Chapter One: The Arrival
It was becoming a common thing in his life: the seeking of shelter and safety. It was that and more that had him begin his travels again, seeking to be as far as possible from the land of sand and heat, of false promises, as well as cloak and dagger. Should it be any surprise that he had sought out the sea on a nameless ship that would take him to the Orient? It was there that he had attempted to live normally, as a human and not some bit of sideshow entertainment.
Examples of his commissions passed from hand to hand, appearing in some of the most out-of-the-way places.
With a heavy leather satchel over his shoulder, a cloak shrouding his form, and a cowl over his head, he stood out even in the light sprinkling of rain before the expansive manor, his eccentric, bi-colored eyes slowly passing along the rooftop and walls. Shifting the pack against a deceptively thin shoulder, he passed through the open gates and beneath the awning, which protected him from the stinging droplets. Lifting and curling spidery fingers, he struck a rapport against the frame of the door, hoping it was loud enough to catch the attention of those within.
If this was even the right home. His skill in this language left something to be desired.
"Anna!" The sharp call of the mistress rang through the house, and the small woman seated in the kitchen lifted her head from the balls of rice her fingers were carefully and nimbly forming. A silent sigh escaped her lips as she set her task down. The mistress was in a cross mood today; Anna Morris had no wish to add to her ire.
She got to her feet carefully, so as not to disturb the perfect folds of her gray linen kimono. With lowered head and her eyes on the floor, she hurried quietly to the front hallway, past numerous screened rooms, to where her mistress stood.
Kyomi Nio's eyes - hard, black obsidian almonds - passed over the younger woman with scorn. Anna kept her own gray eyes on the floor, knowing it was considered the height of rudeness to look one's superior in the eye unless invited to do so.
"Yes, Mistress?" The dour expression on the mistress' face did not bode well for her servant.
"The door, girl. Answer it! Master Kyomi's choice of architect is here."
But Anna did not move fast enough, and she received a sharp cuff to the ear as she passed her mistress. She did not cry out, or wince, knowing well the consequences of such actions: to show weakness was to show dishonor to the House of Kyomi. It was a risk that was never to be taken. With her ear red and stinging, she hurried to the door.
Within the drape of the cowl the man's head tipped slightly, and on hearing the voices from within, he drew his eyes up from his sopping boots to the door. The voices were faint, but they were there. Pursing his lips slightly, he stepped back from the door, giving plenty of room so he wouldn't end up crowding whoever opened it. Not long after the cry had come, the door slid open. He regarded the woman standing there with a lift of his brow, trying to conceal his surprise at seeing a Caucasian in Japan, where he had seen no others.
Inwardly shrugging it off, he dampened his lips and gave another shift of the pack. "I trust this is the House Kyomi?", he asked, his voice barely a brush of air, yet somehow… musical. Raising his chin, he glanced past her into the building, then drew his gaze to the woman's bowed head. Curious..., he thought. For a moment it reminded him of the harem he had the displeasure to be around.
All she could see were his boots: worn black leather, slick with rain. The hems of his trousers were also damp, and clinging to his ankles. He appeared to be thoroughly soaked.
The sound of such a voice as he inquired the name of the house - , resonant, melodic, and so surprising to hear in such gray, ordinary surroundings - momentarily jolted her from her ingrained submissiveness. She raised her head without thinking and met the man's eyes.
He wore a mask.
and black, it covered his face from the hairline to the upper-
lip, leaving only his chin and bottom lip visible. Mismatched eyes stared back at her, hard and cold, one pale gold, almost cat-like, the other a vivid blue-green. He stared at her without blinking.
Ah, that is much better. He was never one to sit there and look at the top of someone's head. It was difficult to read a person that way.
Now he read her well.
The glistening of her gray eyes, the way they widened - why, he hadn't done more than appear and speak one line and already she was terrified of him. Had his reputation preceded him? Surely this family couldn't know of his activities in Persia?
A chill of unease swept through the woman, and she lowered her head quickly. Swallowing her fear, she gave a soft nod and stepped back and to one side, every move precise and careful, as she had been taught. She clasped her hands in front of her, eyes upon the floor, not daring to look at him again.
"You are late." Mistress Kyomi's voice was like steel.
Anna kept silent, her eyes trained upon the hardwood floor beneath her bare feet. She knew she might be punished severely later for having looked so boldly at the stranger.
He shook his head faintly, pressing his lips thin when she dropped her gaze. Loosening his clenched hand upon the satchel's strap, he allowed a pregnant pause. He knew the Japanese had a custom about removing ones shoes, but was that outside, or only inside? He was sure he would be 'corrected' once he stepped inside, and he did so, passing by Anna with a decidedly predatory grace, only to stop short when the woman's voice cut the air.
His thin lips twitched subtly, and the cowl turned just enough to capture the woman within his line of sight.
