The world spins and sways, but only for a moment.
A moment and no more.
Her heart in her throat, the room bleeding like water spilled on a painting.
She steps across the threshold, already moving, requests for the maids, listening with half an ear to Jizen-sensei’s words, curtsying to Uchiha Madara as she does so.
Kimei has followed her here, her hands over her mouth with fraught worry.
“Kimei, will you go wake the kitchens? Uchiha-sama hasn’t eaten yet, I’m sure.”
Madara flinches, his hands still covered with blood, eyes blood red, spinning like pinwheels in the wind.
She forces him into a seat. He looks the way that Tatsuo had when he’d come in that day to tell her that everyone else had died. A lost boy.
We are dying, Hisa-san. Help us.
Two years have passed, and yet, it is still the same.
Still the same.
Help us, we’re dying.
She has just exchanged one man’s death for another.
Has anything changed?
She is no stranger to blood, no stranger to death, but Jizen-sensei has a steady hand, and he will do what he can.
“Futsu, go fetch more water so Uchiha-sama can wash his hands. Kura, please go locate Hiroto. Uchiha-sama needs a change of clothing.”
She cannot help Izuna right now, so she must settle for this instead.
“Second Miss, the soup is here.” It is Miya, from the kitchens, a tray in hand, tea, soup, a bowl of rice still steaming and utensils — porcelain soup spoon, bamboo chopsticks — some smaller dishes, likely fermented vegetables brought up from the cellar in the haste to find something for a grown man to eat.
It isn’t polite, but there’s been no warning — could there ever be warning for such things?
“Set it on the table.”
Madara has not stopped shaking. He’d been shaking when she came in, and he has not stopped, tremors in his bloody hands unmistakeable. She has heard nothing from him, not a single word to explain what happened, though she could guess.
She could guess, and she wishes she couldn’t guess, that there would be no reason for her to guess.
“Thank you, Miya. I think you can go back to sleep now.”
The kitchen maid glances once more at Izuna, laid out on the table, unresponsive as Jizen-sensei works, but expresses no opinion.
Another moment, and she is gone.
A change of clothing is brought in. Bear’s old clothing.
A basin of water which quickly runs red, and an old cloth to wipe his hands on.
He goes through the motions mechanically, sheds clothing as though it does not matter.
She averts her eyes.
But by the time he sits down again, he is no closer to feeding himself.
“Is he dead?” Madara asks, voice rasping as if he has spent too long screaming and lost his voice in the process.
Is he dead? As if nails had already been hammered into Izuna’s coffin.
She nearly screams, but does not.
His eyes have faded back to brown, no longer spinning red and black, pinwheels in the wind.
“I wouldn’t still be working on him if he was.” Jizen-sensei does not raise his head, graying hair bound messily in a topknot, needle working furiously. “If he lives to see the dawn, he will likely live to see the end of the week. After that, I will have to reassess.”
This is a different sort of sewing, worth much more than hers.
But that Jizen-sensei is still working at all despite Izuna’s unresponsiveness says that he is still alive.
That there is still hope for him.
After Anija’s accident…
Even a much younger Jizen-sensei had wrung his hands, uncertain of what to do.
He has shattered his spine, she remembers him saying. Even if he were to live…
Keep him comfortable.
He’s only a boy… Let him be unworried.
But Anija had begged for books.
She does not know why she remembers this, lingering in the space of what is and what has passed.
No one can step into the same river twice.
Like the river water, the only way is forward.
Uchiha Madara breathes out, a sound too much like a sob to be a sigh. “He is my only living brother. He is my only little brother.”
Both of them equally so.
She offers him the soup spoon in some attempt to make him eat. “I know.”
And oddly enough, he seems to understand, if the way he remembers himself and starts eating says anything.
Even though she knows it will not help, she still hovers, anxiously moving back and forth between Jizen-sensei’s workspace and her chair, in between assigning more people to an ever increasing number of tasks.
