Amaryllis

Chapter 21

"Letters for you, General," Meno sang as she walked into the room. Her golden hair swung behind her in a long braid. She handed the stack over with both hands.

"Thank you, Meno," Sakura said, already reading through the names. Missing the way the girl beamed at her.

"Do you require more tea, General?" Meno inquired.

"Hm. No, I'm alright. The day is hot. Why don't you go to the baths with Azra and Esma later?" Sakura suggested. She pulled a knife out from the holster on her thigh. Slit open the top of one of the envelopes.

"Thank you, General," Meno replied, bowing from her waist.

Sakura's eyes paused. She glanced past the letter, to the servant girl.

"Has anyone been mistreating you? Speaking ill of you?" Sakura questioned.

Meno hugged a tray to her chest as she thought. She shook her head a little, then stopped herself.

"Some of the servants… um… hid my shoes this morning. And some of them still make… remarks," Meno confessed.

Sakura clicked her tongue. She turned her attention back to her letter. "I'll speak to someone about disciplining them. The lack of order among the staff here is deplorable," Sakura sighed. Then she peered around the letter again.

"That's good, Meno. You did well to tell me the truth," Sakura then added. Before she dismissed the girl.

Curled up in the chair across from Sakura, Shijima watched this exchange with narrowed eyes. She waited until the door shut behind Meno before she spoke.

"Isn't that the girl you took from Concubine Deba the other day?" Shijima questioned.

"Yes."

Shijima pulled her knees up to her chest. "Why did you say that to her? She's just some serving girl."

Sakura let out a loud sigh.

She reached across the table to slap at Shijima's knee with the letter.

"This is why you've gotten nowhere in three years. Your family married you off too early if you haven't even learned the basics of how to manage a household," scolded Sakura.

Shijima frowned. "I've learned things."

"Then not the important things. Learn it now," answered Sakura, nearly rolling her eyes.

"But… she's just one girl. What can she do among hundreds of other servants?" questioned Shijima.

Sakura tapped her mouth with the envelopes. "Once the staff is on your side, nothing is impossible. Don't dismiss them like that."

Shijima was quiet as she took that in. Instead, folding her hands under her cheek, she sat watching Sakura. Which was what she had taken to doing most mornings. Her dark hair hung down her back, unbraided and unadorned. There was no makeup on her face. There was no need when she was in the northern wing of the palace now.

Sakura woke early. She took her tea in her room, still in her nightgown and robes. Her shoulders pulled back and her face at ease. Shijima lifted her head. Put her feet down. Tried to copy that posture. Tilting her head the same way that Sakura did. She winced as her shoulders strained.

"It comes with practice. Try again, little bird," Sakura encouraged without looking up.


News of the unrest in Lady Kurenai's northern residence spread quickly.

Zabuza caught sight of Haku from a distance. By the time the mercenary reached him, Haku was directing servants this way and that. Someone to fill basins with water. Someone to fetch clean rags. Someone to open up the windows to air out the room.

Zabuza grabbed Haku's arm.

"You're alright," he stated, more than asked.

Haku's eyes widened as they met his. He nodded.

"I'm fine," Haku replied. And before he could ask questions about why that was so important in this moment, Zabuza had already released him and stalked off.

Kurenai sat just outside of the parlor, the bridge of her nose pinched between two fingers. One servant girl sat beside her, fanning her. Another offered a glass of water.

Messenger birds flew south to inform Sami of the disturbance.

Sasori was out of his chair as soon as he read the first few lines of the report. He thrust the letter into Itachi's hands. Itachi's eyes darted back and forth as he read.

"I need to go see Mother. I'll leave things here to you!" Sasori yelled over his shoulder, already running down the walkway towards the stables.

Itachi only looked up from the contents of the letter when he heard the chair beside him shift. He half-expected a servant to be there clearing away Sasori's plate. Instead, it was Kisame, his face hard and his arms folded across his chest. He was staring off in the direction Sasori had run.

"What?" Itachi asked.

A grumble left Kisame's mouth: "That ship."

It took a second for it to click. That Kisame was referring to the strange ship the fishermen had mentioned yesterday.

"What are you thinking?" Itachi whispered. He cast a glance around to make sure no one was lingering on the edges of their conversation.

"Why'd it go north and not here? Why was that woman at that place right then? I don't know who's lying and who's just an idiot," growled Kisame.

Itachi handed the letter over to the mercenary.

"It says Lady Ino was there with her. Along with Haku," Itachi explained.

Kisame's eyes narrowed.

"This is no coincidence," Kisame declared. He looked over at Itachi.

"We should write to her. Inform her of the situation," Itachi uttered, keeping his voice low.

"Write it. I'll see that it gets to a messenger. Don't want anyone else touching it," replied Kisame.

Itachi reclaimed the letter from Kisame. But as he began refolding it into thirds, he hesitated.

"Anyone?" Itachi repeated, looking up again.

Kisame was glaring towards the city now. His arms tightened.

"Anyone," Kisame confirmed. "Not that little servant boy. Not Lady Ino. Anyone."

Itachi considered this for a moment. Then he nodded.

"You should go see what's happening. It's better than relying on hearsay from the servants," suggested Itachi.

"Zabuza's there already," Kisame replied, turning to him with a leery expression.

"And we both know where Zabuza is," Itachi retorted. He smiled as he watched Kisame drag a hand down his face.

"Attached to the boy like a leech," sighed Kisame. He nodded a little.

Itachi gestured above him, to where Kushimaru sat hidden. "I'll be safe. And I trust your information more than any other sources," he went on.

Kisame stared at him.

Itachi blinked back. "What?"

"Why would you trust me?" demanded Kisame.

"Why would I not? You haven't done anything to make me doubt you," Itachi said in return.

Kisame heaved another sigh. "Prince… you need to be more suspicious of people."

Itachi pointed at Kisame's pained expression. "And that is precisely why I trust you," he pointed out.

He chuckled as he watched the mercenary lumber away down the path.

By the time Kisame reached the north side of the island, things had calmed down considerably.

Servants were still bustling around. They hauled supplies and water in and out of doors. Women knelt in the courtyard, plunging fabric into water that had turned pink. Such a pretty color if Kisame didn't know what it meant.

Some of the guards nodded as they walked past him. It had been a while since they had stopped eyeing him with open suspicion. They still didn't consider him one of them. But they also didn't stop him from moving as he pleased.

Kisame ran a hand through his hair as he walked. He scanned the bustle of the place until he noticed one of the servants standing off to the side with his arms folded across his chest. He looked tired, but not particularly occupied.

