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A Bolt of Silk

Chapter Text

She folds the message into thirds and sets it on the desk. The news from Nobuga is worrying enough without her shaking hands making matters worse.

“Thank you for delivering the message, Tatsuo.” She folds her hands together over the message. It’s more professional this way. Kinder. It gives the situation more authority. It gives her strength. “You’ve been very brave.”

It must have been horrifying — the slaughter, the blood — Tatsuo had seen his comrades die. He’d made it back to the estate to make the report through some twenty five miles of harsh terrain, staying off the beaten path to avoid being cut down with an injured leg.

He’s been so very strong in the face of it all.

She turns to Hikotori. “Draw Tatsuo five thousand ryo from my personal accounts.” She takes a deep breath and tries not to think of so many — some two hundred bolts — of purple silk burning or stolen. So much work by so many hands — wasted. So many lives — lost. So much, so much. She breathes out. “And seven thousand ryo each for the families of every man we lost.”

Fourteen times seven thousand is ninety-eight thousand. And that was only compensation so that those families could mourn properly for the men they lost — they were fathers, brothers, husbands… good people, and it isn’t fair.

It’s not fair that good people die while bandits and thieves go free, growing fat on the spoils of other people’s blood and sweat.

She breathes in. She breathes out. “And make sure that someone checks on the families with small children. This year’s harvest looks to be worse than last year’s. We will have to be careful.” A year or two of bad harvests will not trouble them; the fields and the granaries are filled to bursting from previous years of harvests.

They are prosperous, so they are, the House of Kawaguchi.

All Chichi-ue would have to do is open the grain storage, and they will all be well fed throughout the year.

But other people in this world are not so lucky. Famine breeds bandits faster than the law could ever hope to stamp them out.

And thus, Nobuga.

It is not as if she does not know what makes otherwise honest men turn to a life of crime, what makes good men and former farm workers pick up whatever weapons they could to fleece those they consider better off than they, the ones they thought could afford it.

But no one can afford the lives lost.

The accountant nods. “I will be right by to oversee the distribution of the money, Hisa.” Hiko bows, his long sleeves brushing the floor, dark hair sweeping over his bony shoulder.

He unbends, tall, thin, and sallow, nods to her once more before disappearing out the door in a flurry of dark robes and dark hair, bat-like even in his ramrod straight posture.

“I don’t want money, Hisa-san.” Tatsuo shifts forward on his knees, dark eyes wide. “That won’t bring my brother back.”

She looks at the shaking man before her desk, and she’s suddenly overcome with a terrible grief.


She comes around the desk to hold his shaking hands. Her hands are shaking as well.

“I know,” she says. It’s true. She can’t deny it. No amount of compensation money would ever bring back a single one of the men who died in Nobuga. Money is a poor substitute for the love of a brother. “I know,” she says to his disbelieving face. She doesn’t offer the money because she thinks this will bring them back. Money is a poor substitute for a hand to clap one on the back and the bright smile of someone familiar and fond. “I can’t help the dead, Tatsuo. I can only help the living.”

And only in petty ways at that. They are her people, so she has a responsibility to care for them, but she can only offer weak platitudes at best. Her hands cannot stem the tide. They cannot bring the dead back to life. They can only lighten superficial burdens.

She can offer money, employment, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, but it will never be enough.

“You said you would help us.” His shaking makes her shake too. “So help us. We are dying, Hisa-san. Help us.

The words burn themselves across the back of her mind. We are dying, Kawaguchi Hisa. Help us.

“I will,” she whispers. “I will.”

And those two words sink to the bottom of her heart like a lead weight.

How? How is she to help them?

And for that, she has no answers.

The thought still plagues her later that afternoon as she deals with a mishap in workshop seven. A junior apprentice had confused the dye process for pastel pink, and all the cloth in that vat had been closer to coral pink than pastel. not as large a problem as the one that’s been brewing in her mind ever since Yushin had supported a stumbling Tatsuo into her study.

Coral pink will still sell.

Fourteen dead men in Nobuga weigh on her mind.

We are dying, Kawaguchi Hisa. Help us.

Help us.

But how? How is she to help them?

“Hisa, it’s time for dinner.” Kimei appears at her elbow almost soundlessly, one moment not and the next moment there.

“Is it that time already?” she murmurs, standing on a stool as she stirs the hissing vat. Round and round goes her heavy metal rod. Round and round goes some forty kilograms of cloth. Round and round cycles her thoughts.

“It is.” Kimei tugs at her sleeve. “Hisa, Kawaguchi-san’s entourage arrived home today.”

She breathes out. Chichi-ue is home. No longer will everyone look to her for every weight, every problem, every tiny change in their household that might just be the thing that breaks the delicate balance upon which the estate spins like a snapped distaff hurtling off into the air.

A mess to clean up for sure, if one doesn’t care for the ailment properly now. And in Chichi-ue’s absences, that will always be her responsibility and her concern.

“I shall be right there.” She pulls the yards and yards of pink silk from the dye. Kimei helps her, their arms straining together, practiced and sure from long years together in the workshops, sweating whether it is summer or winter. They haul the fabric clogged heavy with dye and water up and out onto the long ropes at the level of their heads.

Slowly the fabric unfurls, swaying slightly on the barest hint of a draft.

A good quality silk feels like air, spun so fine a whole shawl could be pulled through a noble lady’s ring without a hint of damage. It drapes like nothing else, shimmers on the arm, although the washing of it must be careful, for silk, like human souls, tends to bleed with rough handling.

She wears undyed linen for this task, though the pink from this dye lot runs down her arms and splatters her front, a few drops splashing onto her face.

Kimei does not look much better when they are done.

Hisa wipes her hands on a spare rag, before passing it to Kimei so that the other girl can also wipe her hands. “Let’s go.”

She strides towards the door.

“Hisa, shouldn’t we change first?” Oh, so they should. She must’ve been more distracted by the news than she thought.

First, Tatsuo, returning from Nobuga, then, Chichi-ue, returning from Kakunodate.

“Chiba-san wouldn’t like it.” When she turns back, Kimei’s brows are furrowed, her lips pulled together in a hard pout.

By all rights, she should forbid her handmaid from speaking of her father’s second wife — she hesitates to call the woman her stepmother — as though the woman was an outsider to their household.

By all rights, she should, but there’s no love lost between her and Chiba Natsu-san who is convinced that any day now, she will have a son who will replace Hisa in the line of succession to Kawaguchi Yasutaro’s sizable estates and merchant holdings.

She lifts her chin and wishes she could throw caution to the winds like she did when her haha-ue was still alive. All the more important to change my clothing now. The conflict between two women at odds in one household serves only to splinter a family.

There’s been enough struggle and grief as it is.

No need to add a petty squabble between heiress and wife to the mix.

Instead, she sighs softly before turning to make a trip back to her courtyard. “So she wouldn’t.”

No matter her impatience to see her father, it is improper to appear at the dinner table in nothing more than undyed linens, and doubly problematic that she appears splotched with dye as though she’d come straight from the workshops.

“She’s only gotten worse recently.” Kimei mutters darkly as they walk. “She does not speak of you except to criticise and pick at any flaws she’s imagined since you last spoke to her. When Maki-san was alive—”

Now that was too far. A little bit of unwillingness to give Chiba-san any say in their manner of dress is one thing.

To compare her to Haha-ue is another.

She smooths Kimei’s pout away with her thumb. “She is the lady of the house.”

She throws her current robe over the back of a chair. Layering on a green silk blouse, she spins around so that Kimei can pull the ties of the long pleated skirt tight about her chest and tie them back into a bow. “And thereby ought to be respected.”

Whether or not that respect is a polite facade is a different matter.

“Maki-san never would have criticised you for going over the accounts.”

And even though it has been nine years, even though her father has now been married again for another five, the sudden gutting grief of loss catches her in the throat, but that does not show. Her expression doesn’t change.

She’d always had two faces — public and private — and now that even her own home was a public display, she kept her private face locked away.

No matter what, her face doesn’t change.

“No,” she slides a pin into her hair, carefully twisting up the waist length plait into a simple bun. Carefully, she twists the silver hair stick so that the emerald embedded into the design faces the front. “But she is not Haha-ue, and we cannot criticise her for not being exactly like someone else.”

She looks at her reflection in the mirror, the tired look in her pale eyes, the tightness of her pale lips, that dark cloud that seemed to hang over her like a shroud.

She does not look beautiful, but she does look presentable now.

It is enough. It won’t be enough a month or two from now when she attends Lady Shikikami’s polo match and takes tea next week with Madam Hondo, but for now? Dinner with her own family? It will be enough. And that is all she can ask and still be satisfied.

Never ask for too much from the world, Hisa-chan. If you never dream beyond your borders, you will always manage to be satisfied.

She rises from her seat before the vanity and makes her way slowly out of the room and onto the walkway in the direction of her father’s courtyard.

There is no excuse for showing up to the dinner table flushed from hurrying and taking unladylike big steps either.

Her appearance at the dinner table is marked by a slight silence before her father smiles. “Hisa-chan, it is good to see you.” He motions for her to come around to the empty chair by his side. “Come, sit by me. Natsu tells me that you’ve been very busy lately with the accounts.”

It is a reprimand, though slight.

Too busy to spend time with your family. Her chichi-ue criticises her, and she but bows her head.

“I may have been overzealous.” Still, the seat he’d offered her was to his right, a position meant for an heir.

And so she is, because while the household accounts belong to Chiba-san, the business accounts belong to her when Chichi-ue is away.

As is befitting of an heir, but less befitting of a daughter.

But theirs is a household of only daughters. Except for her little cousin Torakichi, a boy of twelve, theirs is a household of women.

And only out of love for Chichi-ue did their business associates not whisper about the Curse of Kawaguchi. A man whose every son had died in blood. Were her father a different sort of man, they’d say the kami had cursed him for his hubris.

But her father is not such a man.

So theirs is only a tale of misfortune.

“Oh surely not,” Chiba-san smiles. “Hisa-chan has worked very hard. She only wants to do her best to please you, Kawaguchi-san.”

Worked very hard. Do her best. The words strike her with poison.

Chiba-san knows that there has not been much to celebrate, no sweet fruit of her labor this time. She still must speak to Chichi-ue of Nobuga.

Of fourteen men who are not coming home.

Of the burning bolts of purple silk, ruined or stolen.

All her hard work, still useless in the end.

“I much rather think,” she weighs her words carefully, “that this meal is one we ought to share without talk of business.” She places a piece of pork in Momo-chan’s bowl, smiles at her baby sister who smiles back. “It is after all, the first time we are all sitting at the same table for some time.”

Chichi-ue laughs at this, good natured, and leans over to pinch her cheek. “Always so sensible, Hisa-chan. And you haven’t even asked what present I’ve brought you from the capital.”

Momo-chan perks up at the mention of presents, brown eyes shining, but even at age three, she knows to not speak unless spoken to.

On the other side of the table, Chiba-san frowns.

“I’m sure I can wait until after dinner.” She summons a smile from the depths of herself. For a long time, she and Chichi-ue had been each other’s only family.

They still had her aunts, her cousins, but they’d been bound by the loss of the same people.

And that had made them closer, both aged by the grief they shared.

Two people who drank from the same cup of tears.

Again, her father laughs. “Are you nineteen or ninety, daughter mine? Your old father wants you to guess what he brought you from the capital.”

So it’s this guessing game then. She and Anija had played it with Chichi-ue when they were children, each trip to the capital sparking some new delight.

Now here she sits, while Anija is gone.

“Momo-chan, would you like to guess first? What did Chichi-ue buy for us in the capital?”

It still sparks a slight sliver of delight in her to see Chiba-san’s frown flit across her face like a mayfly, before she replaces it with a wide smile.

Momo-chan beams, in her sweet, childish chatter, asking if Chichi-ue had brought them desserts, or toys, or jewelry.

And for the moment, she lets the panic inside her subside. Save us, Kawaguchi Hisa.

Save us.

For this moment, however brief, it subsides.

“Chichi-ue, may I have a moment of your time?” Dinner has come and passed, the plates cleared, the others have risen and gone. Only the two of them and the maid sweeping the courtyard remains.

“Well,” Chichi-ue offers her his arm though she is sure he is tired from the long journey home and would prefer to rest. “Of course you may. Walk with me in the garden and tell me about it.”

She sets her hand on his arm, and they walk into the courtyard among the thick stand of bamboo and clumps of blood grass, the oddly shaped stone features. “There is a matter of some import I wished to speak to you about.”

A swallow sings in the curve-tiled eaves. Here in the country estate, the evening air is balmy and beautiful. Here the fragile beauty of the scene is seemingly carved into the bedrock, evident and clear, even when all the rest of the world seems to rot away into a sea of blood and broken bodies.

She lives in the lap of fortune, she truly does, Kawaguchi Hisa.

“Regarding the caravan to Nobuga.”

She’d thought the matter over during dinner, in between bites of glass noodles and bean sprouts, tender cuts of pork and sips of fish ball soup. Their own protection with the caravans certainly was no longer enough, and despite her own reservations, it seemed that only a physical show of force would cow attackers into leaving their goods alone, into leaving their lives alone.

“There is something heavy on your face.” Chichi-ue observes. “And it has lingered all through dinner though you tried to hide it.”

She breathes out. “We lost the caravan in Nobuga.” She breathes out, breathes out, and keeps on breathing. “Tatsuo returned a few hours before you did. The rest had been killed by bandits who thieved the silk.”

Chichi-ue breathes out sharply, the sound discordant with the harmony all around them. “Fourteen men lost then?” He asks.

It is no fault of hers, but her heart weeps with the loss of it like some closer horror than the some twenty-five miles between where she stands and Nobuga.

“Yes.” Her eyes prick with unshed tears, frustration and sorrow warring within her. “I sent Hikotori off to draw seven thousand ryo for each family from my personal accounts.”

“You did well.” She reads Chichi-ue’s thoughts in the heavy furrow of his brow, the tightness of his lips, the way his dark eyes seem far away, and it is the same look she’d seen on her own face in the mirror before dinner. Death haunts them all like a white mourning shroud. “You did well, my daughter.”

But despite the frustration, despite the wound, she knows this can’t be all she says.

Save us, Kawaguchi Hisa. Save us.

We are dying.

“I have a proposed solution,” but I am uncertain if you would like to hear it. Her father has no love for shinobi, sees no positive in killing or blood. He’d always disapproved of the men and women who deal in death, noble or otherwise.

Clan or clanless.

“It is not a solution you think I would care for.” Their walk had taken them to the pond of red and black koi fish her father fed diligently twice a day whenever he was home. “Tell me about it anyway,” he says at last.

“It might be time to hire shinobi.” Chichi-ue has never cared for shinobi. They hold to different moral codes. They dealt in blood and death.

But they could offer protection, and it might be time to ask for it.

On the other side of the raised koi pond, Chichi-ue frowns. “Shinobi,” he murmurs, seemingly turning the idea over in his mind. “You know that they are warmongers, Hisa.”

She knows. The daimyo used shinobi to fight his wars. Noble families hired shinobi for blood and death. Assassination, seduction, backstabbing, really, it seems that her small request for protecting her father’s caravans is too lowly by comparison.

“There has already been bloodshed.” Fourteen men dead when none had to die. “I only work to prevent more damage.”

Save us, Kawaguchi Hisa.

Chichi-ue sighs. “You don’t speak wrongly.” They watch the koi in the pond, the sedate paths they take through the pond, amid the horsetail reeds, the lily pads, water lettuce, and taro plants. “And yet I worry,” he says absently, “that this cure will be worse than the problem it addresses.”

To kill a bull by straightening its horns.

“Shinobi attract attention, Hisa-chan.” Chichi-ue tosses a handful of dried peas onto the surface of the pond, and they watch as the koi hurtle to the surface to eagerly gobble the food from the water, Dharma Wheel leading them by some half a second. “And not all attention is favorable.”

“But—” she pauses.

There is always room in this world for a gentle touch. To push too far too fast...too much heat ruined the silk.

Chichi-ue’s hand trails through the green water, koi nipping at his fingertips, a pensive look on his face. “I’ll consider it, Hisa.” He turns to her and smiles. “While I am still of this world, there is no need for you to carry something so heavy alone.”

Chichi-ue had always advocated for them to live quietly, this she knows. Within the bounds of our station.

Nothing about their household drew the eye, not brilliant enough to shine among all the other jewels in the world.

Nothing about their household drew the eye — except the silk.

Kimei takes her hair down later that night, wave after wave of soft black hair falling all about her shoulders, before, with deft hands, Kimei braids it all up again, as she dabs at her face with a wet cloth. “You look so tired.”

She sets the cloth aside on her dresser. “That’s not very nice, Kimei.”

But it is true. She is tired, there is no way to get around that.

“I say only the truth!” Kimei protests, a laugh threatening at the corners of her lips. “Hisa, if you do not acknowledge it you will be a very poor judge of truth indeed.”

Hisa makes a face at her. “And didn’t anyone tell you that the mark of a best friend is to not remind me that the circles under my eyes grow darker by the hour?”

“You’d never sleep otherwise.” Kimei follows after her, sleeves flapping like the wings of a butterfly. Her handmaid is the best dressed servant in the household, and perhaps that brought jealousy from other courtyards. “And see! Here you are not sleeping.”

Ah, but what does she care? Kimei is forthright and frank, loyal and kind, a sister in all but name. She deserves pretty clothes and respect and as long as Hisa had any power in life, Kimei would always have what she deserved.

The courtyard is lit with lanterns now, awash with soft light.

Inside, they have oil lamps protected from drafts by screens of red paper. Flower lanterns hung on the walkway about the courtyard outside, red silk over a bamboo frame, casting the entire garden in a warm light.

“Enough, enough, I have not the tongue to win an argument between the two of us.” She takes a seat by her wheel, and Kimei picks up carding where they’d left off last night.

“Did you really talk to Kawaguchi-san about hiring ninja?”

The steady hum of her wheel, and the sound of her treadling the foot pedal underpins their conversation, quiet as it is.

By her side, Kimei pulls the combs apart, rolling the wool off of the metal teeth. It is still summer, but winter will come, as it follows autumn, and while Chichi-ue has not spoken of traveling this winter, he has in winters past.

At least if she starts now, he will be warm.

“I did.” There’d been a maid in the garden, cleaning the walkway when she and Chichi-ue had talked, and the walls have ears and mouths to spread the news in whispers. “I assume you heard.”

Kimei was good at listening, good at speaking when the time is right, good at keeping her wits about her.

Otherwise, in a house like theirs, she never would’ve survived to be this happy.

Kimei pauses, propping her chin up on a hand, a comb held loosely between the fingers of her other hand. “They’re so different from us. Do you think it would help?”

“As long as it stops more families from losing their men,” she sighs, pauses her spinning for the moment, undyed wool between her fingers, “I don’t much care how different they are, or what their pasts are like.”

Shinobi dealt in blood and death, and while she is not unfamiliar with either, it’s not something a daughter of a large household ought to know.

It is only fate that gave her familiarity with death, the weight of it even now like a heavy shroud.

Somehow, she suspects shinobi have a different interpretation of death.

“Really?” Kimei frowns, rolling the unspun fibers between her fingers, a worried look in her eyes. “I’ve heard frightening things about them.” Slowly, her handmaid looks around them, and finding no one around, leans forward slowly to whisper in her ear. “Some of them drink the blood of the men they kill, keep trophies. I heard from Tamasu from Lady Shikikami’s household that they are not men at all, but demons.”

Hiring demons seemed a bit gauche.

“Oh, you heard it from Tamasu, did you.” It’s a gentle ribbing made all the more ridiculous by the late hour and the nature of Tamasu. “A mouse would frighten her.”

Kimei breaks into peals of laughter, again taking up her combs, carding apace. “And we all know Hisa-san is never frightened of mice!”

“It was only the one time.” If Kimei has turned her attention back to work, she ought to as well. “And only because a mouse running across my foot in storeroom six was rather shocking.”

“Oh, oh!” Kimei giggles. “Only the one time, was it.”

There is no more serious discussion that night; only the steady hum of her wheel, of the carding combs, and playful chatter accompanying them.

She folds her hands before her on her desk and slowly raises her eyes to the face of the man still standing on the opposite side of the room. “Might I have your name, Shinobi-san?”

A man of blood, he must be, even though his hands are clean at this moment, and his face is handsome, clean shaven and devoid of any traces of brutality. He does not dress like the men she’s used to, not the merchant men of her father’s circle with which she often spent her time, or the noblemen she’d learned to pander to as clients, or even Lord Fusamoto, who is certainly of higher rank than any other man she has ever met before.

Instead of zhiju and dachang, he wears a wide-collared shirt, a pair of pants whose hems flared out over the tops of a pair of black boots, a sword at his side, a brightly colored mask clasped in his hand.

There are other defining features on him, a pouch secured at his waist, a farmer’s hat hanging from his neck. He looks different than Hikotori, the accountant, or Banryu the foreman, or Misoto, the gardener.

But he is a shinobi, so that is likely.

“My name is unimportant.” He sounds young, no older than Hiko who is a mere twenty-five, certainly.

She makes a noise of annoyance. She’d sent Kimei from the room for this? “You work for me now,” The House of Kawaguchi takes care of its own. The House of Kawaguchi, of which she would inherit unless her stepmother suddenly has a son. “I would like at least to know your name.”

It is not that she is particularly attached to him. She half suspects she never will be. There’s too much difference between the two of them for an attachment not like the way she would call Kimei the sister of her heart even if they are so vastly separated by blood, nor like the way she would call Hiko a friend, despite their differences in worldview.

The man before her who falls uncomfortably silent, might as well have come from a different world than hers.

He intends to wait her out then, intends to keep his secrets close to his chest. But two can play this waiting game.

She picks up another sheet of account records. She is patient. She can wait.

Her mother had looked at her, known that the path set before her daughter was not an easy one to walk, and named her Hisa for endurance.

She is patient. She can endure so many things, let sorrows pass over her like river water over the rocky bed beneath.

There’s nothing to be heard for a while, half a stick of incense had burned down, besides the slide of her brush, the clack of abacus beads, the sound of her breathing, the grind of ink against her inkstone — the man across from her seems to make no sound at all, no movement to show that he is alive, not even to breathe.

It is a little unnerving she supposes, to see an unmoving block of a man standing before her desk on the edges of her line of sight every now and again, but nothing unlike what she hasn’t done before, ignoring a supplier or a particularly rude guest until they can gather their bearings enough to be sensible again.

“Do you civilians only do business with people who have pedigrees and names?” His voice is dry, like the autumn wind, desolate enough that she imagines leaves blowing away in the gust, leaving branches bare and cold.

What an odd question. What an odd way to put it. Pedigrees and names, as if they did not hold weight in the world shinobi occupy as well. After all, hadn’t Chichi hired an Uchiha for the sake of their pedigree and reputation? He’d come from the Uchiha Clan, born ancient and noble, despite the blood tint of shinobi heritage.

What a rude way to ask as if business could truly be done with no name and no social standing.

“I wouldn’t sell a single bolt of linen to someone who couldn’t produce a name, much less than a shipment of silk. In some ways, I am selling you a good number of lives. Why am I not entitled to at least the name of the man who kills me or not as is his whim and leisure?”

Twenty by four is eighty. Eighty by sixteen is a thousand two hundred and fifty. She writes this down, a smooth figure, most recently added to the account book.

“Is my name really that important to you?” Ah, he’s starting to sound uncertain. He is only a man after all, no matter how unusual. Pleasant.

She can treat him as she treats other men, and he will respond in much the same way, if she is to sketch him in loose brushstrokes.

A delightful thing to know.

Shinobi operate on the same rules as normal men, or at the very least, this one does, and that knowledge will serve her quite well in the future.

“Yes.” She likes to know names, to see faces, to remember her people. If this shinobi is to work for her, then he is also to be one of the many employed under the name of Kawaguchi.

“Uchiha Izuna,” he says at last.

I-zu-na. She turns the syllables over in her mind. Izuna, pipe fox. Izuna.

She raises her eyes to his face. “It is good to meet you, Izuna-san.” She smiles. “My name is Kawaguchi Hisa.”

Chapter Text

Things change, although not quickly or very much now that extra shinobi have been hired to guard the caravans. It is in the subtle way that caravans arrived just a little bit faster now than they had before.

Perhaps it was the shinobi who made the men who guarded the checkpoints in the roads more likely to hurry up with their inspections and let the caravans through. It might be intimidation and less kind than what she was comfortable with, but it made business run more smoothly, and she could hardly protest moving through checkpoints more quickly.

After all, she did not say for the shinobi to behave threateningly towards the inspectors, and she certainly didn’t ask for anyone to be intimidated by them.

Izuna led them, and reported to her on their status, their numbers, and came to her to collect their wages, which, she assumes he dispenses in whatever way he sees fit and that the men under his employ have no protests over such treatment.

He is a taciturn young man, speaking only the necessary number of words to get his point across, but she does not fault him for that.

It is not necessarily a fault of character to be of few words, and chatter had always taken more to dismiss than otherwise.

She did rather wish that he looked less grudging whenever he came around for his salary, but some men are not blessed with sunny dispositions, and that is only to be expected. If all were the same, none would be interesting.

Really, despite hiring him, she sees him rarely, and only expects him once every two weeks. Every other Friday afternoon, she would greet him in her study, look over the reports he submitted while he stood silent in some corner and then write out the payslips for the workers he headed that particular week.

He is...late, this Friday afternoon, which is unusual, because typically, if nothing else, Uchiha Izuna-san is unfailingly punctual.

Perhaps something has delayed him, although she spares very little thought to this, as she looks over the reports of a fire spreading in the region of Kamakura. The area had been plagued with fires recently, the most recent inferno arising in a rice paddy of all things, and meant that she would have to reroute several planned trade routes to ensure that caravans arrived on time.

It would be no good for shipments to be delayed.

With a pensive sigh, she picks up a black Go stone and places it on a slightly different location on the map spread before her instead. There is a less travelled road through the Ushi no Mura hugging the base of Mount Hoyoken that could be taken instead of the more travelled passage through Kamakura. Absently, she picks up another stone and rolls it between her fingers.

The delay perhaps is slightly inevitable, given the circumstances, but the Ushi no Mura passage would—

From outside her door, there is a crash — two people bumping into each other perhaps — the sound of water spilling that startles her out of her thoughts, a slightly cut off scream following right after.

She places the stone back in the case among its fellows and rises to see what the commotion is about.

“...sorry, Shinobi-san, I wasn’t —”

Just outside her door, one of the younger housemaids seems to have run into Uchiha Izuna, and lost control of the water bucket she was carrying in the process, if the sopping wet state of the floor and everything on Izuna below the upper thigh is taken into account.

She is ready to step in, to intercede and say that the servant is young, and had clearly been tasked to go somewhere in a great hurry, advocate for forgiveness, but all he does is reach into his sleeve with a sigh, pull out a square of faded blue cloth and hold it out in the maid’s general direction. “Is your wrist alright?” he asks.

The girl shrinks back from him, back to the wall, head bowed, mutely shaking her head, almost in tears. Only then does Hisa notice the stitching on the maid’s robes, and realizes that she’d come with Chiba Natsu-san from her maiden household as part of her bridal entourage.

Likely, this particular girl feared him because he is a shinobi, and shinobi are men of blood.

If she has to take his measure then and there, she would call him kind before she calls him a killer.

But even kind men could be frustrated by the fear of others.

“Izuna-san?” She steps out from behind her door. “Will you come in?”

He turns towards her, normal dark eyes red bisected by black, like pinwheels spinning in the wind.

There’s blood on his cheek, something else indistinguishable except in its gunky nature clinging to his hair. Ah, perhaps that’s what caused the problem. He certainly looks the part of a killer.

The girl backs away slowly, and when far away enough, starts to run.

Slowly, his hand drops to his side. “Hisa-san?” Rather forlornly, he drips wetly on the floor.

She holds her door open. “Come in.” She does not fear him despite the blood splatters and whatever foul smelling thing is in his hair. Turning to her right, she summons another one of the servants who worked in her courtyard. “Aka, will you find someone to clean up the hallway?”

Slowly, he limps into her study, favoring his left leg.

She pulls out a chair for him, and he nods to her before sinking into it.

Normally, he does not sit, even though she pulls out a chair every time he comes in. Whatever had happened to him this time, it wasn’t good.

She pulls an embroidered handkerchief out of her sleeve, the pink cotton embroidered with tiny plum flowers, and very carefully dabs at the blood on his face. “Izuna-san,” she asks, almost as a conversation starter. “Are your eyes meant to be red?”

He almost shudders, blinks, red leaching from his gaze until it’s just flat dark brown once more. “My apologies for that.” He gestures toward the door. “I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going, and caused a commotion.”

“They happen.” This is the longest exchange that they’ve ever had.

At least the blood comes off of his face. His skin is warm. She doesn’t know exactly what she expected of him. After all, he is only a man, like any other man she’s met before, just with an occupation she does not understand. “Will you go see Jizen-sensei for your leg?”


Most of the blood is off of his face now. Good enough. Whatever is in his hair he will have to deal with that himself after visiting Jizen-sensei.

Carefully she folds away the bloodied handkerchief. It is one of her favorites, the plum embroidery on it an aspect of which she is unreasonably proud — if she can get the blood to wash out, so much the better. If not, then next time she will learn to carry something that does not harbor so much memory.

“Your injured left leg.” Oh, he is frowning now, neither emotionless nor expressionless. Do shinobi wear masks like other people do? She’ll find out. “You will go see Jizen-sensei after you collect the wages for your men, will you not?”

“Jizen-sensei is...a doctor?” He is watching her, rather curiously, with a new expression now, whatever questions he wants to ask her a little hesitant. So shinobi do wear masks of skin and flesh just as easily as merchant men.

She keeps this information as well.

“The household doctor.” Having done the best she could to clean up his face so that he wouldn’t scare another servant into forgetting what they were doing and running away, she steps back. For the first time, she considers that perhaps, because he is a shinobi, and unused to the workings of big households, that he didn’t know there was a household doctor who would see to his hurts, however he may have gotten them. She will have to ask Banryu to explain the various members of the household, and what services they would offer him then. “His rooms are next to Misoto’s in the northeastern corner of the grounds.”

“I see.” He nods and hands over the reports he’d written of the last two weeks.

She grinds ink in a circular motion, expectation evenly tempered with patience and writes him a payslip for an even sum, stamping it with her personal seal.

“This is three hundred more ryo than I am owed.” He examines the figure for a long moment, eyebrows scrunched together.

“Compensation for your injuries.”

He examines her for another moment more, but says nothing else before rising to go. After a few steps, it is clear that he no longer has the strength or presence of mind to hide the limp he’d been so surprised to know she noticed.

She watches him until he turns the corner in the walkway before her study door and disappears from sight.

She sets aside her maps, her inkstone, and brush, replaces the lid on the container of go stones, and strides towards the door.

It is time to visit her mother.

It is about half an hour after dinner when one of the household arrives to tell her that Hiwara Ruqa had asked for her.

She straightens her collar, smooths out a few of the creases that had settled into the cloth while she was practicing the erhu and sends the maid off with instructions to tell her aunt to meet her in the gardens.

It was a visit made quietly and not intended to attract attention for she had received no advance notice of her aunt’s arrival.

Else, she would’ve asked the household staff to have something on hand, at least a few snacks, in case Aunt Ruqa hadn’t eaten.

But even as the long years pass, and Hisa grows from girl to woman, taking over her mother’s place in the household, Aunt Ruqa had not learned that a visit made covertly made tongues wag faster than if it were done boldly and with fanfare.

They are after all, relatives. A visit would not be an unusual thing, and there’s nothing like a secret to set tongues wagging. But that perhaps, is her aunt’s nature.

So she counters this by asking to see her aunt in the garden, not her study or her rooms. Perhaps this would set to rights the nature of events, for who would think to discuss secrets in full view?

She turns to Kimei. “Check in the kitchen if they would prepare a few desserts, and a fresh pot of tea — the shincha Chichi-ue brought back from Tea Country, I remember we still have half a block.” Her aunt likes sweet teas, and sweet things, a bit of a girlish attitude, it’s true, but Hiwara Ruqa is not yet forty years old.

And the Hiwara are known for selling tea. It would not do to offer any tea of lower quality, even if she personally cared for mugicha over shincha. There is a faintly sweet but heavy grain smell to barley tea, that most people found off putting.

Perhaps her tastes are unrefined, for she finds it comforting, so tended to drink it in her day to day life.

“Consider it done.” Kimei hurries off to see to directing the kitchen staff, the butterfly motif of her belt bouncing, and Hisa rises and heads into the garden of her courtyard alone.

Her aunt is there already, pacing the stones, wringing her hands.

No, this will not do. Not at all.

“Auntie Ruqa,” she calls. “Come sit with me?”

Half anxiously, her aunt does so.

“The peonies are beautiful at this time of year, are they not?” she asks to fill the time, trailing a hand over the thick, heavy blooms. They are her favorite flowers, pale pink and fragile in the summer heat. Soon, all the petals will melt, covering the ground in a heavy layer of pink, silk soft and easily crushed beneath the foot.

Aunt Ruqa does not immediately respond, fidgeting with her hands.

So it is to be something nerve wracking this time. Somehow, it always is.

Kimei arrives with tea and a plate of sticky rice biscuits flavored with osmanthus flowers, setting it down on one of the stonework tables.

Aunt Ruqa looks up for a brief moment. “May I speak with you, Hisa?”

She turns her gaze to Kimei for the briefest of moments. “You may.”

Her handmaid bobs a curtsy before leaving in a swish of dark hair and embroidered butterflies.

“Hisa,” her mother’s sister catches her sleeve. “Please, Hisa, he’s your cousin. Your own flesh and blood.”

Yes, her cousin, who had made very poor choices in the past, and needed her help in clearing up his messes and repairing his reputation, and had driven his poor mother to distraction over the matter. He wasn’t a bad young man, Suzuki Hideyoshi, but perhaps Auntie Ruqa could stand to spoil him less.

Perhaps she should’ve named him Yoshi for virtuous and respectable instead of Yoshi for luck. For perhaps, in the cruelest of ironies, Hideyoshi wasn’t particularly lucky. Not in life, not in friends, and certainly not in a gambling house.

She sighs, once, softly. It is unbecoming to show her disapproval, especially not when her aunt still hung onto her every expression. “And yet my name is Kawaguchi Hisa.” Perhaps her words say too much about her and her loyalty. The love she holds for her mother will never match the loyalty she holds for her father’s house, her house, the weight of their young name.

The wild look in her aunt’s blue eyes surprises her though. “Please Hisa, there is no one else I can ask.”

There is never anyone else to turn to. Her mother’s brothers have long since grown weary of heeding the plight of their youngest sister, and in turn, perhaps she had also grown weary of going here and there to rescue Hideyoshi from his troubles, not, of course, that either of her maternal uncles had a particularly long patience.

But then, Hideyoshi was spoiled so, in a way that he never truly felt the suffering of his various failings. Perhaps he could stand to understand that his actions had consequences, for more than just him.

A whole household was to be his to manage one day, and as he is now, all he would manage is their eventual ruin.

But her mother’s younger sister has only this one son, sixteen years old this past summer. He is young, and spoiled, a bit naive to the ways of the world.

It cannot hurt to ask what has gone wrong this time. Aunt Ruqa might be prone to overblown anxiety, but it cannot hurt to ask.

“What’s happened to him?”

“He left with friends yesterday afternoon and hasn’t returned.” The evening shadows have stretched long across her front sewing room, darkening to deep pools under the eaves, overhanging the courtyard.

It’s been nearly a day then, since her cousin has gone out.

And while Hideyoshi is hedonistic enough to stay out all night, drinking, gambling, flirting with girls, by breakfast he would have returned, perhaps shamefully, but unless he was detained or otherwise too ashamed of something, he would have returned.

“I will ask Banryu and his men to search the city for him.”

Although her aunt was Suzuki Takahiro’s primary wife, she had little power within her household, being not dearly beloved. Perhaps it was the nerves that had turned Suzuki Takahiro away from being faithful to his wife. Perhaps it was just his nature, Hisa did not know.

The match had seemed a blessing, after all, the Hiwara House was an old merchant family, and their eldest daughter had married into such a young name. It bore some shame, even now, when the House of Kawaguchi grew more prosperous with each passing year.

So when her aunt married into the Suzuki Household, there was much more rejoicing, celebration, and fanfare. She’d been young too, barely seventeen years old, far younger than her elder sister who had married at age twenty-four.

And yet now, the fortunes of the world reversed, and all could only wonder at the eventual fate of women and marriage.

Her father had remarried some five years after her mother died.

Suzuki Takahiro chose to flaunt his wealth with three women, a principal wife and two concubines. Five illegitimate children and only one legitimate son.

So the wheel of fortune turned, and what was once considered a step down would now on looking back, be a step up, even if after fourteen years of marriage, her mother had lost her life. She had been honored in death with a memorial tablet in the family shrine, a position few wives could hope to attain.

Aunt Ruqa has only this one son who was her salvation.

If Hideyoshi is lost, so is Aunt Ruqa, for the house of Suzuki would become unlivable. Suzuki Takahiro had other sons who could inherit, no matter how illegitimate.

“Thank you.” Aunt Ruqa’s eyes fill with tears. “Thank you, Hisa. Thank you.”

And knowing this, how could she have said no?

When Aunt Ruqa leaves, climbing into her small carriage to make her way back to the Suzuki Estate, the shadows of the evening have already darkened into a murky gloom.

Banryu, the middle-aged foreman, takes twenty young men out to search the streets of Shunan. They break off, going in different directions in groups of twos and threes.

And after Banryu and the others have gone, Hikotori comes out to offer her a cloak. “It’s getting colder, Hisa.” He looms tall in the gloom. “Did Suzuki-san find what she was looking for?”

She hums, wondering where Hideyoshi has gone now and if he is alright. “I hope she has.” Hikotori is a ward of her father, raised on the estate since he was a child, beloved, perhaps a step above the other servants, but not a son. “My cousin has gone missing and has been so since last night.”

He sighs. “Young Master Suzuki has never been very lucky, except for one thing.”

“Oh?” She pulls the cloak tighter about her shoulders. “I wasn’t aware he was lucky in much of anything.” No, her cousin had been born to an uncertain household, a mother desperate to spoil him but also for him to make something of himself, and a personality that yielded too easily to the whims and wishes of his friends.

There was no luck in that.

“He has you.” Hikotori offers her an arm so that they could go in together. “And your care is a blessing.”

She sets a hand in the crook of his elbow, and lets his strength pull her to her feet. “I think you think very highly of me, Hiko.” Perhaps more highly than you ought.

He shrugs, all long limbs and sinew, a sallow smile tugging on his lips. “They are only my thoughts.”

Hiko had been a constant fixture in the household throughout her childhood, arriving in the estate soon after Anija’s death. Five years her senior, all gangly limbs even then, he’d been a quiet figure, following their old accountant about. When he was eighteen, he’d taken over the family accounts, while Misoyato had retired to a place in the countryside.

If he remembered anything of his life before coming here, he never spoke of it.

“Is it not the duty of a friend to remind you when your thoughts stray too far from what is true?” She turns her face up to his with a smile.

He returns it with a perfectly serious mien. “Is it not the right of a man to hold whatever thoughts he would like, no matter how foolish they may be?”

“Is it not the right of man, indeed,” she muses as the two of them stroll through the hallway. “But you did not come here to ask me about Hideyoshi and joke about your own foolish beliefs. What are you really here to ask about?”

Their steps slow as Hiko considers it. “Have you thought perhaps, this time, that Young Master Suzuki should not be so easily rescued? You have spent enough on him in the past, Hisa, and he has not learned.”

She had thought the matter over, between sips of tea and nibbling on an osmanthus cake that perhaps she should let the matter rest for a while, until Hideyoshi understood the consequences of his actions, but no, her mind has been made up about this already.

If Banryu and the others could not find him, then it would be up to her to bring her little cousin home.

“And yet, his safety is not only his safety.” She half smiles, half wishes she could grimace. “His safety is the safety of his mother and younger siblings as well. He has two little sisters, Hiko. Should he lose face, where would that leave them? Women depend on good marriages to secure their futures.” She turns and looks Hiko in the eye, having paused outside of his workroom. “And our safety, and the safety of all of us. Any shame and dishonor that he suffers, should the House of Suzuki fall, will not leave us with clean faces.”

Her father has two daughters, this is true. But he also had two younger brothers, both with families of their own that they had left behind in the world of the living and not the dead. Their family numbers not two, not four, but nine. With hundreds, perhaps even thousands, who depended on the name of Kawaguchi for their survival at all parts of this complicated web that is their lives.

She could not let one child who liked to play gamble away the futures and lives of so many. The reputation of a house, the guardianship of a name, the weight of responsibility, all of these things could never be ignored.

Hiko sighs. “Always the thoughtful one, so you are, Hisa.”

“So you see.” She almost laughs at this. “You were foolish after all, for my motivations are born of selfishness after all.”

Banryu returns late that night, after the flower lanterns have been lit and came to her study privately to have a word.

She’d been expecting him, although perhaps not so late an hour as this, and sets aside her embroidery when he comes in. It had been perhaps a bit too dark to truly maintain the pace she’d wanted, being not all that close to the lantern flickering from one corner of her desk.

“Hisa-san,” he bows lightly to her behind her table. “I could only find news that Young Master Suzuki was at the Peach Flower House last afternoon and into the early evening. He lost quite a sum of money, and there was significant gossip from multiple sources to confirm that he was there.”

“How much did he lose?” Her cousin’s gambling debts are normally placed on an account tab at the house, paid off at the end of the month with the allowance he received from his father. On occasion, he would lose too much to pay with allowance and the debts would have to be covered by someone else.

She’s covered some of them herself in the past. A few hundred here, a few hundred there, smoothing over the reputation of her cousin’s house, even if that could not prevent him from going out to gamble further.

It’d reduced her ability to complete some tasks. She’d had to find work-arounds, scrimp and save a little more due to the reduction of her own household budget, but if it kept her cousin from a jail cell, it was a good enough investment of her money.

“The manager would not disclose that information to me, Hisa-san.” Banryu looks away, shame-faced. “It seemed that this house had workers above the normal way we take care of such business.”

So she would have to send someone else to figure it out, more wily than the straightforward Banryu who would only offer a bribe for a loose tongue.

If it comes down to it, if it comes down to it, she could always ask a favor of Hiko, who would not refuse her even if going into a gambling house made him uncomfortable.

“That’s alright.” It went without asking that Banryu had not found Hideyoshi, for he was not here standing shamefully before her, begging for Sister Hisa to save him from his father’s wrath. If he was home at last, Aunt Ruqa would’ve sent word, overjoyed with the news of her son’s return.

“I did learn that he’d left the establishment later that evening along with two friends, the second young master of the Togakami household, and the fourth young master of the Hondo household were with him,” Banryu sighs. “Those two are ne'er do wells, leading Young Master Suzuki astray.”

But they are second and fourth sons, and the requirements for such young men were far more lax than first sons.

“They’d been drinking again, hadn’t they?” It wouldn’t surprise her if they had been drinking. It was what hedonistic young men who had money did, especially the sort of young men her cousin called his dear friends, without realizing how easily they could ruin him should they choose.

Banryu turns aside, ears red with shame. “That’s not fit information for polite company.”

So he means that it’s not fit for her delicate sensibilities or woman’s ears to hear that there were hedonistic young men in the world and that her cousin was one of them despite his young age. What would Banryu try to hide from her next? That there are brothel houses in the city, and that they marketed flesh and pleasure?

Such are merely the facts of life.

She almost grimaces, but she does not. She owns two faces, public and private, and even the foreman who had watched over her childhood, having come to the House of Kawaguchi with her mother’s bridal entourage, could not be said to be a private audience.

“And yet, such things can not be avoided. If there is wine to drink, there are men to drink it.” If there is flesh to enjoy, there are men of leisure to enjoy it. The night is dark all around them, deepening. “Thank you for going out to look for him.”

It is late, and she is tired, but Banryu is older than her father, and she’d tasked him to wander all over the city for quite some time this evening trying to look for her wayward cousin when he could’ve been at home and at rest with his wife and children. Kuma would likely not thank her for the errands, for both she and her husband are busy in the daytime — she with managing the kitchens and he with managing the grounds — and had only the night to share as just the two of them.

“Only what I ought to do,” the foreman mumbles.

She gathers her sleeves together, the soft quality of silk sliding over her arms, dark gray floral patterns crossing delicately, and offers Banryu a smile. “I think we ought to turn in for the night. It’s grown very late.”

She does not intend to sleep shortly, having made other plans, but what Banryu doesn’t know will not hurt him. She has much to do tonight, as all signs of her cousin’s whereabouts now pointed towards foul play.

The longer he is not located, the more suspicion mounts and rumours fly. Life and reputation hangs in balance, and face once lost is hard to reclaim with any dignity.

She has to find him tonight then, and there’s only one real answer for how to get that done.

Banryu nods, and bows to her once before leaving.

She turns to Kimei who covers a yawn with her hand. “I have something I plan to do, but I’ll have to task you with hiding my whereabouts from Chichi-ue and Chiba-san. Will you stay behind?”

She rarely goes anywhere without her handmaid, and never off of the property. If Kimei is still in the estate, it lends credibility to the idea that she still is as well, and slows down the chances of anyone finding out that she was gone before she returned.

A proper lady would never go out to a gambling den that doubled as a brothel house, and certainly wouldn’t go there unchaperoned with a man. But these are times that cannot wait for Kawaguchi Hisa to attend to them in the morning with a full procession and a carriage.

Should they be found out, especially if Chiba-san were to find Kimei before she could return home to defend her handmaid, the punishment would be harsh indeed.

“Anything you ask, Hisa.”

Should things ever become difficult, Kimei would do her very best to cover for her. That was all she could ever ask.

“Alright, then this is what we need to do.”

She is not as familiar with the servant’s quarters as she would like, though that makes not too much difference. The household had to clean out a new courtyard to house the employed shinobi anyway, and Izuna was the only one who lived there during the night with any sort of regularity.

Thus, it would not be hard to find him.

She takes a lantern with her when she goes, to light the way, hands tucked into her dark gray sleeves to keep out the chill, having changed into something more appropriate for a day in the workshops than her own study where she had to look presentable and accomplished at something.

There’s a light on in the window of the front hall, the strummed notes of a guqin echoing in the empty courtyard.

For a moment, she is gripped with a loneliness that she could not explain. The music is lonely.

Whichever musician Uchiha Izuna-san had invited, they played well indeed.

She raps her knuckles once on the wooden frame of the main doors. Abruptly, the music cuts off.

She counts to three as she waits, pleasantly surprised when it only takes a count of three for the door to open, revealing Izuna-san, face entirely blank, dressed in a dark blue zhiduo, the plain white of his cross collar stark and worn against the dark blue of the rest of the outfit.

“Hisa-san?” he asks, face still blank.

His right sleeve is patched, skillfully done, with a color and pattern that matched, and stitches so small they could pass unnoticed, but patched all the same. Her eyes catch the difference, if only because cloth is and has been her entire life.

There is only lantern light reflected on the dark lacquer of the guqin on the table behind him. Otherwise, the room is empty of everything but the gleam of light on the tatami mat, curving gently around the neck of a sake tokkuri.

So he is the one playing Guqin at this hour of the night. She hadn't thought that a man of blood would be the type.

“I have a job that requires a shinobi.”

For a moment, there is silence between them, only the lantern bobbing, a rustle of wind through the leaves of a stand of bamboo.

He steps aside to let her in, slides the door only half shut behind her.

How curious and strange, that he would know this particular custom.

It might be privacy enough that they would not be overheard, but it was not privacy enough that she, an unmarried young woman, was sitting alone in a man’s room without the ability for someone to walk by and make themselves a witness.

Even if, of course, no one would, seeing as it is late at night and these are now the shinobi quarters where no one went unless ordered.

“I assume this is not a job Kawaguchi-san would approve of?” he asks, sinking lightly into the seiza position, fingers hovering over the second and fifth strings of the guqin.

“He wouldn’t disapprove of the task I wish to accomplish. Only the manner I intend to accomplish it with.” She joins him on the other side of the table, folds her hands together loosely in her lap. “But there’s not much time to think of a different way, so here we are.”

“Indeed.” From his fingers fall a cascade of notes, the pull and push of loneliness like the tide.

Ah, so he was beginning where he left off.

It is to be a game then, given that this was outside the bounds of his contract, and she had to persuade him to accept.

He intended to make her think on it.

What did a man like Uchiha Izuna want? And what would she have to say to get him to agree to this nighttime excursion?

“You miss someone,” she says to fill the space while thinking about her next course of action.

“Oh?” He might have responded in an even tone, no sign of color on his pale cheeks, but he’d missed a note by accident. “Why do you think that, Hisa-san?”

This is no easy piece to play, and her statement had struck something in him.

“Would anyone play ‘Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute’ so late and night and without company if not to think of a loved one missing?” She turns her gaze to the window when his fingers miss another note. “After all, it was not written by a woman who was well pleased with her life circumstances.” No, this had been written by a woman torn between her hometown and her children, being unable to truly set aside either in matters of her heart though they lay in different directions.

Some say she died that way, in grief, torn apart by the two different loves.

He pauses mid-note, fingers suddenly laid across the string to stop the sounds. “You,” he says, as if slightly spooked. “Are a more dangerous woman than you first appear.”

“Once,” she tells him, with mock seriousness, “A mouse ran over my foot in storeroom six. You should’ve heard me scream.” Dangerous does not even begin to describe me, Izuna-san.

He rolls his shoulders out and seems to refrain from sighing. “What do you want me to do, Hisa-san?”

Chapter Text

Izuna is silent as the darkness when they find the carriage Kimei had prepared for them, and the gate guards who were conveniently pretending that they saw nothing by both facing the wall. She’d compensate them of course, but even despite that, the highest courtesy of a servant is discretion. There are no idle tongues in their household, especially not from the young men who guarded the doors.

“You could not have known I would agree to this.” He’s still dressed in the blue zhiduo, but had put on a pair of black boots, a little bit scuffed about the heel and toe, and slid a short sword through his belt, but other than that, he didn't bring anything else.

He wouldn’t need to, everything they needed is already packed into the carriage because Kimei is meticulous and never missed a detail, not when embroidering patterns, and certainly not when preparing for scandalous plans.

“Unless I had deeply misjudged you, you were coming.” She remembers how he’d stood there in a half daze, blood on his face, and asked after someone else instead, even if it hurt him to stand and hurt him more to walk.

That did not, in particular, speak of a man who would let her do this alone.

He stares at her for another moment more, as if trying to piece something together, but doesn’t ask her whatever burning question he wanted to know the answers to.

Instead, he pulls aside the cloth hanging in the front of the carriage, offers her his hand to boost her up into it. Normally, there would be a small step ladder, for propriety and comfort, but she’d booked the kitchen help’s carriage late at night, not her own carriage, and it’s just a little lower to the ground so she hadn’t thought she’d need one.

What a mistake now.

“There’s no need for that.” She sets her knee against the wooden attachment hitching the carriage to the horse and pulls herself up. “Are you coming?”

“You want me to ride in the same carriage.” His voice is flat, tinged with a slight hint of amusement.

“Were you going to walk?” Of course, they could walk down to the Peach Blossom House, but not only does that mean there would be more opportunity for them to be seen and recognized, but more than that, she doesn’t know if after finding Hideyoshi, her cousin would be in any state to walk, sober or otherwise. It depends on what sorts of horror they’d subjected him to in the meantime.

With a huff, Izuna swings himself onto the front of the carriage, legs dangling off to the side as he takes the reins. “I suppose you wouldn’t know how to drive.”

She sits back letting the cloth drop.

“You know,” he says, almost as afterthought when they’re already on their way down the street. “If word got out about this to society you’d be ruined.”

“Then it’s a good thing I don’t plan to let anyone know about this.” Ruin or not, it is never only personal, and there is too much she cannot afford to lose.

Despite the late hour, Peach Blossom House is still open, lit up like few establishments across the city would be at night. During the day, Peach Blossom House is a gambling establishment, there to cater to the interests of bored men who had time to spend.

During the night, Peach Blossom House is a brothel, there to cater to men hiding from their wives and mothers, seeking the pleasures of flesh and pretty lies. They say that in brothels, every man is a lord, every woman is his true love.

She cannot see the appeal, but then, she is not a man. Perhaps there is something about the allure that could not be experienced by women.

Of course, the night is deep, and business has slowed even for businesses of ill repute, but that only meant fewer people here to see. They are going to put on quite a show. It will have spread through the city by sundown tomorrow, she is certain of it.

All the better that there are fewer who would see, and the passing of it from ear to ear would make even the truest original account hazy around the edges.

“Stay here, and for the gods’ sake, don’t come out.” Izuna slips from the carriage, and swaying, makes his way up to the doors of the establishment. “Suzuki Hideyoshi!” he roars. “Get out here and face me like a man!” He bangs on the door with a fist in an uneven rhythm, mimicking that of the drunk or very angry.

If her cousin is still in this house, it’s raised quite a racket now. If he isn’t, they’re going to find out what happened to him.

“Good sir!” The brothel madam rushes outside. “There’s no need to raise your voice. Whatever problems you might have with Young Master Suzuki, I’m sure you can find him to tell him without raising a ruckus before a good establishment.”

In the lantern light, Izuna sways, face somehow red, despite her knowing that he didn’t drink before coming here.

Well, no, there had been the sake tokkuri by his qin earlier, but he isn’t suddenly getting drunk with a half hour time delay. He’s a good actor then, made even better by the way he shakily draws his sword, pointing it in the direction of the brothel madam, careful to let the tip wobble as though he has no hand eye coordination or enough strength in his hand. “Tell me where you’ve put him,” he slurs. “Where’s that rat bastard hiding?”

If they could not be won over by Banryu’s kind words and a bribe to give up information, then there would come a time when a young man with a sword would win the information from them with threats.

That the threats are fake, well better Izuna than Hiko, who would likely project his discomfort all over the place. Plans that worked are infinitely better than plans that didn’t, after all.

“S-sir, please.”

“He owes me five thousand ryo.” By now, they’ve raised quite a ruckus, enough that other patrons and workers have been roused to look out their windows at the scene happening out in the street. “I want his hide.”

For a young man he’s never even seen before and wouldn’t recognize even if they passed each other on the street, Izuna’s doing a marvelous job of pretending to possess great rage and hatred towards her cousin.

“He’s not here!” shouts a man, from a second story window. “Stop ruining a good night!”

Izuna shouts something quite rude back up at the man in the window, several creative curses she hadn’t heard before. Carefully, she stores them away for later, when she needs to call someone particularly irritating a “pig-blooded boot-licking vassal state of a defunct empire,” or perhaps more crudely “a bastard who crawled out of a goat pen.”

“You’re not the only one who wants money from him!” another man shouts from a different window. “Best take it up to the magistrate if you want him to pay his debts.”

The magistrate.

That could mean a variety of things.

“I don’t care about the law.” Seemingly with a great deal of concentration, Izuna manages to point his sword more determinedly at the brothel madam. “Tell me where you’re hiding him, or I come in and search this place.”

The middle aged woman wrings her hands, distraught despite her attempts to diffuse the situation. “I shouldn’t say, oh I shouldn’t say.”

Carefully, in the carriage, Hisa unpins her hair, lets the heavy coils of it fall in a rough tangle down the nape of her neck as she shoves a hand through it and rubs it until it looks at least unkempt if not entirely haphazard as though she has just tumbled out of bed without any time to do much more than run.

Carefully, she loosens her collar as well, pulling at her sleeves until they are uneven.

If anyone knew she was doing this, it would go incredibly badly indeed.

But then, only those who step up to the gambling table can hope to win. Only those willing to lose something of value can gain anything of equal or greater value.

She did not spend her time at the card table or the mahjong game, didn’t bet on dice numbers or coin tosses, but on other, more intangible and more important things.

Of course, at the gambling table, one could lose as well.

But she intends to win.

Izuna is silent at this, but his swaying has stopped, more or less.

“He’s not here!” It seems that the threat of violence had gotten through to the brothel madam. “He got into a drunken fight and got himself arrested, he’s been processed already.”

The jail then. There’s only one in their city.

That’s her cue.

She clambers to the front of the carriage, slaps the reins against the horse’s flank. It spooks horse so suddenly, the carriage suddenly jolts forward, out of the general darkness of the street. “Brother! Brother!” Her loose hair slides over her shoulder, jostles in the wind from the faster moving carriage as she pulls the horse to a stop before the brothel house. “Brother what are you doing?” She hisses, grabbing at his sword arm with both hands. “You have to come home, what if Chichi-ue hears of this?”

With her hair in disarray, clothes smudged with dirt from the inside of the kitchen staff’s carriage, and her face turned away from the brothel house, it is likely that no one would recognize her, especially not dressed like this, in a drab outfit that could not hold the eye of anyone for longer than a moment.

Kawaguchi Hisa never went out with such tawdry clothes.

Izuna makes to continue forwards, once again swaying, but she does not let go of his arm.

“Brother, please.” Her voice breaks on the word please, like the shattered hopes of a girl with no other god to beg except Guan Yin for mercy and compassion. “Come home, Brother, please.

Seemingly swayed by her pretense at genuine despair, Izuna turns and takes a stumbling step in her direction.

“I’m sorry,” she says, as though really distraught over how much face Izuna’s lost tonight. “I’m so so sorry, I’m sorry, Brother didn’t mean it, I’m sorry.”

It’s a sign of his skill that despite seemingly falling almost on top of her, that he didn’t add much if any of his weight to her.

Staggering and acting the part, they somehow make their way back to the carriage.

“You could have been seen.” Izuna deadpans as he takes up the reins again, in the gloomy darkness. “You said you didn’t plan to let anyone know about this.”

“I don’t.” Carefully, she begins pinning up her hair in the dark of the carriage as they rattle their way down the street. There is no need to look disheveled when getting to Hideyoshi after all. She might’ve played the part of a distraught girl from a lower middle class household, but she isn’t one, and her little cousin could see her act the part of herself, not anyone else. “Kawaguchi Hisa doesn’t have any brothers.” With a quick motion, she straightens her sleeves, folds her collar neatly and carefully over her collarbone.

Kawaguchi Hisa…

Well, that wasn’t exactly true is it.

Kawaguchi Hisa has no living brothers.

Getting to the prison is an easy thing.

Getting into the prison in the middle of the night is another thing entirely. Or, it would be, under normal conditions.

Thankfully, the man driving the carriage is a shinobi, and it is the work of a few gestures to befuddle the guards and sneak into the prison complex.

She’d thought, in the beginning, that perhaps they would have to resort to bribes, but Izuna had furrowed his brow at this and said that he knew a better way. She does not understand exactly how this way had worked better, but he had assured her that there was no likelihood of the carriage or them being discovered, and since she had chosen to trust him at his word before this, she sees no reason to trust him now, especially since they are now inside the prison with no one the wiser.

Perhaps this is why people distrusted and feared shinobi more than rōnin or sellswords. They broke the fabric of reality through powers that were closely guarded family secrets, and thus could not be trusted to adhere to common standards of honor, repayment and debt.

Society runs on round wheels, balanced scales, and debts owed and given. Shinobi broke all of those rules, a grain of sand in the eye of the world.

In the eye of the world, such an existence could not be tolerated or understood.

Izuna sets a hand on her sleeve, presses a finger to her lips and mouths some words too quiet for her to make out.

She, in her own way, assumes this means that they ought to be quiet.

Slowly, they make their way down the darkened hallway, lit only by torches, silence only broken by the sound of her feet and the rustle of straw and the clink of chains as prisoners turned in their sleep.

It smelled down here, of unwashed bodies, molding hay and uncirculated air, of sweat, blood and perhaps tears.

Hideyoshi might be here for his indiscretion, but it’s certain to be a shock to him indeed. Aunt Ruqa had always pampered him, let him want for nothing, hoped it would leave him with the resources he needed to succeed, but it never did.

Perhaps the gravity of this place would scare him so that he understood that even first sons of legitimate wives can be sent to prison, and that even eldest sons could lose favor with their father, their younger half brothers elevated above them.

Or perhaps he will have already forgotten by next week. Only time can tell.

They find her little cousin somewhere closer to the back of the jail, slumped and asleep in his cell, his hands manacled before him.

His hair had fallen out of his topknot, and hung in loose, greasy locks about his face. Something filthy had gotten onto his clothes, and she’s not at all sure that it would wash out. She hopes no one minds if he’s a little bit stained around the edges if they manage to make it out of this all in one piece.

She pulls on Izuna’s hand to get him to stop, tilts her head towards Hideyoshi as if to say “this one.”

He raises an unimpressed eyebrow at the slumped young man in the cell as if to say “are you certain?”

Grimly, she nods. This one, and unfortunately not the hardened criminal in the next cell over.

She reaches into her sleeve, and pulls out a selection of pins.

It is the work of a minute to open the cell door, the work of another to bend another pin beyond repair to force the shackles on her cousin open.

He wakes up at this point, and nearly gets the chance to open his mouth to scream, giving up every advantage they had before this.

Thankfully, Izuna slaps a hand over his mouth, cutting off his scream or whatever words he might be saying.

It takes another moment in the dim light for Hideyoshi to recognize her. She would be offended, except for how she’d chosen this outfit so that she wouldn’t be instantly recognizable. Not to mention, a prison cell is not where one expects to find one’s maternal female cousin who is roughly three and a half years older than oneself, especially if one was there in a cell for failing to control oneself.

She holds a finger to her lips and waits for him to nod.

Hideyoshi’s silence assured, she turns her gaze back up to Izuna, who with one motion, picks up her cousin, and they make for the door.

Outside, Izuna dumps Hideyoshi into the carriage unceremoniously, but bends down once again to offer her a hand up.

This time, because Hideyoshi is with them, she lets him hand her up into the carriage instead of clambering inside herself.

Izuna takes his place in the front of the carriage and taps the reins once against the flank of the horse, still no one the wiser at their nighttime visit.

She does not know the time, but she does know that they have been out for a long while now, and that the longer they stay the more likely someone at home will discover that she is missing, no matter what Kimei tries to do to hide it.

“Izuna-san, the Suzuki Household is the easiest to get to if you take the next left at the intersection.”

He nods to her, seemingly no longer willing to talk.

“Sister Hisa what are you...doing?” Hideyoshi seems to have recovered a bit from being carried out of his jail cell. “Who is that man? Are you here alone?” It is so improper.

She smiles sweetly at her cousin, though she is sure neither her sweetness or her smile touches her eyes. “I am cleaning up your messes for the last time, little brother.” And you nearly cost us more than I am willing to pay. “Do you understand?”

“But the man?”

Oh, her little cousin is still hung up over that.

She shrugs. “His name is Izuna-san.” And you have been more improper, no?

Given where her little cousin chooses to spend his time, she half expects that he has already tasted half a dozen lips, although of course, the standards men hold other men to are different than the standards women are held to.

And she is sure this explains everything and nothing at all.

Kimei has sent Aka ahead to the Suzuki Household, at least, that was the plan, and when the wide doors of the outer courtyard opened for them, she knew that all had been completed well enough.

The flower lanterns lit amidst stone gardens and trailing wisteria vines feel familiar, like a home and safety that could not be found outside. When cloaked in red, the light is warm and welcoming, a sign of civilization and home found like an island in a sea of night.

Aunt Ruqa is there to greet them, a sea of servant faces there to welcome the first young master home in whatever capacity they could.

Izuna slips from his place in the front of the carriage and pulls the curtain back to offer her a hand to help her climb out. He then turns away, as Hideyoshi clambers roughly out of the carriage himself.

“My son!” Aunt Ruqa surges forward, seemingly uncaring that Hideyoshi has been gone for over two nights now and smells of musty hay.

For all her faults, Aunt Ruqa is a devoted mother and a tenderhearted one. Watching the reunion makes her homesick for something that has been long gone now.

Some years ago now, she’d been forbidden from crossing the door of the sickroom.

The next day she’d been sent away.

By the time she was allowed to return, there was nothing left of Hiwara Maki except a tablet in the family shrine. Having a mother is a luxury she has not possessed for a long, long time.

With a throat suddenly closing in on itself with an emotion she would not name, she turns away.

Mother and son make their way into the house, through the various courtyards to the one occupied by Aunt Ruqa, Hisa, and in turn, Izuna, follow at a distance. There are words to say tonight. Words that might puncture Aunt Ruqa’s joy and relief at seeing her son alive.

But still, they must be said.

Tonight has ended well, for the most part, but Hisa knows the stakes she’d played with, and the gamble she’d taken.

It is not one she will lightly make again, not for Hideyoshi, so Aunt Ruqa ought to know just how and what had nearly been paid for her son’s freedom.

After the initial wild joy of seeing him in one piece and alive, Aunt Ruqa pulls back, seemingly examining his loose topknot and overall disheveled appearance. “Where were you?” She asks, on the verge of tears. “Do you know how much I worried?”

Hideyoshi shifts from foot to foot, perhaps trying to work out pins and needles in his legs. “I...Sister Hisa had to come get me.”

This time, at the very least, the worry he has caused his mother by his actions has shamed him to the core.

“From where?” When Aunt Ruqa can find no answers in her son, she turns to Hisa. “Hisa, where was he?”

She could protect him, she could say that Banryu brought him in after finding him in the Peach Blossom House, or an alleyway — she could say several things, but would that help him learn?

It would not.

“In prison.” She lifts her gaze to meet her aunt’s eyes. “He was arrested for fighting with someone in the Peach Blossom House. We had to go break him out.”

“In prison?” Aunt Ruqa covers her mouth, as if suddenly afraid of hearing the word from her own mouth, and then the second half of her previous statement sinks in. “Broke into?

“Yes.” After thinking about it for a moment, she continues. “Banryu of course, had to go to Peach Blossom House to find out about what had happened to Hideyoshi-kun.”

She might be punishing her aunt with the knowledge of what her son had been doing in a gambling den that also was a brothel house by night and getting rowdy enough to get arrested and thrown into jail, but she isn’t going to punish her aunt with the knowledge that her unmarried niece, who she’d come to to confide in her troubles and beg for help had gone out with a young man to a brothel house and had been seen.

Just as well she doesn’t, for Aunt Ruqa sinks into a chair with a quiet gasp. Using a handkerchief to cover her face, she begins to cry, softly, without the typical drama or hysterics of any one of her previous tears.

Hideyoshi falls to his knees, scrambles over to his mother, to hug at her leg. “Haha-ue, Haha-ue, I’m sorry. I won’t ever go back there again. I won’t, I promise.”

Aunt Ruqa does not respond to this, still sobbing without restraint. “What will your father think? How will I explain this to him?”

To this, Hisa has no good answers either.

There is pain yes, in this realization, but there is no way mistakes do not cause pain to those who care the most for the person making them.

But it does no good to let smaller mistakes steep and grow to be bigger ones.

Between the ruin of a house and the temporary discipline needed to guide a spoiled young man back onto the right path?

There is only one path when faced with that choice.

Having said and done all that she needs to do, she retreats, back through the courtyard garden, across the stone path and back to the carriage.

Suddenly, she is tired, incapable of conversation, and somehow sad despite her successes, both in retrieving Hideyoshi, ensuring his future, and frightening him with rumors that will ensure he never steps out of the house again.

By the time she falls into bed in the early hours of the morning, she no longer really remembers the trip back, only the fatigue that has already settled heavily into her bones.

Kimei shakes her awake at midmorning, half laughing, half as if she wants to keep a straight face, but can’t. “Hisa, Hisa.”

She groans, tries to pull her covers over her head, and completely fails as Kimei bundles them down towards the foot of the bed.

“Hisa, Hisa, you won’t believe what Sute came to tell me this morning.”

“What did Chiba-san’s courtyard manager say?” While she still has not slept enough, she’s quite happy to hear from Sute, who has always been well mannered and devoted to Momo-ko.

“Oh! You wouldn’t believe it, you really wouldn’t.” Kimei sits on the edge of her bed, shaking with laughter and mirth.

“Well, Kimei, you have to tell me now.” She sits up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. It’s time enough for her to get out of bed anyway. “I won’t know if I believe it or not until I hear it from you.”

Kimei leans in. “I heard this from Sute who heard it from Miwa who was in the courtyard at the time when it happened.” So this story had come from Aunt Ruqa’s household, and from her own courtyard at that.

Suddenly, she’s even more interested than before.

Kimei smiles, playfully pushing her shoulder “And now you look like you’ve grown another pair of ears.”

She shoves Kimei back, suddenly laughing. “You were the one so eager to tell me!”

“Well,” Kimei begins, with mock exaggeration. “I heard, that this morning, someone finally told Suzuki Hideyoshi that he has a very angry sword wielding young man out for his head.”

The two of them burst into laughter, both already in on the origins behind the story.

“Well,” Hisa asks, after she has gotten her giggles in check. “What did Miwa tell Sute Hideyoshi’s reaction was?”

She can’t imagine any reaction but a humorous one. Perhaps it would scare her cousin into thinking straight for once.

“That’s the best part!” Kimei leans back, propped up on only her hands. “Hisa, he near fainted dead away. He won’t go outside for love or money.”

She tries to picture this and nearly falls backwards onto the bed with laughter, laughs until tears stream down her cheeks, until her sides ache and her breath just about leaves her lungs completely. “H-he’s a-almost a g-grown man.” Again, she breaks into hysterics.

Until her cousin figured out and paid his gambling debts, somehow, he would stay indoors to avoid getting killed by his crazy sword wielding attempted murderer.

Only time would tell how long this would take and how well it would work, but for now, it is another task completed.

Another task completed, something laid to rest.

Suddenly, another thought springs to mind. “Has someone told Chichi-ue?”

She and Kimei stare at each other for a moment, a slightly horrified feeling sneaking across the space between them like a particularly conniving mouse.

After all, Kimei had heard this secondhand from Sute who worked in Chiba-san’s courtyard.

If Sute has heard about it already, wouldn’t that mean that Chichi-ue has also heard about it?

That afternoon she very carefully gathers the ingredients for lotus flower cake as the kitchen hums with the busy work of making dinner. The kitchens never truly stilled, not between sunrise and sunset and often would be bustling and loud even after dusk, but for this task, she is allotted one small corner of a table and a place by one of the stoves, crackling wood fire maintained by Kimei.

What she plans to make is a dessert that may well ruin their dinner appetites, but Chichi-ue has always appreciated this particular pastry.

She rolls up her sleeves before she begins, kneading sugar, butter, egg yolk and dried coconut together with the heel of her palm. The cakes are made up of an inner filling, around which a folded single layer of outer covering is wrapped and then cut into eight divisions, which would mirror a blooming lotus flower when fried in hot oil.

The day is hot and sticky, and the work stains her hands and leaves her brow soaked with sweat, but she has caused her father to worry most likely, and it’s not such a sacrifice on her part to make him fanciful pastries that he enjoyed.

She is tired today, which is perhaps why she reacts a moment slower than normal, a sizzling drop of hot oil landing on the back of her hand when she fishes the last of the cakes from the open pot with a pair of already oily chopsticks, hands slippery with grease and egg.

“Hisa!” Kimei rises from tending the fire, seemingly with the supernatural ability to tell when she is hurt, about to cause a scene or send for Jizen-sensei, but she shakes her head.

“It’s only a drop, nothing serious.”

Kimei sighs, a soot stain across her forehead. “You always say that.”

