Continuing Tales

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 13 of 16

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The trilling flutes from the grand celebration in her dream suddenly became birdsong when Kaoru woke up that morning. Golden light pressed against her eyelids, turning her vision red. Blindly questing fingers finally found the covers and pulled them over her head, blocking out the morning light.

Scrunching her face back into her pillow, Kaoru tried to return to her dream world. While the exact details of her identity in the dream had slipped through her fingers like a handful of beads, she remembered enough of the beauty and excitement to want to desperately continue the story.

The few gems of memory she retained from her dream evolved around a gathering held in a large wooden hall bedecked in gauzy silks of jeweled tones – the sapphire, emerald, and pearl fabrics draping over the dark patina of the walls. Obscuring the corners and edges with their flow, they undulated in the soothing breeze blowing gently through the open doors and windows. Drifting hazily on the brink of returning to sleep, Kaoru remembered that being in that room had made her think of the legends about people going deep beneath the ocean to the palace of the sea goddess where the water dragons dwelled.

All of the events from before she came to be in that fabric-draped room had been forgotten, so Kaoru couldn't remember why Hanaike-san, the friendly flower seller she liked to chat with in the market, was sitting in the back of the room on a huge wooden ship scattering rice and flower petals down onto the people gathering below. If Ishida-san could see her now, he'd be forced to retract his statement about weak females. Kaoru could see grains of rice almost all of the way up to the front door, a testament to the strength of the woman's throws.

On a tiered dais in the center of the room Kaoru's dream-self knelt upon a velvet and silk cushion. More cushions rested around the circumference of the dais, ready to cradle her reclining body or the body of an invited guest. Two lower tiers also held cushions, but many of those were already occupied. Who she was and why she was there had been explained earlier in the dream, but the details dissipated like smoke when she tried to hold onto them.

Five men in an alcove to her left caressed their instruments with talented fingers, filling the hall with gentle melodies, hauntingly beautiful. The most gifted musicians in the kingdom, they had been instructed to play cheerful tunes later on in the day once everyone had arrived. However, for now their gentle songs helped to sooth her impatience. Nothing could completely quash her anticipation, but at least she wasn't fidgeting.

While she waited, two women and a man holding several bejewel casks approached her and silently requested permission to ascend. Tilting her head, she granted them access to her person. She knew what they wanted, or at least her dream self did.

Opening the casks, the trio unearthed a vast assortment of jewels and ornaments. It was all she could do not to coo at their beauty. Gentle hands began adorning her body with rings, bracelets, necklaces, and combs. All of the ornaments were golden in tone, either brightly polished wood or shiny metal, and flecked with garnets, amethysts, and pearls both ivory and black. After inserting the last cherry wood comb into her elaborately styled hair, the trio packed up their jewelry casks, bowed, and retreated out of the room. To her dream self the selection had seemed random, but in reminiscing Kaoru saw how each piece of jewelry was chosen to honor one man in particular.

As if the departure of her servants had been a signal, the room rapidly filled with a rainbow of gentlemen and ladies wearing intricately layered kimono in the most sophisticated of styles. The fluid movement of the iridescent lords and ladies through the crowd seemed like a complex dance. Different entourages would interlace momentarily, greet one another, and then instantly separate like two opposing schools of fish scenting food in opposite directions.

Near the back of the room she spotted Sano conversing with her mother. Even though Kaoru's mother had died many years ago, every detail was crystal clear – from her favorite sea-green kimono down to the small brown mole beneath her left ear. During their conversation, Sano kept holding out his hand to catch the rice Hanaike-san was throwing from her perch on the wooden ship. After catching a few grains, he would offer some to her mother before popping the rest into his mouth and chewing enthusiastically. Sano really needed to learn how to breathe through his nose.

After they'd finished chewing and swallowing, she saw her mother smile lovingly and point in her direction. Kaoru could make out the words 'daughter,' 'beautiful,' and 'mare,' though why her mother would be talking about horses with Sano escaped her. As more people filled the room she lost sight of them. Sound in the room surged and ebbed with the movements of the crowd and served as a counterpoint to the now frolicking music.

