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A Bolt of Silk

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“It will be alright, you’ll see.” O-Shiki nervously disguises the wringing of her hands as straightening her handkerchief, gently dabbing at Kore-kun’s face after she does so. “Shujin has his own calculations, and he grew up with the di princes. Their Highnesses won’t let anything happen to him.”

Hisa nods, wondering if perhaps she should’ve asked someone to watch Kore-kun.

Surely, he does not need to hear about this? But the serious little boy merely toys with the family’s heirloom jade piece and politely asks for another slice of layered pastry, seemingly unworried by the situation.

“Don’t worry, Haha-ue,” he says around a mouthful of pastry. “Chichi-ue said he would come back for his jade.”

O-Shiki smiles, lightly pinching her son’s cheek. “Did he tell you that?”

Kore-kun smiles a small, mysterious smile and nods.

Oddly, that does settle O-Shiki a little bit.

The conversation turns to a different matter.

Lord Fusamoto’s return to Shunan later that afternoon is heralded by the sound of imperial message bearers as well, men dressed unmistakably in the style of the inner palace.

The storm of whispers arrives at her ear long before Lord Fusamoto and whoever has been sent with him do.

The men from the inner palace spark rumors, for these are not the eunuch attendants of the daimyo and other members of the royal family, but men dressed in the crimson and gold feiyufu of the imperial guard, gold embroidery detailing their rank and position.

She personally does not know how to read the rank of the imperial guards from their clothing motifs alone, but from the gossip found among the servants from the baronic ladies’ estates, whoever had been sent with Lord Fusamoto is high ranking indeed.

And despite the sizable entourage following him, they had moved with a speed and efficiency that implied their profession.

The imperial guard is made up of shinobi.

She has Nene make tea and sends Aka to make sure that there are appropriate desserts for their guests when they arrive.

And arrive they must.

She does not imagine that Lord Fusamoto will tarry at his estate for long after learning that O-Shiki is already here. Perhaps just long enough to see his mother, or to get passed a cup of tea on his way out.

The day has been long enough already for him if he has returned so quickly.

When they arrive, she and O-Shiki are still in the front greeting room entertaining Lord Tajima, Lady Kiku and Madara having returned to sit with Izuna.

His condition has not improved.

But it has not worsened either.

In these times, perhaps that is all she can hope for.

O-Shiki’s mood has greatly improved with the news that Lord Fusamoto has returned, in one piece and with the imperial guard no less, and she provides most of the entertainment by asking after Lord Tajima’s grandchildren.

Lord Tajima’s reaction to hearing the news had been guarded, however, as though he expects something other than glad tidings.

Suteo arrives first, and O-Shiki turns towards him in the middle of her sentence, a question already in her eyes. He bows to her once, briefly, and then to Lord Tajima, and finally to Hisa herself. “His Lordship will be here shortly.”

“Yome!” And indeed, there is Lord Fusamoto, striding into the room, sweeping Kore-kun off of his feet. “Kore-kun!” He nods once to everyone else and turns to introduce the man who has stepped in after him. “Akimichi Chomasa, Captain of the East Faction.”

The man who has followed Lord Fusamoto stands almost a head taller than him, with wide shoulders like a mountain, a round, open face, and thick black hair that he wears in a spiky high tail, dressed in the crimson and gold of the imperial guard, delicate golden butterflies and swirling sun patterns across both sleeves.

“Captain,” O-Shiki rises and bobs a slight curtsy, “welcome.”

Akimichi-taicho clasps his hands in greeting. “Countess Asukabe, my greetings.”

Though a large man, he does not appear imposing, quick and nimble on his feet. “Count Uchiha,” he nods once to Lord Tajima, and then once to her, “Kawaguchi O-Hisa-san.”

She greets him, politely as she is able, without quite knowing what she is supposed to say — men from the inner palace are rare in these parts, and imperial guard captains even more so — though Lord Tajima seems to pay him much heed.

