She visits Izuna in his courtyard in the early hours of the evening, flower lantern in hand as she makes her way up the walk.
He is sitting in the courtyard when she arrives, playing the qin, a sake tokkuri by his side.
“Ambush From All Sides,” she names, though she’s sure he’s heard her while she walked up.
Once, he’d told her she walked loudly — that everyone here did, really — and how amusing he had found that.
You do not sneak, he’d said. You trample.
She’d laughed and wondered what his ears were made of.
Today’s music choice seemed much more like the sort that shinobi would play, combative, lively, and thinking about bloodshed.
But he plays it lightly, like people dancing and birds chirping in the trees.
The mood is different, but the notes are the same.
He turns to her, smiling. “Improperly visiting for business again?”
“Improperly visiting a friend.” She sits down on the stone bench some distance away, setting the lantern on the ground to her right. “Unless, of course, we are not friends?”
His expression freezes for a moment, hands hovering over the strings, before he slowly pulls his hands back setting them in his lap. “Of course we are...friends.”
“You do not sound convinced.” She laughs, hiding her smile behind her sleeves. “Should I feel hurt by this moment of rejection?”
He shifts, sword sheath scraping against the stone. “Hisa-san falsely accuses me of rejection.”
And amusingly enough, he does sound quite offended by her teasing.
Perhaps she shouldn’t prod him with words that do not quite mean what he thinks they mean.
For all that he is a shinobi, he is still so very straightforward as long as one knows how to read him.
“I accuse you of nothing.”
Again, he shifts in his seat, the rasp of steel against stone loud in the silence he lets stretch.
“Why do you wear a sword here?”
The Senju have been quiet for a long time now, not showing up to heckle the caravans or bother any travel from their house.
And surely, there is no reason to believe that the Senju would come into the house to attempt murder.
“I wear it everywhere.” He shrugs. “At home, I sleep with it. The sword is the soul of the shinobi.” At her surprise, he continues more slowly. “Few civilians are allowed swords, unless they are noblemen or under a nobleman’s banner. But all shinobi are allowed swords, rich or poor, noble or not.”
He speaks of it with such reverence, so much so that it is more than just a weapon.
She’d been raised to think of swords with the same disdain that Chichi-ue had for butcher’s knives — things that kill. Except swords were probably worse, given that butcher’s knives were not made to slaughter men.
The sword is the soul of the shinobi.
“Can I see it?”
What does your soul look like?
She has seen it blood covered. She has seen it sheathed.
But she does not really know what it looks like.
“Careful, it’s sharp.” He rises and passes it over to her. “It was forged for me by my uncle when I came of age.”
“Not that long ago, then?” She accepts it by the hilt, their fingers brushing, though he steps back.
“Hisa-san makes many assumptions about my age.” Izuna sounds as though he is mildly perturbed. “How do you know I am not a thousand year old demon born of darkness and corruption?”
“Even if you were, you still would have come of age recently.”
The sword is made of a steel so dark that it glows blue in the lantern light. Etched lightly on one side of the blade is the Uchiwa, and on the other is what looks like a personal crest — two tongues of flame swirled into the shape of a yin yang.
The hilt is bound with polished wood, a red tassel threaded through the end made of silk cord and wire.
His uncle is a craftsman then, for although it is deadly, it bears personal touches, symbols she cannot completely parse. It was meant as a gift, meant to represent him.
Though a killing weapon, there is a grace and elegance to it.
“It is a beautiful thing.” She holds it back out to him, hilt first. “Your uncle surely must be very proud.”
“He’s growing old,” he murmurs, staring into the distance. “And he and my father had some sort of falling out long ago and will no longer speak to each other. But in our clan, there is no one who makes swords better.” For a moment, he looks almost frail. “He thought that my eldest brother would succeed him, before, well…” He looks away, a touch of rue upon his brow. “I’ve grown maudlin again.”
“We all carry our losses with us.” The words he said paints a picture of a family, split by division and grief, inimitably human. “There is no shame in that.”
“Here.” He shakes himself. “I’ll show you how to use it.”
She almost protests.
What could I, a civilian woman who has never held a blade before today, learn about this?
But he steps behind her, sets a hand over hers.
And she forgets to protest.
She had never noticed before how much taller than her he is, how his hand dwarfs hers by comparison.
“Relax your wrist,” he whispers, radiating warmth despite the brisk chill of the air.
