Set during 'Redbird'; Omine decides to repay Kyuzo's debt to the Magistrate, which leads her to meet and bond with another once-Samurai; Tessai.
(1)Note! This is set between the Nobuseri attack and the end of 'Red Bird'. Which you should go read in order to understand this.
In This Hand, a Forget-Me-Not
A couple of weeks after she returned scarred and wrongly put back together, Omine took her horse and rode to Kougakyo, hoping she would not meet Kyuzo in the streets, or come across him in the halls of the palace.
She did not want him to know that he had a debt to pay back to Ayamaro, and that she had decided to pay it back in his stead.
Riding through the steamy streets, the buildings stretching out on both sides of the road like giants, and the citizens of the city swarming away from her galloping monture, Omine could not help but wonder how she would reach the Magistrate during the briefest of moments when he wasn't closely followed by the red-clad Samurai.
She feared the sight of his gaze if she did come across his shadow. She hadn't seen him since he had returned her after weeks spent healing behind closed imperial walls, and the memory of their cold farewell at the doors of her house had left her frigid within ever since. She had found herself working with a heart more stoic and stony than ever, forgetting to notice the cramps arising in her fingers and hands, the blister as well as the callouses from her tight grips, and the foul taste in her mouth left behind by clenching jaws and hours passed without eating. Until this morning when she had dropped her tools to the floor, walked into the house and spent an hour listening to the silence, a silence she had never heard quite so loud.
Now she was riding towards the palace, the imposing building looming closer in her vision. More than once she thought about turning around and running back to step into the shadows of her empty family home, unvisited shop and pointless life.
The closest she came to turning around was when she stopped. She halted her horse with a deep breath and remained motionless as the thick crowd closed it on her again, a few passerby offering complaints about how she and her animal were blocking the way. Omine heard none of that as she stared, a steaming dread filling her body as the reins slipped from her hands and she dug her fingers in the mane of her horse, sighing. She felt like leaning against the animal's neck and letting it lead her wherever it wanted to go. But instead her face was caught by the same rigidness that always accompanied her lost gases, as if she was glaring at something vile in the distance. Then she heard a long, loud whistle.
She twisted her head, looking around. The sound had already faded to an echo in her head, rivalling with an imaginary sound, when Omine saw the finger of a stout, heavily clothed man approaching. She knitted her brow, quickly replacing the reins in her hands as the man approached. Tanned and blond, he wore a dark orange jacket opened on a white set of clothes. He wore a square hat and heavy-looking boots as well, and his slanted rimmed eyes were staring straight at her as he made his way through the crowd with a certain ascendency, pushing the people away from him as if they were but a mere breeze. A pipe dangled from his lips and prominently displayed teeth, and Omine felt her horse shift underneath her as he questioned her long interval of idleness.
When the man reached her spot, she glanced at him questioningly from under her hood, and he spoke.
"You're Kyuzo's girl, and you're still alive."
Omine blinked, her green eyes fully bearing into the man standing bellow. He seemed to recognize her, while she had but a faint recollection of his face, a slip between foggy memories overlapped by shadows and pain.
"Kyuzo's girl," she whispered, repeating his words slowly. Her horse stuck the grounds a few times with his hoof, and Omine snapped back, narrowing her eyes. "Amusing. Never got called that before. "
The man did not respond. Omine thought his hat ridiculous, and she was expecting to see his pipe slip out from between his lips anytime soon. Instead it remained there, and this even when the man spoke. He was balancing the object on his lips expertly. "My name is Tessai. I-"
A loud shout interrupted whatever he was about to say, and both he and Omine looked up to see Ukyo's slim figure leaning out from his carriage as he called his guard's name. The blue-haired boy was fervently calling his guard back, and Omine noticed the shadow of feminine figures behind the thin curtains of the carriage.
"Oh, that's the Magistrate's kid," she breathed. "And you're his henchman. Well…"
She was finally about to pull her reins and turn around, disgusted and suddenly overwhelmed by fatigue, when she realized the plain obvious.
"I need to speak to Ayamaro," she said quickly, looking down at Tessai, and the man replied as if he had waited for her to say this all along.
"Yes," he replied.
"I need to speak to him alone," she corrected.
"Yes, he does too." The pipe went from one corner of his lips to the other. Tessai slipped his hand around one of her horse's rein, and Omine let him guide her to the carriage with a few new doubts of her own.
