Remembrance, Part One
The little girl had never been in a multi-storied, western mansion before. The lower floors seemed so busy.
The gnarled old woman had led--or perhaps "dragged" was a better word--her through a back way, where there was a long hall with modest though strange western doorways, complete with brass knobs and hinges.
Shino was small, and the old woman was much, much taller, yanking her arm as she walked along and making the little girl have to take long, running steps on her toes. She almost couldn't hold onto the quilt she had wrapped around her, her only modesty.
Tears had dried on her face. Not from the fear of not knowing what was going to happen next, though there was that. It was not from being so hungry, either. To that, she was well-used.
It was because of the pink, raw flesh of the brand, rubbing against the roughness of the bedcover she clutched with her only free hand at her chest.
Marked merchandise, a brand, and a new name.
Another turn of the corridor and she smelled food, and also heard the clinking, clattering, and sloshing noises of a number of people eating. The old woman smacked open a door, which had already been slightly ajar, and Shino found herself at the end of a long room equipped as a refectory.
The table was surrounded by twenty-odd women, a few dressed for day, but most of them in a state of dishabille that made the child not feel quite so ashamed for having nothing to wear but a blanket.
A couple of the women near the end of the table caught sight of them hovering in the doorway, and without bothering for grace got up and walked over.
She shrank back a little from their purposeful strides, but there was no getting her arm free from the old woman's hand.
She had been through this enough times before, and tried to keep still, hoping it would go more easily for her this time.
Their hands, though were still rough as they examined her. "Too young yet, but not bad at all," one said with interest. "Very good skin and a pretty face. She'll do fine, in a few years."
The larger woman put a hand to Shino's chest, and one on her back, pressing hard enough to make the little girl grunt softly. "Strong, but doesn't look like she's going to get very big."
"Look at this hair. Lovely, isn't it? Ought to scratch out her eyes for it--"
"What the hell were they doing!" I interrupted, outraged.
"They were talking about you like you were a piece of horseflesh!"
Sighing lightly, she scooted a little closer to me and rested her head on my shoulder. One of her little hands slide up my back and into my hair, stroking a special spot behind my ear that even I hadn't known was there before her surprisingly talented fingers had one day found it.
It was one of those spots. Everyone has one, I'm told, it's just a matter of finding where. Never really believed I would have a place on me that when touched the right way would bleed ire right out of me and have me purring like cat.
I cracked one eye open to try to glare at her and failed miserably.
It seemed the master of the house made a tidy profit in slave turnovers. Children like Shino were often bought and brought in by him and kept on until they were old enough to go on to other places. This provided him with a never-ending stream of servants, and others with their hands in the business had their pick at their leisure of that continuous stream as they came of an age.
Shino may have been meant for the unsavory sort of life that the older ladies were suggesting for her if it had not been for the master's eye constantly falling on her.
Like some sort of ornament, Horibuchi Renzo dressed her well and kept moving her duties further and further into the mansion, having her serve when he entertained guests, liking for her to be seen. He followed her when he caught her running errands, asking nonsense questions just to have something to say to her.
She began to grow very nervous in his presence, tried not to be caught alone in empty rooms and corridors.
There was no help to be found in this, though. She was encouraged by the older servants not to speak at all except when absolutely necessary, and punishments were so severe that she soon became afraid to speak at all. So nervous did she become in those few necessary times for speaking, she developed a speech impediment.
"Wait a minute. You got so afraid to talk, you actually stuttered?"
She smiled slightly. "I told you I used to be worse."
"Worse…" I repeated emptily. "You little sneak, you're sugar-coating this!"
"Now, what could make you say that? Sano, you second-guess me a lot because you knew someone who was very much like me before you met me. Most of the time, this is okay. Easier for me, even. But did you ever consider that maybe, just maybe, it's not I who is like Kenshin, but Kenshin who is like me?"
This threw me off enough to forget being angry--at anyone.
But only for a moment. Shino was as good a storyteller as Kenshin, able to evoke clear images of what she remembered, but this wasn't exactly a storybook pleasure. I felt angry and helpless, like I was seeing it all and not being able to do anything against all of these injustices.
"I wish I'd been there," I growled.
She raised her eyebrows. "It's good that you weren't."
"At the start, you wouldn't have been born yet. By the end, you would have been only five years old."
"I was really tough for a five-year-old!" I snapped foolishly, turning my reddened face away from my wife so I wouldn't see how hard she was fighting a smile.
Shino was only able to avoid Renzo for as long as he let her. And he did, for a while. Maybe out of some kind of self-control, or hoping whatever stirrings he felt for her might wear off.
