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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cheri - Chapter 13

Dear reader, it's been a LONG time since I posted a chapter to Cheri. Over a year in fact. The good news is that I finally got the inspiration to finish it. The bad news is that y'all have probably forgotten what happened last. SO if you just want to refresh your memory on what happened last GO TO CHAPTER 12 or if you want to start over at the beginning and reread the entire story GO TO CHAPTER 1. Thank you, and please let me know what you think. Also, I feel like the end is missing something, so if you have ANY questions that you feel I didn't resolve, let me know. (However, the end is actually chapter 14, so you won't know if I've resolved those questions just yet, lol!)
Anyway, I hope you enjoy this chapter :-D

Chapter 13


I sense danger,” Gan murmured.
The rest of Chèri's bodyguards tensed up in preparation. During the last three weeks, Gan had proven himself to be trustworthy and possessing an excellent sense of danger. For the majority of their trip, only the occasional group of bandits had dared to bother them, but ever since they'd crossed into Topaz territory two days, they'd been increasingly stalked and attacked.
Chèri covered her mouth with her hand and took purposeful breaths until her stomach calmed down. Why am I suddenly feeling nauseous? It made no sense because she hadn't felt so much as a tinge of queasiness each time there'd been trouble before.
Sure enough, a moment later, a good dozen men surrounded them. “Remember, leave no survivors!”
It was a tough battle, but her guards were chosen specifically for their skill, and they were eventually victorious. Even the official she brought with her had fought the best he could. He and all the others gained several small wounds. The only person not hurt was Chèri because Ando ensured that anytime an attacker got close to hurting her, he took the hit instead.
Oh Ando! You're bleeding!” Chèri exclaimed and refused to go any further until all their wounds were taken care of.
Gan went around checking their attackers for signs of life and quickly executed anyone that still breathed. He also performed a quick search of the bodies, secretly stashing anything of value. He only found one thing of any significance to his Lady. He held out the letter he'd found in the pocket of the leader.
Chèri paused in her task of dressing wounds to take a look at the letter.
Her Imperial Majesty, Shurin Ruby – who goes by Chèri – is currently on her way to the Topaz Regional Palace. Do whatever it takes to make sure that she never arrives.
With a sigh, Chèri stuffed the letter in the pocket in the sleeve of her plain and sturdy houmongi, muttering: “It's unsigned...”
She made quick work of all the wounds, helped out by the men caring for any injuries that they could themselves. Thankfully, no one was hurt fatally. Even so, it would do none of them any good to be active until the initial bleeding had stopped.
With a look around at all the dead bodies, Chèri bit her lip in thought, and then sighed. “I think we should make camp for the evening.”
Knowing that it would be so much harder to continually cook and carry enough food to feed them all as they went, Chèri had compromised by stopping in a town each night for food and a place to stay. As a result, this would be the first time that they camped outside – even though they had the necessary equipment with them.
Ando nodded and pointed in the direction of a spot relatively nearby that the two of them had used for camping before. It was a little hidey-hole type clearing in the thick forest. Any native to the area would know it was there, which made them a bit vulnerable, but it gave them a bit of protection from the elements and made a pretty secure campsite. Well, at least as secure as they were going to get out in the open like this.
It was still early in the spring, so here in the Topaz region, the nights were chilly. Chèri frowned as she realized that her wounded entourage could easily get sick if they slept out in the cold air. She looked around and nodded as she came to a decision.
Everyone double up. Share your bedding and keep each other warm so that no one gets sick,” she commanded.
Yes, Imperial Majesty,” they grumbled. The two guards originally from Topaz region paired up, and the two guards from the Imperial Palace also paired up, which left Gan and the young official. Gan laughed and gave a gallant bow.
My Lady, I would far prefer to share your bedding,” he said with a flirty wink.
Chèri laughed. “I'm sure you would, but Ando is the only person I trust not to molest me while I sleep!”
Gan scoffed as if offended. “My Lady! I assure you that I would be a perfect gentleman!”
Chèri rolled her eyes. “Right up until your hands wandered into inappropriate territory.”
Gen laughed and gave her a roguish shrug that plainly stated: can you blame me?
