"I'm so excited! This will be a wonderful adventure!"
Duo smiled at his cousin as she gushed at Heero's news. Heero had found everyone in the reading room after leaving his father's study. He'd quickly told them his plans for the journey ahead. They were all to leave in search of the mysterious kingdom of Shi first thing in the morning. Duo had to admit that Heero wasn't one to waste time. No sooner had he 'asked' his father for permission to make the expedition, than he had organized everything they would need for the long journey, including mounts, food, shelters, and escorts. The only question was who exactly was going.
Wufei was certain of one thing. He knew who was *not* going.
"Onna, you're insane if you think I'll allow you to accompany us on this trek. It will be much too dangerous for a woman."
Heero hid a smile. Wufei, like Heero, had picked up the habit of using the language of his homeland when under stress. Duo, however, walked behind Heero, intending to use him as shelter against the explosion he knew was imminent.
"WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY??!!"
Even the usually unflappable Trowa flinched at the volume of Hilde's yell. Quatre was forced to clamp down on his empathic senses at the violence of the girl's indignant rage.
Hilde stared daggers at the arrogant man who'd had the unmitigated gall to try to order her around. Her face was flushed and her eyes sparked blue fire as she faced Wufei, hands planted firmly on her slim hips. Though he was furious, Wufei had to admit that Hilde was even more beautiful when she was angry.
However, her anger wasn't going to stop him from speaking his mind. Especially when he was convinced that he was right.
"I said that it was much too dangerous for you, a woman, to attempt this journey. We have no idea what we will be facing and I, for one, would feel much better if you remained here, safe in Hane."
Wufei lifted his head and smiled arrogantly, certain that she would see the sense and consideration behind his stance on the subject. He was gravely mistaken.
"You ... you arrogant, conceited, self-righteous ... *ass*!" Hilde's voice had gone an octave higher and her piercing tone threatened to deafen them all. "How dare you try to tell me what to do! What gives you the right? I've been taking care of myself nearly my entire life, and no one, not even Duo, even attempts to order me around like he was some sort of deity or something ... I can't believe you, and to think I was actually making you a present. Well you can just forget about it!"
Wufei's confident expression had slowly disintegrated beneath Hilde's barrage. He could hardly believe that she, a mere girl, would talk to him in such a disgraceful manner. However, Wufei was truly concerned for Hilde's safety and, with great effort and amazing self-restraint, he bit down on the retort he was dying to make. Instead, he turned to the one person he thought Hilde might listen to.
"Duo, please tell your cousin that remaining here would be in her own best interests."
Duo mumbled a curse, realizing that his attempts to become invisible had been unsuccessful. He had no desire to be dragged into this, since no matter what, someone would end up angry at him. Sighing, he stepped from behind Heero and cringed as he looked at Hilde and Wufei. Both were flushed with emotion. Hilde stared at Duo, lips pressed stubbornly together and eyes full of angry indignation while Wufei bore into him with dark eyes commanded him to take his side. Duo cleared his throat.
"Umm... I agree with Hilde."
Hilde stared at him for a moment in surprise. She'd been certain that Duo would support Wufei's attempts to leave her behind out of some misguided concern for her well-being. A huge smile lit her face, nearly blinding everyone who stood nearby.
Duo returned her smile with a grin. Then he turned to Wufei.
The bodyguard was extremely displeased. His eyes were wide with disbelief as he regarded the braided boy. He blinked once, attempting to make sense out of Duo's reply. Then, never one to keep his opinion to himself, he lashed out.
"How could you be so foolish as to allow your cousin to go on this potentially dangerous journey?!"
Duo narrowed his amethyst eyes at the bodyguard.
"First of all, I never allow Hilde to do anything. We're the same age, I have no authority over her and vice versa. Anything we've ever done, we've done together after mutual agreement. If she wants to go, I have no power to stop her. The only thing I can do is try to keep her as safe as possible. Secondly, I happen to think she has as much right as I do to go on this trip. If Shi is somehow tied to our pasts, as Heero and Quatre seem to think, then Hilde has more reason to go than you do!"
