"What do you mean, they're gone?" Daisuke demanded, forgetting for a moment that the man beside him had once been his father's most trusted vassal. "Why?"
Keiji grimaced and toyed with one of the brightly colored tassels adorning his armor. "Do you remember the stories your mother used to tell you when you were little?"
"Fuck, Keiji," Daisuke snapped, scrubbing at his face in frustration. The mention of his mother sent an ache through him. Her sweet, round face appeared in his mind's eye, and he could almost hear the musical hum of her laughter.
Her life had been like that of an epic poem. A lowly commoner had risen from pauper to favored concubine to lady mother of her lord's heir. Then, her story ended and she faded forever.
"She's been dead a long time, Keiji." Gone like his sister, without a trace, so that there was nothing to mark her existence. He sighed, feeling his breath warm his hands as he stared at Keiji through his splayed fingers. "Her stories don't matter."
Keiji felt his face harden, but softened into a long-suffering sigh. "I should turn you over my knee for that."
He sank to his haunches and held his hands over the dying embers of his campfire. Briefly, he wondered just how many times he was destined to fail. "The men are tired, Daisuke. They…"
Daisuke felt sick, but quietly furious as well. "They what? Want to go home? Go back to their nice, peaceful lives? Well, they can't, Keiji!"
"You're not the only one who has lost," Keiji said, almost sympathetically as he rose to his feet. "I loved your father and your mother, and I love Umeko as if she were my own, but I…the men are tired, Daisuke-sama. They want to go home."
Daisuke stood still for a moment, feeling as if the world had fallen out from beneath him. Worse was that is it had, so many weeks ago, and he had been too stunned to plummet.
"Our home is gone," he drew softly, slowly, as if admitting to himself what he had denied forever. The lush meadows of his childhood, his family's ancestral home, were nothing more than burnt fields and timbers turned to ash. "Umeko is all I have left. I won't abandon her."
To his horror, he realized that he wanted to. He wanted to believe that she among the broken corpses they had found in the eastern field. Perhaps that had buried her with the pieces of people he had known since childhood.
Perhaps, she had been the little one he found near the kitchens, laying charred and blackened on the steps, her mouth gaping open in a soundless scream. He had only assumed that it had been the cook's young daughter.
With inarticulate cry, Daisuke whirled and rammed his fist into the closest tree. "She's alive," he rasped as he punched it, again and again, shaking leaves from its knotted branches. "Damn it! She's a…she's…"
"My lord! Daisuke, stop it! Stop this now, you're going to…"
Keiji grabbed at his arm, his shoulders, trying to make him stop, but he kept pounding, punching the tree as it screamed and splintered beneath his hands.
"Why the fuck did they leave? I told them…I told them! You and I were going to grab the girl while the rest of them caused a diversion. That's what we planned! That's what we were going to do!"
"That is enough!"
Keiji roar sliced through his fury and stopped him in mid swing. Daisuke uttered a final, wordless cry, and then slumped, exhausted and humiliated, against what was left of the tree. "Damn it! I can't…"
"You can and you will," Keiji snapped, grabbing him by the shoulders and hauling him upright. "This isn't helping."
Daisuke choked on a laugh as he ground his forehead on what remained of the tree trunk. Only he can have nothing and still lose everything. "You asked me if I remembered my mother's stories."
"I did, but…" Thunder rumbled across the valley, shaking raindrops from the sky. Keiji tipped his head back, feeling the icy drizzle patter against his cheeks. With a slight bit of homesickness, he realized it would have been a good year for planting. "It doesn't matter."
"They went looking for treasure. That's what you're trying to tell me, isn't it? That they actually believed one of my mother's silly stories about the great wealth of the daiyoukai." Daisuke snorted a laugh. "What childish nonsense."
"To you perhaps, but those boys believed everything Takara-sama ever told them!"
Daisuke looked down into the valley at manor tucked safely between the mountains. In his mind he heard his mother's voice, felt the soft swell of her breasts as she him in her lap. There was once a wise and powerful daiyoukai, who lived in a valley near the sea…
"He could bring life with one hand and death in the other." His brows knit together as he strained to remember. "And there was something about a great treasure and a circle within his name. I can't remember…" He turned sharply and pressed his back against the tree, nostrils flaring as he seethed. "Idiots!"