Gen kissed her hand lightly, murmuring: “But I would make it worth your while.”
Hrmph!” Chèri snorted a laugh. “I'm sure you would, but nevertheless, I must decline.
Gan sighed in obvious disappointment. “If you insist.” He let go of her hand and gave her a respectful bow. “My Lady.”
Shaking her head in amusement, Chèri looked at Ando, who looked torn between thrashing Gan and being deeply honored that Chèri trusted him so completely. He was just about finished arranging their bedding and decided to glare at Gan in warning to hide how his heart beat faster when she looked at him. He did an excellent job of appearing unconcerned with anything other than her safety, so the rest of the group had no idea that he was madly and unshakably in love with her.
I've tried, he mentally sighed. But I simply cannot stop loving her!
Maybe if he had an opportunity to fall in love with another woman, but no. It was rare the he even had time to visit a pleasure house. Only when she was in the safety of the Imperial Palace did he ever have that kind of free time.
Despite laying down to keep Chèri warm, Ando did not go to sleep. He kept his senses on high alert so that he would be ready in the event of another attack. When he judged that about half the night had passed, he tossed a rock onto Gan, who woke up ready to defend himself from an attack. His sleeping partner snorted softly in response to his dream, reminding Gan that he was not an attacker trying to kill him as he slept.
Gan looked over at Ando, barely able to see him in the dark. Ando waved slowly so that he didn't startle or wake Chèri. Gan nodded in understanding, knowing that it was his turn to stay awake and keep watch until morning. He decided to extricate himself from his sleeping partner and walk around a bit so that he wasn't likely to drift off. The young official clung to Gan tightly for a moment, making him sigh.
When he's asleep like this, he's almost cute enough that I almost don't mind him cuddling up to me. However, unlike Bo, I very much like women...
Gan firmly yet gently pushed his way free, and then made sure that his partner was tucked in and hopefully warm. Gan paced the perimeter for a few hours – until the sun was threatening to light up the horizon. He frequently smirked at the way that Chèri and Ando snuggled up and held each other as they slept. If he didn't know for certain that they didn't have time or the opportunity to do anything, he'd swear that they were lovers.
Chèri groaned and tried to roll out of her bedroll, but Ando had her trapped in a tight embrace. She lay utterly still for a moment, and then groaned again. Gan was tempted to rush to her to see if anything was wrong, but he was currently behind a tree occupied in a necessary body function.
She struggled as quietly as possible to get free. “Ando,” she hissed in a whisper. “Get off me!”
Ando took a moment to fully wake up, and then shifted to comply. “What's wrong?” He whispered in return.
I –” Chèri wanted to explain, but she couldn't. She scrambled to get behind the nearest bush, and then heaved and retched for several moments. Ando stood guard over her, holding her hair out of the way. It was still mostly in a bun, but was messy and wild now from her tossing and turning as she slept.
When she was done, she sat on her feet and rested for a moment. Ando brushed her hair out of her face and felt her forehead. There was no sign of a fever.
Morning sickness?” He asked in a very low voice.
Most likely,” Chèri muttered in agreement.
You're openly married this time, there's no reason to hide it,” Ando stated in a whisper.
Even so, I don't want anyone fussing over me. If they knew that I was carrying another heir... And besides, no one should find out before Reiki...”
I think the Emperor would rather have you completely safe among people who knew and vowed to protect you at all costs, than risk your safety by keeping it a secret until you could tell him,” Ando reasoned.
I don't want you all hovering over me like mother hens!” Chèri insisted quietly.
I don't like this,” Ando muttered. “You should return to the Imperial Palace until after the ba –”
Ando! Please don't do this to me,” Chèri begged in a whisper. “You know how important this is to me!”
Ando sighed in defeat. “Yes, my Lady...”
Chèri hated it that he deferred to her even though he so obviously didn't want to. She was grateful that he didn't argue with her further, but she wished that he agreed with her – even if reluctantly – rather than simply maintain a professional distance between them. Aren't we friends yet?
She sighed and murmured: “I'm going back to sleep for a while. Can you please get me some of the leftover flat bread?”