Although she looked tranquil and composed on her cushion, inside she wanted to leap up and twirl around the room searching for the object of her anticipation. Looking over at the man kneeling directly below her platform, she noticed that he was dressed in an under-kimono of darkest blue covered by a kimono of pale yellow and dark gold. Two kodachi rested unsheathed on a white silk cushion by his side, glinting menacingly in the light of the sun shining through the high windows as a warning to any who might think to do her harm. His hair was tied back in a complex knot that served to emphasize his patrician features.

Catching his eye, she subtly tilted her head and flicked her fingers. At her actions a faint twinkle sparkled in his eyes and caused the corners to crease infinitesimally. To everyone else in the room his face likely remained an expressionless mask, but to Kaoru it felt like she'd received an affectionate and conspiratorial grin. Standing up, he clapped his hands twice, bringing instant silence to the room.

Kaoru was so lost in her recollection of the dream that it almost physically jarred her body when she realized that the bodyguard in her dream was Aoshi. She was so used to seeing Aoshi with long bangs that she hadn't realized how sculpted his cheekbones were. Eyes still closed against her pillow, she felt a smile forming on her lips. Making a mental note to mention in her next letter to Misao the possible benefits of hair ties as gifts to broody spymasters, Kaoru turned over and returned to the delightful memory of her dream.

All Kaoru could hear from her position on the dais was the flapping of the fabric along the walls and the soft shuffling of feet. A space formed in front of the dais where Kaoru sat, and one by one clan representatives came to the base and placed their offerings. She addressed them all by name and delivered a few personal words at each gift. Proud of her memory and seeming-serenity, she only hoped that no one could see the impatient tapping of her fingers hidden beneath the sleeve of her elaborate kimono.

Finally the moment she had been waiting for arrived. The second-to-last gift was given and a current of whispers rushed through the room. Kaoru sat up straighter. A young boy holding a scarlet umbrella at a slant trotted into the empty space in front of her platform. It obscured his face and the face of two men following close behind him. Unlike the boy their movements seemed relaxed and fluid, although no less swift.

Suddenly the youth stopped and tipped his umbrella up, revealing Yahiko's familiar face. "You can open it now, if you want. You don't have to wait until later," he declared. Closing the scarlet umbrella with brisk efficiency, he started walking around her tiered dais to the back of the room. As she twisted around to follow his progress, he paused one last time to speak over his shoulder, "If you want." Then he took a running jump onto the deck of the wooden ship in the back of the room and settled down next to Hanaike-san and her pots of flower petals and rice.

Turning back to the front of the room in bewilderment, Kaoru saw for the first time the two men that had been hidden behind Yahiko's umbrella. The first was a formidable giant of a man. His massive shoulders and chest were covered by his layered kimono of white and vermillion. Going down onto his knees, the immense strength he restrained was apparent in every glide and shift of his muscles. Like with Aoshi, it took her waking mind to distinguish his identity. Distantly she recognized him as Hiko Seijurō, the man who'd taught Kenshin the Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū.

Flaring his long black hair back behind his shoulders with an arrogant toss of his head, he gave a short but respectful obeisance. In his hair Kaoru could see a few purple petals trapped in the raven strands. He must have walked below Hanaike-san sometime during the party. Straightening up from his bow, he began to speak in a deep, rolling voice, "To symbolize the union of our two honorable clans and demonstrate our loyalty to your clan's leadership, we are giving you our most valuable asset: our clan's best warrior."

Sound in the room momentarily surged as the crowd exclaimed over his words. A smirk formed on his sculpted lips as he continued, "To clarify, I should have said our most skilled warrior outside of the Daimyō himself. As much as you would have enjoyed having me by your side, it was regretfully decided that I could not be released from the responsibilities of the clan. Nevertheless," he paused to flick his hair back over his shoulder again, "the warrior we have chosen will not disappoint you."

Nonplussed, Kaoru was at a bit of a loss as to how she should reply to his arrogance. Or to the many feminine sighs of relief. Luckily, her father chose that moment to step forward and rescue her. He stood straight and tall in his formal golden robes, hand-painted with bamboo shoots and flying cranes. The streaks of silver threading his black hair added to his distinguished aura of authority.

"We are flattered by your clan's careful consideration. Truly the gifting of such a skilled warrior shows our clan great honor and loyalty," her father intoned.

