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A Bolt of Silk

Chapter Text

She sets O-Shiki’s letter on her desk. The Countess has been unwell, too unwell to host a month old celebration for Kata-kun, and still too unwell to patch up the deficit at two months. It has been eight months since her second child was born, but she remains bedridden most days, even so.

This winter, there has been no travelling to the capital to see her relatives, except for the short trip Lord Fusamoto had made earlier in the year.

Her bedridden state without many visitors meant that O-Shiki has been…exceptionally bored.

So bored, in fact, that she had summoned her second brother, the young lord Asukabe Iesuke, along with his wife, the shu princess, Iro-hime, to come entertain her and her every whim and wish. It may not be entirely proper, but O-Shiki has always been well loved by both of her elder brothers.

It is her brother, Lord Iesuke’s, hand with which she writes.

Hisa-chan, it says, the writing bold and angular, at odds with the effusive warmth of O-Shiki’s wording, I am not sorry to say that I have forced Suke-nii into being a scribe for me while I slowly go mad staring at the paintings on the wall.

He is protesting this, but I have everything firmly in hand, and he is helpless to resist me. This particular sentence is written with a bit more force than it really needed to be. Lord Iesuke likely had his own opinions about his sister's words, which amuses her.

Shujin tells me that his report to His Imperial Majesty went exceedingly well. So well, in fact, that he suspects a great many changes are coming to the governing structure of Danmai.

As you are likely aware, with the Orihito Clan deposed, His Majesty will have to pick a new clan from Danmai to raise to the status of count or else name one of his sons the governor of the region, as our southernmost border is too far to be reabsorbed directly under the control of the throne.

I will let you know of a secret, and here Lord Iesuke clearly had an argument with his little sister, ink pooling heavily as though he had set his brush down to argue for a while before the writing was resumed. This time, slightly more formal rather than conversational.

While it is true that we as citizens of His Majesty’s court ought not speculate upon the affairs of the son of heaven at too far a depth, for we see not with the range and breadth that one who stands atop the mountain does, we have posited that His Majesty does not intend to raise any of the two shinobi clans of Danmai. Neither Senju nor Hatake will have earned the right in His Majesty’s eyes, for while holding few grudges, it is the mood at court that it is never wise to let the shinobi outnumber the scholars among us.

And there the letter ends.

It is signed with Lord Iesuke’s signature, and then stamped with the seal of Chubu as well as the seal of Kyushu of course, but those are not really items of note. All letters to come from nobility are signed this way, be they invitations to tea or musings upon the minds of gods among men.

How curious the men and women of court are, to speculate about what might be on the mind of His Imperial Majesty, he who is the son of heaven, dragon made flesh, and arbitrator of lives.

One word from him, and a whole clan dies.

One word from him, and a whole nation kneels.

One word dictates war and peace, plenty and destitution.

There the letter ends.

“It is the mood at court,” she says quietly to herself, sitting in her study, a little room for a little person, “that it is never wise to let the shinobi outnumber the scholars.” She does not say ‘among us,’ being not among any of the great lords and ladies of court. On the surface, the interpretation is easy.

But the previous disclaimer seems to say that this is a thought of His Imperial Majesty, just widely repeated at court because it is his personal opinion, publicly held.

And yet, why the most powerful man in all the realm would not like generals and soldiers and armies and why the second son of the formidable War Minister would write about the shinobi with such unreserved disdain, especially when one had saved his sister’s life, she does not know and cannot begin to guess.

Carefully, she locks the letter away.

It will soon be time for the new year, and the sounds of fireworks have been going off all day, in more courtyards than her own, which is why she had felt safe saying that in her room.

While she could ask Izuna when he returns what he thinks it could possibly mean, she is certain that Lord Iesuke did not intend to make his opinions about shinobi known to a shinobi.

The Uchiha have held power as a noble house ever since the end of the warlord era, and the Asukabe have held power for just as long but a step higher on the hierarchy of nobility, and with Lord Iemune’s appointment as War Minister in court, gaining ground even more significantly in the recent past.