The laundry will have to be woken up as well, and then the list of necessary medicines written out, and someone will have to be arranged to go stand outside the medicine shop to buy them when it first opens, objects to be fetched, more oil lamps and lanterns from outdoors, men to guard all the doors. No one gets in, and no one goes out until she hears of it.
It will not stop shinobi, but perhaps it will stop idle talk.
Chichi-ue is not supposed to be back until perhaps ten days from now, so she cannot rely on him to do anything, not that she is sure that Chichi-ue will be able to do anything.
What can be done now besides find a good doctor? And they already have the services of the best doctor that Shunan, and by extension Chubu, has to offer.
Round and round and round cycle her thoughts.
Round and round and round.
What is there to do?
What else can be done?
Capable. Capable. Capable.
But what is that worth?
“Second Miss, your pacing is blocking the light.”
Jizen-sensei’s words bring her back to herself, and she confines herself to her chair, slightly abashed.
She is not normally so senseless.
She is not normally so—
The elderly doctor finishes his sutures and packs in what medicine he has on hand to treat wounds, basins of red water all about him.
There is sweat on his brow, his hands sparking with green light briefly. She recognizes it as one of his last ditch efforts, seeing as life force isn’t used lightly.
Madara sits up, eyes riveted on the sight. “Where did you learn that?”
“From the doctor I apprenticed under.” Jizen-sensei doesn’t look up from his work, sweat sliding off of his brow. “I use it less with age.”
Slowly, Madara slumps back down, as if sinking. Whatever he’d been thinking is lost to the gloom now.
And she reads the river in the spinning wheels of her thoughts.
Jizen-sensei does what he can, with instructions to fetch him if Izuna’s condition changes at all during the rest of the night, and with a nod to Madara and a bow to her, he leaves once more to find his bed.
Madara paces, his strides long and his hands never still.
She sits at Izuna’s bedside, her hand lingering at the edge of the sheet she’d pulled over him to keep out the chill. It is not yet very cold, and the night is deep enough already, but he has lost a lot of blood, and even now, his skin is cold.
Even in the weakness of the lantern light, his face carries with it the pallor of death.
She has not seen many corpses, but she knows the look.
She wishes she didn’t.
“Do shinobi have doctors?” It does not hurt to ask.
They can flip over walls and breathe fire and walk right past guards without anyone noticing. Surely, of all that they do, their skills cannot only be for destruction and death.
Maybe they have legendary healers as well, people who can pull others back from the brink of death.
Yes, they are men and women, but they deal in things beyond the realm of what she can hope to achieve.
Perhaps they have doctors as well, beyond the capabilities of doctors she knows and can call upon.
He stops pacing. “You mean medics?”
She has not heard a doctor referred to as such before, but she presses onwards. “A healer?”
He slumps back down into his seat, head in his hands, a sob ripping free of his throat. “We don’t have anyone who uses medical chakra. The best we have is no better than what is being done now.”
And time is not on their side.
She still does not know what he means by chakra, but the rest of his statement is perfectly clear.
Whatever help there is from the Uchiha, it will likely not be worth much more than Jizen-sensei if it were any better.
She ought not to have forgotten.
This was the same way their eldest brother died, wasn’t it?
But these words stick to her throat as well.
“Chakra?” She does not know the word. Izuna had never mentioned it. But then, he had never explained most things when it comes to the life of shinobi. When they’d talked, it had been of other things — grief and sorrow, family and fortune, the beautiful, tender bits of the world, his hand trailing in the koi pond being nibbled at by the fish.
“Civilians call it life energy.” He does not raise his eyes, his head bowed, his hands clasped together as though praying. “Like what your doctor used.”
“There are people in the world who could do what he does, but better.” Jizen-sensei had never claimed to be the best under heaven, though he had studied at the famous medical school in the capital, which was where he learned his craft.
Long ago, her grandfather had saved his life when he was falsely accused of malpractice which had killed the unfavored concubine of a governmental official.
The very night he was freed, he had packed his bags and come back to Shunan with her grandfather’s caravan, and here he has stayed ever since.
