Bad Blood - Chapter 3.
A Rurouni Kenshin x Tokyo Babylon fanfiction by Ariane Kovacevic, AKA Fuu-chan.
It was the birds' insistent song which woke Shunsuke. For a moment, he lay on his futon, eyes fully opened, and wondered whether he ought to get the pests fried for his breakfast or whether he should have marveled at the wonderful absence of hangover symptoms in his body. The mornings that followed an evening and a night spent at the Aoi Kaze-ya were invariably painful. Piercing headaches would impair his vision, and there would be the oh-so-pleasant business of heaving out all the food and drinks he had absorbed.
The Wolf would have been most unhappy with his son.
Eventually, Shunsuke summoned enough energy to stand up, and abruptly the memories of the previous night rushed back at him.
The gaijin half-blood.
The dangerous unbalance disturbing the aura around the inn.
The stupid fight.
Very clearly, Shunsuke could remember the foreigner's muddy grey eyes turning toward him and widening in alarm when he had realized that Shunsuke wouldn't evade the last assault. Scorn and anger had flashed in that weird alien gaze, and then something else that Shunsuke hadn't understood. All of a sudden, the gaijin had thrown himself at the Sumeragi's heir and used his own body to shield him. By the bewildered look in the pale eyes, Shunsuke had known that the other had been as surprised as he by that instinctive reaction. He hadn't been able to explain it, but the few words he had eventually offered had been enough. That small glimpse into the stranger's heart had made Shunsuke's decision for him.
He had thought he would have to either knock the gaijin out or to bespell him to get him to behave and follow him, but the young man had frozen when Shunsuke had allowed his anger to show.
When he had revealed himself.
It hadn't been a well-thought out action. The Shadow within had risen as it sometimes did, and Shunsuke hadn't fought it. With a faint smile, he thought to himself that it shouldn't have surprised him so that the gaijin had stopped in his tracks and bowed to him, at last allowing himself to be led away from the veiled, enticing lights of Gion. Turning toward the sliding panel on his left, Shunsuke focused his mind and heaved out a relieved sigh. The wards he had set around the neighboring room were undisturbed.
Well, that was something at least. With the quick, sure movements that bespoke a long habit, Shunsuke folded his futon and his blankets before storing everything away and out of sight. If he didn't do it, Hiroko would, and he didn't want to be served like that. He didn't want Hiroko to wait on him. She was Shunsuke's mother's--the clan head's--not his. Turning toward the terrace, he opened the panel and stepped beyond the room's threshold.
Brilliant sunlight flooded Shunsuke's vision and he grimaced, raising a hand to his brow to shield his eyes. As he walked out to the main terrace, he watched his breath come out in small puffs of smoke, and smiled. It looked like this was going to be a splendid late autumn day.
The panel of the room to his left had been opened, which meant that his guest had either awakened or been sick during the night. Somehow, the second alternative seemed more pleasant than the first. That might have taught the fool a useful lesson. One had to be cautious and tread carefully around alcohol when one was born with a sense of the spiritual. Talent, small and insignificant though it might be, must be harnessed and mastered. A good mental balance was of paramount importance for, when one indulged in a bit too much sake, restraints failed. Control lessened, emotions spilled out and caused shifts in the spiritual currents that shaped the world--shaped cities and forests, mountains and lakes, oceans, as much as stone, water and wood did. People never realized this, and in truth it didn't matter, except when someone with talent flooded a place with the wild, untamed power that always followed in the wake of strong emotions and pushed--pushed until there was a rupture in the flow of spiritual energy, and balances broke.
And what that stupid gaijin had done-- With a brisk move of his right hand, Shunsuke sent the bothersome subject away from his thoughts and stepped to the edge of the terrace. It would be dealt with in due time. He could hardly be rude enough to step into his guest's room uninvited when he knew he had the situation under control. Even should his own seals fail, the myriad of wards shielding the Sumeragi mansion, each stronger than the former, ensured that nothing could happen--except perhaps alarming some of the family members currently residing in the house. That might even be fun.
Ah, Hiroko had remembered not to move his geta from their spot next to the pillar. Good. Quickly, he put them on and then left the terrace to take a walk in the huge inner garden. Ignoring the koi in the nearby pond, he went over to the closest grove of trees and reached out to the nearest trunk. Its fabric was hard and smooth, cool to the touch. In a slow motion, Shunsuke titled his head backward and looked up at the canopy of leaves and branches. Even the maples would soon lose their whole foliage, then winter would truly be there. In the meantime, they would offer this beautiful vision of a sea of flames. Bright orange, golden and crimson red, the myriad of leaves swayed gently with the eastern breeze, drawing strange, hypnotic patterns in the air. Focusing on the feeling of the ground beneath his feet and on the wind's soft caress on his face, Shunsuke closed his eyes and opened his senses to the life pulsing around him.
Echoes of human voices in the distance.
Windsong in the fragile sakaki branches next to the shrine on the other side of the garden.
Swift, powerful clouds swirling, unfurling above the mountains in the north-east.
Scent of the ocean seeping into the air, almost too faint to be perceived.
Clack of the water, very close, as a koi jumped in the air to remind the household it was hungry.
