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Framing the Moon

Chapter Text

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.

"Lady Osaka?"

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."

Chapter Text

Patrolling was a silent, boring task. Same routes, same scenes. Nothing but your mind desperately scavenging for any shred of imaginative thought. Osaka often passed guard patrols back at the castle and wondered if they hoped for misfortune.

That way, they would have something to do, and their blades would no longer dull from rigid walking.

After settling in the compound, she and her retainers prepared themselves for their tasks. Guarding a supposed 'honored guest' was a position she had never found herself in, yet the thought of mindlessly standing made her feet shuffle restlessly, sword knocking against her hip.

However, there were the echoing words of that woman (whom Osaka referred to henceforth as their commissioner) any time she felt a frown pull at her lips.

"Remember of who sent you and what that means for the clans you adorn yourselves with," Osaka muttered under her breath, watching the moon peek at the corner of the compound's turrets. She assigned herself the night shift, a role that none of her men were keen in taking. Their complaints were quickly silenced when the leading body volunteered for the spot, an inverse effect resulting in a few quickly filling the spot to avoid dishonor.

A tactic from her father, whom Osaka reminds herself to badger for all information regarding this assignment as soon as she arrived home.

In the quiet of night, wooden floorboards creaked softly beneath. Her steps were light, but some of the weathered flooring had shown its age and wear. It was most prominent near the main sliding doors of the guest house, the wood particularly loud when it groaned under her weight.

A temple in the mountains was reasonably in need of maintenance, most craftspeople and artisans reluctant in making the journey through unruly highlands. In her preliminary inspections of the compound, however, one peculiarity stuck out. Between courtyards that remained unkempt and overgrown shrubby and displaced Zen gardens, the radial clearing of stone was spotless.

Shrine maidens and other religious men kept away at the center, always keeping off the spacious middle of the entire compound. Seeing this, the guards and Osaka herself did the same. With their questions unanswered and none willing to disrespect the temple, they kept away.

Osaka stopped, leaning against a wooden post. Eyes scanned the vicinity, watching the faded glint of armor. Guards were silent. She can imagine the confusion on their faces.

A breath left her lips. There was another oddity that stuck out to her since she arrived. Where the guards wore understandably confused expressions, men of the shrine held faces of anxiety. Eyes that darted left to right, gazes never maintaining eye contact as they rushed between buildings.

Questions lingered below the clear, darkened sky when Osaka continued her patrol. Expecting the gentle tranquility of the surrounding nature, what welcomed her ear was an eerie silence. Beyond the walls nothing aside from faint rustling of branches.

She pressed her feet against the wood, allowing a louder creak to dispel the droning quiet. It almost became a ritual, using the old floor every full two rotations in her patrol. Daylight couldn't come quick enough, but her mind was restless even when she finally lay her head down to sleep.

When she awoke, the sun had drifted westward when she last saw it rise from the misty clouds. The houses provided to her and the guards were private, but rather dull. Her room hosted only herself and a bed, with a window peeking to the expanse of the autumn tree line.

A shiver shot up her back before turning away from the forest, preparing herself for the day.

Affixing her footwear and armor, Osaka thought back to the journey up to the temple. It was a place not on any map she had studied, and she bore no prior knowledge of a temple complex this far away from her family's domain.

Her family knew, yet she had not. A sole, invasive thought crossed her mind that her parents had purposefully withheld information. Perhaps, for a reason she wasn't supposed to know.

Stepping out the door, she found her grip against the sword at her side. Questioning her parents’ will was reserved for traitors and enemies of the clan. She was a proud warrior, and loyal to the blood that coursed through her veins.

Late afternoon. The sky dyed orange, complimenting the seasonal hues. A commotion near the main entrance prompted her attention, curious eyes watching across the stone plaza. What entered first were men dressed in robes.

Osaka suppressed a breath. More shrine personnel. Next were what looked to be attendants. Their attires similar to that in her estate, the women following behind bowing their heads low. Right behind were rickshaws pulled by lesser servants. It was a cruel act to subject even the lower class to use rickshaws up mountains, but its occupants looked uncaring, given the way their eyes looked everywhere else.

Walking along the veranda, more of the arriving party approached. Osaka counted three total rickshaws, a few swordsmen on horses trailing behind. She paid no mind after that, her eyes captured by the final rickshaw of the procession.

An intricately crafted frame, glossy silk decorating its canopy. The servant looked better kept than the previous two, staring down, almost kneeling as he pulled. However, what stole the Onna-Musha's attention was its passenger.

