Leaves cascaded down in an exhibition of red, orange, and yellow. Autumn gave the air a certain chill, but it bothered not the swordswoman standing amidst the field. Her feet swept, a crawling motion as she felt the earth.
Melancholic blue saw a leaf greener than most fluttering down. Her hand gripped tight, visualizing the angle of her blade.
A sharp flash blinded her momentarily, her sword catching the late afternoon sun. Her body went still, watching the same leaf fall at her side, split in two.
Practiced motions sheathed her blade, giving her body peace to stand relaxed on both feet. Her hand remained on the handle, feeling the worn fabric against calloused fingers.
It felt natural in her hands, and she knew exactly where to rest each finger.
She let a smile linger for only a moment, before returning to a state unmoving like the garden around her.
"The groundskeepers are to have quite the troublesome task keeping it tidy, wouldn't you say, Lady Osaka?"
Tucking back strands of brown hair, she lent her gaze to the attendant. A normal face welcomed her, hints of intrigue tugging at her gentle features.
"You must tell them not to sweep too much. Personally, I find the leaves quite lovely," was her reply. She balanced her palm on the end of her sword hilt, a playful gaze floating up to the thinning canopy overhead. "I'm usually never home during this season, so I prefer to enjoy its full beauty."
"Of course, my lady." The attendance bowed. A practiced and curt dip of the head. "I shall let the groundskeepers know."
Osaka returned the gesture with a light nod, her attention away at the tree line beyond the walls of her family's estate. Reds and oranges blessed her sight, the fall of leaves painting tranquility in the shifting season.
She took a breath, a knowing look finding itself on the attendant. "I'm certain that wasn't the only reason why you were brought out here, was it?"
"My apologies, Lady Osaka," she quickly apologized, offering a deeper bow. Osaka waved it off with a lax palm, waiting for her to stand straight.
"No need to be so tight. You look concerned, has something happened?"
The attendant let concern show on her face more, raising Osaka's curiosity. "The Lord and Lady request your presence immediately at the main court."
A frown weighed on her lips. Osaka looked away, past cascading leaves towards a castle. It loomed across the land, a symbol of opulence and power. She had seen its dark tiles showered in fire, its stonework nearly brought to ruin by rocks and arrows.
It was the symbol of her clan's resilience and strength. Osaka herself saw to both defense and offense of her family's estate and castle. She was a special instance of warrior. An Onna-Musha.
Her duty was to her clan and the people. Half of the year saw her fighting invaders of their territory, the gentle domain by the coast. Where waves crashed against the shores and steam rose from hot springs that the Gods had blessed.
She had no such luxury to enjoy the pleasures of her home. Not even the beautiful autumn. Osaka hoped to at least find time for herself in the approaching months for winter but summons to the main court could only mean one thing.
With a sigh, she began walking, her attention elsewhere in the trees. She would be off to war once more. Her family never failed to keep processes with a degree of formality, not even to their only child.
Making her way towards the upper levels of the castle, Osaka let her thoughts wander. Invasions from neighboring clans had her tied down for most of the spring, bleeding out into the middle of the summer. In the reprieve, both sides saw the price of audacity for invading her home. Peace was a longer affair, herself used as an envoy for her clan in securing a deal.
"I suppose I was lucky enough to see the leaves begin to fall this time, wouldn't you say?" she thought aloud, a wistful tone heavy in the air. Beneath her feet, fallen leaves crunched, the attendant's voice not far behind.
"You almost would return from the borders by mid-winter, my lady. I had hoped you would stay until the frost had begun to melt."
"If there's trouble, it can't be helped." Osaka defused a sigh before it left her lips. She straightened her back, watching the last gate pass over them. "Enjoy the peace for me, will you?"
"A-As you wish, Lady Osaka." There was apprehension in her voice, a regret accompanying the stutter. Osaka smiled, thankful for the reluctance to see her leave.
Her fists clenched, rubbing against the fabric of her clothes. She hoped to at least spend a night in the hot springs before departing.
Upon her approach, guards opened the tall doors to the keep. Autumn chill was replaced with stuffy warmth, lanterns hung above wooden posts illuminating the interior. Guards were posted along each column, leading up to two distinct figures in front of a low table.
Slipping off her sandals, Osaka strode onward, eyes locked with the firm gaze of her father. It was a silent exchange, crossing the length of the main keep with tense silence deafening against her ears. She felt a chill on her side. The attendant had stayed behind at the door.
"Greetings, father, mother." The greeting echoed in the room. Her father made a deep nod, one Osaka returned with a sharper demeanor. "I hear that I've been summoned at the soonest convenience.”
"We're glad to see you unharmed from our clan's last conflict," her father started, his voice a perpetual monotony of booming authority. "Your mother and I hate to see you barely settled back home, however there is another pressing matter that requires our attention."
Experience in the court had taught her enough to remain stone-faced for everything. A small nod was her response, eyes noticing a figure flanking one side of the table.
Osaka first noticed the pure white attire, a red dress painting a sharp contrast. Black hair was kept hidden, a waiting expression worn on an unblemished face.
