Go To Part 9
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Cheri - Part 8
“Ando, I think we should stop here,” Chèri stated, sounding exhausted. Their journey to Topaz Region’s Capitol City – locally referred to as Topaz City – had taken close to a month. Additionally, despite being near hounded by bandits for the last week – pretty much from the moment they had crossed into Topaz Region – they’d managed to arrive unharmed with all their belongings. Ando had proven himself a capable bodyguard after all!
“My Lady?” Ando questioned. Chèri never wants to buy food; she far prefers to buy ingredients and make food herself.
“I’m too tired to cook,” Chèri sighed, mostly honestly. Ando shrugged, and tied their horses to a nearby post. The food stall was one of the many outdoor shops found all over the Empire. Even though it was fall, it was still warm enough for everyone to eat their lunch outdoors, but Ando could tell that it was getting a bit too chilly for this to continue much longer.
Chèri ordered a large plate of fried noodles. It was covered in a scrumptious sauce, and had a generous amount of vegetables and goat meat scattered throughout. Chèri moaned in anticipation, sitting at the wooden counter that was part of the cook’s work area.
Ando sat next to her, appreciating the warmth. He was surprised that they were able to sit at the counter considering that this vendor seemed to be completely packed with customers. After traveling in relative silence for so long, the noise of the crowd was almost deafening.
Another new customer pushed against Chèri to make room as Ando ordered a bowl of miso soup. Chèri didn’t protest his rudeness; she was too hungry to care. Instead, she merely snuggled closer to Ando, causing him to blush.
They had literally spent an entire month with their bodies pressed together as they rode the horse – alternating which one carried them and which carried their stuff – so this was no big deal to Chèri. Ando firmly shoved his momentary wild imaginings to the back of his head, and made room for her so that she wasn’t practically sitting in his lap – not that there was much room to be had on the packed bench.
Ando knew it was far too late – he was utterly in love with her. Everywhere she went, she tried to make things better, and he couldn’t help but admire that about her. His admiration made him want to protect her, and that was when he realized that he had fallen for her and hard.
She had no idea; she was oblivious, and had far too much on her mind to notice how he felt. This was for the best because he knew that she still missed the Emperor. He heard her mumble his name as she slept, which actually hurt.
On the nights when they’d had to camp, it was far too cold to sleep separately, so they had gotten used to snuggling together. On the nights when they had an actual bed to sleep in, there was no point in paying for two beds when they already shared their blankets the rest of the time, so they slept together.
It was frustrating! Any other time he had slept with a woman, there had been so much more going on! Ando had a hard time keeping his thoughts clean!
Chèri – on the other hand – knew what people thought about them. She knew that everyone probably assumed that they were married and often enjoyed each other, but she had no idea that Ando had feelings for her. He hid them well, and never tried to kiss or touch her inappropriately. This relieved her greatly because he was literally the one person she could trust and rely on in any situation. She owed him her life several times over!
“The boss ain’t happy,” a man muttered.
“I tried my best! I can’t squeeze money out of people who literally don’t have any!” A second man protested.
“Look, it’s very simple. If someone owes the boss money, they pay. If they can’t, they die.”
Chèri covered a tiny smile with her sleeve. This was why she had chosen to eat at a crowded food stall. Ever since they had entered the region, too many people had whispered and pointedly not complained about their hardships. They were afraid, and she wanted to know why.
The second man paled, and whispered, “You want me to kill innocent women and children?”
Like everyone in the boisterous crowd, Chèri and Ando kept their attention firmly on their food – which had just been served. They dug in, and pretended to ignore the conversation. Thankfully, the two men were also sitting at the counter surrounding the owner of the stall, so they had no problems listening in.
“Yes, anyone who dares to defy the boss!” The first man insisted. He looked like someone who had been in many a fight to the death. His face was covered in small scars, and he was missing at least one finger.
“I can’t kill women… or children…” The second man sounded like he wanted to cry.
“Listen, I like you, so I’m trying to help you here,” the scarred man purred in a smarmy way. “There’s a particular woman coming to Topaz. The boss wants her gone. He wants her to be nothing more than an unpleasant thought, if you catch my drift. That means that any man who handles her for the boss will be rewarded.”