And slowly, they turn.
“In the north, there are mountains.”
It is like dancing in a way. He leads and she follows.
And slowly, the sword slips from her hand to his, and he continues on alone. “Among the flowers with wine beneath the sky. Alone I drink — no friend or kin, just me.” He quotes Ri Haku’s “Drinking Alone” today, his sword a deadly silver thing in the lantern light, a pale round moon above them. “I raise my cup to toast the moon on high. That’s two of us; my shadow makes it three.” And round he turns, sake tokkuri in hand to toast her.
And so she answers him. “I sing — it sets the moon to rock in time. I dance — my shadow cannot hold its place.”
He spins, hair fluttering in the wind. “Sober, we share companionship sublime. Drunk at last, we drift apart in space.”
“Lost to worldly things, until some day.” He turns to look at her when she finishes the line, sword held loosely in his hand, an emotion in his eyes that she does not name, for naming would almost ruin it. She holds his gaze. “We’ll meet again, beyond the Milky Way.”
He stands there for a moment, silent, sword still in hand. “Will I meet you there, on the bridge?” There is hope here, and a hint of insecurity, as if he expects her to say no.
She smiles. “If the magpies are working.”
He laughs, a bright thing, earlier mournfulness forgotten. “I, I’m glad.”
The evening ends with his head in her lap, sheathed sword laid out across the table, wine cup still dangling loosely from his hand. "I think you're beautiful."
He is not entirely present anymore, being half drunk at the very least.
But his words still surprise her.
"Do the stars in heaven weep?” he muses, gaze either on her face or at the moon behind her. “For our mortal realm holds greater beauty than they."
It is rare that she is flattered by words, rarer still that she gives much credence to mentions of her beauty, but he looks so earnest tonight, eyes bright, a half smile on his lips.
“Flatterer,” she whispers. “You are not the first to say so.”
And yet I hope you are the last.
A corner of his mouth tilts up, a crooked line to his half smile. “I thought as much, Hisa-san. I thought as much.”
And slowly around them, the lanterns smoulder, and one by one they go out.
It is just after noon when Aka comes in to let her, Hiko, and Kimei know that the Big Madam is here to see her.
The matter is treated with some oddity. In the six and a half years that Chiba-san has been married to Chichi-ue, she has very rarely come to Hisa’s courtyard. Whenever they needed to speak over any particular affair, she’d gone to the eastern courtyard instead.
But by the reports, it does not seem as though Chiba-san is planning anything in particular.
And she’d been tired of the accounts before this anyway.
“I don’t see why not.” She sets aside her books and brush and rises to go out to the courtyard. Kimei huffs, but she rises as well to take the pastries and tea out.
It is still warm enough for the meeting to take place out of doors, and no doubt, Hiko would be glad of it.
He still hasn’t forgiven or forgotten the time Chiba-san threatened to have him caned for insolence, and she does not ask him to.
Best that they be kept separate, though she feels the slightest hint of amusement that she is the one doing the separating.
“Aka says that you wished to see me?”
Chiba-san is standing, waiting for her to arrive, admiring the branches of Haha-ue’s peach tree.
For a brief moment, she is suddenly made aware that she has no idea what her stepmother’s interests are, if she even really prefers music and sewing, or if she likes flowers or poetry or pitch pot or polo or opera or if she preferred some other form of entertainment.
It has been some time, but she knows nothing.
“I did, yes.” Chiba-san doesn’t sit, and because she is an elder, Hisa doesn’t sit either. “To thank you.”
“I have done nothing to be thanked for.”
She has never paid her father’s second wife the respect the other woman deserves, and they both know this, and thus she has done nothing that requires thanks.
“Everyone in this house besides the people I brought with me knew that you would have more say here than I do.” For the first time in a long time, they stand face to face and speak plainly, without the bitterness that had shadowed them since first sight.
“That is only because this household is an unconventional one.” Many of their servants have been here a long time, Haha-ue’s dowry servants from Yanai, or had been with Chichi-ue since their youth.
In her own courtyard, of the five handmaids in charge of her affairs — Kimei had grown up with her; Aka had come to their household after Chichi-ue had bought and promptly torn up her life contract from another household; Nene had formerly been hired as a kitchen maid a few months before Chiba-san had married in; Fuku and Ina had been sold into the household at ages ten and eight respectively, assigned to her courtyard as they each turned twelve.