Yes my Lady,” Ando stated softly, and then helped her to her feet.
Chèri groaned again as softly as she could. “I swear that it's worse than last time.”
Ando chuckled. “Are you actually admitting that you feel sick this time?
Chèri laughed softly. “Maybe just a bit.”
Ando grinned wryly. “I never thought I'd see the day!”
Well don't you dare tell anyone!”
Never, my Lady.”
Chèri tried to take a step, but her stomach lurched again and she groaned once more. Ando wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled one of her arms around his neck. Chèri pressed her other hand to her mouth as another strong wave of nausea consumed her, prompting Ando to simply sweep her off her feet and carry her back to their bedroll.
He tucked her in and then quickly got her some flat bread to nibble on. A subtle look around their campsite assured him that everyone was snoring, still deeply asleep. All except for Gan, whom Ando assumed was around here somewhere making sure that they were safe.
He sat next to Chèri, brushing a strand of hair out her face. A moment later, he tucked the silk flower back into her bun, and secured it so that it hopefully wouldn't fall out as she slept. Chèri smiled up at him, grabbing one of his hands in hers. She took another tiny bite of bread.
Better?” Ando asked in a murmur, referring to how the bread should soothe her stomach.
Chèri nodded, smiling at him again. “Thank you.”
Anything for you, my Lady,” Ando assured her.
I know...”
Gan respectfully waited until he was fairly sure that Chèri had fallen back to sleep before returning to their campsite. He purposely rustled some leaves and snapped twigs as he walked so that Ando would know he was coming. When he entered the clearing, he nodded at Ando in a silent signal that all was well.
The two of them each leaned up against a different tree as they waited for the sun to fully come up and their companions to wake up. They tried their best not to glare at and dwell on each other as they kept an eye out for trouble. Ando resented Gan since he had a dangerous air about him, and Gan was jealous that Ando was so deeply trusted by Chèri. A good half an hour passed when the silence was suddenly shattered.
Help me, please!” A woman begged as she stumbled into their small clearing. She fell onto her hand and knees and crawled over to Ando. “I beg you; if you have any mercy in your heart, save me!”
Ando studied her in concern. She was bruised and battered. Her hair was dirty and mussed, and her clothing was severely torn and hung off of her in tatters.
What's the matter?” Ando asked her as everyone else in camp sat up to see what was going on.
Some men...” the woman began emotionally. “Bandits! They took me from my home and...”
Chèri gasped in horror. “How terrible!” She held out her arms to the woman in an invitation to come closer.
Oh!” The woman gasped as she realized that there was a woman among them. She broke down and cried, crawling over to Chèri. She threw her arms around Chèri and sobbed on her shoulder. “They did such things to me!”
Ando!” Chèri ordered, her own voice quivering with emotion.
Right!” Ando replied obediently. He promptly sent everyone out in teams of two, each in a different direction to look for the bandits. The woman watched him send everyone else away, and then forced herself to stop sobbing for a moment.
I... I think they're that way...” She pointed in a direction that was several feet to the side of where she'd burst upon them. “I was running blindly, trying my best to find a place to hide before any of them could find me. Even so, I think they're that way about...” she shrugged helplessly. “A half an hour's run? Maybe less...”
Ando sighed reluctantly. “I'll go help the others look. Will you be alright here by yourself, my Lady?”
Chèri nodded firmly. “Yes, we'll be fine. I daresay that this poor woman might appreciate some privacy and the absence of men for a while anyway.”
I promise not to go too far,” Ando informed her. “I'll be close enough to hear you scream if you should need me at any time.”
We'll be fine,” Chèri repeated reassuringly.
With a reluctant nod, Ando left them.
Chèri stroked the woman's hair as she continued to sob for a few more minutes. Humming softly at first, Chèri soon decided to sing a soothing song. The woman grew quiet as she listened.
I'm sorry,” she said as she sniffed and wiped tears from her eyes, trying to compose herself.
You have nothing to be sorry for!” Chèri exclaimed fervently.
I'm sorry that you are so wonderful. I didn't expect you to be kind to me...” the woman murmured as she pulled a long knife from her tattered clothing. She immediately tried to plunge it into Chèri's chest, but Chèri just barely managed to catch her wrist and stop her.