She doubts Izuna would find the information at all fun to speculate about, especially not with young civilian women without any titles at all.

But still the question lingers.

Soon, Momo-ko will arrive, after having greeted Chichi-ue and wished him well for the next year, gleeful and insistent on going out into the street to see the red firecrackers go off, perhaps to pause outside a teahouse in their carriage to listen to the sound of musicians.

Perhaps this year, she might indulge.

After the fireworks have stopped for the night and the smaller children have been sent off to bed, she sits with Chichi-ue in his front greeting room sipping tea.

“It has been some time,” he says, staring at the newest calligraphy scroll on the opposite wall.

A new one, a couplet he’d written just that morning for the new year. “But you have not said anything.”

She blinks at him, aware of what he is referring to, but preferring to play the fool. “All the fireworks made me tired.” He is referring to her silence in regards to the attention he has paid Chiba-san in recent days.

Perhaps even last year, she would’ve protested and made some sort of fuss that meant he would drop the idea entirely, but this is his own affair, not hers.

“You know that is not what I mean.” He smiles at her, a little wry, over the rim of his teacup.

“Then I confess I do not know what Chichi-ue could possibly mean.” She too takes a sip of her tea, the gaiwan warm in her hands even in the coldest part of the year.

Here inside the house, there are fire pits and hand warmers, enough to keep out the chill.

Chichi-ue laughs, and he reaches across the tea table to pinch her cheek. “Playing the fool does not suit you, Hisa. I am not old enough to forget that I have far too intelligent and witty a daughter as to not understand my words.”

“Perhaps I have grown dense in my adulthood,” she quips, smiling despite herself. “After all, many people do.”

“I do not entirely regret it.” Chichi-ue is watching her, though he does not want to look as though he is watching her. “But I am unclear how you feel.”

How does she feel?

She folds her hands together in her lap and wonders why it is that she is suddenly upset. Surely, she had not been upset before? “I wish I had known.” Outside, the night is dark in the absence of the moon, courtyard lit only by lanterns. “It would have spared so much.”

“In that moment when I agreed, I did not think of how it would make you feel.” Chichi-ue sighs, tapping his fingers on the armrest of his chair. “And yet,” and here he smiles, but it does not reach his eyes, a faded, worn out attempt at cheer, “I have thought of you so for the past six years. And only recently have I thought that I have perhaps wronged everyone involved besides myself.”

Conflict between madam and heiress only serves to splinter a family.

This particular rule she knows very well.

“I have not been pitiful and aggrieved just because my father chose to remarry.”

But she wishes she had known.

She wishes she had known why. She wishes that her uncle’s words did not weigh. When his next wife gives him a living son, he will see what you are worth.

And she wishes she could forget it.

Chichi-ue is still watching her. “You have never been happy with the decision.”

He will see what you are worth.

And even now, she fears the birth of a younger brother, fears that somehow she would be replaced, fears more that Anija will be only the son who died, that no one will care about Haha-ue’s life when Chichi-ue is gone and she is married away.

“I was too old to feel happy.” She’d been fifteen when Chiba-san had crossed their doorway, a grown adult old enough to be wed in the eyes of the world. And for months, she had wondered as an idle exercise if Chichi-ue had grown tired of her and planned to send her off to someone else’s household. “And the resident of the eastern courtyard and I have nothing in common.”

She understands why Chichi-ue had married Chiba-san, knows that despite all his intelligence, mercy mattered more to him.

That he could not be the one to stand by with his hands in his sleeves and watch an old friend’s house fall to ruin, a whole family suffering for the sake of one man.

And yet, in the end, he could not forget.

“You have never mentioned this to me.” Chichi-ue sets his gaiwan aside. “Not once in six years.” He rises and comes to stand before her. “You have been aggrieved, you just refuse to say so because you don’t want me to feel worse.”

He will see what you are worth.

“Uncle Nagamatsu told me,” her face does not change, “once long ago, that when my father had a living son with his next wife, he will send me somewhere far away, so that he will never think of me again.”