Hilde turned her appreciative glance from Duo and looked smugly at Wufei. He was presently looking towards the ground, obviously considering Duo's words. After a moment, he looked up at her, his eyes unreadable.
"My lady, I offer my apologies. Duo is correct. You do have much more at stake in this venture than I. In my defense I can say only that my desire to keep you from any harm occasionally overrides my good sense. Again I beg your forgiveness and ask that I may be allowed to be your personal protector during the journey ahead."
Heero, Quatre, and Trowa blinked in disbelief. Never in all the time they had known the proud young man had they ever witnessed Wufei back down from a position, and against a woman no less. The significance of the event was not lost on Duo, though he hadn't known Wufei as long.
Hilde stared at Wufei as he sketched her an elegant bow. Her anger fled and her heart began to beat faster at his words as well as at the incredible sight he made bowing before her. Smiling she moved closer to him and put her hand on his shoulder. He lifted his head and met her gaze. They looked at each other for a long moment before Hilde lowered her hand and looked away, blushing slightly.
"Thank you for your understanding, Sir Wufei. I would be extremely grateful if you would look out for me. And now if you would excuse, I must finish your present before we leave."
Hilde spun and quickly left the room. Wufei blinked, looking at the space she'd just vacated. Turning back towards the others, he sighed.
"I'm afraid that the female mind will forever remain a mystery."
The others nodded in agreement while Duo laughed helplessly.1
The next morning, Duo looked around at the group riding away from the palace and into the Hane countryside. Along with the five young men and Hilde were twenty soldiers and twenty extra packhorses carrying provisions. The soldiers were amongst Hane's elite. The king, in an effort to ensure his son's safety, as well as to get back into his good graces, had allowed Heero to hand pick their escort.
Duo thought back to their departure less than an hour ago. The strain between King Odin and his son had been palpable as they made their farewells. Duo's heart ached at the tight control Heero kept over himself as he mounted his horse and left his father behind. He knew he was the cause of the awkwardness between them and the knowledge weighed heavily on him.
Heero didn't speak a word as they rode away from the palace, tension clearly visible in his broad shoulders as he rode towards the front of the assemblage with Trowa. Duo had tried to catch Heero's eye but the prince moved to the front of the group, never looking his way. Duo was afraid that Heero blamed him for the conflict he was experiencing with the king. Wanting to give Heero some space, and afraid to have his fears confirmed, Duo rode beside Quatre.
Duo looked behind him to where Hilde and Wufei rode. His lips quirked in a small grin at the sight of Wufei. He wore, with obvious pride, a beautiful red, black, and gold cape embroidered with an exquisitely rendered dragon. The dragon, done in red and gold curled around so that its head was near Wufei's neck and its tail rested along the foot of the cape, which came to Wufei's waist. Its claws were bared and its eyes flashed with green fire.
Hilde had nervously presented the cape to Wufei shortly before they had left the palace. She'd gotten the idea for the design after he had told her that the dragon was the symbol for his family. Hilde had put over a month of work into the cape, wanting to give the proud guard something from her heart. She had been worried that he wouldn't like it but Wufei had quieted her fears by gallantly kissing the back of her hand and immediately wrapping her gift around his shoulders.
Duo caught Hilde's eye and motioned with his head for her to join him. She moved away from Wufei with a nod and a smile and went to ride beside her cousin.
"What is it?" she asked.
Duo glanced at her, and then turned to Quatre who rode on his left.
"Quatre, I was wondering if you could tell Hilde and me what you know about where we're going? Neither of us had ever heard of Shi and I was thinking, if it's supposedly part of our past, we should know more about it."
Quatre smiled at the two cousins. "Of course, I'll tell you everything I know. Mind you that most of what I've read about Shi has been legend so I can't tell you for certain what is real and what is fiction."
Duo and Hilde nodded their understanding and encouraged Quatre to continue.
"Apparently, the Kingdom of Shi was once the most powerful kingdom in the entire world. It was the center of culture and knowledge and enjoyed great prosperity. The royal family was known for its wisdom and benevolence and everyone flourished under its rule.
"Then, several hundred years ago, the kingdom was rewarded, or cursed, depending on your point of view. A group of ancient mystics commended an object of immense power into the royal family's care. The object was known as the Scepter."
