Preview – Shattered Bonds Ch 17

Shattered Bonds, Chapter 17 – The Road to Kage

Traveling to the Waterfall country was the first hurdle for Naruto in his training to one day become a Kage. He tugged at his collar, hot and itchy from the unseasonably warm day.

But it wasn’t even the civilian clothes or the snail’s pace they traveled, or even the confined quarters that was getting to him. It was the road itself. They’d hit so many bumps it felt like his teeth were going to shatter. If he’d known it was going to be this bad when he left Konoha, he might not have come along at all….

Naruto had been silent through out the planning, but when Tsunade’s office finally emptied out, he wondered aloud if it wouldn’t just be easier for them to set off alone, and travel light as shinobi did. Let the packed wagons meet them later.

Tsunade smiled ruefully. “While it would be easier, the purpose of this visit is to make a statement. And traveling in traditional carriages is one way we do that.” Naruto rolled his eyes. “Be glad. At least it’s not palanquins this time.”

Naruto looked aghast at the thought of being trapped in a curtained platform while men carried you. It seemed downright cruel. 

“But that doesn’t happen anymore—? Does it? Konoha doesn’t even have those old chairs—“

Tsunade grimaced. “Oh yes, we do. They’re musty and old, and sometimes — very rarely — we have to dust them off and use them. For ceremonies and such. Usually not for official travel though.”

Naruto shuddered at the thought but shook it off. He took a deep breath remembering it didn’t matter. He would be out in the fresh air, running alongside the state carriages or stealthily hopping through the high limbs making sure there were no attackers on the road below. 

“Well, your carriage might take a while, but I’ll be with the security detail. Which reminds me, who did you assign—“

Tsunade shook her head slowly, watching him, smiling archly. 

Naruto was slow to catch on. “W-What do you mean….”

“You’ll be riding with me, in the carriage. You’ll be with the Hokage’s entourage, as a diplomatic attendant. Not a shinobi.”

Naruto’s face fell. But before he could break into a whine, Tsunade stopped him. “If you are going to learn how to be a leader, you must first act like one.”

Naruto shut his mouth, although it bent into a permanent frown that stayed with him all the days leading up to the trip. Now in the carriage, he bumped hard on the seat and hit the ceiling. His frown turned to a scowl as he muttered and rubbed his head. 

Beside him, Tsunade smirked. She did not seem to feel the jolt and shake of the rutted road. It was only then that he noticed she was channeling her chakra downward to keep her balanced on the seat as the carriage lurched beneath her.

He sat back and adopted the same secret shinobi move, glancing sideways at her and seeing her teasing smile. She may have to act like a Kage, but she was not above a few shinobi tricks to keep herself comfortable. He looked across at the two wrinkled old council members just as another bump shot them upward.

Smiling fully, Tsunade turned to him. “Now that you’re comfortable, let’s talk about what you can expect.”

Naruto nodded with intent and earnestly listened, but just like the half-dozen times before in her office, he started to lose track of the names, places and history of this long-running conflict. It was just too much. 

Each time he tried to listen for the kernel of story, the one phrase or clan name or ninja who was at the heart of the struggle. But each time he missed it. 

Well, he guessed he missed it…. He tugged at the tight neck of the civilian dress clothes provided by Shizune. Maybe there wasn’t a kernel of truth at all. Maybe it was just one series of events that led to another, like falling pieces on a game table, knocking one another over. Or maybe a cascading series of events, like a waterfall, just like the country where they were heading—

“Naruto! Are you even listening?!”

Huh?! Yeah! I just— Well, that last part…. Do you think you could repeat it again? It was— I mean, I kind of got lost there—“

Tsunade sighed. “It doesn’t matter. Not this time anyway. Just follow who I talk to, try to pick up names and places. All you need to remember is that all these people might one day be our allies…or our enemies. So you have to watch them. All of them. All the time. It’s easy. Oh, and don’t forget to remember as much as you can.”

Naruto looked at her skeptically. That wasn’t such an easy task. But the council men across from her sharpened their attention in spite of the bumps. They nodded hawkishly, approving of Tsunade’s strategies. 