She wipes at the soot on Kimei’s face, only serving to mix a bit of the soot and sweat together until it becomes a grime. “Because I’m always right.” For someone who wasn’t injured very often, Kimei did worry excessively about her.

She sets the cake among its companions — a perfect blooming flower with a touch of pink about the petals, a soft yellow center — and arranges the cakes all again to look a little bit more artistic on the platter, ignoring the stinging in her right hand, rolls down her sleeves until they hide the blisters forming in a cluster on the back of her hand, and picks up the platter to bring to her father’s study.

“Chichi-ue?” She raps her knuckles on his doorframe, jolting pain in her hand forgotten as she awaits her father’s reply. “May I come in?”

“Of course you may.” He doesn’t look up from the book that he is reading when she enters, slipping into the room on light feet, a smile pressed into the creases of her lips, just waiting to see his face light up with delight regarding her newest creation.

“Chichi-ue.” She sets the plate before him on the desk. “Chichi-ue, I made your favorite lotus flower cakes!”

As if by cue, his serious expression brightens. “Oh?” He smiles, brown eyes alight with a boyish joy as he sets his book aside on the desk face down, spine bent. “What sort of occasion is this that gives me the opportunity to sample your cooking skills?”

She sits down on the chair by his side, leans her head on his shoulder, smiling as well. “Chichi-ue likes to flatter me. Despite my best efforts, these ones are a bit misshapen.”

He picks one of them up with a pair of chopsticks, holding it up to the light to admire it for a moment. “Beautiful,” he pronounces, before taking a bite.

She remembers long ago, when she was younger, he would say this too, at whatever she had brought him — the first time she embroidered flowers, the first pattern she’d woven, the first lotus cake she’d made — anything she brought him would be met with this same sort of approval and happiness even if they were not really well done. Beautiful is a word she’d heard often, but never in relation to herself, not from her father.

The accounts she’d gone over, the poem she’d written, the first time she’d played High Mountains on the qin — these things were met with different words.

Clever. Well managed. Done well.

The daughter of her father is quick-witted, well-spoken, courageous, kind, but not “beautiful” specifically. Objects could be merely beautiful, but people are rarely so simplistic. Any man who tells her she is merely beautiful ought to be kept at arm’s length, preferably farther, with a courtyard and sturdy walls between them.

And even now, though the years have passed, though she has grown from girl to young woman, and his hair is streaked with gray, they still had the same sort of conversations.

“I heard a funny story this morning, when Toshi came in with my tea before breakfast,” he says, after a few bites. “Apparently, there is a young man out there somewhere who wants my good nephew’s hide for his gambling debts.”

Ah, so Chichi-ue has heard. Of course he has.

Leisurely, he continues. “Of course, the Peach Flower House couldn’t produce Hideyoshi-kun, since he’d already gone home, of course, and the young man couldn’t be arrested because he was behaving so erratically.” A slight pause, a hum of thought.

“But what really struck me was how nearly immediately after someone had told this young man about Hideyoshi-kun being in a jail cell — now of course, he was never in the jail cell, he went home early as you must recall — a carriage clattered out of the night and out hurried this very same young man’s sister who begged him to come home most earnestly.”

Her father turns to her, a smile still on his lips, amusement in his eyes. “What do you think of this story, Hisa-chan?”

She mock pouts. “I didn’t know, Chichi-ue, that you had started listening to outlandish gossip in your old age.”

“Outlandish story, you say?” He taps the tip of her nose with a finger. “Do you want to hear what I think about this story?”

Does she really want to know? She could shake her head, but then Chichi-ue will likely tell her anyway. “If Chichi-ue really must.”

“I think my daughter needs to hide more carefully when she goes out of the house. Your father is old and gray, yes, but not quite so old and gray as that.” He sighs, the sound soft, but with amusement. “Who else but my daughter would stage such a marvelous southern play all for the sake of scaring one boy into staying at home?”

She scowls. “It was necessary.”

“I’m sure it was.” He picks up her right hand, brushing her sleeve back to her wrist. “Now will you go to Jizen-sensei and have him bandage your hand?”

That night, they sit down to dinner in her father’s courtyard, all of them including her aunts and cousins. Tonight, Chiba-san is remarkably pale and quiet, having not said much since the beginning of the soup.

Momo tugs at her sleeve, with a lisping voice asking for her attention to look at something that she’s made in the past day, and Hisa turns to her instead of wondering what Chiba-san is thinking of.

“Neesan, how does it look?” Momo anxiously waits for her pronouncement on the jagged line of stitches meant to form lines and shapes.

A little bit of patience is needed to make them finer, straighter, more even, but for an early effort it is “beautiful,” she tells her sister. “I very much like it.”

Momo beams, pigtails bouncing as she bobs in her seat. “Neesan really thinks so?”

“Of course I do.” She pats Momo on the head before handing back the embroidery hoop. “You’ve got a good eye for color.”

Momo claps and giggles, looking back down at the pattern in her lap with renewed determination, and she considers for a moment that perhaps this is how her father still feels about her.

It is not a bad feeling.

“Big Brother, a moment of your time?” Aunt Hasuyo sets her bowl down, chopsticks arranged across the top neatly. “There’s been a matter I’ve given much thought to the past few days.”

Chichi-ue turns to her then. “Something happened with the silk?”

Aunt Hasuyo often left the estate in her carriage with her handmaids to go into the city, because she managed the process of tending to the silkworm larvae and the women who then spun boiled, spun, and spooled the silk before it would come back to the estate for refinement, matched to a dye lot and woven into cloth. Ostensibly, Aunt Hasuyo did this under the guidance of Chichi-ue, her brother-in-law and patriarch, but Hisa knew very well that her father rarely intruded upon the process or rechecked the accounts of what had been accomplished.

If the dye houses and accounts therein are her tasks, her second aunt’s is to watch over the production of the silk, but even then, it didn’t mean that Aunt Hasuyo’s expertise couldn’t run out.

Hisa turns her attention to this conversation, suddenly curious. The silkworms have never been her affair, although she is at least nominally familiar with the process, having never tried it herself.

Aunt Hasuyo beckons one of her handmaids over, and the girl pulls a small pouch from her sleeve which is presented to Chichi-ue, who pulls open the drawstring and dumps the contents onto the table.

A few brown leaves drift onto the stone work, twisted and stunted. The veins remained visible but the edges had crinkled, browning heavily while the edges of the brown spots had darkened to a dead black outline.

At the other table, there is a shriek of protest as Torakichi evidently does something to scandalize Somei, and Aunt Niwa hurries over to preside over the dispute. The words “it’s not fair” drifts back to her, and she can only hope that Aunt Niwa isn’t being partial to her own son over one of his cousins again while everyone else is paying attention to the slightly more important topic of conversation.

“Something’s damaged the mulberry leaves?” Hisa reaches across the table and picks one up, examining how the injuries have spread. This would be a problem for them — Aunt Hasuyo managed the silk production but not the plants that fed the silkworms.

“Only a small portion of the leaves coming in from the fields have exhibited these symptoms,” Retsu picks up another one of the leaves, her food forgotten. Her cousin sighs softly. “But it’s best to figure out what is happening before the problem worsens. We’ve seen more of these leaves in recent days.”

“I will take a trip out to the fields tomorrow morning to look at the trees myself.” Chichi-ue turns to the other side of the courtyard. “Toshi, remind someone to prepare my carriage for tomorrow.” The middle aged man nods, and Chichi-ue turns back to the dinner table. “I’ll also check the books tonight for mentions of what could be the matter, but for now, dinner?”

And for the moment, the problem is put behind them.

Chapter Text

“Neesan is so pretty.” Momo swings her feet back and forth, hands curled around the edges of the dark lacquer bench.

They are sitting together in the back of Hisa’s personal rooms in front of the bronze looking glass as Hisa prepares to go out.

She turns to her younger sister, a piece of lipstick paper held loosely in her fingers. “Oh?”

Momo is too young to be present in gatherings outside of the household and would be for some time yet, but she could be present for Hisa’s preparations for these sorts of events.

One day, Momo would be the one sitting at her own vanity, powdering her neck, painting her eyebrows, drawing dark kohl over her eyelids, darkening the shape of her eyes, lengthening the corners, pressing her lips against the red paper, twisting up each heavy coil of her long dark hair.

One day, when Hisa is much older, she will brush out Momo’s hair on her little sister’s wedding day, reach up into her own hairstyle, and pull out her mother’s favorite hair stick, and slide it into Momo’s hair.

One day, they will deck her little sister out in as much finery as money can buy, and send her out of her maiden household onto a bridal sedan chair, and pray, perhaps, that the man who will be her husband is a kind one like their father.

Today, Momo slides herself off of the bench to tug at her sleeve.

She bends down obligingly, and Momo pats her face, laughingly, a child’s joy at seeing this typical finery. “Neesan has pretty eyes, like lapis lazuli.” Momo leans close, whispers the next words in her ear. “Kimei says that lapis lazuli is a rich man’s stone.”

Though her face is often said to resemble her mother's, she takes after her father in the rounded curve of her jaw and the gently sloping bridge of her nose; her blue eyes are the same color as Hiwara Maki’s. In her memories, her mother’s eyes laughed. They danced, holding secrets and pretty promises, and lived with a love and memory that she does not associate with her own eyes.

Especially when looking into the mirror, she cannot recall ever seeing her eyes alight with joy.

But this is Momo’s joy, and she shouldn’t take that from her sister. “Thank you,” she says, “but I think one day, you will grow up to be much prettier than your neesan.”

Momo’s mouth makes a perfectly round o before she throws her hands up before it, a gasp and a giggle escaping anyway. “Nuh-uh.” Her little sister shakes her head emphatically. “Nuh-uh-uh.

She smiles at this. “What?” She taps Momo’s nose once in a moment when her little sister’s hands slip, before quickly pressing her lips against the rose red paper. “Little Peach, you will live for a hundred years, and grow bigger and more beautiful with each passing year.”

Her little sister’s name is not written in the character for peach like other girls’ names often are. Instead, Chiba-san had chosen the character for “a hundred” for her only daughter, so Momo bore a name with a double hundred.

A wish for a long life, with the expectation that it would be a happy one. It is, perhaps, a name more erudite and gentle than one expected.

But peach is cute, and Momo-ko is cuter.

“If I live for a hundred years then Neesan has to live for a hundred and one!” Momo hugs her leg when she stands. “So there will never be a day without Neesan.”

She almost smiles at this, suddenly aware that Momo’s grasp of years is much different than her own. Oh, little sister, she thinks, if I live for a hundred and one years, and you live for a hundred, I will still leave you alone in the world for a very long sixteen years.

“Alright, alright.” She gently tugs one of Momo’s pigtails. “You win, you win, Momo-ko. I will not ever leave you alone.”

At this, Momo beams, satisfied at last.

Izuna has come with them, lazily keeping pace with their slow carriage train as it makes its way across the city and out a little ways into the country.

Lady Shikikami likes to host polo matches in the spring and summer, inviting the young people of Shunan to her events when she is in the city. It is often less a show of wealth and splendor, and more often an event of the season, fun in all ways that mattered.

In this way, O-Shiki liked to pass her time.

Hisa rather likes her, for her blunt and bold ways, for her general geniality, for never looking down on those of less noble birth than hers.

This is made more rare, perhaps, by her high titles, for the young woman she calls O-Shiki is the daughter of Lord Iemune, Marquis of Kyushu, and the wife of Lord Fusamoto, Count of Chubu. She’d grown up in Kakunodate, in the wheeling brightness of court life, taking tea with the Kogo, and meeting the princes.

Often, Hisa has found, those without much power, who only had titles to cling to, were the ones to put on the most airs, to hold to strict divisions of class and rank. Perhaps it made the local barons nervous that Fire Country’s merchant houses were on the rise, both in prosperity, wealth, and local power, which is why they are so determined to separate themselves, to keep the merchant houses “in their place.”

But O-Shiki, in the true spirit of the upper nobility, had never really cared, preferring to spend her time with people whose company she enjoyed rather than constantly reminding others of why they were beneath her in every way. It made her popular, although other members of the nobility in their region could neither understand it nor accept it quite the way that Lord Fusamoto did.

But still they would come, if only because Lord Fusamoto is the administrator of Chubu and therefore not a man whose wife they want to snub, especially since Lord Fusamoto took every snub to his wife as a personal snub as well. It is this that indicates that O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto had a happy marriage, for O-Shiki has always guarded her family fiercely as well.

O-Shiki is Lord Iemune’s only daughter, so when she married a count with a country post and moved to Shunan, she was unused to the change. Away from the light and intrigue of court, among the society of their mid-sized city, she became a big fish in a small pond.

It has been a few years now, since O-Shiki moved to Shunan, marrying the only son of the late Lord Hiramoto. It has been a few years, and Kore-kun is turning two soon, at which point O-Shiki may plan another party or a small gathering.

Carefully, she considers what sort of object she would give the little heir of Chubu for his two year old birthday. There is no space for a misstep, especially since O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto have always been kind to her.

“Hisa, you’re not dressed for polo today.” Kimei sighs. “Are you still upset that Kawaguchi-san found out about—”

“He shouldn’t have to worry.” After his last trip to the fields, Chichi-ue had come back worried though he tried to hide it. “But no, I decided I didn’t want to get all made up only to ruin it during a match.” She laughs. “Maybe I’ve grown a bit more vain recently.”

O-Shiki had written to her, a day or so before, asking that she “make some time for introductions,” because O-Shiki had “found someone [she] thinks that [Hisa] would appreciate.”

While she has long despaired of ever marrying — what man would want a wife who would not leave her name behind? — it doesn’t mean she isn’t supposed to try.

And it doesn’t mean there isn’t a spark within her that wants the sort of happiness she has seen other people have, despite marriage not often being kind to either party.

“I suppose,” she says after another few moments of shocked silence from Kimei. “That I will have to simply amuse myself with the poetry games and pitch pot.”

Kimei nudges her, suddenly sly. “You mean you want to clear out the prizes and make everyone who hoped to win a hairpin or some other fun object weep.”

She nudges Kimei back, suddenly amused once more, meeting with another man forgotten for the moment. “Then they shouldn’t make themselves such easy targets.”

A long time ago, Haha-ue had taught her how to play pitch pot, when spring dallied on its way to summer, and peach petals peppered the air like a rain of pastel pink. Anija had played with her then, busy as he was with his books.

She’d won every time, laughed with the giddy brilliance of it — on the warmth of the air, the sound of children’s voices.

Suddenly remembering that they will be at the Kusakabe Manor soon, she turns her attention away to look out the window instead.

“Hisa-chan!” O-Shiki waves a handkerchief far up the field when she spots her, beaming, the cranes of the Kasukabe clan mon on her shoulders rippling. “Hisa-chan, I’m so glad you made it.”

Technically, by hurrying, she would be rude — unladylike, and leaving Retsu behind — but by not hurrying she would also be rude — by not answering what is clearly a summons from not only a friend, but a person of much higher rank than her.

But to dally between the two will invite both sorts of criticism. Better to be gossiped about for one or the other, not both.

Retsu will have to complain to her later then, when they are home. She picks up her pace, although not by too much, edging her way down the walkway through a sudden storm of whispers.

She is used to them now, after three years of coming to gatherings dressed the way she does, as brightly colored and made up just as fine as any of the women from higher houses than hers, with embroidery on her sleeves and silver in her hair.

Nothing else in their house draws the eye, for they do not live above their station, but the daughter of Kawaguchi Yasutaro wears silk and embroidery, a thousand different colors and shades if travelling beyond her own front doorstep, a walking image of what their wares could be, if cut and made to flatter the figure.

They may whisper, but they part for her all the same, some once again green with the envy of not being able to afford the light lavender silk and hours it’d taken for the camellias on her wide sleeves.

The last time, she’d dressed for the early summer, in pale pink like the blush of the morning sky, and honeysuckle stitched with heavy gold and silver thread chasing the hems across the front and back panels of her pleated skirt.

“I thank you for having me,” she says when she has gotten close enough to stand before O-Shiki, who laughingly takes her by the hand.

“Of course I would have you. You know I couldn’t possibly miss you if you could spare the time to come out to play.” Curiously, O-Shiki glances over her shoulder, as if looking at or for someone. “Who is the guest you’ve brought with you, Hisa-chan?”

She glances back at who O-Shiki is looking at and finds Izuna there, dressed as he has been much like the first time she’d seen him, in a wide-collared shirt and the same dark pants. He must be the guest O-Shiki had asked after then.

He looks a little startled himself, a hand on the hilt of his sword as if he truly expected to use it.

She had invited him as a guest today, if only because there are no caravans travelling this week, a slight lull in the situations of business as Chichi-ue has made other plans. He had agreed to come, even if he had not agreed to leave his sword behind. Perhaps all shinobi felt uncomfortable if parted from their weaponry. She’s certainly never seen him without his sword before.

In this sleepy city where people come and go with the seasons, but always the same people moving in this same social circle, she supposes that he is a very new face in a gathering of familiar ones.

“Oh, this is Uchiha Izuna-san.” Seeing as she had brought the guest, she ought to make the proper introductions. “He is a shinobi from Yanai.” She turns to introduce O-Shiki to Izuna properly. “And this is Lady Shikikami, the wife of the administrator of the Chubu region.”

Lord Fusamoto is in attendance today, having seemingly taken a break from his administrative duties, and in high spirits, already on the polo field, a stick in hand, the Kusakabe jade pendant flashing in the afternoon light.

“An honor to make your acquaintance.” Izuna bows low.

“Likewise, an honor to make yours.” O-Shiki returns his bow with a slight one of her own, a warm smile on her face. “We always welcome visitors from our neighbors in Tohoku.” Tohoku does border Chubu, and Izuna does come from Yanai, which is the regional capital of Tohoku, just as Shunan is the capital of Chubu.

Still, she thinks she has missed something. What she has missed, though, is deeply unclear and does not get explained.

Some expression that Hisa can’t make out crosses Izuna’s face, before disappearing once more. “And we appreciate our neighbors of Chubu for hosting.” Despite the oddness of the exchange, it is quickly forgotten when Kore-kun toddles around the corner of the pavilion looking for where his mother has gone.

The young man O-Shiki had wanted to introduce her to today seems to have mysteriously vanished. Which, O-Shiki does not seem to mind overmuch, being more interested in presiding over various ladies cooing over her son and greeting guests as they arrive.

Instead, Hisa ends up watching the first polo match from the center pavilion, somehow next to Togakami Junto. She only knows him as a passing acquaintance, a fair weather friend of her little cousin who has led him astray more than once, a patron of brothel houses and gambling dens, concerned with only his own hedonistic enjoyment of life.

But then, he is a second son, the child of a concubine and forever in the shadow of his older and more virtuous brother, so of course, Hisa has never made his proper acquaintance before.

“Kawaguchi-san wears camellias today,” he says, almost as if a side note, opening his fan with a flick of his wrist, still watching the match.

“Togakami-san has good eyesight.” She would rather be on the field right now playing polo. Lord Fusamoto has just scored another point, and yet his team is still losing even though he is in fine form today.

If she had dressed to play polo today, the opposing team would be beating him much more soundly.

“They are right to call camellias the princess of flowers.” From the corner of her eye, she spots the blooming lotus flower painted on his fan. “After all, it is a flower of virtue, dignity and beauty.”

“Togakami-san is very well studied.” Lord Fusamoto scores another point, pulling slightly ahead of the opposing team and giving a solid cheer at the ball going into goal. She had chosen camellias because they are bold and pink and represent a young, unmarried woman in her youth, which is only appropriate given her circumstances and what she had planned to be doing today.

“And yet, I think that you have outshone the camellia flower today, Kawaguchi-san.”

Oh, for the love of—

“Togakami-san seems to have eyes and yet not the depth of study to understand what he sees,” Izuna takes a step and ends up standing between her and Togakami Junto. “Or maybe not the manners.”

She glances up at Izuna and almost shakes her head, but the slightly amused smile she sees on his face seems to say that he finds this at the very least, an entertainment more fixating than the polo match they are all supposed to be looking at.

“A stranger from a distant land can’t possibly read all of Kawaguchi-san’s moods,” Togakami says airly, waving his fan.

Somehow, his dismissal of Izuna makes her mood simmer like a vat about to boil over.

“The stranger would like to remind Togakami-san that to seek conversation where there is no desire for one is dreadfully rude.” Izuna winces sympathetically when Lord Fusamoto clips the hand of a local baron. Perhaps by accident, or perhaps by design, it is always hard to tell with Lord Fusamoto who both gains and lets go of grudges like the river water rolls down a slope.

With a huff, Togakami Junto moves to a slightly different location in the pavilion.

The rest of this match, she and Izuna end up watching in companionable silence, blessedly free of more interruptions or distractions.

Perhaps she should bring him to parties more often.

After the polo matches, they’d retired to the interior of the Kusakabe Estate, to where they are now, eating snacks, sipping tea while the men drank wine, and playing pitch pot. Kiyowara-hime, the dowager countess, presiding over the affair with Kore-kun babbling quietly in her lap.

She has won the last two games, which means she now owns a new inkstone and a set of horsehair brushes to go with it.

She still intends to play the next game, but the others in the courtyard are still waiting for someone to step up to challenge her. It has only been two games, but they’ve already started to remember that while she normally contented herself with polo, she also enjoyed pitch pot.

“What,” O-Shiki laughs. “No one is willing to challenge Hisa-chan? Not even for this lovely jade swallow from Suzuki-sensei’s workshop in Kakunodate?” After another moment of silence, she speaks again. “My, how we’ve grown complacent in our skills since Hisa-chan last played pitch pot with us.”

The little jade swallow is a lovely piece and worth even more because O-Shiki had bought it in the capital from a famous jade smith specifically because she wanted to throw a party.

“I suppose I’ll have a go.” Lord Fusamoto stretches, having risen from O-Shiki’s side. “Yome,” he says, with a smile towards O-Shiki. “I suppose I ought to attempt to keep this one prize from Hisa-san’s undeterred winning streak.”

“I would not dare to be so audacious, Kusakabe-sama.” She dips into a deep bow, as is only right and proper a greeting for the Lord Administrator of Chubu.

A cheer goes up from the watching crowd who find this a particularly romantic and amusing idea after having watched the Lord Administrator of Chubu lose several polo matches this afternoon.

O-Shiki hides a smile behind her round fan, playing coy from behind the cherry blossoms. “Then I wish you the very best of luck, shujin.” She leans over to the side. “Hisa-chan, I shall most certainly not be upset if you win!”

Hisa smothers a laugh at this from behind her own fan, which she hastily snaps open to hide the lower half of her face. “O-Shiki, how could I dare?”

Lord Fusamoto sighs, laughingly. “I see how it is.” He presses a hand to his heart. “And I am wounded by how the love between friends seems to have triumphed over the feelings between lovers.”

Today, all are in good spirits, so the arrows are brought out once more and the vases filled with dried beans to keep them upright.

“As the guest, you ought to go first, Hisa-san.” Lord Fusamoto passes her an arrow fletched with white.

Demurely, she accepts.

“Ah,” sighs Lord Yamamoto, the oldest baron at the gathering, “a green plum and a bamboo horse. To be young, to be young and in love like our Lord Administrator and his lovely wife!”

A toast is passed around, and all are again well pleased by this show of affectionate love and bets are placed once more.

They all stand back and watch as she raises the arrow to the level of her ear, and with a flick, sends it towards the vase. A game of pitch pot came with a set of five arrows to be used as each player saw fit.

“The pole!” a young man shouts excitedly. “The pole is ten points!” Her arrow had slotted neatly into the center opening of the vase. Not bad for an opening show, though it came with the lowest amount of points.

Fancy steps are reserved for later in the game.

Lord Fusamoto laughs, good natured and also pleased. “Not holding back, I see.” He raises an arrow fletched with black and pitches it towards his vase with lackadaisical cheer.

“The ear, tipped!” Young Master Sato proclaims. “Kusakabe-sama that’s eleven points!”

Just one more point than her opening volley, even if Lord Fusamoto had seemed careless about it.

“Hisa-chan!” O-Toyo leans forward in her seat, the silver lotus at the tip of her hair stick flashing as she did so, to look at her from behind her brother who seems to be announcing the scores for this game. “Hisa-chan, I’m cheering for you.”

She flashes a smile towards her school friend in green before returning to thoughts of the game.

“Kusakabe-sama honors me with high compliments.” She responds, as she picks up another arrow from the pitcher beside her.

However terrible Lord Fusamoto is at polo, it doesn’t erase the fact that he is really not bad at pitch pot. She has not played against him in a while now, and he’s likely stepped into the game to give the guests a good show. Not all games could be won so easily and so amusingly. It would ruin the jovial mood.

Meaning, she ought to pick a fancier next shot than simply the pole, if his move of the ear, tipped, is any indication. The gathered guests would like to see their fancy moves and fun with each other. Once more, she flicks an arrow at the vase. It slides neatly through the left ear and hits the ground with a light thump.

“The ear!” Twenty points.

“Nonsense.” He picks up two arrows, tests the direction of the wind, and with another flick, strikes the vase. “Hisa-san is most certainly worthy of compliments.”

“Both ears!” Twenty-five points.

Still, for that move, he had used two arrows, and now only had two left.

She considers her next move and picks up two arrows. “Kusakabe-sama is an extremely kind and generous host.” He is six points ahead of her now, still not playing with any particular seriousness. Maybe he’s underestimated how much she likes to win because of the politeness of her last two volleys.

The crowd is here for a good show, so she cannot end this game early.

“Double pole!” Fifteen points.

She has one arrow left.

Lord Fusamoto raises both of his remaining arrows and postures for a moment.

“Double ear!” Thirty points.

His final score is 66, a perfect and lucky number. Her current score stands at 45.

He turns to her, still smiling. “Well, Hisa-san? One last arrow for you.”

With one arrow left, there are still two moves that would end the game in her favor — the pole, tipped, and a flat, both worth fifty points.

She twirls the remaining arrow around her fingers for a moment. Both the pole, tipped, and a flat would win her the game, but she knew of the two, which one would earn more favor with the crowd.

And well, she’d always liked to gamble.

She raises the arrow to the level of her ear, gauges the direction of the wind, and adds a slight spin to the flick of her wrist.

It spins through the air impossibly slow, and the whole courtyard of people hold their breath.

The arrow clatters flatly onto the top of the three openings of the vase — ear, pole, ear.

Flat.” Young Master Sato whispers the designation almost reverently. “Fifty points.”

More than she likes to gamble, she likes to win.

There is a shocked silence for another moment more, and then the crowd bursts into wild cheers and slightly dismayed groans as money exchanges hands, and bets are won and lost. Whatever else it’s been, it’s been a good show.

“Kusakabe-sama went easy on me today,” she says, bowing deeply in Lord Fusamoto’s direction.

He laughs, a touch rueful, a touch amused. “Hisa-san’s strategy proved devastating. A totally worthy win.”

“Kusakabe-sama is too kind.”

But when the pendant is presented to her laughingly by O-Shiki, she takes it anyway, the spoils of her own personal achievements.

That evening, after she had placated Retsu with the new inkstone and brush set, Aka comes to her front sewing room, where she is sitting at her larger loom, weaving and Kimei is putting the finishing touches on the new wool cloak she hopes to give her father before he travels again, more baffled than concerned. “Hisa, something has happened.”

Outside, the flower lanterns in the courtyard flicker, but inside, she has lit an oil lamp and it was shielded from the drafts by a stand of stiff red waxed paper. There is a warmth to firelight that gives it a bright glow, more orange than the sunlight.

“Well?” she asks, not taking her eyes from Chang’e’s face, slowly coming to life under her shuttle. The goddess in the moon’s story is an old one, and a sad one, but one she remembers and is fond of. What must it be like, to be able to rise to the moon, and yet choose to not go further? “What has happened that is not immediately concerning but still pressing?”

Retsu had understood in the end, why it is that Hisa played at the games of nobles when out, even if O-Shiki is a friend and had invited them out of goodwill, so it is likely not her sixteen year old cousin who has started whatever Aka is concerned about now.

Aka shifts slightly, wringing her hands. “Well, it’s about Izuna-san.”

Izuna? She wasn’t aware that there was some other incident that came up regarding him, considering how he had retired in the direction of his room after they had returned. “What about Izuna-san?”

“Well, none of us know if it is something that shinobi do, but…” Aka sighs, “he is floating upon the koi pond.” Something in her face must’ve expressed concern because Aka hastens to add “face up, Hisa. He is face up. He’s not, not dead, and he has his eyes open it’s just,” and here Aka’s volume drops. “Is it something that shinobi do? Dharma Wheel was nibbling at his fingers earlier.”

At least it didn’t sound that concerning, although, it is extremely odd.

And enough of a problem that she should likely go and take a look at it if Aka, who is normally level-headed and not prone to anxious thoughts, thought it odd enough to report to her.

Gently, she places her shuttle on top of the finished portion of her work — Chang’e’s outfit is a pale pale green, and each pattern on her sash took another four to five colors to create — before accepting her traveling lantern from Kimei who had prepared it a few moments ago to step outside.

“I shall see what the matter is with Izuna-san then.” She exchanges a glance with Kimei, who goes back to her check of Chichi-ue’s new cloak.

She knows the path to the koi pond well, as it is in the main courtyard where guests are often greeted, between her own courtyard and Chichi-ue’s which is across the way.

The lantern only illuminated the path before her for a few steps, but she comes out of the bamboo glade and before her is the koi pond.

Which, now that she is looking for him, she finds Izuna-san lying on top of the water next to the duckweed and reeds, his hair spread out like the strands of some particularly fine seaweed, staring blankly up at the moon.

“Izuna-san?” she asks, holding her lantern out over the water. “Is there a reason you are floating upon the koi pond at this time of night?”

She is certain he has never done this before, for he would’ve been found out immediately by some passing maid or manservant, meaning, something about today had sparked his rather odd desire to lie on top of the water in late September, becoming increasingly soggy, getting nibbled at by her father’s favorite fish, and potentially catching a chill.

“I was seen,” he murmurs, still absently staring up at the moon. “The Lord Administrator of Chubu and his lady wife saw me.”

“I invited you to a gathering,” she says slowly, trying to figure out what he means by ‘was seen.’ “Do shinobi go to gatherings and remain unseen?”

That would be a rather odd sort of party, if the purpose of everyone is to remain unseen and unheard and therefore not have a good time.

“I don’t even know the Lord Administrator’s name,” he continues faintly. “I didn’t learn it before I came here, and it would’ve been too embarrassing to ask, after you played pitch pot with him while calling him Kusakabe-sama.” A slight pause. “I don’t know his lady wife’s name either.”

She blinks, rather bemused by the existence of this conversation at all. “Lord Kusakabe Fusamoto is the Lord Administrator of Chubu, and its Count. Lady Asukabe Shikikami is his lady wife, and the current countess. Kusakabe-sama’s lady mother yet lives, and is Kiyowara-hime, the dowager countess, a princess of the second rank. They have a son, Koremoto-kun who will turn two years old this October.”

“The Lord Administrator of Chubu is a count.” There is a rippling sound as Izuna raises the hand Dharma Wheel was attempting to nibble at and scrubs it over his face. “His mother is a princess. Hisa-san,” he says after doing so, still floating dramatically upon the water’s surface. “Do you often call visiting counts with relations to royalty ‘a gathering hosted by a dear friend?’”

Not that being related to royalty had saved Kiyo-hime or Lord Fusamoto heartache and grief. Life in the imperial court came with pain that could not be paid for with gold or jade. Even though seven years have passed, the death of Lord Hiramoto weighed heavily on the social consciousness of Chubu.

“O-Shiki is a very dear friend of mine.” Made more dear by the fact that O-Shiki had many of the same views of the world as she did, just with sharper tongue and more power to say those words.

Izuna makes a rather stifled noise that sounds rather like a whimper. “I was seen,” he says again. “In terrible clothes and with a weapon.” Another rippling noise rises from the pond as he shifts. “I brought a weapon and was seen at a friendly party.”

Oh dear. This seems to matter much more to him than she thought. Carefully, she sits down on one of the rock benches by the koi pond. “I invited you because we have no caravans going anywhere for the next two weeks, as it will be Mid-Autumn soon, and I thought you might like to go somewhere for fun.”

He raises his head to look at her for a long moment before letting himself drop back onto the water with a squelch. “You invited me for fun.”

“Does it matter so much to you?” Carefully, she brushes out an errant crease in her sleeve. “Am I not supposed to invite you unless it is for work?” It had seemed like he had a fun time regardless of his current despair.

“I wasn’t dressed,” he makes a horrid sound. “I wasn’t dressed at all to see a count.”

Ah, so that is the problem.

Shinobi do adhere proper modes of dress and he feels embarrassed to have seemingly forgotten his manners.

“I do not think either Lord Fusamoto or O-Shiki minded very much.” But very clearly, Izuna minds that he wasn’t properly dressed. “But I am very sorry I did not give you advance notice of who we were visiting, and I will certainly do so in the future.”

“In the future, I will not be able to dress to see the Lord Administrator of Chubu either.” With a wet squelch, Izuna rolls over on his side and faces away from her. “Please, Hisa-san, I can’t be invited again.”

It is rather disconcerting that he can float on top of water like this as though water were a solid object to be floated upon at one’s leisure, but his other concern could be fixed more easily. “That is easily fixed.” She walks around the pond and offers him the hand that is not holding the lantern aloft. “Will you come out of the water, Izuna-san? I fear you will catch a chill if you stay here until morning.”

She has not brought him an appropriate cloak, but from what she has seen of his wardrobe, it is rather sparse.

Something to be fixed then.

“Hisa, Hisa, Kuma made you your favorite.” Kimei sets the bowl down carefully, blowing gently across the top of the bowl. “Snow fungus soup with dates and dried lotus seeds.”

“She shouldn’t have.” Snow fungus takes a notoriously long time to cook, for it needs to be soaked overnight before being boiled, and even then, very slowly over a low fire for several hours. This particular sweet soup, though beloved, is not a heat of the moment decision to make. “Tell her I said thank you.”

She sets aside her embroidery for the moment, the dark gray robe hanging over the top of her work table so that she might give her full attention to the soup.

Kuma has always doted on her, taking special care to feed her well, especially after some period of tiredness. Snow fungus and every other ingredient in this soup were meant to provide extra nourishment after all.

Kimei smiles. “Of course, I will. You’ve been working really hard recently.”

She looks up from a mouthful of soup, the porcelain soup spoon halfway to her lips. “We have been working very hard for the past few days.”

While she has done the detailed embroidery work, done most of the measuring, panel cutting, and designed what they were making, all the little cramped stitches on the seams were done by Kimei, who first basted all the pieces together so that they could see the model take shape, then passed back to her so that they could pin and sew in the walnut brown lining, and then Kimei gone over the seams once again tightly with a backstitch after it had all been done.

She had then taken the nearly completed garment back, finished the outside detail of folding out the lining at the collar and the cuffs of the sleeves, tucked down and finished all the hems before starting on the detailing.

For all practical intents and purposes, how pleasant the dark gray and walnut brown silk zhiju looked now must be attributed to both of them for balancing each other’s flaws and giving each other better ideas of what had to be done.

While she’d seen Izuna wear zhiduo, and assumed it is typical for shinobi to wear such clothing for the ease of movement that came with its calf length hem and smaller sleeves, she’d chosen zhiju for the long flowing straight hem which trailed almost to the floor, the cross collar, and it’s overall more finished silhouette which made it more appropriate for men’s formal wear.

At least, the sort of party formal that people might prefer to wear for polo and pitch pot and other games.

“Alright, alright,” Kimei makes a face at her. “We have both worked very hard, and I will let Kuma make me egg drop and bean sprout soup as compensation for my labor, which I hope Izuna-san will appreciate.”

“Was that so hard?” She turns her attention back to the soup. Two more flowers on the left sleeve, and everything will be done and settled.

And then perhaps this business could also be settled well.

Early that evening, Nene shows Izuna to her front sewing room, where most of the work she did in the evening after looking over the accounts in the daytime took place.

After some thought, she had laid the jade swallow pendant on top of the pile of clothing. It is rather obvious where that part of the outfit had come from — he’d been there to see her win it — but she is loathed to part with any of the family jade pieces, most of which had been a part of her mother’s dowry, or send someone out to buy a cheaper piece when there’s a perfect serviceable pendant that’s almost brand new in her possession.

Jade took on the life and spirit of its wearer, often passed down from generation to generation, and gifting worn jade is only done in cases of extreme familiarity or from father to son or mother to daughter. To give another piece that has a known provenance would be awkward at best.

“You summoned me, Hisa-san?” Izuna steps through the doorway wearing the same patched zhiduo, and she knows that she has made the right decision to pull together a new wardrobe for him, and blinks once at the setup of the room.

It is true that he has not been here before, and that it is rather more personalized a living space than her study, which she uses to take care of official matters pertaining to business.

This, in its own way, is a form of business still, however, just relating to household staffing matters rather than money or outside liaisons.

“I did.” She rises from her loom. “It came to my attention that you hadn’t been properly outfitted by the household.” She walks over to the table, where the clothing had been laid out. “So that ought to be fixed.”

For a moment, he says nothing and makes no expression whatever.

“This is far too fine for me to accept.”

She shifts the red paper around the lamp so that it is more secure against the chill, before looking up at him once more. “It’s not a present, Izuna-san.”

He makes a strangled noise of disbelief. “There are at least seven outfits here, one made of silk and embroidered. What is this if not a far too extravagant present?”

“You were not in the household for the spring season, when we typically outfit everyone with new clothing.” She blinks once, slowly. “As for the embroidery, I recall stabbing my fingers twenty-seven times to create the desired effect and therefore I will be very cross if it were all for naught.”

“Everyone gets new clothing in the spring?” He sounds suspicious. Does the Uchiha household not provide such in the light of the New Year? The head of their household is a count, and ought to be more than capable of providing anything any person in the household might need, but that is an impolite question, so she says nothing of it.

“After the new year celebrations, yes.” She considers it. “It is the job of the employer to provide the employees with whatever they need to complete their tasks, which in your case, means new clothing.”

He hesitates again, for a longer moment this time, before he bends, and carefully picks the pile of clothing up off her desk. “Thank you, Hisa-san.”

And if he dresses differently while wandering around inside the household after that, so much the better.

Chapter Text

Early that October, O-Shiki invites her back privately for a much smaller gathering for Kore-kun’s second birthday than the polo match she held in September. Kiyo-hime is in attendance, as is Lord Fusamoto, then O-Toyo and herself. The six of them are gathered around the room, sitting in various chairs, eating persimmons, sipping tea, and passing time.

“Oh, Hisa-chan, I can’t believe you.” O-Shiki sighs, but she is smiling, Kore-kun bouncing up and down in her lap.

“What about me is so hard to believe?” Last year, for Kore-kun’s first birthday, she had made him a pair of tiny shoes, stitched with the little monkeys of his birth year, so that he could be clever and nimble fingered, as monkeys do.

This year she gifts him with a tiny set of shengyi for daily wear, a light blue top embroidered with the Kusakabe cranes across the shoulders, and a wrap around skirt of a darker blue, with some give in the hems so that they might be let out as he grows.

Kore-kun himself had been more interested in admiring the “pretty birds” on his shoulders, twisting around to look at them than realizing that they were the same birds on his father’s jade pendant or the front gate.

“The guest you brought to my last polo match.” O-Shiki laughs, carefree, unlike how she would hide her face behind her fan if there were more than a few of them. “Hisa-chan, that guest you brought with you was such a shock to the senses.”

“Izuna-san?” She tries to recall if O-Shiki had had an actual conversation with Izuna while she was either playing pitch pot or watching polo and comes up short. Besides the moment of their introduction, O-Shiki and Izuna had not spoken, so what could have tickled O-Shiki enough that she still remembers him weeks later?

Well, besides the fact that shinobi are extremely uncommon in Shunan.

“You should have told me if you’d already settled your affairs so admirably.” O-Shiki sighs, leaning back, the long strings of gold and jade teardrop beads hanging from her hair stick clattering gently as she does so. “And here I was, so worried over your future.”

O-Shiki did always worry about her marital future. Ever since they’d become friends, and O-Shiki had come to realize the state of Hisa’s household affairs, she’s been determined to find a suitable match so that her “future is settled well.”

Perhaps this is because O-Shiki has always been confident of her future being settled with the man who is now her husband. People did not lightly use the epithet of green plum, bamboo horse so easily, and O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto were the only people in her acquaintance that she could accurately say do fit the description of childhood friends to lovers.

That same man now leans over languidly to pull their son from his mother’s lap. “Yome, we mustn’t embarrass Hisa-san.” Lord Fusamoto smiles, the action crinkling the laugh line wrinkles about his eyes. “If she wants to keep her secrets, I say we let her.”

Kore-kun giggles beamingly, and Lord Fusamoto taps his nose, making the little boy go cross-eyed with glee. “Chichi!”

O-Shiki sees what she looks for — which is to say she sees a wedding in the future — but Izuna?

She will have to speak with O-Shiki later. It would do no one any good to let that misunderstanding fester. Most of all, it would be insulting to Izuna-san’s reputation. He is here for work, not idle leisure, and having his intentions mistaken would be a hideous faux pas indeed.

Such an assumption is neither right nor proper nor fair.

“But Kusakabe-sama,” O-Toyo comments, hiding half of her face behind her teacup and its lid, her eyes downturn, dark lashes stark against her pale face. “Hisa-chan’s guest really was quite remarkable. We haven’t had shinobi here for some time.”

“Yes,” Kiyo-hime remarks rather blandly, although her interest shines like embers in her gray eyes. “Chubu is rare in that we do not have any shinobi households here at all.”

Seemingly, because she had brought him to this gathering, they all want to know why. This is one secret she’s ill able to keep then, which doesn’t matter so much as all that.

It is nothing sordid or shocking, merely unusual, so it is safe to be shared.

Hisa raises her own teacup to her lips, fingers curled lightly around the saucer before bringing the lid up to block the tea leaves from floating upwards. “Yes, Chichi-ue hired him from Yanai to guard the caravans. We are very fortunate that he is with us.”

There is a silence at this, a little bit of a pause in the conversation, as is to be expected. Hiring shinobi is something that noblemen or the Daimyo did when they needed something terrible done.

Hiring shinobi for the reasons that she has hired shinobi seems a little more like a shock to the senses than a real and legitimate reason for hiring shinobi.

“Well,” O-Shiki says brightly, rising from her seat. “It’s about time to have a proper meal, no?”

And with that the mood breaks back into laughter and talk once more.

Kore-kun is young still, and therefore eats his longevity noodles very slowly with Lord Fusamoto holding the heavy porcelain bowl for him. There are pork and tofu dumplings wrapped in the shape of golden ingots, luck and fortune for the little heir of Chubu, boiled eggs dyed red, sweet pastries, and of course, bowls and bowls of hand rolled noodles flavored with green onions and lotus root.

Because this is a second birthday, and because Kore-kun is now old enough to choose something with great vigor, they all gather around the courtyard table after the midday meal, and they watch as Kiyo-hime lightly sets out the objects — a book, a gold ingot, and finally, a wooden dragonfly toy.

Lord Fusamoto sits down at the table across from the open side where O-Shiki will set Kore-kun down to choose an object to prevent his son from crawling off the table by accident and Hisa and O-Toyo end up standing right behind him.

“Now,” Kiyo-hime smiles, “let’s see what my favorite grandchild’s interests in the future will be, shall we?”

This is not necessarily a game so much as a test.

Whatever object catches the child’s eye is said to determine his interests and passions in the future, which means that this ritual is a closely watched and awaited one, as Kore-kun is to be the future heir of Chubu.

Would he value learning? Money? Leisure?

The heir of a region is held to different standards than the heirs of merchant families, or even of minor nobility.

So really, there is only one right answer when O-Shiki sets her son down on the table. “Kore-kun,” she leans over and whispers, “pick something from the table, alright?”

The little boy looks up at his mother with wide, serious eyes — the eyes of the Kusakabe have always been swallow dark — and nods. Carefully, he looks over the table before him, and makes a choice.

Slowly, Kore-kun ends up toddling forward past all three objects, without much of a second glance, until he reaches the other side, to put a hand on his father’s sleeve. “Chichi,” he babbles. “Pick Chichi!”

For a moment, no one says anything, but by the next Lord Fusamoto’s swept his son into a tight hug, O-Shiki hides a tearful smile behind her round fan as the rest of them clap and chatter.

A choice has been made. And it has been made well.


The young heir of Chubu does not care for learning, money or leisure so much as he cares for his father.

And that says everything, in the end.

Before she can leave later that afternoon, O-Shiki keeps her, even after O-Toyo boards her carriage and leaves, promising to return for any other gathering O-Shiki would like to hold in the spring.

For soon, the Kusakabe household will pack to return to the capital for the winter, as they do every year both so O-Shiki could see her maternal family, and so that Lord Fusamoto could deliver his yearly reports of Chubu’s situation to the Inner Imperial Court. With their station, they could stay longer, but Lord Fusamoto’s personal history and love of his country estate means that they are unlikely to.

Winter is fast approaching, beyond Mid-Autumn and the last rice harvest, and soon it will be the new year again. Another year, another spring approaching, and beyond that, summer, hopefully a kinder one than the dry summer that has just passed them by.

Chichi-ue had said that out in the countryside, there were hungry faces, and the leaner faces of regular townsfolk had given that statement much validity in her eyes. It has been a hard summer, and will be a harder winter though she herself did not feel it. She prays that next summer will be kinder.

“Hisa-chan,” O-Shiki begins when it’s just the two of them, the servants having brought in tea and sunflower seeds. “There’s something I want to ask you.”

“Oh?” Clink, clink, she lets the sunflower hulls drop into a porcelain bowl.

“Is it really true that you hired Uchiha Izuna-san?” There is a strange emphasis on this question, as though hired is not the right word for it.

“Is he someone who should not be hired?” Izuna is mild-mannered and proper. One can achieve a false veneer of propriety by putting on a mask and pretending at manners, but someone had taught this shinobi the manners of people who care for manners, as they are, not because it will give them some personal gain.

“No, it’s not like that.” O-Shiki looks around once to make sure that they were completely alone, no husband around the corner, no toddler about to ask for something else, no mother-in-law with a specific request, no loitering servant, not even Kimei or Tamasu. “Hisa-chan, how did you end up hiring him?”

This behavior is out of character for O-Shiki, who generally didn’t fuss over the details because she didn’t normally need to pay attention to them, who lived with and exuded the nonchalance that her rank afforded her.

Whatever news O-Shiki has heard about Uchiha Izuna-san, it is likely far more accurate than any understanding she has of the man through the few times she has interacted with him even if she does think that she is not a shabby judge of character.

“Chichi-ue wrote to Uchiha-sama in Yanai, because Yanai is the closest seat with shinobi regarding protection for the caravans.” And Yanai specifically over, say, Kamakura which is also not far, a few day’s travel at best, because he has lived in the city for a long time. “He chose Yanai, I suspect, because…” Well, it is not hard to figure out why he has done so. “Haha-ue grew up there,” is what she settles for. Haha-ue grew up there, and they met in Yanai, so his feelings about shinobi from that city are at least a slightly more positive association than shinobi from any other city.

Even if that is not how this works at all.

“Your father wrote to Uchiha-sama and—” O-Shiki shakes her head, golden buyao topped with a golden orchid trailing two strings of gold and jade teardrop beads clattering. “Hisa-chan, I looked through the Chubu records again for you, so I could be certain of who Uchiha Izuna-san and—”

“Has he done anything I should be aware of?” She is growing mildly concerned.

O-Shiki rarely cares about details, but this level of meticulous concern is not that O-Shiki believes in wedding bells then. Which means it is something else and that is cause enough for concern.

“Hisa-chan,” O-Shiki takes her hand. “The official records of Chubu says that Uchiha Tajima-dono has a son by the name of Uchiha Izuna. I looked up his age to be sure, and—” here she smiles, rather amused once more. “It does fit Izuna-san’s age.”

The room comes to focus in extreme clarity — the painting of peony petals falling done by Lord Fusamoto two lines of calligraphy in the lower right corner, a couplet about the summer season, the delicate stoneware teapot painted with a tumultuous wave pattern that O-Shiki had set on the lower table, the gaiwan she is holding with its feathered surface and brightly glazed characters for double luck — everything comes back clear.

“Are you certain?” Her thoughts are a frightening tumble, flipping between shock and incomprehension in the space between breaths. If Uchiha Izuna-san is Uchiha Tajima-sama’s youngest son then that would mean—

It would mean—

“I definitely double checked with shujin to make certain.” O-Shiki sighs. “When have I led you wrong on anything like this, Hisa-chan? I know the difference between light and heavy.”

Well, there goes her hope that it was all a misunderstanding. “No, I know you’d never.” Slowly, she gathers her thoughts regarding the matter into a pile. It can wait until later. “Thank you for telling me,” she unclenches her hands and lets herself relax once more, taking a sip of her tea from the gaiwan. It is sencha, and a high quality one at that, as is only fitting for the Lord Administrator’s wife to be greeting guests with. “I’ll have to speak to Izuna-san.” Screaming internally all the while and wondering how she could possibly house such an important guest in the servant’s quarters or give him a salary.

O-Shiki smiles, bright and lively once more after her news has been delivered. “It will work out, you see.”

She is unclear if it will work out, but such things are for later. When she is no longer a guest in someone else’s home.

“Besides,” O-Shiki continues “there was something else I asked you to stay behind for that’s far more important.” She leans closer, still checking to make sure that there is no one about. “Hisa-chan, Kore-kun might be getting a little brother or sister within the year.”

O-Shiki had been somewhat blithe and noncommittal about any possible parties or engagements in the spring when O-Toyo had promised to come, but this itself is out of the blue.

“You’re expecting again?” She smiles, giddy in spite of the news she had just received about whom she'd potentially employed — later. “That’s wonderful news, O-Shiki-chan.”

“Shhh,” O-Shiki looks around one more time to make exceptionally sure that there is no one about. “Hisa-chan, I haven’t told anyone else yet.” Kore-kun’s birth had been hard on her friend, both long and taxing after a difficult pregnancy. “You know that shujin will worry, and then I won’t have a moment’s peace for over half a year.”

Lord Fusamoto would worry. He would worry so much that he might even become nonsensical.

Even so. “Your safety?” She wants O-Shiki to be safe more than anything else. At Kore-kun’s one month old party, just under two years ago now, O-Shiki had still been pale from blood loss and more seated than standing.

“I am stronger than I was two years ago, Hisa-chan, don’t be so worried.” O-Shiki pats her hand. “All will be well, you see, for shujin will realize sometime in the next few months.” She laughs. “Maybe when I start craving salted fish and fermented radish.”

Hisa laughs at this too, aware of how funny the realization would be. After all, both are things that O-Shiki vehemently dislikes, to this day.

“And this means!” O-Shiki leans back in her seat, struggling to keep her mirth in check. “That that old fool from Danmai can shut his mouth once and for all!”

The two years since Kore-kun’s birth is not a long time, certainly not long enough for it to be worrisome that Lord Fusamoto has no second child, but Lord Orihito of Danmai hadn’t cared. He had not said so in so many words, but his hints of sending one of his daughters to Chubu to be Lord Fusamoto’s concubine had said it for him.

O-Shiki had talked about it in the past, first with offense, and then with mild amusement, and it seems that her current hopes have lobbed the Count of Danmai’s words and veiled insinuations back to offended pride.

“As long as you keep yourself safe,” Hisa takes another sip of her tea. “Lord Orihito can eat his words for many, many years yet.”

When she returns home, she asks the carriage to pause by the gates, and exchanges a few words with the twin gate guards, Taishi and Taiga, about whether or not Izuna is in residence still.

Despite not always being out with one caravan or another, he did sometimes go out which is only his right.

However, it would seem that he is at home this particular evening, which only makes her conversation with him more immediate.

She isn’t sure that she wants this conversation to be immediate, but the faction of asking him about his origins “right now” wars with the faction that demands she ask about it “never” and has done so the whole way home from O-Shiki’s estate, which means that her mind is thrown dreadfully out of rhythm, and she would like her thoughts to stop tumbling like her father’s unruly koi fish in their pond.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Kimei asks. “He is an outside man, and he’s not like—”

She slaps a hand over Kimei’s mouth quickly. She has not told Kimei about O-Shiki’s declaration of his origins, but if it is true, then Uchiha Izuna-san is the most honored guest their household has in residence, and they’d been paying him to spend time with the caravans.

The thought is enough to make her lightheaded.

“No, I think I’ll visit him myself.” She turns to Kimei. “It’s a personal matter.”

His origins are a personal matter.

If he is the youngest son of the Count of Tohoku, and didn’t tell people so when they assumed otherwise, she assumes it is because he didn’t want people to know.

Which then begs the question of why.

Why did Lord Uchiha send his youngest son in answer to her father’s letter if he knew that Izuna, once discovered, could not possibly be asked to do anything at all?

Kimei looks as though she is about to protest more, but Hisa leaves her with the small gifts of sunflower seeds and candied persimmons that O-Shiki had foisted upon her through her protests while she climbed into her carriage to take her home and continues onwards to where Izuna lived, her thoughts still swirling.

She hears the sound of the qin before she even arrives at the courtyard, deep and melodious, played with light and airy hands, as though the musician is having a very good time indeed.

She pauses for a moment to listen to it, The Sun on Spring Snow, being played with an elegant sort of cheer.

Uchiha Izuna-san, for whatever reason, is in high spirits today, and she is almost loath to ask him what she plans to now.

The notes in this particular piece are quick, light, and resonate, and unlike the last piece she heard him play, filled with celebration of the life of spring, deeply unseasonal and ironic considering the coming autumn season.

When he finishes, she claps, “My compliments to the musician,” which causes him to open his door and stare at her with something in his eyes that could be shock, or amusement, or confusion, or something of a mix of all three.

The tiny pink plums on his dark sleeves shine in the fading evening light, pleasant enough that she feels a surge of pride at having done the work of making them herself.

“Hisa-san,” he says after a moment. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Still, he steps aside to let her in and she steps past him, into the room, if only because such topics should not be discussed outdoors where anyone could see.

“An unseasonal piece.” She turns to look up at him. “Izuna-san has heard good news then?”

“A gift of gratitude.” He doesn’t say much more, but takes a seat across from her at the low table before his qin. She hadn’t noticed before, but it is a beautiful instrument, made of finely varnished dark wood, strung with twisted silk.

He pours her a cup of tea from the teapot by the side of the table, his wrist straight, holding back his wide sleeve with his other hand, the scent of mugicha fragrant all around them. “It’s not refined but,” here he smiles, a little rueful. “It’s what I have on hand, and I hope that Hisa-san doesn’t mind it.”

She picks up the open cup, amused by the lack of a saucer or the lid, though mugicha does not require a gaiwan, and swirls the amber liquid around until the aroma settles in all around her. “It’s my favorite. Shincha and Sencha are for guests.” Strangely now, sitting here, with the fragrance of barley tea all around her, her unruly thoughts seem to have settled a little bit. “I thought I’d ask you something, Izuna-san, because O-Shiki-chan mentioned it today.”

“The Lord Administrator’s wife?” He takes a sip of his tea, seemingly relaxed as well.

“Mmm, yes. She was looking over the records that Chubu has on Tohoku, and realized something.” She looks up at him. “Uchiha Tajima-sama has a son about your age, Izuna-san.”

Izuna freezes, his cup halfway to his lips. It is odd to realize how open his facial expression is, like a small child caught painting over his father’s official correspondence with a particularly funny stamp.

Everyone says that shinobi have no heart and no face, merely blades to be wielded in the dark, but all of his actions only say that he is a young man.

“I was previously made aware of this,” he says, slightly faint.

With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she continues. “She also mentioned his name, you know.”

Slowly, Izuna rises, looks outside at the empty courtyard, and slides the door all the way shut. “Hisa-san,” he says very quietly. “I am still the shinobi you hired from Yanai.”

“You,” she says, with a sad and sinking clarity, “are the son of a Count.” After a moment where she doesn’t receive an answer, and he does not turn around, she continues. “Why did Uchiha-sama send you?”

Doesn’t he know that once discovered, it would be mortifying for all involved?

“I-” he turns back around to face her. “Hisa-san, it would’ve been insulting to send a cousin to do a job like this when there was so much on the line.” He speaks in riddles, and she does not understand.

She rises as well. “What is insulting is how my family has treated you. How I have treated you, Uchiha-sama.”

Something briefly akin to terror passes over his face. “Hisa-san, I’ve never considered it insulting.” He looks around the room once, as if trying to figure out what to do. “Please sit back down.”

Since he has asked, she does so. “As you wish, Uchiha-sama.”

Please,” he sounds a little as though she had just strangled him. “Izuna-san is just fine.” With a thump, he drops into his seat across from her. “I can explain, just—” he rubs a hand over his face. “Please, I like how it was before.”

And something, something settles.

“It is only handwriting.” She hears her little cousin Toraki-kun grumble this before she sees either him or Somei-chan from her place by the now long faded peony blossoms. “It is not as if that is in any way important.”

It is still a beautiful afternoon. She had moved outside to her courtyard to enjoy the weather, and passed a slow, rather lazy day embroidering the finishing touches on a set of new handkerchiefs. As she had expected, her last pink cotton handkerchief had not survived the struggle of coping with Izuna’s blood and whatever else he had stuck to his face at the time.

Thus, it is apparent that she ought to make herself several other ones, as it seems likely that in any further acquaintance with Uchiha Izuna will result in further ruined handkerchiefs.

However, it is too kind of an afternoon to waste, and she had ended up lying down on one of the stone benches, an old linen robe pillowed beneath her head, and had fallen asleep there, for at least half a stick of incense. When she had woken again to the late afternoon sun on her face, she’d listened for a while to the wind rustling through the branches of the peach tree by the corner of her courtyard, thinking over the thoughts she had had while dreaming.

Long dark hair, a whisper of “Danna, you look good today,” the scent of peach blossoms, a bronze mirror, a man’s wooden hair stick in her right hand, the topknot finished with a ribbon of dark blue…

Ah, but that is the domain of those who become wives. She has no place for such fantasies, and thinking so, turns her attention to different thoughts.

It has been a long summer, and a hard one, and winter will come and only be a harder time, but there is hope for a better new year, a kind and gentle spring, and a long and pleasant summer after, where rain might come and relieve the dry spell.

Which brings her to the current moment as two sets of feet move through the walk on the far side of her courtyard when in passing, she hears Toraki-kun arguing with Somei-chan once again.

They are only a year apart in age, which means that while Somei-chan is the elder of the two, there’s really not enough of a gap between their ages for that year to have weight just yet, especially since Toraki-kun is Aunt Niwa’s only child, and therefore far more spoiled than he appears on the outside.

“Why isn’t handwriting important?” Ah, there’s Somei-chan, pouting as she often does. “And Sato-sensei said that my handwriting was excellent and didn’t mention yours. You’re just upset he didn’t, which is why you don’t think it’s important.”

“He was just being nice to you, because you’re a girl. People are supposed to be nice to girls because they can’t be criticised as hard.”

She sits up, checking to make sure that none of her hair had come loose since she fell asleep on the stonework, wincing slightly at the weird crick in her neck because of it.

“Well,” Somei-chan says, turning her face away because of the tears in her eyes. “I think you say that because what you want to be is cruel instead of kind.”

“See!” Toraki-kun has scented his advantage and will not let it go. There is a sense of smug triumph to him at having won this argument that sticks in Hisa’s throat. Had Anija ever said such a thing to me? “I have not even said anything so critical of you and already you are about to cry.”

Anija had died at age eleven, a year younger than Toraki-kun is now, but she remembers him as a kind figure pulling at her pigtails instead of someone who would tear down her accomplishments for a little satisfaction of his own.

“Toraki-kun?” She makes herself known to the two children on the other side of her courtyard, both who start as if not expecting to meet anyone else midway through their argument. “Could you come over and help me for a moment?”

Toraki-kun casts one last glance at Somei-chan, who is determinedly marching ahead, her school basket held tightly in one fist and will not look at him. Somehow, he looks a tiny bit guilty to have made her sad despite wanting to make her sad in the first place.

“Hisa-neesan?” Toraki-kun comes to a stop before her, a little bit shamefaced, but overall, so cute that if she didn’t hear him say such things to Somei-chan she would have a hard time believing it. “Hisa-neesan needs my help?”

“Mmm.” She offers him the old robe that had been her pillow, sewing basket by her feet. “Would you be a lovely one and cut this into squares for me?”

“Of course, Hisa-neesan.” Toraki-kun sits down on the bench next to her, and taking the shears, dutifully begins to cut the cloth into pieces.

She lets him get comfortable before asking him a question, her needle flashing through the cloth. Hemming comes naturally to her, as naturally as something one has had many years to practice does. “Was it really so hard to hear Sato-sensei praise Somei-chan?”

Toraki-kun frowns as he continues cutting. “He is always praising Somei-chan.” And never me.

“But even so,” she observes as she continues hemming. “Will you repeat what you said to Somei-chan to me?”

“No!” He sets the shears aside and stares at her with open shock. “Why would I ever say that to Hisa-neesan?”

“Maybe,” she observes dryly. “Because I am also a girl who cannot stand to be criticised without having my feelings hurt?”

He frowns mightily at this, as if trying to find some way to square the circle without cutting off any bits of his previous statement. “But it’s different,” is what he settles on at last. “Hisa-neesan is a different type of girl.”

“There are no different types of girls, Toraki-kun.” Her tone is mild, but her words are not. “There is only one type of woman, and that type is the same no matter if it is your mother, myself, your cousin or another woman you have met on the street, do you understand?”

Slowly, he nods, as if having thought it over. “I didn’t mean it.” Ah, so she has abashed him into scuffing his shoe on the courtyard stone.

“Even so,” she pulls her little cousin close, his upturned hightail brushing lightly over her arm. “You meant it to hurt and to wound, and it did its job didn’t it?” He makes a disgruntled sound at this, and she continues. “So you know what you have to do, don’t you?”

“Yes, Hisa-neesan,” he says, wiggling out of her embrace to continue cutting up the old linen robe. “I’m sorry.”

“And to Somei-chan?”

“‘M extra sorry.”

That promise secured, she turns the conversation away to other, lighter topics.

The autumn moon is round hanging high in the night sky when their entire family gathers together on the day of the festival in her father’s courtyard.

They had eaten dinner together earlier on in the evening, but this is a night for family, for remembrance and gratitude, for remembering Chang’e and looking up at the moon. The duality of celebrating family has never been more stark, where in their household there is not a courtyard unmarred by loss and separation.

But then, Chang’e and Houyi are also parted lovers, a family separated, never to be reunited.

Briefly, she wonders if Houyi is looking up at the moon tonight, if he remembers how much his wife loved him, how betrayed they’d been by people they thought they could trust.

And even more briefly, she wonders about the woman who had the ambition and the means to ascend to godhood.

What must that have been like?

Mid Autumn is a festival of dichotomies, of separation and reunion, neither one existing without the other, and tonight the moon is full, and their family is complete as it could possibly be, given their circumstances.

She plucks a piece of fried taro heavily dusted with cane sugar from the plate with a pair of chopsticks, absently looking up at the moon. The food is sweet, with a chewy center, slowly diffusing across her tongue.

Tonight, Hiko is in the courtyard with them, plucking idly at his guzheng. Perhaps he intends to play a new composition as he sometimes will on festival days and idle moments. Behind him, Kimei leans over his shoulder to peer at the sheet of musical notations, pointing and talking rather animatedly about something or another.

Beside her, Chichi-ue slowly fans himself with a folding fan. It is one of the last warm evenings of the season before the frosts hit and days turn cold once more. “Is the taro to your liking, Hisa-chan?”

She smiles before she answers, savoring the sweetness of it. “Chichi-ue knows me very well.” Taro had been something Chichi-ue had bought from the Danmai region this autumn for Chubu proper grew very little of it. “It tastes delicious.”

Giggling, Somei-chan snatches a piece of taro from the plate. “Thank you, Yasu-jisan!”

Her thirteen year old cousin skips around the table to stand before Chichi-ue, bobbing a light curtsy to him. “In hopes that Oji-san and Hisa-neesan have a prosperous new year.”

Laughingly, Chichi-ue waves Somei-chan over, brushing the dusting of cane sugar from her lips with a handkerchief. “And how are you today, Somei-chan?” Her cousin’s face darkens for a moment upon the asking, and Hisa knows why, but Chichi-ue, who continues, does not. “I heard from your mother that Sato-sensei praised your handwriting recently.”

This brightens up Somei-chan though, and she takes a seat on Chichi-ue’s other side, chattering happily about what school has been like.

Chichi-ue has always known what to say to bring smiles to people’s faces, even when he is unaware of what they are unhappy about.

Toraki-kun and Aunt Niwa arrive together, Toraki-kun a little bit ahead of his mother, and while the little boy makes a noticeable face when he sees Somei-chan and Somei-chan makes a face right back, he comes to pay respects to Chichi-ue anyway.

“In hopes that Oji-san has a year more prosperous than the last.” Toraki-kun speaks softly, and sullenly does not look in Somei-chan’s direction. “And Hisa-neesan as well.”

Chichi-ue nods. “And I have heard that you’ve been doing well, recently, Torakichi-kun.” Chichi-ue waves him closer, and straightens his collar just a little bit. “And if you learn to listen to others who may tell you things you do not want to hear, grow up to be a fine young man.”

So Chichi-ue had heard about the argument between Toraki-kun and Somei-chan and had chosen to express his opinion of the matter lightly tonight, when the Mid-Autumn festival meant that no one ought to argue with each other.

He always phrased things so delicately when asking people to reflect on their failings, always something good and something bad that they have recently done.

“Yes, Oji-san.” Suddenly abashed, Toraki-kun ducks his head, a flush of red on his cheeks.

Chichi-ue offers him the plate of fried taro. “Try a piece, Torakichi-kun. I have heard from two reputable sources that this is a very fine addition to our festivities.”

The words prompt a giggle from Somei-chan, who swings her feet back and forth from her place on Chich-ue’s other side.

Toraki-kun selects a piece, still shamefaced, and takes a seat at a different table next to Aunt Niwa.

The next to arrive are Retsu-chan and Aunt Hasuyo, both engaged in conversation with each other speaking in animated but quiet tones.

Retsu-chan comes to pay her respects with a bounce in her step, and Chichi-ue laughingly offers her a slice of taro as well.

Somei-chan leans up, reaching for more dessert, and Chichi-ue casts her a fond, but disapproving glance. “Somei-chan, save a little for your littlest cousin who, through no fault of her own, is late to arrive.”

Though Chichi-ue means this with no heat, she can see from the corner of her eye, Aunt Hasuyo beginning to frown, and Aunt Niwa hide her interest by pretending to be observing her own son instead.

It would not do to let the argument between Somei-chan and Toraki-kun, and, by extension, Aunt Hasuyo and Aunt Niwa, start once more out of nothing more serious than a plate of taro.

“Chichi-ue,” Hisa hides a smile behind her own round fan, tapping the bridge of her nose with the edge. “You can’t blame Somei-chan. You were the one to introduce a delicacy tonight.”

It has been some time since Chichi-ue bought taro from Danmai, and certainly not within the past three years.

Momo-chan hasn’t had the chance to try it yet.

Chichi-ue taps her forehead lightly with the back of his knuckles. “And Hisa-chan is now shifting this blame back to her old father. What woe this is, to have a quick-tongued daughter.”

“Chichi-ue! Chichi-ue!” A small pink and green blur bounces from the courtyard entrance to Chichi-ue’s lap in the space of no more than a few moments. “Chichi-ue,” Momo-chan demands. “Chichi-ue isn’t old and Neesan isn’t a woe.”

Her pigtails are still bouncing from running all the way here, which means…Hisa raises her head to find Chiba-san following Momo-chan at a much more sedate pace.

“Not a woe is she,” Chichi-ue pinches Momo-chan’s cheek lightly before offering her a piece of taro. “She says that it is your old Chichi-ue’s fault for trying to save you some dessert from the bottomless stomach of your cousin Somei-chan.”

This however, does not truly deter Momo-chan who now digs in her heels and tries to debate the matter with Chichi-ue around several pieces of taro, cane sugar dusting a circle around her mouth as Momo-chan continues to grumble about how “Neesan isn’t a woe.”

Chichi-ue lifts Momo-chan up until she sits on his lap. “Alright, alright, I recant that statement, your Neesan is my beloved daughter and of course not a woe.”

This seems to satisfy her younger sister enough that she offers Somei-chan the platter of taro.

“Kawaguchi-san.” Chiba-san’s first word is extremely quiet. “In hopes that you have a prosperous and happy year ahead.”

Chichi-ue pulls out a chair for her with a nod. “And in hopes that you lack nothing in the year ahead, Natsu.”

Hisa rises, offers Chiba-san a curtsy. “Well wishes to my stepmother for a happy and fortunate year ahead.”

There is a slight pause as everyone watches what Chiba-san will do next, and all is quiet, until Aka steps over the doorway with a tray of mooncakes, molded into fanciful decorations, the two in the center representing the characters for fortune and prosperity.

With a smile, Chichi-ue accepts the knife, and begins partitioning the mooncakes into fourths, offering portions to each person in turn depending on which filling they are most fond of.

Kimei shares her love of lotus paste and double egg yolk filling, so they split one between themselves, Hiko snagging a half of the one with plain lotus paste, while the red bean paste filled mooncakes are split between Aunt Hasuyo and Aunt Niwa.

The last one Chichi-ue cuts is the five seed mooncake, through the word for fortune which tops it, and offers half to Chiba-san and keeps the other half for himself.

A symbolic gesture, and one that everyone notes, because Chichi-ue happens to be fond of plain lotus paste filling more than any other one, but Chiba-san liked five seed mooncake and had no one else to share it with her.

“Would Kawaguchi-san offer any thoughts on harvest tonight?” Every year, Chichi-ue offers some other poem as his thoughts for the coming year ahead, but only after someone asks.

This year, it seems, the task has been taken up by Chiba-san, whose face is round and pale as the moon above.

Chichi-ue pauses between bites and considers it. “Have you not seen,” he begins, “that the waters of the Mujin come from Heaven, surging to the oceans never to return again.” Carefully, he sets aside his plate and continues. “Have you not seen, in the bright mirrors of great halls how they grieve over white hair, at dawn like black thread by evening snow. In this mortal life accomplishment must exhaust our joy, so do not allow an empty wine cup to face the moon.” He stands, and walks to the center of the courtyard, still speaking as he does so. “Heaven made me — my abilities must have purpose, I have spent a thousand gold pieces, but so they will return to me. Bring in the wine!” Chichi-ue says with a smile, just as Kuma steps into the courtyard with a jug of osmanthus wine. “I’ll sing you a song, and together with you wipe away the cares of ten thousand years.”

She covers a smile behind her fan. “Chichi-ue is in good spirits for the next year.” And so saying, she also rises. “After all, though there is only one mention of the moon, there is much to be merry for.”

“Drink a toast to the new year, Hisa-chan.” Chichi-ue comes back to his seat, still smiling. “And we shall listen to young Hiko-kun compose his ode to the moon.”

For Moon Odes are the dominion of the young.

After Mid-Autumn, more serious topics came for them all once more. Chichi-ue’s worries about the mulberry trees earlier in the season had proven accurate, despite his high spirits at Mid-Autumn, and they had to be summarily destroyed and burned on the far edge of their outlying fields, which has made his current plans to go to Yanai to speak to Uncle Nagamatsu filled with a very somber mood indeed.

