A/n: This chapter contains a TRIGGER WARNING for physical abuse and abuse apologism. Beware Enishi's scenes.
There was no moon to light the way as Kaoru crept silently from the outhouse to the stables. Her escort – her guard – was still waiting uneasily outside for her to finish with her feminine business. He didn't know that she'd crawled out through the high, ventilating window and dropped to the ground without more than a brief scruff to betray her presence. Maybe she hadn't been born and bred to the shadow arts, but you didn't grow up best friends with a daughter of the Makimachi family without learning a few tricks.
Yukishiro's horses were tied nearby, in a ramshackle open pen. No stables; or if there were, they were too disreputable for Yukishiro's men to have bothered trying to make habitable. Another indication that this castle was only a temporary residence. They couldn't have moved her very far in the time she was unconscious; she had to still be close to Edo. Which made escape practical, and even necessary. If they were planning to move her, then she had to get out before they hauled her wherever they were finally going, somewhere where she didn't know the local customs, where she couldn't make contact with Misao because her friend's clan had no presence there.
And she couldn't afford to waste time. Not after what Yukishiro had told her. Not when Kenshin and her sisters believed that she –
She couldn't think about that now. It didn't matter. Yukishiro was insane, and she'd promised Kenshin that she'd live, that she'd trust him to find her, but he didn't know that she was alive to be found. So she was on her own.
Yukishiro's voice slithered through her memory, hot with madness: he'll never have you again, dear sister.
"I'm not your sister," she muttered as she untied the nearest horse with shaking fingers. "You twisted little – "
He hadn't let her leave after that, but nothing that she'd done had coaxed any more information out of him. Instead he'd insisted that they play a friendly game of shogi to while away the evening, and flattened his lips like a child on the verge of a tantrum when she tried to refuse. The hand that he'd rested on the crook of her elbow had born down, almost bruising, as he'd informed her tightly that this was really a very small favor to do her rescuer.
Alone and unarmed, surrounded by enemies, she'd given in and played with only half her mind on the game while the rest plotted her escape. She'd lost, and he'd been a bit too pleased by that.
After the game, she'd been escorted back to her room and left there with a guard. She'd spent the time catnapping and using what she could of the sewing kit to make hoof-wraps, the better to silence the sound of steps of the horse she intended to steal.
Now, she grabbed her chosen horse by its lead and led it towards the gate. Its wrapped hooves tapped softly against the ground. That, at least, had gone well.
The best time for this sort of thing was between the hours of the ox and the tiger, in the deepest part of night when people were least on their guard. And sure enough, the samurai set to watch the main gate were slumping slightly at their posts, facing towards the road without bothering to scan the courtyard.
Her heart raced as she crept closer, the horse following obediently behind. If even one of them remembered their job and turned to look…
But neither of them did. She lifted the great bar that held the gate closed as silently as she could and set it aside, then yanked her kimono up a little further and mounted the horse. It would be hard, keeping control with no saddle and nothing but a lead – but she didn't have a choice. She'd never make it on foot.
The horse huffed slightly, bewildered by this turn of events. She stroked its neck soothingly and reached out to push open the gates. The guards stirred as they creaked outwards, revealing the long dark road ahead. It was faintly lit by starlight and the sliver of the crescent moon, just enough to set it glowing in the night.
"Hey, what the – ?"
Kaoru dug her heels into the horse's side. It snorted, startled by her ferocity, and began to run. The guards shouted after her, sending up the alarm, but by the time the garrison mustered into action behind her she was through the gate and free, with nothing but the wind roaring in her ears.
The moment didn't last. Kaoru was just cresting the first hill past the abandoned palace when she heard the shouts and pounding hoofbeats of her pursuers. Her horse responded eagerly to her spur, the fragile hoof-wrappings shredding under their furious gait. It wouldn't last forever, though. She couldn't be certain of winning a race, and she had no idea where she was – she could keep running, but she had nowhere to run too. It was time to get off the road and put as much difficult ground between them and her as she could.
Her mount responded eagerly to her guidance, lost in the wild rapture of speed. It fairly flew over the abandoned fields – there had been a village here, once – seeming almost to gain in swiftness as it tore along what had once been the raised paths between rice paddies, jumping over low stone walls without breaking stride. It was a wild, silent ride, no sound but the wind in her ears and the horse's eager panting as they moved together, eating up the ground before them.
The sound of her pursuers had faded into a distant din when she reached a thin, shallow stream and forced the horse into it, making it walk upstream to disguise their path. It whickered in protest but obeyed, picking its way gingerly across the rocky bed. The noise of the running water made it hard for her to hear, but hopefully that worked both ways; she just needed to keep her eyes peeled for her pursuers.
Something moved in the underbrush.
Wait, was that – ?
A horse and rider burst out from a thicket of trees by the riverbank. Kaoru slammed her heels into her mount. It reared, blowing air; she flung her arms around its neck and hung on for dear life as it danced unsteadily on its back legs, searching for purchase on the slick, rocky ground.
A bowstring sang. Something dark and deadly flew past her face, lodging in the horse's neck. An arrow, still quivering with the force of its flight, slender and bristling with menace. The horse screamed, alien and agonized, and began to fall. Kaoru leapt away, aiming for the soft soil of the streambank and twisting in the air to break her fall. She hit the ground hard, hard enough to blur her eyesight with tears and dizzying stars; still she hauled herself to her feet and began to run, stumbling –
Something slammed into the back of her head, and she knew no more.