"I quite agree, but what are we going to do?" Keiji wavered slightly, or so it seemed as lightning flashed above them. "We can't just leave them."
"As much trouble as they've caused me, I'm sorely tempted…" Daisuke waved off Keiji's horrified expression. "Don't look at me like that. If father were here, he'd have taken the lash to both of them."
"Your father was harsh, but he was also fair." Keiji managed a tight smile, but there was no hiding the guilt in his eyes. "They're just boys."
Annoyance made Daisuke's voice thin. "Yukio is twenty years my senior. He's no more a boy than I am!"
It was a lie that was half true. Twenty years meant nothing to a people who counted their lives in centuries. He and Yukio were both under two hundred, decades away from the time either could rightfully be called men.
Daisuke ground his teeth. Weeks ago, he would have followed after Yukio with Umeko clinging to his legs. She had always chased after him, always behind him, so he never thought to look back when he fled the manor.
"Umeko, why didn't you follow me?" he whispered, the word lost beneath a sudden peal of thunder. The storm would fierce, flooding the valley, turning everything around them to dripping curtains of green. "Keiji, lead the men from the valley."
Keiji paled, and though he recovered quickly, was plainly troubled. He had prayed his young lord would abandon this foolhardy venture, but now the notion seemed almost cowardly. "We're leaving then? What of Taro and Yukio?"
"It would serve them right if I left them." Daisuke crossed his arms over his chest, sighing as he glared down into the valley. In the distance, he heard the cries of the dragon the daiyoukai had been using for a mount. Was it unsettled because of the storm, or did it sense intruders like some monstrous watchdog?
"But, no, I'll find them," he muttered a bit distractedly. The dragon was quiet now, almost ominously so. "And beat them both within an inch of their lives. I want you to wait for me at camp, if I don't return…"
"Absolutely, not," Keiji spat, eyes blazing. "You're not going through with this foolishness. Get on your damn horse!"
"One of us needs to stay alive for Umeko's sake," Daisuke said, tone deceptively mild, and then jabbed a thumb in the direction of the men lurking within the tree line. "Do you honestly think any of them will bother once we're gone?"
Color flowed over Keiji's features, darkening along his throat to the tips of his ears. He pressed his lips together into a thin, forbidding line, nostrils flaring with each breath he took. "Then, I'll go," he said with absolute finality. "It's my responsibility to keep an eye on everyone."
Daisuke smiled, softly, almost sadly. "Father's dead, Keiji. You don't have to keep playing vassal."
"And so, now you're going to throw your life away? After all this time, after all this waiting! You've made every excuse not to confront those daiyoukai directly. You've wasted every advantage we might have had. And now…" Keiji squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep his composure, but he was so frustrated, so undeniably angry. "Damn you! At least tell me why! Why does it have to be you?"
"Because I'm afraid…" Daisuke laughed without humor, licking his lips. "I'm afraid that Umeko is dead, and I've just been deluding myself all along."
"I'd rather die thinking that there is hope for her, than to face learning the truth. But…" Daisuke chewed thoughtfully at his thumbnail for moment. "Don't worry. I'm not rushing off to my death. Not just yet."
Keiji frowned. "So, you're staying?"
"I'm a farmer, Keiji. I'd be lying to myself if I claimed otherwise, but that doesn't mean I'm without advantages," Daisuke muttered, spitting out a jagged piece of cuticle. "Now go, Keiji, this storm should be enough to hide your trail if it comes to that."
"And just what will you do?" Keiji snapped, dubious as he desperate. "Offer to till their fields if they don't eat Taro and Yukio? It's utter madness."
"Yes, and I needn't remind you that you're free to leave this company at any time." He craned his head back to scowl at the woods around him. "And that goes double for you lot, always gossiping like a bunch of old scullery maids."
Every voice in the forest grew silent, except for Keiji who was still raving.
"Fine," he grit out at last, balling his hands into fists at his sides. "I'll lead the men from the valley. They deserve that much. But mark my words, Daisuke. Once I return, you and I will have words. Which you damn well better be alive to hear! Then, I'm done with you and all this foolishness!"
Daisuke sighed. Not for a moment did he believe that Keiji, as close to him as an uncle, would ever truly leave him. "If that's what you want."