Kaoru tried to listen closely as her father continued his speech, tried to note his words and the dear cadences of his voice for consideration later, but her hearing kept going in and out as she fought the compulsion to stare at the second figure kneeling behind the Daimyō.

Compared to Lord Seijurō this man was slight. However, in his masculine bearing Kaoru detected the same feeling of restrained power. He was also dressed in layered kimono of white and red, but across the white sleeves of his outermost kimono the vermillion diffused across the garment until the dark red became a soft mist of rose. The kimono disappeared into the formal black hakama covering the lower half of his body. A strand of his unique red-gold hair reflected the sunlight and glistened like fire where it curled over his shoulder like a beloved pet.

The picture he made seemed almost too beautiful to be real, and Kaoru found herself thinking that she had never seen anything more lovely. Even though he knelt many body-lengths away, Kaoru had to curl her hands into fists to keep from trying to reach out and touch the man to prove she wasn't imagining him.

Muscles beneath the pale fabric of his kimono rippled as his head and shoulders shifted slightly. She thought he might be staring at her, equally enraptured, but couldn't be entirely sure because his face was concealed. A golden veil bordered by tiny bells covered his head from crown to collar. Insanely curious, she tried not to chew on her lower lip as she pondered just what he might look like. For some reason, she felt an inexplicable magnetic pull towards this young warrior. Discomposed, she missed the end of Lord Seijurō's speech completely.

However, his opening words and the signs all pointed to one explanation. Truly, this clan had proved that they honored her above all others. They were a proud and formidable people renowned across the country for their lethal prowess. The gift of a great warrior would have been valuable enough, but by giving this man to her veiled, they declared him blind – blind to any previous promises or ties. When that veil came off, he would pledge his honor, loyalty, and life to the lord in front of him or, in this case, to the lady.

He would belong to her – body and soul. What she commanded, he would do without question. If she so ordered, he would destroy the very clan that had relinquished him. By giving her their greatest warrior save their ruling lord, this clan put themselves at risk. They also unquestioningly pledged their trust and unswerving loyalty. Anything within this man's power was hers for the asking: from guarding her room to washing her hundreds of clothes or even cooking her meals. Or warming her bed.

Of course, she could guess what it was that the Daimyō hoped to gain by this lavish offering. He wanted her to take the warrior to her bed. But not for a lover's tryst, oh no, he wanted a man of his clan's blood as her husband. It was a gamble, but promised great rewards. While this warrior could not be seen to show any favoritism, a child of their union would not be so restrained. Nothing would be suspicious about a child wanting to please his uncles and cousins.

Strangely, figuring out the hidden meaning in this gift didn't raise her usual indignation at manipulation. Instead, she felt intrigued. She wondered how this man with his dark red hair would look ensconced in her feminine chambers.

Clearing her throat softly, Kaoru fought to keep a blush off of her cheeks at her wayward thoughts. Seeing her father's expectant stare, she realized that the court was still waiting for her reply. Opening her mouth, she somehow managed to gracefully accept the compelling warrior into her service. Whether she'd accepted him as servant, bodyguard, or husband, however, was still undecided.

While she debated in her mind, the party resumed. Servants circulated with chilled wine and fruit juices as the musicians began to play once again. The need to see his face was an ache in her chest, a need that should only be a want for someone of her position. Even realizing the possible political ramifications, she feared she wouldn't be able to resist.

Feeling something hit the back of her neck, she turned around with a frown. Yahiko stood leaning over the railing of the ship in the back of the room. Cocking his arm back he flung another handful of rice, pelting her again, this time on the cheek and neck.

"Hey!" she exclaimed in annoyance, wishing she had something besides cushions to fling back at him. Remembering her fan, she felt her eyes light up in glee, but right after she pulled it from her obi he shouted something at her. Over the noise of the crowd, she couldn't make it out. She saw him roll his eyes and let out a very put-upon sigh upon seeing her incomprehension.

The second time Yahiko yelled, he did it very slowly, with exaggerated mouth movements. While she still couldn't hear him, this time she could read his lips. Curiously, it was the same thing he'd said earlier, "You can open it now, if you want." Still feeling just as confused as the first time he'd said that, she rolled her eyes back at him and then untwisted to face forward.

