Actions

Work Header

A Bolt of Silk

Chapter Text

Only another half hour passes before Nene hurries in to call Lady Kiku away. “My apologies for disturbing, Hisa, Uchiha-sama.” Nene curtsies once to each of them, her words tripping over themselves. “But Izuna-san is awake, and I could not find Madara-san. I—” And here, Nene pauses, staring down. “I left Kimei with him in case he needed something while I was gone to fetch someone, but I—”

She needs not say the rest.

I think he’s getting worse.

Lady Kiku rises, having gone pale. “I’ll go to sit with him.”

She rises as well with a nod to Nene. “Go fetch Tajima-sama. I believe he is with Chichi-ue in the study.”

They’d had something to speak about, though she neither knows what nor cares much to find out.

“I will search for Madara-san, to see if he might be found somewhere, and send him to Izuna’s courtyard.”

Too late, she realizes she did not say Izuna-san.

But since it is already too late to correct herself, she leaves it to search for Izuna’s brother.

Momo had taken a liking to him, she recalls. Because she is too impatient to sit still at Izuna’s bedside, and thus had been discouraged from coming to see him so often.

And where would Momo be besides in her mother’s courtyard?

Having thought this, she makes her way towards the eastern courtyard, where Chiba-san lives and rarely leaves.


She finds her little sister with Chiba-san, sitting together as Chiba-san calculates the accounts, a finger resting on the line she has paused on, laboriously clicking through the sums upon the abacus, Momo at her side occupied with a spinning top and several animals cut from heavy red paper.

For the first time, the scene strikes something in her that is not anger or resentment or fear.

When she had been young, she’d had a little tiger made of fired clay, painted by the artisans in Yanai, and often, she’d sat with Haha-ue, who managed the accounts by day and embroidered at night.

She misses Haha-ue with an ache that will never end, a sorrow fierce and biting like the tiger’s jaws, but how cruel of her to have wished that Chiba-san would go away, leaving behind only the little sister she loves.

How cruel of her, to have not thought of Momo.

“Neesan!” Momo brightens at the sight of her, paper animals and top abandoned. “Neesan, is Izu-shinobi-niisan better?”

Gently, she distangles Momo’s fingers from her skirt, nods briefly to Chiba-san, and crouches so that she and Momo are eye to eye. “Momo-ko,” she says, “have you seen Madara-san? Izuna-san wants to see him.”

Momo frowns, pigtails swishing as she shakes her head.

“I believe,” Chiba-san cuts in, her voice conciliatory, “that Uchiha-san was last seen by Hoso in the garden behind the Lotus Pavilion.”

The Lotus Pavilion is still in Chiba-san’s courtyard, overlooking a tiny pond.

Chichi-ue had it built to model the one in her maiden home shortly after she moved into the Eastern Courtyard.

Hisa rises. “Thank you for mentioning it. I shall go look for him.”

“Would you like someone to come with you?” Chiba-san looks up from the abacus and the accounts, more concern than judgement in her eyes.

Would you like someone to come with you, so you will not be alone with an unrelated man?

“I thank you again for the suggestion.” She breathes out and wishes that despair did not taste so heavy. “But since time is of essence, I think I shall go alone.”

Chiba-san nods. “As you have decided, then.”

Momo returns to her mother.

Hisa takes her leave.


She finds Madara-san outside the Lotus Pavilion, sitting among the dying flowers, a bottle of what smells like osmanthus wine by his side, grasped loosely in one hand.

She pauses there, well beyond his reach but in his line of sight and the line of sight of all who might pass by. “Madara-san?”

He attempts to make himself look presentable, but it’s a lost cause. “My apologies,” he mutters. “I am unfit for polite company.”

She tries not to let that show on her face.

Why he is here in Chiba-san’s garden, clearly upset at something, shamefaced and attempting to hide the wine bottle behind his back, she does not know.

She can guess, but she does not know unless she asks him about what relationship exactly he had with Senju-shikeishuu’s older son.

“Izuna wants to see you.” This does provoke a response from him that is not shame or guilt.

Fear is not much better.

He scrambles to his feet, hurrying just slow enough that she can still keep up if she attempts it at a brisk run.

“There is no need to keep to my pace, Madara-san.” He’d stayed just long enough, with just enough wits about him to be polite to hear her finish the statement.

In the next instant, he is gone.

