Story Type: Original Novel
Genre: Ancient/ Romance
Copyright Disclaimer: Any relation the characters within the following story have to other people living, dead or fictional is purely coincidental. All characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.
Description: Hanami's destiny is changed as a broken woman enters her life. Their meeting will set forth a change that will be felt throughout the empire. A sword holds the key which will unlock the chains that bind them. A song will forever be heard as their hearts beat as one. As the time of succession nears, will the two souls be able to overcome the masses and find their way to each other?
Content Warning: This story contains graphic violence
Her long black hair was neatly tied near her neckline with a fine white silk kimono covering every bit of skin. She sat conservatively on the small porch that overlooked the barren garden. Her blue eyes were glazed over as her feminine sweet voice filled the air with lovely musical notes.
“Leaves are changing one by one,
Yellow, red or brown…
Winds will blow and strip trees bare,
Ready for winter…”
She sighed sadly as she saw what was in front of her instead of what her mind had led her to believe. Memories of a past she did not recognise, surfaced every time that she sang this particular song. However, it had become a ritual for her to sing it just as autumn was about to begin and the Sakura trees were to colour. Tears welled up on the edge of her eyes but she refused to let them fall. Strong foreign emotions filled her but she was left clueless as to where they came from and who they were directed to.
“Mistress!?” called a young woman clad in a kimono but of poorer quality. She would have loved to sit and listen as well as encourage the eighteen year old for more but not at this moment. She hustled towards the beautiful voice that graced the household. However, she was frantic and missed the tears that were there a minute ago. “You have been summoned by the Emperor. Your Father is expecting you at the front gate and is ready to take you to your summons. Please Mistress, you must hurry. The Emperor cannot be kept waiting.”
Her blue eyes stared at the young personal servant as if she had grown another head. Why in China would the Emperor want to see me? She had never talked to the Emperor or stepped one foot out of the household. It seemed incredulous that the Emperor would want to see her. So she was rushed to her feet by her servant and nudged towards the front gates while her mind was still questioning how this was to be.
“Sakura! Hurry along dear, we must not keep the Emperor waiting.” Sakura's Father reprimanded Sakura gently as he mounted his imperial horse. He was only forty and quite young for all of the achievements that he had earned. His crisp uniform, fit for any general, was highly decorated. There was jewellery placed on shiny pieces of armour, as well as an assortment of braids. His proud horse was also decorated in a similar fashion, but also had the addition of a blanket with the Imperial Seal on it. His black eyes watched as his only daughter climbed into the covered carriage with her personal servant. “Yah!!!” yelled Sakura's Father as he urged his horse into a slow gallop so that the carriage could keep up.
“Leaves are changing one by one,
Yellow, red or brown…
Winds will blow and strip trees bare,
Ready for winter…
Soil will become barren,
Littered with small leaves…
Colourful Sakura Trees,
Autumn is now here…”
Slender fingers brushed the curtain that quartered off the area. Sitting quietly on the golden chair that represented a triad of things, light forest eyes looked around the deserted room. All the people had left to prepare for the arrival of guests. How many will be attending? What purpose will this meeting achieve? Thoughts of all kinds invaded the young mind.
Suddenly an old woman appeared from the side doors and walked quickly towards the curtained off area. She couldn't see passed the curtain and she was glad. There were only a handful of people who were allowed to see the young one and they were all loyal to the bone. The old woman was no different. She had served for the majority of her life for the people that sat in the chair that she faced and she did it with pride.
Carefully pulling the curtain slightly to the side, the old woman looked at the lonely youngster. Sadness almost overwhelmed her heart at seeing the loneliness that cloaked the child like a shield. However those days were about to end with this meeting if everything went well. She hoped it did.
“What news is there, Marietta ?” asked the young child even though seventeen birthdays had already been celebrated.
“Remember your position, future Emperor. The Emperor and Empress may be away but you have to fill their shoes. Once they have returned from the Great Wall of China , everything will return to what it was before.” Marietta explained with flair of pride in her voice. She had groomed this child ever since the future Emperor could walk and talk, and the Empress was given the sad news that she could not bear another child for the Emperor. However, with the love that the Emperor had for his Empress, he would never take a concubine. “Remember your teachings and the Emperor will reward you when he gets back.”
“Did Father arrange all of this?”
“No, future Emperor, it was the Empress.” replied Marietta calmly. She didn't want to get into an argument with the young one since they were friends behind closed doors. Also what she had said was true and the Empress had indeed set it all up. She had wondered many times what the Empress was thinking. The Empress only treated her like the other servants and it had created an unpleasant relationship. The Empress was never cruel towards her, but she was always treated with coldness. It was like the Empress hated her, but remained superior by showing everyone that it did not matter who they served. So no one got special treatments, not even those servants that served the Emperor. So she was following instructions from the Empress blindly. “This is very important. Please try your best.”
The not so young child sat there with a frown. Why would Mother want to set up a meeting? What will we gain from it? Light forest eyes searched Marietta 's face for any indication that she might know something more, perhaps about the guests. “Do you know who I am to see?”
Marietta didn't respond. Servants had rushed into the enormous room and were hastily making the place livelier with their presence. Marietta had instantly dropped the curtain back since none of the servants were permitted to see the future Emperor. She slowly stepped away from the throne and bowed at the waist before dismissing herself from the room.
Light forest eyes watched her sadly go. Marietta had stopped the feeling of being lonely, even if it were for a few moments. However, even though the room was filled with people, loneliness cloaked the slender figure in a thick blanket. The future Emperor continued to be kept away from curious eyes and those that sought to usurp the Emperor.
Lifting an arm towards the curtain, the fine silk sleeve slid up and bared soft pale skin. Fingers gently brushed the curtain; soft and delicate. Too bad they can still see my outline. It would be so easy to do whatever I liked. However, I will be able to see them and make sure that they are respectful. Dropping the arm to the side, the future Emperor watched with fascinated light forest eyes as uniformed warriors marched into the room. Everything looked as though they had practised it everyday just for such a day to occur. The warriors positioned themselves around the room while the servants stood off to the side. Forest eyes were amused that only now were the noble families allowed to enter. Nobles scattered around the room but always remained in the line of sight of the curtained area. I wonder what gossip they will spill about this day. Word will surely get out to the populace one way or another, even to those outside of the Forbidden City . A small sigh, which thankfully was not audible, escaped cherry lips.
Suddenly an entourage of people entered at the same time. Some were uniformed while others wore fine silk befitting that of a noble. All bowed at the waist respectfully before standing up straight without the future Emperor's approval. Whispers spread around the room like wildfire and the visitors felt as though they had done something wrong.
“I did not give permission for you to raise your head. In the future, you will be required to wait. This is your first time here so I will dismiss it only this once.” voiced the future Emperor in a sweet voice that held a little of the Empress's reprimand manners. The visitors all bowed at the waist again and waited to show that they understood. The sweet voice filled the room again and the visitors were released from their bowed position. “Welcome to the Forbidden City . I hope the travel here was pleasant.”
An old nobleman stepped forward. He was fat with a short beard and moustache. He wore fine silk and it looked as though he brought along a couple of servants of his own. He smiled at the curtained area, a little off guard that he was to address someone he couldn't clearly see. “Your Majesty, my name is Lu Wu and we have indeed had a pleasant long trip. Our trip here is to address to you a great general that would like the honour of becoming our liaison for future meetings. His name is Lao Xing Cheng and the Empress had voiced that she would consider the offer. He will of course remain here to serve you.” said old man Wu.
“Where is General Cheng?” demanded the future Emperor, not surprised that Wu did not have him present. It seemed these visitors were not prepared at all. However, there was something about Wu that naturally made the future Emperor cautious. “I cannot consider the request until I have seen him. Are there any other matters you would like to discuss?”
“There is one other Your Majesty, but we will require more time. Please allow us a few more days and we will be ready to discuss it?” asked old man Wu in a polite manner. He looked up at the curtained area and waited for the answer. His black eyes sparkled with delight as the future Emperor granted the request. He bowed and turned around after being dismissed. His companions following closely behind as the rest of his entourage stayed.
“Your Majesty, I am General Guan Ping and this is my daughter. My family and I would like to extend our services to you and your subjects.” informed Ping as he stepped forward and remained bowed on one knee with his daughter. He dared not look up at the curtained area since he didn't want to show any sign of being not respectful like the group before him. His black eyes stared at the clean and polished floor. His daughter did the same and he was proud that she had followed his example. “Please consider our offer.”
“General Ping, your request will be considered. However, for now, I would like for you to explain what services your daughter will provide. I assume that she will provide for the kingdom as well.” inquired the future Emperor, in an even voice that did not show any motives towards Ping 's daughter.
“Mai-Ling has a beautiful voice. She will entertain Your Majesty and any other guests that Your Majesty would like to entertain.” explained Ping . He continued to bow and would not look up. He was well dressed but paled in comparison to the previous group.
“You may rise, Ping and Mai-Ling. I will consider the offer. However, firstly I would like Mai-Ling to step forward.” said the future Emperor. Light forest eyes watched in fascination as the girl finally showed some sort of emotion besides being scared. The girl had looked at her father for approval before stepping forward. Forest eyes saw long straight black hair; a slender figure wrapped in a fine silk kimono and scared black eyes. “Please demonstrate, Mai-Ling.”
The room was filled with Mai-Ling's high pitched voice. She sung about her home and the seasons that passed. She moved the hearts of all the nobles and entertained the servants. She raised the warriors' spirits and made her father proud. However, one person was not moved, it was the person who sat behind the curtain. So when Mai-Ling was finished, everyone applauded her except for the future Emperor.
“You are dismissed. I will consider your offer.” said the future Emperor in a plain tone. Forest eyes watched as the rest of the guests left. Only those that were apart of the court were still present. A gentle wave of the hand saw to it that the nobles were to be led out with the servants and warriors. Alone once more, a single tear fell down a soft cheek. “Father, Mother…” cried the future Emperor as the loneliness fully consumed the figure in heart and soul.
Metal scraped along the pavement as eyes like the dull night sky looked ahead, but not seeing anything. Fine silk which used to be a kimono draped the feminine body loosely. It looked to be torn or cut. Blood stained the white silk which no washing would be able to remove even in the eyes of the person who wore it. Bruised bare feet did not stop the girl; it was as though she could not feel it.
Heads turned on either side of the road to watch. They were all curious and at the same time scared. No one had seen so much blood on a girl or a girl ever holding a sword, even if this one was trailing along behind her. Whispers started to spread but no one moved to help. No one knew who this girl was.
The dull eyes stared ahead unseeingly, but one foot was placed after the other. It looked as though she were heading towards the Forbidden City . Her black hair was tied in a ponytail that had come loose. Strands of black hair were plastered onto her face by dry sweat and blood. She continued at her slow pace and didn't even register anything but her destination.
The Forbidden City loomed closer with every step. She passed under numerous Sakura Trees where their green leaves were only starting to take on a hint of colour. She dragged the sword behind her and dull sky eyes looked at the gates that would lead her to safety and so much more.
Suddenly an array of uniformed warriors appeared to impede the girl's progress. They were brave and made sure that they were prepared for anything. In China it was unwise to underestimate anyone, so they drew out their swords and pointed it towards her. They had looked at her and knew that she had probably come from some sort of battle. Their eyes had noticed the blood starkly.
One of the brave men named Zhou Yu stepped forward with his sword. He looked only at her dull eyes and could almost feel her anguish. “What is your business here?” asked Yu in a calm voice. He noticed that she didn't even seem to respond to his presence except for the fact that she had stopped. He slowly looked at her clothing which would have been fit for a noble if it weren't torn and bloody. He had also noticed that she was fairly young, but almost a woman. “Please state your business?”
She stood there looking at the huge gates that would permit her into the Forbidden City . Her dull eyes could not see anything but the gates and so she took a step forward. The sword that she was holding coincidentally was out of the view of the warriors. She needed to get to the one person who could release her from her current course.
Yu watched carefully with narrowing eyes as the girl stepped forward. He could see that her eyes were still dull and it seemed like the girl was a puppet. He suddenly moved forward to place his sword threateningly onto her shoulder, however, she moved instead. His black eyes barely caught up to what she was doing. He saw a sword appear from wherever she had it. He hastily lifted his sword up defensively, but the angle in which she had used flung his sword from his hands. His black eyes followed his sword as it clattered noisily on the ground. He felt the cold steel which had stopped right at his neck, but didn't draw blood. He looked down towards the dull eyes and was surprised that she still looked like a puppet. Slowly his eyes tracked to the sword that she had used and they almost bulged out of their sockets.
The warriors standing around had been stunned by seeing their skilled companion being disarmed so easily. They quickly got their act together and were about to rush the girl with their swords, however Yu lifted his arms out to his sides to stop them. The warriors were a little confused until they all saw a glimpse of the sword that she wielded so easily. They all slowly backed up with their swords still drawn, but were unsure what they should do.
Yu slowly stepped away from the girl, seeing that she made no move to inflict damage or stop him. He assumed that she had moved instinctively, as if she had a self defence switch that turned on for that brief moment. His companions retrieved his sword but he made no move to claim it and slowly backed away from her. He watched curiously as her arm dropped to her side and she stepped closer towards him. He could see now why he had not seen the sword since she was dragging it behind her. “Open the gates!” yelled Yu as he continued to back up without tripping on the steps.
“Are you sure?” asked one of Yu's companions. “She has a weapon and we don't know her motives. We could be letting in a murderer. Are you willing to risk your honour on that?”
“I do, now open the gates.” replied Yu hurriedly as he continued to walk backwards and up the stairs leading to the gates into the Forbidden City . He watched her as she started to mount the stairs and shuddered at her skill. He could have died at the speed in which she had used to disarm him. He could feel the adrenaline still rushing through his veins at the panic that he had felt. It was strange for him to see her dragging the sword up and hearing it hit each step. He had noticed that a lot of the populace was there to witness this strange scene and knew that word of the girl would have already spread far and wide. She had used the main road to get into the province in the first place. Luckily these gates were the northern gates known as The Gate of Divine Prowess.
The future Emperor sat on a wooden bench in the imperial garden. A hat with netting adorned the head to hide the fair hair that was extremely unusual considering both Emperor and Empress had black hair. It was also a good thing that different clothes were worn after the meeting in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Long silk white pants and a fashionable white silk long sleeved shirt with a black belt covered the body. All those that passed by would bow and continue on. Only Marietta would stay, but she had been dismissed earlier after the report of what had transpired in the hall had been given.
Another tear fell down a soft cheek, longing for Father and Mother to return. However, deep inside the heart, pain burned as if a knife had shredded it into a million shards. An overwhelming feeling of loneliness shattered the mind and made important matters become shallow, left aside for the time being. Why do I feel like this? What does it mean? Only these thoughts tried to reason out the feelings that were whirling around inside. Slowly soft lips parted and a musically sweet voice filled the garden.
“Leaves are changing one by one,
Yellow, red or brown…
Winds will blow and strip trees bare,
Ready for winter…
Soil will become barren,
Littered with small leaves…
Colourful Sakura Trees,
Autumn is now here…
Air will cool and make things cold,
Waiting for the snow…
But we'll sit and drink our wine,
The future Emperor stopped singing. Very aware that the guards surrounding the garden had been listening, forest eyes looked about to note the tranquil looks on their faces. Did I make them feel me? Did my song touch them in some way? There was more to that song but no one would understand the feelings behind it. For some reason the rest of the song was sorrowful; well what had been created.
Suddenly a commotion broke out of the Hall of Imperial Peace. Guards were rushing to the scene and shouting could be heard. Forest eyes looked towards the hall before slowly standing up. A handful of guards had come and were waiting to escort the future Emperor to safety. However, forest eyes were transfixed on the door and every muscle fibre was yelling to stay. Even the heart bound the body in place and no word from the guards could penetrate the curious mind.
Metal scraping on paved flooring could be heard loudly and was slowly getting closer to the garden. Guards were questioning one warrior while he was slowly retreating unarmed out of the hall. The guards had stopped their yelling when they saw what the commotion was all about.
The future Emperor stood there. Forest eyes glued to the sight of a young girl about the same age. Seeing the torn clothes and blood made the future Emperor worried. As if a rope had been tied around the body, the future Emperor was pulled towards the young girl. Each step taken, the guards would circle and follow. Forest eyes stared at the young girl as she approached.
The girl stopped short of touching the person in front of her who looked as young as she. She could see that this was the person that she had to talk to. This was the person who could save her. This was the person who the sword would now belong to.
The guards surrounding the future Emperor unsheathed their swords in a flurry and aimed at the young girl. They didn't care that she looked broken or young. They didn't care that she was covered in blood. All they knew was that they had to protect their charge and the young girl had pulled out a sword. So the guards quickly descended their swords onto the girl, not caring that they were going to kill a person in front of the future Emperor.
“STOP!!!” yelled the future Emperor hastily after seeing what the guards' intentions were. Forest eyes watched in fear and worry as the blades arced through the air to slice the girl apart. The future Emperor made a hasty decision and stood in the way of the blades. All but one blade had made impossible stops before hitting the future Emperor.
Everyone gasped in shock. The guards retrieved their swords except for one. The one blade that remained had blood trickling down to the hilt. Forest eyes were staring at the guard with wide forest eyes. The hat had been partly sliced on one side and had fallen negligently to the ground. Straight silky long blonde hair swayed with a small breeze as everyone stood frozen.
“Are you alright?” whispered the girl into the future Emperor's ear.
The future Emperor slowly nodded. Forest eyes looked around at the stunned guards. Could it be possible that no one suspected that I was truly different? They didn't know that I did not look like my parents? They didn't know that I am a female? She slowly turned her head to look into the eyes of her saviour. However, she was mesmerised as she stared at eyes that looked like the calm of a deep blue ocean. She could see the rapid undercurrents which she suspected were the roiling emotions kept hidden from those that could not see. Her heart leapt out of her body, yearning to caress this soul and ease the pain that she could see. Her forest eyes had softened. She would have raised a hand to that soft cheek, but she was aware of her surroundings.
Yu watched in fascination and worry as he saw the accumulating blood that was drenching the future Emperor's clothes. He slowly approached the guard who had not stopped in time and saw that he had been standing still because of another reason. A blade was resting at the guard's neck which had been slightly hidden by his own arm. “Let go and move away.” commanded Yu as he carefully approached the two women, making sure that he was still in their line of sight.
Blood continued to drip onto the future Emperor's shoulder and she was instantly snapped out of her daze. She quickly turned her head to see that the guard had slowly retreated away with a frightened and worried look. She looked towards the blade that was left behind and almost cringed with pain. Jade eyes became pale green as she saw the extent of the damage.
Yu stepped forward and grabbed the girl's left hand which was bleeding profusely. He yanked the blade free from her flesh and was shocked that she had not whimpered or cried out in pain. He threw the sword, hilt first, back to the frightened guard. However his brown eyes widened in stunned disbelief as he turned back to inspect the hand and all that remained of the wound was only blood. He looked up and, for the first time, he could see into the eyes of the girl. Sapphire eyes stared at him.
Slowly the girl moved away from the future Emperor and bowed in the formal tradition; on hands and knees. She rested the sword that was in her right hand, the entire time, in front of her. Her sweet voice filled the garden as she spoke towards the shocked future Emperor. “I return to you what is rightfully yours, your birthright.” Slender figures held up the sword and waited as she made sure not to raise her head.
The future Emperor slowly lifted her hand and gently lifted the blade from the girl's hands. Her jade eyes were swamped as tears slowly fell down her cheeks. The sword was beautiful with a dragon engraved into the blade. The hilt was golden and looked as though nothing could mar its glow. She knew what this sword represented and knew the meaning of the situation. Her heart had already told her earlier and now she had the confirmation.
Suddenly Marietta rushed into the garden. She paused for a few seconds to absorb what was going on. She saw a girl bowing to the future Emperor and saw the sword. Worry exploded out of her being as she rushed over to the future Emperor. However she stopped short by a couple of steps as her eyes widened. Her black eyes watched as the future Emperor was falling. She saw how Yu had moved to catch her but he too stopped his motions. Jade eyes had gone dull and were closed as she was about to fall to the ground.
Yu was planted to the ground. He had been about to rush to the future Emperor's side but the bowing girl had moved so fast. She had been able to get up and managed to ease the future Emperor safely to the ground. He was also stunned at the look that was in those sapphire eyes but kept that information private for now. So he stood there and watched as the girl cradled the future Emperor.
Marietta mentally slapped herself for not moving. She rushed over to the future Emperor's side and slowly the girl handed her over. Black eyes looked up into weary sapphire eyes and she could see that this girl at such a young age was broken. She could see that they were now dull.
The girl gave a small smile that did not reach her eyes. She could hear the guards start to move but at least now she had completed what she had to do. So she had handed the young Emperor back over to the old lady and whispered a few words so that only she could hear. “I have completed my mission. Please make sure that she is alright and cared for. Thank you for your help.” Sapphire eyes closed and the girl slumped over onto the ground.
Musical notes filtered through to her mind. She could hear a voice in a far off sort of way. Her ears strained to hear more and her mind wanted to know more about the person who was singing. However her body felt so tired and the effort required to open her eyes seemed unbearably painful. So she lay there and listened to that sweet voice that had invaded and pulled her out of her subconscious.
“Leaves are changing one by one,
Yellow, red or brown…
Winds will blow and strip trees bare,
Ready for winter…
Soil will become barren,
Littered with small leaves…
Colourful Sakura Trees,
Autumn is now here…
Air will cool and make things cold,
Waiting for the snow…
But we'll sit and drink our wine,
Torn apart by destiny,
We will meet again some day,
Our souls coming home…”
The sweet voice stopped. Her mind and heart craved for more. So slowly she forced her eyes open to see whose lovely voice it was. Sapphire eyes found emerald orbs staring back at her. She felt herself falling into them and was loathed to stop that feeling. However she managed to grab a hold of herself and pulled her body back to reality. Sapphire eyes looked around the room and noted that she was in a private room that befitted a noble. Her eyes then found an old lady whose image began to clobber her mind. Holes in her memory began to fill with knowledge that she wanted to forget. Tears streamed down the side of her face but she froze when she felt a soft finger touch her.
Marietta watched curiously as the two girls watched each other as if seeing something amazing for the first time. She had sat in this room the entire time with the future Emperor since it was her wish to also stay. Her black eyes had been astounded to not find a scratch on the girl's body even though there was so much blood. Her curiosity started to increase when she saw those sapphire eyes turn dull and tears started to appear. It was like this girl had been brought here by fate, broken and alone.
Emerald eyes watched the girl as the tears slowly abated. Her heart had painfully stopped for a brief moment as if she were feeling what the sapphire eyed girl was feeling. She had reached her hand out to catch those tears and was almost frozen by a wave of familiarity. How can I feel like I have known her my entire life when this is the first time that I have met her? She slowly retrieved her hand as if it were the last thing that she wanted to do. Her heart was telling her to hug this person and not worry about anything while her head was screaming to be cautious since this girl was a total stranger.
“Where am I?” asked the girl in total calm as if her moment of weakness had not appeared. Her long black hair was silky and soft. She felt clean and didn't have any remnants of the events of the day. She slowly sat up as her body strongly protested the movement. However she didn't let it show. She was in a strange place and her memory still had holes in it; like how did she get here or why was she even here.
“You are in the Forbidden City and my name is Marietta . This here is…” Marietta faltered at addressing the future Emperor. She had spoken to Yu earlier and they were still unsure about the girl's motives. It was obvious that the girl didn't want to harm anyone but she had to be cautious. So she was about to lie but the future Emperor beat her to the punch.
“My name is Hanami. It is a Japanese name that belonged to one of my ancient ancestors. May I know yours?” asked Hanami in a sweet voice. She smiled widely to encourage the girl in front of her to talk. Her blonde hair which was very unusual in their kingdom was being watched by sapphire eyes.
“Sakura.” the sapphire eyed girl replied in kind. She didn't feel threatened by Hanami. On the contrary, she felt extremely safe as if she could divulge all of her secrets and no harm would befall her. “I need to go back home and find my father. He must be worried that I haven't returned home yet.” said Sakura; however the words seemed to taste awkward as if it were the wrong thing to say. Something in her mind was banging profusely from inside her skull and was causing a major headache to come about.
Suddenly the guards rushed into the hallway and an announcement was made that General Ping and Mai-Ling were waiting for an audience. They couldn't see into the room but they knew that they had been heard clearly. So they waited for their command.
Hanami had turned her attention to the hallway. She wondered what this was going to be about and thought about how she should handle the situation. She didn't want to leave this room and she wanted only Sakura as her audience except for Marietta , of course. Her forest eyes darkened as her mind tried to come up with a solution that would make sure that Sakura stayed and her two guests had their audience. However Marietta 's overbearing eyes made the decision for her. “I will be there shortly. You are dismissed.”