“I see…” the second man still looked like he wanted to cry, but sounded resigned now. “What does she look like?”
“Who knows?” The first man shrugged. “She’s a fancy lady coming all the way from the palace to interfere with the way we run things here. It should be obvious to spot her, just look for a big carriage and an entourage!”
The second man sighed and bit his lip. “When is she supposed to get here?”
“All the boss knows is that she left the Imperial City a month ago. She’s had plenty of time to get here, but no one’s seen hide nor hair of her. I’d wager she was killed by bandits long before she even got close to our region.”
Thank the Gods I decided to pass through the border gates using my simplest identification token! They don’t know where I am because I’ve kept quiet about it!
A third man shifted from a table to the empty seat that opened next to these two. “There’s a rumor going around that a mysterious woman has been traveling from temple to temple. She feeds the people and provides them with entertainment. Everyone assumes that she is nothing more than a traveling performer.”
“So,” the first man grunted. He obviously recognized but didn’t like the newcomer.
“Think about it… Would a traveling performer be able to afford to feed everyone in every temple she came across? What if she’s the lady we’re looking for in disguise?”
The first man stroked his chin in thought. “You have a point. I think we should keep an eye on the temple. If she’s on her way here, she’s bound to show up there sooner or later.”
“I agree,” the third man stated. “Even if she’s not the one, the boss won’t turn down the opportunity to play with her a bit.”
Chèri realized that she was listening to their conversation a bit too intently. She’d forgotten to eat, and still had a third of the food on her plate. The third man was watching her with interest, and though she hadn’t looked in their direction once, she could feel his gaze burning into her.
She tugged on Ando’s sleeve in a very overt way so that everyone could see what she was doing. “Honey, I think the baby doesn’t like this food, I can barely eat.”
Ando quickly held back his astonishment over her statement, and played along. “Do you think you need to see a healer?”
“I don’t know… maybe…” Chèri covered her mouth with a hand, and pretended that she was about to be sick.
“How far along?” The owner of the stall asked with a grin.
“Not far,” Chèri murmured, appearing to concentrate on holding down her lunch.
“Most women feel sick in the beginning,” the owner informed her with a knowing nod. “You should try eating less food more often throughout the day. It’ll help.”
“Thank you,” Chèri replied with a grateful smile.
The owner handed her a cup of tea. “Here, it’s my own special ginger blend. You’ll feel better in no time.”
Chèri nodded, and sipped on the delicious tea. “Honey, how much longer until we get to your mother’s?”
Ando had previously told Chèri that he had been born and raised in Topaz Region – which was one of the reasons he’d been chosen as her guard. He smiled at her, holding one of her hands. She really is a genius!
“My mother lives not too far from here. Cheer up, we’re almost there,” he informed her.
The stall owner frowned. “I thought for sure you two were travelers.”
“Oh we are,” Ando assured him. “I left Topaz several years ago to find a better life. I eventually got married, but then I received word from my mother that she wasn’t feeling well, so we came to visit.”
“Who’s your mother?” The owner asked with a curious smile.
“Junai Jun,” Ando replied with a shrug that said, don’t blame me because she’s my mother.
The owner roared – as did a few others in the crowd who’d heard him. “Junai is your mother?! That old biddy must have been pulling on your heartstrings; she’s as healthy as a horse!”
“And twice as stubborn!” Someone added.
Ando nodded in agreement. “I figured as much, but she is my mother, after all. I figured she’d decide to come to me if I didn’t visit.”
“I’d have paid to see that!” A man teased good-naturedly. “The neighborhood would be so much quieter without her nagging!”
“Honey!” Chèri protested when Ando simply smiled and nodded. “Are you going to let them talk about your mother that way? What if they were talking about me?”
Ando wasn’t sure how to reply. She’s never met my mother! She’ll completely understand once she does…
“Ahh!” The owner made a suggestive sound. “Go on and take your little woman to meet her new mother.”
Ando nodded, and pulled a string of copper coins out of his pocket. There was barely more than he needed to pay for their lunch. Chèri got to her feet, and bowed to the owner.
“Thank you for the delicious food. I’m sorry I couldn’t eat it all.”
“No problem! Feel free to come back here anytime you need some more tea!”
