, just arguing with him is enough for me; if I can’t have anything beyond that, I know I can survive on what he’s willing to give me. Anything is still something, Grandfather." Except that I want everything…
"And you won’t agree to any kind of alliance marriage, as second-born, then." It was not a question – he knew how stubborn I could be. "But you’d remain alone until the day you die, tossing aside everything you could have had to dwell entirely on the simple arguments you have with a young peasant boy. Are you that willing to throw your life away?"
"I won’t be throwing it away," I countered. "I’m giving it to Satoshi."
Grandfather sighed. "And what if he finds someone else?"
A cold feeling clenched around my heart at those words – or at least, that’s what it felt like. I hadn’t considered that at all… It could happen. The idea of my beautiful Satoshi giving his love to someone else made my heart ache. But… he’d kissed me. That had to mean something. It had to.
"Then I’ll live as close to him as he’ll allow and savour whatever attention he might be willing to give me," I said firmly, in answer to his question. It was the complete truth. It’s funny, Satoshi’s been the center of my world since I first saw him back when we were ten years old, and I couldn’t even figure that out until just now.
"And you’ll never get married yourself?"
"No!" It should’ve been obvious, shouldn’t it? "I won’t! because I don’t want anyone else, Grandfather! I want to marry Satoshi!"
That wasn’t my grandfather. I turned around slowly, and my worst fears were confirmed. Wonderful. Isn’t this just perfect? Satoshi stood in the doorway, hands clenched into fists, and the look on his face would’ve made even the stoic guards wince. Uh-oh…
‘I want to marry Satoshi’. I couldn’t believe this. Figures, that I’d walk in on a conversation at exactly the point where I’d hear things I really didn’t want to hear. This was just… unbelievable. Shigeru wanted to marry me? And he was defiantly announcing that fact to his grandfather?
That… that arrogant bastard!
"You’ve got some nerve!" I told him angrily, my fists clenching so tightly that my fingernails started to dig into my palms. "What gives you the right to assume I’d marry you!? What makes you think I’d even consider it!?"
He looked completely taken aback. "But… I thought… I mean… Sato-chan…"
"Don’t call me that!" I snapped, cutting across his babbling. The look on his face was totally bewildered, and a part of me wanted to start apologizing and telling him that it was all right. But the rest of me was far too angry to back down. "In fact, don’t tqalk to me at all, Shigeru! I can’t believe you’d do this!"
I whirled around and marched out of the room before I could catch more than a glimpse of the hurt that had hit Shigeru’s face abruptly at my words. Why shouldn’t he be hurt? He was such a jerk to think that I’d cater to his every whim – marry him like some willing little milkmaid or something. He deserved every bit of hurt he felt!
That thought felt terrible even as it went through my head.
"Satoshi!" Shigeru was running after me; I could hear him. I tried to move faster, but he caught up to me and grabbed my arm before I could get away. "Satoshi, just let me explain…"
"Let go of me!" I snarled, tugging against his firm grip.
He let go almost immediately. "I didn’t mean to insult you at all. I only wanted Grandfather to know that I wouldn’t marry anyone else, because it’s you I wa – "
"Stop it!" I clapped my hands over my ears. "Stop saying that! You had no right to make any kind of assumption about my feelings! I’m not your willing whore, understand?"
"Satoshi, please…" Shigeru looked almost like I’d slapped him. "In the closet…"
"We kissed once!" I shouted furiously, turning on him. "And it was a mistake!" I almost felt ashamed of myself as I watched Shigeru’s face seem to collapse in on itself. "I… It meant nothing. Nothing," I repeated vehemently – and I couldn’t help but wonder who I was trying to convince – him or me.
Shigeru looked crushed; the expression on his face touched me, much as I tried not to be affected. "But…" He reached out toward me.
"No!" I jumped back, not wanting to know whether or not my self-control would continue to hold out if Shigeru were touching me. "Leave me alone!" I shouted, turning and running away before I could lose what was left of my anger and just jump him.