"What are you doing? Who's that?" Ukyo said as he leaned further out of the carriage, looking very displeased and discontented at his guard's sudden wandering off. He peered at Omine, trying to discern her face through the shadow of her hood, and after exchanging a glance with Tessai she pulled the hood off.
"Oh God it's that woman!" Ukyo cried out, bringing a hand to his face as if he was about to run his fingers over scars of his own. "Oh that face, terrible! Tessai, what are you doing!?"
"Be quiet, young master." Tessai grabbed the edge of a curtain and pulled it over Ukyo's face, forcing the young man back into the carriage.
"He's always like that," Tessai said as sole apology.
"I wasn't going to take any offense," Omine replied quietly, a smirk beginning to linger on her lips. Tessai jumped into the carriage and ordered the driver to head back to the palace. Then Omine dug her heels in the horse's flank and they were on their way.
She remained many hours seated in the shadows of great walls, a gleaming floor under her feat, women with draped clothing passing by and staring at her curiously. From the rim of her hood, she kept her eyes fixed to the floor, expecting to see the hem of a red coat sweeping the air and the delicate sound of his steps, but she got none of that.
She did not have many memories of this place. The many weeks she had spent comatosed or awake with burning pain eating at her flesh had left her with memories hunted by blurry figures and the feel of cold hands pressing to her face and her skin. And then, she remembered that warmth holding her hand, during long hours when there was silence and stillness around her. Presently that hand was still smeared with dried clay and cinder, and she stared at it for a long time during her wait, before closing it in a fist as well as shutting her eyes.
Eventually, she felt the man's, Tessai his name was, presence beside her and she rose to follow him.
She remained a few seconds in front of the double doors, as if tasting the air for Kyuzo's scent. But when she entered she found herself in a considerably small room, with only Ayomaro present. Kyuzo was absolutely nowhere to be seen.
As she came closer, Omine could not discern anything in Ayomaro that screamed authority. Swimming in hundreds layers of expensive clothing, he looked more like a suffocating fat fish painted with faded shades of makeup, and as he recognized and stared at her, she discerned an uncomfortable fright in his wrinkle-framed eyes.
She sat down in front of him, dropping her cloak beside her. She didn't even feel the need to adopt a scrap of politeness in front of him. As much as she was concerned, he seemed terrified by her thick mane of curly red hair, the two scars criss-crossing over her left cheek, as well as those green eyes that many had described as unsettling, and that Kyuzo had once exclusively thought of as soothing. It was part of the rare compliments he sometimes gifted her with.
"I should thank you for what you did," she told Ayomaro, placing her hands on her lap. "You wasted valuable hands and effort from your staff to see me survive."
"Oh," Ayomaro exclaimed quietly. "We often have too many people going about doing nothing. Many hands to put to use. It was nothing, and Kyuzo asks favours so very rarely. Never, except this one time, actually."
Omine dropped her gaze.
"A man like him shouldn't ask for favours in the first place," she said, and Ayomaro took out a fan.
"I guess not."
"I wouldn't want him to be indebted to you."
"Remind me your name?" Ayomaro said, cocking his head slightly to the side.
"Omine Tengotori," she replied, and finally something vivid passed in the Magistrate's eyes.
"Ah yes. Your father was famous! What he did was always sublime. Such a shame, that he passed away so soon."
"I'm glad you appreciated his work," Omine whispered.
"The business is kind of dead at the present moment, no?" she was asked, and she nodded. "What do you suggest?"
Omine traced a line on her tight. "The weapons your guards are wielding are pathetic," she said, excluding the fact the skills were as little worth of praise as their weapons. Ayomaro did not seem very surprised by her comment. "Let me help improve the quality of your weapons. Teach your staff some tips. I'm trading my services as a payment for Kyuzo's debt."
She knew the red-clad Samurai was aware he owed the Magistrate something, or at least expected not to get by without some kind of payment for asking the Magistrate to save her life. But loyal to his habits Kyuzo had probably not even bothered to inquire, simply waiting silently for when he would be told to pay up. And Omine knew that he would not be as stupid as to bring it up himself, if he could let the matter slip.
"Why would you do that?" she heard Ayomaro ask sluggishly, as well as Tessai's gaze bearing into her back. "Pay this debt? Do you care about him so much?"
Omine answered nothing, narrowing her eyes and keeping them fixed on the carpet.