And the people buried beneath the earth will be forgotten. After all, this is what a woman is worth.

“Did you believe him,” Chichi-ue cups her face in his hands, “that I could do such a thing?”

“No.” She had never believed such a thing. “But it hurt.”

She’d been little then, the weight of a bruise across her face, and words that dug far deeper than bruises ever could.

And the Chichi-ue and home she had returned to had not been the one she left.

“I do not regret what happened to him.” There is an uncommon bite to Chichi-ue’s words. “And I hope he rots before he dies.”

“Chichi-ue,” she blinks back tears, “I miss her.”

He pulls her close. “I miss her too.”

On Qingming, in April, they travel out of the city to sweep the graves in the family graveyard, for burials have not taken place within the city for many generations now, ever since laws had been passed against it.

Their family buried all of their dead in the plot of land that her grandfather had set aside after he married her grandmother, a promise that none of their family would be parted, not anymore, for there would be space for them now in death.

This is for you and me, and all who come after us.

Haha-ue is buried here, and so are Uncle Heihachi and Uncle Toemon, and so will every member of this family after death.

If she marries out, she will give up the right to be buried here, her bones interred in some other family’s graveyard.

But like her father before her and his father before him, her blood has mixed with the muddy water of the Mujin.

And it cannot be removed from her.

This year, Chiba-san’s carriage joins them as well, though she has no connection to the people buried here, having crossed the threshold for the first time in the wake of tragedy long grown cold.

“Hisa, be careful.” Kimei offers her her cloak. “It’s still cold out. You have to look after your health.”

Further back, Chichi-ue offers his hand to Chiba-san to help her out of the carriage.

She notices this, and so must everyone else, but this day is for the dead, for the paper money burned so that her grandfather and grandmother can still continue to live well in the afterlife, so that Haha-ue will not be aggrieved.

These are people that Chiba-san has never met before, so of course she would need someone to introduce her.

And of course, she would be uncomfortable.

There is nothing unusual about this.

“Neesan?” Momo-chan tugs at her sleeve. “Neesan, you look sad.”

She half smiles. When did I start thinking so much about the sad things? “We’re here to pay respects to the dead. Such things are not made for happy faces.”

And though Momo-chan does not find this particularly pleasing, her little sister still manages to put on a suitably somber face. “Haha-ue says we are here to pay our respects too.”

She holds Momo-chan’s hand as they continue walking. Soon, her little sister will grow too big to be picked up all the time, and later, too big to hold hands like this.

But for now, Momo-chan is little and does not really know about everything that is happening around her.

“I want you to meet someone,” she says, straightening the collar of Momo’s cloak against the chill of the spring air. “She is very important to me.”

A few more steps now, and they will come to the grave marker she’d been told is her mother’s.

“My haha-ue is buried here. Her name is Hiwara Maki…”

“You know full well that you do not have the allowance you used to have.” She does not look up from her abacus. “Since you now live with your maternal aunt’s family, and Haha-ue isn’t here to spend her dowry on funding your habits.”

Click. Click.

They have saved some money these days, the fruit this spring had been plentiful, and the kitchens had managed to find several good deals for further produce.

But that doesn’t mean they have extra money to pay for a gambler.

No amount of money could ever be enough to spend at the gambling table, and being too soft hearted would only lead to more trouble in the future.

As it would appear, a tiger cannot change its stripes, and in just the same way, a dissolute troublemaker can’t mend his ways.

Which is, of course, how shortly after Qingming, Cousin Hideyoshi ends up in front of her, shamefully.

At least he still knows that it is shameful to be here.

“Big sister…” He shifts on his feet, hands clasped in front of him. “I will definitely mend my ways in the future.”

And people had speculated that Chichi-ue would leave the House of Kawaguchi and their whole family’s fortunes to him.

It had been what was natural to think, since Chichi-ue had no sons, and their household of women surely could not hold itself up properly if something were to happen to him. And Chichi-ue had been so interested in relieving Suzuki Takahiro of this son of his, even if Hideyoshi himself isn’t the least impressive.