I continued to storm through the halls with as much fury as I could manage – but the minute I was back in Shigeru’s rooms and had the door closed behind me, my bones seemed to turn to water and I sank to the ground. I felt a rush of conflicting emotions that confused and alarmed me.
What is wrong with me? I pushed myself to my feet numbly and moved toward my room. I felt like a monster; all I could see at the back of my mind was the devastated look on Shigeru’s face. But I’m angry with him! I am, really… I opened the door and walked into my room.
A hand clamped down over my mouth. "Welcome back, young master Satoshi."
My heart stopped beating.
It was too late to struggle by then; my arms were roughly pulled back behind my back and tied in a painfully tight manner from my wrists to my elbows. "I would advice you to be very co-operative," a hoarse voice hissed into my ear, and I felt a prickling sensation at my throat that indicated the presense of a dagger. Fear sliced through me, fast and furious, and my eyes were wide though in the dark room it didn’t much matter. I guessed that there were only two, but it was hard to tell. Two would be enough to kill me now that I was helpless.
I was too frightened at that point even to wonder what they wanted with me.
"Don’t… say… a word," the first man growled, and I felt the dagger press closer. His hand moved from my mouth, but I didn’t dare make a sound. I swallowed nervously, and the sharp point of that blade dug in painfully. Oh gods… what the hell is going on?
"Are you sure this is the right one?" The second man shoved a grimy piece of cloth into my mouth. I had to struggle not to gag. "We can’t know for sure, can we?"
Strong fingers grasped my chin and yanked my face upward. Two average-looking men stared back at me intently. "Didn’t you see the paintings? His former Lordship" – at that, they both sneered – "looked just like his brat here. Believe me, this is the right boy."
"Good." The second man grabbed my bound arms and, keeping the knife to my throat, led me toward the window – which had the shutters shattered on their hinges. "Then let’s get out of here before we’re discovered." He hauled me off my feet and over his shoulder like a sack of flour.
Oh gods… I held as still as I could, afraid that if I moved, they’d slit my throat. I wasn’t ready to die, not like that. There’s got to be a way out of this… gods… If there was, I couldn’t see it. Shigeru, help me!
"Satoshi…" I stared after him as he stormed away from me, just as utterly beautiful in absolute fury. There was a distinct ache in the vicinity of my chest. A mistake…? And it meant nothing? But… How could it mean nothing to him? It had meant the whole world to me. I shut my eyes and remember how it had felt, holding Satoshi’s soft, warm body… he’d almost melted against my touch, leaning into those simple caresses eagerly. And when we kissed, how he plundered my mouth just as enthusiastically as I had his… I couldn’t have been imagining things! He had to feel something for me!
That thought held firmly in my mind, I marched off in pursuit of Satoshi. I knew he’d head to his own room – and, if I was lucky, he’d forget to lock the door again. If I could just talk to him…
Oh, right. I made a face, opening the door to my quarters and moving inside immediately. Talking has been real effective so far, hasn’t it? In what way haven’t you found to insult him with that big mouth of yours? The thought made me wince.
"Satoshi?" I moved across the chambers and knocked on the door to his room. He didn’t answer me – probably still sulking. I wasn’t entirely certain that he actually had the right to be mad at me this time. Granted, it could be seen as offensive, but I hadn’t meant it to be. I had only wanted my grandfather to know that if I couldn’t marry Satoshi, I wouldn’t marry anyone. That didn’t mean I assumed he’d actually agree to marry me.
"I didn’t mean that the way it sounded, Satoshi," I pleaded, through the door. "I only meant to say that I wished to marry you, not that you would want to marry me. Can’t you just let it pass?"
"Oh, come on!" I scowled. "I said I was sorry! It wasn’t intended to be an insult! Can you please just forgive me? I didn’t mean it!"
"Oh, for…" I reached for the door handle. "Satoshi, I’m coming in now! If you’re getting changed or naked or whatever, you’d better say something."
