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Title - Unintended: A Tale of Clumsy Matchmaking and the Value of Custom Boots
Rating - T/PG-13



Chapter 10 – Gone


The moon hung low in the sky by the time they cleared the last row of trees. Kurogane helped Fai into the saddle of his horse then led the animal at a walk back to the Kinomoto estate. Considering the hour, Kurogane expected a quiet reception. What he found was a bustling mess of Jashari guardsmen camped out on the lawn in front of the manor and the young lady of the house struggling to stay awake as she spoke with a pair of the foreigners.

As they approached, the guards fell silent and arranged themselves into neat lines on either side of the lane. Fai slumped in his saddle, stared at his fists while the guards saluted and grinned at him. His brother dismounted to provide instruction to the soldiers while Sakura rushed to meet them.

“Fai-san! Kurogane-san! What happened? You’re both injured!”

Kurogane looked down and, for the first time in hours, remembered the claw marks marring the skin of his torso. It was nothing; it would heal. Just like Fai’s twisted ankle.
Their injuries were the least of his concern.

The pork bun bounced onto the girl’s shoulder and began filling her in about their adventure in the forest while Kurogane hefted Fai from the saddle and assisted him into the manor.

“This way,” Sakura said, pointing ahead and to the left.

The door she’d indicated led to a sizable parlor. At one time, the Kinomoto house had been second in power and wealth only to the royal family and while that was no longer the case, the rich furnishings in the room hinted at the estate’s former glory. Kurogane tossed Fai onto the nearest chair and took the adjacent seat himself.

It wasn’t until wounds were cleaned and wrapped that Fai’s brother strode into the room. He glanced at the empty seating, but remained standing. “I need you,” he said to Fai.

Fai opened his mouth to protest, but his brother looked to Kurogane and Sakura. “Would you please give us a few minutes alone?”

As Kurogane walked past, Fai grabbed his arm and though he didn’t utter a word, it was as if Kurogane could hear him pleading. It was in the tilt of his eyebrows, the turn of his lips, the way his fingers dug into the flesh of Kurogane’s wrist.

Kurogane wasn’t sure what the man expected him to do about the situation. It wasn’t as if he had any influence with the man’s brother, but even if he did…

“I can’t help you run away from your problems.” Walking away was far harder than it should have been.

Before a guard could close the doors to the room behind him, Kurogane heard the heir say, “You have no reason to suspect you would be affected. Most people aren’t. I’ve never understoo—”

The sun was rising and Kurogane needed to be back at the castle soon for guard duty, but he stayed and sat with Sakura who refused to get any sleep until she could speak with Fai again. Kurogane could hardly leave her alone. First she’d lost her parents, now her unofficial guardian was going to be leaving.

“It’s not right,” the girl said. “If Fai-san doesn’t want to go… He should be able to choose where he lives.”

“He has responsibilities at home.”

This is his home now. He has responsibilities here.”

When the brothers finally emerged from the parlor more than an hour later, the heir said, “Kyle, please help my brother collect his things.” No further explanation was given.

It only took them a few minutes to gather his belongings. After Fai handed everything off to the guard, he walked over to where Kurogane and Sakura were sitting, his expression dark. He’d found a cane to help him walk with his injured ankle, but he set it aside, knelt down on both knees in front of the girl he’d taken in, took her hands, and bowed his head.

“You’re doing so well on your own.” His voice was rough. Raw. “You have good friends and a loyal staff. You’ve grown so much these last few months. You don’t need me anymore.”

“That’s not true!”

“But it is.” He paused, looked up. “I’m proud of you.”

“I’ll look out for her,” Kurogane offered.

Fai didn’t say ‘thank you’ but he nodded his head and his frown lessened a fraction. Then he put a hand on top of Kurogane’s knee. It was all the goodbye Kurogane got.

“I know you are tired.” The heir addressed those of his guard that were within hearing range. “It’s been a long night for all of us, but we’ve been away from home too long already and cannot spare any more time. You can sleep once we are aboard the Cerberus.” Kurogane reasoned that was the name of the ship they’d used to cross Lake Ethis.

The Jashari soldiers began filing out, passing the message along to the rest of the group, and preparing for their imminent departure.

Kurogane stood as Fai turned away, as he walked out the door. This time, the man really was gone, just as he’d predicted those months ago.

-x-


The business of the kingdom rolled along without so much as a moment’s pause. As though nothing were different.

