Kozai entered the theater and made his way, flanked by his Preta and Deva paths, over to the Master's box. He expected to be alone tonight, but if he was to have anybody sit next to him, he would rather that it be someone with similar goals. After entering the box and taking his seat, he looked out across the theater. Crowds of rabble (with his other paths interspersed), the musical accompaniment tuning up and preparing, and slight stirrings behind the curtain.
It was some indigenous group playing, tonight. Some cultural story, perhaps a told history. While Kozai held no love for the indigenous tribes of the badlands surrounding the village, he figured that he might as well take notes. The more he understood of his enemies, the better he could injure them. What better way to gain insight on their beliefs and internal structures than by examining their history? Their knowledge wouldn't elude him for long. Once he'd mopped up a few loose ends, he'd be able to store their methods and medicines in his archives, and thereafter erase their culture from Haven Country.
Kozai received a small notebook from one of his paths, and opened it, taking down brief notes from the night's schedule in his own unique shorthand. After denoting the large foreign presence in Hoshigakure, Kozai knew he had to check and double check his coding and the security of his primes. His devotion to secrecy might have been seen by some as an obsession, but he knew better than to let down his guard, especially with so many foreign operatives milling about.
With the aid of his paths, Kozai not only had the wonderful, elevated view of the Master's box, but also the gritty, filthy perspective of the vermin beneath. With any luck, he wouldn't come across any like that Sakuragi child tonight.
“I can be of assistance,” Himari said. She ran her fingers through Yui’s hair before Ayato could blink, and he soon found himself relegated to the spectator’s section with Dusk.
“For real?” he hissed. “The festival, that was the best you could come up with?”
Dusk’s mouth tugged up on one side. “What, are you not up for it, Hogokage?” he drawled. “I think the girls and I could enjoy ourselves if you have something better to do.” A rush of fury filled Ayato at the image, but before he could do more than his palms form into fists, Yui and Himari were standing in front of them, perfectly reassembled for their time in Hoshi. Yui reached out to take his hand to ease the tension she found. “Come now, Ayato,” she teased. “Don’t tell me Dusk has you all riled up already.”
“No more than he deserves,” Dusk promised with a wink. Himari laughed. Yui rubbed her thumb over Ayato’s knuckles until he loosened his grip enough to hold her hand. “The festival, then?” he managed.
“We’ll meet you boys there once you are finished.” Yui chirped, leading the two couples out of the shinobi headquarters. The Festival had been in a park on the fringes of the west end, so it wasn’t even a mile’s walk from the Unseen University. Luckily, the summer evening was mild and the night young. The park itself lit with lanterns bright enough to illuminate the scene. It was a small festival, but there was food and music, and Ayato grudgingly admitted that he could see why Himari was excited about it.
Ayato kept his eyes on the crowd, scanning for a pair of blonde heads. When he spotted them, he could hardly hold back a murmur of annoyance. Himari caught his eye and motioned for him to come over. The musicians and singers had just started playing a new tune, and he knew where this was going.
“Let’s go,” he sighed, turning toward Dusk. “The girls—”
He broke off. Yui watched him from a handful of inches away, the heat in her gaze enough to make Ayato melt. “The, ah...” He ate and turned his white eyes away. “Dusk and I beg the honor to dance with you ladies.”
Yui leaned away, and Ayato could suddenly breathe again. “Well then, we best not let our brave Hoshi heroes down,” she said politely. When Ayato chanced another glance at her, Yui’s expression was regular again, with no sign that she had been looking at Ayato as if she wanted to eat him.
“Probably not,” the Hyuuga echoed, and the duo set off into the crowd.
“There you are,” Himari exclaimed when they came into sight, one arm wrapped around the blue-haired Tachibana. “We were curious where you two went.” She raised an eyebrow knowingly, and Ayato felt his ears burn.
“Dancing, was it?” he asked hastily.
“Yes,” Yui said decisively, holding out her hand. “Join us now.” It was a paired dance, so Ayato was holding Yui the whole time. Their hands continually came together and separated as they moved around each other and the other dancers. Dusk Tachibana and Himari danced right next to them, and Ayato swore that Yui accidentally bumped into him more times than were strictly warranted.