If he thought that was what Chichi-ue wanted him for, then he can dream.

“How many times have I heard that from you?”

Click. Click. Click.

She records the number smoothly in the next line of the account book and carefully sets her brush aside.

By her side, Kimei scoffs without looking up from the inkstone, where her handmaid is slowly grinding ink. “Young Master Hideyoshi, if I had a ryo for every time you said that, even I’d be able to repay your debts.”

Her cousin flushes. “Handmaids shouldn’t weigh in on the topics of—”

“Her existence in this household and this courtyard is more essential to me than you.” She nearly forgives him of it, since he is still a child.

But he is already eighteen.

In two years, he will be a man in the eyes of the law.

And even if their household could still bear with his lackadaisical ways, heaven wouldn’t.

And speaking crassly to the household servants will not be borne, not by her, and certainly not by Chichi-ue.

She raises her eyes. “Cousin, I think you are forgetting something.” And if she smiles, that is only because she assumes there is no need to overly frighten him with a corpse-like face. “You are here because Chichi-ue did not want to part Aunt Ruqa from her only flesh and blood. And that is because she is his late wife’s little sister. He has long since remarried. No one would have faulted him for standing with his hands in his sleeves and doing nothing as your father forced your mother onto a path she would not return from.”

You are not at home.

And you are the heir of nothing now.

She looks back down at the abacus, questions if Hiko will be very cross with her if she leaves this until tomorrow. “I expect in another few days, Chichi-ue will ask if you have any thoughts regarding your future when you turn twenty in two years.”

At this, Hideyoshi seems like he would rather flee her study than stay.

But he does not completely lack spine, because all he does is wring his hands, frowning. “Big Sister, I—” and here he stumbles. “I don’t know anything.

“Yes.” She sighs and waves for him to come sit by her. “You do, indeed, not know very much when it comes to how to survive in the world.” She props her head up on her hands. “But in the end, this is because no one has taught you anything of value.” And in this, Aunt Ruqa shares as much blame as Suzuki-san.

Spoiling a son is the same as killing a son.

She has heard the phrase before, but she has not understood it fully until now.

“Don’t be too miserable.” She picks up the little painted duck on the edge of her desk and toys with it, turning it over and over in her hand. “You still have two years to learn something that will earn money.”

Maybe actually having to earn money will teach him what it is actually made of, how much blood and sweat it takes to buy one ryo.

And perhaps then it would be precious to him.

Kimei glances after him when he leaves, almost annoyed. “I hope he learns to mend his ways soon, or Auntie really will be suffering all her life.”

At this, Hisa can only sigh. “And is the only one to blame for how he is now his father?”

“Auntie was far too kind to have been so cruelly married off to such a man.” Kimei rests her chin on her knees, still thinking. “And a negligent father’s made Young Master Hideyoshi cracked in the head.”

“If she wasn’t so kind and unable to say no, she wouldn’t have become an overly indulgent mother, and her son wouldn’t have so far to go now.”

Kimei considers her words, but doesn’t further comment about it, and they pass the afternoon more pleasantly, in the sunshine of the early spring.

Baron Sato, while he taught school in the city, does not live in central Shunan proper. Instead, his estate is half an hour’s carriage ride across the city, on the outskirts.

She’d risen early to visit O-Toyo at the estate this morning, and they had adjourned outside to match couplets and play pitch pot, munch on delicacies, and listen to her second brother, Atsunari, play the qin.

“He will be a fine young man,” O-Toyo whispers, because Atsunari-kun is still with them, looking out into the shrubbery, distracted by the bird song even as his sister hides her face behind her fan to cover up the tears, though that does not cover the hint of a sob in her voice.

It is no secret that as Baron Sato’s eldest child, O-Toyo is the only child of his first wife who had died in labor a scant year or so after their marriage. Few enough remember Baron Sato’s first wife, being not from Shunan and also dead very shortly after, except to say that she was a pious woman, undeserving perhaps, of the fate that she bore.