While she'd been distracted by the rain of rice, her red-headed warrior had ascended the dais. Startled, she snapped her fan open in an attempt to regain her composure. His movements were fluid and unthreatening as he settled on a cushion nearby, yet from the faint frown and white knuckled grip her dark-haired protector kept on his twin swords, she suspected that this man could burst into movement in the blink of an eye. Curiously, she noticed that the warrior had paused a moment before sitting down, deliberately, with his back to those naked swords. Was it arrogance, blind faith, or a bid to win her trust and prove his new loyalty by baring his back to her bodyguard's swords?

Closing her fan slowly, spoke by spoke, Kaoru looked out over the crowded room of lords and ladies circulating like rainbow-scaled fish amidst the waves of billowing silk. When she felt suitably composed, she turned to the graceful man sitting across from her. She still didn't even know his name, although it could have been mentioned during her preoccupation. Still, there was no time like the present. Besides, Yahiko had said she could open it now. Hiding a smile, Kaoru was determined to sate as much of her curiosity as she could in such a public forum.

"May I know the name and face of the man I've taken as my own?" she asked. Her question had come out worded more personally than she had intended, but it was too late to change it now.

He let the tinkling of the small, beaten-gold bells lining his veil answer for him as he inclined his head. Kaoru wondered if it was the noise of the crowd or his own grace that had kept her from hearing their music before now. Through the translucent golden fabric she could faintly see the glint of an eye and the shadow of his lips. Calloused fingers bearing the pattern of someone well versed in the use of a blade lightly grasped the edge of the veil and slowly began to lift. His neck appeared first, a smooth span of sun-kissed skin. Clutching her fan in a white-knuckled grip, she attempted to keep her face poised.

The progress of his fingers suddenly halted as he spoke for the first time, "Perhaps we should wait for our drinks." His voice sounded smooth and warm, the kind of voice she'd imagined whispering into her ear on cold nights.

"They're already here," she replied, gesturing with her fan to the three cups suddenly sitting between them along with the small carafe of sake. She didn't stop to wonder where they had come from.

"You need to take your veil off if you are going to drink," she said as she slipped her fan back into her obi and then poured sake into each of the three cups, from smallest to largest. "Don't forget to take a sip from each," she reminded him, though as with the cups the words simply spouted from her lips without her stopping to wonder where they had come from.

The bells softly chimed as he grasped the veil once again and began to lift. "Now we will be together forever, my wife." As the flautist's melody soared above the crowd, the veil passed his chin and revealed a hint of red as a sultry lower lip finally came into view.

Vaguely she realized that the san-san-kudo, or drinking from the three sake cups three times, meant that they were about to be married. Or had they already drank? His words implied that they had. Too caught up in the mystery of his face, she decided to think about it later. Holding her breath in anticipation… Kaoru had woken up to birdsong.

Now she lay underneath her blanket, trying to recapture that magical moment. But in the time it took to recall her dream, it had become uncomfortably hot beneath the blanket. Her legs felt sweaty and it was hard to breath. Instead of continuing on from that moment in her dreams, her mind kept returning to her body's discomfort. No matter how she wiggled and willed her mind to sleep, she couldn't get her dream man to lift the veil past his lips. Exasperated, she finally gave up and flung the covers off.

Even though she hadn't gotten to see the face of the man she was marrying, or had married, or whatever had happened there right before she woke up, she knew that it was Kenshin. She had dreamed of marrying Kenshin before, and this was just one more permutation on the theme. Still, it had been nice to have her dead parents there, and exciting, what with the mystery of his identity. Even though she knew now who he was, she hadn't known then. It would have been fun to have her dream self make that wonderful discovery. Plus, she never had figured out why Hanaike-san was throwing rice off of a big boat in the back of the room, though Sano's story from the night before probably had something to do with it.

Oh well, at least the cooler morning air caressing her body felt wonderful. In fact, after a great dream like that the only thing less than stellar was the loud birdsong right next to her head.

Opening her eyes, she stretched out her arm and, grunting slightly, cracked open the nearest shoji. As it opened, Kaoru saw the singing brown sparrow that had woken her from her dreams flutter his wings and puff out the fluffy feathers on his chest. "Cuteness only buys you so much this early in the morning," she scowled. What was it with annoying sparrows lately? First yesterday and now this morning.

Wait, yesterday… Kenshin!

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 13 of 16

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