“Yes, but—” Madara runs his fingers through his hair, nothing behind his eyes. “They likely will not be moved to come here.”
So that avenue is dead then, since she does not even know where to begin. She leaves further plans for the light of morning.
It is only after she is alone, having retreated to the room in front of Izuna’s bedroom, that she sinks into a chair, and, with her arms pulled tight around her, tries to stop thinking.
Stop thinking, for just a moment, stop thinking.
Why had her heart leapt into her throat the moment she’d seen Izuna laid out, his strings cut like a paper puppet?
Why had she wanted to cry?
Why had she lost all sense, pacing back and forth as though it would help anyone for her to do that?
Why is she still shaking now, hands unable to stay still, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes?
She cannot help him.
She cannot help him and will solve nothing by crying — nothing has ever been solved by crying — but her shoulders shake, and a small noise wells up in her throat that she can’t keep back.
Chichi-ue is not home, and he will not be for some time. And though her father is capable, she doubts he can help with this.
Slowly, she rocks back and forth in her chair, feet drawn up, arms around her knees.
He has not woken.
Perhaps he never will.
She has missed him. She has missed him. She has missed—
She has so much work to do.
There is so much to do, so much useless, thankless work.
Stop thinking. For just one moment in your life, stop thinking.
Tomorrow, she will have to find something for Izuna’s brother to eat. Something for him to wear.
Ask him what he plans to do.
Tomorrow, she still has three account books to look over, the kitchen and the gardens have purchases to make, four batches of silk in Workshop Seven for her to look over, a storehouse to look through and clear out to make way for next year’s production.
Two days from now, another invitation from Madam Hondo and Toma, Mitsugu-senpai having sent his calling card to her for the afternoon on the day after.
She will have to find some time to come back to sit with Izuna, though she does not know how she will find the heart to leave him.
So much to do in the cold light of dawn.
You are helping no one.
She is so cold.
Slowly, she uncurls, rising from her chair to look for Kimei outside. “Can you go to the firewood shed and bring in a fire pit?”
If she is cold in this unseasonable weather, he would have to be cold as well. Maybe the sheet is not enough.
Kimei looks at her, and for one long moment says nothing, but everything is there in her eyes. “Of course, Hisa.”
The two of them wrestle the fire pit into Izuna’s room, a pile of dried firewood and a box of matches brought in by Nene, who hesitantly follows after. Madara stirs at the intrusion, sprawled as he is on the floor by Izuna’s bedside, a hand resting over Izuna’s, but makes no comment.
“Get some rest.” She takes the matches from Nene and waves the younger girl off. “It’s late, and you’ve been awake this whole time.”
She sends Kimei away to bed as well, though her handmaid doesn’t wish to go, and nearly argues about it.
But she casts her eyes in the direction of Izuna’s prone form, and Kimei presses her lips together before she shakes her head and goes.
With fingers numbed by the cold, she pulls out a match and attempts striking it on the box. It catches, but she fumbles upon attempting to light the fire pit and drops it by accident.
It immediately goes out.
She tries again.
A hand enters her field of vision and takes the matchbox from her. “Here, let me,” Madara mutters, setting the matchbox aside next to the fire pit. “I appreciate it, but you’re just as tired, if not more so, as the maids you keep sending away. Get some sleep, Kawaguchi-chan.”
She finds no way to argue with this, so she does not, and instead, turns to go.
At the doorway, she turns back, and finds that he too is fumbling with the matches, a gray ring of fatigue around his mouth.
There is so much she wants to say, so much, but her throat closes, and she leaves in silence.
She falls asleep sitting there in Izuna’s front room with Uchiha Madara pacing back and forth, even though she had not meant to sleep, so it is morning when she is next awoken by the clattering of small feet. “Izu-nii?”
Momo peers into the room first, pigtails quivering before the rest of her follows, scurrying across the floor towards her. “Neesan,” Momo half wails. “Neesan, Sute is scaring me.”
It is so early, and yet Momo has already heard.
