a heart beating, darkly


You are born first son of a first son, your life and fate set before you from the hour of your birth. From your first step, you learned to walk as only a Kuchiki can walk - every movement flawless, your steps noiseless through the long, shadowed halls of your youth. There are those who call it arrogance. You will call them fools.

You are Kuchiki. Your name carries a thousand connotations with it - but first and foremost, it carries /honour/. In the same way the Shihouin are marked by their lethal, brutal grace, the Shibas remmebered for their untamable madness, so are you known. This, you learn, is the honour of your name and your blood. It is unquestionable.

When you have proven yourself, you enter the Academy. There, you are taught the laws of the Seireitei, ancient and unbreakable. This, is the honour of the law.

An old man, turning the yellowed pages of some forgotten record of history, will look at you and speak of how the noble familes rose to forge the white towers out of the chaos of the Rukongai, how the Kuchiki have served and in turn been served by the Seireitei, upholding its laws through war and fire. The power of the Kuchiki lies in the power of Seireitei's word. Where there is one, so there must be the other and as they have stood, century through century, so they will stand.

The words seep into your skin, ink into paper.

Kuchiki, you learn, is just another name for the law.

-

Your first memory of her: an endless hall, and a servant girl walking down it. She passes you as all the servants in the house do, head bowed, face hidden, but in the split second before she bends her head to you, you see her eyes.

They are wide and dark and edged with an indescribable weight.

(It is not until the day of her death that you will understand - it is the scar of one who has lost their pride, the memory of that despair. Maybe that is why you remember, why it strikes you so, still; you, who grew up in a world with no concept of broken honour.)

You do not spare her more than a glance as she passes.

But still: you remember.

-

Weeks pass, months. You see her, again and again, until it seems the image of her white robed back has etched itself into the corner of your vision. She serves the women of the house, an unseen figure tracing their movements.

You watch the line of her wrist as she serves your second cousin tea. Her technique is exact, but her grip on the pot is too tight, her movements too rigid for grace. You could speak of it, but you do not. Rising, she glances up, suddenly meets your gaze.

For a moment, she stills. Your gaze does not falter, her eyes betray no surprise. Then she bows, her eyes lost to your gaze, and turns to the next woman, repeats the same motions.

Again, you watch her.

You do not understand - but already, you are beginning to see.

Even a flaw is not without its beauty.

-

She kneels in perfect obsequience, palms to the floor, head so low her hair trails on the polished wood.

"My lord." Her voice is a whisper.

You study her for a long moment, her shadow black and thin in the rectangle of sunlight falling through the window.

"You may rise," you finally say.

She lifts her head enough to look at you, but rises no further.

"You have asked to be allowed to leave our service," you say.

Her nod is equal parts a bow. "Hisana is deeply sorry for the trouble she has caused. She fears she is unable to serve my lord as he deserves."

You raise your eyebrows. "You returned from your day of leave late last week. I have been told you were reprimanded for it. Is this why you have asked to leave?"

"No, my lord."

You think to ask her to look up, look at you. But you do not, somehow, believe that she is lying.

"Are you unhappy here," you ask, even though it is no concern of yours.

"No, my lord. Hisana could not be so ungrateful after the kindness my lord has already shown her."

"And yet you are not happy," you observe.

She starts, surprise bright in her eyes. She cannot answer, and it is not your place to question her further.

"Stay," you tell her. "If you require a longer leave of absence in future, ask for it in advance."

Stay, you tell her. It is not an order; almost a request.

You turn to leave the room.

Standing at the threshold, you hear her murmur, "Hisana thanks you for your kindness, my lord."

You do not allow yourself to turn and look at her again, for all that you are struck by the inexplicable need to.

-

Even in your youth, you were never young, never lost, never a child fumbling for a place in the world.

Perhaps this is why she leaves you at such a loss. For words, for actions, for a definition of the spaces she is beginning to occupy.

-

The autumn rains come. The world dissolves into mud, the sky is swallowed by cloud, and in the Rukongai, the rivers swell and overrun their banks.

She disappears.

Two days and she has not returned, they tell you. They do not know where she could have gone. Her only home is in the Kuchiki compound, she has spoken of no other family. All the servants know is that she goes to the Rukongai. Why she goes there, they have not discovered.

There is nothing you can do.

Three days pass, four. Finally, you hear: a girl's body, found washed up on the bank of the Eastern River in the 32nd District. The rains have paused for the hour when you leave the compound - a manservant trails behind you anyway, umbrellas tucked in his arms.