Sakura had seen the hesitation in Hanami's eyes. She knew instantly who had made that decision, from Marietta 's nod of approval. She made a move to get up but Hanami placed a surprisingly strong hand on her shoulder to prevent her from doing so. “It would be wise for me to head home, Hanami.”
“You must rest a while longer.” said Hanami. She immediately raised her hand to halt the rebuttal on Sakura's lips and added, “Just until I come back at least.” She rose gracefully and headed towards the door. She smiled as Marietta handed her a new hat to remind her that she had to conceal her hair or have people doubt her parentage and right for the throne.
Sakura absorbed the information that was available to her. So she hides her hair and face. Why does she need to hide such beauty? Her parents must be strict. She sounds like she is from around the area but her looks place her as someone from over the mass of water. I wonder what her parents must look like. She was pulled from her reverie as the door closed and the object of her attention had disappeared. Her sapphire eyes looked around and noted that Marietta had stayed behind. She looks like she has questions…
Yu stood in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. He wasn't alone. A general and what looked to be his daughter were also waiting. His brown eyes had judged them and he had liked what he had found. There was nothing that he could do or say at the present moment since he was still held in reprimand by his superiors. He knew what was going through their heads. They wanted him to be trialled immediately for allowing a stranger into the Forbidden City and causing harm to the future Emperor.
Yu stood at attention as soon as he heard the future Emperor's entrance into the hall. It had been ingrained into him to show the utmost dignity and loyalty to the throne by his parents. He would not do anything less to jeopardize the loyalty that he had gained from the Emperor and his fellow comrades.
Hanami entered from the side and quickly sat on the throne. Her masculine clothes and hat were in place so that she could exert a certain air of power within the room whenever her parents were away. However, right at this moment, the thought of her parents almost made her stumble. Am I prepared to take the responsibility that the golden chair represents?
Hanami looked around with her emerald eyes and noted that one of the guards that she had seen earlier was present. Her pale eyebrows were raised at the reason why he was even here. She had already noted the two guests and wondered what their reasons for summoning her may be. However she had to present a certain air of authority. Hopefully she could guess what everyone was thinking like her father had somehow been able to do.
Hanami raised her hand so that her two guests could go first. She was not surprised when both bowed and didn't motion forward until she gave the signal. Her mother had always been strict and the one thing that she had ingrained into her mind was that she had to show everyone how it was done immediately before anyone got any other ideas. She should be commanding and at the same time thoughtful and sincere. All of her lessons came to the fore as she waited for General Ping and Mai-Ling to speak.
“We would like to express our concerns about news that just arrived from the north.” informed General Ping as he raised his head. He looked grim as he presented the news and the room full of nobles all looked worried. He continued when he was permitted to. “The Great Wall of China is under attack by the nomadic tribes. They have banded together. The party that the Emperor and Empress were in are missing.”
Hanami heard the room gasp. It looked as though everyone was shocked except for her. She calmly thought about all the clues that she had received today. She had a foreboding feeling that something terrible had happened to her parents during the morning meeting and then Sakura showed up with her father's sword. She sighed quietly and raised her hand to silence the room. “Thank you for the news. Is there anything else that you wish to inform me?”
Ping was shocked at the calm presence that he felt emanating from the throne. He thought that this news would cause some sort of panic but now he understood why the Emperor and Empress would entrust the throne to the future Emperor. He bowed his head and replied clearly, “No.”
“Mai-Ling?” prompted Hanami.
“No.” replied Mai-Ling succinctly. She just wanted to see the future Emperor again.
Hanami flicked her hand negligently and Ping and Mai-Ling stepped aside. Her forest eyes searched the room and were a little surprised that some of the generals were present. She assumed that they were the guard's superiors. “Please, General Guan Li.”
General Li stepped forward and bowed respectfully with his small entourage. He raised his greying head and smiled at the throne. His rough but loud voice filled the air so that all could hear him. “We would like Commander Zhou Yu to be trialled immediately. He is to be held accountable for letting an intruder into the Forbidden City via the north gate. He will bear any punishment that you deem reasonable.”
Hanami smiled. So there really isn't anything else that I should need to worry about except for what Ping had presented. She sighed in relief that there was nothing else dooming that would be placed upon her shoulders. She wondered how her other guest was fairing under Marietta 's interrogation. “Zhou Yu, do you have anything that you wish to say before I issue a punishment befitting your crime?” asked Hanami in a commanding tone.
“No, your majesty, there is nothing that I have to say.” replied Yu.
“Very well then, your punishment will be… you will be reassigned from your current post to one of my personal guards.” Hanami heard the whisperings start. They were obviously thinking that she had gone mad. “You may have let a person into the Forbidden City but under the circumstances, I praise you for your actions. If you had not let the intruder in, I would not have been informed about the attack in the North. General Li, I expect you and the others in the war room after this.” said Hanami succinctly. She stood up abruptly before everyone had a chance to bow and walked quickly out of the room without seeming too hasty.
Hanami quickly rushed back to the room where Sakura was supposed to be resting. She felt like a thousand things were pulling her apart and only Sakura had the cure. Her heart slowly sank as she got to her destination. The room seemed quiet and the guards looked unaware. She opened the door and was not prepared for what she saw.
Marietta sat with her back against the wall and her legs spread out in front of her. The blanket and mattress were a mess in the middle of the room. Her charge who had been sleeping was no where to be seen. Her black eyes only looked up as the door opened to omit Hanami.
Hanami paused on her entrance. The room was a mess and Marietta looked like she had seen a ghost. She quickly crossed the room to her friend after closing the door in the guards' faces. She knelt and asked, “What happened?”
Marietta looked at green eyes and she began to calm down. She slowly got her legs underneath her and knelt on her knees before slightly bowing her head. “I was asking her questions which she fumbled answers for. Sometimes she would say something spontaneous and other times she would be quiet. All I really got from her is that she had been to the Great Wall of China and now she was here. It sounded like there were huge gaps in her memory. I tried to probe further without pushing too much when she suddenly sat up. I was about to make her lie back down but she pushed me. I was stunned at her strength. It was as if the Emperor had granted her with celestial strength. She looked as stunned as I before she fled with the Emperor's sword. I thought the guards would stop her but it was as if they couldn't see her or feel her. It was like she was a ghost.”
“ Sakura, Sakura… Sakura, Sakura... ”
Sakura opened her eyes and gazed at the familiar ceiling. She was home, in her own room. She turned her head and noticed that the door was wide open to the garden outside. I thought I told her to close it last night. She slowly sat up and looked around to see if her personal maid was sitting around watching her. It had been creepy at first but as time flew by, she learnt to ignore it. Her father had told her that it was a necessity until one day she made a beautiful bride.
Standing at the door that opened out to the garden, Sakura was sad that all of the green was going to fade or change. She looked at the grass and the one Sakura tree that stood proudly in the yard. She was named after that tree since her blue eyes were rare. It was kind of funny that she had a Japanese name when her parents were both Chinese. She knew that they loved visiting that island across the sea but now it was not to be. Her mother had passed away when she was only three after a horrible winter. She could still remember how her mother had smiled during autumn and she had made plans for the following spring.
Sakura wiped the tear that had escaped down her cheeks. She didn't want to cry about her mother anymore. She just wanted to remember happy times. She wanted her memories to never fade but over time she had forgotten. She had started to forget little things; like the way her mother smelled or what her favourite whistling tune was. She had remembered them ages ago when her father had reminded her, but he had given up. It was as though he had put his work first and everything else was everything else.
Sakura stood at that door. She had been waiting for her personal maid to come and usher her around. However it was odd that she hadn't heard from her at all. So she slowly meandered around the house and noted that there was no one around. She was surprised that everything looked exactly like the day that she had been summoned by the Emperor.
“ Sakura… You have to wake up… It's not a dream… Sakura…!”
Suddenly Sakura fell to her knees, cradling her head. It felt as though a bomb were about to explode. Her head felt so clustered and heavy. There was something important that she was forgetting. There was something that she had to do and her mind was trying to warn her. She somehow managed to make it back to her room and into the safety of her blanket. Slowly she huddled into a foetal position and closed her eyes tightly. However she felt something cold near her legs. Peeking one eye open she saw it; the only thing that could remind her of what had occurred.
Sakura sat in the carriage and waited while her personal maid sat right next to her. Her maid was nice and would do anything for her but they were not friends. It was agreed early on when they were first introduced each other that they would hold their roles in society and not become friends. They were only going to be mistress and maid.
“Why do you think the Emperor has summoned me?” asked Sakura.
“There was a missive that was sent to the house. The Emperor had expressed in it that he had a visitor earlier in his trip that suggested he seek you out. So your father and you have been summoned. It is likely that they will want to be entertained by you, most likely your singing perhaps.” replied the maid.
“I find it hard to believe that the Emperor would seek me out solely for my voice and a few moments worth of entertainment. Surely you must have some idea of why the Emperor would truly summon me?” said Sakura with a sigh.
The maid held her tongue since what she had heard were only rumours. She didn't want to give her mistress any false information. It was also highly likely that this summoning was one of the Emperor's spontaneous moments. She sat next to her mistress and waited patiently as the ride was slightly uncomfortable.
Sakura held her silence. There was really little that she could talk to her maid about. It was always limited to what needed to be done to appease her. However she never asked for anything except the necessary things such as washing her clothes or cleaning her room. It was obvious that her maid never complained about the chores since other maids had expressed their own dislikes about their mistresses. Sakura's maid was lucky that she didn't have to do half the things that the other mistresses conjured up.
Sakura felt the carriage pull to a stop. The door swung open abruptly and her father was standing there. He looked very impressive in his general's uniform but she didn't say anything. It was quite clear from his expression that she shouldn't express her opinions freely in this environment. So she carefully hopped out of the carriage and wasn't surprised that there was a battalion of warriors standing guard.
Sakura's gaze swept the area. She was slightly amazed that they had been brought to the Great Wall of China . She had been expecting the palace. It seemed very odd for her to be here in this place which was rumoured to be the section of the wall that was attacked the most because of its vulnerabilities.
“Sakura, please stay close.” warned her father.
Sakura nodded her head and slowly followed her father. There was nothing that she could say to relieve the growing tension that was in her gut. The formidable warriors that only gave her a dismissive glance made her even more nervous as she followed obediently. There was no need for her maid to come along and so she had remained in the carriage. She just wished that these people looked a little bit friendlier. She could feel the tension that was radiating from her father's form as well.
Walking carefully so that she didn't trip on the uneven surface, Sakura made sure that her dress didn't get caught on anything. She would die of embarrassment if she were to fall in front of all of these men because of her clumsiness. She had noticed as well that some of the younger warriors were given her second glances as if they were judging her. She wondered if any of them wanted to take her hand in marriage since she was actually the right age and not promised to anyone. She hoped that none would come forward with that notion.
The path gradually changed as a colourful mat was laid before her feet. She was slightly relieved that she would not have the chance to fall if she were walking on the mat. Her cerulean eyes glanced up and noticed that there were two chairs that were erected as if it were the throne. She quickly cast her eyes downward as she saw the Emperor and the Empress. She followed her father's lead and bowed respectfully.
Sakura's brief glance of the Emperor and Empress allowed her the opportunity to remember their faces. She was a little surprised at the age similarities between the Emperor and her own father. The Empress looked mightily youthful as well which created an air of immortality, as if death could not touch them. She was also amazed that they had a formidable presence that made her feel as though she had been a naughty child. Her nervousness increased as she felt their eyes fall to her.
“General Ming Yi, I take it that this is your daughter?” asked the Emperor in a mundane tone. His black eyes were plastered to Sakura as if trying to figure her out. The Empress was doing the same thing but she didn't say anything yet. The Emperor continued to address Sakura's father as soon as the affirmation was given. “I am a little confused. I was expecting something more but now that we are all here, it is kind of a disappointment.”
“My apologise, Emperor.” replied General Yi, however the rest of his speech was cut off.
“Do not talk until we have given permission for you to speak. You may be a very well respected General out here but you must remember who you are addressing.” reprimanded the Empress. She looked down her pointed nose and glared at the General. She smiled when she saw that he had slightly flinched. “It would seem that this summons has been a waste of time.”
“I think not my dear. If we had waited and not made sure, we would have probably regretted it. Now General Yi, would you care to enlighten us as to the reason why we have summoned you and your daughter?” asked the Emperor.
“I do not know, Your Majesty.” replied General Yi. He remained bowed and did not move a muscle. The other warriors were impressed that he was under such scrutiny and he hadn't even broken a sweat yet. The tension in the air was noticeable and it looked as though the Emperor and Empress were the cause.
“Well then, let me tell you a story. One beautiful summer's day, the Empress and I were out for a walk. However during our casual walk, we were interrupted by a beautiful maiden. She showed us through our mind's eye what would happen to our kingdom. She showed us what would become of our child. The guards were about to arrest her and condemn her for intruding, but we held them back. We felt that there was some truth in what she said. So I asked her to continue but she would only talk to the Empress of the details.” explained the Emperor. She looked over to his wife and nodded his head for her to continue the story.
“It was brought to my attention that the maiden would only talk to me in private but I was allowed the option of telling the Emperor later on. She feared his anger if she were to tell the rest. She said that a girl with blue eyes and a pure voice like calm seas would meet us. She would be the key to saving the kingdom and our child.” said the Empress.
“Sakura, please raise your head and look at me. ” commanded the Emperor.
Sakura slowly raised her head. Her cerulean eyes looked up at the Emperor without fear. She was a little uneasy about the story that the Emperor and Empress had told but she kept silent. She could see that the Empress was staring at her and could feel the guards standing around trying to get a better look at her eyes as well.
“Sakura, please come here so that I can have a better look.” commanded the Empress.
Sakura rose gracefully and obeyed. She stepped cautiously up the small platform and knelt before the Empress so that she wouldn't have to look up. Her cerulean eyes glimmered in the morning light and there was no doubt about whether her eyes were blue or not. Even the Emperor was a little amazed that she had blue eyes. The Empress held her chin gently and she was bound in place and could only stare back. She didn't let her gaze stray and with this act, revealed to the rulers her inner strength.
“General Yi,” said the Empress, “I would like to spend some time with your daughter today to get to know her. Is that alright with you?” The Empress looked at the surprised General and almost laughed at the look on his face. She found it quite amusing that he sat there for a while before her husband's throat clearing got his attention. She wasn't surprised that he agreed without even thinking. She then let Sakura's chin go and gracefully stood up with her husband.
The Emperor waved his hand negligently and everyone except Sakura was dismissed. Only a small entourage of guards remained but they made sure to stay out of hearing range. The Empress stepped off the podium first before the Emperor gestured for Sakura to go ahead of him.
Sakura felt as though this were all some kind of twisted dream. There was no way that she would be summoned because of what a woman had told the two rulers. She tried to calm down her nerves and only exuded an aura of strength. It was the one thing that she had learnt over the years from being alone by herself.
Sakura was a little surprised and became rigid when the Empress took her hand into her arm. Cerulean eyes looked at the Empress as if she were some sort of foreign creature from another world. This was so not how she had pictured any sort of meeting with the two rulers. She managed to stay on her feet and keep walking as the Empress led her down a pathway.
“Sakura, there is much that I would like to learn about you. However, I feel that this is a little too much for someone your age. So I would like for you to speak your mind. Don't worry, no one will overhear us.” said the Empress.
Sakura smiled at the Empress as the Emperor walked on her other side. She tried to put her thoughts into order before speaking. Her long black hair swayed with the gentle breeze that reminded her that the gentle winds of autumn were upon them. Her memories of another time began to surface but she managed to push them away. “Can you please describe to me what this woman looked like, the one who told you about me?” asked Sakura in a smooth feminine voice that could carry on the wind if she wished it so.
“The woman had black hair and eyes. She looked like a normal Chinese citizen. The guards would have taken her out of our sights but we stopped them. We had a feeling that there was more to her than we could see. So we decided to talk to her. She bowed respectfully to us and it was then that she entered our minds. She showed us the destruction that would come to our empire if we were to send her away. She told us that this event would eventually happen, but there was a way to restore everything. She told us that there would be a girl who was almost a woman. This girl would have blue eyes and she would be the key to helping the empire.” explained the Emperor in detail. He was glad that Sakura had listened thoroughly and that she looked as though he had only told the truth. There was no indication on her face that told them she did not believe them. So he continued. “We wanted to know more about this girl, but the woman would not say anything. We were about to give up, but then she turned to the Empress. They talked without me listening and I am yet to learn what they have talked about in detail. My wife thinks that it is imperative that I know as little as possible at this stage.”
“It is for your own good, husband.” retorted the Empress gleefully. “The woman turned to me and made me swear to not inform his majesty about what she was going to tell me until it was the right time. So since he is standing right here, I will only tell you what I've told him so far. The woman described you as blue eyed but you also have a lovely voice. She said that the future Emperor would meet the girl and they would help each other to restore the empire.”
“I know that having blue eyes is rare but how do you know that I am the girl that the woman was talking about?” asked Sakura as she pondered over the information. It seemed farfetched that a woman would appear to give them bad news and a solution to the aftermath. “How do you know if she was telling the truth in the first place besides being able to project images into your mind?”
“When she left, she did not simply walk away. She disappeared in a shower of light that could only be described as celestial. It was like she was sent by our ancestors to warn us and make things right in the end. She also told us that we would only truly know if we had met the right girl when the first signs, that the event will happen, appears.” said the Emperor.
“So, how did you find me?” asked Sakura as she slowly started to relax.
“The maids all talk. We sent a rumour out that a blue eyed girl had a beautiful voice and we would like to hear her. It has only taken a month before a maid under my service came forward with information about such a girl. So we summoned you immediately and thought the best place to explain it all would be where we first met that woman.” explained the Empress. She stopped in the middle of the pathway and gestured around her.
The trees were closely knit and autumn had not claimed their leaves just yet. Green of all shades covered the area with the muted brown in the background. It was a beautiful place and not far from the path was the Great Wall of China . All three sets of eyes turned to look. The magnificent wall stood tall but was made of compact dirt.
Sakura looked at the wall and was surprised that this section of the wall was made so poorly. She had thought that they had used other materials to build the wall. Her cobalt eyes examined the wall and she started to feel an uneasiness start to grow in the pit of her stomach. She glanced at the Emperor and Empress but they seemed to be dazed. She quickly took in the surroundings and finally noticed that there were fewer guards than they had before. Adrenaline started to pump throughout her veins in preparation for something that she was not ready for.
Sakura tensed her whole body as she tried to will away the terrible feeling that something very bad was going to happen. She was about to voice her concerns but the Emperor seemed to finally notice. She was slightly pushed to the Empress's side as she watched him draw out his concealed sword. She hadn't even noticed that he had been wearing it on his side. He must have put it on while she stepped off the podium and was staring at the Empress.
Sakura's eyes went wide but there was no fear in them. She felt the natural energies around her as her body acclimatized to the surroundings. She felt the attackers jump out into the air before she saw them. She could see that the attackers were all aiming for those that were armed. She tried to will her mind to start her legs running but her body wouldn't listen. The Empress was frightened by her side and she stood there. She saw how three of the attackers were about to engage with the Emperor and she had to yell out. There was another attacker jumping in late who had his blade aimed at the Emperor's head.
Sakura opened her sapphire eyes and stared at the ceiling of her room. I'm in bed. What did I do last night? Why can't I remember anything after my maid told me that I had been summoned by the Emperor? What is going on? Her head was starting to hurt just thinking about all of these questions. She turned her head to look out of the open doors to the garden. However, something glistened in her eyes and temporarily blinded her until she moved away from the stream of reflected sunlight. Her sapphire eyes fell to a golden hilted sword before a full blown migraine erupted. She held her head and tried to will the pain away. Her body naturally curled into the foetal position to protect herself.
“ Sakura, Sakura, Sakura… Wake up!”
Suddenly Sakura stood up. Her migraine had never existed and she casually picked up the sword as if it belonged to her. She waved the sword around carelessly to acclimatize to the weight of it and made sure that it was balanced. There was no point in having a sword that was unbalanced. She looked at the open doors to the garden and approached them. Her eyes never left the lone tree that was outside while her body naturally swung the sword to her back. She clipped it securely before concealing it and then donned a hat that sat low to hide most of her face. She was clothed in men's clothes before she stepped out of the doors, closing them behind her.
Hanami was dressed in female clothing for once. She had bargained with Marietta to let her have a day off since there was really nothing she could do in the palace. Everything had been settled the night before. She had given permission for a small contingent of warriors to scout the area where the nomadic tribes had invaded. It was the best thing that she could do until she was able to learn more.
Hanami had already spoken to the handful of guards who had been able to see her face. They were all sworn to secrecy and only five were allowed to come with her on her little excursion; one of them being Yu who had proven himself on numerous occasions to the Emperor and on one occasion for her. She would make sure that she was with one of them at all times while the other four were to conceal themselves as commoners.
Hanami got the once over look from Marietta before she was cleared to go. She wore commoner's clothes so that she wouldn't attract attention to herself and only had a small coin bag if she wanted to purchase anything at the stalls. She smiled as Marietta bid her farewell and gave some last threats to the guards who were going to come with her.
“Yu, what do you do for fun when you are off duty?” asked Hanami casually as she strolled along side him. They both looked like they were a couple on a stroll but Hanami didn't care so long as nobody tried to pick on her. She had already stopped at an inn earlier that morning to sample some of the food, but didn't find it to her liking. “Is there a place we can have fun?”
Yu looked really nervous as he walked with Hanami. He had one hand on his concealed sword while the other was being held by her. He almost flinched in public when she had first linked arms with him. He had been caught off guard and would have blown their cover if it hadn't been for Hanami's quick words of wisdom. “I usually go to an inn for a drink before I head home after a shift. If I have a day off, I go and visit my parents or go fishing in Changping. It is north of here and would require a carriage to get there after nightfall if we were to leave now. I usually leave here early in the morning to get there by midday to spend some time with my family or go fishing.”
“So, do you know any place around here that would be fun then?”
“There is a small party of entertainers that have set up a bit west from here. They should be putting on a show around mid afternoon. We can still make it there to watch.” suggested Yu as they stood off to the side of the road. People were hustling back and forth since it was one of the main roads. “There are also a few food stalls in that area as well if you are hungry. Otherwise there is an inn there which will have decent food.”
“Lead on then.”
Hanami walked casually with Yu as they headed for the area where the entertainers were. Her eyes were wide with excitement as she saw the acrobatics that were performed as well as the stage performance of an ancient story. It was all fantastic and fun as she watched the acts and clapped with the crowd. Her eyes flared with joy and excitement as she fell into the stories that they portrayed using music and poetry. She was smiling and laughing by the time that the entertainers had finished all of their acts for the day.
Yu led Hanami into a nearby inn where he ordered tea and steamed buns. It was the only snack that he could think of that would be served immediately and relished in the fact that Hanami was enjoying herself outside of the Forbidden City . He was glad that no one had argued against Hanami leaving and slowly began to wonder why.
“Yu, why are we eating in this establishment and not the one over in that corner?” asked Hanami as she delved into the steam bun. It was fresh and sweet as the bread slid over her tongue. She had only tried this sort of thing once with her father. They used to go out and explore since she was so bored and sheltered within the Forbidden City . He always made time for her even though he was the Emperor. “It looks much cleaner than this place and there are fewer people.”
“Lesson number one when eating out, always go to a place that is popular. The reason being is that the food must be better. Lesson number two, uppity establishments charge an arm and a leg for all of their food and drink. Lesson number three; we are not properly dressed to enter those establishments. They will surely kick us out and there are a few warriors who go there who would gladly bully us out. So those are the reasons why we are eating here.” explained Yu as he ate his portion of the steamed buns.
“So if I were dressed proper, they would let me in?” asked Hanami.
“They would let you in.” whispered Yu as the waiter came back with their tea.
Hanami finished her snack and headed outside before Yu could follow since she left the bill to him. She was standing there and looking up and down the street. Her eyes had already tracked where her other guards were. She smiled as she started to head towards the uppity establishment. Her emerald eyes sparkled at the challenge it would take for her to enter such an establishment.
Hanami could see the alarm in the four guard's eyes as they tracked to where she was heading. It was kind of funny that they were only watching and could do nothing. She wondered how long it would take before Yu would catch up to her. She walked briskly and with an air of authority as she entered the very decorative and clean establishment. She immediately seated herself at a table in the middle of the room as all eyes were staring at her as if she were daft.
A waiter with a scowl on his face quickly walked over. He was dressed in fine silk and everything about him was a bit rich compared to his status. His black eyes raked her outfit with distaste before he cleared his throat to speak. “Please leave. You are not welcome here. The likes of you don't even have enough money to pay for a glass of water in here.” said the waiter rudely.