One might have been able to brush the touching of clothes or collision of elbows as clumsiness on the part of the shinobi. But Ayato was a skilled dancer; the practice drilled to him since childhood. Still, there weren’t any socially acceptable reasons Ayato knew of for the noblewoman’s hand to slide briefly along his waist or cup his elbow for a scant heartbeat. And definitely, no call for the moment Yui turned left when she was supposed to go right and ran straight into him, pressing them together for an instant from shoulder to knee.
Each touch wound him tighter and tighter until Ayato was sure he was going to snap. After a few dances, a steadily darkening twilight fell around them as the sun quickly vanished, first behind buildings and then through trees.
“Shall we go?” Ayato asked, trying not to look rattled by the girl’s attention.
“I think there’s a man over there selling roasted nuts, and that sounds simply amazing. I can never eat before a dance, and I’m positively starving,” Yui said, turning her teasing gaze on Ayato. “Could I beg some pocket change from my dear date?”
Ayato could feel Dusk’s eyes on him, but he didn’t look over. “Of course, my lady,” he said. The Kage handed over a few ryo and received a perfunctory kiss on the cheek for his trouble. He could feel her now, Yui’s warmth bleeding through the thin air that separated them. Ayato knew that if he leaned forward, he would be pressed against the woman if he took a moment to list to the side.
“Are you coming, Himari?” Their arms linked, and the two women vanished into the crowd.
“I see your wicked plot was to get me to buy nuts for your paramour,” Ayato managed, pointedly watching the crowd and not Dusk, even as he felt him draw closer.
“You caught me,” Dusk admitted cheerfully. “As it happens, that was payback for sticking me with the check at a restaurant last week. For a Kage, you are surprisingly careful with your coin.”
Ayato felt his mouth twitch at the dig. “I told you, it was urgent village business.” It had been for a given value of urgent—namely a couple of troublesome guests, partaking in black market trade.
Dusk’s snort indicated he didn’t think much of being left to cover both men’s bar tabs. “And what’s the urgent need today? What am I going to tell poor Yui when she returns and finds her partner gone?”
"Meeting a friend.” Ayato had to admit; this date was an excellent alibi to skip his guards. Shina would find out, as she always did. But he enjoyed every minute of it. The theater was a short walk from where the festival was.
The doorman took quick note of the sigil on his white sleeveless surcoat, and the manager came out hurrying, all smiles and pleasantries. “A seat of honor for our Kage. Please follow me.” Underneath the surcoat, Ayato wore long-sleeve elaborate robes as black as the night sky. The robes tied with a purple linen sash around his thin and free of muscle fat waist.
The Hyuuga made to reach for his wallet, but they wouldn’t accept his money. Ayato thanked them and left the matter there. It was not proper to refuse a gift. Inside, an indigenous group was playing a bit about their history. Their origin was from the west of Haven Country, and there was had scant love for the shinobi in that place. Few of their people were rumored to have joined the Grimma ranks. Yet, the Kage understood that not everyone who lived outside the gates of Haven was a raider.
“They certainly do have an elaborate history,” Ayato observed. The balcony was empty, saved for the two of them. “Is the seat next to you empty, good sir?”
"Why, certainly, Hogokage." Indeed, the absence of the honorific "Lord" was intentional. Kozai gestured lazily to the seat. "I hadn't been expecting anyone else here tonight. What a pleasant surprise." He kept his tone light, as if having the leader of the village, Yasaki's successor, here really was a great privilege. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now. He snapped his fingers, and his Deva Path handed him a brochure, which he passed to Ayato. Doubtless, given the man's unique talents, he would have figured out the trick behind that Paths by now, but Kozai cared naught for such concerns. If Ayato knew all about Kozai, then he understood the need for secrecy. If not, then the question was rendered irrelevant on its own.
"The brochures", he preened, "are remarkably sparse when it comes to the background of this particular troupe." Well, they did the job well enough for laypeople, but that descriptor applied to neither of the men in the Master's box. "Members of a tribal confederation composed of natives west of the village. A proud people, with what the writers of old would call a 'noble horse culture', if you can imagine such a thing." How appropriate that this subject should happen to come up. The title of Master of the Archives covered more than simple books and maps. Intelligence, in general, was Kozai's specialty, and the domestic kind was his favorite. Purging external threats to his interests was becoming an ever more pressing need, but the enemies within remained nevertheless.