A shrine maiden. Osaka wondered why a lady of the temple would have business in her clan's court. Unruly peasantry crossed her mind, delinquents that troubled the local temples.
She shook her head. If she was summoned as the shrine maiden was present, then the troubles concerning her would align with her own purpose.
"You are to accompany this shrine maiden," her father instructed. "Take with you a handful of your most trusted."
"What is the trouble?"
They wore unreadable expressions. A slight twinge shifted her father's stone look, her mother darting eyes elsewhere.
Searching for answers, Osaka turned her attention to the shrine maiden. Hands were concealed in her long sleeves, a peaceful gaze trained to the floor. Again, she found no trace of information in her delicate features. A resigned sigh came after, the swordswoman bowing her torso deeply.
"I understand. I shall make preparations to depart."
As she turned to leave, a voice called out to her. It belonged not to her parents, but to the young woman. Gazes met, and Osaka noticed a flash of genuine emotion cross her face. Anxiety.
"My lady. Discretion is paramount. Only tell those who will accompany you and no more."
Osaka blinked at the sudden request. Her eyes turned to her parents, who gave a confirming nod.
"Discretion?" she repeated, confusion leaking in her tone. She summoned composure a moment later, feeling her tongue sit restlessly in her mouth. "And what if the men are to ask of my whereabouts?"
"A diplomatic assignment to The Emperor," her father answered. "And none of the servants would dare ask of their master's personal matters."
"I understand." She left her words in the air of the main court before exiting, welcoming the chill autumn air. The castle's high elevation gave a breathtaking view of the lands below, towers of steam rising from open air springs.
She hadn't even left, and she already missed the view.
Preparations were swift, and Osaka had set out the next day. With the sun high in the sky, accompanying her was ten of her most trusted warriors. Samurai who fought with her on the many conflicts to defend their home. They rode in silence, all following the shrine maiden from yesterday.
True to her word, she said nothing about the expedition. Only the ten at her side knew, and even then, information was sparse. None of her questions were answered. Not from her parents nor the shrine maiden when they converged outside the castle gates.
Even now as their horses trotted through a mountain trail, the young woman had stayed quiet.
"Where are we even going?" one whispered, his hold on the reins tight. Osaka spared him a quick look, one of sympathy.
"Father had his orders, and we must fulfil them." She looked back in front, watching the sway of the shrine maiden's hair. "Regardless of how little information we have."
"It could be a trap."
She hadn't ruled out the possibility. However, if her parents placed their trust on her, then she will too. Yet, she couldn't shake the moment where their expressions shifted. "If that comes to pass, I'll handle her myself."
"A servant of the Gods wouldn't dare deceive, Lady Osaka." The shrine maiden's voice brought a chill to the air, the rest falling silent from their hushed exchange.
All except for their lady, who returned the comment with a slight bow. "Of course. We do not mean to offend. However, you can understand the lack of information breeds suspicion."
They all watched her nod, but her eyes were up at the tree line. "It is not my right nor position to disclose anything, you'll have to forgive me."
Osaka restrained her frown, reducing it to a firm line on her lips. The conversation died after, the air filled with nothing but the soft trotting of their horses. Overhead, clouds had obscured the sun, bringing a depressing dim to the afternoon. Their path cut through a forest, falling leaves blanketing the dirt road.
It would've been beautiful, if not for the situation they were in. She had never found herself this high up in this region beyond her clan's territories. There was little to gain up in thick wilderness, and none of their enemies found themselves in the woods. It often stayed at the back of Osaka's mind. The trees were nothing but a picturesque view for her to watch when she needed peace.
She sighed away her reverie, returning to the world around her. Eyes scanned the trees, seeing more of the forest beyond.
A hand gripped her sword when her gaze lingered. She moved on quickly, spurring her horse on with a gentle whip of the reins. "We should move quicker. Best we arrive to... wherever it is we're going before nightfall."
Osaka rode to the shrine maiden's side, watching her look straight ahead. The reins loops around her hands, clutched tightly. Her posture was straight, almost stiff. "No rush, my lady. We're almost there."
She nodded up the road, Osaka following her gaze. Clay tiles came into view beyond the canopies, crowning multi-story towers. As they continued to ride, she soon saw a stone wall. The road led up to a clearing, and in the middle a temple compound.
That was her initial assessment, but peculiarities struck out. There were no banners or symbols of any kind. On their approach, the gate was open and unguarded. Temples seldom needed security, but the mountains were rife with bandits, necessitating defense.
A thought crossed her mind. Was that the reason why they were there? The possibility left a sour taste in her mouth. Her title and honor were worth more than being a mere bodyguard.
"Where is this place?" A question from one of her retainers. The shrine maiden said nothing, fueling the man's annoyance. "Hey, I'm asking a question."
Despite the clear anger in his voice, the woman said nothing. They passed through the gates, entering the compound. It opened to a wide area of stone and gravel, buildings on either side near the wall. Across from them beyond an expanse of stone paths was a temple. Not modest by any means, but its features were unremarkable.
Osaka looked to the ground, taking note of the intricate radial patterns in the stone. The shrine maiden pulled her horse to a stop, the rest fanning out and doing the same.