"Howzit, brother," Kisame greeted him.

The servant returned the greeting with less enthusiasm.

"What happened here? Are you alright?" Kisame questioned.

The servant rubbed a hand through his hair. "Whew… some lolos showed up uninvited. They wen make trouble for poor Lady Ino and our Lady Kurenai," he explained. And then he trailed off, mumbling something under his breath about how he had a headache.

Kisame offered a sympathetic grimace as he clapped the servant on the back. The servant stood limp. And then he patted the back of Kisame's hand a couple times.

Kisame craned his neck to look around a little more. He spotted a group of guards clustered together, speaking in low voices. The servant followed the direction of Kisame's gaze.

"Ah. Lady Kurenai asked to search the boat. Try to find some clues," the servant explained. He rubbed both his hands over his face, blowing out a huge breath. He squared his shoulders.

"Back to work. Thanks for checking in, brother," the servant then announced.

Kisame smiled. He dropped his hand and let the servant walk off into the next room.

It didn't take long for Kisame to find Zabuza. Because all he had to do was ask around until the servants pointed him in Haku's direction.

Lady Kurenai's private manor had its own staff. Many of the servants had been serving her since she was a little girl. This meant that there was a steward of this manor who oversaw the daily comings and goings of the household- whether or not Lady Kurenai was present.

Kisame found Haku standing beside the steward. She was an older woman with white hair pulled back in a severe bun. And despite her scowls and her sharp voice as she chastised one of the passing maids, Haku smiled as he listened to her speak.

"I don't trust any of them. After this, go inspect the room. I need that carpet looking pristine," the steward grumbled.

"Yes, ma'am," replied Haku.

"How's your handwriting, child?" the steward questioned.

"Reasonably legible, according to Miss Shizune," he answered.

The old woman squinted, leaning on her cane. "That's high praise coming from her," she murmured. "Before your inspection, write to Count Hatake and Count Maito. They should be aware of this situation before word leaves the island," she then instructed.

"How detailed should I make the account, ma'am?" Haku inquired, already jotting notes down. He started when the old woman raised a hand. But rather than slap him, the old woman pinched his cheek. She cackled.

"Ah, Shizune was right. You're a clever child. If only Her Grace had assigned you to me and not her," she lamented. And then she gave his cheek a couple pats. "Make it clear that Lady Kurenai wishes to keep this matter as discrete as possible," she then instructed.

"Right away, ma'am," Haku responded.

But as Haku looked up, he noticed Kisame looming in the doorway. Placing his hand on her forearm, he whispered to her. The old woman's eyes found Kisame. She nodded to Haku, who gestured for Kisame to enter.

"Eavesdropping is a nasty habit, you know," the steward scolded.

"Wasn't raised by anyone. So I've got plenty of those," was Kisame's cheerful reply.

The steward scoffed.

"How are things?" questioned Kisame.

But before the steward could open her mouth, another voice answered. Rasping and low.

"Too quiet."

Kisame looked over his shoulder. Zabuza stood behind the door, half-cloaked in shadow.

Kisame's mouth pulled down at the corners. "Any movements?"

Zabuza moved his finger in a lazy circle. "A decent amount of panic. Guards aren't letting anyone out."

Kisame nodded before he asked one last question:

"Lady Ino?"

Zabuza squinted.

"She's in shock. Needed to get away from all the blood and noise. The tailor's with her," Zabuza answered. He pointed to a set of double doors at the other end of the room.

"Is there really any need for you to lurk in the corner like some sort of cursed statue?" the steward's voice interrupted.

Both mercenaries looked over to find her glaring at them. Haku hid his mouth behind his fist, trying not to smile.

But there was no need for the steward's complaints. Because as soon as Haku left the room, Zabuza trailed out after him. And Kisame pushed past the double doors.

Not only had the General entrusted Ino's safety to Kisame. Kisame had developed a liking for the noble lady. She was a decent card player. A bit of a sore loser, maybe. But she kept things light-hearted during games that could get a little too cut-throat.

When Kisame entered the room, he found himself in some sort of sitting area. It was probably used for entertaining guests, based on the furniture and the pianoforte in the corner.

Ino was facing away from him. She jumped when she heard the door swing open. But when she twisted around in her seat, her eyes were unfocused, still wet with tears.

"I turn my back for one second…" Kisame teased as he stepped inside.

He froze when he realized that there was someone else in the room. A man standing at the window. His hair was long and blond too. But unlike Ino's, which was almost silvery, his was gold, like a rich mead shining on the walls of a tavern.

Kisame laughed.

"You're still alive?" he wondered.

"I'm hard to kill, apparently," the other man retorted.

They stared at each other for a long moment. And then Kisame peeled his glove half-off. The black marks on his wrists had faded over the years. But they were still there.

And the other man pulled up the silken sleeve of his shirt to reveal his own wrist. Much thinner. But bearing the same scars.

"Scourge," the blond man greeted him. He held his hand out.

"Weed," answered Kisame, clasping the offered hand.

But then Kisame's smile faded as he looked over Ino huddled on the cushioned seat. There was a dark blue cloak wrapped around her shoulders. It made her look smaller, somehow.

"You know her?" asked Kisame, pitching his voice a little lower.

The blond man waved a hand in front of him. "Sort of. I know she's a guest of My Lady. And I know we're supposed to look out for her. That's good enough for me." He jabbed a thumb in the direction of the door.

"Civilians aren't like us. Don't do well with… all that…" he trailed off, eyes darting to Ino's back.

Kisame leaned back a little to peek at Ino. She clenched her hands together in her lap. Hiding them under the cloak.

He had a good idea of what had transpired here.

When Kisame looked back to the other man, he jerked his chin toward the door.

"Let's get the lady out of here. So we can talk," Kisame suggested.

The other man's eyes glinted as he tried to read Kisame's expression. He pressed his lips into a line. And then he nodded.

Kisame only had to speak to the guards for a few minutes. He had a reputation by now. It took a little persuasion as the guards cast wary looks around. But when he laughed and clapped them on the back, promising them that he would handle everything, they relented.

After a little discussion, they decided that taking a carriage would draw too much attention. They pulled the cloak tight around Ino, making sure that it covered her hair. Kisame then lifted Ino up onto a horse. The blond man slid into the saddle in front of her.

"Hold tight," he warned. But when her hands remained limp in her lap, he heaved a sigh. Dropping the reins, he reached back and pulled her arms around him. He pressed her hands together against his stomach until he was sure that she wouldn't let go. Paused when he saw the blood caked under her nails. Saw the way they trembled when she knew what he was looking at.