Kaoru came to consciousness slowly, jostled back-and-forth by the movement of the horse she'd been thrown over. Her hands were bound behind her back; she pulled futilely at the ropes, hoping against hope that there was some give in them. No luck. Her fingers tingled, her blood straining the circulate despite her bonds.
Her head ached. There was a knotted throbbing at the back of her head, and her stomach lurched with every step the horse took.
She spent interminable, timeless moments suspended in pain and nausea, her dizziness overwhelming her until she couldn't spare the energy to take in her surroundings. It was hard enough not to vomit or pass out again, the way her brains kept sloshing in her skull.
Eventually the horse's movement stopped. Someone lifted her off its back and set her on her feet, shoving between her shoulderblades. She took a stumbling step forward, searching for her footing, and then a hand cracked hard against her cheek. Dizzy and unbalanced, she fell to her side on the hard-packed earth. Torches flickered wildly in her peripheral vision, bursting and fading like fire-flowers, and she remembered how Kenshin's hand had covered hers as they'd watched the colors dancing across the night sky on Tanabata eve.
"How dare you?" The voice hissed like a teakettle, like a furious cat as hard, cold hands lifted her by the shoulders and shook her as if she was a disobedient puppy. "Was I wrong? Are you his whore, you bitch? Answer me!"
She forced her eyes to focus. Yukishiro had her, was holding her by her shoulders in a death-grip. He had lifted her high enough that she had to stand on her toes, straining for balance, and his lunatic eyes glared at her like a wild beast. He shook her again, his mouth pulled back in a terrible snarl.
"Didn't I save you?"
His white hair gleamed like bone in the torchlight.
Well, I suppose Whitehair will be angry, Jinei had said, but never mind him.
"You sent the Black Hat!" she gasped out. "You're Whitehair!"
Yukishiro froze. His grip on her loosened, allowing her to slide down and stand on her own two feet. But he kept his hands wrapped around her shoulders, digging into her skin like talons.
"He threatened my sisters," Kaoru gasped out, not sure what was happening but seeing that it was working. "He kidnapped me, almost killed me – "
Yukishiro wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a tight embrace. He smelled like spoiled milk, mad and rotten, and his arms were as bruising as his fingers.
"Not on my orders," he ground out into her ear. She winced, the closeness of his voice sending a fresh wave of pain through her skull. Her cheek burned where he had slapped her. "I will never hurt you."
He picked her up, not bothering to untie her, and carried her back to her room, where he set her down gently. And saw to her wounds, gently. All the time reassuring her – so very gently – that he would never hurt her. That it was all for her own good; all she needed to do was trust him, and believe in him. Then everything would be fine.
She didn't dare say anything, so she submitted. She let him handle her like a doll, or a tame bird, bowing her head in acknowledgement as he crooned reassurance in her ears. He was sorry that she'd hurt herself, running away from him – but now she knew that he'd never meant to hurt her, and she wouldn't run anymore, would she?
At least he remembered to untie her hands before he locked her in.
And Kaoru, exhausted and hating herself for her exhaustion, for her aching head, for the fear that still shuddered through her veins at the memory of his dry, sticky fingers against her wounds, lay down and wept.
Kenshin let Suzume sleep in his arms until the young maid returned, eyes downcast, and took her. She tucked her charge into bed, then bowed tremblingly to him.
"Lady Takani has already told me the news," she said, her small voice nearly shaking. "Please, my lord, bring the lady back to us safely."
"Of course," he said, aware of Ayame's eyes on him. "One will surely bring Lady Kaoru home again, that I will."
Ayame had moved to kneel at Suzume's side, watching over her sister as she curled into a little lump under the blankets. She swallowed, reaching out to stroke her sister's hair.
"You – " she started to say, before her voice caught in her throat and she had to try again. "You should go see cousin Yahiko." Her fingers shook slightly where they rested on Suzume's cheek. "I think you need to see him."
Kenshin blinked, momentarily confused, then remembered – the boy, Kaoru's cousin, who'd been involved in the affair and changed his mind when it was already too late to stop it.
"Lord Aoshi brought him here, since it was safest," Ayame continued. "And you should go see him."
Kenshin closed his eyes for a moment, his throat thick with something he could neither name nor keep suppressed.
"So I should," he said.
The boy was nearby, convalescing in the room at the end of the hall. The priest sat just outside – the same priest he'd spoken to a week ago, before Tanabata. A lifetime ago. He started when he saw Kenshin coming and bowed, fear and grief written in the lines of his bones.
"One only wishes to see the boy, that I do," Kenshin said, as gently as he could. The priest had tried to warn him, after all – and looking back he could see how the conversation had been a warning, of a sorts. Too obscure, too laden with meaning to leave Kenshin more than confused, but if he had been another kind of man, if he had been born and raised to intrigue as Kaoru had, then maybe…
Maybe. His life had been plagued by maybe, by if only. He was never quite strong enough, never quite fast enough, never quite good enough, never when it really mattered.
The priest swallowed, raising himself up a little on his clenched fists. A strand of prayer beads trailed from his fingers. "Forgive me, my lord."
Kenshin crouched down, bones aching, and searched for something to say. It wasn't the priest's fault.
"Was it not yourself who told Sano the truth?" he asked. "If you had not, he may never have discovered it in time…"
Not true; not with Aoshi already on the way, and the flinch as Kenshin spoke told him that the priest knew it.
