The shōgun's guards bowed as they opened the door to reveal the august personage himself sitting on one side of a game board. He was waiting for her on a porch overlooking one of the thousands of palace gardens. It was lush with new life, green and dripping with spring, and the stream running through it roared a little more loudly than was dignified. The rain had swelled it.
Kaoru paused at the threshold, kneeling and bowing deeply as such a dignitary required.
"Lady Himura." He returned her bow with a shallow nod, in keeping with protocol. "Do you play?"
There was a small bowl of white stones beside him; a bowl of black stones waited on the other side of the table, presumably for her.
"Yes, Eminence." Her father had taught her, patiently explaining the board, the stones. Symbols and proverbs, and the real wisdom of the game, which lay not in knowing the rules but in understanding how and when and where they were best applied.
"Excellent. Please, join me."
An order, phrased as a request. For the time being it pleased Lord Tokugawa to pretend that this was what it had appeared to be when the invitation came: a friendly if unusual request for her company.
"I would be honored," she said demurely, and took her place across from him.
"Do you desire a handicap?"
"I would not presume to play such an opponent without one."
Lord Tokugawa chuckled. "Wise." He gestured to the board, a silent acquiescence. "Your husband is well, I trust?"
He would know that answer to that; the year of service in Edo that Lord Tokugawa had required was nearly ended and Kenshin spent most of his time in the castle proper, seeing to last-minute business. So why would the shōgun…?
A handicap. Kaoru smiled only internally as the shape of the conversation became clear to her, pleased with her observation. An advantage given to a weaker or less experienced player, to keep the game interesting – and fair.
I was given nothing, she reminded herself, firm in her convictions. I earned this –
But then, a handicap in a game of go was no insult: it was a paradox, unequal treatment indicating the desire to play equally. And Lord Tokugawa had made no move to indicate his own rank: so this, too, was a test. How well did she know her own skill, and how did she judge herself against him…?
She moved confidently, selecting four stones and placing them in the corners of the board. Lord Tokugawa inclined his head, approving.
"My lord husband is very well, eminence," Kaoru said softly.
"And your cousin?" The shōgun placed his piece with seeming carelessness; Kaoru noted it but did not permit herself to guess his strategy. Not yet. He seemed like a man who would play the center, seeking influence over territory – but then again, he would be aware of his reputation and compensate for it.
Slow, she reminded herself. Slow, and make no assumptions: play the board as it is, not as you planned for it to be.
"Yahiko is grateful for the opportunity to prove his loyalty." She placed her next stone. "He is obedient and hardworking."
"His loyalty was proven when he renounced his clan," Lord Tokugawa remarked as he took his turn. "It gladdened my heart to see such a dutiful young man."
Duty had had nothing to do with it. It had been obedience to his father, not loyalty to the shogun that had drawn the words from Yahiko's mouth. One last obedience to his father, a gift she had not expected Miyauchi to give: his life, and his wife's, and all the honor of their clan for his son's survival.
He had not made her a similar gift. But then, she had only been a daughter of the Kamiya.
Kenshin had kept his distance, respecting Yahiko's grief, though Kaoru knew that Yahiko blamed no one but himself for what had transpired. He didn't even blame her – and he would have had the right to. She had been the one to restrain Kenshin, stop his protests in their tracks and allow things to unfold as Lord Tokugawa had intended, when her husband's interference might have changed things.
It had been her choice, in the end. And she had made it… because it was the right one. She knew that in her bones, for all her blood rebelled against it. Uncle Miyauchi was not her father's heir, whatever the law said. She was; she and Yahiko, her cousin who would have inherited by law upon her father's death, whom her father had taught as carefully as he had her.
As long as they lived, the Kamiya would endure. So what if they might call themselves Himura from now on? Noble families changed their names all the time.
Her uncle had known just enough to… complicate things. If he had survived, and stayed in power, she would have had to maneuver around him. With him gone, she could act more freely.
There were always sacrifices. She had learned that at her father's knee, but now – now she understood. And a name for a future was not such a terrible one, in the scheme of things.
