She folds the message into thirds and sets it on the desk. The news from Nobuga is worrying enough without her shaking hands making matters worse.
“Thank you for delivering the message, Tatsuo.” She folds her hands together over the message. It’s more professional this way. Kinder. It gives the situation more authority. It gives her strength. “You’ve been very brave.”
It must have been horrifying — the slaughter, the blood — Tatsuo had seen his comrades die. He’d made it back to the estate to make the report through some twenty five miles of harsh terrain, staying off the beaten path to avoid being cut down with an injured leg.
He’s been so very strong in the face of it all.
She turns to Hikotori. “Draw Tatsuo five thousand ryo from my personal accounts.” She takes a deep breath and tries not to think of so many — some two hundred bolts — of purple silk burning or stolen. So much work by so many hands — wasted. So many lives — lost. So much, so much. She breathes out. “And seven thousand ryo each for the families of every man we lost.”
Fourteen times seven thousand is ninety-eight thousand. And that was only compensation so that those families could mourn properly for the men they lost — they were fathers, brothers, husbands… good people, and it isn’t fair.
It’s not fair that good people die while bandits and thieves go free, growing fat on the spoils of other people’s blood and sweat.
She breathes in. She breathes out. “And make sure that someone checks on the families with small children. This year’s harvest looks to be worse than last year’s. We will have to be careful.” A year or two of bad harvests will not trouble them; the fields and the granaries are filled to bursting from previous years of harvests.
They are prosperous, so they are, the House of Kawaguchi.
All Chichi-ue would have to do is open the grain storage, and they will all be well fed throughout the year.
But other people in this world are not so lucky. Famine breeds bandits faster than the law could ever hope to stamp them out.
And thus, Nobuga.
It is not as if she does not know what makes otherwise honest men turn to a life of crime, what makes good men and former farm workers pick up whatever weapons they could to fleece those they consider better off than they, the ones they thought could afford it.
But no one can afford the lives lost.
The accountant nods. “I will be right by to oversee the distribution of the money, Hisa.” Hiko bows, his long sleeves brushing the floor, dark hair sweeping over his bony shoulder.
He unbends, tall, thin, and sallow, nods to her once more before disappearing out the door in a flurry of dark robes and dark hair, bat-like even in his ramrod straight posture.
“I don’t want money, Hisa-san.” Tatsuo shifts forward on his knees, dark eyes wide. “That won’t bring my brother back.”
She looks at the shaking man before her desk, and she’s suddenly overcome with a terrible grief.
She comes around the desk to hold his shaking hands. Her hands are shaking as well.
“I know,” she says. It’s true. She can’t deny it. No amount of compensation money would ever bring back a single one of the men who died in Nobuga. Money is a poor substitute for the love of a brother. “I know,” she says to his disbelieving face. She doesn’t offer the money because she thinks this will bring them back. Money is a poor substitute for a hand to clap one on the back and the bright smile of someone familiar and fond. “I can’t help the dead, Tatsuo. I can only help the living.”
And only in petty ways at that. They are her people, so she has a responsibility to care for them, but she can only offer weak platitudes at best. Her hands cannot stem the tide. They cannot bring the dead back to life. They can only lighten superficial burdens.
She can offer money, employment, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, but it will never be enough.
“You said you would help us.” His shaking makes her shake too. “So help us. We are dying, Hisa-san. Help us.”
The words burn themselves across the back of her mind. We are dying, Kawaguchi Hisa. Help us.
“I will,” she whispers. “I will.”
And those two words sink to the bottom of her heart like a lead weight.
How? How is she to help them?
And for that, she has no answers.
The thought still plagues her later that afternoon as she deals with a mishap in workshop seven. A junior apprentice had confused the dye process for pastel pink, and all the cloth in that vat had been closer to coral pink than pastel.
Which...is not as large a problem as the one that’s been brewing in her mind ever since Yushin had supported a stumbling Tatsuo into her study.
Coral pink will still sell.
Fourteen dead men in Nobuga weigh on her mind.
We are dying, Kawaguchi Hisa. Help us.
But how? How is she to help them?
