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Too Beautiful to Kill
Tensions were rising; the two great families were becoming more and more uneasy. For ages, the Katsumoto and Sanada families had been at each other’s throats. The reasons why had long since been lost to time. They only knew, or seemed to think, that the other family had disgraced theirs.
However, now was a time of peace. Albeit a tense peace in which the teenaged samurai-in-training and youngest of the Katsumoto line, Katsumoto Ryo, had been ordered by his father to accompany the few scouts the family could spare. But the boy was reluctant.
“Father, why me? Why not Seiko?” he whined. Seiko was the boy’s older brother.
“Because your brother is busy training recruits in my absence,” Lord Katsumoto replied tersely. The teenager began to complain again, but the lord cut him off. “You won’t get attacked! Just go!”
Ryo sighed, running his slightly callused hand over his smoothed black hair, stopping at his topknot and lowering his hand. He left his father’s chamber, taking a katana off the rack in the living room as he went on his way to the stables. Just before he reached out to open the sliding door, his mother caught him by the shoulder and pulled him into a caring embrace.
“Be safe, Ryo-chan,” she murmured, kissing his head.
“I will, Mother,” he replied. He looked into her eyes, then turned and resumed his journey to the stables.
Upon arriving, he saw that his best friend, Takashi Natoru, had readied two horses. The latter smiled and greeted Ryo.
“Morning, Ryo-kun. Lord Katsumoto told me to get your horse ready,” he said, noting his friend’s irritated countenance.
“I thought as much. Ready to go?”
“Yeah. Let’s get this done.”
On the other side of the territory, Lord Sanada, leader of the shinobi clan of the same name, conferred with his most trusted lieutenant, Hideki Jiro. The two were discussing what to do during this fragile peacetime. And, a few seconds earlier, Jiro had mentioned the lord’s daughter, Tsukiko.
“She is not going out in place of that scout we lost last week!” yelled Lord Sanada. Jiro hardly flinched; he was used to such outbursts from the shinobi lord.
“Sanada-sama, she specifically asked to go,” he replied, keeping his tone of voice even and calm. “She would be so disappointed if you told her no.”
“Hideki-san, she’s my only child,” the lord muttered, his voice suddenly soft and fatherly. “I don’t want to lose her.”
Erstwhile, just outside the door, the teenaged Tsukiko carefully listened to her father and his lieutenant. Taking a deep breath, she knocked, and was allowed into the lord’s chambers. She tossed her ponytail over her right shoulder, approaching her father and kneeling before leaning into a bow. She then waited to be acknowledged; only then would she look her father in the eye.
“Yes, Tsukiko-chan?” Sanada sighed.
“Father, I really want to go. I want to prove my worth to you as a kunoichi,” she said. A kunoichi was a female shinobi, usually reserved for scouting or spying. Lord Sanada heaved another sigh.
“Just promise me that you’ll be careful,” he said, a slight pleading tone in his voice. The girl looked at her father and smiled.
“I promise, Father.” She bowed again, then stood and left her father’s room to go to hers. She had to get dressed for the objective that her father had given to his elite scouts. As soon as she was ready, she joined the scouting party. They would not be using horses; Lord Sanada found horses to be too noisy for missions such as this. The cadre would proceed on foot.
Both parties would be scouting the forests between the two estates, and each had split up so as to cover more ground. Each member had been given a direction to cover, and a time to report back. Ryo, upon his horse, had covered quite a bit of ground in his direction. So far, nothing extraordinary had caught his eye.
Tsukiko, having traversed through the forest using the closely grown branches of the trees, had not noticed anything unusual in this quadrant of the woods, yet. But suddenly, she heard the whinny of a horse, lost her focus, and tripped on a branch, falling out of the tree and landing on the forest floor with a groan. She blinked, her vision swimming. Then it all went black.
“What was that?” Ryo muttered to himself, having heard something fall to the ground. Judging by the sound of it, it was a rather large object... he thought. He walked his horse towards the direction of the sound. There, on the ground beside a tree, was a dark green-colored mass. Ryo dismounted, curious and approaching the mass. It was breathing, so he nudged it with his foot before crouching down and flipping it over to reveal its identity.
He gasped. This thing was hardly a thing; it was a shinobi, and moreover, a girl. She had a bit of blood on her forehead, and her mask was a bit damp around the nose. Ryo looked around. No one was nearby. He fetched a water bag and a cloth from his horse’s saddlebag, and soaked the cloth, wringing out the excess water. He dabbed at the girl’s face, cleaning the blood from her skin and lowering her mask to do the same. When he finished, he found himself smitten.
This girl was beautiful. She was fair-skinned, with no blemishes to mar her face. He watched her as her almond-shaped, dark brown eyes fluttered open. But instantly, she tried to get up and away from him, though her legs refused to obey her.
Tsukiko’s heart was pounding; she crawled backwards until her back was against a tree. Who was this boy? He was certainly no shinobi, unlike herself. No, he was something else… A samurai! An enemy of the Sanada clan! And he had unmasked her. She was scared, though she would not admit it. Yet, there was something about those eyes that told her that he meant her no ill will.
She shifted uncomfortably against the tree. She dared not call for help, lest she attract more unwanted attention. Ryo, on the other hand, was still crouching before her, a gentle, benign expression on his face. He would love to know this girl, but he doubted she would let him. A proverb popped up in his mind. His father had always told him, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ The youngest Katsumoto decided to venture.
