1. Sun stinging like midges
It wasn't really any hotter than anywhere else at this time of year. Well, at least the nearest cool place would probably be in the mountains of the north, with the savages. He wasn't picky about his company usually, but. no.
It wasn't much hotter than last year either, he reminded himself. And still, even with the mountains ruled out, he could think of any number of nicer places to be than where he was. And where he was was crouching in a ditch, basically. Hiding in the underbrush beside the only larger tree around, peering along the dusty winding path that connected the thin string of villages further up the valley with the lifeline of the Tokaido road off to the south.
It wasn't really any hotter than it should be at this time of year, and yet he felt as if hundreds of tiny insects had crawled into the sticky space between his skin and his clothing, and were feeding on his sweat. Damn the heat! He breathed in slowly, willing the next thick sweat drop to run down his back to be soaked up into his belt. Surely Kannon the Merciful had made sure that men had such a poor sense of smell, he thought grimly. Or else I would have choked on my own stink long ago, and then what? A traveller comes along, and all he does is turn up his nose at me as I'm rotting away by the roadside. Should have come earlier, the bastard, would have given me something to do. Something other than stink at him, that is.
He snorted in disgust and shook his head.
As it was, the horse must have smelled him anyway.
Nervously, he adjusted the scarf around his head, grimacing at its stickiness. He tugged it down just a little to expose his nose. So what if he showed his face? At least he could breathe as he attacked. With a bit of luck, the traveller wouldn't even see what had hit him.
The man was on foot. Well, he had a horse with him, but was walking alongside it, its shaggy coat sheened with sweat, its breathing audible in the stale mid-day air. No wonder it refused to carry him any further, really. He was a tall man, and quite possibly big too. Hard to tell from the way his clothes flopped about his frame, kimono belted loosely to invite in a breeze that wasn't there. His clothing was clean, that was a good sign. Would be worth it. The horse at the very least would pay for another week's worth of decent living, and was that the hilt of a sword sticking out of the far saddlebag? If so, it was out of the traveller's reach, or would be by the time he knew what was going on. He was walking with a slight slouch, fanning himself with a large stained grey folding fan that matched the grey in his hair. This one would be easy prey.
With a yell fit to startle horse and rider, the attacker burst out into the open, the long iron blade of his spear trained on the man's throat, there where it must be behind the fan. The horse reared, but the traveller remained calm. What - no throwing up the arms in horror? No frantic rush for the sword, strapped out of reach to the saddle of a bolting horse?
The man lowered his fan minutely, took aim, and struck, impaling the dirty grey silk on the blade. Startled, the attacker hesitated for a split second. What? A scrap of stained fabric couldn't stand between his spear and the man's throat! And he kept staring, just staring, this calm bearded face. No scream.
With another yell, the attacker thrust his weapon home for the kill.
And found he couldn't.
Incredulously, he stared at the point where the ribs of the fan held his spear captive. Steel! The grey silk was hiding steel ribs - and the grey-haired man's loose kimono concealed arms of awe-inspiring strength. One twist of the traveller's wrist, and the fan gripped the spear like a giant ragged bird's beak. The sinews on the man's hairy forearms stood out as he slowly twisted the fan further, wresting the spearpoint away from himself until he could grip the shaft with his other hand. Smiling grimly, the stranger leapt up in the air and brought his full weight to bear on the spear shaft, toppling its hapless holder to the ground and snapping the wood into two splintering halves.
The bottom half hit the masked man's groin, and he couldn't suppress a groan of pain. Moan, will you, he grumbled to himself, that'll do you good when he's killed you. Wiping the dust from his face, he peered up at his unwilling victim. Strong, too strong for how he'd looked, and as tall and unmoving as the lone tree shading his broad features. He fancied he could see a tiny smile tugging at the corner of the stranger's mouth as he untangled his fan from the now abbreviated spear, flicked it closed and tucked it into his belt. He then gave the nicked but sharp old blade a cursory glance before tucking that into his belt too. At his left, like the swordsman he probably was.
"This won't be of much use to you any more, I trust," the stranger said, in a voice that was nerve-racking in its rumbly calmness. "And I strongly suggest you seek employment elsewhere. Now excuse me while I go catch up with my horse." The stranger sketched a bow and strode off in a rustle of loosely-belted hakama, all slouch gone from his long-legged stride, his decidedly greying top-knot bobbing slightly with every step. He did not even look back.
Defeated, Hara Inosuke, failed highwayman, tore off the scarf that had concealed his features, and wiped his sweaty face. Really, what had the world come to? There should be laws against unattached former samurai roaming the country looking to all the world like nice older men travelling alone... these ronin were fast becoming a plague of the land, really they were, and should be taken down by police -
With a short biting laugh at his own righteous indignation, Inosuke picked up the splintered shaft of his spear, gave it a long hard look, and hurled it into the bushes he had been hiding in. With any luck, he'd make it to the next village along the Tokaido road before nightfall.
Perhaps they had need of a common labourer there.
Truth be told, it was uncommonly hot, at least considering there were still a good two weeks to go to the first full moon of summer. Lifting up the tail of thick greying hair at the back of his neck, the traveller wiped away a good quantity of sweat. His horse snorted in sympathy, trotting alongside him, vainly trying to keep the insects in check by thrashing its tail from side to side and shaking its mane, oblivious to the fact that that resulted in the clouds of tiny flies and midges being driven closer to its master.
Not that said master seemed to mind much. He vaguely knew the area, and knew that the ponds on either side of the path were fertile breeding grounds for fish, and that the eggs and larvae of these insects would ensure a rich catch later in the year. Besides, he knew that there were only about half a dozen ponds, and that they had passed most of them by now. Still, he was acutely grateful for his uncommon ability to grow a beard - it kept them away from his mouth, at least.
The beard was still barely touched by the grey that streaked his long dark hair, thick and slightly shaggy, caught in a tight top-knot at the back of his head and tied in place with a strip of paper cord while the rest of the man's mane was held in check by a softer leather strip gathering it into a tail that fell over the collar of his kimono. Silk, by the look of it, though of the coarse homespun variety and dyed a deep blue.
When the first houses of the village came into sight, the man stopped his horse and packed the truncated spear into his saddlebag alongside the sword, wrapping both in a length of cotton cloth and hiding them from view. It would not do to frighten anyone, not here. He knew the place, but after all this time he doubted the place knew him well enough to not be afraid. So soon after the wars, the tales of rampaging ronin raping and pillaging were probably still too fresh in people's minds, and quite possibly too true for him to want to be associated with them. Besides, he knew where he was going, and wouldn't need to be noticed on the way there.
Thankfully, people paid him as little attention as people would when faced with a tall greying stranger in clean clothes walking alongside a shaggy packhorse. They could tell he wasn't local, but they could tell just as well that it wasn't a good idea to ask him where he was from. Besides, he seemed to know where he was going, so best get on with one's work and forget about him.
The tall stranger's destination turned out to be a sprawling low house only a few dozen paces away from the main path that led through the village. A stray cat looked at him questioningly as he reined his horse to a halt and took a leisurely but thorough look at the house. Smoke was rising from the yard behind the low outbuilding that faced streetways, and the doorway was covered with a reddish-brown curtain with the word 'iron' printed on to it in a large white calligraphy scrawl. Nodding to himself, the traveller gripped the reins more tightly, drew in a deep breath, and yelled at the top of his impressive lungs.
Silence. A few heartbeats of silence floated up from the yard like a bubble, then burst as the familiar background din of industry started up again. Hesitantly at first, then falling back into its accustomed rhythm, hammer hitting anvil, hammer hitting red-hot iron, five, six times, pause, and start again. The traveller had to shake himself out of the reverie induced by the smithy's metallic heartbeat. This would not do.
The clatter of iron on iron, flung aside in haste or anger. The traveller smiled. The rust-brown curtain was rudely flung aside, and from the doorway emerged Watanabe Kenji, ironsmith of some renown -
- who promptly pulled the curtain shut again, his gasp of horror gently swaying the reddish material. But he did not run, the traveller noticed, not immediately. Sandalled feet and bare legs were just visible under the curtain's lower edge. What was going through his mind was only too easy to deduce. Taking a quiet step closer to the house, the traveller spoke up, just loud enough for the smith to hear.
"Wa, it really is me. Not a ghost. And I swear by all that is holy that I bring no ill upon your house."
The feet shuffled tensely, then a hand slipped out beside the curtain and made a curt gesture that could be interpreted as a less-than-formal invitation to come in. The traveller decided to read it as such. He tethered his horse, hefted the larger of the two saddlebags onto his shoulder and made for where Watanabe's toes were still trying to dig holes in the soles of his sandals. The traveller smiled faintly as he parted the curtain, coming face-to-face with a thunderous frown on Watanabe's face. Without a word, the smith grabbed the traveller's saddlebag, dumped it in a corner and motioned him to follow, stalking along a short corridor, pushing aside a paper door and all but shoving his unexpected guest into the small bare room that lay beyond, then slamming the door shut with more force than one would have expected from a man of Watanabe Kenji's short and stocky build.
Hurried and hard, the smith's footsteps receded along the corridor, further into the house, to where the traveller knew the yard was, the fireplace and workshop, the hearth and heart of Wa's house. Only moments later, the decidedly springier footsteps of a young apprentice who had just been given an unexpected afternoon off could be heard bouncing the other way. Then, the door opened again, less forcefully this time, but still with the kind of rude accuracy Watanabe was famous for.
"You have a nerve to come here, Hasegawa Kaemon -"
A large hand, held up in a calming gesture, stopped the smith in his tracks. "That name is no more, Wa. I go by the name of Jin now."
"Jin! 'Man', is that all you have to say? Half a word for 'man'? Do you even know who could have seen you coming here? Or do you not care enough to want to keep your own life a little longer - then why change your name at all? Kaemon - Jin - you... you..." He gestured wildly, clearly at a loss for words, the thunderous frown of his almost-white eyebrows overshadowing eyes that glistened suspiciously.
The traveller - Jin - just sat there on the floor, quietly, his hands on his knees.
"...Gods, you are alive!" Wa finally burst out, voice choked, head shaking violently as if his body still couldn't believe who was sitting here in this tiny room with him, greying, alone and without glory, but most definitely alive.