The household is full of trusted people, and she and Chichi-ue have always treated them kindly.
In all well governed households, the servants do as the master feels, watching the expression on his face rather than what words he chose to say.
And Chichi-ue’s feelings had been perfectly clear.
“I would have been unhappy as well, had my father chosen to remarry someone not even a decade older than I.”
Only a scant five years separates them. Perhaps that is what has made it hard to consider Chiba-san a second mother.
She’d already been grown when her father’s second wife stepped through the door.
Perhaps, if she had still been that frightened little girl, a second mother would’ve been a blessing.
“And yet, our paths have already come to this.” She smiles, halfway rueful.
Her aunts, to whom Haha-ue had been a benefactor, had never welcomed Chiba-san as they ought either. “Why thank me? We only do what we have to to live.”
“You left a side of the net open for me.” Chiba-san sets her hand on the table. “And you have always been an excellent sister. Whatever differences we have had, whatever mistakes I may have made, you have never involved or resented Momo.”
“She is my father’s daughter.” Her father has two daughters. “And my own sister. Wouldn’t I really be heartless if I involved her in my own grievances?”
And for all they have suffered living together in the same house, Chiba-san has never tried to tell Momo to dislike her.
Kimei brings out tea and cakes and her sewing, and slowly, she and Chiba-san sit there, talking.
She has only just risen to go in, Chiba-san saying her goodbyes, when Izuna comes up the walk, bleeding from a shallow cut on his cheekbone.
He is not particularly blood covered, but there is a wild look in his eyes. “Hisa-san?”
Beside her, Chiba-san stiffens. “Second Miss, who is this?”
She folds her hands together before her, pink sleeves draping over her hands. “I seem remiss in my introductions. Chiba-san, this is Uchiha Izuna-san, one of the shinobi I have employed for the safety of our household. Izuna-san, this is Chiba Natsu-san, my honored father’s wife.”
Izuna’s eyes go wide for a moment, though he manages a bow. “My greetings to Chiba-san.”
Chiba-san rallies herself, her face devoid of her earlier shock. “So it is Uchiha-san. My apologies for not recognizing you. I’m sure you still have business matters to speak of with our Second Miss, so I won’t hold you up any longer.”
“Big Madam, I’ll walk you out.” Aka appears to offer Chiba-san an arm, and the two of them disappear down the walk.
After they have turned the corner and gone, she turns her gaze back up to Izuna, who now shudders as though caught in the evening chill. “You went out again?”
To fight someone, or multiple someones.
He does not respond, but his gaze says it all.
She gathers up her sewing, and with a sigh, beckons for him to come in. “Come, your cheek is bleeding.”
He stumbles in after her, sits in the chair she pulls out for him, and without a word, lets her dab at his face. The cut runs quite a bit deeper than she thought it was at first glance, having barely missed his eye.
“Why did you go out?” she asks, but this receives no response either. “Are you hurt anywhere else?” She takes him by the shoulders and attempts turning him, but he immediately stiffens, and for one brief, horrified moment, she remembers how improper this is, before she drops her hands as though burnt by oil.
He breathes out. “No, only other people were injured.”
There is something else in his eyes now, and though something has changed, she does not know what it is.
“Why did you go out?”
He’d agreed not to.
“I solved your problem for you,” he mutters, which isn’t an answer either. “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. No one will ever bother you again.”
What gives him the right to say this, she doesn’t know. “The Senju?”
“They won’t come back here if they value living.” He lurches to his feet, still shaking. “Or if they know what’s good for them, which is living.”
And though she wants him to stop, wants him to explain, the words stick in her throat.
There is something so different about him today.
He pauses in her doorway, looking out at the garden, cattails and lotus flowers, bamboo and bloodgrass, lilies and iris. “I have to leave,” he whispers. “I hope you understand.”
“Something came up?” She rises from her desk, looks up at the pale shadow of his face.
At his side, a hand curls into a fist before he forces it to relax. “Something like that.”
And she could ask. She could ask, because she has asked before, and he has always told her the truth.
But the wooden duck still lingers on her desk, a promise unspoken and without name, and the taut line of his shoulders does not seem like a sign that he will speak to her again.
He is fighting against something that only he can see, something from his world that does not have form or name for her.
Even if he were to explain it to her, would she understand?
“I see.” She does not ask. “Safe travels?”
He laughs, and it sounds as though he were hollow, clinging to something in the flood. “I will try.”
