Notes: Past the halfway point now. Phew. Maybe there's a chance I'll finally finish it this year after all. :P (10/18/06 -- Or not.) Kind of dissatisfied with these two most recent chapters; will probably go back sometime to edit like crazy. Also, website is undergoing an overhaul. Check my profile for links.
Chapter Seven - Drowned Suns That Glimmer There
Hannya and Kanryuu returned within days, late one afternoon, the businessman frothing with furious frustration and the masked one deathly quiet.
"Nothing," Hannya whispered fiercely to Aoshi as their employer ranted and raved about slimy sneaks and greedy cheapskates. "Nothing at all."
"There is nothing an Oniwaban spy does not know," said Aoshi, and Hannya glared sullenly from behind his mask.
" -- Those fools! They'll see, oh, they'll see..."
"That man is no merchant, you and I both know. And Ebisawa Minoru can hardly be his true name."
" -- Just wait, just wait and see --"
"It was the only lead we had. One does not make up names on the spot, out of nowhere."
"You fool --"
" -- They'll live to regret the day they ever crossed Takeda Kanryuu!"
"Hannya. An old lover's name; an admired character from a play -- anything can be a clue."
"Okashira, I have not followed you all these years for nothing!"
" -- Isn't that right, my dear Aoshi?"
Aoshi turned his gaze from the red blaze glimmering above the horizon and the shadows stretched across the ground to Kanryuu's glinting spectacles.
"As long as we stand guarding you," Aoshi said, slowly, "you are invincible."
And then he turned and strode back inside the mansion, Hannya a soundless shadow behind him.
- - -
"I am sorry," said Hannya later that night, not sounding sorry at all. "I must have overlooked something."
Aoshi said nothing for some time. "I cannot understand what his motivation could be. Revenge, perhaps."
"Yet this does not smell of revenge," murmured Hannya, and slipped off to relieve one of the others from his post.
Tenchuu, thought Aoshi. Heaven's justice, the Ishin assassins had screamed amid scarlet rain, but there had been no justice for the Oniwabanshuu, and the war had long ended, along with all their shattered dreams.
Down the hall, a light flickered in the library. Aoshi quietly approached the door.
"Go on to bed, Tetsuo," said a soft, weary voice. "I'll be a while yet."
A slender figure emerged from the darkness and turned, flashing a brief smile in Aoshi's direction before continuing to pad down the hallway. Aoshi stared after the boy, then stepped into the doorway, taking care to keep out of the light. The room smelled of smoke and ink and yellowing paper.
In the pale lamplight she looked shrunken and aged, bent over tomes and scrolls as if a great weight pressed down upon her back. Once or twice she dipped her brush in ink and scrawled notes in the margins of the pages as she flipped through. When some time had passed, she pushed back her chair and looked up from her work, staring out into the darkness. Resisting the urge to draw closer, Aoshi continued to watch her from the doorway.
She drew out the tantou, carelessly fingering its edge. And then with a shudder she threw the blade down and buried her head in her arms. The sharp metal gleamed in the pale light.
Aoshi moved towards her, uncertain. But when she looked up at his approach, he saw that her face was dry.
"Do you never sleep?" she said, but there was no bite in her words.
"You are the one who needs sleep," he replied. "You cannot accomplish anything in this state."
"Sleeping, awake -- there is no difference."
To this he had no answer.
"Is it not so? Tell me -- is it not so?" She stood, grabbing his sleeve with a sudden wild desperation. He faltered, stepped back.
She let go of him, and now a slight bitter smile played about her lips. "Am I so terrifying?"
"No." He looked away from her, glancing at the tantou, still on the table.
"They told me it helped people, that it took their pain away..." she murmured then, almost dreamily. "But then I found that relief from pain came only at a price, a terrible price."
He thought of the scars that etched her wrist.
"Would you pay that price?"
"What?" An edge of anger, almost frantic. "What are you talking about?"
Aoshi said nothing for a while. "There are easier ways."
"Aoshi --" and her voice broke off in sudden panic. She made to push past him for the door, but he grabbed the blade from the table and blocked her way.
"Jigai," he said simply, absently reaching out and brushing her hair from her neck. His hand lingered there, not quite touching.
She swatted his hand away, eyes blazing. "I believe in life!"
The silence between them stretched taut.
"Then make sure to protect your own," he said at last, gently mocking, voice laced with frost.
Once more she tried to storm past him, but again he moved to block her path, catching her wrist in his hand, wrapping her fingers around the hilt of the tantou.
"You are a daughter of samurai," Aoshi whispered, in that same mocking tone. "You should know, better than I..." Of duty, of honor. The samurai's way.