Fat, lazy koi which lied without shame, its stomach filled to contentment.
Ruffle of fabric behind Shunsuke, coming from a place where there usually wasn't anything but silence.
Shuffle of feet in the southern wing, where cousins were getting ready to leave for Ise.
Quiet flow of power surrounding the mansion, binding earth and sky together.
Presence, brushed by small tendrils of power.
Shunsuke reluctantly opened his eyes and turned away from the maple tree. As he had known he had, his guest had come to the edge of the terrace and was watching him.
Strangely enough, the gaijin had barely disturbed the wards set around his room when he had left it. It looked like he had stopped broadcasting the dark turmoil of his emotions everywhere. The house's seals had reacted to him, but he hadn't triggered any alarm. Instead, the binding of spiritual energy had tentatively encircled him. It had recoiled as it had touched him, and finally it had enveloped him just like it did every living being under its protection.
The young man didn't seem to have perceived any of it, which told Shunsuke his insane impulse of the last night had been correct: he had been right to bring him here. A stumbling child, blind to the dangers he might raise in his steps, the stranger needed watching.
There was a weak throbbing pain in my brown when I opened my eyes. I closed them again immediately, hurt by the angry glare of the sun, and somehow I managed not to moan my discomfort. I had been sick during the night and, while I had retained enough strength and dignity to drag myself outside to retch the contents of my stomach, I hadn't had the brains to remember to close the panel afterward.
I laid back against the futon, and wondered why this particular hangover was so bad. I knew I hadn't had enough time to drink that much and, while of poor quality, the sake hadn't been stale enough to cause sickness. As I shifted on the futon, rolling over to rest my left cheek against the pillow, I suddenly realized that the fabric of the sheet I was lying upon was too soft--too rich for the cheap inn in which I had taken up residence. Then I remembered the night's events and the flask striking my skull. That was the source of the pain, not the alcohol in my veins. The tall, nameless young man had dragged me along with him toward what was most likely his house. There had been something eerie and frightening in the anger he had directed toward me--something that had sent cold shivers running down my spine. I hadn't understood a word he had said, except when he had told me it was all my fault, but I had known he was telling me the truth. There had been no gainsaying him when he had stared at me with eyes that had shifted color completely.
The deep emerald that only westerners' eyes could be.
The pure green that only the members of Erin's oldest clans sometimes retained.
Who was that man?
Eventually, I had found the courage to open my eyes once again and to stand up. I hadn't undressed to sleep and nobody had bothered to do it for me. I shivered, aware that I had been more lucky than I deserved. I needed to use care and caution when dealing with people. I couldn't let myself be handled like a bag of goods. I just couldn't trust people like that. Shit, I hadn't even trusted my own sister this far! Angry at myself, I quickly smoothed out my hakama an my kimono, making sure it was closed completely, then I stepped outside of the spacious room I had been given.
For the time of a heartbeat, I froze on the threshold, blinking. Just now, I had almost felt like I had stepped through an ethereal curtain of water. The sensation faded as swiftly as it had come, though, and I walked on the terrace, focusing on my balance and finding myself to be still a bit light-headed. That blow had been a bad one, worse than I had first thought. On impulse I reached up, and my fingers touched a bandage on my left temple that I didn't remember doing myself. A furious hiss escaped me, and I gave a brisk shake of the head. That was a mistake, as the pain in my skull proceeded to remind me in full glorious details. I allowed myself a few seconds to bring it under control, then I resumed my walk.
Resting my right hand against one of the pillars supporting the roof, I looked out at the garden spreading before me and felt my eyes widen in awe. It was beautiful, even more so than the Asano mansion's had been. In silence, I stared at the riot of bright, fiery autumn colors and abruptly, I noticed someone standing next to a maple tree.
The motionless figure could have been mistaken for a statue. He stood still, absolutely so, as if the life had gone out of him. As I focused on him, I recognized my host's silhouette, and got the sudden, odd sensation that he was one with the garden, as if he had fused with the maple tree he had leant a hand against. It wasn't that he was lifeless, I realized then. He was in complete harmony with everything surrounding him--at one with every single element of the garden. How anyone could attain such a perfect state of concentration without going through endless hours of preparation and meditation, I had no idea. I had watched Kaoru-sensei go through mental exercises to train her focus, and I had observed some of my uncles and cousins doing the same. It was nowhere near as easy as leaning against a tree and closing one's eyes.
A gentle breeze rose around me, and in the same time the man pushed away from the maple's trunk and pivoted toward me. As I fought not to smile at the sight of the long, unruly bangs of black hair invading his face, the air around me rippled.
Time stood still while something cold and yet not unpleasant brushed against my skin. There wasn't anything in the air to touch or reach out to, but I felt it nonetheless as it drew back from me.
I held very still, wondering at the absence of fear or questions inside me, and then it closed around me.
A cloak of wind.
A mantle of ethereal raindrops.
In front of me, my host's eyes had widened in surprise.
Eventually, the moment passed, and whoever had locked Time away released it. The young man came toward me and stepped on the terrace, leaving his geta next to one of the pillars. As he gave me a slight bow, I noted a detail I had missed in the dim lights of the inn: his eyes weren't pure amber, there were patches of green in them. So, maybe it could explain what I had seen. With the daze consecutive to the blow I had taken, it was likely my mind had drifted away and been deceived by an illusion. Relief came with the thought, without my knowing why.
