Kaoru slurped creek water from her cupped hands as Sandor splashed away the soot and sweat and dried blood from his face. They had both fallen silent after establishing their truce, each leaving the other alone to think about how to proceed, but the shadows were growing short as the sun reached its peak in the sky, and Kaoru was getting uneasy with the quiet.
She wiped her hand on the loose blue fabric of her hakama. The water darkened the blood of the man whose hands Sandor had cut off. She shuddered, pushing the image out of her mind.
“What do you think magic has to do with anything?” Kaoru finally brought herself to say.
Sandor didn’t answer. He sat back on his haunches and made a gurgling sound in the back of his throat and hocked a great glob of mucus into the stream.
It was disgusting. It reminded Kaoru of her dear but sometimes gross friend Sanosuke, and her heart broke. Would she ever see anyone from Tokyo again? Would she be stuck here forever?
Clearing his throat, Sandor finally replied, “You’re not just from someplace outside of Westeros. I’m no chain-wearing Citadel graduate, but I’ve seen maps of the known world. ‘Japan’ isn’t part of it. Not here.”
Kaoru nodded. It hadn’t really registered into her consciousness until this moment, but in the back of her mind she had been coming to the same conclusion about ‘Westeros’. “So you think --”
“Lady Sansa is a noblewoman with value to many. She has a title, great swaths of land, red hair that would make any man look twice. It’s a wonder no one has tried to get ahold of her before now. I think -- I think they tried to get her. Some sorcerer, perhaps, or some bloody fire-worshipping priest of Stannis’s,” he said, the words passing his lips like a curse. He rubbed an eye with the heel of his hand. “But they didn’t get her. Somehow they brought you here, where you took Sansa’s place. And she was sent to wherever you came from, if she was lucky.”
Kaoru thought about how a homicidal Enishi would react to a strange foreign woman materializing on his balcony after the sudden disappearance of his hostage. “That might not be so lucky for her.”
Sandor’s nostrils flared with shallow breaths. “What is that supposed to mean?” he asked, his voice a blade against a whetstone.
Kaoru didn’t answer right away. She stood and walked a few steps up the stream bank, listening for voices, but all she heard was the chirping of birds, and then the sound of Sandor rising and stalking toward her.
“Tell me.” He had come close enough for Kaoru to smell his still sour breath.
She turned toward him but took a step backward. “I came from a very dangerous place. Both generally, and the exact moment when I, uh, dropped in on you.” She looked down at her woven sandals. One of the straps had come apart and would need to be repaired. She sighed and continued, “I was kidnapped by a man named Enishi Yukishiro, an estranged family member of my --” Of her what, exactly? Just how could she describe Kenshin? As the man whose love she longed to have? As her kindest, best friend, who just happened to be the most feared swordsman on either side of the Boshin War? As her beatific, long-time housemate who had vowed never to kill again as penitence for all the pain and death he’d caused so many years earlier? “-- of my protector, Kenshin,” she hedged, hoping Sandor would understand.
Sandor said nothing, but the spot above his temple was pulsing as he clenched his jaw.
Kaoru fiddled with the hem of her sleeve. “Kenshin was once a fierce manslayer, a hitokiri Battousai. He killed Enishi’s sister Tomoe by accident, right in front of Enishi when he was a child,” she continued rapidly, skipping over the parts of the tragic story that hurt her the most: how Tomoe and Kenshin had been deeply in love, how Tomoe had given her life to save Kenshin’s by jumping into the middle of a swordfight, how Kenshin surely wished that Tomoe was still alive and how he would certainly never love anyone else. “Enishi snapped after he saw Tomoe die. He dedicated his life to taking vengeance on Kenshin -- taught himself how to fight, became a ruthless gangster --”
Sandor snorted impatiently. “Get to the point,” he ordered, dismissing Kaoru’s testimony with a wave of his hand. “What was happening before you -- when you arrived in King’s Landing? What kind of place has Sansa fallen into?”
Kaoru rubbed her throat. She saw Sandor’s eyes flick to her neck and widen in recognition, and that’s when she knew for sure that Enishi’s fingers must have left deep bruises. “Enishi is completely crazy,” she said, cutting to the heart of the matter. “He thinks he sees visions of his sister telling him what to do. He’s trying to make Kenshin suffer, so he kidnapped me and took me to a secret hideout on an island. I thought he wouldn’t hurt me -- he said I reminded him of his sister -- but then after a couple of days, he attacked me. Trying to kill me or just scare me, I’m not sure. But suddenly I couldn’t feel his hand on my throat, and then I was here.”
Sandor seemed to have been stunned into silence. He stood there, breathing hard, refusing to return Kaoru’s gaze.
She felt exhausted all over again, although whether it was from the all-night escape or from the realization that she was in a place where magic was taken as a given or simply from telling Kenshin’s tragic story, she couldn’t tell. She turned away from Sandor. A yellow leaf fluttered across the clearing and landed in the water, which carried it away in the direction they had come from the previous night. It gave her an idea. “Perhaps we should go back into the city to see if we can reverse whatever brought me here, and see about Lady Sansa. We could find where the switch occurred, if that’s what happened.”
