Fifth Tenant of the Shinobi Neutrality Pact
It is prohibited to harm an ambassador to the pact in any way. Any person under the pact found guilty of this will be subject to a trial of both village peers and ambassadors. Upon proof of assault, said person will be subject to suitable punishment as decided upon by the jury, depending upon the severity of the result.
Sakura, Gaara, Sai, and Kakashi were the first foreign shinobi since Hashirama Senju to step foot in Takigakure, according to Fuu.
No pressure, of course.
Hashirama had come to Taki in order to seek out an alliance during the founding of the villages. The leader of Taki then had turned down the offer, after a heated argument between the two. It was the first Sakura had ever heard of it. There was nothing in the Konoha records about Hashirama's meeting with Taki, only a footnote about how Taki preferred to remain solitary. The only reason Sakura knew about Taki at all was due to the fact that they had a Jinchuuriki, and that the country's boundaries had to be put on continental maps. It was only now, as she reached the village outskirts, that Sakura realized just how little she knew about these reclusive people.
It was little wonder that invaders had typically experienced a hard time breaching the village. Just finding it was something that Sakura wouldn't have been able to do easily on her own, given the time and agency to explore. Deep within the Taki forests was a waterfall cascading in rivets down a mountainous ridge. The mountain itself was nowhere near as tall as any of Iwa's, of course, but there were tunnels that ran deep beneath the mountain's surface, and that was where Taki had built. The only entrance into these tunnels was through the waterfall itself, and once through the waterfall, a plethora of traps awaited anyone who didn't know the exact right place to land or step. Sakura was sure to follow Fuu's every step, noting that there were dozens of tripwires and seals on nearly every rock in the entrance. Beyond that, a squadron of shinobi guarded the entrance, only letting them pass once Fuu gave them the correct set of hand signals. Even then, Fuu had explaining to do. She'd left alone and come back with a contingent of foreign shinobi, carrying two live demons with them. One of the Taki shinobi went off immediately to inform their leader, Shibuki, and the others immediately restrained Sakura and her crew. It was precaution, of course, and Fuu went out of her way to assure them that, assuming they behaved, the restraints would be gone soon enough.
It was with that that they were marched deep into the mountain, and Sakura laid eyes on Takigakure for the first time.
The caves were vaster than she could have imagined, lit with both massive torches and small beams of sunlight from holes in the mountainside. Even though it was technically underground, it was bright enough that it seemed like daylight. What was even stranger, however, was the presence of plants so deep into the mountain. Large moss beds decorated the ground like grass, mushrooms with a faint luminescence decorated the cave walls, and the most fascinating of all, so fascinating that it left Sakura almost dumbstruck, was the presence of a massive tree.
And Sakura knew massive trees, she had grown up in what she'd thought was the biggest damn forest in the continent, yet this tree still managed to impress her in terms of sheer girth and height, not counting, of course, that it was growing underground. Surrounding the tree was an underground lake that sparkling under torch and sunlight, with small rivers that spiraled across the town itself. Sakura saw watermills and gardens that seemed to float on the rivers themselves, and even saw free roaming deer herds grazing on the moss beds below. It was a whole city here, hidden beneath the mountain, and if she'd just been passing by she'd never have been able to conceive what Taki had created down here. If she hadn't seen it with her own eyes, Sakura wasn't sure she'd have been able to believe it.
The waterfall passage led to a set of stone stairs that wound their way down into the village proper. Sakura caught sight of civilians and shinobi alike staring her way, though it was more in awe and surprise rather than fear or anger. Children came rushing up to get a glance at her, only to be shooed away by her guards. Most of the shinobi there were as brown as Fuu, but with hair colors ranging from white to a light teal. In a way, the Taki people looked almost ethereal. It was little wonder that Sakura and her crew got stares; it was almost extreme how different they looked from the Taki residents.
After a long walk through the stone houses that made up the village, they reached the lakeside, and from there Sakura could see a winding path of stones that made their way to the base of the giant tree. It was to the tree she was taken, though along the way Sakura couldn't help but take note of several fluorescent insects that darted across the water's edge. Dragonflies, mostly, though there were other breeds that skimmed the lake surface until they were snatched up by the jaws of one of the many bats flying overhead.
