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A Bolt of Silk

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She sends Nene to tell Izuna to meet her in her study, careful to calculate and recalculate the situation while waiting for him to arrive.

It’d taken a few days for him to come home with the caravans, and she has not been out since.

How easy it is to be brave in the face of an enemy, and yet, here she still is, hiding, the tigress stuck in her den with the door barred though that does no good either.

“What happened to your hands?” Izuna is frowning before he even crosses the doorway, eyes locked on her bandaged hands.

“Not very much,” she says, ruefully.

It will be some time until her hands recover, until she recovers, enough for her daily tasks, and in the recent days, she’s taken to boredom.

Which is the only reason why she has structured time to see him, even if she still has to direct him off to Hiko so that he can get paid.

Hiko had been saddled with her accounts after this as well, and Kimei with her sewing projects.

Both had taken the added work with more worry over her hands than anything else, though Hiko had hovered horrendously suffocatingly until Jizen-sensei had said that she will recover, nothing broken, even if they’d been bloodied and jarred, skin stripped from one finger so badly that she’d seen bone.

It might scar.

Which, both good and bad, because men do not like women with scars, though hands are more excusable than faces.

She has given this little importance in her life. As long as she can recover from it, Chichi-ue will not mind if her hands are scarred, except to worry, and Chichi-ue is the only man she answers to in this life.

“You were injured.” There is a hard edge to the set of his mouth, barely concealed tension in the line of his shoulders. “What happened?”

“I had a carriage accident on my way back from Baron Sato’s house.”

It hadn’t done that by itself, but as it is, she escaped with scraped knees, bruises and hands wrapped in bandages for the near future. Shinji had been rattled, but fine as well.

And Kombu is unhurt.

A small price to pay compared to death.

“That’s not all there is to it.”

She sets her hands on the table, ignores the sting of moving them. “How much would it cost to hire a cousin to replace you?”

They’d done so for the brief stint in the capital, and they could afford to do so again.

Something of a mulish look comes across his face. “I don’t think any of my cousins could do a better—”

“You’ll be hired to stay here instead.” She raises her eyes to his. “After what the Senju woman said to me, I think it’s best if you stay here.”

He cycles through an alarming number of emotions in the span of a few seconds and stops somewhere she knows is rage.

There is a tension to his shoulders, white knuckled grip on the hilt of his sword. “The Senju threatened you?”

“If the way she spoke of Uchiha were to be believed.” She does not really believe in lying, not on this front.

He would always worry.

And she does not blame him for what had happened, not for Kombu or Shinji or the scare that they all have had.

And she does not regret hiring him.

So if she’s already made that commitment, might as well commit to the end.

“So I am asking,” she continues, “if you would be willing to let a cousin deal with the caravans.”

He stands there, frozen for a moment. “If you’d excuse me.” He inclines his head, his rage not yet dissipated. She’s not sure what will. “I have just remembered some business that I must attend to.”

He bows, as though jerked about on strings, and vanishes without a trace.

“He could’ve at least taken the door.” Kimei moves to close the door after him, frowning mightily. “How rude. Didn’t answer the question either.”

And she, thinking of the way his hands had shaken with more rage than she has felt in her life, does not say much in response.

He is such an angry man.

Though cultured, though human, though elevated, physical violence is a part of his fabric in a way that she is unused to.

“Leave it be,” she sighs and rises to go out to the garden.

Maybe it is because she is sheltered, or maybe it is because she is from a different world where knives are only found in the kitchen and men are not allowed to carry swords.

She is in the garden, having spent the afternoon watching Somei-chan practice her stitches, when Izuna returns.

The darkness of his blue ziduo does not hide the darkness of the bloodstains that coats him or the wild look in his eyes.

Her little cousin gasps, her hands going up to her hair — Somei-chan turned fifteen just after the new year and has yet to settle into the bun and buyao of an adult woman — in an attempt to make sure that everything stays piled atop her head.

Hisa considers the scene, notes the pulled tight nature of Izuna’s lips — he is still a string pulled too tight, one wrong move and he’d snap — and turns to her little cousin. “Somei-chan, I’ve kept you for too long. Isn’t it time for dinner?”