Only after Lord Fusamoto had seated himself does Akimichi-taicho pull a sealed scroll of golden silk from the pouch at his waist. To see the scroll is to see the Daimyo —

“Imperial subject, Uchiha Tajima,” Akimichi-taicho has turned towards Lord Tajima, who immediately falls to his knees, his forehead pressed against the floor. “His Majesty has a few words for you.”

“A thousand greetings.” Lord Tajima does not raise his head, sweat beaded on his brow.

Akimichi-taicho breaks the seal on the imperial edict, and without much facial expression begins to read:

By the decree of His Imperial Majesty, Kageyoshi Tomonori, the Son of Heaven, Thirteenth of His Line, and the Ruler of Fire Country:

In light of Uchiha Izuna’s crimes committed in the heat of his youth over a feud that long should have ended, His Majesty believes that it would be proper for him to give up his blade.

His Majesty trusts that Lord Uchiha will see to the matter in a way that is fitting.

The small brief silence that follows rings in the air between them.

The good mood is gone.

“So be it.” Akimichi-taicho rolls up the scroll with a quick snap of his wrist. “Count Uchiha, would you like to thank His Majesty?”

Lord Tajima raises his hands to accept the imperial edict, sweat beaded at his brow. “I, on behalf of my youngest child, thank His Majesty for his benevolence and mercy.”

The sword is the soul of the shinobi.

Believes that it would be proper for him to give up his blade.

She well remembers it, dark steel and twin flames, his coming of age gift from his uncle, how much of himself is bound up in the honor of a blade—

She shoves the thought down. She has meddled, called upon the aid of someone she could not hope to direct or control, and somehow, it is again Izuna who pays for it. She will beg for his forgiveness when he has healed.

Not one moment before.

But the conversation, even as she has been thinking of this, has turned away.

Akimichi-taicho had been seated and his tea poured in the meantime. Now that the edicts are over, he seems more relaxed. “His Majesty was greatly angered to have heard about the actions of the Senju, especially in regard to the death and danger they have caused the common people.” He downs another mouthful of tea. “It is good tea,” he remarks; slightly in afterthought, he adds, “Another member of the East Faction has travelled ahead to the Senju. His feet are faster than us travelling together, so I am sure the Senju have heard His Majesty’s orders already.” A beat of silence, as Akimichi-taicho looks distinctly uncomfortable. “Their edict included the loss of their clan title and thirty days to appeal their execution.”

So on that, she had not calculated wrongly.

Senju Tobirama’s wild expression appears again in her mind’s eye.

They had already heard. And soon, something more than one young man will break.

“Execution?” Lord Tajima’s face had gone through several expressions over the word. “Of who?”

Akimichi-taicho downs the rest of his tea and sets the gaiwan aside. He looks as if he rather wishes it were wine. “Of all of them.” The silence that follows this deepens. “Nine degrees of kindred from their clan head.”

There is a cold chill in the air that leaves no one comfortable.

The eye of the Son of Heaven has turned south.

And in it, there is no mercy.

A day later in the afternoon, she and Madara are the ones by Izuna’s bedside, she with her sewing and he with a book he claims to be reading, though distractedly.

They had attempted conversation earlier, but that had lapsed by this time. She is not a conversationalist in the true sense of the word, and he is less interested in common pleasantries.

And something has been weighing on his heart ever since the imperial guard had arrived and then, just as calmly, left, retreating to Lord Fusamoto’s estate just a little ways outside of the city.

“Hisa, there is a man here, outside.” Nene dips into a curtsy. “He says he is here to see you.”

“Did he give a name?” Her account keeping has stopped in the past few days, handed over to Chiba-san who may do it better than she can in her distracted state, so all she has left is her sewing, rhythmic, familiar, and comforting in its banality.

“He said Senju Hashirama,” Nene looks away, hands clasped before her. “He was very insistent upon seeing you, Hisa.”

Baron Senju’s eldest son and heir. Formerly, Baron Senju.

Only Senju-san now. And she needn’t treat his son like anyone more important than her either.

At the other end of Izuna’s bed, Madara straightens. “Hashirama, you said?”

