Chapter Ten

"What am I supposed to say to you?" For the moment, Yaone did not choose to look up from the sleeping Kougaiji. "You kept our bargain, I suppose. You gave me the tools to restore him. Perhaps he is restored." She stroked Kougaiji's hair again. "You could have come in here at any time, couldn't you? Played with him like this? Why bother to wait till you could do it in front of me?"

"Anh. Not quite right. I came in by other ways. If he shuddered at your entry, think how he would have reacted to mine alone? Mm? I may never have been this deep. You let me in here. And now I can -- do it -- in front of you." Light threw his long robed shadow across the floor from behind her. It moved in long swinging folds of darkness.

"Is this still a game?"

"Do you want to play?"

He was waiting for something. She was sure of it. She had to try to guess what. But at the back of her mind, the memory of Howan-hakase whispered in utter despair, You can't win. The best thing you can do is not to play in the first place.

"You don't own me," she said instead.

"Really?" His shadow fell over her and Kougaiji. "Don't I? What is there that you haven't given up to me?"

"I haven't killed anyone because you told me to." That is for Kougaiji-sama alone.

He chuckled. "What a strange virginity, Yaone-kun."

And how many times have you killed . . . The thought passed through her mind. She could believe anything of him. Anything at all.

There was a dark smirk to his voice, as though he knew what she was thinking. "Mmm. Yes. I've been soaked in blood, Yaone-kun. My sleeves were wet with it. My face was splashed with it. It matted my hair." His fingers touched the edge of her neck, then picked up one of the tails of her hair and swung it loosely. "I could smell nothing else. There was nothing else."

"And you come here dressed as a Sanzou?" She couldn't keep the incredulity out of her voice. Even Genjou Sanzou is not like this . . .

"I carry the sutra of No God," he answered. "I own it. It is mine."

"I am not yours," Yaone said between her teeth. "I made a bargain. The matter is done."

"Ah, but I care about those who sell themselves." He picked up the second lock of her hair. "Like you. I want to look after you, Yaone-kun."

"You want to play with me," she said, biting down horror.

"That too."

He took the third lock of her hair, and began to braid the locks together. It was abominable to have him do something so . . . so intimate, so private a service. It was a gesture of intent. You're mine. You can do nothing.

That sparked something else, a light in Yaone's hopelessness. Nii wanted a reaction from her. He goaded Kougaiji-sama -- he had goaded Kougaiji-sama, in the past -- in order to get a reaction then. Words came to her. "You want me to fight you? We both know how that goes, Nii-hakase. I have another answer. We both leave here and leave Kougaiji-sama to wake up on his own. You want to fight him? Then let him wake up so that you can challenge him again. He's more amusing than I am, isn't he?" It burned her to speak so casually of her prince, but she made herself do it. "Isn't that what you've wanted all along? An excuse to have a challenger again, rather than simply a toy?"

His fingers tugged at her hair. "Someone's getting sharper. Someone's going to cut herself."

"Isn't it?" And was I worth so little in your eyes? Just another tool, another toy? And should it matter if I was?

Nii Jieni released the braided rope of her hair, letting it settle against her back. "You think you know me, Yaone-kun? Mm?"

"I think that you have taught me a little, Nii-hakase," she replied.

"How polite." He seemed amused now, as though his quick humour had turned in its course again. "You think you know what I want, mm? You think you can give it to me?"

She shrugged, and did not look up at his face.

"Well, I know what you want, Yaone-kun." Again that way of naming her, as though she were his student. "You've got it in your lap. Got him in your lap. Why don't you do something, mm? Just a little --"

"I wouldn't!" she broke in.

He continued over her interjection. "-- touch, just a tiny little change. Give him the courage to fight Gyokumen, perhaps? Make him strong enough to protect his sister. To protect you. To do something. Don't you want him to do something, mm?" The words might have been innocent. They weren't. They whispered around Yaone like shadows. "Don't you want him to . . ."

This is what I want, Yaone thought, and bent forward to kiss Kougaiji on the lips. One hand cradled his head, the other brushed against his bare chest, moving over the warm naked skin. This is what I want, just once, while he sleeps, to know that I did it, that I said it with my lips against his own, because I will never be able to say it while he is awake and to his face.

Her free hand moved down to one of her pouches, hidden by her body as she bent over Kougaiji. She flipped out a single capsule, and brought it to her mouth as she released her prince, opening her lips to take it in. And after this neither of us will touch him again. Not here. Not like this.