She does not often spare much thought for her maternal uncles, both of whom have not the patience of her father, nor his grace, for they live far away enough from Shunan that she does not often have to see them at all.

Her father kept ties with them because they are the younger brothers of his beloved late wife, nothing more for they did not share much of the same worldview or the same business sense.

But Chichi-ue is nothing if not sentimental, and these are her mother’s people. No matter how much they had disavowed her, he would not turn away completely and they, guessing at his prosperity, found the connection worth keeping even if the ties of blood and marriage could not bind them.

She does not mention this to Chichi-ue though, because he is intelligent enough to know why both of her maternal uncles still associate with him, but sentimental enough that he will still go anyway.

Mentioning it would only be insulting, so she says nothing at all.

The weather has turned cold now, however, as it has passed the date for the “Little Frost” it is only to be expected. There is not yet sun, and the pre-dawn light makes everything a shade colder than the past.

Toshi has already saddled up a horse, packed all the belongings they would need, and prepared the carriage as well as notified the escort of when they would all be heading out. It is Yushin who ends up leading the group of young men who will travel to Yanai with Chichi-ue as he often does.

He bids goodbye to his father, Banryu, at the front gate, and the foreman turns and begins limping back up the garden path, having taken a fall earlier in the week, but his twin little brothers are less willing to let him go so easily.

“Bring us back something fun, Bear-anija!” Taiga calls from his guardpost at the front gate. “Taishi and I are going to start growing mushrooms out of boredom sitting here waiting for you to come back.”

“Only if you promise to look after Shimo-chan and Hisato-kun for your sister-in-law,” he calls back. “The two of them are rascals, and I doubt that Saka can keep up between directing all the laundry maids.”

“Of course we will, Bear-ani,” another identical face to Taiga’s pops out from the other side of the door, Taishi only distinguished by his light cross collar compared to his brother’s darker one. “But you better bring us back something fun!”

“Get back to work.” Bear comes to stand beside her, smothering a fond chuckle. “And how are you today, Hisa-san? Waiting to bid goodbye to your father?”

“Yes,” she replies, turning to look up at him, having been warmed by the sight of him bidding goodbye to his family. His wife and children had not come out to wave him off, but she assumes that they had said goodbye earlier, perhaps when they were all still inside. Her own family may not be complete, but his is, three generations living in one household, under one roof. His parents yet live, his brothers are younger and may be married in the next few years, and his children are young but will grow up well. “Since he is traveling and it is cold, I thought to give him his birthday present early.” She glances down at the completed cloak in her arms. “After all, a cloak is warmer about the shoulders than it is sitting in a box at home.”

Bear nods, a smile on his face. “You’re a filial daughter, Hisa-san. I hope Shimo-chan learns from you and treats her parents as well someday when we are older.”

“I’m sure she will.” She smiles, for Bear is affable and gregarious, generous by nature and could not possibly end up raising any child of his to be less than honest and giving to a fault. “You have a wonderful daughter, Yushin.”

Shimo-chan has clever fingers and an eye for color, and maybe one day would work either in her courtyard or among the weaving workshops turning silk into brilliant patterns. She has the aptitude for it, and it would make her parents proud.

He almost blushes, rubbing the back of his neck. “Ah, Hisa-san compliments the little one too much. She’s right spoiled is what she is.” He looks away, but his pride is evident in the fondness in his dark eyes. “I promised to get her one of those little model boats that they have in Yanai.”

Bear is a big man with wide shoulders and a thick neck, which is why Chichi-ue brings him along. He leads the escort because everyone loves him, but he is brought along because he looks and can act intimidating enough that the average bandit would think twice about attacking any caravan he’s near.

It’s a good thing that no one from outside knows just how incapable he is of violence.

Chichi-ue steps out of the gate, rearranging his old cloak, which is slightly worn, about his shoulders with one hand, a black box held tightly in his other, followed by Toshi and Kimei, who hugs her father goodbye once tightly before disappearing back indoors.

“Chichi-ue!” Hisa makes her way back to the gate, breath hanging about her face in white clouds.

“There you are, Hisa-chan,” he says, “I was just looking for you.”

“And I was waiting for Chichi-ue.” She offers him the cloak in her arms, tugging quickly at the ties about his neck before switching the cloaks until the new one is about his shoulders instead. “I was waiting for Chichi-ue’s birthday next month, but if you are travelling to Yanai now, I thought it would be better to give this to you now.”

“Your work?” he asks, examining the dark gray wool and the white fox fur trim she had Kimei buy from the marketplace.

“Kimei and I’s, yes.” She steps back. Chichi-ue looks much warmer now than he was before, and there is less reason for her to worry that he would catch a chill.

“I shall be the most gossiped about man in Yanai.” He sweeps her close in a fond embrace. “And they will all envy me, for I have a wonderful and talented daughter.”

“Chichi-ue gives me too much credit.”

When they pull apart, Chichi-ue offers her the little black box he had been holding. “Toshi had to remind me that you would be outside waiting, I was about to go to your courtyard to look for you.”

She accepts the gift, and slides back the lacquered top with its tiny lapis lazuli inlay, and gasps at the set of ox horn combs inside. The largest has a handle carved in the shape of a sleeping tiger, the two beneath it the shape of half moons with tiny carved plum blossoms clearly meant to be worn in her hair together, and a much smaller comb carved with a fanciful needle and spool of thread imagery for parting her hair.

Beneath the combs there is a tiny placard of stiff paper edged with little cutout birds with a couplet written in her father’s sweeping handwriting.

When red leaves dance on the autumn wind

I look to the blue skies of the spring moon.

“For your twentieth birthday,” he says by way of explanation. “In hopes that it is a wonderful day.”

“Thank you, Chichi-ue. They’re lovely.”

“I’m glad you like them.”

She watches as Toshi pulls back the curtain and Chichi-ue climbs into the carriage, his new cloak about his shoulders, as Toshi climbs up onto the driver’s seat and takes up the reins. “Saddle up, Little Bear,” he calls to Yushin. “Yanai will wait on us, but the dawn will not.”

The five young men in the entourage beside Yushin also leap onto their horses, the front street becoming noisy with the sounds of traffic before the coming dawn.

She does not stand outside for much longer, but she does catch Chichi-ue’s wave of goodbye before his hand retreats back into the carriage, and the thought leaves her warm.

Chapter Text

The man in her study is bleeding from a cut over his eye and another cut across the back of his hand, which means that the report he hands her wordlessly is rather bloodstained.

She pulls a handkerchief out of her sleeve — one of the new ones that hopefully will take to the traditional way of getting rid of blood stains easier than her previously ruined pink cotton one — and gestures wordlessly for him to take a seat.

“Izuna-san,” She begins this time, while bandaging his hand which is also a bit slippery from the blood — which she shall wash off of her own hands later. “Are you sure you don’t want to visit Jizen-sensei before coming back to tell me what happened to you?”

“I’m alright.” He pulls his hand back when she’s done, flips it over to glance at the linen streaked with dye lots of various shades of green, and blinks at it. “This is a different one than last time.”

“I own more than one handkerchief.” Which is true. What is even more true is that she now owns several more linen handkerchiefs that can most likely be sacrificed upon the altar of her shinobi’s various wounds and injuries.

She acquires another one from her desk and applies pressure to the wound on his face. “What happened to you?”

He blinks up at her, unnaturally calm for someone who is bleeding from his face. She does not know if all shinobi are like this, but she rather supposes that hysteria at the sight of blood would serve no shinobi particularly well, so perhaps they are all like this. It would only be logical. “I was attacked.” As if being attacked is the norm rather than the exception. “The caravan was fine though.”

So they — whoever “they” were — were after him specifically, and had caught up to him while he was out.

Which worries her, because he’d been injured before when coming in to hand over reports and collect his salary, but worries her now again because it seems to be the trend rather than the exception.

“I would like you to be safe,” she murmurs, still intent on at least slowing the bleeding from the cut above his eye, and therefore only focusing on one part of his face. “It hurts my heart to see your blood.”

“I’m a shinobi,” he tells her, matter of fact in all ways. “Bleeding is what we do.”

She’d thought that once, didn’t she?

A man of blood.

But it is hard to think that of him now, not when she has taken his measure and given him clothing, not when he has lived in their household and seen Aunt Ruqa cry over her spoiled son, not when she has found him floating upon the koi pond and heard him almost beg to not be called Uchiha-sama.

“You’re a man,” she retorts. “Men were not made to bleed.”

This mortal life is so full of cares and sorrows, griefs and joys not often in equal measure, but it is said, it is said, that even gods envy mortals for the thousand flavors of this world.

For the ability to laugh and cry and sing, to write poems, comedies, tragedies, plays, and novels, to taste the sweet wine of victory and in the same lifetime, drink deep from the cup of despair.

Even the gods envy us.

“Are you sure?” he asks her, suddenly more tired sounding than she’s ever heard him. “Sometimes that’s all it seems that men are made to do.”

“We do bleed, yes.” His bleeding has slowed, and she ties the other handkerchief around his head to at least cover the wound. “But we also sing, and make music, and dance, and create beautiful things, and we love.”

To hear Chichi-ue tell it, love is both the greatest honor and the bitterest truth. To be divine is to have no attachments to this dusty mortal realm of a thousand cares and worries.

To be mortal is to love and lose and love again as many times as it takes with no regret that one is not divine.

Even the gods envy us. In all our joys and sorrows and foibles and in all we create and choose to love.

He looks as though he wants to say something more on the subject, but he doesn’t. “Thank you.” Instead, he rises and begins to make his excuses to go.

“I haven’t written in the record of your payment yet.” She can’t do so with bloody hands, but Kimei has helpfully had a basin of water drawn from the well and sets it on the desk just as she turns. “Have a piece of sesame candy,” she says to fill the silence.

Cautiously, he reaches over towards the lotus leaf plate.

His hands, however, despite the makeshift bandage on his right, were absolutely grubby, as if he had been digging around in the garden. She plucks the plate away from him with newly washed hands and offers him a slab of the rock sugar and black sesame seed candy.

He looks at her for a long moment before attempting to accept the food with his hand, which actually prompts him to look at his hand properly for the first time it would seem.

She laughs, mostly at the frown that has worked its way onto his face, delighting in the comical way he has seemed to just realize that he shouldn’t eat with those hands. “Well?” She asks him and feels delighted again when he very carefully leans over, keeping the proper distance between them, and accepts the candy with his teeth lips just barely grazing the tips of her fingers.

The faint tinge of his embarrassment amuses her, so she doesn’t comment on the social transgression. Having been the one to offer, even if there is something that had gone amiss, she ought only be amused instead of chastising.

“Kuma tells me that you do not eat when you are at home.” The head cook had fussed the last time she’d seen Hisa in the kitchen, chopping onions to go in her fish stew. That shinobi boy, Kuma had grumbled, thin as a weed or an ill fed beggar boy. Like he hasn’t seen a good meal in his life. You make sure you tell him to get a few decent meals when you next see him, Second Miss, or he’ll blow away in the next rainstorm. And being not prone to wanting the shinobi employee to walk about with such thin shoulders and sharpness to his features, she’d agreed to pass the message along.

He starts a little at this, but doesn’t protest, so she considers her job well done.

“I trust that you will let her feed you in the future then?” She writes his payment slip with a steady hand, holding her sleeve back with her left hand and sets her brush down against the inkstone with a soft click as it also hits her table.

Wordlessly, he nods.

As soon as ink dries she passes it over for him to glance at for the briefest of moments before folding it into thirds and tucking it away into one of his sleeves.

“Chichi-ue has reminded me to dispose of the mulberry trees at the very far edge of the fields.” Now that winter has come and the season of silk production has wound down, it will soon be time to take stock of the year’s sales, prepare to pay Lord Fusamoto’s tax collector and ready the household for the winter season, and with it, the new year. “Would you be willing to come along?”

He does not have to if he does not wish to; after all, fires may be set without a shinobi to breathe flames, even if flames are an Uchiha Clan specialty, which is why she asks.

Something amused sparks in his dark eyes. “I’d be delighted.”

And that is that.

She heads to the fields the next morning in her carriage, Kimei sitting across from her, carrying water and lunch with them packed carefully by Kuma that morning with enough for all eight of them who would make the trip.

The five workers led by Yushin’s second brother, Hiroto, had tried to persuade Izuna to ride in the cart with them, but he had elected to drive the carriage instead, sitting up front between the two long shafts hitched to the horse.

Bamboo grows plentifully here, in the south of Fire Country, and while Chubu is more famous for the fruit crops, peaches, plums, cherries, and oranges in the spring and summer, with pears, apples, and persimmons in the fall, the more common but less spoken of craft of the Chubu region is bamboo, be it furniture, containers, mats, or utensils.

They pass by thick stands of it along the roads, leaves rustling like paper sheathes rubbing together in the wind.

Hiroto leads the way through the swathe of chopped down trees to where they had been further chopped and then piled, leaves and all, left out to dry enough to burn far away from the rest of the grove.

“There are some others yet to be added to the pile,” Hiroto shakes his head. “It’s plenty that needed to be taken down, but Kawaguchi-san said to take down the healthy ones next to the diseased ones just in case to prevent further spread.”

No wonder Chichi-ue had been so sad after coming back from the fields. They had passed some fifty or so tree stumps, some older than she was, planted when Chichi-ue himself was a boy, and there are still more to come.

The new trees planted from branch cuttings next year will take a long time before they are at peak leaf production again.

The field manager turns to Izuna. “I was thinking, if you could start the fire early, so we can feed it later on and keep it from getting too big, we could bring in the others on the wagon as we finish chopping them down to a decent size.”

“That seems like the best course of action.” She nods to Hiroto, who takes his men with him, their axes and saws in hand, off to a different corner of the field.

Izuna looks at the pile of branches and leaves for a moment, having brought nothing to start a fire with him, and nods for her to stand back.

With a few gestures, he inhales, and then with a craftsman’s precision, exhales a steady stream of fire at the wood pile, a hand cupped around his lips to guide it.

The flames flicker, dancing gently on the barest hint of a breeze, and in the firelight, she sees him smile.

He is not a bad young man, Uchiha Izuna — not bad looking either, her mind supplies for her — but different perhaps.

Different in that they come from difference, he, from the outer world where men could casually set a pile of wood ablaze with nothing but a few gestures, rougher around the edges perhaps, and she from the inner world, lacquered tabletops and walls, flowers painted on porcelain, silk threads reeled from cocoons by hand, soft, but no less vicious for the softness.

The firelight throws up shadows on his face, stretches long the gentle smile, and there are gaps between them that no wood or words can bridge.

“Hisa, could I trouble you to pass a word onto your father?” Hondo Asa bounces her three year old son up and down on her knee in the main greeting hall of the Hondo Household, back to visit her widowed mother, Madam Hondo, and just in time to also take tea with Hisa. Which she should have found suspect now that she thinks about it, for if Asa didn’t want to see her, Asa wouldn’t. “I would be most grateful if he could speak to the merchant’s guild.”

“Oh?” She sets her gaiwan down, careful not to disturb its lid. The Hondo are an old merchant family, and a proud one at that, even if their family patriarch for many years has been the barely of age Mitsugu, his father having died nearly ten years before.

But now Mitsugu is twenty-eight, more than old enough to shoulder the burden of a merchant household.

“On behalf of my husband, not my brother.” Asa looks down slightly, still bouncing little Arimichi on her knee. Asa had married Yatakara Arimasa, a merchant of newer money and slightly less social standing than his wife’s maiden house, but Hisa does not fault him for that. Her parents had once danced that same dance.

She wishes Asa and Yatakara-san a longer happiness than her parents had.

“Anija does not need anyone to speak for him except on matters of marriage, you know that.” Little Arimichi-kun babbles something about the toy he has in his hand, and Asa leans down briefly to speak to him.

And indeed, if anyone knew the truth about Hondo Mitsugu, they would certainly throw their scandalized hands up in the air and talk much more of marriage with him than they have already been doing, thus her serious friend will never have another moment’s peace in his life.

“I don’t believe that you ought to talk to me about your ani and marriage, Asa-chan. What will your mother think?” She laughingly picks her gaiwan back up, makes a show of admiring the pretty peach blossom design on the lid — Mitsugu’s work, she knows it well. He had painted the profusion of plum blossoms and irises on her porcelain writing box as well — before taking another sip of her tea. “But come now, we are not here to discuss your ani. What message did you want me to take to Chichi-ue?”

“It is about the Senju of course.” Kame says airily as she comes through the door. “Aneja has been complaining of nothing but the Senju these days. All talk of their prices and quality of crop, how it has dragged down prices of grains across Chubu this autumn season.”

“Kame-chan!” Asa casts her little sister a disgruntled glance, upset at having her secret blown before Hisa had to tease it from her.

Which, as Hisa takes another sip of tea, she appreciates her school friend for doing. While she and Kame-chan were mostly deskmate school friends, having been stuck together for both being the daughters of merchants and of the same relative age when studying at Sato-sensei’s many years ago, they share a much closer bond than she does with Asa, Kame-chan’s five years older sister.

And being forced to ask in more detail to seem warm-hearted may yet backfire into another promise she should not make or ask Chichi-ue to make for her.

And this is definitely a promise she should not be making. “The Senju are a baronic household, Asa-chan.” She considers it carefully, for this is about livelihoods, about people and survival. It has been a dry summer, so all goods are a little bit more expensive on the market, and being undercut by cheaper prices is no easy load to bear. “Even the Merchant’s Guild would not lightly offend them when they have committed no crimes.” While merchant daughters across the region and other regions close to them may consider themselves on par with baronic daughters both in money and power, it isn’t true.

Money, yes. Power? No. Without titles, one should endeavor to not offend those who do have them. “They are not merchants, so of course do not follow our rules.” She thinks about it still further, a little bit rueful at the thought of how worried Yatakara-san must be about balancing his account books that his wife would be complaining about the Senju in her maiden home. “But they are also from Danmai, and not Chubu, and I shall write to O-Shiki-sama to see what she has to say of the matter.”

Asa relaxes, her shoulders no longer held so tightly bunched. “That is better than I could’ve hoped for. Thank you, Hisa-chan.”

And their conversation turns to lighter, more pleasant topics.

Madam Hondo comes to sit with them a few minutes after that, perhaps having already judged from the sound of conversation that serious discussion between juniors in the business has already passed, and makes herself known.

In the years since her husband passed, Madam Hondo had grown older than her age, white streaking her hair and fish tail wrinkles creasing deep around her eyes. The upkeep and care of the business on top of the household had fallen to her in the two years between her husband’s death and Mitsugu coming of age, and for a few years after, she had kept tight control of the Hondo Pottery situation as well as the upkeep and settlement of her husband’s concubines and their children, settling Asa with a relatively well off family, and hounding her only son to marry so that he may secure the family business from the grasp of his younger, shu brothers.

In all respects besides the last, Madam Hondo has done well for her family at the cost of herself and her youth.

But so thinking of Mitsugu, she remembers that he had been the reason she had come to tea today. He’d sent her a hurried note, out of character for his normally meticulous and careful self, and she had found some reason to come see the Hondo household. “And Hondo-senpai?” she asks, setting down her gaiwan and leans forward. “I haven’t seen him today.”

Had anyone even told Mitsugu that she’d arrived? She doesn’t imagine that his authority in his own house would be undercut so severely that he doesn’t even know that she was coming, not when she knows that Asa came back to visit just because she was going to take tea with Madam Hondo and Kame today. However, she does suspect that perhaps no one had told the master of the house that “Hisa-chan” is here already, which is something she wouldn’t put past the whiles of Madam Hondo, whose gaze is ever watchful when it comes to her only son.

However watchful Madam Hondo may be though, the servants of the household should properly notify Mitsugu of a guest in his own house, so it’s only a matter of time before one of the handmaids present for her arrival cracks and tells the master of the house.

“Oh, he’s been very busy.” Madam Hondo smiles at her, fishtail wrinkles about her eyes creasing deep. “Preparing for the exams, you know, Hisa-chan.” Oh, yes. The Imperial Exams, held once every four years. It’d been, it’d been— ah but that doesn’t matter now. “Every household in the city has a young man preparing to take them.” Every household but yours.

Words spoken lightly, but chosen to cut and bleed.

The exams had been her father’s dream, the reason Anija had read so many books. But now here she sits, and Anija is gone, another dream flown as far as the moon.

The exams no longer matter now.

Behind her, Kimei stiffens, and she wishes she could say something, but to say anything to Kimei now is to admit that the words and their implications have hurt them, and the House of Kawaguchi is not hurt.

“Oh, yes.” She says, and smiles behind her folding fan, hands unshaken, face unchanged, “how remiss of me to have forgotten, and to visit to ask Hondo-senpai on his expertise on a matter of business at such a crucial time.” I’d forgotten. It wasn’t important enough for me to remember. “I suppose it could wait until we hear about his exam results. After all, it would only be a month or so to hear them.”

The results for the city of Shunan will be posted before the new year begins. The results from the imperial city would need to wait until after the last round of exams in mid May.

Perhaps her face is unchanged, but it still hurts to bleed.

If it offends Madam Hondo to learn that the tigress’s daughter is also a tiger cub with claws, then perhaps she should not have chosen to rebuke with a blade as sharp as the sorrow of her father’s four dead sons.

Much as she loves Mitsugu, she does not love his mother, despite respecting Madam Hondo for all the work that she has done. It is no easy thing to be the axle on which a household turns, a lightning rod in all weathers, the first in line to brave a storm.

So Madam Hondo ought to be respected, but not this statement.

The corners of Madam Hondo’s lips turn down, but anything else she might’ve said is averted, for Mitsugu strides into the room, a handmaid on his heels. “If it isn’t Hisa-chan,” he smiles briefly, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, lighting up the room with his good cheer. “I’d been meaning to talk to you recently.” He looks around the room, offers his greetings to his mother and sisters, and then steals her away like he’s still a little boy sneaking fried dough twists from the kitchen.

With the doors shut behind them, and only Kimei there as a witness, his facade of good cheer crumbles like a smashed clay pot.

“Dearest Mitsugu-senpai,” she whispers. “What has happened to you?”

He has not been studying, no matter how carefully disheveled the books all about his desk are and the essay he had been in the middle of working on placed strategically in the center. No, the bowl of tangyuan on his desk with the soup spoon laid neatly beside it speaks of his own distraction, having been left untouched for some time now, so that the sticky rice dumplings have grown soggy in the sugar water, sticking to each other and slightly starting to come apart, revealing the red bean paste inside.

If he couldn’t make an effort for his favorite food, his mood is poor indeed.

At her question, he shakes, the corner of his mouth trembling before he takes two large steps towards her and buries his face in her shoulder. “He doesn’t want me anymore.”

There is only one 'he’ that Mitsugu-senpai could be referring to — Satoshi-sensei who played the pipa for the Shokin-tei teahouse in the entertainment district.

For at least five years now, Mitsugu-senpai had first been enamoured, then in love with, then lovers with the most famous pipa player of Shunan. And after five years, the sudden breaking of the relationship is a bit of a shock.

Carefully, she sets her hands against his back, aware that should anyone come in despite Kimei’s protests, this position is very improper indeed. A scandal, that a young, unmarried woman and a young, unmarried man are caught embracing in his study, nevermind that Mitsugu-senpai does not care for women or that he is clearly more distraught than amourous. He deserved the comfort now, because he could tell no one else, despite how clearly this has hurt him. For other people, he would need to pretend to be studying, or at good cheer, but for her he need pretend at nothing before her. “Did he say anything about why?”

His answer is a wordless shake of his head.

Even more carefully, she pushes him back into a chair, straightening her collar and her sleeves as she does so, glad that he has not lost his composure enough to cry, for the stains would be rather hard to explain to anyone else she might pass by on her way home, and his red eyes might be even worse to explain to anyone who might see him.

He has the grace to look abashed, although a shake of her head prevents him from commenting on it. “I think,” she says, with sudden chagrin, knowing that Chichi-ue who plays the pipa so well will be irritated with her odd desire to look for pipa teachers while he is away when he could just teach her himself. “That I am struck with a sudden desire to learn how to play the pipa.”

She shakes her head again when he attempts to thank her. “I did have a business question for you, most beloved Mitsugu-senpai. Will you humor your poor misguided kouhai about it?”

He breathes out softly. “Whatever you would like to know, Hisa-chan.”

She steps through the shrine door later that same evening, wounds still raw from Madam Hondo’s words.

Even the wood inside is dark, varnished and glowing in the light of the nine candles, one before each memorial tablet, three blank and without name, for the three sons born after her who had not lived to see their names written in the family book at a month old.

After setting her flickering lantern down by the door of the ancestral altar, she turns to take the few steps across the room, the inscription above the altar barely visible.

From the same roots we come, spreading into the branches of a great tree.

Other families may have larger shrines for those who had passed on to watch over their descendants from the heavens, crowded altars with only memorial tablets for men, but not so for the House of Kawaguchi, which is young, and bore each sorrow personally.

She can name and has met every person who has now become a tablet in the family shrine — Jiisan, Baasan, her two uncles, Anija, three younger brothers...Haha-ue.

It is this last name that she stops before tonight, to wipe away the candle wax before her mother’s tablet, and replace the incense burning before it with another.

“Haha-ue,” she begins, sinking to her knees when she has finished replacing the incense. “The Imperial Exams have come around again this year.” And I am twenty years old. This year, Anija would’ve been twenty-three. Old enough to take the exams and do well. Old enough to see his name listed on the banner of names they would paste to the city’s message board, showcasing the names of men who would advance to Chubu’s regional exams, and then again a month later, who would advance to the exams in the capital.

Anija had been so brilliant — and dead now for twelve years, she realizes suddenly with a cold chill, having never grown up, never come of age, taken the exams, married, had a chance to hold his own children, or bemoan the appearance of his first white hair.

The exams had been her father’s fondest dream, an honor to their young name, a clan title, one that she could never hope to give him.

After all, they did not allow women to take the exams. In all respects, she is a pale reflection of what Anija could’ve been, slim shoulders when his would’ve been broad, small hands when his would’ve been large, a daughter not a son, bound to the limitations that daughters must bear, even though she has beaten her hands bloody on doors that will not open for women.

“I am sorry,” she whispers, and realizes that she is crying. “I cannot make you proud this year either.” Not this year, not any year after. Her brilliant mother, who does not deserve her name dragged through the mud, must bear this injustice in death as well, as she had smiled and bore it in life.

No sons for the House of Kawaguchi, not in this life.

The whispers of other people are cruel and malicious, and they cut deep.

And she who is only Hisa could not hope to ever prove them wrong.

A week later, she sits in her study and waits for Kimei to announce the next pipa teacher that Hiko had found for her despite not really knowing or caring why she would be looking for pipa teachers when her own father played the pipa brilliantly and could teach her easily.

“Satoshi-sensei, from Shikon-tei,” Kimei pushes open the door, announces the man, and shows him in. She’d personally never met him, having never in her life, been to Shikon-tei.

She takes a moment to examine him, a young man, clean shaven, who wore pale green and had a high forehead. He did hold a pipa well, though that explains nothing of how well he could play it. Perhaps he could be considered attractive, she really couldn’t tell.

He is beautiful to Mitsugu-senpai, and that is all that really matters.

She raises her eyes to meet his from across her desk, idly tapping her fingers against the side of her face. “Satoshi-sensei from Shikon-tei,” she muses. “For a pipa player, you’ve made yourself very hard to find, Sensei.”

Men could visit tea houses and speak to the musicians and the dancing girls and the shopkeep and the other patrons easily and without question, but a young unmarried woman, while she could go, could show no preference for any entertainer and only speak to the shopkeep through using her handmaids as a go between, much less talk to any strange men alone in private.

Thus, Satoshi the musician had made himself very hard to get to for someone of her social class.

He freezes, slowly dropping the pipa that he had held before him to a spot by his side, grasp loose around its neck. "It does seem that you've found me, despite my best attempts to hide my existence."

Well then, no facades between them then. It makes things easier that they do not have to dance with poetry and could use plain language instead. "Tell me quite plainly, Satoshi-sensei, what does Mitsugu mean to you?" And why did you leave him?

"I would think that you would prefer to have him to yourself, Kawaguchi-san,” His words are airy, lightly spoken, but rehearsed. Not lightly chosen though, and that gives her some hope for the future of Mitsugu-senpai’s happiness. “A wonderful young man, a capable young woman, is that not what all songs sing of?"

Trust a musician to put his life’s ambitions into songs and to turn to songs to seek out what those life goals should be.

Life is no song unless it be a stringless cacophony.

"If that is really why you have left him, then you are vile." If he could not see that Mitsugu-senpai loved him, through the wool he’s pulled over his own eyes and convinced himself that he is doing what is best, then he does not deserve someone like Mitsugu-senpai who has never lied to him once.

"Oh?" Satoshi the pipa player raises his right eyebrow at her, as if daring her to put her angry thoughts into words. Someone like you could never understand.

"If you were using his love for you for money, then you are scum. If you find you no longer love him and want to leave him, then we have nothing more to say, for he will find someone better. If you are leaving him because you can't fathom him choosing you over anyone else then you are treating him like a vile man might treat a lover. Without truth. Without trust." Let him be the judge of his own heart, his own destiny.

Her words do strike something in him, because he attempts to leave, but finds that Hiko, tall and sallow, with black eyes and long black hair, and a gaze like a watchful praying mantis who has sighted prey has leaned himself against the doorframe, his black boots scuffed up against the opposite side, a worthy enough deterrent against troubles of all sorts.

“Why do you do this?” Satoshi tries a different tact: pretense at offense and anger. “I am only a poor musician from a teahouse in this city. What right do you have, Kawaguchi-san, for inviting me into your house as though promising me a job and then threatening me here where I am at your mercy?”

“I am not threatening you.” She rises from her desk, comes around it to stand toe to toe with him, eyes narrowed. She is the tigress’s cub, and perhaps other people should well remember that her father called her mother Byakko in life, tiger goddess with tiger children, a goddess and a tigress even well before her passing. “If my words feel like insults, it is because of your own guilt.” He loves you, she almost wants to say, he loves you and wishes he could marry you, that is why he is twenty-eight years old and unmarried, do you understand? “Think on that if you would like.” She jerks her head towards the door, and Hiko unbends himself from the doorframe to step aside.

He turns to her with a rueful smile after Satoshi-sensei had already disappeared down the walkway, hurried, troubled, and with shoulders bowed. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the tiger, Hisa.”

She looks up at him, wry and fond. “I am always a tiger, Hiko, just sometimes I have teeth.”

The week after, Mitsugu-senpai sends her a new tea set, six gaiwan and a blue and white porcelain teapot hand painted with a spray of delicate orchids.

The accompanying note has only two words, written in Mitsugu-senpai’s cramped, narrow handwriting — Thank you.

And it is enough.

Chichi-ue’s return from Yanai brings with it, much rejoicing. He pauses for lunch with Momo-chan and Chiba-san in Chiba-san’s courtyard, as is only fair and proper of a man returning from a long trip.

She does not intrude, having never really been to Chiba-san’s courtyard all that frequently, in the five years she has lived with them in the household, and eats a simple lunch with Kimei and Hiko instead.

“Hisa, Hisa, you should try this new type of fermented cabbage. It goes well with the rice.” Kimei tips a piece of the cabbage into her bowl between bites, chattering all the while about whatever came to mind.

On the other side of the courtyard table, Hiko makes a face of bewildered amusement as he carefully sips another spoonful of winter melon and smoked pork soup, so hot that it is still steaming as he watches the two of them.

Kimei notices this and makes a face at him. “What are you looking at, oh Prince of Birds?”

Hiko childishly makes a face back at her. “I was just wondering why you think Hisa can’t feed herself, Butterfly Brain.”

Kimei shakes her head at him, pink ribbons in her hair fluttering as she does so. “Men,” she sighs. “Always only seeing the surface of things.” After another pause, her handmaid turns back to Hiko. “And what is your favorite dish of the three we’ve had today?”

Besides the soup and the fermented cabbage, there’d been a dish of bok choy greens blanched quickly in hot water and then sprinkled with candied almonds.

Hiko hums, thinking about it for a moment around another bite of soup. “I think I much prefer the winter melon and smoked pork.”

Kimei tsks at this, shoving more bok choy into his bowl of rice. “Glutton,” she sings, still more amused than actually disapproving. “Glutton!”

“I’m a growing boy,” Hiko protests around another mouthful of pork, and he looks so disgruntled and guilty that she laughs at him.

Kimei and Hiko ate lunch together often, with and without her, depending on if she is called away or not, but it is good to see them happy and teasing, good to know that some things remain unchanged and constant.

They were friends long ago, when Hiko first came to the estate, and Kimei snuck up on him, putting her hands over his eyes, and they are friends now, even as the years roll onwards.

“You’re a grown man,” Kimei teases. “Hisa, don’t you agree? Twenty-five is grown, right?”

Hiko casts her a pleading look, as if begging her to say “no, twenty-five is a mere child’s age,” but thankfully she is saved from having to respond by Toshi being shown into the courtyard by Aka.

“Chichi!” Kimei rises, bobbing a slight curtsy to greet her father who, in turn, gives her a quick nod and a small smile before turning to where Hisa sits at the table.

“Second Miss, your father sent me to ask you to come to his study after you’ve finished your lunch.”

So as it would seem, Chichi-ue ate lunch quickly today and has already said his goodbyes. He’d barely been there for longer than a stick of incense burning down, Kimei had set out a new one right before they had sat down to lunch and it still only had two finger-widths of height remaining.

There are a few reasons why it might be so — Chiba-san saying something he didn’t want to hear, some exciting news he had learned in Yanai, a present he might be eager to give her, some combination of all of these perhaps — the look between herself and Kimei is enough to know that she will have learned all the various reasons by the time she returns.

Chichi-ue is humming when she enters his study, which brings her joy, because it has been so long, and yet she can count on one hand the number of times she has heard him hum in recent years.

It is more than a good mood this time then.

She pauses there for a moment listening to the tune of Water Town waft through the air — the scent of lotus leaf on both banks, the traveller’s pavilion and the weeping willow keep each other company — she has not heard this song in over ten years now, and she does not want it to end.

When she was younger, it had been her favorite song, a tale of romance, homecoming, and care all in one melody, for long ago, her father had written it for her mother, who quietly delighted in whenever he would care to play it for her.

But it does end, because as the song itself says, these feelings cannot be contained within a single song.


He turns to her then, a smile still on his lips, as if he had not realized what tune he had been humming. “Ah, Hisa-chan, come sit?” For one brief moment, she wonders if it is Chiba-san that has made him so happy.

But she dismisses that, because in the five years that Chiba-san has lived in their house, she doesn’t remember a single time when Chichi-ue hummed Water Town.

It is her mother’s song, just as much as The Mortal Realm Isn’t Worth It. Even if Chiba-san did make him happy — and this would be something that she would have to accept, wouldn’t it? — it wouldn’t inspire this song.

There is a chair beside him, pulled out already as if he’d been waiting for her.

She does come sit with him. “What has made Chichi-ue so happy today?”

“Is it not enough to be home?” Yes, her father likes to play word games like this as well, half teasing, half truthful.

“Then Chichi-ue flatters his silly daughter, and it shall go straight to her head.” She props her head up on her hands, looking at the account book that he was going over.

“Nonsense.” He lightly raps her forehead with his knuckles. “Not one of my children has ever been silly.”

“Chichi-ue, why have you marked out a section for next year already?” It is months yet, until the new year, but this new section of the account book speaks of both growth and new knowledge of the year to come.

“Ah, that depends.” He smiles, amused fondness tugging at the laugh lines around his mouth. “Do you want the bigger news first? Or the smaller news?”

“Of course the bigger news first!” The years may pass, but she does not change much with them. Big news comes first, the little things for later.

“Then I am pleased to announce that I received word while in Yanai that the Nakatomi Clan wishes to buy their silk from us next spring.”

The news almost stuns her into silence. “The Nakatomi?” When Chichi-ue nods, she tries a different tack, asking again. “The ducal household?” Again, a nod.

It takes a moment for the enormity of the situation to sink in. For a long time now, Chichi-ue has wanted to expand their commissions in the capital, but without a proper patronage from one of the upper class households in the city, they’d never been able to expand properly.

The Nakatomi, however, held the highest of rankings within the capital at the moment, second only to the imperial household itself in power, one of the three ducal households, the current Kogo’s maiden household, and the future daimyo as a relation.

To earn a commission from them is high praise indeed, so high that it might as well have been a brush with the moon.

She throws her arms around her father’s neck, suddenly aware of why he was so pleased. “Congratulations, Chichi-ue. Your daughter wishes you a thousand years of happiness.”

He pats her hand with a quiet sigh. “I’ll accept a few months’ worth of joy from your thousand year well wishes. That would be quite plenty for an old man like me.”

They stay like that for a few moments more, careful, but happy until she remembers that there is something else he had mentioned. “But Chichi-ue, what is the little thing you mentioned?”

“A letter from your cousin,” he pulls the paper from the inside of his sleeve. “Shige-kun did beg me to deliver it directly, and he looked so distraught that I couldn’t possibly refuse.”

Hiwara Shigematsu is the eldest child of her first uncle, the elder of her mother’s younger brothers, a sweet boy whom she remembers fondly, though the last time they had met in person had not been an ideal time.

He turns seventeen this year, she recalls, and seventeen is a fraught age.

Reaching out, she accepts the letter, with a reminder to read it before she sleeps tonight so that she could draft a reply shortly and have it sent on its way.

“Thank you for bringing it home with you.” It’s on the tip of her tongue to add that Shige-kun is likely lonely, perhaps more so than he realizes, and that she hopes they had a few good conversations in the two weeks that Chichi-ue had been in Yanai, but there’s a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Chichi-ue again picks up his brush, and she rises to go.

It is Aunt Niwa that she passes on her way back to her courtyard, but for what purpose, she does not know.

Chapter Text

As it had turned out, Aunt Niwa had come to talk to Chichi-ue about how since Toraki-kun was already twelve, there was good reason to send him away to a better school than Baron Sato’s in their city in Chubu.

Implied is that since Chichi-ue had been sent away to school in the famous Shijuku in Yanai, one of the greatest private academies of learning in the south of Fire Country, her son deserved the same.

Needless to say, Chichi-ue, who, while speaking of Yanai the city fondly, has never spoken of the family who hosted him during his eleven year stay there or really of his time at the school itself, had been ill pleased by the notion that sending a young boy far away for school was somehow better than keeping him at home.

Chichi-ue’s birthday, which generally marked the beginning of deep winter, was a tense affair because of it, between what her third aunt felt her son was owed and what Chichi-ue was determined to become as immovable as Mount Rishiri over.

But eventually it had passed, and Izuna had gone home for the new year, though he’d come back upset somehow.

She had not asked him about it in particular, if only because it wasn’t polite. He’d gone home for the new year to see his family, and whatever troubles the youngest son of the Count of Tohoku had picked up while at home with family, it is not her affair nor her place to pry.

The business of what noblemen did when others of their ilk were present is not any of her business, and family business even more so.

Even if he had looked more sad than angry, and lapsed back into a grim sort of silence when coming to collect his payslips. Even so, and even if seeing him do so when he had previously been almost jovial is worrying for her, it means nothing in the end.

He is here for work is all, and not a member of her household that she could hope to bribe with sweets and a word, because while he might call her Hisa-san with the same quiet respect he offered everyone she’s seen him meet, she is not his second miss the way she is for others of the House of Kawaguchi.

With a sigh, she sets down her account book. She is getting no work done in particular, worrying as she is over something she cannot change. “Nene, would you go fetch Hiko for me?”

“Oh, yes, right away.” Her youngest handmaid hurries off, her pastel blue pleated skirt ruffling in the spring breeze.

Nene is a quiet soul, not as loud as Aka can be, or as outgoing and vibrant as Kimei is, but that is only to be expected. Aka has a spine made of steel, and Kimei is like a reed in the river, dancing, bending, but never broken.

Nene is better than four years ago, when she had first arrived in the estate as kitchen help, a skittish twelve year old with a stutter and unable to look anyone in the eye. Whoever had been her last house of employment, they had not treated her well.

It took no words to explain thus, and Hisa had never asked her exactly what had happened. Her self-abasement and aura of fear had been enough to explain everything.

But she has gotten better. She has gotten better, and Hisa is glad of it.

Hiko arrives with bright eyes and a straight spine. Sometimes he reminds her of a very large praying mantis, ready to move like lightning at a moment’s notice, tall and rail thin, shiny dark eyes somehow seeing everything all at once.

Setting down his own account book and writing box on the other side of her stone courtyard table, he takes the seat across from her without asking, knowing full well that it is offered every time he arrives, with or without the audience of handmaids working in the courtyard. “I’ve organized all the cloth samples that we would need to take with us to the capital.” He makes a face. “The Nakatomi Clan should appreciate at least some of our colors and weaves.”

“So what remains for us to decide upon are the people who are also going to the capital.” There is no help for it this time, Chiba-san will have to manage the accounts. She will be going, Hiko will be going, Chichi-ue will be going, and those are all the other people who would have precedent for managing the household accounts before Chiba-san could touch them.

Which means that after she returns she will have to check all of the household items and the balances to make sure that nothing is amiss.

But that is for later, not now. There will be more work for that week after she returns from the capital, and incense to light and charcoal to buy and prayers to say and graves to sweep, but that is for later, not now.

“Yushin will come with us, for certain.” Yushin and his group of young men, all capable and used to travel. “And you will, and of course Toshi and Kimei will.”

“We leave the accounts for Chiba-san then?” His question is an idle one, mild enough that it barely scrapes the surface of his disdain.

Haha-ue had raised him, and as such, their household accountant, though well mannered, polite, and serviceable, had no love at all for her father’s second wife or her household. The incident some four years ago has left relations between them rather icy.

“Is there some reason to mistrust her?” Hiko would know better than she does; after all, he was the one who would be punished for some miscalculation. In a different household, a numerical error would be enough to accuse him of embezzlement, sending him either to the stocks, prison, or grounds for a caning.

Not in their household though, where at most, the mistake would be noted by Chichi-ue and questions would be asked.

In the over seven years Hiko has been managing the accounts, he has made precious few errors.

“Oh,” he says airily, straightening his sleeves as he does so. “Not with any particularity of course not.”

But the incident nearly four years ago now still lingers in the air uncleared. Chiba-san had overstepped her bounds, and even now, Hiko at least would find it hard to trust her.

“Is it still about that time?” Normally, she wouldn’t ask, but if there has been some new development that has pushed Hiko further into his grudgeholding, she would like to know about that.

“Oh,” he remarks, still airy, light, as though he really couldn’t care less still grinding his ink with an even, if hard, hand — which is how she knows he’s been dreadfully bothered by the idea of leaving the accounts to Chiba-san, “there's been a few slights here and there, but nothing that could be worse than threatening to cane me, no.”

Internally, she still remembers that time, black as her heart had been with rage and an anger raw and bloodied under the surface. No one had raised a hand to Hiko.

No one had dared.

But that doesn’t mean the sting of that memory doesn’t remain.

She is quiet for perhaps too long, because Hiko offers her a lopsided smile, a shake of his head, and a change of subject. “Are you sure we ought to bring Yushin with us? Would it not be better to bring Izuna instead?”

“It will be necessary to bring Izuna-san, but not in the same way that it is necessary to bring Bear.” She has thought about it and would like to consult him for various details that she’s sure he would know better than her about the lives of the upper aristocracy. “We ought to bring them both.”

For all that her family is landed, they have no titles and adhere very little to the rigid formality of the upper nobility, and it is not as if she could consult O-Shiki from three regions away when she is in Kakunodate.

“Oh?” Hiko turns to a new page in his account book and picks up his brush. “I would think that if Izuna were to come with us he would lead the others rather than Bear?”

“The men trust Bear more.” Izuna is not disliked by anyone in their household, but the connections of time and trust are not easily replaced, even if all the men do get along with Izuna.

“That is true…” Hiko muses about it for another moment more before noting it down as well in the records. “Will someone else take over managing the caravans for the month we will be away then?”

“I believe that Izuna-san mentioned a cousin?” Specifically, a paternal first cousin, a son of one of his father’s younger brothers. He’d called the man Naka.

Hiko nods. “Then that’s another worry settled.”

The ride into the capital which comprised the last leg of their journey is much more fun than looking at the countryside and slowly backstitching the long pleated qun of a new outfit together. Travel and bumpy roads have made them all sore, and her more likely to stab her own fingers than not, but time is time, and there’s much less of it to be wasting than she can afford to while sitting in a slow moving carriage and stopping at inns every night.

Beside her, Kimei reads to her from a book of poetry, though that has stopped now for the time being as they both look out the windows at the streets beyond.

While the markets in Shunan are busy, they are nothing compared to this, the noise and bustle, hundreds of vendors and their wares, shops lining the streets and the teeming throngs of passersby, making their pace slow significantly while coming into the capital.

Here, the buildings are cramped close together, almost wall to wall with only a narrow alleyway between them and walls around the courtyard houses more often made of wood and painted plaster than stone. The architecture is much the same however, curved tile roofs, deep eves, imposing front gates made of dark, varnished wood, metal door knockers, and raised thresholds to keep out the rain.

Yushin pulls up alongside her side of the carriage, all wide smile and laughing eyes. “Is Hisa-san enjoying the sights?”

She has never been to the capital before. Chichi-ue does not often take orders this far away from home, and they have no relatives here, thus not necessitating any sort of travel to the imperial city. The last time he himself has been here was years and years ago now, when he had found Hiko and brought him home.

“It is bigger than I thought it would be,” she admits. The background noise and sights and smells are far more of a distraction than she thought they would be. After all, she had reasoned, she is familiar enough with the busiest parts of Shunan to not be the least bothered.

But perhaps she is a country bumpkin after all. This big city can still inspire wonder in her — wonder and joy like she has long given up in Shunan.

Yushin looks around, fondness in his eyes. “Yes, it does have that feeling to it,” he agrees, amicable and with a cheer that really only he provided all the time.

“And how do you feel about the capital, Yushin?”

His gaze has drifted out to the booths that they are passing, lingers for a moment on the one with little wooden toys and then on the booth right beside it selling fried skewers of meat and oil and onion pancakes.

“It sure is a rare sight to see.” Yushin smiles, still looking at the sights that pass them. “Maybe I’ll even end up getting that toy boat here in the capital instead.”

“Oh?” She leans her head against one hand, swaying in time to the rattling of the carriage, and listens as Yushin tells her about how he had been unable to find a properly good one in the span of time that he had been in Yanai, though he’d gone and looked at several different places, how Shimo-chan had been disappointed but had eventually agreed that she would like her father to find her the best sort of boat.

The quiet chatter gives her something to focus on, even as they wind their way slowly through the streets.

“Brother Bear!” Kimei leans to her side of the carriage after seemingly having conversed with someone outside, laughing behind her sleeve at Yushin who blinks at her with befuddlement at her mischievous amusement. “Brother Bear, Hiko said that he wanted to see you when you next came by.”

“Well,” Yushin shrugs easily, undeterred by the childhood tease of ‘Bear’ that has now followed him well into adulthood, “Then I shall go see what he has to say.” While he’d been smaller as a child, he’s grown up into the bear of his nickname. “It likely has to do with the last game of Go we played. I recall we had a stalemate when we called it a night.”

It would be just like Hiko to continue thinking on it and probably come up with a counter if the match had ended unsatisfactorily.

Yushin urges his horse forward to Hiko’s side of the carriage that he shared with Chichi-ue, and she lets the curtain at her window drop to return to the pleated skirt in her lap.

She turns around in a circle, slowly, and tries to feel as though she wasn’t so heavily on display, like a flower in a rich nobleman’s garden being scrutinized every which way for errors.

But then, there are no less than six Nakatomi ladies here, and she is unaware of how exactly they all fit together as a family, except perhaps for the Old Madam, who is the Lord Prime Minister’s wife, and then his eldest daughter-in-law, the Big Madam.

What relationship each of the four misses have with each other, if they are di daughters of either the Old Madam or the Big Madam who are both main wives of their respective courtyards, or if they are shu daughters of concubines, she does not know.

Still, her job here is to look beautiful as Chichi-ue bows and self effaces, explaining the silk and their processes.

“That particular pattern is quite fetching on her.” The Old Madam waves her folding fan back and forth idly. “Although, I can’t imagine, with those slim hips and that washboard chest she’s borne you any particularly useful children.”

Internally, she flushes scarlet, but like a child’s doll, she continues spinning slowly, her arms outstretched for the other ladies to look at their wares.

She has always had two faces, and her public face remains unshaken.

“My daughter is yet unmarried, your grace.” Chichi-ue bows low, though from the corner of her eye, she sees the just barely noticeable tightening of his lips, the trembling in his unclenched hands that he has folded together before him.

Something heavy settles in the pit of her stomach, something formless, given no sound and no name.

She rarely considers Chichi-ue fallible, or indeed, sees the hurt that he keeps so carefully contained.

He is a proud man, and he has rarely had to witness the way people would snidely bump into her, or step on her toes, words just a tad too pointed, dismissals just a little too abrupt to be on this side of polite, and this had been more of a slight than Madam Hondo implying the deaths of her brothers.

No, the citizens of Shunan, no matter their other problems, kept their criticisms of Kawaguchi Yasutaro’s daughter from his face.

“She’s a bit old to be unmarried, isn’t she?” the Big Madam says, setting her gaiwan aside on a low side table, leaning against the arm of her chair.

And while yes, young women younger than her have been married — girls start putting their hair up at age fifteen, signifying that they are now adults, open to marriage proposals — twenty and unmarried hasn’t yet made her a burden on her father’s household.

Though, twenty with no serious proposals does make her rather an odd one. Her mother had had plenty of suitors and plenty of proposals.

As the eldest daughter of a prosperous and well regarded merchant household, it was only natural that there had been men lining up outside her door since she started to put up her hair.

Yet in the end, Hiwara Maki had been twenty-four when she married, having driven away every last suitor except for one — the young man playing pipa in the boat next to hers.

“I thank your grace for worrying over my most unworthy daughter.” Chichi-ue again bows, and sounds entirely sincere, though Hisa knows he is not. The insults paid to what he holds dearest to his heart could not possibly make him sincere about his gratitude.

From the corner of her eye, she notes that Izuna is shaking, his right hand clenching and unclenching. For what reason, she could not discern.

Thankfully, the topic of conversation moves beyond her person, and instead turns back to the quality and color of the silk, though here the ladies discuss among themselves instead, paying very little attention to her, or anyone that Chichi-ue had brought with them.

In the end, the Old Madam decides on several bolts of slate gray, blue-gray, pastel blues, and several of the richer bronzes to be delivered and paid for in the coming month.

It is a good enough sale for the price of holding her tongue and her nerve, and while the money is not enough to buy back their dignity, it serves at least as collateral damage.

On their way out, an older man with a severe and rather austere topknot and dressed in yuanlingshan, the round collared robes of the scholar-shi officials in court, sitting in the pavilion on the other side of the garden shoots them a look as poisonous and flat as his gray eyes.

She feels a cold chill pass through her despite the warmth of the spring day.

But it is not her place to question the whys and wherefores of ducal households, so she hurries after her father, Hiko on her heels.

The next morning, she and Chichi-ue travel across the city to the Kanshu district to a much more pleasant gathering at the Ogawa household.

Many years ago now, their patriarch, Ogawa Saemon had been her father’s senior at the famous Shijuku in Yanai, and Chichi-ue had so often spoken well of him and his character.

His household had come to Shunan for a visit once, a long time ago now, when Uncle Saemon’s only son, Ishinji, had been seven, and his eldest daughter, Toma, had been three years old. She’d also been three years old at the time, and Anija had been six, and thus, she does not remember too much of what her Uncle Saemon or the rest of his household is like, even though she had been writing to the Ogawa sisters since she was old enough to start sending letters.

The man who greets them at the front gate also wears yuanlingshan, although of a much less fine material than the man she’d seen from a distance the day before, but that is only natural as well.

The Ogawa are not a large clan in the scholar-shi, though also old enough to be an established clan, and their patriarch holds no noble title above that, though Uncle Saemon is a fourth level government position in the bureau of records.

“Yasutaro!” Uncle Saemon hurries forward to greet her father disembarking from his carriage even as Hiko leans up to offer her a hand to help her out of her own. “I haven’t seen you in years!”

“It has been quite a few years since I’ve been up this way.” Chichi-ue returns his friend’s clap on the back with one of his own. “I have missed you.”

Uncle Saemon laughs, a soft sound that crinkles the fishtail wrinkles around his cat green eyes, and turns to her. “And this must be Hisa-chan,” he pauses for a moment, looks at her a little bit sadder around the edges than she thought he would be. “All grown up now, you are.”

She curtsies, dipping the appropriate distance. “Fortune and greetings for Uncle Saemon, in the hopes that you’ll enjoy wealth and prosperity for many years to come.”

He smiles. “So formal, Hisa-chan. There’s no need.” He observes her for another moment more. “You act so much like—”

“Byakko.” Chichi-ue’s remark is nonchalant, but it fools no one.

Uncle Saemon frowns. “I’d meant to say that she acts so much like you, Yasutaro.” A brief silence falls where none had been before, but a moment later their host seems to have accepted it, choosing to welcome them into the house instead of drawing any more attention to it.

The young woman who races out to greet her in the front courtyard looks about her age, perhaps a little bit younger, with light sandy-brown hair and her father’s cat green eyes. “Hisa-chan!” She throws her arms around Hisa’s shoulders. “I’m so glad to finally see you!”

Having only spoken to the Ogawa daughters by letters before, she hazards a guess by the age. Toma-chan is the same age as her, born a few months earlier at the heat of summer and therefore twenty years old. Shio-chan is two years younger, and therefore eighteen. And Kei-chan, born five years after her next oldest sister is thirteen still, the same age as Somei-chan back at home.

“Toma-chan, I didn’t know you were so tall!” Her friend had never mentioned how tall she was, soaring gracefully half a head taller than herself, and she is not particularly short, with a delicate heart-shaped face and a general air of mischief.

“And I didn’t know you were so pretty.” Toma laughs and pulls her inside by the hand leaving their fathers behind to walk at a much more sedated pace. “Hisa-chan, you could have your pick of the capital’s bachelors.”

“Oh,” she considers it, perhaps more carefully than she ought to have to have considered something that would never happen. “But they would be noblemen, and not anyone that I could hope to get along with all my life. After all, the river water doesn’t mix with the well water.”

Her family is named for the mouth of the Mujin river and the land they held there, so she is water from the river, free flowing and lowbrow, unable to mix with the standards nobility held for their daughters-in-law and wives.

“Oh, Hisa-chan,” Toma sighs, “You shouldn’t limit yourself so, it’s not right. Who knows who you might marry one day?”

“I’d wanted to talk to you about that, actually.” She’d last written to Toma for the sake of Mitsugu-senpai after all, for her friend had written about her own lack of desire to marry a nobleman. “But perhaps after all the silks and lunch?”

Toma hums her agreement to this. “I haven’t introduced you to Obaa-san, Haha-ue or Kei-chan and Shio-chan yet either, since they couldn’t risk being seen by the street.” Toma sniffs at the word. “As though a few looks here and there would truly risk our reputation so.”

She could protest this, because a look from the wrong person would and could cause great harm, but it is not as if she has legs to stand on in the argument, playing polo with a count at the behest of his beloved wife, and sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to break into a jail.

So she merely smiles, and prepares to be introduced to the other ladies of the house.

She spins around lightly, on dancing feet, the light lilac colored silk flashing in the light of mid morning sun. They are out in the courtyard this time, instead of a stifling greeting hall, among the spring flowers, irises peeking out from behind the still not yet blooming tree peonies, the massive lilac bush in one corner spreading the faint but sweet perfume of the half open blooms into every nook and cranny of the courtyard space.

Old Madam Ogawa nods, a laughing light in her aged green eyes, wrinkled hands atop her cane. “Such a lovely color it is, and on a bright young woman all the better for it.”

Big Madam Jun claps, leaning forward a bit to look at her daughters, “Well,” she says, hiding a smile behind her folding fan. “How about this color for Shio-chan?”

Little Kei-chan peers from behind her fingers, amber eyes wide with delight and wonder. “Haha-ue, it’s so pretty!”

“You’ve said that every time, little sister.” Toma leans over to pinch her baby sister’s cheek. “Though Shio-chan, I think the color would look good on you.”

Shio-chan smiles, carefully dropping her sunflower seed husks into the little porcelain dish set out beside her, an open book face down in her lap. “Not as well as Hisa-neesan has already worn it, though I do admit, I love the way it shines in the light.”

With nods from both the Big Madam and the Old Madam, Hiko records the order for the number of yards in his account book with quick neat brushstrokes.

On the other side of the courtyard, Izuna looms like a shadow, even despite the sun climbing ever higher towards the midpoint of the day. Uncle Saemon had expressed a slight bit of hesitation when realizing that his friend had brought a shinobi with him, not because shinobi are rare in the capital, but because Chichi-ue has always made his opinions on shinobi known.

But now the two men have retreated to drink tea and talk slowly while the ladies picked out colors and made conversation of their own having not seen each other for some ten or eleven years no worse the wear for Chichi-ue’s noncommittal response to Uncle Saemon’s surprise.

Yet Izuna himself looks...ill pleased for reasons she cannot discern.

No one had treated him badly here, and no one had bothered to notice him yesterday to make any comments, so it is perhaps, not this trip that has upset him, although she could not be sure of that. He’d appeared so upset after New Year’s as well.

Perhaps sometime soon, when they return home, she will ask.

“And what does our most daring shinobi think?” Shio-chan turns towards Izuna, the paper cover of her book fluttering briefly in the slight gust of wind, bending at the crease where it is sewn together. “Does the color suit Hisa-nee?”

Briefly, Izuna’s mood darkens before he smooths all expression from his face. “Hisa-san suits all colors.”

Ah, it might be her that he is upset with, for this is an extraordinarily empty compliment.

“And does Izuna-san have an eye for color?” she asks as she airly straightens her sleeves. “For no one looks good in all colors.”

He makes a vaguely choked noise and lapses into silence.

Old Madam Ogawa clears her throat. “Be respectful of the man.” Her rebuke, though gentle, returns them all to the proper etiquette for the situation.

Just as Hiko finishes the last stroke of the last character in his most recent entry in his account book, Kimei appears, stepping over the slight ledge into the courtyard. “The head cook told me to inform the ladies that lunch is ready. Both Kawaguchi-san and Minister Ogawa have adjourned in the direction of his courtyard already.”

There is a flurry of activity following Kimei’s announcement as the ladies gather their fans and belongings, Izuna helps Hiko start clearing away the inner contents of his writing box, and she carefully collects all the swatches of fabric that they’d brought for display.

They then all adjourn to lunch together, she arm in arm with Kimei, and Hiko and Izuna next to each other.

They are joined at the table by a young man she can only assume is the young master of the household, Ogawa Ishinji, who worked under his father in the Bureau of Records, seeing as she could not recall ever writing to him, though his younger sisters mentioned him often.

He is the age Anija would’ve been this year, she suddenly remembers, twenty-three, and his sister had written of his engagement to a young lady in their acquaintance whose father is also a fourth rank government official.

They are to be married soon. Although not this month, for the affair is a momentous one for the only son of the Ogawa Clan this generation. It is to be a good match, and both parties had considered the event one to settle the affairs of two young people.

“A thousand congratulations to Young Master Ishinji on your upcoming wedding,” she says, curtsying slightly when he bows and introduces himself.

He smiles, a little boyish around the edges, a tinge of shyness in his hazel eyes. “It’s kind of Second Miss Hisa to say so, though my intended and I, we are both humble people not possessing much in the way of virtue.”

She deflects, for he speaks formally, self abasement natural for a younger government bureaucrat who dealt in the world of the Son of Heaven, and they all sit down to dinner, talking and laughing like normal people.

He looks so much like his mother. She notices it in between sips of matsutake broth and cuts of slow roasted chicken covered in spices, both expensive items for this far north and this far into the capital city. The master of this household honors her father with a great deal of face, and she expects no less of Ogawa Saemon. Ishinji and Big Madam Jun have the same quirk of the lips when they smile, the same sand-silt colored hair and soft hazel eyes, though he has his father’s firmer jawline.

The chatter around the table is a comforting one, full of family affairs and teasing banter, though Hiko comes to say something to Chichi-ue briefly before attempting to retreat to a different table.

Uncle Saemon sucks in a breath looking at him before turning to Chichi-ue. “Yasutaro, where did you pick up this one?”

Chichi-ue glances him from beyond the rim of his soup spoon, a look of playful reproach and amusement in his eyes. “My own backyard, Saemon.”

The comment is made in jest — everyone knows after all, that Chichi-ue had picked Hiko up from the capital over a decade ago — though Uncle Saemon turns pensive.

Under that cat’s eye green gaze Hiko wilts a little bit, looking like he’s attempting to hide.

Unusual for Hiko, who never hides at home.

“Hmmm,” Uncle Saemon’s gaze turns away, an emotion without name in his eyes. “It’s probably nothing, your accountant boy just looks so much like someone I remember.”

Chichi-ue laughs. “Sentimental in your old age, Saemon.”

“Alas,” Uncle Saemon admits drolly, “I admit it.”

And the conversation turns away.

After lunch, Toma-chan makes some excuse to drag Hisa away from her sisters that Hisa herself doesn’t catch.

“You mentioned a man in your last letter,” Toma-chan examines her, bright eyed with a teasing smile on her lips. “Your ‘Mitsugu-senpai’ whose mother wants him to find a wife.”

She laughs, still holding Toma-chan’s arm as they walk through the garden. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, you know I wouldn’t think of marrying him.”

“Who said you were thinking of marrying him?” Toma pouts, coy as they pass from garden onto the walkway and in the direction of Toma’s room. “I certainly didn’t make that insinuation and yet you jumped directly to it!”


They turn the corner into the courtyard that frames Toma’s living space, one that she shares with Shio-chan.

“I do tease,” Toma admits, the ghost a smile still framing delicate lips. “But really, I wouldn’t mind marrying him.”

Well, that is a very different matter.

“Toma-chan,” She glances once, to the door that they’d closed behind them. “He really doesn’t like women that way.”

A marriage is the event a woman bets her whole lifetime on, and for someone like Toma to consider marrying so far away from her father’s household means that she has to be absolutely certain she could trust the man whose household she marries into.

Madam Hondo yet lives, and while she does though her son might be the head of the Hondo household, he owes his mother all the filial respect that a woman who has raised a son to adulthood deserves.

Whatever the consequences there are for daughters-in-law who do not somehow manage to produce the grandson Madam Hondo so desires, Hisa does not particularly wish to imagine.

That is not a fate she envisions for one of her dearest friends.

There are a hundred thousand little ways that a daughter-in-law might be slighted, and between a mother or a wife, a man is generally inclined to bow to the whims of his mother, especially if he could not love and honor a woman the way wives ought to be loved and honored.

“If he’s a smart man, then he will know he needs allies.” Toma pulls open a drawer, and retrieves a letter from a locked chest, stamped and sealed with the delicate honeysuckle seal of the Ogawa Household. “After all, he can’t hide such a thing from his mother forever, and to continue his life without becoming the talk of the town he will need a wife.”

“Are you sure?” It is easy to plan such things, in the safety and comfort of one’s maiden home, and it is another task entirely to live it, for a lifetime, for the fifty years post marriage if one is lucky enough to get it, managing household, husband, children and grandchildren, paying respects to ancestors who does not share one’s blood.

Women are flowers.

They grow where planted.

If men are the warp of the loom, their lives unbroken, lineages sure, then women are the weft, what gives cloth form and dimension, crossing every strand, light and color.

The records of a woman’s life are kept in two places, from birth to marriage and from marriage to death divorced.

What defines a life is how the story of the second half is told.

Toma closes and relocks the chest, pushing the drawer closed. “Yes, I’m perfectly sure.” She holds the missive out. “Will you give this to your Mitsugu-senpai?”

In the end, it’s not up to her to tell Toma how to live her life.

So if this is what her friend has decided…

She holds out a hand for the letter and tucks it away inside her sleeve when she does receive it. “I’ll make sure it gets to Mitsugu-senpai.” I promise you.

She is sitting in the garden of the guest courtyard in the capital house that afternoon when Izuna arrives. Kimei is away, in the kitchens most likely, having heard about some new delicacy in the capital that she just has to get her hands on somehow and making plans to do that by consulting the woman that Uncle Saemon had arranged to cook for them during this rare moment of free time.

The garden here is certainly weedier, sadder looking than the garden in her courtyard at home.

But that is only to be expected, for few people ever live here, and it had taken a few hours after opening all the doors for it to grow less musty.

“You asked to see me?” He offers her the note she’d written to summon him from the servant’s courtyard which he currently shares with Yushin and the other young men. “It is your handwriting, but Kimei-san didn’t deliver it so I couldn’t be sure.”

“I did.” She sets her gaiwan aside, the scent of barley tea a cloud about her face. “Izuna-san, are you very cross with me for what happened at Uncle Saemon’s earlier?”

He’d been ill at ease even after lunch, and it showed.

“I could never be cross with you, Hisa-san.”

She glances up at him sharply, trying to discern what could’ve possibly come over him in his face. Whatever she had expected from him, it wasn’t that.

He is a careful soul, and the word ‘never’ is not so lightly used by careful souls who gauged the weight of their words through harder lessons than most.


He visibly flinches, the twitch of his lips not passing unnoticed. “I—” He rubs a hand over his face. “No, never.”


She is about to say more, but suddenly he takes two large steps towards her and spins, the screech of metal on metal following, and actions too quick for her to see.

Blood splatters the weeds.

“Hisa,” he gasps, blood on his hands, standing over a dead man impaled on his sword, even as he favors his right leg. During the quick and dirty fight that had just occurred, his left ankle had twisted at an odd angle and made a sickening crack. “Hisa, you have to run.”

What had happened makes her mind buzz with what isn’t exactly noise but isn’t exactly calm either.

“Run?” She steps towards him, even as he pulls the sword loose, blood splattering across the cobblestones. Beyond them, the household is filled with screams and smoke, the crackling sound of fire getting ever closer. “Why would I run?”

There might be other men out there, attackers, though she doesn’t know how they got in or where they are from. At least, Izuna knew how to use a sword and isn’t easily killed — unlike her. Short of beating her fists against some attacker, she has no way to defend herself at all.

“You can’t fight.” He protests her help when she offers him her shoulder to lean on. “What will you do when—”

He breaks off when she glares him into silence. “And what will I do when some enemy can run faster than I?” She is no fainting fool, but she knows, encumbered as she is by long skirts and a sedentary lifestyle, that whatever attackers are here this afternoon, they can and will run faster than her.

“I—” He freezes before dragging her towards a different corner of the garden even as the walkway explodes with fire. With a curse, he picks her up entirely and leaps directly over the garden wall instead, and then down into the alleyway where he promptly crumples to a heap.

She drags his arm over her shoulders, and stands, supporting his injured left leg — he really is so light, no heavier than the wet silk she’d drag from a vat — and together they stumble outwards to the back alley, and then behind another courtyard house, and then much much further down threading through the back alleys between another series of courtyard houses.

If there is anyone looking for them, they haven’t found them yet.

“They’re looking for me,” he announces, after they have made it some seven houses down.

“Are they?” It’s not as if she doubts him specifically — he has now killed a man in front of her which she will think of later. But the way the Duke of Kinku — she is certain the older man in the yuanlingpao that she had seen glare at them at the Nakatomi estate could be no less than the head of their clan, Lord Prime Minister Towakazu, Duke of Kinku — had acted, it was as if something had mortally offended him.

And she is uncertain if she could truly say that the Lord Prime Minister would not somehow try to have everyone — to have her father’s house burned down if that be his wish.

Izuna grimaces. Her support can’t keep his booted left foot from touching the ground, even through the rapidly swelling ankle.

She fears it might be broken.

“I recognized the attacker.” He hisses again when his foot again touches the ground. Like this, they can’t possibly travel far. “Senju Shibima, had been with Touka, the she-devil the last time—” He suddenly glances at her. “You don’t know.”

“No, I do not.” She’d thought he was light a few houses ago, but the stress of the situation still wears on her mind. Chichi-ue. Hiko. Kimei. The others. She has seen no one, had not even heard anything from the burning house they’d left behind.

She has seen a man die, violently.

And she hasn’t the energy to piece together what he so clearly wants her to connect. Not yet. Not right now.

“So tell me, what am I supposed to know?”

“My family—” he catches himself. “My clan,” he corrects himself, “have been feuding with the Senju since time immemorial.”

“And now they are hunting you?” She could feel many things about this, but she doesn’t, mind already flying. If the attackers are shinobi, then they need to leave the city. If the attackers are hunting the man whose arm is still over her shoulder, they will need to fly.

“I suspect so, yes.” Suddenly, he stiffens. “You can put me down now, in the alleyway. I’m sure they won’t have harmed your father, you can go back.”

“Can I?” Chichi-ue...oh, her heart, it aches to stay. But she cannot leave an injured man in an alleyway when he has just told her that he would get killed if anyone found him. “What a fool you are, Uchiha Izuna.”

“Do you know how to drive?” He asks her as she boosts him into some rich man’s carriage.

Whether or not she can drive, he’s in no condition to — sweat a sheen on his brow, normally pale face whiter than bleached cotton. “I’ll learn.” She climbs onto the front of the carriage, gathering the reins in her hands and throwing her legs over the side of the shafts like she’s seen him and other men do when driving.

It is nearing dark now, and soon the city gates will close.

While that would likely not stop any attackers, it would prevent them from leaving the city in a carriage, so best make haste.

“Where are you planning on going?”

Her mind races. To escape their attackers they have to fly. But where to?

Not home, she could not lead them home. There is no one at home — might never be anyone—

Later. She thinks.

Later. Not now.

She knows no other shinobi except this man beside her and he came from… “Tohoku.” She knew the way.

Closing her eyes for a moment, just a moment, just a moment of quiet, just — no more thoughts.

She closes her eyes for a moment, and brings back to her mind’s eye the map of southern and central Fire Country, roads drawn in ink, cities and regions and rivers labeled. Yanai is south, south and east, on the east shore of Lake Yatan. “To Yanai.”

“No, let me—”

She hears him struggle as he attempts to climb out, but she pulls the cloth hanging forward, sits on it, and slaps the reins to start the horses.

“You’re not in any position to drive.” And so he isn’t. “Besides, they are looking for you, not me.” She is an odd sight she’s sure, a young lady dressed in lilac with red and gold amaryllis stitched across her qun driving a carriage, but even if strange, they knew his face; they did not know hers.

“Hisa-san—” He is attempting to move the hanging out of the way, but seems to have realized she’s sitting on it and can’t find a good way to fix this situation without being improper which is exactly as she intended.

The carriage starts to move. “Would you mind being quiet, Izuna-san?”

The reins chafe at her hands, the entire carriage far heavier than she is used to, even though she knows how to ride a horse.

The guards at the city gate are in the process of closing the doors, but she slaps the reins again, urging the horses from a relatively pleasant canter into a near full gallop.

It is not safe for being inside the city walls, but life or death, the life of a man hung in balance and the horses, she, the carriage, and Izuna charge their way out of the city gates into the freedom of the darkening and deepening night, and she cannot find it inside herself to care.