Chèri bowed again, and then slipped her arm through Ando’s. It was a gesture that announced that they were planning to be intimate soon, and she accented it by casting him an adoring look. Oh, if only! Ando thought.
He carefully set her on one horse, and led both horses to his mother’s house. From what they had overheard, this was the safest thing for them to do. He knew his mother would keep their secret, but it would be up to Chèri to decide to trust her with it.
“Thank you for playing along,” Chèri whispered with a grateful smile.
“How could I not?” Ando grumbled. “They pretty much announced that they wanted to kill you.”
His mother lived in a building that she shared with several other people, but her portion of the building was the same as when she had all her children still living at home even though none were. This meant that she had two spare rooms, but there was nowhere to shelter their horses. Ando would have to bring them to a public stables a little later on.
Junai was a busybody, so she often sat looking out her window while she worked on making a quilt or a bit of lace. Today was no different, and as a result, she saw her son arrive. “Ando??? Is that you?!”
“Yes mother!” Ando called out. Chèri had no idea if she could trust Ando’s mother, so she decided to continue their act from moments ago. She smiled happily, and waved at Junai.
“I’m so happy to finally meet you, mother!”
Oh Gods! Ando had to firmly remind himself that Chèri was just acting. It felt far too wonderful to hear her call his mother hers. It felt like they were really married!
He lifted her down from the horse, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. “I’m relieved we finally made it!” She announced, and then kissed him.
“Eh?! What’s this? My son’s finally brought home a bride! Oh happy day!” Junai shouted for all to hear.
Calm down! CALM DOWN! We’re just acting! Ando’s heart was racing.
“Don’t just stand there, boy, bring her inside!” Junai ordered impatiently. Several of her neighbors were now staring at them out their windows.
“Congratulations Ando!” They all cheered.
“Carry me like a new husband is supposed to,” Chèri demanded in his ear.
Bracing himself for the highly suggestive ordeal, Ando gathered her into his arms, and carried her into the building. I think I’m going to kill her for putting me through this! Even thought it had been days since they last bathed, she smelled intoxicating.
“Ando, my boy!” Junai greeted, gesturing for her son to enter her home – which was at the top of a set of stairs. Ando complied, setting Chèri on her feet. Junai hugged each enthusiastically, and then shut the door.
Her grin vanished, and muttered quietly. “So, care to tell me what’s really going on?”
I should have known! Ando mentally muttered to himself.
“What do you mean, mother?” Chèri persisted.
“Oh come now!” Junai still spoke quietly, but with oomph. “I know my son was assigned a pretty high rank in the Imperial Guard, yet suddenly, he’s given it up to bring a wife to live here? I don’t buy it!”
Chèri’s lips twisted in an appreciative smile. “Well then, what do you think is going on?”
Junai grinned in return, already liking this pretty young thing her son had dragged home. “I think that’s it’s no mere coincidence that a woman was appointed our new Regional Director, and a month later, an Imperial Guard shows up on his mother’s doorstep with a new ‘wife.’”
Chèri nodded in agreement, but pointed at the door and stated loudly – because she could tell that there were people in the hall waiting to see if the happy couple would emerge for well wishes – “There’s more great news! We’re expecting!”
Junai tilted her head in a gesture of understanding, and decided to play along until they could be certain they wouldn’t be overheard. “Finally! I’m going to have a grandchild!” She bellowed knowing full well that people were used to hearing her do so.
“I’m going to bring our belongings inside, and then I’m going to bring the horses to a nearby stable,” Ando announced, finding it hard to keep up the act.
Chèri nodded, standing next to him as he opened the door. She smiled and waved at the neighbors, all of whom took the opportunity to congratulate Ando and pat him on the back. Ando played his part graciously, but Chèri could tell that it was starting to get to him.
Women started to bring over bits of food to welcome Chèri, and she chatted with them – exchanging recipes – while Ando accomplished his goal. The women found out that she was “expecting,” and regaled her with stories of their own pregnancies and births. All in all, Chèri was having so much fun, that she almost forgot this was all just pretend.
Ando returned a while later, and had no idea how to evict the posse of chattering women from his mother’s home. He cleared his throat purposefully. Chèri looked up, and pretended to cover a blush.