Whatever the reason, she spent perhaps a year working in his home without too much of an incident involving him.
She was so small that they felt it a good idea to let her sleep in a closet near the kitchen so that she would be nearby to start the fires in the mornings. She found this so much better than the idea of sharing the servants' quarters, that she kept to her closest even when she grew enough for it to become cramped and uncomfortable.
It was nice to have a place all her own. She had nothing and kept nothing of any value there, so it just remained a disinteresting little closest where she curled up to sleep at night. But it was hers. That was enough.
The days, though, were different. Then is when she was most reminded that her entire person always belonged to someone else. This was the most apparent when she was given the duty of bringing Renzo's tea to him every day.
When she was very little, he would only touch her on the head, enjoying the look and feel of her unusual hair. Then, as she got just a little older, his touches would grow bolder. He would send her back from the room with a pat on the bottom, or his hands would linger on her shoulders as took back up the serving tray.
This didn't help her nervousness or deteriorating verbal skills that had by now nearly rendered her mute. The man frightened her. She didn't like the way his breathing changed when she was around. Didn't like the feel of his hands on her.
It could only get worse. Shino turned thirteen, and Horibuchi Renzo had grown so bold as to take her into his lap when she served him every day. At first, only when they were alone.
It was around the time she might have been sold, but still he kept her back. Then, papers were drawn up for his permanent ownership of her.
He was going to keep her.
On one hand, it was seemed a good thing to stay where she was, where she knew her duties, the routines, and the people above her…
On the other hand…
The night of the day Renzo signed the papers, he took Shino, now his and solely his, into his bedroom and--
I ached inside, as she stopped talking very suddenly, face going white. I'm not certain which of us moved first, whether she jumped into me or whether I grabbed her up--or perhaps it was both at once.
However she got there, she was in my arms. I squeezed tightly, feeling the clench of her jaw as she gritted her teeth, the warmth of her tears.
I had already gone through my anger for knowing this once. Had vented it up and down Seiji's face back in the western parts of Tokyo.
But there's always room for more. It's my heart, after all.
Can't get revenge against a man who's already dead, so I tried my best to let it flow away, to just comfort my wife as best I could. Wishing whatever scent I had was as good at hers at soothing anguished thoughts. Murmuring nonsense things I hoped were comforting.
I felt awful. Like this storytelling so far had been a mistake. Detailed at first, like the wonders of newness from a child's memory, she had become more and more detached from it as she went along. Probably the way she had survived living it, by being disconnected. Anticipating an insalubrious future, probably getting clouted every time she dared to open her mouth, and…and--
And if he was still alive, I'd--!
I was making her remember all this. This was precisely why I'd been polite enough about it all this time, just leaving it alone. Taking what I knew about Kenshin and about Shino and making my guesses, and living with them. Could have continued living on just fine that way, but no…
Damn Enishi. Both of them. Any of them. All of them! Whether this one I'd just met deserved it or not, Tomoe's twin or whatever, damn him anyway.
Sorry, Kenshin, but it hurt her! All that healing-touch all this time, and we just reopened a whole passel of wounds, and we hadn't even gotten to the Yukishiro parts yet. If she started stuttering again or something, somebody was going to pay.
Shino's status adjusted, in some ways for the better…in some ways not. Duties got lighter, and she was made to abandon her closet for a small but real room near Horibuchi Renzo's young son, Seiji.
Most of her work now centered around the boy, tagging along with him wherever he went and seeing to his needs. Renzo was never far away.
Seiji took too much of an interest in his new red-headed servant as well. But he was a wealthy man's son and could do no wrong. He ran wild, actually trying to get Shino into trouble for his misdeeds for his amusement. Only, it seemed she could no longer do any wrong either.
Any more beatings she might have gotten from the other servants virtually vanished in light of her importance to the master.
"Beatings," I repeated, deadpan.
Telling her story now curled up in my lap with a cheek pressed again my chest, she murmured, "Let it go for now, Sano. If you're to interrupt every time you hear of an unfairness, I'll never be finished."
"Unfairness". That's all, huh? Right.
The winter of Shino's fourteenth year was one that was one heavy with snow.
Shino was attending Seiji as he played in the snow, keeping an eye on him, straitening up anything he ruined or knocked over as he tore around the garden, destroying the fresh blanket of white that had lain over everything since the night before.
The river that ran through the garden had a single bridge built over it. There was no problem with him running back and forth across the bridge, at least not at first.
It seemed whomever had been in charge of spreading sand across the frozen wood to make the footing better had missed a few spots.