Within the year, Baron Sato had remarried, his first son born barely two years after his daughter.

It is no secret that the woman he had married despised his eldest daughter, born shy and demure, with soulful green eyes, and all the gentleness the world could muster for an unloved child.

“He will be a fine young man,” O-Toyo says again, slightly more composed. “And I hope he will be a filial son and take care of Chichi-ue in his adulthood, as I will not be able to.”

And Hisa supposes that it is singularly unfair that O-Toyo, who is scholarly and shy and had so rarely if ever thought ill of anyone would have to grow up this way, with her stepmother governing her friends, holding her purse strings, and ultimately, dictating her fate.

At age twenty, O-Toyo is not too young to be wed, and all knew that within the past year, Baroness Sato had been increasingly interested in seeing her stepdaughter out the door.

The sum total of a woman’s life depends on how the second half of her life is written, the work of her hands in her husband’s house, her children and how well she raises them, only these things are remembered.

To be married to a bad household is barely a step above not being married at all.

She reaches across the table and squeezes O-Toyo’s hand. “You will be allowed to return. Your father would want you to.”

She does not know what sort of man Madam Sato will choose for her stepdaughter, only that it will likely not be chosen for the sake of O-Toyo’s happiness, and instead for the satisfaction of a household, or even crueler, for Madam Sato’s personal satisfaction.

But while Baron Sato is an unconstant father, he does not dislike O-Toyo, and perhaps he would prefer that she visit after she is married.

He will miss her when she has already left his care.

And he does not wish to see her suffer.

Such basic tenets, and yet O-Toyo would sell her soul for careless gestures.

“You know how it is,” the other young woman says, her head bowed and hands clasped. “They say that when a girl loses her mother, she loses her father as well.”

But in this —

In this she and O-Toyo are not the same.

How lucky she is. How lucky she is without realizing it.

She turns her head, about to say something, but Atsunari-kun comes bounding up the walk, beaming. “Neesan, how did I do?”

“Very well,” O-Toyo tells him, without a shred of jealousy. “Though Nari-kun, you’ve forgotten to greet Hisa-san.”

Young Master Sato turns to her, slightly abashed, but not by much. “Greetings to Hisa-san. I hope you can forgive my momentary lack of manners.”

She inclines her head, half her face hidden behind her fan. “Sato-san is overly modest.”

And the morning continues.

It is after lunch when she leaves Baron Sato’s household, O-Toyo walking her out to her carriage. “Promise me you’ll write, Hisa-chan.” O-Toyo smiles, but her eyes are sad. “I do not know how much longer I will be staying in Shunan.”

“Wherever you are, know that I am thinking of you.” She cannot protect O-Toyo from Baroness Sato, who cares too much for her own amusement and marketing her own children instead of the first child of her husband’s household, but she still has this. “If there is ever anything I can do to help you, do not fail to ask.”

Because that would be the real problem.

O-Toyo likely would not ask, having grown up smiling even when she is bleeding, claiming to be fine even when her meals had been forgotten. A lifetime of deprivation has taught her to live on less than her due.

And it is hard to help someone who does not ask.

But she makes O-Toyo promise, if only so she remembers that she has someone to turn to, that all hope is not lost.

She climbs into the carriage. Shinji serves as her driver today.

He’d been a cheerful young man who had come to their household because Banryu knew his father. He has three younger sisters, a younger brother, an aged mother and grandmother, and at the time he’d come to them for work, recently lost his father in an accident in one of Baron Yamato’s orchards.

He had some level of weapons training, having grown up on a baron’s estate, which is why, these days, he’d been called to drive her.

Izuna is needed elsewhere, the caravans running again, so Shinji has been called back from the fields to drive her, because Chichi-ue still holds onto worry.

“It’s been an excellent year for rain, Second Miss,” he comments, reins held loosely as the carriage makes its trip back into the city. And indeed it has been, water dripping from the bamboo leaves.