"Please, my lord…" His fingers tightened around his prayer beads. "It is because of this worthless one's cowardice that your noble self and noble wife have suffered these past two days. The fault is mine. I accept responsibility."
Kenshin's heart thudded slow and dry in his chest, like a distant hammer sounding, and he wondered at his own numbness. Perhaps it was true that a human could only feel so much, that if pushed too far the heart would rebel and refuse to feel anything at all. It wasn't unpleasant to be this far beyond caring.
"Very well." His lips formed his master's words; his breath gave voice to what the old man had said too many times, because it was easier. "That being said, what will you do about it?"
The priest blinked up at him like a startled rabbit. "Do…?"
"Think on it," Kenshin said with a nod, suddenly weary. He stood and slid open the door, leaving the priest behind.
The boy lay on his back, his head turned away from the door. He was a small lad, compact and wiry, with a head of disheveled brown hair. Kenshin narrowed his eyes, suddenly certain that he'd seen him before.
Then he remembered.
The boy turned his head to face Kenshin, his eyes widening. Kenshin saw, for the first time, how badly he had been beaten. He'd heard from Sano, but he hadn't realized the extent of it 'til now. It was a wonder that the child had been conscious enough to get his story out once Aoshi had found him.
"You were the stableboy." Kenshin closed the door behind him, his blood running hot and cold in his veins. "We met, once."
Yoshi – Yahiko – stared at him for a moment, then turned his face away again.
"Yeah," he mumbled. Kenshin settled himself on the mats, not sure what to say. Not that he'd had any particular idea before he came in.
Silence yawned abyssal between them, and Yahiko still refused to turn his head. Kenshin examined him, wondering how many times the pattern would repeat before the gods were satisfied. Murder and vengeance, trust given and betrayed, and seas upon seas of blood-debt rising up to choke him, drown them all in an ocean of red. It pressed down on him like a mountain: the endless dance of honor and duty, the dance that only ever ended in the flash of steel and someone's life ebbing into the dust.
There was no end to it.
Kenshin spoke without realizing that he had decided to speak. The boy didn't respond; Kenshin kept talking anyway.
"One thought, upon our first meeting, that you had the pride of a samurai, that I did." He thought it was inane even as he said it, but it wanted to be said. "It seemed a shame, that a boy with such a fierce heart should be a stableboy. It seems one was correct, after all – "
"Don't pity me!" Yahiko snapped, finally turning to face Kenshin; turning and lifting himself half off the futon in his fury. "I'm not a little kid, okay? I was supposed to protect Kaoru and I didn't – I was supposed to – "
He stopped there, his eyes flaring, and seemed unable to speak further; his fists clenched hard in the blankets as he glared at his small hands.
"It is not pity," Kenshin said. "Not at all."
And that was truth, not inanity.
"…it doesn't matter anyway." The boy's head – his unshaven head, he wasn't even of age – hung low as he muttered. "I'm a traitor, now."
"You wished to protect your cousin," Kenshin said carefully. "This is a noble thing, that it is."
"I was stupid!" The boy slammed his fist into the matting. "I shouldn't have trusted them – I should have listened – now Kaoru's in trouble and it's all my fault. My fault."
"No." Kenshin said it a little more sharply than he'd meant to. Yahiko jerked his head up, meeting Kenshin's eyes for the first time. "This grudge was meant for me, for one's own sins. You are – " a child, he wanted to say, younger even than I was, " – a young man who wished to protect his family."
As Enishi had been, all those long years ago. He hadn't had the words, then.
Perhaps he could find them now.
"There is no shame in that," he finished. Yahiko stared at him.
"But I didn't," he said, his voice breaking. "I was wrong."
"Then learn from it." His master's words again, coming from his mouth unbidden. "And next time, make a different mistake."
Yahiko lowered his head again, looking once more at his fists still clenched in the blanket covering his legs. His bruised face was remote, and Kenshin knew that his words had struck a chord even if the boy didn't want to admit it.
"We leave tomorrow morning to retrieve Lady Kaoru," Kenshin said, standing. He didn't have anything else to say; he couldn't think of anything worth saying. It was the same thing, in the end. "Please, stay with Lady Takani and recover, or my wife will be cross with me."
Yahiko didn't say anything. Kenshin left, sliding the door shut behind him.
The priest was still kneeling in the hall, his prayer beads clicking rapidly through his fingers. He scrambled to his feet as Kenshin came out, vibrating with suppressed energy. Kenshin was reminded, unkindly, of a puppy that needed to go outside.
"My lord – " He paused, seeming to gather himself. "My lord, I have – I ask – it is possible, my lord, that if I went to the castle where the Lady is being held – Whitehair still does not know that I have betrayed him. He believes that I am still a part of his conspiracy. I know from Sir Aoshi where the lady is being held, and I could go and – and tell her that you are coming. I could bring a message to her, my lord. If – if you think it wise."
It took Kenshin a moment to decipher the priest's outburst, and a moment more to realize then import of what he was saying. He grabbed the priest's shoulders without thinking, a terrible hope dawning in his dulled heart.
"Truly?" he asked, searching the priest's face. "You would do this?"
"Yes." The priest's face was frightened and firm, his jaw shaking with the effort of strength. "It is the least – I owe this much, if not more. My lord."