She glared back at him. "And what if I do not?" she spat. And then she smiled, that familiar dangerous smile, and brought up her free hand to the hand that held her wrist. "Would you teach me, Shinomori Aoshi? Would you teach me to protect myself?"
He dropped her hand and strode past her into the hall, refusing to look at her.
"What do you think?" he said as he left her behind.
- - -
As Aoshi walked down the stairs and towards the foyer to switch shifts with Hyottoko, he heard voices coming from the kitchen. He could not make out what they spoke of. He drew closer to the door, listening carefully. But one mumbled incomprehensibly, and it seemed to him that the other spoke not in Japanese, but some barely familiar language he could not name. He thought then that he recognized that second voice, dark and smooth like silk, and nudged the door open a crack.
He could hear more clearly now, but it seemed to him the intonation of that second voice had changed somewhat. Aoshi realized he could make out words -- the voice was speaking in Japanese after all. He wondered if he had been mistaken earlier.
"I would advise you to leave."
"Please... please... I will die..."
"You have no money. And food, I should think, is more urgent."
Aoshi saw now who the speakers were, confirming his suspicions of the second. And the first -- the first was a ragged, emaciated creature, man or woman he could not tell. A shriveled old woman, he decided, with sunken eyes and sweat rolling down her face even as her entire body shivered and shook.
"I will die..." The old woman continued to mumble, words slurring, interrupted from time to time by hideous yellow yawns.
Aoshi slipped into the room and faced the butler. "What is this? How did she get in?"
The butler shrugged. "A mother or an aunt of one of the gate guards, most likely. Whoever it was shall, of course, have to be dealt with."
Aoshi bit back the question that followed, But how did she get past my men?, and said instead, "It is late to be holding conversations in the kitchen."
"Takeda-sama cannot sleep. He asked me to bring him wine, that he might ease his mind."
"Give me... just this once... please... just once..."
Aoshi turned to the woman. "It is best that you leave, lest you wish to face Takeda Kanryuu's wrath."
The old woman began laughing uncontrollably, tears squeezing from her eyes. "Kanryuu! I know, I know... what you're hiding... Kanryuu! Give, give..."
The butler, eyebrow raised, glanced at Aoshi. "Let us escort her out, before Takeda-sama takes it into his mind to come down to investigate, shall we?"
Aoshi nodded coolly, and the two men each grabbed an arm, ignoring the woman's senseless jabbering.
At the foot of the stairs, the old woman broke from their grasp with a sudden burst of strength.
"My lady, my lady --"
And there she stood before them, wide-eyed and pale, the old woman grasping at the edges of her kimono.
"Megumi," said Aoshi.
"Wait," she said, "let me, I can --"
"No," Aoshi said as the butler recaptured the old one into his grasp, pulling the woman away from her. "Kanryuu will not allow it, this freely giving away of his products. And more cannot save her now."
"Do you think I give a damn what Kanryuu will or will not allow?" she yelled, though already the butler was shoving the old woman out the door.
"I forbid you," said Aoshi. And then, quietly, "She brought this upon herself. Nothing can save her now."
"But it could at least ease her p--" She broke off. Aoshi looked up, and realized that Hannya was there, and watching. The masked man nodded at him, almost imperceptibly, then turned.
"Takani Megumi," said Hannya. "Come. Return to your room."
"I was looking for Tetsuo..." whispered Megumi.
"Come," insisted Hannya, and this time she obeyed.
Aoshi watched them climb back up the stairs, noting that none stood guard now in the foyer, then headed out and down the path, toward the gate.
There, in the chill of the bleak hours right before dawn, a young guard pleaded and begged as the butler thrust an old woman out into the streets and his fellow guard stood and said nothing. Aoshi reached the scene in swift strides, and pointed his kodachi at the young man's neck.
"Leave," Aoshi said. "Or will you wait for Kanryuu's judgment when dawn breaks?"
The young man scampered away with the old woman, and the butler said, "I will send for a replacement," eyeing the second guard as if he too might decide to flee, and all three men returned to their respective duties in silence.
Hannya had left Aoshi a note, folded in form of a lotus flower.
And then, scrawled quickly, as if a sudden bubbling thought:
This place is riddled with secret passages.
In the morning Kanryuu met Aoshi at the stairs and smiled a sly smile.
"Soon," the businessman murmured, "soon."
- - -
The days grew longer. Day after day after day. The sun creeping steadily across a deep blue sky, scorching the earth, sinking past the horizon far beyond, rising once more to the east. Sweat rolling, drop after drop, a ponderous trickle, rolling down dusty skin and blistered hands. Time slowed to a near stop, crawling, inching along until it seemed to Aoshi he could remember no time when Kanryuu's mansion had not loomed over him, its great shadow ever at his back.