“Oh my,” she giggled. “I think I’d like to be alone with my husband now. He seems to have need of me.” Spending time working on Kiki’s accounts had given her enough exposure to polite innuendo that she was able to give everyone the wrong impression pretty easily.
Her guests all gasped as if it should have been obvious that the newlyweds would want to be alone. They all spouted sudden excuses – a need to make dinner, a remembered errand – so that they could politely leave. They all cast Ando admiring glances, and he surmised that they thought Chèri was lucky to have him. He covered a blush.
The moment they were alone with his mother, he exhaled in relief.
Chèri smiled, and strode into the kitchen. Before they could do anything else, she needed time to think, and cooking always helped her think!
“I like her,” Junai whispered confidentially to her son. “Any chance you could marry her for real?”
“No…” he sighed in depression. “The Emperor himself would kill me.”
“I see…” Junai muttered. “Too bad!”
“It’s been two months since she left! Why the hell hasn’t she arrived yet?!” Reiki demanded. Ran and Ko both knew full well who he referred to.
“Maybe it’s not safe for her,” Ran suggested.
“The Regional Palace should be completely safe! Inside it, she’ll have guards and Officials to help her.” Reiki realized that he was pulling on his hair in frustration, and forced himself to stop.
He crossed his arms on his table, and buried his face in them. “What if I sent her to her death?”
Ko sighed, and shifted uncomfortably. Reiki didn’t need to see this to know that Ko was hiding something. The Emperor pierced his bodyguard with an inquiring stare.
Ko tried to maintain an uncomfortable silence for a few more moments, but then sighed again, and cracked. “This is strictly confidential, mind you, but my father reports that a woman bearing the Ruby family crest withdrew money from the Topaz Capitol City’s Money Guild 2 days ago. The Guild maintains messenger birds just like the government does, so this information is pretty much straight from the source.”
“So she’s alive!” Reiki exhaled in relief.
“Unless someone killed her and now has her identification tokens,” Ran suggested, thinking over all the possibilities. Reiki glared at him, and Ko smacked him up the backside of his head.
“Well,” Reiki contemplated the possibility. “Was it a lot of money?” Surely a thief would try to obtain as much as they could get.
Ko shook his head. “No… she withdrew a single gold coin.”
Ran laughed. “A woman asking for a single gold coin! She was sending us a message!”
Reiki nodded. “Yes; that she’s alive, that she’s there, and that she doesn’t need anything from us.”
“That reminds me,” Ran murmured absently. “I received a report this morning from the soldier you sent to look for her. I was so preoccupied with other things that I forgot about it until now.”
Reiki glared at Ran again. This report would have been helpful earlier! Ran cleared his throat, withdrew the report from his pocket, and opened it. The seal was still intact, so they knew it hadn’t been tampered with.
“As I searched for Lady Shurin Ruby, I could find no trace of her, except that someone by the name of Shurin passed through each of the regional gates. She was accompanied by one Ando Jun, so I knew it was her. None of the inns recall ever seeing anyone matching their description. I had better luck once I arrived in Topaz City. There is still no mention of Lady Ruby, but Ando Jun is easy to find. Him and his new wife Chèri – which is spelled wrong,” Ran smirked. “Are the talk of the locals. They spend their days chatting with commoners and are apparently expecting their first child. It is my conclusion that she is the missing Director, and that both have abandoned their duty.”
Ran sighed and then examined the letter for hidden clues. Finding none, he continued. “This arrived from the Regional Palace by messenger bird this morning.”
Reiki wore a tight smile. “I think that soldier will probably send a different report once he’s had a chance to look the situation over more carefully. Think about it, he said that she’s talking to commoners, right? Well, that’s what Chèri does! The rest has to be part of her disguise.”
Ran tilted the message in the light to read it better. “Wait there’s a scribbled out sentence that’s hard to read. Rumor… murder… Director… Hmm, I think it says that there’s a rumor demanding the murder of the Director.”
Ko nodded. “That makes sense. She can’t just show up, people are looking to kill her.”
Reiki had to push all thoughts of her aside so that he could concentrate on his other work. Knowing that she was likely in danger of being killed only made things 10 times worse. At this point, he half wished that she had married Ando and abandoned her duty. At least in that scenario, she might return to the Imperial City safely one day.
