The Princess and the Thief Pt.1: Travelling Princess

Chosen | By: | Genre: Fantasy, Drama | Rating: M | Series: Evangelion | Status: Complete | Tags: Crossover, Alternate Reality | Summary:

An elsewhere story. Evangelion fantasy style!

From her window Hikari tracked the progress of the crowd that had gathered to see the Chosen of Lilith off. Distance and the crowds prevented her from actually seeing her friends, but by following the cheers and the movements of the multitudes she could guess where they were.

Hikari sighed. Truth be told, she envied the Chosen; their purpose, their vision. They had the power to affect the course of events and the path of their lives. They weren't helpless before what the looming dark times ahead offered. So unlike her. Her position as crown princess prevented her from having the freedom to do such things. True, Asuka shared such a position, but Hikari was somewhat in awe of how the Fire Chosen could be so open, free, indomitable. Asuka seemed to want great things for her kingdom, but even greater things for herself. Hikari couldn't say she had the same freedom. Her parents had taught her well the duties, obligations, and commitments her position entailed. But, they had also imparted to her a love for the people and a strong desire to see them prosper. She loved Japan.

It was that upbringing that was now stifling her, making her suffer miserably. Nothing could hurt the princess so much or make her feel so trapped as the memory of Kensuke's harsh words.

'Forgive me for saying so, but your words are naive, your Grace. Since you were born of royal blood, you were fortunate enough to be granted a status equal to the most important of Church dignitaries. Most of the rest of us are not so fortunate... often far from it. You know nothing of your people's struggles.'

Preposterous! Her parents were kind and responsible rulers. They would never allow their people to be so cruelly mistreated.

However... coming of age in court had burned away Hikari's naiveteacute; long ago. She knew there were other groups jockeying for power in the kingdom, the Church being one. But, she had also heard whispers about a mysterious society of shadows. She had not been able to divine its name, but had heard enough to recognize that it wasn't just some urban legend.

Assuming Kensuke was right... was there something she could do about it?

Perhaps he was right. Hikari's duties had kept her within Tokyo's walls, safe from the troubled times. But it has also isolated her from her kingdom and her people. Surely her whole life was not to be spent crouched behind Tokyo's protective walls?

Thinking about that brought an image of Asuka to her mind once again. Her fellow princess was bold and adventurous, one who had done great things for her kingdom. While not exactly jealous of Asuka's lifestyle -- Hikari had no desire to end up with sword blisters on her hands -- there was something about the freedom the other enjoyed as she strove to save her lands from a dark future.

Even if she was not a warrior, Hikari wanted to do things as well, wanted to make a difference in these tumultuous times. As she looked out across the rich city and the lands there, an idea that she had long toyed with came back to mind. Considering the times it seemed foolish, but in a way, it was also bold...

"Kodama?"

The lady-in-waiting in question entered the room, answering the princess' summons. Only two years older than Hikari, the standard maidservant uniform she wore could not erase the striking similarity she bore to the princess. Daughter of a minor lord, Kodama had a distant blood tie to the royal family which accounted for the fact the two could pass for sisters. More than a few courtiers had mistaken one girl for the other over the past two years.

Hikari intended to take advantage of that fact.

"May I be of service, your Grace?"

"Actually, Kodama, I have a favor to ask of you..."

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CHOSEN

An Evangelion inspired fantasy elsewhere story
Based on characters created by and copyright GAINAX

Co-written and Directed by Alain Gravel and Darren Demaine

Proof-readers and Gaffers: Jeremy Mullin Alex Churchill
Muse and Costume Designer: Myssa Elaine Santos Rei

CHAPTER 13 - The Princess and the Thief
Part 1: Traveling Princess

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Hikari stood before her parents, every diplomatic skill they had taught her over the years armoring her against the nervousness she felt. Everything would depend on their reaction. If she couldn't sway them, even a little, then it would be over. The last thing the kingdom needed was the royal knights to be on alert because her father feared she would skedaddle, and she won't put her parents through that.

Still, judging by the way her father was massaging his temples, it didn't seem to be going well.

"Hikari dear... let me see if I understand this correctly. You are asking to travel around the country? While we are on the verge of a war?

"Yes, Father."

Her father would object. Of course he would. He was always a calm thinker, a planner who considered all options carefully. Her plan was foolish and risky. It seemed like an adolescent's fancy. But before he could speak further, her mother spoke.

"Why Hikari? Why do you want to travel now? It's dangerous."

"It is because it is dangerous that I must travel," she answered. True, she did have other motives, but she was speaking the truth to her parents. "The people must be frightened. I realize they have the Church to turn to," she said, cutting her father off as he opened his mouth to say something. "And the clergy shall help to alleviate their distress, but... I believe the people need to actually see that the kingdom will stand strong for them. That they can trust in us. Even if the forces of Adam are arrayed against them, they can know that they will not be standing alone. The times are delicate, and neither of you can leave the castle. But I, on the other hand..."

The King and Queen were silent for a moment, exchanging a meaningful glance. Her father was worried, she could tell by how tightly he gripped the royal scepter. Her mother however was smiling at her fondly. Tightly, to be true, but it was a smile.

"Hikari, I understand your point, and it does indeed have merit, but-"

"Let her go," Yui said quietly.

"B-B-But Yui...!"

"Our daughter is an adult now. Therefore, she is entitled to make her own choices. In truth, I am as worried as you at the thought of her traveling the roads at such a time. But as you said, her point is a good one. And more importantly... I think this is something she needs to do. Isn't it, Hikari?"

The princess nodded.

"Yes Mother."

Kozo looked at the two women in his life. He sighed. "Then you have our blessings. We will arrange an escort for you."

Hikari smiled brightly, then bowed to her parents.

"Thank you, Mother, Father."

- - -

"...And this will be your guard commander," Misato continued as she led the princess before a row of soldiers. "Princess, meet Lieutenant Kenoshiro." The man indicated promptly snapped a salute. A color like a dusky tan darkened the man's flesh, while short but sharp ears poked out from beneath his pale blond hair. Despite all her breeding Hikari couldn't help her eyes widening a bit.

"A dark elf..." she breathed.

While he kept a professional air about him, Hikari could see the young man stiffen at her reaction and immediately felt a rush of shame.

"Actually," Misato began, sounding as if she'd had to do this before. "Ken is only a quarter dark elf. He..."

"Yes, of course Dame Mistao. I have heard you speak of him before." Surprising both officers, Hikari inclined her head to the young man. "Please accept my apologies for my rude behavior. It was inexcusable."

"Your Highness! You don't have to apologize!"

"I disagree, Lieutenant Kenoshiro," Hikari said. "My position offers no excuse for unacceptable behavior."

Misato chuckled. "Ken, she's as stubborn as her mother, so why don't you just accept her apology so she doesn't make you stand at attention till you accept anyway."

The young soldier relaxed and offered the princess a warm, caring smile which made her blush. Come to think about it, now that the shock was over, he was ravishingly good looking...

"I graciously accept your apology, your Highness. I assure you, you've been far more restrained than others, and there is no harm done."

Hikari nodded, satisfied.

"Good!" Misato said. "Now on to business-"

"Dame Misato!"

The three turned to see an out of breath Makoto jogging up to them. The White Knight frowned at her subordinate.

"What is it, Makoto?"