Kurogane went back to his old routine. The one he’d had before that fool prince came barreling into his life. It was better this way. He’d gotten along for years like this and he’d been perfectly fine. He had his job. His duty. That was all he needed.

A week and a half after the Irtat Forest incident, Kurogane found himself with a spare hour in between early morning duty and late morning training. There was another of those stupid events that afternoon so he used his limited free time to go down to the market in the lower town. He needed a spool of waxed thread to repair damage to the leather belt he’d worn into that forest. His shirt from that night, he’d given up for rags.

“Hello, Kurogane-san!”

He looked up at the unexpected voice. It was one of the young barmaids from the Cat’s Eye Tavern. He couldn’t tell which one. There were two of them that looked exactly alike – even more so than Fai and his twin brother. If only one of them would cut her hair, people might actually be able to tell them apart.

He gave a grunt in acknowledgement.

“We’ve been missing you at the tavern. I keep telling people to leave your table open on your regular nights, but you haven’t been in at all lately. When are you and Fai-san going to stop by again?”

“We won’t be coming back.”

“Oh, no! I’m so sorry!”

She looked honestly upset. What a pain.

“Something terrible has happened. I can tell by the look on your face.”

“It’s nothing like that. He had to return home. I don’t expect to see him again.”

“But that is terrible!”

He paid for his thread and left. Terrible? Bah! What was so terrible about the situation? The guy was back in his country where he belonged, back where he could help his family and his people. They needed him, Kurogane didn’t. All he and Fai did was play games and stay up late drinking and talking. It was a simple matter of priorities.

Kurogane stopped by his rooms to drop off his purchase then headed out to the practice fields. He passed a pair of dawdling messengers at the end of the hall.

“Oh, I know,” one messenger said. “Horribly ill-tempered!”

“And it’s only getting worse with each passing day,” said the other.

It was more gossip! Kurogane didn’t know who they were talking about but he was sick of all this chin wagging. The entire town needed to mind its own business. No more talk of Jashar. No more spreading rumors. Kurogane gave them an extra hard glare.

The shorter of the two let out a choked “eek!” that soothed Kurogane’s irritation just a little. Something like a grin spread across his face.

“Kurogane-san?” a meek faced armorer’s apprentice said once he arrived at the sparring grounds. “Are you all right, sir?”

“Of course I am!” he snapped. Why did people keep asking him that? This was the fifth person in as many days!

The apprentice cringed. “Sorry! It’s just that you looked a bit angry, sir.”

“I was smiling.”

“Of course, sir. My mistake!” The apprentice turned away and jogged over to a soldier who actually needed his assistance.

Most people weren’t keen on sparring with Kurogane due to disparities in skill level, but he could typically find one or two people willing to give it a try. Solitary training was all very well, but you need a real opponent to truly test your abilities. He would take on three at once to level the playing field if need be. Today, he had to wait a whole hour until Souma arrived to get in live practice.

“I’m ready,” she said, standing with her practice sword centered in front of her.

Kurogane watched her body position to predict which way she would move. She shifted a fraction of her weight to her left foot. Was it a tell or a feign? Fai’s tells were barely perceptible. He shook his head to clear his thoughts – he was sparring with Souma, not that idiot – but it didn’t help his focus. A series of voices began drifting through his head.

Are you okay?

Souma moved to the right and made an offensive swing, but it was just a test strike and Kurogane batted her sword away easily.

You look angry.

Kurogane made the next move, swung at Souma’s midsection. She countered just as he’d expected and they settled into a pattern of exchanging blows that lasted long enough for his heart rate to take notice.

Something terrible!

Souma managed a solid blow to Kurogane’s left arm. He didn’t falter, he took a swing at her legs and though she managed to avoid an impact, she was forced to change direction unexpectedly. That was his opening. Kurogane began to press the match.

Murderers running rampant!

On the edge of his perception, someone began calling his name—

I can’t go back.

—saying something about taking it easy and calming down.

He pressed harder, increasing the speed of his attacks. Fai would have been able to dodge with ease.

I don’t want to hurt anyone.

Souma on the other hand stumbled in her attempt to evade and took a hit across the cheek strong enough to break the skin. Blood flowed in a steady stream across her face, dropped onto the exposed skin on her chest, and seeped into her low cut shirt.

I’m so sorry.