“Excuse me, but this is a public establishment. I thought anyone could eat here.” replied Hanami sweetly which slightly offset the man. She could see in her peripherals that she was garnering the other costumer's glares. “Why is it that you assume I cannot eat here?”
“I am the owner of this business and I can say who can eat here and who can't. You, in your filthy clothes, are better off going to the other inn on the other side of town. Now leave my establishment before I get the authorities to lock you up for disrupting my business.” argued the waiter.
Hanami was about to retort when a set of arms grabbed her from behind. The smile on the waiter's face instantly indicated that it wasn't someone who would help her. The two men who grabbed her were dressed in the local authorities' uniform. They pulled her to her feet before she could even protest and started to drag her outside.
Suddenly a voice from the corner of the room halted the commotion. “Leave her be. I will pay for her bill if that is all that you are worried about.” The individual who was sitting alone at the corner table began to rise when the waiter dismissed the offer.
The two men continued to drag Hanami off with huge grins on their faces. It was obvious to the other patrons what they had on their minds once they dragged her off. She tried to struggle to get the men to loosen their hold on her, but she was like a kitten in the clenches of two hungry tigers. She tried to protest and made sure that everyone could hear her as she was being pulled out.
The individual who had protested the act walked forward with a sure stride. Fine silk pants and robe adorned the sturdy body as if the individual did not care for anything. A low sitting hat hid the individuals face and every patron was unsure whether to stay for the show or to leave. The individual suddenly rushed forward and punched one man before grabbing the other around the neck and tossing him towards the waiter. A satisfying sigh filled the air as the three men crumpled to the floor. The individual then grabbed Hanami's arm and rushed out of the establishment which would soon be crawling with authorities.
Hanami ran alongside her saviour. She smiled at the thrill and excitement of running away from the authorities. They had been running for some time and she was almost on the verge of collapse. Her green eyes looked at her silent companion from head to foot and wondered what this person looked like. Her curiosity was slowly being satisfied when the hat was removed.
“Sakura!” exclaimed Hanami.
Sakura turned and looked at Hanami as if she were a complete stranger. “I'm sorry but do I know you?” asked Sakura as she brushed the dust that had accumulated on her fine silk clothes while they were running. She was glad that they had outrun the authorities as well as managed to get to a secluded part of the woods that was outside of town.
“I'm Hanami. We've met before.” said Hanami with a smile.
Sakura stared at the emerald eyes but she didn't know the person who was standing in front of her. She was sure that she had never met the girl. Her mind tried to sift through the number of people that she had seen from a glance and wondered if the girl had been one of those people. She couldn't remember anyone who was blonde and green eyed. “I'm sorry but I think that you have mistaken me for someone else. My name is Sakura though and it is nice to meet you, Hanami.” said Sakura politely.
“We met the other day when you came into my home.” prompted Hanami as she tried to give as much information as possible to spark Sakura's memory. It was starting to get a little infuriating that Sakura continued to deny that they had met. “You have my father's sword.” said Hanami, but as soon as the words left her mouth, reality crashed in from around her.
Sakura was almost in a panic as she saw the colour drain from Hanami's face. Her arms found themselves wrapped around Hanami in a secure embrace while her lips were whispering soothing words. Her azure eyes searched Hanami's face for some sign that Hanami was going to explain herself, but it was as if Hanami had stopped living. Their bodies were pressed together as she tried to rub Hanami's back.
Suddenly Hanami's silence was broken. A small unsure whisper escaped her lips. “Will you please take me to the Great Wall of China , north of Changping?” Her body was slightly rigid in Sakura's arms, but slowly she began to relax. She felt safe right here as if the world could not touch her. Her eyes began to droop and then Sakura was left to support her weight.
Sakura stood there for a few moments. She was unsure of what to do. Her feet were planted to the spot and her arms were holding onto Hanami. She was slightly surprised that she could hold her up and wondered what could have caused Hanami to overload herself.
Azure eyes looked around the small clearing that they had managed to run to. It wasn't far into the woods and was only slightly outside of town. Her trek to the capital had been a long one on foot. She could easily leave Hanami to her own devices by leaving her here, but it didn't seem like the right thing to do. She didn't even bring enough coin for a room at the cheapest inn. Bunking out here is a bit barbaric for me. Maybe I can find someone who will be willing to give us shelter for the night…
Sakura lifted Hanami carefully so that Hanami was hanging onto her from her back. She had removed her protruding weapon to her belt so that it would be more comfortable for Hanami. Then carefully she started to walk back into town, but away from the entertainment section. Hopefully she could find a place that would shelter them for what money she had left.
“Air will cool and make things cold,
Waiting for the snow…
But we'll sit and drink our wine,
Blue and green will be the key,
Opening our hearts…
Let our love be shining bright,
For all of our lives…
Soft and supple are your lips,
When they brush with mine…
Whispered words will clear those tears,
Shielding you from pain…
Lean on me I will be there,
Put your trust in me…
I will see you through all this,
Just you wait and see…”
Sakura's melodious voice stretched across the small camp that she had made in a rush in the trees just outside of town. Her azure eyes had been wide with fear and worry for Hanami when she had collapsed just outside of the town. With little to no coinage on her person, there was little choice but to make shelter. She would have searched for a place to stay within the town, but the officials were still in an uproar over the commotion she had caused because of Hanami.
She had been surprised that she had managed to carry Hanami all the way out of town to a secluded spot. It was strange that she felt so comfortable just carrying Hanami in the first place. She had thought that she wouldn't be able to carry Hanami or be able to make a suitable camp. She had also found some fruit and berries along the way. She had of course noted where she found them and had gone back to retrieve them once she had Hanami settled. She figured it would only be a matter of time before Hanami would wake up.
Sakura's azure eyes snapped to life when she saw Hanami's head turn slightly. She was on her feet immediately to kneel by Hanami's side. She watched patiently as emerald eyes looked up at her. “How are you feeling?” asked Sakura as she gently placed her hand on Hanami's forehead. She didn't detect a fever coming on and was glad.
“I'm feeling better. How long have I been out? Where are we?” asked Hanami. A furious blush of embarrassment covered her face as she remembered falling into Sakura's embrace and feeling the darkness consume her. Her emerald eyes darted around the makeshift camp and only noticed the small fire going. It was a small secluded clearing and only the sounds of wildlife and the crackle of fire could be heard.
“You've been unconscious since yesterday afternoon. We are in the west region, just outside of the city. Do you still wish for me to take you to the Great Wall of China , north of Changping?” queried Sakura as she sat slightly back to not seem hostile towards Hanami. She watched in fascination as Hanami searched her surroundings with a mixture of awe and peace on her lovely face. “I can still take you, but it will most likely take a couple of days.”
Hanami lowered her eyes. The empire will be in an uproar that I will be missing. Marietta will be worried to death, but I need to see for myself. Maybe I can even catch up to the scouts that I sent out. We might only be a day behind them… Hanami looked up into azure eyes and was almost shocked by the intensity of the stare. She quickly glanced away and felt confused. I'm the future Emperor… I'm not supposed to flinch or show fear, but why did I do it just then?
“We can leave immediately. It is still early. The sun has only recently risen.” commented Sakura as she moved to pick up her sword that she had placed leaning against a tree, not far from where she had slept. She felt a pair of eyes following her and hastily packed up her few belongings. “I'm heading in that direction anyways. I don't mind if you come along. However please consider what you are leaving behind. It will take a while before you will be able to return here. Is there anyone you wish to speak to?”
Hanami sat there for a moment. Her thoughts whirled around the numerous responsibilities that she would be leaving unattended for the time it would take for her to get to the wall and return. She had already been missing for one night and she doubted that Marietta would have spilt where she had gone for the day to the generals. She guessed that Marietta would be able to invent a lie that would have no doubts about her whereabouts. “No, let's go.” replied Hanami with determination.
Sakura nodded her head and hefted her small bag of belongings. She had initially brought only the sword with her and a bag of coins, but soon enough had to acquire a few necessities for the trip to the city. Her azure eyes surveyed the makeshift camp area while she stomped out the fire and kicked dirt onto the fading ambers. Everything looked like it had before except for what had been the small fire pit. She turned toward the road and started walking, not even caring to see if Hanami was following or not.
Hanami got up gracefully and patted her clothing of the ground dirt before looking around to see if she had anything else around that belonged to her. She felt along her neckline and sighed in relief to still feel the cool metal chain that graced her neck. The small pendant on the end was cleverly hidden underneath all of her clothing. Emerald eyes stared at the body that was walking away and she quickly snapped out of her daze to try and catch up.
The many overhanging trees shaded the path, covered in fallen leaves and twigs. It was narrow and winding, but Sakura had not said a word all morning. The whisper of wind and the various birdlife were the only sounds as Hanami kept one foot in front of the other. Her feet had already started to hurt since she was unaccustomed to walking such a long way without a break. She had been able to keep up, but now she was slowly lagging behind. Her breathing was heavy and her entire body was screaming for a break. Her mouth was dry and the hot sun was making everything muggy. She didn't think that it would be this hot still even though summer had passed by a week or two.
Hanami's steps slowed and her stride became non existent as she stopped in the middle of the road. Emerald eyes which had lost its earlier sparkle looked up through the thick foliage to see the blue clear sky. Her anger flared as her eyes turned back to her walking companion. “That's enough. I'm taking a break.” yelled Hanami as she walked over to a convenient rock and sat down to rest her feet. She saw Sakura whip her head back in surprise as if she had forgotten about her walking companion. Tiredly she raised her arm and wiped the sweat off, using her sleeve. Her clothes had collected a lot of dust already and she felt extremely dirty. I need a bath… She leant her body back against the tree that was adjacent to the rock and closed her eyes to rest for a moment.
Sakura stopped. She had been lost in her thoughts and hadn't noticed her surroundings. She had even forgotten that she was leading Hanami to the place that she wanted to see. Her azure eyes had snapped to life after hearing Hanami's angry outburst. She mentally berated herself for not being more considerate to her travelling companion since she knew that Hanami was not a traveller. Carefully checking her sword and bag, she made her way back to where Hanami was resting. Her gaze drifted to the sky and was a little shocked that it was already midmorning. They had left a little after sunrise and so she was surprised that Hanami hadn't said something sooner.
Sakura searched her bag and handed the small waterskin over to Hanami. “Here, it's water. Sip it, but don't drink all of it. Otherwise you will end up with a bad stomach ache and a headache.” instructed Sakura as she watched to make sure that her instructions were followed. Her azure eyes took in the way that Hanami gracefully, but tiredly lifted the waterskin to her dry lips and sipped. She could see the slight glisten of sweat that remained on her skin because of the muggy day.
“How long will it take to get there?” asked Hanami as she handed the waterskin back.
“If we continue at the rate that we are going and find shelter for the night, we should arrive there tomorrow around midday . That is only if we don't have too many breaks.” explained Sakura as she surveyed the road ahead and the path behind them. So far they had not encountered any person on their way to or from the city. It was quite strange considering how many people she had seen on her way into the great city. “Come on, we better get a move on.”
Hanami sighed and grudgingly got up from her comfortable position. She once more wiped the sweat that beaded across her forehead and took one step at a time to follow Sakura up the path. Her feet had been relieved before, but now were starting to curse at her for continuing this strenuous activity. Her emerald eyes which had taken in the wonder around her during the morning were exasperated. She glanced over everything as if the innate plants had done her wrong.
Hanami's ears had picked up the beautiful sounds of birds that chirped merrily from the trees. She had even heard a cricket or two, but at this moment she didn't hear a thing. An eerie silence filled the air. Her eyes rested on Sakura to express her concerns, but she halted. She could see that Sakura was tense just like her father had been whenever there was trouble lurking about. She quickly picked up the pace so that she could walk closer to Sakura. “So where are you from?” asked Hanami to look as natural as possible. Her father, the Emperor, had taught her to always exude an air of confidence and indifference in face of all situations. Talking was one way in which she could calm down and express what she had learnt. “Do you live in the capital?”
Sakura kept her eyes on the path. She could feel the many lurking bodies outside of her sights and knew that an ambush was up ahead. She didn't want to detour or run away since it would only lead to a prolonged, inevitable outcome. They would attack whether or not she did something about it. The only thing that puzzled her though was the fact that they were waiting. They had been waiting for some time now and could tell by their lack of skill that they thought she hadn't seen them yet. A small smile pulled at her lips as she felt Hanami sense the attacker's presence.
Sakura still wore her hat that concealed her hair which was tied back in a ponytail. Her manly outfit also gave some reason as to why the people hadn't attacked yet. She wondered what else they were waiting for. She couldn't count how many there were but she knew that they were surrounded in a tight circle. Her steady walk continued in its same stride as she felt the ambushers start to close in.
Swift as lightning Sakura grabbed Hanami's arm and whirled around in a tight circle as she unstrapped her sword. Her ambushers had jumped out at the exact moment and were facing her with swords and spears. They attacked without thought and she was forced to use skills that lay deep in her blood to defend herself and Hanami. Her skills were sloppy and she knew that it was only a matter of time before she fell and they would be able to do whatever they wanted to.
“Sakura… What is wrong with you? Wake up… You have to remember…”
Sakura stepped to one side and was struck by the flat side of a sword. She stumbled a few steps away from Hanami as her concealed sword fell from her grasp. It still remained in its sheath and wrapped in fine silk cloth. She had used it as it was to defend Hanami and herself. Her heart was pounding furiously as she fell to one knee and Hanami was grabbed by a man.
Azure eyes became icy as a slender arm reached out for her fallen sword. Glancing around, her stare halted all those that were about to attack. She slowly unsheathed the golden sword and held it out with power and grace. Her gaze locked with those of the man who had grabbed Hanami and she stepped forward. The melee of attacks came forth to stop her, but she batted them all away without a second glance. Her strength had surprised all of them and the skill that she had revealed, gave them second thoughts. She had transformed into an entirely different person. Even her posture was straighter as if she was the most powerful person in the world and everyone should follow her.
Her movements were graceful and elegant as she danced a dangerous dance of swords. Her eyes, no longer azure, were glints of icy sapphire crystals that froze the enemies that she stared at. Her white silk remained stainless as the only thing she did to bat away her enemies was to use the flat of her sword. She didn't want to kill anyone yet but the man who stood stunned while holding Hanami could drive her to do it. She reigned in her sword after a few swings and managed to manoeuvre closer to the man. She swung her sword three times in his direction and smiled, without any joy going to her eyes. She watched as the man's pants fell down to his ankles and his shirt was shredded. She gently grabbed Hanami's arm as the man tried to retrieve his pants. Hanami was back safely by her side.
“Are you alright, future Emperor?” asked Sakura in a whisper.
Hanami froze at the mention of her title. She could have sworn that the day before, Sakura had denied that they had met before. Now with Sakura's deep purr, it seemed impossible. Her emerald eyes turned to gaze at icy sapphire. Fear lurked in her own as she saw a well of confidence and rage brewing in those blue depths. Her body moved on its own as her mind was frozen, she stepped away from Sakura.
Hanami had thought that this Sakura was actually a different person to the one that had showed up in the Imperial Gardens of the palace. She was confused since she had also seen Sakura change in front of her as if another being had suddenly inhabited her body. Another step back and she noticed that Sakura was following her.
“You said that we hadn't met before. You said that I must have mistook you for someone else.” ranted Hanami as she took another step back. She could feel the armed men looking at them confusedly, but she didn't care. “How can you now say that you know me? Why did you lie to me?”
Sakura fended off the attacks that were aimed at the both of them. She made sure that the attackers didn't get too close to Hanami while she was backing up as if she were looking at a monster. Sapphire eyes looked at the armed men and were slightly confused. I was in my bedroom a moment ago… Why are there blanks in my memory? Why is the future Emperor here and who are these armed men? Why do I feel the need to protect her so fiercely from these people? Aren't they her citizens?
Sakura glanced around and started to notice a few small details that her mind had not registered. The armed men were a mix of young and old men, as well as some women. They were all dressed in a grey uniform that she had never seen before and their organisation was a little mediocre. However, their teamwork was outstanding and it was the only thing that kept her in check. She wondered why the citizens were trying to attack the both of them. Her sapphire eyes then noticed that Hanami was dressed in peasants clothing.
Sakura swung the hilt of her golden sword around and grabbed hold of Hanami before another attacker speared her. She could feel the confusion and anger that emanated from Hanami's body but was puzzled as to why Hanami was accusing her of such things. She wondered what she had done to make Hanami act this way in the face of danger. “Please calm down and let me get us through this first, then we can talk.” offered Sakura in a deep purr.
Hanami slowly calmed down and closed her eyes momentarily. She trusted Sakura would keep her safe while she tried to put everything into perspective. Her emerald gaze took in the people around her and she noticed that they were mainly villagers. She wondered where they had come from and why they would act this way to just a couple of travellers. Her body stiffened as she glimpsed the sword that Sakura was using. It was her father's sword, the Emperor's sword.
Hanami could feel Sakura moving. The muscles were contracting in synch with her breathing. Her stance was firm and it was almost like she was dancing with her. She felt safe in these arms, but she was still confused and angry. Her mind quickly stamped those thoughts away for the time being since it had blinded her before from the situation that they were in. Now she had to think like her father always did. She had to strategise and figure out why these people were acting like this.
Hanami took in their armour and simple uniform. She had remembered all of her teachings about some of the locals banding together to form their own army to protect themselves. She wondered if this group were one of those mention by General Yun, one of her mentors. She tried to think clearly. They attacked us, two travellers, for no reason. Why would they assume that we were dangerous? She felt Sakura move and moved with her. Her emerald eyes never left the small militia that surrounded them.
“This is getting us nowhere.” commented Hanami, seeing that Sakura didn't truly want to hurt these people. She could also see that these people were persistent and they were strong to hold onto their convictions. “Sakura, please listen to me and lower your sword. They won't kill us. Please trust me.” She felt Sakura nod and hoped that this would work. I really do hope that they will listen to reason…
Sakura stayed close to Hanami as she fended off the numerous attacks. She had held back the entire time since she did not wish to see these people hurt. She had already figured out that something was amiss and these people were most likely being used. So she gladly accepted Hanami's words and lowered her sword to point to the ground while her icy sapphire eyes halted all those that were about to attack.
“Please hear us out.” called Hanami to the group of men and women that surrounded them with various pointy weapons. Her emerald eyes had not missed the confusion that swept through the group and she wondered for a moment if they were having second thoughts. “Please stop this and talk peacefully without the use of weapons.”
“Why should we hear you out?” yelled a man as he ignored the others and charged forward. His eyes widened in shock as the taller of the two stepped in front of the speaker and halted his spear with bare hands. He stood rigid as if frozen in ice as those cold eyes held him there in a fearsome manner. He was already having second thoughts about his move since no one else seemed to want to come to his aid. His gaze slowly moved along his spear and rested on the tip where the taller of the two had grabbed it in a flash and held him immobile. His gaze looked back up into those icy sapphire eyes and he was pushed back with his weapon in his hand as if he were holding a toothpick. He stepped back cautiously as one of his comrades stepped forward with his own sword pointed to the ground in a non threatening way.
Hanami smiled at Sakura's quick movements and thinking. She had handled the situation in a non threatening way without the use of her sword. She stepped around Sakura's tall body to face the man who stepped forward with his sword lowered. Her emerald eyes took in his uniform and presence among the others and noted that this person was the leader or was someone of importance.
“Surrender your sword and any other weapons and we will talk.” offered the man.
“We can just talk now.” countered Sakura in a low growl. She didn't like the idea of leaving the Emperor's sword in the hands of people that she didn't trust. Her sapphire eyes became icy glints as she stared down the man. It was obvious that he was testing them.
Hanami internally grumbled at Sakura's tone which was not helping the situation at all. However, she could understand how protective Sakura was about the sword. She thought it was a ridiculous request as well. She stood in front of Sakura and assumed her royal posture and presence. Her stare was cold and calculating as she watched him. It was obvious from his silence that she had unnerved him.
Hanami slowly turned her head and captured everyone's gaze. Her presence was infectious and she caught several people wanting to bow down to her, but confused as to why. She sealed them all into a trance and finally spoke. “Who told you to attack travelling people?” commanded Hanami.
The man with the lowered sword hesitated to speak, but then blurted out everything he knew in a rush. He felt fear for this young woman who looked so commanding and her companion looked so terrifying. “We are protecting our borders from all of those that want to intrude into our land. We feared that you were scouts from another band of raiders or such. It was never our intention to kill, only to frighten you away. Our small militia is the only thing that is guarding our homes since the Emperor's warriors have left to cater to him and the Empress.”
“How long have they been gone for?” asked Hanami.
“Two weeks or more, I can't really say how long. However we have been attacked several times since they left and we decided to defend ourselves or lose our livelihoods. We don't even know when the Emperor's warriors will be coming back. We have also heard news about rebels and nomads from the north that are invading upon the Emperor's lands.” answered the man without thinking about how much he was giving away. He felt so strung up tight that he was going to faint. His skin was already pale as if someone was choking him.
Hanami turned slowly to stare at her companion who stood silently with a menacing stare directed at the militia. She shivered lightly as that stare was upon her; however Sakura's gaze softened and the tenseness of the situation lightened. “Put your sword away. I want to see if these rumours are true. I need you to show me. ” said Hanami gently.
Hanami was rewarded for her kind words as Sakura sheathed the golden hilted sword back into its scabbard and wrapped it in the fine silk. She watched in fascination as Sakura strapped it to her back with ease and didn't lose the menacing look that held everyone in their place. Her gaze then turned to the speaker of the day with a smile that further eased the tension that was in the air. “My companion and I will be heading to where those warriors went with the Emperor. I will see for myself what is holding them up.”
The man nodded his head and the armed people all lowered their weapons before parting to let Hanami and Sakura through. He then bowed with his comrades to Sakura and Hanami with respect. “We are sorry to have troubled you so. Please accept our sincere apology and if there is anything that you require of us, please name it.”
“You don't happen to have a horse, do you?” asked Sakura in a low purr.
The militia hastily rounded up a horse that was saddled and ready to go. They waved goodbye and only Hanami returned it since Sakura had both hands on the horse's reins. As Hanami placed her hands back on Sakura's waist, Sakura yelled a mighty “Yah!” and nudged the horse with her knees into a slow run. Luckily Hanami had a secure hold; otherwise she would have fallen on her behind.
It was late afternoon by the time that Sakura slowed the horse to a walk. She had kept the horse from going all out so that they didn't need to walk. Her sapphire eyes looked around at the path that lay before them as they were moving uphill. She could see the crest up ahead and knew what lay ahead. The entire ride was done in silence as she concentrated on the horse's movements. She didn't even know what to say to Hanami since the last thing that she remembered, before being immersed in a fight with the militia, was being in Hanami's room with the old lady. She remembered how the old lady, who was named Marietta , had asked so many questions and she was unable to answer confidently.
Sakura gazed ahead and listened to the wildlife that surrounded them. A soft breeze blew to cool the horse and its riders. Even now the sun was still cruel with its blazing heat. She knew that it was strange to have this kind of weather but the leaves that surrounded them told a different story. A multitude of colours sang out an eerie tune that whistled with the wind which was gradually picking up. She could hear the words being whispered to her as her voice finally broke the silence.
“Leaves are changing one by one,
Yellow, red or brown…
Winds will blow and strip trees bare,
Ready for winter…”
Sakura stopped singing as the grip around her waist tightened for a bit before slackening. She turned her head to stare at shocked emerald eyes and wondered what she could have done now. She stopped the horse and let the reins loose so that she could bodily turn around to face Hanami and grasp her hands. “What's wrong?” asked Sakura.
“Where did you learn that song?” asked Hanami.
“I don't know. I've sort of always known it. I remember hearing it in your room as well as when I first arrived at the palace. Should I not be singing it?” asked Sakura as each of her sentences seemed to make Hanami more upset. She gently rubbed the top of Hanami's hands with her thumbs in a soothing motion. “I will stop singing it if it makes you upset.”
“Do you know anymore of it?” asked Hanami. Her heart was pounding furiously and she didn't know why. The long ride had made her tense since she loved the feel of Sakura and wanted nothing less than to hug her the entire time but she had to refrain from doing so. She didn't want to scare Sakura away.
“Are you sure that you want to hear more? I only know a little bit.” said Sakura as she tried to understand the rollercoaster of emotions that were buried inside of her. She could have sworn that no one ever heard that song before. Most of it just came to her whether in a day dream or just the spur of the moment.
Hanami nodded her approval and listened to the song, voicing it in her head as Sakura sang. How can she know this song? I've been creating it slowly, piece by piece. Even the tune is unique. She couldn't believe her ears. Each word was exactly the right note and flowed so smoothly as if the song were already a thousand years old. She examined what she was feeling and only noticed then that her eyes were teary. How can she move me so emotionally when it is of my own creation?