"Pardon me, your Highness," he acknowledged the princess. Turning to his commanding officer he continued, "It's the merchant guild again. They are-"

Misato stopped him up an upraised hand and an annoyed expression. Turning to the princess and the lieutenant, she sketched a bow. "Got a little something to take care of," she told her two previous companions. "I'll be back after I knock some sense into those lazy, fat merchants. Why won't you two get acquainted while I see to these duties?"

A silence fell between the two newly acquainted traveling companions. Hikari scrutinized the lieutenant for a long moment, something that caused the young officer an increasing level of discomfort. He'd heard the other soldiers describe her as a nice girl, but possessing a glare like a cavalry charge. She wasn't glaring at him... yet... but he could see where she got that reputation from.

"Lieutenant. There is something we need to discuss regarding this mission..."

- - -

For long moments Hikari stared at herself in the mirror, amazed; it was almost as if a stranger was staring back out at her. Gone were the elegant dresses she usually wore, replaced instead by a uniform that closely mirrored that of the royal guards. While the red and white patterns of the colors were similar, the familiar half maple leaf worn by her father and the soldiers was missing. Not needing to hold the weight of a sword the belt clasped around her slender waist was slimmer, more feminine.

Of course, her position allowed her a closet full of dresses so a simple change of clothes alone wasn't that shocking. What really gave her pause was the difference in her hair. Instead of the twin pigtailed style she had favored for years, her hair had been pulled into a single tail that was now clasped up to her head by a broach. She had left off all ornamentation save that simple broach, and had even lightly powered her face to hide those incriminating freckles her father loved so much. To herself, she really didn't seem to be Hikari, Crown Princess of Japan, but someone else.

Hikari turned to her lady-in-waiting, who had just finishing putting on one of the princess' favorite dresses. It had initially been a tight fit, with Kodama being a bit more developed in the chest area than Hikari could boast. Such knowledge -- which although unproven before, the princess had always privately been a little miffed about -- would have annoyed her, but instead Hikari felt guilty knowing how uncomfortable Kodama would be having her breasts bound somewhat.

The princess was pleasantly surprised with the results. It wasn't quite like looking into a mirror, but the resemblance was even stronger than she would have expected. For someone who hadn't seen the princess everyday, there was no way to distinguish this person from the one in the royal portraits. With a grin, Hikari curtsied to her companion.

"Your Highness! Please! Don't!" squeaked a half-panicked, half-embarrassed Kodama.

"Now, HIKARI," said Hikari, insisting on the name, "What did I tell you? From now on, you are the princess. So, as your lady-in-waiting and herald, it's only natural that I should bow to you."

"But..."

The older girl's protests were cut short by a polite knock on the door. Guessing who it was Hikari waited for a moment, then realized it was now HER role to get the door. Stepping forward she opened the portal herself. As expected she found Kenoshiro on the other side.

"Lieutenant," Hikari said with a curtsy. "Her Highness will see you now."

Hikari's act was met with a pained expression, but nevertheless the officer played the game and followed her into the room, kneeling before the one who would officially be his princess for the following weeks. The lieutenant had been strongly opposed to the whole idea of switching places. In fact, he had threatened to go to Dame Misato over the whole thing. Hikari had been forced to use a combination of subtle charm, rock hard determination, and rank pulling to get him to relent. Once the argument was over, Hikari had been pleased with how strongly Kenoshiro had resisted her plan. It meant that Misato had indeed made an excellent choice and picked an officer who had independent thought and stood by his convictions. If Kenoshiro was so concerned about her safety, then she knew she was in good hands.

"Your Highness," he said, then turned to Hikari. "I've received words that the King is heading this way. I suggest we depart immediately, if you don't wish to get caught."

Hikari nodded. She had expected her father to try one last time at convincing her to forget about leaving, and as such, had asked Kenoshiro to place him under subtle surveillance. Another most uncomfortable task she had asked of him.

"We're ready here," said Hikari. "Let's go."

The lieutenant nodded and led the way. Avoiding the more traveled passageways, the group soon reached the castle's entrance where a carriage and a company of eleven Royal Guards awaited them. Hikari noted that each and every one of them was tall in the saddle, their armor gleaming and their mounts fresh and clean. More importantly, she saw that none of them was so familiar as to recognize her.

When Kodama appeared the men dismounted and knelt before their supposed princess.

"Are we ready to depart?" Kenoshiro asked a large, thick man with a sergeant's insignia.

"Of course Sir!" replied the man, saluting his superior officer, before relaxing. "We're early, though," he commented.

"I know," acknowledged Kenoshiro. "But the princess has deemed it preferable to leave with as much daylight as possible."

The man nodded. "Understood, sir."

"Were you planning on leaving without saying goodbye?"

Hikari froze as she heard a very familiar voice from behind her. Seeing the men's shocked expression, then them falling to their knees once more confirmed the horror in the pits of her stomach. By her side, Kodama had turned an entirely unhealthy shade of white. Although kneeling, Kenoshiro was clearly fidgeting. Taking a deep breath Hikari turned, an action that her 'princess' mirrored as well, although she was trembling slightly.

"Your Majesty," Hikari managed to croak out of a throat suddenly gone dry. For some reason she felt a horrible burning in her eyes and realized she was about to burst into tears, something that would be very suspicious and no doubt raise more than a few eyebrows. Clenching her jaw, she forced a sudden wave of sadness away from her face.

To her surprise Hikari saw her mother cock an eyebrow at the two girls before her, then close her eyes for a moment and sigh. The Queen then looked straight into poor Kodama's terrorized eyes and smiled fondly.

"Take care of yourself, my daughter. Sadly, you seem to take after me far too much: headstrong and foolish. So while I will not try not to do so, know that I will worry about you until your safe return."

"Th-th-thank you... your- Mother. I-I will make you p-proud of me," Kodama managed to force out, relief that this little stunt wouldn't result in her head being cleaved from her shoulders nearly overwhelming the poor girl.

Smiling, the Queen reached out and gave the girl a small hug. For an instant a horrible sense of jealousy and loss filled Hikari at the sight, but again she forced herself to remain stoic. Releasing her 'daughter,' the Queen spared a glance at the girl's companion.

"I expect my daughter to soon be home safe," she fixed Hikari with a gaze that chilled Hikari's soul. "I'm sure you'll see to it, won't you... Kodama?"

"Y-yes your Majesty." The Queen kept her gaze for a moment, then relaxed into a warm smile.

Feeling chastised, and strangely homesick, Hikari turned to Kenoshiro. "The princess would like to be on her way now," she said, an order that the lieutenant, with some reluctance, acknowledged.

Soon after, the small convoy left the castle, leaving behind a proud Queen, and a very worried mother.

- - -

Merchant guild leader Keel stared with disbelief at the letter he had read over no less than three times. Had any of his normal sources provided such a report he would have tossed it aside, convinced it nothing more than planted information. But the person who provided this particular report was the best spy he had. The fact that High Mage Gendo hadn't ended the person's life long ago was proof of that. It also corroborated other reports from less accurate sources about a military convoy detached for an independent assignment. So the words before him must be true.

Princess Hikari had left the castle.

The parchment in his hand was crushed as the old man allowed himself a baring of teeth in a grim smile. Finally! An opportunity had presented itself to him on a silver platter.

For far too long now, the current monarch had been a thorn in Keel's side. The old man had some quaint notions of honor and ways of running a kingdom. He did not abuse his own power, but instead reigned with regards for the benefit of the foolish masses. Kozo was a fair and just ruler, and while he might not be loved, he had certainly earned the respect and gratitude of his subjects.