He patted her hands one more time.

"Don't you fret. We'll get this cleaned up," he assured her.

He felt Ino press her forehead to his back. He exchanged a look with Kisame, who didn't say anything.

With Kisame on a separate horse, they took quiet roads to the southern tip of the island. By the time they reached the bustling southern port, the sun was beginning its journey toward the horizon. It was impossible to avoid casual conversations. Especially with the way people called out, "Howzit, Big Blue!". Kisame kept his greetings friendly but brief. But even then, he grumbled under his breath as they moved.

Soon, the streets grew too narrow to accommodate their horses. They left the mounts at a hitching post near one of the busy streets. Where a couple new mounts wouldn't draw much attention.

The three of them walked through the marketplace until they reached a relatively quiet corner near the western edge of the market. Here the alleys narrowed even further, little buildings crowding together, shoulder to shoulder.

They stopped in front of one building in particular. Above the door was a wooden sign with a pair of open scissors. The door itself was painted turquoise in uneven streaks.

"Just one moment," the blond man said, digging inside his cloak. He found a single key hanging from a red ribbon. He jiggled it inside the lock until it snapped open. The bells hanging from the knob clanged together.

He pulled the hood of his cloak down. His topknot poked up. Teeth glinting in a grin, he motioned towards the darkened interior.

"Welcome to the lair," he said as he stepped inside.

Ino took a step forward. Stopped when Kisame's arm blocked the entrance. She slowly tilted her chin up to look at him. He was glaring at the blackened building. Waiting.

Footsteps tapped around. Jangling and swishes. And then there was a metallic clink. Once. Twice. Before a small flame flickered to life. There were more footsteps. Slowly, more flames appeared in the darkness, illuminating the room.

Then the man reappeared in the doorway, carrying a large lantern.

"Satisfied?"

Kisame grunted. He moved into the building first, scanning the corners before he motioned for Ino to follow him.

The other man snorted.

"Never thought I'd see the day you became all chivalrous."

Kisame made a face.

"The General made it clear that if anything were to happen to this one over here-" Kisame moved his chin in Ino's direction.

Sakura lowered her palm to the table. Leaning in so close that he could see the scattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose.

"I'll destroy your contacts one by one until you're just some fool with a big sword," she warned with a smile.

The blond man let out a fond sigh as Kisame recounted the threat.

"Sounds like My Lady," he agreed.

Ino stared all around the room. She slowly pulled her hood down, turning in a circle as she tried to take in everything.

The building was much taller than it was wide. Which was a little disconcerting at first.

Like most places on the island, the walls were white- covered with plaster. Or maybe whitewash. It was hard to tell, especially with all of the fabrics that covered the walls in rich purples and blues. There were also shelves packed with rolls of silk, cotton, and leathers. On the opposite wall were more shelves- these ones organized with furs of all textures and colors. Racks of thread stretched up all the way to the ceiling, right next to a tall ladder that rolled a little when she gave it a gentle push.

There was a clatter. Ino turned in time to see the blond man ducking past a beaded curtain.

"You know, Little Miss, it's a terrible idea to follow a stranger like this," he said to her.

Kisame grunted, leaning against one of the shelves. "Just said the same thing to that prince earlier."

"I…" Ino stammered to defend herself.

It was a little easier to think now that she was away from that dreadful place that reeked of blood. With all those big, echoing halls that rang with the voices and steps of all those servants.

Just thinking about it made her feel a little sick. Ino pressed her hands to her ears.

An odd look crossed the man's face. Then his expression softened.

"I don't have anything fancy, so I don't know if it'll suit your tastes. But I'll put on some tea," he said before he disappeared through the beaded curtain again.

"Never thought I'd see that son of a bitch making clothes of all things," Kisame said under his breath as he looked around too.

"You know each other?" asked Ino.

Kisame didn't meet her eyes as he gave a couple bobs of his head.

"Didn't think I'd run into him here," he answered as vaguely as possible.

There were a few workbenches by the windows. Half-completed patterns sat in neat piles. Notes were pinned to the fabric on the walls. Kisame stepped closer to one to squint at the scribblings.

Thicker fabric to reduce chaffing with armor.

Let out fabric at waist to allow greater mobility.

"What could that be?"

Kisame looked up. He found Ino pointing to the opposite side of the room. Past some of the shelves was a curtain made of orange brocade. Ino pulled it aside to peer within. And then she pushed past it.

"Ah. Hang on," Kisame warned, following after her.

"Oh, this is nice," Ino's voice drifted out to him.

When Kisame pushed past the curtain, it almost seemed like a different location. This place was uncluttered. The white walls looked like they had recently been repainted. Two large mirrors were set perpendicular to each other in the corner. There were two cushioned benches, as well as some ottomans arranged near the mirrors. In the opposite corner of the room stood a large wooden screen. Each of the panels was decorated with different floral patterns.

"This must be where they can try on their clothes," Ino observed. She turned to face the window. The panes weren't clear, like what she had expected. Instead, they were colored like the ones in the temple that no one ever visited in the capital. A bright red flower whose name she didn't know. Surrounded by lighter blue that might have represented the sky?

"You've never been here before?"

Ino turned to face Kisame, who sank down on one end of the bench. She shook her head.

"Never," she replied.

Kisame's eyebrows pinched together. "But you've got a new dress on every day."

There was the clatter of beads snapping together. And then a voice called out to them. "Someone get that curtain for me."

Ino pulled the fabric back enough for the man to squeeze past. He carried three old, but matching teacups. He handed one to Ino, who accepted with both hands. Then he pushed one into Kisame's hands, ignoring the way the mercenary wrinkled his nose.

"And to answer your question, I'm guessing Lady Kurenai had her tailor take care of you," he then said, settling on one of the ottomans. He took a sip of his too-hot tea. Winced. Then eyed the way Ino stood with the tea in her hands.

"Why don't you have a seat, Miss?" he suggested.

"What? …Oh. Yes…" Ino sank onto the unoccupied bench. She inhaled the steam from her tea. Her eyes popped open.

"This smells incredible," she remarked.

"Got some as a gift a while ago. It's not the freshest," he warned. He watched Ino take a careful sip and give a murmur of approval. And then he turned his attention to Kisame.

"So?" he asked.

Kisame set his tea aside.

"How long have you been here?" Kisame inquired.

The other man leaned back on his free hand as he thought. "15 years. Been making My Lady's clothes for almost 10," he calculated. And then he tilted his head as he took in Kisame.