Only four more lines of the song were sung before Sakura hesitantly stopped, seeing the look in Hanami's teary eyes. Why does she look so sad and happy at the same time? Maybe I shouldn't sing the rest of what I know. She continued to rub Hanami's hands as she looked at those teary forest eyes.
Hanami stared at their touching hands for a long moment without realising that Sakura had stopped singing. The song continued inside of her mind as if something within Sakura was stirring something deep within herself. We need to talk about what was put aside during the fight. I guess staying quiet and angry is not going to help sort out the growing tension between us. Although I am a little guilty of having the pleasure of holding onto her which somehow eased my mind for a bit. She looked up into sapphire eyes and smiled. “I guess you heard that song at the palace when I was singing it to you… Why did you deny our meeting?” asked Hanami in a quiet voice.
“I'm sorry but I don't know what you are talking about. The last thing that I remember was the fact that I was sitting at the palace and Marietta was questioning me. Then suddenly I wake up at home and just before I was somehow in the middle of a battle without knowing how I ended up there or wherever we are now. All I have is a gut feeling that I need to stay on this horse and head in this direction. I suppose you might know where we are heading right?” asked Sakura in a slightly frustrated voice. Her confused mind was battling with her inner instincts. She wanted to head home and knew that they had gone passed it already. They were almost to the Great Wall of China .
Hanami gave Sakura's account some thought. The simple explanation was quite puzzling. However, she was smart and she would figure it out. “Well let's keep moving until we get to the wall. It will give me time to think.” She waited patiently as Sakura swung back around and nudged the horse into a slow walk. Her mind was working frantically to figure out the meaning behind Sakura's words. Why doesn't she remember running out of the palace? Why are there gaps in her memory?
Sakura stopped the horse at the top of the crest and surveyed what was ahead. A grassy area large enough to fit a hundred armed men was empty. Trees lined the rim, towering over the circle of grass. The wind rustled swiftly across the leaves of all, but only the grass remained green. Everything else had a brown tinged to it or was orange, read or yellow. Some of the grass had been flattened which indicated that someone had put something here a while ago for a long moment before removing it.
Sapphire eyes scanned the tree line and made sure that she was ready for anything. Her stomach was in knots and she didn't know why. There was a feeling deep inside of her that recognised this place as familiar. Why do I feel like I have been here? We are near the wall and I have only been to the wall once… The rest of her thoughts were cut off as a voice deep within her soul soothed the roiling knot that was forming in her gut.
“ Sakura, Sakura… You are not ready yet… You are still broken…”
Suddenly Sakura slid off the horse as her posture and walk changed dramatically. It didn't have its usual swagger that Hanami had witnessed. It didn't have the smooth sureness from before. It was like Sakura had changed once more in front of Hanami. Hanami was shocked at the drastic change.
“You said you wanted to see the wall and it's just through those trees on a hidden path. We will have to leave the horse here to rest and graze. It is a fine beast that you acquired for our journey. We even made it here in one day instead of two.” commented Sakura as she gently helped Hanami off the horse.
Now I am totally confused, thought Hanami as she released Sakura's hands. Her forest eyes stared at Sakura as if she were an alien from another world. “You got us the horse.” corrected Hanami as she followed Sakura through the thick knee high grass. They left the horse still saddled to graze since the dense trees would make it impossible for the horse to enter the hidden path.
Sakura grabbed Hanami's hand and lead her towards the thick foliaged trees that provided shade for the open area. Her mind automatically filled in the blank of her memory. I asked for the horse… The militia gave as an apology… Hanami talked to them as if she were their leader… She continued to pull Hanami, unsure of why she was rushing. A sinking feeling in her stomach was urging her forward. She made a path with her body so that Hanami could get through unhindered.
The hidden path was bare. It was narrow and well shaded. The Great Wall of China could be seen clearly between the trees on the other side of the path. A few rocks were scattered along the ground and everything looked peaceful. However, azure eyes scanned the area and saw little things that stood out. There were broken twigs on trees and on the ground, leaves had been cut with a blade, two weeks old blood drenched into dirt and more signs to be found that were not apart of nature.
Hanami looked around swiftly, but her eyes were instantly glued to the stained ground. She knew what aged blood looked like on any surface since her tutors thought it a wise lesson for her war studies. She approached cautiously without stirring the ground around the area and crouched to have a better look. Her heart was pounding erratically as she remembered the afternoon in which she had met Sakura for the first time. I saw her in ripped silk with a spray of blood on every part of her. She wielded my father's sword and handed it back to me. Father said that he was coming here, but all I find is an old puddle of… Hanami couldn't finish the rest of the thought. Her heart felt heavy at now seeing the truth for herself. She had never doubted Sakura's actions or words. She just needed to see this for herself. Maybe there was even the slight chance that she could recover what was taken from her.
Sakura stood frozen as she watched Hanami. Her mind was aching with a thunderous throbbing that didn't want to go away. It kept intensifying as if there was something with Hanami's act that disturbed her. As if a piece of information she had was locked deep inside of her memories, unwilling to resurface. Her gaze followed the path of a tear that streaked down Hanami's cheek. She felt lost standing there. Her heart wanted to comfort her new companion, but her mind was unwilling to surrender her body to move. Why do I feel bad on her behalf? What meaning is there to that pile of blood? I feel connected to it, yet I can't remember the reason. It's as if someone or something is stopping me, but why? She finally was able to step forward and cast a weary eye around their surroundings. Her fighter's instincts were blaring warning signs and all she could do was raise her hand to place it on Hanami's shoulder.
Suddenly a group of armed black clad warriors jumped down from the trees. Their faces were hidden and by their body language, they were going to attack. Their first target was going to be the one that was standing with a concealed weapon strapped to her back. They had all assumed it was a sword and that she would most likely know how to use it. Their surprise attack was met by defence. They were startled that those azure eyes had changed to an icy sapphire blue that was almost clear.
Sakura drew out her sword as her posture straightened and her eyes became filled with rage. Her instincts had saved her from being slaughtered like a pig and she smiled at the surprise that she saw in the first attacker's eyes. Her blade whipped around and batted him away as if he were nothing, just a measly fly. The rest of the crew immediately resumed their attacks after getting over their surprise as they tried to aid their comrade. However, Sakura was more than a match for them as she felt energy deep within her core bubble to the surface. Her rage also fuelled her limbs to move faster and faster that her blade was a mere blur. Images danced in front of her that held her in her rage and then she was no longer seeing her black clad attackers. The Emperor was standing in front of her with his golden sword drawn and three attackers engaging him.
“WATCH OUT!!!” yelled Sakura as she saw a fourth warrior about to engage with the Emperor from the sky. She rushed over to the Emperor, seeing that only she could help him in time. She had left the Empress in the care of another guard and found herself pushing the Emperor out of harms way.
The fight seemed to stop around the Emperor and Sakura as they stared at each other. The Empress was shocked as she saw what had happened. Even the other guards were stunned. The ambushers, on the other hand, were about to continue the fight.
Sakura smiled at the Emperor. “That was lucky.” she uttered as blood dripped out of the corners of her mouth. Her cerulean eyes were glazed over as she stared at the Emperor's black worried eyes. She slowly turned her head and looked at the ambusher who had almost stabbed the Emperor through the back. Her face was a mask of pain as the ambusher savagely yanked out his sword which had gone straight through her body. Not a sound was made as she stood there with her face scrunched up. She could feel the blood dripping down her front and staining her clothes. Slowly opening her eyes, she looked at the Emperor who was stunned at her strength. “Luckily it was my back and not yours. I am no fighter and I am not the person whom you are seeking if this is to be my fate.”
The Emperor looked stunned as he watched Sakura. He had been relieved that she had pushed him out of harms way, but he also felt guilty for letting her be his shield. His black eyes were glued to her eyes and the serious wound. He admired her strength for not letting the enemy hear her pain, and trying to make him feel safe with her smile.
The Emperor finally willed his body to move and he rushed to her side with his golden sword in hand. There was still a chance that he could save her if she had the will power to resist the welcoming arms of death. He extended his arm and braced for the ambusher's attack which was stopped in the nick of time. He quickly deflected it away before engaging with the other three ambushers and protecting Sakura from further injury.
Sakura stood perfectly still as the Emperor danced savagely around her with the touch of death. She could feel her arms becoming heavy like stone and the pain had receded as if nobody had stabbed her. Her cerulean eyes were looking around at the vicious fight and started to analyse each sword thrust and parry. Her arms started to tingle with energy as everyone revealed their sword skills.
Reinforcements arrived along with Sakura's worried father. They rushed the scene and the ambushers had called a retreat. It was clear that they were skilled but they were outnumbered against the Emperor's small entourage. Slowly the fight dwindled away and Sakura was approached by the Emperor and Empress as well as her father.
“What happened?” demanded Yi as he caught Sakura before she collapsed. His hand gingerly touched the blood that was seeping out. His black eyes, full of concern, stared at his daughter's frail form. He looked up at the Emperor and Empress for answers.
“She pushed me out of the way and took the attack that was meant for me. ” explained the Emperor. He knelt by her side and smiled confidently at her like she had done for him. He gently placed his hand over hers and squeezed it. “You should be very proud. You have done something that only a handful of people have done for the throne. However, you are the only one that has ever saved my life and I thank you.”
Suddenly chaos erupted once more as the ambushers came back. Sakura watched as the Empress held onto her while her father stood to protect them. The Emperor was once more raging through trying to stay alive and win the fight. Her colbalt eyes watched carefully as the Emperor moved among his own men and the attackers. She could see the grace that he wielded with his golden sword and wondered how long he had trained to move so fluently.
“ Sakura, Sakura… Sakura, Sakura… Sakura, SAKURA!!!”
Sakura felt her pulse stop as she watched a victorious smile cross one of the attackers. Her eyes widened in alarm as the smiling attacker planted his sword through the Emperor's back. She watched in horror as the attacker didn't simply yank his sword out, instead he swung his sword mightily to the side. Anger erupted from deep inside of her as the attacker spat on the Emperor's dead body and started to head towards them. It was clear that he was the leader with his fine silk woven black clothes. Her anger was slightly dampened as her father stood in front of them, but was immediately reignited as soon as she saw the sword swing that was aimed at him.
Blood, rich and red, sprayed onto Sakura and the Empress. General Yi stood poised with his sword positioned defensively to stop the strike. However, the blade of his sword was snapped off and a long wound was sliced diagonally down his body. He continued to stand there as blood pooled at his own feet. The leader of the ambushers was amused and just watched with a sneer plastered on his face, before he jumped kicked Yi to the side like a pack of potatoes.
The Empress gently put Sakura down before she stood up to face the leader of the ambushers. “Promise me that you will let her be. She has nothing to do with us.” pleaded the Empress. Her hands were shaking with fear even though she was filled with sadness over her husband's death. She stood tall like the ruler she was, forcing her will onto the leader. However, she saw the leader laugh at her and knew what was to come.
Sakura watched in terror as the Empress stared down the leader, knowing what would happen next. Cerulean eyes cringed in pain, sadness and anger as blood splattered her fine silk white kimono. Her body pulsed rapidly as the leader laughed at the mutilated body of the Empress. Her fingers trembled as she clutched at the exit wound on her body to ebb the flow of blood. She knew that it wouldn't be long now before she joined the bodies that were around her.
“ Sakura, Sakura… Sakura, Sakura… GET UP!!!”
The leader of the ambushers laughed hard as he wiped his bloodied sword against his leg. He continued to laugh loudly as he heard the fighting die down. His laughter was joined by his comrades as bodies littered the ground and blood was smeared on everything. Their numbers had not dwindled at all since everything had gone according to plan. It was perfect to demoralize the Emperor's warriors and ensure a victory. His laughter slowly died down and he opened his black eyes to the morning sky. He could still hear his comrades laughing and all of a sudden he looked ahead of him. Surprise did not even explain the expression on his face. He stood there looking into cobalt eyes. Adrenaline pumped viciously through his body as his reflexes saved his life from being sliced into two.
Sakura stood in front of the leader of the attackers with a golden sword in her hands. The strike was powerful and she could feel the rippling tension running down her blade. Her muscles coiled as she stored up her energy before exploding out and pushing the leader away. Her cobalt eyes shimmered with unshed tears as she saw the leader stand bravely and stopped his comrades from interfering. She stood poised to unleash her wrath on the one person who had changed her entire existence for better or for worse.
The leader analysed the girl in front of him. His black eyes were calculating her skill level. He could see clearly that her wrists weren't thick which meant that this was probably the first time that she actually wielded a sword. He also noted her fragile form and the wound that was visible. He acted quickly to strike down this upstart who thought a surprise attack would work on him.
Sakura braced herself as she defended the strikes that he aimed at her. She could see the confidence return to his eyes as he started his combination of sword movements; however, that confidence was slowly dwindling. She saw the uncertainty in his eyes as she defended the powerful strikes which he had used on the Emperor and her father. She felt his muscles shudder under the protest of his force and will power. It was clear that she was different to him and the onlookers were starting to get worried at each passing moment.
“Sakura… Finish him!”
Sakura jumped back to allow a small breather between the leader's attacks. Her mind was focused as she gripped her blade comfortably. Her legs, slightly bent, leapt forward to start her onslaught. She watched his eyes widen in fear as her strike rattled him to the core. She reigned in her sword briefly and allowed him the chance to see how formidable she was. Her feet slid along the ground as she twirled and dodged to avoid the leader's sword from touching her skin. Her neutral face gradually showed emotion that the leader was unprepared for.
The leader tried with all of his might to strike down Sakura, but she was too fast and nimble. It was like trying to cut water, and always the water would escape without injury. He could see her moving fluidly around or pass his blade. He felt the energy from his blade as it almost touched its intended target. His anger was controlled as he tried to synchronize with her movements in a dangerous dance.
Sakura's eyes flared with determination as she suddenly whipped out her blade like a lasso. She turned her back as blood sprayed towards her. She heard the thump of his body meeting the ground and the second smaller thump as the leader's head dropped off his body. Her hearing warned her of the impending retaliating attacks that followed and she swiftly slaughtered them without mercy.
Sakura's body was drained of energy. Sapphire eyes looked around at the carnage that was partly caused by her. She slowly detached her eyes from her surroundings to finally focus on the blade that was in her hands. The golden hilt and imbedded symbols sparked a familiar chord inside of her as if the sword finally found its owner. Her mind so focused on the blade didn't even realise that her wound was no longer there… my blade…
Sakura gently brushed Hanami's hair as chaos had erupted everywhere in town. There were officials marching and searching each building, but luckily she had found a house that had already been searched. The occupants were an old couple who were frightened by the panic that the officials were stirring. She had eased their minds when she offered to lend her strength if they needed it and in return she and her friend could stay. So she was sitting in a small spare room in pure darkness. Not even a candle was lit in fear that the house might be searched again.
Sakura's whispered words had halted as she continued to stroke Hanami's forehead. Her fingers gently tested Hanami's temperature since she had been running a fever earlier. She figured that it might have been triggered by whatever had caused Hanami to cry back at the wall. She had been carrying Hanami around for the three days that it took to get them back to the capital. She had let the horse go after sensing that all was not right with the officials and citizens. Her hunch had lured her to getting new garments for the both of them, although hers was more masculine, while looking for a place to stay. She was slightly sore, in a good way, from the trek and from the battle back at the wall. It was like she had just been given the best massage that left some good aches.
Sakura had actually spent every night just waiting for Hanami to wake up. However she had made sure that there was a strong fire going and no harm would befall them when she went to rest her eyes. She had been hoping that Hanami would wake up and tell her where Hanami lived so that she could be reassured that she got home safely. Also she was curious to know the reason for Hanami's collapse right after the battle. However, they were now in a room together and Hanami was still unconscious.
“What is it, which made me, want to stay and make sure that you were okay? What special hold do you have over me that every time I look over my shoulder, I want to see those emerald eyes? Why does my heart ache so much to have you touch me? What are you doing to me?” whispered Sakura as she stared at Hanami's eyelids, waiting for an answer. However, no answer was given and so she sighed. She had spent the three days travelling, making sure that Hanami was safe and healthy. She had even forced Hanami to drink some broth even though it was only a little and most of it actually spilled everywhere instead of going down Hanami's throat.
Sakura stood up abruptly and slowly backed away from Hanami. What am I saying? Why do I feel like this? This isn't normal… Something is wrong. My insides are churning… She fell to her knees and hugged her body aggressively to will away the pain. Her mind was fighting with her body. She could feel it and there was no one there to ease her pain. She was alone like she had always been. Her father was always off doing his job and the servants were not her age. Even her own personal maid couldn't talk to her. It was like there was a barrier between them and her, but how come it didn't feel the same with Hanami. She wanted to spill all of her secrets to this girl that was a perfect stranger to her. She had even talked to her even though she wasn't even sure if she heard.
Thunder roared in the night sky outside which made Sakura jump in shock. It was so loud and sudden. Her sapphire blue eyes squinted in the darkness. Why am I sitting up in the dark in my room? I better get back to bed. Slowly she crawled towards the middle of the room where her futon would be. Her father had adopted many of the Japanese styles, since it had been his favourite place, but it was clear that he was spending less and less time at home. She felt around along the floor and noticed some sort of blanket that didn't feel like the one that she used. So, she probed further and slithered her hands beneath the covers to crawl into bed.
Panic erupted in Sakura's heart as her body suddenly felt another's warmth in the bed. She was about to jump right out but curiosity stopped her. She lifted her arm and gently traced her fingers over the prone body. Her sapphire eyes widened once she figured out that it was a girl in her bed. She was about to slide out when the girl swung her arm out and captured her in a hug.
Whispered words left Hanami's mouth as she was still in the throes of a dream. “Please don't go… I need you…” Her eyes fluttered open briefly just as lightning lit up the room for a moment and she saw sapphire eyes before smiling and falling back to a more peaceful sleep.
Sakura lied there in shock. Those emerald eyes had pierced her soul as if she had known them her entire life. “I will always be by your side, future Emperor… Hanami… I will protect you and keep you from harms way. I swear to you on my very soul.” whispered Sakura as she stroked Hanami's back with her free arm. She held Hanami close to her body and cherished the warmth that they shared under the blanket. Her sapphire eyes stared at the ceiling as memories started to surface without inflicting physical pain.
Sakura saw images float in front of her vision. She had remembered waking up in the middle of a battle with the local militia. She had followed Hanami's lead and they were both granted with a horse to continue their travels. The journey had been strained as neither of them had talked until they were almost close to the wall. She had nudged the horse to a walk before they reached the grassy area. Then her memory was blank as if someone had cut a moment from the film of her memories. She had woken up once more in the midst of a fight to defend herself and Hanami against black clad warriors. Her rage had escalated as she remembered exactly what had transpired on this much hidden path. It was the reason as to why Hanami was here in the first place. It was the reason why she had seen those tears while she was fighting.
Sakura had let her rage build as the memories surfaced for the first time. Her head was throbbing and her heart was heavy but she willed her blade to move. It blurred in skill that her attacker's were afraid of. She could see their surprise and then feel their fear as she unleashed hell upon those that dared to try and ambush her. She was not afraid. Her confidence and anger only fuelled her rage. She became a killing machine as she began to use the sharp bladed edge instead of the flat of her sword that she was initially using. The images continued to float near the surface of her memories and she put all of her emotions into her sword strokes.
Sakura sliced one attacker, hearing the flesh tear apart and bones break. She powered through the slice and icy eyes flittered with joy at the spray of blood that covered the path. She twirled on the spot to deflect a stroke that was aimed at her back and countered swiftly with the boot of her foot to his face. She heard the loud crack as he snapped his head back and fell limply to the ground. His neck was clearly broken by the sheer force she had used behind her kick. Another tried a feint before falling victim to a vicious stab through the abdomen by one of his comrades when she stepped to the side and threw him in the path of the other. A joyful sneer graced her lips as she stepped over to the shocked warrior and swiftly beheaded him so that they both fell in unison.
Sakura looked around and noticed that her attackers were having second thoughts. She had managed to dance gracefully around Hanami so that no one could hurt her. She had also kept the attackers from disturbing her when it was clear that she was upset. The tears that stained her face were evidence enough that Hanami was aware of whose blood was on the ground. I didn't want her to see this… She quickly circled to Hanami's other side to deflect yet another attempt at Hanami's life. She smiled at her attackers as their strategy had been thwarted and they were left out of sync. Their attacks were mainly based on whoever could step up first instead of being precisely timed when she had dispatched the second guy. There were only four more and she watched humorously as their moral gradually decreased. One had already run and the other three were thinking the same thing. Sakura lowered her bloody sword that was dripping with the blood of two of their comrades and they took it as a sign that they were being spared. Sapphire eyes watched as they ran to catch up to the other who had run first.
Sakura turned her gaze towards Hanami who still remained crouched on the ground. Tears streamed continuously down her cheeks and she felt heart broken that she couldn't stop it from happening. I wish they didn't seek me out… Everyone would still be alive, including my own father. We are both orphans now… Will she come to understand the reason why her parents died if I tell her? She stepped hesitantly from toe to toe and eventually made up her mind. Her voice mingled with the wind in a small whisper but she knew that Hanami would hear her. “They sacrificed their lives to save me in return to save you. I will protect you…”
Hanami froze as her breath caught in her throat. Her hearing had not been mistaken. She had heard those words precisely coming from Sakura's lips. She turned her teary gaze towards Sakura and saw only truth reflected back in those deep blue depths. Why would they sacrifice themselves for her? Is her life more important than theirs? She felt anger claw at her insides. Her thoughts became irrational as she slowly stood up and faced Sakura. Pain marred her features and she began to shake her head. She didn't know what her parents were thinking. “Why?” uttered Hanami. However her heart already knew the reason. She had felt on their first meeting the first strings of a bond of friendship. However those delicate strings were turning into a ribbon so red that her mind and heart were at war. How had they known?
Sakura didn't have time to give an answer as she saw Hanami's eyes close and her body falling. She swiftly stepped forward and scooped Hanami into her arms. She descended to her knees and quickly wiped her blade on the grass before sheathing it. Her entire posture then changed as she was more relaxed and slightly hunched. She remembered the black clad warriors but didn't know what had happened to them. Her azure eyes turned to rest on Hanami who was unconscious. She tried to tap her face gently but there was no response. So gingerly, she lifted Hanami into her arms and made her way back to the circular field of grass. She whistled for the horse to gallop over before carefully setting Hanami on the saddle. She too mounted but was sitting behind her to support her body and make sure that she didn't fall off.
Sakura slowly slipped from Hanami's embrace after remaining where she was with the memories gently surfacing. She had woken with the sun as the rays were about to hit the room and fill it with light. Her sapphire eyes sparkled and a small smile graced her face as she looked at the cute expression that Hanami had. She looked adorable. Carefully making sure not to wake Hanami, she searched the room to determine how she had managed to get in this strange room. Everything was unfamiliar except for Hanami. Her search ended when her gaze was captured by the golden sword that lay near the futon.
Sakura slowly extended a finger out and lightly ran her finger along the flat of the blade. She had remembered first seeing this sword after she had finished unleashing her fury against those that had dramatically changed her world. Tears welled up in her eyes as she thought about her father and how Hanami's parents had tried to protect her. A cold feeling started to seep into her heart. She was alone now just like Hanami.
Suddenly a commotion could be heard from the main room in the house. Sakura looked towards the door in alarm as hurried footsteps could be heard. The commanding voice that was trailing throughout the house left her feeling uneasy as her hand gripped the sword. Her sapphire eyes briefly strayed towards Hanami before fear began to pulse throughout her body.
“Sakura, Sakura… wake up… it's time to go…”
Sakura rose to her feet gracefully with the golden sword in her hands. Her eyes, no longer sapphire, were now azure. Her form was sleek and powerful as she gathered Hanami into her arms. Carefully making sure not to wake Hanami, she exited the household through the back and could hear the muttered cursing of the warriors that were sent to search the house again.
Sakura held Hanami securely in her arms as she walked along the rooftops of the early morning. She didn't want to raise suspicion towards herself by freely walking the streets. There was less chance that people would look up and those that did would assume that it was a fleck of shadow from the sun's rays. She was glad that most of her attire was white so that the bright sun could camouflage her some. Hanami on the other hand was wearing another set of rags that didn't seem to match her beauty.
Sakura slowly stopped at the edge of the last of the rooftops and looked at the wild forest. It would be easy to escape out there but sooner or later the officials would surely search the area. She wondered what they were looking for since it was hard to believe that a small demeanour in an inn would rouse this kind of response after five days. She was not aware of whom Hanami was but she felt the need to protect her anyway.
“Hanami… no matter, who you are, I will be your shield for life. It is what lies in my heart. I hope you will wake up soon so that I can hear your voice.” muttered Sakura as she sat down to cradle Hanami in her strong protective arms. She sighed and slowly her soul craved for release as her lips slowly parted and a lovely sound bathed the area.