Honestly, Keel didn't care what the legion of fools occupying the kingdom felt, nor how the King governed his lands. A king was a bastion of law and civilization, upholding the proper functions of a nation. Without that sort of order everything would fall into anarchy, and there was no profit to be made that way. Keel depended on a functioning kingdom.

But the problem was that Kozo was doing his job too well. Keel depended on laws in order to make his money as a merchant, but as the leader of the Seele Syndicate he also depended on people who knew when and where to break those same laws. Laws offered refinement to the use of naked power, and knowing when to ignore laws and exercise that power was instrumental to Keel's criminal empire.

The previous king had understood that selfishness and corruption was the natural order of things. The Syndicate had existed and exercised its authority, a certain level of ruthlessness ensuring the proper flow of profit and power to those best suited to employ it. Kozo however had not been playing along, and had been infecting others with the concept that those with power should exercise restraint. Might as well be in shackles as far as Keel was concerned.

Seventeen years ago, with the death of Kozo's first wife, Keel had nearly been rid of the annoying King. Not born of the Nagisa line, Kozo had come to the throne through the ascension of his wife. Her untimely death had allowed Keel to engineer a coup d'etat that had almost succeeded. Shazal had been the main pretender to the throne, sharing a blood tie to the old royal family, but more importantly having several vices that made him agreeable to certain... arrangements.

Civil war had torn through the kingdom for months. Things had reached a bloody stalemate until the unexpected announcement of Kozo's betrothal to Lady Yui, who also possessed a distant royal blood tie. At the news, most of Shazal's supporters leapt at the chance to honorably end the conflict and the coup crumbled. Keel had made attempts to kill the future Queen, but Kozo had been a prudent man and the woman had been hidden away by none other than White Knight Gendo. The two were married and the Queen was soon with child, a now legitimate heir on the way.

And now, sixteen years later that heir was enjoying a ride around the kingdom. Truly a chance for those bold enough to seize the opportunity.

Retrieving a lead-lined box and opening it, Keel stared at the dark vial kept within. For the last few years, he had been toying with attempts to get the princess wed to the right sort of man. Now that she was a mature woman Hikari would have to marry soon, and Keel had strived to promote a series of suitable -- and pliable -- candidates. However, the girl had proved to be as righteous and as stubborn as her parents.

But... if the princess were to suffer an unfortunate accident on the road... and if the Queen were to soon follow her beloved daughter out of heartache... No doubt Kozo's spirit would be crushed leaving behind an old, broken man. With the threat the Kagenoshi and dark elves were presenting, it should be easy to have Shazal's nephew step up take the crown in order to save the kingdom. The young man showed such great promise, and shared many of his uncle's more convenient faults.

Keel smiled wickedly. Kozo would suffer, and Keel would enjoy every moment of it.

- - -

The convoy halted for the first time while the sun was still somewhat high in the afternoon sky, settling in to a clearing by the main road leading to Urawa, the princess' first scheduled stop. With embarrassed relief Hikari gratefully pulled herself out of her saddle. Sure, she knew how to ride, but the short stretches in the saddle she was familiar with hadn't hardened her body for being on a horse for hours on end.

Of course, this was just part of the first day. How would her backside survive the day... no weeks to come? Glancing at the carriage Kodama was riding in, Hikari felt a pang of jealousy over the comfort she knew existed within, but clenched her hands in determination. She would just have to deal with the discomfort until she got used to it. After all, normal people traveled by horse or foot, not carriage.

"Milady."

Hikari nearly jumped out of her skin as she suddenly noticed Kenoshiro standing right in front of her. Realizing that she had been caught rubbing her sore bottom while lost in thought, her face reddened.

"Yes, Kenoshiro?"

"The men are preparing a quick meal; tea and travel rations. We'll only be stopping for about thirty minutes, so you might want to inform the princess of that fact, in case she has certain... needs to attend to."

The only thing that came to Hikari's mind was, "...Oh..." Now that he mentioned it...

"I'll tell her."

"Good," said the lieutenant. "We'll have something edible prepared for you two when you return."

Hikari nodded.

"Understood. And thank you, Kenoshiro."

The lieutenant sketched a short bow and turned to join his men.

Hikari headed to the carriage, waddling painfully. Inside, she found Kodama dozing peacefully on one of the plush benches. Hikari bit her lip. This had been her decision, what she had wanted. SHE was the one who had asked her herald to take on this role so she could see her kingdom.

"Kodama?" she called discretely as she shook the older girl awake.

The girl mumbled, then jerked awake, as if realizing she had fallen asleep when she shouldn't have.

"Your Highness! I'm sorry, I-"

"Shhhh!" Hissed Hikari, interrupting the faux-princess. "Don't call me that."

"Ah... yes... sorry..."

Hikari shook her head. Would she really be able to pull this off? Somehow, she really wasn't so sure anymore...

- - -

After serving Kodama her meal, and insisting the girl begin studying the notes Hikari had left her after she was finished, the princess in disguise joined the men around the small fire they had made. This earned her some suspicious glances, especially from Kenoshiro. Wordlessly, she served herself some bitter tea from a dented kettle and took some of the travel rations. Consisting of dried salted meat and a rather sturdy rice cracker, she contemplated it for a moment, then challenged it with her teeth. That simple gesture seemed to appease the men, who began to talk among themselves anew.

"Since you're with us, Lady Kodama," said Kenoshiro, "this may be a good time to introduce you to my second, Sousuke." Hikari turned her head to her right, to see that she was also sitting aside a familiar face, the bald older looking officer Kenoshiro had addressed when they were preparing to depart. Hikari nodded to the man in acknowledgement, as she still tried to chew on the piece of meat she had managed to tear away from the main piece she was still holding. "Sousuke will be your escort for this trip," continued on Kenoshiro.

"Escort?"

"As herald, it is your duty to announce the princess' arrival in each city and village we'll be visiting," explained Kenoshiro. "Sending a woman of your status alone would be preposterous, so I've assigned Sousuke to insure your protection."

Hikari nodded at that. Truth be told, she hadn't really thought about that aspect of her chosen duties. Hikari wasn't really happy with the idea of having a chaperon, but she couldn't deny that Kenoshiro had a point in assigning her a bodyguard. If he looked rough on the edge, that Sousuke person did seem to Hikari like a capable and serious man. And if Kenoshiro had chosen him, it was surely with reason. So she saw no reason to argue with Kenoshiro about that decision.

"More tea?" asked Kenoshiro, surprising Hikari. The princess considered her almost empty cup, and the remainder of her meal. She just might need it if she wanted to manage to chew all of it...

- - -

Hikari carefully watched as Kodama stood at the centre of the city's plaza. The girl was fulfilling her role as princess with a skill that making the real princess proud of her cousin. Kodama had managed to master her fears over the role imposed on her and stood tall and graceful in front of the massive crowd. Flanked by Kenoshiro and his men, the one time lady-in-waiting projected an aura of benevolent, confident authority that came through her speech. Although Hikari had written the words for her cousin, even she felt moved by the warmth and power that her cousin put into the oration.

Standing to the side of Kodama was Lord Grobal, a moustached man in his sixties. Lord of this fief, Urawa was the largest city under his authority. Although Urawa was small compared to Tokyo, it still had a high number of guilds present to take advantage of the proximity of the capital but not having to worry about passing through the gates of the Holy City.

Urawa was developed and looked prosperous, a result that seemed in part due to the competency of its ruler. Upon first meeting Grobal Hikari had been put off by a gruff exterior, but quickly had seen that underneath that was a kind -- if strict -- noble. So different from the ones that spent their time at court.