Still nothing. I was starting to get worried. "Satoshi," I began, flinging open the door, "I…"
I was talking to dead air. The room was empty.
"Oh crap…" I hurried over to the window, which had been completely destroyed. The shutters had collapsed inward – this was someone breaking in, not out.
Fear for Satoshi caught me quickly, and I ran from the room. Near my bed was a small chest with the weapons I used to train on a regular basis – my sword, dagger, and a bow with a quiver of arrows. I snatched the last two. If I were quick enough and silent enough, I wouldn’t need to involve myself in close combat. And whoever had done this couldn’t be far by now.
I slung the quiver over my shoulder and went back into Satoshi’s room, climbing out his window. The grounds around the fortress were sizable and there were guards at every gate. It was likely that these criminals were still about somewhere. And they wouldn’t be expecting me to follow them. The advantage was mine.
If you’ve hurt Satoshi in any way, I thought silently, feeling my fingers clench around the bow, I will see that it takes you days to meet your exceedingly painful end!
I knew the grounds well, and I had a very good idea of just where every hiding place was. There were only so many ways that these bandits could escape. A tunnel was one, but it didn’t seem likely given the fact that our fortress sat at the center of the city and anyone passing by would be able to see them digging it. They may have slipped past the guards through diversionary tactics – but that would take time, and with me on their tail, they didn’t have much of it. I made a beeline for any places of concealment around the gates that led to the outside world.
"How much are we getting?" The voice was quiet, but I heard it all the same. Found you, I thought in relief, carefully pushing aside the foliage. Beyond it was a small grove where two average-sized men crouched, watching the guards around our west gate.
My heart started to pound almost painfully as I realized that one of them had Satoshi slung over his shoulder. He was bound securely and gagged, and the look on his face was a mix of terror and desperation. My Sato-chan…
"Beats me." The man not holding Satoshi shrugged. "His Lordship said we’d be well rewarded for bringing the boy back alive. Though I can’t think why he wouldn’t just want him dead and dealt with."
"Who are we to argue with the Lord of Tokiwa." Both men sniggered. "Maybe he just wants to finish the job himself. Killed the father… why not the son as well?"
I’d heard enough. All I’d wanted to find out was who had hired them. The Lord of Tokiwa? Interesting… Grandfather and Nanami will want to know about this, for certain. And just what had they meant by that last bit…?
Well, it wasn’t for me to judge, I reasoned.
Drawing an arrow from the quiver, I glanced back into the clearing. It took little to no effort to draw the bow and find my target. At this close range, my aim would be near perfect. My victims would not even know what was coming for them before they were deprived of the opportunity to muse on it.
I released the bowstring and, without seeing whether it had hit its mark or not, drew another arrow, aimed, and shot. The process took less than ten seconds, and when I turned to survey my targets, they had both slumped to the ground, my arrows embeded in their skulls. No time even to cry out in surprise.
Abandoning my hiding place, I hurried over to my now wide-eyed Satoshi. He was shaking all over, I realized, as I bent to untie him. I removed the gag.
"Th-thanks." The word was barely a whisper. He looked embarrassed to have made such a scared, shaken little sound. I nearly shook my head at him; sure, pride was important, but still…
"And that, my dear Satoshi," I said instead, with a smirk, "is how you really use a bow and arrows." I set to work untying his bonds.
"Are you feeling OK?" Shigeru hovered over me anxiously. He’d already gotten me wrapped in a blanket, tucked into his bed, and holding a mug of hot soup. "Do you need another blanket? You’re not feeling shaky, are you?"
I resisted the urge to throw the soup in his face. "I’m fine," I told him, sighing. I wasn’t going to say something scornful like ‘how weak do you think I am?’ He had just saved my life, so I was going to be nice. "Thank you, Shigeru."
He sat down on the bed beside me. "I’m annoying you, aren’t I, Satoshi?"