“Air will cool and make things cold,
Waiting for the snow…
But we'll sit and drink our wine,
Slowly Hanami opened her forest eyes gently to capture the person who held her spellbound by the soft familiar musical notes. They had haunted her dreams for what seemed like forever and now she was hearing it close to her ear. Her body's awareness to her surroundings was slowly returning to her. She noticed that she was in somebody's warm embrace and that the sun was warming up her body but not as well as the person holding her.
Emerald eyes stared into a surprised face. Blue crystals stared back with a little alarm lurking in the back of that gaze but it slowly receded. Hanami could see Sakura and her mind was put at ease that she was somewhere safe. However the tune that she had heard had stopped and she wondered if it had been Sakura who had been singing. It must have been since she sung the beginning of it on our ride to the wall and I questioned her about it. She has a lovely voice… I wonder if she remembers singing it to me before… However, her thoughts were put aside as the contact between the two of them started to stir something deep within her. Carefully reaching up with her soft hand, she caressed the face that was so close to hers.
“You're awake. Your fever is gone.”
“I hope I didn't inconvenience you.” responded Hanami as she slowly sat up and stared around her for the first time. Her heart almost leapt to her throat and she bodily jumped into Sakura's arms. “How did we get up here?” asked Hanami clearly frightened. Her arms had wound tightly around Sakura's neck, afraid that she would fall off the roof.
“Looks like you are feeling better. Please hold on tight and we will be down in a minute.” said Sakura reassuringly before she carefully stood up and negligently leapt off. She made sure that she bended her knees to absorb the extra weight that her knees were not accustomed to. Her body was relaxed as she held onto Hanami and was not surprised by Hanami's tight hug, even though she had made sure that Hanami's feet had touched the ground. “It's alright now. We are safely on the ground.”
“Thank you for taking care of me. ” whispered Hanami into Sakura's delicate ears.
Sakura suddenly whipped her head towards the end of the road and could hear warriors marching. They were about to turn the bend and they would be caught if they remained. So Sakura quickly leapt into the woods and out of sight with Hanami before the warriors rounded the corner. Her azure eyes were bright as she tried to determine how competent the warriors were in case she had to defend herself. Sakura felt a tug on her arm and looked down into emerald eyes.
“I need to go with them. They are looking for me. Don't worry. I am safe with them.” said Hanami as she held on tight to the one person that had shown her so much kindness even though the woman still didn't know who she was. She could see it through Sakura's eyes that this Sakura didn't know her position in society. “Thank you for your generosity and help. I hope that one day our paths will meet again, hopefully soon. I wish you a safe journey…”
Sakura watched as Hanami walked casually onto the path and the leader of the group approached her. Her azure eyes remained on Hanami and made sure that no hostile movement could be seen. She would intervene if it became necessary. However she was waiting since Hanami expressed that she could trust these people. She could see from their clothing that they were trying to camouflage in with the locals, but the way that they held themselves blew their cover. Her eyes grew sad as Hanami disappeared with the warriors. She didn't know what these feelings meant but if she were to ever be in the area where Hanami was in danger, she would become her shield, even for a few moments.
Hanami sat in her room after receiving a relieved hug from Marietta and then being berated for running off for five days. She had told her end of the story five times before she let Marietta into the small details such as she had help from a stranger. She didn't want anyone else knowing about her new friend and had made a promise with Marietta that she wouldn't say anything either.
Hanami had also found out from Marietta that there had been random searches of dwellings issued by a general named Ting Shi. She always had a bad feeling about him and knew that her father had yet to meet him. General Shi was actually promoted during a battle to the far west. No one had been able to confirm his heroism since he was the only survivor out of the entire garrison. It also didn't help that General Shi was an orphan and was only promoted through necessity. Something about him, she did not trust and probably would never be able to.
“It is still unclear about what the warriors were searching for. Even the other Generals are suspicious of his actions. I wouldn't be surprised if he has made many enemies of the imperial court already.” informed Marietta as they sat casually in Hanami's room.
Hanami's room was quite bland. She only had the bare necessities being a bed, table and chairs. There were no extravagant curtains or vases and anyone passing by would think that it belonged to a servant. Her father had ingrained into her that material things were not as important as people and that she should first look after herself so that she could care for the well being of others. She had explained to him through an analogy that she understood what he meant, but he only smiled back at her as if she had missed the most important point. However he was whisked away by his ministers and she was left with her studies to ponder her answer.
“General Shi has been acting quite irrationally ever since he returned from that battle. I believe that was only a couple of days ago. He is already making plans and no one has any idea as to why. Everyone was under the impression that when he returned, he would rest and swim in the praises that he would receive for returning. He has pushed so many people away. Do you suppose you would like to dig him out of whatever he is doing and try to get a glimpse of what he might be planning?” asked Marietta as her concern over General Shi was clearly expressed.
Hanami sat quietly as if pondering her answer. Her green eyes were unfocused as she seemed to stare at the far wall as if it had all the answers she needed. Her white silk clothing was comfortable and warm against the coolness of the room. She was still dressed in men's attire and still had her hat on that also concealed her face. However her thoughts were on the person who was named Sakura that saved her from the inn and the other person named Sakura who had shattered her world. Are they truly two different people, inhabiting the same body? It's almost like they don't know each other's existence and are pondering about the gaps in their memory, well her memory. She was searching through her feelings on both occasions. Her emotions stirred for both Sakura's in the same way although the “inn” Sakura made her angrier than the “palace” Sakura who soothed her.
“Hanami… Hanami… are you listening to me?” asked Marietta after some time. She had noticed that Hanami was in some sort of daze. She had noticed ever since Hanami had returned from her little adventure. She wondered if it had anything to do with the person who had saved her from the inn. It was also strange that Hanami had divulged only a little bit of information about her saviour. “Hanami?” called Marietta .
“Yes?” replied Hanami, a little startled that she had been caught daydreaming. She smiled cheekily as Marietta closed her eyes, shook her head and made “tch” noises. She wondered what Marietta would think if she could read her thoughts. Her ponderings were starting to get out of hand ever since she had returned. She wondered if the generals would postpone the evening meeting until the morrow. However she truly doubted it. She assumed that the scouts that were sent to the Great Wall of China would have returned by now or would have sent a messenger at least.
“Are you going to ask General Shi to have a private meeting so that you can maybe coax him to telling you what he is up to or at least finding out some clues?” asked Marietta slowly and clearly as if she were talking to a small child. She rolled her eyes as Hanami seemed to be still dazed from her daydreaming.
“I think I will leave him be and see if I can get clues during the group meetings. It might be best to not raise any suspicions that I am watching him. We are still unsure about the news coming from the north and there is much to discuss. I am still not prepared to fully take on the responsibilities that the throne holds.”
“It will be bad if the Generals see you falter in taking the throne. They will not follow you confidently and it is a chance for those that oppose you to try and overthrow you. However, on the other hand, if you claim the throne too quickly the Generals will cast their suspicions on you and will overthrow you.” said Marietta , showing her concern and hinting about the politics of taking the throne.
Hanami sighed to herself. There were a lot of reasons why the Generals would not follow her blindly. The concealment of her looks was one thing and she knew that her father had gained all of the trust of the imperial court while discouraging the opposers. Her head was starting to ache from the stress of having to deal with politics. It was certainly not her forte but she could play it if she wished.
Suddenly an imperial guard was at the door and announced that the Generals were awaiting her arrival for the meeting to proceed. It was clear that he was a little out of breath and must have run all the way here from the meeting room. It was nice to know that certain warriors were doing their duty.
Hanami found herself sitting in the meeting room while the Generals stood about. Her emerald eyes looked around the room to memorise the faces that she saw. So General Shi is here as well as Generals Yun, Li, Liao and Sung. I wonder where the other three generals are. Her hand was raised for General Yun to start the meeting concerning the news from the north.
General Yun stood proud with his decorated armour. It was popular news about his feats such as defending the west from bandits and barbarians. He was also fiercely loyal to the court and a dear friend to her father. His black eyes full of wisdom and history looked at her with a firm nod of his head before starting the meeting. “General Yi is not present since he was expected to rest after his tour of the west region of the Great Wall of China . Generals Shui and Lui are with the Emperor and Empress at the moment. The northern news about the invasion is too early to discuss at this time. No news from the messengers has arrived yet and the second squad of scouts should still be making their way over there if they are being cautious. Also General Guan Ping was not invited to join us since you have not given your opinion on the matter even though he asked to join.” said General Yun clearly.
“There is also another General that I am supposed to meet that was suggested by the visitors that we had the other day. I am still unsure if we should include him. It would be nice to know if his loyalty is to the throne or is to the visitors who came. General Yun, please keep an eye on him when he shows up and report to me once you have found an answer.” commanded Hanami in a strict voice. She then looked at the other four generals present. Her eyes narrowed onto Shi for a moment before closing in on Liao. “General Liao, do you have anything to report from the south west regarding the raiders?”
Liao quickly answered. His voice was gruff as if someone had put a scour down his throat, but Hanami could still understand him. His uniform, which was also distinctive in its array of colours, made him look as though he had endured many battles although Hanami had not heard any stories about his feats. “We are still searching for the culprits.”
Hanami nodded her head. She wasn't pleased with his answer since her father had already brought this topic up on many occasions and still received the same answer from him. She had wondered why he was still around if her father continued to pursue the matter without results. She then turned to Sung who was one of Yu's superiors. “General Sung, is there any news within the kingdom besides those that have been discussed that I need to be concerned about?” She was always polite to this General since he was also one of her father's best friends and confidantes.
General Sung bowed his head and smiled. He was a lot younger than the other generals besides Shi. His uniform was well decorated and he held an aura of power with him although he had expressed his loyalty to her father on countless occasions. He spoke in a clear voice that could be used on the battle field if he wished. “There are only a few minor things but you do not have to be concerned by them. General Li and I will personally see to those matters. General Yun suggested that if you wish to be involved in those matters, I will gladly show you. Otherwise I will hand in the reports once I have resolved the issues.”
“Thank you General Sung. This meeting will be adjourned until word has arrived from the scouts sent north.” informed Hanami before Shi, Li and Liao left quickly from the room. Hanami sighed as Sung and Yun smiled at her. The room was cleared and only the three of them remained so they were free to discuss matters without having to worry about who was listening. “I don't think I will be able to get used to this.”
“Your father believes you can do it and we are always here to help you, Hanami. Even if the others don't know your true identity, when they find out, there will be those that will question their loyalty towards you. Your father has prepared you for this and I am sure that you will do him proud.” commented Sung. He looked at her proudly and smiled as brightly as Yun. He made sure to look out for her since it was his duty and above all else he was her godfather.
“Sung is right Hanami. Trust in your instincts and everything you have learnt so far will not be in vain. The knowledge you have will be useful as it was when your father first became Emperor.” said Yun like the teacher he was as well as a protector of the royal family.
Hanami smiled. She trusted these two people with her life since they had given all of their strength to make sure that her father and she would remain safe. They were the wisest of all of the generals. They had been the ones to suggest to the Emperor and Empress to take a small contingent of escorts which involved two generals and also General Yi who would be in the area if assistance was needed.
“What do you think I should do about General Ping? He has offered his services as well as that of his daughter. We know that they're family was once apart of the other rulers of this land before father claimed all of China . They don't seem threatening either.” said Hanami as she watched Yun and Sung think about the proposal that was made the other day. They all thought it was quite sudden since the Guan family had separated themselves from society until now; this piece of information coming from General Li who had been outcast. “Should we allow him to enter the court?”
“If he swears allegiance to your father, I am sure that he will be watched carefully for some time until your father grants him with his trust. Yun and I will always keep our eyes out and even now we are suspicious of General Shi. We have yet to receive a report from him regarding the raids on various homes in the west region of the city. We will update you on the matter when we find something conclusive to ease our minds or start strategising.” suggested Sung as he paced the room. He could see Yun watching him since Yun had expressed on many occasions that he should also become a teacher.
“We will have to wait for father's return then. Anyways I have things to attend to. I will see the both of you tomorrow afternoon.” said Hanami as she made her way to the door. She smiled at them as they bowed at her. She wondered if they would stop the act if she requested it of them. “There may be a few things that I need to discuss with you.” She said to forestall their questions. Then she left with the two generals looking at her questioningly.
Sakura walked the perimeter of the Forbidden City again since midday . She had seen Hanami leave that morning with those warriors but had not followed them. She didn't want to ask for trouble and it was going to be big trouble if she did. So instead she had visited an inn to try and relax before heading home. However she had overheard some civilians talking about the raids happening during the night and early morning.
“They have been looking for someone.” said a man with a growing grey beard as he sipped his tea while darting his eyes around for any eavesdroppers. He glanced in the direction of the person dressed in fine white silk that was sitting in the corner of the room. He watched carefully to see if the person was listening but dismissed them after seeing them sip at their own tea with an intent look at the table. “I think it might have been a girl. The officials were talking amongst themselves outside of my place.”
“Did they search your place?” asked one of three others sitting at the same table.
“They searched it twice. I think they searched everyone's place twice just in case. It seemed like the girl that they were looking for was extremely important. They were also looking for a particular sword. I thought it was a joke for them to be looking for a sword and a girl. They didn't make it obvious while searching my household but I'm sure that they checked through my set of weapons to make sure.” said the grey bearded man.
“What did they say outside of your place?” asked another man.
“They were talking like they were wasting their time searching for a sword and a girl which they didn't have a clue of what she looked like. They said it was ridiculous to try and find the two. However another spoke up and said that the girl had the sword and they wouldn't be mistaken.” continued the grey bearded man.
“So who was responsible for the raids? Why is this girl and sword so important?” asked the last member on the table. He looked at the man that was telling the story with a curious stare. The other two were also intrigued by their friend's story.
“Apparently General Shi gave the order for them to search the houses last night and when he was not satisfied that they didn't find anything, the officials were ordered to search again. They didn't really say what was so special about the girl besides the fact that she would have a golden sword with her. They said that the golden sword belonged to one of the members of the imperial court. So I'm guessing that this girl probably stole it or someone gave it to her for safe keeping.” said the grey bearded man as he sipped the last of his tea. “I think it would be for safe keeping. No woman would be able to sneak into the imperial court and steal a sword. Hopefully that girl is innocent and doesn't get into too much trouble. It would probably be wise of her to discard it somewhere than face the wrath of the officials.”
The others nodded in agreement before all four of them left the inn after finishing their tea. Sakura sat silently thinking about the story. There was only one sword that she knew of that was golden and it was the one that was in her possession. However the sword belonged to her. She was its rightful owner. She wondered if she could get into the imperial court and find information about why this General was so interested in her sword.
So Sakura was halfway through her second walk around the perimeter of the Forbidden City . She had not dared to look suspicious or ponder too much on the one spot. There were far too many officials standing guard at the gates and she didn't want to draw attention to herself if she wanted to get in and have a peek around without being noticed. She stopped at a food stall that was on the side of the street and got a nibble to eat as she watched some of the officials standing guard at the west gate. It looked as though they were talking to each other to pass the time while searching each individual who entered or left. However there were a few nobles who were not searched. She memorised their faces and wondered if she could tag one of them to enter.
“Hey Mister, do you know where I can find Major Zhao Yu?” asked a boy who was finely dressed. He didn't look like the other children who were malnourished or begging for food. His hair was tied up in a high ponytail like her own hair which suggested that she was a male to other people. So his assumption was a positive remark for Sakura. “I was told that he was no longer working at the north gate. You're one of the nobles in the imperial court. Do you know where he is?”
Sakura was a little lost in how to answer him. She wasn't sure who this Major Yu was or where to find him. However she looked at the young noble confidently and smiled. “I think he was reassigned to another position within the Forbidden City . Would you like some company on your search?” asked Sakura. She guessed that the boy was only twelve years of age and wondered where his personal entourage was. Her azure eyes looked around and she didn't see anyone that looked like they were looking out for this boy. “I would be happy to escort you if you wish?”
The young noble hesitated for a moment before looking around. His dark brown eyes were curious and eager to search the city without an escort but something about this person made him stop and think. Sakura could see it all in his eyes. She had calculated that this young noble must have run away from his guards so that he could have some fun for once. She also knew that he felt very vulnerable being alone, since she had once been in the same position although she was back in her home town instead of this monstrosity of a city. She waited for him to think. There was no reason for him to deny her suggestion and he would probably be better off if he was with another noble. Well she did look the part since she was in fine white silk and she held her posture with confidence befitting a noble. She also gave the distinct impression that she was of a higher class than the people around her, even the boy.
“I will accept your offer. Please come with me to find Major Zhao Yu.” agreed the boy. He smiled up at her before he strode towards the Forbidden City . He glanced at his new replacement guard to make sure that he was being escorted. Seeing azure eyes at his side, he smiled widely. “My name is Lu Wu Feng, but you can call me Feng. Everyone else calls my father Wu. I only arrived here about a week ago. Father hasn't let me go anywhere and only caved in after he had that audience with the future Emperor. I wasn't even allowed to go with him.”
Sakura walked while absorbing in the small tale that Feng was weaving about himself. It seemed like he was from an important family and their presence here might be more than just a simple visit. She never heard of a boy ever talking this much. His constant chatter allowed them to walk through the gates without being searched as if the officials knew exactly who he was. It was a little strange that this small boy could be so important that he was recognised and allowed to do as he wished.
However, soon enough, azure eyes turned to examining the inside of the Forbidden City . There were many officials walking about with obvious intentions. She walked casually along with Feng without raising anyone's suspicion. The walls rose up around them and opened up to a large area. There were many buildings within that were beautifully decorated by different plants and structures. It looked so clean and welcoming as if the buildings outside of the city were pigsties or worse.
Sakura walked along with Feng without turning many people's heads. Most were just watching and smiled while others could be seen gossiping from her corner's eye. She knew that most of the talk centred around her since she was willing to bet that none of them had seen her before. It also helped that Feng was only here since a few days ago. Her azure eyes caught many people turning their heads away as if they hadn't been staring in the first place. She felt the stress of being watched. Her body was beginning to tense but her outward appearance was not diminished.
“So Feng, why don't we try heading in that direction? I think we will be able to find Major Zhao Yu that way.” commented Sakura as she led the way without seeming to. She walked side by side with the boy and made sure that the people watching her understood that her ranking in society was equal to that of the boy. She assumed that the boy was a high noble since not even an eye was battered when he entered. “Do you know anyone else around here?”
Feng slowly shook his head but he smiled. “I only know Major Yu since he was the one that welcomed us into the Forbidden City . Then I went out a few times to meet him while he was guarding the gate to talk. However there was one time that I couldn't make it out and apparently my father heard about some sort of commotion happening then. So he forbade me to go ever since and said that it was for my safety. He knew that I was going to see Major Yu and now he just wants to keep me inside after whatever set off the alarms.” explained Feng as he trudged alongside her.
“Your father must cherish you a lot.” commented Sakura. She walked confidently with her head held high as she tried to think about her own father. General Yi had been a very proud and busy man. She remembered how he had frequented her even less as the years rolled on. She assumed that it had something to do with her appearance rather than his heart. She knew that each passing day, she looked more like her mother, although her mother didn't have blue eyes. However she stopped her pondering and put her mind to her set task.
Hanami walked with an entourage of guards sworn to protect her. She had escaped Marietta 's company after the old woman had turned her back to attend to some blankets. However right now she was starting to think that Marietta had let her go since the guards were very much hindering her fun. It also didn't help that everyone recognised her as the future Emperor either. So she made sure that she kept a steady pace while meandering along the roads within the Forbidden City . She couldn't actually wander outside since everyone within the city deemed it dangerous, mainly when there was still no news from the first squad of scouts.
Hanami had left that room for only one reason. She was determined to see it through since she had been sitting in there studying for the past couple of hours. However, her mind was being tugged gently away from her books by her heart which wanted to be somewhere else. She had never in her life experienced something like this before. She had tried to resist the temptation of leaving since it was her duty to learn as much as she could about the world around her. However, the longer she sat there, the more her heart began to ache terribly. So she had quickly escaped to find out what this feeling was. Her guards had put her slightly off but she continued undeterred.
Her entire body was tingling as she walked in the direction that her heart was pulling her. Her emerald eyes searched every nook and cranny for the source. Her chest was hurting less and less as she realised she must be homing in on whatever the cause was. She quickly rounded the corner and slammed bodily into another person. She was saved from falling as arms wrapped around her waist and held her steady.
“Are you alright?” whispered her saviour of embarrassment.
The whisper sent tingles down Hanami's spine and slightly tickled her ear. She had heard this voice once before and as she looked up into azure eyes, blood covered her vision. The memory of the day that she had first met this person came back in stark clarity. She closed her eyes and tried to will the images away, afraid that it was happening at this very moment. She told me they were gone and then showed me the proof that she wasn't lying…
Hanami's world was spun upside down when she was swiftly released and was staring down at a slim man with long dark hair in a ponytail. She could see that he was a noble because of his attire and the way that he held himself, as well as having Feng standing there. Green eyes glanced around to notice that her guards were hair triggered to respond if it were necessary. She stared at the bowed man and wondered why she had thought that this person was the girl named Sakura who had come to her broken.
“Speak.” commanded Hanami in a strong voice.
“My apologise future Emperor. I will look where I am going next time. Please be lenient in my punishment.” replied the bowed man who continued to stare at the ground and not allow the guards to identify him.
Hanami felt unsure by now since her heart was yearning to go to this man and touch him. She was confused as to why all of a sudden her heart had stopped aching. Emerald eyes stared at the top of this man's head and questioned profusely within her what was wrong with her. She looked around at her protectors and saw how they had eased their guard after spotting the boy. She was slightly amused that Yu was staring at the boy intently. She could see that he was trying to communicate with the boy without words.
“Please raise your head and look at me. ” commanded Hanami. She was stunned when azure eyes looked up at her. She swiftly mentally slapped herself before her body would allow her to respond to the situation. “This will be your only warning. I will let you off and in return I would like to talk with you.”
Hanami could feel the many eyes stare at her incredulously. She felt the need to extend the time in which she would be with this man so that she could learn more about him. She still had the feeling that this man was somehow familiar. It was true that the man had very similar eyes to Sakura but they were not the same person. She could see with his attire that he was a noble and he was very femininely handsome.
“Thank you future Emperor, I would be honoured greatly to be able to talk with you.” replied the azure eyed man before bowing at the waist and gesturing with his arm for her to continue walking. His azure eyes looked at the future Emperor with a look of intrigue.
Hanami had been walking with her new companion for some time in silence. The both of them had been glancing at Feng and Yu who were talking raptly about stories. While they were being entertained and the entourage were slightly distracted, Hanami just wanted to talk with her new companion alone. She had yet to ask for a name and all she could really think about was the fact that this man looked so much like Sakura as if they had been twins. So she swiftly grabbed her companions arm and started to bolt, hoping that he wouldn't resist.
Hanami was surprised that she found no resistance. On top of that she was being lifted into his strong arms as they sped further away. She looked over her companions shoulder and saw how her entourage and Feng were running to try and catch up but they were too slow. She could see their worry but knew that they would not launch an attack since they could be endangering her life.
Hanami turned back to look at her companion. She was still unsure if this person was Sakura or not. This close to her subject, she was convinced that this had to be Sakura. Her emerald eyes were solely focused on those deep azure pools that wanted to suck her in endlessly. She was unaware of her surroundings and hadn't noticed that they were in the Imperial Garden or the fact that they were high in the trees.
“You are very light, future Emperor.” remarked Hanami's companion.
“You speak so freely for a noble. You are also very straight forward. Most people would not be willing to whisk away a member of the royal family like this even if I had insisted that we find ourselves some space so that we can talk.” said Hanami in her sweet voice.
“It was in my best interest that I oblige so that I can also get what I want. I want to know some things that maybe you might have the answers. I want to know who ordered the raids on the houses last night as well as the reason why.”
“General Ting Shi was responsible for ordering the raids on the houses. As to what he was looking for or the reason for his search is still a mystery to me. All I know for sure is that he will be handing in a report about the incident and I will be finding out then. He might not reveal everything to me but that is why I have others who I put my trust in. So why are you interested?” asked Hanami.
“I overheard some of the citizens talking and found it best if I find out the information first hand rather than having it relayed to me. Time is everything and I'm sure that you can understand that. Now what is it that you would like to ask me?”
“Is your name Sakura? Do you know Hanami?” asked Hanami.
Sakura hesitated for a moment. How does she know my name? I wonder if Hanami is the future Emperor's servant. It would explain how the future Emperor knows what I look like and my name. Her azure eyes were locked with green as she precariously balanced on a branch of a thick tree that had a lot of growth on it. “Hanami, I met recently at an inn. She got into some trouble that I quickly got her out of.” replied Sakura.
