Loyalty
by Jennifer A. Wand
a Gravitation fan fiction


I. Smashing Blue

"[Saburazaemon said:] 'To lay down one's life for another is the basic principle of homosexuality.'"

- from the pages of the HAGAKURE, the handbook of the samurai



Eiri shifted in his saddle and gave his horse a prod with the inside of his heel. It was hot, and he was tired. His eyes, already bleary from the ride and the red glare of sunset, stung with dripping sweat from his brow. His helmet felt heavy.

As though echoing his weariness, his horse gave a plaintive little whinny and stopped to gaze at him through the corner or a soulful brown eye. "Don't give me that look, Tatsuha," Eiri grumbled, spurring the handsome black steed onward again. "A little further and we can both rest."

He didn't blame the beast for its unwillingness to move. They had been riding since dawn, trying to make it past the seemingly endless mountain ridge back to the castle town he thought of as home. Never mind that it had been months since he'd last seen it, that he was seldom there for more than a few weeks at a time. There was always a new campaign to be waged, a new threat for the east or the north, and the lord he served seemed almost unnaturally dependent on him. Always it was Eiri-san this, Eiri-san that, Eiri-san why don't you go ahead and try to feel out the opposing forces. All this from a foppish noble who spent half his time dealing with childish musicians and artists. It was as though, through him, Lord Seguchi was living vicariously as the samurai he had gone too soft to continue being. It all disgusted Eiri, but he had his loyalty. Sometimes that seemed like all he had.

At last, torchlights came into view distant on the horizon, and the familiar lines of the castle rose up before him. Tatsuha whinnied in relief, and Eiri echoed him with a sigh - though they'd passed the truly difficult mountain passages, the terrain had been rocky and unstable for hours now, and they were both sore with the effects of stumbling into rocks and hidden crags. Eiri daydreamed about sake and a bath as he rode ever closer to the gates of the castle town.

As usual, it was a lively place. Women bustled about carrying jugs of sake or small children or more interesting bundles still; tethered horses spat and sneered at the taunts of boys; smoke rose in thick tufts from lines of gray, squatting houses. Proudly eclipsing the setting sun sat the castle, the crown of a slight hill, the scalloped edges of its roof curtseying gracefully (if a trifle condescendingly) at him. Tatsuha shook himself impatiently as Eiri dismounted and shrugged off his helmet with equal speed. No doubt they were both glad to be free of the extra weight.

It would be a bother to return to the castle. There would be an official audience with Seguchi which would be tiresome at best, painful at worst, and it would be long before he was able to relax in the comfort of the palace room reserved for him. That bath and cup of sake seemed far away. As though trying to avoid reaching that final hurdle, Eiri slowed down, trudging Tatsuha through the streets at a pace so deliberate that the horse hoofed the ground in annoyance. Here in the town there was a stronger breeze than on the plain, and Eiri was far more comfortable. He briefly wished he could walk toward the castle forever without ever reaching it.

A particularly strong gust of wind blew up dust around Eiri's face, and he shielded his eyes. Tatsuha whinnied uncomfortably and stamped the dust with his black hooves. When the air cleared, Eiri slitted his eyes open and immediately saw a scrap of parchment fluttering past him. Instinctively, he reached out and grabbed it. Still-damp ink blotted the page.

In the nervous town
Bustling with the moving crowd
I see you: time, stop!

The final character was blurred nearly beyond recognition, as though the author had let the pen linger too long before lifting it.

A thin voice rang out. "Wait--!!" As anxious footsteps sounded ever-closer, Eiri turned as if in a dream. The sounds of the town faded away. Somehow, the world seemed to blur around the center of his vision: a girl, in a kimono so startlingly pink that it seemed to have been dipped in blooms, running toward him with a look of sheer terror on her face. She was gangly, somehow not delicate enough to suit the clothes she wore, but her lips were rounded in mid-shout and her eyes were almost unearthly in their blue tint. Eiri had heard of foreigners with blue eyes, but this was the first he'd seen a pair. His own eyes, with their flecks of amber and green, were odd to begin with. But these eyes, so open and round and blue, seemed to draw him in.

He shook himself, wondering vaguely if he was ill or lightheaded with fatigue, and faced the girl. She had stopped short at the sight of him carrying the scrap of writing, and was gaping wide-eyed and open-mouthed at him. A bit of color crept into her cheeks.

"Is this yours?" he spoke brusquely. Tatsuha nudged him from behind, but Eiri ignored him.

The girl's blush deepened. "Y... yes. It's... a poem."

"It's clumsy," Eiri said, fixing the girl in place with a keen stare. There was something about that shocked look that he liked. "It's barely a poem at that. I'd expect better from a five-year-old."

At this, the girl's face contorted into a scowl. Her eyes flashed as though they would leap out and crush him, violent eyes of smashing blue. It was such a peculiar expression, and so out of place above such a lovely figure, that Eiri almost wanted to laugh. Instead, he released his grip on the scrap of parchment and let it flutter off again. As the girl dove for it, he pulled on Tatsuha's reins and started to walk on.

When he was nearly gone, Eiri suddenly heard the same thin voice cry out after him. "You didn't have to say all that!!!"

It occurred to Eiri briefly that the way the voice cracked sounded somehow false - like a falsetto, or the girlish voice affected by stylish women. But he walked on.