The woman was strong and managed to break free from Chèri's grasp. Using her other hand, she grabbed Chèri's hair to yank on it and hold Chèri still. She pressed the knife to Chèri's neck.
Why are you doing this?” Chèri asked in a whisper, a tear traveling down her cheek as she resigned herself to the fact that she was about to die.
Because I am an assassin and I was paid to do a job,” the woman explained kindly, as if trying to soften the blow. “And because my life is forfeit if I do not.” This was the code of the Assassin Guild she'd trained in.
Can I... Can I buy out your contract to kill me?” Chèri wondered.
The assassin bit her lip in indecision. “No, but...”
But what?” Chèri wondered, genuinely curious despite the direness of the situation.
But you could offer to take out a contract against the one who wants you dead,” the assassin suggested. “If my Guildmaster approves your request, then neither one of us forfeits our life, but you'd have to offer something much more valuable than what we are getting to kill you.”
I have nothing,” Chèri stated, releasing all hope that she could talk her way out of this. She exhaled and made peace with her imminent death. “Will you at least promise to go to my husband and tell him that my last words are that I love him and I always will?”
The assassin faltered. “You are the First Queen... How can you have nothing?”
Chèri shrugged. “I suppose it is true that I could promise fabulous wealth, and Reiki would pay it, but I would never do such a thing. I would far prefer that every cent that can be, be spent on helping the people.”
The assassin's dagger wavered. She growled in frustration, slamming her other palm onto the ground. “How can you say that?! You have the power to change people's lives for the better! Your death serves no purpose and plays into the hands of someone who wishes to destroy the Empire!”
Then why did you take the contract?” Chèri wondered.
I have no choice either! My Guildmaster accepted it, reluctantly yes, but now he is honor-bound to see it fulfilled...”
Neither of them noticed that they had slowly been surrounded by assassins who held all of Chèri's companions – even Ando – captive. They all watched the scene unfold in silence – of course this was because the captives were gagged and unable to make a sound and the assassins prided themselves of never making an unintended sound.
Chèri sighed, smiling at the assassin. She stroked the woman's cheek. “I'm sorry... I have nothing to offer in exchange for my life. I also have no wish for you to forfeit your life. Do not grieve for me...” Chèri pulled her houmongi down just enough to uncover her heart without exposing her breast.
I promise to make this as painless as I can,” the assassin murmured, slowly drawing a line along the side of Chèri's neck.
Wait,” one of her cohorts commanded. “I think the Guildmaster is going to want handle this one personally.”
But he told me to finish the job no matter what!” The sole female assassin protested, thinking that they doubted her ability to follow through.
You let us all beat you so that you would look like an abused woman, and you have sliced open one side of her neck. I think it is obvious that you are capable of doing the job. However, as you said, the Guildmaster took this job reluctantly. I really think that he will want to at least have a chance to talk to the First Queen before we kill her.”
Yes sir,” she muttered with a sigh. The assassin who stopped her tossed her a clean bandage and a small jar of ointment – they all tended to keep such supplies on hand since the chance of them getting wounded during the course of their duty was high. She caught it without the slightest trouble and then slathered up and wrapped Chèri's neck as tightly as she could without choking her.
Thank you for trying to make my death an easy one,” Chèri stated gratefully.
The female assassin held Chèri's face in her hands for a moment after she finished bandaging her up. “I will kill you if I have to, but I am glad that I don't have to right here and now.” She – careful not to disturb the bandage – kissed Chèri as tenderly and lovingly as she could.
Chèri smiled at her. “When the time comes, I hope you have the honor... In fact, I will insist on it.”
Tie these men to some trees; kill anyone who puts up a fight,” the assassin in charge ordered.
We should kill the horses so that they can't follow us,” a random assassin suggested.
Please don't,” Chèri begged. “They haven't done anything to you, and I promise that I'll go quietly if you spare them.”
The assassin in charge snorted from laughter. “You might just be the strangest woman I have ever met! Spare the horses...”
And also,” Chèri murmured. “Will you allow me to bring that box. It contains my most prized possession.”