He dropped his sword. This was just practice. There was always a risk of injury when sparring, but he hadn’t actually meant to hurt her. He should have more control than that.

“What is wrong with you? Didn’t you hear me yield?”

He hadn’t. As his apology, he endured her admonishments without retort. She probably would have carried on longer than she did if not for her need to see a healer. Hopefully she didn’t need sutures.

Shortly after, one of the gossiping messengers from before informed him that he was to attend the king at once. It wasn’t unheard of to receive such a summons though it was usually the Council that called for him with such short notice. Maybe it was something about the event that afternoon. He’d heard there might be dangerous animals involved.

There were two men sitting in the king’s private audience chamber when Kurogane arrived – the king, and the dark haired man the king had rejected all offers of marriage for. Kurogane bowed to the king and inclined his head to acknowledge the man’s unofficial consort.

King Yukito smiled softly. “I want to start by saying how much we appreciate what you do for us here. My brother in particular speaks very highly of you.”

Kurogane could tell there was a ‘but’ coming.

“But I believe we have a problem.”



Chapter 11 – Exhibition


I’ll do it,” Kurogane said.

Both of the kids turned to look at him.

They stood near the outer edge of the giant, round tent with gaudy yellow and green stripes. The heavy canvas walls rustled in the wind even though the fabric was staked to the ground.

Kurogane had been at this stupid…animal exhibition or whatever it was supposed to be half the afternoon. He and the prince had arrived shortly after the event began. The kid had insisted. Kurogane knew it was his eagerness to meet with Sakura and not his excitement at seeing exotic animals that fueled their early arrival. Sakura however, hadn’t arrived on time. The prince had meandered around, stopping and talking with some of his new friends while he waited.

Kurogane couldn’t fathom why the Council persisted with these matchmaking events for the prince when it was abundantly clear the kid only had eyes for the Kinomoto girl.
He’d had more than his fill of their meddling, but he was just going to have to deal with it. After his earlier meeting with the king, he was determined to prove there wasn’t a problem.

By most accounts, this event was no different from any of the others. It should have felt normal.

Those ridiculous women were there, some wearing animal patterned dresses with impractical but matching shoes, some wearing headbands with furry animal ears, another with some sort of fake tail.

The former guardsman and that kid he was so often with were petting a goat brought in, along with a few other domesticated animals, by a local farmer for that exact purpose.

Two of the boys Kurogane recognized from the fashion show were also there with the barnyard animals. The shorter of the two grinned as he picked up a rabbit. The taller boy snickered and made a joke comparing his companion to the guardsman’s kid. The boy with the rabbit bristled and made a rude gesture. Kurogane suspected the only reason he wasn’t yelling was because he didn’t want to scare the animal in his arms.

But for as normal as all this was, in so many other ways, the event was alien. Too quiet, dull. Boring even. The weird girl with long black pigtails who freaked out when a small yellow bird landed on her shoulder barely even sparked his interest.

The prince cupped the bird in his hands and gently lifted it off her shoulder.

“Oh, thank you,” the girl said, “I was so afraid I would hurt it.”

What was the deal with people lately? If you don’t want to hurt something, then don’t do it. Why worry so much about something that is within your own control?

“It’s perfectly safe,” the prince said as he raised his hands with the bird. “See?”

They chatted a few minutes before the girl said, “Look, there are my friends.”

Kurogane recognized the two boys she was pointing at from the gaming event.

“Higashikunimaru-kun! Shukaido-kun!” The girl waved a hand high in the air, her smile excessively bright, then ran off to join them, turning back just long enough to say, “Thanks so much for your help!”

Almost immediately after the girl left, the cook who’d filled in for the prince at the fashion show came around with a metal scrollwork cage and relieved the prince of the bird.

When Sakura finally showed up, it was in the company of the king’s consort who, it turned out, was her cousin. Kurogane had planned on bringing her to this event himself but when he stopped by the manor earlier in the week she told him she had already taken care of arranging an escort. He’d half expected her to come on her own like the commoner girls did. Socially, it wasn’t the done thing for a girl of her station to be without a chaperone, but she was gutsy enough for it. She had practically adopted herself out to a man she’d thought to only be a simple traveler after all.

“Thank you for the escort, cousin. Please say hello to your parents for me.”