“Bugger that. King’s Landing is nothing but fire and death now.” Sandor spat again, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “We might as well slit each other’s throats. We’d have the same chance of survival.”
Kaoru ground her teeth together. “Do you have a better idea, scarface?”
Sandor’s head whipped around at the jibe. “Careful. There’s no line of knights marching out of the forest to come to your rescue.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, Kaoru huffed and turned away. If Sandor wouldn’t take her, maybe she’d have to go back on her own. She wondered how hard it would be to steal his horse and learn to ride it. She imagined her rival Megumi mocking her for such a stupid idea, and then realized this was the first time in her life where she would have preferred to be mocked by the pretty doctor instead of addressing her current situation.
Before she could seriously consider such a drastic plan, Sandor coughed to get her attention again. He spoke quietly, as if he couldn’t quite believe the words were coming out of his mouth. “I’ve heard of someone who might know what to do, to help Lady Sansa. And you too,” he added.
Finally! Kaoru thought, trying to ignore how clearly her own safety was a mere afterthought to Sandor. She sprinted over to the spot where their they had set their swords on the ground and picked up both weapons. “That’s great! Who is it?”
Sandor didn’t move. “A woods witch.” His lip curled in contempt.
Kaoru blinked, unnerved both by the suggestion and Sandor’s anger. Still, she was willing to talk to anybody who might have the power to send her home. With some difficulty, she tucked the sword into her cloth belt. “So, let’s go.”
“Not so fast. She’s far away, with a horde of desperate smallfolk and a roving bands of dangerous army deserters in between. Chances are that we’ll get killed long before we reach her.” Sandor’s expression alternated between hopelessness and fury. “Chances are, Sansa’s gone for good.”
So much self pity from a capable warrior was getting real old, real fast, as far as Kaoru was concerned. “You’re not exactly helpless with a weapon, and neither am I.” She marched over to Sandor and held out his sword to him. “Come on, let’s find the witch and get her to help us. I have important people I need to come home to.” One in particular, she thought, thinking of Kenshin’s calm, content smile.
Sandor still didn’t move. He was starting to become a real pain in the ass.
Kaoru looked up at the sky and blew the bangs out of her hair. If she had been dealing with Yahiko, she would have started screaming at him by now, but this particular uncooperative swordsman seemed to need a different kind of motivation. “If not for me, do it for your Sansa.”
Sandor shot her a look of alarm. “She’s not my --”
Kaoru rolled her eyes as she cut him off. “Yeah, whatever you say. Let’s go.” She started jogging toward the horse.
Evidently, she had made the right move. Sandor’s armor clanked as he scrambled to catch up to her.
Sansa shuffled down a twisted path through the trees a few paces behind Enishi. They hadn’t been walking for more than a few minutes, but the canopy had closed over them like the arched ceiling in the Sept of Baelor, and she couldn’t have found her way back to the house if she had tried.
This place was beautiful, but Sansa was miserable. Even here in the shade, her hair stuck to her face and the back of her neck. Her cheeks stung from her earlier unprotected exposure to the sunlight. Her sweat had stained a great circle under the one remaining arm sleeve of her gown; the other had been torn away when the Hound’s horse Stranger had passed too close to an ornate, jutting archway as they’d fled the Red Keep. The rest of the garment was in a similarly devastated condition. The rocks and bushes along the path had already snagged what was left of her skirts. Once, she would have cried over the destruction of such finery, but she’d left those days far behind in King’s Landing.
Sansa had come to the conclusion that she and Enishi were the only people left on the island — unless, of course, the Kamiya girl somehow turned up. Or better yet, Sandor Clegane, she dared to hope.
When she wasn’t concentrating on where to put her feet without tripping, she stole glances at her strange companion. Enishi was almost as tall as the Hound, but where Sandor Clegane was broad and muscled like a bull, Enishi was slender, with taut, ropy muscles. He had slung his sword across his back in an enormous scabbard, and he kept looking back at her with wild, suspicious eyes. He had declared her “real”, but now he seemed to be doubting his own pronouncement. He had also told her that he wouldn’t kill her out of respect for the wishes of someone named Tomoe. Sansa hoped he wouldn’t start doubting those wishes as well.
Enishi halted at a break in the foliage that exposed the view of the beach. Sansa looked beyond the bay, where the ship she’d seen earlier had disappeared over the horizon, and Enishi noticed. “When the ship returns, Wu will surely bring me good news of Battousai, of how he suffered at my hands when he thought he lost Kamiya, of how he’s finally dead from the pain, how he finally knows the anguish I live through every day --” his voice rose as he babbled giddily. Sansa’s stomach curled over itself in terror. She’d witnessed Joffrey growing similarly euphoric while reciting the ways he had destroyed people’s lives.
Enishi took a breath and brought himself under control again. “Then I will return Kamiya to Tokyo. It’s what Tomoe wants. Not what I tried to do before. I know that now.”