Seguchi Tohma was waiting in the courtyard of the castle when Eiri arrived. No doubt some page crawling about town, serving as his eyes, had alerted him to Eiri's return. Now, he sat atop the wooden deck surrounding the castle proper, surveying Eiri through slitted eyes. Eiri knew the look, even from his prostrated position on the ground. He had seen it many a time. Seguchi bade him rise, and Eiri sat up, still in the devotional posture indicating his loyalty lay here.

"It is good to have you back, Eiri-san." Seguchi began in that catlike, smooth voice that always hinted of an ulterior motive. Eiri did his best not to speculate on what that motive might be. "We are honored to have a samurai from the famed Uesugi clan blessing us with his strength."

Eiri nearly choked on the snicker that fought to rise in his throat. Always, always! Would Seguchi ever let that pretense go? First of all, Seguchi knew best of all that Eiri did not go by the name of Uesugi any longer. Second, if he wanted a tie to the Uesugi family, Seguchi already had one sitting by his side: his wife, Mika, as noble and high-born a lady as anyone could desire. No. Seguchi had but one motive in mind for saying such a thing: he was reminding Eiri of his place. Of the power he held over him, not just as a lord to whom he owed loyalty, but as a man who held Eiri's deepest secrets in the palm of his hand. Eiri scowled darkly.

"I beg your Lordship's indulgence," he spoke up, formally but flatly. "I regret to admit I am tired from my journey, and I would like to rest." Eiri envied Tatsuha briefly. He got back home and was immediately taken to his stable, without having to endure a long ceremonious welcome. Oh, to be a horse without a care.

"Of course, of course." Seguchi smiled in that same catty manner. "Your room is prepared for you." He clapped his hands and an attendant came forth, bowing all the way. Eiri stod up briskly to follow her.

Seguchi, seeing his toy was about to leave, fought like a spoilt child to keep his fun from ending. "Shall I send up anything to help you relax, Eiri-san? Food? Sake? A woman?"

"Yes, yes, yes!" Eiri snapped, trying to silence that pestering voice. It was only later that he realized what he'd agreed to. In later days, he would think ruefully, :well, I asked for it...:




The room was somewhat quiet, although the court still bustled about behind the fluttering of paper doors. Nevertheless, Eiri felt at peace. At least here, there was no Touma throwing pale compliments laced with innuendo like poisoned wine. And his bones ached from the ride, and from sitting upright in the formal position as he dodged the rain of flattery from the daimyo. Now, alone, dressed in a loose gray robe, he relaxed, leaning his head against the wall and letting out a groan. At long last, at rest, and alone.

Whether Eiri dozed or not he couldn't tell. He only knew that his next conscious thought was an awareness of a sound, a tapping that was more a scratch to his ears. He looked over at the paper door, rubbing bleary eyes (perhaps he had dozed after all). There was a definite presence there, a slight shadow on the paper panels. Eiri uttered, "Come," and the door slid open.

Savory smells assaulted him. A woman, head bowed to the ground, was kneeling there submissively, proferring a tray of food and sake with outspread arms. Silently, she slid it forward. Eiri took the tray and, wordlessly, turned back, listening with comfort to the sound of the door sliding shut and leaving him once more in solitude.

It was half a bowl of rice later that Eiri realized he wasn't alone after all. A sort of prickling sensation ran up the back of his neck and the tiny shallow arc of the sake cup trembled briefly in his hand. A few drops of dull amber sake stained the mat beneath him.

Slowly, barely moving a muscle, Eiri slid his eyes sideways. The corner of the room came into view. Then, the sliding door... a door that, Eiri realized with a sinking shudder, was open. In the back of his mind, he came to the realization that he'd never heard that final click of the door shutting, but had attrituted it to the maid's natural stealth. One learned to be silent and invisible in the service of a lord like Seguchi, not only because he demanded it, but because he was a dangerous man to annoy. But now Eiri saw the door had never shut. He turned, achingly slow, muscles straining to just whip around in one sure motion. His heart began to pound. How was it that he had let this take him by surprise. Had his battle-trained reflexes gone that loose at the presence of food and wine? Walls of frustration hardened around his heart.

The sliding door was, in fact, open. And holding it open was a pair of delicate hands, lily-colored and small, one fist wrapped around the smooth wood surface of the door's edge on either side. Between those hands, which connected to bent arms in flowing purple, was a face. It was the maid who had brought Eiri his meal. She remained in a position of respect, kneeling just outside the open doorway, but there was one difference. She was staring straight at him. And the furrow of her brow, over flashing, enraged eyes, shocked Eiri into stillness. Dumbly, he answered the glare.

Color rose to the maid's cheeks when Eiri's eyes fixed on her, and it was then that he realized who she was. The flushed cheeks and kimono the color of overripe asters, the anger in the expression - he had seen them before.

In town.


In the nervous town--

(nigiyaka na
hitokomi ni anata
toki tomete)


~~~

NOTES:

1) You may think what I've done to Shuichi is unforgivable. Give it another two chapters, please.

2) Tohma isn't kidding: there was, in fact, a famous samurai whose name was Uesugi Kenshin (great name, ne?) But I only took one semester of Culture of the Samurai, so if my details are spotty, I'm sorry!

3) Each chapter is named after (and features, somewhere in the story) the ttle of a song from the Gravitation TV or OAV series. This one was Smashing Blue - did you see the song title in the story?

~~~~

To Be Continued.