"You're recent. I'd heard of My Lady bringing back some mercenaries. Never thought it would be you," he then commented with a pointed look toward Kisame's wrists. Kisame rubbed his hand over the mark. Something passed between them as they eyed one another.

"You must be very skilled if you're the General's personal tailor," Ino spoke up.

The tailor's face softened again as he turned to Ino. Hand on his chest, he inclined his head.

"I would have been honored to have been the one to clothe you, Miss. But it seems it wasn't meant to be."

Ino smiled a little. But her eyes drifted down to her hands. And the expression faded.

The tailor watched the change in her face.

"Why don't you go freshen up, Miss? Come with me," he said, already getting to his feet. He pulled the curtain back, waiting for Ino. Her bewildered stare traveled from him, down to her half-finished tea. She set the chipped cup aside and rose. He gestured toward the beaded curtain blocking the doorway to the room in the back.

"Right through there, Miss," he encouraged her. But as he took a step to follow her, Kisame spoke up.

"Deidara."

The tailor froze in his tracks. He took a half-step back. Stared at Kisame.

"The aunt," Kisame said. It wasn't really a question.

Deidara answered anyway.

"I don't know if you should trust her."

He let the curtain fall between them.

By the time Kisame and Ino returned to Sami, it was completely dark out. Some of the servants were there to greet Ino, who, while still shaky, mustered a smile.

"Thank you for escorting me," Ino called out. Kisame raised a hand in greeting. He watched her make her way down the path. One of the servants offered her arm. Ino grasped it, leaning against her as she walked.

Kisame found Itachi sitting in one of the pavilions with a book open in his lap. The prince lifted his head when he heard Kisame's knuckles rap against one of the wooden beams.

"You've returned," Itachi greeted him.

"Lady Ino's back. She's not hurt but…" Kisame puffed out a big breath. Itachi measured his expression. He cast a careful look around before he leaned in closer.

"Did she really kill a man?" he asked in a soft voice.

Kisame rubbed his knuckles along his jaw. "I think so," answered Kisame. He pressed his knuckles to his eyelid before he added: "Seems like even the lady's not sure."

Itachi gestured to the empty seat beside him. Kisame declined with a wave of his hand. Thought again. Sank onto the cushion anyway. He groaned, stretching out his legs. Leaning back on his palms, Kisame stared up at the sky. He glanced over when he heard Itachi flip to a new page of his book.

"Chojuro told me. The flags on that ship. It's no heraldry from either the Mountain or Forest Kingdoms," Itachi brought up.

"Kid's smart. I trust him," Kisame responded, unsure of where this was going.

"But when he showed me the symbols… I recognized them from somewhere," Itachi went on.

Kisame sat up straight now. His eyebrows rose.

"And?"

Itachi held up the book for Kisame to see.

A white flag. A diagonal stripe of yellow cutting through the center. Three black anchors. Extremely close to what the two fishermen had described.

"The only problem is that it's for a family that no longer exists," added Itachi.

Kisame's face fell. "What? How is that possible?"

Itachi continued to flip through the book. He shrugged.

"An excellent question. But it's something," he answered.

Kisame squinted. And then, sighing, he leaned forward, elbows on his thighs.

"You're not wrong, Prince," he agreed after some thought. He stood, brushing off the back of his pants.

"Let's hope there's something more in those books of yours," Kisame then said.

Itachi smiled. "That's usually the case." He glanced up at Kisame over the top of his book. "I'll update you should I find something more."

Nodding, Kisame headed off into the night.

Much later, when the moon raised its tired head above the horizon, Itachi stood in the threshold of Sakura's apartment. A seagull screeched past outside. For a moment, he thought he heard her let out a sigh from somewhere behind him.

But when he turned, almost foolishly, he later realized, he understood that of course she wouldn't be there. Of course. She was across a far ocean, treading on distant sands. As he turned his gaze back to the darkened room, he was struck with the memory of her standing on the terrace.

Her white jacket draped carelessly over her shoulders, she reached for a mango from the fruit bowl. The oval fruit slipped past her fingers, landing on the tile with a heavy thud. It rolled slowly, eventually coming to a stop at his feet. The mango was the color of sunrise as he held it in his palm.

Itachi shook his head against the stray memory. In the end, he couldn't remember what he had said to her. But she had smiled, the warm colors of the tropical sun seeping in through the palms to color her cheeks.

Now the building was silent. The servants had covered the furniture with plain sheets. A few dry leaves had managed to sneak in through the windows.

"I love the way the sea smells in the summer, Itachi," she had once told him in this very room.

He had never seen her eyes look so soft before. Never heard that tinge of melancholy in her words before. In the way that she pressed her lips together, in the way her gaze drifted off to a different time, he knew he had lost her for the moment.

But then, as always, she returned to him. Rare, shy smile and fumbling fingers pushing her hair out of her face, she leaned further out the window. Perhaps she hoped that the colors of the sinking sun would hide the flush rising on her face. But he always saw her. The roadmap of scars on her arms and back shone in the light.

And in that golden time, he ached so much to kiss her, enough that he still felt the pain in his chest now. Itachi couldn't remember if he had kissed her then. It was as if that moment was a favorite book. Turning back on those pages again and again, he relived the story. But the last page was blank and so the whole story went untold.

Her correspondences always came months after she had penned them. There weren't many, as if she rarely had the time to sit and write. Which was so like her. But the letters she wrote were long and filled with tales of adventure and danger.

His heart leapt into his throat as she recounted sparring with a prince. And he worried as she described the punishing heat of the desert sun on her travels. He imagined her parched and weary. Wondered what patterns of freckles the light would leave on her face and arms.

Sometimes, as he read, it felt like she was sitting beside him. Recounting these tales with light in her eyes. Other times, she sounded like a stranger. And he wondered what expression she wore when she penned those lonely letters.

Sakura had recently written him a longer letter than usual. She divulged that she would be leaving her Great-Uncle's palace to visit surrounding cities. The journey between each city spanned several days and she would not be able to write as frequently, she explained.

But at the end, she had said,

I think you would like it here. I wish you were here to watch the stars with me.

His fingertips had burned as he traced her words.

One deep breath in. Closing his eyes, he imagined her with that smile once again, soaked in the warm glow of that setting sun.


A letter arrived from Itachi in the morning.

It smelled of salt and sand after months of travel.

At least his handwriting was familiar.

He wrote of how quiet and how lonely it was without her. He detailed how he had turned to say something to her at breakfast, only to realize that she wasn't there beside him. It was silly, given how it had been months since her departure. But it felt nice to be missed. And it felt even nicer to be missed by such beautiful penmanship.