I will try.
“That is all I ask.”
She tries not to ask so much of him these days, after seeing the depths he is willing to crawl for her, but she will ask this of him, if only because the world he goes out into is cruel.
Let him spare himself a little kindness.
“I—” he stumbles on his words, soft, deadly, sad. “I do not know when or if I will return.”
The thought that he might not return brings her pain of a different sort. It has been some time since she has had to bid goodbye to anyone.
But he is not hers to miss or ask to stay.
He had said what he meant, no more, and he had made her no promises and intended to make none.
And in the end, it had not been improper.
“If you do not,” she says, and she wonders why it is harder to set something down than it is to pick it up and carry it with her. She has never been good at putting relationships down, and she is so very fond of him. “I hope you find the peace you are looking for.”
He laughs at this, still mirthless but less hollow than before. “I will try.”
She watches the outline of his back as he turns the corner down the walkway — he would not turn around — before turning back to the accounts.
He is not hers to miss.
Or ask to stay.
She has so much work to do.
Seven sooty men stand before Chichi-ue’s desk when she arrives, having been summoned, Hiroto at their head.
“Fires don’t arise out of nowhere,” Chichi-ue says, his face heavy, though it brightens for a moment when he sees her. “You’re sure you saw no one?”
Hiroto shakes his head. “No one, Kawaguchi-san. We were out pruning the trees in the east field, and Taisei was about to drive the leaves back to the silkworm houses, when he saw the fire in the west.”
She is silent while she takes her seat, still listening as Hiroto describes the nature of the fire, the way he and his crew had immediately started hauling water from the river to combat the damage.
“I do know,” Hiroto pauses, a fist clenched in rage, “that whoever they are, they brought in pine wood from somewhere else and set it ablaze at the base of our trees.”
No, living trees are too hard to light, and it has been a wet year without much chance for the fields to crackle with such dry energy. The river water levels are high this summer.
“They wanted to cook the trees, not set fire to them.”
Whatever this was, it was premeditated, carefully planned so that the vast majority of people would be on the other side of the fields. Had they been watching Hiroto and the others to learn their schedules?
The fact that the fire had so clearly been set by human hands and yet no one had seen or heard a thing implied much more than it seemed.
But Izuna is not here for her to consult regarding the matter.
He would know who it was, she’s sure, possibly down to the name of the men who had done this, but he has not yet returned, and she does not have the same rapport with his cousins.
What she can do is direct them to pay more attention to the movements of the Senju, since they have now shown their hand, any moment they show themselves again, there is legal recourse.
And she certainly won’t speak well of them to any of her acquaintances.
Hiroto and the other men are rattled but unhurt, and that is the only reason she remains so calm. Had any of them suffered more than the sudden fear of seeing flames licking at the trees, she would want blood.
“Whoever they are,” Hiroto leans to the side and coughs angrily into his arm, “I wish I caught a glimpse of them. Magistrate would make them pay damages and cane them in the public square for insults like this.”
The other men behind him mutter their agreements, casting glances at Chichi-ue’s face, blushing slightly between accidental swear words that she is not supposed to hear or know about the existence of.
Slowly, Chichi-ue sighs, setting down his brush. “It is late enough in the season by now, and I believe it has been predicted that this will be a mild winter. Order twice the number of trees. We might as well take this time to replant and see to it that the north field is also expanded. Meanwhile, I will lodge an official complaint to the guild.”
She has not seen Chichi-ue so angry in a long time.
Thieves are one thing. While they are not welcome in any sense of the word, it is easier to understand greed than it is to understand cruelty.
The men nod and converse among themselves as they disperse.
“They seek to frighten us,” she says, rising from her chair to pace the floor. “Because we are in the light and they are hiding in the dark.”
Chichi-ue does not watch her pace, instead, turning back to his letter writing. “I will have to travel once more, this time to Enkai to meet with a client there.”
“You will only have time to submit a complaint to the guild about the Senju then.” She stops pacing, coming to a rest right before his desk.
“I will leave baiting them out into the open for you.”
A heavy task, but she has already nearly suffered a mortal accident while near Senju shinobi and took their measure while she was at it.
Once a wolf has tasted the blood of lambs, it will come back again and again, drunk on the sweetness it cannot find elsewhere.
They have been blooded, and previous offenses had not been met with either offense or a particularly strong defense.