It wasn’t entirely clear to Sansa that Enishi was still addressing her, or if he was just talking to himself. She found herself hoping that he would forget that she was there, just as she had so often with Joffrey.
Enishi turned to face her fully, and glared at her dress. Sansa forced herself to keep her arms at her sides.
“Your gown is falling off of you,” he observed, but the way he said it made it clear that he found the fact annoying rather than arousing. He glanced around the underbrush and declared, “Kamiya isn’t over here. Come with me.”
They trudged back to the house and went inside. Enishi beckoned Sansa to follow him up the stairs and wait in the hallway as he opened a set of cupboards built into the wall. Sansa peered through the open doors leading out onto the balcony, noting that Enishi had left the table overturned.
Enishi took out a sort of gown made of fine blue cloth with a spray of white flower petals. It looked beautiful, comfortable and clean, and Sansa longed to feel all of those things again.
Enishi tossed the robe back onto the shelf. “Kamiya will need that,” he said, apparently changing his mind. “Besides, I’ve never seen a foreigner manage to put on a kimono correctly.” He grabbed another bundle that, after he shook it out, turned out to be a wrinkled, boxy overshirt and pants made of rough black fabric and a collarless white undergarment that resembled a short shift. “Wu’s extra clothes,” he deigned to explain. “Dress yourself in that room and meet me in the foyer. We’re searching the beach next.”
“Thank you,” Sansa said, accepting the clothing.
Enishi looked at her with hard, unkind eyes. “For what?”
“For helping me,” Sansa replied, hoping that was, in fact, what he was doing.
He narrowed his eyes. “Thank Tomoe,” he said, and he walked back down the stairs, leaving Sansa to wonder whether he actually expected her to say words of thanks to this absent, or possibly imaginary, person.
Sansa stepped into the room, which was lit up with midday sun streaming in from another one of those wide, perfectly-glassed windows. A fluffy white robe lay crumpled on the floor. There was no furniture but for an unmade bed and a lacquered black side table with a wooden pitcher and cup. It occurred to Sansa that this was probably the Kamiya girl’s room, and she shivered. But her thirst got the best of her, and she hastened to the table to drink the water in long, unladylike gulps straight out of the pitcher, for which the Hound would undoubtedly have mocked her.
Don’t think of him. Concentrate on staying safe, she reminded herself. She removed what was left of her gown, kept her stockings and smallclothes on, and dressed as quickly as she could. The outfit was clearly cut for a man, being too wide in the shoulders, but at least it was intact. She fastened the knotted buttons into loops that ran from the top to the bottom of the jacket, then stuck her feet back into the riding boots that the Hound had insisted she wear as they had fled the castle.
Enishi was waiting for her by the open door. He jerked his head to the side, wordlessly commanding her to follow.
They walked down yet another path, this one steeper than the others, which opened up to the beach after a short time. The reflection of the sun on the water burned Sansa’s eyes, and she found herself wishing that she had borrowed one of the wide-brimmed conical hats she’d seen hanging by the back door in the kitchen.
Sansa hadn’t walked more than a dozen steps onto that blinding sand when the view became fuzzy. The expanse of sea and sky was growing faint as columns of alternating brown and grey appeared. She looked down at her boots. The beach rotated beneath her, steadily darkening, with leaf shapes intermingling with the beach sand. When she looked up again, she could see Enishi still standing near her, but he was -- it was almost as if he was fading from view as the columns grew into trees that blotted out the skies.
And then, as quickly as if she had been snapped from a slingshot, a girl stood before Sansa. She was short, with long, black hair tied back from her face, a dirty white shirt with baggy open sleeves, a blue pleated garment over her legs which might have been a skirt or very loose pants, and an unsheathed sword stuck into her belt. Her sharp, narrow eyes stared back at Sansa with the same amount of shock that Sansa felt.
The girl opened her mouth to speak --
And then she was gone, along with the beach and that endless sky and the terrifying man with the mad eyes.
But in the girl’s place stood Sandor Clegane. His eyes looked like two boiled eggs, they were open so wide.
Sansa had never been so grateful to see him, not when he’d tossed his white cloak over her bare shoulders in the throne room, not even when he’d appeared in her chambers in the midst of battle to rescue her. She reached out and grabbed his massive forearm with both hands before she could be swept away again, and she dug her nails into the chainmail.
The Hound’s mouth was hanging open and making noises, but he wasn’t quite creating intelligible words yet. He slapped his own gloved hand over hers, as an extra anchor, and another wave of relief crashed over her. Finally, he spoke. “How did you -- what did you -- “
“I don’t know,” Sansa choked out. “I was just -- suddenly --” She took a few deep breaths and relaxed her grip on his arm. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Sandor moved his hands to her shoulders and he turned her from side to side. His gaze shot from her face, down her body, and back to her face again. “You’re not hurt?” he barked, taking her hands roughly in his and checking them for injuries.
“No,” Sansa said, “Just -- just shaken.”
He jerked his chin down, agreeing with her. He was staring down at her with fresh alarm. “What in the seven bloody hells are you wearing?”
[to be continued]