“Hisa-nee,” Somei-chan whispers, urgently tugging at her sleeve. “Hisa-nee.” Her little cousin casts another glance at Izuna, who stands there, breathing, audible, like a living shadow. “Shouldn’t you come with me to dinner?”

Ah, trying to tell her that she shouldn’t be alone with an outside man. Somei-chan has always been proper, more so than her, who only adheres to the outward trappings of propriety.

His eyes are still on her, dark as coal, like a night without moon. There is a fire burning there, behind them, wild, fearful.

Fear of what, she does not know, but expects she will find out as soon as he opens his mouth.

She stands, shaking out her skirts, the picture of idle innocence. “I think Hiko has made himself my dinner guest for tonight, so I oughtn’t go, but tell Aunt Hasuyo that I appreciate her invitation.”

Boxed in by this, Somei-chan rises reluctantly, still casting glances at Izuna, but mannerly as she is, she bobs him a curtsy when she passes with a gentle greeting that he acknowledges with a nod.

The tension in him does nothing when Somei-chan vanishes out the courtyard door, leaving them the only two people in the garden.

“Well?” she says, wondering if she is supposed to say more.

He breathes out, ragged. “I will write to my father. There will be others.”

There have been others employed briefly before, on rotation, when he was tired, or away on other business.

But insurance, insurance that he will be ever present is another matter. There is safety there, in those words.

She has never been truly afraid in his presence before.

She smiles, looks down. “I’m grateful.”

He bows his head, eyes closed, lashes long against pale skin. “You shouldn’t be,” he murmurs, almost to himself. “By Guanyin’s name, you shouldn’t be.”

“Why not gratitude?” she asks him. “You provide me a service I cannot find elsewhere. Why shouldn’t I be grateful for it?”

He shudders. “The one they wanted to harm was me. The one they actually harmed was you. Grateful!” His laughter has a tinge of hysteria to it, his face turned towards the sky, neck offered up as though for a blade. “You would do better to kill me where I stand, I think, for all the harm that I’ve brought through the doorway.”

They are warmongers, Hisa.

They do not know how to fit into the narrow lines of our society.

But he has tried so hard to.

He has tried so hard to, and so often he succeeds in attempting.

“And what harm is that?” She turns her face up to his, but nothing changes in her estimation of him.

Brittle, proud man, what is it that you carry so much guilt for?

“Bear,” he says, and takes a step forward, clasping her arms. There is too much earnestness in his eyes, as if he wants her to believe what he says. “I killed him.”

And she wonders if he is doomed to think this way, in circles instead of looking forward. “I wasn’t aware,” she says, very slowly, “that you burned Yushin to death yourself, even with your twisted ankle. It must have been a terribly quick affair, since I was sure I was with you the whole time.”

And I do not remember that.

He blinks at her, as though he suspects she is particularly dim. “He only died because of the feud. You were only injured because of the feud.”

And suddenly, she is very cold. “Did you hold him in the fire yourself?” The words are loud in the empty courtyard. “He went back to help other people get out of the fire, and he succeeded.” Not a single other person died. Injured maybe, grieving maybe, but no one else died. “Don’t presume to take credit for his moral character.”

What had killed Yushin were the people who set the fire and Yushin’s own character — too honorable and upright to flee with his own life intact and not reach out to help others.

Izuna’s guilt over the matter is misplaced.

He stumbles backwards, as if suddenly awakened. “My apologies,” he mutters and takes another step backwards, as if about to flee.

“Do you know why I hired you, Izuna-san?”

They are warmongers, Hisa. They bring only pain and death in their wake.

And yet, she has never forgotten how many lives he has saved.

Well worth the money.

Well worth the time.

Even if he has brought enemies with him, he has preserved so many lives.

She would always be grateful.

“In the month before you arrived, fourteen men transporting a caravan to Chugoku resting at the town of Nobuga were killed by bandits.” She had not known them so well, seeing as they were caravan men, not people who worked in the inner household whom she saw everyday.

But they were still men who traveled under the name of Kawaguchi at her family’s behest.