The Senju will grow bolder, and that is when the hand flips.
The House of Kawaguchi is not made of lambs.
“You can leave it to me, Chichi-ue. They will make a mistake.”
She does not expect O-Toyo to come calling the morning after, since normally O-Toyo is not let out of the house without her stepmother’s interrogations — and going to the house of a merchant is not among those places that were permissible for visiting.
But somehow, O-Toyo has done it this time, pacing back and forth, wringing her hands, and ruining her handkerchief by the time Hisa arrives.
“Hisa-chan! Hisa-chan, you have to help me.”
The look on O-Toyo’s face is one she never wants to see again, caught between despair and hope.
Someone has failed O-Toyo, and with the way things are, she can make a good guess as to who.
“Come to my courtyard. I’ll ask Nene to brew tea.”
These things are not made to be spoken of out in the open.
The walls have ears, and servants talk. It is only their nature. Such things could not be blamed on loose lips alone.
“But you will help me?” O-Toyo had been crying, at least, when she was in the carriage riding over. She’d done a valiant job of patting her cheeks dry and not ruining her makeup, but such things are only paint, a porcelain mask cracking and about to fall off.
Her childhood friend has been wearing this mask for a long time, since even before they’d met at the school.
“Kuma makes wonderful pastries. I’m sure you have the time to stay and try a few bites.” She links their arms and walks them deeper into the house, amidst the flowers and the trees, water moving on the pond and wind rustling the bamboo leaves.
It takes time for O-Toyo to get her bearings, but the walk does help with that.
Only after tea is poured and snacks are served and they are seated in her front room does she turn to O-Toyo again. “Tell me what’s wrong?”
Now that they are alone except for Kimei, O-Toyo takes a long, deep breath and bursts into tears. “S-she has found someone.”
O-Toyo had been unhappy, but resigned to marrying whomever her stepmother picked out among the crowd.
For the sake of family, for the sake of reputation, for the sake of not causing trouble or being difficult.
But this, standing on the brink of the decision, might as well be standing on the brink of a cliff.
No matter what benefits it brings to other people, O-Toyo is the one who has to live with the man for the rest of her life.
“S-she says,” and here there are fresh tears, “she wants me to send me to the estate of Baron Nishimura.”
“For his eldest son?”
The young master Nishimura is a sickly young man, yet unmarried at age twenty-seven because of it.
“Baron Nishimura is married.”
Had been married for some thirty years.
More than twice O-Toyo’s age with a son seven years older.
A number of concubines.
“I don’t want to go.” O-Toyo rocks back and forth in her arms. “She has never loved me, and now she wants to sell me t-to—”
“Then you won’t go.” Our worst enemies are other women, indeed. It seems that even now, Haha-ue is not wrong.
But while there is no equality in the world, there can be justice.
There can be justice.
“How can I not go?”
Maybe it is because she is already angry. Maybe it is because she has spent so long silent, and now she no longer accepts silence.
Maybe it is because she has known O-Toyo since they were twelve and eleven, and concubines are kept women without legal status, subject to the whims of the madam of the household.
Maybe it is because she is no longer afraid of heaven or earth.
“Does Baron Sato not think there is anything wrong with this?” She finds it hard to believe that even an unconstant father would find it acceptable for his wife to make a concubine of his eldest legitimate daughter.
“She says,” and O-Toyo cannot stop shaking, though she has stopped crying, “it is because my dowry is so small. I am not worthy of being anyone’s wife. But I, I—”
Her hands ball to fists. “Your mother left you her entire dowry.”
The late Baroness Sato had been a pious woman, virtuous, goodhearted. These are the only things that anyone remembers of her now.
But she had not been poorly dowered.
And as her only child, O-Toyo should have inherited her mother’s dowry. Baron Sato should have set aside money and property for his eldest daughter in preparation for her marriage.
But the big madam holds the purse strings and keeps the accounts.
And no amount of money is enough money for greed.
“I-it’s gone.” The admission is unusually hard. O-Toyo has lived a life of denial, of careful words and more careful actions, of pretending to be happy, of taking up no space and holding no spotlight. “She spent it on trivial matters, because all along, she did not believe I deserved to live. I want to leave her. I want to leave both of them, but not like this.”
“Kimei,” she requests, “will you go tell Aka to fetch us more water?”
These things are best discussed with as few people as possible. After Kimei carefully draws the door closed behind her, Hisa speaks again. “And what does Masuda-san of the Harajuku District think of that?”