She turns Momo around to redo her hair. One pigtail had been done up higher than the other, likely because of Momo fidgeting and bouncing and whining about wanting to be out the door. “What did Sute say to make you so upset?”
Momo wriggles herself back around. “She said, she said,” her little sister’s bottom lip starts to wobble, eyes filling with tears, “that Izu-nii is d-dying.”
Hearing it out loud makes her throat close.
She slides off her chair to pull Momo into her arms. Sute should not have said that.
She is too young to think of death like this. Too young.
But then, in the end, how could Sute hide the matter?
It is not as if other people will not talk. It is not as if Momo will not hear it from someone else.
Children listen, and they understand far more than most suspect.
But to put it so bluntly…
“He is not dead,” is what she says. “He is not dead, and Jizen-sensei is working very hard to keep him that way.”
Momo sniffles, rubbing her eyes. “Neesan, I’m afraid.”
“I’m afraid too,” she admits. “But we shouldn’t give up on him.”
In many ways, she has always found him stronger than her. In many ways, he is stronger still.
And she who thinks so well of him cannot — perhaps does not want to — believe that someday they will wake to find him gone.
While he still lives, she will not think of a future without him. “Think of how disappointed he would be, Momo-ko, when he hears that you thought of such things.”
She half suspects he would laugh. As if flesh wounds could truly hurt me. Hisa-san, I have been hurt far worse and still survived.
Don’t worry so.
If there is a time when he could hear and laugh about such things again.
If there is such a time.
But she needs to take her own advice, doesn’t she?
Bringing Momo to see Izuna wakes Madara again, though he blearily cracks one eye open to look at them and grunts.
“My little sister,” she says at the same time Momo-ko pulls them both forward.
“Izu-nii?” Her little sister’s voice quavers, on the verge of tears. “Izu-nii, wake up.”
Izuna lies silent, beyond entreaties, beyond the reach of human hands, soul lingering somewhere between this realm and the next.
She pries Momo-ko’s hands from the covers, wishes that her sister is not so young to be thinking of death.
Madara watches them, eyes half open, an odd expression on his face.
“He will be well again,” she says, though she does not feel this in her bones.
Faith has always been hard for her, and in the place of faith, she has always substituted things like preparation and planning instead.
But this, she could not have planned for.
This, no amount of preparation would have spared her heart of this.
“We mustn’t disturb him. He needs to rest,” she hears herself say, and she knows this is more firm than her previous statement.
She recognizes the emotion in Madara’s eyes as hopelessness, even as Momo begins to cry, rubbing at her eyes with her fists, hiccuping between each breath.
“Momo-ko?” She crouches down, gently pulls the hands away from Momo’s face. “Momo-ko, will you be brave for me?”
Through the tears and hiccups, Momo nods, still about to wail but trying so hard not to.
It breaks her already broken heart.
When Sute finally comes to collect Momo, Hiko is already here, and Hisa sends the older woman a look half livid behind her sleeve.
Momo did not need to know of a young man she cares about lying on his deathbed first thing in the morning. And there’d been no one to calm her fears, no one to tell her sweet words and that everything will be alright.
That the sky will hold and not fall down. No one to soothe her and hold her.
Only the sister with two faces and still yet not enough of a face for this.
But Sute gathers Momo, her own face smoothed of all expressions, and goes.
Chiba-san’s courtyard manager might be made of stronger material than she suspects.
Or perhaps, her own livid feelings had not shown through in any way except stiffness.
“I came as soon as I heard.” Chiba-san lifts her skirts slightly to cross the doorway, though she freezes upon seeing Madara as well, before she unfreezes to walk across the room, her own face suddenly more a polite facade than the worry that had been so plain just a moment before. “I wasn’t aware there was someone else here already.”
“Uchiha Madara-sama,” she says, making introductions once more. “Izuna-san’s brother, the heir of Uchiha Tajima-sama of Tohoku.” And turning to Madara, “my father’s wife, Chiba Natsu-san.”
Madara rises, languid and easily makes the proper introductions, the proper polite utterings almost as if by rote.