The game grew and evolved below their fingertips, white warring with black in endless shifting movements. As she had thought, Lord Tokugawa was the kind of man to seek control of the center: she stuck to the edges and corners, fighting only where she knew her footing was surest, and did her best to block his bids for influence. The tricks was not to be led – he was a strong player, cunning and clever, and it would be so easy to let herself react to his choices rather than act on her own…
Lord Tokugawa let out a low laugh as Kaoru placed her next stone. He had seen what she had: the race for the northeast quadrant had left them in stalemate there and her latest move had set the détente in stone. Neither of them could make another move for that corner without sacrificing their entire territory. Mutual life, it was called. An uneasy suspension of hostilities, each side dependent on the other.
Not an ideal situation, but it had complicated what appeared to be one of his more important bids for influence and prevented the capture of her own pieces. So it was worth it, for now.
Lord Tokugawa inclined his head in recognition of her play. She returned the nod gracefully and waited for his move.
Aoshi and Uramura had spent the last year hunting traitors, at her order. Those men who had been directly involved in Yukishiro's plot had been discovered and put to death in short order. Her hand had condemned them, for all she'd signed the execution orders with Kenshin's seal. He'd watched her do it, the look in his eyes caught somewhere between awe and grief. As if she was making some great sacrifice in condemning traitors to their rightful fate.
He was not samurai. There were things that he did not understand, would never understand – but she did, and that was enough. He was content to let her take command. No, more than content: he had surrendered to her as completely as if he were the wife, trusting her guidance as she purged their house of treachery and began the long slow work of strengthening their position. There was the future to look to, after all, and his reputation could only carry them so far.
Their house. Her house – her husband, her sisters, her cousin, her people. And she would protect them with every tool at her disposal.
A few of the brighter politicians had already begun to realized that it was the Lady, and not the Lord, who ruled in Hito. A bit sooner than she'd wanted, perhaps, but the ones clever enough to figure it out were also clever enough to keep it to themselves, rightly seeing the advantage in understanding where true power lay. Aoshi and Misao were keeping her abreast of the situation, seeding information where she instructed, ensuring that her honored colleagues knew exactly what she wanted them to know.
The trick would hardly work on Lord Tokugawa, of course. But he'd been absent from the field thus far, his goals differing from her own. She'd felt his influence – she couldn't not, given his position on the board – but he had not yet opposed her.
Neither had he supported her.
The game continued, white and black filling the board in an orderly jumble. She laid traps, and he avoided them; he dangling tempting bait before her and she refused, seeing the claws within the sweetmeats. They warred across the lacquered square, and perhaps a more experienced player than she could have told who was winning – but Kaoru was hardly even close to mastering the subtleties, and she knew only that she felt as if she was holding her own.
She lost herself in the game, forgetting time in the endless clack of stones against the board and the trance of strategy, each move echoing in her being. Formlessness and flowing water…
Play the game as it is, not as you planned it to be.
After ageless moments, she found herself with nothing left to do. So she passed. Lord Tokugawa sat back on his heels, a small and perhaps genuine smile playing over his face.
"A good game," he said. "I pass as well."
And like that, it was over. All that remained was tallying up the score. Kaoru reached for the lid of her bowl, intending to count up the white stones she'd captured from Lord Tokugawa over the course of the game.
The shōgun reached out a hand – not quite touching her – and stopped her.
"With your permission, Lady Himura, it occurs to me that we might leave this score… uncounted."
There was a strangeness in his eyes. Not quite sorrowful, not exactly questioning: he spoke of the game they'd just played and of more than that. Kaoru studied his face for a moment, her brows creasing in thought.
"Might I ask why, Eminence?"
He settled back, withdrawing, and rested his hand lightly on his thigh.
"It has been my experience that we are rarely permitted to know if we have won or lost." With an eloquent shrug, he pushed his own lid – stacked with her black stones – towards her. "An idle fancy, perhaps."
And perhaps not.
"There are ways," Kaoru said. A strange courage fluttered in her chest as she spoke, a sense of – of running downhill, of pieces sliding into place. "For example – many men would look at your accomplishments and say that if life is a thing which can be won, you have won it."