"Then go." Kenshin met the priest's eyes and held his gaze, willing him to understand how vital this was. Kaoru must not believe herself abandoned – must know that he was coming for her, that he had not broken his promise to her, that he would always find her, always, so long as she lived to be found. That he would rend the heavens and shatter mountains to find her. "Tell her – "
He paused for moment, not sure what to say – what sign he could give the priest to assure her that it was his message, and not some cruel trick.
"The magpies," he said abruptly. "Tell her I said that the magpies are on their way. We leave tomorrow morning, and it will take two days travel, I think, to arrive with the proper force – since we must be careful. So three day's time. Or however long it is, by the time you reach her. Tell her that."
"The magpies. Yes. As you say."
"Go now – ask Lady Takani for what you need. Take whatever you need, only go today."
"I will." The priest nodded frantically. "I will, my lord. I'll tell her."
"Thank you." Kenshin let go of his shoulders. "Thank you, sir priest."
Kaoru didn't know how much time had passed when she managed to rouse herself from her exhausted stupor. Her head ached from the earlier blow and from her prolonged weeping; her eyes were sore, and her mouth was dry. She wiped her face on her sleeve as best she could, wincing as the soft white silk came in contact with her bruises.
There was a pitcher of water, and a glass. She poured herself some and downed half of it before she thought to worry that it might be drugged. She finished drinking it anyway. It wasn't as if it mattered.
Her cheek throbbed. She touched it lightly, her tears threatening to return as Yukishiro's voice hissed across her memory.
Are you his creature?
She'd never heard such hate in a human voice. A stark contrast to his earlier tone, and how he'd spoken to her as he tended the wounds he'd inflicted. Then he had been all sickening over-sweetness, hot and insistent in his lunatic affection. His violence only exploded when she defied him. When she acted as if she was more than what he seemed to wish her to be – a helpless maiden and himself her noble rescuer.
That, she realized dimly – cursing and blessing her training and the place in her mind it had created, the place that was always watching, always learning – was why mentioning Jinei had stopped him. It had given him a reason: she had run because she feared him, not because she loved her husband.
Luck. Pure luck, and trained instinct. She may not be as lucky next time.
Next time. Kaoru laughed a little at the thought, strained and half-hysterical. Would there be a next time? How many times could she act out against his delusions and survive? How long could she maintain his precious fiction?
She could wait. She had to wait. She would wait. As long as she played along – and the thought made her shudder, gut churning, but she could and she would, if it was necessary, because she'd promised – if she could just win a bit of freedom, she could make contact with Lord Aoshi. The clan had people everywhere; there was scarcely a village in Hito or the Kanto, however small, that didn't have someone with a messenger pigeon squirreled away. If she waited, the opportunity would present itself.
That would take time, though, and she didn't know if she had time. Yukishiro's plan had to go deeper than simply kidnapping her. Hadn't Jinei said as much? When this is over, you'll be free of your husband and your blood-debt, too.
She'd thought that he was talking about himself, saying that he would kill Kenshin. Which would have freed her. But he'd been chasing the fight, not the victory, had truly seemed not to care whether he lived or died. If he had been talking about Yukishiro, on the other hand…
Kaoru stood and began to pace. Not enough information – not enough to plan with. She had to get more out of Yukishiro, somehow. Playing into his madness might help with that, but such a strategy carried its own dangers. Maybe – if she could get her hands on the right herbs, there were recipes to loosen the tongue and calm the body that would get him talking but leave him too lethargic to do much more than that. Only how to get what she needed? She could ask to cook, to make herself useful – to apologize for her escape, he'd believe that – except that she was a terrible cook. Even Tae hadn't been able to teach her…
Kaoru clenched her fist near her heart, squeezing in the grief and fear that she had no time for. She had to assume that they – it would have been too risky for Yukishiro to leave them, since they'd been in the room when she was taken and knew that she hadn't killed herself – and they weren't here, so they hadn't been taken with her – so they were probably –
Don't think about it. She couldn't afford think about what probably happened to them, any more than she could afford to think about what Kenshin and her sisters must be going through.
Grimly, Kaoru began to search the room again. She went lowly, this time, and was much more thorough, running the sensitive pads of her fingers across the seams in the furniture and the wood beams in the wall, just in case. Hidden drawers were a common enough feature, and even if there wasn't anything useful in any of them, it was still good to know where they were. And there might be a hidden door – there were often secret passages out of a castle's inner rooms. If Yukishiro was only stopping here for a few days, he might not know every way in and out…
She was searching the vanity, pressing lightly against the decorative carvings, when one of them suddenly gave way with a soft click. A section of the top popped up just enough for Kaoru to grasp it in the tips of her fingers and pull it out, setting it gently aside to reveal a small, shallow compartment.
There was a notebook inside it: hand-bound sheaves of rice paper, yellowed with age, and entirely unremarkable except for the name written on the front in an elegant noblewoman's script.
Her breath caught in her throat.
Kaoru lifted it carefully from the compartment, her fingers trembling, and began to read.
Tensho 18, 8th month, 1st day
Akira is dead, and the Hojo have fallen.
I write these words and there is no sense in them; I had thought that committing them to paper might bring order to my disordered heart, but no matter what I do the words are only words. I cannot grasp their meaning.
Am I disloyal for caring more that Akira is dead? I could survive the fall of my clan's liege lord, but how am I to survive Akira's death? I never told him. Not once. I never told him how happy I was to be his betrothed. Why couldn't I say it?
Akira is dead and the Hojo have fallen.
If I live a hundred years, will those words ever have meaning for me?