They still had lives and families, dreams and hopes, and they had these things until there had not been enough protection, and they had died still trying to ensure that the bandits did not thieve the silk.

But the work of so many hands had burned.

“Fourteen?” His face has gone a shade paler.

“Money cannot buy the love of a brother,” she half smiles, though there is no joy here. “But sometimes, if used correctly, it can buy the life of one.”

How many brothers had been saved because of him?

And how many more will now prosper?

He smiles, though in his eyes there is only pain. “I didn’t know.”

“No one comes with only good things, Izuna-san. We all have our flaws.” Her hands may be injured, but the way forward is clear, and her mind is made up. “Though if you keep coming back covered in blood, Saka will be very cross with you. She has told me that the junior laundry maids complain about your clothing, especially.”

What he has done now, she cannot begin to guess at.

But she suspects that the lives of men cling to him, the way dye lots cling to her.

And that must weigh.

It must weigh.

By June, the greenery in Chubu is so heavy that it reminds her of the forest she had seen in Yanai, hugging the base of the mountain ranges above.

Bamboo sways and bends with the wind, rustling with the gentleness of a prosperous summer.

Because O-Shiki is well again — or as well as she thinks she is going to get this year — she throws open the doors of the estate that has been long closed, and invites Hisa and the other young people of Chubu to see her, ostensibly for her second son’s first birthday since she had missed his month old celebration.

So it is that in the second week of June, Hisa dresses for a polo match. “Neesan, will I be as pretty as you someday?” Momo-chan is here again, to watch as Kimei does her hair and for her to do her makeup.

“You’re already pretty, my little peach.” In recent days, Momo has been over more often, first to start reciting her lessons, and then to practice sewing with her handmaids.

Perhaps this is Chiba-san attempting to trust her. The madam who lived in the eastern courtyard has been happier in recent days, the servants whispered of it.

All knew the reason, all could always speculate, but since the master of the house does not wear a heart of stone, it is only inevitable.

And perhaps she could accept that.

It is not as if Chichi-ue loved her less, and the accounts are still hers. Chiba-san has not asked for them, had not even mentioned the idea, even in the privacy of her personal handmaids.

We may never learn to love each other, but it must be enough.

For all the people who must live between the both of them, for the little girl who loves both of them, it will have to be enough.

“But Neesan is so pretty.” Momo-chan kicks her feet back and forth, her hands clenched over the edge of the lacquered stool. “Chichi-ue says that it is because Neesan’s haha-ue was also pretty.”

“He said that?” She turns to Momo. He should not have said that.

He has never said that to me.

As a child, he had never taught her to value beauty, and Haha-ue did not care to mention it.

Momo-chan nods eagerly. “He also said that Neesan’s haha-ue was pretty because she laughed a lot.” But here, Momo deflates, pouting as she considers her next words. “But Neesan, you do not laugh a lot.”

Oh, so that is what it is.

She bursts into giggles and leans over to pinch Momo’s cheeks. “Little Peach, you are terrible. Who says I don’t laugh a lot?”

“I don’t think you laugh a lot either.” Izuna’s voice sounds from the outer room. “Hisa-san, are you ready to come out?”

“Since you’ve made yourself known, you might as well come in.” She slides a series of blue glass flowers into her hair, sighing lightly. “Taking sides with a child now, Izuna-san?”

Izuna does step in, dressed in a steel blue with embroidered wave patterns. “You’re the one fighting with a child, Hisa-san. Who would be more childish among us then?”

Momo giggles, covering her face with her hands. “Is Shinobi-niisan?”

“Uchiha Izuna-san,” she corrects. “Or Uchiha-san.”

“Izuna-niisan,” Izuna says instead. “I will refuse to answer to anything else.”

At this, Momo bubbles over with laughter, rocking back and forth. “Is a pretty niisan.” She hops off of her stool and exits past a rather dumbfounded Izuna, the air still filled with her laughter.

Hisa turns her eyes back up to Izuna’s face. “And how does the pretty niisan feel today?”

Izuna makes a face at her. “I didn’t mean for you to call me niisan.”