"Good morning. You look far better than you did yesterday."
His voice was deep and pleasant. I bowed back at him. "Yes, I've been able to get a good rest thanks to your hospitality."
He grinned at that, and waved my words aside. "That's because you didn't have enough time to drink too much, not because of the room I dumped you into." Then, sobering, he asked softly, "Your name?"
"Bran," I told him with my best guileless smile, but he simply stood in front of me, waiting--waiting for my name when he should have first offered me his. It wasn't proper, I had learnt this from my mother's clan at least. What was more, names in this country told much more than westerners were aware of.
Names revealed the strongest branch of one's family.
Names revealed which way hearts and loyalty would go.
Names were power.
But then this didn't exactly apply to me--or, to be honest, it applied but only as I saw fit. Taking a quick glance at the garden and the big, luxurious and ancient-looking mansion behind him, I decided to tell him the truth as he would have heard it from informants, had he had the means or the wish to use them. "Asano Bran," I said, my eyes locked on his.
"Asano," he murmured pensively. "Strange," he shrugged, "there hasn't been anyone born with a strong talent in that clan for centuries."
Now what was this about?
"Never mind." He sighed. "At least you're no longer a walking disaster this morning." His eyes searched my face for a few seconds, then he said, "It's weird, but I suppose the sake triggered it and mulled the strength of your walls."
I blinked, taken aback by the more than strange turn this conversation was taking. Then, the words registered in my brain, and anger surged in their wake. Who did he think he was, to lecture me as if I had been a child? I interrupted him with a sneer. "And might one inquire as to the identity of the person so generously sharing his wisdom on the ravages caused by alcohol with a perfect stranger?"
He froze at that, surprise flashing in the amber eyes as if the question was ridiculous, its answer obvious. "I'm Sumeragi Shunsuke," he said at last.
I had to laugh.
Life's chances were too funny. Either that, or the universe had a twisted sense of humor. "I'm sorry," I told him once I managed to control the reaction. He didn't say anything. Puzzlement was plain on his face, but he seemed to accept my laughter as gaijin weirdness. It didn't look like he had taken offense.
"The Asano clan has a house in Tokyo, but no residence here, and no interests either," he said in a quiet voice. It was a statement, not a question, and yet it was rude to intrude into private matters in such an obvious fashion--unless the speaker happened to be of a much higher status than the one he was talking to.
Which was of course the case here.
"My father is one of the work site's chief engineers, and he needed me to come work with him. The Asano clan wisely decided to let me go, thus ridding themselves of a stain on their honor." I allowed a pleasant smile to curl up my lips while I was saying this, and I had the surprise of seeing him bow.
"I poured salt on old wounds. Forgive me, I had no wish to rekindle the pain." He heaved out a small sigh. The amber eyes were set one me once more, true, and I found myself unable to deny his words. "Sit with me," he bade me, and proceeded to sit cross-legged on the terrace's wood. I imitated him, not knowing what else to do. It was an opportunity too good to let pass. "Do you have a place to stay? With your father, perhaps?"
I shrugged. "No, we're not close, he and I. But I do have a room in one of Gion's inns. It's not luxury, but it's good enough for me."
"I'm afraid it's not," he countered softly. "You can't roam Gion as you are," he went on, his gaze set over the garden. Distant. "You're a magnet for trouble. Even though you now seem to be in perfect control, I shudder to think about what would happen, should you decide to get drunk again with your emotions in turmoil."
"I'm not some drunkard in search of an excuse to start a brawl!"
"No." All of a sudden he focused on me. "No, you're not. You're one of the very rare people who send ripples through wards and shields when you walk past them, one of the very few who can shift the aura around places if you don't keep a tight rein on the power streaming through you." Abruptly, I wanted to look away. I couldn't understand those words, they had no meaning to me--no meaning but an echo that resounded within and grew.
Laughter, cold and harsh.
Flames in a centuries-old hearth of stones.
Fire and Shadows dancing.
Telling a tale so terrible it could only be a nightmare.
A legend so harsh and sad that it could only be the truth.
"You're a beacon", he told me, the tone of his voice gentle, as if he was aware of the nameless fear he had sparked to life in my heart. "You disturb the lines of power like a stone thrown in a pond of still waters. I'm sure it's almost never gotten you into trouble, but it's there. And when your mind drowns in chaos and your defenses are weakened, you're like a growing wind, stirring the clear waters and raising dangerous undercurrents without ever realizing it."
"I don't understand any of this," I whispered, managing at last to bow my head and tear my gaze away from his.
He was dangerous.
He was nothing like the reports had told me.
The arrogant first-born and only son of the Sumeragi clan head, who was so spoiled he spent his time revolting against his family, shying away from his duties.
A brat who had too much of a taste for whores and sake.
No, he was nothing like that.
He saw clear and true.
And he was a dire threat.
"You lie." I tensed as the flat pronouncement reached my ears, but he continued quietly, "You're half-Japanese, and you spent time with your mother's kin, I can see it in the way you hold yourself and talk. You know about the kami and the spirits who share the world with us, hovering between one reality and the next. If anything, your clan will have told you this about the land whose life flows in your veins."