"That I am indeed, Wa, and I'm sorry I've had to give you such a fright. But what I said is true - I bring no ill upon your house. It is good to see you again, Wa." Smiling, he rose to his knees, catching the other man halfway through tumbling to the ground, catching him in a crushing embrace. Catching his breath and Wa's in one pair of lungs, picking up the smith's agitation as it began to slowly drain from him. Breathing evened out, broad sinewy hands clung to familiar shoulders, and for a long time, neither man spoke. Eventually, it was Wa who picked up the loose thread again, a touch of raggedness still in his voice. "But where is the name you lost, Kaemon... Jin, where are you hiding in plain sight? Surely they're still after you even after... how long has it been, man?"
"Since I last saw you? Fourteen, fifteen years it may have been - not too long after we besieged Odawara, I think. It has been fourteen years for me under my new name," a slightly pained smirk. "I have got used to it."
"Kaemon, Kaemon... the day I heard what had happened was the first day I shed a tear again after the horror of the Odawara siege. I sent a messenger after you to find you - I'd heard that the whole headquarters had moved to Edo, and I hoped I could entice you here for a visit, after almost a year without a word from you. A messenger! Can you imagine what it takes to make me do that, Kaemon?"
The traveller patted his friend's back, slowly, almost deliberately, then smiled at him. "The services of a scribe, at the very least. Unless you have even learnt to read and write for my sake?" His grin widened a little at the offended frown on Watanabe's face. "Sorry."
"I was worried sick that you'd died, and the wars being over and all that, and what did the messenger come back with but my unopened message and saying that I was lucky he was still alive for enquiring after Hasegawa Kaemon who had been driven from the Tokugawa family's service in deepest ignominy! For all he knew, and all I've known for the last, what, more than ten years anyway, they'd sent the kaishakunin to your house to get hold of you and make you swallow your own sword! You were a dead man to me, Kaemon, and not knowing what for made it even harder to put you to rest..."
The man who had lost his name nodded thoughtfully. "In more ways than one, you are right, Wa. The name of Hasegawa Kaemon, loyal and respected servant of the House of Tokugawa, has been erased from the living. But the man behind it has not found it in himself to follow his name and offer himself up to an unjust suicide warrant. All they got, in the end, was the empty name - the man sits before you now."
"But what... how did you manage to escape, and escape for so long, and what in Enma's name makes you stride around here conspicuous as a blue cat? What charm have you put on them that they have, as you seem to say, given up the search for you?"
The man who was Jin smiled tightly. "That would probably best be explained over a cup of tea, no? If you would forgive my impudence for asking?"
Brushing aside his visitor's politeness with a gruff gesture of a soot-smeared hand, Watanabe Kenji rose to his feet, paused for a moment to realise he had just sent his apprentice and all-purpose factotum home, and then set off in search of the teapot, his customary frown on his face. All Jin could do was trail behind, trying hard to hide his amusement.
"You've gone grey." Reaching up to retrieve the iron kettle from where he had placed it in the embers of the furnace, Wa filled the small round earthenware cup to the brim and thrust it at his friend. "And still wearing your hair so long, and that beard. You had a beard back in the campaigns, only it was black then..."
"If I may say so, Watanabe Kenji, you are one to talk." The smirk was back on Jin's broad features. "If I did not remember you being almost five years my junior, I would have no difficulty passing you off as my father to any stranger happening by. Look at you, you're almost snow-white!"
Wa self-consciously ran a hand through the short crop of thick light grey hair sticking out in all directions above his deeply lined forehead. Even his moustache had gone grey, though that was still in the silvery stages, bright against the weather-beaten bronzed skin of his face. Heavy-lidded eyes peered at Jin from over the rim of his own steaming cup.
"Work will do that to you - not that I expect a samurai like you to appreciate the value of that, mind. And the family didn't help either."
Sipping his tea, Jin raised his eyebrows in mute inquiry, his gaze flitting sideways as if to indicate that he could see no evidence of any family in the smith's house.
"Oh, she's out, and good riddance too. A man can hardly breathe with that little fury in the house."
"Aya? I seem to remember you speaking differently of her when we parted. In fact, wasn't she the reason for your leaving the service of the Tokugawas, for all that they tried to bribe you into staying with the camp as it was about to into a court? A good ironsmith, they'd said, hadn't they, a good ironsmith is as indispensable in peace as he is in war, and for every tent pole you put a spike on, you could have forged a fine coal carrier for ten times the reward, for the rest of your young life. But Aya was the one who had captured you and bound you to this place, little Aya, wise Aya, sweet Aya who was your wife already when I first saw you, and who you kept sneaking off to whenever there was leave and proximity both - so what on earth happened, Wa?"
The smith shook his head grimly. "It's not Aya I'm talking about - she went away years ago to where I can't follow her yet." He paused, still visibly saddened at the thought. "It's my daughter, for all that she doesn't want to be. But let us speak of other things, Kaemon. I will not go grey any further while you are around."
Jin nodded slowly, lips a tight line. "I'm sorry to hear about Aya. As for the grey, it does suit you well, though I certainly wish you'd had a happier reason for it. I can't say any of my own grey strands have had anything less than freedom and adventure attached to it really..." He grinned weakly. "The life of a ronin."
"What made you so, though? I mean... old Tokugawa thought the world of you! And you always wanted to stay on after the victory anyway, didn't you?"
"I did indeed, and easy it was too. I could have gone off with a three-thousand-koku fiefdom in the newly-won provinces if I'd wanted to. All I had to say was yes and thank you, my lord."
"And you didn't?"
"Not in so few words, but I declined the offer, yes. Imagine, Wa - could you see me as some overseer, some wealthy old man who sits on his bottom all day and is surrounded by his officials, grovelled to by minor administrators and chased by all the marriageable ladies in the wider area? I couldn't."
The almost-there smile on Wa's rugged face was ample evidence that he couldn't either.
"So I humbly asked for a position in Edo, and one that would suit my skills. Days later, I found myself as the exponent of a one-man school of swordmastery, with a one-man body of students."
"You taught the old man's son?" Wa put down his teacup, the better to stare.
"The middle one, yes. Nagamaru, I'd known him as, the baby snake slithering around the tents, knowing everyone and endearing himself to everyone. Really, what evil could come from a kid with a wooden sword? Of course, by the time I'd washed the blood of battle off and found time to look about myself again, the little one had grown into an earnest young man demanding to be taught in the way of the warrior. Demanding, mind you. He was one who would always want things his way, and get them his way. Eventually. Which is why I am no longer his teacher."
"He drove you away? A boy barely of age?" Incredulous, Wa shook his head.
"Eventually, yes. His coming of age was part of that actually - he had a new name conferred on himself by the man who had nominally held him hostage for the first few years of his life, Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Prince Hidetada, he called himself now. And he would grow absolutely furious if I slipped and called him by his 'baby name', as he liked to refer to it. You know me, Wa. Not much can move me to fury. But this intolerable princeling did. Eventually. And once was enough. Once was once too many, actually."
"Sadly, yes. It went on for a few years, and went well purely because I never gave him enough of a target to direct his aggression at - he would call me his fish master because I would slither out of the crushing grasp of his anger. He hoped that calling me that would anger me enough to make me strike out at him. I think he despised me from the first day, not that old Tokugawa had given him a say in who was going to be his swordmaster. But with the elder brother away travelling the courts of the daimyo as his father's emissary, and the younger ones still children, he became adept at wrapping his father around his elegant little finger. Hidetada, Hidetada, Hidetada, was all he wanted to hear. He became enamoured of his new name, wanted to be everything, wanted to be the greatest warrior and the most admired strategist and the most coveted lover all in the one night it took to name him."
"And masters were clearly not part of that picture."
Jin smiled ruefully. "Not as far as he was concerned. Especially not me. He accused me of being in league with his father, against him, and I bet he told his father the opposite... in the event, I didn't even get to see old Lord Tokugawa to tell him my side of the story and get him to listen. It was run or get skewered by rather a lot of guards with very sharp implements."
"And so you took your version of the truth with you and ran."
"Indeed. My truth, my swords, and precious little else. And of course they fully expected me to commit suicide for my disgrace. And they were prepared to, well, help me with it."
"Kept your life, left your name. What a story. And somehow I'd thought that horse could not be from the Tokugawas' stables..." Wa attempted a smirk.
Jin snorted into his teacup. "Not by a long shot. The product of honest labour, that mare is. Well, as honest as can be expected from someone who would only give his employers his first name anyway, and made a point of not asking their full ones."
Wa's eyes went wide. "Don't tell me you went the way of the assassin, Kaemon?"
"Jin," he corrected mildly. "And no, I didn't. I made the best of what skills I had, and my sheer size, and did business as a messenger of the less-travelled roads, often with silver or gold or death warrants as my load. Or guarding the silver and the gold, shielding the litters and carriages with my swords. There was good work to be had in that for a while, and whenever someone tried to recommend me to the local officials or some major Yakuza crime lord with connections to Edo, I would discreetly slip away into the next province, starting again. Once I spent a happy three winters teaching peasant children the art of defence against a blade. I will say this one thing, Wa - a bowl of rice, a one-by-two-yard mat and a gaggle of eager boys at your knee can make an old ex-samurai very happy."
"But why come here, then? What if they come by next week and ask why I have been seen giving my hospitality to a wanted man, Kaemon? Surely you can't -"
Jin held up a hand. "Calm, Wa. I am old enough to not endanger my own friends. They will not come, trust me on that. In fact, they will probably be expressly asked to forget about it all very soon - all too soon maybe."
"Too soon? Can it ever be too soon for one like you? Surely you haven't grown to love life on the run?" Wa's frown was back.
"Forgive me for speaking in riddles - I have grown too accustomed to that over the years. What I bring is good news, although I would not call it that in public. The messengers from Edo have been sent out to pick up Lord Hideyasu from the provinces and speed him homeward, for old Tokugawa Ieyasu is on his deathbed."
"Hideyasu? The travelling one?"
"Eldest living son of the old Tokugawa, renowned strategist and well-versed ambassador to the courts of the daimyo. I know him, Wa, and I predict a golden age. And not just for the land... there is one more thing this tells me." He paused dramatically, draining his teacup and covering the empty hollow with his other hand.
Wa blinked, then smiled, touching a finger to his forehead, leaving a faint smudge of soot. "That Hidetada's star is going down... and if the elder brother runs the country, you would be able to live in peace again!"