And to Hikari's relief, he had not suspected one second that she was actually the crown princess.

To Grobal's side was Lady Misa, the local chief priestess. In her early thirties, she was relatively young for such an important post and it was clear that she lacked experience. From Hikari's observation it appeared Misa was focusing on matters of faith and leaving politics to Grobal. That alone seemed to show the woman had great wisdom.

Hikari scanned the crowd as her stand-in began to speak of the reawakening of Lilith's Chosen and their task. Hikari could see that most listened in rapt fascination, perhaps finally hearing something to separate fact from rumor. The people here really didn't seem all that different than the people of Tokyo. They certainly didn't seem unhappy or oppressed.

Though, of course, Urawa WAS doing rather well...

Not for the first time since she left Tokyo, Hikari found herself wondering if all this had been a good idea in the first place. Maybe she had gotten herself worked up over Kensuke's words for nothing...

Still... something was nagging her about all this...

- - -

"...I am so pleased to see the triumphs you have achieved in your small corner of the kingdom."

Listening to Kodama interact with Lord Grobal and the other nobles, Hikari couldn't help but be proud of her friend. It seemed as if the older girl had learned a lot from listening to Hikari deal with other during the past two years, because the one time lady-in-waiting seemed to have picked up a lot of Hikari's mannerisms.

In a way, it was kind of disturbing.

She forced such ideas aside and waited patiently. Kodama was friendly and personable, although hard and circumspect when it came to the noble's actual requests. In fact it seemed as if her friend was really getting into the role, now that there was less chance of being beheaded in the next fifteen minutes.

"And I would like to take a memento of my time here. With your leave, my lord, I would like to send my lady-in-waiting out to get something to remind me of my time here."

"Of course, your Highness," the lord agreed. "I would suggest she try the east side of town, the marketplace there has some wonderful items."

"You are too kind, my lord. Kodama?" Hikari stepped forward and curtsied. "Have a look around, would you? Find something nice for the men as well."

"Yes, your Highness." Dismissed, Hikari curtsied again and left the room. This was perfect. Kodama was acting beyond Hikari's expectations for her friend, and this was the chance she had been seeking to get out and visit the people without the nobility around. A chance to truly see what things were like in the kingdom.

As she approached the manor gate, Sousuke and another soldier from her convoy rose up from where they had been lounging and fell into step behind her. While she would have liked to go alone, Hikari knew that Kenoshiro's position wouldn't change, even for a little stroll into town.

Still, once she was past the manor gates Hikari turned to go into the western side of town. Might as well start in the places the lord had not put on display.

- - -

When it came bars, the Crow's Nest certainly wasn't a hive of scum and villainy. It possessed a far better reputation than many other more colorful establishments that could be found crouched around the walls of Tokyo. While not exactly catering to upper-class clientele, at least the place saw an irregular cleaning by the staff. The girls who worked the taproom were discrete enough to keep their business low-key, thus the place attracted a wide range of people who worked hard for a decent living. A few solders and guards had adopted the Nest as their favorite watering hole, adding to the security and a sentiment of home-spun solace.

For a professional like him, this was a satisfactory place to conduct business. Too many petty criminals had been caught discussing future plans, only to be sold out to the guards by a fellow low-life desperate for some extra coin. Here, the better class of clientele had less reason to eavesdrop and less need to squeal to the authorities. Even the presence of the guards made the place safer, as its members were unlikely to run a stakeout in a place a few called home.

As he entered the bar, the assassin easily identified his contact by the large hat he wore, made ornate by a flamboyant griffin feather rampant from the brim. A simple disguise, since people tended to remember the hat -- easily tossed aside -- and forget the face. He didn't know the man's name, didn't care, and had no any intention of ever learning it. All he needed to know was that the man was one of the many shadowy messengers of Seele.

The messenger made no signal that he had noticed the assassin's entrance to the bar, seemingly lost in the contemplation of his glass of wine. In fact, he showed no recognition of him until the assassin sat down across from him.

"Ah, well met, Dante," the messenger aid, his piercing dark eyes finally staring straight at him, a cold, hard gaze.

The assassin made a small grunt at the use of his code name. Savagemaster Dante was how he identified himself to the Syndicate, and just one of the many identities he had taken over the course of his life. It was a stupid name, he privately acknowledged, but his gift set him apart from other in the business, and it did pay to advertise.

His gift had borne him excellent results, first as a bandit, now as a paid assassin. Other might specialize in poisons, wires, or fine daggers, but the assassin had the unique ability to dominate and control the lesser humanoids. For all the polite venire of the aristocracy, there was something about having your rival torn apart by the bestial fury of a pack of monsters that appealed to some of them.

"Well met, Kuro," the assassin replied, using a name as fake as his own. The two began to talk of places they'd never been together and friends neither had ever known. As their fake business conversation continued, the assassin ordered a fresh bottle of wine, making sure the seal was unbroken. He took only a few sips during their interaction, but eventually the messenger was satisfied with the environment and moved on to the real business.

"Here's the new business proposition, Dante."

The assassin took the scroll offered to him. He carefully examined the seal, noting that "Kuro" remained unaware of the details. Breaking the wax, he unrolled it and looked it over. It appeared to be a simple business deal, describing a trade route the goods would come in on and a time, as well as the fact the supplies brought in would be for Princess Hikari's next summer ball.

Carefully he read it over again. Location. Time. Target.

The assassin pocketed the scroll, which he would destroy as soon as possible. For a moment he was silent, considering what had been placed before him.

"This is a very risky venture. Our competitors will no doubt make it difficult for us to be profitable. I will need more investment upfront for this to be workable."

"I believe my backers will agree to make reasonable funds available for this," the man across from him stated in a bored sounding voice. His eyes were anything but. "Your usual retainer fees can be doubled for this."

"Tripled."

"...an acceptable expenditure of funds."

"Agreed," The assassin stated, nodding his acceptance.

Without another word he rose and left, leaving behind two silvers and a few coppers for the waitress. Stepping outside he looked around once, then sighed. What sort of times would soon come upon Japan? The assassin shook his head. He didn't know, nor did he care.

For he was a professional, and for a professional, only the job was important. No matter how disgusting, dangerous or foolish it was.

- - -

"What happened here?" Hikari asked as she looked around, shaken and surprised.

Two more days on the road and the small caravan had reached the village of Utsunomiya, a rural hamlet to the west of Urawa. After enjoying the hospitality of Governor Grobal, Hikari had been looking forward to experiencing life on the road. A night of hard rocks for a bed, the stars for a blanket and a sudden downpour signaling the midnight hour had dampened her enthusiasm.

But she had been determined to experience whatever conditions her men put up with, and darn it, she did. No matter how much she longed to join Kodama in the carriage.

Still, it didn't mean that the prospect of a comfortable village inn or a Church temple room wasn't appealing.

But now...

Hikari watched as men and women toiled in what looked like devastated fields. While still at the outer habitations, there were one or two shacks close by and Hikari could see people working to fix broken roofs and shutters.

"I heard a series of storms passed through this area," explained the guard she was riding with. "I guess this village was hit hard. Looking around I'd say that most of the crops were lost."

"Oh no..." breathed Hikari.

Further progress seemed to confirm the soldier's words. The fields did indeed look battered and sickly. Yet, the villagers seemed to be working with a certain frantic determination to save what they could or clear away what was lost to allow for new growth.