The theater lights darkened as the spotlights on the stage illuminated a small group of performers. Kozai leaned forward eagerly, his eyes drinking in every detail. Characters wandered a set that represented a tundra, dressed in costumed unlike anything Kozai had ever seen before. Foreigners? No, more like.... *progenitors*.
"It seems this is their vaunted creation myth", he muttered. Unlikely that he'd gain relevant information from this about their techniques or defensive formations, but it could give him a unique lens into the tribal confederacy's cultural dynamics, and maybe a few other things, too. Well, it was obvious to him that they claimed to come from some other land in millennia past, but which one, and of what relevance would that be? He didn't remember seeing anything like that kind of clothing in anything he'd ever read. Just his kind of luck, really; he'd have to send some of his people out to try and find similar articles elsewhere in the world. Even then, there was no guarantee that would lead to anything useful.
Either way, like the sparse Northern tribes, who had an ancient tale of crossing the icecapped glaciers and brutal tundras to come to where they were now, it seemed these people, too had their own tale of egress from a homeland. Kozai had recovered his own memories of such a journey years ago, the path from Yuki to Iwa that his own mind had suppressed for so long. Frankly speaking, he wasn't awfully impressed.
The players brought forth a succession of kite props, on the end of which were papercrafts of various colored birds, in order. Real, magical beasts, like the sphinxes in the glacial reaches? Or was it mere symbolism? First came a bird of fire, tracing a path to the promised land as a road of light in the sky. Whether this was a real firebird or not was irrelevant, it was clear that in ancient days, the confederacy had viewed the aurora as some kind of omen. Kozai knew better, of course. He turned to the kage.
"Papercraft, traditional costumes.... what do you think?" He withheld his own opinions for now. No sense in just blurting them out before giving the village leader a chance to respond.
Ayato Hyuuga likes this post
Yasaki had given him the play-by-play about everything else. Not a fantastic predator of brute force, Kozai disliked combat, seeing it as a necessary evil. The Dark Master of the Archives wields power, just not in the way shinobi of this day and age were accustomed. He attacks with intelligence and cunning to his target’s most significant weaknesses. Everything he does is some version of interrogation. The former Tsuchikage tried to have control of every situation. He was using dialogue to increase the emotional significance of upcoming events. Kozai will subtly flex his power through politeness and implied threats delivered with a smile. Sitting beside Ayato was a man capable of carving out a perma- spot into his enemy’s heart.
Kites danced around, the likeness of strange creatures. Who was not to say they were not real once. A bird of fire, tracing a path to the promised land as a road of light in the sky. It held significant symbolism from a distant past and an age long gone, a guide to the promised land.
“I believe they are referring to the cracking of the moon. And the bird is a comet, see how its flames across the night sky,” Ayato responded to Kozai’s question. “People often engaged in the practice of interpreting falling meteors as birds of fire or dragons.” It was easy to see why. Comets and meteors fly through the air and breathe fire when they enter the atmosphere and land with a massive roar and a boon.
A greybeard appeared next, wearing a long purple hat and robes with golden ribbons. The man spoke of a great hero that would lead the world through the darkness with his magic blade. A hundred days and a hundred nights, he forged it, as it glows white-hot in sacred flames. “Kassandra,” he said to her, for that was her name. “Bare your chest and know that I love you best of all that is in this world.” She complied, why nobody could say, and the last hero thrust the smoking sword through her beating heart. It was said that her cry of anguish and ecstasy left a crack across the face of the moon, but her blood, her soul, her strength, and courage went into the blade. Such is the tale of the Hearteater, the Red sword of heroes.
"Aha!" Ayato said in excitement. "It seems we have another moon reference in our hands." The Kage’s grey-white eyes examined the leaflet to see what was coming next. “The disappearing man,” Ayato noted, scratching under his chin. "The great trick of the evening, or so they say. I'm curious to see what that might be." He turned to Kozai, his thin lips forming to what appeared to be a smile.
Hyuuga. He knew of them, naturally, had even studied their bloodline early on in his life. How long ago had it been now? Thirty-three odd years, perhaps, but the memories were always fresh in his mind. A clan possessing an ocular prowess that gave the youngest child capabilities even his Rinnegan could not provide. Though it was rumored that the eyes could even see through a person's thoughts, Kozai was certain this wasn't the case. Not every contingency plan was needed, and besides, the two of them were ostensibly on the same team.