The group of assassins – having finished securing the captives – spent a few moments examining the box for any hidden secrets or weapons. They all looked at each other in confusion.
Your most prized possession is a musical instrument?” The youngest looking assassin asked in bewilderment.
Yes,” Chèri confirmed. “May I see it for a moment?”
The leader considered this in silence for a good half minute, and then nodded to grant her request. The female handed it to Chèri with a faint and slightly confused smile. Chèri took a deep breath and then began to play a haunting yet traditional song.
Though I go to my death, I have no fear. I am at peace and soon shall see those who have gone before me. Into those arms, those loving arms, I know I shall soon embrace them. I mourn for those who I shall leave behind, but I won't cry for one day the comforting arms shall be mine...”
Chèri bowed to her captors and then held out her fiddle. The woman who nearly killed her took it from her with a loving stroke to Chèri's cheek.
Beautiful...”
The young assassin carefully stored her fiddle in its box. “I shall guard this with my life,” he vowed.
Come, my Lady,” the leader beckoned. “Let's be off.” He gathered her into his arms and motioned for the group of assassins to vanish. They did so by dropping smoke bombs to blind Chèri's men, and then leaping into the trees and running along silently.
Chèri felt her heart leap to her throat and gasped as silently as possible. She rightly assumed that if she did anything to help Ando and their companions find or follow her, they'd be killed. Even so, it was hard not to scream in terror!
The group stuck to the trees, even after the trees started going up a mountain. The heights got ever more dizzying to Chèri, making her cling to her captor in fear that he would drop her if she didn't. Eventually, they stopped and took a moment to blindfold Chèri so that they could take her the rest of the way to their hideout without her knowing where it was.
The very moment she was on her feet, Chèri wobbled and fell to the ground. She slapped a hand over her mouth as her stomach heaved. The man who had carried her all this way chuckled and handed her a large bowl.
You did very well, my Lady. I expected you to vomit long before now.”
She didn't want to, but she soon filled the bowl. However, it had been hours since she'd eaten the little bit of flat bread, so there wasn't much to come up. Not that that stopped her stomach from trying.
They left her waiting – under the keen watch of a pair of guards – for about an hour. A woman brought her some tea and a couple of slices of buttered bread and cheese to eat, but she was hesitant to touch them. Until the woman laughed and assured her that they were fine.
You are in the lair of the Topaz Region Assassin's Guild! If we wanted you dead, it would be done with your full knowledge, probably as you begged for your life! We would not poison your food like a rat in the cellar!”
Strangely, this really did put Chèri's mind at ease. Besides, she had already made peace with her likely impending death, and figured that refusing to eat would only cause her to suffer needlessly. She took small bites and small sips, her guards assumed in an attempt to see if it really was poisoned before digging in, but really because she couldn't put anything in her stomach without it threatening to come back up at the moment.
A short while later – after she had eaten about half of what they had given her – she was taken to a well decorated room... for a cave. An older man on a chair gestured for her to come closer. She walked forward serenely, even smiling at him before giving him a short bow.
I hear you are interested in making a deal with me,” he stated, his face utterly blank so as to not give her any indication of how he felt.
I would gladly make a deal with you, Guildmaster, if I had anything worth giving,” Chèri replied with another respectful bow.
Let us start by making a deal to delay your death for a few days while I think of an appropriate solution. If we cannot come to an agreement by then, I'll revert to the original plan.” He looked up at the ceiling of the cave for a moment in thought.
Give me your houmongi and the flower that decorates your hair,” the Guildmaster demanded.
I cannot allow you to see me naked,” Chèri stated calmly. “If you think that I will betray my husband in order to save my life, you may as well kill me now.”
The Guildmaster laughed. “I see what you mean!” He directed this at his son – who had been in charge of the mission to kill her. “Rest assured, my dear, that I only meant your outer houmongi. I do not intend for you to walk around naked, but you may have a point... Rin! Get her something else to wear!”
Yes Guildmaster,” the female assassin responded obediently, and then rushed off to find a clean houmongi that would fit Chèri. She returned in mere minutes to find that Chèri had bravely stripped down to her plain white inner houmongi.
