Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ Holding out for Everything ❯ Smoke and Ashes ( Chapter 1 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Chapter I
Smoke and Ashes

Sputtering and smoking, the flaming torch lit the roadway through the war-torn land. The stone buildings were charred, though few interiors were touched. The assailants who sacked the city had a very specific target in mind, one which they had blessedly never reached.

The carrier of the torch picked his way carefully through the rubble of the destroyed market place. Where colorful stalls had once stood bearing exotic merchandise and tempting stock, now only smashed booths and overturned tables lay. Everything was black from the consuming fire which had swept through the place. The smell of smoke still hung in the air like a fine veil covering all other odors that had once tantalized the taste buds in the area.

Mamoru sighed as he stepped over a tangled mass of singed drapes. This was not what he had been hoping to find when he set out on his journey for the odds-and-ends luxury items he came to purchase once a year for his village. He ventured to the city as little as he could, but the long trip was one he hated to have end like this.

"Y'looking for somethin'?" a masculine voice asked from the darkness. Mamoru looked to his right where a plump middle aged man was just picking up a satchel and throwing it over his shoulder.

"I was going to stay at the Oakwood Inn," he admitted as he glanced at the charred building in front of him. It was late, and no lights illuminated the windows, no cheerful fires crackled in the hearths, promising warmth and a good night’s sleep for all within. It was obviously one of the hard hit buildings in the area; no one was within its beaten walls.

"Well, I'm sure yer not blind an' can see for yerself that no one is there. I was jest comin' here to pick up a few things, but now I'm headin' off to th'Weepin' Swallow tavern. It's a respectable enough place, 'n yer more than welcome to follow me there." He scratched his stubble-covered face as he picked his way out of the rubble and headed down the road. Mamoru followed, not really sure where else he could go.

"How far y'visitin' from?"

Mamoru shrugged. "A week's journey by horse," he replied. He had left his stallion at the last inn he stopped at for the night, only an hour walk south of the city. The prices of stabling horses within the city were outrageously high, an expense he could easily avoid with a little bit of exercise.

"That's a mighty long journey t'take to find this." The man swung his arm around at the scorched marketplace they were just leaving. "But I'm sure there'll be some merchants around t'morrow."

"I'm sure there will. They can't afford to lose their profits for long."

"Aye, aye. They need their pockets to clink with coin t'stay happy."

Mamoru nodded and both men fell silent. It didn't take long for their footsteps to stop before a tall building with lights in the windows and the sound of clinking plates and mugs coming from within.

"Here she is," Mamoru’s companion said proudly, "th'Weepin' Swallow. No finer tavern in all the kingdom."

The building was three stories tall, made of white stone and covered in ivy. Mamoru remembered seeing it before, but an old friend of his father's owned the Oakwood Inn and always gave him a fair price. The Weeping Swallow Tavern looked clean and grand; much too expensive for his pouch.

"It's a beautiful building, but I'm afraid I'll have to look elsewhere to spend the night," Mamoru said calmly as he turned to look at the man. "You have my thanks for taking me all the way here though."

The older man eyed Mamoru warily. "This fine buildin' not good enough for the likes of you?"

Mamoru shook his head apologetically and raised his hands. "No, not at all, quite the opposite. I fear it's too fine for me and I won't be able to pay for a room without exhausting all of my funds."

The man laughed and slapped Mamoru on the shoulder. "Come on in, son, I'm sure you won't have no trouble with takin' a room here. What's yer name?"


"Mamoru... I like you, Mamoru. You just come on in now." He put a strong hand on Mamoru's back and pushed him in the direction of the door. The young man sighed and let himself be led to the entrance; he could ask what the rates were and leave after.

The man opened the door and gestured for him to enter. The common room was large and white washed, giving it a very clean feeling. A few men sat around the hearth, talking in low voices and enjoying mugs of ale. A middle-aged waitress with pulled back brown hair was clearing tables, and smiled at the two newcomers.

"Well, you're back finally, and I see you brought a friend along," she said cheerfully to the pair as she glanced from one man to the other.

