An odd feeling enveloped her. Foreign, almost unnerving in how it gripped her throat and stilled her tongue. Osaka had heard of this particular emotion, one she had often reserved for the fragile and indecisive. She was nervous.
"How wondrous it is for you to finally reveal yourself," she spoke in a voice that possessed a persisting monotony. Jewelry and gold chimed in a minute symphony, a methodical hand brushing back ash brown hair.
Dressed in a long kimono, silk fabric pooled around where she sat. Flowing cloth concealed her frame, all parts of her hidden behind veils.
Osaka remembered she was asked a question, quickly tearing her gaze down to the ground as she bowed quickly. "From the Clan Osaka, at your service."
She spoke without thinking, her voice hinting subservience. Osaka knew of her duty, but her stature in society demanded a tone with more pride. In the first place, she shouldn’t wait until the woman had addressed herself first.
Chancing up from the tatami, she made one fleeting glance. She carried no insignia of the royal family, nor did her clothes and effects bear any mention to notable clans. The finery made Osaka dismiss the possibility of her being part of the shrine maidens, its quality higher than even her own clothes.
A neutral stare and unmoving eyes stole her attention once more. Osaka stood back up, willing her hardest to break away from the enigma framed by light-colored bangs.
"Osaka," she repeated, tentatively testing each syllable on her tongue. A gaze of pink looked past her. Osaka was tempted to look over her shoulder. "Defenders of the ever-busy domain of old."
She brought a hand over the small table by her legs, brushing fingers against scrolls of paper. "Time has been kind to Kamakura, it seems."
Their eyes met. A silent, heavy moment passed. She saw how her body arched slightly, a ghost of a bow. "I accept your greeting with warmest regards, warrior of Osaka."
Her words spoke with a strange familiarity. Osaka placed her gaze elsewhere, remembering the warnings screaming in the back of her mind. "Have you found yourself visiting my home before?"
Without hesitation, she shook her head. "Never."
"Yet, you speak with such certainty and hope."
Night had a spell that made every silence both tranquil and suffocating. Her question lingered in the air, unanswered for a second. Osaka looked back, finding her eyes already staring.
"News of nearby domains enter my retinue when convenient." She lifted her hand, a sleeve of her kimono slipping down her forearm. Pale, flawless skin. Whiter than any gem, adorned in gold and finery. "I am curious to know of Osaka's chosen champion. Your feats are sure to be admirable to be chosen for your current duty."
Osaka fought to show no response. She wondered if there was malicious intent behind her words, but her expression revealed nothing but a simple cordial smile and a neutral tone.
Regaining composure, Osaka spoke with all the dignity she could muster, forcing the correction in the woman's verbal offense. "Their clanswoman most loyal, and the Lord and Lady's only daughter."
"Their sole offspring?" The perpetual neutrality was broken in the corner of her eye. For a moment, she saw something falter, her voice hinting a ghost of disbelief.
Before she could clue in longer, it had returned to a stillness, almost like an undisturbed lake. "You bring pride and honor to them."
A smile awkward on her face, Osaka let the compliment linger in the quiet night. Her words continued to stall at the tip of her tongue. The odd feeling persisted, pressuring doubt into her thoughts and hesitation to her body. She was a samurai, belonging to the highest in the social class.
Yet, such pride and prestige all but faltered under her peculiar gaze, each delicate motion realigning the set of words about to leave her throat.
"I..." She gripped one side of her waist. A hand on her sword would be disrespectful in front of a revered guest. "Now that you speak of my name with such familiarity, I would be honored if you told me yours."
"I accept your greeting, Osaka, and it is a pleasure to know it." Her words spoke decisively, leaving only a second of silence between them. A second enough for Osaka to pick at the subtlety.
She approached at another angle, allowing a small smirk to play along her face. "I suppose that means I won't be receiving the gift in you divulging such sacred information."
Osaka permitted boldness in her words. The maiden was looking at her, the choice of tone prompting a prolonged stare. "My lady deems me unworthy of hearing your name but calling you so vaguely might misunderstand offense."
A hum followed. Light between her lips and capturing the attention of gem-like eyes. "Perhaps it would be more fitting if I refer to you with a more honored title. Princess, perhaps?"
