Disclaimer: I don't own anything related to Rurouni Kenshin. Applies to all chapters.
A/N: My attempt at writing some (relatively) light-hearted story for a change, and a romance at that. Characters are probably going to be a bit OOC, although I'll try to avoid that, so tell me when they are, ne?
The Lady of Ise
She was a lady. Oh, she wasn't one to flaunt that fact, but the simple truth was, she had been bred a lady and has been meticulously taught to behave as one all her life. Her manners were flawless, her façade one of cool perfection. And who cared about what she really thought? Her emotions were always firmly held in check behind her impeccable mask. It was second nature to her, her upbringing had made sure of that.
To her father's acquaintance visiting their family estate she offered warm welcome and acted as a perfect hostess. To would-be-suitors she gave such a gentle rebuttal that they departed even more amorous than before. To servant she was firm and kind, and she directed them with precision and without cruelty. She was, in short, the image of the perfect woman.
This particular evening though, looking at her reflection in the mirror adorning her large bedroom, she felt a nasty anxiety in her stomach. Oh, mind you, the exterior image she presented was still one of sheer composure and confidence, but deep down, Kaoru couldn't help but feel like a rabbit caught in the hunter's trap.
Her chambermaid knelt behind her, the comb soothing through Kaoru's long strands of hairs in a caressing motion, gentle and calming. There was a dinner to attend to, one where childhood friends of her father would be present, and she had to look her best. She sighed.
"Is there something wrong, my lady?" her maid asked, her hands suspended.
Her maid was still unconvinced. "My lady, I've served you all those years, and I can tell when something's amiss. You know you can always confide in me, my lady."
That was true, Kaoru knew. Megumi has always been loyal to her, never betraying her, even in the face of her father's anger. She was more than a servant, and even if their ranks were far apart, Kaoru would not hesitate to call her her closest friend. Still, Kaoru had to keep her plan secret for it to work. The slightest misplaced word could be its ruin. Secrecy and stealth were key.
Seeing her silence, Megumi resumed her work, combing once again through her hair. Yet she could somehow feel her maid's reprobation, and the movements of the comb almost felt full of reproach. She sighed again. A moment passed.
She looked up finally, jerking her head suddenly. That startled her maid. "Fine. First you'll have to swear upon what you hold most holy that you'll keep silent."
Megumi laid a hand on her heart. A wicked gleam entered her eyes, soon disappearing. "I swear, upon what I hold most holy."
Kaoru caught Megumi's mischievous look, but that didn't worry her. Megumi, she knew, tended to become like that when something excited her. "Ok, and listen well…."
The dinner repast was a torture. She had to smile and act like the house's mistress she was, and pretend to enjoy the lecherous glances several guest were throwing at her. Their wives acted as if they saw nothing, sure sign, Kaoru thought, that it wasn't the first time their husbands acted thus. One appeared even afraid of her spouse, which made Kaoru dislike the man in question on the spot.
During the meal, she entertained the guests, with meaningless chatter, giving them bland but courteous answers when they asked her about this or that. The food held no savor for her, yet she ate it with bonhomie. No one could have guessed at her distress and her cold resolve under her fashionable mask. And all the while, all she could think of was of the single event that overthrew her whole life.
A servant had come to her, bearing the message that her father asked for her presence. And so she went. It was a frisk autumn afternoon, she remembered quite well, and yellow tinted leaves carpeted their garden's floor under a dull sun.
Her father was in the room that served him as a study, sitting in front of a table. He was composing a letter, his hand firm and assured, and his bearing that of a seasoned warrior despite the gray that had begun to appear on his temples.
"You called for me, father?" she asked, kneeling at his side.
She remembered the look her father gave her then, full of affection, yet iron in its determination. "Yes, my dear child," he said. He showed her the letter he was writing. "Lord Himura has written to me to ask your hand for his younger son."
Kaoru shot straight up. "I hope you sent the perfidious snake to hell, father. How dare he, taunting us thus, when he has our mother's blood on his hands. He must be laughing now, the old…."
"Kaoru," her father interrupted. He didn't raise his voice; there was no need to do so. His natural commanding presence silenced her as effectively as if she had suddenly turned mute. She subdued, kneeling back.
"I have decided to accept his offer."
She shot up again, faster than before if it was even possible. She opened her mouth agape, but no sound would come out. She stared at her father, incredulous. Surely, this was a joke. Or maybe a bad dream from which she would soon awaken. Not even in her worst nightmares had she dared to imagine that one day she would have to wed a scion of the Himura.
"I am writing to his father on this very subject," her father continued, feigning to not remark her stupor. "I am proposing that you two will wed in two months time. It will be an auspicious period assuredly. I am sure the lord will have no objections."