"This is Mamoru, Love. Make sure he has a room an' hot meal."

"Does stew and bread sound good to you?" she asked sweetly, switching her gaze to Mamoru.

"It sounds wonderful, but first I should ask what your rates are here," he replied, feeling a little awkward questioning the seeming generosity of the man next to him.

"Mamoru, you'll be stayin’ here as my guest, an’ I want no words otherwise," the man told him, his green eyes dancing with amusement. "Y'didn't think I'd try and cheat you, now did you?"

"No, of course not," Mamoru replied, arching his eyebrows in surprise. "I just—that’s very generous of you. I don’t want to take advantage of you."

"Well, y'will, 'n I don't want to hear no protests. Love, go get some of that stew, and send Timmy in 'ere, will you?" He placed a hand on Mamoru's shoulder and led him to one of the tables, close to the hearth. The cheerful fire crackled and popped, filling the area with a subtle smoky smell.

"Now y'just sit yerself down here. The missus will bring y'some stew pretty quick." As the man spoke, a scrawny, blond boy came over to the table, twisting a battered brown cap in his hands.

"You called for me?" he asked.

"Aye, I did. See to it that everything is taken care of for Mamoru here. He'll be spendin' the night."

The boy glanced from the man to Mamoru and nodded before running off.

Mamoru leaned a hand on the table. “Could you tell me what happened to the city?”

The host sighed heavily. “Aye, I will. I have a few things I have t'do right now though. After supper I'll tell y'all about it.”

Mamoru nodded, and at the man's urging he sat down. Being then left alone, he brought his gaze to the dancing flames. The men who were sitting by the fire and laughing soon got up and, after nodding at Mamoru politely, left the room. The young man thus found himself completely alone in the common room. He took the bag that had been slung across his shoulder and plopped it on the table before him. He unfastened the bindings and opened the worn, brown leather. From within he pulled out a folded piece of parchment. With a tender smile he opened it and checked once more the list that was written on it. He could recognize the different styles of writing. Each item had been scribbled down by someone different, and he hoped he would still be able to find everything, even if it meant taking a detour to some smaller towns. Mamoru folded the parchment back up at the sound of approaching footsteps, and tucked it carefully once more into the bag.

“Here you are, Love. Hope you like your meals with a kick,” the woman Mamoru had seen cleaning tables earlier said. She placed her tray softly on the table and put a steaming bowl of rich stew before Mamoru, with a plate of steaming bread and a cup of ale.

“Thank you, it looks wonderful,” Mamoru remarked as he picked up his spoon. Steam rose to his nostrils and filled his nose with a mouthwatering smell.

“Enjoy, and if you need anything, I'll be in the back,” the woman said warmly before turning and leaving.

The stew was spicy and tasty, and the ale cold and refreshing. Mamoru had to admit that he wasn't disappointed. The tender morsels of meat melted in his mouth, and at that moment he felt completely satisfied.

"Well, fancy meeting you here," a familiar voice said from behind. The pleasant feeling of satisfaction suddenly disappeared and was replaced with agitation and dread. The speaker walked into Mamoru's field of vision and offered him a friendly smile as he pushed his wavy auburn hair over his shoulder.

"Nephrite, I didn't expect to see you here," Mamoru commented as he nodded to the seat across from him. Nephrite inclined his head and sat down, folding his hands on the table. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“I merely saw you sitting here and thought you could use some company, friend.”

“You never come to me just to share food,” Mamoru replied calmly as he pushed his bowl to the side. “How did you find me?”

“I have eyes and ears wherever I need them,” Nephrite answered as he stared at his companion. Mamoru then remembered the innkeeper and his words to the young boy when they had first arrived at the tavern. He sighed.

“You must have ridden hard to get here before me, since you obviously didn't find me at home.”

Nephrite shrugged. “My horse survived. I've been here less than two days.”

“And what, pray tell, was the motivation for your coming here so fast to seek me out?”

“My, you're not wasting any time with formalities today.”