There is a barely contained rage to him, tension in his broad shoulders and idle hands, the square cut of his jaw. It vibrates, unable to be concealed, a living, pulsing thing.

“That is how he gave his name.” Nene does not seem afraid.

How far Nene has come compared with the frightened young woman she’d requested for her own courtyard so many years ago.

This is not the first person wearing the name of Senju who has come to their house in the recent days, if Madara’s howl of fury upon hearing about the white haired man he called Tobirama is any indication.

But this is the first man who has come to the door and given his name, as though observing the proper manners and etiquette.

He intends to be a guest, not an intruder.

“Tell him to wait in the front courtyard.” She rises, shaking out and smoothing down her skirts. “I will see him. Nene, the chrysanthemum tea?”

Chrysanthemum for funerals.

Madara rises as well, his jaw clenched so tightly she is afraid that he will splinter his teeth, rage blacker than his eyes in the look on his face.

I will see him,” she says again and is strangely not afraid of him despite his unspoken rage. “He asked for me, so I will go.”

“I know him well.” Madara spits, spiteful and petty, quivering with fury. “Or at least I thought I knew him.”

An...acquaintance then, and not someone that one knows only because of a feud.

“In any case, I doubt he will attempt killing me, like the other one did.” Her skirts and sleeves rearranged and looking as proper as they will manage to look, she turns to go. “I suppose you will stay here to watch over Izuna?”

He has the grace to look abashed, if not the wits about him to sit down and pretend that was what he was going to do all along with the same amount of grace.

She goes to see what Senju Hashirama has to say.

The man Nene shows in is tall with loose, dark hair and earnest brown eyes, baked a shade darker by what seems to have been the summer sun, though he wears an upper grade cream cotton and the boots of a man at least somewhat well off.

He turns to her anxiously as soon as he gathers his bearings, hands clasped before him. “Kawaguchi Hisa-san?”

Despite being tall, he seems careful to take up less space, to not loom per se, before he has been seated.

“Nene said that you wished to speak to me.” She waves for him to sit.

“Yes!” He perks up at this, though his hands are still clasped nervously hard. “I came to explain—”

Aka comes in with the tea tray, sets it down on the low table between them slightly harder than she has to, and pours the tea.

The scent of chrysanthemum fills the air.

“Tea first, I think.” She picks up a gaiwan.

With a slight amount of hesitation, he does the same. “Chrysanthemum,” he murmurs, tilting the lid up. “And jasmine?”

“And jasmine, yes.”

He takes a sip, covering his face with his sleeve, eyes downturned.

Still anxious, then. How curious.

Madara had said they were brothers, and yet they look nothing alike, not just in the hair and eyes, but in demeanor and presence.

“I wanted to explain,” he says again, glancing up at her. “Tobira didn’t mean any harm, he just—”

His eyes remind her of a fawn she’d seen one spring in Lord Fusamoto’s woods, one of the rare deer in the settled region of Chubu.

But that does not soften her heart.

Or the claws she has hidden.

“I think Uchiha Izuna-san would beg to differ.” She takes a sip of her own tea. “That is, if he were conscious enough to complain.”

He flinches at this but continues onwards. “I don’t think he meant it. He certainly didn’t mean—”

“The sword he held to my throat?”

It had not cut, but it had threatened to.

She wields her words to cut and cut deep.

And the muddy man with water stained clothing had barely more than madness in his eyes, wild shaking hands. What he meant and what Senju Hashirama claims he meant are not on the same earth, much less believable.

And when Momo had run towards them, she’d felt her heart leap into her throat.

Her life is hers to do with what she pleases.

Her little sister’s life is not to be bartered.

Hashirama goes pale beneath his suntanned skin. “He did not tell me that,” he says, both confused and quiet. “He’s been… away for the past two weeks. There has been so much that has happened.”

If these words could be believed, then someone had left his elder brother with a heavy burden to carry and no explanation for why.

But can they be believed?

He looks earnest enough, but she does not know him.

She has no reason to believe him and less reason to want to.