Masuda Ryusei is a scholar who studied at Baron Sato’s school and had for some years until he’d tested well in the last round of imperial exams and accepted an administrative position under Lord Fusamoto’s directive in the city proper.
A poor but honest man.
He’d written Baron Sato’s eldest daughter poetry.
And for someone who has never been anyone’s most precious person, the value of those lines sank deep.
“He said,” and here, O-Toyo wavers, “that the cicada sings for a season, but the poet sings for a lifetime.”
“Do you want to marry him?” So Masuda-san does not care if she has money or not. That simplifies things.
“I cannot.” O-Toyo pulls back to look at her. “Hisa-chan, I can’t.”
“I didn’t ask if you could or couldn’t.” These are not the same questions. “I asked if you wanted to.”
“Hisa-chan, if I marry him, it would be the same as ruining him.” O-Toyo looks down at her lap, crescent bruises the shape of nails pressed into the back of her hands. “How could I profess to love him and still push him off the ladder he has worked so hard to climb?”
“Maybe he would rather marry you.” Like Chichi-ue, once upon a time, in love with a woman people said he could never attain. To love her would be your ruin, her grandfather had cautioned him. Someone like that is beyond your reach.
And yet, a year later, it had been Chichi-ue who sent betrothal gifts to Yanai, a fox who’d stolen the tiger’s heart.
“When you really care about someone,” O-Toyo says, her head against Hisa’s shoulder, “you think of his welfare, sleeping or waking. You want him to be happy, and you are sad when he is sad. In all the good, and all the bad. I’ve delayed him from living his life for so long now. This is just another beautiful dream that I have to wake up from.”
“The poet sings for a lifetime, O-Toyo-chan.” She might have said that Masuda-san told her thusly, but it’s clear she doesn’t believe it.
But she ought to, and perhaps in time, she will.
“Would you be happy as his wife?” Love is love, but sometimes, love does not overcome the hurdles that stand in its way. “He is not wealthy, and he is not titled. Would you not feel aggrieved if you had to live a life like that?”
“No money can buy character.”
Hisa smooths down her sleeves, thinking the situation over. “I suppose you can safely go home and know that Baron Nishimura is hardly going to be adding you to his list of concubines.”
In the end, Masuda-san has neither money nor titles, but he does have an honest reputation and an amicable enough relationship with Baron Sato.
Perhaps Baroness Sato would consider the lack of money and commoner status enough of a punishment to agree to marrying O-Toyo to him.
But in order to do that, one would have to appeal to Baron Sato’s own thoughts on honor and virtue, proper breeding, and wish to preserve his reputation.
Thankfully, she knows her old schoolteacher’s predilections well.
The thing to understand about men who would seek another young and pretty concubine, even after already having four or five others and a living wife, is that there is certain to be some sort of ugly scandal his family is keeping secret.
It’s only a matter of digging it up and then arranging it prominently so no one else can ignore it.
Baron Nishimura is one such man who must have someone’s skeleton buried in his gardens.
Baron Sato is many things, but he values his own reputation more than anything, always careful to pull the topic of conversation away when it came to how little he had mourned since the death of his first wife, careful to speak of family duty, and how only sons could inherit a title.
Did he love his eldest daughter — always so quiet and dutiful and poetic? Of course he did, of course he does.
Isn’t that why he found her a new mother to replace the one she had lost so young?
Isn’t that why?
Despite teaching the virtues and all the Confucian ideals, Baron Sato is a man with a pretense at honor and rectitude.
This match is his wife’s doing.
And while over the years, he seems to have stopped arguing with his wife, there are still better things to appeal to, like his sense that he is a moral and upstanding man who would not do business with, much less be related to, something or someone shameful.
With that in mind, she carefully packs up the tea that’d come from Tea Country, and goes to pay Toma and Madam Hondo.
Since she has not heard anything about Baron Nishimura in recent years, his foibles and scandals must’ve occurred much earlier than her own recollection of the dealings of Shunan and the wider circle of Chubu’s nobility and wealthy elite.
If Haha-ue was still with them, she would know. As a child, she had always held to the belief that Haha-ue knew all secrets, hidden behind her smile and wide blue eyes.
But Haha-ue is gone, so she will have to find another woman of that generation to speak to, which would be neither of her aunts, both who do not often listen to gossip and are considered too low born to be told a great many secrets.