Duo's face showed his confusion as he interrupted. "Who were these mystics and what exactly is the Scepter?"
"Well," Quatre replied, "no one knows exactly who the mystics were. The texts only refer to them as 'the five.'2 As for the Scepter, well here, here is the most popular rendering of it."
Quatre reached into his saddlebag and removed a large tome. Duo reached over to help him balance it, wondering how the small mage had ever managed to lift the book in the first place. Hilde led her mount closer and leaned over to look at the book.
"This is what the experts agree the Scepter looks like," Quatre explained, turning to a particular page.
Duo and Hilde gasped simultaneously as a shiver went through them. The Scepter looked much like any other symbol of leadership a monarch might carry. It was a long staff made of the blackest ebony, narrow at its base and widening slightly towards the top. At its head, it flared to accommodate the brilliant amethyst jewel that it held. However, even from the page of the book it seemed to radiate with an unmistakable power.
"Duo," Hilde breathed quietly, "the jewel is the same color as your eyes."
Quatre nodded in agreement. "Yes, I'd noticed that as well. Given how unusual your eye coloring is, Duo, I hardly think it's a coincidence."
Duo tightened his lips and refused to comment. Recognizing and acknowledging the braided young man's continued reluctance to accept what was to him becoming ever more obvious, Quatre continued.
"When the Scepter was given to them, the mystics also gifted the royal family with innate magical abilities. This was to enhance their ability to protect the people under their care. However, the greatest power, the power to harness the full potential of the Scepter, was given to the kings. Every king and every crown prince who would be king had this capability. In times of crisis, the Scepter could be used to utterly decimate any enemy."
"Although the full power of the Scepter could only be used by the Shi kings, it would enhance the power of any magic wielder. Therefore, Shi came under constant attack from evil sorcerers who wanted the Scepter for their own nefarious purposes. The royal family was able to thwart the attacks, however those loyal to the royal family, the guards, the soldiers, and even the common people, suffered because of those sorcerers' greed.
"Tired of watching innocents die during these battles, the royal family petitioned the mystics to help them. The mystics explained that the Scepter was too easy a target, since it had been kept in the palace thrown room. The royal family thought that anyone should be able to admire it but they realized that it was too accessible. It was placed in a tower and surrounded by magical wards that prevented it from being detected.
"Fearing that this precaution wasn't enough, the royal family agreed that Shi itself should be hidden from the outside world. The mystics surrounded the kingdom with a dense forest that was itself magical and hid Shi from prying eyes. Furthermore, they placed dangerous guardians within the forest."
Duo shifted nervously atop his mount. "What kind of guardians?"
"Ferocious beasts that attacked anyone who tried to approach Shi without the permission of the royal family. These creatures supposedly had claws that can rip a man in two and they moved like the wind."
Duo said sarcastically, "And we're supposed to just waltz through this forest?"
"Well, like you said, it's probably all just a story anyway, right?" Quatre smiled as Duo rolled his eyes.
Hilde spoke softly, "So that's why Shi is a legend. No one can say for certain whether it exists or not because of the magic used to hide it from detection."
"That's right," Quatre replied.
"So how are we expected to find it?" she asked.
"The location of the forest that surrounds the kingdom is given in the legends. We will travel there and see if the forest even exists. Shi supposedly resides at its center. If we actually do find the forest, then I guess we'll try to get through it and into the kingdom."
Hilde looked at her cousin and frowned at his doubting expression. She didn't know why Duo was so unwilling to even see if the legends could possibly be true. As for herself, she leapt at the chance to discover where she may have come from. She was trying to picture the kingdom in her mind when she felt a sudden chill. Something urged her to look up, but when she did, all she saw was a bird. Calling herself foolish, she turned her attention back to the others.
The bird continued to follow silently.
1. If it seems like Wufei backed down a bit too easily, as my beta reader commented, just remember that this is OOC. If I'd left Wufei completely in character, this scene would have gone on forever! ^_^
2. Paging the Muse of creativity... Paging the muse of creativity... Darn, where is that stinkin' muse...