With the fields in such a state, Hikari wondered if there would be anyone who would have the opportunity to listen to Kodama...

- - -

Four days had passed since Hikari had left Tokyo Castle. Four long torturous days...

Queen Yui stood at her daughter's window looking at the city below, trying to understand her little girl through the sights she had seen from this vantage. What had made her suddenly decide that she needed to visit the kingdom? What possessed her to go through such travesty as passing herself off as her own lady-in-waiting? This, the Queen could not fathom. Yet she had sensed the importance of this enterprise in her daughter's request, and so, against her better judgement, she had let her go.

And regretted it every minute that went by. Her little girl was away, exposing herself to the many dangers the roads of Japan could pose to travelers. She knew of course, that the princess was well protected and the odds of her being in actual danger were practically nil. But still, in her heart she was a mother, and Yui couldn't help but fear for her safety.

And then, there was her son. The son she never had the chance to truly hold in her arms, denied the opportunity to watch grow up. Her brave son, who would soon reach the edges of the cursed Northern Wastes and the horrors that lurked there. Was this a punishment from the Goddess? To be forced to watch her children face dangers and terrors, because of her failings?

Leaving the window, Yui sat on her daughter's bed and scanned the room with her eyes. It was immaculate, as if the room was sill in use. With the absence of Kodama, little Mana had taken charge of Hikari's things and keeping the princess' possessions clean. Yui liked the girl. In a way, her enthusiasm and cheerfulness reminded her of her daughter, before Hikari began to focus so strongly on her duties and position. Not for the first time, Yui questioned her decision to wed Kozo to save the kingdom.

Yet, she realized, she would not have done anything different. After all, no matter what else might have happened, it had given her a daughter.

"You're worried, aren't you?"

Yui blinked, realizing that she had been so lost in thought she hadn't heard someone else enter the room.

"Of course I worry," she answered her husband, who sat by her side and took one of her hands in his, a comforting gesture she truly needed right now. "My baby girl has left Tokyo for the first time. I would be a heartless mother not to worry."

"Then, why did you let her go?" Kozo asked, obviously curious.

"She needed to do this," said Yui. "I could see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice. Whatever the reason, our daughter needed to follow the path she has chosen. To refuse her would have been to refuse the fact that she is an adult now."

Kozo sighed.

"And yet, those days where she was only a child in my arms don't seem so far away."

Yui smiled. Juggling the demands of King and father had seemed an almost impossible task, and yet Kozo had managed beyond all of Yui's expectations; even if he could perhaps be too overprotective of his daughter. But then, how could she blame him? Even to this day, Yui knew Kozo still suffered from the loss of his first wife and their unborn child. Only the birth of Hikari had begun to heal such a deep scar.

"We've just received a letter," said the King, smiling. "I figured you might want to read it."

Trying to restrain her excitement and relief and remain composed, the Queen accepted the letter. Without delay, Yui broke the wax stamped with the royal seal and unfolded the document inside. The writing was clear and concise, as expected from her daughter.

"Father, Mother," Yui read aloud, "Everyone is doing well. I am glad that you have allowed me this chance to see the kingdom on my own. I do not know if I will find the answers I am seeking during this journey, but is had nonetheless been enlightening so far. I am certain that the knowledge I gain today will help me later when I have to take over you duties, in days I hope are still far away."

Yui and Kozo exchanged looks. The succession of the crown had always been a subject Hikari had always seemed to want to avoid. To succeed her parents meant that there would be a husband to serve as consort or king, and the girl was obviously not prepared for that yet. Since she had started to mature, the two of them had tried, without too much insistence, to introduce the girl to potential future grooms, but without any success. Then again they couldn't really blame her, considering how many of the lesser noble houses kept trying to introduce their sons to her.

So, for Hikari now to even mention the possibility of eventually ascending the throne...

"The sights of the kingdom are beautiful. Tomorrow, we should reach Osumi. Kenoshiro has described that region as particularly beautiful, I look forward to visiting it."

The King's frown at those words was very visible.

"I wonder if I shouldn't have assigned someone more experienced than that... Kenoshiro... for this task."

If the Queen was well aware of the issues many had with the young lieutenant concerning his dark elf heritage, Yui knew that Kozo's worries were prompted by a different set of fears.

"Someone older and less good looking, you mean."

That comment was met by silence. Yui chuckled.

"I'm sure there's nothing to worry about. I don't know anyone more proper than Hikari, and I've met Kenoshiro many times. He's a well behaved and chivalrous young man."

"She's an impressible young woman, a princess even, and he's a man in uniform," replied Kozo, as if that simple comment justified his worries. And perhaps it did. After all, Kozo himself had been White Knight for the royal family when he had gained the heart and hand of princess Layla. "A good looking man," he added.

Yui found nothing to answer to that. Instead, she continued reading the letter, half noting Hikari mentioning the struggles of the people in Utsunomiya and requesting a group of soldiers and clergy be dispatched to assist them for a few days, but now worrying about her daughter for another reason than her safety.

- - -

She disliked that man. That was the first thought that crossed Hikari's mind as she stared at Viscount Marik.

Next on Hikari's list had been Osumi, a town two days away from Utsunomiya. The lands of this area were owned by a minor lord, Viscount Marik, and seeing the man, Hikari hoped they didn't share any blood ties.

If Lord Grobal's manor in Urawa had been a rather sizable building, it had also been austere and functional. Viscount Marik on the other hand occupied something that seemed more like a miniature palace. The place was crammed full of furniture, artwork, and mirrors. Rich dark wooden panels covered the walls, made from species imported from the continent. Marble floor and columns filled the rooms, inlaid with gold. The place literally stank of riches.

Viscount Marik himself was just as excessive as his home, but not in a good way. He wore bright purple silks, the colors unable to hide a frame strong in youth but fading to age as he no longer took care of himself. He had hard eyes, and a face that while strong was also sagging into extra chins.

The fact that he was looking at her with sly eyes while consuming a rather large turkey leg was not helping the man's image any.

But more than the fact the man was literally a pig, what made Hikari nauseous was his nonchalant attitude. Here he was, sitting and eating while surrounded by overwhelming luxury, blind to the misery outside his manor.

Upon reaching the vicinity of Osumi, Hikari had been appalled by what she had witnessed. Because this was an agricultural region, she knew the people would be working the fields. But what she had seen horrified her.

To her, the workers in the fields looked like... slaves. To a man they were thin and ragged, their ill-fitting clothes mere scraps over their scarecrow figures. Many were shirtless, their backs blistered from the harsh sun. It was hard to see, but it seemed as if none wore shoes, having either wrapped their feet or just going barefoot. They moved with what looked to the princess like a weariness from long labor. Few looked up as the convoy passed, their eyes lowered to the earth they toiled on.

Even more horrifying had been the sight of young children helping their parents, the children looking as hollow-eyed and weary as their elders. Making her nauseous was the sight of bodies lying in the dirt, no one making any move to do anything about it.

Reaching the town, Hikari realized that these poor people wouldn't receive any relief at the end of their hard labor: their homes looked as terrible as they did.

"Your Highness!" said the noble in between bites. "What a pleasant surprise! You must be hungry! Come, come, eat!"

For a moment everyone looked down at the large table, groaning under the weight of a succulent looking meal. Even though Hikari's stomach quietly growled, she found she wasn't feeling hungry. The sight of the man at the head of the table, as well as her memory of the ride here curbed her appetite.