"Godness, I would never have thought Kyuzo to have a friend," the Magistrate said with that whiny-tone added to his voice. He flapped his fan, staring into the distance, and Omine was about to open her mouth when he spoke again. "Don't you think he'd be… upset? If he knew?"
Omine raised a brow. "It doesn't matter," she said drily. "I owe him. I'm repaying my debt to him by repaying his debt to you. Simple."
That was a lie, she thought. Kyuzo had saved her life probably for the sole reason that she had saved his life a few months earlier. What she was doing now was doing him another favour.
"I guess," Ayomaro said again with a sigh, flapping his fan harder. "We could use your craftsmanship skills. We could use them a lot, and it would help you pick up your business."
"I appreciate it," she said, although secretly she knew that nothing would really make her business 'pick up'. Somewhere inside her she already knew that the glorious days of her family's craft were numbered.
"In that case, we'll arrange things for you."
"I'd rather he not see me around."
"Oh," don't worry, Ayomaro said sweetly. "We'll keep it our little secret."
Omine didn't really appreciate the Magistrate. He seemed too distracted and too weak of mind, and actually frightened of everything. He did not know how to keep his son in check, and it was Ukyo that she feared most. She feared that he would spot her in the workshop and unconsciously blabber about her when Kyuzo was around.
Fortunately, the workshop and armouries were in a separate building, not directly related to the palace, and Omine was much more at ease knowing that Ukyo would probably not go down there unless he was forced to. And usually he ignored demands and strayed away.
She met with the employed swordsmiths and only needed one look at their work methods to know they were completely worthless in and out. She spent a few minutes throwing everything off their tables, getting rid of the terrible steel they used, the wrongly mixed clay. She threw their rice papers into the oven. Then she sat down and showed them how to forge swords.
She spent long days, from dawn to nightfall, re-instructing the staff. The men began with a strong distaste towards her until finally growing curious, and then awed by her smooth, precise gestures, and the durable, strong layers of clay she produced. The beginning of fine, perfect swords.
She did not teach them the secret of the blade that cut through everything, even Nobuseri shell, but she did set the weapon production on a better foot, and weeks passed without her returning home.
Then, one evening, he appeared in the armoury, and Omine barely had time to slink behind a column and into the shadows, quickly tying back her thick red curls. She kept her breath trapped in her lungs as she heard his light steps entering the large room. But he hadn't seen her, and instead he focused his attention on a servant girl that had happened to be there as well, cleaning up. Omine heard the woman gasp silently with surprise as the red-clad samurai appeared, and after a few seconds she crept a few millimetres out from behind the column, riveting her green gaze upon the two figures standing a few paces away. Kyuzo was looking to the side, his eyes narrowed at the weapons stacked in various places. He walked to one, taking a blade in his hands and running the steel between thumb and index. Omine knew he could sense something was amiss, but she had not crafted any of those weapons. None of them wore her signature humon, and Kyuzo could just not know.
Kyuzo let go of the weapon, and then he swivelled on his heels, walking towards the small girl. He grabbed her wrist firmly in his hand, pulling her closer to his body. The girl stiffened, fright painted on her face as she met Kyuzo's red gaze. From her hiding spot, Omine saw something in the warrior's gaze shudder, and then he let go of that small wrist, turning away a second later with no more words. When he was gone, Omine crept out, and the girl turned around to look at her. But Omine said nothing, barely running her eyes over the terrified girl before walking away as well.
She stepped out into the night. The breeze was fresh and smelled strongly of smoke and tea leaves. Pulling her cloak about her frame, she set out to get her horse and ride off, ready to go back home and sleep for days. Once again, though, she was interrupted as Tessai appeared, and Omine sighed loudly.
"Yes, what is it?" she murmured as the other warrior leaned against the wall, exhaling smoke from his lips.
"Nothing," he replied, and Omine rolled her eyes.
"Goodnight, then," and she turned back to her horse.
"Would you go for a walk with me?"
"You said 'nothing!'" She exclaimed.
As a sole response, Tessai smirked, and Omine bit her lip, pressing her forehead against her animal's hide. She never would have thought than merely seeing Kyuzo would put her nerves on such edge. But it had, and she didn't feel now like playing games.
Tessai began walking, and Omine had to drop the reins and follow him as he led her out into Kougakyo. After a long instance of silence, she decided to just talk.