“I don't have the patience. I left home expecting to come to the city, do a bit of business, and return with no special encounters. As you can see, you’re not my first 'special encounter,' since a war torn city was not something I had been expecting to find.” Mamoru paused for a moment. “What happened here anyway?”

Nephrites unending smile faltered. “The city was attacked and nearly burned to the ground. It's the same old dispute between Queen Selenity and the Dark Lunarian clan. Prince Diamond decided it was a good time to try and break the Lunarian's, but fortunately was not successful.”

Mamoru recalled the flags and banners he had seen earlier, half burned, bearing the crests of the Lunarian's, Dark Lunarian's, as well as the Southern Terran Kingdom. “Your King was very kind in coming to the Queen Selenity's aid.”

Nephrite smiled again an inclined his head. “Queen Selenity had reasons to believe an attack was planned. She sent word to my Lord, asking for help. She is wise, and even though her pride seems to be a stumbling block at times, she knew this time that she couldn't take the blow Prince Diamond was sending at her. My Lord's armies arrived not a moment too soon.”

“He himself didn't come?” Mamoru asked, arching an eyebrow. “He's not the kind to send his armies without leading them.” A feeling of worry filled him and all sorts of what-ifs filled his head.

“No, his Grace didn't lead his armies to their victory. He was in a hunting accident about a week ago and sustained a leg injury. He would have come anyway, but an infection in the same injury caused him to come down with severe fevers, and he was thus was unable to ride.” Nephrite spoke calmly enough, but even so Mamoru could sense an underlying worry in his companion's voice. He was going to press for more information, but Nephrite crisply cut him off. “I'm sure you still wish to know why I came here to find you.”

Mamoru nodded and leaned forward, leaning his elbows on the table and clasping his hands before him. “It's not often that you come to find me.”

“I have a job for you... well, it's more of a request. With the war behind us, we can now settle a few things between the Lunarian's and the Southern Terran's. Queen Selenity offered many generous gifts for My Lord's help in the war against Prince Diamond and of those things was a unifying of our two kingdoms. As I said, Queen Selenity has pride, but she is also wise. Her strength and power far exceeds that of most surrounding Kings and Queens, but even she was shaken up by Prince Diamond's display. Thus, she sent a draft of a contract, a treaty, to My Lord, one which he sent back with a few amendments. One of the points in the treaty though is that Queen Selenity's daughter, Serenity, will be wed to My Lord as soon as is possible. Within a month, in fact. This will help strengthen both kingdoms, and unify them solidly.”

Mamoru listened patiently. “I still remember the times when your King vowed he would never marry for politics. Why so fast though? Lengthy engagements are not uncommon, especially when done politically.”

Nephrite sighed and stretched his neck to the side. “There are many reasons why a fast marriage is agreeable, but one of the more important ones is Princess Serenity's own security. One of the reasons Prince Diamond wants to conquer the Lunarian's is so that he can take over the power of the Imperium Silver Crystal. When Queen Selenity dies, her crystal and all of its powers will be passed on to her daughter. No one wants these powers to fall into the wrong hands, and thus it is in the best interest of everyone that Serenity doesn't fall into the wrong hands.”

“And your King's hands are the right ones?” Mamoru couldn't help but smirk. He knew Nephrite had a good king, but Queen Selenity's quick decision and judgment surprised him.

“You know he is, and Queen Selenity is no fool. She watches what goes on, watches people and their traits.  She has met My Lord on many occasions, and knows what he is like. Our kingdoms have never been at war, and My Lord has given her no reason not to trust him. You know how these things go; she takes a risk no matter who she gives Serenity's hand to.”

“You're right. How does this involve me though? I have nothing to do with the court in Terra.”

Nephrite leaned back and smiled, folding his arms across his chest. “You know the roads between Luna and Terra better than anyone else. You know the small clans that live out there, which pose a threat, and which don't. You have no reason to harm Serenity, or to betray My Lord.  He is asking you to make sure his betrothed makes it across the mountains safely.”

Mamoru's brow furrowed and his eyes darkened. He shifted in his seat so he was leaning further on his elbows. “I won't play babysitter to some spoiled princess.”

