Note: I had actually written this story before I had seen the relevant episodes of SAMURAI 7, and before I had made the decision while writing 'The Sword of the Soul' that Nasami would not go to Kougakyo to rescue Kambei. But in a way, I liked it so much that I kept it. So for your amusement, I present it here...
Incidentally, the opening conversation is written that way for a reason - when two people think so much alike, it's hard to tell which one of them is which. In this case, does it really matter?
The title, by the way, refers to a chess move, in which a pawn can capture another piece by moving in a way that it normally cannot.
"You're sure about this?"
"Do we really have a choice?"
"No, not really."
"Then yes, I'm sure."
"I don't like the idea of you going in there alone."
"Don't worry about me, I'll be all right. I'm more concerned about leaving you behind."
"Don't be... but thank you anyway."
"Promise me you'll be careful."
"I will. You be careful, too."
"Trust me, they'll never see this coming."
The guards drew themselves up warily and leveled their weapons as two people made their way toward the main entrance of the Capital.
"Halt! Identify yourselves!"
The taller of the two, a man with blond hair that reached his shoulders, sharp blue eyes, neatly clad in the formal garb of a samurai, stopped and stared at the guard in disapproval. At his side stood a petite and slender woman, veiled and robed, her eyes modestly downcast, her hands in her sleeves, and long black hair done in the elaborate court style.
"How dare you speak that way to her?" the samurai said with righteous indignation. "Do you have any idea who she is?"
For a moment, the guards paused, taken aback by the samurai's imposing manner. "N-no..."
The blond samurai drew himself up imperiously. "This is the Lady Okaeshi, the daughter of one of the Divine Emperor's most loyal retainers, groomed and trained for life at the Emperor's court, to serve his pleasure as a gift of loyalty to the Son of Heaven. You can be certain that when I return to my lord's court, I will be certain to tell him about how my lady was treated upon her arrival here, at the command of the Amanushi himself."
The guards looked alarmed. "We meant no offense, to you or to the lady. It is only that an assassin recently dared threaten the Emperor's life, and all must be more cautious as a result."
The samurai frowned, but nodded. "Yes, the safety of the Amanushi is tantamount. Now kindly escort us in, so that I may fufill my duty to my lord in seeing his daughter safely conducted to the Amanushi's presence."
"If I may ask, why is the lady veiled?" one of the guards asked, trying to peer closer at the woman before him.
"None may look upon her before the Emperor himself does," the samurai replied, shocked, moving between the guard and the woman, who had not looked up or spoken since their arrival. "Apart from my lord and his noble wife, only two maidservants have ever gazed upon my lady, nor has any laid a hand upon her. The last man who dared to try had a sword driven through his bowels and died before he hit the floor for doing so."
The guards looked slightly sick, but still did not move.
"Does she even speak?" the other guard said, looking over the samurai's shoulder.
"Speak? Her voice is like the nightingale's song, as gentle as the evening breeze. By Lady Sun, I should take your head for daring to question the Amanushi's judgment!"
The blond samurai reached for his sword, but the woman stopped him with the slightest of gestures, and he halted, then bowed stiffly to her.
"My lady is distressed, but will generously overlook your crass statements. Now, escort us in."
The guards looked even more uncomfortable than before. "Before we can allow you in, you must surrender your swords. None may enter the Amanushi's presence armed. I apologize."
The samurai growled, but again the woman stopped him.
"It is all right."
The guards started at the sound of her voice, and the samurai immediately knelt. "My lady, forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive. They will escort me from here. I thank you for your duty."
The samurai bowed lower, then rose and turned to the guards. "As my lady commands, I leave her in your care. Treat her well, or by all that is sacred, my lord will hear of this matter."
"Yes, of course," the guards bowed, gesturing the woman forward.
While the guards' backs were turned, the samurai winked at her, and behind her veil, the woman smiled.
Ukyo was seated on the throne, idly sipping at some wine and listening to the reports of the various courtiers when the Imperial Minister appeared.
"Forgive me for interrupting, Amanushi, but a most unusual development has arisen."
"Really? Do tell."
"Your predecessor, the former Amanushi, had arranged for the arrival of the daughter of one of the daimyo under his command. She has arrived and is awaiting an audience with you."