Taking Chèri aside, Rin gave her privacy as Chèri changed out of her inner houmongi and into the new one that Rin provided. Chèri pulled the flower from her hair – which made her bun fall apart completely – and set it on the pile Rin now held. Her long hair cascaded down her back in glorious waves.
Rin beckoned for Chèri to follow her as they returned to the Guildmaster. She held out the bundle of clothes, offering it to the man who had once taken her in when she was nothing more than a starving orphan. He smiled at her fondly as he took the pile.
Take these and have them torn and spattered with blood. Make it look like she suffered a horrific death, and then wrap them up and deliver them to her bodyguard,” the Guildmaster ordered.
The youngest assassin – that Chèri could see – took the clothing with a nod and a quick bow, and then rushed away to do as commanded.
And make sure you preserve her scent!”
Now what?” Chèri asked nervously. She had been prepared for death, but since that was apparently not going to happen just yet, she was apprehensive about what they planned to do with her.
Rin... she is still your responsibility until I decide what to do with her. Take her away and leave me in peace while I think,” the Guildmaster ordered almost harshly. He was in a precarious situation, and he hated precarious situations!
Yes Guildmaster,” Rin stated, and then led Chèri away.
What do you think he will do with me?” Chèri wondered, trying to quell her rising dread.
He's making it look like he's killed you, and so his contract is fulfilled... for now. He cannot just let you go. Ever. He will need to eventually kill you, or work out a way for you to live without giving away the fact that he did not do as he was paid to do.”
Rin stopped just inside a room, pulled Chèri inside, and then shut the door and locked it. “In short, you will be our prisoner for the rest of your life, however long that may be...”
Chèri sighed in understanding and then looked around the room she was in. It obviously belonged to someone, and wasn't a cell like she expected. She looked back at Rin questioningly.
You'll be far safer in here. We assassins do live by a code, however, there are more men than women and sometimes... Anyway, in my room, I can protect you. You are my responsibility after all,” Rin explained. She brushed Chèri's hair out of her face.
I see,” Chèri murmured, more than a little relieved that she would not be at the mercy of men who killed others for a living. She rather doubted that they would take no for an answer.

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Chèri groaned as she drifted awake rather more abruptly than she wanted to. Her stomach was rebelling yet again. This was at least the 9th morning in a row, and she prayed that that it would be over soon. She didn't even have a horse ride or any sort of work to keep her mind off of it, so she had basically stayed in bed in misery for the last week.
Rin unlocked the door and entered the room just as Chèri grabbed and empty bowl and heaved into it. She watched her in sympathy and closed the door so that no one walking by could hear what was going on. Rin mostly wanted to make sure people didn't realize that the Lady was in her room – it was a safety precaution for just in case. A locked door wouldn't really stop an assassin after all.
I'm not sure if assassins are simply trained to suffer in silence or if you have the worst case of morning sickness I've ever seen!” Rin commented.
Chèri gasped and then vomited again before responding. “How did you know?!”
Rin looked at her with a look that plainly asked do you think I'm stupid?
Chèri sighed with the realization that she couldn't hide it any longer. “You may keep your suspicions, but I will deny it to my dying breath.”
Rin snorted. “How? Eventually, you'll be as big as a house and the baby's kicks will announce the truth plain as day.”
Chèri grumbled unappreciatively. “Even then, I will deny it. I will hide it like I did before.”
Why?” Rin wondered, confused.
I cannot simply go around announcing that I carry the Emperor's second child. You think I'm hunted to death! Just imagine what would happen if it got out that there was a child of Imperial Blood outside the safety of the Imperial Palace. I only have one man after me – so far as I can tell. There are probably 6 clans that would love to eliminate any competition...”
Rin nodded in understanding, then purred in sympathy. “I see. That would be vastly easier than waiting until they are all old enough to start murdering each other... Do you think the Emperor will take another bride any time soon? If his heir were to fall ill or have a fatal accident, or even be killed outright, there would be no heirs left. More than anyone, he needs heirs!”
Chèri sighed forlornly. “I don't know... I half pray that he will because I dearly long to see the Empire continue on and improve... for everyone! However... I think that he is far more likely to wait until he has no choice in the matter.”