Her question finished with a quirked brow and an amused curve along her lips. Tempting authority had never been an act she ever imagined sullying herself with, and it brought an electrifying joy.
More so it elicited a reaction. In the beauty of her neutral expression, a twinge of annoyance weighed on her eyebrows. It was out of place, the slight change drastic in her whole countenance.
And it was stunning. "Not to your liking, princess?"
Fleeting as it arrived, it was gone, composure cleansing the maiden. "I can tell that you take great pleasure in calling me that. For reasons I cannot trust are benevolent."
She turned away, a hand settling atop the low table. "I dismiss you from this conversation, Osaka."
A feeling of victory filled her. Trifling, almost petty, Osaka admitted, but the slight growl in her voice was intriguing. She prodded no longer, taking a step back out to the veranda outside the room. Reaching for the door, she began to slide it shut.
"Thank you kindly for allowing me the opportunity to speak with you, princess." Her words squeezed just beyond the gap before it closed. The last thing she saw was an uninterested look at the table, but the momentary irritation was fresh in her mind. "I look forward to honoring you with another at due time."
Stepping back, silent as the night, she walked on. Her steps were lighter, a weightless sensation between breaths.
Turning the corner, she stopped to look at the room. Her shadow returned to being still. Osaka moved on, resuming her patrol. This time, the silence was lonelier, the gentle murmurs of branches louder.
Her thoughts wandered back to the spontaneous interaction, one she knew were strictly forbidden. Despite warnings, there she was walking away from a conversation with their most esteemed guest.
Laughter bubbled from her lips. From all the reverence, mystery and intrigue surrounded the maiden. Quick, decisive words paired with a confident tone. Hesitation was rare, every syllable carried with a certain weight Osaka could hold comparable to clan lords.
Almost a match to her own, right until the end.
"Interesting," she found herself muttering. The crack of annoyance in the sea of stillness. A spark of life in striking pink hues. Osaka replayed the memory as her shift continued. Until the sun rose to relieve her from nightly duties, the swordswoman entertained herself with fleeting thoughts.
Passing on the day shift to another, her visage invaded her thoughts. Soon, her dreams as exhaustion took her from the waking world.
The first worthwhile memory, and it only lasted for a few minutes. Words from both shrine maidens and the commissioner rang clear in her mind. Yet, Osaka yearned to speak with the enigmatic maiden once more.
However, wishes were nothing but, and the following night had returned to its seeming normality.
Shuffling shadows revolved around her, shadows cast at the same screen wall. They were priests tonight, Osaka judged from gliding silhouettes and quiet footsteps. They carried small items. Some ceremonial, others too vague to conclusively guess.
She moved past the room, quiet and deliberate around each step between old floorboards. Their hushed speech grew quiet in the night as she walked, walking down to the usual quiet in the guest house. Nothing but the forest just beyond compound walls waved her continuing patrol. Same steps, same sights, nothing changing except for the waning light from the moon. A light that grew to half its brilliance as the days dragged on. In all those days, the room continued to be busy. The maiden that captivated her mind was a world away, separated between her duty and a simple paper screen.
"Losing sleep, Osaka?" Konoe's inquiry echoed. The sun had been higher up than usual, her body awoken at an earlier hour. "You're usually so diligent in your hours of rest."
"You have been watching?" Osaka countered, resisting the urge to raise an eyebrow. "Has your duty left you with that much free time, Konoe?"
The woman laughed, shrugging off the question, lax with every motion. "I sorely miss your politeness from the days before. Am I no longer worthy of your respect?"
"I grant you these conversations, is that not enough?"
Konoe hummed, interest faint in her voice. "I would suppose that conversations have been far and few between since you arrived."
Nearly another week, and Osaka had yet to speak with the maiden again. Her room lay just beyond the wide courtyard, watching guard patrol dutifully and undisturbed. Their conversation still sparked a burning sensation in her chest, leaving Osaka and her gaze lingering at the door whenever she passed by.
"Have you heard of anything regarding our purpose for being here?" she asked instead, dismissing the previous topic. Konoe shot a look, but her words gave up their chase.
"The canaries have been quiet, sadly. I've heard the same story as ours from others sent by their clans. Vague orders and dismissed concerns."
