So... here it is. After several months of no updates, we finally get one out. Yes, I know. I misjudged when I said that it wouldn't take so long to get this done. We're reluctant to see it finished! That and real life matters had to rear their ugly heads.

Nevertheless. A hearty thanks to our readers, and our beta. The next chapter will be coming soon, honest this time! We already have the last few plotted out, and the very last chapter has been written.


Chapter Forty-Two: Secrets Kept

"I would be much obliged if this was kept between us."

The tips of slender fingers gave a slow passing stroke along the fine porcelain, and he watched the rings form, ripple toward the center of the cup, then bounce back against the edges. Bringing the rim to his lips, Erik took a lazy drink and lifted bi-colored eyes to the man sitting across from him. Dakuro was quiet as well, and for a moment Erik wondered what he was thinking. It was difficult to see anything other than him being pensive.

He had been meaning to speak to the older man for a few days now. It was nearly a week since he found out about the sabotage, and though he had knowledge that it had been the man's son, he spoke nothing of it, and also told Anna to keep her silence. Dakuro had other things on his mind lately. Things that Erik wasn't privy to, mostly because he didn't inquire. If it was meant for him to know, then he would be told. It was as simple as that.

Drinking the last of the tea, he set the cup down, then brought his hands to his lap, fingers lacing upon the soft silk of his kimono.

"Kept from Nio as well."

Despite the late summer afternoon there was a chilly breeze blowing off the mountaintop with the approaching fall no more than a week or two away, and the older man felt it in his bones. He glanced up at Erik, then cast a longing look at the brazier set in the middle of the room. Not yet cool enough to light it and he was loath to appear old and easily chilled.

With a quiet sigh, Dakuro lifted his cup, and brought it close, absorbing its heat and comfort before taking a measured sip. He took stock of what Erik was asking for, and though he knew he shouldn't mind his proposition in the least, there was some concern, not for himself, but for Nio. They were aging, she faster than he and who would... No, it was a selfish thought, not when he and his wife knew that time was shortening. It would be best, especially if the houses were finished before the first snowfall.

He turned his head, studying the younger man, and he nodded. "I won't speak of it to her. Women are rarely sensible about these things. It will be between us and I approve." He gave him a smile, the curl of lips not quite meeting his eyes before he finally rose and moved over to the brazier to light it.

Erik would have smiled as well but he noticed that the jovial glint that came with Dakuro's smile was missing. With a thinning press of his lips, he turned his head to watch him, weighing his options to speak or let it be. He chose a different route; middle ground. "I will take my leave, then. Unless there is something you would like to speak to me about."

Dakuro paused by the brazier as he knelt down beside it. For several moments, he didn't speak at all, but considered what Erik asked of him: to tell him the truth. Erik, as astute and intelligent as he was, had surely noticed by now that he was burdened down by a weight. When the flames licked at the coals, he rested his hands to his knees, groaned as he pressed back up. "The thing you intend to do..…do it before winter, Erik."

Before winter...? Beneath his mask his brows furrowed slightly, confusion and curiosity warring with each other. "That may be too soon," he murmured quietly, then raised his voice so he'd be heard more clearly. "I will see what can be done. Thus far everything is on schedule, regardless of certain...delays."

Dakuro nodded, frowning, and in a rare gesture of frustration, lifted a hand to rake through the graying strands of hair. "Yes, of course. I hadn't considered the houses. Only...do what you can, Erik. It will be enough." For now. How many months left? Two, three, four...Tashiro would come, eventually, there was no denying it. Already he knew of several families who had been killed, the men once of their clan, now dead because they would not join the Ronin. He glanced over his shoulder back at Erik and nodded, dismissing him for now.

Sliding his hands from his lap, one flattened against the mat beneath him, and he pressed up to a stand. The hem of his hakama brushed lightly over the tops of bare feet as he turned toward Dakuro, pausing as if preparing to speak further, though he only gave him a shallow bow, then turned around to leave the room.

There were other things that had to be done before the day was complete; Makoto still needed a sound beating when it came to practicing their horseback archery. But, most of all, he needed to speak with Kaleb to find out the status of the building that had been tampered with.

Tucking his hands into his sleeves, his fingers curled around his wrists, holding loosely as he watched the floor pass beneath his feet, his head bowed in thought. He could feel the winds of change again, and in his experience, they were rarely, if ever, amiable. It stirred up that need to retreat and wander, to seek out a place where he would truly be welcomed. Are you not welcomed here, Erik? Were you not welcomed with Giovanni as well? That thought proved why he should be leery. When everything seemed right, all went wrong.