She laughs at this, the corners of her mouth turning down in amusement. “You did ask my little sister to call you niisan. And I am certain you are older.” But her hair is almost done now. “Unless of course, you would wish to be otouto instead?”

He makes an even worse face at this. “They should call you Hisa the Cruel instead.”

She rises, skirts rustling lightly. “Whatever they call me, they won’t call me late to the party, so I accept it.”

This year, Somei-chan is old enough to join them. And next year, Toraki-kun will be able to come along as well.

And in Aunt Hasuyo’s courtyard, she has begun to worry about a son-in-law for her elder daughter. Retsu is only eighteen, but while Aunt Hasuyo finds that too young to marry, it is not too young to think about it.

A mother looks to seeing her daughters married off well and that their daughters-in-law are properly suited to their sons.

Fathers do not think the same way of their daughters, which is why Hisa has escaped the plight of having someone worry so over her own eventual marriage.

Chichi-ue seems content for her to find someone suited to her own whims.

And so thinking so, she folds her hands together, eggshell blue sleeves spilling over each other. Today, her skirts are embroidered with lotus flowers, the lightest blush of pink deepening into almost red. A tiny jade lotus hangs among the other beads of her buyao, the newest gift that Chichi-ue brought from Kamakura town.

She suspects she would look good in red and wishes for spider lilies embroidered in gold on a red qun to wear out for the world to see.

But full red is for brides, and pink is for young unmarried ladies.

And she is no bride, so she makes do with blue and pink.

After all, O-Shiki had threatened her with playing polo today, so she ought to at least wear something she will not mind getting sweaty.

Izuna offers her a hand when they arrive, dressed formally, but in an outfit that he still felt comfortable enough wearing, sword at his waist.

There is safety here, reassurance that nothing would go wrong. And she is grateful for such.

The sight of the upper pavilion, where O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto are, makes her slow down slightly, waiting for Somei-chan and Retsu-chan and their handmaids to catch up to her and Kimei.

While O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto are in attendance, as is Kiyowara-hime and both of their children, another man and woman are also in attendance, the man holding Kata-kun.

O-Shiki has failed to mention that her brother and her sister-in-law are still at her estate.

But then, she had heard no news of Lord Iesuke and Iro-hime leaving thus, so it is perfectly reasonable that they have stayed.

“The countess’s brother and sister-in-law are here.” Best at least remind Retsu-chan and Somei-chan of who that would be, Somei-chan especially since it is her first time out. “Marquis Asukabe’s second son, Lord of the West Pavilion, Asukabe Iesuke-sama, and his wife, Iroyoka-hime.”

At this particular declaration, both of her cousins fall silent, falling in behind her. Today, she will have to carry both the introductions and the conversation.

It could be more important people, if one was really thinking about it.

The visitor could always be O-Shiki’s other brother.

But then, the other brother isn’t married to a princess.

What bothered her more, though, is that while Sato Astunari is in attendance, she does not see O-Toyo.

With how much O-Toyo had worried about her stepmother’s arrangements to marry her off, her absence from this gathering is troubling.

“Hmmm,” Lord Iesuke is seated almost sideways on the dias, cooing over Kata-kun, when they arrive, his wife also leaning in his direction, one of her fingers firmly in Kata-kun’s grip. “Who’s a handsome little boy? Is it you?”

They are a happy people, she supposes, Lord Iesuke and his wife, for the way they act seems to be one heart and one intention, in a way that few married couples are.

“Oh! Hisa-chan!” O-Shiki rises, and makes her way over, more slowly than she would normally. “Am I glad to see your face.” O-Shiki pulls her up onto the dais, further closer to the new guests. “You simply must see your godson; he is so very cute.”

“He is your son,” she protests. “He is certain to be cute.”

Both Lord Iesuke and Iro-hime turn to look at her.

He has a long face and high forehead, a square jaw, and while dressed in a brighter blue than he ought to be wearing and slouched over his seat as he is, one leg crossed over the other, still cuts an imposing figure.

She is dressed more subduedly in jewel tones, as befitting of a matron, black hair done up sleekly with enough hairsticks that it flashes every time she moves her head. Iro-hime’s eyes flicker past her, to where Izuna stands silently at her shoulder, but she says nothing.