“So you are Sakura?” asked Hanami as she felt her heart being tugged closer to Sakura who held her gently. Why does my heart beat so fast? My hands are all sweaty and I can barely think. She tried to calm her thoughts and her reaction to this… woman… She only just realised that she was being held by a woman in an intimate embrace meant only for lovers. Even on their little trip to the Great Wall of China she had noticed that these instances where they did touch were necessary for the situations that they were in.
Sakura could see that the future Emperor became rigid as if shocked by something. She slowly raised her hand to the hat on the future Emperor's head. She wanted to see into this person's eyes. Something was stirring within her that this was exactly where she was meant to be as if she had finally come home. Her azure eyes were eager to learn what this future Emperor looked like and carefully the hat and covering fell away… Hanami…
Sakura gently caressed Hanami's cheek and slowly a strong force was pulling their heads closer together. Neither one could resist the temptation. Sakura's soft lips met Hanami's cherry lips. Little pecks began to deepen as the wave of emotions grew stronger and more powerful. Sakura's eyes were closed as she was permitted entrance into Hanami's sweet mouth. It seemed like an endless moment before both drew back to catch their breaths.
“I'm sorry.” said Sakura instantly before she slowly let Hanami stand carefully on the branch. “I shouldn't have done that. Please accept my apology and I'll accept any punishment that you deem reasonable.” She lowered her eyes to the ground and waited for Hanami to say something.
Hanami stared at Sakura in shock. I kissed her… Her eyes drifted to those lips that had sent a shocking sensation to the pit of her stomach. Her body was craving for more, but she stood there as Sakura's words finally penetrated her mind. She didn't even know what had come over her. It was an urge to satisfy something deep within her that she had not even known about. She took a step back to try and give both of them some space, but she was unaware that she was up in a tree. Her foot met air and she was falling.
Sakura felt the air currents shift briefly in front of her and knew what Hanami had done. She leapt forward into a dive and gradually caught up to her. She was kind of glad that she had picked a very tall tree since there was still room left to manoeuvre after she managed to grab hold of Hanami in a gentle embrace. Her strong legs met one branch and another as she slowed down their descent. Landing on the ground softly, she tried to see if Hanami was alright.
Hanami's eyes were closed tight as she held Sakura in a death grip. She didn't want to let go. Fear held her in place as her heart pounded loudly in her ears. She was scared of heights and falling from a tree was one experience she could have done without. Her whole body was trembling.
The wind picked up around Hanami and Sakura as the first signs of the season took root. A few leaves fell from the tall trees of the garden and swept along the ground as if a ghost was sweeping them along. A stream of sunlight pierced the canopy and only captured Hanami's small frame while Sakura remained in shadow. They were in an intimate embrace as time didn't seem to exist in their small world that they had created. It was to this sight that Marietta found them. A hand rose to her lips at seeing through both of their facades and seeing the undeniable truth. She was seeing a deep connection form between the two young women as if an angel had pulled them together for this one moment.
Marietta saw Hanami's entourage coming towards her. She quickly made up her mind and intercepted them before they could ruin the moment between Sakura and Hanami. Her smile lit up the guards faces instinctively. “The future Emperor and her guest are fine. There is no need for you to overcrowd them with your presence. I will oversee them for now. Yu and Feng may remain here.” instructed Marietta as if she knew what was going through their heads. The head guard was about to protest but she swiftly intercepted him. “Yu will be enough if something should happen. I'm sure he is skilled enough for this task and you and your men can take a break from your duties.”
The head guard nodded his head in agreement before ushering his men to leave since they were surprised by Marietta 's proposal. Yu and Feng watched as they left, but both were curious as to why the rest of the guards were sent away. Only they were not going to get any answers from Marietta since all she did was smile and gestured for them to rest at a bench.
“Are you sure it is wise to leave the future Emperor with her guest which we do not know?” queried Yu as he sat as instructed to. His black eyes looked at Marietta with concern. He was worried that there was something wrong and she didn't want to let the other guards know about it. “Is there something wrong?”
Marietta smiled. “I have waited seventeen years for the union that has occurred today, albeit it might have been a couple of days ago. Finally the future Emperor is walking her path beside the person she is destined to be with.”
“What are you saying?” asked Yu in alarm.
“I had a vision when the future Emperor was born. I saw that I would look after her until the time came when she would be crowned and sit beside her partner. They will both rule this empire which will mark a new beginning. However it will be a difficult task for them before they arrive on the throne together. I hope that my vision will come true for the sake of the empire rests on their shoulders.” explained Marietta with a far away look in her eyes.
“The future Emperor is a woman?” blurted out Feng who was shocked by the revelation. “She is going to be with that noble man who I had escorted in? How can they rule together? Isn't it the Emperor who rules and the Empress to support him? It doesn't make sense. The future Emperor can't be a woman.”
Yu held his tongue. He had too only known about the future Emperor being a woman a couple of days ago when he let in the woman with the Emperor's sword. He doubted that Feng would understand any time soon, but he had seen for himself the strength that the future Emperor held. He felt strongly that he would follow her to his death if he had to.
“Young Feng, I know that all of this must be confusing because of your teachers, but the ultimate rule is that the Emperor allowed it. Do you think it strange for the future Emperor to take her position when her father requested her to do so? Do you think if you were a woman and not born a man that you would accept the duty that was bestowed upon you no matter what society pressures us into believing? It is an honour for the future Emperor to bestow her wisdom upon us. She has learnt not only from her father but also from her mother. She is their hope for a bright future for the empire.” explained Marietta as if she were a teacher.
Feng nodded his head in agreement. There was nothing that he could say to what she said. Everything that Marietta had said was the truth and if he were in the future Emperor's shoes, he would also do his duty. He was young but he knew how everything would have worked. Now he realised the reason why the future Emperor's identity was concealed from public view.
“Are you certain that the future Emperor has found the right person?” asked Yu.
“Why do you assume that she is with someone that you don't know?” asked Marietta instead of answering his question. She was quite puzzled that he hadn't recognised who the future Emperor was with. Her black eyes stared at him earnestly, searching for answers. “Why would you think that the person with her would do her harm?”
“The future Emperor is with a man that I have never seen before and I have seen my fair share of nobles. I find it very hard that the future Emperor has met this person before considering how secluded her life has been. Where in China would she have met him before?” ranted Yu in frustration and worry.
“What man are you talking about?” asked Marietta , totally confused.
Colourful leaves started to scatter about on the ground as the cool wind blew gently. The sun was high above but only a glimpse of the stream light could be seen under the thick canopy of an ancient Lianli tree. The Imperial Garden seemed deserted except for two people who were quite shaded from view. Only one stream of light was cast upon one of the individuals while the other remained in shadow.
Hanami stood within Sakura's arms. She felt content and safe after that frightening fall from the top of the tree. Her heart was still pounding madly but for a different reason to what had caused it to stir in the first place. Her emerald eyes softly looked up to see Sakura's face. She was mesmerised by the high cheek bones and so very blue eyes. Her body was pressed tightly towards her taller companion as she tried to sort out her thoughts and feelings.
Sapphire eyes looked down to caress Hanami. Slowly images of blood and gore crowded her mind to remind her of who she truly was. Sakura tried to step back out of Hanami's embrace. It was clear through her eyes that there was something wrong with what she was doing. There was something else that she needed to attend to. Her heart was beating profusely while within Hanami's returning embrace. She was frightened and her eyes showed it clearly. She could see that Hanami was confused by the look of fear, but she wasn't seeing the horrifying images that her memory had locked away. She wasn't seeing the true Sakura who wanted nothing more than to be beside Hanami forever. She was seeing a stranger who appeared to protect Hanami and herself.
Sakura felt her mind take the two personalities that she portrayed for the last few days come together as one person. She saw with new azure eyes how her world was now, instead of just living in the present or in the past. Her mind sifted through all of her thoughts and memories to sort out the conflicting emotions running through her entire being.
Sakura saw how Hanami was becoming a little insecure, just watching her. She could see the confusion deep in her emerald eyes as well as a slight tug of fear and worry. Lifting her hand from Hanami's back, she caressed Hanami's cheek. I love you… I don't know how I know this and I might not understand where these feelings are coming from, but I know that this is true. I feel as though I have been searching for you my entire life… She gently touched her forehead together with Hanami and smiled as the tug of fear subsided.
“I'm home.” whispered Sakura as she gathered Hanami closer to her body. She felt the slight resistance but smiled as it melted away and the embrace was returned fully. Her lips gently pecked Hanami's forehead reassuringly before she spoke once more. “I am Sakura, daughter of General Ming Yi. Everything is so much clearer now… I'm so sorry that you had to wait so long for me, Hanami.”
“I love you.” whispered Hanami into Sakura's neck.
“I love you too.” replied Sakura.
“This Lianli tree is magical…”
Both Hanami and Sakura turned as the walls around their small world, which exuded everything else, was shattered by the statement. Azure and emerald eyes stared at this lovely lady who had long thick straight black hair and eyes the colour of grass in the spring. She wore an intricate silk robe that was fitting for an Empress. Her smile made everything bright except for her eyes which held a hint of sadness.
“Who are you?” asked Hanami. The strong arms around her shoulders gave her strength as she faced this woman who did not look a day older than twenty five. She smiled back politely to try and welcome this woman, but there was something about her that screamed unnatural in her mind. “Where did you come from?”
“A long time ago, there was a king. He ordered one of his officials to build this,” the woman pointed to the Qinglingtai, “and then had him killed. The king was cruel because he had taken the official's wife for himself prior to the Qinglingtai's completion. After the wife had heard about her husband's death, she leapt into his tomb and died instantly. The king was so ruthless that he separated the official from his wife even after death and they were buried on opposite sides of the Qinglingtai. Two Lianli trees grew on their tombs and birds sang of their tragic love…”
Hanami looked at the sorrow filled woman and knew instantly that the story that the woman weaved was true. They were standing under one of the Lianli trees and the other one was on the other side of the Qinglingtai. Her emerald eyes looked at azure eyes and saw belief in them as well.
“I am only a memory embedded into this tree. Now that you have woken me from my slumber, I am finally free to return to whence I came… Keep this story within your hearts, for it will help you along your way.” said the lovely woman as she slowly approached Hanami and Sakura. She raised her hand and gently placed it on Sakura's cheek with a tearful smile. “I will restore you fully to who you are, my love… I will be waiting for that day to come… But for now, a small token of gratitude to help you find yourself…” said the lady as she closed her eyes briefly and smiled. Her body glowed for an instant before she released Sakura's cheek with a small nod. She then closed the rest of the distance between Hanami and her. Her entire being was absorbed into Hanami's body in a rush of wind as Sakura and Hanami were left standing there, still unsure about what just happened.
Hanami looked down at her own chest with wondering eyes. She couldn't believe what she had seen and heard. Her emerald eyes turned to Sakura and were surprised to find confusion there also. “Sakura, are you alright?” asked Hanami with some concern. She had seen Sakura think on many occasions but none of those instances revealed Sakura as frightened or unsure.
Sakura looked around her. She was fully aware that she was with the future Emperor. Her memories were slowly meshing back together after the lady's touch on her cheek and the small light show. She started to remember everything in chronological order and found all of the blanks being filled with the things that she had accomplished. “I remember now…” whispered Sakura as she gently ran her knuckles across Hanami's cheek. “You must have been so confused with my behaviour. I'm sorry.”
Hanami's eyes widened at Sakura's omission. She had been so confused for the passed week and wondered if she should have been locked up in her room. Now she was being told that her assumptions had been correct and the fact that Sakura was just… What made her become like that? She thought about it some more and slowly she gazed at those azure eyes that were wide open for her to read. Her mind partitioned off her memories because of what had happened to her to have the sword in the first place. Slowly tears started to track down her cheeks. Her loving parents filled her vision as she remembered her short goodbyes with them at her room instead of walking with them to the gate. “I want to know what happened to my parents.”
Sakura saw the sadness deepen as she stared back into those emerald eyes. She could feel her heart beating profusely as her memories came to the fore about her actions. I told her about her parents by presenting her father's sword… I took her there to the place that they had died… I told her that it was my fault. Now she wants an explanation. She deserves it… Her azure eyes glanced up at the Lianli tree and wondered why the lady had helped her with her memories. Everything had been simpler before and were now so complicated. She didn't want to hurt Hanami and she didn't want to lie to her either. “I will explain everything to you.” said Sakura as she made up her mind.
General Shi stood in his quarters. He had sent many of his subordinates out to look for a girl with a golden sword. He had only received word a day prior that his assassins had failed in keeping the truth hidden from the citizens and now someone knew. His head was aching as he tried to think of a plan. He was well aware that he had already drawn attention to himself by sending out those men to search the homes of the citizens twice over. His anger was evident as he paced from one side of the room to the other.
Three guards stood in General Shi's room. They were waiting for some sort of command after relaying their reports that they had seen no one with the General's descriptions or the sword at all. They had all wondered why the General was so interested in a girl and a sword but they were smart enough not to question him.
General Shi turned once more and paced back to the middle of the room to face his three most loyal subordinates. “I am sorry my friend's for keeping you in the dark about my plans. I have hit a blockade in my journey and I need your help.” said General Shi as he lowered his eyes in front of his three subordinates.
“The master is happy that you have made it this far in his plans. He trusts that you will not fail him. You have granted him with wonderful news and new decorations. Don't let this bump anger him. You know what master will do. If you need my help, then you will have to share what the master will give you for your success. Do we have a deal?”
The three subordinates stood stock still as they heard that silky voice behind them. It was soft and slightly melodic, but slithered dangerously through the air as though this person could wander freely and get away with anything. The subordinates made sure not to turn around and were surprised that their General would bow down to another. Their eyes nearly bulged out of their heads as the person who spoke came into their view by walking towards Shi going in-between them.
Mai-Ling stood directly in front of Shi and looked down at him. Her black eyes glittered with amusement as she glided from her shadowed corner. She had watched in silence as the three subordinates had entered and given their reports. She knew that Shi had a problem but she hadn't lifted a finger to help him.
“With your sweet tongue, are you ever going to make a deal containing all of us for once?” asked Ryu, a tall bulky man with dark skin. He stepped forward from his shadowed spot and smiled with perfect white teeth. “Master will surely award all of us equally for our efforts. Helping Shi is only a formality we will have to perform to make sure that we are rewarded for our efforts.”
“Let me have some fun playing with our little brother, Ryu… Big brother Shu has already met his end at the hands of those that were with the Emperor. I doubt master will ignore us for avenging our master's favourite. However, I find it hard to believe that Shi managed to get all of us in without raising any suspicions.” commented Mai-Ling.
Ryu laughed throatily which sent chills down the three subordinates' spines. His dark brown eyes glittered with amusement as he placed his hand onto Shi's shoulder. “Shi has done a fine job so far even if he has a small hiccup. None of us expected there to be a survivor from the small battle that Shu was meant to take care off. Hell, we didn't even think that the survivor would be a master swordsman as well… To think a young woman could put a hiccup in all of our plans. If the future Emperor finds out or any of the other loyal Generals, we will have a mighty job ahead of us.”
Mai-Ling smiled creepily as she circled her two colleagues. Her dark eyes glanced at the warriors who followed Shi around loyally. She wondered what they were thinking now to have learned about the treachery that was afoot. She glided to the window and looked out to see that it was still the middle of the afternoon. Her presence was not yet required since her father assumed that she was in her bedroom.
“Mai-Ling, be careful with your actions. If your father finds out about your involvement, he will not be rational.” warned Ryu once again. He kept warning her since it was his duty to remind her that her presence in other people's lives was important to shield everyone from the truth of their master's existence. “Master may need your help but you are his weakness and I will do whatever it takes to make sure that the master's plan succeeds.”
“You're such a worry wort.” chided Mai-Ling before she hopped out of the window with sure grace. Her dark eyes not daring to see her comrades. She had things to do and places to be since she had already passed on her pieces of information that she had collected. Her insides were churning with a little regret for getting involved in this group but anger kept her quiet. She couldn't fail or she would risk a lot more than just her own life.
Ryu watched Mai-Ling go. He was still unsure about her since she had little involvement in the operation so far and there was really nothing that he could see that bound her to the group. He was always pondering her loyalties, but so far there was no sign that she would turn her back on them. She was loyal to the master and that was all that mattered. His brown eyes turned to Shi. “I will track down that young woman and clear the way for you. Hopefully your plans have not been wrinkled by this small incident. Make sure that you get the future Emperor's favour or you will regret accepting this important role.”
Shi nodded his head emphatically and turned to his subordinates as Ryu also left. His black eyes stared at his loyal warriors and wondered what they were thinking. “So now you know the truth behind my actions. All of you asked to stay by my side always and I have put you all in difficult situations where you have had to choose your loyalties carefully. I am pleased that none of you will betray me or I will see to it that there is nothing left of you or your families. Take it as a warning.” said Shi as he eyed them all. He could see their shocked faces but knew that they would not falter from the path that they had already chosen. He had already made sure of that with the tasks that he had sent them to do.
Shi smiled as he turned around to collect a scroll from the table. He turned back around and rolled it open to have a look at the written text that was sent from his master. Ryu had left it for him. He had known that the master would find out about the little hiccup since it was actually Shu's failure in the first place. “You have already quieted those that were related to the individual's who were at the battle at the wall. Now you have another task. I want you all to infiltrate the royal guard and break their loyalties with the future Emperor. Then the master will be able to take back the throne that is his birthright.”
“THE FUTURE EMPEROR IS WITH ANOTHER WOMAN!!!” yelled Yu right at Marietta 's face. It was obvious that this was a real shock to him since he assumed that the guest was actually a man with the way that they had run away. He could even see Feng's shock. How could I have been so blind?
“Hush you, she is with another woman. The woman is someone that you have met before. She wielded the Emperor's sword right in front of you. Didn't you see that she was armed?” asked Marietta . She was a little shocked that he hadn't seen through the facades, but then she did have experience with facades. She shook her head slightly as she looked at Feng. “You may think that this is unnatural for two women to join and rule, but it is what will be. There is nothing in the world that will change that fact. I have seen it in my vision and I'm sure that the Empress would agree with me on this one. You do know that they love each other right?”
Yu was beginning to fall. He felt like it as he sat on the bench in the garden with Hanami and her guest hiding. Everything that he had known was going to the wayside. He had thought that the Emperor would have wanted a male heir and that a woman would never be interested in another woman or a man being interested in another man. His views of the world were changing as he thought about what Marietta had said. The conviction that was in her voice as he listened told him that there was no choice in the matter and that things were the way they were, just because. Slowly his mind came to a halt at one piece of information that Marietta had revealed about the guest.
“I have met this woman before?” queried Yu as he sat there trying to think of all the women that he knew of that looked like the guest. He couldn't remember anyone and was starting to worry that maybe he needed to spend more time remembering women instead of remembering men's faces. He only remembered the men since anyone could be a possible traitor and he would be able to identify them immediately. He was well informed with information about all of the people in the castle since his superiors, Generals Yun and Sung, trusted him with secrets as well as other important information. Although no one had told him about the future Emperor being a girl, until she accidentally revealed it on that day… Suddenly he remembered that young woman with the Emperor's sword. He remembered her silk clothing, bloody and shredded. “She is the guest?”
Marietta figured that Yu would finally end up talking his thoughts out. She had kept quiet while listening to the birds chirp happily above. Her old black eyes were weary but still held a little of her youth. She smiled at Feng who she was starting to like more and more since he seemed to take in the information at face value. He didn't even question that much once she explained it to him. It was almost like he was a wise man who just needed a little helping hand to accept the truth.
“Won't the other members of the court rebuke if they find out that the future Emperor is a woman and her partner is also a woman?” asked Feng as he tried to not be too nosy. He was glad to see Marietta 's smile. All of his other teachers or mentors had scowled at him for asking questions and he didn't know why. He had his own way of learning and his father Wu would always berate him for questioning his elders.
“There is that possibility. However, there are so many that are already loyal to the future Emperor. The ones that are loyal to her father will likely rebuke but they will turn around and see the good fortune for what it is in the end. I just hope that the future Emperor and her guest can stand up to them. Which reminds me, why are you here Feng? I already know what your father is up to…” hinted Marietta as she saw the truth in those young eyes.
“I am not my own person. I follow where my father leads and my father wants me to claim the throne. He sees that I am worthy of it. However, I don't see where my father is coming from. He has never given any interest into me until recently and I am sure that he has something brewing up his sleeve. I also hear that there are others who would be willing to plot against the future Emperor whenever she takes the throne. Everyone is just waiting since they are too frightened of the Emperor's wrath.” said Feng. He really liked this woman and knew that Yu was a little shocked by his admission into his father's schemes. He was a little scared that they would do something to him but both of them just smiled as if he had done something right. He felt relief wash over him and wondered where it had come from.
“You will be your own person when everything is finally over…” said Hanami as she approached the three on the bench from behind. Her guest was guiding her towards them with a smile on her lips. Her emerald eyes were amused by Feng's expression and knew that Marietta and Yu were just surprised that she had come out of her little hiding spot. “Sakura says that there are a lot of things that are brewing in my home. I hope to put an end to it all and inform everyone about some important information. I doubt anyone will be ready for the shock of the news.”
“What are you talking about my dear?” asked Marietta from her seated position. The three of them had not even gotten up as it was required of them out of formalities, but it was clear in those green eyes that it was not necessary. She doubted whether they could, since the three of them were shocked by her presence.
“I will inform everyone this evening since it is of great importance. We have things to plan and I am sure that Hanami's most loyal mentors will look over the minor details while we deal with the bigger picture. Please inform the important people that there will be an assembly. We need to unravel those plots against us.” informed Sakura in a deep feminine voice that was smooth like velvet.
Yu stood up immediately and bowed before he ran off to inform the captain of the royal guard and the respective people to get the ball moving. He was rushed after by Feng who seemed to think that staying with the blue eyed beauty was a bad thing after what he had revealed. However Feng was held back by a strong hand and he stared up at glittering azure eyes.
Hanami dismissed Marietta to go and prepare the servants for the assembly. She felt protected standing next to Sakura, even more so than when her guards were around. She found it amusing that her world was changing and the fact that she was changing along with everyone else. The feelings she had for Sakura were indescribable as she felt the warm sensation overlap her entire body as if she were a fish immersed in a sea of water.
Hanami watched closely as Sakura exchanged a few words with Feng. She truly meant what she had said since she had known, well guessed, what old man Lu Wu was up to when she had first received him in her court. She already knew that there was no General to come and aid her. She suspected that Wu would want to sow seeds of doubt among the nobles so that no one would back her. However she had the upper hand since she had her godfather and teacher who controlled the armies. No one would try anything brass to remove her from her birthright. However she was still a little discomforted by what had happened under the Lianli tree.
Hanami was glad that her head covering was hiding her emotions from the guards who stood on the outskirt of the garden for her benefit. She had wondered what would happen if they had seen the array of emotions that crossed her face. She wondered if anyone knew about her feelings besides Marietta , Yu and Feng. How can I feel like this when I know that because of her my parents died and yet because of her I am standing here? She has a darkness about her that is only unleashed when I'm in danger. She does everything to protect me. But a tiny bit of me is angry at her and at myself… She felt arms circle her and the warmth that evaporated her icy thoughts. How does she banish the demons inside of me so easily?
Sakura had finished up with Feng and sent him home since she assumed that his father would be expecting him so that they could attend court together. She had only turned to gaze at Hanami's glazed eyes to know that there was something wrong. Hanami was thinking deeply and a strong urge overcame her to make her feel better in any way that she could. So she had expanded her arms out and hugged Hanami as fully as she could. A smile graced her lips as she felt Hanami relax in her embrace and she knew that she had stopped Hanami from destroying herself from the inside out.
“What are you thinking?” asked Sakura in an encouraging purr.
“I was thinking about why you are here and why I am still here.” responded Hanami.
“You just have to accept the past and move on. Your parents would want you to remember them but not soil their deeds by grazing. They want you to rule the people of China and you will do it well with what they have taught you. So you need to think about what you want and what you need to do to get it.” explained Sakura in a gentle murmur. She didn't want to push Hanami too hard after the past week of roiling emotions. “I know what I want and that is to protect you. I want you to do what you want to do without having to worry about what other people think. It should be what you think that matters most.”
Hanami smiled into Sakura's shoulder. The whisperings into her sensitive ear laid a blanket of warmth over her soul. She did know what she wanted and she knew what had to be done. She was relieved that she didn't have to do it alone like she thought she did. Her emerald eyes looked up at Sakura and she smiled, which lit up the whole garden.
Yu rushed off to find his comrades who had sworn secrecy to the future Emperor and were her most loyal royal guards. He knew where they would be since it was the general meeting area that they would congregate to discuss issues about the future Emperor's security. Yu had only been there on three occasions, since being reassigned to his current position.