“I’m not going to hurt you, miss. Would you do me the honor of telling me your name?” He spoke kindly, if somewhat shyly. The girl relaxed a little, noting that his hand was nowhere near his katana hilt. She took a breath before replying.
“My name is Tsukiko,” she murmured, intentionally leaving off her last name. Ryo smiled.
“What a beautiful name,” he sighed. “It fits you well. I’m Ryo. Katsumoto Ryo, at your service, m’lady,” he said, bowing as if she were the wife of a lord.
Tsukiko’s heart jumped. A Katsumoto? Her mind told her to get up and run, but another part of her told her to stay. She had to admit, the boy was charming. But she was sure that her father would not approve of his daughter associating with a samurai, much less one of the Katsumoto line.
“It was nice meeting you, Ryo, but I must be off,” she stated nervously, making an attempt at a polite escape. She stood abruptly, but paused and blinked a few times. She swayed, off-balance, and fell into Ryo’s arms. She was now looking straight up into his concerned face.
“Please, wait a few moments. I don’t want you to get hurt again,” he said, helping her stand up straight. Tsukiko looked puzzled.
“Again?” she wondered. The teenaged samurai nodded.
“You had blood on your face when I found you. I assumed you had fallen.” The Sanada girl was stunned; he had chosen to let her live, when others of his discipline would have killed her on sight. Or was he just clueless as to the identity of her clan? Tsukiko chose to find out.
“Ryo, you do know what I am, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” he replied. Tsukiko was surprised, until he made a small addendum. “You’re a shinobi.”
“Well, yes, but… I meant my clan’s name,” she clarified. The young man sighed and nodded, inclining his head.
“I know you’re a Sanada; I knew it the moment I saw the crest on your back,” he muttered, referring to the simple insignia on the back of her black leather cuirass. “And I know we’re supposed to be enemies. But…” His voice trailed off for a moment, and he took a deep breath. “When I lowered your mask, I found you too beautiful to be killed.”
Tsukiko was once again rendered speechless. This boy, this in-training samurai, had looked past everything she appeared to be—a kunoichi and a Sanada—and seen something he liked in her. Perhaps not all of the Katsumoto line is biased…she thought, a smile emerging on her lips. And perhaps even she, a shinobi raised to hate the samurai with every fiber of her being, could learn to be less biased, herself. Maybe, just maybe, this accident could become something much more.
Eight months would progress, and watch the two sneak out as often as they were able in order to just see each other, though the war was upon them again towards the end of the eight months. Their accidental meeting in the forest had blossomed from warm acquaintanceship to a full-blown case of love. And their parents had taken notice of the teenagers’ changed outlooks.
One day, the Lady Katsumoto would approach her son as he stood by the koi pond in their courtyard. There was a piece of paper in her hand; a paper that she had found on the boy’s bedroom floor, signed by a first name she knew not, and a last name that she instantly recognized.
“Ryo-chan,” she began softly, “we need to talk.” The boy turned to face his mother, a ‘Yes, Mother?’ look in his eyes. “Ryo, I found this on your bedroom floor. I saw a name on it that your father would have you punished for.” Ryo’s face clouded.
“Mother, she’s not…”
“But she is a Sanada. You know that we don’t associate with them.”
“Mother, she’s different,” Ryo argued, affronted. “She’s not just a Sanada lackey. She has feelings, and understands me. She could care less that I’m a Katsumoto!”
“‘She’?” queried his father’s voice. Lord Katsumoto had been taking a stroll when he heard his son’s outburst. “Who is this ‘she’ you’re referring to?” he urged, taking the note from his wife’s hand and reading it. Ryo’s heart plummeted to his feet as he watched his father’s face grow outraged. He prepared himself for a philippic, as his father was prone to give when he was angered.
“You’ve been consorting with one of those filthy Sanada wenches?! How dare you disgrace your ancestors’ name! You’ll not be going on any more missions until this war is over! I’ll not have my son socializing with Sanada scum!” The samurai lord stormed off to quickly declare war upon the shinobi clan. Ryo shook with anger, and rushed past his mother to hole himself up in his room. He would never see Tsukiko again, if his father had everything go his way.
Later on, when word finally came from the fronts, Ryo learned that the Sanada had disbanded and fled into the northern countryside, outside of Katsumoto territory. A few stragglers were still futilely fighting to protect the halls of the estate from falling to the samurai warriors. Ryo never attempted to volunteer to check on the men out on the battlefront. He was too afraid of what might have happened to that sweet young lady he had met in the forest almost ten months ago.
It would be another month before anything happened to lift the young man’s mood. Natoru, whom he had sworn to secrecy months ago, came to Ryo with a sealed letter in his hand. On the outside, it was signed ‘Anonymous,’ and addressed to the youngest Katsumoto, but the script looked familiar. Very familiar. Looking up at Natoru’s smiling face, he opened it and read the script inside.
“I hope you get this soon, because I wanted to tell you as soon as I could that I am safe and alive. My father still doesn’t know, and I intend to keep it that way. Hope to one day see you again.” He stopped reading before he reached the term of endearment that he had given to the author of the letter. Now he knew the fate of the gentle kunoichi he had met nigh on a year ago, and he was happy to know that she was safe.
A few years would pass, and Ryo would leave home and travel north. He successfully located Tsukiko in a small coastal town, and enjoyed a warm reunion with her. They eloped a week later, finding a small cottage near the mountains, where they would spend many years together, and raise a small but happy family.