Long has Iro-hime been rumored to be the most beautiful and accomplished of the Daimyo’s daughters. Despite being a shu daughter, hers was the only marriage granted by the Daimyo himself.

“So this is the infamous Kawaguchi O-Hisa-san!” Lord Iesuke smiles, the action lifting the corners of his eyes. “I have to say, after writing so many letters to you, I had to argue Iro-chan down to staying for another month so I could meet you in person. T’would be regretful to have left without the experience.”

He does not speak at all like he writes.

She bobs a curtsy, her arm still in O-Shiki’s grasp. “I am deeply humbled by Asukabe-sama’s regard. Surely the meeting is actually very disappointing.”

He laughs, turning back to cooing over Kata-kun. “Listen to yourself. My little sister isn’t so fond of friends as all that, and yet she is fond of you.”

The rebuke is made carelessly, seemingly without much thought, but it is masterfully done.

How could she deny it when she knows it is true? And more than knowing it is true, ever dare to imply that O-Shiki’s regard for her is anything but genuine?

Not so different from the man who wrote, then.

“Asukabe-sama showers me with such high praise.” Best tread carefully, since he is no idle fool. “I fear I will not be able to carry such heavy regard.”

He does not turn back to her, though Iro-hime watches her still, amber eyes alight with attention. “You’ll have to forgive him,” the shu princess demures. “My husband is a careless man and does not often think before he speaks.”

Happy people, indeed.

One of them sets up the stage and the other offers her a hand off after she’s already played the fool.

She smiles at this, eyes downcast. “I have found Asukabe-sama to be well learned and astute in his writing.” They are not the only people who can pay compliments.

Lord Fusamoto rises, clapping his hands together. “Are we celebrating my son’s first birthday, or are we celebrating how clever we all are?” He nods to Retsu-chan and Somei-chan, welcoming them properly for the first time, and then comes to pry Kata-kun from his brother-in-law. “You might be used to saying whatever you like in the capital city, but I haven’t given you free rein to terrorize my poor guests.”

Lord Iesuke puts on a look of mock affrontation, but Kata-kun is passed on over to her without much further fanfare.

He truly is a cute child, with soft black hair, chubby cheeks, and the same black eyes of his brother and father.

He observes her very seriously, without a shred of fear.

“Say hello to Auntie Hisa,” O-Shiki prompts.

Kata-kun only giggles, a tiny dimple appearing on his chin as he waves his hands about.

He will likely never know how much had been paid for his life, how much blood, how much suffering, how his mother had been willing to sign her name in the King of Hell’s book if only he would live, which would be kinder to him.

As for his godmother being a common merchant’s daughter who could find him no useful connections or aid him much in court...well, she hopes he does not mind that as much.

The polo fields had already been open to matches by the time she arrived, though the prizes had been smaller and less ornate earlier in the day.

By the time Lord Fusamoto returns, having lost yet another match and laughed it off with the good humor of a man who does not squabble over petty things, things have proceeded apace. Lord Iesuke had forced her into matching fourteen couplets in the span of one polo match, each upper line delivered slightly more attentively than the last.

If he is trying to ascertain if she is educated enough to be godmother to a count’s son, she supposes he must be satisfied after the fourteen poems they have concocted together in the space of a polo match or two.

It is a shame that it has kept her from enjoying how the young men from Chubu’s baronic households have yet again beaten Lord Fusamoto by a hair and delighted over it.

Lord Iesuke rises, rolling his shoulders lightly before cracking his neck. “Mmm, I suppose I should go a round.”

O-Shiki laughs at this, leaning back in her chair, still paler beneath her face paint than she would be normally. The road to recovery is long, but O-Shiki has always been bullheaded and determined to prove herself strong. Whatever happens, she intends to make it through this party through force of will alone. “Still not giving up the games of childhood, Niisan?”

Lord Iesuke pauses as he cracks his back. “That makes me sound so old, Shiki-chan. I can still survive a game of polo.” He turns back to the seated audience on the dais. “You’ll have to find me a suitable partner to carry my poor self through the game.”