Given that it is his brother dying in the bed behind him, it likely is by rote and only because he has been raised by people who cared for manners.
Such things are impolite enough already.
She loops her arm through Chiba-san’s, and to her stepmother’s credit, she does not protest them adjourning to the next room.
“Let me take the accounts for a time,” Chiba-san offers, the bottom half of her face covered by her open fan. “I don’t have much else that I must do, and this way, you can stay with Uchiha-san during this difficult time.”
Hiko bristles, about to rise and make a protest, but Chiba-san cuts across him. “They will be returned afterwards. I don’t foresee it being longer than a month.” Something like fire burns behind her stepmother’s eyes. “After all, I have no head for numbers and care not for such things.”
They’d been handed over to Chiba-san during the trip to the capital as well, for a similar span of time.
And they had been returned, honestly and promptly, without much fanfare.
Whispers among the servants had said that Chiba-san cared little for budgeting or calculating sums and cared even less to mediate disputes between various members of the staff who felt that they deserved a larger share of the household budget for their tasks.
She sighs. “Hiko, leave your words.” Her head aches, almost too heavy for her neck. If she attempts to look over any accounts today, it will only lead to more mistakes than if Chiba-san were to take them. She has no mind or heart for numbers today, no mind or heart for anything at all. “It will do no harm; after all, it did none last time.”
Hiko makes a face at this, clearly still intent on private words, but publicly he says nothing, swallowing them for now.
It will have to do.
She does not know how long it will hold, but it will have to do.
The accounts are turned over to Chiba-san, almost gratefully, and she leaves, arms laden heavy with the weight of so many books, and Hiko looks at her face a long time before he sighs; whatever words he wants to say truly dissipate. “You look so tired,” he says and needs to say nothing more for her to feel the warmth of his worry settle around her like a cloak. “If there is anything that I can do to help, do not hesitate to say so.”
And even though she is cold, ice on the river freezing over, she musters a smile for him. “I know.” I appreciate it, Hiko.
By midmorning, she is ensconced once more in Izuna’s room, head bowed over her embroidery, Madara by the table writing with quick brush strokes. Kimei sits with her, the two of them almost facing each other, as she bastes two pattern pieces together, muttering all the while.
On any other day, she would’ve asked Kimei about what she is so upset by.
But today, her mind spins in tight circles, careening and crashing into things like a river boat that had lost its moorings.
He has not woken.
She still can do nothing more.
And without anything to do, her mind treads and retreads these old paths, spinning and throwing up eddies because there is nothing she can do.
Nothing she can do about this.
How worthless everything she knows is in the end.
All the planning and counter-planning, not a foot placed wrong, not a word out of line, a face polished like a bronze mirror, the way she has built everything so that no one can find fault with it.
And yet this.
And yet this.
No skill she has could ever solve this, no numbers, no money, no silk, no planning — the souls bleed with the washing, and she stares the king of hell in the face, helpless to stop his steps.
If she’d been Chang’e…
Would she have lingered on the moon, waiting for the archer so famous and yet so mortal, weeping the day he died as all men must?
Would she even now, look down, and envy mortals in their hundreds of cares and sorrows, bound to the cycle of death and rebirth?
Aka comes in a hair before noon, holding a letter.
“From O-Toyo-san,” she says as a preface while handing it over. “It came from the hand of her personal handmaid, so I assume that the Baroness Sato has not seen it.”
O-Toyo...there’d been some matter with O-Toyo and Baron Nishimura.
She’d said she would do something about it, and by the look of the letter she opens, she has.
O-Toyo writes of the scandal that had recently befallen Baron Nishimura’s household, the oldest son being not Young Master Nishimura, often ill, but rather, the son of a prostitute.
The chaos had prompted Baron Sato to look into the matters himself, and, with a few sharp words to his wife, break off the idea entirely.
At this, O-Toyo had cried while writing this gratitude and relief in every line of her brush — how will I ever repay you, Hisa? It is my life you have saved — saying that her father had decided that he would rather her marry a scholar.