“Hisa, it’s time for dinner.” Kimei appears at her elbow almost soundlessly, one moment not and the next moment there.
“Is it that time already?” she murmurs, standing on a stool as she stirs the hissing vat. Round and round goes her heavy metal rod. Round and round goes some forty kilograms of cloth. Round and round cycles her thoughts.
“It is.” Kimei tugs at her sleeve. “Hisa, Kawaguchi-san’s entourage arrived home today.”
She breathes out. Chichi-ue is home. No longer will everyone look to her for every weight, every problem, every tiny change in their household that might just be the thing that breaks the delicate balance upon which the estate spins like a snapped distaff hurtling off into the air.
A mess to clean up for sure, if one doesn’t care for the ailment properly now. And in Chichi-ue’s absences, that will always be her responsibility and her concern.
“I shall be right there.” She pulls the yards and yards of pink silk from the dye. Kimei helps her, their arms straining together, practiced and sure from long years together in the workshops, sweating whether it is summer or winter. They haul the fabric clogged heavy with dye and water up and out onto the long ropes at the level of their heads.
Slowly the fabric unfurls, swaying slightly on the barest hint of a draft.
A good quality silk feels like air, spun so fine a whole shawl could be pulled through a noble lady’s ring without a hint of damage. It drapes like nothing else, shimmers on the arm, although the washing of it must be careful, for silk, like human souls, tends to bleed with rough handling.
She wears undyed linen for this task, though the pink from this dye lot runs down her arms and splatters her front, a few drops splashing onto her face.
Kimei does not look much better when they are done.
Hisa wipes her hands on a spare rag, before passing it to Kimei so that the other girl can also wipe her hands. “Let’s go.”
She strides towards the door.
“Hisa, shouldn’t we change first?” Oh, so they should. She must’ve been more distracted by the news than she thought.
First, Tatsuo, returning from Nobuga, then, Chichi-ue, returning from Kakunodate.
“Chiba-san wouldn’t like it.” When she turns back, Kimei’s brows are furrowed, her lips pulled together in a hard pout.
By all rights, she should forbid her handmaid from speaking of her father’s second wife — she hesitates to call the woman her stepmother — as though the woman was an outsider to their household.
By all rights, she should, but there’s no love lost between her and Chiba Natsu-san who is convinced that any day now, she will have a son who will replace Hisa in the line of succession to Kawaguchi Yasutaro’s sizable estates and merchant holdings.
She lifts her chin and wishes she could throw caution to the winds like she did when her haha-ue was still alive. All the more important to change my clothing now. The conflict between two women at odds in one household serves only to splinter a family.
There’s been enough struggle and grief as it is.
No need to add a petty squabble between heiress and wife to the mix.
Instead, she sighs softly before turning to make a trip back to her courtyard. “So she wouldn’t.”
No matter her impatience to see her father, it is improper to appear at the dinner table in nothing more than undyed linens, and doubly problematic that she appears splotched with dye as though she’d come straight from the workshops.
“She’s only gotten worse recently.” Kimei mutters darkly as they walk. “She does not speak of you except to criticise and pick at any flaws she’s imagined since you last spoke to her. When Maki-san was alive—”
Now that was too far. A little bit of unwillingness to give Chiba-san any say in their manner of dress is one thing.
To compare her to Haha-ue is another.
She smooths Kimei’s pout away with her thumb. “She is the lady of the house.”
She throws her current robe over the back of a chair. Layering on a green silk blouse, she spins around so that Kimei can pull the ties of the long pleated skirt tight about her chest and tie them back into a bow. “And thereby ought to be respected.”
Whether or not that respect is a polite facade is a different matter.
“Maki-san never would have criticised you for going over the accounts.”
And even though it has been nine years, even though her father has now been married again for another five, the sudden gutting grief of loss catches her in the throat, but that does not show. Her expression doesn’t change.
She’d always had two faces — public and private — and now that even her own home was a public display, she kept her private face locked away.
No matter what, her face doesn’t change.
“No,” she slides a pin into her hair, carefully twisting up the waist length plait into a simple bun. Carefully, she twists the silver hair stick so that the emerald embedded into the design faces the front. “But she is not Haha-ue, and we cannot criticise her for not being exactly like someone else.”
