Part Three, Chapter XXV
Treize leaned back with a sigh. He had almost forgotten about the wonder of hot springs, but as gentle ripples flowed over his body, the prince found himself wishing that he could somehow bring the entire structure with him on campaigns. At least I'd have peace and quiet, he mused absently. Then, the look of contentment faded as he directed his attention to his conversation with Une.
The earlier exchange had been a confusing one. If Une's informants had not served him well for years, Treize would have dismissed their information, but these men were not fools and neither was the Colonel. That meant he had to assume the information was at least partially correct. And if that was the case, Bocherik's plans were more deeply rooted than even he had suspected. The Chief Mage was, apparently, not only interested in using a puppet king to gain power for himself, but was intent on using that power to attack other nations. If that was the case, Treize could wait no longer; he had to act before Bocherik made enemies of all the neutral nations in the continent.
Then, there was the issue of Bocherik's son. Treize had no idea how Anokiv managed to take control in Sanq, but the Mage had succeeded nonetheless; either Noin was not as competent as he had estimated, or Anokiv had used less than honourable means to attain power, but either way, the Mage was definitely in control.
Bocherik's son. Treize rubbed his temple; he ought to have known better than to return to Oz so soon after a conquest, but the message had been addressed in his father's hand. He had thought - wrongly - that there had been a need for his presence. If he had known... but there was no point in dwelling on past errors. His plan had to be consolidated, and soon.
The situation in Sanq was but a by-product of the unbalanced situation in Oz, so naturally, his first step should be to eliminate Bocherik Ronterdo or somehow decimate the Mage's power. The problem lay in two areas - one, Bocherik had support from both his father and a group of nobles who gained from the current situation, and two, Bocherik was aided by a powerful but unknown entity. The prince had long suspected Duke Dermail, but the man's actions were mysterious, and furthermore, Treize could not understand the motives behind the Duke's actions... if the entity was indeed the Duke. His own investigations so far had been fruitless. But unless he had more information about this source, he could not deal with the Mage.
That meant he had to concentrate on regaining control in Sanq. Une's information had proved the Sanq soldier correct; cities had indeed been attacked by soldiers in Oz colours. Which meant that it was Anokiv's doing. But why? It served no purpose; the Ronterdos desired revenge, but Treize still believed that they would not have done anything so blatant when they knew it would not be approved of. The attacks on the cities was something of a direct challenge; a test to see how he, the prince, would respond.
Treize's brow creased. But why so suddenly? There had to be a reason for the timing of the attacks. Either the Ronterdos felt that they had enough power to resist him no matter how he chose to respond, or they had found a way to control his response. Neither thought gave him much comfort.
Suddenly, quiet footsteps alerted him to the approach of another person. Treize sank automatically into the shadows.
"Your Majesty?" The voice was tentative, and the prince relaxed. Only a servant.
"His Majesty King Khushrenada requests your presence at the feast tonight. He asks that you preside the official opening of the festival."
Treize paused; somehow, he had almost forgotten about the annual celebration. He would have to request that Une replace his current manager, though the man could not really be faulted for his own reluctance to trust anybody except himself. A good pension would have to be added, then. "You may tell his Majesty that I will be present at requested."
"Very good, your Majesty." There was the soft rustle of cloth, then the echo of receding footsteps. The servant had obviously kowtowed despite the fact that there was no way that Treize could have seen it. He frowned. King Khushrenada had always been rigid in his demands about court etiquette, but since servants were supposed to be invisible, they had been exempt for as long as Treize could remember. A bow was still necessary, of course, but nothing else was. The Mage, on the other hand, was infamous for his demands for 'due submission' from lower ranks. That the servant had felt the need to scrape and bow was another indication that the Chief Mage had gained a considerable amount of power in the past year. Another problem, it seemed.
With a sigh, Treize thought back to the servant's words. The Oz festival... yet another miscalculation. Now that he was in Rondalez for the opening, he would be expected to remain in the capital for the entire twenty days of the celebrations. Treize frowned; was it possible that Bocherik had planned this also? It would definitely not be beyond the Mage, especially since it gave Anokiv more time to finish whatever it was that he seemed to be doing.
The truth was that Anokiv's actions disturbed him on another level. War was not supposed to be fought through civilians. The death of a soldier on the battlefield was honourable, but the deaths of innocent civilians were not. A soldier knew what he was fighting for, and because of this, a soldier's death was a sign of nobility, of courage, a sacrifice for the greater cause. Deaths of true soldiers made war meaningful. Deaths of civilians, on the other hand, diminished both the meaning of war and the meaning of the soldiers' sacrifices.
Shaking his head, the prince rose from the water and wrapped a towel around his waist. He needed both information and time, but the opening feast would begin in a half-candlemark. His plans would have to wait.