Rin huffed a short laugh. “Well, in any case, if you feel up to it, drink some of this and then come with me. The Guildmaster wants to talk to you now before most people wake up.”
Chèri took a deep breath and then forced herself to sip a bit of the tea. It was perfect for soothing her roiling stomach, and she was soon able to finish the last of it. She sighed in relief and followed Rin.
Guildmaster,” Chèri greeted pleasantly, bowing.
The Guildmaster chuckled richly. “It tickles my pride every time the First Queen bows to me. However, I have come up with a proposition that I think will work.”
He invited her to sit in a chair next to him so that he could whisper if he thought it was necessary. At the moment, he was certain that no one other than Rin was near enough to hear them.
I have decided upon a payment and a condition. Both are necessary. One is to pay for me sparing your life, and the other is to pay for the assassination that must be done,” the Guildmaster explained.
Chèri exhaled a small sob. “Must there be an assassination? I don't want anyone killed!”
The Guildmaster smiled at her sadly. “Yes. The man who wants you dead is far too powerful. Despite the evidence –” He handed her a scroll. “This man is powerful enough to require a trial, and he will have people twisted in knots for years before any real conviction can be reached and a sentence carried out. The only way to ensure that he does not win – with the support of his corrupt followers – is to kill him and then explain why.”
With a tear in her eye, Chèri nodded in acceptance. “Who?”
One of the three Great Advisors,” the Guildmaster informed her. “The one the Emperor reportedly trusts the most. The one who has guided him since he was a small child... Meng...”
Chèri gasped in astonishment. “Meng! But why?”
Who knows for certain?” The Guildmaster rhetorized. “I can only guess that he hopes to destabilize the Empire and then have the power to take over or at least control whoever does. I know for a fact that his son is behind quite a bit of mischief around the Empire the last few years.”
How do you know?” Chèri wondered, simply dying of curiosity.
He smiled at her like a shameless flirt. “I have friends in the right places! Let's just say that I was able to call in a favor a while back, and now I have irrefutable proof... Proof that Meng could still cast doubt on, but we've covered that.”
Chèri sighed over the fact that a man must die in order for the Empire to remain strong, but she nodded to reaffirm that she understood. “So... what's the condition? And the price?”
The condition is that you must kill Meng yourself,” the Guildmaster announced.
WHAT?!?!

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Ando clutched the battered and torn houmongi in hands that shook. He knew that tears flowed down his face in rivers, but he didn't care. He didn't want to accept it, but they had searched for her for days without finding so much as a trace. He had forced himself to believe that she had a plan for escaping her fate, but the proof he now held was irrefutable.
Chèri!” He shouted out in his soul-shattering grief.
The rest of his companions stared at him in shock and sympathy. They had been searching ever since the moment they had freed themselves from their bondage to the trees. All of them had held out hope that the fact that she was taken meant that the assassins didn't plan to kill her after all. To have this bundle tossed at them from a distance was crushing, to say the least.
Gan immediately ran in the direction the bundle had come from, but was unable to find anyone to hold accountable. He returned slowly, wondering what to do now. His companions – except for Ando – looked at each other as they all wondered what to do now. They had failed their mission to escort the First Queen to her Regional Palace...
Ando continued to stare at the blood-stained houmongi until he just couldn't bear to look at it any longer. He dropped it back on top of the packaging that it came in and walked away from the rest of them so that he could finish sobbing in relative privacy. The others let him go uncertainly; half afraid that he was about to commit suicide.
His life might just be forfeit for failing to protect the First Queen anyway. They didn't envy him the task of informing the Emperor.
Gan picked up the houmongi and examined it for clues. He muttered to himself out loud. “This was definitely on her as she was whipped and beaten... and then ultimately stabbed in the heart...”
There was even the original stain from when her neck had been sliced open in front of them, so they couldn't try to convince themselves that it was a different yet exact copy of her real houmongi. Gan inhaled it, and then nodded sadly.
It's hers alright...” Gan set it aside and then picked up the silk flower. It was crumpled, but still looked beautiful. He briefly wondered if Madam Kiki would be comforted to know that it had adorned her during her last moments...