Chapter Text

“Hisa-san, do you truly not wish to marry a nobleman?” At least the conversation still proves that he is alive and awake, despite whatever outlandish place his mind has gone now.

The sky is graying, edged with the faint, faint blush of the dawn.

Soon, the darkness of night will no longer hide them, which means a different mode of transportation, and a much different way of getting to where they need to be.

“Why would I ever want to?” Noblemen as a concept are far from her mind. “They’re fussy delicate things who don’t believe that merchants are capable of anything except being a footstool.”

Well, that would be unkind for not all noblemen are like that. Lord Fusamoto isn’t, but he’s married already anyway.

“Oh,” he says, in a rather small voice, and falls into some sort of quiet as if he’s thinking it over. Why he would be thinking it over doesn’t matter to her in particular, because she is starting to at least sort of recognize the shining reflection of water hugging the horizon.

In the distance, Lake Yatan looms like green glass with a touch of the palest pink.

The horses, however, are flagging, and her hands are tired.

“Tell me where your estate is.”

She might’ve been to Yanai before — so many long years ago, so long ago, in much the same time as this one, with flowers blooming, sickness spreading, to the house of her uncle, Hiwara Nagamatsu — but then that cart had been driven by Banryu, who had turned around and driven home.

She has never been out to the city of Yanai, and she could not possibly take him to the estate of her first maternal uncle. For one, it is not safe.

For another, her Uncle Nagamatsu.

She does not know the way to the Uchiha Estate, wherever it might be.

“It is slightly to the north of the city,” he says, morose, still quiet. “An old, faded red gate up on the mountainside, it cannot be missed.”

They are south of the city now, lush fields of rolling grassland, and…an older man driving a cart of firewood slowly along the beaten path before them, seemingly also headed into the city.

She urges the horses forward just a little bit faster, the leather reins stinging her now tired and bleeding hands. “Ossan!” she calls. “Ossan, may I borrow your cart?”

She looks a fright. She looks a fright, and she knows it.

The sun continues on its rise, as she draws beside the cart and the old man driving it to explain herself and the situation.

Perhaps it doesn’t help to say “I have the Count of Tohoku’s youngest son in this carriage, he’s injured and we’re running away from Senju,” for that is not polite, but she is so tired.

She is so tired, and it gets her point across and Izuna under a load of firewood with the stranger helping, so who is she to complain?

She almost wonders if she’s at the right place when the old mule and the cart of firewood finally manage to rattle their way up to the beaten heavy wooden main gate with two faded red pillars, one on either side.

The place looks desolate, as painful as it is to see, worn down in ways she doesn’t truly expect, of a count’s estate.

Not like this, with lacquer and paint peeling from the front gate.

She remembers Lord Fusamoto’s estate for a moment in her mind’s eye — the elegant curve of the roofing tiles, gray blue slate sleek with rain, the freshly painted cranes, stone lion guardians on either side of the gate carved of marble, the door knocker made of beaten bronze, gleaming lightly on heavy oak, two men standing guard day and night.

It is not the gate that presents itself to her now, plain and unadorned, with pale flecks of red peeling from old wooden pillars, chipped varnish, and signs of wear and tear on the walls where the gutter has missed.

But according to the directions both Izuna and the old stranger had given, this is indeed, the place.

It opens to her now, a young man no more than seventeen years of age with hair pulled back messily and bags under his eyes peering out. “Your business here?” he asks, looking her up and down once, and only once.

She must look an odd sight, with her hairstyle in mild disarray, a young woman dressed in silks sitting on the flat front of a mule cart — she had driven through town to further deter any attackers from even attempting anything, and she does not regret it — and the load of firewood behind her, from under which, Izuna makes a faint noise of “It’s me, Hikaku.”

The next thing she knows, the young man — a boy, really, he isn’t yet of age, she doesn’t think — has leaned back and hollers into the house, “Cousin Madara, your brother’s home!” before coming out to help her dig Izuna out of the firewood.

“And you are, Miss?” Hikaku asks her, suddenly shy.

“Eyes off,” Izuna grouses as he hauls himself into a sitting position, twigs in his hair and all the manner of bark and loose wood chips on his person. “That’s my employer, baby cousin, be polite.”

“Otouto!” another man with broad shoulders and wild spiky hair races out of the front gate, dragging Izuna the rest of the way out of the firewood almost instantaneously. “Are you hurt anywhere? Broke anything? Who did this to you? Did you get a good look at their face? What about what those bastards were wearing? Any swords you recognized? Any—”

“Anija,” Izuna says, long suffering and deeply tired. “Anija, I killed them. It was Senju Shibima. It’s fine.”

Hearing this, the man she can only assume to be Uchiha Madara turns to her, and bows once, deeply. “Thank you for taking care of my most foolish little brother, Miss.”

“It was no trouble.” She says the words by rote, not because it truly was so, but because that is what one is supposed to say when thanked by someone of much higher social standing, even if no one here looks it.

For all that Izuna seems disgruntled, he has relaxed much more now that he is home.

As she wants to go home, even if she doesn’t even know if —


For later. Best not think of it now.

Uchiha Madara glances at her, his eyes much darker than his brother’s, hooded and somewhat cast in shadow by his shaggy hair. “No, I don’t think it was no trouble at all.”

But a moment later he turns and heads in, Izuna still carried in his arms despite the protests. The funerary white armband on his upper arm flutters in the breeze.

She puts her worries aside and follows.

Izuna has been carried off by his brother, hopefully so someone could ascertain if his ankle is sprained or broken. Someone has brought out tea for her to welcome her in the front hall which is… more polite than she thought, considering the state of affairs and how everyone must be more concerned over Izuna than whether or not the unexpected guest had any tea or not.

Everything she has seen so far is old, old but fine, and falling into a state of disrepair and age, the lacquer chipped in several places, scuffed floorboards showing through.

The tea she’d been given is not particularly fine shincha, but it is clearly meant to be used for important guests, because it and the gaiwan it arrived in have an air of disuse to them. She suspects it is because either they do not welcome guests that often, or there’s simply no protocol here for how to welcome someone of her station at this particular count’s estate.

She is part of a landed, wealthy household, but one without high titles or a proper rank for which manners are to be followed in this situation. Merchants, as they are, as she is, only visit noble estates for the sake of peddling wares, not sitting down with nobles as their honored guests.

Only at home could she expect that of O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto, both of whom welcome her as though she is a baron’s daughter, not someone from a household without rank or noble social class.

So she says nothing of the tea, or the gaiwan, or the scuffed floor and the aging wall scroll. And she says even less when she is left alone to her own devices, still sipping cooling tea.

She is tired. Her mind is working too fast and too slow all at once, a thousand worries crowding in when a girl of about six or seven, dressed in a simple indigo blue waist height ruqun peers around a column at her, curiosity in her dark eyes. “Are you the merchant lady?” she asks, with grave solemnity.

There is no such thing as a ‘merchant lady’, only merchant women, since the wives and daughters of merchants are afforded no titles, but someone as young as this child wouldn’t know that. She sets her gaiwan aside on the low table next to her. “I’m the merchant visitor, yes.”

Merchant women are not ladies.

The little girl smiles, dimples appearing on her cheeks, an excited glee in her gray-black eyes. “Oh!” she appears fully from behind the pillar, drops into a slightly less formal curtsy and then approaches without any fear of strangers at all. “I’m Kaiyo-chan, shonin-san.”

“And I am Kawaguchi Hisa, Uchiha-san.”

“Are all the merchant ladies pretty like you are, Hisa-nee?” Kaiyo-chan turns a very earnest gaze up to her, two short but neat braids swinging, their tails dangling over her shoulders, white, undyed ribbons fluttering.

She is quite at a loss as to how to explain that merchant women are not ladies, and that it is almost inappropriate to call her ‘Hisa-nee’ so familiarly. But Kaiyo-chan is merely a child, and a child in mourning at that.

Surely, discussions of manners and propriety can wait until later.

But if the daughter of Lord Tajima would wish to, it is not her place to protest. “It is the clothing that is pretty,” she responds after thinking for a moment. “Anyone can be pretty in pretty clothes.”

There are more beautiful faces in the world on servants in hemp than hers, but she wears silk, and that draws the eye.

Kaiyo-chan frowns at this, as if disagreeing, but they are interrupted by a commotion erupting outside before the conversation can continue.

She turns towards the front of the greeting hall and does not rise when the visitor swaggers in, wearing a low grade silk dachang over even lower grade yichang and cheap jade at his belt. He is a portly man with a smile like oil, and two laboring servants follow after him carrying baskets of tile, along with the harried middle aged gentleman who must be his accountant.

Beside her, Kaiyo-chan has stilled, suddenly likely aware that small children ought to be neither seen nor heard when male visitors from outside the house are present.

Hisa turns her gaze slowly up at the merchant over the top of her gaiwan, cooling tea ignored for the moment.

“And what business,” she says, with a voice like autumn hoarfrost, “does our visitor have with the Uchiha Clan?”

The merchant puffs himself up splendidly, putting on airs despite having nothing of value to offer, the conversation. “I have come, as your most humble servant, to deliver the roofing tiles requested as per the contract stamped by the head of your household, none other than the Count of Tohoku himself.”

The look on his face says that he expects the Count himself to make an appearance within the next few minutes or so, or perhaps for her to rise and summon her host.

She tilts her head to the side, thankful that she has had time at least to fix her hairstyle, buyao and chai in their proper positions once more. “So you say,” she allows. “And yet you have given me no name and no assurance of patronage. The Lord Administrator of Tohoku’s days are busy, surely you did not expect him to come out and confirm this purchase for you himself?”

It is not the typical job of the master of the household to confirm purchases anyway. That right and responsibility rested with his wife, or, she thinks with sudden rue, his daughter.

Asking for the Count of Tohoku and not the Countess implies that either this man is daft, or that there is no Countess. And since the Lady of Tohoku yet lives, she can only assume that the man is daft.

“This one is the most humble Takahashi Hiroshi, and has traveled all this way to speak to the most excellent Lord Administrator about his purchases from this lowly servant.”

Ah, she has heard the name before.

From Kimei, who had heard it while eavesdropping on Chichi-ue and his childhood friend, Chiba Sahei-san who had muttered the man’s name while talking about headaches.

The Chiba owned a slate mine in the northwestern portion of Chubu, though their main household lived year round in Shunan, so she assumes the father of her stepmother knows which tile merchants to avoid.

“You mean, you travelled all the way up from your comfortable estate in the lovely city of Yanai to the Lord Administrator’s estate here, a little ways out of the city.” She wishes she has a fan to tap coyly against the bridge of her nose, but manages only to hide her sharper smile behind her wide sleeve instead. “Did it take you half an hour through the morning traffic, Takahashi-san, or an hour?”

Her words seem to deflate him a little. She sets the gaiwan aside again on the table, and holds her hand out for the account book detailing the transaction.

Doing this steps on someone’s toes within this household, because this is not her home, and she does not have the keys to the accounts, so really, her pretense of power is thinner than a paper mask, but this man does not know that. He has assumed she is a member of the Count’s own household, which means in theory, she has the right to look at the transaction and at least see the seal of approval that Lord Tajima has stamped.

The accountant shuffles forward and turns the book open to the correct page. Kaiyo-chan burrows closer to her side, and she calmly strokes the child’s hair. No sheltered daughter of a Count would prefer to be in the front hall when there are strange male visitors, no, of course not, and she is sorry she hasn’t been able to yet think of some excuse to make sure that Kaiyo-chan can leave safely.

“Here, milady, it says that milord stamped the records of approval just after the first of March, forty thousand tiles to be delivered at the earliest convenience of my employer.”

“It is the middle of May,” she comments, mild, though not a rebuke. The accountant is only doing his job. “And the running price for slate tile is roughly three ryo a tile, which means the total for forty thousand tiles ought to come out to a hundred and twenty thousand ryo?”

The account book says a hundred and fifty thousand. Where exactly the secondary price tag has come from she cannot even begin to fathom. “I am but a very foolish and uneducated woman, but I do believe that a hundred and twenty ryo is rather a smaller figure than a hundred and fifty.”

Her voice is innocent, but her smile is not.

Takahashi-shonin speaks up now, as if suddenly aware that this deal can go wrong. “It is of a superior variety, quarried from the northwestern region of Chubu, I can assure you, Lady Uchiha, it is entirely worth the price.”

“Well, it certainly is an increase of thirty thousand ryo if they truly came from the Chiba mines.” Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Takahashi-shonin flinch. Perhaps he thinks she knows nothing of Chubu’s merchant politics; after all, an Uchiha Lady of Tohoku might not. “Chiba Sahei-shonin has always produced the most excellent quality of tile.”

To speak of northwestern slate mines is to bring to mind Chiba Sahei’s standards for tile, if not to insinuate he is the original owner and marketer of said tile.

She rises, careful not to startle Kaiyo-chan, and comes forward to look at the tile herself.

She picks one up through Takahashi-shonin’s protests, notes that one corner is chipped, and that it hadn’t been cut properly, leaving it weak, though it is the correct shape, curved at all the right angles.

“As you can tell, because Lady Uchiha has an excellent eye—”

She drops it, letting it clatter to the wooden floorboards and smash just a little bit by her feet. “I do,” she says, rather calmly, though her patience has worn thin for this short little man and his attempts to both aggrandize himself, kiss her feet, and play games with nobles, especially ones that could crush not only him, but the man he was purporting to represent, “have an excellent eye for tile quality, and am shocked and disappointed to find that you are misrepresenting fourth grade slate as first grade.”

He puffs up again, as if about to protest something else, but she has had enough of him and his poor conduct in someone else’s house.

“And I may, in fact, write to Chiba Sahei-shonin to let him know that you are misrepresenting yourself and purporting to sell slate from his quarries, when in fact, I don’t know what gutter you picked this out of, so that he may complain to the magistrate.” She pretends to consider it. “I am sure that Lord Tajima who is your Lord Administrator can spare the time for ruling at your trial, do you not suppose so, Takahashi-shonin?”

That punctures any and all resistance. “Either you will bring the correct grade and quality of slate at your earliest convenience, or,” she takes a step forward, head held high, spine as straight as beaten steel, “you can get lost.”

The slate merchant slinks out of the front hall like a beaten dog, and she watches him go before turning to return to her seat.

There is a man older than her father standing there wearing a dark indigo blue zhiduo, the type that she had seen Izuna wear before, of cotton, which grew plentifully in this region. His topknot is a severe thing, though, like her father, his dark hair is streaked with gray, but unlike her father, he wears mourning, white ribbons fluttering from where they tie his topknot to about his face.

“Ojiisama!” Kaiyo-chan races over to him and takes his hand. “Hisa-nee sent the bad man away.”

She bobs him a deep curtsy. “My apologies for being so forward as a guest in your house, Uchiha-sama.”

Somehow, she has found herself sitting in the garden courtyard with Lord Tajima, a few delicacies and a pot of mugicha between them.

“Are you often forward in other people’s houses, Kawaguchi-chan?” he asks, not entirely looking her in the eye.

She turns her gaze downwards, to her hands clasped in her sleeves, and tries desperately to fight both the fatigue and worry clouding her mind. “I apologize for having overstepped my boundaries, Uchiha-sama, it was not my intention to.”

“Ah, and you often don’t answer the question either.” Unlike Izuna, his father does not seem to follow the correct script for propriety, but then, perhaps, when one is a count one needn’t follow the rules others must unless one is with others of equal standing.

“Not when the question has to do with my manners, no.”

He laughs then, a brief, biting thing. “So sharp with your elders, Kawaguchi-chan.” He takes a sip of his tea. “And yet, you apologize for doing us a service.”

“I wasn’t aware that shameful conduct was a service to be offered.” She had been quite cross with Takahashi-shonin, and she does not regret it, thus the actions are shameful.

“Is sweeping the trash out of the front hall not a service? Or perhaps, you do not consider the life of my youngest son preserved a service?” For a moment, all she hears is the soft clink of porcelain on porcelain as he absently toys with the lid of his gaiwan. “Or perhaps you consider the night you spent out with a young man alone to be a source of shame?”

She is tired, and last night is a haze of indistinct fears and terror, hands rubbed raw and blisters popped from the chafe of the reins.

“If Uchiha-sama is concerned that I will endeavor to end my life out of shame unless I marry into your household, then you are much mistaken.” There is shame in what had happened last night even if the answer is that nothing has happened, because people have seen her, and people will talk. “I’m afraid I’ve never been much interested in pandering to those of higher status in the hopes that it would net me an ideal husband.”

But people already gossip about her plenty, and Chichi-ue if he is still — if he is safe, then he will understand her choices.

When he next looks at her, it is with a bemused amusement. “You saved his life, and yet you will not claim it?”

“And yet, maybe I was acting to save my own skin.” Her own reply is dry as the winter wind. Normally, she has the humor for word games, but today, today she is tired, having not slept at all the night before, and still worried about Kimei. “Oh, how easily the virtuous gentleman falls for a woman’s wiles.”

Lord Tajima’s mouth twitches, as if he is trying very hard not to laugh. “Little Izuna should recover, perhaps sometime soon. I assume he will return to his service in your household?”

“We still need shinobi to protect the caravans.” She finally takes a sip of the lukewarm mugicha. “I don’t see why that job has to end.”

Lady Kiku arrives with two handmaids, one of them carrying a guqin, though she sends them both away after taking the qin from them. “Anata, is Kawaguchi-chan playing for us today?” She wears mourning as well, white fluttering in her hair, hairstyle incredibly simple and subdued to match the white of Lord Tajima’s topknot ties.

A child, perhaps, is who they are mourning, though a daughter or a son is unclear, for they are long past the age to mourn a parent with white in their hair, and only a child would provoke yet another bout of white like this in a lifetime.

Not even a spouse...not even a spouse, however beloved, is mourned with white hair ribbons.

She is not aware that she ought to be providing musical amusement, but she is a guest. She is a guest, and they have been kind enough to let her stay.

Her other option would be to seek shelter with Uncle Nagamatsu, and no matter what—

It does not matter what else she has to do, she will not be going to see him, not after what she had done last night.

“I would be honored to play for my elders.”

Like few other things she has seen in this house, the guqin is exquisite, made of polished dark wood, strung with silk, loved and well maintained.

For a moment, she remembers Izuna’s qin, how it had glowed in the dim light of the lanterns, how he had glowed while playing it.

In this household, only the instruments have caught the eye, though she knows not why a major noble household would have to take care to stay out of the public eye.

Resting her hands on the strings, she begins, “A ferry crossing falls for a mountain glade, a light dusting of snow for the evening lotus flower, the setting sun waits with bloodshot eyes to chat with the morning bell, the person on the heart is by the plum or willow but not by me, the little white snake gets caught in the rain, but the scholar forgets his umbrella.”

Long ago, Haha-ue had sung her this song to tell her why her name is Hisa, why she had been named the word for ‘eternity’ rather than a more beautiful name referring to flowers or mountains or rivers or other virtues.

Your name is Hisa because you are meant to endure misfortune.

A beat, and she continues, “The young lady crushes the swing, a scholar fails the exams for ten years, fate is picky, and life lacks perfection, the little monk has no alms and yet passes a feast…”

Her hands sting, the broken blisters on her palms scream with anguish as she continues to play, but play she does. “Pick up a cup of wine and examine this human realm with care, even if the gods make predictions, this trip will lead to little fulfillment, have courage and venture into the crowd, knock on the door of life instead, through eighty-one tribulations, we can only see how it goes.”

Lady Kiku, from the corner of her eye, looks a bit disappointed in the choice of the song. Perhaps, but then, this isn’t a happy song per se.

“The childhood lovers part ways, Bo Ya breaks the string on his qin, good friends meet to be parted, and a husband must remarry, some young couples meet when the magpies aren’t on duty, we depend on heaven’s mercy to live to old age.”

The next line always makes her weep, but this time her eyes are dry. “And yet the old and the sick live twenty years longer than the young and healthy, Chang’e flies to the moon and yet envies the mortal realm.”

No matter what happens, it seems that gods must envy mortals. For all that they lose and all that they love. Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku exchange a look, both love and pain, and for a moment she wonders who they have lost to find this particular line so painful.

“Living in this realm is unsatisfying, losing sleep and losing love…” Life is loss. Life is senseless loss and terrible pain. “Step onto a boat, say you’ll never come back to shore, to the edge of heaven, to the corner of the sea, a disappointment is only a new experience, looking back, this mortal realm has a thousand flavors.”

She sets her hands on the strings to pause their vibration when she is done. No matter how painful life is or becomes, even the gods envy mortals. In all we feel and choose to love.

Lady Kiku offers her a tearful smile, “it’s a beautiful song, Kawaguchi-chan. Did you write it?”

“No, my mother did.” And suddenly she remembers a rain of peach flowers, Haha-ue braiding her hair in the garden, the soft way her mother’s voice had always sounded blending into an indistinct memory. Ten years, and now she no longer quite remembers the sound of her mother’s voice. “She finished it after she married my father.”

No, sometimes the arch of Haha-ue’s eyebrow at Chichi-ue when she sings ‘a thousand flavors’ had been positively wicked, and on one memorable occasion she’d chosen to sing ‘this mortal realm has a fox king’ instead of a thousand flavors.

There are fair few things in the world that could make Chichi-ue blush, but blush he had.

Soon, it will be her mother’s death day. Soon, it will have been exactly ten years since Haha-ue left this realm for a kinder one.

She smiles back, suddenly rueful about how much she’s unearthed in memory. “She liked to call it ‘The Mortal Realm Isn’t Worth It’”

But everything about this life is so very much worth the pain.

One only has to walk and see.

Lady Kiku leans across the table and picks up one of her hands, turning it over so that she could look at the palms. “Oh my, my youngest has cost you quite dearly, Kawaguchi-chan. At least allow me to offer you a bandage, and a meal?”

It is a test passed, though she does not know its parameters or how she has passed it.

“A letter?” she asks, voice suddenly hoarse. “To my father, to let him know that I am well.”

She is unwell, and very tired, but she clings to the hope that perhaps—

Perhaps Chichi-ue is well and alright. Perhaps nothing has happened to anyone when they could not find Izuna.

Perhaps, but her heart weeps and she does not know.

She falls asleep while hungry before lunch, laid out in a guest room that clearly seems to have been aired out quite recently, and rather hurriedly at that.

Perhaps the time she’d spent with Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku was so that someone else could find her a place to stay. Either way, she is exhausted enough to have to be roused for lunch by a young woman she can only assume is only a few years older than Chiba-san if she had to guess, even though her hair is more white with a faint tinge of blue than black. She too, wears mourning, full, bleached linen but a simple wooden hair stick.

Izuna had not ever worn mourning, but he’d been at work then, so it wasn’t appropriate to.

What else has he not told her about himself?

Quieter still, in her heart she places the loss as a son of Lord Tajima, because this woman is of the right age to be a daughter in law. Her husband then, is the one who has been lost.

Likely, one of Izuna’s older brothers, with Kaiyo-chan being her daughter.

“Hagoromo Miyuki,” the woman offers, after noticing her silent question. “You brought my fifth brother-in-law home.” Quietly Miyuki-san bows from the waist. “My family is in your debt, Kawaguchi-san.”

“No,” she hastens to get up, to make sure that Miyuki-san also straightens, and make herself at least slightly presentable all at the same time, which is rather hard when her shoes are halfway across the floor. “No, there’s no debt, please—”

She still does not have her shoes, but that is a small thing to pay for the watery smile that Miyuki-san offers her. “Kawaguchi-san—”

“Hisa.” She is not the matriarch of her family, and thus couldn’t possibly afford the -san suffix in conversation attached to her family name.

“O-Hisa-san,” this, this title is worse than the last, if only because at some point in her life she might be referred to as ‘Kawaguchi-san’ but the O prefix is only used for women who hold titles, either in their own right or because they are the daughters of lords.

She would never in her life be an ‘O-Hisa-san.’

She is no daughter of a great lord, merely a wealthy man — and here her heart stumbles because — Chichi-ue, she thinks, Chichi-ue please…be safe, I miss you, but her face does not change.

“Hisa-chan is alright, Hagoromo-sama.” Despite sleeping she is still...drained.

And sleep had done nothing for her worries or her now sore wrists and shoulders, scabs having formed on her fingers and palms where the reins had rubbed them raw the night before.

Miyuki-san sighs, looking at her. “Then you must call me Miyuki, no? It is only right and proper.”

And so thus, outmaneuvered, the two of them make their way to lunch.

There are two boys she does not recognize who join them at the table for lunch, one about eight or nine years old, the other still a toddler in child’s clothes, simply made, and clearly preserved from when either his elder brother was a boy about that size or another close relative.

Both wear white in their hair, ribbons wrapped around low ponytails.

Miyuki-san’s sons then.

When Izuna joins them, protesting at being carried to the table by his brother, he too, has a white armband.

The only one at the table who is not wearing mourning is her, still dressed in lilac, flowers of red and gold flashing in the light of the afternoon.

And she is out of place here, with the plain wheat noodles and tofu and fish soup, with the stir fried bean sprouts and bok choy greens, where salt seems like an uncommon form of luxury.

What Izuna had said to her once comes back to her now, though she had dismissed it the first time he’d told her.

Please don’t ask me to leave, Hisa-san. My clan...needs the money.

She did not understand then, how the house of a count, especially of a region as rich as Tohoku, could fall to such dire straits as to hire out a son to a merchant household without titles or old name.

But perhaps she understands that more now, white fluttering all about her, a single bowl of noodles placed before the placard of a man who has only lived thirty years.

Death is expensive, and grief even more so.

After lunch, the duty of entertaining her seems to fall back to Miyuki-san, even though a woman with three small children grieving a husband does not seem like the proper person to host a guest.

Grief is a private thing, and Miyuki-san seems to have set much in store by it, which makes this feel like even more of an imposition.

Home is the only place that one could be sure one is supposed to impose, and sometimes, not even then.

“I am so sorry you had to deal with the tile merchant earlier today.” Miyuki-san has taken her and the children out to the courtyard, her toddler son situated in her lap while Kaiyo-chan and her elder brother carefully recite their school lessons to each other, occasionally consulting their mother when a character is unclear or if they arrived at any dispute. “Honored Father-in-law said that we troubled you to take care of it.”

She smiles, her hands clasped together in her lap, aching still, and brittle. “Takahashi-shonin was quite rude.” No doubt, she knows, that Chiba Sahei-san would not be pleased to hear of how his name had been misrepresented far from home. For people without titles, there is only reputation and word of mouth to ensure a fair trial in court. “To be lying about his tile grade and yet selling it for such high prices.”

“So he really was lying about the quality.” Miyuki-san muses, while gently removing her son’s fingers from his mouth. “Kure-kun, we don’t try to eat our fingers.”

Hisa pauses for a moment, trying to ascertain if this is something she should push.

Guests, after all, do not push or comment on the quality of anything unless to compliment some aspect of the food of which the host is clearly and reasonably proud.

But she is already an unconventional guest in a strange land.

She pushes.

“Actually, there is something more about that…”

Chapter Text

It is early the next morning when Hikaku comes in right after breakfast to tell her that her father is here to come collect her.

And even though she knows that he could not have possibly made it home to Shunan or back to Yanai in so quick a timespan — she does not even know if he is capable of leaving the capital city — her heart leaps into her throat.

“Chichi-ue?” She has missed him so much, and she has been so worried. “Where is he?”

She has been so worried, and it is a weight that cannot be put away and stored for later until she has seen Chichi-ue.

“Right out by the gate.” Hikaku rubs the back of his neck with a hand. “He brought a carriage and everything.”

Well, of course he had, if he had come from either the capital or from home.

She picks up her skirts as she goes, making her way down the walkways.

First a walk, then faster, and faster still, until it is a run by the time she rounds the last corner into the final outer courtyard by the gate. She has missed him. She wants to see him.

It feels like running into a wall to see the silhouette of the man waiting for her.

“You are still as unmannerly as the last time we met, I see.” Clipped. Cold.

Her arms drop to her sides.

“A thousand well wishes for my second maternal uncle, in the hopes that,” her throat has run dry, and she casts about for something to say as she curtsies, eyes on the floor, “these past eleven years have treated your honored self well.”

Her Uncle Nagamatsu has a sharply elegant face, cold blue eyes, and thin lips pressed together as though he’d tasted something bitter. He looks no different than the day she’d left his estate in a cart driven by Banryu, Kimei’s arm around her waist those many long, long years ago.

Eleven years has not changed a single hair on his head, a topknot as elegantly done with a dark wooden hair stick, as the toes of his black leather boots, as the heavy jade ring he still wears on his right ring finger.

He is still tall enough that she has to turn her head up to see his face. It is both better and kinder to remain staring at the ground, but she does not. No, instead, she turns to look him in the eye.

“What good do your belated well wishes do for me when you’ve already dragged our family name through the mud?” His lip curls. “Just like your mother, no sense of propriety. And yet even she would’ve died of shame to see you now, consorting with outside men at night like some sort of brothel girl.” He gestures idly towards the gate. “Get in the carriage, girl. My patience wears thin.”

Something inside her flares, red and hungry, burning like a brand. “It is a good thing then, that I share neither a part of your honored household nor your exalted name. So my most honored second maternal uncle can rest easy at night, knowing that no part of himself has been so sullied by association.”

The Hiwara are an old merchant household in Yanai, landed old money, and have been so for generations, setting the highest standards for tea in the three southernmost regions of Fire Country.

When their eldest daughter had married the son of a sharecropper and a former dye house worker, she had not been welcomed back to her maiden home.

“And just,” and here her uncle leans a little closer, “as insolent as you were at age ten. Did, perchance, my older sister fail to teach you manners? Or, perhaps,” and there is a cruel glint in those cold blue eyes, and she is not ten any longer, but still from far away, there are the tears of someone ten, falling, falling, always falling. “did your father really forget to teach you after he remarried?”

The rest of the world falls away, into the blank whiteness of mourning, to the five years her father had worn white, to the quiet of snow and candle flame, to the smell of incense on the altar.

“Forgive me, Uncle,” she hears herself say through the blizzard. “I wasn’t aware that, despite being an elder that I must honor, that I, too, must call you Chichi-ue, as Shige-kun does.”

There is a crack, a reverberation of space.

A moment of white.


She finds herself on the ground, Izuna standing before her, his sword drawn. “Get out,” he says, voice clear and sure. “And don’t come back unless you wish to lose that hand.”

And though she knows that her second maternal uncle is, too, only a man like most other men in the world, she has not forgotten his words. How soon do you think your father will forget you? The love of women is cheap, and yours has given him no sons, has she?

He will remarry. All men do, and when his next wife gives him a living son, he will see what you are worth.

Slowly, she picks herself off of the ground, distantly aware of the taste of blood, the sting of a handprint like a fire brand across her face.

“Are you alright?” Izuna asks her, still limping, his sword put away.

“There is nothing the matter,” she says, distantly aware of the sting in her lip, the feeling of a bruise already forming in the shape of that distinctive jade ring.

“He should not have done th—”

“Oh,” she says, turning to head back in. “I feel pity for his daughters. They’re the ones who have to live with him.”

And indeed, Shige-kun has two younger sisters. He’d written to her about them, asking how he could protect them.

He is only a boy, just sixteen years old, and yet so different a cousin from Hideyoshi, who is the same age.

He is only a boy.

He should not have to protect his younger sisters from anyone, much less their own father.

But then, everyone is born with unequal burdens, and life could rarely be called kind or fair.

Even the gods envy us, indeed.

In all we choose to love. In all we choose to bleed for.

And indeed, she still tastes blood on her tongue.

Miyuki-san had called the carriage around, dressed in her best clothing, simple white arm bands the only sign of her mourning, and with a few of her handmaids gone out to call upon the houses of merchants that Hisa had mentioned to her the afternoon before last as suspect.

Apparently, Takahashi-shonin isn’t the only merchant who had seen fit to lie about the quality or selling price of their wares, and in the meantime, cheat people too tired in their grief of honest money.

But then, she suspects she knows why the merchants of Yanai and wider do not truly respect their Lord Administrator whilst in Tohoku.

It’s the blood taint of his household that gives them pause, for shinobi is not a respectable profession. Dishonest. She has heard it whispered.

A grain of sand in the eye of the world.

And though Lord Tajima is a count, and therefore a member of the upper nobility, the fact that he is a man who wears a sword and bends the rules of polite society means that perhaps those men who have already had money and land of their own think they can lie and not suffer any consequences.

Shinobi are not men, after all, merely shadows in the night, and lying to a shade of a count means nothing.

But Lord Tajima is not a shadow, and his household suffers no fools.

She supposes that if they do not amend themselves at the sight of Lord Tajima’s daughter-in-law, then they will eventually find themselves in front of the Lord Administrator himself and remember that he is, in fact, a count given power by the Daimyo.

As it is, Miyuki-san has gone out after attempting to fuss over her and left the children (and after a moment of hesitation, several shirts which had been ripped and needed repair) to her care.

And Izuna’s too, in a roundabout fashion, though most of what he seems to be doing is hovering.

“Hisa-nee?” Today, instead of reciting lessons with her elder brother, Kaiyo-chan has come to sit with her, another shirt in her lap as well.

And she remembers what it was like at that age, sitting by Anija’s side that winter. He had asked her about the plum flowers once, if they were open yet.

They bloomed so bright the day he died, even though he’d not been able to see.

And months later, Hiko had arrived in the estate long after the plum trees were laden heavy with fruit.

“Hmm?” Her needle flashes through the indigo work shirt, mending the tear with tiny stitches, just small enough to be unobtrusive but sturdy enough to bear weight and strain.

“When did you learn to sew so prettily?” Kaiyo-chan leans over one of her arms to watch her, eyes wide.

“A lot of practice.” She is a cloth merchant’s daughter, and though she often spent more time in the dye houses, or weaving rather than mending work shirts — there are plenty of servants to mend rips and tears — her education had still taught her these necessary tasks. “I’m sure you’ll get there eventually.”

In harder years, in the case of bankruptcy, she would always have the skills to survive, even if she were no longer the daughter of a big household. Kaiyo-chan’s are certainly better than Momo-ko’s — and she misses her little sister with a raw ache that hurts — but noticeable, which is only fair as Hisa is sure that she’s only seven or eight years old.

Hikaku comes in, shamefaced and hunched, something he has to say but doesn’t want to in case it is wrong, and Izuna rounds on him. “What do you have to say for yourself now?

She reaches out, lays a hand on his arm. “He didn’t know.” How would Hikaku have known what sort of man Uncle Nagamatsu is, or that he is not Chichi-ue? It’s in Uncle Nagamatsu’s best interest to pretend to be Chichi-ue, after all.

A vein jumps in Izuna’s jaw. “Didn’t know? Didn’t know?” With every word, Hikaku wilts a little further. “And what other harms could he have done by not knowing? Did it make you hurt any less?”

“No,” she agrees, and Hikaku wilts further. “But what has hurt me and what does not hurt me is not yours to determine or to name, Izuna-san.”

Izuna looks at her for a long moment, his jaw clenched, muscle in his arm bunched hard under the cloth, eyes in shadow before he steps aside. “I suppose not.” He turns on his heel, facing away. “Say whatever you came here to say, Hikaku.”

“I-” Hikaku bites his bottom lip, glancing at Izuna’s face as though waiting for more judgement. With a huff, Izuna crosses his arms over his chest and removes himself to the other side of the courtyard with his face turned away. “I really am sorry, Miss Hisa.”

And he is sorry, in the way that boys are when they have done something wrong, downcast eyes and downturned lips.

“I know.” She does know that he is sincere, even if her face still stings and she is sure that it has bruised. It was not his fault. All the same, she does not truly wish to linger, the threat of her uncle looming in her mind, even if she knows that it is foolish. Logically so, perhaps, but emotionally, safety lies far away from Yanai, in the arms of her father. “But I am sure your guilty conscience isn’t all that’s driven you to come see me, no?”

If it had been, he would’ve come back sooner.

“There’s a young man here to see you.” Hikaku shuffles, staring at his shoes. “Very tall, thin, in his mid twenties, dressed in gray with embroidered peach flowers on his collar.”

Her heart leaps to her throat. “Hiko?”

“He said his name was Kawaguchi Hikotori, there was a woman with him—”

She pauses. “Is there anything he told you to tell me?”

Hikaku squirms. “He said to tell you that he fears if you stay here for too long, his morals shall go all lopsided.”

She snorts at this. “That does sound like him. What else did he say?” If it were only morals, it wouldn’t be embarrassing.

“He also said that he’s surprised you haven’t eaten everything yet,” Hikaku babbles, clearly still nervous about relaying the exact message. “There’s so much to eat here.”

He’s the one who’s the glutton, not I. She sighs, however slight. If Hiko has the presence of mind to joke, surely not everything could be lost.

Surely, that must mean that Chichi-ue is well.

Surely, but until she hears word, can she say that? She cannot.

“I will go to see him then.” She picks the loose thread from her pleated skirts, dropping them into a tiny pile on the table beside her.

They likely will not leave until later, when Miyuki-san has returned, for she is still in charge of the children and lacks the resources to bid a proper goodbye.

But now that Hiko is here, that will have changed.

Kaiyo-chan takes her by the hand, and Izuna trails along after. “If he is also a bad man, I shall stab him,” the little girl tells her very seriously. “Ojiisama says that no man should ever dare to hit a woman unless he wants her to take that hand off.”

And she almost, almost laughs at that.

“Hisa!” Kimei had been pacing; she sees it in the tense line of her handmaid’s shoulders that melts away when she comes around the corner. “Oh, Hisa.” The other young woman throws her arms around her. “Hisa, I was so worried about you.”

There is a sob in Kimei’s voice, as though something bad has happened, and when she raises her arms to hug Kimei back, she cannot help asking. “Chichi-ue?”

In the end, all things return to this.

She has seen her handmaid. She has seen Hiko. And they are both dear to her, but she has not seen Chichi-ue, who would be the person anyone would threaten when they could not find Izuna.

She has not seen Chichi-ue.

“Kawaguchi-san is f-fine.” Between rubbing Kimei’s back, trying to calm the sobs that nearly threaten to be made public, she turns her gaze up to Hiko, who nods, still wordless. There’s a dark weight to his gaze, his eyes dropping to the left side of her face.

The bruise then.

A weight she’d been carrying dissipates like the summer mist above the river.

And yet even so, the mood is grim indeed. “But something has happened?”

Kimei loves her, this she knows to be true. But it has taken more than her disappearance to shake her handmaid and leave Hiko so grim.

“It’s- it’s Bear.” At this, Kimei bursts into tears in earnest, shoulders shaking as she sobs.

“Yushin?” She had expected nothing to happen to him, for what...would.

“The house caught on fire.” Hiko steps forward, hands fluttering, uncertain now that he no longer holds an account book and brush, and in some vain attempt at comfort puts his hands on Kimei’s shoulders. “He was right behind me, but he must’ve gone back for something.” And here Hiko looks away, and breathes out so slowly it could not be called a sigh. “Toshi was the last to make it out, but he said that he saw Bear helping the kitchen maids since the fire had started at least partly in the kitchen.”

Softly, like river water, tears threaten to drown her. But this is not her house, not her home, not hers in any way that matters.

Her face doesn’t change.

So he is gone then.

Gone, not because someone had wanted to kill him.

Not because he couldn’t run fast enough.

But because he had chosen to reach out and help someone else.

The thought tastes like ash in her mouth. The name Izuna had mentioned on their carriage ride to the Uchiha Estate comes back to her mind.


They hadn’t held the knife that killed him, had not held him in the flames themselves, but — a young man’s blood is on their hands, his wife, his children, his aging parents, his little brothers, a hole had been cut out of the silk, and she would not soon forget it.

“Everyone else?”

“No one else.” Slowly, her handmaid dries her tears and pulls back before gasping, a hand covering her mouth.

She shakes her head. “Later.” Hearing that everyone else had made it out alive is enough.

Whatever wounds they have sustained will keep.

They are guests here in this house and ought to behave accordingly.

She bids goodbye to Miyuki-san and Kaiyo-chan in their rooms, where they had been kind enough to house her and Kimei and also kind enough to lend her some face powder so that she might hide the bruise while travelling.

And though Miyuki-san had again tried to hover, perhaps to help, Kimei had positioned herself between them without a word.

All she can think of in that moment is how much she is grateful for how well her handmaid knows her.

Hiko waits for them at the end of the hallway, keeping his space as is only polite. Here, he is not a part of the household or a relative, and therefore an outside man, but still he hovers just far enough to be polite and not a single foot more.

In the courtyard, Lady Kiku thanks her again, and Lord Tajima nods. The Young Lord Madara is in some sort of argument with Izuna, which peters out as they approach, though she catches the word “careful” and the word “safety” and can assume the rest.

Hiko helps her into the carriage, still frowning at the state of her hands and of her face, before turning to help Kimei and climbing into the driver’s position himself. “Izuna, are you returning with us?” he asks as he picks up the reins.

Izuna nods once curtly and more casually, flips himself onto the carriage wheel, and then with another small leap, ends up on top of the carriage roof, shifting slightly before settling into a more comfortable position.

Hiko leans back to check on them, and with a flick of his wrist, starts the horses.

“Can we stop at the market?” I promised to get her one of those little model boats they have in Yanai. He’d said that in the winter, on the trip before this one. “There is something I need to buy there.”

And this one had been his last.

Hiko glances at her, but doesn’t ask why. Instead, he turns back to watch the road. “Just tell me when to stop.”

Kimei wraps her arms around Hisa’s shoulders. “I’m sorry for crying.”

“Don’t be.” Crying is only natural.

What is unnatural is how divorced her face has become from her heart, modeled for what takes up the least amount of space instead of anything else.

“Hiko,” she asks, “has Chichi-ue compensated Yushin’s family yet?”

With her disappearance and letter, it is unlikely that Saka or anyone else has had time.

The space needed to grieve is so large, and encompasses so much.

Hiko sighs, shaking his head. “He hasn’t had the time. There was—” he breaks off, still shaking his head.

“What else?”

“Maybe after we return,” he says after a pause. “It’s not safe to speak of such things out on the road.”

And she could press it, but she doesn’t, choosing instead to look out the window, watching for a stall that sold wooden toys. “Ten thousand ryo then, from my account, when we get back?”

Hiko nods. “I’ll make sure it gets done as soon as we get back.”

“Here,” Hiko pauses before Kimei gently lets go, and they hold a quick and hurried conversation before Kimei climbs out and makes a selection.

It is, she thinks, not the selection that Bear would’ve made, but she has no idea what indeed, Bear would’ve chosen for his only daughter.

But she only has this to give back to Shimo-chan, only this, and it would never be enough.

They continue onwards, silent, grim.

And all about the carriage, a traveling island in the festivities, is the sound of talk and laughter.

In the inn they pause at that night, the madam looks askance at Izuna several times before saying nothing.

As it is, Hisa is too tired to attempt any rebuttal or defense.

It is Hiko who fills the silence, explaining away the discrepancies in the style and dress of their group. “My little sister,” he says, indicating her. “And her handmaid of course, long away from home, visiting maternal relatives. My father didn’t trust the state of the roads at this time of year, you know how fathers are, so he hired us a guard to protect us on the way home.”

At this terribly reasonable explanation for the state of affairs, and more importantly, the money Hiko was willing to pay, the madam steps aside, talking all the while of calling her or her sons or daughter for anything, and sending someone up to see what they might want for dinner.

With her hand on his arm, Hiko guides her upstairs to one of the rooms assigned to them for the night. Almost gently, he calls for Kimei and Izuna to follow.

Hiko had never learned the airs of a young master, and in the little moments, the gestures, it shows, but he acts the part well enough that people who are accustomed to meeting that type of young man do not notice.

However, once in as much privacy as they could be afforded, his face turns bleak. “You’ve got questions. I could feel you holding them even without seeing you.”

And in the silence he lets sit with them, for he too is fluent in grief and the way it leaves no room for words, she hears a single word: ask.

“You said there was something else that happened.” Besides my disappearance.

He curls his hands around the cup of tea, still steaming, with no lid for she doubts this inn could afford one. “The house burned down.”

It is a heavy thought, but she knows Hiko, and knows he does not lead with the heaviest of burdens. No, he ends with them.


He sighs, worry and fear clouding his face until there is not too much left untouched. “We stayed the night in the city with Ogawa-san. Your father wouldn’t leave the city without you. And no one else was here for this but me, your father, and Ogawa-san, so Kimei isn’t aware, but our host had gone out to report for work in the Bureau of Records, came back around noon in a rush.” Hiko looks around slowly and very carefully leans across the table to whisper in her ear. “He said that the Lord Prime Minister had sent out word that he wanted all records of any business dealings your father had in the capital in the past five years.”

It takes her a longer moment to put this together, but suddenly she is no longer tired. “Five years, that’s the time limit before accusations of fraud and extortion can be brought to the magistrate.”

Chichi-ue has not visited the city since long before Momo-ko was born, so the last time he had even cared to do business there must’ve been… “Nearly eleven years now, isn’t it?”

What exactly had sparked the active ire of one of the nation’s most powerful men?

It could not have been the silk.

“Yes,” Hiko agrees, a smile sad and soft about his lips. “I don’t think Kawaguchi-san has been back ever since the time after he brought me home.”

No, earlier that year, Anija had died, and only honoring business contracts had forced Chichi-ue to leave home. The following year, Chichi-ue had made the trip once more. And then the year after...Haha-ue and both of her paternal uncles had died, and for over a decade after, Chichi-ue has yet to return to the capital city.

“Then there was nothing for the Lord Prime Minister to find.” She takes a sip of her tea and tries to think of anything, anything at all that could’ve prompted such backlash.

“No, there wasn’t.” Hiko mirrors her, looking down into his teacup, his shoulders hunched. “But Ogawa-san urged us to leave the city anyway, as corrupt officers will stop at no opportunity to bootlick, and the Lord Prime Minister is a powerful friend indeed.”

“We are only little people,” she agrees, “living in the shadow of betters.”

“Yes.” He covers his face with his hand and breathes out as she throws back the rest of her tea. Whatever else is coming, it is enough to choke on without tea to add to the mix. “It was a shock, you understand.” He continues, through his hand, as though wishing for some barrier from the truth. “Perhaps too much of one.”

Her breath catches, and it is like the tolling of bells, the rush of water. “I thought you said Chichi-ue was fine.”

“He is,” he says and lets his hand drop. “And he isn’t. I suspect he won’t be until he sees you again. Just as you are both fine and not fine, you see?”

She breathes out, suddenly bereft. “There wasn’t much danger of anything happening to me. You know that I seem to find a way to survive regardless.”

“I’m sure he knows.” In the gathering gloom all around them, there is only the light of the flame from the oil lamp reflected in Hiko’s dark eyes, fathomless wells, encompassing all the depths of the hidden burdens he carried. “And it is not that he does not trust that. It is only… only that there is no one else in the world he loves half so well as you.” The corners of Hiko’s mouth tilt down, for the barest of moments. “Sometimes, I think, perhaps, that he has long ceased to love anything else.” The silence between them stretches. “Tell me, Hisa,” he says, his voice light. “How is he to survive the loss of you?”

“Your premise is built on a false assumption.” She sets her teacup on the table but still holds it, since it is something to hold onto. “Chichi-ue loves much more than only me.” She holds a hand up to forestall his argument. “But yes, I understand what you mean, and I apologize that I caused everyone to worry about my wellbeing.”

And at this, he finally sighs, the straight line of his shoulders drooping. “I’ve missed you, Hisa.”

She hears the argument before she even crosses the threshold, the sound of Momo-chan’s wailing loud in the street.

“I won’t!” There’s a note of hysteria in her sister’s voice, rising rapidly in pitch and volume. “I won’t come back inside. Neesan is supposed to come home today, and you can’t make me go away.”

Loud enough to be heard in the street, and with no one here to persuade Momo-ko to come back inside, to say that everything is alright. If no one else, Momo-ko always trusted Chichi-ue or Chiba-san’s word upon the matter.

Where is Chichi-ue then? And more importantly, where is Chiba-san to tell Momo-ko that such a thing is inappropriate?

From inside is the gentler murmur of someone, likely Sute, who managed Chiba-san’s courtyard and looked after Momo.

She picks up her skirts and hurries to the door, raps her knuckles on the wood. “Taishi, let me in!”

On the other side of the door, Momo’s voice picks up in insistence and anguish. “Neesan! Neesan!”

The door barely opens fast enough for Momo, who breaks past all of Sute’s attempts to restrain her and folds herself around Hisa’s legs with a small thump. “Neesan,” her baby sister sobs into her skirts. “Neesan, Chichi-ue is ill and Haha-ue is so worried, and you were gone and, and—” and here, Momo-ko breaks down entirely and wails.

And suddenly, standing before the doors of her own household, she has steel in her spine once more.

Bending, she picks up the crying little girl, laying Momo’s head against her shoulder. “It will be alright, you see,” she says, leaving Kimei, Izuna, and Hiko to gather their things and see to Bear’s family. “I’m home.”

She has her own family to see to first.

People greet her, maids curtsying as she passes. The second miss has returned, and with her, a focal point of all their worries and woes. When the master of the house is ill and indisposed, it’s up to his heiress to pick up everything that threatens to go wrong, and mend — with words, with actions, with soft smiles and straight shoulders, the expectation of assurance and practicality.

Halfway to Chichi-ue’s courtyard, Momo sobs herself out, vaguely sniffling. “Neesan is home?”

“I’m home,” she agrees, trying to smooth out Momo’s hair before shifting her to one arm to knock on Chichi-ue’s study door. “Chichi-ue?” she asks, clear and sure. “Chichi-ue, your Hisa-chan is home.”

The door opens, and Chiba-san stands there, something heavy like fear in her face, which smooths away a bit when her gaze falls on Hisa holding her daughter. “Come in,” she says and steps aside.

“Haha-ue,” Momo-ko says, still sniffling. “Neesan’s home. Will Chichi-ue be alright now?”


She shakes her head slightly at Chiba-san, passing Momo over. “Is Chichi-ue in his room?”

Chiba-san nods. “Toshi is with him.”

If nothing else, she has not been a horrible wife, so Hisa tamps down the tendril of jealousy that threatens to creep in. It was her choice to be absent and cause this grief, and she cannot fault Chiba-san for attempting to do what she could about the matter.

Instead, she inclines her head. “A thousand thanks to Chiba-san for your care.”

At the other doorway, she does not knock, merely draws a hand across the strings and strings of glass beads and steps across. “Chichi-ue?” she asks.

He stands on the other side of the room, his hands clasped behind him, his hair loose of his topknot more gray than the last time she saw him.

He turns around and, with two steps, has crossed the room, sweeping her up in his arms. “Hisa,” he says, and she feels herself crumbling, down, down, down, into the small child that she has always been.

She has seen her father like this only once before, on the day she last returned from Yanai, having returned to find gray in his hair where there was none before, shenyi and dachang of white cotton instead of darkly colored silk, face hollowed of everything, including the hope in his eyes.

This time, at least, he has not had cause to put on mourning, and hope still burns, fever bright, in the depths of his dark eyes.

“I’m sorry.” She sucks in a long breath, still making an attempt not to cry. “I’ve made you worry.”

“It is only worry.” They stand there for another moment longer. “And worry fades, unlike grief. Do not be sorry for doing what you must to survive.”

And like a boat on the lake, she comes home, to the arms of her father, to the port in the storm.

She is halfway through addressing her note to Mitsugu-senpai later that afternoon, after settling affairs and sending the money and the toy boat off with Hiko to Bear’s wife, saying that she had questions to ask that would need his business acumen — Toma-chan’s letter still burning in her sleeve — when suddenly, she realizes the date has changed.

It is the seventeenth of May.

Without her even noticing, she has missed paying her respects on Haha-ue’s death day.

A task consistent for ten years, like thread spun with a steady, untiring hand, suddenly snapped because of a moment’s inattention.

Haha-ue had died on the fourteenth of May, and she’d been in Yanai.

She has missed Haha-ue’s death day, and she’d been in Yanai.

She rises, messages that need to be written, the rumors that needed quelling, the worries and burdens forgotten for the moment.

There are respects to be paid, and apologies to be spoken, penance to be borne, and it will not wait.

On her way to the shrine, Izuna joins her.

“You didn’t go to see his family.” It has been a long time since Izuna has spoken, but it is this he dwells on, this he dwells on instead of something else.

“Now is not the time.” It is simple, really. She has done what she can, and now she must step back and let her hands drop to her sides.

Bear was not her brother, was not any blood relation of hers. And while she could offer her condolences, could offer her aid for whatever his family may now need and wish to ask of her, she cannot intrude.

Grief is a private thing, and it cannot be tasted or shared properly with those who see it differently.

She sees it differently than his wife or his brothers, his parents, and his children.

She cannot intrude, for there is wax paper between them, a mask that cannot be taken off or broken.

“Money cannot replace the love of a brother.” No, he has not understood.

She knows. She knows.

No amount of money has ever replaced Anija.

“I know.” They are almost upon the shrine steps now, and getting closer as they walk. “Grief is very rarely about money, Izuna-san.”

“I can’t imagine you know much about grief.” He snaps in her direction, a flush on his pale cheeks, caustic anguish caking the undertone of his voice, soul shattering, heavy. “Since this is what you choose to do with your time instead.”

She thinks of the long, long spring eleven years ago, when her Haha-ue had forbidden her from crossing the door of the sickroom, when Uncle Heihachi had been the last to pass from this realm to the next, and she’d no tears left to cry for her favorite uncle, thinks of the cart that had taken all the estate’s children to Yanai, thinks of the horse that’d thrown Anija and broken her father’s heart, and nearly asks him to define grief.

Give it borders, she almost says, give it form.

And then we can compare my losses to yours.

She almost says something angry and just as caustic as what he’d thrown at her, but instead she does not. She breathes out, her hand resting on the doorframe of the Kawaguchi Ancestral Shrine, and smiles. “No,” is what she says. “I suppose I do not, Uchiha-san.”

And then she steps past him into the shrine.

Her losses are old, and they should’ve worn smooth like stones tossed about at the bottom of the river.

It has been eleven years now, her father had remarried, her aunts and cousins no longer wear mourning white.

She has a younger sister now, four and a half years old and bigger by the day.

It is eleven years on now, and yet however old her losses, the river of time does not wear smooth these stones. Over and over, they roll over her heart, and over and over, she is cut deep by the thought of it.

“Haha-ue,” she says. “I apologize for not visiting for a long time. Chichi-ue asked me to look after clients from the Nakatomi Clan, and they could not wait.”

It is a bad reason to have gone three weeks without a visit, but she had not been at home.

Haha-ue is gone, but it is unfilial to ask her own mother to wait on her for a visit. Such things are the prerogative of the daughter, not of the mother.

She raises one hand, lights a stick of incense in the flame of the candle before her mother’s memorial tablet before kneeling and pressing her forehead to the cool wooden floorboards, dark with memory.

I am sorry you had to wait on me, Haha-ue, but your most unfilial daughter pays her respects to you now.

A week later, routine has returned. But not all things could return to the way they were.

That suddenly, both the foreman and the head cook wore white in their hair.

That Taishi and Taiga both wore white armbands at the gate — and she had not even noticed, had not thought to think of them in their grief, no all she had been thinking of was her sister and the gossip Momo-ko’s wailing was sure to invite — all the raw wounds of grief.

Saka had come to thank her for the gift, for the money, for everything that their family had not been able to afford in life, and she’d thought better of offering Shimo-chan a place in her courtyard just yet.

She is only six years old, too young to be away from both parents and alone in her grief.

Best let the matter lie, even if the sentiment behind it had been kind.

Not all things could return to the way they were, and her impressions of Uchiha-san have, unfortunately, gone the same way.

He spoke, most likely, from ignorance, but they had been words intent on carving out wounds nonetheless, so she finds no shame in having been wounded.

And as such, demonstrating the consequences of having been so wounded.

Her fingers fly over the abacus, totaling and retotaling accounts that Hiko had sent her, lending a fresh pair of eyes to the accounts that had been under Chiba-san’s exclusive care for nearly a month, Chichi-ue having retreated back to bed with an unseasonable bout of fatigue and a lingering cough.

If anything else, Chiba-san has been honest with what she had spent money on.

“The Second Miss asks that she not be disturbed. She’s very busy with the accounts.” Aka had been busy with miscellaneous tasks outside her door for a while now, at her behest. Tidying the pots of osmanthus and plucking every third blossom for the sake of more pastries served no purpose except decadence and self-indulgence, but she had told Aka of what her actual purpose was, and that is to keep Uchiha-san out of her sight.

She has no desire to see Uchiha-san, and since this is her own house, she can simply refuse.

“When…” she hears him pause, as if considering the matter. He’d always been a careful man, except for that one incident. “When will the Second Miss be free to see me then? I’ll wait.”

In the silence, she can see, in her mind’s eye, Aka looking him up and down, unimpressed disdain in her good eye, and as much focus as she could muster for her other one, the burns across the left side of her face a striking reminder of past cruelty.

“I wouldn’t waste your time, Shinobi-san,” Aka says, sweeter than raw honey. “For you, that answer would be never again.”

For another moment, there is silence, the sort that lets the breeze whisper through the peonies ready to burst into bloom.

She writes down another figure, totals the sum in the column, and continues onwards to the next page.

“I see,” he pitches his voice a little louder on the next words as if doubting her ability to hear the conversation outside. “I understand that my previous words upon the matter that we had last discussed were offensive in nature, and I hope that the Second Miss of the Kawaguchi Household might look upon my sincere apologies with new light.”

Her fingers do not pause on the abacus.

Click, click.

Click, click, click.

She writes the next sum in the appropriate column and turns the page.

“Visit the accountant.” Aka says, pausing in the doorway, her eyes closed. “I’m sure he knows how much to pay you.”

And then Aka presents her with the osmanthus flowers — a few for her hair, and more for the kitchens, where Kuma had not even taken a single meal of rest.

And she wishes she could ask, but she knows she cannot.

Whatever Uchiha-san wants with honeyed words and silver tongue, it is less of a concern than this.

She calls on Aunt Ruqa later that next week, careful to quell her aunt’s fears, because a week and a half of seeing no one has already threatened to drive Hiwara Ruqa to distraction. It is impolite to visit when the master of the house is ill, and Aunt Ruqa knows this well enough to not do that, but hearing that Kawaguchi Yasutaro is ill had caused no small stir in the city, whispers compounding upon whispers until her aunt hadn’t known which to believe and which to discard.

The loss of Chichi-ue as a supporter for Aunt Ruqa would also mean a loss of what meager status she did have in the Suzuki Household, so of course, the news had worried her aunt to distraction.

O-Shiki had written to her, insistent on sending a doctor or at least some medicine after hearing about Chichi-ue’s condition — greatly exaggerated by the number of times the gossip had changed hands before it got to her — as O-Shiki is already in her seventh month of pregnancy, and therefore no longer seeing any callers or able to call upon any estate herself.

Beset as she is, by very real grief and both well wishers and detractors at all sides, it had taken some time for her to settle her own affairs and come to comfort her aunt.

But at least such things are easy to accomplish.

Her discussion with Mitsugu-senpai closer to noon, less so, if only because it is… concerning his future, which she has already meddled with at least a little bit, by frightening Satoshi-sensei of Shikon-tei into using his head for once.

But she passed him Toma-chan’s letter and told him to think about it.

It isn’t the happiest she’s seen him, but really, the only way other people ignore a male lover is if the man has a wife and children.

And his love for Satoshi, the pipa player, could not be hidden forever.

As it is, her half a day out has solved many problems, and she is satisfied enough with the results of both visits.

Only half a stick of incense has burned down since she sat down by the loom, Kimei at her side, chattering quietly.

“Kusakabe-sama has taken a trip out of Chubu.” Her handmaid’s head is bent over a series of children’s shoes that they plan to give Saka for her son who has yet to turn four.

“Oh?” She pauses for a moment, black thread gleaming amid a profusion of more delicate, colorful ones as she attempts to finish Chang’e’s hairstyle. It is out of character for Lord Fusamoto to travel at such a late stage in O-Shiki’s pregnancy.

He’d always been a worrier, and his wife’s last bout of illness had not improved that notion one bit.

They say that few lords love their wives as much as Lord Fusamoto does, without question, without reserve, so it must have been a heavy task indeed to summon him from his estate at such a time.

“Did they say where he was travelling to?” It would be foolish to ask why. Servants rarely know why the master of the house does anything unless they’re a personal servant, bound to go wherever their lord also goes. But one very rarely stays the personal servant of anyone for long without being able to keep their secrets — Kimei may like to hear gossip, and she might also know almost all of Hisa’s thoughts, but her lips are sealed upon a great many of them.

And Lord Fusamoto’s Suteo is famously close-mouthed.

“Mmm.” Kimei sighs, rethreading her needle. “Danmai, I hear. Likely to Kamakura Town.”


Didn’t Kimei also mention a retinue of people arriving in Shunan today, with the banner of Lord Orihito in tow?

And she feels just the faintest thread of unease begin to rise to the surface before the noise outside bursts into cacophony.

“Hisa-san!” Anguish. Hysteria. O-Shiki’s Tamasu. “Hisa-san, please, Shikikami-sama needs your help.”

Chapter Text

One step. Her shuttle clatters to the floor behind her. A month early. It is a month too early for this child.

Two steps. Lord Fusamoto has gone. To Danmai.

Three steps. Tamasu asks for her aid which implies—

"Kimei, go fetch Jizen-sensei." Kimei nods, and in a flurry of pink sleeves, bursts out of the door in a run.

Four steps. Lord Orihito is in the estate. And up to no good.

Five steps. She arrives at the door, Tamasu's story becoming increasingly erratic. Dying. She picks the word out of the heap. Shikikami-sama is dying. Please.

"Aka, call the carriage around." Her voice is steady, but internally, her heart burns with rage.

There are doctors at O-Shiki's estate. There are loyal men and a Princess of the Second Rank who is her mother-in-law. The Countess of Chubu should not have to rely on a daughter of a merchant house, when there are so many people to turn to, when she is so beloved.

"Nene, summon Uchiha-san. I have a job for him."

She'd been born so precious, so elevated and noble, and yet— all it has taken is a man jealous of what she has to conspire to kill her.

And all the nobles who love her can do nothing.

But it has come to this.

It comes to this, and she climbs into the carriage, sharpening her rage into claws. She is no noble.

And it's time to wear the tiger's skin.

Tamasu had managed to slip away, torn between defending O-Shiki and finding her outside help, and remembered that their estate was close enough to travel to on foot.

When she left, O-Shiki had been alive.

But how close O-Shiki is to being pressured with death by a man without honor, Hisa cannot even begin to guess at or know.

Taiga saddles two horses, one for her, and one for himself to find Lord Fusamoto, and she flies.

She kicks up dust in her wake, a thick heavy cloud of it. No rain for two weeks has left the road bone dry and powder fine, another terrible summer seems to await them.

Izuna and the three in the carriage follow her.

She spares little thought for them — Tamasu, Kimei and Jizen-sensei — two handmaids and an old doctor with bad joints are unlikely to save the Countess of Chubu.

But are you enough?

She doesn’t know, and that echoes in her chest like a heartbeat.

Are you enough.

Are you enough.

Will you ever be enough.

The gate guard is unfamiliar to her, and that makes her blood run cold.

No, the man who guarded the gate normally is some fifty years old, with a beard and arthritis, a smile missing three teeth.

She’d heard Lord Fusamoto call him Daishin.

This man is much younger, perhaps in his late twenties at best.

She reins in the horse as she comes up to the gate. “Where is Daishin?”

The man—she hesitates to call him a gate guard—laughs, the sound biting. “Wouldn’t you like to know, missy.”

So Daishin has been replaced by one of Lord Orihito’s men. She’s surprised the banners of Danmai aren’t already displayed more prominently, but perhaps he has not yet grown so brazen. Lord Fusamoto is not—

No, she will not think of that.

Izuna catches her horse’s bridle, coming to the front of their little party. “We are here to see Lady Shikikami. Let us through.”

“A shinobi,” the man at the gate sneers, and in the curl of his lip, she sees the walls this world has built, because this servant to a count can look at Izuna and see not someone who was far his superior in status, but a dog to kick.

In one smooth motion, Izuna draws his sword, the steel gleaming faintly blue-gray in the afternoon light. “I ask you again,” he says, each word measured. “Step aside, or I will make you.”

“What are—”

The man dies with a smirk still on his face — and she feels nothing.

Drops of blood cling to Izuna’s face, sinking into the light cotton of his zhiduo, and she still feels nothing.

He does not sheathe his sword.

She does not pause, swinging herself off of the horse, and then races inside, her skirts bunched in her hands.

Izuna follows after her, his bloody sword in hand.

For a busy estate, the front courtyard is deserted, signs of a struggle in the bamboo groves, tender shoots crushed by booted feet.

Her footsteps are loud on the cobbled garden path, eerie, ringing over the stone and plaster walls.

“O-Shiki!” she calls.

Where is she?

Besides the one man at the gate, there’d been no one.

No one, no one, how many men had Lord Orihito bought to take Chubu?

What does he hope to gain from this?

What can he possibly hope to gain from this?


Had Tamasu said she was in her own courtyard?

All around her the estate sprawls out, garden paths and walkways and courtyards becoming a maze.

Where is O-Shiki’s courtyard? Lord Fusamoto likely lived there as well. Did it still have the naginata hanging over the flower vase on the display stand?

Left or right at this crosswalk?

Left or right?

She cannot afford to choose wrong.

One moment of pause, one moment of thought, hearing her heartbeat roar in her ears, listening to the anger buzzing in her mind and putting it aside.

There. Left.

Through the peony walk, the crushed petals and the sign of the passing of many feet.

The noise gets louder as she comes up the walk, still running.

A cut off scream, the sound of metal—

She throws open the door. “O-Shiki!”

Three men are sitting in O-Shiki’s welcome parlor, one of them well into his middle age. O-Shiki is nowhere to be seen.

So Lord Orihito had come personally.

Kiyowara-hime sits in the seat of highest honor, silent as the grave and a face to match with Kore-kun in her arms, a bloody sword on her neck. Another man stands in armor behind her, his clan mon indecipherable, holding the sword.

A handmaid’s body lies in the inner doorway, blood pooling, face down.

So she was the one who screamed.

Now she understands.

Lord Orihito has brought shinobi with him.

Where is O-Shiki?

She does not see O-Shiki.

But from her place on the dias, Kiyowara-hime’s eyes widen. Ah, she knows where Tamasu has gone then, knows that only a young woman stands between her and her family’s demise.

“Another servant,” one of the seated young men drawls. “Let’s see if you are any more obedient than the last girl, shall we? Pour tea for the three of us, will you? It’s grown cold in the meantime.”

Izuna has vanished.

He’d been at her side, just half a step behind, when her hand touched the door.

But no longer.

She has only herself to rely on now.

“You wouldn’t want for word to get out about how poor Chubu’s hospitality is, would you?” Lord Orihito speaks for the first time, a voice like pebbles grinding over the bottom of the river, with more grit than sand.

Her pause must’ve been taken badly. One misstep here and she will not escape with her life, much less save anyone.

Smoothly, she bows, low enough that she feels the long strands of her jade buyao brush past her cheekbone, “my apologies for the wait, Orihito-sama,” and holds that bow for a count of three before rising and with small steps, makes her way to the tea tray.

It had only just been brought out, a teapot of hot water, a small lacquer container of shincha painted with a pair of gold cranes, a set of four porcelain tea cups painted fancifully with orchids, the tiny cranes chasing each other across the lids of the gaiwan.

Gently, with practiced hands, she uncovers the gaiwan, one scoop of tea leaves for each cup, hot water poured from the pot, careful to fill each cup to the brim.

Her hands do not shake; her face does not change.

With another motion, she rises, a single cup in her hands.

What she has seen in its reflection gives her heart.

It had not only been her own face reflected in the amber.

Slowly, she breathes out. Water might save them all yet.

The first cup, by the rules of etiquette goes to… “Kiyo-hime.” She bows low, but not as low as she does normally. Household servants beloved by the dowager countess do not bow so low as out of household merchant women.

The shinobi man grunts, but Kiyo-hime raises one hand slowly from her grandson’s back and accepts the tea. “Thank you, Hisa-chan.”

Just so. The proper address for a handmaid.

She curtsies once and rises. Slow, deliberate, without sudden movement.

Shinobi are so easy to startle.

This strange shinobi with his sword on the dowager countess’s neck and Izuna both.

“She is not bad looking,” one of the young men remarks. “Perhaps after this, we could think of having a little fun.”

She picks up the next cup of tea. What a waste really, like sticking a flower on a dung heap. Shincha for a sinner.

“She does have such exotic eyes,” the other young man agrees, slowly fanning himself, calligraphy flashing on his paper fan. She cannot read the writing from the corner of her eye, given the facade she is maintaining, but she assumes it is some line of Confucian virtue that he does not possess. “Smart too; look at how careful she is to not spill the tea.”

And inwardly, the tiger bares its teeth, bloody maw ready to turn into a man eater.

“Orihito-sama.” She bows, the cup suspended between them, her hand steady, face unchanging.

One moment. He intends to make her hold the bow.

A shame for him then.

“A pity we can do nothing about the Asukabe woman, really.” O-Shiki is safe.


“She’ll be dead soon enough.” Dismissal.

In one sharp motion, she snaps her wrist forwards, the lid of the gaiwan striking Lord Orihito in the eye, before the scalding tea follows shortly after.

He howls, clawing at his face as she steps back.

Behind her, chaos reigns.

Izuna drops out of the rafters, blood spraying as he catches the other shinobi across the arm. The clash of metal on metal is quick and furious, and ends just as suddenly as it begins, his sword slicing across the other man’s throat.

Kiyowara-hime sits, holding Kore-kun who has begun to cry against her, a vain attempt to shield the child from the blood.

Before anyone can blink, Izuna is behind Lord Orihito’s seat, his face a terrifying mask of blankness. He jerks the man’s head back with a rough tug of his topknot, lays the bloody sword across the front of the man’s throat. “Any movements,” he says, lips curling up into a dreadful smile, a delighted violence in his eyes, “and I do believe heads will roll.”

She leaves him to it.

O-Shiki is alone in what must be her bedroom when Hisa arrives, feet soft, Jizen-sensei and the two handmaids in tow.

“If you are here to mock me, then mock me.” In the slanting afternoon light, O-Shiki’s forehead is beaded with sweat, eyes closed, teeth clenched over her bottom lip. “But know this, shujin will not let you live.”

Not hard enough to draw blood. Not yet. She is not dead yet if she is still so defiant.


She has never been here before, having always been in a public place.

For the first time today, she is reminded that this estate, though it is for the Lord Administrator and his family, is a home.

It is a home for a family even smaller than hers.

It’d been the structure of the home that had been broken today, the safety and warmth of harbor torn down.

For decades, it’d been Kiyowara-hime’s sanctuary.

And for years now, since her marriage to Lord Fusamoto, it’d been O-Shiki’s.

What has shattered here is more than the illusion of power or status. It’d been safety and love as well.

O-Shiki cracks open an eye. “Hisa-chan?”

Outside, the sounds of more men appearing, Izuna’s sharp tenor speaking, slow and terrible.

“I brought you a doctor,” she says, because that is what she’s done. “So you’ll be alright.”

O-Shiki nods, a hand reaching out for her. “Kore?”

She takes O-Shiki’s hand, and it tightens, a grip of iron around her. “Safe. Kiyowara-hime has him.”