Kaoru frowned, momentarily distracted from the ache in her skull. The Hojo… they were the clan that had ruled the Kanto before Lord Toyotomi had conquered them, with Lord Tokugawa's help. Tokugawa had been given their lands as a reward, surrendering his ancestral holdings in return…
Kenshin had fought in that war. The Hojo had been the last clan to stand against Toyotomi; they were old and proud and did not take defeat lightly. There had even been, it was rumoured, an attempt by some retainers to avenge their fallen lord. Kenshin's first wife – the one who was not spoken of – had supposedly been involved, and he had killed her merely on the suspicion of disloyalty. Though Kaoru was convinced, now, that the official story was not the full one. She knew her husband, and he could never hurt someone without reason, least of all someone under his protection.
Kaoru flipped through a few more pages, skimming over entries full of simple recounting – I went there, I did this, someone said that – until an entry a few months later caught her eye.
Tensho 19, 2nd month, 10th day
I am to marry again. Akira is not even half a year dead and my marriage has already been re-arranged. I am to marry one of our new lord's favorite samurai. I am a prize, the spoils of war given to reward a loyal retainer. But my family is wealthy and traces our descent from the Emperor's court and so I am a valued prize.
The man who I am to marry is the same man we have heard so many rumours about, who joined Lord Tokugawa's service scarcely five years ago, when he and Lord Hideyoshi were still sparring in the hills. Would that they had stayed there! Would that this red-haired demon had had the courtesy to die there, and leave me be!
At least the marriage will not last long.
Father has not forgotten his duty to his lord. I am no bride but a serpent in a pleasant disguise sent to nestle at the bosom of our enemy. I am to earn my husband's trust and learn his weaknesses, use him to pierce through and strike at the heart of the Tokugawa regime. This will likely mean my death; yet the Tokugawa will die with me, and who could ask for a grander funeral pyre?
Akira is gone; there is nothing left that I fear losing. I will endure this world a brief while longer and wait to see Akira again.
Enishi has taken to sulking. He is still a child and understands things as a child does, with a great concern for fairness. I worry about what will happen to him. Perhaps I was too indulgent with him... but with Mother gone, there was no one else to raise him.
He will come to terms with it in time. He is samurai; he knows his duty, even if he sometimes struggles to yield to it.
Kaoru's hand covered her mouth, stifling the gasp that tried to tear from her throat. Red-haired demon… she had to mean –
Then this was –
And she had been – the rumours were true, at least a little –
Her heart pounding in her throat, Kaoru read on
Tensho 19, 3rd month, eighteenth day
My husband is a smaller man than I had expected, shorter than myself by a few inches and a full year younger. His hair is red, though, red as the stories say. As red as blood. He barely looked at me during the ceremony, and blushed the one time that our eyes met.
"Please don't be afraid of me," he said, when we finally sat alone in our bedroom. I didn't know how to respond, so I bowed. It is always safe for a woman to bow. I thought that he might touch me then, but he didn't. He didn't seem to know what to do.
He asked if I wanted him to leave; he said that things could wait until I was ready. Until we were no longer strangers to one another.
I did my duty. It is the place of a wife to please her husband, and if he is not pleased with me – if the marriage fails – then I have failed. I must convince him to hold me close, the better to strike when the time comes. This is my duty, and I have nothing left save my duty. If I cannot do that, then what am I?
He was uncertain, and tried to be gentle. He thanked me, afterward, and brought me a glass of water. His fingers shook when he gave it to me, and he smiled when I thanked him for it, as if he was relieved.
It was not as dreadful as I had feared.
His eyes are not as they are in the stories. They are a strange, deep color like flower petals, bright and wondering, not pale and cold and lit with hellfire as I had thought they would be. I do not know how a killer can have such eyes.
Kaoru gripped the diary tightly, creasing the page as her stomach dropped into the hollow at the base of her spine.
There were no tears left in her, so she did not weep. But not for lack of wanting to. She would have wept, if she had had the tears: for Kenshin and for Tomoe, who had gone to her bridal bed a sacrifice. As Kaoru had – but Kaoru had learned otherwise, and Tomoe…
Had she even had the chance?
Kaoru flipped quickly past more entries, searching.
Tensho 19, 8th month, twentieth day
My husband is a lonesome man. This does not displease me, as I am not much for company these days. He keeps asking if there is anyone whom I would like to visit, somewhere I might wish to go, and I finally told him the other night that I wished to visit the local temple to pray.
I didn't wish any such thing. But it seemed important to him, and I am his wife. I must please him. If pleasing him means allowing him to think that he's pleased me… then I will go, and say I enjoy myself, and smile if he buys me some trinket, and thank him tonight as a wife should. No matter how much it makes my stomach hurt.
I will do my duty. I have nothing left.
We went to the temple today. The day was chilly; autumn came early this year, and the auguries are for an early winter as well. The leaves on the maple trees were just beginning to die, turning brown and curling along the edges like little half-formed cocoons. No one came near us, though I know that people recognized us; how could they not, with my husband's blood-red hair to mark us?
The wind began to blow as we walked home, and he stepped in front of me with his arm outstretched, as if he could shield me from it. I thought that it was strange of him. The wind has never done me any harm.
It was a strange gesture, but I cannot forget it. It was instinctive; he slid himself between me and what he worried might harm me as naturally as breathing. And I do not know why the memory of his back haunts me, or why I can still feel his fingers branded in the skin of my palm where he helped me from the palanquin.