She settled Kougaiji's head on the ground and if I never again touch his hair like that and rose from where she knelt and if I never again see him like that and turned to face Nii Jieni.

He smelt of blood and cigarettes. It made no sense for him to wear a Sanzou's robes. I carry the sutra of No God, he had said. A sutra hung around his shoulders. She had seen Genjou Sanzou's sutra. They looked the same. He watched her from behind the panes of his glasses, still smiling that knowing smile.

This is blasphemy. She reached out to put her arms around his neck, and he suffered it. She drew his head down, and leaned up to kiss him, and as their mouths opened together and she felt his body against hers, she bit down on the capsule, and the poison went into both of them at the same time.

Our bargain is over. This is what I began and now I end it. We both leave Kougaiji-sama alone. Kougaiji-sama's choice. Not mine. Not yours.

It was swift. Darkness came over her like a storm and carried her away.


In the quiet of the early morning, Yaone lay on her bed, and remembered inch by inch the comfort of a soft mattress and warm covers, the peace of relaxation, the slow unfolding of something knotted inside her which could finally give way and let her rest. In her sleep, she dreamed that she heard Nii Jieni's voice, falling like dust through rays of sunlight, drifting into her sleep and passing and then gone.

". . . boundaries, Yaone-kun. You think you know me. You think you could say what I will do and what I will not do. Such a small concept, mm? I will do what I will do. If I choose, I will be cruel. But if I choose, I can let you go for the moment. Like this. Like being a god, Yaone-kun; no restraints, no boundaries. No limits. Be cruel. Be kind. Take. Release. To do exactly what you want, fettered by nothing -- what would you call that, Yaone-kun? Knowing everyone around you is just dolls, and playing with them . . ."

And then gone.


Yaone rose through sleep like a fish gliding to the surface of the water. Her room was full of light, the blind drawn back to let the morning sun wash through and fill the room with colour. She drew back her futon; she was still fully dressed, one hand gloved, the other ungloved, her hair twisted into a loose rope that clung against her fingers when she tried to pull it apart.

Her other glove lay on the table in front of her bedroom mirror, its fingers uncurled towards the glass.

Yaone pulled off her clothes with a strange anger, and flung them into a corner, desperate to clean herself. A clean robe was soft against her skin, but the simple action of touch held other memories which she could not force away. When she looked in the mirror, there was something strange to her eyes which she could not recognise.

Someone knocked at her door.

"Come in," she called.

A servant entered, and bowed politely. "Yaone-san. Kougaiji-sama requests that you attend his chambers after breakfast. He has some matters to discuss with you and Dokugakuji-san." He paused. "He commands me to say that he is grateful to you for looking into his sister's whereabouts, and that will be one of those matters."

Please. Please, let this not be a dream, let it be real, and let me be hearing this, and let me believe that it is true. "Thank you for the message. Have you informed Dokugakuji-san also?"

The servant's eyes were as unreadable as any servant's should be in answer to that question, his face a blank. "Dokugakuji-san was with Kougaiji-sama, Yaone-san."

And that, as nothing else would, made Yaone finally know that it was true, in her heart and in her mind. "Thank you," she said, the words coming to her tongue unbidden, and she watched the servant leave, and remembered how it had felt to kiss Kougaiji-sama's lips.

And so we both got what we wanted. Thank you, Nii-hakase. And if I wanted other things as well? I am not prepared to sell myself to get them. I will not give up the Kougaiji-sama whom I love in order to get someone with his face for my own, for my very own, for ever and ever.

Outside the fortress there was sunlight. Inside the fortress there was fire.

You might be a god of sorts, Nii-hakase, with your detachment and your ability to choose to do or not to do, to take or to turn away, and to simply watch and not care. I am a thousand miles from that, and even further from any spiritual enlightenment.

Her tears were hot against her cheeks as the thoughts worked their way through her mind.

But you asked me if I knew what I wanted, and I do, and now I have it. The knowledge that I will never have something else is a piece of wisdom I did not want. Desire hurts. I cannot be you.

But I don't want to be you. Because you would never have been in Kougaiji-sama's service, and you will never be his friend, and he will never be yours. Because it doesn't matter if he doesn't love me but I love him. I love him, and I was able to give him this, give him to himself.

Time to start again. Time to wash herself, and dress, and eat breakfast, and attend on Kougaiji-sama, and go through another day, whether it was dream or reality, and be the person she had chosen to be, Kougaiji-sama's servant and guard and apothecary -- and friend. I will see Kougaiji-sama smile at me.

I will see the light in his eyes, and I will be happy.


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