Nephrite watched Mamoru with amusement. “Yes, I know. This isn't an 'official' post, You won't be a hired 'babysitter,' as you put it. You don't even need to enter Terra. Actually, quite the opposite; no one is to know that you are watching the Princess.”

“How am I supposed to watch her if I cannot be seen? I’d have to travel well ahead or behind her, and that wouldn't do her any good.” Mamoru replied, his tone of voice still indicating that he wasn't interested.

“There are many hidden trails and paths in the forest. You would have no problem keeping an eye on the group. They will be large and traveling fairly slow. You should be able to keep up alongside them through the forest paths,” Nephrite said with a tone of voice that indicated Mamoru -should- be interested in the proposition.

Mamoru arched an eyebrow. “If she is going to be in such a large group, a well-guarded one I assume, what good would I be to her? I am one man.”

“True enough, but as a hidden scout you can be more useful than a legion of soldiers. Besides, as I said before, you have no reason to betray My Lord. He trusts you fully, and you yourself know he has good reason for that trust. One of the other men could be paid off, bribed by someone who doesn't owe any loyalty to My Lord. Then we would need someone to step in and lend a helping hand to the Princess.”

Mamoru sighed and leaned back in his chair. “So now I'm to take on an entire army on my own, is that it?”

Nephrite sighed too. “That's not what I'm asking you to do. The girl could be killed by an animal when she is going to relieve herself in the bush. She could be killed by kidnapped by an assassin in the middle of the night from her tent. She could wander off in a rage and get lost. I'm asking you to keep an eye on her, not fight a one man war. You know the land like the back of your own hand. You know where to go for help should she and her party need it.”

“Then I'm supposed to stay in the shadows so no one knows she has help and doesn't try to eliminate me first if they have bad intentions?”

“Correct! You're finally getting the picture.” Nephrite smiled and leaned forward. “And have no fear. You will be well rewarded for your help in this matter.”

The younger man snorted. “Your Lord has never offered me anything that could tempt me, he could never buy anything from me,” Mamoru paused and looked at the fire for a moment, then murmured more to himself, “but I could never turn down a request from him.”

“You will help then? In return My Lord has offered—“

Mamoru bit the inside of his cheek. Any payment would be nice since the last harvest hadn’t been the greatest, but instead of listening, he cut Nephrite off. “No thank you. I will help him, but he won't buy me, I'll do this because I want to.”

Nephrite inclined his head. “We will talk about that later. But come, I will brief you on the route the Princess will be taking and the agenda for the trip.” With those words he put the bag he had been carrying on the table, and pulled out several sheets of parchment.

“I'll order some more ale,” Mamoru said dryly as he stood and walked to the kitchen doors. The cook was kind enough to quickly hand over two mugs of ale, and Mamoru soon found himself sitting once more across from Nephrite. He wasn't Mamoru's choice companion, but he was glad, nonetheless, that he had someone to update him.

Nephrite had already laid some maps out on the table. He didn't need much else, no notes or written out instructions. His mind was quick and he seldom forgot anything. Mamoru was sure he could recite the entire conversation they had just had, word for word, without any problem.

“This is the palace, as I'm sure you're aware,” Nephrite began, “and this is where the party plans to leave from around eight in the morning. They won't leave by the main city gates, but rather they'll take this east exit that leads straight into the Everscape Forest. They'll go along the road here, up to the Needle River, and follow it up this road to this pass in the mountains. Then they'll come around here to....” Mamoru listened intently, taking mental notes of stop points, towns, and hostile territory. There was very little of the latter, which he was relieved about, but he would have preferred a more neutral route. Upon reflection though, he had to admit that there wasn't a more neutral route to take. Mamoru watched Nephrites fingers as they traveled over the maps.  It was going to be a long night yet.

I do not own the rights to Sailormoon or any of the characters. That honor belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, and I am simply a lowly author who can use her characters for my plots.

Converting /tmp/phpHHzfCR to /dev/stdout