"You know, that Ukyo is a pain in the ass. Why do you let him sass you?"
Tessai shrugged. "Why does Kyuzo let the Magistrate order him around?"
Omine said nothing, knowing very well what he meant.
"I was a Samurai too, once upon a time," he told her. For first time since she had met him he took the pipe out from his mouth, putting it away in one of his large pockets. "But times changed. We do what we can to stay afloat."
"Eh," Omine breathed. "It all comes down to wounded pride."
"You fit in that lot."
"Yeah," Omine whispered. "I guess I do."
Her father's industry had crumbled to naught. Alone, she could never produce enough weapons to keep the business afloat, and she had already sold out the large stash that her father had left behind. The rest had been stolen by the ronins. Omine did not feel confident in hiring other swordsmiths, either. She had a long time ago abandoned the idea of joining or creating any kind of community around her quiet life. She herself was disappearing, along the myth of true samurai.
"So…" Omine ventured, casting a glance at the man walking beside her. "What is it that you wanted to talk about? You didn't bring me out just to tell me the obvious and remind me how pathetic we have all become."
Tessai shrugged again. "I'm trying to understand what Kyuzo saw in you."
Omine blinked. "He saw nothing in me. He saw something in what I stand for. Or what I stood for."
She ran a finger over the scars on her face, feeling the soft, white flesh. "For the longest of times I kept nurturing the memory of my family. Of this time before the Nobuseri came. I still do. I still believe true Samurai can return, and Kyuzo indulged in this fantasy that is stuck to me because I indulge in it too."
"Never thought of him as a dreamer."
"Aren't we all?"
"No," Tessai said. "I am not."
Omine stopped, crossing her arms. "What, so you seriously enjoy serving Ukyo?"
"Not really," Tessai replied as he stopped as well, turning to look at her through his slanted eyes. "But times have changed. And times don't return to the way they used to be. We don't regress. Ever. Times will change again, but they will be just as different from now as they were from before now. And before and yet again before. Samurai might come back, but they won't be the Samurai you and I and Kyuzo knew. Or this caste might just altogether die, and something new will come up, to fit better fit a new ear."
The stout man crossed his arms, looking at the sky, a handful of stars visible against the foggy velvet of the celestial ceiling. Omine found herself plopping down on a large piece of splintered beam that had once fallen from somewhere far above. She felt her whole body sag under renewed fatigue, and she closed her eyes.
"We have to flow with the tide and survive the best way we can."
"Heh," Omine scoffed. "Who knew you were such a philosopher?"
Tessai had returned to his smoking. "Yes, who knew?"
She came back home, and so did the memories, as well as the pain. And so did Kyuzo, as if brought by a tide. She never admitted how much she had wanted to break in childish tears and sob through the red fabric of his coat when he took her in his arms. Instead she pulled out the tough front she always wore like a mask, and held on to him for a long time. He seemed to be drawing from her just as much, and Omine remembered the hunger that passed through his eyes as he held the wrist of that maid, and then that hunger breaking down into longing.
She kept her secret. He never found out. And more than once Tessai appeared in the Palace's workshops, inquiring if she felt like strolling. She always followed him out, in the dead of the night, growing more curious and comfortable around his presence.
Once he brought her to a high perch, Kougakyo stretching out under their feet; a sea of uneven buildings broken down by the ruins of buildings that no one had ever bothered to restore, and the cutting, sharp-turning streets of the city. Omine plucked the pipe from Tessai's hand, and took a drag before making a face and dropping into his lap.
"Ever thought of making friends with Kyuzo?" she asked.
"I don't know. You'd get along, I think."
"We'd barely talk."
"You'd get along."
"You don't make friends with people you greatly admire."
"Oh, look who fancies himself an idol," Omine said with a chuckle, leaning back against the wall. But she had to admit she enjoyed the idea of having the red-clad samurai for herself.
She parted barely an hour later, the blond warrior taking up a quicker path back to the palace as Omine decided she'd pay a visit to Masamune, an old associate of her father's, and disturb his sleep. Barely a minute after she nodded Tessai goodbye, she looked up the see Kyuzo standing in her way, red coat flapping around his legs in the wind. She froze, her lips freezing in a long line, her thoughts suddenly racing.
Kyuzo started walking. His steps were large and loud and Omine saw unconcealed anger on his face.