O-Shiki nods again, her eyes falling closed. “Shujin?” she murmurs. “I worry…”

“Kusakabe-sama has yet to return. I sent someone after him.” Taiga had gone in the other direction, a hand rising and falling on the horse’s neck. A word to the handmaids and Tamasu is off to fetch hot water, and Kimei rushes to assist Jizen-sensei in unpacking his medicine box.

“I might not, not—” a bead of sweat trickles down the side of O-Shiki’s face. “If I cannot greet him, will you tell him that I love him?”


She’d known, in some way, that O-Shiki loves the man who is her husband, and that in return, Lord Fusamoto has always humored the whims of his wife.

“I do not blame him, but he must kiss Kore-kun for me and send him into the capital so that he might meet his grandfather.”

Quiet. Breathless.

Even at such a stage.

“Tell him I will not suffer him to forget me, or in my grave, I will haunt him.”

“Do not speak of graves.” She brushes the loose strands of hair from O-Shiki’s forehead. “You and Kusakabe-sama still have many years together before anyone has to say goodbye.”

O-Shiki laughs, mirthlessly. “Hisa-chan, when Kore was born, I placed my life in the hands of Yan Wang, and I wagered. This time perhaps...a life for a life.”

Her own grip tightens, as if that could keep O-Shiki’s soul in her body. “No,” she hears herself say, as though through still water. “The King of Hell can rewrite his book of lives for all I care.”

Let him add, ten, twenty, fifty years for you, O-Shiki-chan. I will make him.

Soon now.

Jizen-sensei has said that it will not take long now.

O-Shiki’s grip on her hand is hard enough to bruise.

It has been hours, the sun sinking into the west, and still Lord Fusamoto has not returned.

She has taken to reciting poetry, singing, word games, anything to distract O-Shiki from the passage of time, of Lord Fusamoto’s absence.

Of the men being kept out only by Izuna’s vigil in the doorway, Lord Orihito’s topknot still in hand.

Kiyowara-hime had retreated to a different corner of the room after showing O-Shiki that both she and Kore-kun were uninjured, still mutely rocking Kore-kun.

Hours now, Kimei lights the candles, Tamasu passes out by O-Shiki’s bedside, clothing torn and feet blistered.

She begins to worry that perhaps Taiga had not been enough.

That Lord Fusamoto’s party has met some sort of hindrance on the road.

That instead of O-Shiki’s fears that she would not live long enough to see her husband come home, Lord Fusamoto will never be coming home.

If Danmai had calculated for him to be away and for Chubu’s defenses to be lax, if they could plot the death of a woman — and she is sure that if O-Shiki died, then her children would shortly follow — why not also an attempt on Lord Fusamoto’s life?

No, the scheme looks darker than it had been when she thought that perhaps Lord Orihito wanted one of his shu daughters to become the next Countess of Chubu.

But not now. Not now.

What would she do if the Lord Administrator isn’t coming?

How long can Izuna hold the door? How long would he want to?

“You look so worried.” O-Shiki is looking at her in a rare moment of calm, eyes glazed, the gray of fatigue a ring around her mouth. “What you’ve done...It’s—”

Her head snaps towards the door, tension in every line of her frame.

Outside, the roar of voices and the passing of feet has gotten louder. Something has shifted, the air crackling like a pine branch thrown to the flames.

In the doorway, Izuna shifts but does not step away.

O-Shiki shudders, gasping for breath.

“Not long now,” Jizen-sensei says, his brows furrowed. “Not long.” His hands flutter, a wet rag for O-Shiki’s forehead, water, another hand for her to be aware of.

This fight, all women must fight alone.

But his absolute calm still holds them together, the eye of this storm.

Outside, the voices rise to thunder, indecipherable, deafening noise.

Another contraction hits, and O-Shiki breaks, a horrid scream hanging in the air.

The moment hangs suspended in the air like a drop of water before it smashes to the floor.

The noise outside comes to an abrupt halt, broken only by the sound of a pair of footsteps, running.

A wild eyed man bursts into the room, clothing torn, sword in hand. “Yome!”

Lord Fusamoto has returned.

It is evening by the time she ends up walking to the front hall, Lord Fusamoto accompanying her to the carriage personally.

Another son, and though O-Shiki has paid dearly, given time, she will recover.

She is tired, and so sick of the day that she is sure that her smile is no longer painted on. Her face has changed, however subtle, blood still slick on her hands and across her front where she’d cradled the newborn, Jizen-sensei and everyone else in the room intent on O-Shiki’s survival.

The evening sun, the summer breeze, her shaking hands, a Count and every living man he’d brought with him shackled.

Lord Fusamoto, too, is silent, worn as he is by the events of the day.

They pause in the front hall, uncaring of overturned chairs and broken pottery.

He steps before her, still silent as the grave, and turns to face her, an abyss of nothing in his eyes.

Time hangs there, for a long time, before she remembers to curtsy, though her fatigue makes her wobble. With a hand, he steadies her.

He drops to his knees before her and presses his forehead to the ground. “I owe you a debt too great to repay, Kawaguchi Hisa-san. Whatever you want, whenever you wish it, Kusakabe Fusamoto is in your debt.”

Never before in her life has she seen Lord Fusamoto bow to anyone but his mother, much less get on his knees. By the time she had met him for the first time, he was already a titled count, married, Lord Hiramoto buried, one more memorial tablet in the family shrine.

He must, at some points, in court, but she has never seen that.

“Kusakabe-sama honors me far too highly.” A flurry of sleeves as she tries to persuade him to rise, before she remembers that her hands are bloody, before she remembers that he is of too high status for her to lift as though he were one of the workers asking for her forgiveness.

Instead, she also kneels. This close, she can see the shaking of his shoulders, the strands of hair that have fallen out of his topknot. It’d been so lovingly arranged.

Had O-Shiki pinned his hair up for him in the morning before he set out, before everything went wrong?

“Kusakabe-sama,” she says, and drops the playbook of words for there is no proper way to say this, not with the chasm of status and class between them. “You have been honored by His Imperial Majesty. He who is the son of heaven does not bestow the dragons lightly.”

And it had not been light in this case either for the dragons on Lord Fusamoto’s ceremonial robes were paid for with the blood of his father.

He does not rise.

“I am the daughter of a common man.” She thinks about it, all the years that O-Shiki has been kind to her, and all the years that Lord Fusamoto has welcomed her, thinks about the games of pitch pot, the polo matches, the gifts, the gentleness with which Lord Fusamoto had allowed the sons and daughters of merchant households in Chubu to go to the same school as nobility so long as they had the money to pay the schoolteacher, and outside, the peony petals coating the walk, crushed by the passing of so many feet. “There is no need to speak of debt with me. Kusakabe-sama and Shikikami-sama have given me so many gifts over the years, and I have never once paid for them until now.”

He breathes out, a low, harsh sound, and raises his head. “I have never been so thoroughly chastised,” he says, on the border of regret and self acknowledgment. “And I have stood before His Majesty and bargained with my father-in-law. And yet,” and here he looks down, a hand finding the heirloom jade piece he wore. “Not one word of what you just told me could be construed as blame, except in the tone that you delivered it.”

“I have been blessed by heaven to have clear eyes.” His words had been that of a desperate man, wild with the grief of nearly having lost what he thought was safe, for a home ought to be safe, but words from men of his stature bound stronger and tighter than iron shackles.

Honorable men ought not make promises that have no limits.

He closes his eyes and sighs. “I do not take it back.” A pause, a moment of silence in this room, but not so in the walkway outside, the men from Danmai still shouting, kept at bay by Izuna. “What I promised you. I do not take it back.” His eyes snap open — swallow dark, with the light of stars. “Because I trust you.”

He climbs to his feet and offers her his hand to help her up.

And she knows that the Lord Administrator of Chubu has returned.

“Are you certain you are fine?” Izuna’s words follow after her, quiet, but too heavy for this moment. “Civilians are unused to blood and death. Perhaps you ought to go see your father.”

It is dark now, standing in her courtyard, blood dried and peeling on her hands, outfit ruined.

And she is tired.

She is tired, and Chichi-ue has yet to fully recover.

“I’m a woman, Uchiha-san.” She turns back to look at him. “We see a lot of blood.”

“So you’re just going to leave things like this?” His voice is quiet, but insistent, like the waves on the bank of the river.

And she would do something about this, but tonight she is weightless, as if a ghost in her own skin, without boundaries, without form, bloodied hands, scalded fingers.

Nothing comes without price, and the weight of Lord Fusamoto’s words crushes her shoulders.

“What else is there to do?” What’s done is done.

She has saved a life. She has done what she can.

What else is there to do?

If a leaf falls into the river, could it ever dare to swim against the current?

“You won’t talk about it?” She hears his footsteps on the paving stones, coming closer. That she has heard him at all must mean that he is also tired or doesn’t want to startle her.

Izuna walks like a ghost, feet so light that he might as well float across the ground. “I don’t understand.”

“What is it that you hope to understand?” She is tired, and the eddies of their last conversation still sows disturbance between them.

He’d meant for his words to hurt, and like raindrops striking the surface of a dusty road, they’d sank beneath the surface of her skin to mingle with the river water at her core.

The well water and the river water do not mix, and no amount of kneeling in front of her mother’s memorial tablet could cure her grief.

“Why won’t you care?” he asks, standing beside her for the first time, though he still stares ahead as well, into the darkening spaces between the eaves. “You will do so much, but you will not care.”

“What do you want me to do?” she turns her face up to the moon. “To show that I care.”

“Bear died,” he says, and doesn’t turn to look at her. “And your face said nothing.” No, it wouldn’t have. She wears two faces, and he is too public to see the other one. “Lady Shikikami nearly died today, and you did so much with nothing behind your eyes.”

And she is tired and losing form.

The other day, Banryu had walked by her open door, his shoulders hunched the way Chichi-ue’s had been that fatal spring, and the scent of paper money burning before a funeral pyre had clouded her, thick and fast until she’d almost coughed with the taste of it.

But there had been no breeze and no fire.

“I cannot tell you what to see behind my eyes, Uchiha-san.” Slowly, she lets her hands drop, lets the cloth of her long sleeves slide over them, picking up blood as they do so. What’s one more ruined object? If the front panels could not be saved, why care about the sleeves? “People have always told me that I have a cold face. I cannot change that.”

“You won’t even try.” There is a note of defeat to this, as if somehow, he is disappointed. “Tell me, Hisa-san, do you have a cold heart to go with your cold face?”

Does she?

Raindrops striking the surface of a drought stricken land.

How long can she survive while growing nothing?

Nuwa did not create the land so that it would remain barren, and she did not give men faces so that they can stay expressionless.

“I’ll let you be the judge of that.” After all, whatever impression he has of her cannot be deterred by the emptiness of breath.

“When I first arrived here, I thought I’d never met a civilian household so warm.” There is ice here, freezing the river. “But I see that was a paper mask, after all.”

He sighs and turns his face away. “I’ve never been anywhere colder than your heart.”

She is supposed to be wounded, but all she can think of is the blood on her hands, the blood in her veins, the burning of so much lost.

She lets him go without saying anything and goes inside to take off her face.

The cicadas sing in the trees, in the bright, white light of day when they walk down the path together to the family shrine.

She holds the door open for him without glancing up at his face. “Come in.”

It is summer outside, the early afternoon sun bright in the gardens, but after the doors close behind them, the only light in the shrine comes from the candles before each tablet, illuminating the words carved in each, deep shadows falling in the corners where candlelight does not stretch.

“You wanted to know why they call me Second Miss.” She raises her eyes to Anija’s tablet. The words ‘Honored Son of Hiwara Maki, Kawaguchi Jisuke’ looks down upon her. “My elder brother is here.” She raises her hand to the name, fingers tracing the graceful strokes, each character bold and sure. Chichi-ue’s calligraphy style, she knows it well. “As are my younger brothers.” Three tablets without name are beside Anija’s tablet, bearing only the recognition that they were sons of her mother, a space between them for her, just as there is a space on this altar beside Haha-ue when Chichi-ue passes from this world to the next.

“From the same roots we come, spreading into the branches of a great tree.” Izuna reads the right banner slowly before turning to the left to complete the couplet. “May we drink the same river water, may it bind us stronger than our blood.”

For long ago, her grandfather had named their family for the mouth of the Mujin River and the land he now held in the eyes of the law. Kawaguchi means mouth of the river. May his descendants never forget it.

“Hisa-san,” he pauses for a moment, looking at the altar. “There are only three generations here.”

“My family has only had a name for three generations.” With a sigh, she raises her eyes to the top of the altar. Her grandfather had been a young man — his work contract sold to a nobleman’s dye house manager when he was seven years old — when he had wagered everything on a game of mahjong with the son of a local baron.

For Kawaguchi Hakumuso was a self made man, born to poor farmers in Chubu’s orchards as merely Haku and had risen to the status of land owning merchant almost overnight.

Even his name had been an invention of circumstance — a family name from the land that would set him and his descendants free, a given name from adopting the practices of old money without understanding what significance it had.

He’d been buried in a coffin made of polished cedar.

The incense burning before his tablet has a core of sandalwood.

And yet, merely two generations later, their household has only daughters.

There is no grandson to carry on his legacy of daring, both brave and bold in equal measure, willing to knock elbows with the roughness of the world. “He died when I was very young,” is what she settles for. “When Anija was still alive. Jiji had such hopes for him.”

The sorrows of a family, the sorrows of a house, the private knowledge that the dead are watching, they all weigh heavy.

“And the woman beside him?” Izuna bows once to her grandfather’s tablet, a slender hand replacing the incense with a new stick lit from the still burning candle.

“My grandmother.” Kawaguchi Etsu had been the only child of a sharecropping farmer, her father an aging widower, Jiji’s childhood acquaintance.

Long ago, she had stood by him through every storm life had to offer. Her fortitude had been what held the roof up over a family time and time again, and it is only right and proper that they are side by side in death as well, a single vine of honeysuckle climbing over two graves.

“The other…” He falters, lips pressed together.

“My uncles.” She smiles, because in the face of grief, one can only present a pleasant face. “And my mother. I am her only living child.”

“I didn’t know.” His eyes are downturned, knuckles an ashen white about his sword hilt. “I thought—”

“You thought I was spoiled. And I admit that I am.” She does not stop smiling, but it takes effort now. “After all, there is no place in the world colder than my heart.”

He flinches, a clench in his jaw to match the one in his hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“You did mean it.” She turns to look at him fully, tilts her chin up so that they are eye to eye. “You meant for it to wound me.” She wears two faces, and on the outside is a smile that does not fade. “And it did.”

He goes pale, panic rising in his eyes. For a careful man, he has a vicious tongue and temper, and an undiscerning sword. The lash of it is foreign to her, but also familiar. She also wields her words to cut.

He looks at her with an emotion she cannot describe, without words, without name, as if he had never once seen her before this moment, and isn’t sure as if he would ever see her again.

A skinny man. What was it that Kuma had said of him so long ago? Thin as a weed or an ill fed beggar boy.

We have so much in common, you and I, both destined to have our colors washed off by the rain.

Yet when O-Shiki needed him, he was there.

Can she really ask more of him?

There is a line between them, drawn in ink, like the iron bars of a cage rising into the sky. They come from different worlds.

But she cannot say for certain who resides inside and who has the ability to fly.

He breathes out, slowly. “I regret it.” He does not close his eyes. He does not look away. “And I will regret it from this day to my last.”

She has cut some part of him she didn’t know existed, for he is bleeding now, in some way that she has not expected him to.

For a brief moment, she imagines that his eyes flicker red, but blink and they are black once more. “I’ll see myself out, Kawaguchi-san.”

He turns to go, but she catches his wrist, all bone, her index finger half grazing his skin before he can do so. “I forgive you.”

He does close his eyes then, a painful smile tugging at his lips. “You forgive me?” he asks, and he sounds no older than Toraki-kun.

“I forgive you.” She says it again, if only because things do not become less true after repetition.

“Why?” His pulse is wild, but his face betrays nothing.

Slowly, she lets go of his wrist. How to speak of rainstorms and paper masks, colors bleeding from the silk to reveal the imperfections beneath?

“Because,” she says and means every word, “I have been hurt far worse by far worse. Because we are not so different, you and I.”

A child only learns to cut with words when there are no other defenses, and by his own mourning white, he too has gotten drunk on the wine of grief.

Why blame him for her own faults?

Softly, outside the windows, she hears the cicadas hum.

It is summer.

It is life.

And slowly, he turns back around.

Chapter Text

“Why did you take him to the shrine?” Kimei jabs a stick of wood deeper into the stove fire, a frown carving itself into her face.

“Because he needed to know what is in it.” Gently, she stirs her chopsticks through the soup. Hand rolled noodles in chicken broth simmered lightly, a pile of shredded shiitake and bean sprouts on the cutting board beside the curved bottomed pot.

“I thought you didn’t want to see or talk about him anymore.” Kimei wipes the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand, amber eyes pensive. “At least, you did say that, when you came back from the shrine the time before.”

“Am I not allowed to change my mind?” Round and round go her chopsticks, the noodles turning over themselves. She does not change pace. Chichi-ue’s food will turn out beautifully, whether or not his daughter currently lives in inner turmoil.

“You don’t tend to change your mind when it comes to your judgement of character, Hisa.” Her handmaid doesn’t look up, still intent upon the fire.

“And so I did not.” For what had happened had hardly been her final judgement of Uchiha Izuna’s character.

Kimei observes the fire for another moment more, shoving a final branch in, before standing up, patting her hands on her long pleated skirt. “Well,” she says, rather mildly over the hiss and pop of the fire and the gentle bubbling of the pot, “we are out of firewood. I’ll go fetch more.”

She watches Kimei go, still gently stirring the pot, steam rising all about her fingers. There’s a bite to it, a sting to the heat though it ought to be gentle.

The same could be said of Kimei’s words.

Soon it will be time to add the mushrooms and bean sprouts.

In the end, there have been plenty of people she has not forgiven for slights against her or Haha-ue, or another family member, however unmeant or mild those slights had been. The wick of her retaliation might be very long, but the flare of her temper is short.

“Second Miss?”

She blinks, the moment lost. “Oh, forgive me, I was thinking.”

Kuma has come to see her through the din of the rest of the kitchen, six or seven maids running back and forth among the stoves busy in their tasks for the evening.

A whole household of people, from the stableboys and the farmhands to Chichi-ue, are fed by this kitchen, three meals a day.

From before the sunrise to long after dark, the kitchen hums with activity and vigor.

And since long before she was born, Kuma has managed them, a young woman with a toddler son, newly moved to this city, far from where her kin had lived for generations, a new name for her to wear, hair done up with a single pin.

And now a grandmother, the frost of age upon her hair, that same son buried beneath the ground.

The roles reversed, the white of mourning, when the mother must bid goodbye to the son.

She sets her chopsticks aside and clears a space for Kuma to sit, some half formed pleasantry on her lips.

No use in wondering over lost time.

What has passed will not come this way again.

“Cooking for Kawaguchi-san again?” the older woman asks her, the look in her eyes on the border of worry. “He has not taken any public meals in some time now.” Nor, indeed, has Chichi-ue decided to travel, for business or otherwise, preferring to stay within the bounds of his own courtyard for nearly a month now.

“And if things continue this way, people will continue to talk,” she agrees, tipping the mushrooms into the broth to simmer.

But it is better to say that Chichi-ue is sick at heart instead of body, each year weighing a little differently when all is said and done.

Her absence earlier this year has shaken him, and though the deal with the Nakatomi had proceeded without much fanfare, the silk delivered, the balance paid in gold ingots that Hiko had immediately converted to bank notes at the nearest deposit house in the capital, the fire had also shaken Chichi-ue.

The burnt skeleton of it had been torn down, the plot of land sold.

Whatever had been discussed between Uncle Saemon and Chichi-ue, it had made her father consider never returning to the Imperial City.

“He is not unwell,” she says, though this is a lie.

Heartsickness is not so easily mended. “And I expect that after his period of mourning, all will be well again.”

Or at least, she can hope of such.

She brings the soup to Chichi-ue on a tray, the noodles less artfully arranged than they could be, but she doubts that he will mind.

Or notice, really.

For some weeks now, Chichi-ue has been pondering something, writing, looking through old records and correspondence, sometimes, a candle lit at odd hours of the night, pacing. On occasion, Toshi carried letters out of the house to be mailed and returned hastily with letters in response, but to where Chichi-ue is writing and receiving answers, no one knew, for Toshi’s lips are sealed, even to his own wife and daughter.

It’d been less painful to see than watching him sit and do nothing, or if he’d shut himself up in the shrine for days on end, so she does not enlist Toshi to stage an intervention. If it’d been actually harmful to Chichi-ue, Toshi would’ve come to her for the intervention, but as it is, her father’s body servant went about with a grim sort of purpose to his footsteps.

When she steps in this time, after knocking and asking for permission to enter, he is not engrossed in old business records or in writing another letter.

No, instead, he is painting, a collection of poetry by his side. “After the fresh blossoms are gone / tattered scraps of remnant red / mist of cotton catkins flying / weeping willow by the railing,” he greets her, quoting poetry.

Oyan Osamu’s “After the Fresh Blossoms Have Gone,” written nearly a hundred years before Chichi-ue was born, on Lake Yatan where the famous scholar had retired after a long career in court.

Even now, his writings are discussed. A titan of prose, a master of poetry, born to a relatively poor household and fatherless by age three, a phoenix born in a sparrow’s nest.

“Pipes and song scatter and cease, friends depart / I perceive that spring is empty / and let the curtain fall / a pair of swallows head home in light rain.” She quotes the second verse for him in return greeting as she sets the noodles on the table. “Chichi-ue has been neglecting his meals recently.”

“How could I,” he asks, looking up from his painting, brush in hand, “when Hisa-chan is so diligent to make me all of my favorite foods?”

“Chichi-ue has been very busy.” She offers him his chopsticks, heartened by the fact that for once he seems rather pleased with himself.

The first time in weeks.

“I have heard a great many things in the recent days.” He sets aside his brush, and seemingly uncaringly, busies himself with cleaning the ink from his hands.

“And I am here to tell Chichi-ue my part in them.” She unstops the small bottle of soy sauce and sets it carefully beside the bowl of noodles.

Chichi-ue waves for her to sit, before picking up the chopsticks. “There certainly have been many accounts of your part in them.” He pauses for a moment. “But I would much rather hear it from you.”

So she tells him, leaning against the table, and leaves nothing out. About the visits she’d taken to see Mitsugu-senpai, Aunt Ruqa’s worries about him — to which he makes a noncommittal noise of amused exasperation — Tamasu’s arrival, what had occurred at O-Shiki’s estate, the events after — how Lord Fusamoto had spoken to her, how she had spoken in response — Izuna’s words to her, the shrine visit.

Most everything that has happened in the recent weeks deserved explanation.

She’d not wanted him to worry, not after what had happened last time, when they’d been separated far from home, but perhaps that was foolish of her.

He might’ve been busy, but he always knew, and would worry regardless.

And though she has tried to be an ideal daughter, she is well aware of all the places she falls short — saving her father’s heart from the pain of worrying over her, whether she is living or dead, is one of them.

With all these words, all that needs to be said, Chichi-ue has finished dinner by the time she is done, his chopsticks and soup spoon set aside, his face intent upon the listening.

“You cannot blame him for what he does not know.” He reaches out and, with his thumb, brushes away the tear she hadn’t realized was there. “I am glad that is what you have decided. It is singularly unfair to hold crimes of ignorance against someone who does not understand that they have trespassed.”

She smiles at this, suddenly rueful. When it is put that way, it does sound a little ridiculous.

“But no need to dwell on this, yes?” Chichi-ue offers her his open arms, and she leans into his shoulder.

Even if she has tried to spare him this weight, in the end, in the end, it comes back to this, his arms around her, her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she whispers to the silence that falls. “I couldn’t not go.”

And as much as she tries, and she tries so hard, she cannot quite manage to fit herself into the bounds of their station, the expectations for a young, unmarried woman of her class.

Nothing in their house is supposed to draw the eye, except the silk.

And yet, she cannot quite contain herself. Does she not draw the eye despite her best efforts not to?

“And I am also sorry.” He sighs.

“Why?” What has he done to be sorry for?

“The daughters of titled men might have whatever they want in this life, the long reach of their father’s name might win them good marriages and fewer worries. But does my daughter not deserve the same?” He smooths a lock of her hair away from her face. “Do you think that you are less accomplished? Less worthy?”

“That isn’t your fault.” When Chichi-ue was a young man, her grandfather had sent his eldest son to the famous Shijuku in Yanai, an education, hopes so heavy on the shoulders of a twelve year old boy. Would that he carry our family far higher than I can ever go.

But the sons of merchants, until very recently, had needed references from a minister vouching for their character and integrity to take the Imperial Examinations, and Shunan had none to offer the son of a former indentured servant.

However far her grandfather had risen in life, however brilliant her father may have been, some doors were closed to them.

As some doors are closed to her.

“And it is not your fault that you draw the eye.” They stay like that for a moment, in the quiet. “A man can have no better daughter.”

She laughs at this, before pulling away. “Chichi-ue only says this because—” and she is not her father’s only daughter, “—I am your daughter.”

He smiles, lifting her chin with the side of his hand. “I am not yet arrogant enough to believe that I was not an old crow married to a phoenix.” He waves a hand at her, so that she might come around the desk with him to look at the painting. “What do you think I should write as dedication?”

The mountains and pines are not...painted without skill, but from Chichi-ue? “Chichi-ue has chosen such common subject matter.” She considers it while carefully grinding ink for the dedication. “One can find many such portraits done by street vendors, and they will have dedications regarding all the virtues a gentleman of class might hope to possess.”

“So honest.” Chichi-ue picks his brush back up and examines his current progress. “Is it that my pine trees are not disproportionate enough?”

“Chichi-ue.” For someone who is accomplished in all four of the arts of an educated gentleman and who had taught quite a few of those arts to her, Chichi-ue loved to quip about his lack of skill in all four. “You know that is not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?” He adopts the mein of an innocent. “My soft spoken daughter, you must enlighten your poor father as to why you do not like this painting.”

“It is uninspired.” She examines it again to find it bare of anything except the single mountain and the pine trees dotting it. “Chichi-ue and I had much more fun painting when I was younger.” There are no fanciful butterflies, immortals floating about peach trees, or fox spirits baiting tigers in this painting.

No, this one followed all of the rigid rules of what could be considered fine art and missed the point entirely.

“Is Hisa-chan saying that I have grown predictable and dull in my old age?” He hides a smile. “Perhaps I shall say that Hisa-chan is twenty, and yet sees less clearly than when she was ten.”

With bold strokes, he adds a dedication to the painting, two lines of a matching couplet.

The sun behind the clouds knows it is a sun.

The pine tree is a pine, even though it is young.

The unexpected caller at the gate startles the whole house into a frenzy of activity, from the gate guards to Chichi-ue, who has to leave his courtyard now that a visitor who cannot be refused has arrived.

But Lord Fusamoto, with a mysterious half smile and a wave of his hand, dismisses the rest of the household to return to their business. “Hisa-chan,” he drawls, a strange light in his eyes as he lounges in the chair provided for him, in a lackadaisical posture she’s never seen him wear, right leg crossed over the left, booted foot swinging. “Might I speak to you alone?”

It is less a question.

She pauses on her way out and turns around but keeps her distance, twenty paces away on the other side of the front greeting hall. “As Kusakabe-sama wishes.”

“So cold, Hisa-chan,” he remarks loudly as he rises, strolling slowly after little Somei-chan, who is the last person to exit the room, her feet clattering on the stone flooring. “One would think that you are displeased to see me.”

No, Lord Fusamoto does not wear the swagger of an errant fourth son either.

He glances once about the courtyard, as if admiring the view of the garden, before pulling the doors toward him.

They click shut, and without a moment of hesitation, he snaps the lock shut as well.

As soon as he does so, his posture suddenly corrects itself. “My apologies for making you uncomfortable, Hisa-san. The lord administrator does not often travel.”

He turns around, shoulders level, spine straight and strides back across the room with the assurance only men who were born to power can hope to possess.

“Will you not sit?” he asks her after he is seated once more, posture impeccable.

How quickly men change their faces as well.

She sits. “Kusakabe-sama has taken a great deal of pain to hide why he is here.”

They call the Lord Administrator of Chubu an honorable man, forged by loss and brought up by the Princess of Second Rank.

They say that the Kusakabe have long married for love and tasted the pain of that as well. Lord Fusamoto is an only child, and his father before him was an only son. And yet, each Lord Administrator of Chubu had merely bowed his head, content with what the heavens had chosen to give him instead of looking elsewhere.

Such men do not think of concubines or second wives.

“The rumors would fly regardless.” He picks up his cup of tea by the saucer, watching her from over the rim of the lid. “So I thought I would give them a little assistance to hide why I am truly here.”

“Such rumors might not bother Kusakabe-sama,” she looks at her neatly folded hands in her lap and wonders if she could just stop talking now. “But I have not a face so thick nor a reputation so sterling.”

Those without titles must make do with careful preservation, all other gambles aside.

He has the grace to look abashed at this, as if he’d forgotten.

But of course he had.

Men born so highly could be reminded of what it is like to have no titles, but having never experienced it, they could not hope to understand.

And one could not expect them to.

“Danmai will not soon forget your face,” he says, by way of explanation. “So I thought it prudent to assert protection a little more directly than I perhaps ought to have.”

“They did not know my name.” Until now, because the Lord Administrator is sitting in my house.

“Hisa-san, I’ve always thought you were sensible.” He sets his teacup aside with a light click. “How many young women are there in this city with faces like yours?”

And she has to admit that there are very few indeed.

Her eyes, blue like the rich man’s stone, came from the very east coast of Fire Country, from a tiger woman with fire for hair.

For all his talk of propriety, old money and filial fervor, her maternal grandfather, Hiwara Toyomatsu had married a very improper woman and then refused to divorce her when she became the talk of Yanai.

It’d driven his own father to an early grave.

But she had borne him four children, two sons and two daughters before her boat capsized on Lake Yanai and she’d been lost to time, the faded echo of a name in a family shrine and a local legend that could not be suppressed.

“It is not my face you are worried about.” No, she doesn’t believe it is.

He sighs, looking painfully off into the distance. “Hisa-san, His Imperial Majesty may disregard many things, but he will not disregard murder in the estate of one of his nobles.”

No, but he may disregard murder outside of it.

And he may have disregarded the murder of a woman and her child, for such things could not be called murder, but what Izuna did can.

And he’d been seen.

Whatever she’d done — throwing hot tea at a titled count aside — it would not end in death for her, young, unmarried woman that she is.

Izuna, however, had killed. And the blood tint of his profession meant that he could not plead heightened emotion.

Because they are not relations, he could not plead defense of his own.

He had gambled heavily indeed.

She’d asked him to, and he had not said no.

Had not said anything about the price he might have to pay for such at all.

Perhaps, in part, he ought to hold it against her. She is not sure why he does not.

Lord Fusamoto turns back to his tea, pensive and serious. “But I have given the matter some thought, and if you would permit me to overstep my bounds and paint myself in a better light, this storm may yet pass us all by.”

“Then I thank Kusakabe-sama for his kindness.” What other choice is there?

Izuna has done nothing wrong and ought not be sentenced, though the eyes of the law may see his actions differently.

Murder to save lives is still murder, and murder of a titled nobleman’s servants and relatives has all the possibility of reaching the ear of the daimyo himself.

In this, she has not the hands to stem the tide or turn back time.

“You don’t have to thank me. I would not leave you to suffer for what you did.” Golden motes of dust dance on the light between them. “I propose to ride to the capital to explain to His Highness, the Prince of Kanto, that I borrowed your shinobi to call Lord Orihito’s bluff.” He looks down, a heavy, neutral expression on his face. “I know it is a lie that paints me more positively than I am, but—”

“It spares me.” It spares her father’s house and Izuna’s honor.

Whatever charges there are, they would fall to Lord Fusamoto now, on his shoulders, though she had not intended that.

“Will His Imperial Majesty not punish you?”

He watches the tepid surface of his tea, a smoothly polished, blank look on his face. “What sort of conscience would I have, to leave you to your fate?” The silence stretches, all traces of joviality gone. “You know as well as I that this mortal realm is rarely fair.” He rises, his hands clasped behind him. “Whatever happens, it cannot be worse than what befell my household some ten years ago.”

Lord Hiramoto had gone to the capital, a visit already routine.

He’d returned in a coffin.

Ten years, but it would seem the Kusakabe have not truly forgiven His Imperial Majesty for the misstep that cost Lord Hiramoto’s life.

“You speak of bending the law, Kusakabe-sama.” Is it worth it? she almost wants to ask, but does not.

“It is what honorable men do,” he says, his hands on the latch of the lock. “As Koshi writes in The Analects, when the law punishes innocence, it is the right of man to speak with criticism.”

It may be so in the ancient texts, but it is not always so in the realm of mortal men.

He vanishes into the light of summer, head held high, and she wonders if there is another man in the entire country who could claim his unassuming honor.

Summer passes, hot, dry, and without much further comment, though she suspects that the spring has left a horrid stain upon the year.

Or maybe it is only her own mood.

She is in Aunt Hasuyo’s courtyard, talking over the intricacies of spinning silk with Aunt Hasuyo and Aunt Niwa, when the invitation from the Hondo household arrives, carried in by Kimei.

“It says that Madam Hondo wants to throw a party.” Kimei looks in askance at the invitation, dripping in red as, it would be too early for that, and surely Toma would’ve said so in her latest letter if she was planning on travelling. “What does she have to throw a party over?”

Mitsugu-senpai, in a great many wonders, had not ended up advancing to the next stage of the imperial examinations, so there has been — at least according to Kame-chan — very little reason to be celebratory in the recent weeks.

“Perhaps there has been a new client deal sealed in the recent days.” Aunt Hasuyo does not look up from her embroidery frame, needle going at the same steady pace as it was before. “The Hondo still have that shop in the Capital’s pottery district that they’ve always been very proud of.”

“Or perhaps,” Aunt Niwa looks up from her own embroidery, brown eyes flashing, “she is attempting to replace Shikikami-sama as the socialite of the region.” There’s a playful, teasing smile on her lips. “As though she could compel the barons’ families to consort with us lowbrow folk.”

Her Aunt Niwa is only nine years older than her, about to turn thirty this year.

And yet, she’d been four years younger than Hisa is now when she stepped across the front doorway for the first time, a bride, the only child of a small silk reeling craftsman.

“Red is for weddings,” she muses. “Might it be one of the younger masters who are about to get married?” Mitsugu-senpai has two younger brothers, one of whom was one of Cousin Hideyoshi’s unfortunate friends, and the other, a somber, sober young man who managed the shop in the Capital.

Even so, that doesn’t make much sense.

The other young masters in the Hondo Households, besides Mitsugu-senpai, were the shu sons of concubines. In the absence of their father, in the realm of marriage, they must fend for themselves.

“Mmm,” Aunt Niwa shakes her head. “No, it could hardly be that.”

“Her own son is yet unwed.” Aunt Hasuyo gently snips her working thread and waves one of her handmaids over to thread another needle for her. “I do not see her as someone who would be so generous to shu sons as to promote them over her own flesh and blood.”

Aunt Hasuyo is closer to Hisa’s mother’s age, having married late to a man slightly younger than she was. Her mother had died when she was young, and the resulting funeral debts had left her raising three younger sisters in poverty.

It had been only after each sister had been settled in a better life that Aunt Hasuyo had looked for a marriage for herself, newly twenty-five, after the age that most women married.

And yet Hisa is almost certain Toma would’ve written if it were Mitsugu-senpai.

“Well,” she says, setting the invitation on the table and turning back to her own sewing. “I suppose we’ll see when it happens. Madam Hondo is unlikely to take great pains to hide it past the time it is supposed to be shown off.”

There is gentle laughter around the table, and the topic of conversation turns away.

Kame-chan intercepts her as soon as she arrives, prying her away from Retsu-chan and Aunt Niwa, linking arms and guiding her through the throngs of people both men and women at the party. Izuna follows, a few paces behind, drifting like a leaf in the autumn wind. “Hisa-chan, I think my mother does not like you very much.”

“Whatever gave you that impression?” It couldn’t possibly be Madam Hondo’s barely contained enthusiasm for picking at her or slighting her aunts and littler cousins.

But then, she knows why Madam Hondo does not like her, even if the idea is laughable at best.

“She rarely bothers me about friends.” She and Kame-chan take another turn around the garden greeting people as they pass. “But she bothers me about you. How many young men you’ve seen, if you’ve been invited to some gathering when I haven’t, she never used to ask about you like this when we were in school. Hisa-chan, have you done something to offend her?”

And what can she say to that? Why yes, I have grievously offended her upon the matter of your brother, who she thinks is madly in love with me for reasons she cannot condone.

But she has volunteered for this for Mitsugu-senpai’s sake, ever since he’d admitted to his more than passing fancy for Satoshi-sensei of Shikon-tei.

“Not in any way that I know how to change about myself.”

And that is a truth she can give, so they leave it at that, returning again, to the idea of other things.

At least, until they get around to the other side of the garden, where Madam Hondo is taking tea with a good number of married ladies, Aunt Niwa among them. “Of course, every young man in Shunan is welcome to come drink the wedding wine.”

So it is to be a wedding then. For—

“You don’t mind too much not being invited, right, Hisa-chan?” Madam Hondo comes down to guide her up to the table where the married women are sitting, between tea and cakes and sunflower seeds, watching this exchange as though this is the main attraction of this party instead of the opera singers Madam Hondo had invited to play Farewell My Concubine in the afternoon. “After all, the groom’s party can only include his male friends and family members.”

Ah. So it is Mitsugu-senpai then.

She laughs. “What a silly question.” She taps the bridge of her nose with her round fan. “Madam Hondo is well versed in all of the traditions and etiquette of our people. No young unmarried woman belongs at a wedding. Why would that offend me?”

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Izuna’s hand clench into a fist as she climbs up to the table, Madam Hondo’s hand still on her arm.

“Your family would be the only one who couldn’t attend then.” And still, the other women are watching, even though they keep their faces placid, their eyes betray them. “I know your father often treats you like a son, but…”

The fact remains that you are a woman.

She smiles at this. “I know what I am, Madam. Send my congratulations to Mitsugu-senpai for me. I know it means much to him.”

“Our Hisa-chan is a filial daughter, always looking to lighten the burdens on others.” Aunt Niwa’s voice cuts across the table, level as she takes a sip of her tea. “Otherwise, she could also spend her days doing things of little import like the precious young ladies of Shunan.”

From across the table, Madam Chiba smiles and makes some compliment about the lotus flowers, which, in an uncharacteristic fit of vigor, are still blooming.

And the topic of conversation turns away.

He pauses for a moment, as if trying to understand. "Hisa-san, she mocked you."

She turns to look at the dying garden, lotus flower on the pond blooming. "Perhaps she did." And perhaps Mitsugu-senpai has done better for himself than she thought he would so early in the game, and so she had gone to congratulate him rather than listen to the careless elation of his mother.

"Why do you let her do that?" He scans her face, as though trying to read whatever could be found behind her eyes. "What purpose does it serve besides making you miserable?"

She pulls her cloak tighter about her. "What purpose does it serve to point it out?"

"You're always like this," he says, suddenly frustrated. "Always."

"Is there something wrong with this?" Down, on the bottom of the pond, the koi quest for food.

"You never tell anyone that they've hurt you." He comes around, to stand in front of her, blocking her view of the pond. "Why do you always live so small, taking up less space than you ought to occupy? You know it belongs to you."

Ah, but what one is owed is not always wise.

What one wants is not always what one gets.

"And what would be the point of reminding Madam Hondo of what Chichi-ue wished for Anija? She remembers. And Anija is gone." She does not know why he has seized upon this point and insists upon it above all else. "It would help no one."

To have no weaknesses is to invite less hurt.

"It hurt you. Isn't that enough?" He looks as though he wants to shake her but remembers halfway through that he has manners and lets his hands drop to his side instead.

"My hurt is worth nothing." There's plenty in this world that hurts far worse than she does with far less recourse. She turns away to look upon something else instead.

"Don't you want it? Don't you want her to stop?" With a burst of motion, he moves in front of her once more. "By Guanyin's name, is there anything at all in this life that you've wanted?" He holds up a hand to stop her from talking. "Something not trivial that you've wanted for yourself, Hisa."

She turns her mind back over the years. "No," she says and feels lightless, without boundaries or form. "Nothing at all."

Like water, she flows. Like the stones on the riverbed, she is rubbed smooth by the years.

To want is to invite disappointment, so she rarely wants.

“Do you hear yourself speak?” There is a note of hurt in his voice, almost as though he pities her in her sheltered existence, although standing inside will not shield on from the rain when the wind blows in the right direction. “To live without wanting is to not live at all.”

“And what,” she turns the words over in her mind, “do you want, Izuna-san? If we must speak of wants.”

He falls silent for a moment, turns his face away. “I want many things,” he says at last, the sharp profile of his face lit in the dying twilight. “Maybe in the future I’d be brave enough to admit them.”

She half laughs at this. “Isn’t it easier for men?” People have always said it is easier for men.

And in some ways, he wears his privileges more obviously than most.

He looks at her, silent, weighing, as if trying to find something in her face. Whatever it is he is looking for, he does not find it, for he shakes his head. “No.”

They stand like that for a moment more, until the sudden sound of footsteps makes them retreat hastily into the bamboo grove just behind them.

“Have you been very unhappy here, Natsu?”

She did not mean to come across this particular conversation, but hidden as she and Izuna are behind this particular stand of bamboo, it would be terribly awkward to move now.

Her father and her stepmother are having a conversation beside the koi pond where her father often sat at dusk. She should have remembered, but she didn’t think it would be too terribly important.

Why today, of all days, has it come to this?

“I have been confused.” Hisa hears the rustle of silk; perhaps her stepmother has now sat down on the bench on the other side of the pond. “If you did not want a second wife, why choose to marry me anyway? There was no one who could pressure you if you chose not to.”

She glances up at Izuna, who is sitting roughly two inches away, their knees almost touching, and wishes she hadn’t chosen this particular area to ask him about what he’d found out about the shinobi attacking their caravans, because this looks like a tryst instead of a secret meeting, except for the embroidery hoop on her lap and his beet red face.

From the vaguely tense way he’s holding himself, he doesn’t want to listen to this conversation either.

They are in agreement about something then. Complete and total agreement. How fantastic.

“Who says I didn’t want a second wife?” Through the bamboo, Hisa sees her father fold his hands together, resting them lightly on one knee as he stares out across the pond. His voice is deceptively quiet, but it has long been known, both to their family and their household, that he was unhappy about marrying again.

“You do not want me.” Chiba-san stares down at her fan, folding and refolding it in her lap. “Because you still love her.”

Her father’s expression does not change. “I wore mourning for her for five years. She is irreplaceable.”

For the first time, she realizes quite how young her stepmother is. “You’ve never taken that mourning off. Not even once in all the years I’ve lived here.” Chiba Natsu had been twenty years old when she married into the Kawaguchi Household, the second wife of a grieving widower.

She squeezes Izuna’s knee. On no account could he get up and reveal that there was an audience. Years ago, now, her father had put away his mourning whites one day out of the blue without a single reason as to why, and a month later, had announced his new betrothal.

Perhaps some part of her had never forgiven him for that. It was not the remarriage, not that he had replaced her mother, not that — although deep down, she could recognize the hurt it left — but that he had offered no explanation, not even to her, except to say that he would remarry in the spring.

And even if years have passed and she is no longer that child crying in the family shrine over things that could not change, hurts that could not heal, she still wants to know why.

Why did you remarry? Why did you put your love for Haha-ue aside?

And why, if he had remarried, been determined to put that aside, put Anija and her younger brothers, Haha-ue, and herself aside as part of his past, did he not want a son?

“Grief has no boundaries, no form.” Slowly, her father sighs, picking up a chunk of watermelon from the dish beside him, and tosses it gently out to the fish. “If I marry a second wife, must I forget the first?”

“You’ve never considered me your wife, Kawaguchi-san.” Chiba-san does not sit, her hands clasped before her. “In all the years that I have lived in this house, I have never been its madam.”

Her father smiles. The koi fish she recognizes as Dharma Wheel comes to the surface to beg for more food. “If you are not my wife, what do you consider yourself?”

“An ornament.” Serving no purpose and having no function. “Kawaguchi-san, I have never understood you, and I would like to.”

“What is there to understand?” Chichi-ue tosses another chunk of watermelon to Dharma Wheel. “I am an old man.” Which, while untrue, is no longer as big a falsehood as it was a few years ago. There is more gray in his hair now than before. “And I have grown tired of the thought of sons who die and dreams that perish.”

She knows this, and it is breaking her heart.

But nothing can compel him to say more upon the matter.

Shige-kun’s letter comes in the middle of her dinner, brought in by Nene, because Kimei and Hiko and Aka and she are having dinner together.

Or, at least, they were.

Stir fried mushrooms with tender cuts of pork that Kimei had teased Hiko over mercilessly, fish and tofu soup, and because autumn has come again, dried dates chopped thinly and stir fried with oil flower greens.

Soon, it will also be time for pork sausages, and perhaps roasted pigs feet and liver and egg drop soup.

But first, she holds a hand out for her cousin’s letter.

Typically, he does not write to her often, careful to prevent his father from thinking that he has too much respect for a female relative, though he does respect her and wish her well.

She acknowledges this briefly, while scanning the letter.

“Hisa-nee,” it reads. “I am writing to inform you that a week ago, Chichi-ue and Third Uncle, as well as several other prominent members of our circle, have been arrested under accusations of fraud leveled at them from the Lord Administrator of Tohoku, Uchiha Tajima-sama, whose house you visited and—”

Take care of yourself, Hisa-nee.

This might bring the whole house of cards down.

And suddenly she knows what Chichi-ue had been doing, painting pines and sending letters.

He sold the House of Hiwara up the river.

No eyes to see, indeed.

Chapter Text

In the house of Suzuki Takahiro, there is much weeping. Or, it is more accurate to say that the courtyard of Aunt Ruqa contains much weeping.

In the front room, Suzuki-san paces back and forth threatening repudiation or divorce, while Chichi-ue sits idyllically drinking tea. Aunt Ruqa cries quietly in Hisa’s lap, and Hideyoshi kneels in the center of the room before his father’s pacing, in some vain plea for mercy.

Hiko leans against the doorframe, a shadow with peach blossoms stitched to his collar and sleeves.

Gently, Chichi-ue sets the teacup down and, as if waiting for a schoolchild to recite his lessons, looks up at Suzuki-san with a gleam in his amber eyes that Hisa recognizes as calculated.

“Takahiro,” Chichi-ue says lightly. “I’m feeling rather ignored.”

A dead silence falls on the center of the room as Suzuki-san rounds on Chichi-ue, his hand shaking as he points at Aunt Ruqa. “This poisoned serpent of a woman, she, she—”

Against her, Aunt Ruqa shudders.

“She has been your wife for nineteen years.” Chichi-ue looks up at Suzuki-san, the perfect mein of innocence, as if he had not caused the whole scene in the first place by providing the information that sent Uncle Nagamatsu and Uncle Ujimatsu to prison, which landed Aunt Ruqa in this whole mess to begin with. “Tell me Takahiro, has she ever been unfaithful?”

Silence, though Suzuki-san is still pointing in her and Aunt Ruqa’s direction.

“Has she not given you a son?”

“Yes, and a more ungrate—”

“Careful where you point your fingers, Takahiro. Or I might mistake your insults as ones you pay my daughter.”

With a huff, Suzuki-san lowers his hand. “Her brothers swindle a count? And she has the audacity to grace my door as though asking for sympathy?” Two steps, and Suzuki-san leans in close to Chichi-ue’s face, one man completely serene, as though a mountaintop in the clouds, the other a twisted mask of rage. “Tell me, Kawaguchi-san, if I do not divorce her, where do I put my face? Where do I put my life, and the lives of the rest of my household when Uchiha-sama comes calling for his account balance?”

“And why would Uchiha-sama concern himself with you?” Chichi-ue picks his tea back up, and examines the leaves within. “Takahiro,” he says as if mildly disgusted. “The tea’s gone cold.”

“Why wouldn’t Uchiha-sama concern himself with me?” Suzuki-san continues to work himself up into a fury. “I have this woman darkening my door. Who knows what sort of information those two have said about me? Or what information she might’ve told them?”

“Yes, yes,” Chichi-ue flaps an idle hand at Hideyoshi. “Tell the maid outside to bring us more tea will you? The tea’s gone cold.” Hideyoshi scrambles to do so.

Softly, Hisa smooths down Aunt Ruqa’s hair.

Her heart hurts.

When Haha-ue had been alive, Aunt Ruqa had more reason to visit their house. But with Haha-ue’s death, Aunt Ruqa had only a grieving child to use as an excuse to escape the boundaries of her own house, and back then…back then, she had yet to realize that not every man with a honorable surface could be considered honorable the whole way through.

When she was young, she’d thought only two faces existed, and that they presented the truth to the world.

With Hideyoshi gone, Chichi-ue turns back to Suzuki-san, a gleam in his eye. “Yes, what does your accountless wife know about what sorts of business dealings you’d be getting up to when your principle concubine Sayu holds the strings to her allowance? And what motive does a woman who only has a courtyard to her name have for destroying that courtyard?” Soft, like the undertow of the river, Chichi-ue continues onwards. “Unless, you think you’ve managed to offend her that much?”

Suzuki-san does not heed the current of the river. “Who knows what goes on in the mind of that woman?”

Chichi-ue smiles. “Well,” he beckons for Hiko, who had been lurking in the doorway, tall, sallow, with eyes that saw and ears that heard everything. “Bring in your papers, Takahiro, and we shall discuss the terms of divorce, shall we?”

Suzuki-san puffs up in fury. “You come to my house, Kawaguchi, you barely more than—”

“I believe,” Hiko interjects, drawing himself up to his full height, which looms over any average man the same way a crow looms over a sparrow. “We were discussing your terms of divorce, Suzuki-san.”

And the girl who’d married at sixteen is freed at thirty-five. Not without scars, or wounds, or nineteen years lost to a man who had never bothered to look at her and see her for the jade piece she truly is.

But she is free.

Chichi-ue pries Aunt Ruqa away from her husband with the hands of a silk reeler, gentle, yet so insistent that Suzuki Takahiro doesn’t quite realize what he’s lost until the moment Chichi-ue hands his wife of nineteen years up into a carriage and lets the curtain hanging fall behind her.

And if Aunt Ruqa’s nearly seventeen year old son goes with her, it is only because Hiko had smiled just a little too wide and the sight of that many teeth has spooked Suzuki-san, who isn’t used to the sort of river crocodile smile Hiko could employ when he wanted to.

“The guild?” Suzuki-san wrings his hands, before the carriage, standing out in the street where anyone might see.

For someone who seemed to care so much about face, he really had none.

Chichi-ue pauses for a moment, standing before his own carriage where he had forced Hideyoshi inside not two minutes ago, rearranging his sleeves as though there might be dust on them. “Oh, I assure you, the men of the guild will hear about the sort of shameful allegations you cast upon a woman of good standing.”

Chichi-ue does not gossip, but if anyone were to ask, and surely they would ask why he bothered to house his former sister-in-law in his own house when there is no longer any connection, and has not been for years — no connection except that of a daughter, a slip of a girl grown into a young woman now.

Chichi-ue does not gossip, but he hardly lies either. Any man who asked would receive a straight answer from him, and other men gossip.

Suzuki-san goes pale beneath his topknot.

Chichi-ue observes him for a moment, a level, measured look in his amber eyes, and turns away without another word. “Start the carriage,” he says to Tatsuo. “We’re done here.”

If she holds Aunt Ruqa tighter when they pull away, it is only because freedom has been a long time coming.

Aunt Hasuyo had spared Ima, the manager of her courtyard, to help Aunt Ruqa settle into the long empty southern courtyard though most of the settling process had been completed already by the time they arrived home with Aunt Ruqa and Hideyoshi in tow.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, I’ll see to it.” Ima hustles back and forth, pulling out chairs and waving frantically at the young men moving bags and boxes into the front room. “It is so good to see you again, Fourth Miss.”

Ima, who had once been chief among Haha-ue’s handmaids and has been more recently under Aunt Hasuyo’s employment, seems to have been tasked to manage yet another courtyard. How long she will be staying at this one, and if she will return to Aunt Hasuyo’s employment is unclear. After all, Aunt Ruqa had been her fourth miss once, younger sister to the woman she thought she would serve for all her days.

The only clarity is that she will not leave the household. Her roots here are too deep for that.

An ever careful woman who had done everything just right — married to her miss’s husband’s personal manservant, raised his niece as their only child, ever steady and dependable, the holder of all of her miss’s secrets — it had still not been enough to ensure an entirely perfect life.

Kimei spoke of her mother rarely, but with quiet joy, as a role model, as a pillar of strength and happiness, and they had all lived together, two sets of mothers and daughters in one courtyard until Haha-ue had died and Ima had been assigned elsewhere.

In a way, she concedes, Kimei had lost time with her mother as well.

Aunt Ruqa smiles back at her, tearful. “I, I haven’t heard anyone call me that in a long time.”

Ima smiles, self assured, comforting. “Well, you sit right down and make yourself at home, Fourth Miss. There’ll be no more moving for you if our master of the house has anything to say about it.”

“Only if you’d like to, Fourth Sister.” Chichi-ue looks around once. “It is a little smaller and shabbier than you are used to, and I will have to ask Tatsuo to come in and fix the window frames and reapply the oil paper, but such is not the fix of a day or so, still, I hope my hospitality does not offend.”

“Big Brother’s hospitality rarely if ever offends.” Aunt Niwa’s lighthearted joke sails in from the outside courtyard, and Aunt Niwa herself follows shortly after, arms open wide to embrace Aunt Ruqa. “Come have tea with me and Second Sister sometime, we invite Hisa-chan to lighten up the company so that our average age is not so dreary.”

She makes some protest at this, between childish and relieved, and everyone laughs.

And in the brightness of the sunshine, something is salvaged.

Hiko comes to find her in the middle of workshop seven, account book put away, steps unhurried. “Hisa,” he calls over the din. “Hisa, will you not take a break?”

She turns to him, in the middle of stirring a batch of pastel greens, making sure that the color is consistent throughout the dye lot. “Only if you will help me?” She makes sure to flash him her best pleading face, knowing that in the end, Hiko always caves to her demands, even if he stands firm in the beginning.

With a sigh, he comes to stand beside her. “Oh, Hisa,” he says, taking the metal stirring rod from her, and passing her his handkerchief so she could wipe her face. “Why do you always bite off more than you can possibly chew?”

He’d teased her of this when they were twelve and seventeen, and he teases her now, when they are nearly twenty one and twenty six.

“I don’t know,” she considers it. “Who is it that dares me to eat a whole chicken leg at once?”

“Just because it is a dare,” he sighs, “does that mean you have to fall for it every single time?”

She laughs, sitting down by the open fire to fan it more evenly. “I’m not the only one who falls for it.”

Hiko considers the cloth he is stirring, and smiles, amused. “It’ll be Mid Autumn soon.”

“And Aunt Ruqa will be with us, as will Cousin Hideyoshi.” Slowly, she sits there, fanning the flames. “How do you find Cousin Hideyoshi?”

“He is already seventeen.” Round and round goes Hiko’s hands, expression pensive. “And he has taken the loss hard, as is only natural.” Hiko pauses, as if to say more, but Aka hurries through the door.

“Hisa, Hisa, Kusakabe-sama’s body servant is here. He is holding a decree and it cannot wait.”

Curse her for wearing originally undyed linens splattered with confusing colors after a full day in the workshops.

Either way, Lord Fusamoto’s Suteo will not wait.

Suteo is standing in the center of her courtyard when she arrives, holding a scroll edged in gold silk the dragon motif dripping from the tassels.

She drops to her knees immediately, pressing her forehead to the stone.

Even in their workshops, they cannot make gold silk. Legally, they can make nothing gold except for thread, and even then, are not allowed to use dragons or phoenixes in their embroidery. Only four men in the entire world are allowed the dragon robes, and Lord Fusamoto of Chubu is one of them.

All the gold silk in the whole world it seems, came from inside the imperial city, from craftsmen in charge of the dragon robes.

Suteo clears his throat, and snaps the scroll open briskly.

“By the decree of Lord Kusakabe Fusamoto, the eighth imperial prince, His Highness the Prince of Harmonious Peace, Lord Administrator of Shunan, Count of Chubu, for her services to the clan of Kusakabe at the risk of her own life, he awards sixty acres of wooded land east of the Mujin River, and the Residence of Secure Glory in the Koedo district to Kawaguchi O-Hisa-san of Chubu.” He snaps the scroll shut. “So he decrees.”

For a moment, silence reigns. Silence reigns, and there is a roar in her ears like the anger of the river in the springtime.

She raises her hands above her head, palms up. “I thank His Highness for his magnanimous gift.”

Rarely does Lord Fusamoto use the courtesy titles granted to him ten years ago. For him to use them now, this decree had come directly from the imperial capital, somewhere higher up within the royal family than the son of a princess of second rank.

Suteo places the scroll in her upturned hands, finally able to drop the front of decree bearer. “The deeds to the properties are with me as well, O-Hisa-san.”

She shakes her head. “Just Hisa.”

Never in her life has she ever thought she would be anything more than Hisa-san, or perhaps Kawaguchi-san when, when such a thing no longer describes her father. O-Hisa sounds like the daughter of a lord, the O- prefix given to ladies of stature and name.

Suteo helps her up, a man with clear features, and dark eyes that the sunlight tinted with rings of gold. “O-Hisa-san, as my lord decrees.” But he smiles, warm, in much the same way as his liege lord.

When he leaves, she walks to her study, still wooden despite the warmth of the day, and slowly sits down, setting the imperial decree and the property deeds on her desk.

Is there a place in this household worthy of keeping this?

The dragons gleam, golden in the sunlight, but do not respond.

After the lanterns had been lit, after Chichi-ue has left her courtyard, still whimsically whistling the notes of One Cutting of Plum Blossoms — written by Kiyoteru, one of the most famous poetesses of the past hundred years, after everything, Izuna arrives in her courtyard, though this time he flips over the wall instead of coming through the door.

He lands in the garden, a dark clothed shadow, and it is only recognizing his face when he’d peered over the top of the wall that keeps her from screaming.

He has the grace to look abashed.

“How terrible,” she remarks, quietly, because Kimei had just gone in to fetch a cloak to protect her against the evening chill and likely wouldn’t be long. “Izuna-san, you’re being improper, visiting a young unmarried woman you are not related to by blood after dark.” The corners of her mouth tilt down in barely concealed laughter as she watches him make a face. “What would the poor folk of this refined city think?”

He huffs at her. “As if you care about what other people think.”

“I do actually.” She tilts her head to one side, staring up at the stars that are appearing.

There, the Cowherd.

There, the Weaving Maid.

And between them, a river of stars.

“You rarely give that impression.” He is equally quiet, feet making no sound as he comes to sit on the paving stones beside her. “I heard it is your birthday today,” he says, after another moment of quiet. “Though no one would tell me which one it is.”

“Asking after my age?” She does smile at this, still watching the stars. “Uchiha Izuna-san has been all sorts of improper behind my back, trying to discover what age I am.”

“Is it really such a secret,” he grumbles. “One that you must keep from me pettily?”

“Well,” she considers it, twirling the golden chrysanthemum she’d plucked earlier while dancing between her fingertips. “How old do you think I am? If you guess correctly I’ll tell you.”

He considers it for a moment. “Ageless.”

“Ageless?” She admits to amusement upon hearing this, for she had not thought to imagine herself as such. For what reason would one think so?

“Aren’t all fox spirits?” He sounds perfectly serious.

“You think I’m a fox?” She rises. “I admit I have not heard that one before.” She turns to him, still almost on the verge of laughter. “Though your silver tongue reminds me of one.”

This, he meets with a baffled silence.

“Let me ask you a question, Izuna-san,” and perhaps it is unkind to tease, because he is a serious man, and seemingly not used to teasing, but her spirits are more than good tonight. “How old are you?”

“You just said it was an inappropriate question.” He rises as well, a hand fiddling with something in his sleeve. “I—” He sighs. “There was something I wanted to ask you about Bear.”

And suddenly she is no longer in such high spirits. “Ask.”

“The toy boat,” the one that you bought “Saka says that you gave it to her daughter. That he promised to bring one back when he returned.”

Ah, so he knew Yushin’s family better than she’d first thought, if Saka would part with that information.

“I do what I can do.” She considers it, considers the spaces her hands are too small to fill, the burdens her shoulders are too slender to carry, and wonders what this world would’ve been like if the horse had thrown her instead. “It is not much, but money never is. A small thing, is it not?” She does not turn to look at him. “To replace the love of a brother, and a son, and a father and a husband.”

And yet one man is all these things that money cannot buy.

“Is that all you think you can do?” He asks her, once, suddenly raw and aching, as though experiencing something far more than what she has said.

She has not said much.

“What more is there to do?” All the acts people do for the dead are actually a show for the living. Once one has crossed the border between this world and the next, no show of love or filial piety will return the dead to life.

No matter how many tears she weeps or sticks of incense she lights, no matter how many hours she kneels in the shrine and begs for mercy, for one more moment, for the memory of what the dead looked like — enough time has gone by that she no longer quite recalls Anija’s face — they cannot be returned to this realm.

If it is only a matter of worship, only a matter of grief, if tears could move heaven and earth in that way, then she would have a mother, and her father would have four sons and no second daughter.

“Is that all you think you have done?” he asks again, voice gentler this time. “Because that’s not what I’ve seen.” He looks down, corners of his mouth twitching, thin lips and a frail heart, yet still beating. “Forgive me, I don’t—” and his tongue trips. “I don’t mean to wound. My words seem to lose their meanings when I speak to you. And take up some other sort of meaning instead.”

“You mean something else when you ask me these questions.” She does not know him as well as she thinks, this outside man with his careful words and serious face. Even if they are both two dolls Nuwa has fashioned out of clay.

Even if beneath their painted on colors, she has seen the kindred spirit in him.

They still paint their colors on differently, and expect each other to understand.

He smiles at this, edged with pain. “You always take them so cruelly.” As if you consider me cruel. He does not say, but it lingers in the air anyway.

“You speak cruelly.” She turns her face up to his, still standing among the chrysanthemum flowers, the moon a pale white high above them. “What am I supposed to take a knife as? Except an object meant to wound?”

And in the moonlight, the sharpness of his face seems more pained than cruel for he is not a cruel man, merely a careful one, unless it comes to words he says in anger.

“Kawaguchi O-Hisa-san,” he says, more to the gathering dark than he does to her. “You are also cruel to me. In all you choose to do. In all you choose to say. And everything you don’t.”

“And for that I apologize.”

“It is as much my fault, I suppose.” He holds a hand out to her. “What I want, is, as you say, inappropriate.” There is something on his palm, a wooden mandarin duck, brightly painted feathers and gently polished to a brilliant shine. “Happy birthday, Hisa-san. I did not intend to be upsetting.”

She comes to stand beside him. “You were hardly upsetting.”

She does not remark upon the symbolism of mandarin ducks — a pair represents lovers, often lover’s tokens especially from the city where he grew up — though she does hold it up to the light of the flower lanterns they are standing under to admire it. “The craftsman has a good eye.”

It had been lovingly made.

She wonders, indeed, for a moment, what he expects and what he hopes to mean, but nothing has ever been lost by playing obtuse.

“Do you,” and here he ducks his head, a boy, embarrassed. “Do you like it?”

“It is very pretty.” And if she chooses to miss how his expression crumples for the barest hint of a second before he straightens it again, well, it is only her due. “Thank you for thinking of me.” She turns to go in, passing him as she does so, their faces lit only by the light of the red lanterns above them. “And if you must know, I am hardly a fox. And thus, it is impolite for me to tell outside men what my age is.”

She is twenty-one tonight. And no closer to marriage than she was at fifteen.

But such things do not spoil with the passage of time.

Her mother had married at twenty-four, conventionally late for a woman, but her marriage had been a happy one.

Aunt Ruqa had married much earlier and borne the weight of a husband without patience or kindness for the nerves of a girl who had yet to see much of the world.

For women, what matters more is how the second half of a life is written. Maiden to madam, one must choose a husband well. Someone with money. Someone with reputation and status.

Someone one hopes will still be kind in fifty years.

When she steps inside, Kimei is waiting for her, a comb in hand to take down her hair.

“What did Uchiha Izuna-san want so late at night?”

“To wish me happy birthday.” She laughs. “And to ask what age I happened to be tonight.”

Kimei frowns, though her eyes are alight with mischief. “Oh,” she says “to be a shinobi concerned about the age of his employer!”

Still laughing, she sets the wooden duck on her desk before linking arms with Kimei on their way to the vanity. “Oh,” she says “to be the poor employer who does not want to admit she is turning into an old maid!”

Kimei bends over, a hand covering her mouth though that does not hide the laughing. “You?” she asks, dimples flashing. “You? Kawaguchi Hisa? An old maid?” Her handmaid takes the pins from her hair, freeing the black waves. “Never. Not even if you are eighty-four and still unmarried.”

“Ah,” she says, watching their reflection in the mirror. “That just means you admit if I am eighty-five and unmarried I would turn into an old maid!”

And if neither of them says anything else useful that night, it is because they laughed too hard to form coherent sentences.

She pays a visit to Chiba-san’s courtyard two weeks after her birthday, aware that with Chichi-ue’s birthday fast approaching, that the older woman wanted to speak to her.

Chiba-san has the tea set out when she and Kimei arrive, speaking quietly to one of her handmaids that Hisa does not recognize.

But then, she is less familiar with Chiba-san’s dowry servants than perhaps she ought.

It has been six years now, but she is still the most familiar with Sute, who spoke for Chiba-san’s courtyard more often than Chiba-san herself.

“Hisa-chan,” the older woman nods, offers her a seat and a cup of tea. Kokeicha, upscale in theory, but not terribly so, this particular batch more middle grade than others she’s tried. She is aware that Chiba-san can afford better, but perhaps like her love of mugicha, it is only taste, not wealth that inhibits the desire for anything more upscale.

“Chiba-san.” She nods behind her folding fan, “A thousand well wishes for your health.”

The moment freezes as Chiba-san judges her statement and finds it rings just as hollow as it did six years ago, when she was welcomed to the household. Hisa had welcomed her then, newly come of age at fifteen, the household staff arrayed behind her, and while she does not have the full staff behind her now, Kimei is enough.

“I thank you for them.” For another moment, all that is heard is the clink of the gaiwan and the swish of buyao.

Momo arrives with the pattering of little feet, dressed like a little peach doll in pinks and greens, pigtails swinging. “Neesan’s here!” She visits Chiba-san first, presenting her embroidery to her mother, smiling happily, round cheeks dimpled by her joy.

Chiba-san leans over, pressing her cheek to Momo’s, pointing out flaws and strengths in equal measure, voice even and gentle.

If nothing else, she is a responsible mother and a devoted wife.

If Hisa wishes that Chiba-san could be someone else’s mother and someone else’s wife, that is because she is fiery and uncharitable.

Her mother’s approval sought and acquired, Momo comes to visit her on the other side of the table. “Why’s Neesan visiting?”

“Chichi-ue’s having a birthday soon.” She tugs lightly on one of Momo’s pigtails. “You remember the time of year, little peach. Since he is the family patriarch, it’s only natural that everyone will throw him a party.”

It might not be a big party, but it will be an affair sure enough.

Her little sister’s mouth goes round, surprise and delight warring within her. “Is Chichi-ue’s birthday soon?”

“Yes,” she says lightly. “It will be his forty-eighth birthday soon.”

From the corner of her eye, she catches a sliver of surprise working its way across Chiba-san’s face, but it is carefully tucked away.

Odd, that a wife does not know the age of her husband.

Having been assured that she would have the seat of honor during the festivities — and Hisa gracefully acquiesces if only because only one of them is small enough to still fit in Chichi-ue’s lap these days — Momo happily follows Sute off to the outer courtyard.

Another silence falls upon them when the door closes behind Momo and Sute, a measured, weighing look in Chiba-san’s eyes. “She’s very happy here.”

“I assume she commands your full attention.” Momo-chan would not, in her courtyard, burdened as she is with the practicality of the dye houses, with the thousand and one cares and troubles a household concerns itself with.

But here, in the quiet courtyard of an unconcerned madam, her only child might have her full attention indeed.

“She does.” A hint of color high on Chiba-san’s cheeks as she raises her gaiwan once more. “But we are not here to discuss her.”

“No, we are not.” She taps her folded fan against the palm of her hand, thinking. “Your message said you wanted to discuss Chichi-ue’s birthday.”

“I am aware that he rarely celebrates the occasion, but I thought—”

“He used to.” A corner of her mouth tilts down as she stares at the vase in the centerpiece of the table, a single large chrysanthemum of deep red rising from it, and does not raise her eyes. “When I was a child, his birthday would open the estate. There’d be all sorts of friends.”

And when the party was over, Ima, who used to manage her mother’s courtyard, would herd both her and Anija off to bed, in the background, the sound of her mother’s laughter.

She has forgotten the sound.

Unspoken. Unsaid.

But ever present.

Kawaguchi Yasutaro had been an open man before the death of his first and more beloved wife.

The woman who followed cannot compare.

“I thought,” Chiba-san continues, shaken but not diverted. “That perhaps this year we could hold a family dinner and invite your aunts.”

She considers it. The idea is not displeasing, because Chichi-ue had not considered travelling on business this year, preferring to leave it to Naoji, the gardener’s eldest son, who had stepped into many of Yushin’s roles over the course of the year though he was quieter and not dispositioned towards the same boisterous energy that the man everyone called Bear possessed.

The idea is not displeasing, but that it had come from Chiba-san’s courtyard, perhaps from one of the handmaids who would consider this a worthwhile way to get back into Chichi-ue’s attention and good graces displeases.

“I assume, then,” she twirls her folded fan around her fingertips, still thinking. “That the Big Madam has thought of everything?”

Chiba-san looks away for a moment, her hand gently gripping the table’s edge. “I had hoped the Second Miss would not mind if I organized it.”

And she is not so bereft that she cannot concede this.

“Have the party if you wish.” They are done here, and she rises. “I don’t understand why you thought you needed my permission, keibo. You are, after all, the big madam.”

They’d been speaking of something else over the course of dinner, the evening bringing with it an unseasonal bout of cold rain.

Perhaps that had been the first omen, because it had forced everything indoors, into Chichi-ue’s front study which he’d opened and allowed tables placed in, mostly bemused by the sudden interest of his wife than any other emotion.

But in a pause in the conversation, Chiba-san sets her chopsticks down, picking up her folding fan for a moment before setting that on the table as well, her hands clasped lightly together in lap. “May I ask you a question, Kawaguchi-san?”

Chichi-ue turns to her, in the middle of brushing a crumb of sugar away from Momo-chan’s face. “I don’t see why you must ask if I am open to answering questions. Surely past experience says that I do not mind it.” Momo’s face falls, looking back and forth between both of her parents, but Sute does not step in to whisk the littlest miss away.

“Kawaguchi-san, why did you marry me?” Underneath the table, Hisa sees her stepmother’s hands ball together, knuckles white, nails digging deep.

