The last words anyone expected to hear coming out of Shirayuki’s mouth were, “Zen’s been kidnapped!” But there they were, hanging in the air like birds hovering lazily above the trees.
“Whoa there, Miss. Slow down. What happened?” asked Obi, first as always to respond when Shirayuki was in distress.
The group of them were out in the middle of the forest in the eastern part of Clarines. Garack had grand dreams of semi-annual pharmacist retreats to gather rare herbs around the country, and she had assembled a crack team for the maiden voyage: herself, her assistant, Shirayuki, and Ryuu. Since these trips would be on behalf of the crown, though, a representative of the crown had to come along. Enter Zen, with his usual attendants.
The eight of them had been camping in the woods for the past four days. About two hours earlier, Zen and Shirayuki had wandered off into the woods alone to look for something.
Shirayuki was actually interested in getting work done, but privately, Mitsuhide, Kiki, and Obi knew Zen was going along mostly to get some alone time with her. They rarely got it, as it was. It was going to be sickeningly adorable, and none of them were sorry to miss it.
(Zen and Shirayuki did end up having a small moment in the woods. About ten minutes into their walk, their hands brushed, and they looked at each other and blushed. Zen took Shirayuki's hand in his, then lifted it to his mouth to kiss it. They continued walking, fingers interlaced, until Shirayuki found the tree she needed, when Zen gallantly offered to climb it for her.)
“There was a flower I needed in the top of the tree—you know the pink barber flower? But Zen said he would get it, and gave me his sword.” They all noticed at once how she was holding Zen’s sword in one hand. “And while he was up there, some men came out all at once. They thought he was the herbalist, and I was his bodyguard, so they grabbed him and knocked me out. When I woke up, he was gone.”
“Why would they kidnap the herbalist?”
“Well, good doctors are hard to come by. Maybe they had a friend who was injured, or—”
“Or they were looking to steal medical secrets from Clarines,” Kiki interrupted.
“Secrets? I doubt it’s anything like that,” Mitsuhide began, but trailed off when he saw the awkward looks on the pharmacists’ faces. “What, really?”
“The why is secondary. What matters most is getting Zen back,” Shirayuki said.
“What do you remember about the ones who did it?” asked Obi.
“There were four men. They all had handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. Two had brown hair and two had black…Oh! They all had scars on the backs of their hands, like…X’s? Like the letter.”
“Well! All good information,” Obi said. “I think, first of all, you pharmacists should go back to the castle where it’s safe, and the three of us will carry out an investigation from here—“
“No,” Shirayuki interrupted. “I’m coming with you all to help rescue Zen.”
Obi, Kiki, and Mitsuhide all looked at each other. “While I’m sure Zen would love to see that you’re okay, I don’t know if…”
“I’m actually an herbalist! I can…go in there, wherever it is, and bargain to get Zen back. Say he was just my bodyguard, or-or something, and then they’ll let him go!”
“We’re not letting you use yourself as a bargaining chip,” Kiki said.
“You did it, with the pirates!”
“That’s different. I actually know how to fight, you—“
“I’m smart, I can get myself out of things. I can use my environment! And besides, it doesn’t matter what happens to me. Zen is the prince, and no one wants the king going to war with a bunch of bandits because his brother got kidnapped. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen to me?”
“You all and Zen have gotten me out of bad situations before. I just want to return the favor.”
“If I may cut in,” Garack said, not actually waiting for permission, “if Zen is injured, which is likely, you will need someone to take care of him. Shirayuki is an expert in that field. She’s also the only one of you who knows about the local…foliage.” She raised an eyebrow at Shirayuki. “Did you end up getting that pink barber flower, by the way?”
“The pink…yes. Some of it fell when they grabbed Zen. It was maybe a little squished, but, it should still…work.” She showed Garack the little sachet she’d put the flowers in.
“Perfect. Well, then it’s settled! Shirayuki, the three of us will head back. Try not to be gone for more than a week, all right?”
Obi, miraculously, had not interrupted until this point, but when Garack made her decision, he could not help himself. “I’m not sure you should be deciding this—” he said, but she waved his concerns away.
“Shirayuki will be fine! You’ll be here to protect her, right? It’s just more convenient for you all this way, isn’t it?”
“Ryuu, help us pack. We’ll have to send a bird to the fort so they’ll come get us early, but I’d like to be on the road before nightfall.”
Clearly she wasn’t going to listen to anything anyone else had to say. Typical.