He did not name any particular name, but surely, the now doubly aggrieved Baroness Sato will choose the poorest and least advanced of her husband’s students, a man without much except honor to his name.
And thus, the letter ends.
Thus the letter ends.
She folds it along the creases it had occupied, slowly letting her feelings spin out into space.
It isn’t that her calculations were wrong, because she had calculated correctly so many times before. She knew the minds of men, knew what games they played and what woes they suffered, knew what they secretly desired and publicly renounced.
What they called honor and repayment, what they would consider debt.
She hadn’t calculated wrong.
But she does not know shinobi, does not know how or for what Izuna lies dying.
And without that understanding, she spins like an oarless boat, tossed with the waves of the river.
Give me an oar.
And I will fight my way through this as well.
She does not know shinobi, but she will have to find out to solve this puzzle.
If one never steps up to the gambling table, one can never win anything worthwhile. Her grandfather had told her this once, when she was still a little child in a mostly happy home.
Hisa-chan, remember, if you’re afraid to lose it all, you will never win anything worth keeping.
She does not know shinobi, but she will.
“Who did this to him?” she asks, though she can guess, because it does no good to lay blame at the wrong door.
Madara looks at her, over his bowl of rice which he had been shoveling into his mouth at alarming speeds. She has watched him eat about half a chicken, his appetite clearly better by noon. He’d only picked at his food in the morning, rice porridge, fermented radish and dried jujubes barely touched before he’d asked for paper and ink to start composing a letter he had only finished just before noon.
“Has he told you about Senju?”
So it is the Senju.
Now that she is awake enough to understand, brain no longer spinning like overturned carriage wheels, she feels the slow simmer of rage underneath the surface.
“He had mentioned them, in passing, in relation to the feud and why they wished to kill him.”
And yet, how that feud started, who they were, what they were like besides a thorn in his side and a sword at his neck, he had never said.
But then, he is a careful man, and careful men do not spill their families secrets the same way other men do.
And by her measure taken of his fourth brother, Uchiha Madara does not watch his words the same way as Izuna does.
“So nothing important.” Madara raises his eyes to look at the wooden roof beams, as though he could find the goddess of mercy’s face there. “He has never been very,” he stumbles over his words, face rapidly crumpling since he is both without purpose and full of grief, “very good at explaining things.”
It may be taking advantage of his sincerity, but she asks anyway. There are things she must know to make plans. Every bead on the abacus matters. “Will you explain, then?”
This gives him something to do, a purpose to cling to in the flood so he is not swept away.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
And so, he begins. “The feud that my clan has had with the Senju goes back many generations, to some hundreds of years ago, during a military campaign on the border of Wind Country resisting nomadic invaders. None of the records agree on how the blood between our clans was started, but all agree that by the end of the campaign, the hostility between our families had grown deadly.”
He looks down at his empty bowl, a few rice grains clinging to the side, and tries to set his chopsticks down to continue his story.
“Kimei,” she calls, recognizing the look of someone who is not yet full but doesn’t want to be rude enough to ask for another bowl. “Fetch another bowl of rice for Uchiha-sama?” Turning her attention back to Madara, she motions for him to continue speaking. “So there was a falling out between two clans who both served on the same military campaign.”
She does not know how many clans can be called to serve at once in one campaign.
Long has there been peace in Fire Country, years laden heavy with the fruits of their long golden age, untroubled by invaders or internal division.
And all have prospered.
Except, as it would seem, the Uchiha, locked still in a deadly conflict unresolved by anyone.
“We have been killing each other ever since,” Madara agrees, though his statement is tinged heavily with resignation.
“Hasn’t anyone tried to stop it?” Generations and hundreds of years, and it seems that their grudges run deeper than the river, neither side willing to give way, though blood had been spilled and lives had been lost. Hadn’t anyone noticed?
“Conflict between shinobi households breeds death.” He looks away. “Unjust death breeds resentment.”
But then again, did she notice? Did she care?