For a moment, Chichi-ue’s gaze flickers upwards, to the top shelf of his bookcase pushed against the opposite wall. A box of paintings lived up there, scrolled up and packed away when Chiba-san moved in. All the tigress and fox spirits, all the scenes of Lake Yatan, and an old oil paper umbrella laid across it.

“I thought perhaps,” Chichi-ue says, slowly, as if weighing his words carefully. “That it would make the house feel less lonely.”

“My father told me differently.” Underneath the table, Chiba-san’s clasped hands are shaking, white at the knuckle, bruised at the back.

“Oh?” There is a lightness in Chichi-ue’s tone, though he pats Momo-chan once atop the head and turns to face Chiba-san fully. “And what did Sahei say?” Still so light, but she hears the river’s undertow in his voice, the first warning sign of danger.

She does not understand.

Chichi-ue’s remarriage to the daughter of one of the friends of his youth…

Yes, Chiba Sahei-san is one of Chichi-ue’s friends.

But what did he have to do or say, what secrets would he have to tell his daughter of Chichi-ue’s motives?


“The truth is so ugly.” Chiba-san says, while staring straight ahead, amber eyes unseeing, as though frozen by the chill that has descended. “Did you really want me to tell everyone?”

Their entire family is here tonight, even Hiko, who had sampled a skewer of shrimp and decided to partake in the lamb stew instead.

All eyes are on their table now, all watching, stunned into silence.

Momo looks back and forth between her parents one more time, and starts sliding off of her seat. “Haha-ue?” she asks, childish voice loud in the roaring silence. “Haha-ue, what do you mean?” The silence drips, like ice on the river cracking in the springtime. “Haha-ue, what’s ugly?” She grabs onto Chiba-san’s skirts, tugging, though she does not get a response from the woman who even now stares at Chichi-ue, equal parts fear and horror in her eyes.

“Well,” Chichi-ue says, as he sits back down, languid, and sets his chopsticks down. “Let’s hear what Sahei has to say about our marriage.” The river shudders, though its surface is the same as ever.

Whatever this is, Chichi-ue does not want to hear it either.

And though she is curious, though she has always wondered, though she, even now, burns with the desire to know, what price this would come at she doesn’t know.

On the other side of the table, by Chiba-san’s side, Momo starts to cry.

It comes at the price of a little sister.

It comes at the price of a disgraced mother.

“Enough.” She hears herself say, already rising to walk around the table. “You both have sent Momo into hysterics, acting as you have.”

She takes one of Momo’s hands. A little girl with puffy red eyes — a little girl crying in the family shrine, a little girl crying at the stone faced idol called mother — is it not enough?

Will it ever be enough?

But for the two people with their gazes locked on each other, it is not enough.

“No,” Chichi-ue says, almost flippant though the river current in his voice says it is anything but. “Let’s hear what Sahei had to say about this.”

You’re scaring Momo, she almost says. You’re frightening me.

But she knows Chichi-ue’s personality.

Chiba-san hadn’t pressed him hard enough last time, but this time she’d tried to corner him by asking him in front of an audience.

But try to corner a fox, and he disappears like dust in the wind. In his own domain, as master of the house, there are few things that Chichi-ue does not control. And though he has spent little time angry in recent years, what had happened in the capital and its aftermath had awakened the long dormant fire in him once more.

Whatever it was this time, Chiba-san had not thought it through.

Her face, round like the moon, paler than undyed silk, gleams with a thin layer of sweat in the candle light.

Momo buries her face in Hisa’s skirts, still crying quietly, and she wraps her arms around her little sister.

For all that she has wished Chiba-san gone, it is only at this moment that she remembers Momo. Guilt strikes like a serpent, teeth dripping venom.

For personal gain, with personal wishes, but the little girl crying deserved so much more.

“My father told me of his near bankruptcy seven years ago.”

How tightly had Chiba Sahei-san kept such news? She’d been familiar with most merchant houses in Shunan and their relative standings ever since she’d come of age, and even though she had been barely fifteen at the time, the stain of bankruptcy would have travelled far indeed.

That she had not heard…

“I married you, and it disappeared.”

How tightly had Chiba Sahei-san kept such news? Tightly enough that his only daughter did not know of it.

“That sounds like an accusation, wife.

But that is what daughters are good for, isn’t it?

To pay their father’s debts.

“I have never been your wife.” Underneath the table, even clasped so tight, Chiba-san’s hands shake, white at the knuckle and increasingly white at the wrist. “How else am I to explain?” she asks, a woman, betrayed. “I saw the numbers. A million ryo. And my dowry. Was that my asking price? Did it give you joy to buy me?”

A number.

A father’s debts.

Suddenly, Hisa understands.

As though the fog had been lifted, she understands.

Why Chichi-ue will not put her aside.

Why he has never sought other sons.

Why though he had stopped wearing white, he had never stopped mourning.

Softly, Chichi-ue laughs, a bitter, bitter sound. “So now that Sahei has what he wants, he leaves me with the cruel reputation.” She has never seen this look on Chichi-ue’s face before, the wildfire behind his eyes, the storm that threatens to drown. “Did you ask him whose idea it was? What proud fool would not accept a loan?”

The debts of an old friend. A grieving widower. A man, who, out of pride or out of greed, would not accept a loan and instead chose to barter a daughter.

And Chichi-ue would never leave a friend behind to bear bankruptcy.

Ice, on the river cracking. “I was not the one who sold you. I was not the one who would rather leave his family homeless. Tell me, Natsu, what is it that you blame me for?”

Slowly, her stepmother unclasps her hands, finger by finger, breath by breath. “That you wouldn’t tell me the truth unless I forced you. Unless I angered you enough until you forgot that you swore you’d take it to the grave.”

Across the table, Chichi-ue’s eyes go wide, as if realizing what he had just admitted, caught between admiration and a horrified guilt.

A secret seven years buried, and a woman who had forced the truth from him.

Slowly, Chiba-san bows her head. “I know that you love her. And that you love your own daughter. What man wouldn’t? And perhaps, I was a fool to think that there might be a corner of your heart you might spare for me.” And here she draws a breath, already halfway to a sob. “I had always wondered why you could not. But I understand now.” Woodenly, she rises. “Thank you for having me, Kawaguchi-san. I’ll see myself out.”

One step.


Chichi-ue catches Chiba-san by the wrist. “Natsu,” he says, suddenly rueful once more. “Why?”

“Flowers grow where they are planted.” Her stepmother takes a shuddering breath, but does not pull away. “But they die where they are planted too.”

“I have wronged you.” Chichi-ue breathes out slowly. “In many ways, worse than Sahei has.” Silence follows. “If it is my respect and attention you want, you have it. If it is my heart…” Chichi-ue smiles, more pained than anything else. “Time,” he admits at last. “I will try.”

Far away, there is the scent of incense and the sound of laughter, joyful, like the silver bells Haha-ue wore in her hair.

“That is all I ask of you.”

It is winter again, and the flower lanterns are lit in her courtyard, though that means very little since the light steals away early during this time of year.

And Izuna appears, though this time he has taken the walkway and braved Aka’s disdainful glance as he passed.

It is a warm evening, so she sits on the wooden walkway winding along the side of her building, watching the wind in the garden, resting for a moment from the day.

So much has changed, and yet very little has changed at all.

“Would you like a seat?” She turns her face up to his, the sharp line of his jaw, the hesitance in his eyes.

“You don’t mind this time?” He pauses for a moment, but she gestures for him to sit.

If he’d been Hiko, she wouldn’t’ve even had to say.

For all that they are not related, she and Hiko are family in a way that she could claim for few people.

“We cannot always tease the shinobi, can we?” she asks, only half teasing.

He grumbles at this, his hands loosely curled, forearms rested against his legs. “I didn’t realize I was so amusing.”

She sets her chin on one of her hands, lightly tapping her open fan against the bridge of her nose. “Aren’t you always?”

He huffs at this. “I came to say goodbye.” For a moment, she forgets and worries about what sort of thing would take him away for good. “For the new year,” he clarifies, though his mood does not lighten at the mention of his family. Or, indeed, at the approaching holiday.

“You don’t look forward to it.” It is improper to ask, but there is a storm heavy on his face, a shadow weighing down his shoulders, and she realizes that despite living for a few days at his house, she does not know much about his family.

And yet…she asks. “Why?”

He swallows, quiet for a long time, and she thinks perhaps, she has overstepped and offended him.

“I am my father’s youngest son.” The words are soft, as though echoing in a deep well. “It has been a year and a half since my eldest brother died and my fourth brother became the heir to the estate.”

Three elder brothers gone then, for various reasons she has yet to learn. A year and half.

It has been a year and a half since he arrived, and never once has he worn mourning while at work, far from home, among a people foreign to him.

She sets her fan aside, and gently reaches out to squeeze his closest hand. “It must be hard.”

He smiles, but his eyes are sad and far away. “I am used to it, Hisa-san.” And yet, she knows no one ever gets used to grief.

“We may learn to bear it well,” she thinks back to the way that Hiko never speaks of his early childhood spent in the capital living the goddess of mercy knows how, “But we are hardly used to it.”

We shouldn’t have to be, she thinks, even though all the truths of this world are written in blood, bought and paid for with pain.

“Maybe,” he says watching the dying light, the dying season, the frost of age creeping onto the year. “I have seen so many die. I should be used to it.”

I have killed so many, the defeated line of his shoulders seems to say. Shouldn’t I be used to it?

She has not the hands to hold this grief, not the shoulders to carry this weight with him.

“He is your brother.” Nothing replaces the love of a brother. Not money, not titles, not all the joys of paradise.

All the pleasures of their poor mortal realm could not make any one person’s love interchangeable with another’s.

“And he will always be your brother.”

With the softest of shudders, he leans his head against her shoulder. “Will he?”

“Being born of the same roots, why should we hold grudges against each other?” Whatever you are so afraid of being blamed for, so afraid of losing, you never can, and you never will lose it.

He laughs wetly at this. “Sō Shoku. I didn’t know civilians quoted him.”

A poet from the warlord era, during the years of unrest before the establishment of the dynasty. A younger brother, a brilliant military man, lied to and betrayed on all sides, never to hold office.

The Seven Step Quatrain comes from one such struggle, of being the younger brother to a paranoid warlord. He’d died young, of illness at age 41, and the tragedy of a great man forgotten in wine and depression echoed down the ages.

She assumes now that she’s thought about it, that he had to have been a shinobi, because in previous centuries, shinobi had made up the backbone of the military, brilliant generals and statesmen, and perhaps too, poets like Sō Shoku.

“He was a poet, of course we quote him.”

“He was a shinobi, never trusted.” Izuna shudders once again. “And now the Sō Clan is gone.”

“Most of the warlord clans are.” Of all the nobles who now have lands and titles, only the imperial clan of Kageyoshi had been warlords in their own right nearly five hundred years ago, when the warlord period was in its height. The others, scholar and shinobi all, had been vassals.

“I dream about his death.” Ah, they are speaking of Izuna’s brother again, his eyes closed, lashes dark against a pale face. “All of his family there, except for me. I couldn’t go.”

“You were away?” To have missed the death is a heavy pain indeed.

“No.” And the word could almost be a moan, the rattle of air in a drowning man’s lungs. “I was hiding in the abandoned mineshaft at the base of the mountains. I—” he stumbles, nearly cries, shaking like a reed in a gale. “I couldn’t watch. I thought maybe—”

“If you didn’t see it, he wouldn’t leave you.” She knows that feeling, knows it in the way she begged Anija not to leave her. But I am so tired, Hirin. I am so tired, and I hurt so much. And he had left her. He could not stay. “But he did, and you must live with that.”

She does not know why or how his eldest brother died, but she can hazard a guess that the fighting between shinobi is cruel, and it takes and it takes and it takes, good and bad, sinner and saint, in the end, how long a man lives is written in the book of lives when he is born.

No one can outrun heaven.

His face crumples. "He left. He left. He left." And he cries like a broken boy, tears hot against the lavender silk. "He would not wait for me. He would not wait. I could not make him wait."

Slowly, she wraps her arm around him. “It was not because he didn’t want to.”

“He thought I was punishing him. He—” he chokes, for half a minute all he does is shudder. A year and a half. Has he ever told someone about this before, this crushing weight on his heart that threatens to tear him to pieces? But then, who would he have asked to hold this for him for even a moment? “He didn’t know I was afraid.”

No, he had no one to ask to listen to him, to his reasons of why and wherefore, to understand that it was not disrespect and irreverence that kept him away from his brother’s deathbed.

“You played the qin for him, ‘Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute.’” Torn between duty and love, between honor and compassion. She sees it now, having not understood the look on his face before when she asked him who he missed so late at night.

“He taught me to play the qin,” he says, quieter now, eyes still closed.

He is a careful man, most always contained despite the storm beneath his placid surface.

What must he think of her, to tell her such things? To let her hold his soul up to the lantern light and see the parts of himself that he considered most ugly?

She does not know.

The night deepens, and he cries until he has no more tears to cry, falls asleep while still leaning against her shoulder, and she holds him, sitting there until the lanterns go out.

Chapter Text

She sets O-Shiki’s letter on her desk. The Countess has been unwell, too unwell to host a month old celebration for Kata-kun, and still too unwell to patch up the deficit at two months. It has been eight months since her second child was born, but she remains bedridden most days, even so.

This winter, there has been no travelling to the capital to see her relatives, except for the short trip Lord Fusamoto had made earlier in the year.

Her bedridden state without many visitors meant that O-Shiki has been…exceptionally bored.

So bored, in fact, that she had summoned her second brother, the young lord Asukabe Iesuke, along with his wife, the shu princess, Iro-hime, to come entertain her and her every whim and wish. It may not be entirely proper, but O-Shiki has always been well loved by both of her elder brothers.

It is her brother, Lord Iesuke’s, hand with which she writes.

Hisa-chan, it says, the writing bold and angular, at odds with the effusive warmth of O-Shiki’s wording, I am not sorry to say that I have forced Suke-nii into being a scribe for me while I slowly go mad staring at the paintings on the wall.

He is protesting this, but I have everything firmly in hand, and he is helpless to resist me. This particular sentence is written with a bit more force than it really needed to be. Lord Iesuke likely had his own opinions about his sister's words, which amuses her.

Shujin tells me that his report to His Imperial Majesty went exceedingly well. So well, in fact, that he suspects a great many changes are coming to the governing structure of Danmai.

As you are likely aware, with the Orihito Clan deposed, His Majesty will have to pick a new clan from Danmai to raise to the status of count or else name one of his sons the governor of the region, as our southernmost border is too far to be reabsorbed directly under the control of the throne.

I will let you know of a secret, and here Lord Iesuke clearly had an argument with his little sister, ink pooling heavily as though he had set his brush down to argue for a while before the writing was resumed. This time, slightly more formal rather than conversational.

While it is true that we as citizens of His Majesty’s court ought not speculate upon the affairs of the son of heaven at too far a depth, for we see not with the range and breadth that one who stands atop the mountain does, we have posited that His Majesty does not intend to raise any of the two shinobi clans of Danmai. Neither Senju nor Hatake will have earned the right in His Majesty’s eyes, for while holding few grudges, it is the mood at court that it is never wise to let the shinobi outnumber the scholars among us.

And there the letter ends.

It is signed with Lord Iesuke’s signature, and then stamped with the seal of Chubu as well as the seal of Kyushu of course, but those are not really items of note. All letters to come from nobility are signed this way, be they invitations to tea or musings upon the minds of gods among men.

How curious the men and women of court are, to speculate about what might be on the mind of His Imperial Majesty, he who is the son of heaven, dragon made flesh, and arbitrator of lives.

One word from him, and a whole clan dies.

One word from him, and a whole nation kneels.

One word dictates war and peace, plenty and destitution.

There the letter ends.

“It is the mood at court,” she says quietly to herself, sitting in her study, a little room for a little person, “that it is never wise to let the shinobi outnumber the scholars.” She does not say ‘among us,’ being not among any of the great lords and ladies of court. On the surface, the interpretation is easy.

But the previous disclaimer seems to say that this is a thought of His Imperial Majesty, just widely repeated at court because it is his personal opinion, publicly held.

And yet, why the most powerful man in all the realm would not like generals and soldiers and armies and why the second son of the formidable War Minister would write about the shinobi with such unreserved disdain, especially when one had saved his sister’s life, she does not know and cannot begin to guess.

Carefully, she locks the letter away.

It will soon be time for the new year, and the sounds of fireworks have been going off all day, in more courtyards than her own, which is why she had felt safe saying that in her room.

While she could ask Izuna when he returns what he thinks it could possibly mean, she is certain that Lord Iesuke did not intend to make his opinions about shinobi known to a shinobi.

The Uchiha have held power as a noble house ever since the end of the warlord era, and the Asukabe have held power for just as long but a step higher on the hierarchy of nobility, and with Lord Iemune’s appointment as War Minister in court, gaining ground even more significantly in the recent past.

She doubts Izuna would find the information at all fun to speculate about, especially not with young civilian women without any titles at all.

But still the question lingers.

Soon, Momo-ko will arrive, after having greeted Chichi-ue and wished him well for the next year, gleeful and insistent on going out into the street to see the red firecrackers go off, perhaps to pause outside a teahouse in their carriage to listen to the sound of musicians.

Perhaps this year, she might indulge.

After the fireworks have stopped for the night and the smaller children have been sent off to bed, she sits with Chichi-ue in his front greeting room sipping tea.

“It has been some time,” he says, staring at the newest calligraphy scroll on the opposite wall.

A new one, a couplet he’d written just that morning for the new year. “But you have not said anything.”

She blinks at him, aware of what he is referring to, but preferring to play the fool. “All the fireworks made me tired.” He is referring to her silence in regards to the attention he has paid Chiba-san in recent days.

Perhaps even last year, she would’ve protested and made some sort of fuss that meant he would drop the idea entirely, but this is his own affair, not hers.

“You know that is not what I mean.” He smiles at her, a little wry, over the rim of his teacup.

“Then I confess I do not know what Chichi-ue could possibly mean.” She too takes a sip of her tea, the gaiwan warm in her hands even in the coldest part of the year.

Here inside the house, there are fire pits and hand warmers, enough to keep out the chill.

Chichi-ue laughs, and he reaches across the tea table to pinch her cheek. “Playing the fool does not suit you, Hisa. I am not old enough to forget that I have far too intelligent and witty a daughter as to not understand my words.”

“Perhaps I have grown dense in my adulthood,” she quips, smiling despite herself. “After all, many people do.”

“I do not entirely regret it.” Chichi-ue is watching her, though he does not want to look as though he is watching her. “But I am unclear how you feel.”

How does she feel?

She folds her hands together in her lap and wonders why it is that she is suddenly upset. Surely, she had not been upset before? “I wish I had known.” Outside, the night is dark in the absence of the moon, courtyard lit only by lanterns. “It would have spared so much.”

“In that moment when I agreed, I did not think of how it would make you feel.” Chichi-ue sighs, tapping his fingers on the armrest of his chair. “And yet,” and here he smiles, but it does not reach his eyes, a faded, worn out attempt at cheer, “I have thought of you so for the past six years. And only recently have I thought that I have perhaps wronged everyone involved besides myself.”

Conflict between madam and heiress only serves to splinter a family.

This particular rule she knows very well.

“I have not been pitiful and aggrieved just because my father chose to remarry.”

But she wishes she had known.

She wishes she had known why. She wishes that her uncle’s words did not weigh. When his next wife gives him a living son, he will see what you are worth.

And she wishes she could forget it.

Chichi-ue is still watching her. “You have never been happy with the decision.”

He will see what you are worth.

And even now, she fears the birth of a younger brother, fears that somehow she would be replaced, fears more that Anija will be only the son who died, that no one will care about Haha-ue’s life when Chichi-ue is gone and she is married away.

“I was too old to feel happy.” She’d been fifteen when Chiba-san had crossed their doorway, a grown adult old enough to be wed in the eyes of the world. And for months, she had wondered as an idle exercise if Chichi-ue had grown tired of her and planned to send her off to someone else’s household. “And the resident of the eastern courtyard and I have nothing in common.”

She understands why Chichi-ue had married Chiba-san, knows that despite all his intelligence, mercy mattered more to him.

That he could not be the one to stand by with his hands in his sleeves and watch an old friend’s house fall to ruin, a whole family suffering for the sake of one man.

And yet, in the end, he could not forget.

“You have never mentioned this to me.” Chichi-ue sets his gaiwan aside. “Not once in six years.” He rises and comes to stand before her. “You have been aggrieved, you just refuse to say so because you don’t want me to feel worse.”

He will see what you are worth.

“Uncle Nagamatsu told me,” her face does not change, “once long ago, that when my father had a living son with his next wife, he will send me somewhere far away, so that he will never think of me again.”

And the people buried beneath the earth will be forgotten. After all, this is what a woman is worth.

“Did you believe him,” Chichi-ue cups her face in his hands, “that I could do such a thing?”

“No.” She had never believed such a thing. “But it hurt.”

She’d been little then, the weight of a bruise across her face, and words that dug far deeper than bruises ever could.

And the Chichi-ue and home she had returned to had not been the one she left.

“I do not regret what happened to him.” There is an uncommon bite to Chichi-ue’s words. “And I hope he rots before he dies.”

“Chichi-ue,” she blinks back tears, “I miss her.”

He pulls her close. “I miss her too.”

On Qingming, in April, they travel out of the city to sweep the graves in the family graveyard, for burials have not taken place within the city for many generations now, ever since laws had been passed against it.

Their family buried all of their dead in the plot of land that her grandfather had set aside after he married her grandmother, a promise that none of their family would be parted, not anymore, for there would be space for them now in death.

This is for you and me, and all who come after us.

Haha-ue is buried here, and so are Uncle Heihachi and Uncle Toemon, and so will every member of this family after death.

If she marries out, she will give up the right to be buried here, her bones interred in some other family’s graveyard.

But like her father before her and his father before him, her blood has mixed with the muddy water of the Mujin.

And it cannot be removed from her.

This year, Chiba-san’s carriage joins them as well, though she has no connection to the people buried here, having crossed the threshold for the first time in the wake of tragedy long grown cold.

“Hisa, be careful.” Kimei offers her her cloak. “It’s still cold out. You have to look after your health.”

Further back, Chichi-ue offers his hand to Chiba-san to help her out of the carriage.

She notices this, and so must everyone else, but this day is for the dead, for the paper money burned so that her grandfather and grandmother can still continue to live well in the afterlife, so that Haha-ue will not be aggrieved.

These are people that Chiba-san has never met before, so of course she would need someone to introduce her.

And of course, she would be uncomfortable.

There is nothing unusual about this.

“Neesan?” Momo-chan tugs at her sleeve. “Neesan, you look sad.”

She half smiles. When did I start thinking so much about the sad things? “We’re here to pay respects to the dead. Such things are not made for happy faces.”

And though Momo-chan does not find this particularly pleasing, her little sister still manages to put on a suitably somber face. “Haha-ue says we are here to pay our respects too.”

She holds Momo-chan’s hand as they continue walking. Soon, her little sister will grow too big to be picked up all the time, and later, too big to hold hands like this.

But for now, Momo-chan is little and does not really know about everything that is happening around her.

“I want you to meet someone,” she says, straightening the collar of Momo’s cloak against the chill of the spring air. “She is very important to me.”

A few more steps now, and they will come to the grave marker she’d been told is her mother’s.

“My haha-ue is buried here. Her name is Hiwara Maki…”

“You know full well that you do not have the allowance you used to have.” She does not look up from her abacus. “Since you now live with your maternal aunt’s family, and Haha-ue isn’t here to spend her dowry on funding your habits.”

Click. Click.

They have saved some money these days, the fruit this spring had been plentiful, and the kitchens had managed to find several good deals for further produce.

But that doesn’t mean they have extra money to pay for a gambler.

No amount of money could ever be enough to spend at the gambling table, and being too soft hearted would only lead to more trouble in the future.

As it would appear, a tiger cannot change its stripes, and in just the same way, a dissolute troublemaker can’t mend his ways.

Which is, of course, how shortly after Qingming, Cousin Hideyoshi ends up in front of her, shamefully.

At least he still knows that it is shameful to be here.

“Big sister…” He shifts on his feet, hands clasped in front of him. “I will definitely mend my ways in the future.”

And people had speculated that Chichi-ue would leave the House of Kawaguchi and their whole family’s fortunes to him.

It had been what was natural to think, since Chichi-ue had no sons, and their household of women surely could not hold itself up properly if something were to happen to him. And Chichi-ue had been so interested in relieving Suzuki Takahiro of this son of his, even if Hideyoshi himself isn’t the least impressive.

If he thought that was what Chichi-ue wanted him for, then he can dream.

“How many times have I heard that from you?”

Click. Click. Click.

She records the number smoothly in the next line of the account book and carefully sets her brush aside.

By her side, Kimei scoffs without looking up from the inkstone, where her handmaid is slowly grinding ink. “Young Master Hideyoshi, if I had a ryo for every time you said that, even I’d be able to repay your debts.”

Her cousin flushes. “Handmaids shouldn’t weigh in on the topics of—”

“Her existence in this household and this courtyard is more essential to me than you.” She nearly forgives him of it, since he is still a child.

But he is already eighteen.

In two years, he will be a man in the eyes of the law.

And even if their household could still bear with his lackadaisical ways, heaven wouldn’t.

And speaking crassly to the household servants will not be borne, not by her, and certainly not by Chichi-ue.

She raises her eyes. “Cousin, I think you are forgetting something.” And if she smiles, that is only because she assumes there is no need to overly frighten him with a corpse-like face. “You are here because Chichi-ue did not want to part Aunt Ruqa from her only flesh and blood. And that is because she is his late wife’s little sister. He has long since remarried. No one would have faulted him for standing with his hands in his sleeves and doing nothing as your father forced your mother onto a path she would not return from.”

You are not at home.

And you are the heir of nothing now.

She looks back down at the abacus, questions if Hiko will be very cross with her if she leaves this until tomorrow. “I expect in another few days, Chichi-ue will ask if you have any thoughts regarding your future when you turn twenty in two years.”

At this, Hideyoshi seems like he would rather flee her study than stay.

But he does not completely lack spine, because all he does is wring his hands, frowning. “Big Sister, I—” and here he stumbles. “I don’t know anything.

“Yes.” She sighs and waves for him to come sit by her. “You do, indeed, not know very much when it comes to how to survive in the world.” She props her head up on her hands. “But in the end, this is because no one has taught you anything of value.” And in this, Aunt Ruqa shares as much blame as Suzuki-san.

Spoiling a son is the same as killing a son.

She has heard the phrase before, but she has not understood it fully until now.

“Don’t be too miserable.” She picks up the little painted duck on the edge of her desk and toys with it, turning it over and over in her hand. “You still have two years to learn something that will earn money.”

Maybe actually having to earn money will teach him what it is actually made of, how much blood and sweat it takes to buy one ryo.

And perhaps then it would be precious to him.

Kimei glances after him when he leaves, almost annoyed. “I hope he learns to mend his ways soon, or Auntie really will be suffering all her life.”

At this, Hisa can only sigh. “And is the only one to blame for how he is now his father?”

“Auntie was far too kind to have been so cruelly married off to such a man.” Kimei rests her chin on her knees, still thinking. “And a negligent father’s made Young Master Hideyoshi cracked in the head.”

“If she wasn’t so kind and unable to say no, she wouldn’t have become an overly indulgent mother, and her son wouldn’t have so far to go now.”

Kimei considers her words, but doesn’t further comment about it, and they pass the afternoon more pleasantly, in the sunshine of the early spring.

Baron Sato, while he taught school in the city, does not live in central Shunan proper. Instead, his estate is half an hour’s carriage ride across the city, on the outskirts.

She’d risen early to visit O-Toyo at the estate this morning, and they had adjourned outside to match couplets and play pitch pot, munch on delicacies, and listen to her second brother, Atsunari, play the qin.

“He will be a fine young man,” O-Toyo whispers, because Atsunari-kun is still with them, looking out into the shrubbery, distracted by the bird song even as his sister hides her face behind her fan to cover up the tears, though that does not cover the hint of a sob in her voice.

It is no secret that as Baron Sato’s eldest child, O-Toyo is the only child of his first wife who had died in labor a scant year or so after their marriage. Few enough remember Baron Sato’s first wife, being not from Shunan and also dead very shortly after, except to say that she was a pious woman, undeserving perhaps, of the fate that she bore.

Within the year, Baron Sato had remarried, his first son born barely two years after his daughter.

It is no secret that the woman he had married despised his eldest daughter, born shy and demure, with soulful green eyes, and all the gentleness the world could muster for an unloved child.

“He will be a fine young man,” O-Toyo says again, slightly more composed. “And I hope he will be a filial son and take care of Chichi-ue in his adulthood, as I will not be able to.”

And Hisa supposes that it is singularly unfair that O-Toyo, who is scholarly and shy and had so rarely if ever thought ill of anyone would have to grow up this way, with her stepmother governing her friends, holding her purse strings, and ultimately, dictating her fate.

At age twenty, O-Toyo is not too young to be wed, and all knew that within the past year, Baroness Sato had been increasingly interested in seeing her stepdaughter out the door.

The sum total of a woman’s life depends on how the second half of her life is written, the work of her hands in her husband’s house, her children and how well she raises them, only these things are remembered.

To be married to a bad household is barely a step above not being married at all.

She reaches across the table and squeezes O-Toyo’s hand. “You will be allowed to return. Your father would want you to.”

She does not know what sort of man Madam Sato will choose for her stepdaughter, only that it will likely not be chosen for the sake of O-Toyo’s happiness, and instead for the satisfaction of a household, or even crueler, for Madam Sato’s personal satisfaction.

But while Baron Sato is an unconstant father, he does not dislike O-Toyo, and perhaps he would prefer that she visit after she is married.

He will miss her when she has already left his care.

And he does not wish to see her suffer.

Such basic tenets, and yet O-Toyo would sell her soul for careless gestures.

“You know how it is,” the other young woman says, her head bowed and hands clasped. “They say that when a girl loses her mother, she loses her father as well.”

But in this —

In this she and O-Toyo are not the same.

How lucky she is. How lucky she is without realizing it.

She turns her head, about to say something, but Atsunari-kun comes bounding up the walk, beaming. “Neesan, how did I do?”

“Very well,” O-Toyo tells him, without a shred of jealousy. “Though Nari-kun, you’ve forgotten to greet Hisa-san.”

Young Master Sato turns to her, slightly abashed, but not by much. “Greetings to Hisa-san. I hope you can forgive my momentary lack of manners.”

She inclines her head, half her face hidden behind her fan. “Sato-san is overly modest.”

And the morning continues.

It is after lunch when she leaves Baron Sato’s household, O-Toyo walking her out to her carriage. “Promise me you’ll write, Hisa-chan.” O-Toyo smiles, but her eyes are sad. “I do not know how much longer I will be staying in Shunan.”

“Wherever you are, know that I am thinking of you.” She cannot protect O-Toyo from Baroness Sato, who cares too much for her own amusement and marketing her own children instead of the first child of her husband’s household, but she still has this. “If there is ever anything I can do to help you, do not fail to ask.”

Because that would be the real problem.

O-Toyo likely would not ask, having grown up smiling even when she is bleeding, claiming to be fine even when her meals had been forgotten. A lifetime of deprivation has taught her to live on less than her due.

And it is hard to help someone who does not ask.

But she makes O-Toyo promise, if only so she remembers that she has someone to turn to, that all hope is not lost.

She climbs into the carriage. Shinji serves as her driver today.

He’d been a cheerful young man who had come to their household because Banryu knew his father. He has three younger sisters, a younger brother, an aged mother and grandmother, and at the time he’d come to them for work, recently lost his father in an accident in one of Baron Yamato’s orchards.

He had some level of weapons training, having grown up on a baron’s estate, which is why, these days, he’d been called to drive her.

Izuna is needed elsewhere, the caravans running again, so Shinji has been called back from the fields to drive her, because Chichi-ue still holds onto worry.

“It’s been an excellent year for rain, Second Miss,” he comments, reins held loosely as the carriage makes its trip back into the city. And indeed it has been, water dripping from the bamboo leaves.

Hopefully, Hondo Asa-chan’s husband has been faring better in the fields this year and able to recoup some of the damages he’s suffered in past years due to Senju price slashing.

She does not understand how the Senju flourish, year after year. Prices kept so low could not possibly turn a profit, and yet, when other merchants and farmers see their crops fail during a drought, in the same or neighboring regions, the Senju could still flood the market.

As if heaven favored them.

But this year, prices will likely be competitive again.

“Hmmm.” She flicks the curtain of her carriage window up to look out at the passing landscape, fruit trees in the distance blooming profusely, pink peach petals setting the hillsides awash with the lightness of spring, the bamboo on the other side of the road a rustling jade green. “Yes, it seems like it will be a prosperous year.”

Shinji smiles, almost laughing. “Futsu-chan brought me a new straw hat from home that Haha-ue made me to keep off the rain last winter, and while I told her I doubted that I’d have much reason to use it this spring, it seems like I was mistaken.” He makes a face, affects a higher pitched voice. “You see, Ani, Haha-ue and I were right after all.”

She hides a laugh behind her sleeve. “No one can predict the whims of heaven.”

“Aye,” Shinji agrees, flicking the reins in his hands, to direct the horses around a puddle of water. “No one can do that, that’s for certain.”

The ride back into the city is uneventful, quiet. The afternoon sun filters through the leaves, road opening up into a wide and busy street, the market district in Shunan opening up to them, not as bright or as loud as the capital, but befitting of a country seat for a southern city.

Here, their pace slows almost to a halt as the cart comes to a near stop to let a farmer drive a flock of chickens across the road, clucking madly as they go, windchimes from the stall on their right side clinking in the breeze.

From the corner of her eye, the glint of something that is not a windchime catches her eye.

The glint of a sword hilt, sunlight reflecting off the pommel and guard.

Chubu has no shinobi, and only Lord Fusamoto’s men are allowed to wear swords.

And yet she spies no less than three men she does not know wearing swords in their near vicinity.

She leans forward, taps Shinji on the shoulder. “How much longer until we arrive home?”

He turns to her, surprised for the moment. “Oh, maybe another twenty minutes or so?”

But then he sees what she sees, eyes hardening for a second before he smooths it away.

Calmly and idly, he swings the reins in his right hand, the picture of idle calm. “Hey, hey, oyaji,” he calls to the farmer still driving chickens across the road. “Can you get a move on? My Second Miss wants to get home sometime today.”

Here, in a busy street, attackers can do rather little.

But they have to move if they don’t want to give away what they know.

Where could they possibly go?

Round the city long enough, and the entirely not stealthy men with swords behind them will catch on.

But they could not possibly go home, could they?

No, because then the men with swords will, at the very least, be outside the door.

And if they are anything like Izuna, walls will not hold them.

Shinji knows this too. She sees it in the way his grip on the reins is loose but not relaxed any longer.

Where to? They think this together, but say nothing.

It has been less than half a minute, the last of the chickens making their way across the road through the busy throng of people and carriages, the farmer shuffling along after them, when suddenly, a string of wind chimes comes loose from where they were swaying the breeze and a cascade of little bronze bells tumbles across the road.

They were cut, she thinks, as the carriage jerks forward, a horse’s scream echoing in the air. Kombu.

It is their horse.

The street bursts into pandemonium, people and goods flying every which way.

She claws her way to the front of the carriage box, throwing back the front curtain to see what is going on.

Shinji’s grip on the reins is iron hard, standing up in the driver’s seat in an attempt to calm the horse, speaking in soft, low tones.

The farmer in front of them stands frozen in place, startled by the pounding of hooves, the sharp teeth, sheer size and temper of a carriage horse unlike the oxen who drove farming plows.

“When I say jump, jump.” Shinji’s eyes face forward, every inch of his skill brought out to play, every ounce of muscle straining, but jump?

No, she will not jump. There is too much at stake.

Normally, their carriage horses are docile creatures used to all the noise and bustle of the city streets, unlike the high tempered polo horses, or riding horses nobility kept.

Whatever this is, it is not the bells.

Kombu wouldn’t startle over bells.

Shinji could have more space to move if only — “Oyaji!” she calls, startling the old man from his trance over Kombu’s unrelenting bucking, still screaming as if in pain, the carriage rocks, and she throws a hand out to stop herself from crashing into the opposite wall. “Oyaji, move!”

This jolts the farmer from his position in the road, suddenly fearing for his life rather than stuck where he is.

It will have to do.

She clambers to one side of the driver’s seat, space vacated by Shinji, unheeding of the pitch and toss of the panicked horse, and swings herself forward instead, her hands catching on the mane and bridle.

The street is alive with screams and awash with overturned produce, people parting like a crowd before the passing of a nobleman’s carriage.

She lets her weight drop, suddenly slamming downwards as Kombu drops as well. Shinji stumbles, the reins suddenly slack with the change of position, Kombu no longer trying desperately to charge forward.

The motion jars her shoulders and knocks the breath out of her, but she persists, whispering to Kombu, even as he shudders, prancing sideways.

“Second Miss!” he calls, distraught, unable to leave the carriage, but unable to see her clearly either.

Slowly, she raises a hand, something wet dripping down her arm. No sudden noises, no sudden movements, and hopefully Kombu will calm.

So far, no one has been harmed yet.

Kombu huffs, one eye rolling, and she leans into his neck, softly, still speaking to him. “See, it is not so bad. It is not so bad, no? You know this street.”

He should know this street, having been foaled in their stables, travelling the streets as a carriage horse for some six or seven years.

He’d been chosen because of his gentle temperament, because he does not easily startle.

“Miss, are you alright?” The woman this voice belongs to wears plain ruqun in light green, her hair turned up and affixed with a single wooden hairstick.

But despite her common appearance, Hisa does not believe she is anything common.

She walks Kombu forward another step. “I believe I will be alright.”

Another step forward. “Your hands are bleeding, Miss Kawaguchi.” The woman’s tone takes on a bit of cajolement, a heavy suggestion in her words. “Wouldn’t you like to rest for just a moment? Let me call a doctor?”

And for the barest of flickers, she almost agrees.

It is the use of ‘Kawaguchi’ that catches her.

However sweet this woman looks, however honey light her words…

She does not belong.

She is not from here, that shade of green and flare of cotton in her narrow sleeves not from Chubu.

She is not from here, so how does she know Hisa’s name?

“I think I will be alright without,” she says, still holding onto Kombu’s bridle, as they take another step forward.

The woman laughs, the sound like windchimes, and takes a step towards her. “A stubborn miss, I see.”

The woman reaches for her, and Shinji, bound as he is to holding the reins in case something happens, is helpless to stop her.

Kombu strikes, quick like a snake, teeth snapping on empty air.

The shinobi woman dances back, and what else could she be besides a shinobi?

There has been some witchcraft in the air this afternoon, Kombu acting out for no reason, the men with swords in the street, and now this woman not from here who speaks in tongues.

“I will not go with you,” Hisa says, through the pounding of her head, the roaring of water in her ears. “And you may tell whoever hired you that, shinobi.”

Strangely, she is unrattled, unafraid.

So much has happened in this street already.

Shinji is silent, as is the rest of the street, and she wonders if this frozen facade is yet another part of the shinobi’s doing.

“They can’t hear you.” The woman laughs, and the sound is sharper than it was before. “How safe do you feel, Miss Kawaguchi? How much can the Uchiha watch you?”

Senju, then.

She raises her chin. “I’ll take my chances, Senju-san.

“Have it your way, then,” Senju-san agrees. “But I did warn you.”

The world comes back into focus, the sounds of the street, the gasps of the onlookers, the screams and clucking chickens, bellowing oxen, frantic sheep.

The woman is gone.

There is no glint of metal left to be seen.

Shinji helps her back into the carriage.

And slowly, they go home.

Chapter Text

She sends Nene to tell Izuna to meet her in her study, careful to calculate and recalculate the situation while waiting for him to arrive.

It’d taken a few days for him to come home with the caravans, and she has not been out since.

How easy it is to be brave in the face of an enemy, and yet, here she still is, hiding, the tigress stuck in her den with the door barred though that does no good either.

“What happened to your hands?” Izuna is frowning before he even crosses the doorway, eyes locked on her bandaged hands.

“Not very much,” she says, ruefully.

It will be some time until her hands recover, until she recovers, enough for her daily tasks, and in the recent days, she’s taken to boredom.

Which is the only reason why she has structured time to see him, even if she still has to direct him off to Hiko so that he can get paid.

Hiko had been saddled with her accounts after this as well, and Kimei with her sewing projects.

Both had taken the added work with more worry over her hands than anything else, though Hiko had hovered horrendously suffocatingly until Jizen-sensei had said that she will recover, nothing broken, even if they’d been bloodied and jarred, skin stripped from one finger so badly that she’d seen bone.

It might scar.

Which, both good and bad, because men do not like women with scars, though hands are more excusable than faces.

She has given this little importance in her life. As long as she can recover from it, Chichi-ue will not mind if her hands are scarred, except to worry, and Chichi-ue is the only man she answers to in this life.

“You were injured.” There is a hard edge to the set of his mouth, barely concealed tension in the line of his shoulders. “What happened?”

“I had a carriage accident on my way back from Baron Sato’s house.”

It hadn’t done that by itself, but as it is, she escaped with scraped knees, bruises and hands wrapped in bandages for the near future. Shinji had been rattled, but fine as well.

And Kombu is unhurt.

A small price to pay compared to death.

“That’s not all there is to it.”

She sets her hands on the table, ignores the sting of moving them. “How much would it cost to hire a cousin to replace you?”

They’d done so for the brief stint in the capital, and they could afford to do so again.

Something of a mulish look comes across his face. “I don’t think any of my cousins could do a better—”

“You’ll be hired to stay here instead.” She raises her eyes to his. “After what the Senju woman said to me, I think it’s best if you stay here.”

He cycles through an alarming number of emotions in the span of a few seconds and stops somewhere she knows is rage.

There is a tension to his shoulders, white knuckled grip on the hilt of his sword. “The Senju threatened you?”

“If the way she spoke of Uchiha were to be believed.” She does not really believe in lying, not on this front.

He would always worry.

And she does not blame him for what had happened, not for Kombu or Shinji or the scare that they all have had.

And she does not regret hiring him.

So if she’s already made that commitment, might as well commit to the end.

“So I am asking,” she continues, “if you would be willing to let a cousin deal with the caravans.”

He stands there, frozen for a moment. “If you’d excuse me.” He inclines his head, his rage not yet dissipated. She’s not sure what will. “I have just remembered some business that I must attend to.”

He bows, as though jerked about on strings, and vanishes without a trace.

“He could’ve at least taken the door.” Kimei moves to close the door after him, frowning mightily. “How rude. Didn’t answer the question either.”

And she, thinking of the way his hands had shaken with more rage than she has felt in her life, does not say much in response.

He is such an angry man.

Though cultured, though human, though elevated, physical violence is a part of his fabric in a way that she is unused to.

“Leave it be,” she sighs and rises to go out to the garden.

Maybe it is because she is sheltered, or maybe it is because she is from a different world where knives are only found in the kitchen and men are not allowed to carry swords.

She is in the garden, having spent the afternoon watching Somei-chan practice her stitches, when Izuna returns.

The darkness of his blue ziduo does not hide the darkness of the bloodstains that coats him or the wild look in his eyes.

Her little cousin gasps, her hands going up to her hair — Somei-chan turned fifteen just after the new year and has yet to settle into the bun and buyao of an adult woman — in an attempt to make sure that everything stays piled atop her head.

Hisa considers the scene, notes the pulled tight nature of Izuna’s lips — he is still a string pulled too tight, one wrong move and he’d snap — and turns to her little cousin. “Somei-chan, I’ve kept you for too long. Isn’t it time for dinner?”

“Hisa-nee,” Somei-chan whispers, urgently tugging at her sleeve. “Hisa-nee.” Her little cousin casts another glance at Izuna, who stands there, breathing, audible, like a living shadow. “Shouldn’t you come with me to dinner?”

Ah, trying to tell her that she shouldn’t be alone with an outside man. Somei-chan has always been proper, more so than her, who only adheres to the outward trappings of propriety.

His eyes are still on her, dark as coal, like a night without moon. There is a fire burning there, behind them, wild, fearful.

Fear of what, she does not know, but expects she will find out as soon as he opens his mouth.

She stands, shaking out her skirts, the picture of idle innocence. “I think Hiko has made himself my dinner guest for tonight, so I oughtn’t go, but tell Aunt Hasuyo that I appreciate her invitation.”

Boxed in by this, Somei-chan rises reluctantly, still casting glances at Izuna, but mannerly as she is, she bobs him a curtsy when she passes with a gentle greeting that he acknowledges with a nod.

The tension in him does nothing when Somei-chan vanishes out the courtyard door, leaving them the only two people in the garden.

“Well?” she says, wondering if she is supposed to say more.

He breathes out, ragged. “I will write to my father. There will be others.”

There have been others employed briefly before, on rotation, when he was tired, or away on other business.

But insurance, insurance that he will be ever present is another matter. There is safety there, in those words.

She has never been truly afraid in his presence before.

She smiles, looks down. “I’m grateful.”

He bows his head, eyes closed, lashes long against pale skin. “You shouldn’t be,” he murmurs, almost to himself. “By Guanyin’s name, you shouldn’t be.”

“Why not gratitude?” she asks him. “You provide me a service I cannot find elsewhere. Why shouldn’t I be grateful for it?”

He shudders. “The one they wanted to harm was me. The one they actually harmed was you. Grateful!” His laughter has a tinge of hysteria to it, his face turned towards the sky, neck offered up as though for a blade. “You would do better to kill me where I stand, I think, for all the harm that I’ve brought through the doorway.”

They are warmongers, Hisa.

They do not know how to fit into the narrow lines of our society.

But he has tried so hard to.

He has tried so hard to, and so often he succeeds in attempting.

“And what harm is that?” She turns her face up to his, but nothing changes in her estimation of him.

Brittle, proud man, what is it that you carry so much guilt for?

“Bear,” he says, and takes a step forward, clasping her arms. There is too much earnestness in his eyes, as if he wants her to believe what he says. “I killed him.”

And she wonders if he is doomed to think this way, in circles instead of looking forward. “I wasn’t aware,” she says, very slowly, “that you burned Yushin to death yourself, even with your twisted ankle. It must have been a terribly quick affair, since I was sure I was with you the whole time.”

And I do not remember that.

He blinks at her, as though he suspects she is particularly dim. “He only died because of the feud. You were only injured because of the feud.”

And suddenly, she is very cold. “Did you hold him in the fire yourself?” The words are loud in the empty courtyard. “He went back to help other people get out of the fire, and he succeeded.” Not a single other person died. Injured maybe, grieving maybe, but no one else died. “Don’t presume to take credit for his moral character.”

What had killed Yushin were the people who set the fire and Yushin’s own character — too honorable and upright to flee with his own life intact and not reach out to help others.

Izuna’s guilt over the matter is misplaced.

He stumbles backwards, as if suddenly awakened. “My apologies,” he mutters and takes another step backwards, as if about to flee.

“Do you know why I hired you, Izuna-san?”

They are warmongers, Hisa. They bring only pain and death in their wake.

And yet, she has never forgotten how many lives he has saved.

Well worth the money.

Well worth the time.

Even if he has brought enemies with him, he has preserved so many lives.

She would always be grateful.

“In the month before you arrived, fourteen men transporting a caravan to Chugoku resting at the town of Nobuga were killed by bandits.” She had not known them so well, seeing as they were caravan men, not people who worked in the inner household whom she saw everyday.

But they were still men who traveled under the name of Kawaguchi at her family’s behest.

They still had lives and families, dreams and hopes, and they had these things until there had not been enough protection, and they had died still trying to ensure that the bandits did not thieve the silk.

But the work of so many hands had burned.

“Fourteen?” His face has gone a shade paler.

“Money cannot buy the love of a brother,” she half smiles, though there is no joy here. “But sometimes, if used correctly, it can buy the life of one.”

How many brothers had been saved because of him?

And how many more will now prosper?

He smiles, though in his eyes there is only pain. “I didn’t know.”

“No one comes with only good things, Izuna-san. We all have our flaws.” Her hands may be injured, but the way forward is clear, and her mind is made up. “Though if you keep coming back covered in blood, Saka will be very cross with you. She has told me that the junior laundry maids complain about your clothing, especially.”

What he has done now, she cannot begin to guess at.

But she suspects that the lives of men cling to him, the way dye lots cling to her.

And that must weigh.

It must weigh.

By June, the greenery in Chubu is so heavy that it reminds her of the forest she had seen in Yanai, hugging the base of the mountain ranges above.

Bamboo sways and bends with the wind, rustling with the gentleness of a prosperous summer.

Because O-Shiki is well again — or as well as she thinks she is going to get this year — she throws open the doors of the estate that has been long closed, and invites Hisa and the other young people of Chubu to see her, ostensibly for her second son’s first birthday since she had missed his month old celebration.

So it is that in the second week of June, Hisa dresses for a polo match. “Neesan, will I be as pretty as you someday?” Momo-chan is here again, to watch as Kimei does her hair and for her to do her makeup.

“You’re already pretty, my little peach.” In recent days, Momo has been over more often, first to start reciting her lessons, and then to practice sewing with her handmaids.

Perhaps this is Chiba-san attempting to trust her. The madam who lived in the eastern courtyard has been happier in recent days, the servants whispered of it.

All knew the reason, all could always speculate, but since the master of the house does not wear a heart of stone, it is only inevitable.

And perhaps she could accept that.

It is not as if Chichi-ue loved her less, and the accounts are still hers. Chiba-san has not asked for them, had not even mentioned the idea, even in the privacy of her personal handmaids.

We may never learn to love each other, but it must be enough.

For all the people who must live between the both of them, for the little girl who loves both of them, it will have to be enough.

“But Neesan is so pretty.” Momo-chan kicks her feet back and forth, her hands clenched over the edge of the lacquered stool. “Chichi-ue says that it is because Neesan’s haha-ue was also pretty.”

“He said that?” She turns to Momo. He should not have said that.

He has never said that to me.

As a child, he had never taught her to value beauty, and Haha-ue did not care to mention it.

Momo-chan nods eagerly. “He also said that Neesan’s haha-ue was pretty because she laughed a lot.” But here, Momo deflates, pouting as she considers her next words. “But Neesan, you do not laugh a lot.”

Oh, so that is what it is.

She bursts into giggles and leans over to pinch Momo’s cheeks. “Little Peach, you are terrible. Who says I don’t laugh a lot?”

“I don’t think you laugh a lot either.” Izuna’s voice sounds from the outer room. “Hisa-san, are you ready to come out?”

“Since you’ve made yourself known, you might as well come in.” She slides a series of blue glass flowers into her hair, sighing lightly. “Taking sides with a child now, Izuna-san?”

Izuna does step in, dressed in a steel blue with embroidered wave patterns. “You’re the one fighting with a child, Hisa-san. Who would be more childish among us then?”

Momo giggles, covering her face with her hands. “Is Shinobi-niisan?”

“Uchiha Izuna-san,” she corrects. “Or Uchiha-san.”

“Izuna-niisan,” Izuna says instead. “I will refuse to answer to anything else.”

At this, Momo bubbles over with laughter, rocking back and forth. “Is a pretty niisan.” She hops off of her stool and exits past a rather dumbfounded Izuna, the air still filled with her laughter.

Hisa turns her eyes back up to Izuna’s face. “And how does the pretty niisan feel today?”

Izuna makes a face at her. “I didn’t mean for you to call me niisan.”

She laughs at this, the corners of her mouth turning down in amusement. “You did ask my little sister to call you niisan. And I am certain you are older.” But her hair is almost done now. “Unless of course, you would wish to be otouto instead?”

He makes an even worse face at this. “They should call you Hisa the Cruel instead.”

She rises, skirts rustling lightly. “Whatever they call me, they won’t call me late to the party, so I accept it.”

This year, Somei-chan is old enough to join them. And next year, Toraki-kun will be able to come along as well.

And in Aunt Hasuyo’s courtyard, she has begun to worry about a son-in-law for her elder daughter. Retsu is only eighteen, but while Aunt Hasuyo finds that too young to marry, it is not too young to think about it.

A mother looks to seeing her daughters married off well and that their daughters-in-law are properly suited to their sons.

Fathers do not think the same way of their daughters, which is why Hisa has escaped the plight of having someone worry so over her own eventual marriage.

Chichi-ue seems content for her to find someone suited to her own whims.

And so thinking so, she folds her hands together, eggshell blue sleeves spilling over each other. Today, her skirts are embroidered with lotus flowers, the lightest blush of pink deepening into almost red. A tiny jade lotus hangs among the other beads of her buyao, the newest gift that Chichi-ue brought from Kamakura town.

She suspects she would look good in red and wishes for spider lilies embroidered in gold on a red qun to wear out for the world to see.

But full red is for brides, and pink is for young unmarried ladies.

And she is no bride, so she makes do with blue and pink.

After all, O-Shiki had threatened her with playing polo today, so she ought to at least wear something she will not mind getting sweaty.

Izuna offers her a hand when they arrive, dressed formally, but in an outfit that he still felt comfortable enough wearing, sword at his waist.

There is safety here, reassurance that nothing would go wrong. And she is grateful for such.

The sight of the upper pavilion, where O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto are, makes her slow down slightly, waiting for Somei-chan and Retsu-chan and their handmaids to catch up to her and Kimei.

While O-Shiki and Lord Fusamoto are in attendance, as is Kiyowara-hime and both of their children, another man and woman are also in attendance, the man holding Kata-kun.

O-Shiki has failed to mention that her brother and her sister-in-law are still at her estate.

But then, she had heard no news of Lord Iesuke and Iro-hime leaving thus, so it is perfectly reasonable that they have stayed.

“The countess’s brother and sister-in-law are here.” Best at least remind Retsu-chan and Somei-chan of who that would be, Somei-chan especially since it is her first time out. “Marquis Asukabe’s second son, Lord of the West Pavilion, Asukabe Iesuke-sama, and his wife, Iroyoka-hime.”

At this particular declaration, both of her cousins fall silent, falling in behind her. Today, she will have to carry both the introductions and the conversation.

It could be more important people, if one was really thinking about it.

The visitor could always be O-Shiki’s other brother.

But then, the other brother isn’t married to a princess.

What bothered her more, though, is that while Sato Astunari is in attendance, she does not see O-Toyo.

With how much O-Toyo had worried about her stepmother’s arrangements to marry her off, her absence from this gathering is troubling.

“Hmmm,” Lord Iesuke is seated almost sideways on the dias, cooing over Kata-kun, when they arrive, his wife also leaning in his direction, one of her fingers firmly in Kata-kun’s grip. “Who’s a handsome little boy? Is it you?”

They are a happy people, she supposes, Lord Iesuke and his wife, for the way they act seems to be one heart and one intention, in a way that few married couples are.

“Oh! Hisa-chan!” O-Shiki rises, and makes her way over, more slowly than she would normally. “Am I glad to see your face.” O-Shiki pulls her up onto the dais, further closer to the new guests. “You simply must see your godson; he is so very cute.”

“He is your son,” she protests. “He is certain to be cute.”

Both Lord Iesuke and Iro-hime turn to look at her.

He has a long face and high forehead, a square jaw, and while dressed in a brighter blue than he ought to be wearing and slouched over his seat as he is, one leg crossed over the other, still cuts an imposing figure.

She is dressed more subduedly in jewel tones, as befitting of a matron, black hair done up sleekly with enough hairsticks that it flashes every time she moves her head. Iro-hime’s eyes flicker past her, to where Izuna stands silently at her shoulder, but she says nothing.

Long has Iro-hime been rumored to be the most beautiful and accomplished of the Daimyo’s daughters. Despite being a shu daughter, hers was the only marriage granted by the Daimyo himself.

“So this is the infamous Kawaguchi O-Hisa-san!” Lord Iesuke smiles, the action lifting the corners of his eyes. “I have to say, after writing so many letters to you, I had to argue Iro-chan down to staying for another month so I could meet you in person. T’would be regretful to have left without the experience.”

He does not speak at all like he writes.

She bobs a curtsy, her arm still in O-Shiki’s grasp. “I am deeply humbled by Asukabe-sama’s regard. Surely the meeting is actually very disappointing.”

He laughs, turning back to cooing over Kata-kun. “Listen to yourself. My little sister isn’t so fond of friends as all that, and yet she is fond of you.”

The rebuke is made carelessly, seemingly without much thought, but it is masterfully done.

How could she deny it when she knows it is true? And more than knowing it is true, ever dare to imply that O-Shiki’s regard for her is anything but genuine?

Not so different from the man who wrote, then.

“Asukabe-sama showers me with such high praise.” Best tread carefully, since he is no idle fool. “I fear I will not be able to carry such heavy regard.”

He does not turn back to her, though Iro-hime watches her still, amber eyes alight with attention. “You’ll have to forgive him,” the shu princess demures. “My husband is a careless man and does not often think before he speaks.”

Happy people, indeed.

One of them sets up the stage and the other offers her a hand off after she’s already played the fool.

She smiles at this, eyes downcast. “I have found Asukabe-sama to be well learned and astute in his writing.” They are not the only people who can pay compliments.

Lord Fusamoto rises, clapping his hands together. “Are we celebrating my son’s first birthday, or are we celebrating how clever we all are?” He nods to Retsu-chan and Somei-chan, welcoming them properly for the first time, and then comes to pry Kata-kun from his brother-in-law. “You might be used to saying whatever you like in the capital city, but I haven’t given you free rein to terrorize my poor guests.”

Lord Iesuke puts on a look of mock affrontation, but Kata-kun is passed on over to her without much further fanfare.

He truly is a cute child, with soft black hair, chubby cheeks, and the same black eyes of his brother and father.

He observes her very seriously, without a shred of fear.

“Say hello to Auntie Hisa,” O-Shiki prompts.

Kata-kun only giggles, a tiny dimple appearing on his chin as he waves his hands about.

He will likely never know how much had been paid for his life, how much blood, how much suffering, how his mother had been willing to sign her name in the King of Hell’s book if only he would live, which would be kinder to him.

As for his godmother being a common merchant’s daughter who could find him no useful connections or aid him much in court...well, she hopes he does not mind that as much.

The polo fields had already been open to matches by the time she arrived, though the prizes had been smaller and less ornate earlier in the day.

By the time Lord Fusamoto returns, having lost yet another match and laughed it off with the good humor of a man who does not squabble over petty things, things have proceeded apace. Lord Iesuke had forced her into matching fourteen couplets in the span of one polo match, each upper line delivered slightly more attentively than the last.

If he is trying to ascertain if she is educated enough to be godmother to a count’s son, she supposes he must be satisfied after the fourteen poems they have concocted together in the space of a polo match or two.

It is a shame that it has kept her from enjoying how the young men from Chubu’s baronic households have yet again beaten Lord Fusamoto by a hair and delighted over it.

Lord Iesuke rises, rolling his shoulders lightly before cracking his neck. “Mmm, I suppose I should go a round.”

O-Shiki laughs at this, leaning back in her chair, still paler beneath her face paint than she would be normally. The road to recovery is long, but O-Shiki has always been bullheaded and determined to prove herself strong. Whatever happens, she intends to make it through this party through force of will alone. “Still not giving up the games of childhood, Niisan?”

Lord Iesuke pauses as he cracks his back. “That makes me sound so old, Shiki-chan. I can still survive a game of polo.” He turns back to the seated audience on the dais. “You’ll have to find me a suitable partner to carry my poor self through the game.”

And it feels like they are playing some sort of southern opera, the way they have their characters and set pieces.

O-Shiki has clearly come up with another bad idea, and here she is, having walked straight into it once again, simply because she likes to play polo.

O-Shiki smiles, pleased at the entrapment and the situation. “I know just the person, Niisan.”

All eyes turn to her, dressed for polo and not yet partnered with anyone.

Lord Iesuke smiles, a fox of nine tails, and turns to her with a bow and a flourish. “Well, O-Hisa-san, after you?”

And if they must all be mummers, at least she can walk down the path of mummery with grace and a smile. What good would it be to drag her feet?

“I would love to, Asukabe-sama.”

She urges her horse forward, polo stick in hand, eyes on the ball being bandied back and forth between the opposing two teams.

From behind her, Lord Iesuke leans forward low over the neck of his horse, racing in full gallop, and smashes straight through the center of the two younger barons.

He plays polo like a madman, betting on how others would not dare hit the honored son-in-law of the Daimyo to force others off of the ball, not the least bit prudent.

When speaking, he at least holds back a little.

On the polo field, he doesn’t hold back at all, wild like he is riding to war.

Misfortunately, Chubu’s nobles have never seen anything like it in an age, Lord Fusamoto being far more good natured when it comes to winning or losing. Like a cat among the pigeons, the other young men and women scatter and fall.

And while she might be ruthless, she does not have the sort of weight to throw around that he does.

She sweeps past them, the way to the goal clear.

A few passes, and they have settled into rhythm.

With a wild whoop, he passes the ball to her, and with a flick of her wrist, she drives it through the end goal.

“Red Team!” Suteo calls. “One point!”

Another flag in the stand.

There have been only red flags in the stand so far.

They all move back towards the center of the field.

In the east, thunder rolls, clouds dark against the sun.

She bats the thrown ball out of the air, across half the field, and straight into the goal.

Suteo is almost laughing when he calls the next point. “Maybe it’s best to give up early, my lords.” He covers his smile with his hand, though that does not hide the delight in his eyes. “After all, it looks as though it will rain soon.”

The rain comes down heavy and hard, sliding off of the tiled roofs and pattering against the edges of the walkway, driving flower petals from their stems.

After so long where the summer droughts ruled their lives, it is good to see the rain, even if it has called the polo match early.

Both Kata-kun and Kore-kun have been handed off, and all the ladies adjourn to O-Shiki’s greeting hall to nibble on pastries and fruits, still abuzz over the situation.

That O-Toyo is still so obviously missing worries her.

And it must worry O-Shiki as well, for she stubbornly guides Baroness Yamamoto away from the current topic of conversation. “My brother and my second sister-in-law simply haven’t been blessed with children yet. Such things aren’t so unusual.”

“He seems very taken with Kata-kun.” This comes from Baroness Ito, whose husband serves as Shunan’s Magistrate. “It is a rare man indeed who is so fond of children and yet does not have any of his own.”

Across the room, Iro-hime’s handkerchief crumples in her hand, though her face is as pleasant and placid as ever.

“Eight years is a bit unusual…” Baroness Yamamoto muses. She is the oldest person in the room, a matron with graying hair and a grave presence. “You have only been married in for five years, and yet don’t you and Lord Fusamoto have two sons already?”

O-Shiki is a straightforward woman, not prone to twisting words for her own gain, and though she is the countess and therefore more highly ranked than the other women in the room, they are her elders and ought to be afforded respect when they have not done anything wrong.

Searching for marital gossip is not really wrong, since all people do such things in their idle pastime.

Softly, Hisa taps her closed fan against her other hand, watching as Iro-hime seems to grow more defensive, knuckles white against the blue linen of her handkerchief, golden phoenix in her hair trembling ever so slightly.

It does not exactly do her much good to say something.

She knows very little about Iro-hime’s temperament, though there are some things she can guess — she is proud and well learned, and she both cares for and knows her husband well — such matters are sensitive.

Such matters are sensitive, and even second sons want sons to carry on their name and legacy.

“Aren’t such things,” and here she spreads her fan, covering the bottom half of her face, half smiling, “Heaven’s will?”

It is what they all say about lover’s meetings and children’s lives and horrible accidents and death by sickness.

It is Heaven’s will.

Who ever heard of Heaven complying with the will of man?

And so saying so, a pause arises in the conversation without Iro-hime having said a single word.

And into the silence, again leaps O-Shiki, desperate to change the topic of conversation.

“Oh! Hisa-chan, I was just about to ask you for a favor.”

And though perhaps it is not best to speak of public favors, she had been the one to make herself noticeable by commenting upon the matter.

Is it really helping someone if she doesn’t finish the job?

She smiles and turns to O-Shiki. “If it is within my means, of course.”

“Oh,” O-Shiki laughs, delighted. “You wouldn’t believe what my big sister-in-law said about the newest items in my wardrobe the last time I visited my maiden home.”

She can see where this is going.

She can see where it is going, but she still must play the part. “She must’ve noticed some defect in the cloth.” Half a face covered by her fan, she peers at O-Shiki over the edge of the waxed paper and bamboo ribs. “Our workmanship here cannot compare to the excellence found in the capital city.”

O-Shiki giggles, a brilliant bright thing. “Will you please take a compliment, Hisa-chan? She is after all, in our generation of people.” O-Shiki leans forward to hold her hand. “She thinks they’re lovely, and wants the cloth to make clothing with. I figured I should ask you first before I promised anything.”

Halfway through the inside party, the rain stops, and she makes her excuses, having already, perhaps, overstayed her welcome in hospitality among these noble ladies with too much time on their hands.

It does no good to draw too much attention, for attention leads to jealousy, and jealousy leads to suffering. .

Her family is small, and like an ant, easy to step on.

And today she has perhaps drawn too much attention.

O-Shiki is busy still, hostess as she is, but Hisa doesn’t expect Iro-hime to rise, taking her by the arm to walk her out. O-Shiki turns, a question in her eyes, but does not rise.

O-Shiki has only grown paler during the party, clearly fatigued, though she does not show it otherwise.

It is best to not impose further.

They are on the walkway in the garden by the time Iro-hime begins talking. “My little sister-in-law is a straightforward soul who does not put shutters on her words, and she sees the best in people.”

She sees where this is going. “O-Shiki-sama has always been very generous.”

From the outside, this does look like a relationship where she takes advantage of the Countess’s kind heart and straightforward generosity to advance herself and her family.

Because she herself is not a very straightforward person — someone who wears two faces never can be — and the depth of how she feels about people is not something she generally shows to those she has not known for some time and likes.

“Are you engaged yet, Kawaguchi-san?”

So it comes back to this.

“No, not yet.”

Her two little cousins are behind her, and the conversation is loud enough that they can hear every word.

Kimei is here, and so are Retsu-chan and Somei-chan’s handmaids.

And for their sake, she must not bend.

Izuna is here as well, ambling leisurely.

“She may not think you are taking advantage of her trust, but walk carefully, Kawaguchi-san. There is no need to attempt also making inroads with me.”

“I did not risk my father’s reputation so that I could make attempts at idle flattery, hime-sama.” Her words are still chosen pleasantly, but like a reed in the river, she might bend.

But also like a reed in the river, there comes a time when she will bend no more.

Even reeds must snap.

She’d done so because…

She knows what sorts of things people say about women who seem to have failed in their more important duty — not filial enough, not dutiful enough, not virtuous enough, not kind or good or giving, when in the end, none of these things determine the number of living sons any woman has or what those sons do in their lifetimes.

Knows well that so often, the ones who wield the sharpest of critical blades are other women, seeking to improve their own situation.

Iro-hime turns to her then, and they stand there, face to face, eye to eye. “You gain no benefit from speaking up for me, unless you think it would make me consider you more positively when neither you nor your relatives belong here.”

Yes, she is a merchant’s daughter, not made for rubbing elbows with the wives and daughters of barons or playing polo with the son-in-law of the daimyo.

Knows that she is less cultured and educated than they.

“Must everything in the world be done for benefits?” The common insult bandied about when it came to merchants is that they are a transactional people, calculating every ryo, to the point that the same attitude extends to their relationships.

But while money might buy a husband, it cannot buy respect.

If it could, she would not be standing here, listening to a princess question what it is that she wants from her friends, instead of what she gives.

“And you are old to be yet unmarried.” The words sting.

“My father has no sons.” It is not as if she is unmarried at twenty-one because she has nowhere to go. And it is not as if she is desperate to get married. “If I were to marry out, my dowry would be no less than half his fortune.”

But she does not choose to marry out to any number of the young men whose families are hungry for money, and her own standards are too high to marry a second or third son who had never bothered to work in his lifetime.

“It is not as if O-Hisa-san lacks for suitors.” Izuna’s voice rings over the silence. He stands just behind her, unyielding. “I would say she is rather spoiled for choice.” Almost as if he’d planned it all along, he hands her up into the carriage, Kimei following.

“I don’t know why she had to be so rude,” Kimei grumbles, when they are far away enough that no one would overhear her saying this. “Lady Shikikami wouldn’t even be alive if not for your quick thinking. And you nearly lost your life over it.”

“She likely does not know.” She reaches over and smooths the frown line from Kimei’s brow. “Don’t think on it so deeply.”

A secret is only a secret when few people know of it. To protect her life, Lord Fusamoto had likely not told his brother-in-law of the truth.

“She is a woman too.” But Kimei will not let this go. “She is a woman too. Doesn’t she know that every woman fears being told she is an old maid, never to be married?”

She sighs. “Iro-hime is a woman too. Doesn’t that mean she knows about all the unscrupulous ways a woman might try to climb the social ladder?”

She’d been born to almost the most pampered and precious position a daughter could have — only daughters of the Kogo could hope to do better — but she is still a woman and knows the ways women wield power and utilize each other.

“In a household full of women,” Haha-ue had once told her this while brushing out her hair. “In a house full of women, only one can be the wife and hold all the power. Everyone else has to settle for being a concubine. In life, women are the least kind to each other, because we have so few paths to owning anything of value.”

And in that, she is luckier than most.

Husbands and brothers and fathers are often fickle.

But Chichi-ue has never been.


Hiko sets down the final Go stone in the match, and looks up at Izuna. “You’re not very practiced, are you?”

Izuna, for his part, makes a face. “And you’ve had far too much practice.” Slowly, they begin to gather up the stones, sorting white and black back into their respective bowls. “You’re a busy man, where do you find the time?”

She half listens to the conversation, busy as she is with finishing Hiko’s newest robe.

He’d accidentally set fire to a sleeve while bending over a candle. It’d been a miracle he didn’t set his hair on fire either with how little he enjoys wearing a formal topknot unless he has to see outside people.

“I have been gifted with many wonderful opportunities to practice.” Hiko smiles, a little sharp but mosting amused as he rises. “But be careful, Izuna, my teacher is a harder man to crack than I.”

It no longer sounds like they are speaking about Go.

But in all things, Chichi-ue has been Hiko’s teacher.

Izuna makes another face. “Who says I want to play your teacher?”

At this, Hiko only laughs, snapping his fan open. “But you will have to, to reach what you seek, no?”

Izuna turns around so that his back is to Hiko and crosses his arms. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

If it is about playing Go with Chichi-ue…

“It is true that at your current level of skill, you would find it very hard to win against Chichi-ue.”

At your current playing level, you’ll have a hard time against me.

He might be an accomplished musician and an accomplished swordsman, but the gentleman’s strategy game eludes him.

Izuna huffs at her. “Who said it was anything about Go?”

She sets her sewing aside to set her head against one hand. “I like to think we are good enough friends for me to tell you this, but there is not anyone in Shunan who can best Chichi-ue at a match.”

Not anymore.

No, Chichi-ue had married the woman who could win against him.

The face he makes tells her that she has hit a nerve, and this delights her.

“It has been a good year thus far.” She turns her face up to the sun among the flowers, leaning back against the stone table, content.

“Ah,” he agrees, sitting in the chair behind her. “In some ways, it has.”

Chapter Text

She visits Izuna in his courtyard in the early hours of the evening, flower lantern in hand as she makes her way up the walk.