I looked at him, unable to help myself, compelled by the truth underlying his words. He smiled as our eyes met, a kind, encouraging smile. "I could of course let you go. It's likely you'd just get yourself beaten up or killed, and the risk that you'd damage the city's seals would be a minor one. But," he grinned at me, "I'd hate to have to mend them, it might give my worthless family the wrong idea."
"And what do you propose, then?" I found myself asking.
"I'd advise you to go back to Tokyo, because it's obvious that someone or something badly affected you here, leading to the near-disaster at the Aoi Kaze-ya--and because it seems likely that that won't follow you back to the Asano household." He shrugged, and waved his own words away in a fatalistic gesture, "But anyway, since it's certainly out of the question, just stay here. This wing of the mansion is deserted, and I won't tolerate any of my cousins settling in it. I'm the only one who lives in it, and Hiroko is the only other soul who dares set foot in it without my express invitation. During the day, you're no danger by yourself, and if you feel like drinking at night, I can set wards around you. I can even drink with you if I'm of a mind to...and if you're in the mood, I can ask girls from the Aoi Kaze-ya to come over. The spirits know my mother would frown on that, but if it's to preserve the city's balance, she'd go along with it." That last bit was said with a very wide grin and a glint of mischief in those amber eyes of his.
He was sincere, I knew it--just as I knew how dangerous staying here would be.
I couldn't risk that.
Slowly, I started pushing myself up while replying, "I'm a perfect stranger to you, and what's more a bastard who'd bring unwanted attention your way. Thank you, but I cannot accept--"
"You must." He had laid a hand on my shoulder, blocking my movement and forbidding me to stand up.
"And what makes you think you could prevent another disaster like last night's?" I asked him, desperately seeking the argument that would convince him to let me go. "This may be an old, famous mansion and not an inn in Gion, but still I am what I am. Nothing can change that."
He stared at me quizzically, and then laughed. "I'm the Sumeragi's heir, isn't that enough for you?" When he saw that I didn't understand, he added with a smile, "The Sumeragi clan has been the guardian of Japan's spiritual balance since the dawn of time. We hold our duty from the hands of the first emperor himself. We bind Earth, Sky and Spirit together," he said softly. "We are the anchors of the world, Asano Bran. Trust me."
The two words echoed within and I closed my eyes tightly shut. Teeth clenched, I willed the painful sounds to be still and fade into nothingness as they must.
As everything must.
"I can't," I began.
"I brought you to my house and set you down on a bed in a room next to mine because I stole a glimpse of your heart."
A glimpse of my heart.
I had to leave--to get away before it was too late. Never mind my father's mission. There were other ways, but this--this....
"It's a fine spirit you have, but it's drowning in a flood of emotions so dark that they've poisoned it. I've seen the black pain and the fury that wait in the shadows of your soul and choke you whenever your control falters--whenever you're so tired that you just want to let go of everything and forget even your name."
Again, I tried to stand up and flee the harsh truth that was being handed to me. I fought against the pressure of the hand pushing me down, but its fingers squeezed my shoulder.
"I brought you to this house so that you could rest. What I saw in you is utter exhaustion, Asano-san. I don't know what stalks you, but I know what damages it causes. You need a peace only this house can give you, because the exhaustion I feel in you isn't of the body, it's of the spirit." Once more, I found myself looking at him.
Eyes of pure emerald were gazing at me.
Something cold crept and crawled within me, coiling up around my spine and I shook under Sumeragi Shunsuke's fingers.
Cold, the bracelets on my left wrist and the ring on my middle finger.
Cold, the ancient, finely wrought silver.
The only thing that had substance in the world.
"Stay," he asked, the tone of his voice soft, little more than a whisper, breaking the spell.
The fear the clarity of his perceptions had given rise to inside me didn't matter. My insane wish to flee from this house didn't matter. Senseless impulse. I should have known better than to listen to it, even if I had done so only for a fraction of a second.
"Stay," he repeated, and because he asked, I wished with all my heart I could go away and renounce my father's name.
But it was too late for that.
There was only one thing to do, I could see my path as clearly as the Big Dipper in the night, but because he had asked, and because those strange eyes were set on me without even a trace of scorn or disgust, I told him quietly, "I will, if such is your wish, but it's a mistake you'll come to regret. Just like you said, I am a wild wind let loose. I harm all those who stay too close. All of them."
The eerie green eyes didn't waver. He gave me a single, calm nod, and then he released me. "I'll be the judge of that," he told me with a smile, and I looked away from him.
Yes, it was likely he would be.
And he'd find that what I had told him was true.
I knew the truth of myself.
The truth of my name.
The silver wound against my skin was cold.
A searing wound--a brand which marked a clan generation after generation. It was a sign, it warned away to those who knew its meaning. But nobody knew--nobody remembered, except us.
I bowed my head, and tried to ignore the sour taste in my mouth that felt too much like tears.
"Here. Looks like this one's for you."
I raised an eyebrow in surprise, then took the letter held out to me and whistled softly between my teeth when I saw the seal on the paper. "It's from Yuta," I said, incredulity plain in the tone of my voice. "How could this reach us?"
