.:Betrayal by Blood:.
I once had a dream, Yvienne, and I remember it clear enough that it haunts me to this day.
In the dream, I saw a girl, in a graveyard of swords.
She was bound by chains, thick black chains, but to what I am unsure. She was being held up, her arms outstretched, like she was being crucified.
The chains wove a web around her and she struggled against the net of chains, trying desperately to move.
And I remember blood. Lots of it. Blood everywhere.
I remember how she hung her head and bore her troubles alone. And I remember her eyes, her haunting, tortured eyes. I remember how she looked up at me through her hair and how I mistook those eyes for being empty.
Her eyes weren't empty. They were burning with hatred and determination.
She had your eyes, Yvienne.
"Yvienne Quaint, I will never betray you."
Ryuu awoke with a start. What a vivid dream… Ryuu squinted his eyes as he tried to remember, but found he couldn't recall what exactly he dreamt about. Something to do with betrayal…
Ryuu shook his head. Whatever it was, it had felt important, but seeing as he couldn't remember, he would just have to forget completely instead. Ryuu shoved thoughts of the dream to the back of his mind.
The prince looked around his room. It had been over a week since he got back from military service, but he still couldn't get over how little had changed. The maids were still almost invisible, his little sister was still unmarried and his father was still an arrogant, capitalism-obsessed jerk.
Ryuu dressed alone, not sending for help from the servants. He had learned how to deal with things by himself when he was serving the military and had no desire to go back to being dependent on others – for anything.
The morning was clear as Ryuu stepped out onto the battlements. In fact, the dappled light from the sun and the azure of the sky was almost enough to make the city look peaceful. Almost.
Three people were stood on the battlements, gazing out over the courtyard where hundreds of people were crowded, sweating under Kuroko's afternoon sun.
"Good turnout this year, right, Zen?"
Zen, a thin male with sharp features nodded, seemingly deep in thought.
"I guess that the prince's victory has put some sort of faith in the military," the only woman of the group mused. "Right, Zaku?"
Zaku, a shorter man with dark hair and eyes nodded silently.
Zen pulled himself out of thought.
"There aren't many possible scouts for the Guard, though," he said. "And numbers aren't everything; skill is important too. I mean, look at Opaleny."
Zaku spoke up, his voice soft and barely audible.
"True," he conceded. "But we're about to enter a time of peace. The army will soon fall out of fashion."
Zen clipped him round the shoulder.
"Lighten up!" he said. "I mean, honestly! You're worse than Akira at that time of—"
The woman, now revealed to be named Akira, shot Zen a look that could freeze water.
"Finish that sentence and I will hang you from the battlements by your intestines," she threatened.
"Now, now," Zaku added, his voice still quiet. "As much as I hate to get in the way of all this sexual tension," Zaku ignored the two murderous glares now directed at him, "may I draw your attention back to the matter at hand."
"Right," Akira immediately straightened up. "I call Shorty, over there in the corner, by the west guard tower."
The other two squinted at the person in question. He was short, but well-built, with muscles that probably originated from a life spent working the fields. His skill with a blade was unpolished, but showed promise.
"Hmm," Zen said, not to be outdone, "I call Blockhead, to the right of Shorty."
Akira raised her eyebrows as she stared, trying to pick up the details of the figure.
"Are you serious?" she asked. "He doesn't look as if he has a brain to bargain with."
"True," Zen agreed easily. "What about Mr Aristocrat, sat in the shade of that tree?"
"Ugh," Akira commented. "Too many problems with hiring nobles, remember what happened last time?" she asked this with a pointed glare at Zen.
"Hey," he defended. "How was I supposed to know she was a noblewoman?"
"I don't know," Akira retorted. "Maybe it was the way she treated everyone else like dirt? Or the way she was wearing a freaking engagement ring?"
Before Zen could retort, Zaku spoke up.
"I call Stormy, running drills with the weapons master," he said, barely raising his voice.
Akira and Zen both stopped their argument, immediately whipping around to see the person who had managed to impress their usually stoic teammate.