He is sitting in the courtyard when she arrives, playing the qin, a sake tokkuri by his side.

“Ambush From All Sides,” she names, though she’s sure he’s heard her while she walked up.

Once, he’d told her she walked loudly — that everyone here did, really — and how amusing he had found that.

You do not sneak, he’d said. You trample.

She’d laughed and wondered what his ears were made of.

Today’s music choice seemed much more like the sort that shinobi would play, combative, lively, and thinking about bloodshed.

But he plays it lightly, like people dancing and birds chirping in the trees.

The mood is different, but the notes are the same.

He turns to her, smiling. “Improperly visiting for business again?”

“Improperly visiting a friend.” She sits down on the stone bench some distance away, setting the lantern on the ground to her right. “Unless, of course, we are not friends?”

His expression freezes for a moment, hands hovering over the strings, before he slowly pulls his hands back setting them in his lap. “Of course we are...friends.”

“You do not sound convinced.” She laughs, hiding her smile behind her sleeves. “Should I feel hurt by this moment of rejection?”

He shifts, sword sheath scraping against the stone. “Hisa-san falsely accuses me of rejection.”

And amusingly enough, he does sound quite offended by her teasing.

Perhaps she shouldn’t prod him with words that do not quite mean what he thinks they mean.

For all that he is a shinobi, he is still so very straightforward as long as one knows how to read him.

“I accuse you of nothing.”

Again, he shifts in his seat, the rasp of steel against stone loud in the silence he lets stretch.

“Why do you wear a sword here?”

The Senju have been quiet for a long time now, not showing up to heckle the caravans or bother any travel from their house.

And surely, there is no reason to believe that the Senju would come into the house to attempt murder.

“I wear it everywhere.” He shrugs. “At home, I sleep with it. The sword is the soul of the shinobi.” At her surprise, he continues more slowly. “Few civilians are allowed swords, unless they are noblemen or under a nobleman’s banner. But all shinobi are allowed swords, rich or poor, noble or not.”

He speaks of it with such reverence, so much so that it is more than just a weapon.

She’d been raised to think of swords with the same disdain that Chichi-ue had for butcher’s knives — things that kill. Except swords were probably worse, given that butcher’s knives were not made to slaughter men.

The sword is the soul of the shinobi.

“Can I see it?”

What does your soul look like?

She has seen it blood covered. She has seen it sheathed.

But she does not really know what it looks like.

“Careful, it’s sharp.” He rises and passes it over to her. “It was forged for me by my uncle when I came of age.”

“Not that long ago, then?” She accepts it by the hilt, their fingers brushing, though he steps back.

“Hisa-san makes many assumptions about my age.” Izuna sounds as though he is mildly perturbed. “How do you know I am not a thousand year old demon born of darkness and corruption?”

“Even if you were, you still would have come of age recently.”

The sword is made of a steel so dark that it glows blue in the lantern light. Etched lightly on one side of the blade is the Uchiwa, and on the other is what looks like a personal crest — two tongues of flame swirled into the shape of a yin yang.

The hilt is bound with polished wood, a red tassel threaded through the end made of silk cord and wire.

His uncle is a craftsman then, for although it is deadly, it bears personal touches, symbols she cannot completely parse. It was meant as a gift, meant to represent him.

Though a killing weapon, there is a grace and elegance to it.

“It is a beautiful thing.” She holds it back out to him, hilt first. “Your uncle surely must be very proud.”

“He’s growing old,” he murmurs, staring into the distance. “And he and my father had some sort of falling out long ago and will no longer speak to each other. But in our clan, there is no one who makes swords better.” For a moment, he looks almost frail. “He thought that my eldest brother would succeed him, before, well…” He looks away, a touch of rue upon his brow. “I’ve grown maudlin again.”

“We all carry our losses with us.” The words he said paints a picture of a family, split by division and grief, inimitably human. “There is no shame in that.”

“Here.” He shakes himself. “I’ll show you how to use it.”

She almost protests.

What could I, a civilian woman who has never held a blade before today, learn about this?

But he steps behind her, sets a hand over hers.

And she forgets to protest.

She had never noticed before how much taller than her he is, how his hand dwarfs hers by comparison.

“Relax your wrist,” he whispers, radiating warmth despite the brisk chill of the air.

And slowly, they turn.

“In the north, there are mountains.”

It is like dancing in a way. He leads and she follows.

And slowly, the sword slips from her hand to his, and he continues on alone. “Among the flowers with wine beneath the sky. Alone I drink — no friend or kin, just me.” He quotes Ri Haku’s “Drinking Alone” today, his sword a deadly silver thing in the lantern light, a pale round moon above them. “I raise my cup to toast the moon on high. That’s two of us; my shadow makes it three.” And round he turns, sake tokkuri in hand to toast her.

And so she answers him. “I sing — it sets the moon to rock in time. I dance — my shadow cannot hold its place.”

He spins, hair fluttering in the wind. “Sober, we share companionship sublime. Drunk at last, we drift apart in space.”

“Lost to worldly things, until some day.” He turns to look at her when she finishes the line, sword held loosely in his hand, an emotion in his eyes that she does not name, for naming would almost ruin it. She holds his gaze. “We’ll meet again, beyond the Milky Way.”

He stands there for a moment, silent, sword still in hand. “Will I meet you there, on the bridge?” There is hope here, and a hint of insecurity, as if he expects her to say no.

She smiles. “If the magpies are working.”

He laughs, a bright thing, earlier mournfulness forgotten. “I, I’m glad.”

The evening ends with his head in her lap, sheathed sword laid out across the table, wine cup still dangling loosely from his hand. "I think you're beautiful."

He is not entirely present anymore, being half drunk at the very least.

But his words still surprise her.

"You do?"

"Do the stars in heaven weep?” he muses, gaze either on her face or at the moon behind her. “For our mortal realm holds greater beauty than they."

It is rare that she is flattered by words, rarer still that she gives much credence to mentions of her beauty, but he looks so earnest tonight, eyes bright, a half smile on his lips.

“Flatterer,” she whispers. “You are not the first to say so.”

And yet I hope you are the last.

A corner of his mouth tilts up, a crooked line to his half smile. “I thought as much, Hisa-san. I thought as much.”

And slowly around them, the lanterns smoulder, and one by one they go out.

It is just after noon when Aka comes in to let her, Hiko, and Kimei know that the Big Madam is here to see her.

The matter is treated with some oddity. In the six and a half years that Chiba-san has been married to Chichi-ue, she has very rarely come to Hisa’s courtyard. Whenever they needed to speak over any particular affair, she’d gone to the eastern courtyard instead.

But by the reports, it does not seem as though Chiba-san is planning anything in particular.

And she’d been tired of the accounts before this anyway.

“I don’t see why not.” She sets aside her books and brush and rises to go out to the courtyard. Kimei huffs, but she rises as well to take the pastries and tea out.

It is still warm enough for the meeting to take place out of doors, and no doubt, Hiko would be glad of it.

He still hasn’t forgiven or forgotten the time Chiba-san threatened to have him caned for insolence, and she does not ask him to.

Best that they be kept separate, though she feels the slightest hint of amusement that she is the one doing the separating.

“Aka says that you wished to see me?”

Chiba-san is standing, waiting for her to arrive, admiring the branches of Haha-ue’s peach tree.

For a brief moment, she is suddenly made aware that she has no idea what her stepmother’s interests are, if she even really prefers music and sewing, or if she likes flowers or poetry or pitch pot or polo or opera or if she preferred some other form of entertainment.

It has been some time, but she knows nothing.

“I did, yes.” Chiba-san doesn’t sit, and because she is an elder, Hisa doesn’t sit either. “To thank you.”

“I have done nothing to be thanked for.”

She has never paid her father’s second wife the respect the other woman deserves, and they both know this, and thus she has done nothing that requires thanks.

“Everyone in this house besides the people I brought with me knew that you would have more say here than I do.” For the first time in a long time, they stand face to face and speak plainly, without the bitterness that had shadowed them since first sight.

“That is only because this household is an unconventional one.” Many of their servants have been here a long time, Haha-ue’s dowry servants from Yanai, or had been with Chichi-ue since their youth.

In her own courtyard, of the five handmaids in charge of her affairs — Kimei had grown up with her; Aka had come to their household after Chichi-ue had bought and promptly torn up her life contract from another household; Nene had formerly been hired as a kitchen maid a few months before Chiba-san had married in; Fuku and Ina had been sold into the household at ages ten and eight respectively, assigned to her courtyard as they each turned twelve.

The household is full of trusted people, and she and Chichi-ue have always treated them kindly.

In all well governed households, the servants do as the master feels, watching the expression on his face rather than what words he chose to say.

And Chichi-ue’s feelings had been perfectly clear.

“I would have been unhappy as well, had my father chosen to remarry someone not even a decade older than I.”

Only a scant five years separates them. Perhaps that is what has made it hard to consider Chiba-san a second mother.

She’d already been grown when her father’s second wife stepped through the door.

Perhaps, if she had still been that frightened little girl, a second mother would’ve been a blessing.

“And yet, our paths have already come to this.” She smiles, halfway rueful.

Her aunts, to whom Haha-ue had been a benefactor, had never welcomed Chiba-san as they ought either. “Why thank me? We only do what we have to to live.”

“You left a side of the net open for me.” Chiba-san sets her hand on the table. “And you have always been an excellent sister. Whatever differences we have had, whatever mistakes I may have made, you have never involved or resented Momo.”

“She is my father’s daughter.” Her father has two daughters. “And my own sister. Wouldn’t I really be heartless if I involved her in my own grievances?”

And for all they have suffered living together in the same house, Chiba-san has never tried to tell Momo to dislike her.

Kimei brings out tea and cakes and her sewing, and slowly, she and Chiba-san sit there, talking.

She has only just risen to go in, Chiba-san saying her goodbyes, when Izuna comes up the walk, bleeding from a shallow cut on his cheekbone.

He is not particularly blood covered, but there is a wild look in his eyes. “Hisa-san?”

Beside her, Chiba-san stiffens. “Second Miss, who is this?”

She folds her hands together before her, pink sleeves draping over her hands. “I seem remiss in my introductions. Chiba-san, this is Uchiha Izuna-san, one of the shinobi I have employed for the safety of our household. Izuna-san, this is Chiba Natsu-san, my honored father’s wife.”

Izuna’s eyes go wide for a moment, though he manages a bow. “My greetings to Chiba-san.”

Chiba-san rallies herself, her face devoid of her earlier shock. “So it is Uchiha-san. My apologies for not recognizing you. I’m sure you still have business matters to speak of with our Second Miss, so I won’t hold you up any longer.”

“Big Madam, I’ll walk you out.” Aka appears to offer Chiba-san an arm, and the two of them disappear down the walk.

After they have turned the corner and gone, she turns her gaze back up to Izuna, who now shudders as though caught in the evening chill. “You went out again?”

To fight someone, or multiple someones.

He does not respond, but his gaze says it all.

She gathers up her sewing, and with a sigh, beckons for him to come in. “Come, your cheek is bleeding.”

He stumbles in after her, sits in the chair she pulls out for him, and without a word, lets her dab at his face. The cut runs quite a bit deeper than she thought it was at first glance, having barely missed his eye.

“Why did you go out?” she asks, but this receives no response either. “Are you hurt anywhere else?” She takes him by the shoulders and attempts turning him, but he immediately stiffens, and for one brief, horrified moment, she remembers how improper this is, before she drops her hands as though burnt by oil.

He breathes out. “No, only other people were injured.”

There is something else in his eyes now, and though something has changed, she does not know what it is.

“Why did you go out?”

He’d agreed not to.

“I solved your problem for you,” he mutters, which isn’t an answer either. “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. No one will ever bother you again.”

What gives him the right to say this, she doesn’t know. “The Senju?”

“They won’t come back here if they value living.” He lurches to his feet, still shaking. “Or if they know what’s good for them, which is living.”

And though she wants him to stop, wants him to explain, the words stick in her throat.

There is something so different about him today.

He pauses in her doorway, looking out at the garden, cattails and lotus flowers, bamboo and bloodgrass, lilies and iris. “I have to leave,” he whispers. “I hope you understand.”

“Something came up?” She rises from her desk, looks up at the pale shadow of his face.

At his side, a hand curls into a fist before he forces it to relax. “Something like that.”

And she could ask. She could ask, because she has asked before, and he has always told her the truth.

But the wooden duck still lingers on her desk, a promise unspoken and without name, and the taut line of his shoulders does not seem like a sign that he will speak to her again.

He is fighting against something that only he can see, something from his world that does not have form or name for her.

Even if he were to explain it to her, would she understand?

“I see.” She does not ask. “Safe travels?”

He laughs, and it sounds as though he were hollow, clinging to something in the flood. “I will try.”

I will try.

“That is all I ask.”

She tries not to ask so much of him these days, after seeing the depths he is willing to crawl for her, but she will ask this of him, if only because the world he goes out into is cruel.

Let him spare himself a little kindness.

“I—” he stumbles on his words, soft, deadly, sad. “I do not know when or if I will return.”

The thought that he might not return brings her pain of a different sort. It has been some time since she has had to bid goodbye to anyone.

But he is not hers to miss or ask to stay.

He had said what he meant, no more, and he had made her no promises and intended to make none.

And in the end, it had not been improper.

“If you do not,” she says, and she wonders why it is harder to set something down than it is to pick it up and carry it with her. She has never been good at putting relationships down, and she is so very fond of him. “I hope you find the peace you are looking for.”

He laughs at this, still mirthless but less hollow than before. “I will try.”

She watches the outline of his back as he turns the corner down the walkway — he would not turn around — before turning back to the accounts.


Click. Click.

He is not hers to miss.

Or ask to stay.

She has so much work to do.

Seven sooty men stand before Chichi-ue’s desk when she arrives, having been summoned, Hiroto at their head.

“Fires don’t arise out of nowhere,” Chichi-ue says, his face heavy, though it brightens for a moment when he sees her. “You’re sure you saw no one?”

Hiroto shakes his head. “No one, Kawaguchi-san. We were out pruning the trees in the east field, and Taisei was about to drive the leaves back to the silkworm houses, when he saw the fire in the west.”

She is silent while she takes her seat, still listening as Hiroto describes the nature of the fire, the way he and his crew had immediately started hauling water from the river to combat the damage.

“I do know,” Hiroto pauses, a fist clenched in rage, “that whoever they are, they brought in pine wood from somewhere else and set it ablaze at the base of our trees.”

No, living trees are too hard to light, and it has been a wet year without much chance for the fields to crackle with such dry energy. The river water levels are high this summer.

“They wanted to cook the trees, not set fire to them.”

Whatever this was, it was premeditated, carefully planned so that the vast majority of people would be on the other side of the fields. Had they been watching Hiroto and the others to learn their schedules?

The fact that the fire had so clearly been set by human hands and yet no one had seen or heard a thing implied much more than it seemed.

But Izuna is not here for her to consult regarding the matter.

He would know who it was, she’s sure, possibly down to the name of the men who had done this, but he has not yet returned, and she does not have the same rapport with his cousins.

What she can do is direct them to pay more attention to the movements of the Senju, since they have now shown their hand, any moment they show themselves again, there is legal recourse.

And she certainly won’t speak well of them to any of her acquaintances.

Hiroto and the other men are rattled but unhurt, and that is the only reason she remains so calm. Had any of them suffered more than the sudden fear of seeing flames licking at the trees, she would want blood.

“Whoever they are,” Hiroto leans to the side and coughs angrily into his arm, “I wish I caught a glimpse of them. Magistrate would make them pay damages and cane them in the public square for insults like this.”

The other men behind him mutter their agreements, casting glances at Chichi-ue’s face, blushing slightly between accidental swear words that she is not supposed to hear or know about the existence of.

Slowly, Chichi-ue sighs, setting down his brush. “It is late enough in the season by now, and I believe it has been predicted that this will be a mild winter. Order twice the number of trees. We might as well take this time to replant and see to it that the north field is also expanded. Meanwhile, I will lodge an official complaint to the guild.”

She has not seen Chichi-ue so angry in a long time.

Thieves are one thing. While they are not welcome in any sense of the word, it is easier to understand greed than it is to understand cruelty.

The men nod and converse among themselves as they disperse.

“They seek to frighten us,” she says, rising from her chair to pace the floor. “Because we are in the light and they are hiding in the dark.”

Chichi-ue does not watch her pace, instead, turning back to his letter writing. “I will have to travel once more, this time to Enkai to meet with a client there.”

“You will only have time to submit a complaint to the guild about the Senju then.” She stops pacing, coming to a rest right before his desk.

“I will leave baiting them out into the open for you.”

A heavy task, but she has already nearly suffered a mortal accident while near Senju shinobi and took their measure while she was at it.

Once a wolf has tasted the blood of lambs, it will come back again and again, drunk on the sweetness it cannot find elsewhere.

They have been blooded, and previous offenses had not been met with either offense or a particularly strong defense.

The Senju will grow bolder, and that is when the hand flips.

The House of Kawaguchi is not made of lambs.

“You can leave it to me, Chichi-ue. They will make a mistake.”

She does not expect O-Toyo to come calling the morning after, since normally O-Toyo is not let out of the house without her stepmother’s interrogations — and going to the house of a merchant is not among those places that were permissible for visiting.

But somehow, O-Toyo has done it this time, pacing back and forth, wringing her hands, and ruining her handkerchief by the time Hisa arrives.

“Hisa-chan! Hisa-chan, you have to help me.”

The look on O-Toyo’s face is one she never wants to see again, caught between despair and hope.

Someone has failed O-Toyo, and with the way things are, she can make a good guess as to who.

“Come to my courtyard. I’ll ask Nene to brew tea.”

These things are not made to be spoken of out in the open.

The walls have ears, and servants talk. It is only their nature. Such things could not be blamed on loose lips alone.

“But you will help me?” O-Toyo had been crying, at least, when she was in the carriage riding over. She’d done a valiant job of patting her cheeks dry and not ruining her makeup, but such things are only paint, a porcelain mask cracking and about to fall off.

Her childhood friend has been wearing this mask for a long time, since even before they’d met at the school.

“Kuma makes wonderful pastries. I’m sure you have the time to stay and try a few bites.” She links their arms and walks them deeper into the house, amidst the flowers and the trees, water moving on the pond and wind rustling the bamboo leaves.

It takes time for O-Toyo to get her bearings, but the walk does help with that.

Only after tea is poured and snacks are served and they are seated in her front room does she turn to O-Toyo again. “Tell me what’s wrong?”

Now that they are alone except for Kimei, O-Toyo takes a long, deep breath and bursts into tears. “S-she has found someone.”

O-Toyo had been unhappy, but resigned to marrying whomever her stepmother picked out among the crowd.

For the sake of family, for the sake of reputation, for the sake of not causing trouble or being difficult.

But this, standing on the brink of the decision, might as well be standing on the brink of a cliff.

No matter what benefits it brings to other people, O-Toyo is the one who has to live with the man for the rest of her life.

“S-she says,” and here there are fresh tears, “she wants me to send me to the estate of Baron Nishimura.”

“For his eldest son?”

The young master Nishimura is a sickly young man, yet unmarried at age twenty-seven because of it.


“Baron Nishimura is married.

Had been married for some thirty years.

More than twice O-Toyo’s age with a son seven years older.

A number of concubines.

“I don’t want to go.” O-Toyo rocks back and forth in her arms. “She has never loved me, and now she wants to sell me t-to—”

“Then you won’t go.” Our worst enemies are other women, indeed. It seems that even now, Haha-ue is not wrong.

But while there is no equality in the world, there can be justice.

There can be justice.

“How can I not go?”

Maybe it is because she is already angry. Maybe it is because she has spent so long silent, and now she no longer accepts silence.

Maybe it is because she has known O-Toyo since they were twelve and eleven, and concubines are kept women without legal status, subject to the whims of the madam of the household.

Maybe it is because she is no longer afraid of heaven or earth.

“Does Baron Sato not think there is anything wrong with this?” She finds it hard to believe that even an unconstant father would find it acceptable for his wife to make a concubine of his eldest legitimate daughter.

“She says,” and O-Toyo cannot stop shaking, though she has stopped crying, “it is because my dowry is so small. I am not worthy of being anyone’s wife. But I, I—”

Her hands ball to fists. “Your mother left you her entire dowry.”

The late Baroness Sato had been a pious woman, virtuous, goodhearted. These are the only things that anyone remembers of her now.

But she had not been poorly dowered.

And as her only child, O-Toyo should have inherited her mother’s dowry. Baron Sato should have set aside money and property for his eldest daughter in preparation for her marriage.

But the big madam holds the purse strings and keeps the accounts.

And no amount of money is enough money for greed.

“I-it’s gone.” The admission is unusually hard. O-Toyo has lived a life of denial, of careful words and more careful actions, of pretending to be happy, of taking up no space and holding no spotlight. “She spent it on trivial matters, because all along, she did not believe I deserved to live. I want to leave her. I want to leave both of them, but not like this.”

“Kimei,” she requests, “will you go tell Aka to fetch us more water?”

These things are best discussed with as few people as possible. After Kimei carefully draws the door closed behind her, Hisa speaks again. “And what does Masuda-san of the Harajuku District think of that?”

Masuda Ryusei is a scholar who studied at Baron Sato’s school and had for some years until he’d tested well in the last round of imperial exams and accepted an administrative position under Lord Fusamoto’s directive in the city proper.

A poor but honest man.

He’d written Baron Sato’s eldest daughter poetry.

And for someone who has never been anyone’s most precious person, the value of those lines sank deep.

“He said,” and here, O-Toyo wavers, “that the cicada sings for a season, but the poet sings for a lifetime.”

“Do you want to marry him?” So Masuda-san does not care if she has money or not. That simplifies things.

“I cannot.” O-Toyo pulls back to look at her. “Hisa-chan, I can’t.

“I didn’t ask if you could or couldn’t.” These are not the same questions. “I asked if you wanted to.”

“Hisa-chan, if I marry him, it would be the same as ruining him.” O-Toyo looks down at her lap, crescent bruises the shape of nails pressed into the back of her hands. “How could I profess to love him and still push him off the ladder he has worked so hard to climb?”

“Maybe he would rather marry you.” Like Chichi-ue, once upon a time, in love with a woman people said he could never attain. To love her would be your ruin, her grandfather had cautioned him. Someone like that is beyond your reach.

And yet, a year later, it had been Chichi-ue who sent betrothal gifts to Yanai, a fox who’d stolen the tiger’s heart.

“When you really care about someone,” O-Toyo says, her head against Hisa’s shoulder, “you think of his welfare, sleeping or waking. You want him to be happy, and you are sad when he is sad. In all the good, and all the bad. I’ve delayed him from living his life for so long now. This is just another beautiful dream that I have to wake up from.”

“The poet sings for a lifetime, O-Toyo-chan.” She might have said that Masuda-san told her thusly, but it’s clear she doesn’t believe it.

But she ought to, and perhaps in time, she will.

“Would you be happy as his wife?” Love is love, but sometimes, love does not overcome the hurdles that stand in its way. “He is not wealthy, and he is not titled. Would you not feel aggrieved if you had to live a life like that?”

“No money can buy character.”

Hisa smooths down her sleeves, thinking the situation over. “I suppose you can safely go home and know that Baron Nishimura is hardly going to be adding you to his list of concubines.”

In the end, Masuda-san has neither money nor titles, but he does have an honest reputation and an amicable enough relationship with Baron Sato.

Perhaps Baroness Sato would consider the lack of money and commoner status enough of a punishment to agree to marrying O-Toyo to him.

But in order to do that, one would have to appeal to Baron Sato’s own thoughts on honor and virtue, proper breeding, and wish to preserve his reputation.

Thankfully, she knows her old schoolteacher’s predilections well.

The thing to understand about men who would seek another young and pretty concubine, even after already having four or five others and a living wife, is that there is certain to be some sort of ugly scandal his family is keeping secret.

It’s only a matter of digging it up and then arranging it prominently so no one else can ignore it.

Baron Nishimura is one such man who must have someone’s skeleton buried in his gardens.

Baron Sato is many things, but he values his own reputation more than anything, always careful to pull the topic of conversation away when it came to how little he had mourned since the death of his first wife, careful to speak of family duty, and how only sons could inherit a title.

Did he love his eldest daughter — always so quiet and dutiful and poetic? Of course he did, of course he does.

Isn’t that why he found her a new mother to replace the one she had lost so young?

Isn’t that why?

Despite teaching the virtues and all the Confucian ideals, Baron Sato is a man with a pretense at honor and rectitude.

This match is his wife’s doing.

And while over the years, he seems to have stopped arguing with his wife, there are still better things to appeal to, like his sense that he is a moral and upstanding man who would not do business with, much less be related to, something or someone shameful.

With that in mind, she carefully packs up the tea that’d come from Tea Country, and goes to pay Toma and Madam Hondo.

Since she has not heard anything about Baron Nishimura in recent years, his foibles and scandals must’ve occurred much earlier than her own recollection of the dealings of Shunan and the wider circle of Chubu’s nobility and wealthy elite.

If Haha-ue was still with them, she would know. As a child, she had always held to the belief that Haha-ue knew all secrets, hidden behind her smile and wide blue eyes.

But Haha-ue is gone, so she will have to find another woman of that generation to speak to, which would be neither of her aunts, both who do not often listen to gossip and are considered too low born to be told a great many secrets.

Who better to flatter to learn those secrets than the matriarch of the Hondo family that has borne the brunt of the recent disdain about merchants floating around?

If there is a secret to be learned, buried somewhere in the past, Madam Hondo would need little encouragement to speak of it all angry as she must be over how the barons had mocked her for her perceived attempts at social climbing.

It takes time for the topic of nobles to come around, as she gently nibbles on flaky almond pastry. The enmity between her and Madam Hondo has dissolved some, within these past few months, now that it is impossible for Mitsugu-senpai to ever show improper interest in her, and how gently she’d taken the news of his marriage.

Perhaps it’d helped that she had introduced him to his wife.

Whatever it is, the past five years of animosity has faded, and what remains is a mutual respect.

“Really, Maruyama-shonin is about to get married?” The Hondo are only distantly related to the Maruyama basket weavers; though the Maruyama claimed to be craftsmen rather than merchants, they too belong to the guild.

Madam Hondo sniffs and takes a sip of her tea. “I did hear so from my second cousin, who knows the head of their household, their young master, plans to seek a bride.” And here, the older woman smiles. “What, did you want me to speak for you as a matchmaker?”

She laughs, delighted, but not particularly serious. “No, no, it would only end in embarrassment for me. Craftsmen have always been more respectable than merchants. We wouldn’t want word to get out that I had such foolish dreams, would we?”

This provokes a humph from Madam Hondo. “In what way are merchants in any way inferior? If you ask me, it’s hardly other people’s judgement that marks one’s true breeding.”

She takes another sip of her tea. “And yet, so often people judge.” Setting her gaiwan aside, she moves the topic closer to what she had really come to discuss. “I just thought it was funny is all, that I heard of another marriage about to take place soon, and yet without the sort of celebration that your news brings.”

“Oh?” Madam Hondo takes a sip of her own tea, watching her with bright eyes over the lid of the gaiwan.

Yes, she had guessed correctly. “Yes, I heard that Baron Sato plans to send his eldest daughter to Baron Nishimura’s estate as a concubine.”

Madam Hondo sets her gaiwan down on the table with a firm click. “You’re certain?”

This is juicy gossip indeed.

“I heard it from inside Baron Sato’s household, so I’m sure it must be true.”

Madam Hondo laughs, half bitter, half vindicated. “So noblemen are just as short sighted and attention seeking as our men.”

“And in the end, it is women who suffer for it,” she agrees, watching the curtain of beads swing gently in the early autumn breeze. Men say and do, and the women in their lives bow their heads and say nothing.

“You mark my words, in that estate, that young woman will go the same way as her mother. And Baron Nishimura has far less pretense at respectability than her father.” The words bring fear to her heart.

She’d thought, perhaps, O-Toyo would find herself in the same sort of life that Aunt Ruqa had suffered, once upon a time, perhaps a bit worse off without a son to cushion the blows of life, but she did not think — dead within a year of marriage, never to be spoken of again.

So much hinges upon this conversation now, and even more on her ability to spread it.

“You’ll have to forgive me for being young and inexperienced.” She covers the bottom half of her face with her fan, still thinking.

Still thinking.

“But I admit I don’t quite know what you mean.”

Madam Hondo looks around, and, seeing no one, leans in. “You’re young, so you wouldn’t remember this. It happened twenty eight years ago, right before he married his legal wife, but there is a death in Baron Nishimura’s past.”

An unjust death then, for it to be whispered of, even now, years after the fact.

“Not one of his concubines?” Just the right amount of horror, just the right amount of interest.

“No, not one of them. A prostitute working at the Blue Poppy, who claimed her son was his. Soon after that failed attempt, she ended up hanging herself in the house.”

“If there was no fire, there would’ve been no smoke.”

Twenty-eight years…

Twenty-eight years would make that child either twenty-nine or thirty now, an adult man, if he were still alive. If they could find him.

If there was no fire, how could there be smoke?

An illegitimate son three years older than his sickly eldest legitimate son.

Whatever she’d hoped to find about Baron Nishimura, it was not quite this.

“Of course, few people believed that she would just hang herself without any help, but the child vanished, and who would say a thing?” Madam Hondo takes another sip of her tea. “She was only a prostitute, and he was the heir of a barony. Who would want to step into that muddy water and lose their own livelihoods?”

The death of a prostitute from a brothel house would not make Baron Sato reconsider, especially if he remembers the situation.

He might not.

But a whole man, cast out by his own father…

No, her old schoolteacher’s facade of honor would crack right off if he would still send his daughter off to such a place.

“It seems that once again, a daughter will pay for her father’s misjudgement,” she sighs and finishes her almond pastry. “It happens often enough.”

But not this time.

Not if she has anything to say about it.

She is finishing Chang’e — the last rows of the upturned hand, only the moon left — when Kimei opens the door and Hiko comes in. “It is done,” he says and seats himself, a vicious smile affixed to his face.

“You found the man then?” She raises her eyes from the loom.

Hiko shrugs. “If he isn’t the man, he sure does look a lot like Baron Nishimura for no reason.”

That is one step done, then. Hiko, meanwhile, still looks like a cross between a crocodile smiling and a man who has just crawled out of a metaphorical cesspit.

He’d never liked visiting brothels.

She’ll have to make it up to him somehow in the future.

He hadn’t even asked why she was looking for a boy who’d been lost years ago, long before they were even born.

“And how willing was he to make himself known?” It is harder to find the man than it is to make him show himself to the father that had abandoned and murdered his mother.

After all, injustice burns.

“He was after he was paid enough to do so.” Hiko shrugs again. “And there’s only benefits to him kicking up a fuss.”

A whole man who has not sold his life contract to anywhere cannot be made to disappear as easily as a prostitute.

“We’ll have to see how Baron Nishimura attempts to get off this stage then, won’t we?” The good show is only just started, the actors set to take the stage.

Soon, she suspects, they’ll hear the opening number.

“Does he know which household you’re from?” Kimei paces the floor, back and forth as she cards wool. This year, she wants to make Hisa a new cloak, and though her old one will do just as well, Kimei had been insistent, and they do have the material for it, so why not?

Hiko shoots Kimei an unimpressed glance. “What sort of trustworthy person would I be if I let something like this get traced back to me? Prodding at the secret affairs of barons is like baiting a bear. Better let someone else get their head ripped off.”

Kimei throws down her carders and comes to sit next to Hisa with a huff. “Well, see if I worry about you again.”

She pats her handmaid on the shoulder, looking over at Hiko, who looks both mulish and unrepentant. “She was just worried about you. It wasn’t an implication of your skill or trustworthiness.”

Hiko rises, slightly helpless.

Kimei turns her face away, still cross.


“I’m not talking to you anymore,” Kimei sniffs. “See how you like it.”

Laughingly, she turns back to Chang’e as Hiko and Kimei argue in the background. She almost wishes that Izuna is here to see it.

And for a moment, the evening is perfect, and all is well.

She is woken by Kimei shaking her in the middle of the night. “Hisa, Hisa, you have to get up.”

“What happened?” She rolls out of bed, rubbing her eyes, trying to shove her feet into her shoes. Outside, there’s the sound of feet and people’s voices, Aka’s rising above the others.

“Silence! We have to wait for the Second Miss.”

“Izuna-san’s brother is here. He brought Izuna-san in a few moments ago. There was something at the gate, they wouldn’t let him in.”

Izuna’s brother.

“The Young Lord Madara?” Count Tajima’s heir is Izuna’s only living brother.


He had not said he was returning and certainly wouldn’t arrive in the middle of the night.

“Hiko was still awake. He sent someone to go fetch Jizen-sensei.” Kimei flits about the room, gathering her clothing, and helping her dress. “They’ve laid Izuna-san out in the courtyard he lives in normally, but there’s still blood everywhere—”


“His brother was covered in it. It was one of the reasons they didn’t want to let him in.” Kimei’s eyes are wide as she wrings her hands. “Your hair isn’t up.”

She’s gotten her shoes on, and she is dressed.

“It’s good enough.”

It’d been braided before she turned in for the night anyway.

She picks up her skirts and heads outside.

“Hisa, Hisa, you forgot—” Kimei calls after her, but she is already too far away.

Aka almost stops her on the walkway. “Hisa, what do we do with the—”

Blood. Kimei had mentioned blood. Mentioned waking Jizen-sensei.

“Use your own best judgement.”

She makes her way to Izuna’s courtyard, half running. Inside, she spins without axis or understanding.

Inside, she does not want to connect the dots.

“Izuna!” She bursts in through the open door.

There, Jizen-sensei’s back.

There, the dark fall of Izuna’s hair.

There, Uchiha Madara turning to her, his whole front covered with blood.

Chapter Text

The world spins and sways, but only for a moment.

A moment and no more.

Her heart in her throat, the room bleeding like water spilled on a painting.

She steps across the threshold, already moving, requests for the maids, listening with half an ear to Jizen-sensei’s words, curtsying to Uchiha Madara as she does so.

Kimei has followed her here, her hands over her mouth with fraught worry.

“Kimei, will you go wake the kitchens? Uchiha-sama hasn’t eaten yet, I’m sure.”

Madara flinches, his hands still covered with blood, eyes blood red, spinning like pinwheels in the wind.

She forces him into a seat. He looks the way that Tatsuo had when he’d come in that day to tell her that everyone else had died. A lost boy.

We are dying, Hisa-san. Help us.

Help us.

Two years have passed, and yet, it is still the same.

Still the same.

Help us, we’re dying.

She has just exchanged one man’s death for another.

Has anything changed?

She is no stranger to blood, no stranger to death, but Jizen-sensei has a steady hand, and he will do what he can.

“Futsu, go fetch more water so Uchiha-sama can wash his hands. Kura, please go locate Hiroto. Uchiha-sama needs a change of clothing.”

She cannot help Izuna right now, so she must settle for this instead.

“Second Miss, the soup is here.” It is Miya, from the kitchens, a tray in hand, tea, soup, a bowl of rice still steaming and utensils — porcelain soup spoon, bamboo chopsticks — some smaller dishes, likely fermented vegetables brought up from the cellar in the haste to find something for a grown man to eat.

It isn’t polite, but there’s been no warning — could there ever be warning for such things?

“Set it on the table.”

Madara has not stopped shaking. He’d been shaking when she came in, and he has not stopped, tremors in his bloody hands unmistakeable. She has heard nothing from him, not a single word to explain what happened, though she could guess.

She could guess, and she wishes she couldn’t guess, that there would be no reason for her to guess.

“Thank you, Miya. I think you can go back to sleep now.”

The kitchen maid glances once more at Izuna, laid out on the table, unresponsive as Jizen-sensei works, but expresses no opinion.

Another moment, and she is gone.

A change of clothing is brought in. Bear’s old clothing.

A basin of water which quickly runs red, and an old cloth to wipe his hands on.

He goes through the motions mechanically, sheds clothing as though it does not matter.

She averts her eyes.

But by the time he sits down again, he is no closer to feeding himself.

“Is he dead?” Madara asks, voice rasping as if he has spent too long screaming and lost his voice in the process.

Is he dead? As if nails had already been hammered into Izuna’s coffin.

She nearly screams, but does not.

His eyes have faded back to brown, no longer spinning red and black, pinwheels in the wind.

“I wouldn’t still be working on him if he was.” Jizen-sensei does not raise his head, graying hair bound messily in a topknot, needle working furiously. “If he lives to see the dawn, he will likely live to see the end of the week. After that, I will have to reassess.”

This is a different sort of sewing, worth much more than hers.

But that Jizen-sensei is still working at all despite Izuna’s unresponsiveness says that he is still alive.

That there is still hope for him.

After Anija’s accident…

Even a much younger Jizen-sensei had wrung his hands, uncertain of what to do.

He has shattered his spine, she remembers him saying. Even if he were to live…

Keep him comfortable.

He’s only a boy… Let him be unworried.

But Anija had begged for books.

She does not know why she remembers this, lingering in the space of what is and what has passed.

No one can step into the same river twice.

Like the river water, the only way is forward.

Uchiha Madara breathes out, a sound too much like a sob to be a sigh. “He is my only living brother. He is my only little brother.”


Both of them equally so.

She offers him the soup spoon in some attempt to make him eat. “I know.”

And oddly enough, he seems to understand, if the way he remembers himself and starts eating says anything.

Even though she knows it will not help, she still hovers, anxiously moving back and forth between Jizen-sensei’s workspace and her chair, in between assigning more people to an ever increasing number of tasks.

The laundry will have to be woken up as well, and then the list of necessary medicines written out, and someone will have to be arranged to go stand outside the medicine shop to buy them when it first opens, objects to be fetched, more oil lamps and lanterns from outdoors, men to guard all the doors. No one gets in, and no one goes out until she hears of it.

It will not stop shinobi, but perhaps it will stop idle talk.

Chichi-ue is not supposed to be back until perhaps ten days from now, so she cannot rely on him to do anything, not that she is sure that Chichi-ue will be able to do anything.

What can be done now besides find a good doctor? And they already have the services of the best doctor that Shunan, and by extension Chubu, has to offer.

Round and round and round cycle her thoughts.

Round and round and round.

What is there to do?

What else can be done?

Capable. Capable. Capable.

But what is that worth?

“Second Miss, your pacing is blocking the light.”

Jizen-sensei’s words bring her back to herself, and she confines herself to her chair, slightly abashed.

She is not normally so senseless.

She is not normally so—

The elderly doctor finishes his sutures and packs in what medicine he has on hand to treat wounds, basins of red water all about him.

There is sweat on his brow, his hands sparking with green light briefly. She recognizes it as one of his last ditch efforts, seeing as life force isn’t used lightly.

Madara sits up, eyes riveted on the sight. “Where did you learn that?”

“From the doctor I apprenticed under.” Jizen-sensei doesn’t look up from his work, sweat sliding off of his brow. “I use it less with age.”

Slowly, Madara slumps back down, as if sinking. Whatever he’d been thinking is lost to the gloom now.

And she reads the river in the spinning wheels of her thoughts.

Jizen-sensei does what he can, with instructions to fetch him if Izuna’s condition changes at all during the rest of the night, and with a nod to Madara and a bow to her, he leaves once more to find his bed.

Madara paces, his strides long and his hands never still.

She sits at Izuna’s bedside, her hand lingering at the edge of the sheet she’d pulled over him to keep out the chill. It is not yet very cold, and the night is deep enough already, but he has lost a lot of blood, and even now, his skin is cold.

Even in the weakness of the lantern light, his face carries with it the pallor of death.

She has not seen many corpses, but she knows the look.

She wishes she didn’t.

“Do shinobi have doctors?” It does not hurt to ask.

They can flip over walls and breathe fire and walk right past guards without anyone noticing. Surely, of all that they do, their skills cannot only be for destruction and death.

Maybe they have legendary healers as well, people who can pull others back from the brink of death.

Yes, they are men and women, but they deal in things beyond the realm of what she can hope to achieve.

Perhaps they have doctors as well, beyond the capabilities of doctors she knows and can call upon.

He stops pacing. “You mean medics?”

She has not heard a doctor referred to as such before, but she presses onwards. “A healer?”

He slumps back down into his seat, head in his hands, a sob ripping free of his throat. “We don’t have anyone who uses medical chakra. The best we have is no better than what is being done now.”

And time is not on their side.


She still does not know what he means by chakra, but the rest of his statement is perfectly clear.

Whatever help there is from the Uchiha, it will likely not be worth much more than Jizen-sensei if it were any better.

She ought not to have forgotten.

This was the same way their eldest brother died, wasn’t it?

But these words stick to her throat as well.

“Chakra?” She does not know the word. Izuna had never mentioned it. But then, he had never explained most things when it comes to the life of shinobi. When they’d talked, it had been of other things — grief and sorrow, family and fortune, the beautiful, tender bits of the world, his hand trailing in the koi pond being nibbled at by the fish.

“Civilians call it life energy.” He does not raise his eyes, his head bowed, his hands clasped together as though praying. “Like what your doctor used.”

“There are people in the world who could do what he does, but better.” Jizen-sensei had never claimed to be the best under heaven, though he had studied at the famous medical school in the capital, which was where he learned his craft.

Long ago, her grandfather had saved his life when he was falsely accused of malpractice which had killed the unfavored concubine of a governmental official.

The very night he was freed, he had packed his bags and come back to Shunan with her grandfather’s caravan, and here he has stayed ever since.

“Yes, but—” Madara runs his fingers through his hair, nothing behind his eyes. “They likely will not be moved to come here.”

So that avenue is dead then, since she does not even know where to begin. She leaves further plans for the light of morning.

It is only after she is alone, having retreated to the room in front of Izuna’s bedroom, that she sinks into a chair, and, with her arms pulled tight around her, tries to stop thinking.

Stop thinking, for just a moment, stop thinking.

Why had her heart leapt into her throat the moment she’d seen Izuna laid out, his strings cut like a paper puppet?

Why had she wanted to cry?

Why had she lost all sense, pacing back and forth as though it would help anyone for her to do that?

Why is she still shaking now, hands unable to stay still, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes?

She cannot help him.

She cannot help him and will solve nothing by crying — nothing has ever been solved by crying — but her shoulders shake, and a small noise wells up in her throat that she can’t keep back.

Chichi-ue is not home, and he will not be for some time. And though her father is capable, she doubts he can help with this.

Slowly, she rocks back and forth in her chair, feet drawn up, arms around her knees.

He has not woken.

Perhaps he never will.

She has missed him. She has missed him. She has missed—

She has so much work to do.

There is so much to do, so much useless, thankless work.

Stop thinking. For just one moment in your life, stop thinking.

Tomorrow, she will have to find something for Izuna’s brother to eat. Something for him to wear.

Ask him what he plans to do.

Tomorrow, she still has three account books to look over, the kitchen and the gardens have purchases to make, four batches of silk in Workshop Seven for her to look over, a storehouse to look through and clear out to make way for next year’s production.

Two days from now, another invitation from Madam Hondo and Toma, Mitsugu-senpai having sent his calling card to her for the afternoon on the day after.

She will have to find some time to come back to sit with Izuna, though she does not know how she will find the heart to leave him.

So much to do in the cold light of dawn.

Stop thinking.

Stop thinking.

You are helping no one.

She is so cold.

Slowly, she uncurls, rising from her chair to look for Kimei outside. “Can you go to the firewood shed and bring in a fire pit?”

If she is cold in this unseasonable weather, he would have to be cold as well. Maybe the sheet is not enough.

Kimei looks at her, and for one long moment says nothing, but everything is there in her eyes. “Of course, Hisa.”

The two of them wrestle the fire pit into Izuna’s room, a pile of dried firewood and a box of matches brought in by Nene, who hesitantly follows after. Madara stirs at the intrusion, sprawled as he is on the floor by Izuna’s bedside, a hand resting over Izuna’s, but makes no comment.

“Get some rest.” She takes the matches from Nene and waves the younger girl off. “It’s late, and you’ve been awake this whole time.”

She sends Kimei away to bed as well, though her handmaid doesn’t wish to go, and nearly argues about it.

But she casts her eyes in the direction of Izuna’s prone form, and Kimei presses her lips together before she shakes her head and goes.

With fingers numbed by the cold, she pulls out a match and attempts striking it on the box. It catches, but she fumbles upon attempting to light the fire pit and drops it by accident.

It immediately goes out.

She tries again.

And again.


A hand enters her field of vision and takes the matchbox from her. “Here, let me,” Madara mutters, setting the matchbox aside next to the fire pit. “I appreciate it, but you’re just as tired, if not more so, as the maids you keep sending away. Get some sleep, Kawaguchi-chan.”

She finds no way to argue with this, so she does not, and instead, turns to go.

At the doorway, she turns back, and finds that he too is fumbling with the matches, a gray ring of fatigue around his mouth.

There is so much she wants to say, so much, but her throat closes, and she leaves in silence.

She falls asleep sitting there in Izuna’s front room with Uchiha Madara pacing back and forth, even though she had not meant to sleep, so it is morning when she is next awoken by the clattering of small feet. “Izu-nii?”

Momo peers into the room first, pigtails quivering before the rest of her follows, scurrying across the floor towards her. “Neesan,” Momo half wails. “Neesan, Sute is scaring me.”

It is so early, and yet Momo has already heard.

She turns Momo around to redo her hair. One pigtail had been done up higher than the other, likely because of Momo fidgeting and bouncing and whining about wanting to be out the door. “What did Sute say to make you so upset?”

Momo wriggles herself back around. “She said, she said,” her little sister’s bottom lip starts to wobble, eyes filling with tears, “that Izu-nii is d-dying.

Hearing it out loud makes her throat close.

She slides off her chair to pull Momo into her arms. Sute should not have said that.

She is too young to think of death like this. Too young.

But then, in the end, how could Sute hide the matter?

It is not as if other people will not talk. It is not as if Momo will not hear it from someone else.

Children listen, and they understand far more than most suspect.

But to put it so bluntly…

“He is not dead,” is what she says. “He is not dead, and Jizen-sensei is working very hard to keep him that way.”

Momo sniffles, rubbing her eyes. “Neesan, I’m afraid.”

“I’m afraid too,” she admits. “But we shouldn’t give up on him.”

In many ways, she has always found him stronger than her. In many ways, he is stronger still.

And she who thinks so well of him cannot — perhaps does not want to — believe that someday they will wake to find him gone.

While he still lives, she will not think of a future without him. “Think of how disappointed he would be, Momo-ko, when he hears that you thought of such things.”

She half suspects he would laugh. As if flesh wounds could truly hurt me. Hisa-san, I have been hurt far worse and still survived.

Don’t worry so.

If there is a time when he could hear and laugh about such things again.

If there is such a time.

But she needs to take her own advice, doesn’t she?

Bringing Momo to see Izuna wakes Madara again, though he blearily cracks one eye open to look at them and grunts.

“My little sister,” she says at the same time Momo-ko pulls them both forward.

“Izu-nii?” Her little sister’s voice quavers, on the verge of tears. “Izu-nii, wake up.”

Izuna lies silent, beyond entreaties, beyond the reach of human hands, soul lingering somewhere between this realm and the next.

She pries Momo-ko’s hands from the covers, wishes that her sister is not so young to be thinking of death.

Madara watches them, eyes half open, an odd expression on his face.

“He will be well again,” she says, though she does not feel this in her bones.

Faith has always been hard for her, and in the place of faith, she has always substituted things like preparation and planning instead.

But this, she could not have planned for.

This, no amount of preparation would have spared her heart of this.

“We mustn’t disturb him. He needs to rest,” she hears herself say, and she knows this is more firm than her previous statement.

She recognizes the emotion in Madara’s eyes as hopelessness, even as Momo begins to cry, rubbing at her eyes with her fists, hiccuping between each breath.

“Momo-ko?” She crouches down, gently pulls the hands away from Momo’s face. “Momo-ko, will you be brave for me?”

Through the tears and hiccups, Momo nods, still about to wail but trying so hard not to.

It breaks her already broken heart.

When Sute finally comes to collect Momo, Hiko is already here, and Hisa sends the older woman a look half livid behind her sleeve.

Momo did not need to know of a young man she cares about lying on his deathbed first thing in the morning. And there’d been no one to calm her fears, no one to tell her sweet words and that everything will be alright.

That the sky will hold and not fall down. No one to soothe her and hold her.

Only the sister with two faces and still yet not enough of a face for this.

But Sute gathers Momo, her own face smoothed of all expressions, and goes.

Chiba-san’s courtyard manager might be made of stronger material than she suspects.

Or perhaps, her own livid feelings had not shown through in any way except stiffness.

Silence falls.

“I came as soon as I heard.” Chiba-san lifts her skirts slightly to cross the doorway, though she freezes upon seeing Madara as well, before she unfreezes to walk across the room, her own face suddenly more a polite facade than the worry that had been so plain just a moment before. “I wasn’t aware there was someone else here already.”

“Uchiha Madara-sama,” she says, making introductions once more. “Izuna-san’s brother, the heir of Uchiha Tajima-sama of Tohoku.” And turning to Madara, “my father’s wife, Chiba Natsu-san.”

Madara rises, languid and easily makes the proper introductions, the proper polite utterings almost as if by rote.

Given that it is his brother dying in the bed behind him, it likely is by rote and only because he has been raised by people who cared for manners.

Such things are impolite enough already.

She loops her arm through Chiba-san’s, and to her stepmother’s credit, she does not protest them adjourning to the next room.

“Let me take the accounts for a time,” Chiba-san offers, the bottom half of her face covered by her open fan. “I don’t have much else that I must do, and this way, you can stay with Uchiha-san during this difficult time.”

Hiko bristles, about to rise and make a protest, but Chiba-san cuts across him. “They will be returned afterwards. I don’t foresee it being longer than a month.” Something like fire burns behind her stepmother’s eyes. “After all, I have no head for numbers and care not for such things.”

They’d been handed over to Chiba-san during the trip to the capital as well, for a similar span of time.

And they had been returned, honestly and promptly, without much fanfare.

Whispers among the servants had said that Chiba-san cared little for budgeting or calculating sums and cared even less to mediate disputes between various members of the staff who felt that they deserved a larger share of the household budget for their tasks.

She sighs. “Hiko, leave your words.” Her head aches, almost too heavy for her neck. If she attempts to look over any accounts today, it will only lead to more mistakes than if Chiba-san were to take them. She has no mind or heart for numbers today, no mind or heart for anything at all. “It will do no harm; after all, it did none last time.”

Hiko makes a face at this, clearly still intent on private words, but publicly he says nothing, swallowing them for now.

It will have to do.

She does not know how long it will hold, but it will have to do.

The accounts are turned over to Chiba-san, almost gratefully, and she leaves, arms laden heavy with the weight of so many books, and Hiko looks at her face a long time before he sighs; whatever words he wants to say truly dissipate. “You look so tired,” he says and needs to say nothing more for her to feel the warmth of his worry settle around her like a cloak. “If there is anything that I can do to help, do not hesitate to say so.”

And even though she is cold, ice on the river freezing over, she musters a smile for him. “I know.” I appreciate it, Hiko.

By midmorning, she is ensconced once more in Izuna’s room, head bowed over her embroidery, Madara by the table writing with quick brush strokes. Kimei sits with her, the two of them almost facing each other, as she bastes two pattern pieces together, muttering all the while.

On any other day, she would’ve asked Kimei about what she is so upset by.

But today, her mind spins in tight circles, careening and crashing into things like a river boat that had lost its moorings.

He has not woken.

She still can do nothing more.

And without anything to do, her mind treads and retreads these old paths, spinning and throwing up eddies because there is nothing she can do.

Nothing she can do about this.

How worthless everything she knows is in the end.

All the planning and counter-planning, not a foot placed wrong, not a word out of line, a face polished like a bronze mirror, the way she has built everything so that no one can find fault with it.

And yet this.

And yet this.

No skill she has could ever solve this, no numbers, no money, no silk, no planning — the souls bleed with the washing, and she stares the king of hell in the face, helpless to stop his steps.

If she’d been Chang’e…

Would she have lingered on the moon, waiting for the archer so famous and yet so mortal, weeping the day he died as all men must?

Would she even now, look down, and envy mortals in their hundreds of cares and sorrows, bound to the cycle of death and rebirth?

Aka comes in a hair before noon, holding a letter.

“From O-Toyo-san,” she says as a preface while handing it over. “It came from the hand of her personal handmaid, so I assume that the Baroness Sato has not seen it.”

O-Toyo...there’d been some matter with O-Toyo and Baron Nishimura.

She’d said she would do something about it, and by the look of the letter she opens, she has.

O-Toyo writes of the scandal that had recently befallen Baron Nishimura’s household, the oldest son being not Young Master Nishimura, often ill, but rather, the son of a prostitute.

The chaos had prompted Baron Sato to look into the matters himself, and, with a few sharp words to his wife, break off the idea entirely.

At this, O-Toyo had cried while writing this gratitude and relief in every line of her brush — how will I ever repay you, Hisa? It is my life you have saved — saying that her father had decided that he would rather her marry a scholar.

He did not name any particular name, but surely, the now doubly aggrieved Baroness Sato will choose the poorest and least advanced of her husband’s students, a man without much except honor to his name.

And thus, the letter ends.

Thus the letter ends.

She folds it along the creases it had occupied, slowly letting her feelings spin out into space.

It isn’t that her calculations were wrong, because she had calculated correctly so many times before. She knew the minds of men, knew what games they played and what woes they suffered, knew what they secretly desired and publicly renounced.

What they called honor and repayment, what they would consider debt.

She hadn’t calculated wrong.

But she does not know shinobi, does not know how or for what Izuna lies dying.

And without that understanding, she spins like an oarless boat, tossed with the waves of the river.

Give me an oar.

And I will fight my way through this as well.

She does not know shinobi, but she will have to find out to solve this puzzle.

If one never steps up to the gambling table, one can never win anything worthwhile. Her grandfather had told her this once, when she was still a little child in a mostly happy home.

Hisa-chan, remember, if you’re afraid to lose it all, you will never win anything worth keeping.

She does not know shinobi, but she will.

“Who did this to him?” she asks, though she can guess, because it does no good to lay blame at the wrong door.

Madara looks at her, over his bowl of rice which he had been shoveling into his mouth at alarming speeds. She has watched him eat about half a chicken, his appetite clearly better by noon. He’d only picked at his food in the morning, rice porridge, fermented radish and dried jujubes barely touched before he’d asked for paper and ink to start composing a letter he had only finished just before noon.

“Has he told you about Senju?”

So it is the Senju.

Now that she is awake enough to understand, brain no longer spinning like overturned carriage wheels, she feels the slow simmer of rage underneath the surface.

“He had mentioned them, in passing, in relation to the feud and why they wished to kill him.”

And yet, how that feud started, who they were, what they were like besides a thorn in his side and a sword at his neck, he had never said.

But then, he is a careful man, and careful men do not spill their families secrets the same way other men do.

And by her measure taken of his fourth brother, Uchiha Madara does not watch his words the same way as Izuna does.

“So nothing important.” Madara raises his eyes to look at the wooden roof beams, as though he could find the goddess of mercy’s face there. “He has never been very,” he stumbles over his words, face rapidly crumpling since he is both without purpose and full of grief, “very good at explaining things.”

It may be taking advantage of his sincerity, but she asks anyway. There are things she must know to make plans. Every bead on the abacus matters. “Will you explain, then?”

This gives him something to do, a purpose to cling to in the flood so he is not swept away.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Compose himself.

And so, he begins. “The feud that my clan has had with the Senju goes back many generations, to some hundreds of years ago, during a military campaign on the border of Wind Country resisting nomadic invaders. None of the records agree on how the blood between our clans was started, but all agree that by the end of the campaign, the hostility between our families had grown deadly.”

He looks down at his empty bowl, a few rice grains clinging to the side, and tries to set his chopsticks down to continue his story.

“Kimei,” she calls, recognizing the look of someone who is not yet full but doesn’t want to be rude enough to ask for another bowl. “Fetch another bowl of rice for Uchiha-sama?” Turning her attention back to Madara, she motions for him to continue speaking. “So there was a falling out between two clans who both served on the same military campaign.”

She does not know how many clans can be called to serve at once in one campaign.

Long has there been peace in Fire Country, years laden heavy with the fruits of their long golden age, untroubled by invaders or internal division.

And all have prospered.

Except, as it would seem, the Uchiha, locked still in a deadly conflict unresolved by anyone.

“We have been killing each other ever since,” Madara agrees, though his statement is tinged heavily with resignation.

“Hasn’t anyone tried to stop it?” Generations and hundreds of years, and it seems that their grudges run deeper than the river, neither side willing to give way, though blood had been spilled and lives had been lost. Hadn’t anyone noticed?

Or cared?

“Conflict between shinobi households breeds death.” He looks away. “Unjust death breeds resentment.”

But then again, did she notice? Did she care?

Until it had come to this, when it is someone she cares about hurt by the bloodshed.

Only now does she notice. Only now does she care.

She should not point fingers or throw the first stone when she sees the failings of society reflected in her own image.

“Tell me of the Senju who hurt him.”

Unmask the man who did this. He does not need to be faceless and formless.

We will see what we will find to put an end to all this.

“His name is Senju Tobirama.” The words make Madara put down his chopsticks, a scowl darkening his features. “He is Baron Senju Butsuma’s second son.”

So she has a name then, and enough information for her to begin searching for more. She trades a glance with Kimei, who notes the name. There will be information about him soon enough; if it is out there, Kimei will find it.

There’s bound to be something to unearth for someone looking for it.

But what sorts of things bend shinobi? Is it money, or honor, or tradition?

Is it titles, or land, or profit?

Is it power or prestige?

“What moves him?” she asks, still half thinking about what is it that breaks shinobi from the bottom up. What breaks his heart?

What would leave him dead without a single scratch?


“What moves him?” she asks again. “What does he hunger for?”

And conversely, what does he fear the most?

These are the things to ask Senju Tobirama’s hated enemies. Surely, they would know.

“I’m not quite sure what you mean.” He’s blinking at her over the rim of his bowl of rice, despite the hair falling in his face, more wild for having remained uncombed even now when it is past noon. “What moves him? What he hungers for?”

“He is a man,” she says, still thinking, no longer with any appetite left. “He has weaknesses, as all men do.” What are they?

All men can be bought by something. What is his price?

“He is a left handed swordsman.” The man across from her seems to be thinking. “He sometimes parries shuriken a little slower, especially if it is dark. Izuna could tell you more but—” Madara pauses. “That’s not what you are asking about, is it? You don’t fight. Besides, stabbing Tobirama doesn’t help matters, the Senju have medics.”

You couldn’t kill a mouse, his eyes seem to say, suddenly horrified that he’s been telling her items of no particular value. What are you really asking me?

They speak two separate languages, the two of them, even more so that she and Izuna, who have known each other for some time now — two and a half years, and that thought weighs — and it comes at them sideways now.

There’s more ways to kill a man than to stick a knife between his ribs.

She thinks on it. “Baron Yamato is old, but he has two sons of which he is ridiculously proud. They have always been amiable brothers. If, and only if things were to come to it, the two of them had some argument that tore them apart, it would break Baron Yamato’s heart, and he would be dead within the year.” She sets her hand on the table, fingers slowly drawing circles as she thinks. “While from the outside, it seems very unlikely that the two of them could ever come to blows over anything, all it would take is a woman that one has obtained and the other could not.”

Nothing tears apart brothers like the wiles of a woman who claims to love both and can really love neither.

“It only takes a drop of water to rot the foundations of a house.” She looks up at him as understanding slowly dawns on his face.

“You don’t want to kill them. You want to sow discord.”

“I want to sow discord before I kill them.” But it will not be her hand holding the knife.

This, perhaps, spooks Madara more than her other statement, but after a moment, he has thought it over and continues.

“Tobirama is very filial. He has an older brother. Older sisters, though I do not know how many there are. They have married out already.”

“A mother,” she asks, “or perhaps, it’s his lord father that he is so filial towards?”

He is a second son…Does he resent what his older brother has?

“His lord father. I have never heard mention of his mother.” Madara pauses here again, throwing down his chopsticks. “Baron Senju cares about money, but… I don’t see how this is useful to you.”

Money, and a filial son.

A filial but second son.

The river of her thoughts slows and eddies out branches upon branches of water, reeds bending.

“No, it is.” She props her chin up on her hands and continues to watch as Madara eats. “Tell me about his relationship with his elder brother. Do they love each other?”

“Hashirama, his elder brother, certainly loves him.” Madara makes a face. “They argue all the time over petty things, but the number of beatings Hashirama has taken for him says more, I would say.”

More to work with.

And time to plan.

Her mind picks up the threads of conversation.

The Senju have doctors, ones that can cure stabbings.

So it is, a price and a toll to pay, and a way through it all.

More than one way to send a man to dig his own grave. And it seems that Senju Tobirama, however thoughtlessly, has already dug his grave.

Madara is only providing further rope spooling out to hang him with.

Three days, and Chichi-ue has yet to return home.

Three days, and the news spreads like oil fire, from one house to the next.

The shinobi Kawaguchi Hisa had hired out of a fit of hubris is going to die in her house.

But what can she do?

What will she do?

Three days, and there are people laughing behind their hands, in the privacy of their own homes.

Kimei had gone out to buy more medicine, and though her handmaid had not said that such things have happened, the angry frown she wore when she returned said everything.

Madara had written home, a bird rising into the air, a paper message tied to one leg, wings dark against the evening sky.

Three days, and the situation had even summoned the one from the eastern courtyard, though they are all clay dolls in this, equally useless.

“What are we going to do?” Kimei asks her, wringing her hands together to the point that she twists one of her sleeves in her hands, crinkling the silk satin. “Hisa, what can we do?”

She sets the lid of her teacup back into place with a soft clink. “I want to host a party.” She’d seen Izuna earlier this morning, the pallor of death clinging to him like a shroud, sweat beaded on his brow.

He hasn’t awakened since he had been brought in.

Three days, her heart and patience wears thin. She has always been a paper tigress, without form and without boundary.

And some part of her had already worn threadbare before this and wears thinner still, light shining through the old silk.

Anymore, and it will tear.

She does not want to tear.

“Something quite poetic,” she thinks about it. “Perhaps a viewing for the harvest moon.” Softly, she sets her teacup aside. “I will write to O-Shiki.” And Shio, and Kame, and Asa, and Madam Hondo, and Madam Chiba, and Kume, and O-Toyo, and so many more. She will send out invitations, from the women in her immediate acquaintance all the way up through the ranks of the nobility in Chubu.

She does not expect them all to come; it is likely that many will not.

But some will come.

Some will come, and perhaps it will be enough.

For the first time in some twelve years, the House of Kawaguchi will open its doors and host a party.

Hisa.” Kimei’s mouth wobbles. “How could we have time and effort for moon viewing and poetry?”

“It is harvest time.” Her twenty-second birthday lingers just around the corner, a perfect excuse if Mid-Autumn will not suffice. “Is it not traditional and polite to invite friends for a moon viewing before or after the Mid-Autumn Festival?”

“It is, but—”

She turns to Kimei, sets a finger on her handmaid’s lips. “But?”

“Hisa.” Kimei wrings her hands, eyes still red from crying. “Hisa, what will they say? Can we even open the estate now?”

“They are already talking.” Slowly, she makes her way across the room, thinking. “So why not give them something to talk about?”

Why not let them see?

The court of public opinion has never held its tongue just because someone is out there begging for privacy.

No, best let them see.

If she lets them in, they will only see what she wants them to see and only talk about what she wants them to talk about.

“I will need you to send out the invitations and for Aka to manage organizing the party.” Slowly, one of her hands curls into a fist. There is sandpaper in her throat, tearing away at her flesh.

She can do nothing for Izuna, can do nothing to save him. She cannot save him.

What can she do?

Only this.

If he will not live, the ones who did this to him will not, either.

In life, slights are made in the dark, decisions and counter decisions waged in between sips of tea and scraps of gossip, behind painted on smiles and open fans, downturned faces, and demure curtsies.

Between paying lip service to respect and undercutting a competitor behind their back.

We are all friends here, until we are not.

Never push too far, never push too fast. Too much heat ruins the silk.

But now that they have come to the last move in the game, a board of dead pieces lie at her disposal, and instead of conceding the match, she chooses to break ko by playing pieces that should never be played.

The hand will flip.

And take the whole table with it.

Something has ignited beneath her skin, long buried, and like the spark that set the fields ablaze, will no longer sit quiet.

He’d asked her once, if there was ever a time she ever wanted anything for herself.

She could answer him now.


Chapter Text

“Welcome, thank you for coming.” She stands in the front courtyard, greeting guests. Chiba-san, who had, without a word, seated herself in the front hall, entertains those who have already arrived. “Thank you so much for coming. The harvest time is a busy time of year.”

Busy for most, but not for them, as silk production winds down during this time of year, and only dye lots need to be run, and workshops neatened and cleared, patterns drawn up and initial pieces cut in preparation for the long work of winter and spring.

It has been a long time since the estate was open for parties, the past seven years, and she has only been the primary hostess instead of the guest once before, for Chichi-ue’s wedding, but the household staff still remembers what must be done.

It is the hour before noon now, but the kitchens had awakened before dawn.

Even Chiba-san’s dowry servants had turned out to help, scrubbing walkways, hanging up lanterns, and even now, taking cloaks and running back and forth fetching items and passing on news.

It is help she has not expected, especially since Chiba-san had already taken it upon herself to manage the accounts for a time, but had found welcome all the same.

Neither Aunt Niwa nor Aunt Hasuyo had the education or breeding for hosting parties of this type. Aunt Ruqa is still too nervous to do so, and her cousins are too young.

And into this lack of a better person stepped Chiba-san, who does not like to entertain but has the breeding and education for it.

Baroness Ito smiles, holding the hand of her husband’s youngest child. The seventh young master of the Ito household had been born to a concubine who passed away shortly after his birth, so at three years old, he is under the care of the main madam of the household, who seemed to dote on him now that she had no competition for his affections. “How could I not come? You’ve offered to feed us such food that we rarely have here in Shunan.”

“Oh?” She covers the bottom half of her face with her fan, playing coy for a compliment she does not know the origins of.

“Everyone knows that your cook is a special one. Her recipes are unlike what is typically found here in our region.” Baroness Yamato has arrived as well, her daughters flanking her.

She smiles, looks down. “I will be sure to pass on the compliments.”

Yes, Kuma had come from Yanai with Haha-ue so many years ago, so perhaps there are still a few regional differences in her cooking. But these are merely excuses to come and watch the show that is about to start.

Everyone wants a piece of the carcass when it is bleeding and fresh.

If her social leverage had tanked, it would be all comments about how Kuma’s cooking is backwater and country, and how they couldn’t possibly get used to eating it.

But right at this moment, everyone wants to know what had happened to Izuna.

Everyone wants a share of the story.

The front hall is filled with ladies chattering, and the house is full almost to bursting with the sound of amusement and laughter.

The net is closing around the Senju even as she stands here, smiling and nodding and feels her heart faltering in her chest behind the porcelain mask of good cheer.

In the servants' courtyard where Izuna still lies, unconscious and barely breathing, the mood is cold and cheerless.

Today, only Madara sits with him.

She has not entirely explained what her plan is to him, had not quite trusted her words to carry her through without breaking down and crying.

But she has told him that she has planned. Her calculations are final, and this is the result of everything. He’d nodded then, though perhaps he has not entirely heard or understood.

But then, he is a man, someone who belongs to the outer world. It is hard for him to understand the ways that death and fortune might balance on the space of a breath, a sprig of flowers, or a well rehearsed play.

He has grown more dispirited by the hour and now only sits, his hand clutching Izuna’s, staring into empty space.

She has not seen him cry, but his eyes are red rimmed nonetheless. And in a way, she envies him, for his tears hold no shame.

But here, she thinks no further upon the matter of the Uchiha brothers.

The show is about to start, the players having all lined up in their proper places.

“Hisa-chan!” There’s O-Shiki, alighting from her carriage, Lord Fusamoto’s hand helping her down, Tamasu clearing away the footstool when she’s on solid ground. “Hisa-chan, I’m sorry I’m late. Don’t close your doors and let me miss the first party you’ve ever held while I am here.”

Yes, all the players are here now.

She welcomes O-Shiki in.

Now, all they have to do is watch the show.

There are tea and cakes set out, lively chatter occurring, tables dragged out into the courtyard, chairs wiped down and set in their proper places.

There are games and gossip, just enough cheer for it to not seem like a funeral, but the mood has a subdued undercurrent.

As she wants it.

Surely, they are all curious. Everyone wants to know what has happened to Izuna.

The rumors outside spun things a thousand different ways, each one more outlandish than the last.

One of them says that she intends to hang herself out of shame when he dies.

Another says that Izuna is already dead.

But no one wishes to be the one to ask about the state of affairs. It wouldn’t be polite.

But they suspect that she has invited them here because she intends to tell them. And she does, but only on her terms.

And into this fraught banquet steps Aka, here to whisper something in her ear in full view of the gathered guests, and just loud enough that a few words might be caught.

Let the southern play begin.

“Hisa,” Aka whispers. “Jizen-sensei says that he must see you tonight. If you have a spare moment, even sooner.”

He has said no such thing, but she turns to Aka, visibly concerned. “Did he say more?”

Aka shakes her head. “No, but—” and this wringing of hands is unlike Aka, but someone with a personality more suited to hand wringing will not carry this part quite so well. She leans in once more. “The basins carried out from Uchiha-san’s rooms were filled with blood.”

She is meant to be acting, and she knows that it’s false, but she still falls backwards with a sharp cry, blood draining from her face as though she were the one stabbed with the knowledge.

“Hisa-chan?” It is O-Shiki. “Hisa-chan, what’s the matter?”

No one, she realizes quite suddenly, must’ve told O-Shiki what had happened, for fear of the Countess’s own ill health.

But when gambling, only those who bet everything can hope to win it all.

“I-Izuna,” she stumbles over her words, gasping for breath, “is dying.”

The words ring loud in the stunned silence.

“Dying?” This comes from Baroness Yamato, eyes steely and sharp. “What is he dying of?”

It is inauspicious to hold a party in a house where someone lies dying, but they’d known it and all come anyway.

All except for O-Shiki.

“Senju Tobirama,” she says, voice faint with either practice or true horror, “stabbed him while he was out.”

“Senju.” Hondo Asa frowns, thinking on the years and years of low rice prices, thinks of how only a year or so ago, she was complaining about her husband’s unbalanced account books in her maiden home to a childhood friend. “The same ones?”

And slowly, the mask comes apart, just enough for people to see what’s underneath.

“They have caused other hurts in the past, burned down our house in the Capital, killed Bear, the west field, my hands—” she is crying now, and not prettily either, shoulders shaking, bowed heavily under the strain.

What loss of face there is for the House of Kawaguchi today will not last beyond the next month.

“I did not want to mention it. It’s not right to complain, but Nobuga…”

Everyone knows what happened there.

With a clatter, Madam Hondo stands. “How dare they!” she says, breathing hard. “How dare they think that just because they have power, they can stand to bully us all like this.”

A murmur runs through the gathered ladies.

O-Shiki, face bright with color, passes her a handkerchief to wipe her face. “Hondo-san has other complaints to add about the Senju?”

“Who doesn’t know about the Senju?” Madam Togakami asks. “Who doesn’t have complaints about the Senju? To hear that they’ve been bullying the Kawaguchi as well, and so severely, when they don’t even touch upon the Senju’s profits.”