I am writing this by candlelight. He is sleeping behind me, on our shared futon, and my body still aches from receiving his. It was different tonight. There was warmth in his touch, and I found my hands buried in his hair when he pressed his lips to mine. It was soft, like silk, and for a moment –
It all seems very distant – as though it is some other girl, and not I, who was called to make her body an instrument of revenge. As though I sit in judgment of some other woman's deeds, unable to see her thoughts and uncertain of what drives her.
I wonder what judgment I will make.
Tensho 19, 10th month, seventh day
He feeds stray cats.
I have learned this because one of them chose to have her litter in our kitchen. He told me about over breakfast, to explain the slightly muddled meal; it had quite disoriented the cook to find a mother-cat nestling in her pantry, five contented kittens nursing among the bags of rice and radishes. He spent the better part of the morning coaxing her from her chosen spot to a more convenient one – for the humans, anyway – in a storage room just off the parlor.
"It's sort of a compliment, isn't it?" he said, when she was finally relocated. "At least she felt safe here…"
The mother-cat looked up from licking one of her piebald sons and I could almost believe that she was seeking out my gaze, looking me deliberately in the eye. We stared at one another for a long moment; then, with a dismissive trill, she went back to tending her young.
I watched him feed the horde this evening – and it is a horde, though he knows them all and worries for the ones he hasn't seen lately – and wondered what that mother-cat had seen in my eyes.
The stray cats love him. They clustered at his feet, begging for strokes as much as fish, and he gave them his attention freely. He laughed as he did so. I have never seen him laugh before.
What do those cats see?
Tensho 19, 10th month, thirteenth day
Last night, I opened myself to him – my self, not merely my body. I let myself feel, and know, as a woman can and a woman must if she is to survive. For all the lives he's taken there is not a drop of cruelty in him; he came to me wondering and alive with wanting, as if I were some celestial maiden descending for one night to give my blessing. I had not seen – no, I had not let myself see how much he loves me.
I do not know why I did it, why I chose to inhabit my skin after so many nights of hiding within it. Because the nights are drawing down long and dark and cold and his skin is warm, and his eyes are bright. Because he makes sure the mother-cat is fed and warm and safe, and keep her and her children company. Because he feeds stray cats and lets them crawl and leap and cuddle against him, without a thought for his own dignity.
He is not the man I wanted him to be.
Tensho 19, 10th month, fourteenth day
My husband has terrible handwriting. It is the only thing that I've ever seen frustrate him; he mutters under his breath whenever he's called to write, not cursing but pleading with brush and ink and clumsy fingers in language I wouldn't have thought he'd know. Old, archaic speech, such as they use in the Imperial court.
I offered to teach him, today. He is a patient student.
Kaoru drew in a shuddering breath, letting it out in something that was not quite a sob. The shape of the tragedy was coming clear to her: the remembered weight of the poison in her hand burned like coals, the poison that she had come so close to feeding him. She could have written these entries: grief and rage, confusion and the lingering fear because the world was meant to be one thing and truly was another, and killers were only kind men with gentle eyes who smiled like a happy child…
He is not the man I wanted him to be.
If she had realized, then why…?
Kaoru flipped through the pages, still searching.
Tensho 19, 12th month, twenty-second day
So much time has passed that I had almost forgotten my true purpose here. Then Enishi came to visit. He brought a message from my father with him.
I am to slip away tonight and tell him what I know – tell him the demon's one weakness. They will destroy him, and then Lord Tokugawa.
Something has changed in my brother. He was always petulant and prone to fits of temper. Now, though, there is a strange edge to his rages, a danger that was never present before. He smiled so sharply when he told me that the time of vengeance had finally come, and when I hesitated…
Never once in his whole life has he raised his voice at me, until today.
I hesitated to answer him. Why did I hesitate?
Kenshin is practicing his calligraphy as I write this. He is still dreadful, but he tries every day. The mother-cat's kittens have grown to the point where they will not stay in their room and wander freely through the house. One of them is patting at his brush as he tries to write. Soon Kenshin will give in and play with her; then her siblings will come, then her mother, and eventually the cats will be holding court with Kenshin as pillow and playmate.
I know what he is. Yet however hard I look at him, I cannot see a killer any longer. I can only see Kenshin.
Akira is dead, and the Hojo have fallen. There is blood between us, an ocean of it, and only blood can pay for blood. He must die. I must not let him die.
I must serve my father. I must save my husband.
I do not know what to do.
I am sorry. I am sorry, my love. I am so sorry.
I should have loved you better.
I cannot let you do this. I cannot let you – not for me. No more. No more death.
Akira should never have gone to war. He was a kind, gentle man. He hated violence, and he was never a good swordsman. He went to war because I could not say what I needed to say, could not do what needed to be done. He went to war for love of me and died for love of me and I will not allow you to do the same.
Forgive me, my second love. I should have loved you better – loved you both better.
You will find this, and you will read and you will know the truth. It was all a lie but I don't regret it, not a single minute of it. I regret only that it was never true. That I will not have the time to make it true. I regret –
Oh, my second love. You stole every happiness I had, and then returned it all to me. How can I hate you? And how can I forgive you?
There is no time. And you must live, my husband. You must. You swore to me, and you never break your oaths. I cannot let you break one now. Not for my sake. I don't deserve that.
This is the only way that I can protect you.
Live, beloved. Live, and love again – love a woman who will give you all that I never had the chance to give. All the things that you deserve – sunlight and laughter and children with hair the color of autumn leaves instead of blood.