She follows behind him at the pace she could follow, and though she tells herself that she is going in that direction because she has to fetch Kimei and that she does not want to intrude, that is more a lie than it is a truth.


“When I am gone.”

She pauses outside the door, though doubtless, everyone inside except Kimei and Nene knows that she is out here. How they can tell who exactly it is is a mystery to her, but the knowledge that she is here cannot be a mystery.

Izuna’s voice is soft as he continues, labored, with stops and starts as if he is trying to catch his breath. “You will have to be extra filial to Haha-ue and Chichi-ue, since I will not be able to share that burden with you from the bridge.”

Madara-san answers in the affirmative, though his voice is more choked.

This is too private a scene for her to intrude in and ought to only belong to his family, instead of also to the young woman standing outside the door.

But if she does not stand here, she may never hear his voice again.

Their vibrant moments are like stolen threads, the years between them river water, widening as she stands here.

Three autumns.

Soon, she will turn twenty-two.

“She did?” It is his voice again, a note of inexplicable wonder tinged with anguish in his words. “She did what?”

“She did.” Lord Tajima answers.

And she stands there and wonders when it was that she’d stooped so low as to listen at doors.

“Can I see her?” he asks, a thin, frail plea. “I want to thank her.”

Can I see her?

She should turn around.

She should leave.

But she is still standing there when Madara-san opens the door, his face pale. “He wants to see you,” he says and steps aside.

Beyond, there is sunlight, Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku sitting by his bedside, his mother holding his hand.

It is too private to intrude.

And yet she wants to see him, and he has given her a reason to.

She steps in and keeps walking, her head held high, hands clasped.

Since she has already decided that they are bound to one fate now, to live or perish as one must, there should be no room for hesitation left.

“Hisa-san?” He reaches for her, his mother’s hand slipping from his grasp. “Hisa-san, Haha-ue said you hosted the ladies of Chubu? And that Kusakabe-sama has gone to air his grievances at the capital and then returned?”

If she gives him her hand, it is because it is both cruel and kind to. She nods. “He did, yes.”

“Is it true that—” He breaks into a fit of coughing, half gasping for air. “Is it true that you did it for me?”

She thinks of how his bedridden form had made her brazen, how before, she’d been willing to bend, and bend, and bend, and only after he had returned had her heart sharpened itself into a knife and her claws turned to steel. “Yes,” she says and fills the room with a rushing silence, paralyzing all who stand within it. “It was because of you.”

It’d been for her, but it was because of him.

He moves almost too quickly for her to react, throws his arms around her, his cheek pressed against her temple, a hand resting between her shoulder blades. “Thank you,” he whispers, choked with an emotion that she can only call gratitude. “No more will die, thank you.

He is cold.

Izuna,” Lady Kiku whispers, half scandalized, half shocked. “Izuna, what are you—”

“Live long,” he tells her, half laughing, half already gone. “I will wait for you on the bridge.”

His arms loosen.

His mother’s whisper turns into a scream.

She comprehends nothing.

“I will have to ask you to leave.” Aka’s voice outside. “You have already been told that you are not welcome here, and the man with you doubly so.”

Izuna had been laid down again, still breathing, but fainter by the moment.

“Please,” Senju Hashirama’s voice, soft, though it brooks no argument, “if you don’t let us in soon, it will be too late.”

A strange look passes over Madara-san’s face, and he almost stomps over to the door and pushes it open. “What do you want.”

It’s not a question.

Senju-san is clearly taken aback, dressed as he is in visiting wear, holding onto his brother’s arm, Aka just behind them scowling fiercely, but he rallies himself and manages, even in the face of such hostility. “There are wrongs to be righted, and I am here to right them, the best that I can.”

Madara-san bristles. “How can you right this? And why did you bring him?” The last word is spat in Senju Tobirama’s direction.

He flinches.

Beside her, Lady Kiku exhales, a harsh, sudden sound. Lord Tajima lays a hand over hers, and almost imperceptibly, shakes his head.

“My brother is a medic.” Senju-san sighs. “My family trusts our injuries sustained abroad to him, and I thought—”

A medic.

Chakra.

This is the bending she had been looking for, searching for the crack in the Senju armor that Madara-san had told her was there.

She’d almost given up hope of it coming.

“You think I would let him near my little brother again? What sort of fool do you think I am?”

She rises, walks to the door, peers up at Senju Hashirama’s open face over Madara-san’s shoulder, notes the scowl on Senju Tobirama’s. Someone has been dragged here by his brother. “What will you give me as your price?” she asks.