She looks at her reflection in the mirror, the tired look in her pale eyes, the tightness of her pale lips, that dark cloud that seemed to hang over her like a shroud.
She does not look beautiful, but she does look presentable now.
It is enough. It won’t be enough a month or two from now when she attends Lady Shikikami’s polo match and takes tea next week with Madam Hondo, but for now? Dinner with her own family? It will be enough. And that is all she can ask and still be satisfied.
Never ask for too much from the world, Hisa-chan. If you never dream beyond your borders, you will always manage to be satisfied.
She rises from her seat before the vanity and makes her way slowly out of the room and onto the walkway in the direction of her father’s courtyard.
There is no excuse for showing up to the dinner table flushed from hurrying and taking unladylike big steps either.
Her appearance at the dinner table is marked by a slight silence before her father smiles. “Hisa-chan, it is good to see you.” He motions for her to come around to the empty chair by his side. “Come, sit by me. Natsu tells me that you’ve been very busy lately with the accounts.”
It is a reprimand, though slight.
Too busy to spend time with your family. Her chichi-ue criticises her, and she but bows her head.
“I may have been overzealous.” Still, the seat he’d offered her was to his right, a position meant for an heir.
And so she is, because while the household accounts belong to Chiba-san, the business accounts belong to her when Chichi-ue is away.
As is befitting of an heir, but less befitting of a daughter.
But theirs is a household of only daughters. Except for her little cousin Torakichi, a boy of twelve, theirs is a household of women.
And only out of love for Chichi-ue did their business associates not whisper about the Curse of Kawaguchi. A man whose every son had died in blood. Were her father a different sort of man, they’d say the kami had cursed him for his hubris.
But her father is not such a man.
So theirs is only a tale of misfortune.
“Oh surely not,” Chiba-san smiles. “Hisa-chan has worked very hard. She only wants to do her best to please you, Kawaguchi-san.”
Worked very hard. Do her best. The words strike her with poison.
Chiba-san knows that there has not been much to celebrate, no sweet fruit of her labor this time. She still must speak to Chichi-ue of Nobuga.
Of fourteen men who are not coming home.
Of the burning bolts of purple silk, ruined or stolen.
All her hard work, still useless in the end.
“I much rather think,” she weighs her words carefully, “that this meal is one we ought to share without talk of business.” She places a piece of pork in Momo-chan’s bowl, smiles at her baby sister who smiles back. “It is after all, the first time we are all sitting at the same table for some time.”
Chichi-ue laughs at this, good natured, and leans over to pinch her cheek. “Always so sensible, Hisa-chan. And you haven’t even asked what present I’ve brought you from the capital.”
Momo-chan perks up at the mention of presents, brown eyes shining, but even at age three, she knows to not speak unless spoken to.
On the other side of the table, Chiba-san frowns.
“I’m sure I can wait until after dinner.” She summons a smile from the depths of herself. For a long time, she and Chichi-ue had been each other’s only family.
They still had her aunts, her cousins, but they’d been bound by the loss of the same people.
And that had made them closer, both aged by the grief they shared.
Two people who drank from the same cup of tears.
Again, her father laughs. “Are you nineteen or ninety, daughter mine? Your old father wants you to guess what he brought you from the capital.”
So it’s this guessing game then. She and Anija had played it with Chichi-ue when they were children, each trip to the capital sparking some new delight.
Now here she sits, while Anija is gone.
“Momo-chan, would you like to guess first? What did Chichi-ue buy for us in the capital?”
It still sparks a slight sliver of delight in her to see Chiba-san’s frown flit across her face like a mayfly, before she replaces it with a wide smile.
Momo-chan beams, in her sweet, childish chatter, asking if Chichi-ue had brought them desserts, or toys, or jewelry.
And for the moment, she lets the panic inside her subside. Save us, Kawaguchi Hisa.
For this moment, however brief, it subsides.
“Chichi-ue, may I have a moment of your time?” Dinner has come and passed, the plates cleared, the others have risen and gone. Only the two of them and the maid sweeping the courtyard remains.