Draped in the most expensive silk she had ever seen and adorned with the most ornate of finery, not even the plenitude of jewels twinkling in the afternoon sun could distract her from the breathtaking beauty of the wearer. Brown hair, light, almost like polished metal framed a delicate countenance. Striking eyes, pink hues that stared ahead to something Osaka failed to see.

She watched with rapt interest, watching the procession fan out just by the end of the radial pattern on the stone compound. Attendants gathered around the rickshaw, those carrying luggage hurrying them to the guest houses. Osaka kept walking, watching the servants dart aside, not sparing a moment of eye contact.

Focusing elsewhere, Osaka noticed the common look of anxiety. The attendants kept their gazes down, the shrine men exchanging quick words with those welcoming them from the temple.

It was a rush, one that couldn't escape the observant glare in blue eyes. Osaka watched those on the rickshaw dismount. The peculiar woman was aided to the floor with utmost care. For a moment, the swordswoman let herself ponder if she was a member of the Imperial family. Few were blessed with an opportunity, she heard her family say in passing.

Osaka nodded, hearing a few of her retainers take a spot at either flank. Royalty or not, a proper greeting was only courteous. Especially to whom they were to guard.

"Hey!" Just as they approached, only a mere distance away, they were repelled by a small gathering of shrine maidens. "I apologize, my lady, but you must not approach the guests."

Her breath caught, sparing a disbelieving moment to even out composure. "Must not?" Sharp, defensive leers defied her path. Right behind them, the entourage formed a line. She was in the middle. Servants and attendants followed, all done in a tense silence. "Was it not my duty to guard the aforementioned guests?"

"Yes," one stiffly said, her lips a hard line. "However, none of the guards are to ever speak with them."

Osaka frowned, the displeasure too quick for her to catch the downturned curve. At the corner of her vision, the entourage moved past them. She noted more of the anxious looks on all but one. Eyes stared straight ahead, not even minding the commotion she was beginning to stir with the shrine maidens.

"Would it hurt such venerated people to entertain one simple question?" she all but quipped. Sharp tongues and loose remarks were a lifestyle fit only for mere merchants, not for warriors such as herself. However, irritation seized the moment's advantage, Osaka halting the words too late.

"Please, there must be no trouble from this day forward."

Before she could retort, an airy laugh broke out. Both parties turned to the same direction, finding the commissioner walk over. A smile graced her evened expression, but even her aura of composure couldn't escape the restless eyes. "Is there a problem I should know about?"

Osaka met her eyes. There was a knowing look, one she knew well what it meant. Drawing in a breath, the swordswoman stepped back, forcing her head down in a slight bow.

"It's nothing. Please, pardon my disturbance." Gaze to the floor, she felt the weight in the short silence. The burst of laughter did nothing to alleviate, seeing as only one person laughed.

"Formal, aren't you?" the commissioner remarked, Osaka watching her smile curl in an odd way when she stood straight. "Can I count on the most important task to you until it is done? This time, without all the mouth?"

She stiffened at her easygoing stance. It didn't go unnoticed. The raised tone, the new gazes sent their way.

Yesterday's words fresh in her mind, Osaka stepped back. A sole gulp preceded her words, laced in a restrained tone. "I shall do that.”

A gaze kept to the shrinking view of the guests, who disappeared through doors and behind corners. Osaka heard a sharp hum, the air at her front suddenly more vacant.

"Perfect. I trust that I won't hear any more complaints or the like going forward." The commissioner spared not a second longer, moving back to organize the leftover attendants. Her eyes watched as they put away the rickshaws, quick and quiet conversations drifting through the air.

A strange feeling permeated, but Osaka focused on quelling the momentary frustration bubbling in her throat.

"The nerve..." She heard someone mutter from behind. There was another hushed comment, but Osaka quickly silenced them with the turn of her heels. "Lady Osaka?"

"To your posts," she said, summoning composure in the low growl in her tone. "We have new orders, by the sounds."

One frowned, displeased at the implication. "We're not common footmen, My Lady."

"We are nothing if we don't follow orders." In a decisive breath, Osaka ended the conversation. The rest said nothing, sharing one last sympathetic look before assuming their duties. She took one last look to the guest house, watching a handful of servants file out, rushed steps echoing against the wood.

"Holding my own sense of duty against me," she whispered beneath a breath. "How underhanded."