She tucked the letter away in a safe spot. She would respond later.

Everyone barely looked up as Shijima walked in, her usual attendant, Nuru, in tow. She bowed to Sakura first, and then to Temari, Kankuro, and Gaara.

"Have you eaten yet?" asked Sakura as she opened up her second letter with a dagger. "And stop bowing to us. We're your cousins- not your superiors."

This one was from Lieutenant General Aburame thanking her for the tea she had sent to his family. She did vaguely remember having Count Maito send some of the early crop to the Aburame family as thanks for their services.

The Aburame's were a smaller family. Shino's older brother Torune had taken on the Baron's title as soon as he had turned of age. Their father had died of some mysterious illness just the year before. And while people whispered about the possibilities of patricide, Sakura said nothing. All that mattered was that Torune gave her no trouble.

Sakura's forehead wrinkled as she read the contents of his letter.

"Oh no," Kankuro said, sitting up. He eyed the look on Sakura's face. Gaara, who had been chewing on a piece of melon, also sat up. Temari stopped polishing her spear and leaned on it instead. Waiting.

"Why are representatives of different territories going to Baron Aburame to purchase grain? Did they not store any food for the winter?" Sakura wondered.

"I thought the Aburame's didn't grow that much food. Aren't they more known for their honey?" added Temari. She shifted her grip on the shaft of her spear. Flexing her fingers as she thought.

"You're correct. It's the Hyuuga and Akimichi lands that produce the most. It's odd that representatives are coming to him instead," mused Sakura. She reread the letter. The corner crinkled as she gripped it tighter.

It was frustrating to be so far from all these affairs. During the months messages took to travel, so much could change. Even now, the situation could be completely different from what was described here. And there was only so much she could do at the moment.

Sakura exhaled through her nostrils. Eyes closing, she tapped her fingers against the armrest.

"There's nothing to be done," she decided.

Her eyes opening again, Sakura looked at her cousins.

"Either Baron Aburame will have resolved the situation by now, or he will have failed. It can't be helped."

Sakura folded the letter and tucked it away too. And then she turned to Shijima.

"Now. Back to my first question. Have you eaten?" Sakura queried.

"I ate in my room before I arrived," she replied with a meek smile. Sakura beamed at her.

"Look at that cute expression. Why you don't make it more often is beyond me?" Sakura praised her. Shijima blushed.

"Probably because she doesn't have much reason to make it. With a husband as dense as a pile of rocks," remarked Kankuro. Temari looked over at him, as if to scold him. Considered it. And then gave him a grudging nod of approval.

Shijima flushed even more. "I… I try but… it's difficult."

"Difficult? You smile all the time around us," Gaara pointed out.

"That's different," she insisted.

In the last few days, Shijima had been a regular guest in the northern wing of the palace. So much so that the servants had begun setting a place for her at the table without asking.

Sakura didn't mind at all. The common rooms where they spent most of their time were more than large enough. And Shijima didn't speak too much. If someone asked her a question, she responded. But she seemed most content sitting at Sakura's feet, pleading for stories about her travels with the wide-eyed wonder of a little girl.

It saddened Sakura. Reminded her of the way war orphans clung to her cape and begged to be held. Even when they had long since passed the age to be carried that way. As if trying to make up for the childhood that had been stolen from them.

As Azra walked past with a basket of dirty laundry, Shijima waved at her. The servant girl gave a small smile in return. Hanging over the back of her seat, Shijima watched her work. And then she turned back to Sakura.

"Are you really not angry?" Shijima inquired.

"You'll have to be more specific," Sakura said. She laced her fingers together and stretched her arms above her head.

"She's usually angry about a lot of things," Kankuro supplied. Gaara nodded while leaning his elbows on the table. He peeled an orange, filling the air with the sweet, tangy smell. When he saw Shijima looking at him, he peeled off a few wedges and handed them to her. Shijima bit down on a piece.

"About Azra and Esma. I sent them to spy on you," Shijima elaborated.

Sakura smiled a little.

"Oh. That. We figured that out a long time ago," Sakura replied.

Shijima's eyes widened. "When?"

Sakura twisted in her seat. She found Suigetsu sitting on the windowsill. He looked down at the sole of his shoe. Grimaced. He pulled a knife from somewhere and used the tip to dig a rock out of the sole.

"Suigetsu," she called.

"Huh," he answered without looking up.

And in the language of the western continent, she asked: "How long did it take you to figure out the girls were spies?"

Suigetsu snorted. "A day or two. For people who can't speak our language, they sure did act strange whenever we made comments about the consort." And then he looked up. "You should've seen their faces when we suggested that she was ugly." He gestured toward Shijima with the knife.

Facing forward in her seat, Sakura translated for Shijima. Who let out a noise of exasperation.

"Those girls are loyal but inexperienced. I told them not to be obvious," she complained.

"It wasn't the worst effort. Perhaps if it wasn't me, they wouldn't have been caught," Sakura tried to console her. And it seemed to work. But then Shijima, cheek in her hand, thought for a moment.

"Based on the rumors, I thought you would have had the girls punished," Shijima then admitted.

"I would have. If they weren't yours. They're fortunate that their mistress has made good friends."

And the way Sakura met her eyes and smiled sent a shiver down her spine.

Sakura's eyes narrowed.

"Now, I know you're trying to avoid the topic. How have things been going with Prince Baki?" Sakura questioned.

Shijima bit down on her lip. She averted her gaze.

"We've talked about this, Shijima," Sakura sighed. "A man like Baki has women falling at his feet. What affection you withhold can be easily found elsewhere. You must be more aggressive. Have you tried visiting his chambers with tea?"

"I… tried."

The waver in Shijima's voice made Sakura pause. Everyone else in the room looked at her too.

"What do you mean… tried?" Sakura repeated.

Azra set down her basket. Wiping her hands on her apron, she moved to kneel at Shijima's feet. She took Shijima's hands. Esma stopped dusting and also sat near Shijima. When Shijima fumbled for words, Azra opened her mouth instead.

"The concubines… they bully our mistress. Make it impossible for her to see Our Lord," Azra reported.

"Bully." The word left Temari's mouth. Flat and hard.

"They distract the prince. Or they ruin her clothes- her hair. They spill things on her and hide bugs and snakes in her wardrobes," Azra went on.

"My Lady is very scared of insects," Esma chimed in.

Sakura exhaled deeply through her nostrils again. She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers.

Temari got to her feet, spear in her hand.

"Where do you think you're going?" Kankuro asked.