And it feels like they are playing some sort of southern opera, the way they have their characters and set pieces.

O-Shiki has clearly come up with another bad idea, and here she is, having walked straight into it once again, simply because she likes to play polo.

O-Shiki smiles, pleased at the entrapment and the situation. “I know just the person, Niisan.”

All eyes turn to her, dressed for polo and not yet partnered with anyone.

Lord Iesuke smiles, a fox of nine tails, and turns to her with a bow and a flourish. “Well, O-Hisa-san, after you?”

And if they must all be mummers, at least she can walk down the path of mummery with grace and a smile. What good would it be to drag her feet?

“I would love to, Asukabe-sama.”

She urges her horse forward, polo stick in hand, eyes on the ball being bandied back and forth between the opposing two teams.

From behind her, Lord Iesuke leans forward low over the neck of his horse, racing in full gallop, and smashes straight through the center of the two younger barons.

He plays polo like a madman, betting on how others would not dare hit the honored son-in-law of the Daimyo to force others off of the ball, not the least bit prudent.

When speaking, he at least holds back a little.

On the polo field, he doesn’t hold back at all, wild like he is riding to war.

Misfortunately, Chubu’s nobles have never seen anything like it in an age, Lord Fusamoto being far more good natured when it comes to winning or losing. Like a cat among the pigeons, the other young men and women scatter and fall.

And while she might be ruthless, she does not have the sort of weight to throw around that he does.

She sweeps past them, the way to the goal clear.

A few passes, and they have settled into rhythm.

With a wild whoop, he passes the ball to her, and with a flick of her wrist, she drives it through the end goal.

“Red Team!” Suteo calls. “One point!”

Another flag in the stand.

There have been only red flags in the stand so far.

They all move back towards the center of the field.

In the east, thunder rolls, clouds dark against the sun.

She bats the thrown ball out of the air, across half the field, and straight into the goal.

Suteo is almost laughing when he calls the next point. “Maybe it’s best to give up early, my lords.” He covers his smile with his hand, though that does not hide the delight in his eyes. “After all, it looks as though it will rain soon.”

The rain comes down heavy and hard, sliding off of the tiled roofs and pattering against the edges of the walkway, driving flower petals from their stems.

After so long where the summer droughts ruled their lives, it is good to see the rain, even if it has called the polo match early.

Both Kata-kun and Kore-kun have been handed off, and all the ladies adjourn to O-Shiki’s greeting hall to nibble on pastries and fruits, still abuzz over the situation.

That O-Toyo is still so obviously missing worries her.

And it must worry O-Shiki as well, for she stubbornly guides Baroness Yamamoto away from the current topic of conversation. “My brother and my second sister-in-law simply haven’t been blessed with children yet. Such things aren’t so unusual.”

“He seems very taken with Kata-kun.” This comes from Baroness Ito, whose husband serves as Shunan’s Magistrate. “It is a rare man indeed who is so fond of children and yet does not have any of his own.”

Across the room, Iro-hime’s handkerchief crumples in her hand, though her face is as pleasant and placid as ever.

“Eight years is a bit unusual…” Baroness Yamamoto muses. She is the oldest person in the room, a matron with graying hair and a grave presence. “You have only been married in for five years, and yet don’t you and Lord Fusamoto have two sons already?”

O-Shiki is a straightforward woman, not prone to twisting words for her own gain, and though she is the countess and therefore more highly ranked than the other women in the room, they are her elders and ought to be afforded respect when they have not done anything wrong.

Searching for marital gossip is not really wrong, since all people do such things in their idle pastime.

Softly, Hisa taps her closed fan against her other hand, watching as Iro-hime seems to grow more defensive, knuckles white against the blue linen of her handkerchief, golden phoenix in her hair trembling ever so slightly.

It does not exactly do her much good to say something.

She knows very little about Iro-hime’s temperament, though there are some things she can guess — she is proud and well learned, and she both cares for and knows her husband well — such matters are sensitive.

Such matters are sensitive, and even second sons want sons to carry on their name and legacy.