Naruto nodded back, but he had the queasy feeling that he was the only one who didn’t get it. And he’d rather be outside, patrolling up in the trees. Where things made sense.

The Village Hidden in the Waterfalls was not what Naruto expected. He hoped for a secret city built in a vast mountain cave,  hidden behind a curtain of falling water. 

Instead they rounded the corner to see a walled village just like Konoha. Clouds of mist tumbled over the edges of the high walls, hinting at the waterfalls that must be contained within the city, but otherwise it seemed the same. There was a single entry road through the peeling gates and a gatehouse with a bunch of guards hanging around. They jumped up at the sound of an approaching carriage. 

The Konoha carriage lurched to a stop, but before their shinobi guards could land, the Waterfall patrolmen yanked back the curtain on the vehicle and unceremoniously peered inside. They made a big show of checking their clipboard and narrowing their eyes at the newcomers before they were satisfied and waved them through.

Naruto harrumphed at the treatment, sure that Konoha guards would never be so rude, but Tsunade merely smiled and tugged the curtain closed.

Naruto was about to grumbled loudly about how they were rude, but Tsunade raised a hand.

“Each village has its own way. We’re no different.” Naruto didn’t look convinced. “You might find that a little patience can go a long way. Shinobis may get to show their power, but leaders have to show restraint.”

The other Konoha diplomats in the carriage nodded in agreement, and Naruto grudgingly agreed. Thankfully the carriage stopped again and he didn’t have to listen to any more wisdom about how to be a leader.

State dinners were very different affairs from shinobi events. Even though the two villages had been allies in the war, they were treated incredibly formally. Because Naruto was now with the Kage’s entourage, he was ushered into the long, columned state room. The big round door was embossed with patterns of cresting waves and tumbling waters. Naruto watched longingly as it closed on the rest of the Leaf shinobi guards, who were doubtless going to relax after their long trip. But not them.

They were shown to the center of the hall, to a row of benches lined with dark blue cushions, and allowed to sit. They faced a throne carved in the same rippling pattern as the door, and lined with the same dark cushions. 

Naruto had just sunk into the smaller cushion on the end, when a man in traditional waterfall blue and gold robes stepped forward. He unrolled a scroll that dropped to his sandaled feet, and Naruto fought the urge to groan. Naruto sat through two scrolls of Waterfall history, important battles and clan names. 

Only slightly more interesting was the reading of Konoha’s history. It was just a single scroll, and Naruto glanced to the side wondering if Tsunade perceived it as a snub. She only smiled placidly, so he couldn’t tell. 

After that was the exchange of gifts, the acknowledgement of alliances between the villages, the reaffirming of treaties, and then finally…dinner. Naruto thought he was going to slide off the bench he was so hungry.

They were ushered into another state room with a long table already set for dinner. But between them and their meal was another gauntlet — a long line of men from each of the same Waterfall clans Naruto had been hearing about for the past hour or more. His stomach growled at the smell of food, but he smiled and set about to greeting each man as fast as possible, just like Tsunade was doing. Many smiled and asked about his health and his occupation now, having heard of him from the war. It softened the edge of his hunger.

A commotion was heard at the empty space at the end of the line. It drew the attention of the men around him, and not a few unkind words about the latecomers. “What are they doing here?” “Late as usual—“ “Such a disgrace to the clan— “It’s not proper—“ “Not dignified—“ “She has no place at an event like this….”

Naruto turned his head, expecting to see someone who might ruffle the feathers of civilian leadership. Someone like Anko.

Instead it was just a girl, his age, wearing a loud variation of the Waterfall colors and scrubbing the back of her neck in embarrassment. Her tousled, wind-blown hair was an unapologetically sky blue and her clothes were a girlier variation of the staid Waterfall fatigues and stuffy robes

She shot a glare down at some of the sneering old men, while the clan leaders closest to her rolled their eyes. A few even shuffled away, as if afraid they would catch something. 

But she didn’t care. Her eyes swept the room, looking intently for someone…. They landed on him.

She caught Naruto’s eye, smiled brightly and even waved. She was here to see him, and a bunch of stuffy old men weren’t going to stop her.

Naruto found himself smiling back. He liked people like her.