"What do you mean, arranged?" Ukyo asked, setting down the wineglass and giving the Imperial Minister his full attention.
"As you are aware, the former Emperor gathered several women in order to obtain a complete genetic copy of himself. This woman is one of the nobility who had been selected for that purpose. Now that you have been named the heir, and ascended to the throne, her original service is no longer needed, but it would be... imprudent to turn her away."
"I see," Ukyo purred. "Send her in."
The Imperial Minister nodded, took his place at the base of the stairs, and called out, "Presenting the Lady Okaeshi!"
The whole of the court turned around to see the woman who entered, flanked by four guards. With almost dancelike steps, she crossed the audience chamber, then sank delicately to her knees and bowed her head. The guards with her bowed as well.
"Divine Emperor," she said, her voice soft and melodic, "I bring you greetings from your most humble and loyal servant, my father, daimyo of the eastern provinces. He has commanded me to appear before you, to serve as you see fit, as a gesture of his loyalty and his appreciation of your goodwill."
"Has he now?" Ukyo looked down at the guards flanking her. "Did she arrive alone?"
"No, Emperor. There was a samurai with her as bodyguard, but given the recent... events, Lady Okaeshi agreed to dismiss him and come without a guard, out of respect for your safety."
"Very generous of you. But I'm curious... why do you wear a veil?" Ukyo asked, leaning forward and looking down at her. From what he could see, she had a pleasing form, clad in a lavish kimono second only to the one that Sanae had worn as the Okata, but he was mildly irritated at not being able to see her face.
"My father decreed that except for himself, as my daimyo, no man was to look upon me before the Emperor did first."
"Come up here so I can see you better."
She rose and ascended the stairs, then she withdrew one of her pale hands from her sleeves and drew back the veils covering her face. Ukyo's eyes widened at her oval face, long lashes sweeping above dark blue eyes, and full mouth. Her face was painted in the fashion of noblewomen, and he guessed that her long hair would reach almost to her knees if the glittering combs that held it in place were pulled free.
"I see..." he said, finally managing to get his voice back. "Very nice."
She bowed her head slightly in acknowledgement of the compliment. "I am honoured, Emperor."
"Turn around," he ordered. "Let the court see the gift that has been made to their Amanushi."
Okaeshi nodded, then turned to face the court, lifting her head high, and the court bowed as one to her.
"So tell me, how has your father prepared you for life in the Emperor's court?"
She turned back to Ukyo, her eyes lowered politely. "I have been trained in many of the musical arts and artistic endeavors to bring beauty to the life of the Son of Heaven. I also have..." For just an instant, she lifted those intense eyes to his, and her voice became softer, more breathless. "... other skills, for pleasing the Emperor."
Ukyo's eyes narrowed in delight. "Is that so?" he said softly. "Tessai?"
"See that the Lady Okaeshi is conducted to the Inner Chambers. No comfort or honour is to be denied her, understand?"
As Tessai escorted Okaeshi through the Capital, her eyes took in everything around her in curiosity. As they passed one chamber, however, she noticed that several guards were stationed outside.
"Are those the Inner Chambers?" she asked quietly, but Tessai shook his head.
"No, my lady. That is the jail cell of the man who threatened the life of the Emperor."
"What?" she gasped, her eyes wide with horror.
"Do not worry, he is no assassin. He's nothing but a lowly ronin, a sell-sword with no honor or loyalty," Tessai sneered. "He calls himself Shimada Kambei, but you need not trouble yourself with him. We have taken every precaution for the safety of the Amanushi and his court."
"I see," the woman murmured, turning to look past the guards. For a single instant, her eyes met those of the man who was sitting placidly in the cell, waiting for his execution. There was no rage, no fury, no hatred there, just a calm acceptance of his fate.
Until he saw her, and his eyes narrowed slightly, but she gave no sign of recognition, then turned and kept walking after Tessai.
For a moment, Tessai glanced back at her, thinking he had heard her chuckling at something, but her face was as serenely composed as ever.