"Even better - I am thinking of venturing into the wolf's den and bringing my version of the truth with me. It is not redress I seek or reward. But I do know old Tokugawa Ieyasu, and know him well. He is a soft man at heart, all too open to flattery, pleasures and an honest plea. That he came to rule the land only attests to how well he shields himself from his inferiors. But the warrior Tokugawa is no more, not after fourteen years of peace. Not in the last weeks of his life. He is in his sixties now, Wa, and believe me, I know him. With Hidetada out of the way, I stand a genuine chance at regaining justice."
"You would go to Edo to speak to him? Why not just leave things as they are and..." he shrugged eloquently, "get on with life?"
Jin upended the empty cup on to his flat palm, drumming his fingertips on the bottom in the slow beat of a battle drum. "Fourteen years have not yet driven the samurai from me, Wa. I owe him allegiance, and he owes me justice. And I will redress that balance given the chance. It's only getting his attention that is going to prove.... difficult."
"You knew the tent he resided in during the campaigns, never more than a stone's throw away from where you and I would go about our daily business. That tent, Wa, is no more than a distant memory. The castle at Edo grows daily, and to even gain admission to the audience chamber of the lackey in charge of protocol, a man had better come equipped with fabulous riches or fabulous deeds. Accompanied by suitable spoils of war, naturally."
"You mean you'd have to bribe your way into Tokugawa's attention."
"Precisely. It is not him that I worry about, but it is entirely forgivable that I may have slipped the old man's mind a little after fourteen years." He smiled ruefully, turning the teacup the right way up again and shaking the droplets of cold tea from his palm. "In other words, he won't be expecting me any more than you did. And I'd have to get through that ring of officialdom to be noticed."
"So you're basically looking for something valuable to give to the gatemasters at Edo so you can go on your silly samurai quest for honour, yes?"
"Actually, I was going to enquire after a place where I could pawn my horse and maybe one sword and have the remaining one seen to for free, but... yes, in short, I am."
Wa had to look twice to make sure that he hadn't just seen a blush creep up Jin's bearded cheeks. Unthinkable, to see Hasega- ... Jin blushing. In a valiant effort to defuse the situation, the smith rose to his feet with a groan of effort, then snatched the teacup from his friend's restless hands and motioned him to follow.
"I think I may have just the thing for you."
2. Thunderstorm outside
Jin had to admit to himself that he had no idea what Wa might be talking about. Surely he was not offering him silver in return for a horse that they both knew wasn't worth enough silver to fill a baby girl's hand, let alone one of Jin's mighty paws. Granted, Wa had been released from the Tokugawas' service with a small stipend, but that had almost certainly gone into acquiring this rather sizeable house and establishing himself as a respected tradesman in his wife's home village. And surely Wa was sensible enough not to give his life's savings to a wandering ex-samurai, however close friends they may have been?
Momentarily at a loss, he had little choice but to follow Wa into the house. Slipping off his sandals and wiping his dusty feet on his own trousers lest he leave dirt marks on his host's floor, he strained his ears to hear where Wa had disappeared to.
The constant grumbling and muttering was a good enough clue.
"Damned darkness in here... not enough courtesy to leave a poor old man his eyesight when he needs it... It's not like I haven't been paying and all that..."
Railing at the gods again. Jin couldn't help smirking. There was much that the intervening years had done to Watanabe Kenji's appearance, but nothing that age had done to mellow his speech. If anything, he could imagine the old smith being even more convinced nowadays that long years of experience gave him the right to rant at all and sundry, and be right into the bargain. It had certainly never stopped him in the old days, and Jin had been perfectly prepared to believe the tales of various hardened generals of war refusing to go anywhere near the upstart ironsmith, not so much for fear of his tirades but for fear of being goaded into entirely shameful acts by his innate rudeness.
"It's probably a thunderstorm brewing," Jin offered mildly. "With all the sticky heat I encountered on the way here, I would not be surprised if the clouds had obscured the sun entirely by now."
Almost on cue, a distant rumble of thunder gave quiet assent to Jin's words, and the first heavy drops of rain hit the courtyard behind him, sending up little clouds of dust and setting to turning the thin layer of ash around the workplace into fine grey sludge.
Wa was completely oblivious of any of this, possibly even of Jin's words, his head buried deep in a wooden trunk that appeared to contain spare bedding and winter clothes, or at any rate thick, woolly items apt to make an old man think he was losing his hearing as well as his sight.
With a triumphant grunt, the smith reappeared from its depths, shoving the contents back in place and slamming the lid closed. In his right hand he held a short iron implement, not entirely unlike a stoking hook, but much shorter and with some sort of jointed mechanism at one end that seemed to be controlled by a spring. At any rate, a hook-like contraption protruded from it at an odd angle, and Wa snapped it back in place with a satisfied grumble before raising himself to his feet and turning around to face an increasingly nonplussed Jin. Surely that was not the treasure he had been alluding to?
A rare grin lit up Wa's weather-beaten features, and he clearly enjoyed his moment of superiority enough to take the time to untuck his kimono from his belt and straighten it, giving himself the appearance of a respectable man of leisure rather than a tradesman who had to work for his living. Of course, the smudges of soot on his hands, never mind his forehead, did nothing to uphold that appearance.
"I know what you're thinking, Kae... Jin. This little thing won't mean much to you, but it is a rather clever little thing I made, and I don't know anyone else who has one, so it may well be more of a treasure than what you're looking for. But really, this is only the key."
Puzzled, Jin thought it wisest to keep his mouth shut for the time being, especially as he did not remember seeing any locked trunks or treasure-boxes in Wa's roomy but spartan house. Moments later, his suspicion was confirmed - this was not a key to a lock. Instead, Wa jammed the tool into the minute crack between the floorboards and bore down on it with all his weight until a muted snapping sound told him that the spring mechanism had engaged and the hook had unfolded. With a curious mixture of effort and triumph painted on his face, the smith tugged on the iron handle until the heavy wooden plank disengaged itself from its neighbours, breaking the smooth evenness of the floor and rising up reluctantly, like a fish out of water, impaled on Wa's hook.
Underneath lay a package wrapped in brown cloth, almost the exact colour and size of the floorboard that had covered it, and indeed of the support beam in a hollow of which it was deposited. Jin raised his eyebrows, but refrained from speaking until he got a clearer idea of what kind of treasure this admittedly ingenious concealment contained.
Pushing aside the floorboard and laying the folding hook on top of it, Wa knelt to retrieve the wrapped item from its wooden cradle. It took some effort, and appeared to be one single piece, longer than Wa's arm and slender... Jin already had a very good idea of what it was, even before his friend dropped the object into his unresisting hands and his sense of touch immediately confirmed his suspicion.
"Careful, it's sharp," Wa grunted as he levered himself upright again. "Haven't had the time to learn to make a proper sheath for it." He took a step back, motioning Jin to unwrap it.
Jin did so with a growing look of apprehension on his face. How did a humble ironsmith like Wa come by such a formidable weapon, and what would he do with it, he who was not a member of the sword-bearing classes and would never be allowed to be seen alive with it in public? What was the story behind a blade that was almost longer than Jin's own arm... and as he stripped away the coarse brown cloth, he saw his every suspicion confirmed. This was no ordinary sword, not one of the slim straight blades that the local sheriffs' forces bore and that could, by a stretch of the imagination, have ended up in an ordinary citizen's house. This was almost twice as heavy as these common swords, a blade much longer, thicker and wider than anything wielded by anyone in peace times.
This was a battle sword. This could cut through armour, cut through a hapless enemy's blade and through his very bones in the same strike. In the right hands, this was a deadlier weapon than a bolt of lightning.
"A dotanuki," Jin stated flatly, his voice hoarse, barely audible over the splatter of rain on the roof.
Wa nodded. "I was thinking of you when I made it. There's hardly anyone else I know who could heft such a big sword and keep control of it -"
"You?" Jin interrupted, clearly struggling to believe his ears. "You made this? Wa, you amaze me. Not that I mean to belittle your skill, but... I never fancied you a swordsmith!"
"And I'm not, not in the way you fancy, not in the way any of the samurai and their lords ever fancied. But I tell you a secret here: it takes patience, not skill, and certainly not a great name, to make a durable blade. All it takes is time, and more time, and a clear mind. And, in my case, a welcoming floorboard that swallowed up the makings whenever necessary." He gestured at the charred marks in the hollowed-out beam. "More than once, I've had to chuck it in there still hot because I suddenly had company and it already looked far too much like a sword. Knives, they would have let me make, kitchen knives and razors and pitchforks, but not this. This is for a samurai's hand. Not that I was sure at the time that said samurai was still alive." He looked at Jin with barely veiled challenge in his eyes. "Try it."
Jin shook his head minutely, trailing his fingers along the slightly curved blade. It was almost as wide as three of his fingers, a dark matte grey that was like silk to the touch. Only at the point and down the edge did it shine with the deadly glint of perfectly tempered steel, hard as rough diamonds, bright as lightning.
"I can't accept this, Wa."
Wa frowned, clearing his throat. The noise coincided with a peal of thunder overhead. "You will have to, old friend. I insist. There is nobody else who could make decent use of it."
Jin experimentally hefted the long blade. It was indeed perfectly suited to his size and reach. He would have been a formidable opponent in battle, with arms a span longer than anyone else's and a sword to match. But these days were long gone. Jin shook his head slowly, caressing the silky blade. "I can't."
"You embarrass me, Kaemon. How else could I make up for all that you've done for me?"
"And what would that be, friend? What would need gratitude other than what you are already giving me in the form of your hospitality?"
Wa shuffled his feet, clearly agitated now. "Who was it, then, that never let me come anywhere near the lines of battle even when our camp was being overrun? Who was it that handed me a spiked tent-pole and instructed me in its use as a defensive weapon? Who, above all, would sneak past enemy lines in the dark of night bearing, of all things, messages to my beloved Aya? Who was it but you, Hasegawa Kaemon, who claim to not be him any more? What has come over you, man? Jin? What are you if not the man I owe my life to?"
It was hard to tell over the incessant pounding of the rain outside whether the trembling in his voice was more than just righteous indignation, and even harder to tell in the stormy gloom whether the thundercloud on his face was more than his customary frown.