"Hmm," Akira murmured, considering the boy – for he couldn't be considered a man – in question. "A bit short and more than a bit girly, to be honest … and the fact he only has one good eye is a major disadvantage, but…"
"See the way he's handling that sword?" Zen picked up where Akira had left off. "It's like it's second nature to him. His movements are a bit awkward, like he's trying to force the moves, but his body won't accept them … perhaps he's injured?"
"Plus, our resident weapons maniac seems … dare I say it … impressed," Akira finished.
Zaku smiled a weak smile.
"I think we have our recruit," he said.
I was dressed for a fight.
Fresh bandages were wrapped around my still sore wounds, and I had traded my dirtied prisoner robes for the light armour that Elizabeth had handed me. Supple leather boots adorned my feet, the knife that I had used to hack off my hair hidden in one of them as my secret weapon. Hanging from the slightly loose belt around my waist – I had lost a substantial amount of weight during my imprisonment – was my favourite shortsword, the one I had used to practise sword fighting with Elizabeth, back when we were fourteen.
My sword, my precious, bloodstained blade, was hidden in a bundle on my back, positioned so that it applied the least amount of pressure to my injuries possible.
Despite all this, I wasn't ready for a fight.
My wounds ached from the poor healing I had been able to access in prison, my head ached from a distinct lack of sleep and my left eye throbbed against the eye-patch I had covered it with, demanding my constant application of willpower to withstand the pain.
Running drills wasn't fun in my state, as I had to force my muscles to move the way they should and I was merely a shadow of my former maelstrom of fighting abilities. I perservered though, determined to reach my goal.
After I had left Rion, I had initially been stumped as to where to head. I was infamous in nearly all of the countries, and didn't exactly have many friends abroad… In fact, the only place where they could have even considered accepting me was Opaleny, but, as one of the few neutral nations in this day and age, they have some of the strictest border control policies in the continent and, whilst I had once forged papers to such a degree I could sneak into government headquarters with ease, Opaleny wasn't worth the risk.
That only left one place: Kuroko, the land of the corrupt.
Kuroko and Rion, both being just as corrupt as the other, have always had a somewhat rocky relationship. Rion prefers to hide its corruption in darkness, whereas Kuroko is about as obvious about it as a cat dyed purple. Granted, I may be somewhat biased, having spent relatively little time behind Kuroko's borders, but I know corruption when I see it, and Kuroko most certainly qualifies.
Kuronese soldiers aren't allowed within five miles of their border with Rion, or they face starting a national incident. The same goes for Rionem soldiers.
It was pretty much a given that Kuroko would be the last place that Rion would want to ask for help tracking me down.
That was why I headed to Kuroko. That and the fact that I have a Kuronese friend in a high place who owes me more than just one favour…
There is one thing to be said about having a land rife with corruption, though, and that is that bribes will get you a long way. A few pieces of gold in the right hands and you had an entirely new identity.
That's me: Ash Shiro, Kuroko's newest citizen.
Once I had my new identity, I made my plan. It was relatively simple: get to the palace, get to your contact, get sorted; but it was in the execution I had problems.
And that's what had brought me here, trying out for a job in the military, just to see if I could get into the palace.
Little did I know just how well I would succeed.
Kuroko was corrupt. I was expecting to be betrayed. It was just the identity of the betrayer that I never saw coming.
Goodwin looked up from the endless rolls of parchment when he saw footsteps. When he saw who it was, he immediately pushed away from the desk and sunk into a bow.
"Knock it off, Goodwin," the voice came from above him. "You've been my friend longer than you've been captain of the guards."
Goodwin straightened up.
"I had heard you returned from service, Prince Ryuu."
Despite being nearly six years his senior, Goodwin maintained a mostly positive relationship with the young prince. A bond between the two men had formed when Ryuu was ten, maybe eleven and Goodwin had been scouted as the prince and princess's personal bodyguard. Their relationship was an odd mix between formality and friendliness, the former most religiously upheld by Goodwin. That is, until he dropped his mask.
The prince rocked on his heels.
"Three years away and nothing's changed apart from me," he said, shaking his head.
Goodwin raised his eyebrows as he looked at Ryuu before taking on a critical tone.
"Two weeks back home and already making pessimistic comments," he said.