"Your Highness," said Hikari to Kodama, "If you do not mind, I will take my leave now. I still have to discuss your visit with the local temple authorities."

For a moment it seemed as if Kodama would break down and freak, obviously considering being left with this man as punishment for acting above her station. But her courage eventually rallied and she kept up the display for her audience. Hikari felt horrible for leaving her cousin in such a predicament, but she wasn't sure she could stand to look at Viscount Marik for any longer without trying to tear a strip off the man.

- - -

The town's shrine to Lilith was a solid building, but shared the same worn and decrepit appearance that all structures here -- save the Viscount's manor -- sported. Although she had approached the doors with trepidation, the warm welcome from the sisterhood inside had restored some of Hikari's faith in her realm. While being escorted around by the head priestess, Hikari had come across many villagers huddled together, awaiting the few priests and priestess who were treating a litany of illnesses and injuries. Although many still bore wounds and sickness, the priestesses bid the remainder to return tomorrow. For a moment Hikari found herself outraged at such an attitude, but then she saw the faces of those who had been tending to the people. Their shadowed eyes and sagging shoulders spoke to their exhaustion, while the slight shaking of their hands indicated that they had channeled much healing energy already that day.

Invited by the head priestess at their table, Hikari gladly accepted. Until diner was served.

Hikari stared at the plate in front of her. It was mostly rice, with a few bits of meat. Still, compared to the plates before the other priestesses, hers was rather substantial. If she had more or less enough for it to be considered a normal meal, the other women didn't even have a third of the food she did.

The head priestess seemed to notice the way the princess was uncomfortably comparing everyone's plate and her own.

"F-forgive us. The inhabitants of this village are rather poor, so we do all we can to avoid imposing on them. Such a meal -- as well as the grace of Lilith -- are sufficient for our needs-"

Hikari frowned at that. Prayers were good for filling the soul, but the stomach needed to be attended to as well.

"Lord Marik seems to have such a wealthy fiefdom. His table didn't appear to lack for food."

The local priestess looked a bit confused. "But, these lands are the property of Lord Marik's family. The taxes levied and the proceeds from the sale of goods produced herein are his to do with as he sees fit. He is after all, the crown's representative in the region."

Hikari's frown deepened. In other words, he just gave the people who worked for him barely enough to subsist, while he accumulated wealth. Come to think of it, hadn't Lord Marik been to Tokyo last year to claim destitution before the taxes he was required to pay into the royal treasury? His lands certainly didn't seem barren...

"I see..."

And so Hikari began to eat. She didn't really know what else to do in such a situation. The least she could do was to acknowledge these people's kindness and eat every little morsel of food on her plate.

- - -

The fire crackled, only source of sound and light on this moonless night. Hikari stayed close to it, seeking to find some warmth from it, both for her body and soul. Despite a weary day of travel she couldn't forget the sights of Osumi, and couldn't help but remain disturbed over what Viscount Marik had unknowingly taught her about the realm.

And what she truly feared... could it actually get worse?

"Here, this will help keep you warm," said a voice behind her as she felt hands drape a piece of fabric over her shoulders, covering her with it.

Hikari turned to see Kenoshiro sit beside her, his cape now encircling her body like a blanket.

"Thank you," she meekly said, not sure what else to say.

"You seem troubled," pointed out Kenoshiro.

Hikari sighed. Was it that obvious?

"It's nothing."

"If it's nothing, then why can't you find sleep?"

Hikari turned to face Kenoshiro. Lit by the fire he seemed even more handsome than usual, his lavender eyes almost shining. The firelight enhanced his fey heritage making him look otherworldly and wise.

"Are all nobles like Viscount Marik?" she finally dared to ask. "Will every village from this point on be like Osumi?"

There was a moment of hard silence. "No," Kenoshiro finally answered, much to Hikari's relief. "Marik is a pig. This is a well known fact. With any luck, he'll die of indigestion soon and since the Goddess was generous enough to make sure he would not procreate, we can hope that someone else a bit less selfish will take his place. However..."

Kenoshiro remained silent for a moment, making Hikari wonder what was to follow.

"Your Highness... No kingdom is perfect. That is impossible. For purposes unknown, the Goddess created us as imperfect creatures, that stand in between light and dark." To further explain his point, Kenoshiro showed his open palm, which was just as dark as the back of his hand. "Because of that, there will always be greed and corruption within the human heart. So, it is impossible for a ruler to make a perfect kingdom. All he can do is try his best."

"I see..."

"Your father is a kind and wise man," continued Kenoshiro. "And he truly has the happiness of the people at heart. But the civil war eighteen years ago weakened his position, something a number of nobles like Viscount Marik take advantage of. But I have confidence that his successor will, despite all the challenges awaiting, achieve great things."

Hikari shook her head.

"I don't think I deserve that kind of confidence."

Kenoshiro smiled.

"I'm certain that you do. You've lost your way now, but once you've found the right path again I'm certain you'll eventually become a queen I will be proud to serve, as I am proud to serve your parents."

Somehow, those words soothed a little Hikari's heart.

"Thank you."

- - -

"What do you think of this village, Kodama?" Hikari idly asked, half lost in thought as her older companion was brushing the princess' hair. The two were sitting on the small bed they would share, in a very small room belonging to an inn that had seen better days. While the bed and room were clean, it was also obvious they were both worn down.

Actually, this seemed to be the general state of Ashora, the village they were currently staying at. It was nothing more than a small fishing village, really, with no more than a hundred souls that lived off the bounty from the sea. There had been no noble to great them this time, as it seemed none by the residents were interesting in this small thorp. The reception they had received had been lukewarm at best, the people more concerned with mending nets and preparing for the next day's sailing and labor than listening to royalty just passing by. In the end Hikari had decided to opt for her caravan to stay at the local inn, in order to help the owner with the gold pieces that came from a few rented rooms.

Still, despite the smell of fish, Hikari decided this was an improvement over the situation in Osumi.

The older girl paused in her actions for a moment, as she pondered Hikari's question.

"It reminds me a lot of home," admitted Kodama, before continuing to brush Hikari's hair.

Hikari mused on that answer. It did explain why Kodama's father had sent her to the capital. While Kodama was there to hopefully attract the eye of some noble scion at court, if her lady-in-waiting's home village was a poor as this one was, then even life as a lady's servant might be a step up for the girl.

While the situation certainly wasn't as grim as the picture Kensuke had painted the night of the festival, the harsh realities she had witnessed were still less idealistic than what she had believed. The people here weren't starving, but they certainly didn't have quite as much as they should have considering the efforts she saw them making.

It was very humbling.

Hikari couldn't help but suddenly dread what else she would see as she continued her trip around the kingdom.

"If I may ask... what do you think of Kenoshiro?"

Kodama's question doubly surprised Hikari, both because she had been so absorbed in her thoughts but also by how sudden it was. The girl grinned as she realized how brightly Kodama was blushing.

"Well..." began Hikari. "He's very capable and dependable. A good head on his shoulders, which is so rare in a man these days. Plus... he's very handsome. Don't you think so, Kodama?"

"Ah... y-yes. I believe he is."

Hikari chuckled.

"He's a fairly good prospect too, despite his heritage," continued Hikari. "He will no doubt rise very high within the ranks of the Royal Guards. I know that Dame Misato holds him in high esteem. He'd make a very good catch... don't you think, Kodama?"

"Your Highness!"

Hikari smiled at her distant cousin.