Jin drew a deep breath, stroking the long blade one last time. "It is grateful I am to you, Kenji. Deeply grateful for the honour you give me, and for this gift you try to give me. But I honestly cannot accept it, not because I would not appreciate it, and certainly not because of anything lacking in the man who gives it or the sentiment behind it." He paused, unsure of how to bring this thought to its necessary conclusion. "But as you so rightly say, this blade is unique, and near-impossible for another to wield. How indeed would it look if I appeared at Edo castle, a disgraced ronin who fled in war and ignominy, and returns in peace bearing a bone-cutting sword only he can wield?"
Wa mumbled something incomprehensible.
"It is not ingratitude, Wa, far from it," Jin continued softly, placing a hand on his crestfallen friend's shoulder. "But I fear this treasure may send all the wrong messages when employed as a gift to the court. Forgive me, but I cannot keep it." Clearly reluctant to let go of such an unorthodox masterpiece, he placed the sword on Wa's folded arms, waiting for the smith to grasp it.
He didn't, defiance in his eyes. "You could pawn it. It's sure to fetch you more than that poor horse of yours."
"Indeed it is," Jin said, a weary smile on his face. "It is most likely going to fetch me rather a lot of discomfort if I tried to sell it here. And you too. Think about it, Wa - an unsigned sword of such proportions. They'd be sure to question any ironsmith in the province, with a view to eliminating the rogue artisan. Painfully."
Wa nodded grimly, his lips a thin line, the jittery shadows of lightning dancing across his face. "I see I can't make you take it, then. Pity. It'll spend the rest of its life under my floor. And there isn't really anything else I can offer you." Tight-lipped, he wrapped the dotanuki in its cloth sheath and placed it under the floorboard again.
"There is so much you can offer me, Wa, and indeed have offered me already. All the hours that went into the making of this sword more than repay me for anything you say I have ever done for you. And you could add another kindness and offer me a place to sleep in this infernal weather."
Wa snorted. "Done. You didn't think for a moment I would chuck you out in the rain, really? You'd be thicker than I remember you being, Kaemon. Jin. Ah, whatever. Where's your pack? And I bet you'll want dinner too, right?"
Jin smiled, grateful at how the situation had eased. "That would be a blessing. My things are here, in the hall... well, those that haven't been thoroughly soaked by virtue of still being on my horse's back of course. It might be more advisable to leave them outside for the night."
"Nonsense," Wa grumbled, shoving aside the curtain that separated his house from the dirt path that was fast turning into a stream. "Lead her round the back, I'll open the gate. She can stand in the workshop."
Jin rushed to the back of the house to retrieve his sandals. When he returned, he saw Wa fingering the hilt of the longer of his two swords, sticking out of his pack. He pulled the blade from its sheath; it slid free with a faint singing sound, glinting dully in the grey light of the cloud-laden sky.
"That wants seeing to, I take it."
Jin nodded. "See, there is another favour you could do me. Even tough I try to use them as little as honourably possible, there is such a thing as wear and tear even on a supposed master's swords."
Wa traced a visible nick in the blade with his fingernail. "I take it this one comes with a story?"
Jin looked up from where he had been tying his sandals. "Yes. Broke the poor soul's blade. This," he tugged aside his kimono, revealing a pale scar under his collarbone, "came with it."
He stepped outside into the rain that was still pouring down unabatedly. "Oh," he added as an afterthought, "and while you're rummaging around, there's a spearpoint in there that might make decent raw material for a pair of scissors or somesuch. I picked it up on the way here today."
With that, he strode through the rain to where his horse stood dripping, huddled as close to the house as possible.
Refusing to think about how Jin could have come by a spearpoint so close to the village, and in times of peace at that, Wa dragged the pack further inside the house for further investigation and padded across the yard to open the rear gate for Jin and his horse.
They had tethered the shivering mare between the softly glowing furnace and the piles of wood and coal stacked against the wall, and Wa had insisted on feeding her on raw grain as well as a generous amount of hay. They were just about to relieve the simmering rice pot of their own freshly-cooked dinner when a loud clattering noise and a hearty curse from the hall announced another visitor.
"And who keeps telling me not to leave my things all over the place and then leaves their stuff lying where I'll sure as hell trip over them? I can't see a thing in this blasted thunderstorm anyway..." The tirade trailed off, its originator clearly surprised at seeing a stranger in the house.
"Forgive me, milady, for it is almost certainly my baggage that caused you to stumble. I shall take better care of it from now on," Jin said placidly. "Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?"
"I'm Tamae. Who are you?" Nothing more, though Jin guessed that the bedraggled rain-soaked figure standing before him was most likely the daughter Wa had mentioned. Not that she resembled him in the least - she was rather tall for a girl of maybe fifteen, sixteen years and slim, almost thin. Her clothes clung to her body, the kimono spattered with mud at the bottom, and her hair hung in messy black strands, partially unravelled from the tight tail she must have worn it in before she was surprised by the rainstorm.
But most of all, she had most certainly inherited Wa's rudeness. Jin chuckled to himself, a sound that drowned altogether under Wa's indignant growl. "Jin-san is my guest, and you had better show him some respect if you want anything to eat tonight."
The girl made a face. Jin suspected she would have spat on the floor had it not been for the presence of a stranger in the house. "You go on and eat," she said disdainfully, "I'm going to go grab some dry clothes and have the leftovers. As always." With that, she stormed out of the kitchen, leaving a trail of muddy water droplets on the scrubbed floor.
Jin helped himself to a bowl of steaming rice. "Your daughter, I assume?" he inquired casually.
Wa snorted. "Hurts to say yes, doesn't it? Yes, I suppose that little beast is my offspring. It would be an insult to Aya's spirit to even think anything else."
"How old is she?"
"Sixteen... seventeen this spring. And not getting any better with the years."
"Your only living child? Wasn't Aya already nursing one before you went home?" Jin shovelled a blob of rice into his mouth, making an appreciative gesture with his eyebrows at its taste.
Wa made a sour face, remembering just in time to offer his guest the bowl of pickled radish he had placed on the mat earlier and momentarily forgotten about.
"The gods spare me," he exclaimed, "I think I wouldn't be alive any more if she was my only one. I'd most likely have murdered her long ago, and to hell with the consequences!" He took a deep breath and a mouthful of rice, chewing vigorously. "But why she is nothing like her brother I have no idea," he continued, his mouth full. "Such a bright lad, he was."
"Was?" Jin asked, treading carefully.
"Oh, he married years ago. The young Mrs Sakakibara from Kofu, when she was widowed, fell for his charms. And he for hers." Wa snorted. "There went my heir, of course. Could hardly forbid him to marry the owner of the largest rice trading house in the area, now could I? He's become a good hand at that merchant business, really he has. And O-Yuki has born him two sons already. Not that that helps me, of course. Had to take on an apprentice in the hope that the silly boy will have learnt enough to run the shop by the time I'm dead."
"So you don't count on O-Tama finding a suitable husband soon, then?" Jin asked softly.
"Hah!" Wa exclaimed, showing a mouthful of teeth and rice. "You've seen her, Kaemon. Could you think of anyone stupid enough to marry her? And the gods know I've tried. Again and again. Frankly, I think short of selling her I have no chance of ever getting her out of the house. And she's not much use in the house either. Shinkichi, my apprentice, is more of a housekeeper than she is, and the gods know he's trying to be an ironsmith!"
A shadow at the door announced the wayward daughter's return. Lips set in a thin line, she pushed the door aside and padded across the kitchen floor, wordlessly scooping some rice from the pot into her bowl and turning to leave.
"O-Tama," Jin said softly. "It would greatly please me to have your company for the duration of the meal. I believe I have not met you in person before, though I have heard of you. You were only just born then, of course." He gestured for her to sit down beside him.
She frowned. "You know me? Don't tell me he wants you to marry me now?" She turned to glare at Wa. "Father, he's old!"
"Silence!" Wa thundered. "Jin-san has no desire to marry anyone, least of all a brat like you. Show him some respect, will you? You know him well, only I used another name when I told you of him and his deeds. This is Hasegawa Kaemon. Now behave like a good girl and bow to the samurai."
"Like hell I will," Tamae spat. "After all this time and all those fairy tales you expect me to believe Hasegawa is still alive? And would come here? You're an idiot, father. Excuse me, Jin-san, whoever you are, while I go and eat in the other room like a proper little lady!" With that, she turned on her heel and stormed out, no bow, not even a word of good-bye.
It was only then that Jin noticed she was wearing one of her father's kimonos. It looked short on her, like a boy's.
"See now why I've gone grey sooner than you have?" Wa had buried his head in his hands, growling under his breath. "I'd rather live the life of a ronin than have this fury on my back every remaining day of my life."
Jin placed a sympathetic hand on Wa's shoulder. I rather suspect she would too, he thought to himself, but said nothing.
When he woke up the next morning, it was already broad daylight. Stretching luxuriantly on his futon, Jin took a moment to estimate what time it was. It was most likely not the sun that had woken him (if the sun could at all be spoken of, given the hazy quality of the light that seeped through the paper wall of his chamber), but the rhythmic hammering noises coming from the workshop.
So Wa was up already, probably tending to his swords as he had promised. Resolving to wash, get dressed and find himself some breakfast, he got up, stretched again, then reached for the door.
A shadow walked past, and he thought it wiser to leave the door shut for the time being. He was nearly naked after all, except for his loincloth, and for all that the owner of said shadow refused to behave like a lady, she was of the female persuasion after all, and it just would not do to embarrass a woman.
The shadow stopped. The door opened, and Tamae peeked in.
"Ah, you're up. About time too. There's fruit and stuff in the kitchen, and cold tea. You'll just have to reheat it if you want it hot - we've been up and about for two hours already."
She was just about to slide the door shut again when Jin finally found his voice.
"O-Tama - a word, please?" He hastily slipped into his kimono and tied the belt. "I promise I won't ask to marry you." He smiled ruefully.
Frowning slightly, she took one step closer and slid the door shut behind her. "What?"
"Why didn't you believe that I could indeed be the samurai your father knew from his time in the Tokugawas' service?" He kept his distance, careful not to crowd her. I'm treating her like a skittish horse, he thought, funny, that.
"Oh, you could be any samurai you care to be, Jin-san," she said decisively. "I don't doubt for a minute that you're a mate of his from the wars. But that you're Hasegawa Kaemon, that I won't believe." She looked him up and down, wrinkling her nose at his straggly hair and the coarse blue material of his kimono. "You're wearing the right colour to be him. The Indigo Warrior. But that's about all. Maybe you're pretending to be him, but... nah," she finished, shrugging.