Osaka bit her lip, turning her head away to sigh. An approaching sunset began to stain the sky orange. A mess of clouds loomed over, dampening the vibrant hue. "Then, that would mean that our lack of knowledge is purposeful. We're not supposed to know."
Though her voice had been hushed, they were bitter. She tried not to think of her family, the grip on her hilt tight.
"Osaka," her company started, a voice strangely calm. Her drowsy demeanor was almost disarming, if not for her sharp wit. "They may be secretive, but the walls are thin here."
A stare met drowsy mauve, twinkling alight in both the sunset and intrigue. "By that, you mean?"
"When the moon vanishes from the night, and the day after," Konoe paused, her eyes recollecting a memory, "our duty will conclude, and we are free to return home."
The air grew quiet as she digested Konoe's words. Weight shifted on one leg, the floor beneath groaning softly. Arms crossed, Osaka brought her gaze to the distance. "When the moon vanishes... Right before the season changes?"
Konoe's smile gleamed. Osaka permitted the loose demeanor in their conversation, just this time. "Right as the autumn begins to lose its color."
Osaka took a step, leaning against a veranda post. The moon was a near perfect half in the sky. Two weeks were left, starting now. Memories of the full moon were blurry since she took her post, the uneventful nights dulling her perception of time.
That was, until a week prior when she spoke with the nameless maiden.
"You surely look happier, Osaka," Konoe remarked. She resurfaced from the reverie, finding a curious look. "Did the news raise your spirit, or perhaps something had provoked your intrigue?"
"I'll keep that to myself, Lady Konoe," Osaka said, her voice hiding none of the twisted smirk pulling at her lips. It earned her a laugh. Soft, airy, and causing the swordswoman to hold a hand over face.
"Your words cut deeper than that blade glued at your hip, Osaka," Konoe breathed, slowly regaining composure. Her carefree atmosphere reminded Osaka of the common peasantry. How her body swayed without care, how her eyes rested, uncaring to her surroundings. A face that reminded Osaka of a life of peace.
"Ooh! A smile." She stood back, biting her lip back to a neutral line. "That makes this boring job almost worth it."
Osaka ignored her laughter, turning around to the dilapidated Zen Garden. Leaves masked the intricate patterns in the sand, stones and pebbles dislodged from an arrangement long forgotten. Its stillness reminded her of someone. "Perhaps we find our own enjoyment at times like these."
Her words spoke before her mind could think. She blinked, then found a strange glare. Below it, a wide smile.
"You speak with a familiarity on the sentiment," Konoe hummed. Despite being ignored, she persisted with her verbal prodding. "What could it be, I wonder?"
Nighttime had begun much quicker, daylight growing shorter as autumn started its conclusion. The reds, orange, and yellows were striking even beneath the half-moon glow, gently swaying to brisk winds.
Under another quiet night, Osaka continued her patrol. It had begrudgingly been ingrained in her feet as a routine, the same corners, halls, and scenery that greeted her for most of the evening.
Yet, despite a full week disappointing the swordswoman, her steps would slow as she neared the same screen door. It was futile, but somewhere in her mind, it hoped that she would be in there.
Instead of seeing light diffuse against paper, the room was pitch black, quiet, and empty. Echoes of her footsteps were the sole sound to accompany the winds and trees. She was alone. Osaka wondered if the maiden was asleep. This was her guest house, after all. She dared not to disturb her if she was, nor break her duty and knock on the door.
She continued on, thoughts entertaining the many possibilities of her whereabouts. As Osaka rounded the corner, a new sight welcomed her, halting her patrol.
Men and women dressed in shrine clothes walked the roofed gallery, approaching the courtyard. Some carried lanterns on tall staves, others fanning out around the radial pattern on the stone. Distance diffused their voices to a murmur, but Osaka could just make out that they were prayers of some sort. Low, droning, and repetitive, almost akin to a chant.
Knowing was quickly forgone once she saw a glimmer in the crowd of white fabric and glowing lanterns. Ash brown hair she remembered well reflected the moonlight, with all her other finery. She was in the middle of it all, hands clasped together, joining the priests in prayer.