They all knew that Ando was in charge now, and settled in to wait for him to either calm down or off himself. If this was any kind of situation for levity, they would have placed bets on which was more likely. As it was, they had no idea what to do if they were left on their own.
Several hours later, Ando looked like he was possessed by a demon when he returned. His eyes were utterly red and his hair was in wild disarray. Even his wafuku looked filled with a demonic aura.
Here's what's going to happen,” Ando stated, his voice steady and determined. They all shivered as they made the sign against evil. Not one was willing to disagree with him! “You are all going to finish traveling to the Regional Palace.”
Ando pointed at the young official – who had loved Chèri ever since she'd taught him in the temple, and was also a bit red-eyed from grief. “You will aide Assistant Regional Director Rei as he continues to implement Lady Chèri's plans. You're smart – from what my Lady has said – so you should be able to help Rei cope no matter what happens. See to it that the Emperor need never send another Official to Topaz ever again! If nothing else, Chèri's legacy will live on!”
The young official nodded vigorously. Chèri had spent time with him discussing her plans and her vision for the future, so he was confident that he could continue on in her footsteps.
Ando pointed to the rest of them in turn. “You, you, you, and you; guard him and make absolutely certain he reaches the Regional Palace. You! I don't know what you were even doing traveling with us,” Ando informed Gan menacingly. “But you had a purpose. There was something my Lady wanted you to do, so go; do Chèri's bidding.”
He looked around at them all. “As for me, I'm going to bring this to the Emperor, and...”
He didn't need to say the rest. They all knew that he was going to tell the Emperor how they had failed to protect the First Queen. Then he was probably going to face execution.
Ando carefully wrapped the houmongi – both layers! Couldn't the bastards at least allow her some dignity in death?! – and the silk flower up in the thick brown paper it came in. It was covered in bloody finger and hand prints, and Ando had to force the image of Chèri suffering out of his mind so that he could function without breaking down again.
I should have stayed by her side! I shouldn't have left her! I should have known that woman was a trap! I should have fought to stop them from taking her!
He kept up the litany of should haves the whole way back to the Imperial Palace. He would not admit to himself that they had sent at least 10 assassins – not counting the woman – and that they had utterly incapacitated him before he had even known they were there. He would not admit that had they not fallen for the trap, they probably would all be dead as the assassins tried to get to Chèri.
It took him about two weeks of hard travel to return to the Emperor, with very few breaks to rest. He couldn't eat more than a couple of bites each day, and had to force himself to drink from time to time. He tried to sleep, but he couldn't without nightmares of what they had done to his beloved. He felt haunted by her. It felt like her eyes watched him constantly, accusing him of betraying her. Accusing him of not protecting her; of not rescuing her before she died.
He nearly killed both the horses on his return trip, but he got them to the Imperial stables before they were beyond saving. It was well known that he was the First Queen's personal bodyguard, so he was allowed to pass through to the Inner Palace without question. The gate guards watched him go by with wide eyes. They way he looked, they knew the news had to be bad.
Ando only asked one question: “Where is the Emperor?” Without the slightest hesitation, he was pointed in the direction of the Emperor's office.
There were normally guards outside the office whenever the Emperor was inside – which was excessive considering that Ran and Ko were always in his office with him – but it was standard procedure. The door guards saw Ando coming, recognized him, paled in foreboding, and hastily pounded on the door.
Ran opened the door, concerned at the tone of the knocks. He looked from the shocked faces of the door guards to Ando and swore. He felt all blood drain from his face and hastily stepped back to let Ando in.
Reiki was looking up at Ran curiously as Ando entered the room. His heart literally stopped, and he clutched it in dread. Even Ko – standing next to the Emperor – inhaled a gasp at the sight of the bodyguard. They all rather got the impression that he had just walked through hell and back and was worse for the wear.
Ando took a deep breath and held it until he was certain that he could force himself to speak without crying. He held out the bundle for a moment before setting it on Reiki's desk.
Lady Chèri is dead.” Now that he had delivered his message, his last several weeks caught up to him and he swayed woozily. “Assassinated...” He managed to add before he lost consciousness and fell to the floor.

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