The man eyed Kurogane skeptically, though the look lost a bit of its effectiveness by the fact that the white pork bun sat on the man’s shoulder. Kurogane would have assumed the disapproval was because of his meeting with the king, except that the man then turned the same expression on Syaoran.

“Are you sure you don’t need me to hang around?”

“I’m perfectly safe with Kurogane-san. You should go be with the king. I’m sure he is waiting for you.”

“Mokona wants to meet the king!”

“I’ll introduce you.”

Sakura gave the thing a pat on the head and said, “Be careful, Moko-chan!”

“Mokona will catch up later!”

A council member who stood a few paces away sneered at the man as he walked off. Kurogane had known the Council didn’t like the man – they blamed him after all for the king’s refusal to take a wife – but he hadn’t realized they were so open with their disapproval. Kurogane glared at the councilman but the cretin didn’t notice.

Kurogane was left standing in a small circle with the kids. No one moved. This was the part where he and Fai would usually take a step back and let the kids socialize by themselves, but Fai wasn’t here and Sakura looked up at him like she wanted to say something. Seconds ticked by. No one spoke.

A voice Kurogane recognized as the announcer from the fashion show broke the stalemate. “Ladies and gentleman, your attention please! At this time, a special demonstration will be given in the bright blue tent!”

The prince said, “Let’s go see,” the girl nodded, and Kurogane finally took his proper position a pace behind the kids.

The crowd flowed into the blue tent and filled the benched seating. Kurogane sat in the last space before the center aisle with the kids in the row in front of him so that he could oversee their safety properly. Although almost every seat was taken by the time the demonstration began, no one sat in the space to Kurogane’s right. The boy two spaces away leaned in the opposite direction.

A hush fell across the crowd and a young girl entered the area separated from the public by a series of heavy duty iron bars at the center of the tent. She gave a short speech in a foreign accent that Kurogane didn’t recognize. Something about a sanctuary and why the animal they were about to see couldn’t be released back into the wild. The animal – a horangi, she called it – was unlike anything Kurogane had ever seen with its strange orange and black stripes. The girl guided the animal in a series of leaps and poses.

At one point, the girl gave a command and the animal let out a ferocious roar, opening its mouth wide in the process and showing off huge, sharp teeth that were clearly made for killing prey. The girl signaled to a tall man in the front row who then entered the caged area. After brief instruction, she gave another command. The animal opened its mouth wide enough for the man to put his forearm between the animal’s powerful jaws, his hand dangling out the side. The horangi kept its mouth dutifully open to the amazement of the crowd. Kurogane didn’t recognize the man and suspected that he was a part of the horangi caretaker’s group and not just a random spectator.

If Fai had been here, he’d have probably volunteered Kurogane to stick his arm in the animal’s mouth too – purely for the chance to call him Kuro-bold or Kuro-chomp or some other such nonsense like the idiot that he was. Kurogane caught his facial muscles starting to tighten into a smile, then he glanced at the empty seat next to him, and frowned instead.

After the demonstration was over, the crowd dispersed and the kids strolled from one exhibit to another. There was a special tent within a tent filled with every imaginable color of butterfly. There were rows of cages with exotic birds, though Kurogane never saw the yellow one from earlier again. There were even strange creatures with long legs and mounded backs that were used in place of horses to carry people. The kids listened with interest as a man explained how the animals were raced in lands far to the west.

Kurogane barely paid attention to any of it. He watched the crowd for threats, for signs of danger, and listened, maybe for the first time, really listened to the gossip of the town. There were theories about who the prince would choose to court, whispers about some nameless fellow intimidating people throughout the castle, and mangled stories about the events of the morning. One man claimed Souma had passed out of blood loss and had been carried to the healer on a litter. A woman claimed their spar was actually an argument that got out of hand. People talked about Fai without even knowing his name, claiming he was a criminal that was being escorted back to the land where he’d committed his offense in order to stand trial. But above all, there were rumors of Jashar.

The stories made it sound as if dozens of killers were loose on the streets of the Jashari capitol. More likely, if there even had been any killings at all, it was the result of one man. It could be crime related, or some nutcase – that was uncommon, but not unheard of. Or, the thought came to him, it could be an assassin.

A hired killer wouldn’t stop with the heir, he’d take out the entire royal family. But Fai was a skilled fighter, he could hold his own. Kurogane didn’t need to worry about that.