Who better to flatter to learn those secrets than the matriarch of the Hondo family that has borne the brunt of the recent disdain about merchants floating around?
If there is a secret to be learned, buried somewhere in the past, Madam Hondo would need little encouragement to speak of it all angry as she must be over how the barons had mocked her for her perceived attempts at social climbing.
It takes time for the topic of nobles to come around, as she gently nibbles on flaky almond pastry. The enmity between her and Madam Hondo has dissolved some, within these past few months, now that it is impossible for Mitsugu-senpai to ever show improper interest in her, and how gently she’d taken the news of his marriage.
Perhaps it’d helped that she had introduced him to his wife.
Whatever it is, the past five years of animosity has faded, and what remains is a mutual respect.
“Really, Maruyama-shonin is about to get married?” The Hondo are only distantly related to the Maruyama basket weavers; though the Maruyama claimed to be craftsmen rather than merchants, they too belong to the guild.
Madam Hondo sniffs and takes a sip of her tea. “I did hear so from my second cousin, who knows the head of their household, their young master, plans to seek a bride.” And here, the older woman smiles. “What, did you want me to speak for you as a matchmaker?”
She laughs, delighted, but not particularly serious. “No, no, it would only end in embarrassment for me. Craftsmen have always been more respectable than merchants. We wouldn’t want word to get out that I had such foolish dreams, would we?”
This provokes a humph from Madam Hondo. “In what way are merchants in any way inferior? If you ask me, it’s hardly other people’s judgement that marks one’s true breeding.”
She takes another sip of her tea. “And yet, so often people judge.” Setting her gaiwan aside, she moves the topic closer to what she had really come to discuss. “I just thought it was funny is all, that I heard of another marriage about to take place soon, and yet without the sort of celebration that your news brings.”
“Oh?” Madam Hondo takes a sip of her own tea, watching her with bright eyes over the lid of the gaiwan.
Yes, she had guessed correctly. “Yes, I heard that Baron Sato plans to send his eldest daughter to Baron Nishimura’s estate as a concubine.”
Madam Hondo sets her gaiwan down on the table with a firm click. “You’re certain?”
This is juicy gossip indeed.
“I heard it from inside Baron Sato’s household, so I’m sure it must be true.”
Madam Hondo laughs, half bitter, half vindicated. “So noblemen are just as short sighted and attention seeking as our men.”
“And in the end, it is women who suffer for it,” she agrees, watching the curtain of beads swing gently in the early autumn breeze. Men say and do, and the women in their lives bow their heads and say nothing.
“You mark my words, in that estate, that young woman will go the same way as her mother. And Baron Nishimura has far less pretense at respectability than her father.” The words bring fear to her heart.
She’d thought, perhaps, O-Toyo would find herself in the same sort of life that Aunt Ruqa had suffered, once upon a time, perhaps a bit worse off without a son to cushion the blows of life, but she did not think — dead within a year of marriage, never to be spoken of again.
So much hinges upon this conversation now, and even more on her ability to spread it.
“You’ll have to forgive me for being young and inexperienced.” She covers the bottom half of her face with her fan, still thinking.
“But I admit I don’t quite know what you mean.”
Madam Hondo looks around, and, seeing no one, leans in. “You’re young, so you wouldn’t remember this. It happened twenty eight years ago, right before he married his legal wife, but there is a death in Baron Nishimura’s past.”
An unjust death then, for it to be whispered of, even now, years after the fact.
“Not one of his concubines?” Just the right amount of horror, just the right amount of interest.
“No, not one of them. A prostitute working at the Blue Poppy, who claimed her son was his. Soon after that failed attempt, she ended up hanging herself in the house.”
“If there was no fire, there would’ve been no smoke.”
Twenty-eight years would make that child either twenty-nine or thirty now, an adult man, if he were still alive. If they could find him.
If there was no fire, how could there be smoke?
An illegitimate son three years older than his sickly eldest legitimate son.
Whatever she’d hoped to find about Baron Nishimura, it was not quite this.
“Of course, few people believed that she would just hang herself without any help, but the child vanished, and who would say a thing?” Madam Hondo takes another sip of her tea. “She was only a prostitute, and he was the heir of a barony. Who would want to step into that muddy water and lose their own livelihoods?”
The death of a prostitute from a brothel house would not make Baron Sato reconsider, especially if he remembers the situation.