Behind her, Kimei tugs at her sleeves.

She intends to let them in — there is no survival for Izuna if they do not come in — but she intends for it to be on her own terms.

“Price,” he repeats, a smaller, sadder smile playing on his lips. Like this, he does not seem like as much of a fool as he did on the first visit. “You mean, what I will give you if Tobira cannot or will not save him?”

“Why should we trust you?” Lord Tajima asks from behind her, the fatigue of years longer than she can imagine weighing on him. In the weeks since Izuna had been injured, his father’s hair has grayed significantly. “You have nothing to gain from this.”

Hashirama sighs. “Nothing to gain but my conscience.”

“There’s no reason why we would come here to kill him faster.” Tobirama crosses his arms, scowl running deeper on his face. “He’s already dying. Coming here to hasten the process would be incredibly foolish. We’re already dead men walking, what more do you want?”

Hashirama is looking at her, his eyes that soft, fawn brown, and he holds her gaze with no hesitation or remorse. “I’ll give you my life if I must.”

Anija.” Tobirama turns to him, almost as if trying to stop him.

“If Tobira can’t or won’t, you can kill me on the spot.” There is something almost foolishly earnest to him, and though his brother protests, the respect there is clear enough to see.

“Stand aside, Madara-kun.” Lord Tajima comes forward, an odd glint in his eye.

Unlike his sons, he carries no weapon that she can see.

But he does not need one to be dangerous, if the way that the two young men outside flinch is any indication.

Izuna had once told her that the world of shinobi has little room for old men.

Often, we live lives too short for that.

“You as well, Hisa-chan.” Lord Tajima moves her aside, a strange look exchanged between himself and Madara-san. “I do not mean to offend when I say that both the young men out there could cause you grievous harm faster than you could get out of the way.”

And now, only Lord Tajima stands in the doorway.

“Well,” he says, setting his hand on Hashirama’s shoulder, “do come in.”

Hashirama comes in first, and Tobirama follows after, his eyes periodically flickering to where Lord Tajima’s hand still rests, fingers barely brushing the edge of the throat.

It is not a very serviceable death grip.

But it unnerves both the Senju.

Madara-san shifts so that he is standing in front of her and Kimei. He says nothing, but the look in his eyes is a fervent flame.

“Well,” Lord Tajima says, voice light. She has not heard him in such a good mood before. “Go on.”

Tobirama stumbles forward as though he’d been pushed, until he stands within arm’s length of Lady Kiku, at Izuna’s bedside. He is staring straight ahead, somewhere beyond the sickbed at the floral pattern painted onto the bed’s supports. “I will have to use chakra,” he says, voice very, very soft. “I do not intend any harm.”

“Acceptable.” Lord Tajima smiles.

Lady Kiku glances at him, but something passes between them, and she turns her attention back to Izuna, and the young man standing over his bedside.

“I will have to see the wound.” His hands hover over Izuna, but even from this distance, she can see them shake. “I have a good—” he stumbles, “a good idea of where it is and what has been damaged, but I will need to see what has changed since it was incurred.”

There is both poison and hope in Lady Kiku’s gaze, but she says nothing, peeling back the covers and sitting down once more.

Slowly, with motions careful and sure, Senju Tobirama uncovers the rest of the damage, peeling off the bloodied strips of bandages.

He breathes out, hands going green for a moment. “There’s been chakra used on this before.” He sounds surprised, like finding out that a vat of coral pink silk, once dried, returns to pastel. “Not very much, almost threads, but it’s preserved so much. Who?” he asks, voice filled with wonder. “Who had the chakra control to do this?”

Madara-san opens his mouth to respond, but she cuts across him though it is rude.

Lives are on the line here, and Jizen-sensei is an old civilian man who has too kind a heart to turn away from anyone in need. “I will not give you their name.” She meets his eyes when he turns to her, confused. “You do not need to know who they are.”

Harm has come to her because the Senju know who she is.

No one will have to bear the path of harm if the Senju do not already know them.

The aged civilian doctor who had been the best friend of her grandfather does not need to live in fear of his life because she or anyone else had given his name to a shinobi.

“Tobira,” Hashirama says, for the most part seemingly unphased by the happenings. “Must it matter?”

Tobirama turns back to his work.

Silence reigns.


Tobirama staggers back, face paler than it had been when he started. “It’s done,” he says, half to himself, half to the rest of them.