It had taken the cold of night to cool the heat of annoyance in her mind. The menial task of her patrols distracted any reoccurring thought into the blurred hours since she took her post. Hung all by its lonesome, a full moon drifted across the expanse overhead. It painted the scenery in a dim hue, alighting corners.

Previously unoccupied, the guest house now had its tenants. Hearing soft shuffling of feet through the paper screen doors, Osaka took careful vigilance in making the least noise possible. She remembered the particularly old wood in the walkway, taking care to avoid each one.

Approaching a corner, light inside the room diffused against thin paper, casting illumination outside. Shadows blinked the source of light irregularly. With the pair of hushed voices and soft thudding, Osaka guessed there was activity behind the wall.

Too quiet for her to hear, even as she stopped just shy of the screen. Keen eyes examined the silhouettes, taking notice of full dresses and long sleeves. Kept hair in cloth bands convinced Osaka that they were shrine maidens. They floated around the room, carrying shadows that were too vague to deduce.

In the middle of the commotion was a still figure. The light shone the outline, tracing the details of a face down to the curves in locks of hair.

Though only through the shadows, Osaka recognized the silhouette.

Shrine maidens seemed to be performing a ritual of sorts, hands draping objects over the still figure. She remained motionless as everything continued around her. Osaka caught the jitters in those that moved. The jerking, indecisive back-and-forth as candlelight flickered from their hurry.

In silence, Osaka moved on, continuing her patrol. She passed the same room again, much of the same persisting behind paper screens.

Anxious motions, hushed voices, and one solitary figure standing in the middle. It was interesting, Osaka noted, shortly before losing her thoughts in the mindless patrol. When dawn began to break, the rooms had gone quiet, candles long snuffed out.

The sun rose as she went to sleep, finding its blinding light beaming down right above. She had woken up earlier than usual, her body restless from the lack of things to do.

"Osaka, was it?" a voice called out, delicate not to raise their volume too high. Eyes flickered to meet an interested look in drowsy mauve. Before she could move to ask, the woman gestured to the armor strapped on her arm's side. "It's the crest."

"I take it that your clan and mine are well acquainted, in that case?" Osaka probed, holding the knot around her waist. Delicately, melancholic blue scanned the warrior standing at her front. She carried herself with the dignity of a swordswoman, but her eyes almost seemed asleep.

There was a humored laugh, behind it a loose smile. "If you would call a war waged through the summer befitting for acquaintances, then I must entertain the notion."

Osaka rolled her eyes, looking off to the unkempt Zen Garden facing the guard barracks. "A shame we weren't blessed with the honor to meet on the battlefield, then."

"No need to be so aggressive," she hummed, almost mocking, but Osaka kept herself silent. "Besides, I wouldn't be so foolish to cross blades with the fabled Onna-Musha of Kamakura."

Brown hair was brushed back with a hand. A silence lingered, but in the end a decision was made in the quiet.

"I am but one of the many that serve to defend Clan Osaka's home."

That earned another string of laughter from the woman at her side. She let herself fill the air in light, lively tones, and Osaka allowed her lack of etiquette in silence. When she stopped, her stare looked more awake. "An accomplished warrior and modest to boot! I thought I wouldn't live to see such an event."

To humor her, Osaka forced out a chuckle. Not convincing, but it established an amicable atmosphere between them. The warrior was taller, light brown hair tied in a compact braid. Before she could note down more, their eyes met.

Seizing the opportunity, she pushed a question between her lips. "Do you happen to know the reason behind us being here?" She paused, her tongue hanging in anticipation against her teeth. "Lady-"

A hand stopped her. Behind it, a wry smile. "Konoe."

"Lady Konoe, if you'd be so kind."

The swordswoman Konoe drew back, finding comfort in a wooden post nearby. "Orders. Same as you, I would expect?"

Osaka grit her teeth. The conversation was off to a terrible start. "Something of the sort."

An eyebrow piqued. "Then that tells me you also have no clue."

In the trailing silence, a realization struck her. The next moment, Osaka nearly stumbled over her words.

"Hold on. What do you mean by 'also'?"

"What I mean is. No one really knows why we're here."

Konoe gave a sympathetic smile at her wide-eyed stare. She balanced a palm against her sword hilt, metal chiming dully when it swayed. "I tried asking, too. Judging from the commotion yesterday, so did you."

"That was more from a misunderstanding, mind you."