"What," he asked drily, "was that?"
He took hold of her wrist, and Omine froze, sensing her own anger boiling up. "What was what?" she asked in the very same flat tone, glaring back at him.
"That was Tessai."
"Yes it was."
"Omine, what were you doing with him?"
Gritting her teeth, she violently puller her wrist away, nearly snarling. "And what gives you the right to talk to me as if I was some kind of child of yours?" She wondered if he knew anything about that dept.
She could not remember a time they had quarrelled, but his narrowed and sharp gaze, bearing down on her guiltily was sharpening her tongue, and he took a step closer, eliminating the little distance left between their bodies.
"It's the middle of the night, and you're in Kougakyo, with Ukyo's henchmen. That. Does not fit. At all."
That had to be one of the longest sentences he had every pronounced. "Last time I checked I was allowed to go where I want to."
"What!?" she snarled again, taking a step back and walking away. She knew that her sudden surge of anger grew from her fright of him ever finding out about her and Ayomaro's secret deal. But she had the feeling he didn't know. He had just caught her with Tessai and… somehow that didn't suit him at all. Tremor was creeping into her limbs. Obviously, he followed close behind. He caught up, wrapped an arm around her waist as she hissed and forced her around again, pressing her to his body.
She curled her hands around his neck, ready to choke and claw him if she needed to. But all she could do was press her body to his, listening to her quickened breathing as he forced her to look into his gaze. For the longest of seconds, she could understand the fear everyone felt when they faced him. She could understand the panicked, bottomless fright that maid had experienced when he had grabbed her and pulled her closer. And Kyuzo must have seen it in Omine's eyes, because as if caught by an electric shock, the rage flickered and was replaced by momentary worry. Then he slowly pressed his forehead to hers, and everything within her dropped like a lifeless limb. She wrapped her arms around his neck, inhaling his smell. They remained like that for many heartbeats, lone souls in the empty streets.
"Stupid," she breathed after a while. "Stupid war child," she murmured, and she saw the shadow of a smirk on his lips as he brushed them against her scarred cheek, and then let her go.
"What where you doing?" he repeated still, and she rolled her eyes. "Geez, we were talking. He's a nice guy. Bumped into him once when he was trying to get five seconds of peace out of Ukyo's whining zone."
She looked around, at the same time wondering what in the world she would do now. She could not return to the palace to get back to her horse. And there was no way she'd go back by foot to her house. "Shouldn't you get some rest?" she ventured, glancing at him. "I bet you have duties to attend to early in the morning."
He took her wrist again, but this time squeezing it gently. His way of saying he didn't give a fuck about tomorrow's duties. Omine chuckled, and then she knew where to bring him.
She brought her back to the same spot Tessai had brought her earlier. The wake of dawn was just a few minutes away, half of the stars in the sky already gone. Kyuzo sat down, and Omine just plopped herself like a starfish onto the floor, sighing deeply. She felt like she would fall asleep any minute now, and felt Kyuzo's hand trail in her sprawled red hair.
She glanced at the twin katanas fastened to his back, and lifted her palm. He unsheathed one and handed it to her.
"Samurai will return," she breathed as she held the sword above her head, pride seeping into her. It had taken her an entire year, day after day, to craft the twin blades. She was thinking of what Tessai had said, of times to come. But Kyuzo was definitively a part of that future, and so were these swords. And hopefully, so would she. He lay down, and she turned to press her face against his shoulder.
"Maybe," he said, and Omine scoffed. "Don't make all my hard work go to waste."
"I won't," he replied in his soft husky voice.
Omine put the blade on his chest, and he wrapped his fingers around her hand that still held the sword's pommel. In that moment, she knew that for whatever reason, Kyuzo would one day leave. Find something to follow in that approaching new era. He'd be swept away.
She hoped he would still count as a samurai by then, but Omine also knew that if he had to leave, he had to do so free of any restraint. And she also knew that whatever happened to her, he would not forget. As long as he had those blades in his hands, those forget-me-nots, he would go forth and he would remember, and she would live on.
Not particularly well written, but I felt like doing some dabble with Tessai. I actually like him a lot as a character. He's much more down to earth and cynical than everyone else, and it was refreshing to write about someone who thinks out of the box. XD
If this is enjoyed enough, I think I'll add an extra chapter where Omine and Tessai meet again after Kyuzo parts and joins the group.