Would any of her friends believe what she was seeing? Sakura briefly thought of how Naruto would react to a place like this, and the image of him enthusiastically jumping into the lake crossed her mind. She suppressed a giggle. Even Onoki probably would have gotten wide eyes at the sight. Taki was beautiful.
Integrated into the base of the tree was a building, though it might have been a stretch to call it that. The more accurate description was that the trunk of the tree had been carved into, creating a hollow within where, Sakura would learn, the leader of Taki resided. Shibuki awaited them inside, and Sakura was surprised to see that he looked young, maybe even younger than Kakashi was. His long hair draped down to his knees, and he wore a dark blue coat with a symbol that Sakura did not recognize embroidered upon it. For a brief moment, Sakura held her breath, unsure of how the Taki leader would react to her presence. However, the man was polite, even going so far as to give a short, but definitive bow as they approached.
"I've been informed that my shinobi has found cause to invite visitors to our village." Shibuki spoke, looking over Sakura and the others with what looked to be a wary eye. "I see with my own eyes that you have brought two demons along with you. You may not realize, but such a gesture goes a long way here in Waterfall. That is the sole reason I have allowed you to have audience with me."
Sakura let herself exhale. So they'd gotten lucky, meeting up with Fuu in the woods as they had, and luckier still that they'd found demons along the way. "We're exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, sir. We've come here in peace, and to discuss ending some of the hostilities that have grown between the Hidden Villages. I hope you'll hear me out." Sakura gave a bow to Shibuki in turn, and was pleased when she saw her companions doing the same.
"Respectful." Shibuki commented with a nod. "I can appreciate that. As well as the sentiment of peace. But I notice that among you are two shinobi of the Hidden Leaf. In the past, Leaf has tried to sway us into alignment, and we have turned them away. What has convinced you that the answer will be different now?"
"Because…" Sakura glanced hesitantly over to Gaara. "Because...Gaara and myself, we are not affiliated with the Leaf. We are ambassadors to the Shinobi Neutrality Project. My other companions, Kakashi and Sai, have come along as a gesture of good faith, and to help demonstrate the legitimacy of the project. They are escorting us until we next pass through Leaf, after which they will no longer travel with me."
"I see." Shibuki looked to her companions before glancing to her again. "And you are?"
"...S-Sakura Haruno, sir." Sakura forced herself to bow again. "Head ambassador to the Neutrality Project."
"I see." Shibuki repeated. For a moment he was quiet, simply looking her in the eyes, and Sakura made sure to keep his gaze. She had nothing to hide, after all, her claims were legitimate. She was here for peace. She was here to talk.
Then, after what seemed almost painfully too long a time, Shibuki gave his shinobi a series of quick hand signals. The shinobi next to Sakura pulled out a knife and quickly cut her restraints, then pushed her in Shibuki's direction.
"Come." Shibuki gestured. "I would speak with you alone."
Sakura gulped, and follow Shibuki deeper into the hollow.
They went upward, following a carved portion of wood in a spiral around the interior of the tree. As they ascended, Sakura saw many scrolls hanging on the walls, each covered in artwork that tempted her to stop and look. Many of the scrolls depicted what Sakura could only describe as a massive beetle, sprouting six wings and long, thin tail. Sometimes the beetle looked to be in combat, often with other strange beasts of similar size. It was in one such depiction that Sakura recognized a large, nine-tailed fox. The Kyuubi. The beetle had to be the Nanabi, then, the Bijuu that Taki was said to control. Six wings plus a tail added up to seven, she supposed, and she had seen Fuu sport a lovely pair of chakra wings earlier.
As they got higher up, the nature of the artwork changed. Instead of beasts, Sakura saw scenery. Massive trees, one of which looked like the one they were currently walking in, but it was a different one that caught her eye. The tree had pink leaves, like a cherry blossom, and in every depiction it showed a long branch carrying a single fruit. Sometimes, beneath the strange tree, there was a woman with long, silver hair.
The woman was beautiful, but strange. She had a pair of two thin horns sprouting from her forehead, and her eyes seemed to be made up of spirals. Forgetting herself, Sakura stopped in front of them briefly, in awe of the woman.