Osaka spent the rest of the night with her attention on the strange ritual. They stood outside, praying throughout the night as she patrolled. Shrine maidens still as statues, lanterns kept raised as if they were small, individual suns. Amongst it all, the unnamed maiden returned the words, too far away for the Onna-Musha to decipher. Their low, droning tunes accompanied her well into her rest, stealing more sleep as it did one other feeling; a gnawing sensation that had kept her unsettled since the first day.
Since the prayer below the half-moon, the sensation of being watched has grown to one difficult to ignore. As time waned the moon to nearly a quarter, the feeling had almost become unbearable.
First were only the shrine maidens and priests, but soon the guards had worn heavy anxiety on their faces. With a moment alone in a bath, Osaka too saw the same worry in her reflection. She saw it on all but the enigmatic woman in the corner of her eye whenever she watched her pass.
In those quick moments, Osaka saw a face of neutral tranquility in her delicate visage. Despite being surrounded by watchful glares and shifting eyes, she looked almost at peace, breathtaking as it was out of place— almost disturbing.
Her mind never sat still since. The feeling made her restless, and she cursed herself for lingering her attention at shadows and tree lines beyond the compound. Curiosity mixed itself in, and she had found herself at the outer gate, conversing with the guards outside her shift.
An exposed feeling greeted her the very moment she walked past the gate, the conversation at her front barely registering with her eyes flickering to the forest.
"Movement?" Osaka repeated a guard's word, raising a brow at her rushed ramblings. "Out here?"
"That's right," a warrior under her command answered. She was one of her most trusted, hence personally assigning her to this mission. "The night shift mentioned that, since a few days ago, they heard noises behind the trees. Saw something too, in the shadows."
"Surely it's just the wind," Osaka said, crossing her arms despite how unsure she sounded. "The winds tend to be louder in higher altitudes."
The swordswoman merely nodded, but her eyes continued darting back at the forest. "I apologize, Lady Osaka, but the wind neither possesses eyes nor a mouth."
"Yet it howls all the same." She countered, stilling her subordinate's words. Osaka knew it to be a desperate scramble for composure, as even she fought against staring back at the darkness beyond the walls. "However, I cannot discount the unease we are all experiencing. Do keep a keen eye and perform your duties with every ounce of your will."
Her own words echoed in her mind as she concluded the conversation, night coming all too soon. Sleep had grown shorter, the smallest of sounds stirring her from slumber.
Walking the same route felt different beneath a quarter moon. The shadows were longer, the light dimmer. Osaka found herself on alert, posture stiff and a hand firmly on her sword. Patrolling nearly consumed her waking thoughts, the anxiety nearly a loud cry at the back of her mind.
What remained untainted in her mind was the thought of one peculiar maiden. She barely saw her as the days passed, but the conversation rang clear in her memories.
At a column of the veranda overlooking the compound, she stopped. It felt darker, despite the lanterns placed over hooks that barely illuminated paths and walkways. Her footsteps relaxed, feeling the old wood groan beneath her weight. It dispelled the eerie silence, and for that she was thankful for the brief respite.
"I enjoy viewing the moon when it's like this."
Osaka nearly jumped out of her skin at the sudden voice. It was a calm breath, but the panic shocked her body, eyes snapping to the source at her side.
Striking pink hues met her stare, beneath it a delicately composed face. "Am I really that startling, Osaka?"
The swordswoman instantly relaxed, relief washing over her body and expelling out a long breath. In front of the maiden, she hastily threw on composure, brushing away her noise of surprise.
"With beauty such as yours, princess, any man or woman would be taken aback by it."
"Enough for them to let out a shriek?" she fired back, eyes waiting for a response. Osaka lost, looking away without answering. "I merely jest. You simply look too preoccupied that you didn't respond when I uttered your name."
"I apologize," Osaka bowed, taking a fleeting moment before chancing her gaze back up. "My attention is now yours, my lady."
She nodded; a slight, barely noticeable movement. "Honor me a moment of your time, I know all have been alert for the past few days."
Osaka suppressed a frown at her remark, but her gaze hardened beneath a neutral look. "I suppose alert is an understatement, my lady. The entire guard has been anxious."
Her remark was received with a gentle nod. Osaka bit down the tinge of annoyance, leaving a momentary bitterness on her tongue. The calmness on her face had never looked so displaced in the growing darkness. Continual composure left the swordswoman perturbed at best, disturbed at worst.
"Then, I take it that my lady has been busying herself with appropriate entertainment during her stay?"