Yu ran as quickly as he could. He could hear the jangles of his uniform and see the amused looks of nobles and warriors that he passed. The scenery around him was a blur as he concentrated on where he needed to be. There were many things that he needed to discuss with his captain who Marietta had sent away before.
Yu rounded the last corner which would lead him into the small courtyard of the captain's private quarters. He slid to a halt as he saw the group of royal guards already assembled. He was also confused as to why there were three warriors there that he didn't recognise. He etched slowly forward without alerting the group to his presence. His acute hearing could pick up the words which the three newcomers were spouting.
“The future Emperor is a big trouble maker who will cause his own downfall. He is not fit to rule. All he does is sit and listen at audiences and then runs around outside of the Forbidden City playing around. We did hear about that incident even though you guys have tried to keep it as quiet as possible, since it was actually a huge blunder.” said one of the newcomers. He smiled at the listening guards and knew that they were thinking over what he had said at least.
“He is too irrational and you all heard him promote that warrior for doing something bad that could have jeopardised his safety. What kind of Emperor would allow something like that?” asked the second newcomer. “He would have been better off just executing that imbecile instead of reassigning him.”
“The future Emperor is so irrational that he may be plotting against his parents. It would explain why he was missing for five days and the scouts that he sent out have not gotten word back. It's because he disposed of them himself so that no one would question him. He probably has some help from a sword wielding maniac that has only recently shown themselves.” added the last newcomer. “We can't trust him.”
Yu was so angry at this point after hearing those treacherous words spilling from those three mouths. He could clearly see what they were doing. They're trying to break the loyalty that we have with the future Emperor… His black eyes looked around at his comrades who were all quiet and sitting around as if they were raptly listening to those three newcomers. He took a couple of steps closer to the gathered group and caught the captain's eye. He was a little surprised that he received a wink from his captain which put everything out of perspective.
The captain stood up from his seated position on the porch of his private quarters and looked around at his men. He smiled at all of them, getting the secret signals that told him that these three newcomers were not to be trusted. He could feel it in his gut as well that these three men were wrong. He slowly approached them and circled them like he was a hawk and they were the prey. “I have heard many things inside these walls. I have heard treachery of all kinds but this is a first that I have heard it from three warriors. You all have a truth behind what information you have given us. It was quite a blunder that we had let the future Emperor out of our midst for five days. It is true that the future Emperor can act irrational.”
“So you understand that we can't trust him. He is a snake who is ready to pounce onto the throne and rule us all in a tyrannical way. We must stop him at all costs if we want to keep the peace that the land has gained from the Emperor and Empress.” encouraged the second newcomer.
“Yes, the Emperor and Empress have succeeded in gaining peace. However, they also entrusted the throne to the future Emperor. It is the sole reason that the Emperor and Empress have left the Forbidden City together for once instead of having one of them staying behind. Now why would the future Emperor want to sneak about and plot against the Emperor and Empress when the throne is already entrusted?” asked the captain with a raised dark brow. He looked at the slightly laughing men that surrounded the three warriors. “Let me guess. General Shi has shown his true colours and you are acting upon his orders…” He saw the fear in the three sets of eyes and smiled even further. “Cease them!”
Yu watched his captain at work and was very impressed by the situation. Now he was extremely glad that he had divulged information about the future Emperor to his captain in the first place. He walked into the small courtyard and was met by smiles from his comrades. He could also see the fear and scowls on the three subordinates of General Shi. “What are you going to do with them?” asked Yu as he approached his captain.
“For conspiring against the throne, they will be executed. Their families may have been the reason for them to approach us, but the things they have done prior to that I have kept a record of. You have enlightened us all since your reassignment to our squad. How did you know that General Shi was not to be trusted?” asked the captain amusedly.
“Generals Yun and Sung approached me with information that they received from villagers out to the west just before I was reassigned. There is a debate whether Shi is who he claims to be. Also none of the other Generals trusts him and his actions of late confirm our suspicions of him. I just hope that he hasn't got friends helping him.” commented Yu as he watched the three condemned warriors being dragged off. He then totally faced his captain and captured his full attention. “The future Emperor would like to hold an audience with everyone. There is news.”
“Say no further… We will get everyone settled and have the best security measures that we have ever held. I will personally meet with Generals Yun and Sung to make sure that the future Emperor is safe…”
“Don't kill those three.” said voice from the archway into the courtyard. It was Sakura who stood there with a smirk on her lips. “We may need information from them after the future Emperor's audience.” She turned to Yu and nodded her head at him. “I want to speak to you all before the audience, after I look into a few things first. Don't forget to inform all of the Generals about the plans. General Shi is not to know about this or he will probably run.”
“You have my word.” said the captain before turning back to Yu. He was well aware that this young woman must have been the guest that was with the future Emperor before. He had a feeling that she was turning the wheels of the happenings in the city at a much faster pace than anyone had anticipated. He also had the feeling that he could trust her with his life even if he didn't really know who she was. However, when it came down to things, he trusted his instincts and this was one of those moments.
Mai-Ling hurriedly walked towards her quarters. She felt that Ryu's warning was more than it seemed. Her steps quickened as worry gnawed at her insides. Her stomach was in knots as she passed clueless servants and nobles alike. There was something wrong and she could feel it. Her steps quickened and before she noticed anything, she was running.
Mai-Ling stood outside of the quarters which she shared with her father. Her eyes were wide in shock at the mess that was caused. Her black eyes looked around at the broken glass from cups and the upturned table. The plant pots that decorated the room were smashed in one way or another. Her heart sank as she looked at the empty interior.
Mai-Ling stepped slowly into the room. Her steps were hesitant as she tried to puzzle what had happened. There was no reason for her father to have been fighting unless something drastic had happened. She could have sworn that she hadn't blown her master's cover. Then why does it look like I have been discovered? I don't understand. What did I do? Tears streaked her pale cheeks as she looked at the upturned table.
“What a mess you have here?”
Mai-Ling turned to the door to only be met by startling blue eyes. Shock marred her face as she stared at a beautiful young woman in pure white silk clothes. Her face turned into a scowl once she saw the golden hilted sword that was strapped to her back.
“My, my, what a face you pull for someone who just wondered why you were running? Almost as if you are blaming me for this mess. I got to say though before you unleash your anger that I had nothing to do with this.” commented Sakura as her cerulean eyes covered every inch of the room. She had been asked a favour from Hanami to invite General Ping to attend and now it seemed she was too late. “So where is your father?”
Mai-Ling charged at Sakura with open anger. She jumped with her hands positioned to strangle her. Her eyes were red and teary as she felt the touch of soft skin within her hands. She clenched her fists around Sakura's neck and held on as if her life depended on it. “What did you do with him? Where is he?” yelled Mai-Ling as her fury made her stronger.
Sakura calmly grabbed Mai-Ling's wrists and pressed firmly on her pressure points. Her cobalt eyes watched as Mai-Ling's hands unclenched around her neck. She smiled at Mai-Ling's shocked black eyes. “It would be best if you calmed down and tell me what happened. I will help you.” said Sakura sincerely.
Mai-Ling dropped her hands to her sides. Tears fell unbidden in front of her enemy, the one person who could right her world. However when she stared into those eyes, she couldn't do it. She couldn't unleash the darkness that was inside her heart to commit the one act that could save her father. She knew what had become of him. She knew how evil her master could be and this was just a warning. She felt deep in her heart that he was still alive. She wondered if he would forgive her for being involved in all of this.
“If you tell, I will make sure that we get him back in one piece. If you don't give me the information, you may condemn him and yourself as well. General Shi has already dug himself a hole and you may end up with him.” said Sakura in a silky voice that held a clear warning in it.
“I guess this means that you have already met someone who has named all of us.” commented Mai-Ling as she found a chair and put it upright. She sat down and looked around her. She had done her master's bidding and this was what it got her. “What would you like to know?”
“I want to know what happened to the bodies from the battle involving the Emperor and Empress. I want to know where they are and let them finally rest. The people of China at least deserve that peace of mind. Having their rulers disappear at the drop of a hat without reason will cause panic to erupt and chaos to rule. So where are they?” asked Sakura with a deadly tone in her voice that almost sounded like a growl.
“The battle where the master's favourite died at your hand. Did you know that his name was Shu and he was considered the big brother? He made sure that we were all in line and that we didn't implicate the master. So by your hand, this is technically all your fault.” accused Mai-Ling as she sat there with a hysterical sigh.
“I will get your father back. Please trust me. ” said Sakura.
Mai-Ling raised her head and stared at Sakura as if she were the scorn of the planet. She raised her hand and pointed at the door. “Leave me alone. Your hands only cause more problems. I would have sorted it all out by myself. I had a plan and now you've ruined it. Leave me alone!”
Sakura briskly left. There wasn't much that she could say or do at this point for Mai-Ling. She was sort of glad that she had stopped Feng from disappearing. Feng had given her all of the necessary information as well as informed her of his father's helpers. She did have an ulterior motive in approaching Mai-Ling but now it was up to her to sort it out. Hopefully she could help Mai-Ling along the way since her involvement, even if it was treason, may not come to light. All she needed was a little help from Yu to put everything together. Yu will be the key to helping Mai-Ling… I better tell Hanami…
It was just after sundown when Hanami arrived at the court. She wore her masculine silk clothes as well as the hat that concealed her face from everyone. She walked casually up to the raised podium and looked around at the assembled nobles, Generals, guards and servants. Her green eyes had noticed how everyone was staring at Sakura as if she were an alien. She had of course insisted that Sakura walk with her into court and stood just a step below the podium to show her position in court.
The raised podium was decorated according to the traditional style that her mother had fashioned over the years with its usual partitioned area. However Hanami didn't enter the space that she usually occupied to address the masses. She stood erect at the top step and heard the whisperings going around the room. She could feel the confusion in the air as well as the smug looks on the people that would plot against her. She stared momentarily at blue eyes that gave her strength even though Sakura was about two body lengths away from her.
“Good evening everyone.” announced Hanami as she heard the silence emerge at the sound of her voice. “I have asked for this assembly in light of a few issues that have emerged over the past few days. I have sent men to the north to determine the truth behind the news.” Hanami paused as her eyes circled the room to gauge everyone's reactions to her news so far. Her voice held a hint of sadness in it as she spoke next. “I am sad to say that those rumours are true. There have been attacks to the north; however there is nothing to be afraid of.”
Sakura listened to Hanami's voice as she watched the assembled people standing below her position. The nobles had spread throughout the room while the guards were against the walls. She could see some of the Generals off to one side and they were looking at the future Emperor questioningly. She could see that the four Generals there would not cause any trouble, however her eyes settled on the fifth General who was on the other side of the room. She could see the look in his eyes that told her that he was up to something. She made a show not to look like she was looking at anyone. Her gaze was always moving around the room without stopping very long on a particular thing. She knew that eyes were ever present on her as it was on Hanami.
Suddenly Sakura heard something out of the ordinary for this court of people. She heard the clink of wood and metal as if something had snapped into place. She listened further and drowned out all of the other noises in the room, even Hanami's voice. She heard a soft rustle before hearing a small snap. Before she could even think about what she was doing, her hand waved the air in front of her as if she was swatting a fly and then she stood erect as if nothing had happened. She felt in her hand the shaft of a small arrow which had been aimed at her. She held it behind her back so that she didn't alert any of the nobles. However the Generals had noticed and she could see them whispering to nearby guards before continuing to listen to Hanami and giving her a different look, one of gratitude and respect.
Sakura was surprised that she had heard such a thing and had caught it. She knew where the perpetrator was hiding and found it a little funny that the guards subdued him in a quiet scuffle that didn't distract Hanami's audience. She had heard the little hitch in Hanami's voice at seeing the guards clobbering the man but she continued as if it didn't happen. Someone wants me dead… I wonder why… Maybe Mai-Ling told me more than I initially realised…
Hanami continued her speech, taking deep breaths to calm her emotions. “I have sent scouts out to bring us news and so far we have yet to receive anything from them. However the rumours are true because I went to confirm it myself.” She saw the small murmurs as she spoke. However she stood up straight and proud even though she wanted to sit in a corner of the room and cry. She looked towards Sakura and found those eyes caressing her with her gaze. “I am deeply… I…” Hanami faltered for a second as memories of her parents surfaced to the fore and she imagined what it was like for them to get slaughtered to save a person's life, Sakura's life. She said she would help me get them back one way or another… I really do want to say goodbye properly to them, if it is the last thing that I do… She drew in a deep breath to calm down once more, however she couldn't hide the quiver in her voice. “The Emperor and Empress are gone…”
Hanami stood there as the reality of her news hit her. She had been bottling up her emotions since she was in turmoil over what had happened and Sakura's role in it. A tear ran down her cheek unbidden as she gazed at the mass of silence. They looked shocked and she wouldn't put it past them to think that they didn't believe what she said. She looked at Sakura and could see that she wanted to approach, but not in front of everyone since it was not a good time to show her sadness. So she sucked in another breath and made sure that her voice was firm.
“The Emperor and Empress were ambushed while they were visiting the Great Wall of China . They left the safety of this place to secure our kingdom's future. I am the only heir to the throne by birthright and I stand here to claim my seat, my right and bring justice to my parents' deaths. Is there anyone here who would like to challenge this?” asked Hanami earnestly. She knew that they were shocked, but she also knew that there were those few who would think that she were weak. She could feel their eyes on her like a predator and she was giving them a chance to attack her like Sakura had planned. I hope that everything works out… I hope mother and father are not wrong about me…
Hanami smiled as the four Generals on one side started to approach the podium. They walked halfway up the steps before all four knelt and pledged their allegiance to her as if she were her father. She smiled at Sung and Yun as they stayed for a moment longer than necessary to make sure that she was alright. However, she dismissed them so that she could see what the others were going to do. She could see General Shi quickly moving through the crowd with everyone expecting him to show allegiance to her.
Hanami watched him carefully. She was fully aware that there were some actions of his that didn't make sense. She hadn't figured out what he was up to yet and wondered if he was going to show his allegiance or not. Sakura didn't say anything specific to me… She could feel that Sakura was restless, standing on the last step up to the podium. Her emerald eyes watched as General Shi swiftly mounted the stairs. He continued passed the point where the other Generals had bowed to her and wondered what he was up to.
Sakura watched carefully and saw the shift in his movements as he burst into speed. A concealed knife was in his hands and he lunged forward with it. She stepped towards Hanami and drew her sword in a blur. She watched with slitted angry ice blue eyes as General Shi stopped in his tracks. She held the sword at his throat and knew that she had stopped him from harming Hanami. The small knife had clattered to the ground since she had moved so fast to disarm him with a slice of her arm. She could slowly hear the gasps around the huge hall. She knew that everyone was surprised at General Shi, but she didn't realise that their eyes were fastened to her and what she was holding.
Azure eyes forced General Shi to look at her. She could see in his black eyes the darkness that clouded his heart. She knew that he was not who he exuded to be. She stepped in-between Hanami and Shi to further the distance that Shi was from his intended target. Her eyes never strayed from his as he was taken into custody by Yu, his captain and his fellow guards. She was glad that she had discovered his three subordinates on her way to inform General Ping about his summons on the behalf of Hanami. She had heard them talking from far away and knew that they were up to mischief with the royal guards. They were lucky to escape with their lives after her small input since the royal guards did not take lightly to treason.
Sakura lowered her sword after the guards had taken Shi out of everyone's sights before she noticed that eyes were on her from everyone. Even the Generals were looking at her wide eyed. She turned to look at Hanami since she was confused and saw how she was trying to communicate that it was due to what she was holding in her hand. Sapphire eyes looked down and noticed that the covering around the sword had slipped. No one could believe their eyes at seeing the Emperor's sword in the young woman's hands.
“Treason!” a yell echoed from the back of the room made its owner known. It was old man Lu Wu who stepped into the spotlight for his words. “That sword is the Emperor's sword. You must have killed the Emperor and claimed the sword for yourself. And the future Emperor was in with the whole plan. How could you do that to your own parents?”
Hanami was shocked by the accusations and the low murmur that was slowly rising as she heard their doubts about her. She was unsure of how to fix this. There was nothing that she could say to dissuade the people from thinking on the same lines as Wu. She noticed how Wu was approaching the podium with words of hatred filling his mouth that were directed at her. He was fuelling his story about her killing her own parents and claiming the throne as if she was evil and greedy.
Hanami stood speechless as she watched Wu getting closer to the podium. His voice was getting louder and drowned out all of the other chatter in the room. She could see that Sakura was standing there looking at the sword and the crowd of people with hatred in their eyes for her. She wondered how everything got out of control. In her peripherals, she could see that the Generals were approaching her. However she could see it in their eyes where their loyalties were and knew that they didn't believe a word of what Wu was saying. Only the other people in the court were swayed by those words of treason and foul play.
“You must have been planning this for a long time so that you can claim the throne off your father. Have you no shame? Your evil and greedy ways will not get passed these noble people. You murdered your own parents and tried to cover it up as some attack from the northern tribes. Do you think that people are that naïve? No one can best the Emperor in a sword duel. You must have lured him into a trap or poisoned him. You must have been found out by your mother and you killed her as well so that no one would find out.” spouted Wu as he continued his slow march up to the podium. Drops of spittle could be seen flying from his mouth as he raised his voice loudly with pure conviction to entice the crowd into believing his words.
The four Generals finally approached the stairs and swiftly made their way up before stopping halfway and turning around. They drew their swords and faced it towards the crowd in warning. Their eyes were glued on Wu who continued to preach his views. They were also amused that some of the nobles had joined Wu and were looking to advance onto Hanami without mercy. They felt eyes on all of them and knew that it had to be Hanami and her friend who had stopped Shi at an assassination attempt.
“Do you believe what they are trying to spout?” asked Sakura over the noise towards the Generals. She saw the twitch in their ears and knew that they were listening. She could see in their body movements that they would be willing to do anything to save Hanami if it came down to it. “Do you believe in the future Emperor?”
“We believe in the future Emperor because it is true about what Wu said. The Emperor is a formidable swordsman and he would not let his sword be taken from him lightly. The fact that you are in one piece means that the Emperor willingly gave the sword to you. We trust you since the sword has already revealed that to us. It can only be wielded by its true owner. Even the Emperor had difficulty with using the sword. You, on the other hand, are so graceful with it that it is an extension of your body. It belongs to you.” explained General Sung in a light voice.
“We will always serve the Emperor and it was his wish that anything happen to him that Hanami would rule in his place. It was his words on the battle field many times over. He never said anything against her and she has never said anything against him. It is obvious that Wu is delusional or he is up to something.” commented General Yun.
Sakura watched as the other two Generals only nodded their agreement. She could see that they were very loyal and now knew why her own father had worked so hard with these men. They were also his friends and loyal comrades. Now she didn't feel so sad about her father always leaving. “General Ming Yi, was proud to have served with you. He would be here today if he had not been slaughtered with the Emperor and Empress. I also saw the other two Generals go down as well. They knew that the Emperor was going to be there. They planned everything.” muttered Sakura as she watched the crowd of people getting angrier. She had also seen the slight slouch of the four Generals' shoulders at hearing the downfall of three of their friends.
“Were you with Hanami when she went to the wall?” asked Sung.
“I showed her the truth. I was there when it happened and I was there when we were ambushed. I think it's the reason behind this arrow.” said Sakura as she pulled the arrow from her sleeve which had been directed at her. “I survived both encounters and they wanted me to keep quiet. I wish there was something that I could have done a week earlier to prevent all of this.”
“What is done is done. There is nothing that you can change now. We just have to deal with what we got and move on. How did Hanami handle the news?” asked Yun. His eyes were fastened onto the crowd and only their formidable forms were preventing the crowd from rushing up towards Hanami.
Suddenly silence descended the large hall as a song broke out over the loud shouting of the crowd. Everyone turned to face whoever was making the noise. It was clear that they were stunned to see a man dressed in a General's uniform at the door. The crowd had become deathly quiet as they noticed that this man was transparent and it was his voice that was filling the hall.
“Leaves are changing one by one,
Yellow, red or brown…
Winds will blow and strip trees bare,
Ready for winter…
Soil will become barren,
Littered with small leaves…
Colourful Sakura Trees,
Autumn is now here…
Air will cool and make things cold,
Waiting for the snow…
But we'll sit and drink our wine,
Slowly the transparent General made his way through the crowd that parted willingly for him. His voice was filling the hall and had caused everyone to listen only to him. His silky clothes were old fashioned and he held a small wilted Sakura blossom in his hand. She approached the stairs and walked up to stand between Sakura and Hanami. He continued singing in his deep, smooth voice that was rich and easy on the ears.
Blue and green will be the key,
Opening our hearts…
Let our love be shining bright,
For all of our lives…
The transparent General then turned to face Hanami for a brief moment before he continued to sing. His blue shimmering eyes held a lot of emotion there and he smiled as Hanami recognised it. He took a step forward and caressed her cheek as he sang further.
Soft and supple are your lips,
When they brush with mine…
Whispered words will clear those tears,
Shielding you from pain…
Lean on me I will be there,
Put your trust in me…
I will see you through all this,
Just you wait and see…
The song ended and the transparent man disappeared in a blink of an eye. Hanami looked around to see where he had gone and slowly they rested on Sakura's frozen face. She tried to think of why Sakura was so shocked and only then realised that the man had sounded so much like Sakura. She casually stepped towards Sakura, knowing that there were many who were watching her. She lifted a hand to her head covering and slowly took it off to reveal her fair hair and green eyes.
“Strange things are happening Sakura.” commented Hanami.
Everyone in the hall was frozen in shock. A pin could drop and everyone would be able to hear it. No one moved or said anything. Their eyes couldn't believe what they had just seen or what they were seeing now.
Hanami could feel all eyes on her except for those belonging to the four Generals that still continued to stand guard. She could feel the tension in the room as she saw through their eyes, what they were thinking. It had been the round argument that she had with her teacher and godfather who had always known her secret. I guess the cat is out of the bag… Hopefully I won't burn because of my curiosity… She gently lifted her hand and raised it to Sakura's cheek. She felt Sakura slightly lean against her hand and felt a tingle run up her arm to warm the pit of her stomach.
Sakura only had eyes for Hanami in that moment. She didn't care about anyone or anything else. The room had faded out and it was only the two of them. She smiled brightly and let the warmth of it flow out of her eyes. She gently raised her own arm and brushed the knuckles of her hand gently across Hanami's smooth cheek. Her own mind was surprised that she had recognised that man. She knew who that transparent General was. However she didn't have time to ponder as she felt a searing pain stab into her back. Her eyes widened in shock and only a small gasp left her lips as her hand stilled on Hanami's cheek. She continued to smile and heard the gasp of the crowd below them. Her hearing finally tuned into the things that were around her and her nape hairs were standing. She could feel the danger around her body but there was no way for her to react. She had heard too late as another sharp object penetrated her back near her shoulder blade.
Hanami stood there looking into those deep blue eyes. She saw the widening of Sakura's eyes and felt the shock that coursed through her body. Fear erupted in her heart as she saw a flicker of pain through those azure eyes. She saw it again but this time she had heard a small thump. Her emerald eyes looked to the crowd and then passed them to rest on the main doors. A group of warriors were standing there with bows and arrows. A volley of them was fired and she knew what they were aiming for. However she was too late to give a warning.
Sakura swiftly turned on her heal and drew her sword in a flash of swordsmanship as she deflected the volley that was aimed at Hanami. She swept the next volley with her sword and threw the arrows back at the bowmen with deadly accuracy. A small smile appeared as she saw the warriors behind them look at her in surprise. However icy blue eyes met a man who was tall and dark skinned. She knew his name since the three subordinates of Shi had revealed the names of the two other people working for him, Ryu…
Sakura didn't have time to think as the crowd of nobles dispersed out of the way. The Generals charged towards the rush of warriors who were charging with yells of confidence. She felt Hanami touch her back tentatively and knew that she wasn't blind to the two arrows that were sticking out of her back. However her body urged her forward to help in the fray. She left Hanami standing on the podium, watching with her heart in her throat. Her sword skills were unmatched as she swept into the fight, clearing an area around her and reaching the Generals.
Sakura was confused as to where the guards had disappeared to. They were there when the nobles started their little protest. How could I have been so careless? I should have made Hanami's personal guards stay instead of making them take Shi away. However it was important that Shi was contained and watched over just in case his friends tried to help him. However she had read the situation wrong. They had read her like a book. The chess pieces on her game now had a mind of their own and she only had her skills to try and save the day.