She does not set her tea aside, but still, she watches him, over the rim of her teacup. “I still do not know the reason for your visit, Senju-san.”

It has only been long enough that half a stick of incense has burned down, and while she has the time, she does not quite have the patience to continue playing games.

Izuna’s still form tugs at her like the river current, like all that must go out to sea.

Hashirama jolts at this, straightening up. “I was told,” and here he pauses, setting aside his teacup, “that the reason so many people have stopped buying our goods is because of you.”

She smiles, but in that faintly incredulous way that ladies wear when they are being interrogated. “Me?” she asks. “Why would I have anything to do with that?” And saying so, she hides the bottom half of her face with her sleeve. “Senju-san, you are thinking too deeply on such ridiculous things.”

He sighs, smile a little resigned around the edges. “Kawaguchi-san, can we put such things aside?” There is hurt in his dark eyes that he expects her to address. “You and I both know that isn’t true.”

But she does not falter. “I think you will find that I have very little control over what other people do.”

“Kawaguchi-san,” his voice is soft, “please be sensible. These are games that cost men’s lives.”

And something in her burns white hot at those words.

“What right do you have to lecture me about what costs men’s lives?” All her life, despite her fortune and circumstance, she has lived, balancing in the wind, walking along the blade of a knife. One false step could cost honor and reputation, mark the difference between an entire family’s fortunate circumstances or its miserly death.

It only takes a wrong word to cost men’s lives.

What right does he have to threaten her with the idea that this match of Go is not one she is destined for or somehow unworthy of playing?

These are games that cost men’s lives.

She knows.

She knows.

She knows.

And she knows exactly what has caused this. Play a deathmatch, and someone will overturn the table.

She knows what she wants from this, but the man across from her does not understand.

“Because you don’t understand.” He has a look of anguish on his face now. “If it is anger at Tobira that you have, I understand, but so many, the clan is made of hundreds. It is not just Tobira that you are punishing.”

Her anger gives her claws.

Her public face drops to the floor like so much discarded silk. “Good,” she says, the river roaring in her ears, and yet that single word rises above the noise, louder than anything she has heard before. “It is not just Izuna who has bled.”

“There are elders and children in this clan as well. Have mercy on them. My sisters, who must live at the mercy of their husbands, my nieces and nephews. Kawaguchi-san, this hurts them more than it can hurt Tobira.”

It is not as if she does not know.

But the blade of anger is cruel and sinks deeper than rain. They live all their lives with painted faces, painted lives, but underneath all the paint is the truth.

The truth is that those least deserving of hurt will always hurt more anyway, unprotected from the rain of life by things like titles and money and name.

The truth is that when overturning the Go board, hundreds of people’s lives go flying across the floor, and where they land is up to them.

“For three years, you have heckled my father’s caravans, burned our fields, killed my people, destroyed livelihoods, and wreaked havoc.” Slowly, she watches steam rise from her teacup, purposefully not turning to the man sitting in the chair before her in the front hall. How many days had Kuma cried for the death of her eldest son and the injuries of her second? So many days that her eyes had not lost their red tinge. How many years will Shimo-chan live without a father? Every year for the rest of her life. “And now you come to me with mercy and reconciliation on your lips.” This time, she raises her eyes, watches the stone blank face of Senju Hashirama.

Strangely, she is not afraid.

“I think you will find that my taste for mercy has waned, Senju-san.

The teachings of her father counseled mercy and good-will whenever she could afford it. She can afford it no longer.

Let mercy reap its own reward.

Her hands now sow only salt.

“You have had plenty of choices,” she watches him, ice creeping across her river, and if she freezes through as the Mujin never does, that is her choice and hers alone, “between water and salt, but it has been a dry summer for some years now.” Her tone conversational, she turns back to her tea. “And when the water is gone, there can only be salt. Do not blame me when you reap what you sow.”

I would’ve done nothing if you did not hurt what is mine to protect, Senju-san.

Do not blame me when you play a deathmatch and I overturn the table.