She raised her hands, waving off the sentiment behind her words. "Not that I blame you, Osaka. I'd love to know why I was sent off to the middle of nowhere too on a guard mission."

Middle of nowhere was an understatement. The temple was not in any of the maps Osaka had studied of the area. There was no history from the peasantry they passed on the way, nor were there paved roads that led to the temple. Even the structures themselves were weathered and disregarded.

It was almost as if the entire temple was forgotten.

Konoe caught her stare, and she offered a weak shrug. "Hey. If I find anything, you'll be the first to know."

Meeting her eyes, Osaka took caution in receiving her words. She returned the gesture with a bow, perfect and practiced. "I thank you, Lady Konoe. That would be most helpful."

When she raised her head back, what met her was an amused face. She hovered a hand over her lips, restraining tickled breaths. Osaka raised an eyebrow, unsettled. "Have I said anything funny?"

She shook her head, failing to hide the lightness in her voice. "Not exactly, Osaka. It's just that..."

Stepping past, Konoe continued walking. Her motions felt practiced, exemplified at the near-perfect timing of mauve eyes thrown over her shoulder just as Osaka turned around.

"I'm no samurai, so being referred to so highly by a woman of your position sure is flattering."

Osaka stared, shocked. Not wasting a moment, Konoe turned and continued, nearing the corner at the end of the building. "I take my post here during the day shift, so I'll let you know the songs canaries bring me."

She disappeared behind a corner, leaving the swordswoman in disbelief. She had felt deceived, but nothing in Konoe's clothes had given her proof. Plain and simple, she assumed, and was none the wiser until the truth had been deliberately revealed.

Alone in the veranda, Osaka tightened the knot bound at her waist. She permitted a grimace along her features. "What an interesting individual."


 

After the encounter and conversation with Konoe, the remainder of the afternoon was spent wandering the grounds of the compound. Taking care to avoid the guests, many paths behind temple buildings led Osaka in an aimless wander. Aside from unremarkable and typical functions of a temple, there was nothing of interest. Bare walls with chipped mortar sitting atop stone that had grown moss.

It felt strangely tranquil, a peaceful feeling quickly overshadowed the moment Osaka found herself at the main gate.

Just beyond the path, the forest loomed, casting a strange sensation. The guards posted at the front shared in the unnerved feeling but had reported nothing in the first days.

When night fell and she took to her patrol, the same scene greeted her through shadows on paper walls. Tonight, the thick sound of fabric masked hushed voices, fluttering in a dense sound. Attendants moved quickly, hastily folding what she assumed were clothes.

Again, the same figure stood still in the middle of it all. Her head faced ahead, casting a portrait shadow on the screen. Osaka noticed the remarkable stillness of her body, not even breathing could be insinuated. It was as if she were a statue, and the nightly routine was to shower it in offerings.

Osaka silenced a laugh before it could begin. She drew away, continuing her patrol. Entertainment was wearing thin that even a simple thought could humor her. She debated conversing with Konoe, but somehow, she felt less than enthused on the prospect.

Everything stayed much the same for the proceeding days. Each dawn was another blur to the start of her shift, patrolling the same path and watching the same still shadow behind paper walls. Sparse conversations with other guards bore no fruit regarding the reason why they were all here. Somewhere in the middle, she had ended up conversing more with Konoe, who couldn't hide the smug tugging at corners on her lips.

She stared up at the night, starting her shift anew. The moon was alone, darkness waning it to only show a third of its light. Beyond the walls, the winds were a tad colder, the shadows only somewhat taller.

A full week of her assigned role, and Osaka had relaxed from her initial annoyance. She was still displeased, but resigned acceptance was a creeping force that slowly took over her mind. Now, the floor beneath had started to feel familiar, hearing each note on how the wood creaked from her weight.

She came up to the same lit room, expecting to see the same scene of rushing, anxious attendants, and their unmoving mistress. Across the courtyard, shrine maidens walked along, heads hung low.

Stepping close, exposing herself to diffused light, Osaka was surprised. It was quiet, a heavy silence as supposed to its usual noise. One source of light, casting a solitary shadow that remained still. In the exact same place, sat in front of a low, rectangular shape.

Curious about the change of scenery, Osaka stopped in her patrol, a step bringing her closer to the wall. She heard nothing on the other side. Nothing but the wind was all she heard. Curiosity growing, she took another step.

Nothing. As a minute dragged on, the figure was still and silent. Osaka waited for a minute longer. When nothing but crickets could be heard, she began to step away.