If there really was an assassin, it might explain why Fai had agreed to return home despite his initial objections. It wouldn’t be surprising if the man felt he was better equipped to handle the situation than his brother’s guards were. It might also explain why Fai had protested that he didn’t want to hurt anyone, but that reluctance wouldn’t extend to assassins, would it? It wouldn’t be a weight on Kurogane’s conscience to kill a man that was trying to murder his family.

Kurogane was so involved in his theorizing that he was only vaguely aware of the prince finally asking Sakura how she was getting along without her guardian.

“Everyone else at home,” the girl said, “they call me mistress or young miss or milady. Fai-san was the only one that treated me like a normal person. I miss him, but it helps knowing that I’ll see him again.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He left his favorite boots behind. He always said they were the best he’d ever owned.”

Kurogane knew which ones she meant. The deep brown pair that molded to his legs and went up past his knee and onto his thigh.

Sakura said, “He wouldn’t have left them if he weren’t coming back.”

The prince put a hand on the girl’s arm as he explained that being a prince isn’t something you can do from afar. That Fai must have simply forgotten his boots. That it wasn’t a sign that he was coming back.

She bowed her head, whispering, “I didn’t even get to tell him thank you.” In a normal tone, she said, “I know he’ll want his boots back.” She paused. “If he can’t come here…” Her eyes lit up. “I’ll take them to—”

Kurogane knew how she was planning to finish that sentence and that’s when he said it. That was the moment he decided.

I’ll do it.

Whether it was an assassin or something else, it wasn’t safe in Jashar right now. He couldn’t let Sakura go. He’d promised Fai he would look after her. But it was more than that. If he were being honest with himself, returning Fai’s property, keeping the girl safe, they were just excuses. Kurogane needed to see the man again. Make sure he wasn’t going to get himself killed.

Both of the kids turned to look at him, likely wondering if they’d heard him correctly. He gave them a nod.

Sakura lunged forward and threw her arms around Kurogane. “Thank you! I know you’ll make sure he’s safe! Tell him how much I miss him too.” She pulled back, looked over at the prince, then back to Kurogane. “What about your job?”

He’d been angry when the king had suggested it – that he was too stressed lately, distracted, that he might need some time off work. As if he couldn’t handle his job, like he was weak. Now, it almost seemed as though the king had known that Kurogane needed to leave before Kurogane had known himself.

He signaled for a messenger. “Tell the king I’m taking his offer. I’ll return as soon as I’m able.”

“Yes, sir!” The man saluted and ran off to inform the king.

Kurogane would leave tonight after his shift guarding the prince was complete.

“I expect you to keep up with your training while I’m gone,” he told the prince. “And you,” he eyed Sakura, “don’t do anything that would worry that idiot guardian of yours.”

“We’ll be fine by ourselves, Kurogane-san. I can check on Sakura and Souma-san and Kizu-san will make sure I’m safe.”

The pork bun took that moment to come bounding back to their group. It perched on Kurogane’s shoulder.

“Everyone listen! Mokona just heard something about Fai’s country!”

“What was it Moko-chan?” Sakura said.

“Mokona heard they have big problems! A pretty lady said it was a curse for executing their last prisoner of war.”

“Curse? That’s ridiculous,” Kurogane said.

He knew about the prisoner, everyone did. It had been a part of the cease hostilities agreement that ended the decades long war between Jashar and neighboring Kavod. Kavod had agreed to give over one of its ranking officers to be tried for war crimes in a Jashari court of law. He’d been found guilty and hanged. But that had been several years ago.

“All these stories are exaggerated. An assassin seems far more likely than any of the rumors I’ve heard.”

A woman bumped into him. As she walked away, he heard her whisper, “assassin!” to the man next to her.

“Kurogane-san,” the prince said, “that’s not right.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve heard some of the reports. I’m not allowed to say much, but according to our intelligence, there is some sort of…illness, I guess. People are dying.”

Air fled Kurogane’s lungs in a rush. An illness? He’d been so sure that Fai had left his country to avoid something, that he’d been running away from his problems, but what if he’d been here researching a cure? All that time he’d spent in the library… His reckless trek into the Irtat Forest…

The kid looked over at Sakura and Kurogane could tell the prince was putting the situation as mildly as he could for the girl’s sake. What if Kurogane had been wrong about everything? A sick sort of uneasiness pooled in his gut. Kurogane had already decided to go to Jashar, but now… Now, he needed to leave immediately.


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