He flinches, something like anguish on his face. “Kawaguchi-san, please—

“Get out.” Madara’s voice sounds from behind her.

He towers in his rage, a vein jumping in his temple, hands clenched to fists, almost shaking with barely contained fury, pulled taut like a thread about to snap.

Hashirama brightens upon seeing him, though she does not know what he has to be happier about. “Madara—”

“Get out!” Madara fairly howls with fury. “Do you have no shame that you are still here to see me?”

Hashirama rises. “Madara, I didn’t kno—”

“You have some nerve. After everything—

Hashirama’s face falls, and he turns to go.

“We’re through!” Madara shouts after him. “Do you hear me? We’re done.”

If she has more mind to spare, she might’ve wondered what he meant by this.

She retreats back to Izuna’s room when Senju Hashirama’s departure is confirmed by Taishi who shakes the front door’s wooden bar at him. Madara has not followed her. Where he has gone, she does not know.

Izuna’s hand twitches when she enters, though his eyes are closed, and his breathing is faint but even.

“Hisa-san?” he asks, eyes still closed.

“It’s me.” She sits, the sweep of her pleated skirt soft against the floor.

He is awake now, and he has been awake before for a little at a time. No one has told him — even if you live, you will have to give up your blade.

There will be no shinobi named Uchiha Izuna anymore.

No one has told him.

No one has told him of what is to happen to the Senju either, though he may appreciate that more, having never spoken of them positively.

She will not tell him.

If he is to survive this, he must not know.

A corner of his mouth tilts up. “I will miss you,” he says, still with his eyes closed. “When I stand on the bridge.”

He speaks of the Bridge of Helplessness in the underworld, then, where all souls stand after forgetting their previous lives, before the Wheel of Rebirth.

Had that always been the bridge he spoke of?

The last time they spoke of bridges, is that where he promised to wait for her?

She had spoken of a different bridge.

“You are not there yet.”

“I have yet to give Senju Tobirama the satisfaction.” There is something quite bitter in his voice. “The man has always hated me.” The corner of his mouth twitches. “But the rest of the Senju are the same. They will celebrate the day I am finally laid to rest beneath the dirt.”

"It is because of your eyes, then?” She does not want to consider that he might be broken, laid out as he is in bed like this, having struggled too hard to live. "What they hate you for."

She has always wondered.

What did shinobi have to hate each other for?

He turns to look at her with eyes that might belong to any other man in the world, simple, brown, and entirely unremarkable except for the brush of amused wryness, unremarkable except in that they belong to him. "That and a name."

That they would wish to kill him for this—

For so little as this—

"Are they not men?"

Fourteen men had died in Nobuga so long ago.

Bear had died in the capital.

Even now, the men who had fought the fires in the west field still grapple with the damage, charred earth, injured lungs, and burns. The loss still haunts her.

How could men choose to kill other men so easily and yet think nothing of it? Did only heartless fools wearing the faces of men live in that household?

He considers it, thoughts seemingly slow in his pallor. "They are." He reaches for her hand and finds it, and though the touch of his hand is cold and improper, she does not pull away. And she knows why. She knows why she does not. "But you judge them for this."

"Only those without hearts can kill without guilt."

"I kill without guilt," he says, voice soft, air rasping in the frail rise and fall of his lungs. "I have killed for you, more than once. I would kill again for your safety a thousand times. I do not and would not regret it." Briefly, he smiles, pain tugging at faded lips. "Am I a monster as well, Hisa-san?" Will you let me die like this? Will I carry this pain in my next life too?

“I have told you this before.” The words are simple enough, but that she believes them, she supposes, is not. “You are a man. Nothing more, and nothing less.”

In their next lives, they may meet again, like plum flowers meeting the evening snow, meant to complement instead of detract.

He smiles, though his eyes do not. “Am I?”

“Yes,” she says and means that. “That is what you have always been.”

His eyes fall closed, and he sighs. “Hisa-san, you are always so cruel to me.”


Is it cruelty to be like she is?

There are some things she cannot give away, no matter how she cares for him.

The weight of her family’s frail name.