"It is," Keiji glowered, but then faltered almost instantly, cursing beneath his breath. "Don't do this."
Daisuke hid a smile and started down into the valley floor with hardly a backwards glance. To look back was to lose his nerve, and he had made excuses for far too long.
Suddenly, the ground seemed to slip from beneath him, and he skid several feet before catching himself on low hanging branch. He scratched and scrambled at the limb's slick bark like a cat without claws.
Cursing, he flung his weight forward and caught the branch in the bend of his arm. "Shit," he breathed, shagging against the branch. Blinking the rain from his eyes, he peered down into the valley floor. The hillside was rocky, strewn with rocks, mud, and countless trees, and far too steep for horses, including him, his true form to climb.
Hope filled him as he shoved away from the tree. Yukio and Taro would have had to leave their horse behind and travel down the steep hillside on foot. There was still a chance that he could catch them before they did anything stupid.
Despite the impatience gnawing at him, Touga methodically donned his fighting garb and the pieces of his armor. White over white, the simple act of folding and tying was almost a meditative exercise, clearing his mind and allowing him to focus on the events of the last hour.
Two horse youkai, young ones by all reckoning, had slipped away from their camp in the forest and traveled down to the foot the orchard. There they hid, lurking for hours amongst the trees that had existed since before his birth, waiting.
Touga plopped down on the low bench near traveling gear and tried to concentrate on the simple act of dressing. Unwilling to consider what might have happened if the two trespassers had been more skillful, more mindful, or simply luckier.
Cursing, he snatched up his obi and pulled the fabric taut between his hands. One of them could have gotten close enough to sink a knife between his ribs or Amayami's. His claws cricked reflexively, shredding the obi between his hands.
"Oh, honestly," Cho sighed and dropped at suit of battered armor at his feet. "I suppose it makes no never mind to you that I spent the entire winter stitching that for you!"
He smoothed the ruined obi between his hands, feeling the intricate embroidery against his palms. His mother had taught Cho to sew, had taught her to spin strands of her hair into thread the strength of iron. He brought the fabric to his face and sniffed. As he thought, the stitches contained a fraction of Cho's youki, so reminiscent of his mother's old incantations.
"You shouldn't have bothered…"
Cho snatched the obi from his hand, eyes narrowing as she examined the deep blue silk. "No, but maybe I wanted to," she huffed, and then tossed the garment into a box of old rags. "Either way, it's ruined. I'll leave it to Amayami-sama to sew you another."
Touga gave her a flat look that was both annoyed and amused. "Amayami doesn't know how to embroider." Nor could she play the koto or dance, or do any of the things that had once amused his sisters for hours. Sometimes he wondered if she had ever played as a child.
"Oh?" Cho scooped up the breastplate from the floor, and then held it before her as if were no heavier than one of her grandfather's yukata. "I figured she just said that to get out helping."
Touga stared out the window and watched the rain drip down from the eaves. "Amayami doesn't lie." He stood and held his arms from his sides. "Is this the only suit of armor in storage?"
Cho slipped the breastplate around his torso and held it in place with one hand as she fumbled with the buckles. "The only one that's still reasonably intact," she said, meeting his eyes as bent to retrieve his shoulder guards. "So what does Amayami-sama do?"
"You mean when she's not brooding or speaking in riddles or twisting my words to suit her?" He ran a hand over his face, scowling as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "She studies, or will once I hire the proper tutors. Perhaps if she were occupied she would find less reason to…"
"Destroy your armor?" Cho grinned at Touga's sour expression, and then looped her arms around his waist to secure the last buckles. "I'll send it to Kaijinbo in the morning, if you like. He's really better at this sort of thing than Toutousai."
"Do so, and…" he sucked in a breath and swung his arms up and down sharply, then dropped them to his sides. The armor was a touch too small, but would do well enough. Tonight the armor was for pretense, not protection. "Tell Toutousai I would like to offer him a commission."
"You know he's not going to accept." She edged past him and reached deeply into one of the cabinets lining the room. "More likely he'll just go running off again."
Touga's eyes drifted to his sword resting unobtrusively above Amayami's smaller, more elegant blade. He had won the weapon in battle, plucked it from the corpse of a daiyoukai prince whose name he could scarcely remember. While the blade had served him well for many decades, it was no longer fitting for a lord of his stature.