“Well,” Chichi-ue offers her his arm though she is sure he is tired from the long journey home and would prefer to rest. “Of course you may. Walk with me in the garden and tell me about it.”
She sets her hand on his arm, and they walk into the courtyard among the thick stand of bamboo and clumps of blood grass, the oddly shaped stone features. “There is a matter of some import I wished to speak to you about.”
A swallow sings in the curve-tiled eaves. Here in the country estate, the evening air is balmy and beautiful. Here the fragile beauty of the scene is seemingly carved into the bedrock, evident and clear, even when all the rest of the world seems to rot away into a sea of blood and broken bodies.
She lives in the lap of fortune, she truly does, Kawaguchi Hisa.
“Regarding the caravan to Nobuga.”
She’d thought the matter over during dinner, in between bites of glass noodles and bean sprouts, tender cuts of pork and sips of fish ball soup. Their own protection with the caravans certainly was no longer enough, and despite her own reservations, it seemed that only a physical show of force would cow attackers into leaving their goods alone, into leaving their lives alone.
“There is something heavy on your face.” Chichi-ue observes. “And it has lingered all through dinner though you tried to hide it.”
She breathes out. “We lost the caravan in Nobuga.” She breathes out, breathes out, and keeps on breathing. “Tatsuo returned a few hours before you did. The rest had been killed by bandits who thieved the silk.”
Chichi-ue breathes out sharply, the sound discordant with the harmony all around them. “Fourteen men lost then?” He asks.
It is no fault of hers, but her heart weeps with the loss of it like some closer horror than the some twenty-five miles between where she stands and Nobuga.
“Yes.” Her eyes prick with unshed tears, frustration and sorrow warring within her. “I sent Hikotori off to draw seven thousand ryo for each family from my personal accounts.”
“You did well.” She reads Chichi-ue’s thoughts in the heavy furrow of his brow, the tightness of his lips, the way his dark eyes seem far away, and it is the same look she’d seen on her own face in the mirror before dinner. Death haunts them all like a white mourning shroud. “You did well, my daughter.”
But despite the frustration, despite the wound, she knows this can’t be all she says.
Save us, Kawaguchi Hisa. Save us.
We are dying.
“I have a proposed solution,” but I am uncertain if you would like to hear it. Her father has no love for shinobi, sees no positive in killing or blood. He’d always disapproved of the men and women who deal in death, noble or otherwise.
Clan or clanless.
“It is not a solution you think I would care for.” Their walk had taken them to the pond of red and black koi fish her father fed diligently twice a day whenever he was home. “Tell me about it anyway,” he says at last.
“It might be time to hire shinobi.” Chichi-ue has never cared for shinobi. They hold to different moral codes. They dealt in blood and death.
But they could offer protection, and it might be time to ask for it.
On the other side of the raised koi pond, Chichi-ue frowns. “Shinobi,” he murmurs, seemingly turning the idea over in his mind. “You know that they are warmongers, Hisa.”
She knows. The daimyo used shinobi to fight his wars. Noble families hired shinobi for blood and death. Assassination, seduction, backstabbing, really, it seems that her small request for protecting her father’s caravans is too lowly by comparison.
“There has already been bloodshed.” Fourteen men dead when none had to die. “I only work to prevent more damage.”
Save us, Kawaguchi Hisa.
Chichi-ue sighs. “You don’t speak wrongly.” They watch the koi in the pond, the sedate paths they take through the pond, amid the horsetail reeds, the lily pads, water lettuce, and taro plants. “And yet I worry,” he says absently, “that this cure will be worse than the problem it addresses.”
To kill a bull by straightening its horns.
“Shinobi attract attention, Hisa-chan.” Chichi-ue tosses a handful of dried peas onto the surface of the pond, and they watch as the koi hurtle to the surface to eagerly gobble the food from the water, Dharma Wheel leading them by some half a second. “And not all attention is favorable.”
“But—” she pauses.
There is always room in this world for a gentle touch. To push too far too fast...too much heat ruined the silk.
Chichi-ue’s hand trails through the green water, koi nipping at his fingertips, a pensive look on his face. “I’ll consider it, Hisa.” He turns to her and smiles. “While I am still of this world, there is no need for you to carry something so heavy alone.”