"Forgive my impertinence," he managed with slightly broken yet still flowing Japanese. His tone dripped venom, so caustic it should have burned his lips. He took a slow breath, reminding himself that he was the 'subordinate' here, something which didn't sit well with him in the least. Raising his free hand he drew the hood back from his bald pate. While he hadn't agreed with the need to shave his head upon the ship, it was better than having a head full of lice.
Anna stood in her place by the door, not daring to raise her eyes again to the stranger. She felt her eyes widen at the man's cold, arrogant words to Mistress Kyomi. What was he thinking? Didn't he realize that to show disrespect was to show dishonor? He was an architect; Mistress had said as much. He was to be a paid servant to the Master. He would be Anna's superior by far, but he was to be under the Master and the Mistress. He would surely be turned away now for his impudence. She waited for the mistress to speak the words.
Out of the corner of her eye he stood, a long shadow in unrelieved black, his bare head was the only coloring upon his form. Why did he feel the need to wear the color of death? She knew well that only the lowliest servants were forbidden to wear colors. Her own gray kimono was one of many, all identical except for one or two suitable for formal occasions.
He did not move and he did not speak. And he did not remove his shoes. His impertinence would not be tolerated, Anna was certain.
Listlessly letting the soaked cloth settle against the back of his neck, he gave a backwards roll of his shoulders, attempting to get rid of the defensive tension that had suddenly found its way into the sleek muscle. Stepping back, he lowered the pack to the ground. With an easy toe-heel motion, he drew the loose boots free and nudged them aside near the door.
People and their bloody customs. He had a new set to learn, and he just knew he wasn't going to agree with a lot of them. If there was one thing he had learned in that damnable land of dunes, it was to try to hold his tongue and tolerate it. Patience. Patience was what he needed.
Effortlessly lifting the heavy satchel to his shoulder, he approached the hard-eyed woman, bowing his head subtly with a firm set of his jaw. "I'll not offer excuses. If it is your will to bid to your husband to seek out another architect, then so be it. Though I assure you -," Damn it, Erik! Patience! At least he'd kept the heavy sarcasm from his voice. So far. "- No other will be found to fulfill his requests as adequately and as swiftly as I." If one knew they could surpass others, it was only natural for them to be vain. He was, however, merely speaking the truth.
Nio's mouth tightened at the impudence of this louse, but she kept her peace. Her husband would not be pleased if she sent this creature away. He had been specifically recommended and requested. Dakuro would be furious if he was to lose such a highly sought-after architect. It had taken months to locate the elusive creature. Her husband was fearsome in his anger and she avoided rousing it in him. It would not be wise to do so now.
"Very well. You will stay." She straightened, smoothing her hands over her red silk kimono. "Before you meet my husband, however, you will change and make yourself presentable. Tea will be in half an hour. I would respectfully suggest you not repeat your error of this afternoon and arrive late." There was little of 'respect' in her tone.
Nio turned a harsh eye on the silent woman by the door. Anna's head was bowed, her shoulders down as Nio had taught her, her hair caught back in the tight, low bun of a servant. Anna's eyes were on the floor now, but only a moment ago they had been upon the stranger. Nio would take her to task for that later. For now, she had more orders.
"Anna, you will show Master Erik to his room and make him comfortable. Tea, in one half hour, with sweets."
The girl nodded slightly, her eyes still upon the floor. "Yes, Mistress."
With that, Nio nodded sharply and glided away to find her husband. Anna moved from her post by the door and approached him, twisting her hands together, her mouth dry from her fear of this stranger. "You will follow me, Master?"
Women! he snarled inwardly. Why must it always be bloody women that make my life miserable? The smile that crossed his lips didn't reach the cat- like glint of his dual-colored eyes. He dipped his sculpted chin again, then turned his head to look over toward the servant. No, not toward, through.
"Mm. Yes, of course." He approached Anna with a few short strides; a boneless grace made his black-shrouded frame almost float over the wooden slats. He gestured elegantly with one pale hand for her to walk, then tucked the hand beneath the voluminous folds of ebony. Anna swallowed at his smooth, fluid movement, dreading the moments ahead, alone with this frightening man. She turned and led him quietly down the long hallway, passing by the rice paper screens on either side of them. He followed behind. He moved so silently she couldn't even hear his footsteps. She was aware only of a pair of eyes boring into the back of her head. She found it hard to breathe. The sash bound about her rib cage beneath her breasts suddenly felt too tight, constrictive. Her heart pounded in her ears. If only she could hear him and know that it was indeed a man behind her and not some ghost! This man, this Erik, would remain under the Kyomi roof. He would be her master, second only to the family.
Her life here was peaceful, regardless of her harsh treatment and long hours spent deep into the night cleaning and mending. She felt safe here. This had been her home, the only place she'd known, since the age nine when her parents had died on holiday here in Japan. But now that idyllic peace had been shattered. This disconcerting man would share her home, her life.
She didn't like change.