"It came from Cho. Your brother used him as a go-between, trusting he'd find a way to contact me. It would seem he developed brains over the years. I'm amazed," the man at my side sniggered.
"Hajime!" I shook my head ad heaved out a sigh, aware that rebuking my husband was useless. Smiling despite myself, I added, "Yuta's brains have always been fine, thank you. They need to be, when dealing with the imperial palace's officials. I'd bet," I told him with a sudden grin, "that he could beat you at shougi."
A derisive snort was the only answer I got, and I laughed softly to myself when I saw the look of haughty disdain in the amber eyes. There was the faintest trace of annoyance there, as well as in the harsh, angular lines of Saitou Hajime's face--annoyance because both he and I knew full well that I had told him the pure and simple truth, but he'd never admit that. Not even if his life was threatened. The Wolf of Mibu had a pride of his own, and it wasn't a small one.
"So, what is it that moved your good-for-nothing brother to turn his gaze our way and to get a hold of us?"
Instinctively, I clenched my teeth as I tore the envelope open. Despite the harsh words, there had been no mockery in my husband's voice when he had asked the question--no irony, but deadly earnest, for it could only mean that something of importance, something bad had happened for Yuta to turn to me.
Something that threatened the clan.
Something that threatened Shunsuke.
When I had left my family a little bit more than four years ago, my brother had understood the reasons, and he had respected my decision. I hadn't heard from him or anybody else since then. He hadn't tried to find us, and until now I had been convinced he never would--sad and proud though that certainty had made me. Yuta was my brother, and like me he was the son of Sumeragi Ryűnosuke.
And I missed him.
I missed the perfumes of the Kyoto mansion's gardens in Spring.
I missed the sound of Hiroko's voice.
I missed the tentative touch of my son's spirit when he reached out to me during his dream-walking escapades.
It was he who must have been hurt the most by my abrupt decision of abandoning the clan. The only thing I had been able to leave for him had been a letter--words written down on paper, much too quickly.
Words, that could never hope to convey the emotions in my heart.
There had been no time to waste. My baring the Sakurazukamori's spirit, and touching the ancient Sakura itself, had doomed me to choose this path if I wanted to preserve my clan and the balance between us and the master assassin. Nothing else mattered--nothing else could matter.
"You have to read it, Tokio." As the whisper reached my ears, hands gently pressed on my shoulders and I nodded in silence, willing my heart to steady. It was thanks to him, thanks to the Wolf at my side that I had been able to keep my head up and endure my self-imposed exile--that I had found the strength and the will to thwart the Sakurazukamori's every attempt on our lives.
The Sakurazukamori, Sakurazuka Keiko. The little girl who had been hurt and abused so horribly--the little girl who had sought refuge with the ancient tree that was her family's doom and blessing, the little girl whose wounds I had unwittingly reopened, whose memory and sanity I had forced back on her. She had cried out, then.
The young, proud woman she had become had screamed in anguish and despair, and when she had lifted up her head, glinting hatred had pushed pain and grief aside. There was a feud between us, one I had no wish and no taste for, but I couldn't deny it. I couldn't step aside from what I had done to her. She thirsted after revenge, and it was her right.
Even though neither she nor I could ever take the other's life.
We were bound, I by a Shadow's ethereal memories and she by the haunting song in the great Sakura's branches.
I folded the letter with slow deliberation, and gently freed myself from my husband's embrace. Stepping toward the small room's low table, I set the paper down and straightened, listening to the wind outside. It had risen in furious gusts with the dawn, and since then it had kept tearing at the old house's fragile structure. Hajime and I had put new stones upon the roof to steady it, but as I focused on the storm's angry howls, I distantly wondered if it would be enough. Eventually, I freed myself from the perception of the swiftly coming winter's violent movements, and turned around.
"We must go back," I said simply, my eyes set on Hajime's.
"The Sakurazukamori's threat?" he asked in a quiet voice. The question could have meant many things, but I knew what it was he asked. Is it all right to bring it back with us?
A sad, weary smile crept up my lips. "We'll have to chance it." Gesturing toward the discarded letter on the table, I went on, "For some unknown reason, circles close to the emperor have seen fit to remember the existence of the Sumeragi clan, and they've been requesting an interview with the clan head for months. Yuta has evaded them for as long as he could, because he didn't want to involve Shunsuke in such matters before he has officially come into his birthright." I let out a small sigh. "But things have moved, taking on a sudden urgency and stalling has become impossible. He'd send Shunsuke," despite the gravity of the situation, I felt laughter bubbling up inside as I said, "but our son has shut himself away from the clan. He has withdrawn to an abandoned wing of the Kyoto mansion and he won't talk to anyone--be it Yuta or the elders. He's grown wild and out of control. It seems the only things that interest him now are Gion's inns, their sake and their women.
"Yuta is indeed a fool if he believes that," Hajime snorted. "Your son may be a willful brat who has been spoiled by his mother, but there's much more to him than this."