There was no way to tell just by looking at the board which of them had won the game. It had been too complicated a thing for that: white and black strutted their colors across the board, outlining empty spaces, and their tangled lines betrayed no clear victor.
"Indeed." The shōgun raised an eyebrow. "What do men desire that I do not have?"
Nothing, was the obvious answer. Not power or wealth or glory or honor…
And yet. She'd learned the axiom at her father's knee: our lives are not our own. All these things came at a price: she knew that now, as more than just a lesson to be recited. A name for a future; honor for legacy.
"Still, I did enjoy our game." Lord Tokugawa gestured at the board. "It would please me if we might play again. Do you intend to visit the capital in the future?"
"Perhaps. If my lord husband permits it." Empty words, and by the wry glint in his eyes the shōgun knew it. Kenshin did not permit her anything; if she wished to visit Edo, she would, because he was her husband and not her captor. Her husband, her equal, her lover, her friend, and heaven willing the father of her children – once she stopped taking the tea Tae that had taught her how to brew, all those long years ago. Which she intended to as soon as they were back in Hito. Her child would be conceived there, carried and born in her family's home and nowhere else.
An idle fancy. But it mattered to her.
"Then I hope that I might see more of you." His face was very knowing. "You show great promise, Lady Himura. I would enjoy the chance to learn from you."
"Of course." Another one of those strange, half-genuine smiles. "Only a fool believes that youth and inexperience have nothing to teach. The young sometimes see what the old do not, and many great things can be accomplished when one is too ignorant to know that a deed cannot be done. We play well together, Lady Himura; I value that more than victory or defeat."
There. That was the heart of it, she realized, as her heart pounded in her chest. An offer of… something that was not quite an alliance, not yet, but could be. He knew that it was she who played the game on Hito's behalf, with her husband as a gamepiece (but only by his own will, she thought fiercely, only ever by his will, because he loved her and he trusted her to play him wisely) and accepted it. Seemed, even – by the look on his face – to be pleased by it.
Had he known, when all this began, what the outcome would be?
Play the game as it is, not as you planned for it to be.
…did it matter, if he had? The board stood a certain way: how would she place her pieces?
The Tokugawa ruled. That was immutable, now, for at least a generation. She had sacrificed her family's name for her father's legacy: to ensure that she and her sisters and her cousin would escape unscathed to safer harbors, sheltered under Kenshin's name and reputation. Where she could rule Hito as her father had intended, with the man she had chosen – and she had chosen him, in the end, over and over again – at her side.
Her uncle was dead, his retainers banished into infamy or picked up quietly by Aoshi's forces and serving now in a different, more subtle way. Brother Mateo had returned to the foreign priesthood, at her quiet insistence, and served as their eyes and ear within it. Her position was far stronger than it had been a year ago.
An alliance with the shōgun would be… advantageous. If it could be arranged.
There was nothing left of the past. There was only the future, now: Lord Tokugawa had recognized her as a power in her own right – the first player on the board to do so. Sought alliance with her, and not her husband, knowing her to be player and he the piece, and not disapproving of the arrangement.
She would certainly entertain worse offers, once everyone else caught on.
Kaoru smiled, inclining her head.
"In that case, Eminence, I would be honored to play with you again."
Kenshin was playing with the girls when Kaoru got home; they always invaded the office as soon as their lessons were over, bringing their latest accomplishments for him to make much of. He was listening solemnly to Suzume's explanation of a picture she'd drawn when Kaoru entered, his head bent and nodding as she pointed out things she especially wanted him to notice.
"I'm home, husband," she said. He looked up and smiled as he always did – as if the sun had returned with her presence.
"Welcome home, wife. How was your visit?"
Just a bare trace of worry in his eyes. She smiled to dispel it.
"It was fine." She would explain the subtleties later, when the girls were safely abed. "Lord Tokugawa has invited us to visit for the New Year – I thought we might, since we should be settled by then." The invitation had been for Tanabata, actually, but Kaoru had demurred and suggested the other date. Partly because she wanted the full year to settle home again, but mostly because Tanabata was theirs in the most important way: the moment that they had found each other, the moment that everything had really begun. She didn't want to waste it on a formal palace affair.