“Aren’t such things,” and here she spreads her fan, covering the bottom half of her face, half smiling, “Heaven’s will?”

It is what they all say about lover’s meetings and children’s lives and horrible accidents and death by sickness.

It is Heaven’s will.

Who ever heard of Heaven complying with the will of man?

And so saying so, a pause arises in the conversation without Iro-hime having said a single word.

And into the silence, again leaps O-Shiki, desperate to change the topic of conversation.

“Oh! Hisa-chan, I was just about to ask you for a favor.”

And though perhaps it is not best to speak of public favors, she had been the one to make herself noticeable by commenting upon the matter.

Is it really helping someone if she doesn’t finish the job?

She smiles and turns to O-Shiki. “If it is within my means, of course.”

“Oh,” O-Shiki laughs, delighted. “You wouldn’t believe what my big sister-in-law said about the newest items in my wardrobe the last time I visited my maiden home.”

She can see where this is going.

She can see where it is going, but she still must play the part. “She must’ve noticed some defect in the cloth.” Half a face covered by her fan, she peers at O-Shiki over the edge of the waxed paper and bamboo ribs. “Our workmanship here cannot compare to the excellence found in the capital city.”

O-Shiki giggles, a brilliant bright thing. “Will you please take a compliment, Hisa-chan? She is after all, in our generation of people.” O-Shiki leans forward to hold her hand. “She thinks they’re lovely, and wants the cloth to make clothing with. I figured I should ask you first before I promised anything.”

Halfway through the inside party, the rain stops, and she makes her excuses, having already, perhaps, overstayed her welcome in hospitality among these noble ladies with too much time on their hands.

It does no good to draw too much attention, for attention leads to jealousy, and jealousy leads to suffering. .

Her family is small, and like an ant, easy to step on.

And today she has perhaps drawn too much attention.

O-Shiki is busy still, hostess as she is, but Hisa doesn’t expect Iro-hime to rise, taking her by the arm to walk her out. O-Shiki turns, a question in her eyes, but does not rise.

O-Shiki has only grown paler during the party, clearly fatigued, though she does not show it otherwise.

It is best to not impose further.

They are on the walkway in the garden by the time Iro-hime begins talking. “My little sister-in-law is a straightforward soul who does not put shutters on her words, and she sees the best in people.”

She sees where this is going. “O-Shiki-sama has always been very generous.”

From the outside, this does look like a relationship where she takes advantage of the Countess’s kind heart and straightforward generosity to advance herself and her family.

Because she herself is not a very straightforward person — someone who wears two faces never can be — and the depth of how she feels about people is not something she generally shows to those she has not known for some time and likes.

“Are you engaged yet, Kawaguchi-san?”

So it comes back to this.

“No, not yet.”

Her two little cousins are behind her, and the conversation is loud enough that they can hear every word.

Kimei is here, and so are Retsu-chan and Somei-chan’s handmaids.

And for their sake, she must not bend.

Izuna is here as well, ambling leisurely.

“She may not think you are taking advantage of her trust, but walk carefully, Kawaguchi-san. There is no need to attempt also making inroads with me.”

“I did not risk my father’s reputation so that I could make attempts at idle flattery, hime-sama.” Her words are still chosen pleasantly, but like a reed in the river, she might bend.

But also like a reed in the river, there comes a time when she will bend no more.

Even reeds must snap.

She’d done so because…

She knows what sorts of things people say about women who seem to have failed in their more important duty — not filial enough, not dutiful enough, not virtuous enough, not kind or good or giving, when in the end, none of these things determine the number of living sons any woman has or what those sons do in their lifetimes.

Knows well that so often, the ones who wield the sharpest of critical blades are other women, seeking to improve their own situation.

Iro-hime turns to her then, and they stand there, face to face, eye to eye. “You gain no benefit from speaking up for me, unless you think it would make me consider you more positively when neither you nor your relatives belong here.”

Yes, she is a merchant’s daughter, not made for rubbing elbows with the wives and daughters of barons or playing polo with the son-in-law of the daimyo.

Knows that she is less cultured and educated than they.