"Prince Baki has plenty of concubines. I'm sure he won't miss a few," Temari snarled. But before she could take two steps, Kankuro had grabbed on to the back of her skirt. Gaara clung to her arm, pulling her back down.

"Violence isn't the answer to everything, you know," Kankuro scolded. She glared at him, but he didn't flinch.

Sakura leaned on her elbow as she thought. "Well… sometimes it is," Sakura remarked.

All eyes fell on her. "In moderation, anyway," she amended, pointing at Temari.

"I suspect that the hierarchy of the harem is somewhat like the structure of an army," Sakura continued to think out loud. She tapped her knuckles against the armrest as she gathered her thoughts some more.

"You know, when I first joined the military academy, there was a lot of that. Trying to establish a pecking order."

And then her gaze sharpened as she looked upon Shijima.

"It looks like we might have to put some people in their place," she declared.

Shijima's eyes widened.

"I don't know how to do that," she whispered.

"We do. Don't worry about it," Temari answered, clenching her jaw.

Soon, it was time for supper. Shijima looked down at her casual clothes and declared that she needed to change. Temari offered to escort her. To discourage any of the concubines from hampering her on her way back to her quarters.

Sakura shooed everyone else from her room so that she would have privacy to change her clothes as well. But when she looked up, Kankuro lingered. He leaned against the door.

"We need to be back in Karo in seven months, Lady Sakura," Kankuro warned.

"I'm aware of how to read a calendar, Kankuro," she replied, running her fingers through her hair. Wincing when it caught on a tangle.

"It's good to want to help people. But there are people who need you more back home," he stated.

At this, Sakura turned to face him. She regarded him with a smile.

"Do I look like I'm running away, Kankuro?" she inquired.

"I don't know. And that's what worries me," he replied. Then he heaved a sigh.

"Yes, I know. Don't lecture to you. I'll go," he then said before the words could leave her mouth.

Sakura looked into the mirror, pretending to fuss with her hair until she heard the door close behind him.

The truth was that the very same thought had crossed her mind.

The plan had been to visit two other cities to the east. One was a ruled by a distant uncle who was rumored to have connections to someone who could see them explosive black powder. And the other city was ruled by the husband of a cousin who Sakura had met a few times in her childhood.

The problem was that they had already stayed longer in the Viper's Fang than they had planned.

If they wanted to reach the other two cities and return to Great-Uncle Ebizo's city in time, they needed to leave soon. When the seas iced over, travel became hazardous. They would be trapped on the eastern continent until it thawed. And by then, many months would have passed. A waste of time that they could not afford.

Sakura mulled all this over as Azra, Esma, and Meno helped her dress.

She was already becoming used to the opaque fabrics and the long layers. Used to the smell of myrrh in her hair and on her clothes.

"This is a beautiful color on you, General. I wish you would wear it more often," Meno commented.

Sakura opened her eyes. The dress she wore was a deep burgundy. Different from the austere browns and muted purples she had taken to wearing during her time here in the desert. Because the people here were more conservative. There was no need to draw more attention with garish colors. If she was seen, it had to be for different reasons than the flashiness of her attire.

Besides, tonight was not to be about her.

It had been three nights since the banquet where Sakura had stormed out after Baki's drunken comments. He had yet to apologize for his behavior. And Sakura had yet to address his rudeness. She had simply not shown up to supper for the first two nights. Let her absence speak for her.

It was a general rule of life that things came in threes. And while Prince Baki had tolerated her willfulness for two days in a row. She doubted that he would find the patience to endure a third.

"Is it truly alright not to go, General? His Highness summoned- I mean… requested your presence," Meno fretted.

Sakura smiled. "How can Prince Baki discipline that which he does not possess? I'll be fine," she assured the girl.

That night, Prince Baki summoned Shijima to sit at his side at supper. He must have noticed Sakura's interest in the consort. As if that would lure her out of hiding.

But when the dinner bell rang. And the hands of the clock ticked on. And Sakura's seat remained empty, Baki's expression soured. His fist descended on the table, rattling the silverware and overturning and empty cup.

"Where is she?" he barked.

"The General has closed her doors and it receiving no one, Your Highness," Baki's attendant murmured, hands squeezed together.

"Bring her! Even if she's a guest, I will not tolerate this sort of behavior under my roof!" Baki's voice boomed through the hall. The servants flinched, averting their eyes.

"…If… it pleases you, My Lord…" a quiet voice came from his left. Baki's glare found the source of the sound. He seemed surprised to see Shijima sitting there. As if he had forgotten about her.

He grunted at her to speak.

"The General looks upon me with some fondness. Perhaps I would be able to persuade her," suggested Shijima.

"What could you do?" he scoffed.

But Shijima did not shrink back in silence as she normally did. "My Lord, surely the woman you chose as a consort is more capable than a servant."

Baki pursed his lips. He appraised Shijima for a moment. And then he waved a hand in her direction.

"Very well. Let's see what you can do," he relented.

Shijima rose to her feet without bowing. She stepped away from the table, her attendant shadowing her movements. She could feel Baki's stare on her as she kept her steps soft and even.

But the second she stepped into Sakura's apartment, Shijima was trembling and sweating.

"How did it go?" Temari asked as she leaned on the door to shut it.

"Well… I think."

"So you said what we practiced?" Sakura asked, just to be sure.

Shijima nodded. "I tried to make my voice not shake. It was very difficult," she confirmed.

Sakura nodded at her. "I expected no less from you, Shijima," she praised. And a smile blossomed on Shijima's face.

They sat for a little while. Shijima laying her head on the side of the couch. When she remembered that Prince Baki was still waiting, she sat up.

"We should go," she urged.

Sakura took a long slurp of her wine. Blinked. And then lowered her cup.

"Why should I rush for that man?"

Shijima looked flabbergasted. "Because he's waiting!"

"And?"

"He's not very patient," Shijima went on.

Sakura huffed. "You'll have to fix that."

"Me… fix him?" Shijima repeated, pointing at her own nose.

"Yes. Among other things. You didn't think it would be as simple as 'make him fall in love with sweet little Shijima' and it would all be over, did you?" Sakura said. Shijima swallowed, fists clenching in her lap.

"My Lady, there's no need to be cruel," Gaara protested as he eyed Shijima's expression.

"I need to be honest. Don't look so disheartened," urged Sakura. She reached out and touched Shijima's chin until she lifted it.

"There are currently three main issues with your situation here. Do you know what they are?" Sakura then queried. She held up three fingers.

Shijima's eyes flickered down as she thought.

