It was a festival, and a large one. Harvest time here was a time for celebration and this year the harvest had been unexpectedly good, despite the current state of things in the world at large. A seven-town collaboration, this festival was the high point of the year in the area, where people gathered to party, drink, buy, sell and trade in preparation for the fallow season ahead.
Naturally, Lirin had pestered her older half-brother Kougaiji into taking her to it. Some of her favorite foods were prepared only at this time of year, and she loved the sights, sounds and smells. The night stalls and games, the colorful jewelry and blankets, all were balm to her increasingly frazzled nerves. Things had been getting tense around Houtou castle, and the perky little Lirin was often far more troubled by these things than anyone else. It was her mother's doing, after all, and sometimes she felt partly responsible for the outrageous things Gyokumen Koushu had been getting up to of late.
Kougaiji, for his part, never blamed his sweet little sister for anything. She was a bottomless pit of constant hunger, a bit of an airhead sometimes and kind of a pain in the ass a lot of the time, but she was Lirin, and he adored her. When she had come running to him in the hall near their common room, shrieking excitedly about this festival thing, he had acquiesced to her desires and agreed that they should all go together.
Three days later, Kougaiji, Lirin, the apothecary Yaone and swordsman Dokugakuji had clambered aboard two long-distance flying dragons and ascended, bound for fun. The town hosting the festival this year was only a matter of an hour's flight from the castle, and it was a pleasant night. It was surprisingly relaxing to the group, and everyone was in good spirits by the time they arrived.
Almost the moment they had dismounted, Lirin was off at a run, with Yaone chasing, and calling desperately after her. She tended to take Kougaiji's request to keep an eye on his little sister very seriously. Dokugakuji and Kougaiji looked at each other for a moment over their respective tethering of the dragons; Dokugakuji shook his head as he smiled at his lord. Lirin was a constant source of amusement to them both, unless they were in battle. Fortunately, she needed less looking after when fighting, than at any other time. When the dragons were secure, they set off in search of their wayward companions.
The evening wore on, drifting sweetly into the past. They ate more than was good for them; Kougaiji won stuffed animals at games for both his little sister and his apothecary. Dokugakuji entered a strength contest, and only lost by a fraction...to a man who was so muscle bound that Lirin was sorely tempted to ask if he had been born without a neck, or had he lost it in some kind of accident?
After stopping at yet one more of the brightly lit night stalls in order to get yet another sweetbean jam bun for Lirin, Kougaiji and Dokugakuji strolled slowly, falling slightly behind the women. They discussed the current state of affairs at Houtou castle, their most recent run-ins with Nii Jianyi, and plans for the uncertain future. Keeping their voices pitched low, they walked more and more slowly while Lirin and Yaone practically dashed on ahead. Neither of them noticed when Lirin zipped around the side of one of the stalls, nor when Yaone stopped just short of rounding the same corner, herself.
Somewhere off to their left, a woman shrieked with laughter, drawing both men's gazes that way. Kougaiji's mouth twitched into a small smile. He would like to hear such sounds more often. He would like it if his first reaction hand not been to pull into a fighting stance, if his swordsman had not instantly stood ready to call his weapon. He watched as the woman who had made the noise turned to be enfolded by the arms of the man who had surprised her. She seemed so carefree; Kougaiji thought of Yaone and Lirin. Would they ever be allowed to be so completely at ease? Perhaps, when this whole thing was over...but that really was unlikely, was it not?
His vision thus still engaged as they walked, Kougaiji strolled right into Yaone. His right hip collided with hers and he automatically reached out to steady her. The apothecary let out a small squeak of surprise, and straightened. Her face flushed and Kougaiji realised that he had rather a firm grasp on her bottom. He hurriedly released her as his color rose to match hers and he offered a muttered litany of apologies.
Dokugakuji suppressed a smile of his own as he watched with profound amusement. Though he had once had his eye on Yaone for himself, he felt no jealousy over her obvious preference for his prince. Her beauty, fierce determination and gentle nature suited Kougaiji far better than they would Dokugakuji and he looked forward to the day when he would serve them both, as his King and Queen.
Once the mess had been straightened out and everyone had returned to their normal colors, Kougaiji thought to inquire about Yaone's reason for stopping.
She flushed again and stammered, "Umm...there's just...I saw...perhaps you should take a look, my lord." Stepping back, she pointed down the space perpendicular to the street where they stood, along the side of a stall.
Curious, Kougaiji settled a puzzled look on her before moving around the corner to see what she was talking about.
"Oh," was all he said. Naturally, this piqued the interest of his second-in-command, and Dokugakuji followed. The were multitudes of people there before him, but he saw instantly to what Yaone was referring. For a long moment he simply stared, unable to determine what he should make of what he was seeing.
About a block away, wandering through the throngs of festival revelers was Dokugakuji's younger half-brother, Gojyo. There was another man with him, and the white layman's sash slung around the man's left shoulder identified him as the healer, Cho Hakkai. Of course, it had always been obvious to anyone within proximity (even in battle) that Gojyo and Hakkai shared an unusual kind of bond, but what they were playing witness to now was somehow very different.
The two men meandered along the street, their long legs falling precisely in step as they weaved through the crowd. Gojyo had his right arm curled comfortably around Hakkai's shoulders; both of Hakkai's arms were engaged in cradling a medium-sized stuffed animal in front of his abdomen. Even at this distance, Dokugakuji could discern the tiny, serene smile that graced Hakkai's pretty face. For some reason that he could not clearly put his finger on, he felt like an intruder on this scene and it disturbed him.
As the three of them watched, Gojyo crooked the arm that was wrapped around his companion, pulling the dark head close. He tilted his head to place his mouth next to Hakkai's ear, his deep crimson hair falling forward to conceal his face. Gojyo pulled back with a grin, and Hakkai turned his head to look at him. The serene smile widened, and the look the two shared made Dokugakuji feel suddenly like a voyeur.
He dropped his eyes to look at the ground until he felt a little less shaken, a little less guilty for seeing something of such intense intimacy. When he raised his head, Kougaiji fixed him with a questioning gaze. Dokugakuji answered only with a slight nod.
"What do we do, Kou?" he asked.
"What do you mean?" Kougaiji returned, sounding just as nonplussed as Dokugakuji felt.
"Well...we could use it somehow," he offered. He felt unclean for even thinking of it, but he had sworn himself to Kougaiji, and that came before everything, even his little brother. "It's a weakness."
Kougaiji held his gaze for a beat, considering this. His eyes flicked to Yaone for an instant, then settled back on Dokugakuji.
"No," he stated finally. His voice was firm, and the swordsman relaxed a little to hear it. "No, it would be a dirty fight, even if it should work. There is no valor in such tactics, and no honor in winning by them."
Yaone, who had stood as if paralysed through this exchange, visibly relaxed as well. She fixed Kougaiji with a dazzling smile that he pretended not to notice and ran off in search of Lirin, who had once again disappeared.
As Kougaiji set off in the same direction Yaone had taken, Dokugakuji followed and tried very hard not to burst with the pride he felt in being allowed to serve this man. Lord Kougaiji, son of the evil Gyumaoh, grudging servant of his father's mistress and devoted son to a mother imprisoned; Lord Kougaiji who had seen the means for a devious victory, but who had instead chosen an honorable blindness.