Chichi-ue had always advocated for them to live quietly, this she knows. Within the bounds of our station.
Nothing about their household drew the eye, not brilliant enough to shine among all the other jewels in the world.
Nothing about their household drew the eye — except the silk.
Kimei takes her hair down later that night, wave after wave of soft black hair falling all about her shoulders, before, with deft hands, Kimei braids it all up again, as she dabs at her face with a wet cloth. “You look so tired.”
She sets the cloth aside on her dresser. “That’s not very nice, Kimei.”
But it is true. She is tired, there is no way to get around that.
“I say only the truth!” Kimei protests, a laugh threatening at the corners of her lips. “Hisa, if you do not acknowledge it you will be a very poor judge of truth indeed.”
Hisa makes a face at her. “And didn’t anyone tell you that the mark of a best friend is to not remind me that the circles under my eyes grow darker by the hour?”
“You’d never sleep otherwise.” Kimei follows after her, sleeves flapping like the wings of a butterfly. Her handmaid is the best dressed servant in the household, and perhaps that brought jealousy from other courtyards. “And see! Here you are not sleeping.”
Ah, but what does she care? Kimei is forthright and frank, loyal and kind, a sister in all but name. She deserves pretty clothes and respect and as long as Hisa had any power in life, Kimei would always have what she deserved.
The courtyard is lit with lanterns now, awash with soft light.
Inside, they have oil lamps protected from drafts by screens of red paper. Flower lanterns hung on the walkway about the courtyard outside, red silk over a bamboo frame, casting the entire garden in a warm light.
“Enough, enough, I have not the tongue to win an argument between the two of us.” She takes a seat by her wheel, and Kimei picks up carding where they’d left off last night.
“Did you really talk to Kawaguchi-san about hiring ninja?”
The steady hum of her wheel, and the sound of her treadling the foot pedal underpins their conversation, quiet as it is.
By her side, Kimei pulls the combs apart, rolling the wool off of the metal teeth. It is still summer, but winter will come, as it follows autumn, and while Chichi-ue has not spoken of traveling this winter, he has in winters past.
At least if she starts now, he will be warm.
“I did.” There’d been a maid in the garden, cleaning the walkway when she and Chichi-ue had talked, and the walls have ears and mouths to spread the news in whispers. “I assume you heard.”
Kimei was good at listening, good at speaking when the time is right, good at keeping her wits about her.
Otherwise, in a house like theirs, she never would’ve survived to be this happy.
Kimei pauses, propping her chin up on a hand, a comb held loosely between the fingers of her other hand. “They’re so different from us. Do you think it would help?”
“As long as it stops more families from losing their men,” she sighs, pauses her spinning for the moment, undyed wool between her fingers, “I don’t much care how different they are, or what their pasts are like.”
Shinobi dealt in blood and death, and while she is not unfamiliar with either, it’s not something a daughter of a large household ought to know.
It is only fate that gave her familiarity with death, the weight of it even now like a heavy shroud.
Somehow, she suspects shinobi have a different interpretation of death.
“Really?” Kimei frowns, rolling the unspun fibers between her fingers, a worried look in her eyes. “I’ve heard frightening things about them.” Slowly, her handmaid looks around them, and finding no one around, leans forward slowly to whisper in her ear. “Some of them drink the blood of the men they kill, keep trophies. I heard from Tamasu from Lady Shikikami’s household that they are not men at all, but demons.”
Hiring demons seemed a bit gauche.
“Oh, you heard it from Tamasu, did you.” It’s a gentle ribbing made all the more ridiculous by the late hour and the nature of Tamasu. “A mouse would frighten her.”
Kimei breaks into peals of laughter, again taking up her combs, carding apace. “And we all know Hisa-san is never frightened of mice!”
“It was only the one time.” If Kimei has turned her attention back to work, she ought to as well. “And only because a mouse running across my foot in storeroom six was rather shocking.”
“Oh, oh!” Kimei giggles. “Only the one time, was it.”
There is no more serious discussion that night; only the steady hum of her wheel, of the carding combs, and playful chatter accompanying them.