That was when she heard another sound break the silence. A shallow inhale. Eyes widened, seeing the shadow move.

Then, a voice spoke. It was quiet, a whisper through the paper wall. Osaka saw her lips move as she recited words. A poem, but the words were light, almost a song. Spoken with a tone so serene and calm, but devoid of anything else.

A captivating anomaly, one Osaka found herself immersed in at the first note. She found herself taking another step forward. The whisper climbed in volume. She heard her words, a calm clarity in each syllable.

"Let not the sunshine be my solace, let the moonlight be what I strive."

Another foot closer. Osaka could see the soft movement in her hair, the way her throat moved before she spoke.

"Bestow and witness nights of peace, devoid of all strife."

Tempted, she took another step. One too far.

Osaka bit her lip, wincing at the loud creak beneath her weight. The wood groaned, piercing the delicate silence in the air. She drew back hastily, remembering the words of the shrine maidens.

The voice stopped, no doubt interrupted by the sound of the floor creaking. A tense silence persisted, Osaka hearing the pounding of her chest as the strange trance wore off.

"Is someone there?" a calm voice spoke, raised yet in a monotone. Her figure turned to face the wall.

It was ill-mannered to leave one unattended. Despite the clear warnings of holy men, Osaka took a deep breath. "Just a guard patrolling, my lady."

Slowly, she began to draw away, one step at a time. Eyes watched the slow, methodical shadow cast on the paper.

"Is there something that requires my attention?" Her voice felt like a hand against silk. Osaka turned on her heel, facing away. Beneath, the floor creaked from the sudden motion. "You have been standing there for quite a moment."

She bit her lip, cursing herself in silence. At once, she bowed in apology. "I apologize for disturbing the honored guests. Pardon my intrusion."

Silence. After, a soft sound, similar to an exhale.

"I didn't mean to demand an apology, no fault has been committed." Osaka was relieved to hear, but she struggled to end the conversation. It was important to conclude the accidental interaction before any of the shrine maidens caught her. "Please, raise your head."

Osaka complied, standing up. She sidestepped, heading towards the corner with slow, progressive steps. "Thank you for your kindness, my lady."

"Such fine words. Perhaps you're samurai?" The voice inside asked, raised in a louder volume. Osaka heard clearer, but her thoughts first prioritized the tune in each syllable. Still, she remembered to answer.

"That, I am."

A tense silence stretched. Only for a few moments, but seemingly an eternity in Osaka's mind. She felt closer to the edge, half her body left bathed in diffused light. Nothing else came from the room, even her shadow had gone rigid.

"Then, I bid you a pleasant evening, my lady."

"Oh?" She spoke again. Osaka stopped, one foot nearly off the light. "Leaving already?"

Her voice was louder, at a volume clear like the gems she saw adorned on her enigmatic figure. Taking a moment to breathe, Osaka guided her lips for every word. "For your security, I must attend to my duty."

"Is etiquette not part of your duty, samurai?" A quick counter from an even, neutral tone. Osaka shifted her feet along the floor. For once in her life, she had found herself unsure how to proceed.

"I... What etiquette is there to uphold in this situation, my lady?" she challenged, allowing a hint of pride to lighten the ends of her words. She felt the silence stretch just a moment longer than before. She hoped a consideration to end was mulled over. Soft rustling of trees indicated another second, and Osaka felt the air go quiet beyond the screen wall. "I mustn't disrupt any more of-"

"Will you keep a lady raising her voice or are you going to step inside and honor me with a conversation?"

Osaka stopped. Her voice rang loud, clear even through the wall. It was different, the usual calm, neutral tone replaced with a tinge of emotion.

She was unsure if that emotion was impatience or annoyance.

Despite screaming reminders in her head, and the clear memories of previous warnings, Osaka stepped back towards the wall. Her hand found the handle embedded into the wooden frame. Taking a breath, she pushed the door open, toes of her boots just at the boundary on the floor.

What welcomed her was an undecorated room. Lanterns illuminated dim corners, causing light to gleam against jewels and silk worn by the woman sat in the middle.

Their eyes met not a moment later, striking pink meeting wide-eyed blue.

In a voice that returned to a calm monotony, the maiden adorned in light broke the silence. Her eyes flickered beyond the Onna-Musha, up to the dark sky. "A blessing it is to enjoy a quiet night, wouldn't you agree?"

Osaka failed to listen, her mind preoccupied by the stunning view.

Chapter Text

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.