It was the coldest part of winter, but Chèri felt like she was on fire with purpose. She was surrounded by a crowd of people – men and women who huddled together for warmth as they listened to her. This was the first time people had dared to openly come listen to her, so, it was the first time that she was shouting out what she had to say for all to hear. Until now, she had merely whispered to this person or that.
A man stood up to protest. “Why should we risk our lives? It’s all the fault of that damned woman, the Regional Director! If she would just show up and do her job already, we wouldn’t have to worry anymore!”
“Just what exactly do you think the Regional Director can do?” Chèri demanded passionately.
“She can arrest that man!” A woman shouted in return.
“And then what? Will you stand up to testify against him? Without any evidence and no one willing to testify, she would just have to let him go again!” Chèri insisted truthfully.
“But you’re asking us to take a stand!” A different man protested. “The only reason any of us are alive is because we keep quiet and do what we are told! If we so much as think of defying him, we’ll be killed!”
“He can’t kill everyone at the same time,” Chèri pointed out. “If we all stand together, he’ll have no choice but to back down. If we all vow to testify against him, the Regional Director will be able to convict him of his crimes!”
“That, my pet, is a very troubling statement indeed,” a new man informed her with a deadly smile. “So… you are the woman whispering nonsense to rile up the rabble.”
Chèri cast a significant look at Ando. This was the moment they had been waiting for, and as much as he hated the plan, he had agreed to go along with it. He flung his arms out and stood in front of her.
“Stay away from my wife!” Ando yelled.
The dangerous stranger laughed. His laugh was echoed by about a dozen men who pushed their way into the middle of the crowd. Every one of them – except the leader – held metal rods.
“What kind of man stands quietly by as his wife talks herself into danger?” The deadly looking leader asked. Chèri was pretty sure by now that he was the boss of the organized crime in Topaz Region, and the man that wanted her – the Director – dead.
Finally, he shows himself! “I’m not afraid of you! The worst you can do is kill me! If you do, you’ll only be proving me right!”
He laughed as if she had just told the funniest joke he had ever heard. He started to tsk. “Ah… my pet, I can do so much more than kill you. By the time I’m done, you’ll be begging for it.”
Chèri couldn’t stop a shiver of apprehension from running up her spine. The strangest thing about this man was that he looked and sounded just a tiny bit like Reiki. I have to concentrate on the plan!
“Didn’t you all hear him? Will you really be comfortable letting him get away with that? He only has power if we let him! Stand up! Tell him no! Tell him he can’t steal all of your money and then kill you when you run out! If we let him continue as he is, eventually there will be no one left!” Chèri shouted fervently.
The boss tilted his head towards Chèri in an order to his men. They responded by coming towards her menacingly, tapping their rods against their palms. Chèri stood her ground, placing a palm on Ando’s shoulder as he stood in front of her.
“I’m sorry Ando,” she whispered, and he nodded. He started defending them from their attackers, but they quickly overwhelmed him. No one tried to help him, but he and Chèri could tell that people wanted to. They simply couldn’t overcome their fear.
Why did I let her talk me into this? Ando mentally sighed as he curled into a ball to protect his body as they kicked him. They didn’t waste much time on him, since Chèri was their real target.
“Do not touch me!” Chèri screamed as one of the henchmen grabbed her. “Put me down! How dare you?! Didn’t your mother ever teach you how to respect a woman?!”
The boss was laughing again. “I’m going to enjoy breaking you!”
Chèri was hanging over the henchman’s shoulder, and she beat on his back with her fists. She pushed herself up until she could see the crowd. Everyone was trying hard not to watch her. They all looked guilty and on the verge of tears.
“How dare you?! You are my friends! Are you really just going to let him take me away like this?! Stand up to him! Don’t let him do this to me!”
Woman buried their faces against their men’s chests, and men stood with their fists clenched, but no one dared look her in the eye or move a muscle. They all felt terrible. It was true that she had befriended almost everyone in her short time here.
The boss roared with laughter until Chèri wanted to be sick. “You’re wasting your breath! There’s not a spine to be found among the lot of them. They are nothing more than sheep for me to use until I send them off to slaughter!”
A rock landed in the middle of the boss’ forehead.
“Who threw that?!” He demanded furiously.