Near one of the buildings was a gathering. At a distance, Osaka guessed they were samurai like her. They had mismatched banners, the whole collective not belonging to a unified clan. She kept her thoughts as she dismounted, following the shrine maiden.
"Proceed to that gathering. We seem to be last to arrive," she said, gathering the reins of her horse and a few of her retainers. More shrine maidens came out from one of the buildings, leading the animals away.
"Will we get out answers there?" Osaka offered out her horse to the shrine maiden. Their eyes met, and she slowly accepted the reins.
"I can only pray for a favorable outcome, my lady."
She moved off, her and the other shrine maidens leading their horses to the side of the compound, presumably to a stable. Osaka watched them disappear past a corner, leaving herself and her retainers alone mere steps through the gate.
A sigh managed to leave her lips. "Let's get this over with."
They walked behind her, approaching the gathering on the edge of the radial pattern. One stood higher than the crowd, propped up on a wooden platform. A woman clad in armor, unmarked and carrying no banner. She was different to the crowd, all of which held insignia of their respective clans.
When she stepped close, their eyes met. She had a certain charm to her features. Osaka took note not to stare for too long.
"I see that everyone has arrived safely," the woman started off with a laugh. It did little to alleviate the strange tension in the air. Nonetheless, it didn't deter her flow as she continued. "Relay my thanks to your families for accepting on such short notice."
Osaka listened, thankful the crowd maintained an attentive silence. It wasn't only her that wanted answers. "Let's get to it. For the positions outside the temple gates, we will assign-"
"Wait!" a voice in the crowd shouted. All eyes looked to a woman dressed for battle, Osaka remembered the crest painted on her armor. She had struck down a warrior with such an emblem early in the spring. "Would you start with why we're here?"
Murmurs of agreement filled the air. While staying quiet, she allowed a short dip of her head. In front of them, the woman looked up from a parchment in her hands, addressing the warrior with an offensive casualness.
"We'll get to that eventually. After I sort you lot out."
The woman gritted her teeth but remained quiet. Osaka watched her eyes blink, as if realizing her behavior was watched by other clans. A smart realization, she thought. Despite the confusion of the situation, there was still the perpetual duty to carry yourself with pride.
There was no further interruption as the woman carried out orders. She started with posts on the temple gates, then to the perimeter around the outer paths. With each succeeding order, those assigned left with their orders. Some begrudgingly, most with resigned silence.
When the crowd had thinned, she looked to Osaka and her company. She beckoned them over with a lax hand. She was tempted not to oblige. "Osaka, was it?"
She nodded, holding a hand over her chest. "The very same."
There was a respectful bow, nothing more. Osaka was unsure of her rank and didn't dare impose. The woman returned the bow with her own, a little too fast for her liking. "You and a few from your group will receive the highest honor of guarding the guests that are soon to arrive."
Osaka blinked, then waited for the sarcasm to drip from her voice. When nothing came, a hard line embedded itself on her face. "Guests?"
The woman nodded, eyes glued to the parchment scroll. "That's right. They should arrive tomorrow at the earliest. You'll be posted at the guest house, right over there."
She gestured across the field to a large building. Behind it was a few trees, orange canopies peeking up the dark-tiled roof. Its eaves joined the long walkway leading to the main temple, where it continued to the other buildings on the compound's edge.
"Pardon me, but what is this about?"
"The rest of your group will guard the main temple and take the other shift. Like everyone, your quarters are located on the east building-"
Osaka cleared her thought, grabbing the woman's attention. Lifting a hand off her mouth, she felt the frown on her face. This time, she struggled to compose it. "If you'd be so kind to answer my question."
Their eyes met, a silent exchange. She brushed away strands of her dark hair, rolling the parchment tight. She stepped off the handle, a pair of attendants at her side. Osaka noted that she was of importance, after all, quick to add before offense came. "...My lady."
She snorted, waving her honorific away with a hand. "I'll not hear any of that here. Right now, I'm the same as all of you. That goes both ways, as well."
The woman gave a pointed look at Osaka, then began walking toward the temple. "Should I hear any complaints, remember of who sent you and what that means for the clans you adorn yourselves with."
Her voice was loud enough for nearby guards to hear. Osaka bit her lip. Their honor was exploited with such a simple line.
"At the very least, you'll entertain one question."
She stopped, throwing a look over her shoulder. Osaka took a step forward, feeling her feet shift against the unsteady gravel. "Who is this honored guest you speak of that we're meant to guard?"
The air lay still, her breath held as she waited for an answer. In front of her, the woman smiled. Then, a small bout of laughter.
"You haven't heard of her?" There it was. The sarcasm that Osaka had waited for. The woman handed her rolled parchment to her attendants, facing back to the temple before leaving.
Annoyance bubbled in her chest as she watched them leave. Around her were unsteady feet, shuffling and kicking at the gravel beneath them.
Osaka felt her heels dig in, then kicked off toward the large guest house.
She stopped only to give them a sharp look. Her voice held hesitation, marred by annoyance. However, she served her family not to be selfish, so her feet continued walking.
"We have our orders."