Shino had not been far behind when the boy's racing sandals found one of these missed ice patches, but she was too far to stop him from slipping, from falling, and from sliding under the bridge's wooden railings and falling right into the river.
The girl, of course (of course), jumped in after him.
The water was cold, so shockingly cold that she couldn't move or think for several long moments before she began to force herself to do both.
The water was swollen and clogged with snow and ice. Seiji, when he had gotten his head above water, had at first howled his head off, which got the attention of some others working around the frozen garden, but then his breath broke off into hitches.
Like her own as she swam toward him. The water wasn't in a rage, but it was sweeping them further away from the garden and from help.
She reached him, grasping him with fingers that wouldn't close. He wrapped his arm around her neck, fouling her swimming, almost dragging them both under, but she managed to keep them both up.
There were shouts, people pointing, but nobody seemed to have gathered wits enough to come up with a way to help.
A tree with branches encased in ice, a low limb heavy with snow had dipped down into the water. Drawing on all her strength, Shino forced herself toward it, managed to grasp it.
Her hands were frozen, didn't want to close, to grasp the tree branch. Seiji's body was so heavy around her neck, and the ice did nothing to help her failing grip.
Somehow she held on, and, trusting the boy to keep a grip on her by himself, took her other arm off him and grasped the branch with both hands.
She made slow, laborious progress, dragging them both up that tree branch. The further they were both lifted out of the water, the harder it became.
Finally some people had arrived to help, if you could call it that. Only slaves, they weren't as willing as Shino to jump into a freezing river to save their bratty young master.
They waited until Shino had dragged herself close enough for them to catch hold of her and pull them onto the bank.
"My shiden-me," I said softly into her hair. "I think you've probably grown up in the company of the worst people who ever lived."
She chuckled. "Coming from you, that must really mean something."
"Hey? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Why you little--" I squeezed her. She laughed. Beautiful, beautiful laughter.
"Now, be good, Sano. I can't tell the story if I can't breathe."
"Fine. What happened then?"
She shifted herself more comfortably on my lap, looking thoughtful. "It took a few days to recover from that. Seiji pulled out of a high fever, and seemed no worse for the wear. When I was strong again, Horibuchi-sama called me to him…"
Shino found her master in his study, sitting at his heavy desk.
Renzo stared at her from under heavy eyebrows for a moment. Then he just said, "You saved my son's life."
Not a question, not something that really needed response. Not exactly a thank-you, either. Just a statement.
Shino nodded, eyes on the floor.
He stood up from his desk, circling it slowly until he came to a stop in front of her.
She was so afraid of him, tensed but not going to reject his touch. She had learned better than that a long time ago.
Only he didn't touch her. Not this time.
"I'm sending you from here," he said with a heavy air of finality. "You'll leave in the morning. I will provide you with some supplies and funds and you can go home, or to anywhere you would like. You are no longer a servant here."
He left her then, standing shocked in the study. He had just set her free.
"All right," I said, more sharply than I meant. "I'm really glad he let you go and all, but am I crazy when I thought you said it was midwinter? He sent you out with nowhere to go in the middle of winter?"
"Yeah," she said simply, like it was no big deal. "That was…a bit difficult to deal with, but as you see, I survived. I was glad, too, Sano. You see, whatever else you might think of him, he was still very grateful I saved his son. He might not have lived since the other slaves were so far away, even if any of them would have been willing to risk their lives to get him out of the river. He knew this.
"He also knew that he couldn't keep his hands from me." A small shudder went through her. A burning one went through me. "He felt it would be poor gratitude if he kept on with his little trysts, so he decided to remove me as a temptation completely. Sending me away seemed the best way to do this."
"But he didn't really set you free," I protested. "He kept the ownership papers."
"Yes. I'm branded, Sano, all slaves are. Once a slave, always a slave. There was never truly a way to set me free. Right now, my owner is you."
I snorted. "You're my wife. If anything, you own me."
She grinned, as if I'd just said something silly, but I slipped a finger under her chin and lifted her big plum eyes to see into mine. "It's true, Aka-chan. You own my happiness. Every last beat of it in my heart."
That was a rather corny thing to say, but she liked it. And I liked putting those honored looks on her face.
Twenty minutes of gradually-heated kissing later, she said, a little breathlessly, "S-Sano, there's more to tell--"
I cut her off again, enjoying how she tasted. Just a little hint of the tea she had barely touched. Very good, very, very good.
"Later," I said. "Right now, I'm busy."
Next: Remembrance, part 2.