He might not.
But a whole man, cast out by his own father…
No, her old schoolteacher’s facade of honor would crack right off if he would still send his daughter off to such a place.
“It seems that once again, a daughter will pay for her father’s misjudgement,” she sighs and finishes her almond pastry. “It happens often enough.”
But not this time.
Not if she has anything to say about it.
She is finishing Chang’e — the last rows of the upturned hand, only the moon left — when Kimei opens the door and Hiko comes in. “It is done,” he says and seats himself, a vicious smile affixed to his face.
“You found the man then?” She raises her eyes from the loom.
Hiko shrugs. “If he isn’t the man, he sure does look a lot like Baron Nishimura for no reason.”
That is one step done, then. Hiko, meanwhile, still looks like a cross between a crocodile smiling and a man who has just crawled out of a metaphorical cesspit.
He’d never liked visiting brothels.
She’ll have to make it up to him somehow in the future.
He hadn’t even asked why she was looking for a boy who’d been lost years ago, long before they were even born.
“And how willing was he to make himself known?” It is harder to find the man than it is to make him show himself to the father that had abandoned and murdered his mother.
After all, injustice burns.
“He was after he was paid enough to do so.” Hiko shrugs again. “And there’s only benefits to him kicking up a fuss.”
A whole man who has not sold his life contract to anywhere cannot be made to disappear as easily as a prostitute.
“We’ll have to see how Baron Nishimura attempts to get off this stage then, won’t we?” The good show is only just started, the actors set to take the stage.
Soon, she suspects, they’ll hear the opening number.
“Does he know which household you’re from?” Kimei paces the floor, back and forth as she cards wool. This year, she wants to make Hisa a new cloak, and though her old one will do just as well, Kimei had been insistent, and they do have the material for it, so why not?
Hiko shoots Kimei an unimpressed glance. “What sort of trustworthy person would I be if I let something like this get traced back to me? Prodding at the secret affairs of barons is like baiting a bear. Better let someone else get their head ripped off.”
Kimei throws down her carders and comes to sit next to Hisa with a huff. “Well, see if I worry about you again.”
She pats her handmaid on the shoulder, looking over at Hiko, who looks both mulish and unrepentant. “She was just worried about you. It wasn’t an implication of your skill or trustworthiness.”
Hiko rises, slightly helpless.
Kimei turns her face away, still cross.
“I’m not talking to you anymore,” Kimei sniffs. “See how you like it.”
Laughingly, she turns back to Chang’e as Hiko and Kimei argue in the background. She almost wishes that Izuna is here to see it.
And for a moment, the evening is perfect, and all is well.
She is woken by Kimei shaking her in the middle of the night. “Hisa, Hisa, you have to get up.”
“What happened?” She rolls out of bed, rubbing her eyes, trying to shove her feet into her shoes. Outside, there’s the sound of feet and people’s voices, Aka’s rising above the others.
“Silence! We have to wait for the Second Miss.”
“Izuna-san’s brother is here. He brought Izuna-san in a few moments ago. There was something at the gate, they wouldn’t let him in.”
“The Young Lord Madara?” Count Tajima’s heir is Izuna’s only living brother.
He had not said he was returning and certainly wouldn’t arrive in the middle of the night.
“Hiko was still awake. He sent someone to go fetch Jizen-sensei.” Kimei flits about the room, gathering her clothing, and helping her dress. “They’ve laid Izuna-san out in the courtyard he lives in normally, but there’s still blood everywhere—”
“His brother was covered in it. It was one of the reasons they didn’t want to let him in.” Kimei’s eyes are wide as she wrings her hands. “Your hair isn’t up.”
She’s gotten her shoes on, and she is dressed.
“It’s good enough.”
It’d been braided before she turned in for the night anyway.
She picks up her skirts and heads outside.
“Hisa, Hisa, you forgot—” Kimei calls after her, but she is already too far away.
Aka almost stops her on the walkway. “Hisa, what do we do with the—”
Blood. Kimei had mentioned blood. Mentioned waking Jizen-sensei.
“Use your own best judgement.”
She makes her way to Izuna’s courtyard, half running. Inside, she spins without axis or understanding.
Inside, she does not want to connect the dots.
“Izuna!” She bursts in through the open door.
There, Jizen-sensei’s back.
There, the dark fall of Izuna’s hair.
There, Uchiha Madara turning to her, his whole front covered with blood.