Hopefully, Hondo Asa-chan’s husband has been faring better in the fields this year and able to recoup some of the damages he’s suffered in past years due to Senju price slashing.

She does not understand how the Senju flourish, year after year. Prices kept so low could not possibly turn a profit, and yet, when other merchants and farmers see their crops fail during a drought, in the same or neighboring regions, the Senju could still flood the market.

As if heaven favored them.

But this year, prices will likely be competitive again.

“Hmmm.” She flicks the curtain of her carriage window up to look out at the passing landscape, fruit trees in the distance blooming profusely, pink peach petals setting the hillsides awash with the lightness of spring, the bamboo on the other side of the road a rustling jade green. “Yes, it seems like it will be a prosperous year.”

Shinji smiles, almost laughing. “Futsu-chan brought me a new straw hat from home that Haha-ue made me to keep off the rain last winter, and while I told her I doubted that I’d have much reason to use it this spring, it seems like I was mistaken.” He makes a face, affects a higher pitched voice. “You see, Ani, Haha-ue and I were right after all.”

She hides a laugh behind her sleeve. “No one can predict the whims of heaven.”

“Aye,” Shinji agrees, flicking the reins in his hands, to direct the horses around a puddle of water. “No one can do that, that’s for certain.”

The ride back into the city is uneventful, quiet. The afternoon sun filters through the leaves, road opening up into a wide and busy street, the market district in Shunan opening up to them, not as bright or as loud as the capital, but befitting of a country seat for a southern city.

Here, their pace slows almost to a halt as the cart comes to a near stop to let a farmer drive a flock of chickens across the road, clucking madly as they go, windchimes from the stall on their right side clinking in the breeze.

From the corner of her eye, the glint of something that is not a windchime catches her eye.

The glint of a sword hilt, sunlight reflecting off the pommel and guard.

Chubu has no shinobi, and only Lord Fusamoto’s men are allowed to wear swords.

And yet she spies no less than three men she does not know wearing swords in their near vicinity.

She leans forward, taps Shinji on the shoulder. “How much longer until we arrive home?”

He turns to her, surprised for the moment. “Oh, maybe another twenty minutes or so?”

But then he sees what she sees, eyes hardening for a second before he smooths it away.

Calmly and idly, he swings the reins in his right hand, the picture of idle calm. “Hey, hey, oyaji,” he calls to the farmer still driving chickens across the road. “Can you get a move on? My Second Miss wants to get home sometime today.”

Here, in a busy street, attackers can do rather little.

But they have to move if they don’t want to give away what they know.

Where could they possibly go?

Round the city long enough, and the entirely not stealthy men with swords behind them will catch on.

But they could not possibly go home, could they?

No, because then the men with swords will, at the very least, be outside the door.

And if they are anything like Izuna, walls will not hold them.

Shinji knows this too. She sees it in the way his grip on the reins is loose but not relaxed any longer.

Where to? They think this together, but say nothing.

It has been less than half a minute, the last of the chickens making their way across the road through the busy throng of people and carriages, the farmer shuffling along after them, when suddenly, a string of wind chimes comes loose from where they were swaying the breeze and a cascade of little bronze bells tumbles across the road.

They were cut, she thinks, as the carriage jerks forward, a horse’s scream echoing in the air. Kombu.

It is their horse.

The street bursts into pandemonium, people and goods flying every which way.

She claws her way to the front of the carriage box, throwing back the front curtain to see what is going on.

Shinji’s grip on the reins is iron hard, standing up in the driver’s seat in an attempt to calm the horse, speaking in soft, low tones.

The farmer in front of them stands frozen in place, startled by the pounding of hooves, the sharp teeth, sheer size and temper of a carriage horse unlike the oxen who drove farming plows.

“When I say jump, jump.” Shinji’s eyes face forward, every inch of his skill brought out to play, every ounce of muscle straining, but jump?

No, she will not jump. There is too much at stake.