Men and women alike threw their fists in the air, and roared the frustration and anger. “Get him!”
Chèri had chosen a large square for her speech hoping to attract as much attention as she could, and it seems like her plan had worked. Everyone was so focused on what was going on right here that no one had paid attention to what was going on around the square. A loud horn blasted everything into silence.
“Nobody move!” The man in charge of the local militia commanded. “This entire area is surrounded!”
The boss gaped incredulously at the soldiers who were surrounding the square. They were packed so tightly that no one could get through without a serious fight. He looked uncertainly towards the henchman who still carried Chèri.
“You there!” The commander pointed at the boss. “The loudmouth blathering on about sheep. You seem to be the man in charge, so, I hereby charge you with attempting to kidnap the Regional Director!”
“That’s preposterous!” Boss man screamed indignantly. “I’ve never even seen the bitch!”
Chèri lifted her head again; she had taken a break from her indignant screaming to watch her plan unfold. “Did I forget to tell you? I am Shurin Ruby of Clan Ruby; the first female Official and Regional Director of the Topaz Region. The fact that your thug here is holding onto me is proof that you are indeed trying to kidnap me!”
Boss man looked and sounded like a fish out of water as he tried to think of a way out of this situation. He looked around to find an opening, and watched his men huddle together in the middle of the crowd. They all contemplated the merits of taking hostages.
Chèri didn’t bother to ask to be put down, though the henchman holding her seemed to be just as bewildered as the rest of them. “As Regional Director, I hereby place you and all your henchmen under arrest. If you put me down now and surrender quietly, I promise a fair trial, but if you continue to resist…”
The commander took over for her. “Men, remember, you have orders to kill anyone who tries to flee!”
There was a heavy silence as every single person in the square tried to wrap their heads around the situation. For the astonished bystanders, this was a complete shock! Imagine, we’ve been complaining about the Regional Director all this time, and here she’s been trying to help us all along!
The henchmen looked to their boss as he finally decided that he would rather die than be captured. An insane glint settled in the boss’ eyes as he looked at Chèri. She knew that he was about to make the worst possible decision, and that it was time to play her final card.
“Ando! Now please!”
Ando had been pretending unconsciousness on the ground, and was now in the middle of the boss and his henchmen. He stood – having suffered no real damage from their earlier attack – and held a knife at the boss’ throat. The gesture was no mere threat, and Ando drew a small line which immediately began to bleed.
“I am Ando Jun, a high ranking Imperial guard assigned to protect the Regional Director. I distinctly heard my Lady arrest you. I suggest that you give up now while you still have your life!”
The boss tensed in order to fight, and Ando slit his throat hard enough for the knife to break through his windpipe. “Anyone else want to resist?”
The henchman holding Chèri slowly set her on her feet, and held up his hands. The dead body of his boss had made the threat of death all too real. His comrades were all smart enough to realize that they were outnumbered, and had no chance of escape. Death didn’t look as appealing as they’d first thought.
“Commander, I think they’ll come along quietly now. I’d appreciate if we wrap this up quickly so that you can escort me to the Regional Palace. It’s about time I officially take up office, don’t you think?”
“As you wish, my Lady!” The Commander agreed with a deeply respectful bow.
Soldiers took custody of the criminals while Chèri walked through the crowd. “It’ll be all right now,” she assured them, patting people on the arm or gently squeezing their hands. “Things’ll get better now. Thank you all for finally standing up! I could not have done this without you!”
The Commander gestured for Chèri and Ando to follow him, and she stood gazing at the crowd for one moment more. “I promise you all that I will do my best to be a good Director.” She placed her fist in her palm, and bowed to the crowd in general before she turned to follow her soldiers.
The stunned audience finally found their voice. “My Lady!” They cried out. “Thank you for stopping him!” As one, they bowed to her.
Chèri nodded happily, and felt like she had truly earned their respect. It may have taken her a while, but she had finally made a start. She stepped into her new residence, stopped, and placed her hands on her hips.
“Yes, my Lady?”
Chèri brushed aside mild frustration that he had already stopped calling her by name. “I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”
Ando laughed. “Yes! And I could use a cup of tea!”
Chèri laughed. “To the kitchen it is then!”
Go To Part 9
Go To Part 9