Your father will not kill for you.

Izuna will.


Even so, there are some things she will not give away, not for him, not even if the daimyo himself asked her to.

She looks at him, the loose ink dark of his hair, the sweat beading on his brow, the way the flame in his eyes finds her face and stays there, he wants so much from her.

What I want is, as you say, inappropriate.

What she wants is also inappropriate, in a different way.

Or, perhaps, the same way.

They are the same beneath their painted-on colors.

Slowly, she slips from the edge of his bed, until she is sitting on the floor, her back to him.

“Maybe I am cruel.” She wraps her arms around her knees, wonders if she really should say this. “But if I am, why choose to care?”

If all I am is cruel, why like me so much?

He breathes out. “I admire you.” The words are quiet. “For your wit and your daring. For your courage and conviction. I wish I possessed the words others need to hear or a heart that others find shelter in.” He laughs, more sad than amused. “I am a fool. So I admire the cruelty as well.”

“A self-aware fool.” But men who are self-aware are not fools.

She does not possess what he so admires — all painted-on colors, but she has not the wit for arguing now.

"May I ask a favor of you?" Chills and fever. He slips slowly beneath the surface. For a hysterical moment, she remembers that he was not made for river water. "It is not a very big favor."

He sounds like a child, these words a thin, frail plea.

But she knows well that he is a man, not a boy, and favors cannot be given with impunity.

"Will you tell me what it is?"

He jolts then, eyes half closed, a smile full of rue. "Even now, even this. So careful, Hisa-san. Could I—" He refocuses. "There is… a pair of shears on the table, your table. Will you give them to me?"

"Why do you need them?" She smooths his hair away from his forehead, dabs at the sweat upon his brow.

"Will you not humor me?" he whispers. "Please?" The word is full of ruined hope. "Please?"

And a proud man begs like a child.

"What is it that you need it to cut?" She does not quite understand the depths of his insistence, his need to spend his waking coherent moments begging for a pair of shears. "I will cut it for you. Your hands shake too much."

"A lock of my hair." His eyes burn red for a moment, before it fades. "For you to keep, so you won't… forget me."

A lock of hair. A lover's token, though they are not lovers and never have been.

"I won't forget you." She would never be able to forget him, the years they have spent together, how will she forget?

"You will. You have life to live. So much of it. It has no place for me." And softly, some corner of her heart that somehow did not break before breaks now.

Perhaps she is cruel.

She’d, for a long time now, felt the weight of his regard.

And sometimes, she had encouraged it, because she found that despite their differences in circumstances, they had kindred spirits, that his little boy ways amused her, that she admired his strength.

She should not have.

Because she knew it would never end well.

“There was always a place for you,” she says, holding his hand. If he survives, would she be able to give up her name?

Can she even promise herself that at this moment?

Can she bargain like this?

He is so proud of his name. She could not have loved him so if he did not.

He would never give it up.

And what of her own name? Is she any less proud to be Kawaguchi than he is to be Uchiha?

“And there always will be.” But can they ever fit into the places they want for each other in their lives?

His breath catches. “Do you mean it?” There is such hope in him now, ruinous, ruinous hope.

“Do I often say things I do not mean?” If he lives, they will never be able to go back to whatever it had been before.

If he dies, she will never be the same.

“Only when you are teasing me.” His hand is cold against her cheek. “If I recover, I will hold you to your word. If not, I’ll wait for you on the bridge.”

This makes her laugh. “Unable to run, even in death?”

“I’m a shinobi.” He laughs until he coughs. “It’s what we do.”

He covers his mouth with a skeletal hand, thinner and frailer than he had been when he’d been brought in, and when he lets it fall limply back to his side, his lips are tinged with red.

The news comes out of Kamakura Town, spreading like wildfire even before it can be confirmed, and Shunan is engulfed in the news of Senju Butsuma’s death.

She is in her own courtyard entertaining Lady Kiku when the news arrives, brought into her sitting room by Aka who leans down to whisper in her ear. “It is still yet unconfirmed, but there’s been a death in the Senju Household.” She glances up at Aka’s face, but it is utterly serious. “Everyone says that Senju-shikeishuu took his own life.”