I had to laugh at that. "Maybe just a little." A miracle. We were talking without fighting and we weren’t even in a closet.
"I’m sorry for accidentally insulting you," he said suddenly. "I hadn’t meant it the way you heard it. I only wanted it made clear that if you didn’t want me, I didn’t want to marry anyone else."
I looked away from him. This, I think, was far more disturbing than the insult had been. "Sorry for being so nasty about it," I mumbled, making my voice call this a grudging apology.
He laughed, but not mockingly. "You just hate to admitt to being wrong, don’t you?" he teased. I suppose I could’ve been angry – but I wasn’t.
"Me? I’m never wrong." I smiled sweetly. "And you’re never arrogant, right?"
"Ouch." He grinned, and the look in his eyes was complete and utter affection as he watched me. It was kind of nice… "Satoshi, about that kiss – I mean" – he seemed to fumble for the correct words – "It… wasn’t really a mistake, was it?"
A proper retort sprang to my lips, but I didn’t really want to let it loose. How long had it been since I’d been brought here in the first place? A week, perhaps? It had taken only that long for Shigeru to become a solid fixture in my life – he was part of it, whether I liked that idea or not. And he’d saved my life. I couldn’t continue being testy.
I sighed, giving up. "It was a spur-of-the-moment decision," I admitted. "But it was my decision. I already knew I wanted to kiss you before you asked. No mistakes."
He looked as if I’d offered him the moon on a silver platter. "Then you might…" The sentence was left hanging, but I heard the hope in his voice. It seemed as if Shigeru really did want to marry me.
"Don’t get your hopes up," I warned him flatly.
Shigeru actually smiled at that. "I won’t."
"One kiss doesn’t mean anything," I continued, frowning.
"I know." His smile didn’t falter.
"And you were really arrogant when I first got here." I gave him a hard stare.
"Don’t worry, Satoshi." He waved a hand. "I won’t get my hopes up, OK? Just lie back and relax for now, and we’ll talk about it later."
I sipped at my soup and leaned back with a sigh. "Well, just you be careful. I’m trying to spare your feelings, you know. Mmm, this is really good." I took another sip of the broth and smiled happily. "I should get kidnapped more often."
"Speaking of which…" Shigeru and I both jumped; when had his grandfather come into the room? "Sorry," he apologized. "But I want to talk with you about your little experience, Satoshi. Shigeru told me that the Lord of Tokiwa district ordered your capture."
I shrugged. "I guess so. That’s what they said, anyway."
He moved into the room. "What else did they say?"
"Um…" I tried to remember. "They said that I was the right person… because the portrait of a former Lordship looked just like…" I couldn’t help a scowl. " ‘His brat here’ is what they called me."
"They must know you personally," Shigeru quipped. I glared at him. Well, back to normal there.
Shigeru’s grandfather gave him a disapproving look. "Anything else?"
I shook my head, but Shigeru looked thoughtful. "I heard them saying something about the Tokiwa Lord. They figured he would want Satoshi killed, one way or another. But their thought was that he’d want to do it himself – ‘killed the father… why not the son as well’ was how they put it."
"Well, that’s stupid!" I snorted. "My father died of plague when I was just about a year old. Nobody killed him! Besides, I’ve lived in Masara since I was a baby. I’ve never even met this Lord of Tokiwa district. They must’ve mistaken me for someone else."
Shigeru’s grandfather looked throughtful. "You should get some rest," he said to me, without acknowledging or arguing my statement. "Whether or not you are the right person, I suspect there will be others who will try to kidnap you. It would be best if you slept in Shigeru’s room as well."
"So where’s he going to sleep?" I asked, without thinking about it.
Shigeru’s face reddened. "Er… I’ll lay out a mattrice on the floor," he explained.
"Oh." I yawned. "Well, OK. Good night."
"Sweet dreams, Satoshi," Shigeru said softly, and I smiled, leaning back. I had a feeling they would be. Sweet dreams, that is.