Live. Live and find happiness again. I forgive you. I forgive you. Forgive me. I love you.
There were no more entries.
Kaoru leafed through the remaining pages, just in case, but they were all blank. The story – Tomoe's story – ended there, with Kaoru's questions unanswered. If she had changed her mind, then why had she died? What had happened? Her last entry seemed to say that she'd felt it was the only way to protect Kenshin…
Before Kaoru could follow that line of thinking to the end, there was a knock on her door.
"Permit me to enter, Lady," Yukishiro said from the hallway.
Kaoru threw the diary quickly back in its compartment, dragging the lid over it and picking up the comb next to the mirror just in time to pretend that she had been combing out her hair as Yukishiro entered the room. He hadn't waited for her to invite him.
"Sir Yukishiro." She greeted him politely, but found herself unable to meet his eyes. So she kept hers cast down, small and meek, and clenched her teeth tightly to hold back her words. Her bruises throbbed in time with her pounding heart.
"Lady." He settled down on the tatami and, to her surprise, bowed. "Forgive me for my roughness this morning. I did not know that the Black Hat had told you of me; I should have realized that you would fear me once you made the connection. Please understand that his actions towards you were not my orders. He was never supposed to harm you, or your sisters."
"I… understand," Kaoru managed to choke out. She realized that she was toying with the comb and forced herself to stop, settling her hands neatly on her lap.
"I am not Himura." Yukishiro straightened as he spoke, staring at her with his feverish eyes. "I could never hurt you, Lady. I thought – I thought, perhaps, that I was wrong, that you were that monster's creature. But you're not, are you?"
He reached out and stroked her cheek lovingly, the same one that he had slapped. The sickness of it nearly choked her; her ribs and head still ached from his blows.
"I was harder than I should have been. But you should have come to me. You should have trusted me, and asked about Black Hat. You'll trust me in the future, won't you?"
Kaoru forced herself to bow, pulling herself in from her skin and refusing to think about her actions. "Of course, sir," she murmured through numb lips, her voice not her own. "Please forgive my foolishness."
She'd never had to do this before, though her mother had taught her the trick of it – just in case, she'd said, with worried eyes. You are still a woman, after all; there are things that you must know in order to survive. But she'd never needed this trick before. Never had to bow and apologize when she was not at fault. Never had to murmur gently and tremble to soothe a man's disgruntled ego, to spare herself further pain. Never had to submit.
Rage brewed inside her, swirling and stirring, trapped and growing ever stronger in the hollow below her heart.
"That's all right." Yukishiro was smiling now, genial and satisfied. "I'm not a jumped-up peasant; I won't be offended if you don't understand something right away."
Kaoru's brows drew down in confusion as she lifted her head. Peasant?
"Surely you noticed?" Yukishiro's smile never wavered. "He's another elevated peasant, like that wretch Toyotomi was. Only at least Tokugawa had the grace to keep it secret."
"I – " Kaoru lowered her eyes again, hoping he would take it for shame. It did explain a great deal, but what did it matter? The division between the classes was a recent thing; only an handful of the great samurai families traced their origins back to the bloodlines of the Imperial court. Her own family had only acquired noble relations a few generations back, in her great-great grandmother. In her father's generation a man might have farmed half the year and fought as samurai the other half.
"Don't be distressed." He slid two fingers under her chin and tipped her face up. She endured it, hating his touch. "It wasn't your fault. How were you to know, or resist even if you had known? I, at least, do not hold you dishonored."
Kaoru bit back a snarl, focusing on the delicate patterns painted on the wall just beyond his head. It was a scene in early winter, with fog flowing along a river, and she traced the gentle lines with her eyes, over and over, willing herself to absorb their serenity. Let him think that she was shamed that a peasant had touched her; let him think whatever he wanted, so long as he never saw her hatred in her eyes.
"And he will never touch you again, Lady. Never!"
His tone was elated. Kaoru's stomach knotted in dread. She willed herself to stillness, poured her being into the smooth, clear lines of the painted fog rising from the painted river.
"The demon slit his belly open this morning." Yukishiro's smile became a grin as he said it. "The rider only just came – he rode all day to bring the news. Himura is dead, my lady. He will never trouble you again."
The words didn't make sense.
"W-what?" Her tongue lay in her mouth like a dead thing; her blood drained into her heart, leaving her face and fingers tingling.
He said it again, and the words made even less sense as her heart expanded to fill her ears, her whole being, roaring and pounding against the walls of her flesh. Not true, her blood wailed in her veins, not true, he wouldn't, he can't –
But her slow-beating heart cut through the chaos and made her see that there was no lie in Yukishiro's eyes.
This was not a trick.
"…dead?" she managed to say finally. "Ke – my – Lord Himura is dead?"
"Yes, my lady." His touch on her face was almost a caress. "You are free."
I will find you. I will come for you. I swear it. I will always, always come for you.
He'd sworn, he'd promised, as Father had promised and he'd broken his promises too –
Yukishiro touched her cheek, lightly, and his fingertips came away gleaming with liquid. She was crying, though she couldn't feel it. She'd thought that she had no tears left to cry. He looked at his fingers for a long moment, as though he had never seen them before.
"There, now," he said at length, and folded her into an embrace. His body was as feverish as his eyes, as though he was being consumed by fire from within. Kaoru found herself pressed with her nose against his collarbone, unable to escape his strange, spoiled scent, and when she pushed away he only held her tighter. His arms squeezed against her bruised ribs, burning. "It's all right. It's all right, now."