Lady Kiku catches his sleeve, face upturned to his. “He will live?”

“He will need to rest, but he will recover.”

She breathes out.

Color has returned to Izuna’s face, his breathing even and deep.

“He isn’t awake.” There is a note of fatigued sorrow in Lord Tajima’s words. “How do I trust you?”

“I didn’t wake him because I didn’t fancy gaining an extra hole.” Tobirama sighs. “As for how you trust me…” His gaze flickers again, to Lord Tajima’s hand, the one still resting near his brother’s throat. “One move, and you could kill him. I am not a gambling man, Uchiha-sama. Even if it is only two weeks, I would rather delay the blade.”

“Very well. I will take you at your word.” Lord Tajima’s eyes turn towards the door. “I believe it is time for you to leave, and we will follow after.”

Tobirama makes it to the door, but no further.

“Is Senju Hashirama-shikeishuu here?” Akimichi-taicho is in the courtyard, holding a missive written on silk.

Not golden, so not necessarily imperial.

Tobirama drops to his knees regardless, seemingly having read the proper cues from the crimson and gold butterfly and sun patterns.

Hashirama does not, Lord Tajima’s hand still on his shoulder. “Yes,” he says. “I am here.”

Akimichi-taicho takes in the scene, his face carefully kept blank. “The East Faction received news from His Majesty who writes from the capital this morning, sent to us by messenger bird.”

Silence reigns.

Word from His Majesty directly is rare so far south, and yet in the span of a month, no fewer than three messages have arrived, two in the form of imperial edicts, and this one…

No one knows what this one means yet.

“It says,” and the imperial guard captain certainly does look disgruntled by this, “that His Majesty is benevolent and delaying the orders of execution given to the Senju clan two weeks ago.”

“Delayed?” Madara-san asks, hope springing to life in his eyes. “For how long?”

“Until whenever His Majesty remembers his anger, I suppose.” The captain shrugs. “It is not our place to question the motives of the Son of Heaven. He strongly urges the Uchiha and the Senju clans to reconcile, which is as far as I am willing to speculate.” He turns his attention back to Hashirama, still standing in Lord Tajima’s grip. “Until the time of our next meeting then, Senju-shikeishuu.”

Akimichi-taicho makes his excuses, bids his goodbyes, and then proceeds to exit with speed, clearly not interested in spending much more time here amid their strange happenstance.

Tobirama stumbles to his feet and continues outwards.

At the gate, Lord Tajima frees Hashirama, and Madara follows them out.

She does not quite believe that it is so that he can threaten the two retreating Senju.

That night, for the first time in over three weeks, she sleeps soundly and does not wake until morning.


The new dawn brings new problems with it.

Izuna is sitting on the edge of his bed, leaning on the back of a chair, when his father tells him about the Son of Heaven’s other edict. His Majesty believes that it would be proper for him to give up his blade.

She is present because Lord Tajima had insisted on it, though she does not know why, since Lord Tajima had also insisted on outlawing Madara-san to some other courtyard.

Lady Kiku is here as well, her expression wavering between delight and dread, delight because Izuna looks more alive than he has in weeks, dread because, well—

It must be hard.

It must be hard to be a mother and to break this news.

What you have dreamed of since childhood, you will not get the chance to be.

It must be hard, to be the son who has to hear that news.

But what place does she have to be here for this?

“No.” There is such panic in his eyes. “No, it can’t be.”

Lord Tajima’s face is carefully blank of its emotion, but there is regret in his eyes. “I have the imperial edict. Do you need to see it?”

Izuna turns to her without asking to see it. “It isn’t true,” he tells her. “My lord father wouldn’t accept such an edict.”

How to tell him that Lord Tajima had gotten on his knees and thanked His Majesty for his benevolence and wisdom?

“He did,” she says, two little words, not enough to explain. “Kusakabe-sama tells me it is because he misspoke.” Because His Majesty bears no great love for shinobi, and so a misplaced word led to this. Though they all must not speculate upon the thoughts of His Majesty. “He says when he next sees you, he will apologize in person, but he is sorry.”

She is not certain that Lord Fusamoto or O-Shiki know that Izuna is recovering.

Recovering, even if it does not look this way at the moment.

He turns away from her, to the only other person in the room he could appeal to. “Haha-ue,” but he does not get further.