What this means for Izuna, she is yet to ascertain.

By her side, Lady Kiku starts, gaiwan clattering, though no tea is spilled.

She turns to the older woman, careful to set her own gaiwan down on the low table between them. “Kiku-sama?”

Lady Kiku blushes, setting her own gaiwan down, her fan covering her mouth. “Forgive me, child. I couldn’t help overhearing.”

“It is no matter.” She glances at Aka, suddenly aware of how easily shinobi occupy a different world than her own. “I would’ve relayed the news in any case. Senju Butsuma-shikeishuu has met his end by his own choice.”

No lady of Lady Kiku’s station would admit to overhearing anything. O-Shiki certainly wouldn’t.

And no person from her social circle would be able to overhear.

Aka hadn’t been loud.

Lady Kiku grows pensive at this. “That does not much seem like Butsuma-shikeishuu.”

So I was right to suspect something amiss.

She’d expected a different outcome based on what had been described regarding Senju Butsuma.

Aka curtsies once and turns to leave.

“But I had wanted to ask you of other news.” Lady Kiku turns to her again. “Regarding your handmaid’s scar…”

“Aka?” She has no other handmaids with noticeable scars and had not often thought about Aka’s — an angry red burn scar down the right side of her face — it had been acquired before she entered the Kawaguchi household years ago, and she had never asked about it.

“Yes, the one they call fire-struck.” Lady Kiku’s eyes are sad, but the set of her mouth is firm. “Young women who carry such sorrows are unusual.”

Especially if they serve a woman from a household like yours.

“If Uchiha-sama wanted to know about my face, Uchiha-sama should’ve just asked me.” Aka strides back in, her mouth set in a hard line. “No need to trouble our miss about it.” Aka tilts her chin up defiantly. “I am proud to wear the face I wear. No prettier one would suit me better.”

“Aka,” but she pauses.

Aka has never spoken about who had done this to her.

And Hisa, in her unwillingness to pry, had never asked.

“If Uchiha-sama must know,” Aka continues, standing as stiff as a metal rod, “the Madam at my last place of employment held my life contract and thought I was far too comely a distraction for her son’s wandering hands, so she made sure I was no longer anything any man could look at without recoiling in disgust.”

Lantern oil, then.

Or candle flame.

Her mind fills in the blanks, as it is so wont to do.

“I was fifteen then, sixteen when Kawaguchi-san bought my contract from that loathsome woman and tore it to bits. I am proud to be of service to good people.”

A rebuke.

If Lady Kiku had even thought she or her father was responsible for Aka’s face at all.

But she doubts that this is the case.

Having said her part, Aka turns on her heel and leaves once more.

“She is unused to being less than forthright.” Hisa folds her hands in her lap and wonders how to salvage the situation. “If she has said something to offend you, I hope that Kiku-sama can forgive her for it.”

Lady Kiku smiles. “I did not wish to imply anything, but I see how my question could have been taken in such a light. To be so beloved by one’s household is a good thing.”

Silence falls again for a time as they drink tea and consider other thoughts.

“She says that your father bought her contract and then destroyed it?”

“My grandfather was a dye house servant who bought his contract from his lord.” Carefully, she takes a sip of her cold tea. “His son holds no one’s contract and never will.”

Her father is an unusual head of a household in Shunan, for most men prefer to hold the power of life and death over their household servants, contracts firmly in hand, and apply governance the way they believe the daimyo applies it to the kingdom.

But Kawaguchi Yasutaro rules only by the grace of being well loved.

“That is very shinobi of him.” Lady Kiku sighs laughingly, though her eyes are still sad. “How odd it is, to find a kindred spirit in such a place.”

The thought strikes her as so funny that she, too, laughs. “He would be so unhappy to hear of the sentiment.”

For the man who valued mercy still cares little for shinobi.

And the man who counseled kindness has not spoken much to her for some days now.

And the distance between them grows.