"That is the Lady Kaguya." Shibuki explained, noticing Sakura's pause. "In her time, she was considered a Goddess, but more truthfully she could be considered the Progenitor of Chakra. The Mother of all Shinobi."
"I've never heard of her." Sakura admitted. "I thought the Sage of Six Paths was the god of shinobi."
"In a way, this is true." Shibuki agreed. "After all, Kaguya was his mother. The child of a god could be considered a god in turn."
"His mother…" Sakura whispered, awe in her voice as her eyes glanced over Kaguya once more. "She's beautiful."
"Indeed. But beauty can be deceiving."
Sakura looked back to Shibuki, who was gesturing for her to move on. Though Sakura wanted to stay longer, she couldn't refuse the leader of Taki. Reluctantly, she began her trek up the tree once again, but this time, Shibuki continued to speak.
"There are hundreds of stories of the Sage of Six Paths, but there are equally many stories of Kaguya here in Waterfall. None can agree on her origin, but what is agreed upon is that Kaguya one day came upon a tree that had been alive since the planet could first sustain life. This tree, the great Chakra Tree, drew energy from the planet as nutrients, and every thousand years would produce a fruit that was said to bestow a terrible power upon those who devoured it. Kaguya ate of this fruit, and from it chakra was born inside her, chakra so massive that it would dwarf any shinobi of today. From her, two children were born, one of whom is your Sage of Six Paths. From these children were many more children born, and that is how chakra spread across the world, and how shinobi came to be.
"But there was darkness in Kaguya's heart. She grew mad. There are many stories as to why. Some say she grew mad over the loss of her lover. Some say she grew jealous over the power her sons had gained, and feared they would one day overtake her rule. Whatever the reason, whatever the cause, Kaguya moved to take over the world in full, as well as take back the chakra that her boys had received from her. In her madness she transformed into a hideous beast of ten tails. The Juubi. The One-Eyed God.
"Her children fought against her for a month as she rampaged across the continent. In the end, they could not kill her. Her power was too vast, and upon death the energy within her would simply reform into the beast once more. So, the brothers did the only thing they could. They split the chakra of their mother into nine parts, and divided her consciousness with them. Split apart so, the Lady Kaguya was no more…"
"...and the nine Tailed Beasts were birthed in her place." Sakura concluded, still just as wide-eyed as before as she considered the story. "That story seems…a little fantastical, I have to admit."
"That is what Hashirama told my great-grandfather." Shibuki admitted. "But of course, we have proof of the tale. For who better would know the truth of it than the Bijuu themselves?"
"You asked the Nanabi? And they answered?"
"Unlike other villages, our relationship with the Nanabi is one of mutual agreement. Chomei is our ally, and we are its in turn."
A mutual alliance...Sakura wondered what that was like. Fuu did seem confident in her abilities as a Jinchuuriki, and unlike others she had met, Fuu didn't seem ostracized at all. A village that respected Bijuu? It was...unique.
And she was almost furious that it was.
"I think other villages could stand to have that sentiment in regards to their own Bijuu." Sakura noted.
"And now you see the beginnings of Taki's dissent." Though it was so fast she almost missed it, Sakura saw a smile on Shibuki's face.
The winding path finally led to a room in the upper part of the tree trunk. It was a small room, complete with a table, a few cabinets, and what looked to be a small kitchen. Shibuki gestured for her to sit at the table, and as she did the man went to the kitchen and began to work on making tea. It was cozy, and Sakura realized that she had probably just been invited into the man's house. The leader of Taki was oddly personable, but she wasn't going to complain. Was he this personable with all his shinobi, she wondered to herself. Surely a foreigner wouldn't be allotted special treatment here.
"Hashirama Senju, the first Hokage of the Leaf, forcibly restrained seven of the nine Bijuu that roamed the continent. Bijuu that, until that moment, had lived in peaceful isolation from the rest of the world. Hashirama used their power to end the warring era, and then gave them out as slaves to each of the budding Hidden Villages. Barring Suna, who had already enslaved one of their own." Shibuki spoke as began to mix tea leaves into a kettle of boiling water. "Hashirama, like many, believed the Bijuu to be simple animals who had accumulated chakra over time. He did not believe the tale of Kaguya or their origin, despite how relatively easy it is to confirm. But of course, why would other shinobi go out of their way to speak with animals? They did not think it possible. They did not know. They abused that power to bring their people into power, and then had the gall to think that we of Waterfall would join them in such pursuits." Shibuki took a deep breath before bringing two cups to the table. "We of Waterfall will not align ourselves with slavers. I hope, before you discuss your proposal to me, that you understand this of us."