"Let him try. The territory is only so wide and that bull of his can only fly so far. Let him try to run with my soldiers at his heels."
"And you wonder why he refuses," Cho drawled sardonically, leaning forward to frown at the inside of the cabinet. "Maybe you should try asking nicely."
Touga gave a snort of laughter and rubbed his chin ruefully. He had offered wealth, lands and title, and the promise of his protection. None of which had swayed the old smith, even less so when the offers became threats. "He doesn't like me."
"And with good reason, I imagine." With a huffing breath, she stepped from the cabinet and slammed the door shut with her hip. "Well, there isn't an extra obi in here, and I know Grandfather's won't hit you over that armor. Looks like you're going to be carrying your sword between your teeth!"
"It wouldn't be the first time." Touga smirked and pretended to examine a worn place on his armguards. "I don't suppose it would do any good to apologize?"
Angling her chin up, Cho gave him a long, measure stare, eyeing him as if he were a little boy caught sneaking sweets before dinner. "It couldn't hurt none."
Without a word, Touga retrieved his sword from the stand near the door and tucked it under his arm. "Have Miyu recommend a tutor. Tell her…" he ran a finger down the lacquered sheath of Amayami's sword. "I want Satoshi."
"The sorcerer?" she asked archly, her tone baiting. Trust Touga to offer an apology but never give it. "Since when have you been interested in the craft?"
"It's not for me." His fingers lingered for a moment more on Amayami's sword, and then, almost as an afterthought, he lifted it from the stand and tucked it with his. "I should be back within a few hours, perhaps sooner."
Touga slid the door open with his foot and stepped out onto the porch. He bound down the steps, both swords tucked securely beneath his arm. Briefly, he considered retrieving a replacement obi from his bedchambers, but every moment he delayed was an opportunity for Amayami to disobey him and confront the horse youkai herself. He snorted and started off into the rain. Forbidding Amayami to do something was not going to stop her.
"Maya?" he called, not expecting an answer. Storms came quick and violent to the region, dumping torrents of rain before the last had receded. The courtyard yard was already flooded, and so muddy that his booted heels made sucking sounds with each hurried step he took. "Amayami!"
Relief flowed over him when he spotted her near the stables. She seemed lost in thought, her hands pale, ghostly, as they gripped the fence that surround the enclosure. Her hair lay in tangled clumps about her shoulders, tightened and curled from the pouring rain. She looked lost and drowned, like something that had washed up from the river.
He stepped closer and came up behind her, standing no more than a foot from her. A shudder gripped her. Locked within his stall, Ichi-ni keened piteously and reared, forepaws flailing. A grunt of sympathy escaped Touga. He knew what it was like to been given, and then denied Amayami's affection.
"Why didn't you answer me when I called you?"
She tipped her head back just enough so that he could see the pale blue of her eyes. "I'm not one of your lackeys."
A prickling sensation moved across his skin. With a start, he realized that he could feel the cold smolder of her anger. It threatened to overtake him, seduce him as easily as her body had. Almost against his will, he stepped forward, coming within inches of her.
She licked the rain from her lips, hating the tightness in her throat. A shudder ran through her and she gripped the fence to keep from hugging herself. Her eyes drifted to the end of the enclosure, unseeing as they stared at the dark shapes hidden beneath one of the dragon's saddle blankets. Her stomach lurched. "Nor am I your lapdog to come as you bid."
Touga sighed, more in frustration than anger, and flexed his arm. Her sword slid down the length of his body into the cradle of his palm. He held it for a moment, gauging its weight and balance. Briefly, he considered clubbing her over the head with it, but dismissed the notion as quick as it came. There was no sense ruining a perfectly good sword.
"Here," he grunted, none too gently, and circled his arms around her. He wanted to be offended when she stiffened, but instead he feigned nonchalance and slipped the weapon into her obi. "You shouldn't be unarmed."
Amayami dragged in a shaky breath as her fingertips brushed against the hilt of her sword. "I…" she turned to him, her expression hardening into a beautiful mask. Once again she was the unknowable Inu no Hime. "There were several rotten boards in the fence along the west side of the estate. Haru-san and I believe that is where Taro and his friend entered the grounds."
"What did you call him?"