Shirayuki looked triumphant, and it put a queasy feeling in Obi’s stomach. She was right about Zen being more important than her politically, but if it were up to him, he would be hard pressed to choose between them. He wasn’t feeling the same cavernous inadequacy he’d had when she had been taken from her room when he was supposed to be protecting her, but Zen’s kidnapping was still putting him on edge. Having Shirayuki with them when they went to go get him did mean he’d be able to keep an eye on her, but how much danger would she be in?
“I’m going to go see if I can find tracks from the kidnappers,” he announced. “I’ll be back…soon.” He’d probably be able to find tracks, and then he’d just follow them, take out the kidnappers—there were only four of them, it wouldn’t be a problem—and then come back with Zen, all within an hour or two. Child’s play.
“I’ll come with you! I’ll show you where we were when it happened,” Shirayuki offered.
“Haha, that won’t be necessary, Miss. I think it would be better if you stayed here and helped with the packing.”
Shirayuki frowned at him. “But I could help. If we run into them we could explain the situation and make a—”
“Miss, we’re not trading you for the master. Okay? I’ll take care of this. Don’t worry about it.”
Obi, who didn’t want to deal with this, ran off into the forest before Shirayuki could protest. It was the easiest, safest option! She probably wouldn’t be mad at him for too long, especially if he brought Zen back okay. Right?
Things, however, did not exactly go to plan. He followed Shirayuki’s path back through the forest to a huge tree with grey-brown bark, where a scuffle had clearly taken place—strands of red hair on the ground by another tree, the way the leaves on the ground had been disturbed, broken branches on the tree itself where Zen presumably had attempted to fight back against four men. There was a trail leaving the tree, and he followed it from up in the branches of others.
They were taking a weird path, looping back around a few times, sharp turns that led into curves. Obi almost lost the trail a few times, but after about half an hour, the trees started to thin out, and he saw where they had gone.
There was a military fort in the middle of these woods. And it had been taken over by some kind of mercenary band? Whatever. He could see four men stationed on the wall. There were probably quite a few more inside, but he’d handled worse. And that had just been when he was working for money. This time, it was for Zen.
He kept to the trees and circled around to the side of the fort. There was no one posted on the wall here, which made him think maybe there weren’t as many people in this group as he thought earlier. That would just make it easier. He climbed up the wall and made his way to where the guards were keeping watch. He took them out one at a time, being fast enough to knock each one out before they could make a sound.
There was a staircase to the inside of the fort. He took them two at a time, adjusting his scarf on the way.
He hadn’t looked to the inside when he’d been up on the wall, so it came as a bit of a surprise when he stepped into the light and was immediately surrounded by armed, angry men.
“Ah. Hello, gentlemen!”
Not exactly according to plan.
Shirayuki hadn’t liked Obi running off to do things on his own from the beginning, but when it started to go dark and he wasn’t back, Mitsuhide and Kiki began to look a little nervous. Garack, Ryuu, and Yatsufusa had gone with some soldiers they’d called an hour or so earlier, so it was just the three of them in the camp in the middle of the woods.
“Do you think they caught him too? Obi can hold himself in a fight but…”
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Kiki reassured her, but then she glanced over at Mitsuhide, who was nervously sharpening Zen’s sword.
“But he’s been gone for so long. If he was just tracking their location he would have been back by now, unless he decided to…” It dawned on her. “Obi! He tried to get Zen back himself and he’s been captured!”
“Whoa, Shirayuki, we can’t be sure—”
“That’s so like him! And it’s…it’s all my fault, isn’t it?” Tears grew in her eyes. “I should’ve just gone with the others but I just wanted to help, but now Obi thinks he has to protect me by taking care of everything himself, and now he’s gotten hurt!”
“Shirayuki, maybe he just can’t find his way back. Calm down,” Mitsuhide said.
“You really think Obi can’t find his way back through a forest he’s spent the past four days exploring? Something must have happened. We have to…I don’t know what we can do. But we have to do something!”
Kiki nodded. “Shirayuki is right. From the timeframe, there’s no way he hasn’t gotten himself into some sort of trouble.” Mitsuhide looked like he was about to say something, so she added, “It’s Obi. And considering it’s Zen and Shirayuki who are in trouble here…”
He sighed. “You’re right. Okay, so we need to make a plan. First, we should find somewhere new to camp, because we don’t know if they’ll try to come back here when they figure out that Zen knows nothing about medicine. There’s a town about an hour’s walk down the road, so we’ll find somewhere to stay there.”
“We should leave now, then,” Kiki said, and got up to gather up their things.
“Then, after we find a place to stay…we ask around town about the people that took Zen. They all had X’s on their hands. Maybe that’s some kind of symbol for their group,” Shirayuki suggested.
“Good idea. But how do we get him back?”