"I know," I replied softly as I bowed my head. "I remember." Chasing the memories away with an effort of will, I looked up at the Wolf of Mibu once again and told him, "Shunsuke is our son, and we both know his heart. He understands the balance that must be kept, but I fear he cares nothing for the clan itself or for the mundane duties that come with our name." With a shake of my head, I added, "Even though I understand why he rejects them, even though I'd have done the same in his place, I must go and answer my brother's plea for help."
I stared long at the amber eyes of the Wolf, sustaining the hard light in his gaze. Here was another who hadn't forgiven Yuta--who hadn't forgiven the Sumeragi for not standing by me. He had judged, like Shunsuke had, and once that was done there was no going back.
That terrible harshness was in both father and son, they were much more alike than they knew. Slowly, I reached out to my husband and brushed the fingertips of my right hand against his cheek. "Because I am older than Shunsuke is, and because the years have taught me that choices and decisions, loyalties and betrayal are not as easy and obvious as they can seem to be. Because I am a Sumeragi--the Sumeragi, still--and because I love them despite everything," I said with a quiet smile. There were still doubts in Hajime's eyes, and I pivoted on my heels, facing again the cursed letter on the table.
White stain in the semi-darkness of our small house on the outskirts of Hakodate.
It was strange, I was both happy and devastated at the dire news. I couldn't shake off the surge of joy in my heart at the thought of seeing the inner garden again--of laying eyes on Shunsuke again, when I had thought us parted for good. But all this could in no way eclipse the danger of the situation the whole clan had suddenly found itself trapped into. "If Yuta doesn't answer the palace officials' request--and he won't--they'll take the stakes higher. It's like a game, like go or shougi, but here...." I let my voice trail off into silence, and then voiced the truth that my brother knew but hadn't dared write in his letter.
"By winter's end at latest, a summons will come from the emperor himself. I must answer it if Shunsuke won't, because if I fail to, the Sumeragi name will be wiped out of existence. It's part of the duty we've kept since the beginning of Japan," I continued with cold certainty. "We exist because of the emperor's will, and when a summons comes we must answer. There is no other choice. There may only have been less than five in our recorded family archives, but still," I shrugged, "it changes nothing. I don't know why, but someone in the imperial palace has remembered our name. I can't guess what help we can be in these modern times, but it doesn't matter. Perhaps it's my fault," I said, allowing bitterness to seep into my voice, "perhaps I brought attention on the clan when I helped you, Himura-san and Shinomori-san to silence that faction in power that was pulling Japan toward war."
Perhaps the whole affair that had led to my breaking the centuries-old balance between my clan and the Sakurazukamori had been one huge, foolish mistake. I didn't know anymore.
"Everything is clear, then." Dimly, I heard the sound of Hajime's steps as he came at my side. Abruptly, arms wrapped around me and brought me against him. "The past is the past. Stop brooding about what you can't change, stupid woman!" I turned my head to the left and sighed into his shoulder. "We're almost at the end of autumn, the typhoon season is over. The maritime routes should be safe enough. We'll catch a boat and we'll be back to Kyoto in time. Then you can reason with Shunsuke and settle this mess." He ran a hand through my hair in a gentle caress. "Don't dwell on the past, Tokio," he said quietly, "look forward and act where you can. That's the only thing anyone can and must do."
He was right.
I knew he was.
With a small nod, I sent doubts and misgivings away, then I looked up at the cruel Wolf of Mibu--I looked up at the man I loved with all my heart, and told him with my best attempt at a meek and proper female behavior, "If my husband says so."
For the time of a heartbeat, his eyes widened, and then he laughed. "And I say so!" he growled with feigned severity. Bending over me, he nuzzled at my neck, whispering almost inaudibly, "Fool, stupid, beloved fool." I held him tight, relishing the gentle, tender touch of his lips, and all of a sudden I threw boring propriety aside. Laying the palms of my hands against his cheeks, I made him look at me and kissed him, telling Time to stop for a while. The preparations for the journey would wait for an hour or two.
Right now Hajime and I had far better things to do.
The night is cold.
Even though winter hasn't come yet, a harsh, icy wind sweeps down the many streets of Tokyo, flowing along the Edo-gawa, the Harakawa and the Tama-gawa like a wild torrent fed by an early spring thaw. It comes down from the nearby mountains and cares nothing that the inhabitants shiver and hide themselves within walls to avoid it. It laughs at the pitiful human attempts to bar its way. It only needs to will it for the roofs to be swept away, leaving the houses' tenants naked and defenseless. The woman smiles secretly to herself as she tastes these thoughts and the truth they hold. They're close kin, the savage wind and her, except that she's more patient.
She pauses briefly before one of the small houses at the outskirts of the newly developed borough around what was once Edo-jo, the Tokugawa shoguns' proud fortress. Fondness, unbidden, comes into her smile as her gaze studies the simple architecture. The rather small building has nowhere near the noble, ancient magnificence of the Sumeragi mansion in Kyoto. This city doesn't know the Sumeragi, and the Sumeragi don't know it. The centuries-old clan hasn't roamed its streets or seen to its seals and wards during countless years. Try though she may, the woman cannot feel the telltale touch of their spells in the air, even when she stretches herself as far as would be prudent. Tokyo's aura is wild and untamed, but it has never worried the righteous Sumeragi clan.