“Must everything in the world be done for benefits?” The common insult bandied about when it came to merchants is that they are a transactional people, calculating every ryo, to the point that the same attitude extends to their relationships.

But while money might buy a husband, it cannot buy respect.

If it could, she would not be standing here, listening to a princess question what it is that she wants from her friends, instead of what she gives.

“And you are old to be yet unmarried.” The words sting.

“My father has no sons.” It is not as if she is unmarried at twenty-one because she has nowhere to go. And it is not as if she is desperate to get married. “If I were to marry out, my dowry would be no less than half his fortune.”

But she does not choose to marry out to any number of the young men whose families are hungry for money, and her own standards are too high to marry a second or third son who had never bothered to work in his lifetime.

“It is not as if O-Hisa-san lacks for suitors.” Izuna’s voice rings over the silence. He stands just behind her, unyielding. “I would say she is rather spoiled for choice.” Almost as if he’d planned it all along, he hands her up into the carriage, Kimei following.

“I don’t know why she had to be so rude,” Kimei grumbles, when they are far away enough that no one would overhear her saying this. “Lady Shikikami wouldn’t even be alive if not for your quick thinking. And you nearly lost your life over it.”

“She likely does not know.” She reaches over and smooths the frown line from Kimei’s brow. “Don’t think on it so deeply.”

A secret is only a secret when few people know of it. To protect her life, Lord Fusamoto had likely not told his brother-in-law of the truth.

“She is a woman too.” But Kimei will not let this go. “She is a woman too. Doesn’t she know that every woman fears being told she is an old maid, never to be married?”

She sighs. “Iro-hime is a woman too. Doesn’t that mean she knows about all the unscrupulous ways a woman might try to climb the social ladder?”

She’d been born to almost the most pampered and precious position a daughter could have — only daughters of the Kogo could hope to do better — but she is still a woman and knows the ways women wield power and utilize each other.

“In a household full of women,” Haha-ue had once told her this while brushing out her hair. “In a house full of women, only one can be the wife and hold all the power. Everyone else has to settle for being a concubine. In life, women are the least kind to each other, because we have so few paths to owning anything of value.”

And in that, she is luckier than most.

Husbands and brothers and fathers are often fickle.

But Chichi-ue has never been.


Hiko sets down the final Go stone in the match, and looks up at Izuna. “You’re not very practiced, are you?”

Izuna, for his part, makes a face. “And you’ve had far too much practice.” Slowly, they begin to gather up the stones, sorting white and black back into their respective bowls. “You’re a busy man, where do you find the time?”

She half listens to the conversation, busy as she is with finishing Hiko’s newest robe.

He’d accidentally set fire to a sleeve while bending over a candle. It’d been a miracle he didn’t set his hair on fire either with how little he enjoys wearing a formal topknot unless he has to see outside people.

“I have been gifted with many wonderful opportunities to practice.” Hiko smiles, a little sharp but mosting amused as he rises. “But be careful, Izuna, my teacher is a harder man to crack than I.”

It no longer sounds like they are speaking about Go.

But in all things, Chichi-ue has been Hiko’s teacher.

Izuna makes another face. “Who says I want to play your teacher?”

At this, Hiko only laughs, snapping his fan open. “But you will have to, to reach what you seek, no?”

Izuna turns around so that his back is to Hiko and crosses his arms. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

If it is about playing Go with Chichi-ue…

“It is true that at your current level of skill, you would find it very hard to win against Chichi-ue.”

At your current playing level, you’ll have a hard time against me.

He might be an accomplished musician and an accomplished swordsman, but the gentleman’s strategy game eludes him.

Izuna huffs at her. “Who said it was anything about Go?”

She sets her sewing aside to set her head against one hand. “I like to think we are good enough friends for me to tell you this, but there is not anyone in Shunan who can best Chichi-ue at a match.”

Not anymore.

No, Chichi-ue had married the woman who could win against him.

The face he makes tells her that she has hit a nerve, and this delights her.

“It has been a good year thus far.” She turns her face up to the sun among the flowers, leaning back against the stone table, content.

“Ah,” he agrees, sitting in the chair behind her. “In some ways, it has.”