Until it had come to this, when it is someone she cares about hurt by the bloodshed.
Only now does she notice. Only now does she care.
She should not point fingers or throw the first stone when she sees the failings of society reflected in her own image.
“Tell me of the Senju who hurt him.”
Unmask the man who did this. He does not need to be faceless and formless.
We will see what we will find to put an end to all this.
“His name is Senju Tobirama.” The words make Madara put down his chopsticks, a scowl darkening his features. “He is Baron Senju Butsuma’s second son.”
So she has a name then, and enough information for her to begin searching for more. She trades a glance with Kimei, who notes the name. There will be information about him soon enough; if it is out there, Kimei will find it.
There’s bound to be something to unearth for someone looking for it.
But what sorts of things bend shinobi? Is it money, or honor, or tradition?
Is it titles, or land, or profit?
Is it power or prestige?
“What moves him?” she asks, still half thinking about what is it that breaks shinobi from the bottom up. What breaks his heart?
What would leave him dead without a single scratch?
“What moves him?” she asks again. “What does he hunger for?”
And conversely, what does he fear the most?
These are the things to ask Senju Tobirama’s hated enemies. Surely, they would know.
“I’m not quite sure what you mean.” He’s blinking at her over the rim of his bowl of rice, despite the hair falling in his face, more wild for having remained uncombed even now when it is past noon. “What moves him? What he hungers for?”
“He is a man,” she says, still thinking, no longer with any appetite left. “He has weaknesses, as all men do.” What are they?
All men can be bought by something. What is his price?
“He is a left handed swordsman.” The man across from her seems to be thinking. “He sometimes parries shuriken a little slower, especially if it is dark. Izuna could tell you more but—” Madara pauses. “That’s not what you are asking about, is it? You don’t fight. Besides, stabbing Tobirama doesn’t help matters, the Senju have medics.”
You couldn’t kill a mouse, his eyes seem to say, suddenly horrified that he’s been telling her items of no particular value. What are you really asking me?
They speak two separate languages, the two of them, even more so that she and Izuna, who have known each other for some time now — two and a half years, and that thought weighs — and it comes at them sideways now.
There’s more ways to kill a man than to stick a knife between his ribs.
She thinks on it. “Baron Yamato is old, but he has two sons of which he is ridiculously proud. They have always been amiable brothers. If, and only if things were to come to it, the two of them had some argument that tore them apart, it would break Baron Yamato’s heart, and he would be dead within the year.” She sets her hand on the table, fingers slowly drawing circles as she thinks. “While from the outside, it seems very unlikely that the two of them could ever come to blows over anything, all it would take is a woman that one has obtained and the other could not.”
Nothing tears apart brothers like the wiles of a woman who claims to love both and can really love neither.
“It only takes a drop of water to rot the foundations of a house.” She looks up at him as understanding slowly dawns on his face.
“You don’t want to kill them. You want to sow discord.”
“I want to sow discord before I kill them.” But it will not be her hand holding the knife.
This, perhaps, spooks Madara more than her other statement, but after a moment, he has thought it over and continues.
“Tobirama is very filial. He has an older brother. Older sisters, though I do not know how many there are. They have married out already.”
“A mother,” she asks, “or perhaps, it’s his lord father that he is so filial towards?”
He is a second son…Does he resent what his older brother has?
“His lord father. I have never heard mention of his mother.” Madara pauses here again, throwing down his chopsticks. “Baron Senju cares about money, but… I don’t see how this is useful to you.”
Money, and a filial son.
A filial but second son.
The river of her thoughts slows and eddies out branches upon branches of water, reeds bending.
“No, it is.” She props her chin up on her hands and continues to watch as Madara eats. “Tell me about his relationship with his elder brother. Do they love each other?”
“Hashirama, his elder brother, certainly loves him.” Madara makes a face. “They argue all the time over petty things, but the number of beatings Hashirama has taken for him says more, I would say.”
More to work with.
And time to plan.
Her mind picks up the threads of conversation.
The Senju have doctors, ones that can cure stabbings.