"What makes you so sure, young lady?" he inquired mildly.
"Hasegawa Kaemon is a story, Jin-san. Chances are he's been dead for years. There are enough people out there who would want him dead. And if he was real and alive and would come to my house and be friendly with my bastard of a father, then I would cut his head off with my own hands for being such a fraud. Proud samurai, indeed!"
Jin could not help chuckling at the warlike words from the thin girl's mouth. "And with what blade and what mastery would you purport to best the legendary Hasegawa Kaemon, then?" he asked innocently.
"Don't you mock me, stranger. I would know how to, if I were to meet him. My father thinks I know nothing, but I know enough. Well enough. And I know enough to be out of here. I am of age, it's not like he owns me or anything. I'm leaving here."
"As am I, truth to be told," Jin rejoined. "So, if you're going out to behead legendary warriors, I take it you could do with some swordfighting lessons? I happen to be an itinerant swordmaster, or so some say. You could be my first lady student, if you like."
Tamae stepped closer, a thunderous glare in her eyes. The fact that she was shorter and slighter than her opponent, never mind younger and a girl, didn't seem to bother her in the least. "I said don't mock me. I know what you people think of girls, and I'm having none of it. And as for you, if you even knew the real Hasegawa Kaemon, you wouldn't be... ach, you!" She turned around on her heel, fuming, ready to storm out as was her wont.
A gentle heavy hand on her shoulder stopped her, spun her around easily. Silently, the victim of her tirade bowed before her, then settled on his knees on the floor where the sunlight illuminated his face.
"Tell me, O-Tama, what Hasegawa Kaemon was renowned for." He paused, gazing at her inquisitively. "What earned him his name of the Indigo Warrior? Surely not his clothing alone?"
Tamae's mouth dropped open, revealing that she had lips after all. Two, three years younger without her frown, she stared into Jin's fully-sunlit face.
"You... you have his blue eyes." She swallowed, then blushed, biting her lip at this display of undignified girlishness.
"I have all that he was, except his name. That has had to die so I could live. No offence taken, young lady - the gods know I'm not shouting it from the rooftops who I once was. Now would you be so-"
"Who you once were?" Tamae's eyes glittered with sharp excitement. "You are the one I always wanted to be, Hasegawa-sama! If it wasn't for this stupid girly body, and this stupid family, I... I would have been your apprentice! Your swordbearer - your..." she trailed off, breathless with almost angry admiration.
"I never had an apprentice, O-Tama," he said gravely, "and I would not wish it on someone as young and hopeful as yourself to be mired in the bloody mud of the battlefield. Especially not a girl." He held up a calming hand at her sudden change of expression. "I admire your fierceness, and am sure you would have made a more than adequate boy, but really... be thankful you're living in a time of peace. There are other ways of acquiring admiration, and wandering around the country as a hired sword guarding silver transports certainly isn't one of them. Speaking of silver - I trust you know the people here well enough to recommend me a place where I could sell my horse for a decent price, and maybe some of my... other belongings as well?"
Tamae nodded confidently, somewhat placated. "Try Oe Asato. Just the other side of the main street, a blue curtain and an enormous heap of junk in his yard. He will buy and sell anything, and if you tell him a tall story, he'll give you good money for anything you've got to offer. But what are you going to do without a horse? You're not settling down, are you?"
Jin shook his head. "Not yet. But I may be headed for Edo."
Tamae whistled through her teeth. "Brave of you. I'm beginning to think you deserve Hasegawa Kaemon's reputation, Jin-san."
Jin smiled at her, and she smiled back, a genuine glint of admiration in her eyes.
They had both not noticed the silence that announced that Wa had finished hammering and grinding Jin's swords into shape, and they both jumped slightly as he shoved the door open and thrust one of Jin's blades inside, freshly sharpened and polished.
"Father! Quit scaring me!"
Wa opened the door fully, a broad grin on his face. "Ah, so we're taking an interest in the strange guest after all now? Shall I ask his hand in marriage, I wonder?"
Jin glanced at Tamae meaningfully, forestalling a snide remark with his raised hand. "We were merely discussing where I should try to sell my horse for the best price, Wa, and I have received a few valuable hints from your daughter."
"Oh, don't listen to her. You'll want Oe across the road for that, and nobody else. He's the only one around who pays decently."
"That," Jin answered mildly, "was precisely what O-Tama was just suggesting as well. Complete with directions and negotiation hints. If I may say so, Wa, your daughter is a very clever young woman, and I shall heed her advice as soon as I have washed, dressed, eaten breakfast and thanked you for sorting out my swords. Now please excuse me while I go about all these things in precisely that order."
Later, as Jin scraped at his beard with a surprisingly blunt knife he had found in Wa's kitchen, he reflected that the smug smile became Tamae. And that it really made her look like a boy. A very proud boy. Maybe she should have been born one, he thought as he tied up his hair into the customary top-knot. Maybe Wa would have been happier with that too. At any rate, he wasn't going to tell his friend what his daughter was planning to do.
Because, in all honesty, he would probably have wanted to do the same in her place.
The thought was still buzzing around his head like a very small fly long after he had made his goodbyes to the Watanabe household, promising to return at the earliest convenience after his trip to Edo, and led his horse in the direction of Oe Asato's junk shop.
It was still faintly buzzing when he left the village, still astride his horse, shaking his head at what Oe had considered a good price for the mare. Clearly he had thought a ronin fallen on hard times was an easy subject to squeeze cash from. Nevertheless, when Jin had offered him his short sword, hilt-forward, Oe had made a face as if he'd been stung by a wasp and ordered Jin to leave the shop immediately, and what kind of trader did he think he was that he would trade in illegal goods, and that he might as well go seek out the Yakuza, yes, the Yakuza and old Kawakubo in the woods across the pass, no one would dare live next door to him, he would sort him out and buy his sword and probably the whole man along with it, to test his other illegal swords on him and so on and so forth.
Shaking his head slowly, Jin urged his horse off the path and uphill towards where he surmised the pass to be. Tamae would sort herself out, he was sure of that.
And he had a transaction to make.
3. Rain-spattered leaves in the mist
Although the storm had washed the yellowish dust from the air, it had done little to alleviate the stifling heat of a summer come early. So, before long, Jin gave in to his horse's insistent wheezing and dismounted, leading her by the reins up the winding and intermittent paths that led uphill. Last night's rains were still very much evident, the leaves of the occasional tree still glistening with the moisture, and the grass painted his feet and trousers with fine dark grey stripes of water, the pattern augmented by a splash of lighter grey from a mud pool here and there.
All in all, Jin did not care. He was in no great hurry, especially seeing as the possibility of his mission to Edo was entirely dependent on his being able to pawn his main means of transport, thereby slowing his progress considerably. An hour or two lost dawdling in the patchy woods on the hillsides surely wouldn't matter much. Besides, he enjoyed the calm of roads untravelled, no living thing around but the birds screaming their songs from the treetops and the rats rustling in the tall grass. And his horse and himself.
Though it had to be said he was grateful for his horse for the day or so it would still be with him - Wa and his daughter had made sure he was equipped with quite enough food and water to last him all the way to Edo, and the small battery of bamboo segments serving as lunchboxes or flasks constituted quite some weight. His bay mare bore it all without complaining, and when, just after mid-day, her master settled down in the shade of a tree to eat, drink, and take advantage of the almost-dry grass for a short rest, she calmly set to grazing, ostensibly unaware of what life had in store for her.
They reached the height of the pass around mid-afternoon, and Jin stopped for a moment, as much to get his bearings as to admire the view. This side of the hills was much more varied than the one he had just come from; to his right, an almost unbroken expanse of forest stretched all the way to where he surmised the Tokaido road and the sea to be. On a less misty day one could quite possibly see the ocean from up here - today, all that was there to see in that direction was a patchy landscape of forests and thickets of all kinds. There was the telltale acidic green of bamboo groves, meandering thickets that told the schooled eye of a stream winding its way down into the plain, and further up, clumps of storm-torn pines clinging to the ridge of the hilltops.
On his left, the wide plain of Shimizu trailed off into the misty distance, barely held in the compass of a low range of hills reinforced by another and so forth. Behind those, melting into the colour of the flecks of mist and clouds, the snow-covered head of Fuji-san was just discernible. Or imaginable, Jin thought. If I hadn't been there years ago, I wouldn't know.
The plain was open, a patchwork of rice fields, orchards and villages dotted throughout, and even from such a distance, it looked quite busy. Certainly no place for a recluse trader with distinct Yakuza affiliations to be. Besides, Oe had described his house as being in the thick of the woods just beyond the pass. Assuming that by the pass he had meant the lowest point of the ridge within view, Jin concluded that the best way for him was to bear right along the ridge, into the welcome shade of the miscellaneous trees, and hope for the best.
What he certainly hadn't expected to meet was a fellow traveller.
Considering there wasn't even much of a path through the thin woodlands, the presence of the boy was more than a little unusual. What was even more unusual was that he appeared to be travelling alone, and on foot at that. Granted, he had a sword at his side, and wore the gaudy colours of a youthful samurai to advertise his likely skill in using it... but still. From where he was, a stone's throw behind and catching up slowly, Jin would have estimated him to be less than half his age, barely an adult if that.
All of which could only mean that the boy was most likely also headed for Kawakubo's cabin, for whatever shady deals a bright youth like he might want to conclude.
And that he probably knew the way.
Fully aware that he stood no chance at sneaking up, Jin urged his horse into a light trot and rode up to the boy, nodding in greeting. "A good afternoon to you, for all that it is nearing evening. May I share your journey and company for a while, young master?"
The boy glanced at him, and the fleeting frown of suspicion did not escape Jin. Wary. Which was a good thing for a boy travelling alone in such remote environs, even in times of peace. But before Jin had time to formulate a suitably placating answer, the boy's expression had melted into a radiant smile, and the way he sketched a bow while still striding along the mossy path appeared to betray his amusement at being accosted in such a formal way.
"Certainly. If you don't expect me to keep up with your horse, good traveller." He grinned at the heavily-laden mare. "In fact, I would think it far more just if you relieved your mount of the burden of having to carry someone as tall as yourself and placed me on it instead. My legs are so much shorter."
"Ah, but you have the advantage of youth," Jin rejoined, equally amused. "but, seeing as we're probably sharing our destination as well as our path, I shall give in and walk along with you. I take it you know the way?"