They've only cared about that one city, and now that the young emperor has moved his capital to what was once Edo, they find themselves abruptly thrown in murky waters. It's only here, in the area around that small house, that the Sumeragi's hand can be felt, albeit faintly. Things would be different if the clan head was here and chose to stay. It would all be different if the Sumeragi was here to tend to matters that need--no, demand--her presence, but Sumeragi Tokio has fled to Hokkaido, a prey to the hunter's wrath. To the hunter's vengeance.
She has relaxed her hold on her enemy lately, but it in no way means that she has forgotten or forgiven. With a soft smile, the woman looks up at a window on the first floor, but there is no light there. He's been gone for hours, summoned to the imperial palace, she knows. It's likely it will take him most of the night to win free of the old palace officials' snares. It will take him time, but he'll manage, she's confident of that. Sumeragi Yuta is anything but a fool. He'll hold the old sharks at bay for a while still, which suits her fine. She's in no hurry--she holds all the keys she needs. She had her vengeance secured, even though Sumeragi Tokio doesn't know it yet.
But she will, in time.
When she freed her foes from her claws, she excluded Sumeragi Tokio. The clan head's kin would normally be safe from her, but Yuta came to her of his own will. He came, and chose to stay.
Chose to give.
Chose to receive.
Chose to love.
That he placed himself into her hands as a tool to be used is none of her doing, and she will use him. Slowly, she closes her eyes and summons to her mind the feeling and scent of him. Yes, she will use him. With a small nod to herself, she turns aside from the house that is the only residence the Sumeragi have cared to have in Tokyo until now, and goes on her way. The night is still young, and she has errands of her own to run.
It only takes her half an hour to reach her destination: one of the richest houses close to the harbor. Looking critically at the wall protecting the access to the inner garden, she wonders of the estate's owner really believe it's enough to keep burglars at bay. The faint echoes of voices nearby almost make her curse aloud, but instinct takes over and she focuses the tiniest fraction of her awareness to shift the world's shape around her. The illusion she weaves in a split second is one of peace and tranquillity. Nothing has come to disturb the area, except the wind and the sound of the waves. A still figure standing in the shadow of the garden's wall, she watches as four men in uniform walk past her and then disappear in the next street.
Times have changed since the chaos at the end of the Bakumatsu. This time, the people in power are cautious and want to ensure a certain stability--or at least it looks like they do. The invitation she has received seems to indicate that what was thought to be obvious until now might not be so. She has come half out of curiosity, half out of respect for the name written down on the note handed to her by a servant in one of her contact places. Carefully, she unravels the strands of her illusion and steps away from the wall. There wasn't even a true need for that small trick. Clad as she is in men's trousers and jacket, her hair tightly bound in a thick pony tail, she would be mistaken for a sailor who wandered and lost his way between one tavern and the next. Oh, she's a fine sight. Idly, she wonders if Yuta would recognize her. Then, focusing her mind on what she's come here to do, she turns toward the small, unimpressive wall, jumps and lightly vaults over it.
The garden smells of newly moved earth. Looking around, the woman notices bushes that have obviously been replanted recently. It looks like someone in the house enjoys gardening. Distantly, she notes all the little details and files them away for possible further use. It's instinct, and it can't hurt. Turning from the garden's enticing but distracting spectacle, she quietly steps toward the house and the terrace that someone has lit.
Well, not exactly she. It's well known that she never comes herself. Out of habit, she stretches herself a little bit, extending her wards and feeling for danger. There are no spells around the house, no Onmyouji has ever touched its aura, which isn't exactly a surprise. There's no spiritual shield here, but there is someone waiting in the shadows cast by the roof, hidden from the light of the small lantern.
As she reaches the terrace's edge, she takes off her simple geta, as if she was a normal house guest, and then she steps up on the polished wood floor. Pivoting to her left, she gives a slight bow and waits.
"Be welcome to this place," the voice is deep and quiet, "Sakurazukamori-san." There isn't even a trace of fear in the words, which comes as a refreshing surprise. How the man knows who it is who stepped into his house is another matter. As he comes toward her, the lantern's dim light reveals a man in his late forties, clad in a rich and traditional kimono. The master of this house, and the one who asked for her. This explains it. The man is Satsuma, and even though his brother died a rebel, he's made a name for himself and he's gathered power into his hands. He doesn't know her, but he knows the feeling of a hunter, this one. He knows how the air ripples and parts for the master assassin.
"What can I do for you, Saig˘-sama?" she asks softly in the night. She has no time for idle talking and politeness, not now. She has come because she sees a pattern in the movements of servants around the imperial palace and in the repeated visits of Yuta to Edo-jo. Already, she has heard the request of another great name among the Oligarchs, but she hasn't given her answer yet. She'll wait until she has enough to satisfy her. She's the Sakurazukamori, and as such, she has a place in the order of things.
A very precise place at the center of a maze of contradictions.