Amayami's expression went blank, not calm or serene, but devoid of everything, as if her emotions had crumbled in upon themselves. "The red haired one was named Taro…" her eyes drifted to the sword tucked beneath his arm. "Where is your obi?"
"Cho forgot to lay one out," he lied, sighing as he shook his head. "And I didn't want to leave you alone any longer than necessary."
She pinned him with teasing eyes. "More likely you were afraid that my impatience would get the better of me."
"Not true." Touga laid one hand on her hip and held her steady as he slipped his sword into her obi, securing it alongside side hers. "I was more worried about your stubbornness."
Before he could stop himself, Touga slid his hand around to the small of her back and pulled her to him. She resisted at first, walking stiff and straight legged, but then flung herself into his arms.
"Amayami? What's wrong?" he whispered urgently, smoothing his hands down her back and sides. She hiccupped against his shoulder, not quite sobbing, and curled her fingers around his armor.
He was stunned that she was so vulnerable, so frightened. It should have repulsed him, and months ago it would have, but that was then. Instead, he found himself whispering soft words to her as he rubbed the small of her back. "Tell me what's wrong. Are you hurt?"
"I…it's nothing." Amayami jerked away, sniffing as she shoved her wet hair from her face. "Nothing you want to know about."
"Let me be the judge of that," he bit out, grinding his teeth. He was more confused than angry, more frustrated than annoyed. "Tell me what's wrong."
She flung back her head and closed her eyes, feeling the icy weight of rain on her face. How could she make him understand that watching the horse youkai die had brought back memories of her mother? "Haru is out fixing the fence. I…I told him he could wait until morning, but he was insistent."
She heard him huff a sigh and knew that he was closing in on her, ready to take her in his arms again. Part of her just wanted to be held and to tell him the things everyone had assumed she had forgotten.
Her throat felt tight; painful as it had been the night she watched the knife fall from her mother's bloodstained hands. "I left when he started flailing a mallet around."
"I don't care about that!" Gritting his teeth, Touga caught Amayami's elbows and gave her a hard shake. "Just tell me."
"You should," she murmured, her tone light and mocking, and wrenched herself free of his hold. "It's your fence."
"Damn you," he growled and strained to the horse youkai encampment through the driving rain. They had trespassed on his territory and sullied his father's home. Everything within him screamed for retribution, and yet, he could not bring himself to leave Amayami's side.
"Cease this foolishness at once and—"
"Bow to your wishes?" Amayami sighed and pressed her fingers to her eyelids, warding off a headache. "Sorry to disappoint."
Touga spat at her feet, glaring in silent fury as his gaze drifted to Ichi-ni. All things considered, the dragon had done remarkably well. Pity it killed the trespassers before they could be questioned.
"You've seen death before," he said suddenly, and then wished he could swallow the words, or at last make them sound less like an accusation. "You've almost killed me."
"Since the summer I turned five." She sighed and pressed her forehead to his shoulder, hiding her eyes. "That's why I won't use my poison on you again. You're too powerful to die quickly."
Touga frowned, wondering if she had just given him a backhanded compliment. "Look at me, Amayami."
For once, she obeyed and slowly raised her head. "We should hurry—" Her face went starkly pale and her eyes were wide and glassy as Ichi-ni let out a sudden piercing shriek. She pushed Touga aside when he tried to lunge forward. "No!"
Amayami streaked forward as he stumbled back, moving in a blur of speed. She stopped suddenly, her feet sinking into ankle deep mud as she allowed stillness to seep into her limbs. As she thought, one of the horse youkai was close, just on the other side of the orchard. She could smell his blood and fear, heard the panicked draw of his breath.
With an imperceptible movement, she slipped into a defensive stance. "Are you here to fight or to talk?"
A moment passed, and then another, as the thrill of battle sang through Amayami's veins. Despite what she had led Touga to believe, she rather liked fighting. Of course, he also believed that fighting inevitably meant killing, but yet still managed to understand her distaste for unnecessary death.
Amayami snorted, shaking her head as her hand drifted to her sword. In some ways, Touga knew her too well, and in others not at all.
"Well, then," she said with a long, elaborate sigh. Every moment, from the shrug of her shoulders to the slow draw of her sword was calculated nonchalance. Touga would have called it toying. Stupid fool.