"Ah-ah. Keep your eyes up, remember? Don't look meek in front of other women," Sakura coached her.

Shijima looked up again. "Prince Baki doesn't see me as a woman."

"Good." Sakura lowered a finger.

"Prince Baki wants you and not me."

"Yes." Another finger.

"I…" Shijima hedged as she tried to come up with the last reason. But all she could do was shake her head. When she looked to Sakura for an explanation, Sakura lowered her last finger.

"You have no control over the harem."

"Won't that come naturally if we solve the first thing?" protested Shijima.

Sakura shook her head, lips puckering to one side.

"No. It's quite different. You mustn't conflate the two," Sakura corrected her.

"You can tame the heart of a man. But taming his mistresses is another matter entirely," Temari chimed in.

"Precisely," agreed Sakura.

"But… I thought…" Shijima stammered.

Sakura tilted her head to one side as she watched Shijima grapple with the idea. The truth was that Shijima was a clever girl. She was frightened and backed into somewhat of a corner. But she wasn't weak. And she wasn't really shy. Not in front of other women, at least.

"If we do this, it must be done right," Sakura reminded her.

Shijima mashed her lips together. She met Sakura's eyes and nodded.

Sakura swallowed down the rest of her wine. She peered into the empty cup. Watching the way the last few drops clung together.

"Alright. I'm in a better mood now. Shall we go?" she then announced, gathering her skirts around her before she got to her feet.

By the time they arrived back at the banquet hall, nearly an hour had passed. Baki's face was stony as he watched Sakura enter the room first. She didn't even look at him. Shijima followed after.

"The food has grown cold," growled Baki.

"You would have eaten if you were truly hungry," Sakura replied.

Shijima settled in the seat beside Baki's. When she watched Baki's upper lip curl, she leaned in towards him.

"Please, My Lord, the General is still rather upset. It took me so long to persuade her to even show her face here," she murmured, placing her hand on his arm. And even though Baki's face remained hard, he swallowed whatever other words had gathered on his tongue.

"You've done well," he said to Shijima in return. And then raising his voice, he added, "I had no idea that the grand-niece of Prince Baki would be such a handful."

But rather than be insulted, Sakura laughed.

"If you want the company of an easy woman, call for one of your concubines, Prince Baki. I'm not one of your playthings," she snapped in return.

Baki held her stare.

Then, a chuckle rumbled up from his chest. It grew. Until his laugh was booming throughout the room, echoing off the high-ceiling.

"What a good point, General," he conceded. He dipped his head.

"I apologize for my comments during that celebration. It was unbecoming of me to treat my honored guests in such a manner," he then declared. He held his cup of wine up. Servants appeared to fill Sakura's cup with wine as well. Then Shijima's.

"I'd hope not to have this conversation again during my stay here, Prince Baki," Sakura warned. But she still took her cup and raised it too.

"To a long friendship," Baki toasted.

"To Consort Hoki. Who persuaded me to see reason," Sakura countered. She looked to Shijima. And so did Baki.

A thoughtful look crossed his face. He appraised Shijima, eyebrows rising.

"Yes. Why not? To Consort Hoki."

Shijima raised her cup and touched it carefully to Baki's. Then to Sakura's. Before they all drank.


A few more days passed in the Viper's Fang. Rumors spread of how the proud Prince Baki had actually apologized. And to a woman.

The concubines, who had avoided Sakura like she was some sort of insect, eyed her with renewed suspicion whenever they passed in the halls. Some of them made loud remarks, as if they didn't realize she was standing right there.

Such antics didn't faze Sakura. The court of the Forest Kingdom was just as unforgiving. The idle wives of nobles loved nothing more than to spread malicious gossip. They would mock anyone, only to turn around and grovel in front of them to gain favor.

And since Sakura was familiar with these dynamics, she noted rather quickly how none of the concubines ever greeted Shijima either.

"Until when are you going to hide in my quarters like this?" demanded Sakura.

Shijima sunk lower in the cushions. Hiding behind the bowl of grapes resting on her stomach.

"What do you mean?" the girl asked.

"You spend all your time here and not in the harem. Avoiding the issue won't make it disappear," Sakura scolded.

Shijima went very quiet. And then she peered around the bowl.

"They're awful. And so very cruel," she confessed in a small voice.

Sakura sighed. "I know. But all the more reason not to hide. If you act like prey, you'll be treated as prey."

Sakura thought it over. She got out of her seat. Shijima moved the bowl to watch her now.

"We need to shake up whatever hierarchy there is. I suspect Concubine Deba is on top right now," she said, looking over to Shijima, who nodded. Sakura tapped her fingers against her arm as she thought.

"Can't we just throw them all out onto the streets?" suggested Temari from the other side of the room.

"No. If only," Sakura answered.

Temari groaned.

"Well, we'll figure something out. In the meantime, why don't we go take a short walk?" suggested Sakura.

"But we took a walk this morning," Shijima pointed out. "In the gardens."

"No, silly girl," Sakura said as she got to her feet. She held her hand out to Shijima. Shijima grasped it and let Sakura pull her up.

"A walk around this palace. Your palace."

They walked arm in arm. Which was what Sakura had grown up doing with her aunt and with Temari as a little girl. And women seemed to do it here as well. The concubines who got along with each other would often walk the halls with their arms hooked together. Giggling secrets or ranting about something as they swept past in a flurry of jangling gold jewelry and the smell of perfumed oils.

There were stares when Sakura and Shijima walked together, though. And none of them were friendly.

"Keep talking. Don't hurry your steps," Sakura murmured.

"I don't know how you do it. You always walk like you own every place you're in," Shijima fretted. And that made Sakura laugh.

"What have I to fear when I've already been burned, stabbed, and sliced?" Sakura retorted. Shijima went very quiet as she took that in.

"I want to be as strong as you someday," she whispered.

"It's my hope that you never have to be," Sakura replied. And then she patted the back of Shijima's hand.

"Who's that?" Sakura then inquired.

Shijima followed her gaze to a tall woman approaching from the opposite end of the corridor. She donned a golden headpiece and a long gown that flowed behind her. There was a procession of servant girls trailing her. And she walked with the same sour expression that most of the other concubines wore.

"Concubine Toge. Her father is an ambassador to Prince Byakuren in the south," whispered Shijima.

"Is she not going to bow?" Sakura murmured.

"You really shouldn't. She's one of Concubine Deba's followers," hissed Shijima in return.

"You need to stop running away. Watch and learn," Sakura said, pulling her along.

As Concubine Toge drew near, she glanced Sakura over. Her mouth curled in a smirk. But as she went to pass by, Sakura opened her mouth.