"I do indeed, though I'd rather not speak of it to a stranger. You understand, surely." He gestured at a small package wrapped in leather and slung across his chest.
Jin raised his eyebrows. "I do indeed," he echoed the boy's words. "From what I see, it is not just our station that is the same. We appear to be in the same trade as well. Jin is the name, by the way, though I won't insist on knowing yours."
The boy gave a small appreciative smile. "And what would it matter? To a fellow messenger, I have no need to hide my identity. Not that what I'm carrying is of any value to anyone but the recipient anyway, so if you were thinking of robbing me, I must disappoint you, Jin-san. There is little about my person that could make a ronin rich."
The sting in the boy's remark didn't escape Jin's attention, and neither did the fact that on the back of his brightly coloured kimono, the young messenger wore the crest of an unfamiliar domain, surrounded by a wild pattern of green pine twigs scattered all over the golden ochre silk of his kimono. His hakama were a rather more sober brown, and he wore his hair like most of the young men of the samurai class did: the top of his head shaved bare in a neat strip that reached to the crown of his head, framed by a thick top-knot of ebony hair at the back and an endearingly pretty fringe at the front. Seemingly rising out of nowhere, two elegant waves of straight black hair crowned his forehead, trailing off towards his temples, adding an intriguing shade to his already intriguing eyes.
It was the eyes that did most of the talking, Jin noticed as they remained trained on his own face, cataloguing its cragginess, the slightly crooked nose with the pale scar across it, the greying hair and the stubbornly black beard. The youth's face was clean-shaven and almost pale, his mouth bordering on the sensuous. It was the eyes, really, that kept the face from melting into womanly softness. With their thick straight black brows, the tiny line between them, and their striking light brown, these eyes were those of a warrior. Well, an apprentice warrior at the least. And he was clearly sizing Jin up as potential competition.
Jin smiled indulgently, shaking himself out of his reverie. "Don't worry, I have resolved to try every avenue of honestly acquiring riches first. Actually, this young lady," he patted his horse's rump affectionately before swinging one long leg over her back and dismounting, "is going to be part of my plan. But I won't bore you with the details. Am I right in assuming that we will reach our destination before nightfall? I see you're not carrying any supplies with you, young master. If you aren't averse to plain and necessarily cold fare, I would gladly share my dinner with you."
"That is very kind of you, Jin-san," the boy replied, the smile on his lips not quite reaching his eyes. "And forgive me for not introducing myself earlier. Akimoto Benjiro, apprenticed to Akimoto Katsuo."
Jin nodded in recognition, though the name did not mean anything to him, and he was reluctant to press the boy for more information. The boy's master could turn out to be an enemy, and at the moment, Jin could do without being reminded of past feuds and battles. He was on a mission to try and make peace, after all.
"Lead the way," Jin said, good-naturedly. "I will gladly swallow my pride and follow an apprentice, for at directions, you appear to be the master of the two of us."
That elicited a curt chuckle from the boy, and for a long while, the two men walked in companionable silence, Jin a step behind Benjiro, looking over the youth's shoulder or indeed above his head - he was certainly no more than average in height, and slender at that - and Jin's mare sauntering along behind them on the long end of the rein.
Relieved of the burden of having to find his way through the motley forest, Jin took the opportunity to observe his companion. Young, barely past the age of majority, he suspected. Certainly not a year over eighteen. His stern brows and samurai-like demeanour made him appear quite a bit older at first sight than he really was. That said, his master must have taught him well, for he certainly bore himself with the confident grace of a warrior. In fact, the confidence, grace and sheer cockiness of his stride suggested a warrior who had grown up in the certainty that defeat was something that happened to other people. Pride, that was what it was. Pride colouring the bright gold of his kimono, the long strands of raven hair framing his face, and the understated swagger with which he walked. After a while, Jin found himself quite hypnotised by the barely-noticeable sway of the youth's hips. Barely noticeable unless you were watching it, which Jin blushingly admitted he was.
What brought a green boy like him to this forlorn end of the world, though? What was it that he bore wrapped in the little leather pouch strapped to his chest? It must be of some importance if not any material value, if the occasional darting glances the boy cast into the deeper woods on the uphill side of the path were to mean anything.
For all Jin knew, he could be bearing the death warrant for Kawakubo, the man he himself was keen to see. He brushed the thought away as unlikely, though - a Yakuza man would not be sentenced by a single messenger, however brilliant he may be at the art of the sword. A team of sheriffs would have been a more appropriate response, especially if this Kawakubo was as dangerous as Oe Asato seemed to think he was. And horses. Not a single boy on foot. In fact, it was far more likely, given the circumstances, that the boy was in league with Kawakubo, and strangely enough that satisfied Jin far more than the other theory.
I'm getting soft, he thought to himself. Wouldn't want to think of that creamy boy as my enemy in any way, even though all evidence points to it. Still, I am under no obligation to act on it - and I'm on my way to negotiate with that fabled Yakuza man myself, after all.
Still, the boy was getting restless, fidgeting with the package, peering into the lengthening shadows of the forest that had now closed in on the path on the right-hand side. Was the house of Kawakubo nearby, then? Was the boy expecting danger? Unthinkingly, Jin moved his left hand to the hilt of his long sword, flicking it free of the sheath with his thumb. The other hand he placed on the boy's shoulder.
Benjiro started. "What-?"
"There is no need to be afraid, Akimoto-san. Should anything happen, you have my sword as well as your own to defend you."
"Thank you." The young man's voice was still a little tight with nervousness. "I suppose, since you are so graciously offering to defend me, I'd better reveal the intent of my mission to you, hadn't I?"
Jin held up a hand. "I am asking nothing, Akimoto-san. I will defend any honest man, whether I know of his precise intent or not."
"No, no... let me." Still a little nervous, Benjiro fumbled with the leather pouch, untying the strings at last. "Come close. We don't want all the birds to see this..."
Jin had not yet come a step closer when the boy suddenly whirled around and threw a handful of sand in his face. The same instant, Jin knew that it was hardly sand the boy had been carrying - a dozen grains were all it took to set his eyes on fire. He'd drawn his sword in reflex, but had little idea of what to strike out at with it, blinded as he was, eyes screwed shut in pain, stinging, throbbing, clamped tight by cramping muscles. Even if he'd wanted, he could not have pried them open - and what would he have seen anyway? Benjiro, the false snake of a boy, grinning his arrogant grin, striking the sword from his hand with one well-aimed blow at Jin's wrist.
Jin lunged forward blindly, striking out at the traitorous youth, hoping in vain to hear the shuffle of his steps over the throbbing of pain in his skull. His eyes, or where his eyes used to be, felt as if they were going to melt and bleed out of his face, and the added pain of the blow to his head did not do anything to alleviate that. It took further blows, though, and the bone-freezing chill of a blade at the side of his throat, to finally convince Jin that the boy was no longer his only attacker. Trembling with pain and the rage of the humiliated warrior, Jin stilled. Two, three hands on him, holding him, and there had to be another holding the tip of the sword to his throat. So the boy had an accomplice.
"The rope, lad."
"With pleasure." That was Benjiro's voice, flat, coming from where the boy had been standing when he'd thrown the sand in his eyes. Not sand - this must have been sajinrai, the half-legendary poison employed by the swordless classes in close combat. Red sand and machin, a few grains only of the deadliest of poisons... applied to the eyes, it could eat away a man's sight. Applied to the tongue, his life.
Benjiro's voice, and four more hands. Two accomplices then, one of them armed, the other barely holding on to Jin's struggling body. "Hurry," a hoarse voice ground out from behind him, "strong as an ox, this one."
"Good for you," the other voice, probably the owner of the sword, said matter-of-factly. Then, out of nowhere, Jin tasted the iron of a hook, shoved between his lips, clanging against his teeth, pulling at the corner of his mouth. "Now I'd suggest you keep still, stranger," the calm voice continued, somewhat strained. Jin felt one of the hands on his arms let go and struck out blindly, in the hope of hurting or at least hitting one of his captors. His eyes still filled his head with bright flaring pain, and he could feel tears running freely down his face, washing away none of the burn. He tasted salt and iron at the corner of his mouth, and his hand struck out at nothing, at a body that twisted out of the way, then tackled him to the ground.
The sword left a nick in his cheek, just by the earlobe, though that sting of that was barely discernible above the flaming agony of Jin's eyes. Bucking and struggling under the weight of the man who tried his best to pin him down, Jin had to concede defeat when he felt the rope attached to the hook in his mouth looping around his throat and tightening.
He had no more time to concede defeat, however, as a well-aimed blow to the side of his head robbed him of his remaining senses and the world descended into clamouring, constricted darkness.
When Jin blearily drifted back into consciousness, he wasn't sure at all that the throbbing darkness he saw was a sign that night had fallen - as far as his aching head allowed him to think, the darkness sat right there behind his eyelids, still screwed shut. Even trying to open his eyes for longer than a blink gave him the acute impression of what it was like to have a very diligent and attentive crow hacking at his eyeballs the minute they were no longer covered. His last attempt at getting a look at his surroundings had left him groaning at the cramping pain that still held his head in its grasp. And he had not seen a thing.
They had, however, heard him groan.
"Boy! Your ward is calling for your attention, I think!" An unpleasant sneer in the man's resonant, authoritative voice, failing to match the calm, almost stony expression on his face. Karagawa Rai, in the service of the Princes of Iga and Ise since his childhood, was a formidable sight even now, divested of his part-body armour he would wear even in times of peace. Broad, mustachioed and peering into the dimness of the early evening with small, sharp eyes, he was a force to be reckoned with. Certainly so for Benjiro, who levered himself upright to check on Jin.
Yes, he was conscious, or so it seemed. Not conscious enough to fully realise the state he was in, but that would come soon enough. For now, it would do to keep his hands bound behind his back and his ankles lashed together, all with the same rope that had started out hooked into the corner of his mouth and was now secured firmly around his throat. Struggling too much would certainly not be a good idea, but he would see that soon enough anyway.
They had divested him of most of his clothing as well, pulling off the unconscious man's hakama and belt, and Ichida, the third of their little war party, had insisted on slashing the captive's remaining clothes to bits while Karagawa and Benjiro were rushing to bind him before he regained his senses and fought back. As a result, the man's blue kimono was now hanging in shreds from his broad shoulders, sleeves and ropes tangled tightly about his forearms, and his loincloth was torn down one side, leaving a firm thigh
and buttock exposed and threatening to expose far more if he were to stir...