She folds her hands before her on her desk and slowly raises her eyes to the face of the man still standing on the opposite side of the room. “Might I have your name, Shinobi-san?”
A man of blood, he must be, even though his hands are clean at this moment, and his face is handsome, clean shaven and devoid of any traces of brutality. He does not dress like the men she’s used to, not the merchant men of her father’s circle with which she often spent her time, or the noblemen she’d learned to pander to as clients, or even Lord Fusamoto, who is certainly of higher rank than any other man she has ever met before.
Instead of zhiju and dachang, he wears a wide-collared shirt, a pair of pants whose hems flared out over the tops of a pair of black boots, a sword at his side, a brightly colored mask clasped in his hand.
There are other defining features on him, a pouch secured at his waist, a farmer’s hat hanging from his neck. He looks different than Hikotori, the accountant, or Banryu the foreman, or Misoto, the gardener.
But he is a shinobi, so that is likely.
“My name is unimportant.” He sounds young, no older than Hiko who is a mere twenty-five, certainly.
She makes a noise of annoyance. She’d sent Kimei from the room for this? “You work for me now,” The House of Kawaguchi takes care of its own. The House of Kawaguchi, of which she would inherit unless her stepmother suddenly has a son. “I would like at least to know your name.”
It is not that she is particularly attached to him. She half suspects she never will be. There’s too much difference between the two of them for an attachment not like the way she would call Kimei the sister of her heart even if they are so vastly separated by blood, nor like the way she would call Hiko a friend, despite their differences in worldview.
The man before her who falls uncomfortably silent, might as well have come from a different world than hers.
He intends to wait her out then, intends to keep his secrets close to his chest. But two can play this waiting game.
She picks up another sheet of account records. She is patient. She can wait.
Her mother had looked at her, known that the path set before her daughter was not an easy one to walk, and named her Hisa for endurance.
She is patient. She can endure so many things, let sorrows pass over her like river water over the rocky bed beneath.
There’s nothing to be heard for a while, half a stick of incense had burned down, besides the slide of her brush, the clack of abacus beads, the sound of her breathing, the grind of ink against her inkstone — the man across from her seems to make no sound at all, no movement to show that he is alive, not even to breathe.
It is a little unnerving she supposes, to see an unmoving block of a man standing before her desk on the edges of her line of sight every now and again, but nothing unlike what she hasn’t done before, ignoring a supplier or a particularly rude guest until they can gather their bearings enough to be sensible again.
“Do you civilians only do business with people who have pedigrees and names?” His voice is dry, like the autumn wind, desolate enough that she imagines leaves blowing away in the gust, leaving branches bare and cold.
What an odd question. What an odd way to put it. Pedigrees and names, as if they did not hold weight in the world shinobi occupy as well. After all, hadn’t Chichi hired an Uchiha for the sake of their pedigree and reputation? He’d come from the Uchiha Clan, born ancient and noble, despite the blood tint of shinobi heritage.
What a rude way to ask as if business could truly be done with no name and no social standing.
“I wouldn’t sell a single bolt of linen to someone who couldn’t produce a name, much less than a shipment of silk. In some ways, I am selling you a good number of lives. Why am I not entitled to at least the name of the man who kills me or not as is his whim and leisure?”
Twenty by four is eighty. Eighty by sixteen is a thousand two hundred and fifty. She writes this down, a smooth figure, most recently added to the account book.
“Is my name really that important to you?” Ah, he’s starting to sound uncertain. He is only a man after all, no matter how unusual. Pleasant.
She can treat him as she treats other men, and he will respond in much the same way, if she is to sketch him in loose brushstrokes.
A delightful thing to know.
Shinobi operate on the same rules as normal men, or at the very least, this one does, and that knowledge will serve her quite well in the future.
“Yes.” She likes to know names, to see faces, to remember her people. If this shinobi is to work for her, then he is also to be one of the many employed under the name of Kawaguchi.
“Uchiha Izuna,” he says at last.
I-zu-na. She turns the syllables over in her mind. Izuna, pipe fox. Izuna.
She raises her eyes to his face. “It is good to meet you, Izuna-san.” She smiles. “My name is Kawaguchi Hisa.”