She dabs at her face with O-Shiki’s handkerchief.

“This is the first that I’ve heard of complaints regarding our neighbors to the south.” Baroness Ito takes a sip of her tea. “I’m afraid I will have to ask one of the merchant ladies here to explain the matter to me. We consider the Senju more mercantile than many of us with the same noble status.”

Because they market their own goods instead of handing that to servants to do.

Because they have so many goods to market.

The soybean oil used in the dishes in half of Shunan, one household in every four bought and ate Senju rice.

Not hers, but one in every four.

They are truly prosperous.

And prosperity without humility breeds contempt and jealousy.

“Everyone knows it,” Asa says, looking down. “How they drive the rice prices down year after year after year without regard to storms or pests or drought. Five merchant houses in our region went bankrupt this year, and seven the year before that. My husband has been lucky to have friends who have bought his goods, and we’ve escaped the brunt of the losses.” Asa casts a glance at her, and she reads sympathy in the older woman’s eyes. “But we can’t escape it forever.”

The kindness of friends will run out one day or another when one is always the one who begs for a little sympathy instead of the one giving a little every now and again.

“Everybody knows how they’ve always been rude when doing business.” Madam Togakami stands, two bright spots of color on her cheeks. “And now they’ve started killing people. Isn’t this just using titles and status to bully us normal people? Do they think their noble titles make them better than us? At this rate, we’ll all turn into ants for them to step on.”

“You can’t just say that, Madam.” One of Baroness Yamato’s married daughters. The older one, Hisa thinks. She’s the older sister. “Just because a baronic household from another region is engaging in such dirty acts that can’t be bandied about in polite company, surely, that doesn’t mean they’re using their titles to bully and oppress anyone.”

Baroness Ito is silent, seemingly thinking it over.

“What are they doing, if they aren’t bullying us with their power?” Madam Ishida asks, hiding her face behind her fan, thinking the matter over. “I, for one, have bought their goods in the past because I thought the cheapness combined with the quality was a thrifty business investment.” But merchants and their wives are still men and women. They still abhor killing. They still want justice. “But no business investment is worth lives. They have lost my business, and if you know where your loyalties lie, you’d vote with your purse strings too.”

The table breaks into squabbling once more.

And Hisa, who watches the proceedings, wonders if such outrage and rancor could truly be called a marvelous play.

There are more who dislike the Senju than she thought, sitting at her table this afternoon.

“Uchiha Izuna-san,” O-Shiki says, voice much softer than the ongoing arguments, and yet still cutting through them like hot oil anyway, “is the son of Uchiha Tajima-dono, the count of Tohoku to our northeast.” Her eyes are cast downwards, circling the lid of her gaiwan. “Doesn’t that mean they are blind? Social status no longer matters to them.” Here, O-Shiki sighs. “Uchiha Izuna-san saved my life once upon a time, and Shujin and I have long suspected that the late Orihito-shikeishu hired Senju in that job as well.”

With a harsh clank, Baroness Yamato sets her gaiwan down on the table. “This is audacious to the extreme. They deserve to lose more than just business over this.”

But this crime crosses regions, and the attempted murder of a nobleman by another nobleman cannot be tried by the local magistrate.

Only the daimyo could decide such a thing, and who, among them all, is willing to step into the dragon’s mouth?

They are only a little people.

And slowly, this bloodstain spreads over the whole table.

She might’ve ruined one party hosted at her own house, but the hand has flipped.

And even now, Go pieces are raining all over the floor.

After the other ladies take their leave, with kinder words to her than they have said in years and newly ignited rage against the Senju, O-Shiki still sits, no longer at her banquet table, but inside her front room instead.

She has no private greeting parlor, being not one to really have many guests over.

It is the first time that O-Shiki has ever been here.

“Hisa-chan.” O-Shiki watches her, buyao glittering in the late afternoon light. “You should’ve told me how they were bullying you. Even if I have to fight them myself, I would’ve still found you justice.” O-Shiki sighs and shakes her head. “Everyone knows how there aren’t any men who would kill to keep you safe.”

There weren’t, before Izuna.


“A father isn’t the same as a brother, and your father is old.” And without any skill with any weapon.

And without the desire to kill.

For a long time, after Anija had been first thrown and then carried into the house, still unconscious, body limp like a cloth doll, Chichi-ue had stood in their back courtyard, a butcher’s knife in one hand and the horse that had thrown Anija before him.

He had stood there, looking at the animal that had all but broken their entire household, at what had broken his heart, a knife in hand.

And a different man would have done it, but Chichi-ue had stood there, shaking.


And in the end, he turned away.

The horse had been sold.

“Chichi-ue does not believe killing is a form of justice.” And in her kinder days, she doesn’t believe it is either.

But she has nothing left to be kind with.

“Sometimes,” O-Shiki says with surprising bite, “it is the oldest and only form of justice there is.” O-Shiki holds her hands, brushes away her tears. “You fought for me once, Hisa. Let me fight for you this time.”

This time, let me fight for you.


There is more than one way to kill a man.

Let me fight for you.

And through her tears, she thanks O-Shiki.

It is early evening, after everyone has left after the party, and she is strolling arm in arm with Kimei, who has finally understood why she is doing what she is doing, when she happens upon her stepmother and several of Chiba-san’s handmaids hurriedly making their way to the back door of the house.

"Where are you going?" It is rare to see her stepmother dressed to go out of the house. Chiba Natsu rarely cared for the outer world or guests. Her face turns inwards, to the space of her own courtyard, her books and tea, her daughter and her husband.

Rarely does she care for much else.

"To visit my father." Her stepmother does not turn to look at her, although her tone is pleasant. "I can only hope that he will listen to my pleas." He had not before, once long ago. I was twenty when I married, leaving his house forever.

Maiden to madam, the world knows the tale well.

All young women from good households must leave behind girlhood to be married off to another man’s household.

Chiba Sahei-san had chosen the House of Kawaguchi for his daughter.

And in so many ways, had sold her and yet let her believe otherwise.

Hisa remembers the day that Chiba Natsu had married into their household, the wide beaming smile she’d read as arrogance.

She knows exactly what her stepmother has now gone to plead for, the only question is "why do you go?" There is no great love between them, certainly not enough that her stepmother would step out of line and ask her maternal family to take such a business risk.

"We share no blood, you and I." Here Chiba-san bows her head as though to look at her open palm. "But it is the job of flowers to grow where they are planted." It is the job of women to support whatever household they live in. "So this is only something I ought to be doing."

“But women are not flowers,” she says, voice suddenly soft. Women are people. Only ask your father to aid me if you wish to, not because you feel you must. “So only go if you would like to.”

Chiba-san half smiles, something that is not bitterness in the look in her amber eyes. “It is not exactly a matter of whether I would like to, is it?” But she steps forward towards the carriage anyway. “But rest assured, Second Miss, I only go because I am willing to.”

Let mercy reap its own reward.

“Be careful.” She oversteps, and she does so because Chiba-san no longer belongs to the whims and wishes of Chiba Sahei-san. “That you barter nothing that you aren’t willing to give.”

Sahei-san might always have a foothold in their household through Chichi-ue’s sementality and Chiba-san’s filial obligations, but that does not mean that her stepmother must bargain more away to a man who had sold her to pay his own debts.

It is what daughters are good for, isn’t it?

Paying their father’s debts.

But you have already paid, so do not for one moment think that you owe him any more.

Chiba-san smiles, her eyes downcast. “I have had many years to see my father clearly, Second Miss.”

But seeing is not the same as knowing.

The mind might know, but the heart does not understand it.

She stands there in the front gate watching as Chiba-san’s carriage disappears down the street.

She sits with Izuna while Madara goes out the day after to greet his mother. He’d written to her, telling her of the situation, begging her to arrive quickly before—


He still has not woken.

The pallor of death clings to him like a haze.

“This way.” It is Madara’s voice, and two sets of footsteps following him.

Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku appear in the doorway, though the Countess is between her husband and her son, her hand resting on Madara’s arm.

She rises and offers Lady Kiku, who sinks down into it gratefully, her seat at Izuna’s bedside. “My son,” she whispers, “my son,” and begins to cry, though these are not pitiful tears.

More angry in their grief than anything else.

Lord Tajima comes to hold her shoulders, his own face heavy with the fatigue and grief that brought them here. “Madara says they have a good medic here, aisai. He uses chakra, if sparingly.”

There is still hope, however brief, however slim.

However much it has waned with each passing day that he will not awaken.

And she, with all her education, finds nothing to say.

“We apologize for putting this upon you, Kawaguchi-san.” Lord Tajima sits as well, in the chair that Madara had vacated when he went to fetch his parents. “And for taking care of both of our sons.”

“It was no trouble.” Her mouth says words, but her heart does not agree.

But this is what education teaches her to say.

“Chichi-ue is still out, and I regret that I did not plan much ahead for Uchiha-sama and Kiku-sama’s arrival,” she continues and feels far from herself. “So our hospitality has been rather lacking, and for the House of Kawaguchi, I apologize.”

“Good child,” Lady Kiku says, regaining at least a little bit of her composure. “Don’t say such things.” She turns her face up to Hisa’s, and she reads the worry of a mother in those dark eyes, the strength of steel in those lips determinedly pulled up in a smile. “I do not even know how to begin to thank you.”

“There’s no need to thank me.” She had done what she had done.

She did not do it for applause or platitude, for no one’s good graces or transactionary pleasure.

But Lady Kiku is not Iro-hime, and so she sees her with different eyes than the shu princess.

Her gratitude rings true.

Chichi-ue returns home two days after the party after O-Shiki has left for the capital, and he has not yet even crossed the doorway before Taishi has started explaining the state of affairs to him by the front door, Izuna brought in, the party, the countess, the arrival of Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku.

When he makes his way inside to meet her standing there, his face looks grim indeed.

“Hisa-chan?” he asks. “Is it true?”

“Chichi-ue,” she says, and suddenly her hollow throat fills with tears and she almost throws herself into his open arms. “Chichi-ue,” she sobs, and he understands.

“I know,” he says, river soft. “I have seen how you look at him. I have heard how you speak of him. And I have seen how he looks at you. I have not grown so old as to forget my senses.”

At this, she can only sob, uncaring of what it looks like. “Chichi-ue, I cannot—” I cannot afford this.

My heart cannot afford this.

Not this year, not any year after.

“Who says my daughter cannot afford love?”

She had always thought that he could not bear to be parted from her.

And that in many ways, she cannot bear to be parted from her father. He would not agree to marry her so far away, where he could only visit, and infrequently at that, back to the city that her mother had longed to escape.

How odd the cycles of fate and fortune turned.

“My daughter can afford whatever she likes.”

But if it is at the cost of her father.

If it is at the cost of her home.

She shakes her head, smiling through her tears. “Come home, Chichi-ue,” she says instead. “It is late, and you have been traveling for long.”

Chichi-ue takes tea with Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku, niceties still being observed even in the dire straits that they are now in.

She suspects that they would rather wish to be with Izuna, his condition lingering, neither worse nor better, though Jizen-sensei still works tiredly every day.

There is the prior arrival of loss written darkly on his face, the look of a man who knows the battle is lost and yet still fights anyway.

But he has said nothing.

He has said nothing of the losing battle, so she still holds that spark of hope close to her chest, and hope might burn, and hope might die, but while it lives it is warmer than a life without.

But here is tea, which Aka pours, her movements swift and sure.

And here are the pleasantries that must be exchanged, and since propriety dictates that they must exchange them, best get them out of the way as soon as possible.

“We are in your debt, Kawaguchi-san.” Lady Kiku dabs at her eyes with her handkerchief, bereaved, as she must be, having only just put away the white in her hair.

Mourning for one son had barely ended, and yet, it seems like it will begin again. And if Hisa had any heart left to break, it will have broken again at this.

But she has none.

She has none.

What has already been broken cannot break again.

Lady Kiku holds one of Hisa’s hands, still fighting back tears. “Good child, our family will never forget this debt.”


Life is not debt, and she did not do this for the sake of debt. She’d done it because—

Because now that they are on the road towards death, they might as well die thoroughly. If she and Izuna are bound together on the same red string, then the death of one is the death of the other.

Since they are now walking that road, why not run?

Life, though worth more than the money that is used to pay for it, can be bought with money.

Other households do it, preferring to hold the life contracts of their servants.

But whether this life can be bought back with banknotes and gold ingots has yet to be determined. It will depend, then, on how far the Senju are willing to bow.

She shakes her head. “I have done nothing. Uchiha-sama speaks too highly of me.”

She has done nothing, while people around her paced, a party, no more.

What comes of it, well, she is still waiting on that.

How much can a man like Senju Tobirama bend? She does not know that yet.

Momo arrives in the middle of a discussion of the weather, little feet clattering faster than Sute can run after her. Which is odd, because Momo is a child of five and a half, not a young woman in her late twenties, who ought to be able to remember where Momo wants to go. “Sixth Miss, you can’t go in there.”

And Momo, in her childish voice, answers. “But Chichi-ue is home! Chichi-ue will be able to make everything better, you’ll see.”

Of all the adults in the room, is there a single one who doesn’t know how futile that declaration is?

Momo’s words are that of a child’s, doted upon and taken care of, where in her world, her father could hang the sun and stars, and no god in heaven or king in hell could best him.

But their father is no god in heaven.

And though he holds a better position in life than many men in this world, he is no lord or king. Only inside the four walls of his own house must people listen.

But then, Momo has never been outside of the house.

For a moment, there is silence, frozen still.

A moment later, Momo crosses the threshold, throwing herself in Chichi-ue's lap. “Chichi-ue,” she says, turning her face up to his, serious in the way that Momo only is when she is thinking very hard. “Izu-nii is very injured. But he will get better, won’t he?” You’ll be able to make him better, won’t you?

Sute, who has come in following Momo, curtsies, her eyes cast downwards, and while she makes her apologies, Chichi-ue waves them away.

“I have heard about Uchiha-san from Jizen-sensei, and from everyone else who has been taking care of him.” And with his thumb, Chichi-ue smooths away the wrinkles that have gathered on Momo’s forehead. “You mustn’t go to bother him, do you understand? And you especially mustn’t say anything bad to him while he is recovering.”

At this, Momo pouts, her hands balled to fists in her lap. “But Chichi-ue, you didn’t say that he will be better soon.”

There is another pause as Chichi-ue thinks of what to say.

She rises, comes to hold Momo’s shoulders. “Momo-ko, you haven’t said hello to Izuna-san’s parents yet.”

Give Chichi-ue a little time to continue thinking.

There is no easy answer to this.

No easy answer because Chichi-ue will not lie, and yet the truth is also unpleasant.

Momo covers her mouth with her hands, having only just noticed the older man and woman who could not be family sitting with her father and older sister.

Lord Tajima offers up the sliver of a smile, clearly tired even so. “No need to be so polite. These times are especially difficult for children.”

Children Momo’s age ought never be present in front of guests to begin with, though Momo curtsies and whispers a greeting to both of them, suddenly abashed.

“I have a granddaughter about your age,” Lord Tajima says.

Kaiyo-chan. Hisa remembers, though Kaiyo-chan is at least four years older than her little sister, the eldest child of Lord Tajima’s eldest son.

“She is just as impatient, even though she is older. I think perhaps, you two would have been great friends.”

Momo is distracted upon the change in subject, and though she bursts with new questions — there are no little girls Momo’s age in their household, besides the daughters of servants, and Momo, who spends most of her time with her mother does not play with them often.

“Will you tell your Haha-ue to stop worrying so much?” Chichi-ue tugs one of Momo’s pigtails, something both exasperated and amused in his eyes. Momo pouts, but she does not deny that Chiba-san sent her. “Who else would tell you to come ask me these things?”

And yet, even knowing that Chiba-san has sent her daughter to ask her questions, it does not speak so much of bitter things anymore.

Chiba Natsu-san, for all her other qualities, is not a direct woman, preferring to shield herself in the niceties and indirect commentary. Never a harsh word, never a loud voice, solitary and withdrawn.

What she sees of the goings-on of the rest of the house are from the eyes of other people. In another time, Hisa would’ve seen this as more of a fault than a quirk of personality.

Momo frowns, not willing to tell Chichi-ue that it is her mother who has sent her here. “Chichi-ue…”

“Tell your mother that upon these matters, she does not have to worry anymore.” Chich-ue holds Momo’s face in his hands. “These things will be worried about by Chichi-ue and Neesan, alright?”

Momo considers and reconsiders, and somehow, she comes to accept this as enough.

Perhaps it is because Chichi-ue has never failed to solve her problems somehow.

There is a question in Lord Tajima’s eyes when Momo has disappeared out the door, followed dutifully by Sute.

“Yes,” Chichi-ue says, while picking up his gaiwan. “My second daughter, named Momo. You will have to forgive my wife. She does not often see guests and likely is not aware that we were sitting in the front hall when she asked her daughter to come ask me to sooth her nerves.”

Lady Kiku brightens at this. “I admit to very much wanting to make the acquaintance of your wife, Kawaguchi-san. I’ve heard so much about her.” A nervous laugh, a valiant attempt to disguise it as amusement. “Oddly enough, though we grew up in the same city, I have only heard about Hiwara-shonin’s eldest daughter.”

Chichi-ue’s face freezes.

The air bleeds with grief and pain, the river shrinking in the ever growing drought.

“Byakko rises in the east and sets in the west.” He sets his tea aside, folds his hands together in his lap, face as serene as a sage atop a mountain.

For the first time, she wonders if she inherited her public face from Chichi-ue.

Haha-ue had always said and done as she felt.

“I am afraid,” though Chichi-ue sounds neither particularly apologetic or afraid, “that what is mortal can no longer meet her.”

And if silence descends, it is because Chichi-ue intended for there to be silence.

There is already someone there by the time she makes it to the shrine, a man, with an iron straight back and topknot severely affixed to his head.

Lord Tajima turns towards her even before she crosses the threshold.

Yes. I walk loudly and the door creaks.

She curtsies. “I shouldn’t have disturbed you, Uchiha-sama.” But it is her family’s shrine.

It is her mother’s memorial tablet.

This is her private grief, and her private wish that her mother in the underworld might see this injustice and correct it.

That somewhere, beyond the realm of the living, there is a greater power that could make Izuna well again.

He has lit all the candles, though he likely did so by shinobi arts rather than matches. The Uchiha favor fire.

The last of the matches had been used up the last time she was here, and she is holding a box of new ones.

“No,” he steps aside. “I am the one who has intruded. I won’t keep you.”

She lights a stick of incense in the candle flame before her mother’s tablet and affixes it upright in the small holder. A plume of smoke trails upwards, faintly blue and sweet smelling.

Lord Tajima has not gone away. “How long has it been?” he asks, and she knows he means her mother. “Those in Yanai did not hear of her passing.”

But why would they have, when Yanai never cared for Hiwara Toyomatsu’s wife, or his eldest daughter?

Too wild, they’d whispered. A woman who thinks she is the equal of any man.

Too stubborn, too proud, too much.


Why would they have cared whether she lived or died? It is the same to them. She is gone from their courtyards and lakesides, children’s birthday parties and poetry readings either way.

“Twelve years.” She says, still staring at the smoke. “My father...he does not like to mention it.”

Earlier, Lady Kiku had asked about his wife.

The one that so much had been said about.

And something of the shadow that had never lifted had fallen over Chichi-ue’s face.

Lord Tajima shifts, standing as he does, beside her, also watching the smoke. “She was an exemplary woman.” He does not elaborate further.

“She was my father’s sun and sky.” She bows her head. “His tiger goddess, the talk of the town.”

Though in the later years, the gossip had been crueler rather than about how Madam Kawaguchi loved to throw parties and play polo, how she had a vicious tongue and temper to go with her casual generosity, how she was accomplished but never proper.

And memories like dragonflies on water flit across her mind.

For so long, she has not really remembered her mother. Had thought of her, had missed her, had walked with her insides hollowed out, but that is not the same as remembering a life lived.

And to her shame, she realizes she has forgotten her mother’s face.

Only her jade hair sticks and her smile remain — the impression of blue eyes, the sound of bells.

And this is what the ruinous passage of time is, she supposes.

It takes, and it takes, and it takes, and it takes, and still yet life goes on.

She closes her eyes, bows her head. Haha-ue, if you are not yet at your next life yet, and still watching over me, tell the King of Hell to add a few strokes to the numbers next to Izuna’s name.

And at her side, Lord Tajima bows his head as well.

Chapter Text

“Any news yet?” she asks Kimei. She has just persuaded Lady Kiku and Lord Tajima to rest. It is late now, the lanterns outside lit against the growing dark, and soon she will have to put away her sewing for a while to rest her eyes before continuing on.

These days, everything seems to make her tired.

“Not that I have heard.” Kimei comes to sit at her feet, glancing once at Izuna before sighing. “Hisa...what will we do if the Senju do not react?”

“They will.” She has heard more of Baron Senju in the past few days, from both Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku, both of whom have known the man for a long time now. She knows that when he breaks, it will be breaking and not merely bending.

Lady Kiku, especially, had turned to her, asking if it is really true that people will stop buying Senju goods over this — a young woman crying at a party — but it is more than that, and she had endeavored to explain.

In her world, reputation matters, and while each household had its grudges and squabbles with the neighbors, theirs is a regional city, not fond of outsiders butting into their business.

Whatever grudges and slights and faults they may have perceived about the House of Kawaguchi, her father’s reputation is sterling, and they belong to Chubu, their roots planted deeply in the region’s largest river.

Her grandfather might have been nothing more than a bond servant with delusions of grandeur, but his family had lived in the region for generations.

The merchant’s guild is a clannish people, and they take to outsiders with the suspicion of people who have often been bullied. The Senju have lobbed a stone through the paper screen, and the ranks have closed.

The Senju will react. It’s only a matter of it being early or late.

Early or late.

Early, and Izuna will live.

Late, and he—

Once again, his life is in the hands of the Senju. They have doctors.

It’s only a matter of how far they will bend.

How she could learn to resent the idea. His life should be in no one’s hands but his own.

After a time, Kimei rises to rearrange the lamp shield and bring in extra blankets. “I’ll be back,” she says before turning to go. “It shouldn’t take long.”

She nods, readjusting her sewing kit so it doesn’t block the light, and rises to stretch her legs.

The flicker of the candlelight casts a glow onto his face absent in the light of day. Odd, that he seems better for such dark times rather than the light.

She pulls the covers over him up a little, and the hand that had been resting atop them flips and latches onto her wrist.

She nearly screams, but manages more of a cut off gasp that doesn’t wake everyone in the house. He is awake, which means—

Which means—

“Who—” his eyes are open, red pinwheels spinning. “Hisa-san?” He attempts getting up but only manages halfway before she pushes him down by the shoulders.

“Don’t. You’ll rip out Jizen-sensei’s stitches, and then he’ll be very mad at you.” It’s only then that he seems to notice the candlelight, and his own injuries, a hand attempting to feel his bandaged side.

She catches it before he can. “Don’t do that either. You’ll aggravate it.”

She sets his hand back down on the covers. “I’ll go find someone. I’m sure your family would want to know that you’re awake.”

For days now, Izuna had been the axle upon which their Uchiha visitors had spun, no less than two in his sickroom at all times, waiting for the moment he might either wake up or cause greater grief.

But for the moment, they are alone. “Anija?” he whispers, suddenly frightened. “How did I get here? What—”

“Shhh.” She pauses, brings the lamp closer so that he can see where they actually are. “You’re where you usually stay. Your fourth brother brought you in. It has been some time, your parents are here.”

“Haha-ue?” At this, he looks positively more panicked. “Haha-ue is here?”

“Uchiha-sama is here as well.” This provokes a small weak sound from him. “They’ve been worried about you.” Careful to not disturb him, she sets the lamp down on the table on the end near him and rises to go. “I’ll go fetch someone to wake them.”

“Hisa-san?” he asks, voice small.

“Yes?” She pauses but does not turn around, her hand on the door. “What is it, Izuna-san?”

There’s only the sound of his breathing, louder now that he’s awake. “I’m sorry,” he says, and sounds contrite enough that she knows he means it, even if she doesn’t know what he’s sorry about. “It must’ve cost you.”

Much has cost her.

Many have cost her.

And yet, she doesn’t often expect apologies for such. “While you are here, you need never apologize for such.”

They are all family here, beloved people and dear to her heart.

Her family is small, without the history and numbers older families have, but family does not count debts or costs or scores to settle.

No apology is needed for whatever the cost is; those that are family to each other would pay it without a word.

“Oh,” he says, even softer.

She steps outside for a moment, and lets Nene know that Izuna has awoken and to inform Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku, who are both resting in the room across the courtyard, of this.

“Your hair is very long,” Izuna remarks when she comes back in.

“It has always been this length,” she says absently, before a hand flies to her hair, and she remembers that Kimei had taken it down and braided it before he woke up.

“It was always up before.” His gaze is now cast respectfully up at the canopy above his bed. “I didn’t know it was this long.”

“It will be up again shortly.” She sits down at the vanity quickly loosing it from the braid and twisting it to pin it back up, at least simply.

When he wasn’t awake, it was a different matter, but now that he does have eyes to see, it shouldn’t be down as though she is still a schoolgirl.

“Hisa-san.” He does not sound as though he is looking at her, but with her back to him, it is hard to tell. “Hisa-san, am I dying?”

She turns back to him, hair forgotten. “No.”

And she wishes she believes it.

“It is your favorite shape.” Momo swings her feet back and forth, not sitting on the little bench that Suteo had brought in for her, but on Izuna’s bed instead the next morning, showing him the handkerchief that she had been making.

It is...rather covered with Uchiha clan mon.

Some in the wrong colors.

“My favorite shape?” he asks faintly, the most befuddled person in the room.

“All of your clothing and your chichi-ue and your haha-ue and Anija wear it too.” Momo looks quite pleased with herself. “So it must be your favorite.”

Lord Tajima hides an amused smile behind his hand.

“It—” Izuna almost laughs, but winces instead, a hand on his covers twitching slightly before tugging on one of Momo’s pigtails. “Did Hisa-san tell you to say that?”

Momo looks over at her for a moment, and then frowns at him. “Izu-shinobi-niisan is being very silly.” She pats his face. “Why would Neesan tell me to say anything? I only want you to get better soon.”

The handkerchief of Uchiwas flutters against his face.

Some of them have reversed their colors, white over red instead of red over white. Some of them are just a little bit wobbly.

“I—” Izuna starts but breaks off, the faint shadow of pain crossing his face.

“It is,” he begins again, still trying not to laugh and failing, though he still looks awful, “a family shape.”

Everyone else in the room contains their laughter for a moment, watching as Izuna and Momo attempt to sort out what it is they mean.

“A family shape?” Momo blinks at him, her head tilted to one side.

“Clans have them.” Madara says, before he almost looks as though he wishes to take it back, suddenly remembering that he sits in the estate of someone who has never had a mon, for the Kawaguchi, like so many other merchant families, are not officially recognized clans the way that nobles are. “They are,” he continues more softly, “signifiers of family pride.”

Symbols of nobility and prestige. She bites her tongue.

Perhaps for someone born the son of a count, a mon does not have the same significance that they do to her.

Momo turns to her. “Neesan,” her little sister says. “Do we have a clan mon?”

“We’re merchants,” she says and keeps her voice light. “Merchants do not belong to clans.”

When they travel, they might be allowed a banner with their family name, or failing that, citizenship papers which name where they come from, but legally, they are not allowed a mon.

Momo opens her mouth to ask another question, but she pulls her sister into her lap. “Yes, Momo-ko, we are a family, like clans are, but it is written in the laws. Without at least one member who has historically served in court, a family cannot be a clan.”

This, to at least Madara and Izuna, who both look at least mildly surprised by it.

Momo holds up the handkerchief, frowning. “So it is not a favorite shape after all.” Her pout develops impressively, lips pressed together. “Is a legal shape.”

Izuna actually laughs at this, despite it sending him into a fit of coughs. “I have never heard it called that.”

And for the moment, he is alive, if not well.

O-Shiki shakes her head. “Shujin and I have spoken about this, but though O-Tama-kogo was receptive to my entreaties, His Majesty…” Here, O-Shiki pauses, uncertain of how to phrase the next sentence without sounding perhaps a little too treasonous even for her blunt ways. “His Majesty, I am sure, has his reasons, but refused to hear mention of the issue.”

So help from that quarter is not coming.

Lord Tajima sighs. “It is only to be expected.” Softly, he sets his tea aside. “His Majesty has not had the heart to hear complaints of any nature from any shinobi besides Count Akimichi for many, many years now.”

Slowly, Lord Fusamoto clenches his fist. “There is still another way that he might hear it.” With a wave of his hand, he calls Tamasu, carrying a set of black robes, forward. “I have changed a bit since I was twenty years old,” it has been over ten years since he was twenty years old, “but these robes came from the Imperial seamstresses and the Imperial silk workshops and will need a master’s hand to readjust.”

The dragon robes.

Black mianfu detailed with golden four clawed dragons belonged only on the Daimyo himself or the titled and enthroned crown prince, but Lord Fusamoto has a set, bestowed upon him by the Daimyo upon the unjust death of his father, Lord Hiramoto.

The princely title comes from this time as well.

“You intend to ride to the capital.” She covers her mouth with her hand, suddenly abashed.

No one wears such formal clothing in everyday life. Only important visits to the imperial court could ever necessitate such formality.

It is obvious that he intends to go.

“I intend to sound the Drum of Grievances in the outer imperial courtyard.” Lord Fusamoto folds his hands together. “O-Hisa-san, will you readjust my mianfu for me?”

A sharp noise rips its way out of Lord Tajima’s throat. “That’s madness. The Son of Heaven isn’t one to provoke so lightly.”

In her life, she has never seen mianfu. Very few sets ever leave the capital city. “Of course I will, Kusakabe-sama.” She rises and accepts.

“He has debts he needs to pay my family.” There’s a hard clench to Lord Fusamoto’s jaw. “And it’s been over ten years. I intend to collect.”

“His Majesty does not pay debts.” Lord Tajima’s hand clenches to a fist rested against his thigh. “The Son of Heaven does not owe debts towards mortals.”

But the Daimyo, though this thought is blasphemous, is also a mortal. While he may be the son of heaven, son of the dragon, gods made flesh, a dragon himself, he had his weal and woe. He still sickened.

He still aged.

He has daughters and sons, a father and a grandfather. He still had wives and concubines, so perhaps he is a lover as well, despite being so elevated above all.

And as historical records show, he still dies.

And as the songs say, he still has regrets and sorrows, moments of pain and faults of his own.

The death of an innocent man must weigh on his conscience as well.

It had to have, or else he would not have honored Lord Fusamoto with a title higher than six of his own sons.

“He owes me and my mother a debt. My father’s life is not worthless.” Lord Fusamoto waves Tamasu forward, and Hisa rises to accept the mainfu. She will have to refit Lord Fusamoto, consult both him and O-Shiki for details as to how it is supposed to fit, repair the dragons with gold thread...there is so much work to do. “And I intend to go.”

What is he going to do? Lord Fusamoto’s eyes seem to ask. Kill another Kusakabe lord?

But that is not outside the realm of possibility.

What the Son of Heaven will do lives only in his head, and cannot be judged by the earth under heaven.

“My family would be in your debt,” is what Lord Tajima settles on.

“I am not doing this for the Uchiha.” Lord Fusamoto rises, unties the family jade piece from his waistband — the Kusakabe family jade has been worn by its lord for generations, a pair of cranes on a backdrop of bamboo grove — and gently tucks it into Kore-kun’s hand. “Keep this for me, will you, my son?” After a small conversation with Kore-kun, he rises. “I do this because Kusakabe Fusamoto owes Kawaguchi O-Hisa-san a debt too great to ever repay.” His spine is straight, but his hands tremble.

He is a happy man with two sons, a young wife, and an aging mother.

The Lord Administrator of a region, well loved among his nobles and by the common citizens alike.

An honorable, upstanding man.

No man is willing to ride death’s door if he doesn’t have to.

“For this, I will gamble.”

“I don’t ask it of you.” The words leap out of her throat.

She knows that they will not win, that Izuna will — if he does not go.

But how can she ask that?

She has asked enough of O-Shiki already.

How can she ask O-Shiki’s husband to look the King of Hell in the face for her? Few ever survive the task.

“You do not have to,” Lord Fusamoto says pleasantly, his back still turned to her. “I ask it of me.”

I ask it of me.

“I am not a man who forgets his benefactors or his promises so easily, O-Hisa-san. I told you ‘whatever you want, whenever you wish it.’ Do not ask me to forget what I have said.” His eyes are lit with the light of stars.

His mother’s eyes, and just as stern.

It is not that she had expected him to forget it, but she had considered it paid when he sent Suteo with an official decree for her to accept, when he had honored her with property and expected her to accept such a gift.

“I—” Her statement dies on her lips. She cannot say ‘I do not want it,’ because she does.

She does want justice, she merely balks at the price.

And yet this, too, is a price that must be paid, and she knows it. No one can win a match without sacrifices.

Those who win these matches between people are often the ones who are willing to sacrifice the most.

The silk of Lord Fusamoto’s mianfu weighs no more than a pound, and yet, and yet—

It is heavy in her hands.

She and Kimei refit Lord Fusamoto that afternoon, taking out the seams about the shoulders, careful to measure and resize, tucking and pinning when needed, noting down the patterning, stitches, and weight of the gold thread.

Thankfully, he has not grown much taller than when he was twenty.

They do not make black silk here, not of this grade and quality, and certainly not a color so dark that it seems to shimmer like wet ink in sunlight, a luster and craft that is not allowed outside of the capital city, much like the formula that would make the imperial yellow.

He is quiet throughout the process. The only words in the room are between her and Kimei, technical words, about which gold thread to use to repair a certain section of embroidery, detailing for the panelling, if perhaps, the sleeves and skirt needed to be hemmed once more.

They can do nothing for the chipped pearls hanging from his eight fringed headdress, having no pearls of that size and quality, nor the craftsmanship to refit them even if she were to somehow find the proper pearls.

“Leave that,” he murmurs. “His Majesty should remember why they’re chipped.”

She does not know why, but she can guess.

Kimei nods and sets the headdress aside, gathering up their work in her arms.

“Will you give O-Hisa-san and I a moment?” Lord Fusamoto asks, his gaze fixed on some point far away.

Kimei nods again, and with the clothing in her arms, leaves.

“You know why I have to go.” A corner of his mouth quirks down. “And this benefits you.”

She stands there, three feet away, which is out of arm’s reach even though that does not matter. It does benefit her, and she does know why.

The word of an honorable man weighs like a chain around his neck. He will not easily break a promise.

Which is why the promises honorable men make should not be limitless like the one he has granted her, and while she had not expected him to forget it after his feelings had settled, she did expect him to take different paths in offering his aid.

His wife had already traveled once for this task, and to go again, with such audacity — the Drum of Grievances is only sounded in an outcry of great injustice, and it all but demands that a full court be opened immediately, whether it is dawn or the middle of the night — would surely provoke the Son of Heaven.

“I do know why.” What was it that she had said to him last time? I have been blessed by heaven to have clear eyes. Perhaps being so clear sighted has its downfalls and sorrows as well. “But I do not expect it, and I certainly do not demand it.”

She is but a young woman, as common and the same as so many other young women in their country. Only her circumstances and her bullheaded desire to stick with those circumstances make her the least bit different than any number of other young ladies in the city.

It is fortunate, perhaps, that she made O-Shiki’s acquaintance so many years ago.

Fortunate for both of them.

“Do you want to know what my mother said about you after your handling of the events the last time?” he asks, seemingly pretending to examine his sleeve, cranes across his shoulders rippling with the gesture.

“Even if I say no, I think Kusakabe-sama would want me to know either way.” She folds her hands together before her and waits.

“She said that despite how perceptive you are, if you never learn to take advantage of people at least some of the time, you will never climb to the heights you want to see.” He turns to her then, something like chastisement in his eyes. “I am willing to go, and yet here you are, trying to dissuade me because you fear I will be punished somehow. Though I suppose,” and here he sighs, “you know nothing about what it is like at court.” He sits and picks up the headdress, examining the cracked pearls. “The worst punishment for any crime, things like treason, slander against His Majesty, attempted assassination of any member of the royal family, can be met with execution for people within nine degrees of kindred to the perpetrator.”

Nine degrees of kindred — four generations of paternal relations, three generations of maternal relations, two generations of one’s in-laws.

Or alternatively, nine generations of a family.

Only those who come from old families can have nine degrees of kindred traced.

Treason is not only punishable by death, but by the death of whole clans.

But what constitutes treason lives in the dragon’s mind and cannot be understood by mere mortals.

“But he cannot possibly bring out that punishment.” Lord Fusamoto sighs. “Seeing as he is my mother’s cousin, and his favorite daughter is my second brother-in-law’s wife.”

His Majesty is within nine degrees of kindred to Lord Fusamoto, and thus, the deadliest and most feared of punishments could not befall him and his own.

“In the end, if His Majesty is upset with me, he could order me caned, or have my head lopped off if he wishes to see my mother again, but he will not harm what I love most.” His family.

There will be no punishments befalling his region.

She stands there, hands loosely at her sides, the chill of these thoughts upon her, and feels, perhaps, grateful that the closest thing she’s ever come to imperial royalty is the man in front of her, who looks at her with amused gray eyes.

The cracked pearls in the headdress still gleam in the sunlight.

“I have never wanted to trade one life for another.” And she knows what she says is true.

“With any luck,” and here, Lord Fusamoto smiles with a bravado he does not feel, “we won’t have to.” He laughs at the surprise she is sure she has not hidden from him well enough, the sound a bright, biting thing. “What? Even if I am willing to die for what I believe is honorable, it does not mean I would not regret what I leave behind.”

When he leaves for the capital at first light the next morning, he is still wearing his normal clothing, black mianfu packed in Suteo’s bags.

And Chubu watches him go, everyone silent, everyone waiting.

A week later, her handmaid returns from a trip to the market in the city and comes back happily to tell her the news.

“There is barely anyone left in the city who is willing to buy Senju goods this harvest.” Kimei looks viciously pleased at this. “Even those who had contracted them advance to buy goods earlier this year are refusing to honor those contracts, saying that murder is no way to do business.”

“Is that what you held the party for?” Madara asks, slightly rejuvenated by Izuna being awake earlier. “So you could tell them of the Senju’s misdeeds?” He is still looking at her, slightly baffled as she sips her barley tea, and thinks of what could possibly be happening now. “But how could you have possibly known what they would do? What do you mean to accomplish with this?”

It had taken time for the contracts to be broken.

Merchants are nothing if not good at finding loopholes when they no longer wish to be bound by the standards to which they had signed.

But that is not the final straw that would break the Senju, she does not think.

They have had years of profits now. One year when all of their neighbors no longer wish to do business will not sink them into poverty.

Not if Baron Senju or his accountant is as shrewd a man as she thinks he is, though she does not know that for certain.

It might be enough to sink them if it grows big enough and persists.

But she is not aiming to play a long match.

Izuna’s life depends upon it being short.

There is still Lord Fusamoto.

Lord Fusamoto, honored by the Daimyo himself long ago. Lord Fusamoto, whose wife is the only daughter of the war minister, only son of a princess of second rank, for his mother is the sitting Daimyo’s cousin.

Lord Fusamoto, one of the few men in the country who are allowed to wear dragons.

Who, even now, might be speaking in front of a full court, laying out grievances and blame.

If it is known to the Daimyo that a shinobi clan had started murdering civilians, how long could they keep their titles and power? How long could they keep their lives?

The fire that burned their house down in the capital was a crime on the doorstep of the Son of Heaven, long may he reign.

And someone had to have covered the Senju’s handiwork in some sort of unfortunate accident, but the crime is there, and evidence remains.

How long will there be a Senju clan in Fire Country?

It depends on Lord Fusamoto now.

Let me honor the debt of my house, O-Hisa-san. The lives of my children, my wife, and my mother were saved by your hands.

So let this be my repayment.

Barons value power, the prestige that their title gives them. Without the baronic title, the Senju are a clan of merchants and have to do business like one.

What moves him?

What kills him without a single scratch?

“Death,” she says simply. “I hope to accomplish death.” At his confused look, she continues. “How comfortable do you think Baron Senju is right now?” And slowly, she continues embroidering her peony flowers. “How comfortable do you think he’ll be when the Daimyo hears of what the Senju have done?”

It is the mood at court that it is never wise to let the shinobi outnumber the scholars among us.

From the lips of the daimyo himself.

In their peaceful country, with little need for armies or warmongers, shinobi are not well looked upon, outsiders to society even if some of them wear noble titles and are welcomed at court.

It is only the pale shadow of welcome.

Shinobi are like a grain of sand in the eyes of a civilized world, and the world is no oyster to make a pearl of in this situation.

“The Daimyo?” She forgets that he had not been there to speak to Lord Fusamoto and O-Shiki when they’d been there, more intent on feeding Izuna something even if it is a bland and tasteless soup and medicines that Jizen-sensei had prescribed.

“Lord Fusamoto has gone to sound the drum of grievance, seeing as the man who is dying is currently residing in his region.” Unsaid goes the sentiment that the Daimyo cannot afford to offend the Kusakabe any further.

Years ago now, Lord Hiramoto had been the Daimyo’s Grain Minister, betrayed and framed for crimes of embezzlement and treason that he did not commit, and had been thrown into the royal prisons.

Years ago, at his own court hearing, before all the great lords and ladies of the realm, he had declared his innocence and smashed his head open against a pillar in the front imperial greeting hall in remonstration of the Daimyo’s policies and accusations.

Only this had earned Lord Fusamoto the right to wear dragons.

But perhaps, he would’ve preferred to have his father instead of titles too heavy for his twenty year old shoulders.

“We will see how long the Senju keep their titles.” And how long after they lose their titles they keep their lives.

She has only just stepped out of Izuna’s room onto the walkway, when a man bursts out onto the walkway opposite of her, covered in mud.

There’s something hard against her neck, like river ice. A blade on her neck.

Kimei shrieks, dropping the basket of sewing supplies that she had been holding.

Pins and needles rain down over the wooden walkway, cloth rolling off the side, into the garden.

She pays it no mind.

A left handed swordsman wearing mud splattered cotton. “Step aside.” Senju Tobirama says, red eyes wild like a spooked horse. His arm is shaking. “Step aside. I know he’s in there.” Louder, he calls into the room beyond. “Uchiha Izuna, I know you’re in there! Stop hiding behind a woman’s skirts and come out and face me.”

There is no one else in there besides Izuna, breathing faintly, though he had been waking more often in recent days. Madara had stepped out to take a message.

Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku are eating with Chichi-ue.

Only she and Kimei are here, between this man and Izuna being killed.

She raises her chin. “No.”

“Do you think I won’t kill you?” he hisses. “Step aside, foolish woman.”

But he has asked. He did not need to do that. Her thoughts move quickly.

“It is only death,” she says. “Kill me if you dare. It will solve nothing.”

They are at an impasse. His arm shakes like a leaf, wild eyes, mud streaked hair.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Kimei asks, her own chin raised. “Do you think you’re being a hero?”

Senju Tobirama laughs, almost insane, like he’s already dead. “I wasn’t ever going to be a hero.”

“What a big man you are,” she says. “To think that you can win by killing a defenseless woman, or a man on his deathbed.” Senju Tobirama flinches. “What are you going to do to the people who won’t buy your goods? Will you kill them as well?”

His arm wavers.

And like the river rising, she continues to stall for time. “You can kill me. It wouldn’t be hard.” She is a civilian woman, who has never held the knife to do the deed herself, but sometimes, words cut deeper than knives can. “But know this, shinobi-san, I am Kawaguchi Hisa, the daughter of Kawaguchi Yasutaro, and this region loves my father well.”

They may say unkind things about the luck of the Kawaguchi and why it is that her father has no sons, but the people of Chubu are an inward looking people, more fond of their own than outsiders.

“Kill me, and you will find no trade in Fire Country ever again.” Kill a civilian woman in her own home, and the daimyo must take action.

Kill a civilian woman in her own home, and the cry for justice will sound from every self righteous mouth from every region of the country. “How long will you survive when every merchant from this city to Kamakura town closes their doors to you?”

No buying.

No selling.

How long can one clan stand against it all?

“Can you kill us all?”

He shakes, looking at her almost—


But what is it about her that he fears?

Behind him, Momo turns the corner around the side of the building.

Hisa’s heart leaps into her throat. No.

Momo pauses there for a moment as if trying to understand what is happening.

“Get away!” Momo slams into her legs. “Get away from Neesan, or I’ll bite you to death!”

For a moment, she forgets to breathe.

Senju Tobirama freezes, his eyes wide, breathing loud, arm shaking, rattling like a branch on the autumn wind.

He vanishes.

Madara appears around the side of the building in the next moment, running. “Izun—” he takes in the scene, the spilled basket, she and Kimei standing there, frozen, Momo clinging to her legs. “Hisa.” Slowly, he approaches, gathering Momo from her skirts, checks her over before offering her his hand. “What happened?”

“Senju Tobirama was here,” she says, a hand on her neck, more calm than she feels on the inside. “I believe he was looking for someone to kill.”

Madara’s face darkens.

She catches his sleeve. “Don’t go looking for him.”

Something had provoked the Senju, for they have never tried anything within the confines of the house before. Something more than just the current slowing of trade, from a river to a trickle, compassion wearing thin in the ever growing drought.

He thinks that Izuna is uninjured, or somehow capable of coming out to fight him.

“He tried something in the house.” Madara says, still holding Momo, who has begun to cry. “And you still want to do nothing?”

“Not nothing.” There is something on the wind.

Something on the wind, and it is always best to know more before anything more happens.

“Do you suppose,” she says, to distract him, “Baron Senju has met the imperial couriers?”

And that does distract him, if only by half.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conversation turns to a different matter.

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

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

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

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

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

The imperial guard is made up of shinobi.

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

And arrive they must.

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

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

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

His condition has not improved.

But it has not worsened either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The good mood is gone.

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

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

The sword is the soul of the shinobi.

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

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

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

Not one moment before.

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

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

So on that, she had not calculated wrongly.

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

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

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

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

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

The eye of the Son of Heaven has turned south.

And in it, there is no mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He intends to be a guest, not an intruder.

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

Chrysanthemum for funerals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She goes to see what Senju Hashirama has to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scent of chrysanthemum fills the air.

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

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

“And jasmine, yes.”

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

Still anxious, then. How curious.

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

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

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

But that does not soften her heart.

Or the claws she has hidden.

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

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

“The sword he held to my throat?”

It had not cut, but it had threatened to.

She wields her words to cut and cut deep.

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

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

Her life is hers to do with what she pleases.

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

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

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

But can they be believed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And something in her burns white hot at those words.

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

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

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

These are games that cost men’s lives.

She knows.

She knows.

She knows.

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

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

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

Her anger gives her claws.

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

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

It is not as if she does not know.

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

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

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

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

Strangely, she is not afraid.

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

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

Let mercy reap its own reward.

Her hands now sow only salt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have some nerve. After everything—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There will be no shinobi named Uchiha Izuna anymore.

No one has told him.

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

She will not tell him.

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

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

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

Had that always been the bridge he spoke of?

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

She had spoken of a different bridge.

“You are not there yet.”

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

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

She has always wondered.

What did shinobi have to hate each other for?

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

That they would wish to kill him for this—

For so little as this—

"Are they not men?"

Fourteen men had died in Nobuga so long ago.

Bear had died in the capital.

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

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

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

"Only those without hearts can kill without guilt."

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

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

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

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

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

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


Is it cruelty to be like she is?

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

The weight of her family’s frail name.

Your father will not kill for you.

Izuna will.


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

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

What I want is, as you say, inappropriate.

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

Or, perhaps, the same way.

They are the same beneath their painted-on colors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Will you tell me what it is?"

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

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

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

And a proud man begs like a child.

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps she is cruel.

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

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

She should not have.

Because she knew it would never end well.

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

Can she even promise herself that at this moment?

Can she bargain like this?

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

He would never give it up.

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

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

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

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

If he dies, she will never be the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aka hadn’t been loud.

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

So I was right to suspect something amiss.

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

Aka curtsies once and turns to leave.

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

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

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

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

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

“Aka,” but she pauses.

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

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

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

Lantern oil, then.

Or candle flame.

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

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

A rebuke.

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

But she doubts that this is the case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the distance between them grows.

Chapter Text

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

She needs not say the rest.

I think he’s getting worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Momo frowns, pigtails swishing as she shakes her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Momo returns to her mother.

Hisa takes her leave.

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

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

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

She tries not to let that show on her face.

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

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

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

Fear is not much better.

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

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

In the next instant, he is gone.

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

“When I am gone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three autumns.

Soon, she will turn twenty-two.

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

“She did.” Lord Tajima answers.

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

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

Can I see her?

She should turn around.

She should leave.

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

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

It is too private to intrude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is cold.

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

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

His arms loosen.

His mother’s whisper turns into a scream.

She comprehends nothing.

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

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

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

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

It’s not a question.

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

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

He flinches.

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

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

A medic.


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

She’d almost given up hope of it coming.

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

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

Behind her, Kimei tugs at her sleeves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Often, we live lives too short for that.

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

And now, only Lord Tajima stands in the doorway.

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

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

It is not a very serviceable death grip.

But it unnerves both the Senju.

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

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

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

“Acceptable.” Lord Tajima smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobirama turns back to his work.

Silence reigns.

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

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

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

She breathes out.

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

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

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

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

Tobirama makes it to the door, but no further.

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

Not golden, so not necessarily imperial.

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

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

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

Silence reigns.

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

No one knows what this one means yet.

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

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

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

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

Tobirama stumbles to his feet and continues outwards.

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

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

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

The new dawn brings new problems with it.

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

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

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

It must be hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for this, no one has any answer.

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

Because the Senju targeting her made him angry.

“Do you regret it now?” she asks.

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

That it was worth the cost.

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

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

Lord Tajima and Lady Kiku exchange another glance between themselves.

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

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

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

We would not have even thought of it.

But such things, they could never be quite enough.

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

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

“Because I will live?”

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

But the admission comes in that silence.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, she cannot prevent him from leaving.

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

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

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

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

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

To different heavens, different earths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turns her footsteps towards her father’s study.

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

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

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

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

But I cannot afford it.

What do I do? What can I do?

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

But in the courtyard, she pauses, lantern bobbing.

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

Not this night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she pushes that aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They are here.”

And so they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O-Shiki’s court face is back again.

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

Chapter Text

Lady Kiku meets her outside, standing on the walkway of Izuna’s courtyard, dark eyes hopeful. “He will need you, child.” The older woman smiles, a little sad, but more joyous than sad. “Now, more than ever.”

“Kiku-sama thinks highly of me.”

Lady Kiku shakes her head. “No, I did not think of you highly enough.” There is gratitude to be read here in the expression on her face, pain and joy — he is his mother’s son, she realizes, the thought sudden, her youngest and best loved son. “I can never repay you for all you have done to save him.”

Her gaze flickers downwards. It had not been the work of one to ensure Izuna’s life. “Kusakabe-sama did much more,” she says and knows that it is true. “It was not easy for him.” Chubu had heard of what had happened to his father, had seen the late Lord Hiramoto’s coffin carried back, Lord Fusamoto riding before it on that hot summer day through the streets of Shunan, more dead than alive.

She’d not seen it herself, being a child, kept inside the house, but Bear had squeezed his way through the crowd to go see, and he had remarked on it afterwards with the gentle-heartedness that only Bear could. How awful, he’d said, how frightening. Can no one help him?

In the end, it had taken years for Lord Fusamoto to grow into the Lord Administrator of Chubu, a wedding, two children, all the years in between that had brought about the genial man he is today.

“Of course,” Lady Kiku sighs, “I have not the proper thanks for the Count and Countess of Chubu either, only humble offerings that I hope they will not receive in askance.”

“O-Shiki is the jewel of his heart.” As she has been for years and years now, ever since they were children. “And he is deeply filial to his mother. Whatever pleases them will please him as well.”

What will please O-Shiki are tea and cakes, a new hand stitched outfit, and a friend to share gossip with over tea.

But if this will give Lady Kiku ideas as to how to thank Lord Fusamoto, all the better.

Inside, Izuna is already dressed for the day, sitting on the edge of his bed, still leaning against the back of the nearest chair. He brightens upon seeing her.

“Will you stay?”

She had not expected him to ask her to stay, given that this is the morning where Lord Tajima has determined that he will need to bid goodbye to his title as a shinobi, and with it, the sword that was his coming of age present.

But looking at the hopeful expression on his face, she cannot say no either. “If that is what you would like, then I will stay.”

And let this be her penance as well, a reminder that she has asked for much from the world to save his life, and that it has come at a cost she cannot bear.

This cost he will bear alone, as he has borne other costs of being here.

He stumbles when he rises, and she catches him by the arm.

Weeks in bed have made him thinner and frailer, lighter than even the time they’d fled Senju attackers in the imperial city years ago.

She’d been strong enough to carry him then.

He leans on her as they walk out into the courtyard, with shaking hands, hands his sword over to his father, and steps back alone.

Lord Tajima glances at her, but makes no comment.

The courtyard had been cleared for the destruction of Izuna’s sword, which, even now, rests on a stand, a shallow stone basin beneath it, everyone sent away, but he has asked her to stay, so she does.

Lord Tajima makes a few gestures and brings his hands to his lips, blowing out a long tongue of fire.

The steel heats, red, then white, then faintly blue, the silk cords in the tassel burning away, the acrid smell lingering, leaving behind only metal wire fusing and pooling.

The heat radiates hotter than the house fire, more terrible than any fire that Izuna has set in her presence.

A scream of anguish rips from his throat, raw. If a sound could bleed, this one would.

He is on his knees, shaking.

And she is on her knees as well, arms around him, face turned away from the heat.

“Izuna,” she says. “Izuna.”

He would not like anyone else to see this — so private and so proud a man would not want anyone to know — and no one else will, but she is sure that they can hear him.

Were he thinking, he would not want them to.

But he is not thinking, so she must think for him. “Does he have to see this?” she asks, with more bite than she quite intends to let show. “He has not recovered.” He’d just been able to start walking unaided, and he still staggers like a man who has not quite regained control of his legs, and seeing that this morning in the courtyard had hurt more than she expected.

But Lord Tajima is impassive and silent.

When it is over, nothing left of a once beautiful blade but metal hissing in a stone basin, the heat faded, and Lord Tajima gone, Izuna stops shaking.

“He had to.” The three words tear out of him like a sob. “He had to because my actions forced his hand.”

Her arms are still around him, but she does not pull away.

He had rarely hinted at any sort of pain in the weeks that he lay dying. A hole through him could not make him scream or send him to his knees in the space of a moment, shaking as if someone reached into his chest and squeezed his heart.

But wounds of the soul always hurt worse than wounds of flesh.

The sword is the soul of the shinobi.

Honor. Virtue.

Forged for only his hands, the way that a qin never could be.

And now it is gone.

She has no words with which to comfort him, no understanding or mutual grief to share with him, nothing to offer that could ever replace what he has lost.

“Thank you,” he says when he is more composed, though he does not let go. “Thank you.”

“You shouldn’t thank me.” So strange it is that he would thank her. “If you had not come here, it would not have happened.”

“And there you are again,” he catches her hand when she lets go of him, the remnants of what once was a smile on his lips. “Putting space where there was none before.”

She helps him up, wordless, but still bleeding tenderness.

“I’ve told you. I don’t regret it.” And though there is pain on his face, there is something else there as well, and she doesn’t know if it ought to scare or delight her. “That will not change.”

“Then you are more foolish than I thought.” She does not intend to say this, does not intend to, but does anyway. Hurt flashes across his face, but she continues onward. “You are no longer a shinobi, because of who you have killed. You and I both know why you killed them. Is it worth it, Izuna? Have you thought of what you will do now?”

“You are worth it,” he says and means it so genuinely that it almost scares her. “If it meant you felt safe enough to step out your own front door, even if I had to choose again, I would choose the same. No matter how far I have to fall, if you can live happily, it would be worth it to me.”

He has taken the mask off, hope a living flame on his face. “Come walk with me?” he asks. “I do not want to wait for the bridge.” On the bridge of everlasting sorrow in the underworld, every soul drinks the dream scattering soup before stepping off into a new life.

But it is possible to wait for someone there and to walk together into the next life.

“Even the Cowherd waited for the bridge.” He and the Weaving Maid meet once a year on a bridge of magpies at seven-seven. “Even Hou Yi looks to the moon.” The fabled archer sits alone and raises a toast towards the moon.

He almost laughs. “If it is seven-seven, then I will wait for you. If it is Mid-Autumn, I will still wait for you.”

And because she is very foolish, she wants to say yes.

And because she is even more foolish, she does not.

“You are the son of a count,” she says and gently brushes the dust from his shoulders. “And so shouldn’t say such things to me. Else, I might take them seriously.” I do not fault you for these promises.

But I am the one who cannot bear the results of them, more slender than a reed in the river.

Her footsteps draw her back to her father’s study that night because she cannot sleep.

But this time, she has no time to turn back.

As soon as her foot crosses the center of the courtyard, her father’s door opens.

“Hisa-chan,” he beckons towards her. “Come in?”

So he did know when she was here last time, but had waited for her to come back instead of seeking her out.

“Chichi-ue,” she says when her head is resting against his shoulder, and all the burdens of the world seem smaller because he is here to tell her that it is fine. “I do not think I can afford to love him.”

“Tell me about it?” he asks. “He is saved, but you are not overflowing with joy. I thought you would be happier now that he will live.”

“I do not know what I am supposed to do.” He is alive, and she is glad of it.

But now that he is alive and will remain so, she seems to have reached out for some new goal instead.

While he lay injured, she could only think of how desperately she wanted him to live.

But now, now, she does not know what she should do. She wants so much more now.

“What do you wish for?” Chichi-ue asks, gently stroking her hair. He does not sound unhappy, though he did not care for shinobi and still does not. “What does my daughter desire?”

“Chichi-ue,” she whispers, not entirely sure she wants to say the words out loud, “if I told you that your daughter wanted a count’s son for a husband, what would you do?”

“Lord Uchiha is in our house right now.” A corner of Chichi-ue’s mouth tilts down. “I suppose I simply will go see what he has to say about this proposal. I would like to see if he can refuse and retreat with any dignity after our discussion this last week.”

“But what will you do?”

This prompts a small silence. “What do you mean?” He squeezes her shoulder. “Get ready for a wedding, of course.”

“I meant after.” Because it is not the wedding she fears.

And it is not how she will live afterwards that she worries over, again and again in her mind.

How can she leave everyone behind?

How can she leave Chichi-ue?

He sighs, brushing a tear away from her cheek. “I will be here for you to visit. It is not as if you will never come back to your maiden household, is it?”

But that does not explain what he will do or how her family will live without her and the future she carries on her shoulders.

But she cannot say this without implying that she thinks much of herself. “I can’t leave.” Down that path is only nonsense. “I will miss you too much.”

Her words are more watery than she feared.

“Where does your heart belong?” Chichi-ue asks, voice even and unresigned. “Put aside your worries, and what you think it will cost, and answer yourself truly. In the end, the only regrets we have are the lies we tell our hearts.”

But in the end, which choice would she regret making more?

What do I wish for? She’d sent her handmaids away to think about it.

Chichi-ue had asked her this question, though he had phrased it differently. Where does your heart belong? Put aside your worries and what you think it will cost, and answer yourself truly.

She is not as brave as Chichi-ue once was — the young man who had seen what he wanted stopped at nothing to acquire it.

And time and time again, Izuna had hinted, and she did not ask or pin anything down.

Time and time again, she has deferred the decision.

Danna, you look good today.

It should not have taken him lying on his deathbed for her to admit that she would rather have him for a lifetime at her side.

In most things in life, at least in her own heart, she is straightforward and honest with herself.

She wants his years and his smiles, to share his joys and hold his sorrows, to spend her years at his side, wherever that might be.

The edge of heaven, the corner of the sea.

Of all the trials in the mortal realm, eighty-eight trials and tribulations, love is the hardest.

Once tasted, it is the hardest to put down or set aside, out of sight.

Chichi-ue is proof of that.

Chang’e, her body bound to the moon, but her hand forever reaching down to the earth, is proof of that.

And yet, she has tried to set it aside.

What am I afraid of?

In the world, the only people who win are the ones who are willing to lose everything.

What is she afraid of, in the end?

To marry him, I will have to leave this household.

And that is the core of this, is it not?

She will leave, dressed all in red, embroidered with gold, a red veil over her face, in a bridal sedan chair, ten li of dowry behind her. And all will know of the wealth of Kawaguchi.

Trumpets and wedding games will follow her, laughter and the envious eyes of Shunan.

Befitting of a daughter.

Befitting of a daughter, for she will have to leave her maiden home someday.

But what will she leave behind?

An aging silk merchant, a little sister still too little to bear any weight of the business, little cousins who must be married out, Toraki-kun who ought not have his studies disturbed by matters of business, widowed aunts who depend on their brother-in-law to provide for them, her mother’s sister who had been divorced from her husband because of her, and a foolish cousin who had started growing up so late who cannot lift any burdens for her father either.

If she leaves to chase her heart, she closes the door on the family who had raised her and sheltered her, on the father who loves her and the hundreds who depended on the name of Kawaguchi to make a living.

She turns her back on all the dreams buried in the family cemetery, on the brothers who died and women who live.

Then, my father will have really raised an unfilial daughter who grasps at social connection to the detriment of her family.

But to be filial, one must not be proud.

To be filial, one must not be selfish.

And must Chichi-ue, who has already lost so much, lose her as well?

Of all the eighty-eight tribulations, love is the hardest.

But this, too, can be buried.

I will go tell Chichi-ue, she thinks, a hand trailing in the pond, Dharma Wheel nibbling at her fingers in case she has food, to tell Lord Uchiha that the daughter of Kawaguchi does not wish to marry out.

“Neesan?” Momo-ko arrives in the morning, long before she could go speak to Chichi-ue, and not wanting to disappoint her sister, who has another little handkerchief to show her, she had stayed. “Neesan, why do you look sad? Izu-shinobi-niisan is walking again, but you won’t go visit him now.”

She pouts, tapping Momo-ko’s nose. “And have you been bothering Izu-shinobi-niisan, Little Peach?”

Momo-chan wrinkles her nose at her. “Wasn’t bothering him. Neesan is though.”

She squishes Momo-chan’s cheeks. “What did you say about me, Little Peach?”

“I said!” Momo protests. “I said! Neesan is bothering Izu-shinobi-niisan!”

“And how am I bothering him?” She examines the handkerchief that Momo has brought her, noting the unpicking but also the care that Momo had put into make each stitch neat and even, and praises her for that.

“Because you haven’t gone to see him for a day now.” Momo wriggles closer to her on the bench inside her bedroom, pouting at the mirror. “He misses you.”

“Did he tell you to come tell me that?”

It is true that she has not seen him since the conversation where she told him to remember his propriety, that some promises he is able to afford, but she cannot.

But that was no more than a day or so ago.

When you really care about someone, you think of his welfare, sleeping or waking. You want him to be happy, and you are sad when he is sad. In all the good, and all the bad.

She wants him to be happy.

To be living and not merely alive.

But down which road happiness lies, she does not know.

“Why would he ask me to come tell you?” Momo pouts, pigtails bouncing. “He doesn’t want you to know that he’s sad. Why is he sad, Neesan?”

She sighs. “He is sad because I do not wish to marry him.”

Her heart cries out. But I do. And he will not know how much I do.

“Neesan doesn’t?” Momo blinks at her, confusion written large across her face. “But why?”

“If I do, I will leave to go live with his family.” She gently mentions a defect in Momo’s stitching, praises her for what she does well. “Like how your Haha-ue has come to live with us, since she is married to Chichi-ue.”

“Neesan will go away?” Momo hugs around one leg, eyes enormous and filled with tears. “Neesan can’t go away!’

No, she cannot.

“I will not go away.” She tucks a lock of hair behind Momo’s ear and gently pries her sister from her leg. “Momo-ko,” she crouches so that she and Momo are the same height — and in the unsuspecting passing of the years, her little sister has grown taller — “Tell him to come see me if he is truly sad. We have things we must say to each other.”

She has two faces, public and private, and wears her public face even when at home, but since it has come to this, then let them speak plainly to each other.

He deserves that from her, at the very least.

Momo nods. “I will go fetch Izu-shinobi-niisan.” Her little sister pats her face. “Don’t be so sad, Neesan. He can marry you and come live here instead!”

She laughs at this, so unlike the natural order of things that only Momo would think of it seriously.

Momo grins at her impishly and scampers off.

Izuna arrives alone, carrying his qin, clearly having made the effort despite being tired. He sets it on the courtyard table and comes to stand before her, a hand holding the railing for assurance. “You said you wanted to see me?”

“I do.” She sets her own hands on the railing and looks up at his face. “There are words I wanted to say to you.”

He looks at his hands. “And there is a song I want to play for you. May I go first?”

“A song?”

“One I wrote for you.”

He’d written her a song?

She is uncertain of bearing the weight of such regard, but it would let him be, at least, content, to play it for her. “I would be honored to listen.”

He sighs, shaking his head. “Liar,” but he is still smiling. “You don’t want to hear, but you think it will make me happy.” He picks up the qin once more. “But that is enough for me, I suppose. Am I allowed to come in?”

She offers him her arm, and he takes it gratefully and sinks into the chair she pulls out for him with the same sort of gratitude, laying the qin out on her table.

“No one has ever heard this before,” he tells her, with eyes so very serious.

“I believe you.” He is a private man, and private men do not go around serenading the world at large.

He sets his hands on the strings. “If you are unsatisfied after,” here, a pause, tremulous and sad, “you may tell me so, and I will not ask again.”

“I would not expect it of you.” He has more self respect. If he asks her plainly and she still refuses, then she will have refused him for the final time. If she had refused to listen, he would not have asked again either.

But she is willing to listen.

She takes a seat beside him. “I do want to hear it.”

So he begins.

The last of the notes from his qin dies away. Softly, outside on the walkway, the snow continues falling, soft white flakes, blanketing the peach trees in her courtyard. It is a late snowfall, and so very rare in this part of the world.

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.” She stares out into the courtyard, listening to the wind, the sound of snow falling.

“Should I have played Phoenix Seeking a Mate, instead?” Of course, that makes it more clear, but—

“Save your skills, Izuna.” She sets her hands on the walkway railing, wonders if it would be too mauldin to cry about this later. “Why ask me questions when you know I cannot answer?” She cannot say yes, but she does not want to say no.

She wants all of his years. Three is not enough.

“Because I have found a way to reframe the question.” Slowly, he makes his way to her side, qin left behind him on the table inside. “I’m not asking if you would like to be Uchiha Hisa.”

Slowly, she turns her gaze up to his face, where he pensively stares at the snow falling.

“Will you let me become Kawaguchi Izuna?”

The words strike to the heart of her. “You would give up your name?” She knows how much names mean to him, how deeply he felt the connections of blood and honor.

That he would offer, that he would turn away—

“For you?” He smiles at this, half in rue, half in hope. “Yes.”

Has there been even one time in this world where you wanted something for yourself?

For a moment, she teeters between the choice she wants and the choice that is right. For a moment, but no longer. “Yes.”

Izuna turns to her then, genuine delight alight on his face. “Oh, I… I’m glad to hear that.”

He sets a hand over hers, there, on the railing.

And for a few minutes after, they listen to the sound of snow falling.

“I have not been kind to you.” She turns her face up to him. Last night, she had thought, her fingers trailing in the fish pond, and been willing to bury their love below ground. It would’ve buried her in the end, and it had not been what he deserved.

Last night she had thought and nearly been willing to give everything away. “Momo-chan said I made you sad. I do not know how to apologize.”

He reaches over, and tucks the strands of her buyao behind her ear, where it belongs. “Not always, no. But I admit that was because I did not make myself clear to you as I should have.” His hand is warm against her cheek. “There is no need for you to apologize to me.”

“It will be different if you choose to stay,” she says, a strand of his hair looped about her fingers. “Are you sure you will like it here?”

He smiles, which breaks into a laugh. “Hisa,” he pulls her close, still laughing. “You are the eyes with which I see.”

The eyes with which I see. He had said that as well, in music. The eyes with which I see, the heartline that which I follow.

She swallows, suddenly tearful. “If you stay, you should be warned that I will want you to stay forever. That I want you to go nowhere without me.”

She feels more than hears his laughter this time, near silent, but it shakes his shoulders, his breath warm against her cheek. “Hisa, Hisa, if I ever leave you, it will be because I am an ungrateful fool.”

Plum flowers.

Evening snow.

And this morning, they understand each other perfectly.

They return inside, hand in hand, and he sits once more as Kimei flitters here and there to make them tea. “I see that our second young master has gotten his act together?”

Izuna makes a face at her. “I was always going to.”

“You could’ve fooled me,” Kimei mutters as she comes back with the tea tray. “Dallied any longer, and Hisa would’ve gone to tell Kawaguchi-san she didn’t want to get married, and then where would everything have gone?”

“Kimei!” She is sure she did not tell Kimei about what she had been thinking about. “I said no such thing.”

“Your face said everything.” Kimei looks her in the eye, a frown on her lips. “If I didn’t distract you and then force you into bed, you would’ve gone to talk to Kawaguchi-san last night, and we’d all have been only fit for soup. Hiko would’ve been so upset.”

“And I thank you ever so much for not letting me go.” She is truly blessed, so she is, to have such caring friends.

“You should.” Kimei sighs and smiles, more mischief than exasperation on her way out. “What would you do without me?”

“What would I do, indeed.” The thought strikes her, just before Kimei can make her way further down the walk. “And thank your fellow co-conspirator for me, will you?”

Kimei flushes. “He’s not my co-conspirator.”

Izuna slaps a hand over his mouth, but cannot contain the chuckles, shaking with laughter.

Kimei vanishes down the walk with her hands over her ears.

“She called me ‘second young master.’” There is a note of wonder in his voice.

“Isn’t that what you’ll be?”

He would’ve been the second young master to the Kawaguchi household regardless of how they are married, but their circumstances mean that he will hear it more often than he would otherwise.

“I suppose,” he muses, “it will take some getting used to.”

“You have a lifetime.” The thought is warm.

“I do,” he agrees. “I do.” His eyes pause on the little figurine at the end of her table when he goes to pick up his qin. “You kept the duck?”

She’d left the wooden duck he’d given her for her twenty-first birthday on her desk, in the line of sight of anyone who chooses to come in, uncaring of exactly what that looks like to others. “It was a present,” she says, feeling a little bit wicked. “From a handsome gentleman caller, I felt bad putting his art away where no one could see it.”

“A handsome gentleman caller?” His voice carries a hint of incredulous amusement. “I hope he wasn’t too disappointed by your lack of favor.”

“Mmm,” she picks up the duck. “I believe he was quite woeful at not knowing how old I was at the time.”

“And would you tell him now if he asked you?” He sets another duck on the table where the first one sat for nearly a year. It has eyes the color of lapis lazuli, wearing an outfit she recognizes as having been in fashion nearly three years ago.

A matched set.

“That depends,” she picks up the second duck and holds it next to the first, at eye level. If the second is meant to be her, then the first is…

The man sitting before her, still smiling.

“Does he still want to know?”

He smiles wider. “Yes.”