Normally, their carriage horses are docile creatures used to all the noise and bustle of the city streets, unlike the high tempered polo horses, or riding horses nobility kept.

Whatever this is, it is not the bells.

Kombu wouldn’t startle over bells.

Shinji could have more space to move if only — “Oyaji!” she calls, startling the old man from his trance over Kombu’s unrelenting bucking, still screaming as if in pain, the carriage rocks, and she throws a hand out to stop herself from crashing into the opposite wall. “Oyaji, move!”

This jolts the farmer from his position in the road, suddenly fearing for his life rather than stuck where he is.

It will have to do.

She clambers to one side of the driver’s seat, space vacated by Shinji, unheeding of the pitch and toss of the panicked horse, and swings herself forward instead, her hands catching on the mane and bridle.

The street is alive with screams and awash with overturned produce, people parting like a crowd before the passing of a nobleman’s carriage.

She lets her weight drop, suddenly slamming downwards as Kombu drops as well. Shinji stumbles, the reins suddenly slack with the change of position, Kombu no longer trying desperately to charge forward.

The motion jars her shoulders and knocks the breath out of her, but she persists, whispering to Kombu, even as he shudders, prancing sideways.

“Second Miss!” he calls, distraught, unable to leave the carriage, but unable to see her clearly either.

Slowly, she raises a hand, something wet dripping down her arm. No sudden noises, no sudden movements, and hopefully Kombu will calm.

So far, no one has been harmed yet.

Kombu huffs, one eye rolling, and she leans into his neck, softly, still speaking to him. “See, it is not so bad. It is not so bad, no? You know this street.”

He should know this street, having been foaled in their stables, travelling the streets as a carriage horse for some six or seven years.

He’d been chosen because of his gentle temperament, because he does not easily startle.

“Miss, are you alright?” The woman this voice belongs to wears plain ruqun in light green, her hair turned up and affixed with a single wooden hairstick.

But despite her common appearance, Hisa does not believe she is anything common.

She walks Kombu forward another step. “I believe I will be alright.”

Another step forward. “Your hands are bleeding, Miss Kawaguchi.” The woman’s tone takes on a bit of cajolement, a heavy suggestion in her words. “Wouldn’t you like to rest for just a moment? Let me call a doctor?”

And for the barest of flickers, she almost agrees.

It is the use of ‘Kawaguchi’ that catches her.

However sweet this woman looks, however honey light her words…

She does not belong.

She is not from here, that shade of green and flare of cotton in her narrow sleeves not from Chubu.

She is not from here, so how does she know Hisa’s name?

“I think I will be alright without,” she says, still holding onto Kombu’s bridle, as they take another step forward.

The woman laughs, the sound like windchimes, and takes a step towards her. “A stubborn miss, I see.”

The woman reaches for her, and Shinji, bound as he is to holding the reins in case something happens, is helpless to stop her.

Kombu strikes, quick like a snake, teeth snapping on empty air.

The shinobi woman dances back, and what else could she be besides a shinobi?

There has been some witchcraft in the air this afternoon, Kombu acting out for no reason, the men with swords in the street, and now this woman not from here who speaks in tongues.

“I will not go with you,” Hisa says, through the pounding of her head, the roaring of water in her ears. “And you may tell whoever hired you that, shinobi.”

Strangely, she is unrattled, unafraid.

So much has happened in this street already.

Shinji is silent, as is the rest of the street, and she wonders if this frozen facade is yet another part of the shinobi’s doing.

“They can’t hear you.” The woman laughs, and the sound is sharper than it was before. “How safe do you feel, Miss Kawaguchi? How much can the Uchiha watch you?”

Senju, then.

She raises her chin. “I’ll take my chances, Senju-san.

“Have it your way, then,” Senju-san agrees. “But I did warn you.”

The world comes back into focus, the sounds of the street, the gasps of the onlookers, the screams and clucking chickens, bellowing oxen, frantic sheep.

The woman is gone.

There is no glint of metal left to be seen.

Shinji helps her back into the carriage.

And slowly, they go home.