Chapter 04: Citadel
“Would you like to join the Touken Danshi?” Tsurumaru asked.
There was a beat of silence as two faces stared up at him blankly with seemingly no hint of understanding or comprehension. Tsurumaru propped his feet up onto the wall and continued to gaze at them patiently, waiting for the moment when it would click in their minds. One thousand, two thousand, three th-
Ah there it was.
“You’re from the Touken Danshi?!”
Tsurumaru supposed he could not blame them for being so incredulous of his profession. He had often come across similar sentiments coming from others, all who were equally shocked or amazed. It had to be because of his small, lithe frame he decided. Or maybe because he was too utterly charming and innocent and boyish.
It definitely was not because he was too childish or cheeky or anything of that sort really, as Ichigo often liked to point out to him. Of course not. Tsurumaru was more mature than that. His pranks, as Ichigo liked to call them that, were in fact just him exercising his creative ability so as to keep all the other Swords on their toes. Life would have been too peaceful and too boring without him spicing it up a little once in a while.
Speaking of spicing things up…
Tsurumaru turned his attention back to the unusual pair before him. Two beautiful young men who could not be more different from the other if they tried. It was like night and day. One dressed in fine silks with an elegance and mannerism that practically screamed his noble pedigree and the other in well-made but ordinary clothes. They obviously came from very different backgrounds and yet they seemed to be very close and comfortable with each other. It was a mystery. And he loved mysteries.
“What does the Touken Danshi want with us?” The young man called Yasusada asked, his eyes narrowing slightly in suspicion.
Tsurumaru huffed in amusement. The protector.
“Well I merely thought that the both of you are very talented with the sword and would make promising recruits. After all, we are shorthanded and always glad to welcome new blood into our ranks.”
“Isn’t that the really elite branch of swordsmen though? I would have thought it would be more difficult to get in,” was the sceptical reply, Yasusada being not quite convinced yet.
“Yes usually, but…”
“But the both of you have a really special ability that is practically a pre-requisite for the job.” he said, with a slight emphasis to drive his point across.
Though he could not be certain for the change was so slight it was almost imperceptible, Tsurumaru thought he saw the both of them tense up at his words, before relaxing and smoothing their features into a neutral expression once more.
“…And how much did you see?”
Now that was curious. Although Swords were prized for their ability and were so rare that they often kept their abilities a secret to prevent any coercion by others, it was not a taboo subject in the least. Weren’t they being too sensitive about it?
What secrets were they hiding?
“I was making my rounds around town when I heard all that ruckus and decided to check it out. You had already begun fighting when I arrived here.” He paused and gave them a scrutinizing look. Was it him or did they seem almost relieved at his words? “So… would you like to join…?”
Mikazuki who had remained silent until then suddenly spoke up. “Alright, we accept your offer. We will both join the Touken Danshi.”
Yasusada was apparently caught off guard, for he made a startled noise at the back of his throat and threw a quick glance at Mikazuki, a question lingering in his eyes. They exchanged a meaningful gaze before he finally turned back toward Tsurumaru and nodded his head in agreement.
Tsurumaru was surprised but chose not to comment. He had expected them to reject his offer given how guarded they were acting, and then he would have to spend at least a good thirty minutes or so convincing them to accept it.
Well no matter, this would save him a lot of time and effort. He was a pretty good judge of character and from the moment he laid eyes on them his first thought had been “I want them.” As for whatever secrets they were harbouring… they could keep it. For the time being that is. Tsurumaru was a patient person. He would bide his time and slowly ferret it out from them unsuspectingly. Before they knew it, they would have already spilled it all to him.
Or maybe not, he thought as he stared up into a silvery moonlit gaze that was looking at him determinedly.
He grinned. That was fine. He loved a good challenge. The game is on.
Mikazuki let out the breath that he had unconsciously been holding as he watched Tsurumaru disappear soundlessly into the night, the tension slowly seeping out of his stiff shoulders. He had never been more relieved to see that the little imp was finally gone and that he could drop all pretense and relax for a bit… at least for a little while.
After having been chased around for the better part of the day and almost having his secret revealed to someone from the Touken Danshi of all places, he was honestly exhausted. He would have to be careful around Tsurumaru in the future or risk exposing himself. He was too sharp not to have picked up on their edginess during their brief conversation though they had tried to be subtle about it. Just before he left, Mikazuki had spotted that familiar glint in his eyes – familiar to him because it was the look he wore himself whenever he was up to mischief.
And now he supposed he had better give Yasusada an explanation for his rather impromptu decision.
His faithful companion had been quietly waiting for him while he gathered his thoughts, standing off to the side and wearing a rather beleaguered expression.
He turned curious eyes onto Mikazuki now and asked, “Why did you agree to join the Touken Danshi?”
“I thought it would be better if we were with them – they would provide a good cover for us while we’re here, from the guards that were pursuing us.”