Sally was not usually a person inclined to idle chatter, but the silence was beginning to grow uncomfortable. It was not as though Wufei ignored her; in fact, his treatment of her had been almost courteous, if rather blunt at times. No, it was more that in spite of his willingness to fight if necessary, it seemed that Wufei still did not feel that he had the right to do so, and was therefore indirectly punishing himself by withdrawing.
The problem was that she could not press him. She had done enough - or perhaps even too much - in persuading him to fight earlier, but at the time, there had been a need for his assistance... and furthermore, she genuinely believed that he would have regretted it even more if he had not tried to save Jorad's life. But that did not mean he was ready to resume fighting. There were issues that she did not fully understand about him, ones which were linked strongly with his sense of honour and self-worth. Until those issues were resolved, it was unfair to ask him to fight. She was not even sure that she had done the right thing in pushing him.
With a rueful sigh, Sally shifted her pack onto her other shoulder. But life is unfair. We just have to cope in spite of it all. Noticing that Wufei had halted, she paused and asked, "Is something wrong?"
He studied her for a moment. "We could rest, if you like."
Sally frowned briefly, then realised that he had heard the sigh and connected it with her previous movement. Smiling slightly, she answered, "I'm fine. Thanks anyway."
The youth inclined his head wordlessly. For a while, they continued on without speaking, then Wufei asked suddenly, "Who is the Elder of the Tiger Clan?"
She glanced at him. "Elder Li. Li Chong." When he waited expectantly, she elaborated, "He is... firm. But not overly so, and his respect is earned through his virtues and not through intimidation." She hesitated. " I do not know him well, and would not presume to speak of him as though I do, but he appears to be rather conservative. Not so much so that he is unwilling to change if circumstances dictate, but he does not act rashly."
After a moment, Wufei nodded. "A worthy Elder, then."
"Mm." Sally looked at him curiously. "Do you want to know for any particular reason?"
He shook his head. "I merely wished to have some understanding of his character before I sought his assistance. Or, more specifically, other peoples' perceptions of his character."
Meaning that in the end, you will form your own opinions. She thought for a while. "The Tiger Clan is quite similar to what its name suggests; it is powerful, and will make a formidable fighting force, but like the hunters of the jungle, it will not serve other people readily, especially not if it has no reason to. I had originally intended to appeal to their sense of honour, to suggest that it was their duty to help achieve revenge for those in my own clan. That may not succeed. If you desire their aid, and plan on approaching the matter similarly... you may first have to ensure that you understand what honour and justice mean to you."
Wufei slowed and regarded her before smoothly resuming his original pace. "I know. It... is something I must deal with myself."
The last held a hint of a message, or so it seemed. Telling her that it was a private matter for him, and asking her to recognise it as such. Sally touched his shoulder briefly. "I understand, Wufei. Just let me know if you need me for anything."
The youth did not look at her, but after a moment, he gave a single nod. Then, the pair continued walking. And for some reason... the silence no longer seemed quite as uncomfortable as it had before.
She was no longer dressed in black, and neither was Heero. It felt strange. Several times, her wide sleeves had gotten snared and almost torn by branches, and she had spent several mornings feeling rather conspicious in the vibrant colours. This morning, however, her relief overwhelmed any other feelings. Colourful as the clothing had appeared to her, Hilde's choice had been perfect. Both she and Heero had blended into the crowds at Pierot with ease.
Her clothing was made of a light, subtly seductive material, but as with all gypsy clothing, it was designed for practical uses as much as for beauty. The flowing fabrics and shawls disguised the fact that she was not wearing a dress at all, but a tight-fitting top and loose pants whose flimsy coverings could be removed quickly if necessary. The decorations had been altered slightly so that unless people knew what they were searching for, there would be no resemblance to gypsy clothing. To her, however, the similarities were both obvious and comforting.
Heero's garment was less flamboyant and more elegant, as befitted his role as her assistant. He carried an imitora, a set of seven tunable drums which could produce long, resonating notes as well as intricate rhythmic patterns. Suri had been teaching Heero some simple techniques and he had proved surprisingly quick at learning to improvise in response to unknown tunes, but since she herself had had little experience with the instrument, the imitora could not be used as anything more than an accompaniment to her own imiti.
Hilde had given her both instruments the night before they separated. Suri had fallen in love with the imiti on sight - an ornate seven-string lyre whose frame was cleverly crafted to conceal the holes of a serunai, it could only be used by those with the gift of Wind-working. The lyre was played normally while wind was directed through specific holes of the serunai, thus eliminating the need for fingers. Soft enough to accompany her while she sang, it was nonetheless capable of creating a haunting sound, especially when combined with the unpredictable imitora. 