Mizuki, Koharu, and Chiaki bit back their complaints as they ran to and fro within the Inner Chambers, tending to the many and usually unnecessary errands for Ukyo's harem. Rather, they bit them back while the three women were around, saving their anger for more subtle means, like 'accidentally' ruining clothes or not preparing food quite correctly. Sometimes they got away with it - other times, they weren't so lucky.
"Don't you girls know how to do anything?" Waruya complained, holding up a dress and frowning at the wrinkles she saw along the skirt. "I would think that even peasants would know how to to take care of clothing."
Koharu looked ready to burst into tears, but Mizuki'd had enough.
"I would think that even a pampered brat like you would know how to take care of your own clothes," she shot back, snatching the dress out of Waruya's hands. "But since the Amanushi only picked you for your looks, I guess we know that brains aren't what does it for him."
"You uppity little brat," Waruya snarled, drawing her hand back and slapping Mizuki across the face.
"Such crass behavior in the Emperor's court?" came another woman's voice from the door, and Ukyo's three courtesans turned at the sound. Standing in the doorway with her hands hidden in her sleeves was a petite woman with long black hair, wearing a kimono of fine silk, and her face painted like a noblewoman. Tessai was at her side.
"These are the Inner Chambers, my lady. You will be comfortable here, until the Emperor arrives. Do not hesitate to ask, should you require anything."
"My thanks," she said softly, and he bowed and left.
Waruya glared at Mizuki as soon as the man was gone. "And don't think I'm going to forget about this!"
Mizuki ignored her, hugging Koharu and Chiaki. "Don't you worry - I know that Kambei will find a way to get us out of here, and we won't have to put up with these witches."
The dark-haired woman in the doorway smiled.
"Who are you calling a witch, you little farm girl slut?" Yun hissed.
"I believe she was referring to you three," the newcomer said from near the door, and they all looked at her.
"And just who are you?" Esmerelda demanded. "These are our chambers, leave at once."
The woman ignored her, not moving from where she stood, her eyes instead on Mizuki and the other girls. "Are you all right?" she asked Mizuki kindly, who nodded, uncertain.
"I'll be fine, really."
The black-haired woman nodded slightly, then she turned her eyes to the three courtesans, looking them up and down, and smirked. "Such a shame."
"What's a shame?" Waruya asked.
"I had no idea that you three had fallen so low in Ukyo's favor." The newcomer tutted sadly.
"What are you talking about?" Yun said with a toss of her long dark hair. "We are the favorites of the Amanushi."
"You are his closest companions?" the woman asked, her eyebrows arched.
All three courtesans nodded.
"I don't think so."
Waruya took an angry step forward. "How dare you insult us? We were summoned here from Kougakyo at the Emperor's command."
"Oh, really?" The woman's voice was filled with amusement, and Mizuki's eyes narrowed. Slowly, to avoid attracting the attention of the courtesans, she carefully began to back away and gather the other girls who had been abducted by the Nobuseri.
Finally, the woman took a single step into the room, her eyes still demurely downcast, her hands still hidden in her sleeves.
"Then tell me this... if you three are so important..."
And in an instant, the woman's head came up and her hands slid from her sleeves to snatch a wakizashi that she'd had hidden in the sleeves of her kimono. Before any of the courtesans could raise the alarm, the dark-haired woman swept the sheathed wakizashi straight at Waruya's face, breaking her nose and sending her reeling. As the other two stood there in shock, they too were quickly felled by lightning-fast strikes to the face.
"... wouldn't the Amanushi have provided better protection for his women against someone like me?"
"HOW DARE YOU?" Waruya screamed, trying to stifle the flow of blood down her face, while Mizuki and the other captive girls burst out laughing.
"Oh, shut up," the newcomer said, reaching up and pulling the long black wig from her head, and a mane of white hair came tumbling down. With disdain, she reached down and picked up the blonde's dropped scarf and wiped away her makeup to reveal a face lined with faint scars. "All I had to do was tilt the angle of my attack by an inch and you'd be dead right now instead of bleeding. Although if you don't stop that screeching, my next strike will be to your throat."
And with that, the woman turned to look directly at Mizuki. Her blue eyes momentarily flickered over the girl's face, and then a slow smile curved her mouth.
"I bring you greetings... from Shimada Kambei."