So it is, a price and a toll to pay, and a way through it all.
More than one way to send a man to dig his own grave. And it seems that Senju Tobirama, however thoughtlessly, has already dug his grave.
Madara is only providing further rope spooling out to hang him with.
Three days, and Chichi-ue has yet to return home.
Three days, and the news spreads like oil fire, from one house to the next.
The shinobi Kawaguchi Hisa had hired out of a fit of hubris is going to die in her house.
But what can she do?
What will she do?
Three days, and there are people laughing behind their hands, in the privacy of their own homes.
Kimei had gone out to buy more medicine, and though her handmaid had not said that such things have happened, the angry frown she wore when she returned said everything.
Madara had written home, a bird rising into the air, a paper message tied to one leg, wings dark against the evening sky.
Three days, and the situation had even summoned the one from the eastern courtyard, though they are all clay dolls in this, equally useless.
“What are we going to do?” Kimei asks her, wringing her hands together to the point that she twists one of her sleeves in her hands, crinkling the silk satin. “Hisa, what can we do?”
She sets the lid of her teacup back into place with a soft clink. “I want to host a party.” She’d seen Izuna earlier this morning, the pallor of death clinging to him like a shroud, sweat beaded on his brow.
He hasn’t awakened since he had been brought in.
Three days, her heart and patience wears thin. She has always been a paper tigress, without form and without boundary.
And some part of her had already worn threadbare before this and wears thinner still, light shining through the old silk.
Anymore, and it will tear.
She does not want to tear.
“Something quite poetic,” she thinks about it. “Perhaps a viewing for the harvest moon.” Softly, she sets her teacup aside. “I will write to O-Shiki.” And Shio, and Kame, and Asa, and Madam Hondo, and Madam Chiba, and Kume, and O-Toyo, and so many more. She will send out invitations, from the women in her immediate acquaintance all the way up through the ranks of the nobility in Chubu.
She does not expect them all to come; it is likely that many will not.
But some will come.
Some will come, and perhaps it will be enough.
For the first time in some twelve years, the House of Kawaguchi will open its doors and host a party.
“Hisa.” Kimei’s mouth wobbles. “How could we have time and effort for moon viewing and poetry?”
“It is harvest time.” Her twenty-second birthday lingers just around the corner, a perfect excuse if Mid-Autumn will not suffice. “Is it not traditional and polite to invite friends for a moon viewing before or after the Mid-Autumn Festival?”
“It is, but—”
She turns to Kimei, sets a finger on her handmaid’s lips. “But?”
“Hisa.” Kimei wrings her hands, eyes still red from crying. “Hisa, what will they say? Can we even open the estate now?”
“They are already talking.” Slowly, she makes her way across the room, thinking. “So why not give them something to talk about?”
Why not let them see?
The court of public opinion has never held its tongue just because someone is out there begging for privacy.
No, best let them see.
If she lets them in, they will only see what she wants them to see and only talk about what she wants them to talk about.
“I will need you to send out the invitations and for Aka to manage organizing the party.” Slowly, one of her hands curls into a fist. There is sandpaper in her throat, tearing away at her flesh.
She can do nothing for Izuna, can do nothing to save him. She cannot save him.
What can she do?
If he will not live, the ones who did this to him will not, either.
In life, slights are made in the dark, decisions and counter decisions waged in between sips of tea and scraps of gossip, behind painted on smiles and open fans, downturned faces, and demure curtsies.
Between paying lip service to respect and undercutting a competitor behind their back.
We are all friends here, until we are not.
Never push too far, never push too fast. Too much heat ruins the silk.
But now that they have come to the last move in the game, a board of dead pieces lie at her disposal, and instead of conceding the match, she chooses to break ko by playing pieces that should never be played.
The hand will flip.
And take the whole table with it.
Something has ignited beneath her skin, long buried, and like the spark that set the fields ablaze, will no longer sit quiet.
He’d asked her once, if there was ever a time she ever wanted anything for herself.
She could answer him now.