“You mean like hiding in plain sight?”
He was met with a silence which unnerved him so he continued babbling, the words tumbling out before he could stop it. “And well, we do need to find some means to support ourselves. The money that I brought with me wouldn’t last for long. Besides it would be pretty interesting wouldn’t it? To be able to spar with others like us – worthy opponents.”
Yasusada merely stared at him with a contemplative look on his face and did not reply. Mikazuki was starting to sweat a little under that perceptive gaze which annoyed him, because what did he have to feel nervous or embarrassed about? It was Yasusada. And he did not have to explain himself. Not at all.
“And… well… I guess I just wanted a glimpse of my betrothed.”
At that, Yasusada gave him a knowing look as if he had expected that all along. He sighed. Of course Yasusada would know what went through his mind. They had grown up together after all. He did not know why he even bothered trying to hide it in the first place. It was completely futile.
“That was your true intention all along wasn’t it?”
“Of course! He is the man I’m supposed to marry, come next Spring. It would be better if I could see for myself what kind of man he is and if he is truly worthy of marrying.”
Yasusada’s voice softened. “But you would have to marry him all the same. You can’t run from it forever.”
“… I know. But if I saw him for myself and got to know him, maybe I might come to love him. Or at least we could become friends, and I would not mind so much being bound to him.”
“Yes, perhaps you’re right.”
“I am, aren’t I?” He turned a glimmering smile to Yasusada. “Let’s hope that he turns out to be a good man.”
“He better be. And he better treat you right. If he ever makes you cry, I’ll hunt him down and make him pay for it.” His eyes were serious as he said this and it warmed Mikazuki’s heart to know that Yasusada cared so much for him. He knew Yasusada would make good on his promise and that brought him comfort.
Mikazuki glanced up at the night sky. The gentle light of the stars were shining through the clouds and illuminating the streets in their natural glow. Soon it would be morning and the stars would fade with the coming of dawn. If they wanted to get some rest before then, they would have to leave this alley soon to find some lodgings.
“We should find somewhere to sleep for now. There are only a few hours to do so before we are to meet Tsurumaru at the West gate.”
Yasusada nodded. “Let’s go.”
It was dawn when they finally saddled their horses and rode out to the city’s West gate which was five miles away from the inn that they had been lodging in. Mikazuki gently patted his horse’s neck in a fond manner and fed him a few slices of apples which he had filched from the inn’s kitchen before taking the reins.
He rode astride a beautiful white stallion, a magnificent beast that had been bred from a line of wild horses. Being fair of form and yet possessing great strength, such horses were rare and greatly prized. It had been a birthday gift to him from his father, the King, when he had come of age at fifteen. Proud, wild and light-footed, this noble beast matched his temperament perfectly, and they had forged a close bond ever since their first meeting two years ago.
They now travelled along the quiet streets, the horses’ hooves clip-clopping along the cobbled pavement. Behind him, Yasusada followed atop a dappled grey mare. They rode quickly, leaving the houses and buildings behind them as they travelled along the winding road that would take them to Ren city’s West Gate.
They passed by the port on the way there and both Mikazuki and Yasusada turned to stare, enraptured, in the direction of the sea even as they raced their horses across the grassy path. The waters were a clear blue and parts of it glistened slightly, reflecting the dawn’s golden rays. Speeding up, they managed to stay just ahead of the streaming light and possibly make it in time for their meeting with Tsurumaru.
Half a mile to their destination, they could see the structure of the West gate cresting over the skyline and make out its form. It was a huge structure carved with the Royal family’s emblem and made out of a dazzling white material which glowed in the dark. The West gate was also known as the Moon gate, and on its opposite end lay the East gate, also called the Sun gate.
From his vantage point, Mikazuki espied a white figure standing next to the portcullis, one hand holding on to the reins of his mount. Tsurumaru. He was already waiting for them. Urging his stallion to quicken its pace, they hurried across the road toward the Moon gate.
“You’re here.” Tsurumaru smiled as he said this, a genuinely happy smile that revealed his white teeth. “I was beginning to wonder if you would show up.”
“Of course we would! We gave our word. Now let’s go to this citadel of yours and have a look at the rest of the Touken Danshi.”
“Don’t worry,” he assured Mikazuki. “You’ll like it there. Their skill with the sword are not inferior to yours.”
“Hmmm… we shall see.”
Tsurumaru merely shrugged, unconcerned. Once they reach the citadel, they would be able to see for themselves the glory of the Touken Danshi and their terrifyingly beautiful art. And once they crossed swords with his captain…
He got onto his horse and began leading them through the gate and toward the citadel.
The citadel was located ten miles away from Ren city, beyond a great forested area. Mikazuki was glad for the cover that the trees provided, their huge leaves shading them from the bright morning sun. As they travelled, Tsurumaru began pointing out the various landmarks surrounding them and told them more about the Touken Danshi.