She flung a glare over her shoulder to see Touga storming towards her. His feet sank into the mud, making rhythmic, sucking sounds with every step he took. At any moment, he would bellow some nonsense that she would half ignore. They would argue, perhaps even come to blows, until their frustrations drove them to paw each other against some tree.
Fighting and fucking had become the sum of their relationship. It made her heart hurt, even as it raced within her chest. Touga's jaw clenched so tight that she could almost hear his teeth crack. "Amayami, I'm going to fucking kill you!"
Amayami sighed. "How boring…"
Beside her the trees rustled and creaked, as if someone where crashing through the low hanging branches. Amayami whirled on her heel; muscles tensed and ready to strike, just as someone leapt from between the trees. Her free hand shot out, quick as thought, and caught her attacker by the throat.
He gagged and choked, clawing her hand as she lifted him effortlessly from the ground. "Wait!" he croaked and kicked frantically at her legs. "Talk!"
Amayami lifted her brows in mock surprise, her lips forming an imperfect circle. "So now it's talk, Daisuke?"
Surprise flashed over Daisuke's features as his eyes widened and bulged in their sockets, his face turning red. Mentally he cursed and called himself all manner of fools as he waited in agonizing slowness to die. If this girl was any indication, there was no way his men could have defeated one, much less two daiyoukai.
"Put him down, Amayami."
"Why?" Amayami tipped her head back, frowning at Touga over her shoulder. "So you can kill him for daring to step foot in your father's estate?
Touga swallowed his rage, knowing very well that Amayami enjoyed playing him like a fish on a line. "I should be insulted."
"No," Amayami retorted coolly, loosening her grip just enough so that Daisuke could breathe. Killing him would be unfortunate, especially after going through the trouble of keeping from Touga's claws. "You are an insult."
Daisuke griped her wrist with both hands, no longer kicking or truly struggling, as if he were content to simply dangle. "How do you know my name?"
Without changing expression, her grip tightened on his throat, squeezing until spots pin wheeled before his eyes. Oddly, he felt no fear, only resignation and a profound sense of relief. Like the army that had destroyed his life, this girl was no one he could hope to defeat.
He was outmatched, then and now, and there was no shame in that fact. The scent of burning flesh stung his nostrils, and, though he registered no pain, nothing save the darkness eating away at his vision, he realized it was his.
"Your friend told me," Amayami whispered, her voice cutting through the blood roaring his ears. "He…"
She looked miserable and haunted all at once, and then the light, her very personality seemed to ebb away. Terror stole through Daisuke, compounded by the realization that he could not gather enough breath to scream.
"Tell him, Amayami," Touga commanded softly, almost sympathetically, but there was an underlying menace to his tone. "Tell him how you held the young one's hand as he died, then perhaps we can both understand why it troubles you so."
Amayami hissed, and then dropped Daisuke, sending him sprawling against the muddy ground. "It's none of your concern," she snapped, but her words were lost beneath Daisuke's desperate, wheezing gasps for breath.
"You killed them, damn you…" Daisuke rasped, rolling onto his hands and knees as he coughed and spit up blood. "If you can do all this, they were no threat to you!"
With a snort of disgust, Touga reached down and hauled Daisuke none too gently to his feet.
"You should be grateful," he warned his voice little more than feral growl. "My wife saved your life tonight."
Daisuke turned fearful eyes to Amayami, who had turned away to stare thought into the mountains. Could she sense that his companions were fleeing? That this was no more than a feint, a distraction, so that Keiji and his men could escape this doomed expedition?
"His life is mine, Touga. I won't forgive you for taking it."
When Daisuke paled, Touga smiled, suddenly filled with appreciation. When it suited her, Amayami could strike fear in the hearts of other with the tone of her voice or simple turn of phrase. Still, he could not help but be trouble by how cold and distant she seemed. It reminded him of the frustrating first weeks of their marriage.
Touga nodded, hiding his worry beneath a passive expression. "Go to the main house, Daisuke. Tell whoever greets you that I sent you, and then have Cho look at your throat. Amayami's poison is virulent for several hours."
Daisuke had never heard the word "virulent," but he could guess what it meant. When Touga took a step towards him, he retreated the same distance. "What are you going to do to her?" he stammered, resisting the urge to touch the wound at her throat. "I heard you threaten to kill her!"