"When winter ends, a decision must be made. In appearance, a small, obvious decision to honor a treaty signed almost ten years ago, but on that small decision will hang the future of this country. What we will become will be sealed then." The man's dark eyes are set on her, steady. His voice is calm, but she can feel the tension disturbing the air as he speaks. "The westerners have sent envoys to push the decision in a way that suits them. The emperor's advisors know this, just as they know that some of the Oligarchs requested the westerners to step in and shift the balance from the shadows. They have remembered an old name, the name of a clan that has been used to guard the balance of the land for countless generations. In their fear of seeing the Oligarchs seize even more power, they've decided to involve the Sumeragi."
There, another strand tied into the tapestry.
It's an intricate design, this one. An interesting one. "The Sumeragi are beyond me, Saig˘-sama," she interrupts the man softly. "I won't step into their domain or break the pattern that they weave."
"I'm not asking for lives," he waves her quiet protestation aside. "Until now the Sumeragi have refused to grant the advisors' wishes, but they are advisors themselves, appointed by law as old as this country. When the emperor requests the clan head's presence, they must comply, and they will."
The clan head, summoned to Tokyo.
If she were to come here, where her hands have never touched a seal or strengthened a ward--in this place that doesn't know the Sumeragi's hand and wouldn't respond to her touch like Kyoto does....
"And the emperor will ask for them. The advisors have grown desperate and they'll bring the matter to him eventually. He's no fool, he'll know the true portent of that decision, and he'll want to gather all the wisdom he can before choosing one way or another." Belatedly, the woman remembers to focus on Saig˘ Tsugumichi's words. "A lot will depend on what the Sumeragi will have to say. Which way will they go: war and opening our arms to embrace that which is within our reach, or peace and focusing inward on taking the time to bring this country to a level that can compete with the westerners?" She blinks as she hears this. The question seems easy enough, and the Sumeragi's answer to it certain. "I don't need you to kill anyone. I need information on what they will choose, and I believe you're the only one who can breach their security. If they'll choose war, I must know beforehand so I can stop them."
She laughs. "And why would a man like you do such a thing, Saig˘-sama?" Locking her gaze with his, she dares to question further. "Why would you support peace?" If anyone heard her, they'd be appalled. One doesn't question the actions of a person with such a stature. One bows and gracefully accepts his commands. Not her, as both of them know.
"Perhaps because of this name I bear, Sakurazukamori-san. Perhaps because I have fought wars--because I have felt how they befoul human hearts and how they leave nothing in their wake but ashes, rotten pestilence and hatred. Never justice. Never peace."
There is a dissonance in that name that wasn't there before. It's what she is. It's who she is, more than the name of a little girl who died long ago. Keiko...no, she is Sakurazukamori. The sounds of that name embrace her and, even if she can sometimes feel the cold that goes with it, it's the only one that she has for the world to know.
Refocusing on the man, she toys with his answer for a while, turns it in her mind this way and that, and eventually finds it to be true. Adequate. In the time of a heartbeat, her decision is made. "I'll turn my eyes toward the Sumeragi clan and tell you what you want to know," she says even as she bows to take her leave. In the blink of an eye, she's gone from the garden where blue jasmine us freshly been planted next to the terrace's southern edge.
Quickly, she makes her way through the city, and again she stops when her steps bring her next to the house owned by the Sumeragi. There's a light at one of the windows, a small one, as if it had been forgotten. On impulse, she climbs up the wall like a thief.
The small study is empty. The only things alive are the small wards that have been set to protect the house. Small, and insignificant for her. Gently, the Sakurazukamori parts the delicate spell's fabric as she would a curtain, then she steps inside the room.
Inaudible crystal bells chime in the night and she tenses violently, feeling the net of a ward she hadn't perceived close over her.
The voice has reached her just as she was about to rip through the spell and reveal herself. In a slow motion, she turns to find Yuta's dark gaze set on her. The ward is his, she suddenly realizes, and he set for her. He has stopped her from disclosing what they both know, but have never voiced aloud. He's not the lost boy lacking talent, leaking power that she thought he was when she first laid eyes on him, four years ago.
He's a man who fights and gives everything to his clan in the best way he can.
He's a Sumeragi--the Sumeragi's brother.
And when he calls her name--the little girl's name--the Sakura's branches rustle with a gentle, ethereal wind. The sounds warm her, enfold her and make her feel safe. It's a spell, a powerful one, for it can even make the Sakurazukamori title fade for a time.
"You're always welcome here. You don't have to sneak inside like a burglar," he says, smiling, chiding her for childish behavior. As she steps toward him, the knowledge she gathered tonight turns and turns around inside her mind.
Sumeragi Tokio is coming to Tokyo, summoned in a way she cannot ignore. It may be that she'll be given the opportunity to end her game, at last. Sakurazuka Keiko holds her revenge in her hands. She holds him tight as she reaches his side, and closes her eyes in contentment as his arms encircle her and press her body against his. She smiles, satisfied with the sweet taste of her impending vengeance. Then, he whispers words in her ear.
Soft, impossible words that fade in the night.
She trembles in his arms.
And she holds him close, reaching out beyond the edge of the world to touch his heart and his soul. There's silence in the room as the lantern's light falters, and as the aura around the house shifts.
There's silence, as both lovers' ethereal wings enfold one another.
End of chapter 3.
Satsuma: powerful clan of Kyűshű island, southern Japan. Allied to the Ch˘shű, they brought about the Meiji Restoration.
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