Sakura swept her sword up to disarm two men at the same time before stepping aside to dodge another set of attacks. She sliced horizontally and forced her blade through both bodies. She heard the double thump as they both hit the floor motionless. She swiftly kicked the attackers who had missed her and felt the crunch as ribs broke on the first guy while the other two were flung back by the sheer force of her kick. She danced gracefully through the crowd, leaving death in her wake as she unleashed hell on the people that wanted to harm Hanami. She could feel the blood course through her veins as her adrenaline wore off and the only thing that kept her moving was her will. She felt the sticky wetness on her back and knew that the arrow wounds were bleeding badly but she didn't have time to worry about it. She felt the spur of encourage that was directed at the Generals and saw how they fought harder, seeing how brave and skilful she was.
Sakura sliced a man's head clean off before she turned to the side and saw a blade that was not her own penetrate the man's body. She found it quite funny that the attacker got his sword stuck in the dead man's body. However she didn't waist an opportunity and swept her sword in a downward motion. Blood splattered her already stained silk clothes as the man's arms were cut off and left still holding onto the sword that was stabbed into the dead man. She heard him cry out in pain, but the shock was too much for him and he croaked before her. She didn't watch him for long as more men tried to press against her. She was doing everything that she could to claw her way through but there were too many. She felt the sharp slash across her side and quickly raised her eyes to the man who had delivered the blow… RYU…
Sakura pushed her body harder as her new opponent was ruthless and a coward. She could see him using his own men to distract her and timed his attacks perfectly to spots that she couldn't defend. She was liberally covered in blood from her enemies and her own. Will I die today? I hope Hanami had some sort of common sense to hide somewhere… Her icy blue eyes concentrated on the fight of her life. She didn't have time to search the room for where Hanami was. She felt another slice on her body and knew that Ryu was just playing with her. He was trying to break her but there was something important that kept her going. Her heart pounded profusely as her body moved more by instinct than thought. She felt her reserves slowly draining as she tried to kill all of the men that were helping Ryu. She felt disgusted as she realised she had somehow manoeuvred away from the Generals and she was cut off from getting help.
“The future Emperor is watching you… I can see the fear in her eyes. Her world will crumble and I will watch her die.” taunted Ryu as he delivered another superficial blow. He circled the group of men that kept Sakura from the Generals and thus vice versa. He smiled as his plan was working like a charm. He had come up with it since he had found out that the woman he was after had already informed Hanami about the treachery in her midst. He knew an assembly was naturally going to take place to inform the masses of the events that happened. He knew what Sakura would do if he set Shi up for the fall. He knew he had a window of opportunity to claim back the throne for his master. His master was watching after all.
Sakura kept her mouth shut. She let the taunts fuel her movements and it just felt good to feel her blade slice through bone and tissue. However she could feel that it was just not enough. Her mind tried to think of something that she could do to gain back her advantage. Her eyes lifted to the air… I could probably try. It might kill me in the process but I'm not doing much better at the moment. She bent her knees and pooled energy into her legs. She lifted her sword overhead to stop all the blades that were aimed at her and pushed up mightily into a jump that also forced her attackers to go flying back. She twisted in the air and landed softly on her feet with Ryu standing in front of her. She didn't have time to think as she engaged earnestly with him without the interference of his men. His shocked brain at her acrobatics was rewarded with a slice diagonally down his chest. It was only a superficial wound but she knew that it would sting and hinder him somewhat. She followed her advantage by stabbing into his stomach and gleefully watching his pained expression before she savagely yanked her blade out with a twist. She heard his scream of pain, but that was cut short as she swung her blade horizontally and slit his throat. He gurgled to his death, suffocating on his own blood.
Sakura now had a chance to search for Hanami. Her body froze as she saw a small dagger against Hanami's soft throat which had already pricked her skin. A red line of blood could be seen trickling down her throat. She didn't know what happened next as a blow to the back of her head knocked her unconscious.
Hanami braced herself as she felt the slither of a small blade touch her neck. She remained perfectly still as she tried to figure out exactly who was behind her. There were many warriors in the hall that were trying to hack at the Generals and Sakura. She wished that she had not just stayed like a sitting duck. Her emerald eyes tried to see who was behind her but the knife pressed closer to her skin. She felt the prick against her skin and the slow stream of warm blood that dripped down her neck.
“You're going to lose everything that you own and love. How does it feel? Are you wishing it was all a nightmare?” laughed old man Wu. He had his other hand snaked around her chest as he surveyed the blood stained hall. His eyes turned to watch in anger as Ryu fell to the ground to suffocate in his blood. “You know, your mother was so naïve to think that I would follow the Emperor and her, knowing that I was apart of the old regime. How funny it is that it is all her fault for allowing me into her court?”
“Do you think this will make the other nobles loyal to you?” asked Hanami in her sweet voice. There was no fear in them as she stayed perfectly still and watched the battle. Her emerald eyes rested on Sakura and she saw the blow coming but she couldn't give a warning unless she wanted to slit her own throat. Her eyes became tearful as Sakura fell in a slump and the men around her were cheering that they finally bested the demon. She felt her heart sink to the pit of her stomach as an ache clenched it fiercely. “Mother was wise to invite you. She allowed you the chance to show your true colours instead of the nobles having indecisions about who should rule. They know you for the snake that you truly are.”
Hanami felt the knife withdraw from her neck and she thought that she would be able to get free. However a firm hand was still around her shoulders. As she realised that he still had her in his grasp, she felt a searing pain as the knife entered her back. She found it funny that he had stabbed her in the back. She felt her legs go slack and Wu couldn't hold her up. She fell, face first onto the floor with the knife visibly sticking out. She could hear the gasps as the nobles realised what had happened.
“Sakura, Sakura… Are you just going to lie there and let them take everything? The empire has already crumbled with the guards and officials already bought. The nobles are forced to choose sides. The rulers are gone. People's lives are at stake… It is your turn to rise… Sakura, be the person who you are meant to be. Look inside yourself.”
Heavy lidded eyes opened to reveal icy blue crystals of shock. Slender calloused fingers gripped the hilt of the golden sword. A heart thumped loudly within its confines. Strong legs twitched as blood flowed furiously into every capillary. A dark energy swirled in the pit of a heavy stomach.
“Rise, daughter of my womb, and rebuild what is lost…”
Sakura's eyes were glazed but slowly they began to focus. She stared at the floor as her body reminded her that she was alive. She could feel the tendrils of energy surging throughout her body to give her strength to stand and fight. Her ears were cocked and she could hear the men around her cheering her… defeat? She heard an arm rise to the air and the downward stroke that was aimed at her to finish her off for good. Instincts sleeping deep within her woke with a startle and energy surged so powerfully that her body was twitching as if it was trying to contain its excitement. She plunged her hands below her body and pushed herself into a roll. She felt the sharp metal inches from her skin as she escaped certain death.
Sakura looked up at the startled warrior and took the opportunity to sweep her sword at his legs. She saw him fall with a thump onto his bottom since she had used the flat of her sword. She quickly swung again but aimed for his head. A moment of indecision passed through her… I don't want to kill anymore… only if I have to… She twisted her wrist and the flat of the sword was aimed at his head instead. She held back her strength so that she had enough force only to knock him out.
Sakura jumped onto her feet and started a melee of attacks only meant to maim her opponents. She was deadly grace as she fought in the tight circle that they confined her to. She glanced to the podium and was stunned. Hanami!!! Her eyes started to water and made her vision slightly blurry. Her body, acting on instinct, unconsciously made her way over to Hanami. No… this can't be happening. I promised to always protect you… Why was I so blind? Why did I get baited into this? She mounted the steps and fought off her opponents. She was finally left alone when a crowd of royal guards entered noisily from all of the doors. Her eyes rested on Hanami and could see that she was still alive. She reached for Hanami's outstretched hand and grasped it gently. There was still hope.
Sakura instantly looked up at old man Wu with icy eyes that sent a shiver of fear through his body. She could see the sweat that beaded onto his forehead and she knew that he knew that he had made a huge miscalculation. She watched him hesitantly make a decision and knew what he had chosen. However she didn't give him the chance to run. She lifted up her arm and threw the Emperor's sword through his chest. “You wanted it so badly… now you've got it.” said Sakura darkly as she watched him fall backwards with his hands holding the hilt of the sword.
Sakura returned her eyes to Hanami which softened to gaze at those watery emerald eyes. She sat on the top step and gently pulled Hanami into her lap. “It's going to be alright. I've got you.” said Sakura even though there was a quiver in her voice. Her stomach felt heavy and her heart ached at seeing Hanami hurt like this. She wondered why she had left Hanami's side in the first place. She could have stayed and fought those that tried to attack her but instead she had run off. She realised that it must have been the battle fever that stirred her to strike head on. “I'm sorry for leaving you…”
Hanami looked up into those sad azure eyes and knew that she was safe. She felt Sakura's arms gently wrap around her and pull her into her lap. The pain was excruciating, but Sakura's touch eased it a tiny bit for her to hear Sakura's words. “There is nothing for you to be sorry for. You did what was right. You had no choice but to strike head on. Most of the nobles know that and they are very grateful. Even if the price for your actions was me being vulnerable, no one will blame you. No one suspected that Wu was behind all of this… not even me. I thought it was only Shi…”
“But I knew and I kept the truth from you. I didn't think that he would soil his hands.” Sakura's eyes turned to the wound on Hanami's back. “I need to pull it out.” whispered Sakura. She watched as Hanami absorbed her words, but she was surprised that Hanami was calm about it. “I will try to do it as quickly and as gently as possible. First I want you to bite on this…” She handed Hanami a small sheathed dagger which she placed into Hanami's mouth. Her hands slowly reached around Hanami's back and hastily tore the material away from the knife to expose soft skin and a bloody wound. Lower back, less chance that the knife hit her lungs. I hope it didn't enter any major organs or this will kill her. She held the hilt gently and yanked it out the way it went in to minimise the damage. She felt Hanami jerk but kept a hold of her. Her ears were ringing from the muffled scream that escaped Hanami's lips. She swiftly tore her sleeve and used the material to stop the bleeding.
Hanami lied there in pain. She felt tired and the pain had been indescribable. She had tried to keep still but that went out the window as soon as Sakura pulled out the knife. Tears tracked down her face incessantly as she held onto Sakura to anchor her. She felt the slight pressure as warm hands covered her wound. She also felt a slight tremble in those hands and her eyes were slowly drifting closed. She was exhausted from the pain and she could do nothing else but to succumb to it.
Sakura kept the pressure on and felt Hanami take a deep breath. She knew that Hanami was knocked out but it was sort of a good thing since it meant that the pain had lessoned. She felt the approach of an old man with a small bag. She looked up at him and knew that he was there to help. She couldn't help herself from asking the question that was on her lips. She hesitantly asked, “Is she going to be alright?”
The physician hurriedly knelt and pulled open his bag. He hastily grabbed some cloth and swiftly removed Sakura's hands to put the new cloth over the wound as well as take a peek at how bad the wound was. The blood flow was sluggish and it was clear so he doubted that the knife had caused any major damage. He quickly got out his needle and thread and stitched the wound before layering it with herbs and covering it with a new piece of cloth. “She is lucky. She will survive this.” said the physician as he tore the rest of the bottom of Hanami's clothing off. “Please help me lift her so that I can wrap some cloth around to keep the bandage in place.”
Sakura complied and watched carefully as Hanami was cared for by this physician. Her fear had subsided after hearing the physician's warm, confident voice. She held onto Hanami's upper body but never touched her skin. She was still very much aware that there was blood on her hands from her opponents and Hanami. She was suddenly aware that the physician was staring at her now. “What's wrong?” she asked.
“You've got numerous cuts on you and two arrows in your back. You're bleeding all over the floor. Not to mention that you are scandalising the nobles because of your shredded clothing.” informed the physician.
Sakura realised that she couldn't feel any of it as she sat there. She thought about what he said but didn't look at herself. There was really no point since she knew it was the truth after what Ryu had done to her. She even knew that most of her body was covered in blood, cuts and bruises. “I don't really care at the moment. You should go and see to the Generals. They are more important than I.”
“I'm sorry lady, but the Generals sent me over here to tend to you two first. The Emperor and her consort are of the highest priority before the Generals. It is my duty to tend to you first before going to them.” said the physician. “I will get the guards to form a screen for you.”
Sakura couldn't protest at this point. He referred me as Hanami's consort… She was a little stunned and didn't really know what to think at this point. She was confused as to where they got that notion from. Instead, she concentrated on making sure that Hanami was comfortable as possible even though they were on the hard floor. She didn't really think she could get up anyway since the rush of the battle had already left her after sending her sword flying into Wu. “Rest well, Hanami… I will be here.” whispered Sakura. Her body was tired and she welcomed the darkness as she slumped over Hanami's warm body.
Suddenly the transparent General returned and appeared over Hanami's and Sakura's body. His blue eyes looked around at the stunned people that were staring at him. He smiled cheekily at the nobles before seeing that the battle was painstakingly still going on in the background. He stomped his foot on the ground and all of the weapons that the warriors and guards were holding clattered to the ground.
“ENOUGH!!!” he roared at the top of his voice which echoed eerily around the hall. His uniform was slightly crinkled and there was a slight stain at the front and back of it. His dark, short straight hair was a mess on his head as his blue eyes turned icy upon the warriors. “I have watched this long enough…”
Everyone was shocked and frightened as they all stared at the apparition. It was clear that they were not all having a nightmare at the same time. They could actually see the man, dressed like a General, with stains on his ruffled uniform.
His eyes turned to the Generals and slowly his gaze softened a fraction. He bowed his head and saluted them with his right arm over his heart. His gaze lowered to Sakura and Hanami as he knelt on his knees by their side. “I have witnessed so many things happen in such a short time that previous rulers have had in the span of a lifetime. I have been summoned from my slumber because of these two souls.” said the transparent man. He gently placed his hands on Sakura's head and moved her so that she was now lying next to Hanami.
Suddenly a light appeared from Hanami's body and something was rising from it that was humanoid in form. Fair hair and green eyes stood as transparent as the transparent man but it was a woman. She smiled with teary eyes at the transparent man. “It has been forever since I have seen you, my love.” said the female apparition. She looked down at the two prone bodies and smiled. “I think it is time that we returned to whence we came.”
“I will follow you in a heart beat, love. Are you sure that they will be alright?” asked the transparent man. He walked towards his wife and held her hand as he rested his forehead against hers. His eyes only gazed at her as everything else didn't matter. However he was snapped out of his trance when he felt something deep within him that wasn't right. His gaze turned to his sword and pinned the young woman who stood there with her hand holding the golden hilt. “That is mine.” he snarled and extended his arm. The sword vanished from the girl's hand and automatically appeared in his.
“They are finally ready and waiting for us.” replied the woman after her own gaze drifted back to her husband. Her green eyes looked into his blue eyes and felt the warmth that remained there just for her. “She is waiting for you and you are the only one who can restore her to the way she should be. Her mother will want it so.”
“Her mother has been helping her and badgering me for a while now. I guess she knew that this was going to happen. I guess it is time to go home. I'm tired.” said the transparent man as he laid the sword down next to Sakura and placed her hand over the hilt.
“I know, love.”
Suddenly a flash of bright light engulfed the entire room and no one could see a thing. The nobles remained silent and still as well as the warriors and guards. Sung and Yun quickly made their way up to the podium once they cleared their eyes and were able to just barely see. However, they ran up anyway to see what became of Hanami and Sakura.
Sakura felt a gentle touch cover her enter body as if someone had given her a full body hug. She was warm and content as if she had slept for a good while. Her azure eyes slowly adjusted to the light of the room as if she had been given a new set of eyes. She felt fresh and free as she stared up at nothing. Something tickled her awareness and she narrowed it down to something cold in her right hand. She wondered what it was since part of it felt cold while another part felt rough and familiar.
Sakura felt the world around her come to the fore. She was lying on the hard ground but something about this moment was refreshing. She was aware that there was someone beside her who was also lying down. Slowly she turned her head and her eyes widened in surprise to see a beautiful fair headed young woman. I know her… the future Emperor… Hanami…
All of a sudden, Sakura gracefully sat up. Her hair was loose of its confines and she could feel every strand gently sliding down her neck and back in a caress. Her hand was still on the sword as she looked at its wonder and saw its beauty even though blood and gore was caked on it. She felt right with herself although she knew she was covered in dirt, sweat, blood and wounds galore. Her energy levels were back up and she smiled, revealing white teeth.
Sakura tentatively reached over towards Hanami with a bloodied hand. She caressed her cheek which was facing her. A light smear of blood appeared and so she stopped. She didn't want to mar the beauty that meant more to her than anything in the entire world. Her eyes tracked to Hanami's back, seeing the wound there. How unlucky are we to be so wounded when all of the nobles are fine, besides Wu of course? Did we just draw an unlucky straw out of the whole pile or are we just so special that we don't need luck? I don't want you to hurt because of what everyone expects you to do. I want you to be free. She reached for the bandage and pulled it off carefully to see the angry red line that the physician had stitched up.
Sakura was amused that no one had approached her or said anything as she placed her hand over Hanami's wound. Hanami's skin felt smooth and soft but the wound felt angry and tender. She watched the brief tension pass through that relaxed face before green eyes fluttered open with a soft gasp slipping through cherry lips.
“It's quiet. Where did everyone go?” asked Hanami as she looked at Sakura trustingly. She felt relaxed as she became aware that she was being touched by Sakura. She felt those smooth hands touching something on her back that hurt and felt good at the same time. “Where are we?”
Sakura tore her eyes away from Hanami and looked around in stunned disbelief. She could only see whiteness as if she was in the middle of nothing with Hanami. Somehow she could feel the ground but it too was white and her perception of everything was confused. How am I standing on nothing? She glanced back at Hanami who was staring at what she was lying on with frightened eyes. “I don't think we're in the hall anymore.” whispered Sakura.
“Ha… ha… ha… You figured that out all by yourself?” asked Hanami trying to calm herself. She consciously pulled herself up into a kneeling position. Her face twinged in pain from pulling at the wound on her back. She wondered if she was still bleeding, but she didn't want to turn around and have a look. She noticed that Sakura wasn't afraid. She could only see curiosity in those eyes. “How did we get here?”
“We brought you here.” replied a female voice. It was the transparent woman except that she wasn't so transparent now. She was more solid in form and she had a youth about herself that radiated beauty and good health. Her fair hair and green eyes told Hanami and Sakura exactly who she was. They had met her under the Lianli tree in the garden. “I'm sorry I haven't introduced myself properly. My name is Xiao. I was an Empress for a few days a long time ago. I was taken from my husband, General Zhang, because the Emperor at the time fell in love with me.”
“But she wasn't in love with him. She is in love with me and always will be.” interjected the transparent General who was also more solid in form. He didn't look as scruffy and the stain that was on his uniform before was gone. He smiled as his blue eyes twinkled with happiness. “I've been waiting for a long time to be reunited with my love. I hated being stuck in that hall. It was where I was killed because the Emperor fell in love with my wife. He used me and then tossed me away. He kept everything of mine, including my sword which has been passed down the Emperor's family line for many generations.”
“Why are we here?” asked Sakura. She still didn't like the feeling of standing on something invisible. Even her grasp on gravity was confusing. Her mind kept reminding her that she was definitely the right way up since Xiao, Zhang and Hanami were upright. She slowly stood up and offered her hand to Hanami so that she could also be on the same level as the two new… friends? Are they?
“We thought that you would require a reprieve from the going ons of the world. So much has happened within a week and the both of you need to adjust to it all. I know that you are just going through the motions but this will all sink in and we want you all to be alright. We have no ill will against you since you are us.” explained Xiao.
“What do you mean we are you?” asked Hanami who was utterly confused.
“We are only a portion of the souls that were reincarnated. Xiao was trapped in a Lianli tree where she was buried and I was trapped in the main hall where I died. We have been waiting for many generations for our souls to come back to the world and unite. Now we must return to where we belong… inside of you.” explained Zhang. He gently held up his hand and the golden sword automatically appeared in it. He held it up in both hands horizontally and presented it to Sakura. “I am this sword. I am your fighting soul. I am you…”
Sakura held out her hands to accept the sword. She saw his smile and knew that everything would be okay. She watched as he slightly turned to Xiao and smiled at her before turning back to his task. He placed his hands over Sakura's and bore his blue eyes into her azure eyes. She felt the powerful energy that radiated from him and before she could even think, she felt his energy meld with hers. He was her. They were finally one soul and she breathed out a breath of relief.
Xiao turned to Hanami and also smiled. “I am your words.” Xiao whispered as she conjured a scroll from thin air and placed it into Hanami's hands. “I am your patient and loving soul. Guard this well. It is the song that I wrote for him and it will become your song for Sakura… I am you…”
Hanami watched in wonder as she recognised the scroll. She knew it would be of her own handwriting. She didn't even need to open it to know the words that were written there. She felt Xiao's gentle touch on her forehead and once more felt at peace as if something that had been lost for eternity finally came home. She closed her eyes and waited as energy filled her body and she breathed a sigh of relief.
Before Sakura could say anything she felt the white world around her form colours. Everything swirled brightly until she distinguished objects and people. Her azure eyes looked around at the shocked faces and wondered what was so surprising. She looked down at herself and was gob-smacked by what she was wearing. Her entire body was covered in fine white silk fit for an Emperor with a golden belt. Her golden sword was in her hand and there was not a drop of blood on her or any clothing torn. She didn't even feel any pain and instinctively knew that her wounds were gone.
Hanami wondered the same thing as Sakura but her emerald eyes dropped to her body. She was surprised that she was wearing fine silk that was clean and whole. She was feeling fine as well. The pain in her back had disappeared and she was holding her scroll to her chest. “I think something strange happened again.”
“You think?” replied Sakura as she looked around at all the people that were gathered.
Hanami sat on her throne with a crown on her fair head. She wasn't wearing her hat or anything that concealed her face and hair. She was happy with her bright smile that brightened the entire hall. Her emerald eyes took in the silks and flowers that decorated the hall. She was glad that all of the blood and bodies had been removed. Nothing of the battle remained and she was happy. Her gaze turned to her right where Sakura was sitting there, a little uncomfortable, on the same seat as hers.
“All hail the new rulers of this realm…”
Hanami watched in approval as all of the uniformed guards and warriors bowed on hands and knees. The nobles also formally bowed. The Generals, on the other hand, raised their right fist to their chests and bent at the waist to bow respectfully.
“So what do you think?” asked Hanami.
Sakura glanced at Hanami with both brows raised. She surveyed the room which had its doors wide open. She could see all the way out into the court and saw so many more warriors bowing outside. She fingered her sheathed sword and glanced back at Hanami. “I think I would trade all of this just to be by your side always. I love you.”
“You always know what to say. I love you.” replied Hanami as she leant over and looked up at azure eyes. Their lips met in a gentle caress, but she didn't let the passion take over since they were still in public. She had the strong urge to let it overwhelm her but she didn't. “I think we need to wrap things up.”
“I agree.” replied Sakura as she stood up. She offered her hand and smiled as Hanami grasped it. Slowly and quietly they snuck away with a smile towards the Generals who busted them at the last second sneaking away.
“They are so lucky.” commented Mai-Ling.
“It is lucky that Sakura found you out first. I am also grateful for her actions. You might have taken the honour away from our family, but she has returned it to us tenfold.” whispered General Ping. He was aware that no one knew about Mai-Ling's involvement, thanks to Sakura. He smiled at his daughter, knowing that she had done what she had done for him.
“Well we hope that you still feel lucky.” interjected General Sung.
“Yeah, because you have to fill in for them.” said General Yun as he and the other Generals were also making a run for it to the nearest door. He smiled brightly at the flabbergasted General. “Thanks. Now we are even.”
“Finding you and getting you untied after Sakura told us what was going on.”
Sakura felt gentle hands run up and down her sides in a passionate caress. Her blue eyes were slightly closed as a fire built in the pit of her stomach. She smiled as her lips and tongue explored the interior of Hanami's sweet mouth. “This is more fun than audiences.”
“I would think so.” replied Hanami as she continued to explore Sakura's mouth and other parts of her anatomy with her hands.
“Leaves are changing one by one,
Yellow, red or brown…
Winds will blow and strip trees bare,
Ready for winter…
Soil will become barren,
Littered with small leaves…
Colourful Sakura Trees,
Autumn is now here…
Air will cool and make things cold,
Waiting for the snow…
But we'll sit and drink our wine,
Blue and green will be the key,
Opening our hearts…
Let our love be shining bright,
For all of our lives…
Soft and supple are your lips,
When they brush with mine…
Whispered words will clear those tears,
Shielding you from pain…
Lean on me I will be there,
Put your trust in me…
I will see you through all this,
Just you wait and see…
Torn apart by destiny,
We will meet again some day,
Our souls coming home…
Little angels brought me back,
Guided by their light…
My love for you never fades,
Body, heart and soul…
Please accept this second chance
We will make things right…
Death will never break our bond,
Our love will survive…”
Return to the Academy