“Izuna-kun,” His mother comes to sit by him. “Perhaps it is better this way?” Lady Kiku cups his face in her hands. “Given what we know, His Majesty has been more generous to you than he has to others.”

“I am not the only one.” No, he would not have been the only one who killed for the sake of the feud. “Why does he fault me, when all shinobi are taught to kill?”

And for this, no one has any answer.

But these killings were ones he had committed because he was here.

Because the Senju targeting her made him angry.

“Do you regret it now?” she asks.

He’d told her once that he didn’t regret it, and in a way, meant that he didn’t regret it because he had done it for her. That her safety was worth the lives he had taken and blood he had spilled.

That it was worth the cost.

She wonders if he would’ve done the same if he’d known the cost.

“No!” The lit flame of his eyes follows her. “No,” he says again, less emotionally. “I don’t regret it.”

Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku exchange another glance between themselves.

“It must be done.” Lord Tajima rises, a sigh rushing from him. “I would not have punished you if it had been up to me, but—” and here his voice grows quiet. “Perhaps I should have, earlier. It would not hurt so much now if I had.”

Izuna turns away, face bleak, and does not say anything further.

“It is an order from His Majesty.” Lady Kiku’s voice is soft. “If not, it would never happen.” We would not do this to you.

We would not have even thought of it.

But such things, they could never be quite enough.

“Will it be soon?” he asks, still with that too calm voice.

“It will have to be,” Lord Tajima answers.

“Because I will live?”

The silence stretches, spindly and uncertain, no one’s hand on the wheel.

But the admission comes in that silence.

Yes.


“And what will you do when he leaves?” Hiko doesn’t look up from his account book, fingers flying over the abacus beads. The careful clicking never skips a single beat.

“I have not thought of it.” She doesn’t miss a stitch, lilies blooming on the silk pulled taut over her embroidery hoop.

“Nonsense.” Kimei pouts at her from her place at the spinning wheel. “You’ve thought of at least forty different plans and discarded them all.”

Hiko raises an eyebrow but still doesn’t look up from his accounts, one hand grinding ink absently while the other continues totalling. “Exactly what I think as well.”

“Hisaaaa.” Kimei drags her name out. “Tell us?”

She looks from one to the other. “Since when did the two of you conspire among yourselves?”

They’d all grown up friends, which does not make this the least bit odd, but the sudden protests from them both is new. What this means, she will pick apart later.

“Ah,” she says. “So there is a conspiracy!” At least now they have stopped trying to get her to tell them what she will do to prevent Izuna from leaving.

After all, she cannot prevent him from leaving.

“No!” Kimei protests. “This is hardly a conspiracy!”

“You are forgetting the aim of this conversation.” Hiko sighs, left hand holding his right sleeve as he carefully records the next figure in the account book. “We are to question Hisa on what she is going to do when Izuna-san leaves us.”

“So you don’t deny that it’s a conspiracy?” She turns to Hiko, who has the hint of a smile on his sallow face.

“I am long past the point of shame.” Hiko finally looks up at her, dark eyes wry with the amusement of a hunter preying on the unwary. “But you aren’t. Tell us, what will you do when Izuna leaves us?”

“Nothing.” It is true that she has thought of plenty of scenarios. She could ask, could beg, could plead, could attempt to keep him, but they belong under different skies.

To different heavens, different earths.

“All things must end,” she says to stall Hiko and Kimei’s protests. “He will live; is that not enough?”

It is what she wished for, not all she wished for, but—

Never dream beyond your borders, and you will always manage to be satisfied.

“No,” Hiko says, more tartly than she’d expected of him — he is always so gentle tempered. “It is not enough.”

Kimei adjusts the lantern guard without saying a single word, but the look on her face says that she agrees with Hiko.

He rises, still muttering darkly, setting his brush aside — without rinsing, how odd — and makes for the door.

Hiko.” That does stop him. “What are you so upset about?”

“If no one else will say something, then I will go say something.” He shakes her hand from his sleeve. “The Uchiha clan owes our household a life, and I will not stop unless they kill me or leave it here.”

Hiko,” she says again. “It is late already.”

“And it is about to be later.” It does not stop him from crossing the doorway and picking up a lantern from just outside and lighting it. “Some might say it’s already too late already.”

He vanishes down the walk, the lantern throwing wild shadows over his braided topknot.


Whatever comes out of his conversation in the Uchiha courtyard, it does not end with him dead, so she supposes that he must be satisfied.