The endless mazelike passages, twisting and turning in upon themselves, writhing like snakes come alive. White walls closing in night after night until he feared he had forgotten the sight of a dark star-filled sky. Waking in the darkness, wet with perspiration, nostrils stuffed with the smell of rot and decay, and blood, vaguely remembered, or perhaps imagined.
Morning brought no relief. The smell lingered, sticky-sweet, haunting him throughout the plodding hours of the day.
And at night he slept, and tossed in his sleep, but did not dream.
The days plodded on and on. And day after day, he watched. Quietly, from the shadows, thinking of a little girl long abandoned long forgotten and wondering if that was what the woman saw in the boy if anything even as she toiled on, fudging recipes, subtly sabotaging her own careful labor, brewing that poison that seemed to intoxicate him simply by its existence, because he knew, oh he knew, and she knew, and perhaps Hannya knew too, even if the man in the white suit and glinting spectacles did not.
He was there too now, always. Watching, watching. Waiting. Gnawing whispering, whispering ever at his ear, sticky hot breath Aoshi Aoshi Aoshi my pet and in the man's oily smug voice Aoshi thought he heard her harsh laughter echoing echoing echoing
dog rat fox
dog rat fox
and endless nothingness.
Day after day after day.
breaking the monotony
Aoshi ran from the mansion, in the direction of the screams, through the surrounding trees.
Shikijou, bloody, the boy Tetsuo crouched by the wall --
"I'm fine," she said dryly, emptily, eyes blank, face blank, and Aoshi saw the gleam of metal up her sleeve and thought of shapeshifters and the pit of his stomach burned, burned.
"Okashira..." Shikijou grinned wryly, wearily, handed him the crumpled bloodied note clutched in his hand. "Some stranger, got over the walls, attacked -- I don't think he expected my presence -- he ran off --"
And it all seemed wrong, terribly wrong, but his mind whirled in the suffocating heat and he glanced at her and at the boy and at Shikijou, uncrumpled the note and read it, stony still.
Soon all your burdens will be gone. - The Old Man of the Sea
"What is going on, Aoshi!" Huffing and panting.
That dreaded oily voice.
"Everything is under control," said Aoshi, not turning, mouth turning down in a near-imperceptible frown. "There are things we must discuss." Then, as an aside, "Get your wounds looked at, Shikijou."
And then he stepped forward, closing in on the woman, not looking at her.
"My offer still stands," he said under his breath, stiffly, swiftly, so that only she heard, and turned, following Kanryuu back through the front door.
She gazed after him, confused and thoughtful.
Things to fix in future: pacing, consistency in style as compared to previous chapters, smoother transition. ('tis the disadvantages of taking such long breaks between writing each chapter, sigh) This chapter is supposed to mark a transition from a more episodic feel to the actual plot, setting all the pieces in place... Key word is supposed.
The first two kanji in Ebisawa are "sea" and "old". (It can also be written with different kanji.)
Something I didn't realize earlier: I don't think the mansion is white in the anime, but it's always been white in my mind...
Jigai is the less well-known female equivalent of seppuku (ritual suicide, usually connected with concepts of honor/loyalty/"samurai spirit" although it wasn't always done for those reasons). Jigai, performed simply by cutting the jugular vein with a tantou, is far less messy and painful than seppuku ("belly cutting"), and I believe not quite as ritualized, though still with some particular customs, i.e. dressing oneself in white. It was originally performed to prevent rape and preserve one's dignity after an enemy military takeover (both practices of seppuku and jigai originated in the war-torn Sengoku Jidai/Warring States period). The women would even bind their legs together beforehand so that their bodies wouldn't be found in inappropriate positions. Other reasons for jigai were as protest against a husband's moral wrongs (seppuku was also used as a form of protest), or in order for a wife to follow her husband into death.
... And now you all know far more about Japanese ritual suicide than you really need to. :D
But really, knowing this, and knowing the unreliability of wrist-cutting as a form of suicide (as well as the usual psychology behind cutting), and knowing Megumi's medical background added onto her Aizu samurai family background (Aizu being famous during the Bakumatsu for, among other things, women who fought alongside the men in defense of their domain, and the Byakkotai, a brigade of teenage samurai, nineteen of whom committed seppuku when they thought the castle was burning and the daimyo dead)... her actions really start to come under a rather peculiar light. I think it really says something about her character that she did not choose to perform jigai. And at the same time, her cutting, as well as the choice Aoshi ultimately gives her in the tower, is thrown into a completely different light.
(10/18/06: s-girl/eriesalia has since noted that doctors are not actually samurai class, but a class of their own. We think. I'd assumed they were, since they're allowed a family name. I don't remember if we ever came to a conclusion about this though. Input from knowledgeable people would be appreciated. Either way, these notes still hold somewhat...)