“Well,” Shirayuki replied, “they are looking for an herbalist…”
“Shirayuki,” Kiki said sharply, “we’re not going to let you just walk in there alone—“
“So, I won’t be alone! Mitsuhide can pose as, my brother? And you’re…you’re his bodyguard! Yes, Zen was my bodyguard, but they got us mixed up, and Mitsuhide is my brother and you’re his bodyguard, and Mitsuhide is a merchant is something which is how we can afford to employ you two. Yes! And then the three of us go in, and we take out the guards, and we get Zen and Obi back!”
“But how are we supposed to take out the guards?”
“I have a plan for that, but I’m going to need to get us to the inn to take care of it. I have to do a little work for it to work.”
Mitsuhide and Kiki exchanged glances. It wasn’t a horrible plan, but there was so much that could go wrong.
Shirayuki seemed to sense that doubt. “Don’t worry! I can’t tell you exactly how it works, but, I promise it will! You just have to trust me.”
Kiki considered this. “All right. We’ll trust you. It’s doubtful you have any ulterior motives, after all.” She cracked a small smile.
“Okay! Let’s get going, then!”
An hour’s walk and talk with an innkeeper later, the three of them had two rooms between them. Shirayuki made Kiki leave, saying that what she was doing was “top secret”, so Kiki went to go over attack plans with Mitsuhide.
Shirayuki came in an hour later and asked if they wanted to get dinner. “Did you finish what you were working on?” Mitsuhide asked.
“It has to sit for a little while. So I thought we could get something to eat!”
They went down into the tavern part of the inn. It was pretty lively, but they had no problem finding a table for the three of them. A barmaid came by with stew and thick bread for them to eat, and was going to go get more for another table before Kiki stopped her.
“We wanted to ask you something.”
“Earlier, my friend here was attacked by some bandits in the forest. Do you know anything about that, or where they might be?”
“Bandits in the forest…I’m not sure—”
“They had X’s carved into the backs of their hands. Please, if you know anything, tell us. Please,” Shirayuki said.
“X’s on their hands…I don’t know about any specific group, but I have heard rumors about a group squatting in the abandoned base.”
“Yeah, about ten years ago, they built the military fort down the road, but before that there was one in the forest. They abandoned it because it was so hard to access, or something. But apparently recently some undesirables have been squatting in it. I could find a map for you, if you wanted to check it out.”
“That would be wonderful. Thank you so much,” Mitsuhide said.
“No problem!” She bustled off to continue doing her job.
“So, an abandoned fort in the woods. Well defended, unless there aren’t that many of them.”
“Infiltration it is. But, Shirayuki, how are you planning on taking out the guards?”
She looked around. “I’ll tell you in private. It’s not…”
After dinner, Kiki and Shirayuki had a bath while Mitsuhide tried to come up with contingencies for their plan. It would have been easier, he thought, if he knew exactly what the plan was, but Shirayuki said she would explain after the bath.
The three of them gathered in the girls’ room after dinner, and Shirayuki showed them what she had, and explained what they were going to do. She gave them each a pill with strict instructions not to take them until they were almost to the fort the next day.
The next morning, the barmaid from the night before met them as they left with a map to the fort. There was nothing holding them back from going now, then.
The three of them swallowed Shirayuki’s pills when the fort was in sight, and Mitsuhide handed his and Zen’s swords over to Kiki since he couldn’t appear armed. Shirayuki checked for about the eighth time that her things were packed properly into her messenger bag, and then they decided to go for it.
The three of them found the road, and made like they were coming down it to the front of the fort. Shirayuki knocked on the gate. Clearly people on the battlements saw them, and after a few minutes, someone came and opened the gate very slightly.
“Who goes there,” they asked flatly.
“Um, hello. Yesterday in the woods you kidnapped my, uh, bodyguard because you thought he was an herbalist, but um, that would be me instead. This is my brother and his bodyguard.”
“So, well, you kidnapped an herbalist for a r-reason, didn’t you? My brother and I wanted to, uh, t-talk about that, and get my bodyguard back because he is also a friend and we would like to make sure he is safe.”
“Hm. Did you send the other one.”
“The one who tried to break in last night.”
“No. It was just the four of us,” Kiki told the door. Shirayuki opened her mouth to say something, but held her tongue when the door opened further and they were ushered in. A pair of dark-haired men with crosses on the backs of their hands led them across the courtyard, into the fort itself, and to what must have been the main dining hall before it was abandoned and taken over by bandits.
There were about twenty in there, all rough-looking men, except for one. There was a bed by the large fireplace at the far end of the room, and Zen sat in a chair by it arguing with someone. He was too far away for them to hear, but when she saw him, Shirayuki lit up. “Ze—” Mitsuhide put a hand on her arm, stopping her. Wait for the plan. Right.