"I understand." Sakura agreed. "And...I know you might find it hard to believe, but...we might be working for the same thing."
"I told you before that you are here before me now because you aided my own." Shibuki replied. "Though you did not have to, you acted. That alone gives me hope that, perhaps, the rest of the world might be starting to grow up."
He poured her some tea, and then sat down across from her, still just as calm as before. It was enough to even put Sakura at ease.
"Tell me about yourself, Sakura Haruno. And tell me about your…'project'."
Sakura took a deep breath and began to speak.
She began with Akatsuki. Someone so vested in the well being of the Tailed Beasts was sure to be sympathetic to the cause that was preventing Akatsuki's success, and really, Akatsuki was where everything had begun. Sakura had left home to find out more, had recruited Gaara through this pursuit of knowledge, and around Shibuki she felt at ease enough to inform him that Gaara was a Jinchuuriki as well, and not only that, both of them had spoken with Shukaku.
"Shukaku is very upset with the world." Sakura explained. "And I suppose he has every right to be. Enslaved is the only way to put it, forced to give power to humans who treat him like a battery. It took a few conversations before he even remotely started treating us civilly, but...right now he's teaching Gaara taijutsu. Gaara says they talk every day, and I think Gaara could be a really good example of a proper relationship between a Bijuu and a human. I don't know if it's going to be possible to get the villages to give up their hold on their Bijuu all at once. The villages still view them as weapons, necessary weapons to keep on hold to prevent other villages from invading. But that doesn't mean we can't start setting an example. We can start to show people that Bijuu aren't weapons, they're living beings with thoughts and feelings and wants and needs, and that they can live in harmony with people as long as they're respected. Gaara can be such an example...but Taki can be that example too, don't you think? You claim to live in harmony with Chomei. If the other villages see that too, well, they might start to think twice." Sakura reached into her pouch, pulling out her draft of the Neutrality Pact and pushing over to Shibuki's side of the table. "All villages are considered equal under the pact, with equal voice. You, combined with Gaara, can be a voice for the rights of Bijuu. We can change the way the world works, but we have to start."
"A naive sentiment. But not necessarily a bad one." Shibuki began to look over the draft, his eyes rapidly moving across the pages. "You will forgive me, though, for being wary. Hashirama once came preaching similar sentiment. Though you have my interest in regards to rights for the Bijuu, I have no guarantee that you nor I will be able to bend other villages to this way of thinking. Words are just words, not actions, and I cannot monitor every village at once to see how they treat their Bijuu."
"That is what ambassadors will be for." Sakura pointed out. "At some point I'll...I'll have to recruit more people to be ambassadors, and we can set up a system that will allow ambassadors to cycle through the villages and see that pact standards are being met."
"And if they're not?" Shibuki questioned. "How will villages be punished?"
"Removal from the pact, which I admit doesn't sound like too huge a threat. But part of what the Tsuchikage and I tried to set up is that leaving the pact forfeits the right to trading with villages in the pact. Trading that many villages rely upon for both a thriving economy. The pact is intended to usher in peace, but there are other factors involved. If you're not in the pact, if you're invaded, nobody in the pact will lift a finger to help you. That sort of thing. We wanted to make sure there were benefits to being a part of the pact, benefits that will outweigh any potential cons to signing in."
"A lot of thought has gone into this, I see."
"You could say that."
"Good. I wouldn't take you seriously otherwise." Shibuki slid the draft back to Sakura before returning to his tea. "Though I will not sign this so quickly."
"I wouldn't expect it, Lord Shibuki." Sakura replied. "It is a very big matter to consider."
"I will need to speak with you a lot more before I consider it in full. But more importantly, there is something that needs to happen immediately."
"Anything, just name it."
"I must speak with Shukaku myself. I would like to hear what he has to think of this project."