"My. I'm starting to rethink my opinion of Prince Baki. For him to have so many ill-mannered, low-classed women in his harem," Sakura said in a loud, clear voice.

Concubine Toge froze.

"To not even greet a guest. How rude," Sakura egged her on. She tried not to laugh when the woman turned to look at her.

In a beautiful, rich voice, Concubine Toge mocked her. "I can hardly understand you with that dreadful pronunciation. Perhaps you should learn how to speak properly before you open that mouth again."

Shijima bristled.

"She speaks well given that she has learned this language recently," she snapped.

Sakura's eyes widened. She hadn't expected Shijima to jump to her defense so quickly. But then she quickly composed her expression.

"It does seem a little silly that a woman who only speaks one language mocks the one that speaks two," Sakura agreed. And then she took her time looking Concubine Toge up and down. She simpered.

"It also seems silly that the mere daughter of some bloated diplomat would act so bold in the face of a princess. Or do those rules not apply to fools?" Sakura taunted her.

Concubine Toge narrowed her eyes.

"Why don't you bow like a good girl?" suggested Sakura.

Sniffing, Concubine Toge continued walking ahead. She knocked her shoulder against Sakura's as she passed, shooting her a particularly venomous glare.

While Shijima stood trembling with rage, Sakura just smiled.

"She's quite confident," Sakura commented.

"Concubine Toge gave Prince Baki a son. She's untouchable," spat Shijima, glowering after the concubine's retreating back.

"Well, you will too, someday. So that's not an issue," Sakura assured her. She patted Shijima's hand again. As she watched the servant girls hurrying after their mistress, a thought occurred to Sakura. She reached her hand behind her. Azra and Esma stepped up to her.

"You said that women in the harem bully the consort," Sakura kept her voice low.

Azra's nose wrinkled. "Yes, General. Badly."

Sakura pulled Shijima's arm a little. They began walking back in the direction of the northern wing. The servants kept up with their easy pace.

"Then why don't we arrange for those bullies to do some work for us?" Sakura mused.

"What do you mean?" Shijima whispered.

And when Sakura's gaze fell on her, Shijima's eyes widened. For a second, she could almost see why people had whispered that a woman called 'The Heartless' was coming to the palace.

"There's a saying where I come from. That the finger that hurts is the one that gets attention." Sakura tapped Shijima's fingers.

"Do you notice the 9 fingers that feel nothing? Or the one that is bleeding?"

Shijima curled her fingers towards her palm.

"The hurt one, I suppose," she guessed.

Sakura smiled.

"Good. Then be the hurt finger. Stand out from the rest," was all Sakura said, leaving Shijima turning the possibilities over in her head.

Sakura didn't elaborate at all over the next few days. But she knew that Shijima understood her.

Because the following day, as Sakura sat eating her midday meal with Prince Baki, Suigetsu slunk into the banquet hall. He ignored Baki's stare as he darted around the edges of the room. He weaved around the servants bringing more wine. Cupping his hand around his mouth, he leaned in toward Sakura's ear.

Sakura's eyes widened

"Really?" she gasped.

Suigetsu leaned in closer, his hand resting on her shoulder. She didn't bat an eye at the contact. Baki ground his back molars too hard as he chewed his food.

And as Sakura murmured something back into his ear, Suigetsu shot Baki a look over her shoulder. He smirked at the Prince. Watched his eye twitch as he glared right back.

As Suigetsu straightened to leave, Sakura grabbed the edge of his glove.

"Before I forget, where's Consort Hoki? I haven't seen her all morning," Sakura then questioned in a normal voice.

"In her room, I think. Should I find her for you?" He pointed toward the door.

"Yes." Sakura released his glove and followed him as he made his way out of the room.

"Some good news, General?"

"Yes. Word from home that I'd so been looking forward to," Sakura brushed the question aside with a vague response. "I hope you don't mind me inviting Consort Hoki to join us. She's such a sweet girl," Sakura then added.

Baki smiled.

"I'm glad. I worried that you would tire of her naiveté," he replied, focusing on his plate, rather than her.

"Oh, not at all. She's quite charming. I feel so at ease with her around. My cousins are also so glad for the company."

The corner of Baki's mouth twitched.

And Sakura, deciding that she had pushed his buttons enough, steered the conversation back to safer territory. By the time Shijima arrived, it seemed that Baki had forgotten about her already. He huffed with the double doors opened again. And then his eyes widened as Shijima stepped inside.

"My dear, there you are," Sakura greeted her warmly, looking away from Baki.

Baki's dark eyes took in Shijima's appearance. Lingering on the dark splotch on the front of her gown.

"What is this? Why would you greet an honored guest with such a shameful appearance?" he growled.

Shijima bowed low.

"I know that this is disgraceful and I beg a thousand pardons. But I didn't want to keep the General waiting," Shijima answered. She kept her head lowered.

Baki opened his mouth, but Sakura spoke before he did.

"Indeed, Prince Baki. I'd also like to know what's happened. Come," Sakura set her cup down and motioned for Shijima with both hands.

And rather than sit beside Baki, Shijima moved across the room to kneel at Sakura's side.

Sakura rubbed her hand across the splatter on Shijima's dress. It was a beautiful forest green, embroidered with silver and blue flowers.

"Such a shame. This is a lovely fabric," Sakura remarked. And then, lifting her fingers to her nose, she made a face. "This smells like wine."

And then she reached up to brush Shijima's dark hair to the side.

"Did someone slap you?" Sakura demanded.

Shijima pushed her hand away. "No, General. I'm just clumsy."

Sakura leveled her with a look. "I've been in my share of fights. There's no use in trying to deceive me."

"Speak truthfully to the General, Consort Hoki," Prince Baki's voice whipped out. Low and tight.

Shijima bit her lower lip.

Sakura made a noise of exasperation.

"This is ridiculous. Which one was it? I'll dump a cask of wine on her entire wardrobe," Sakura sighed, getting to her feet. Shijima seized her forearm with both hands.

"No!"

She tugged on Sakura's arm.

"No, please. Let me," Shijima whispered.

Sakura bent her knees. Slowly sitting back down beside Shijima.

"I want to try on my own."

"Then try, Consort Hoki."

Both women turned to look at Baki. He raised his cup in a toast.

"I look forward to seeing the results of your labor," he added before he took a sip.

Sakura frowned. "Buy her a new dress first," she suggested.

Baki almost choked on his wine as he snorted.

Shijima even managed a secret smile when Sakura gave her a nod.