The sound of approaching footsteps had him lift his head, and he removed a hand from a sleeve to brush auburn hair out of his eyes to be haphazardly tucked behind an ear. "Hello, Anna." Nodding lightly to her, he stepped aside to let her pass, then tucked his hand back into his sleeve as he continued on toward the front door.

Rubbing at the base of her spine with one hand, she finished cleaning up the kitchen, then headed into the hall, bare feet flapping at the wood. Now to strip down the beds and then she might have an hour or two free while the linens soaked... His voice drew her out of her reverie and she lifted her head, studying Erik as he drew closer.

"Hello, Erik."

He moved past her, but before he could get to the door, she turned back around, frowning thoughtfully. "Erik, have you..." She glanced down the hall, then drew closer to him, peering up into his masked face. "Have you spoken to Master Kyomi about Kito's interference at your site? I ask because one of the servants in the Hinosha house has seen him at the site a time or two." Chances are he had likely done much more damage than that one beam, but it might not have been found yet. Crossing an arm over her waist, she tucked some work-loosened strands behind one ear, and glanced down the hall again.

After regarding the wet flooring, figuring that Kito, yet again, tromped around the house with stained footwear, he turned his head to look down at her. "No. I have not told him yet." Stepping away, he reached back to take a hold of her elbow in a loose grip, and pulled her along with him. Avoiding the wet portions of floor, he released her at the doorway and stepped out to crouch down and collect his zori.

"At the time he has other things on his mind, Anna. I will not add to that burden. Let Kito play his games. What he decides to ruin, will be rebuilt. He is only ensuring that I remain longer," he murmured as he stood up again, his feet covered from the faint chill in the air, and smiled coolly. "And we both know how much he so wishes to do that."

One arm loosely in his grasp, she pressed the other along the pale grey of the kimono and gathered the hem, stepping over the drying panels of floor, following him. Glancing up at him as he released her to strap on his zori, she bent without thought and did the same. What harm would it do in delaying in stripping the beds a few minutes? Her time with him felt scarce after learning he would leave after the buildings were finished.

"Good, I had hoped you wouldn't. Kito is already such a burden to him; worrying over his son becoming a vandal is not worth his time." Pressing back to a stand, she stepped outside ahead of him, a bit taken aback by the bite in the air. Winter would come soon to the valley.

She turned back to him, hesitating...then finally spoke. "I think you ought to confront Kito though. Knowing him as I do, he's taking no end of pleasure in thinking that you're on site scratching your head over the damages. He might not continue if he knows he's not making a fool of you."

"Kito is the fool if he believes I am bothered by his antics." Brushing his hair back behind his ears for the twentieth time that day, he glanced to her, to her feet, then away as he turned around to start for the steps. Descending them, gravel crunched under his feet, filling the momentary silence.

"I may speak with him, though. The buildings can be repaired, though the workers cannot." In the beginning, he hadn't cared if any one of them were hurt on the job, though over the duration of the job he had become accustomed to their presence, and wouldn't like that threatened by a beam Kito happened to tamper with.

"He's stupid enough and proud enough to believe it. It would never occur to him that the repairs would be easily taken care of." Following him, she halted once she had descended the stairs, and gazed out over the main yard and the road beyond it. From here she could just see the hint of the development, the dips and rises of the roofs, mirrors winking in the sun.

She glanced to him, dampening her upper lip. "Erik, would you mind if I accompanied you?" It made little sense to, especially when she had work yet to accomplish in the house, but... she just wanted more time with him.

"I would not be averse to your company." Lacing his fingers behind him, he gave a shake of his arms, forcing the sleeves down to cover his hands, warding away the cooler air. He said nothing further concerning Kito, letting his thoughts travel again.

Now that it was getting close to his departure, he wondered where he should go next. Perhaps the New World he had heard about. A whole new land, different from this side of the world, and yet the same. Then there was that impossible thought of remaining here. It was peaceful and quiet, if he ignored the presence of the nuisance.

Instead of going directly to the buildings he took a side path towards Kaleb's home to speak with him as he had intended when he left the house.

"Thank you," she murmured quietly. It was never altogether clear to her if he truly wanted her company or not; she couldn't remember a time he had asked her to stay with him; rather, it had always been she to ask. But thinking upon that was a useless endeavor, especially when time could be short and there was so much she wanted to remember of him.

Following, she kept up with his longer-legged pace, wrapping both arms about her waist as the dirt-caked path crunched underfoot. As she watched her breath plume on the air, her gaze was drawn to the houses again and the light cast from the mirrors. What would it be like to have her own home such as that, to be responsible for the household knowing it was hers and her family's? She might never marry, likely would never marry, but perhaps if she saved enough at the Kyomi house, she could purchase a small home...