"Yes, I look forward to it." Kozai said, somewhat vaguely. Something else about the kage had caught his attention. Was it an intentional tell, a slip of the hand? Or was it a mistake? Well, either way, Kozai intended to keep playing the game, as it were. "You speak with some passion. What's the nature of your interest in these peoples? Surely, not mere curiosity." Well, even if it was, Kozai wasn't one to judge. Still, it would be a good move for him to attempt to get an indicator of Ayato's inner workings.
Down below, a new bird joined the cycle. A stork, perhaps? No, some kind of white-feathered vulture. It descended into the midst of the performers, and suddenly there was a new player on the stage. Clad in white as the bird kite had been, it was evident that he acted the role of the trickster. In a couple of minutes, when his antics and dance were done, he vanished, and the set was pulled back to reveal yet another one behind it. Instead of the steppes and hills of Haven country, there instead lay what was meant to portray a desolate and blasted wasteland.
It's a message to me. They know.
Kozai frowned and leaned forward slightly, watching more carefully. He'd have to accelerate his schedule to stay ahead, now. No going back.
A question on Kozai Yuki’s lips, but he was not asking for details about the legend. It seemed that for a brief moment, the labyrinths of Ayato’s mind concerned him. One did not need magic eyes to notice the emotional tone in Kage’s earlier words.
“It’s not curiosity you are correct; it is heritage,” The Hyuuga admitted. “My mother was a native of Haven, a noblewoman. Instead of spending time in the royal court, she visited the indigenous tribes and listened to their concerns. I suppose, in a way, I am retracing her steps, trying to keep in touch with my humanity.”
Taena Yomiyama died when the Kage was a boy of six years. Ayato knew the food she liked, the dresses she wore, the places she loved to visit. Yet Ayato barely remembered her. In truth, he only had one real memory of her. She was looking outside the window of the hospital and waiting for the end. She had looked back at her children with a blank face; to this day, Ayato wasn’t sure she recognized him.
As Ayato spoke, a white bird had joined the stage; it reminded Ayato of a white eagle owl. The type of bird was common in the West of Haven. The scene portrayed the steppes and hills of Haven Country; the performer was dancing and prancing before finally disappearing. And surprisingly, so did the stage behind him. Replaced by a new one that portrayed a desolate wasteland blasted half to hell.
“I must admit, this is turning into a lovely evening with tonight’s performance. Perhaps I ought to invite the performers to the next Kage Summit. The last one I attended in Sunagakure lacked positivity, but not of drama, I’m afraid.”
Ayato saw the master of the archives leaning forward, Kozai’s brow turning into a frown as he watched the troupe more intently than ever before in the night. “You seem quite pale. Was the last act not to your liking?” Asked Ayato, touching the bottom of his jawline. This time it was his turn to ask the questions.
Kozai decided to pointedly ignore the performance. After all, Ayato had brought up the summit. To business, then, at last. This had been on Kozai's agenda to discuss with the kage tonight, and getting to it so quickly was fortuitous. As someone who had formerly led a village and helped found another abroad, Kozai had some experience in foreign relations. For better or for worse, the institution that he had created was now firmly embedded in Hoshigakure's infrastructure, and unless something terribly drastic happened, Kozai remained invested in the village's future. Getting a first-hand account of what had gone down at the summit was, therefore, in his best interest. Choosing to also ignore the kage's comment about the play, Kozai forged ahead.
"I heard some commotion occurred at the summit. Did the host village do its job well in controlling the uproar? I trust that whoever accompanied you to the summit also conducted themselves well." Better to get a sense for who had been there, then to ask outright about what had been discussed. Kozai had not traveled in some time, and while the zeitgeist gave him some understanding of certain kage and personages in other lands, again, getting it from Ayato would be better. After all, they both had common goals in mind (or so he hoped, anyway).
As far as he could see, the age of large international criminal organizations formed by powerful missing ninja was over. Now, those groups were, if he had to guess, mostly concentrated in villages, and made up of that village's shinobi forces. In short, the big change from his time was that these groups had become institutionalized, which came with its own pros and cons. Was Suna one of these? He knew frustratingly little about it since its resurgence as a village.
"I believe my escort did their job in Suna in the summit of the Five Great Kages. After all, here I am on this box, alive and well enjoying the show. They had a secondary task to keep quiet during the summit. They did that as well when we were there anyway. After that, I'm not sure." The Kage said, the tone of his voice firm and direct.