"Lady Takani and her son will enjoy that," he said. Kaoru settled by his side, hugging her sisters back as they swarmed over her. Ayame was in the process of embroidering a handkerchief – quite intricately, actually, given her age – and Kaoru exclaimed over it appropriately.
"Well, they're welcome to visit whenever they wish," she replied, after greetings were done. "We won't be that far away. And I could hardly deprive Ayame of her playmate, could I?"
Ayame and Katsuo had grown close over the past year, which was good for them both; Katsuo was a lonely child, and Ayame had lost too much. There would be visits, Kaoru was certain, and she hardly minded. Lady Takani was an acid wit, but an unexpected friend for all of that. Both of them understood what it was to be beyond the pale.
Anyway, whenever her sarcasm got too unbearable she could always redirect it at Sano… and that was a show worth the price of admission. She gave it another year, maybe two, before they finally gave in.
"That's so." Kenshin's hand covered hers for a moment, warm and loving. Kaoru smiled at him.
Then Suzume shot up and out the porch doors, beelining for Yahiko as he crossed quickly through the courtyard.
"Cousin, cousin!" She latched on to his sleeve. "Come and see!"
He glanced up, saw Kenshin sitting there, and froze. Kenshin stiffened as well.
Kaoru didn't know what to say.
Her husband and her cousin had barely said two words to each other since that strange, horrible day, for all she'd tried to bridge the gap between them. There was no blame involved, she knew that – only grief and guilt, and more than a little bit of broken pride.
After a pause that was almost too long, Kenshin cleared his throat.
"Suzume has drawn a picture," he said carefully. "It is very fine, that it is. Would you like to see?"
Yahiko wasn't being given a lot of choice in the matter. Suzume pulled him across the yard, determined to have her full due of praise, and he stumbled awkwardly after. His dark eyes never lowered.
She sat him down on the edge of the porch and shoved the picture in his hands. Her cousin looked at it, barely seeing it.
"It's, uh – it's really nice, Suzume."
Suzume began to explain it. It was clear to Kaoru, at least, that Yahiko wasn't really listening: that all his being was focused on Kenshin's presence with a horrible alertness. Kaoru been much the same, before she'd come to know him – though Yahiko, at least, had Kaoru's assurance that he was more than his reputation. But she knew, also, that her assurance wouldn't be enough, not after all that had happened. He felt responsible: blamed himself for being a child and easily fooled, for how Yukishiro had exploited his love of his family, for the choice that his father had made…
"One is particularly fond of the depiction of Miss Mouse, that I am," Kenshin remarked softly. Yahiko raised his head too quickly, his brows drawing down over his eyes as he looked at Kenshin as though he was a puzzle that Yahiko couldn't quite solve.
"She looks rather like Sir Uramura, that she does."
Yahiko looked back down at the picture. A stifled laugh shot between his teeth.
"Yeah." He bit at his lower lip. "She kinda does."
Kaoru relaxed. They would find their way, in time. They couldn't not. Whatever Kenshin feared, she knew that Yahiko didn't blame him; and whatever Yahiko blamed himself for, she knew that Kenshin didn't. They were, both of them, fiercely honest souls. They would come to understand each other.
Suzume chattered at them both indiscriminately, effortlessly filling the gaps in their halting conversation. Ayame bent studiously over her embroidery – for Katsuo, she told Kaoru, when Kaoru asked why, exactly, she was working on it still. The handkerchief was to be a gift, because she was going away, and she wanted him to remember her.
Kaoru smiled softly when she heard it, glad for her sister's young heart.
The sky above them was pale and blue, deepening towards summer. There was already a smell of flowers on the wind, the promise of long lazy days. The wisteria would be in full bloom when they returned to Hito, and Kaoru knew from Master Oguni's letters that the garden – so wild and overgrown when last she'd left – was back in some kind of proper order. All was well, and all would be well, and by this time next year…
Kaoru smiled, curling a hand over her belly.
By this time next year, she promised herself, they would be home.