"Maybe I'll have a home of my own one day, like those, but smaller. If you were still here, would you build a tiny house?" She lifted her face to look up into his with a small smile.

"A tiny house? Of course not." Welcoming the distraction, he lifted his eyes from the ground and turned his masked face toward her. "I would build the grandest house. Every room would be a different theme, and the structure would be unlike anything ever seen in Japan." He turned his eyes forward again, his fingers tapping slowly within the draping cloth, then stilling as he tilted his head.

"I had created numerous designs over the years for myself. The dreams of a child. Unfortunately they were lost in my travels." He frowned gently, unable to remember exactly where he had left them. Such was the problem with traveling as much as he did, but he was grateful that his memory was photogenic when it came to redesigning the missing structures.

By the roadside, there grew a clutch of small, spreading flowers and she bent, plucking up a handful, shook off the dirt. Spreading her fingers through the petal, flicking a beetle and sending it flying, she turned her head, glanced up at him and laughed.

"Erik, as lovely as that sounds, I'm afraid my finances won't extend along the lines of magnificent." Grinning to herself, she let herself indulge a familiar fantasy of living in such a house, with him. Smiling faintly even as the ache formed in her chest, she wrapped the roots and stems together, then stuck the flowers in her obi.

"What will you build when you do make a home for yourself, outside of those you might work for?" She slowed her steps near his foreman's door.

"You mean other than a home? I..." he trailed off, pausing in front of Kaleb's door, then raised his shoulders in a careless shrug. "I am not sure. I have not given it much thought over the past few years." As his gaze crossed the distance to the unfinished homes, he seemed even further away, musing.

"My mother had often spoken of the need for a definitive Parisian opera house." He shook his head, brushing aside the memory, then lifted a hand to knock upon the door. "But that would not be for me, now would it?" he stated coolly, then stepped back from the threshold, waiting for Kaleb to come to the door.

She had actually meant to ask him about details but she kept her silence, tucking her lower lip between her teeth to gnaw thoughtfully upon as she listened to him. He spoke of what lay beyond this place as if it might happen tomorrow and yet he spoke of what was behind him as if it was so close behind him that he needed to separate himself from it. He was always going somewhere, but where was he running from?

"No," she replied in gentle tones, "But I'm certain you could make a beautiful one."

Thankfully the Persian man had answered swiftly. Erik had no desire to speak more of his mother and her ideas.

Clearing her throat, she let the subject drop as the door opened and his friend poked his head out and she smiled at the man. But he was hardly smiling. "Come in, come in. I'm surprised I haven't seen you sooner. Have you heard about Myuzi's family, his parents?" He nodded to the family's servant and gestured them both inside.

"I cannot say that I have." Erik shook his head as he stepped into the small hovel, almost immediately going over to the warm coals set off center of the room. Although the coming autumn hadn't chased away the warmth of the summer, he felt it sooner than most. Such was the downside of being impossibly thin: he didn't have enough body fat to protect him from a chill. It was plain stubbornness that seemed to keep him from getting sick. It sure couldn't be attributed to his eating or sleeping habits.

Pulling his hands from behind himself, he rubbed his palms together and held them out toward the warmth that wafted from the brazier, then glanced over to Kaleb. "By the urgency in your voice, I take it something terrible has happened?"

Leaving the two men to speak, Anna made for the corner she had inhabited last time she had been here and took a seat upon a chair, but flicked her gaze between the two of them in concern. The Myuzis were acquaintances of the Kyomis; at least the elder couple and had dined with them before. They weren't that old...

"Yes, terrible. And you know I don't concern myself with these people, but this..." He shook his head, dusted off a chair and took a seat, frowning up at Erik. "He came by this morning to tell me he couldn't work. His parents, they live closer to the mountain and two nights ago a neighbor says she saw their house raided by two men. They found them last night, throats slit, nearly decapitated. Both his mother and father."

In the corner, Anna had gone white as a sheet, her hand clenched involuntarily upon the flowers. "My parents..…that...it sounds like my parents' murder." She cast an anxious look up at Erik, then dropped her eyes to the floor.

The two of them glanced over toward Anna, and though Kaleb looked back to Erik's direction, he kept his mis-matched eyes on the younger woman. "That is unfortunate," he glanced back over to the Persian, the words sounding cold to his own ears, even if they weren't meant to be.

Kaleb frowned, and she had to flinch at the cold sound of his voice, even if she knew that with Erik he didn't always intend to be callous, but it simply wasn't in his nature to honey-coat things. He didn't waste time upon useless sentiments as she did.