< The man requests that you demonstrate now. He has made it plain that he does not expect you to be any good. > Heero's voice interrupted.
Standing gracefully, she walked over to where the Mage was conversing with the innkeeper. < It is not surprising, considering that I have neither recommendations or Bardic qualifications. >
Finding this inn had been a blessing; it was one frequented by passing nobility and upper-class merchants and scholars, and more importantly, the regular Bard had broken his wrist during a drunken brawl the night before. She had sensed the innkeeper's agitation and sought him out, then Heero had approached the man and offered her temporary services in return for food, accommodation and a portion of the money earned.
"Greetings, Innkeeper Rimodan." Suri had deepened her voice, bringing into it a more melodic quality and adding an emphasis on certain words as she had seen other nobles do. Duo would be laughing if he knew that his collection of airheads would be helping me carry this image across. As an afterthought, she called on her gift of Empathy, creating an aura of mystery around herself. "I am Songsmaker Suriku. How may I be of service?"
She refrained from rolling her eyes as the man rose and bowed, suddenly civil. "Songsmaker Suriku, it is a pleasure. I understand that you wish to perform here at the Hanging Oak tonight?"
Inclining her head slightly, she answered, "I would be most pleased to provide entertainment, both tonight and tomorrow. For a nominal charge, of course. We are merely seeking a shelter over our heads as we travel to Gonzalez for the festival."
"The festival?" The innkeeper's voice became calculating. "Have you an invitation to perform, then?"
< Invitation, Heero? >
< Not necessary. You only need one if you're performing for the nobility as a guest of honour. >
< Ah. > She leaned forward with a confidential smile. "Well, as a matter of courtesy, I'm afraid I must refrain from disclosing the details, but..." She shrugged delicately, casually. "Why else would an entertainer travel to the capital at this time?"
He returned an flattering beam that reminded her of a pompous snake. "I would be honoured, then." He rubbed his hands on the table. "But, if you'll pardon me for asking, how will I know that your performance will be... ah, suitable for my patrons? For as you probably know, they are nobles of some renown, and will certainly be most disappointed if the entertainment tonight isn't what they expect."
"Of course I don't expect you to take me on my word. After all, so reputable an inn must certainly have high standards." Yeah right. "Would you like a brief demonstration, perhaps?"
"That will be most agreeable."
Suri curtsied slightly, then extracted her instrument. Heero sent her a mental query, but she shook her head slightly. There would be no need for his assistance yet. She had a piece prepared - an old tune, one that was definitely known in both Oz and Sanq, but one which she had added a twist to. Running her hand once over the strings, she perched on a stool and, skipping the usual upbeat introduction, launched directly into the vocal section... without the vocals. She hid a satisfied smile at the man's surprise.
The piece she chose was perfect for the imiti - its flowing accompaniment fitted the lyre perfectly, and the serunai added an exotic tint to the melody. Instead of drawing attention to the vocal part in the usual way, Suri wove its notes into the harmony tentatively and let the music shape itself. Then, at the first note of the bridge, she took control and the voice of the serunai soared out over the crowd. She felt the audience turn towards her and, sending them a sudden, enigmatic smile, she brought the melody to an abrupt halt. The last note of the bridge quivered triumphantly in the silence.
Her audience waited, some expectant, some confused, and a few quietly appreciative. Once she was sure of their undivided attention, Suri's fingers ran with a flourish over the lyre strings, resuming the piece where it had left off. She had planned a few more variations but none were dramatic, and after the chorus and the final verse, the piece drew to its natural close. As it was, there had been no need for anything more. The enthusiastic applause - and the odd half-drunken whoop - had been more than enough to earn her employment for the night. 
 - The imitora (plural) create a timpani-like sound, but are more the size of bongos. Since I don't think this (the sound-depth and instrument size combo) is quite possible in RL and didn't want to mention either the timpani or the bongos, I did not add this to the description. Also, I have never played a string instrument or a wind instrument, so if the imiti is in fact impossible and unrealistic, and you have any suggestions about how to change it, feel free to email me. But to my knowledge, lyres with seven or fewer strings can be played with one hand strumming across the strings and the other blocking selected strings from the back so that they do not sound, and this is what Suri does. The serunai is a Malay instrument with seven front finger holes and one at the back. I chose it because I liked the name. ^_^
 - The piece? Well... I could leave it up to your imagination. That would probably be better, in truth. But I did in fact have a piece in mind when I wrote that part, though I thought of the variations myself. The simple version of the piece - without the intro, as was described above - can be found here, and another version with the full orchestra is here. (The variations aren't in either, of course.) I would advise getting the MP3, though - it should be pretty easy to find on WinMX or any other file sharing network. Oh, and it's name? Kimi o Nosete, or Carrying You, from Miyazaki Hayao's Laputa.