"When we're back to Tokyo, I'll see if I can set up a date between you and him, so that he can get to know you better."

"I-I would appreciate it very much, your Highness."

And as the girls begun to chat about the specific of Kodama's future date, Hikari forgot about her worries, at least for a moment.

- - -

As he traveled the different shops of the merchant district of Tokyo, Keel smiled, a rare sight from the old man. Today would be a good day.

It had been a little more than a week now since Hikari had left Tokyo.

And today her trip was to come to an unexpected conclusion.

Yes, Keel was in a good mood indeed. So much so that he actually paid for a rare collection of sake rather than just forcing the shopkeeper to 'donate' it. It was a joyous occasion after all.

- - -

Most of the people who knew Princess Hikari would agree that the young heir was generally an optimistic person. True, she could be stern -- even frightfully scary at times -- but she was generally a sweet young woman with a positive outlook. Thus, such people would have been genuinely worried if they could see her now.

Shoulders sagging, eyes empty, listless expression on her face. The depressed sighs punctuating her travel and escaping her lips over the past few hours only confirmed the low point of her spirit.

Truth be told, Hikari was feeling down. She almost wished she could trade places with Kodama and just lay down on one of the carriage's comfortable seats. She felt tired and drained, mentally as well as physically. While she was getting used to sleeping out in the wild with the ground as a hard, lumpy mattress, the whole trip was continuing to test her. And her thoughts kept plaguing her, making restful sleep an elusive commodity.

She hated to admit it, but Kensuke had been right about a number of things: she had been living her whole life in an ivory tower. Accustomed to the luxury her position afforded, she had been truly ignorant about the facts of life for her subjects. She took some solace in the fact that she had never abused her position -- her parents had taught her well on that front -- nevertheless, she had been privileged like few other in Japan were.

At least her darkest fears had not been supported: the people were not being crushed underneath an oppressive system. Though the harsh reality of the world wasn't quite too far from that. What she had seen were sights repeated in village and town, with men, women, and children working long and hard for very little. They were lucky if they ate twice a day, with their meals little more than what would be considered scraps back at the Castle. Many were tired and sick, and even those members of the Church who were decent -- most of them that she'd seen, thank Lilith -- were just as hard pressed as the people they sought to aid. If the capital seemed to overflow with the faithful, their presence in the countryside seemed to have been kept to a strict minimum.

Once she was back in Tokyo, she would really need to have a long talk with High Priestess Ritsuko. The nobles and merchant guilds would also need to do some explaining as well. And lest some think she would only demand from others, she would have to talk to the castle cooks about how things were working in the kitchens.

As if brought about by that thought, her stomach growled, breaking her train of thought and reminding her that she had skipped breakfast. It hadn't been necessary since the caravan had adequate supplies, but Hikari righteously felt that she couldn't come close to understanding the trials of the Japanese people if she didn't suffer at least a bit of what they went through.

In an effort to wake up from the slump she was in as well as forget about her grumbling belly, she rode up to Kenoshiro who was leading their small convoy through a mountainous road. They had turned north since they had left the last fishing village on the east cost of the kingdom. Had they gone south they would have traveled friendlier places and roads, but Hikari had been adamant that they should visit out-of-the-way villages first. She knew how gossip about a royal visit would quickly reach the cities of the kingdom, but she wasn't interested in visiting places that had prepared for her arrival. She would catch them later on, after they incorrectly assumed she wouldn't be coming after all. And this way they would hit Kelethin on the way back. Hikari had a feeling that she would need the guidance of the benevolent High Priestess of the elven city.

Shaking off her thoughts Hikari saw that Kenoshiro was as alert as always, scanning the trees and road ahead with sharp eyes. The road itself was a less frequented route, and thus slightly troublesome although not a hard ride. Still, the lieutenant seemed to be perpetually alert and relaxed at the same time. A strange mix, she thought, but one he seemed to carry well.

Even so, the trip had been uneventful. Kenoshiro had admitted that they had been shadowed on an infrequent basis, but nothing had dared to disturb the small but well armed convoy.

"Something the matter, Milady?" asked Kenoshiro, glancing at her a brief moment, before returning to his duties.

"Not really," admitted Hikari as she caught up with him. She couldn't help but smile at how dedicated the lieutenant was. Despite the colorful grumbling some soldiers made about the White Knight, it appeared Dame Misato knew her stuff. "I was just bored and wanted to examine our itinerary. We should be getting close to Kazel now, I think."

"I'm afraid we still have a few more days in the saddle at least, Milady," Kenoshiro said as he fished out a cloth map from his saddlebags and handed it to her. "We should be about... here," he pointed after she had unfolded it.

Hikari looked at the map, then frowned. "You say we're on this route, heading towards Kazel, right?"

"That's right," confirmed the lieutenant.

"What about the village here? It should be very close to our position."

"A village?"

Hikari showed Kenoshiro the map she had been looking at, pointing at a small dot indicating the village of Darnk.

"Darnk? Pardon me for saying so, but that is no place for our princess to visit, Milady."

"Why is that?"

"That village is cursed, Milady."

"Cursed?"

"Yes," Kenoshiro said. "A strange illness befell the inhabitants there about five or so years ago. I don't know the details, but I've heard some mention that the Church proclaimed the people there blasphemed against the Goddess and were punished thusly. The place is home to thieves, criminals and heretics. All manner of rogues seek to elude justice by living in proximity to such a foul place."

"Strange, I've never heard of this."

"It's not entirely surprising," explained the lieutenant. "The Church does have a tendency to try to keep the matters of the fate to itself. I doubt they would want the general populace to know that good Japan citizens are committing blasphemy. This wouldn't be the first-"

Kenoshiro suddenly stopped speaking and as close as she was, Hikari could see him tense up, even if his facial expression shifted to one of disinterest and boredom. There was no hiding, however, the way his hands had tightened on his horse's bridle. Suddenly, with inhuman grace Kenoshiro grabbed his crossbow, loaded a bolt and fired it off into the branches of a nearby tree. There was a pain-filled scream and something dropped down onto the road ahead of them. Hikari stared, shocked.

"To arms!" Kenoshiro shouted, reloading his bow as a low rumble sounded from the thickets around them. A few arrows sped out of the tree line, falling amongst the Royal Guards, occasionally getting a grunt of pain from the men.

Using his horse like a plough, Kenoshiro pushed Hikari's mount back beside the carriage. The dozen solders arrayed themselves around the vehicle, their bows out and as a team returning fire into the woods. Any arrow that came towards them was answered with a flight of half a dozen shafts.

"Double time advance!" Kenoshiro shouted, firing another bolt into the darkened woods and reloading quickly. Like a machine, the knights around the carriage kicked their mounts into a canter, the two driving the carriage also snapping the reins sharply.

Caught up in the march, Hikari could only hold on, her heart hammering in her chest. Her hands were shaking and her eyes wide as she looked into the unseen depths of the woods around them.

Suddenly a yell broke from the woods and a number of man-like creatures burst from the covering foliage, heading towards the convoy. With an audible twang, the knights let loose another flight of bolts, most striking true and dropping a number of the green-skinned humanoids. As those fell, another wave emerged from the trees, running hard for the swiftly moving caravan.

"Draw swords!" Kenoshiro yelled, pulling out his own weapon. With the clear ring of metal the knights unsheathed as they moved, blades out and ready. The first line of attackers reached the knights and died upon their blades. Their screams echoed loudly in the forest and rang through Hikari's head. Another wave burst from the forest ahead and the caravan crashed into it, driving a wedge through the creatures. The hot smell of blood assaulted Hikari's senses, leaving her feeling nauseous, but grimly she kept hold of her mount and her stomach.