Kaoru found her voice at last. "Tw-two months time," she stammered. "Father, you can't be thinking of mother's death anniversary—"
"Precisely, Kaoru. What better symbol could there be? All the lords of Japan will know that our two houses are feuding no longer. It is the perfect occasion to bury our mutual hatred and build new relations."
"Fa-father, have you gone mad? How-how could you do this? How could you wed me to our most hated enemy? How—"
"Enough!" her father had shouted then. She remembered it well. That lone word had rang like a condemnation, sealing her fate.
Oh, how she had pleaded with him then, with screams and tears and all the weapons a frail woman has at her disposition. She questioned his good sense. She threw a tantrum. Why did she have to marry a Himura of all people? If her father absolutely wanted to marry her off, why not to a Hibito or a Kazukani? Surely, she had enough suitors who would be more than willing, if given the slightest chance. Yet it availed her nothing. Nothing would budge him.
Their house, her father said, was weak and plagued with enemies and scavengers waiting for his demise. What would happen to her then? She would be molested, maybe sold in one of the pleasure houses of Kyoto, a fallen woman like so many others. He was doing it for her own security, he said. The Himuras were a strong clan, who held Ise with a hand of steel. The Kamiyas couldn't afford to continue their long-lasting feud with them. Besides, he needed a strong son-in-law who could protect her after his death, and the younger Himura was already rumored to be one of Japan's most lethal warriors.
For days and weeks she refused to talk to her father, avoiding him as she could. Then a letter from lord Himura came. He agreed to the wedding date, and wrote that he looked forward to the day their two families would at long last make their peace and join their blood.
A plan grew in Kaoru's panicked mind then. She pretended to accept the wedding to come, and made peace with her father to all outer appearances. She made her preparations in great secret, trusting no one but herself, for fear that her father would discover what she was scheming. The plan matured, and her resolve strengthened over time.
And it was to come into play this very night.
So she endured the dinner with good grace, letting nothing of her inner thoughts filter through. And if she sometimes shivered for no apparent reason, it was from anticipation and, yes, from trepidation. The guest on her right, a lovely woman of no more than twenty-five springs, asked her if she was cold, but Kaoru only smiled. There was a world, she was coming to realize, between planning and execution. Yet she would not back down.
When she was finally back in her room, tired, yet adrenaline rising in her system, Megumi was there, waiting for her. Kaoru softly closed the sliding doors.
"All is ready, my lady."
Kaoru gazed at her maid. When she had told her of her plan, Megumi had first tried to dissuade her. But she gave up quickly when she saw that it was no use, and insisted instead to help Kaoru. Part of it was from genuine affection and care, Kaoru knew well. But the other part, she suspected, had very much to do with the excitement of the unknown, of adventure. Megumi, under her reserved façade, was a romantic at heart, Kaoru had long discovered, still waiting for her prince charming.
"The guards?" Kaoru asked at length.
"I slipped something into their food. They should be sound asleep very soon."
"We can't use your father's horses, my lady. They risk to make too much noise, and wake all the household," Megumi said gravely.
Kaoru's face fell. Megumi was right, and she kicked herself mentally for missing that detail. Then she saw Megumi's grin.
"I went to see Watanabe-san downtown while you were entertaining the guests," her maid informed her. "He's an old friend of mine. He will lend us two horses for no fee."
Kaoru started. Fear was beginning to bubble inside her chest.
"He won't say anything to living soul," Megumi reassured her. "I did him some favor in the past, after all—"
"I don't want to know what kind of favor you are talking about," Kaoru interrupted hurriedly. Blood was rushing to her face.
"What are you thinking of, my lady?" Megumi retorted with a false scandalized look. "I swear, young people those days…. I just helped to cure Watanabe-san's daughter of her illness last year." She grinned slyly.
"Oh….Oh." Kaoru's face even grew hotter, from shame this time. Her maid was becoming more daring with her, Kaoru noticed. Maybe Megumi felt that they were on more level ground, now that they were de facto accomplices. Kaoru pondered this, and couldn't decide if she liked the changes or not.
"We will have to walk a little, my lady," her maid warned. "But it's not far off. Fifteen minutes if we make haste."
Fifteen minutes. It was much, Kaoru thought, for two vulnerable women alone in the night. She had some skills with a katana, her father made sure of that, but still, she had no illusion of what would happen if she was going to get into a fight. Yet fifteen minutes were nothing, if it was the price to pay for freedom. Kaoru ground her teeth.
"Oh, and my lady," said Megumi, approaching. Her maid clutched Kaoru's long raven hair, and started to braid it into a ponytail. "This will make you less recognizable, in case we run into trouble," she explained.
That night, while the quarter moon was still young in the sky, and the darkness velvet embrace still soft and not yet insisting, two women took off the rich estate in silence, amidst guards resting on the ground, asleep.