You find her by the river, kneeling by the body of the dead child (not woman, as you had thought). The corpse is bloated and grey with river water, twigs and debris tangled in its long black hair. Her thin hands brush the hair from the child's pitiful, ugly face, closes the staring eyes, the look on her own face equal parts tenderness and a criminal relief.

She looks up as you come down the bank to her. Her hair and clothes are rain-drenched and mud splattered. Livid bruises discolour the line of her jaw and right cheekbone, and a blood stained tear in her sleeve reveals a jagged scratch.

She looks up at you, eyes wide and wild as the trashing waters you stand beside. "My lord," she breathes.

Struggling to her feet, she staggers instead. She crumples, and now, she attains an unconscious, inevitable grace.

You catch her.

"My lord. Hisana is most sorry..." she murmurs into your now muddied robes.

"You may speak later," you tell her, and gather her in your arms, feeling the weight of her bird frail bones settle against you. She closes her eyes, and you understand - you found what you sought by the river. She did not.

Around you, it begins to drizzle again. You order the manservant to spread a wool-lined robe over her. He obeys, then hesitates, meets your eyes, and does not ask to take your burden. He hastens to open an umbrella above you instead.

You had not found the walk here long.

The journey back is interminable.

-

It is not unknown for those of noble blood to take lovers among those who serve them. It is not, quite, approved of. Better to take your pleasure from the red-lanterned districts, where the rules are iron-clad and rumour and desire will be shrouded safe behind silk curtains; why raise a ghost, a monster on your own heath?

It is not, quite, approved of, but it is done, nonetheless.

You have never thought highly of the practice. Now, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

Rumour is beginning to swirl behind you, dust in your wake. Passing through the house, you can feel the curious, disapproving gaze of the elders, poorly veiled behind their scrolls and fans.

You will not take a lover from the servants, you finally tell your father. Your answer to the question he has not yet worded unsettles him - he looks at you like one who has found a stranger in his home. You have given him no relief.

What madness is this, that you will you come so close to betraying your name and your blood for a woman? How far, they wonder, will you allow this to proceed?

You do not tell them: completely.

You are Kuchiki. Yours is the honour of name, of history, of blood and power and law. You had thought you knew all there was to be understood of honour.

But no.

There is one thing left you will not betray, though you abandon all else.

-

She has seated herself by the window overlooking the rain-soaked gardens, face upturned to the heavy sky. She turns as you come, the sharp, startled movement of a forest animal.

"Do not rise," you tell her.

She bows her head instead. "My lord. Hisana thanks you for your kindness. She fears she has caused too much trouble."

You do not answer, only remain in the door, examine the pallor of her lips, her hands clasped for warmth in her lap.

"You are not yet recovered," you observe. You do not say: you should not have left your bed, but she hears the unspoken words nonetheless. Again, she bows her head.

"Will my lord honour Hisana with his company?" she asks, and half-smiles, an odd, fragile thing.

For a moment, you stare at her, struck by this quiet boldness. Then you cross the room and seat yourself by the window, half an arm's length from her side.

"I am told you go to the Rukongai often," you say.

"Yes, my lord," she says.

"You have family there."

She does not answer for a long moment. You turn and see that her hands have clenched white in the folds of her robe.

"No," she finally whispers. She looks up into the garden, but her eyes are lost, fixed on nothing that you can see. "What family Hisana had is lost to her," she says.

There is nothing you can answer. Gazing into the garden, you watch the rain fall and think of the coming of winter.

Half an arm's length and a chasm between you.

-

"I would marry you," you tell her. It is not an order, not a request.

She stills at your voice, looks at you. Her gaze falls into you as light refracted through water; sees too much and says too little.

"My lord," she says. "Hisana is but a lowly serf from the Rukongai. My lord honours her too much..."

"I would marry you nonetheless," you tell her. When she does not answer, you continue. "You may refuse, if it is not to your wishes."

The winter snows have melted, leaving rain and the green mist of life behind it. In the garden, the plum tree by the pond has begun to bloom, cloud-white against the sky. Its heavy, heady scent drifts on the breeze into the room, fingers her dark hair.

Her half smile furls in the corner of her mouth. As you watch, she crosses the distance between you, kneels. Looking into your eyes, she takes your hands in her cool, calloused fingers, leans up. Her mouth is warm, warm and uncertain against your own.

"My lord," she finally says, and bends her head. "Thank you. Hisana would be honoured."

-

And last: there is a third honour, one you have never been taught, because it cannot be learned - only found.

end

November 2005