"Konoha." The Hoshi's Kage finally admitted. "That was the opener and main topic of the summit. They had lost their freedom to Kiri years ago. The current Kazekage, Mizuki Ohta, had received an influx of refugees from that village, decided to try and liberate them from Kiri's authoritarian rule. A genuinely noble act, as was her endorsement of the Hokage at the time, Wan Senju. The Raikage was supportive of this as well. Unfortunately, the Mizukage's hands would not let go of his spoils of war so easily. To hear him say it in the name of world peace, he demanded one secret technique from everyone present to free Konoha. I was the first to call such demand utter nonsense."
The Second Mizukage, a man whose letter's to Ayato post-Chuunin exams, revealed his name to be Aloide Terumi. He was nothing like that Leviathan, this Xyxer Gyojin, the one who ruled with one hand open for loyalty and the other clutched around a weapon. That one was iron; he would break before he bent. A shinobi does not have the luxury of choosing his battleground. Much less a Kage. Even if it's a battle is fought with words instead of spears. Ayato understood quite well after that summit that people got drunk in words the same way a Hyuuga Warrior like him did with battle fever.
"The Kazekage suggested combat between the Kage's of Konoha and Kiri. Even though Wan Senju was fast to accept, the Mizukage was even quicker to deny. That’s where the matters stood before the summit resulted into insults and meaningless bickering."
His estimation of Ayato's character would have to be adjusted, as well. What was this crap about "nobility"? Truly, a moronic notion. To be quite frank, Kozai didn't give a rat's ass about liberating Konoha. He'd only been there once or twice, and his opinion of the village until now had been somewhat ambivalent. Now, what was the Raikage's interest in this? Occam's razor told Kozai that it was merely to weaken Kirigakure, but for all he knew, there could be some outlandish personal reasons involved. The Mizukage's demands didn't seem too outlandish either, given the facts at hand.
"It seems to me", he began dryly, "that the Kazekage already had a goal in mind when entering the summit." Kozai remembered meeting her, briefly, during the chunin exams. "The ethics of ownership over a shinobi hidden village, prescriptively speaking, are irrelevant to the conversation. Descriptively, Kirigakure owned that land by means of conquest, correct? In other words, the Kazekage sought to apply a poor use of diplomatic force in order to weaken another village." Things were becoming a little more transparent to him, as it were, and he did not like what he was seeing.
"This gives us but two options:
The first: The Kazekage, and by extension all the kage who concurred with her, are idiots. I find this, of course, to be unlikely.
The second: The Kazekage knew full well that this use of diplomatic force was an outwardly clumsy move, which means that the resulting turmoil was something she had in mind from the beginning." Kozai paused for a couple of seconds, composing his thoughts for the kage.
"Do you understand what I'm saying? Unless the Kazekage is an utterly inexperienced novice, the destabilization of foreign relations was something she had planned from the start. Sunagakure is a threat that must be prepared for as soon as possible." Kozai sat back, thinking about what he'd just induced. "Those are my conclusions, given the information that I have now." Of course, if the Hogokage hadn't told him everything, then he would have to make do with half-baked results, but Ayato didn't seem the type to hide crucial information from Kozai for nothing.
The Kage did his part in this politicizing battle with words but never took much joy in it. Ayato was always a man who enjoyed the virtues of action. He was trained to fight fast ever since he was deemed old enough to hold a gentle fist stance—the heritage of the great Hyuuga clan. Ayato’s father was a shinobi, and his grandfather was too. So were both of his siblings.
"I understand what you are saying all too well. I find it outlandish that the Kazekage was a novice that had no idea what they were doing." Kozai made an excellent observation; that whole summit might have been a veiled attempt to cause friction among shinobi villages. Something that Ayato was oblivious to until now. Or perhaps part of his always knew but never wanted to admit.
"I fear the fake friend, who hugs me more than the enemy attacks me," Ayato said with ice in his voice, almost as if he was talking to himself. He must have read it somewhere. There had been people in that village that he cared for, Zaine and Souji, his friend and relative from the old Konoha. But these two were not the entirety of Suna. Trusting others outside of your villagers would most likely end with a dagger buried in your back. The thought of being found face down in a ditch had scant appeal to Ayato.
"An elite unit within our ranks, the Nova Corps, is ready to defend the realm against any potential threats." The Kage said reassuringly.