Riding beside her, Kenoshiro looked forward as he decapitated an orc. There was more movement ahead, the very trees themselves shaking as something pulled itself from the forest. His sharp ears could hear the multiple screams of rage from behind the group, but what caught his attention were the two ogres that emerged from the canopy ahead. Each was eight feet tall and rugged, with skin like pebbled leather. They bore clubs that were more trunk than branch.

They had been chased forward into this, he realized. The carriage would never pass those creatures: even if slain, their bodies would block the road.

"Milady," Kenoshiro spoke quietly, but with great urgency. "Go now and ride hard for Kazel. Bring back support."

"What?"

Kenoshiro didn't say more but instead forcefully smacked Hikari's mount, jolting the beast into motion.

"GO!"

Hikari bent low over her charging mount and with clenched teeth, put her heels to its flanks. As the mount approached the two hulking brutes, Kenoshiro let loose another bolt, this striking deep into one ogre's skull. Reeling back in pain, the creature allowed the horse charging it to slip by, his companion momentarily stunned by the sudden activity. Knees guiding his warhorse, the lieutenant prayed that the princess would be safe as he resolved himself to rally the men and buy her as much time as possible.

"Stand hard, men! For Tokyo!"

The men set their weapons, a few falling as crude arrows and javelins landed amongst them. "FOR TOKYO!" they roared in return. They were brave, loyal men. Knowing that the princess traveled with them, they were willing to try and turn the tide of battle if it would save the kingdom's heir.

Kenoshiro tossed his crossbow into an attacker's face as two more moved to block his path. The men would save the princess, he vowed, either by throwing the beasts back from the caravan, or by taking as many monsters to the grave with them as they fell.

- - -

Pushing her horse as fast as her riding skills permitted, Hikari did as Kenoshiro had ordered. Although terrified at the violence that had occurred, now something like anger was building up in her. Part of it was at the lieutenant: why shouldn't she have stayed and helped, instead of being forced into flight like a coward? The more rational part of her mind reminded her that her fighting skills were for all intents and purposes nonexistent. The anger then focused itself on the attackers. How dare they do this to her! To her people!

Biting her lip, Hikari thought about Kodama. The poor girl was surely scared to death right now. Kenoshiro and his men would protect her, Hikari had no doubt about it, but... Suddenly, the princess realized the magnitude of her selfish folly. Her father had been right! She should have stayed at the castle. If anything was to happen to Kodama, Kenoshiro or his men, she would never forgive herself.

Suddenly, Hikari caught some motion from the corner of her eye. Something had moved in between large rocks, to the right side of the mountain road. Something... big. She was being followed. Throwing caution to the wind, Hikari pushed her mount faster. Whatever was following her, she had no intention of finding out.

Hikari screamed as suddenly a creature rose up in front of her mount, blocking the path. Her scream was cut short as a powerful arm hit her in the torso, throwing her off the horse. The princess crashed onto the stone path, hitting her head and flaring pain across her senses. For a moment all she could think about was the pain, and her limbs wouldn't respond to her commands. After an indeterminable amount of time the pain lessened, replaced instead by waves of dizziness and nausea. Shaking all over, she finally managed to get her trembling hands in position to push herself upright.

Instead she screamed as a huge hand grabbed her braided hair and pulled her to her knees, the yanking causing her head to explode in more pain. Another hand came from somewhere and grasped the front of her tunic, pulling up and leaving her dangling a foot off the ground.

Tears and nausea blinding her, Hikari opened her eyes and looked past the pain and terror to see the horrible face of some twisted humanoid mere inches from hers. The beast's foul breath overloaded her senses with the smell of blood and death. She nearly retched as he wet his thick, cracked lips with a slimy tongue, from one yellowish tusk to another.

Even through the pounding in her ears, she could hear the bestial growl as another creature came up behind her. She felt more rough hands upon her body, and suddenly needed no translation to know what the things were talking about.

She was going to die. For the first time in her life her mortality dangled before her, tattered and unquestionably transitory. Deep in her soul she prayed for swift death... she didn't want to experience what a long, lingering one would entail.

"Hey! Ugly!"

Hikari screamed again as the monster suddenly turned, the motion shaking her body and aggravating her wounds. The beast let out a yelp as a rock the size of Hikari's closed fist hit his forehead, bouncing off its thick hide and nearly hitting her on the rebound.

"Let go of the girl and fight!"

Hikari didn't know if the creature could understand human speech but it did comply, tossing the princess aside. For a moment she enjoyed a dizzying sense of flying, then pain like she had never known crashed over her as she slammed into the ground. Her head found stone to be a poor choice of cushion and everything went black.

- - -

Safely back from the battle and upon a ridge, the assassin watched the conflict from his spyglass without concern. Even if anyone could see him with the setting sun at his back, there really wasn't anything the Royal Guards could do about it.

With a critical eye he surveyed the battlefield. The road up to the ogres was red with orc blood, flowing freely from dozens of corpses. How many the assassin didn't care; they were only orcs after all. He did have to admit that the knights had acquitted themselves well, the ratio of dead strongly in their favor.

The assassin watched with interest as the last defender -- the lieutenant Kenoshiro he noted -- fought on against all odds. His horse pulled out from under him, the man was a whirlwind of steel, cutting, slicing, stabbing and generally slaying anything with five feet of him. Still, even perfection was not good enough against such numbers and the lieutenant bore the bloody marks where some strong hits had gotten through. For a moment, the assassin considered getting out his own poisoned crossbow.

Fortunately, the lieutenant was distracted as two of the more cowardly orcs focused their attention on the carriage the soldiers had given their lives to protect. Both beasts paid for their greed with messy fountains of lifeblood, but it had been enough for the rest of their clan. A battleaxe had found a weakness in the young officer's guard and caved in his armor, most likely severing his spine in the process. The man fell, and now that he was no longer a threat the orcs became bold, hacking away at his body.

The assassin lowered his spyglass in disgust. Such a waste. While his ancestry was suspect, word in the capital agreed that young Kenoshiro would have had a fabulous career ahead of him. Some had even been mentioning that he could one day succeed to be the White Knight despite his dark blood. Still, many loathed those same dark origins, and many more loathed anyone who achieved power for themselves. It was a shame he had to die here and rob the assassin of what would have one day been a very fat contract.

Bringing his spyglass back up, the assassin noticed that the orcs were now roughly extracting the carriage's passenger. The girl was shaking and crying, but those were things the assassin didn't even see. Instead he focused on her identity. A rider had escaped earlier and he had been quite sure that it had been a woman. Hunting her down in these hills would be a pain.

But there was no need. The dress this girl wore was rich in fabric, she had a subtle golden circlet on her head, but what clinched it was the trademarked twin pigtailed fashion statement of the princess. Without emotion he watched as the orcs dragged the shrieking girl over to the clan leader -- Grossh or something stupid -- before roughly throwing her at his feet. Satisfied the assassin put his spyglass away and turned to his horse. He had been very clear to the orc leader: the girl was important. She was to die but the stipulation was that her corpse be recognizable. Other than that, what happened to her before death was left to the orcs' imagination.

Despite the distance, the assassin still heard her screams begin. He rode away before he could tell how long they lasted.

. . . To be continued in Part 2 : The Cursed Village . . .

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