"Is that why you jumped out at me?" Amayami snorted, but only to hide the bitterness in her voice. "Typical."
Daisuke looked sheepish and tried to swallow around the swelling in his throat. Absurdly, he mourned the fact that his voice would never be the same. "I only tried to help—"
"I don't need your help," Amayami snapped, giving both men her back. "Go to the main house. After your wounds have been tended and you've had a meal, we will discuss why you're in this territory."
Touga frowned, watching as Daisuke gave a resigned bob of his head, and turned back towards the manor. When had the reigns of power fallen to Amayami's hands?
"Maya," he began once he was certain Daisuke was out of earshot. "What do you plan on doing with that brat?"
Amayami held her hand out, allowing the rain to wash the blood from her palms. "Leave me alone."
"You're tired of killing," Touga offered, rubbing his face, the side of his head. He felt a headache coming on. "So am I! It's why I invaded your father's territory. It's why I've been at war for so long!" He growled, gritting his teeth in frustration. "At least pretend to listen to me!"
"I watched my mother die." She turned, lips trembling, and curled her fingers against her palms. "Father, everyone, they thought that I was too young to remember, so I pretended that I didn't."
Touga felt his stomach pitched forward and landed somewhere beneath him. He was confused, baffled, but mostly he was simply angry. Not at Amayami or even her web-convoluted truths, but at himself and all the assumptions he had ever made about her.
"You told me she took her own life." He cursed, wishing it had sounded less like an accusation. "And now you tell me she died in front of you."
Amayami stared at him, her eyes sinking and depthless, as if all light had fallen away from her. "She told me she was sorry. Just like…"
Taro had said he was sorry before he died, chanting over and over again. The phrase had sounded like a litany.
"…And then she… It hurt, so bad I couldn't move, and then…" She sucked in a shuddering breath and calmed, finding her sense of self again. "But I can tell by your expression that's not what you want to hear."
"Amayami…" Before he could stop himself, Touga pulled her into his arms, holding her high against his body. She felt so small and fragile in his arms, so young and helpless, as she buried her face in the hollow of his throat. He began whispering endearments to her, things his mother had once crooned to him.
As the pieces came together, and then fell apart once more, all he could think of was that perhaps he had wronged his mother, had hated her for the wrong reasons. Yumeni was a traitor and a whore, but she would never harm him. Never. "Tell me. Make me understand."
"You're trembling," Amayami whispered, her lips brushing the hard line of his jaw. "We should go inside, before Cho comes out to yell at us for standing out in the rain…"
Touga caged her face with his hands, forcing her to look him in the eye. "Your mother hurt you." But the truth was uglier than that; he knew it the moment the words left his mouth.
"We fell under siege while Father was away defending the border. Mother had hidden me in the catacombs beneath the castle, but the invaders knew exactly where to go. It was like they had for me. I remember them calling my name."
"You are your father's heir," Touga said, hating the reasonable tone of his voice. "Your death would have granted your father's enemies a considerable tactical advantage."
Sadly, she mimicked him, cupping his face in her hands. Her breath dusted his face as she bent to kiss the wrinkle between his eyebrows. "Spoken like a true conqueror, but no, it was nothing as nice as that."
She sighed and pulled away, and he let her go, holding her until her fingertips slipped away from his.
"Mother fought them off, but there was so many of them. Hundreds and they were all…" White haired and blue eyed with skin the color of freshly fallen snow. The very same features she had inherited from her mother. She took a breath and gathered herself, more thinking aloud than truly speaking.
"We hid in a storeroom, waiting, hoping that Father would return in time. But they were coming for us. I could smell them as they cut through the rocks. There was sulfur and poison. Then the walls started to fall in on us, and I could hear them shouting. "That's when Mother picked me up and…" Amayami pressed her palm to her chest, just inches left of her heart. "She was too careful, too worried that I would suffer, and so…"
"Fuck…" Without sparing a moment, he pulled her into his arms and slid his hand up her spine to cup the back of her head. He held her against him, feeling her tears scald his throat. "Hush, enough, you don't have to say anymore."
"I watched her cut her own throat," she whimpered, the words seemed torn from her. "Why did I have to watch her die?"
Touga had no answers.