"We have others on reserve to fill his spot. In fact, with winter on its way, have them go to the site to work. I have informed the Toyomis that their son will be able to move in before the winter festival." Kneading at his hands, Erik smoothed his palms together slowly, his voice softening a notch. "Also, do be sure to give Myuzi my condolences."

Eyes still fixed upon the floor, she listened as they continued to speak of their plans, but her mind was far gone from the room and even the time, a different scene altogether playing out in front of her eyes. Her parents, the Myuzis, and in the years since there had been other rumors of such murders. Kaleb agreed, assuring him he would tell the builders at the end of the day about the change in plans.

After finding out the progress of the final two buildings, and if there were any more incidents on the sites, there was little reason to remain. The two of them had never been conversationalists, not even when they worked together in Persia. Giving his farewell, and ensuring that Anna was up and ready to follow him, Erik made his way to the door and left the small house, reintroducing himself to the gentle breeze beyond the threshold.

He gave little thought to the deaths of the man's parents. Death was an occurrence that happened every day, and lingering too long on the unchangeable and merciless hands of nature was a useless endeavor.

Coming to the end of the dirt-packed path, he looked toward home, then in the opposite direction to the buildings before he started walking that way.

She followed behind him silently, the news of the couple's death disturbing to say the least. Hadn't another of the families that had dined with the Kyomis lost members as well in a similar manner? She couldn't remember and chances were that she would have still been kept out of the loop at that point due to her station alone. Frowning, she caught up with Erik, pulling the flowers loose to toss them by the side of the path.

"The men that live in the mountains, they seem to thrive off violence. Has Master Kyomi ever spoken to you of them before?" She glanced questioningly up at him, but paused when she noticed Kito mounting the path from the incline that led to the development.

Kito stilled, noticing them, casting his small eyes between the two of them before he cast a sneering glance at Anna as he passed. "The linens on my bed need changed. Shame you're slacking now that you're actually getting paid."

Shoulders tight, Anna glanced up at Erik, excused herself with a murmured apology, then hurried off, giving Kito a murderous glare and a wide berth. Chuckling beneath his breath, the other man turned and continued walking toward home, ignoring Erik.

"Shame how you can manage to saw a beam, swing a mallet, and yet you are too incompetent to fix your own bed. I do not know if I should laugh, or pity you," Erik stated as he, too, continued on his way, not even bothering to look back at the man. Though he did purposely raise his voice a bit more so he could hear him as the distance between them stretched.

"If you are going to be a nuisance, Kito, try something that will not keep me here longer than you would like."

Kito had never been able to let an insult pass, no matter how unwise it might be to pursue it, and this was no different. Blood rushing to heat his face and the back of his neck, he stopped and turned sharply, burning a hole with his gaze through the back of the other man's head as he continued to walk away, unperturbed.

What, the freak didn't even care that he had set him back a few days and damaged some of his precious work? He had hoped to whip up the creature into a self-righteous rage, provoke him to violence, then see him set down a peg or two from the old man, but he treated the sabotage like it was nothing!

"Oh, so I didn't go far enough, did I? Maybe next time I need to make certain that the roof collapses and someone's inside it," he snarled in retaliation, his pulse thrumming hotly at his temple.

Lifting his hand, Erik gave a casual, yet condescending, wave back as his response, then dropped his arm to his side. As he crested the incline, he almost expected to see the building in shambles, but it was still standing, which meant little. He was going to have to check the structure thoroughly. His archery time with Makoto would have to wait until tomorrow, it seemed.

The negligent wave, dismissing him as beneath his notice only served to whip the anger into pure outrage and humiliation, both familiar sensations by now, and it was enough to have him turning for the house once more, but his steps firmer, decisive. It didn't matter if what was in his head to do would be a finger pointed straight at him, nor did he care that he might be cutting off his nose to spite his face. He wanted to hurt that arrogant corpse of a man, be it physically or emotionally.

He went straight to his room and emerged several minutes later, carrying something in his hand that he had had since returning but had never used. Perhaps it had just been waiting for the right time... The stables were quiet, the three horses inside stamping their feet companionably, huffing softly within their stalls. The stallion that all but belonged to Erik, the mare that Anna adored, and his own mount, a gelding he had little affection for, if any. But there was no way around losing him as well.

With an uncaring shrug, he went from stall to stall, tapping out the contents of the vial in thirds, tainting the water buckets with the oil. As he left the stables, he heard the mare emit a low whine of sound. To anyone with any imagination, it might have sounded like a plea.