“Boss,” called the one who had answered the gate for them. Everyone in the room turned their attention to the group of them. The person in the bad sat up slowly. “That one was telling the truth. He’s not the one we wanted.”
“Shira…” Zen started, then stopped himself. “I told you I wasn’t an herbalist!”
Zen might have picked up a few things over the time he spent with Shirayuki, when he asked her about her work, but he probably knew as much about medicine as she did about swordplay. There were plants involved, most of the time, and he could name some of them, and maybe what they did, but had no idea how to go about preparing them in a safe manner, and what he knew was so disjointed there was nothing he could do with it.
“He’s a bodyguard,” their escort continued, as they walked over to the bed. “To the girl. This is her brother and his bodyguard, apparently.”
Zen leapt up and tried to move toward Shirayuki, but he was held back.
“What shall we do?”
The person in the bed was an old woman. She smiled kindly at Shirayuki. “Hello, my dear.”
Shirayuki was suddenly very uncomfortable. This was not what she was expecting, and she did not like it at all. “H-Hello.”
“Apologies for all the fuss. These young men heard about the herbalist retreat and insisted they kidnap one of you to try to make some things for me.”
“Medicine, and the like. Some things that might make our line of work a little easier.”
Now Shirayuki was confused, and she could see Mitsuhide and Kiki tensing up next to her. She continued, “Your line of work…banditry?”
“Yes, things to make that easier.”
The men in the room started mumbling to each other. Kiki put her hand on her sword, and Zen’s grip on the arms of the ones holding him back tightened.
“If you’re able.”
Shirayuki frowned and took a few steps back. “I am not sure about that. I’m not, uh, an expert on weapons or anything…” She subtly slipped her hand into her messenger bag, and grabbed the flask she had filled the night before. Still intact.
“Hmm, then perhaps we should put you all with the other one who tried to break in last night.”
“They said they don’t know him, boss,” said their escort, who was looking warily at Shirayuki.
There were candles on all of the tables. All she had to do was grab one, but all the tables were occupied. Kiki and Mitsuhide seemed to have noticed this as well. They’d have to come up with an excuse to go to one of them.
“Why don’t you just let her go?” Zen asked. “She hasn’t done anything.”
“That is the point. She has done nothing. She, and the rest of you, must now earn your freedom.”
This was starting to sound familiar to Shirayuki. Zen was growing angrier and angrier at the way the conversation was going. She really hoped he didn’t try to do anything. Surely he realized the fact that they had come in voluntarily, with fake identities, meant they had a plan.
Then again, sometimes Zen acted without thinking when it came to Shirayuki. Thinking about it made her go pink. No, focus! Get to the flame somehow.
“M-Maybe we should sit so we can…discuss terms?” she suggested, gesturing to an empty table.
“Hmm, but young miss, I cannot get up. Why don’t you all just take some chairs and sit around me? We can discuss this, as you said, like civilized people.”
“Uh…” But it would give her a chance to get to the candle. “Yes. Let me get some chairs.”
All eyes were on her as she walked to the table, and drew the flask out of her bag as unnoticeably as possible. She moved a chair out of the way, and that was when someone saw it in her hand.
“What’s that?” he asked. It was one of the lackeys. He was about six feet away. Six feet was probably far enough, she thought.
“Nothing,” she replied, and stuck the flask’s fuse directly into the flame of a candle.
The bandits all rose at once when she did, but it was too late. Just as the flame hit the liquid, she threw it into the air, and it exploded. Thick, white smoke erupted from inside, and quickly spread through the stuffy room. It took only a few moments for everyone who breathed it in to collapse to the floor, aside from Shirayuki, Mitsuhide, and Kiki.
The three of them covered their noses and mouths just in case, but the pills Shirayuki had made the night before were doing their job, and would keep them from passing out as long as they made it out of the room within the next few minutes. Mitsuhide grabbed Zen, who had not been spared the gas’s effects, and threw him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. The three of them ran out of the room, closing the door behind them, and headed for the exit.
Feet from the door, Shirayuki remembered. “Obi! We have to get him!”
Kiki stopped. “Mitsuhide, you take Zen. We’ll get Obi.”
“I’ll take care of it. Take the swords.” She unhooked Mitsuhide and Zen’s swords from her belt and handed them to her partner, and then she and Shirayuki took off down the hall to where the entrance to the basement probably was. This wasn’t Kiki (or Shirayuki’s) first Clarines standard military fort.