The verbal prod was answered with a quick look. She turned towards her own room, a lantern hung on a post beside the screen wall. "My duties has left me but only downtime for private essentials, Osaka."
She faced the vast courtyard, watching flickers of light carried by faces too far to discern. "Besides, a temple of worship prioritizes least on frivolous enjoyments."
A quiet hum left the taller woman's lips. She felt her stance abate a mere fraction. "If entertainment is what you seek, princess, then my home would leave you quite content."
"The sudden topic leads me to believe you're homesick, samurai."
Osaka shrugged. She wasn't entirely false. "Perhaps. Any man would miss their home, do you not agree?"
The maiden lifted a hand, brushing back ash brown hair. Gold bands on her wrists chimed, a delightful sound to pierce the droning howl of night. She hovered her gaze over, locking Osaka from her alternating gaze towards tall shadows. Anxiety that had plagued her mind seemed to still in that moment, like a fool fallen for an unknowing trance.
However, this time, Osaka saw no detriment in maintaining the veil. "Tell me more about your enjoyment at home."
Osaka felt words dance in her throat. It threatened to blurt out, barely catching them at the last second. The thought of home crossed her mind. Its beaches, springs, and life from citizens she swore to protect.
A land met with conflict she had repelled, even if it meant she wouldn't be there to enjoy the peace achieved by her blade.
"It is a truly remarkable place, my lady," she began to speak, surfacing from the reverie of her mind. "A peace like no other. Of people kind and hospitable to the natural beauty it offers."
Leaning back, Osaka looked up at the sky. It was dark and clear of imperfections. The moon shone, and stars glimmered all around, barely seen. "With the patronage of my clan, it boasts a scene of stage play and poetry."
She allowed a smile, reminiscing her penchant for the former. "Those I particularly enjoy witnessing, if I am lucky."
"Dramas?" A flicker of interest lightened her voice. Osaka took notice, watching it disappear in a flash. "I never would've taken you as a patron of the arts, Osaka."
Laughter had been a sensation almost forgotten. Osaka barked a short laugh, feigning a look of offense at her comment. In the dreadful quiet was her airy laughter, one she tried to suppress to avoid being noticed. Warnings of the shrine maidens still rang clear. Yet, she quickly composed herself to continue the conversation.
"Princess, does my brutish looks deceive my genuine enjoyment? Perhaps I should look the part, after my duties are concluded."
Arms crossed, long sleeves bundling up against the maiden's chest. "And with your callous wit, the realm of comedy would suit yourself all the better."
Osaka saw her expression ease. It was slight, but a gentleness took over the flat monotone. She found herself disarmed at the sight. A woman beneath a pale moon, and a forbidden conversation under the tense lull of night.
A talk that lightened a load on the Onna-Musha's chest. She felt a light step in her voice, and it hadn't been from the opportunity to talk about her home. Orchestrating an inviting smile, she disallowed herself to think any further. "You doubt my hobbies, my lady. However, I am yet to hear your own."
She let out a small laugh, glancing away to the wall separating themselves from the forest. "It would be my honor to hear your interests in exchange."
Osaka turned back to see a shadow beneath her expression. It was darker, beneath pink eyes lay a frown. She blinked and felt her piercing gaze. A difficult look to discern, and the heavy stare made the air thick.
"It's for the benefit of us both that you don't."
A quick line snuffed the warmth between them, the cold night rushing in to fill the void. Osaka pushed her heels against the floor.
There was silence, and she saw a flash of regret in her eyes. Then, composure washed over, the maiden's countenance resting to a frustratingly familiar sight.
She took a step back, unfolding arms back to the sides of her body. "I have delayed you from your duties enough, Osaka."
"My lady, I-"
"I bid you a good night," she all but snapped. Osaka watched her turn, flowing light hair following the motion before resting just above her shoulders. Without another word, she walked away, following the veranda, shrinking in the darkness.
Osaka let her mind wander in the silence. A new emotion from the enigmatic woman of the temple. It brought unease to remember the frown. She brought her voice low, reluctant in resuming her patrol. In the newfound quiet, she had a sole thought emerge to the forefront of her mind.
In all her finery and gold, her piercing eyes and glimmering hair, a frown had muted all its light.