"What are you waiting for, boy? Give him the mud treatment. We don't want him going blind, do we? Go on!" Karagawa boomed from where he was building a campfire, the slight curl to his lip suggesting that this was a task far beneath a samurai, but since the boy was busy attending to the captive, he was going to put up with it.
With a sigh, Benjiro acquiesced. "Yes, Master. Of course."
Dunking his hand in the slippery grey mud of a puddle left by the recent rains, the boy reached for Jin's hair, grabbed him by his unravelling topknot and pulled his head up, eliciting a gasp of surprise and pain from the bound captive.
"Oh boy, oh boy. Look at you. This ain't your grandmother, you know?" Ichida, leaning lazily against a tree stump, evidently not intent upon doing anything except mocking Benjiro. If anything, Ichida was even more of a hulking brute than his colleague Karagawa, though the dark eyes in his bearded face lacked the spark of cunning of his companion. Shorter than Karagawa, but no less broad in build, he made the white headband he was wearing look more than a little out of place, and certainly far too dainty for a man of his build and evident predilection. His hands spoke a far clearer language, mimicking what Benjiro was to do in order to save himself the bother of having to administer the loamy earth, the only known antidote to sajinrai, with his own hands.
Benjiro did not grace him with an answer, merely nodded grimly, then grabbed Jin's hair with both his hands and hauled the defenceless body forward before dunking his face into the puddle. Jin spluttered and struggled, spattering the boy with fine droplets of grey mud. Angered, Benjiro pulled hard on his captive's hair, lifting his face out of the mud.
"I had the good grace to wait until you wouldn't suffocate," he hissed. "Now, if you value your eyesight, keep your damn eyes open, and keep still." With that, he pressed Jin's face into the sludge again, holding him down until the bound man's frantic bucking signalled him that he was running out of breath. Letting go, he rolled him over on his side again, wiping his muddy hand on Jin's unbound hair. The man's mouth was open in a gasp for breath, the red rope marks on his throat brighter than his pale, mud-smeared lips, and yet he was silent. No moan of pain, no whimper for mercy passed those lips. Oddly fascinated, Benjiro watched as the tears from the captive's watering eyes formed two small trails across the mud-covered landscape of his face, two small reluctant rivers, one across the bridge of his nose and one down his cheek towards where his obscenely thick greying hair lay spread out on the ground.
Blinking, Benjiro focused his gaze elsewhere. There was a rather large and ornate tattoo on the captive's shoulder, a thick storm of stylised blue-black clouds tossing about the heads of four or five stately chrysanthemums, their nobly elongated petals fading from a soft glowing pink at the base to the pale of the man's skin.
Unusual though this was on the shoulder of a former samurai, Benjiro couldn't help admiring the beauty of it.
"Hey, boy. Time enough for ogling later." Ichida again. "I'm hungry. Lay the table for us and our guest, will ya?"
"Yes, Ichida-sama," Benjiro answered almost automatically, then rose to attend to his tasks. Only then did it occur to him that a table was not among the things they had a habit of carrying.
Ichida's roaring laughter stung. "Eh Rai, you can't have been teaching that lad well, can ya? Hasn't got a clue what I mean by 'table'!" He turned to Benjiro with a broad grin. "Did ya really think I want to feed that dirty bastard of a ronin, eh? Not while I'm hungry myself, I'm not. He's good enough to be the table, and that's about all," he rumbled. "Less bugs on him than on the ground, I hope."
Momentarily abandoning the smoking beginnings of the campfire, Karagawa had come to join Benjiro, grabbing him by his wrist and looking him firmly in the eye, unsmiling, but without sneer or malice this time.
"You see this, right?" He pointed at the rope mark on Jin's throat, and the tightness of the rope that had slipped down a fraction due to the captive's fruitless struggles and was now digging into the most vulnerable part of the man's neck. "Could kill him if we're not careful. And he's strong. We want him alive, but we also want him being no trouble. So - we restrain him. Properly. And as my worthy colleague here said," he gestured at Ichida, who was still looking smug, "a little furniture wouldn't be amiss in this dismal place. Understood?"
"Yes, Master," Benjiro replied hesitantly, still not quite sure what was expected of him.
"I'll show you. Always a useful skill to have, the art of restraint. Get me the rope from my pack. The long one and the short one."
Rope duly procured, Karagawa proceeded to teach the boy the art of turning a defenceless man into a table. Mostly, this involved Benjiro kneeling on Jin's spread-out hair to keep him from struggling as first his ankles, then his wrists were untied, only to be methodically bound again with the two separate lengths of hemp rope, the ankles side by side and the wrists in front. The boy was given hold of the wrist rope and held on tightly as he watched his master thread the long rope around Jin's naked knees and elbows, pulling taut until they met, then handing the end of the second rope over to Benjiro as well.
"Hold tight," he ordered, then with a judicious kick and a little leverage, brought the still silent man to his elbows and knees, motioning Benjiro to let go of his hair. A slight grunt of pain accompanied the tightening of the ropes as Karagawa took them from the boy's hands. "There," the master said, matter-of-factly, "pretty good table. Just needs polishing a bit." Humming tunelessly as if he were engaged in a particularly leisurely flower-arranging session, he proceeded to secure the end of the long rope around the crouching man's waist, tying it off against the loop that held his elbows to his knees. The short rope was looped around the nape of Jin's neck, twice through his mouth, and secured at his wrists again, keeping his head down without the danger of the captive strangling himself.
"Pretty package, isn't he?" Karagawa quipped proudly, kicking away the remnants of the blue kimono and the man's loincloth that lay puddled in the trampled grass. "Now you can-"
"Rai, are you done yet? I'm starving here, and you're showing the boy the niceties. Get him over here to make us some dinner or he'll be ogling that... that brute all night!"
A flash of resentment lit up Benjiro's eyes, gone too quickly for Ichida to notice. "His name is Jin," he informed him in a carefully emotionless voice.
"Oh, Jin, is it?" Still laughing his bearish laugh, Ichida levered himself upright and padded over to Jin's bound form, looming over both the captive and the boy. "Have you ever heard of anyone really called that, boy? Just 'Jin'? We might as well call him 'scum', and that'd be closer to what he is, huh? Go on, get me dinner," he brushed Benjiro away, "I'll show you what he's good for, your Jin."
With that, he sat down heavily on the bound man's back, stretching himself ostensibly, legs wide open, crude hands patting the captive's bare flesh. "See? What does a seat need a name for? Ah, get me a drink, will ya? And this one's sword."
Hiding his disgust, Benjiro turned to retrieve the bottle of sake that he knew Ichida always carried. In fact, it was a rare day that Ichida only carried one bottle of the stuff, and usually indicative of another 'shopping raid', as he was wont to call it, in the immediate future. The boy cast his master a worried glance as he picked up Jin's sword. Surely Karagawa had said they wanted him alive? Did they know who he was at all? And could he be really sure himself?
Karagawa's voice, in its usual commanding but calm tone, cut his whirling thoughts short. "No wounding him, right? We don't want any lasting marks. Or anything that could detract from his value as a pair of strong arms."
"Rai, Rai, you're no fun any more," Ichida mock-complained, unsheathing the sword and casting an appraising look at the freshly-sharpened blade. Wa's workmanship shimmered like silk in the failing sunlight. "I was only going to show ya my latest invention. Look, Rai. This seat's a sword-holder too!" With a broad brutal grin, he rammed the point of Jin's sword into the ground between his bound ankles, then slowly leaned the hilt closer to himself until the blade rested snugly between Jin's buttocks.
"No marks, as Karagawa-san orders," he growled, half to his companion, half to his 'seat' whose muscles tensed in pain as Ichida casually pulled the hilt a little closer still. "You don't think the boss is going to look there when he inspects the new material, huh?"
Exasperated, Karagawa turned around from where he had been laying out the makings of dinner for Benjiro to prepare. "No, but I think the ability to sit down would be expected of any new acquisition, whether he ends up taking arms for the Prince or spending the rest of his life as a common bonded labourer. No need to coddle him, but don't go too far, Ichida, or you'll be paying our Lord, and me, for the loss of a perfectly good servant."
Muttering something under his breath, Ichida reluctantly pulled up the sword, narrowing his eyes at the thin smear of blood that tainted the shimmering steel. He wasn't going to attract attention by wiping it off, so he just slid it back into its sheath and reached for the bottle of sake, pouring himself a measure, not failing to spill a little on Jin's abused bottom and grinning delightedly when the clear liquid rolled down between his buttocks. The hiss of pain from the bound man was more than satisfying. Adjusting his seating on the naked back, Ichida called out to Karagawa, offering him to share a drink, and Karagawa accepted, leaving Benjiro to finish the food preparations on his own.
Which, in Benjiro's not so humble opinion, was a good thing, as any more of Ichida's blatant cruelty would very likely have goaded him into an altogether undignified explosion of temper at that unbearable brute. And dignity, he mused bitterly as he set the evening's ration of rice simmering, was about the only thing he had left. Well, a small measure of dignity, and his life.
Which, lamentably enough, he owed to the less offensive of these two scoundrels that called themselves samurai and went about under the crest of the daimyo of Ise and Iga, ravaging and kidnapping whatever took their fancy and looked like it would gain them the approval of their lord back in Ueno. Even in times of peace, they were out in armour, and truth to be told, he had not seen them out of it except at night and in the bath. To them, the wars had never ended.
Well, they had just been about to end when he had first met Karagawa, although 'met' was too weak a word. He had found himself dragged bodily from the fringes of the battlefield, Karagawa's dreaded iron hook in his hair and his rope around his throat, a hand clamped over his mouth forestalling any cries. He had struggled fiercely, of course, seeking to attract the attention of his master and the other warriors of their battalion, seeking to alert them to the enemy that had fallen into their backs just as they were giving their valiant last to defend themselves, and their lord's flag, against the rising tide of mounted attackers.
It was only much later that he had realised his captor was not, strictly speaking, an enemy.
When the clamour of battle had died down and the smell of blood had been washed away by the wind, the 'enemy' had taken off his silk mask and helmet and turned out to be Karagawa Rai, or Karagawa the Scoundrel, as his master had used to call him.