"Please," she choked out, nearly gagging as she pushed her balled fists against his chest. "Let me go – "
"No," he said dreamily, stroking through her hair. His skin caught against the strands, pulling at her scalp, and she shuddered. "Never again. Don't be frightened, dear sister. My sister. Don't fear for your future."
"My future?" She froze, her heart leaping to rattle in her ribcage.
"You will marry again – an honorable marriage, this time, not sold to demon of no noble blood. You will marry into honor, and bear sons of noble blood, as you were meant to." His grip on her tightened to the point of pain. "My family's failure to kill that demon when we first had the chance brought this fate on you, and I will set it right. I will marry you, Lady Kaoru; I know your innocence as no other man can. As soon as the Tokugawa are overthrown and Japan is free again, I will take you to wife."
He rested his face in the crook of her neck, as Kenshin had so many times – as he never would again – and his alien touch made her shudder.
She had lied. The last time she had spoken to Kenshin – the last time she had touched him, held his hand – she had lied. Had said that Black Hat had told her nothing, when he had. When he'd told her about Whitehair. About Enishi. If she hadn't lied –
Kenshin was dead and Kenshin couldn't be dead, but there was no lie in Yukishiro's voice. Only triumph and rapture and that awful, sickening tenderness.
He let her go, eventually, and she sat numbly with her hand crossed neatly over her thighs, eyes cast down.
"My sisters, sir. What of them?" She kept her voice soft and trembling with emotion, though her heart had begun to still in her breast and that was good. Let it be only an organ, pumping blood through her veins to keep her alive a little longer. Better to be only meat and bone and living blood, and not a feeling creature.
"I'm told that they're well. You'll be reunited with them soon – within a year, all this should be over with. Bear with it until then."
"As you say, sir," she said, concentrating on achieving the correct drape of her fingers: delicate and strong, as a lady must be.
"I must leave you now," he continued, oblivious. "But we'll sup together tomorrow, in celebration."
He stood and bowed, and left her, and Kaoru sat for a long moment in numbed silence, listening to the dry beat of blood in her contracting veins.
The last time Kenshin had kissed her had been three days ago, the morning before she was taken. Just after breakfast, as he was leaving; he'd leaned over in the foyer (there had been no one there to see) and pressed a shy kiss to the corner of her mouth. She'd turned into it, surprising him, and pulled him down into her until he'd curled his arms around her waist to keep his balance. When she'd finally let him go he'd been flushed and dazed, his bright eyes wide and his reddened mouth curved into a wondering smile. So she'd kissed him again, just to make it sure it stayed there.
And the last time she'd seen him alive, she'd lied to him.
The floor tilted beneath her. Her breath caught in her lungs, threatening to choke her.
She'd lied to him. She could have told him what she'd known but she didn't, because she didn't trust him, not yet, not in that. And because she hadn't he'd had no way of knowing, no way to prepare and –
He was dead. How could he be dead? When he'd promised, he'd promised her –
There was no strength left in her. She sank to the floor, weeping silently, and curled her arms around herself. Enishi's touch echoed like poison on her skin, stronger than the memory of Kenshin's gentleness, and his promise filled her lungs like water. She was drowning in it, in that hot, sticky embrace.
I will take you to wife.
Kaoru bit her hand, trying to muffle her sobs. Never. Never. She'd slit his throat first – slit her own, if she had to –
The thought came creeping up from the depths, cold and still as a winter morning.
She'd been worried about time, hadn't she? But there was no reason to worry any longer, was there? Kenshin was dead. Her sisters were safe – if she could believe Enishi, and she did. Vile as he was, he had not been lying to her. The information he'd received – he believed that it was true.
Nothing is true until verified. Misao had told her that once, with an offhanded cheer. I mean, you have to trust your sources, of course, but people can be wrong.
Kenshin was dead, but her sisters were alive. He wouldn't have left them alone. Even if Yukishiro's plot had succeeded – if somehow they'd brought enough pressure on Lord Tokugawa to make Kenshin's continued existence a political liability – but how likely was that?
Possible. He was a controversial figure; there had already been a scandal over his first wife, and then the recent affair with the Black Hat. Possible. But not overwhelmingly certain.
These were facts; these were known things, and therefore real.
"Trust, but verify," she whispered, to no one in particular, and pushed herself off the floor.
If Kenshin was dead – her heart tried to seize at the thought and she quashed it ruthlessly – then she had time. If Enishi had been deceived, then someone knew what was happening and was taking countermeasures, and help was on the way. If Enishi was wrong – then Kenshin was alive and he was coming for her.
So she would wait. Wait, and play along, and search for her opening. Sooner or later, he would trust her enough that she could get a message out to Misao. And then –
If Kenshin was alive, he would come for her. If Kenshin was dead –
If he was dead –
Her fingers curled into fists, digging into her palms. The skin gave way with a hot pop, like water dropping on stone.
If her husband was dead, then she would stay exactly where she was. Let Enishi have his pretty fever-dream while she worked towards his destruction. Let him believe he had won – let him know happiness, real joy, as she had, just for a moment –
And then she would take it all away. Destroy him and all his work, and bury his head at her husband's feet.
Everything he had taken from her, she would take from him. And then some.
"Everything," she whispered aloud, her eyes like glaciers. "Every last thing."