Established long ago, the Touken Danshi was a prestigious unit that only the most skillful knights could enter. These knights had great renown throughout the land and were charged with patrolling the country’s borders, protecting the people from the demons outside.
These demons were said to be absolutely terrifying and many stories had been passed down from generation to generation. Dark tales that spoke of unspeakable horror and misery. They were said to have been summoned by witches who practiced the dark arts and called forth through the use of forbidden magic. The demons sucked the souls of any who crossed their paths, draining their victims of life and leaving piles of bodies in their wake. The souls kept the demons alive and allowed them to increase in power with every soul they ingested. Through them, the witches with whom they contracted with would likewise become more powerful and gain a longer lifespan.
Many lives were lost and the people lived in fear and terror. Until the Touken Danshi was established. In the darkest hour, a highly talented swordsman named Sanjou Rin had stepped forward, gathering a group of powerful men with him and they finally managed to vanquish the demons. In light of their accomplishments, the royal family then had granted them the status of elite knights and decreed Sanjou Rin to be their commander. From then on, the position of commander had been passed on to the heirs of the Sanjou family and they remained highly influential even to this day.
That was also when Swords were first discovered. For Sanjou Rin and the men he gathered all possessed this mystical power to manifest powerful, magical blades which blessed their wielder with great strength and allowed them to defeat the demons.
Since then, the Touken Danshi had been charged with protecting the kingdom and they patrolled the borders diligently. Each time the demons invaded, they were vanquished by the knights of this elite order. And now hundreds of years later, even though the demons no longer existed, the knights of the Touken Danshi were still revered as a highly prestigious group of people. Every year, hundreds of hopeful young men would apply to join their ranks and undergo brutal tests. Of it, only a handful were ever accepted and they were always those with the unique and rare ability to manifest blades.
“You mean to say that only Swords were ever recruited?” Yasusada asked.
“Yes,” Tsurumaru replied. “For only they were strong enough to defeat the demons. The others were all killed in battle.”
“But that’s just old wives’ tales isn’t it? I mean demons didn’t really exist.”
Tsurumaru shrugged. “Who knows? It all happened a long time ago.” He quirked an eyebrow at Mikazuki who was still gazing at him sceptically. “But the fact remains that the Touken Danshi is made up of the elites of the elites. Don’t treat them lightly,” he warned. “Or you’ll be in for a surprise.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I mean it Mika-chan. You might just get your ass handed to you~ ,” he sing-songed in a merry voice. “Yasu-chan as well.”
“What do you mean by that?” Yasusada queried.
“Oh, didn’t I mention it? You are to undergo a test of sorts before you are officially considered as a part of the Touken Danshi.”
“What?!” two voices cried out simultaneously.
“That’s the first we’ve heard of it!”
“Tsurumaru…” Mikazuki began, threateningly.
The little imp merely laughed and said in an unrepentant tone, “Don’t worry! It’s a simple test. All you have to do is to spar with our captain. A little bout to assess your strength and determine if you are truly worthy of joining us.”
That did sound simple. Almost too simple.
“Are you sure that’s all?” Mikazuki asked, gazing at Tsurumaru dubiously.
“Yes I’m sure, though it won’t be as easy as you’re imagining,” he chimed.
“I’ll be the judge of that myself.” Mikazuki huffed, though he was secretly thrilled to get the opportunity to cross swords with another talented individual so soon.
Tsurumaru shook his head slowly in resignation and looked at Mikazuki with amusement twinkling in his eyes. He seemed to know exactly what Mikazuki was thinking. “Well come on then, we should hurry if we’re to reach there before midday.”
An hour later, they finally reached their destination. They guided their horses and picked their way out of the forest onto a well-travelled, worn gravel path leading up to a pair of wrought iron gates that guarded an enormous keep.
Here was the home of the Touken Danshi.
The citadel was an immense structure made up of stone, wood and granite and before it laid a vast courtyard with a beautiful fountain in the centre. A pebbled road ran through the entire citadel which was surrounded by lush, tidy gardens that were full of budding flowers.
Mikazuki sat on his horse patiently as he waited for the gates to the citadel to open and welcome them in. He gazed at it for a long moment – this was the place where he would reside in for the next few months. Undeniably, it was a beautiful place. To the East of it was a cliffside that overlooked the sea while the forest encompassed the rest of citadel. By his side, Yasusada was also looking at it with a thoughtful expression.
It looked promising.
A creaking sound signalled the opening of the gates and the metal grate swung inwards as if beckoning them forward. With the gates now fully opened, they rode into the citadel.
There isn’t much action going on in this chapter, but it was necessary to incorporate some world-building. When I first wrote this fic back then, I had already intended for it to be a long one, comprising of at least 25-30 chapters. Hope this chapter satisfied some of your questions!