She turns her footsteps towards her father’s study.

It has been days now since she has seen him alone.

Mealtimes aren’t the right time to ask him questions or confide her heart.

And yet, going to see him in the cold light of day does not seem quite right either.

What can she say? I love him, Chichi-ue.

But I cannot afford it.

What do I do? What can I do?

The words are a flood, like the river rising in its banks.

But in the courtyard, she pauses, lantern bobbing.

It is late, and he is still awake, which is not unusual. He would often sit and read through business records or literature and poetry at this hour. His days belong to other people, overseeing business, traveling and correspondence, but his nights are his own, so he might spend it writing poetry and practicing calligraphy, playing the pipa or sitting with his fish.

Not this night.

She stands there, watching as he paces from one end of the room to the other, something heavy on his face that he has hidden well since dinner.

She stands there, watching, for another moment, something unspeakably large in her throat, and turns to go.

He is worried enough without the worries she had wanted to add.


Senju Hashirama-shikeishuu writes to her politely, requesting a meeting to introduce his wife.

And with that, she understands the last piece of what has happened in the Senju household.

Madara-san had not mentioned that Hashirama-shikeishuu is married.

Perhaps he had not considered it important, or perhaps he did not know.

Either way, she is still curious enough to want to meet Hashirama-shikeishuu’s wife.

“You know I had to come,” O-Shiki says, dropping the husk of a sunflower seed into the porcelain plate beside her. “Your house is open to visitors again for the first time in years, and you’re seeing shinobi? Hisa-chan, really. I didn’t think you were quite so brash.”

“I have to see them.” She does not have to specifically, but her own curiosity sits too heavily in her own mind not to. “Senju Hashirama-shikeishuu wrote to me saying that he wants to introduce his wife.”

In the back of her mind, she sees Chichi-ue, pacing from one end of his study to the other, remembers how no words were exchanged between them that night, because somehow, she had drawn back.

But she pushes that aside.

“Senju-shikeishuu is married?” O-Shiki glances at her, silver and jade buyao swinging pendulously, various flower chai glittering in the light. “You don’t suppose…” She is the one who used the current to send the boat down the river…

And that Senju Butsuma-shikeishuu’s death has to do with her?

“I don’t know so,” she replies, but while Hashirama-shikeishuu is not a wooden man by any means, he does not have the personality to have been a murderer, and while his younger brother has the personality, he does not have the clarity. “But don’t you want to know?”

O-Shiki casts her an unamused glance. “Hisa-chan, if it really is true, you will have invited a—” O-Shiki sighs. “Well, you’ve already invited this woman. So I suppose we have to play this match to the end as well.”

“You didn’t have to come play it with me.” She suspects that one of the handmaids went to gossip with O-Shiki’s Tamasu, who, of course, had then told O-Shiki, which is why the countess is with her here now.

Is how O-Shiki knew, but not necessarily why O-Shiki has come to lend her weight to this meeting.

In all her years, O-Shiki has never been a subtle woman. If a display is to be made, it must be made in full.

“Nonsense.” Anything else O-Shiki might’ve said is interrupted by Kimei.

“They are here.”

And so they are.

She rises to greet them, dipping into a curtsy. “Senju-san,” she acknowledges, peering at the couple over the edge of her round fan. “And?”

“My beloved wife,” Hashirama-shikeishuu beams, turning slightly towards the woman by his side “Uzumaki Mito.”

The woman at his side has red hair closer in color to blood than fire, carefully done up and adorned with jade chai, eyes the color of dark slate and an unmistakable air of self-possession.

So this had been the person she’d been playing Go against, the figure in the background moving pieces when the net was closing.

“Mito-san, then,” she allows, turning back to the table where O-Shiki is still sitting, having not deigned to rise. “May I introduce—”

“Asukabe Shikikami.” The name speaks for itself, without titles or adornments.

She had forgotten, in the many years that she and O-Shiki had been friends, that they had not always been friends, and that O-Shiki had worn a different face when she first married Lord Fusamoto.

The woman who had first arrived was a private person who held everyone at arm’s length, beloved by her husband but not others, bitterly prideful but more lonely than proud.

Long ago, O-Shiki had confided in her that it was the face she’d gotten used to wearing in court, where behind every pleasant face was a person who wanted a pound of flesh.

O-Shiki’s court face is back again.

And to what end this conversation is headed, one does not need to be clear-sighted to see.