The basement, when they found it, was completely deserted. Had everyone really been up in that mess hall? But Obi was there, tied to a chair in the back. They almost didn’t see him, thanks to how dark it was, but he saw them, and called out, “Miss.” Shirayuki rushed over and started undoing his bindings. Kiki made her way over and cut him out, and then the two of them each put one of his arms around their shoulders and led him out.
Luckily, they didn’t meet anyone else on their way out, and were able to escape from there without a hitch. They met Zen and Mitsuhide in the woods, though Zen was still unconscious.
“We have to get back to town. We can’t let them find us here and just attack us again,” Mitsuhide said.
“Uh, we don’t have horses, unless there’s some hidden a little further in,” Obi said.
“We’ll figure that out—” Shirayuki began, and then suddenly, they heard, of all things, hoof beats on the road outside. They crouched behind the shrubbery, but then Kiki stood and ran out to the road.
It was a contingent of soldiers, from the base nearby. They explained that the head pharmacist from Wistal Castle had come the night before and told them there was a situation at the old fort, so they decided to check it out. They offered to share their horses, and within an hour everyone was safe and sound within the walls of the new fort.
Obi and Zen received immediate medical attention for their wounds and poisoning, respectively, and Shirayuki, though she wanted to stay by their sides, ended up being forced to get some rest, as she had apparently gotten back up after Kiki went to sleep to continue working on the makeshift grenade.
She explained the process to the others later, in private. “The flowers Zen and I went to pick are usually used to aid in conception in women, if they’re dried, crushed, and made into a tea. However, there is another use: if you squeeze the juice out of them and make a kind of, sauce? you can make a sort of oil that, when set on fire, combusts into a noxious gas. I used some of the juice to make the antidote I gave to Kiki and Mitsuhide.”
Luckily, Ryuu had found some of the same flower earlier in the trip, so they were able to treat Zen before any dangerous lasting effects could set in.
“I still think you guys should have signaled somehow that you had a plan,” he said, sulking in bed, on strict orders to stay in it for at least another day.
“What kind of signal would you have preferred, Zen?” Kiki asked dryly. “For future reference.”
“For future reference, don’t bring Shirayuki along on dangerous missions!”
“Well, if Shirayuki hadn’t been there, I don’t know if we could have succeeded…” Mitsuhide said.
“I wish I could have seen you in action, Miss. It sounds like you were very impressive,” Obi said. “When we get back to the castle, show me how to make that bomb. It could come in handy.”
“Haha, I can’t do that.”
“Misssss,” he whined, but he was grinning at her anyway.
“And you!” Zen added, pointing dramatically at Obi. “Don’t go rushing into things thinking you can solve them on your own! You have a team now!”
Obi blinked, then smiled slyly at Zen. “A team, huh? How nice. I’ve worked in teams before, but with no one as nice as you all. Especially you, Master.”
“Shut up, Obi.”
“No, but it was very nice of you to come find me! I wasn’t sure if you’d remember, or if you’d just leave me to the wolves.”
He was still smiling, but Shirayuki was horrified. “Of course we came for you! You’re our friend, Obi, and we love you!”
“You love me?”
“You what?” Zen continued.
“Well, yeah! I love all of you guys. You’re my best friends. And I love Ryuu, too, and I guess Rauji a little even though things were weird in the beginning? I love all my important people.”
Zen looked like he was going to have a conniption. Obi wiped a fake tear from his eye. “You truly touch my heart, Miss. I think it’s safe to say we all feel the same way for you.”
Shirayuki thanked him, and the subject changed to their travel plans. While she and Mitsuhide discussed when the best day and time to leave would be, Obi cast a sidelong glance at Zen. He was still fuming a little, but it looked like Obi hadn’t quite overstepped his bounds with that one. Good. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t get a lecture about it once they were alone, though. Hmm, but he’d look forward to it.
In the end, all was well that ended well. It certainly hadn’t been a normal trip, but it had definitely been an interesting one. Shirayuki was sorry the retreat had ended early (“We could have gotten so many more plants!”), but Garack reassured her they’d probably be allowed to go again next year.
“Next year, we check the surrounding area a little more closely,” Zen decided.
“You don’t like being the damsel in distress, Master? I would have never guessed.”
“I hope we can all do this again next year,” Shirayuki said. “Minus the kidnapping! Obviously. I do prefer my trips to have as few kidnappings as possible.”
“That’s pretty normal.”
“It’s worth saying!”
They got back to the castle in a few days, and no one spoke a word of what had happened to Izana, and made up an excuse about running out of supplies when he asked why they were back so early. The next year’s trip was approved then. Even though it was a full year away, they could all hardly wait.