Ryuu retorted by punching Goodwin friendlily on the arm.
"How's the recruitment going?" Ryuu asked after a while, peering over the paperwork on Goodwin's desk, but unable to find the scroll pertaining to what he was asking after.
Goodwin sighed, before picking up the ledger that had been handed to him by the recruitment team. He was still awaiting the finalised reports from his men, but he didn't expect that in for at least another two weeks. Zen, Akira and Zaku were an excellent team, but the three considered paperwork the bane of their lives, and, though he had no doubt the report would be well written when he got it in, Goodwin had no doubt that they were going to put off writing it for as long as possible.
"See for yourself," he said, handing the book to the young prince, "there's the list of all the possibles." Something seemed to cross Goodwin's mind. "Say, Ryuu, why are you so interested?"
Ryuu opened the ledger.
"Just curious, to be honest," the red-headed prince explained. "My regiment lost quite a few troops in our last battle and we need to fill the places."
"Ah, I heard about your latest victory," Goodwin said with a smile. "Congratulations."
Ryuu snapped the ledger shut, most likely for effect, then panicked when he realised he'd just lost his page.
"I wouldn't call it a victory," he said as he searched through the book. "The war only ended because the other side could no longer fight. We both suffered casualties, I just had more soldiers." Ryuu shrugged before changing the subject. "Any recommendations?"
Goodwin didn't even need to look at the ledger.
"Page ten," he said calmly. Ryuu flipped to that page. "He has decent enough competence with a blade, is decent at armoury and smithing and from what I hear is pretty strong. His background's clean, well, as clean as you can get in the country of Kuroko; I think he left his guild after they cheated him some money, or whatever."
"Noted," Ryuu said, "any others?"
"Page twenty three," Goodwin replied. "He was pretty strong too, but was more of an axe man than a sword…" Goodwin drifted off.
Ryuu wasn't listening. The prince was staring at page number nineteen, his eyes glued to the page.
"Tell me about this one," he said, showing Goodwin the page.
Goodwin blinked in shock.
"I don't think there's much special about him, personally," Goodwin said, thinking back to his analysis of the notes on the boy. "But he did manage to impress our resident weapons master…"
Ryuu let Goodwin's voice roll over him, his eyes not leaving the page, fixated on the sketch. There was something off-putting about the boy, and not just the fact he only had one eye. Ryuu could swear he'd seen him somewhere before…
A woman sat in her carriage, staring at the setting sun as it rolled gently towards the castle. She twiddled her flaming red hair in between her fingers, a smirk playing to her lips as she remembered her last encounter.
She'd managed to fend him off, even if she had had to hit him over the head with a vase to get expelled from the palace this time. He'd still been out of it when she left.
A stab of remorse attacked her chest when she thought of how … lifeless … he had looked after she bashed the vase against his head. The woman shook her head to clear it.
She was coming home now, that was what mattered.
And thus the threads of betrayal and deceit are spun.
What have they done, my dearest? If only they knew…
The pieces are finally coming into play: the traitor, the war hero, and the light of the country of dark… Promises long forgotten and bonds never realised… Their fates are yet unwritten in the book of time.
But, as the god of fate sits down to rewrite their futures, he turns to the past for inspiration.
"'I will never betray you', huh?" he says. "Well, I have to start somewhere…"
And so, the threads of betrayal are spun into a web, combining the only two elements that they have in common.
If only they knew, my dearest. They can't escape.
Because history always repeats itself.
© Copyright 2012 Mari Thomas. All rights reserved.
A/N: What a super fun chapter to write! My favourite part was the ending, tee hee, I love writing ominous stuff like that. :)
InkxWish – for reviewing twice, AND being the first reviewer, I would send some cyber cookies to you, but over here in England, a cyber-cookie is another way of saying "tracking cookie" and that would be no way to thank you.
Having four reviews makes me smile, it took me nearly 5 chapters of Spiders and Curses to get that many reviewers. :)
I'm going back to pretending to write a French essay now.
PS: Please review! Reviews make my day – they really motivate me to write more.
PPS: I hope the confusing factor has gone down on this chapter.
EDIT - 22/09/12