His master, Akimoto Katsuo, whose family name he bore out of reverence.
His master, Akimoto Katsuo, who had inspired him with every last drop of energy to fight this losing war, for their lord's sake, for their land's sake, for Katsuo's sake.
His master, who had been victorious many times and whose proud smile outshone the sun.
His master, whose twisted and disfigured body lay rotting on the field of Sekigahara, while his apprentice was alive. Shamefully alive, for he felt it had been his duty to follow his master into death, either on the battlefield in a valiant attempt at rescuing him, avenging him, or later, in captivity, by turning his own sword against himself and saving his honour.
He had toyed with the idea many times in the first few days - Karagawa had kept him under tight surveillance, and initially even under tight restraint. Eventually, the steady pounding of the man's voice at his temples had won out. Didn't he love life enough to be grateful that Karagawa had saved him from having to witness Akimoto Katsuo's death? Wouldn't it be a better arrangement for both of them to pretend Katsuo had disappeared and that neither of them knew of his whereabouts, let alone any mishaps that could have befallen him? Wasn't he going to become a famous warrior, and shouldn't he be grateful that Karagawa now gave him the opportunity to become so, provided he was willing to undergo an apprenticeship with him and help pay his way to greatness by doing a little extra work?
The 'little extra work' had turned out to be more or less the work of the servant Karagawa and his boorish companion Ichida (whose birth name he did not remember ever hearing) could not afford to keep. And the way to greatness, it turned out, was paved with acts that would do a highwayman proud, but should have any samurai blushing to the roots of his hair.
Still, it was true that Akimoto Benjiro loved life, loved it too much to let go of it. Here at least he had the hope of making it out of this so-called apprenticeship - he was nearly a grown man anyway - and here he had the memory of what his master, his first master, had taught him. And the memory of how good it had felt. Who knew how much of that would still be there in the ghost world? True, some days he hated himself for having committed himself to this sordid existence, clinging to his little life... but other days made him intensely grateful to Karagawa for having grabbed his little life by the hair and dragged it away from the battlefield.
And he would get out of this, probably far sooner than either of his masters suspected. He allowed himself a tight smile. That man Jin... true, Karagawa had known his old master, as one man in an army may know another by sight, but he patently did not know the shining heroic perfection that was Akimoto Katsuo. Nor had he ever shown any interest in any heroic perfection anywhere. And that would work to Benjiro's advantage.
He had suspected from the beginning. The man's eyes. Probably a good thing I had to use the sajinrai on him, he thought. I am the only one here who has seen the colour of that man's eyes. Sure, there may be more men like him, with eyes the pale blue of the sea - but the sheer strength and proud determination with which he had held up under Ichida's humiliating and painful taunts made it overwhelmingly clear to the boy that this was no mere ordinary ronin with oddly coloured eyes.
This was a most unusual ronin indeed. A precious one. One whom the daimyo would be delighted to have in his clutches, to offer up as a faithful and repentant vassal's gift to the man who was said to be searching the length and breadth of the land for him. To the man who would no doubt generously reward said daimyo, and, needless to say, the young samurai who had identified this precious catch. And old Tokugawa-sama gave freely.
This blue-eyed ronin would be his path out of here, his gated road out of here indeed. He would buy Akimoto Benjiro his honour and his freedom back, and all for knowing that the man's name was most certainly not Jin.
This was the Indigo Warrior.
It was a frugal meal to say the least, and true to form, Ichida spent almost the entire time grumbling about how they ought to be able to get better stuff than this, and how was he expected to retain his fighting strength on just rice and bitter tea and a few strips of dried fish. An exasperated look from Karagawa failed to make any impression on him, and he continued to vent his anger at the inadequate food, and possibly the fact that he had to relin quish his 'seat', by occasionally poking his chopsticks into the ribs of the bound man who was now being used as a table, as originally intended.
Benjiro had seated himself at Jin's ankles, furthest away from his face, and as far as possible away from Ichida, eating slowly and silently, the little line between his brows prominent.
He had carried that rice pot from the fire himself. Had tried to serve everyone first before placing it on the 'table'. Had seen the bright red mark the shape of a rising sun. Ichida had demanded seconds, of course, and carefully placed the pot on the already scalded skin in the small of Jin's back.
And yet there was no cry for mercy to be heard. Not even a trembling in the broad back or the thick thighs folded under the man's body, held by unyielding ropes. From where the boy was sitting, he could see the captive's toes, and they were most certainly not curling in agony. It was almost beyond believable, and suddenly Benjiro felt the desire to see the man's face after all, as if he could read the secret to his unearthly resilience there.
Instead, all he saw were Jin's buttocks, pale and smooth-skinned, and a hint of scrotum covered in wiry black hairs, crouching in the cave between his thighs and his lashed ankles.
"Fascinated with the view?" Karagawa asked sarcastically as he plucked the empty rice bowl from his apprentice's unresisting hands. "I think we can allow you to touch, can't we?"
"Touch!" Ichida guffawed. "Hell, if your boy wants to fuck that piece of meat, I'd be happy to watch. It's not like that would leave any marks after all, neh? Awwww, just look at him blushing, the little boy! He can't hurt ya now, the big bad ronin, ya know?"
Benjiro nodded, tight-lipped, keeping his mouth shut for fear of letting his disgust at Ichida's crudeness spill over his lips. Seeking the eyes of his master, he found nothing but jaded amusement there.
"Can't think of a much better way to get this rock of a man to prove he's got a voice," Karagawa grinned. "And blood to blush with. It's a useful skill to have, Benjiro - torture by pleasure, and I couldn't imagine a more suitable - or unwilling - subject. Go on, boy, practice your skills. And show us his face, will you?"
Swallowing a retort, Benjiro rose and buried his hands in Jin's hair, yanking gently, then slipping one hand under his chin and turning his head.
The sight made something in him twinge and burst.
No worse than could be expected under the circumstances of course - the thin layer of grey mud had mostly dried and cracked, except where it had been washed away by the tears streaming from Jin's burning eyes. The beard was truly grey now, and a small string of saliva clung to the corner of his mouth, there where the rope bit into it, forcing his lips apart. For a moment, the eyes fluttered open, revealing a shocking pattern of red, blue and black, then they closed again. Not clenched shut, but drifting closed softly, as if the mind behind them was miles away.
Well, not for very much longer. Blanking out Ichida's increasingly vociferous taunts, Benjiro knelt behind the bound man again, concentrating on the task at hand. There was a purpose to this, though he had a hard time reminding himself. Torture by pleasure. Humiliation, that was it. And really, what better way was there to satisfy his brute masters and yet not do anything he would hate himself for later? Later, when all this was over. Later, when the so-called Jin had won him his freedom back.
Besides, he had to admit to himself, fondling Jin was not exactly a hardship.
Closing his eyes, Benjiro let his hands wander over the taut muscles of the man's thighs, thick manly thighs dusted with short bristly hairs. He let his fingertips roam upwards, feeling his way to where the hairs thinned and disappeared, leaving nothing but smooth skin, silken to the touch there where leg ended and buttock began. He followed the crease of soft skin inwards, towards hairier regions, into the warm musky space between his folded-up legs. He heard laughter at his ear, felt a short tug on his hair, and it took him a dazed second to realise this was Ichida egging him on, watched closely by Karagawa's small calculating eyes.
For a moment, he had imagined other laughter, other hands, other flesh in his palm. But that could not be, of course.
This, on the other hand, was quite enticing too. A large heavy scrotum, the testes filling his hand comfortably. He squeezed experimentally, delighted to see the man's anus flex in response, clenching tight. Oh, he wasn't going to touch him there, certainly not without a bath. There was blood there, just a little, and how it had got there made Benjiro blush with shame, adding to the heat that was already making his skin glow and a drop of sweat gather under the collar of his kimono despite the evening chill.
The man's penis was too long to fully grasp with one hand, and yet it settled warmly in his palm as if it had been waiting for him. Clasping the shaft tightly, Benjiro took to rubbing the tender skin over the reluctantly hardening flesh, keeping up an intense, choppy rhythm until the captive was fully, mercilessly aroused. Squeezing the hard organ in his hand, Benjiro settled for slower, harder strokes, letting the man's hairs tickle his wrist, careful not to stimulate the head of the mighty erection that was now straining against the bound man's abdomen.
Torture by pleasure - Benjiro had to remind himself it was not he who was to be tortured by this, by the stillness of this man who crouched in his bonds, unmoving as a rock, and yet hard as a rock and noticeably throbbing in his hand. Determined to get a sound out of him, the boy applied his fingernails, scratching down the hard shaft, dragging soft skin and probably raising welts in the musky darkness.
The man's anus clenched again, and his thighs twitched minutely. Still no sound.
Half annoyed, half desperate, Benjiro released the captive's penis and tugged on his balls, noticing how tight they had grown, the skin all rough and wrinkled. Ah, so that's where he is, he thought with grim amusement. Let it not be said I'm not good at this. And there will be moans from you, by hook or by crook there will.
Leaning in closer, he grasped the thick erection again, digging his thumb into the sensitive thin-skinned groove just under the head and rubbing. Mercilessly.
There. Not so much a moan, though... more of a groan, no, a rumble that seemed to come from the deepest innards of the rock. Fascinated, Benjiro listened, letting the low sound vibrate through him. He doubted very much than anyone else could hear this. This was his doing. His moan, his purr.
Only when it stopped did the boy realise his hand had stilled. Shaking his head and biting his lip, he rubbed with renewed fervour, greedy for that sound, crushing the delicious flesh under his thumb, willing the groan to be of pain if not of pleasure, but needing to hear it again.
And he did. Louder this time, abbreviated by a strangled gasp. Fascinated, Benjiro watched the strong naked body strain against the ropes that held him, all the energy of a forced orgasm releasing itself into the tight confinement of his bonds and the tight gasp of his voice. The chrysanthemums on his shoulder had pinked a little more.
Oh, strong indeed. So strong. And so defiant, and looking regal and commanding even naked, even with rope in his mouth and mud in his face. To bring this warrior down, and bring him down to trembles and groans, was truly a victory. A muddy, murky, ignoble victory, but so strangely satisfying. And yet, it had left him hungry.
As he wiped his sticky hand on Jin's hair, Benjiro realised he wanted, needed to hear that helpless groan again.
4. Rain drumming on the temple roof
It was most certainly daylight that tickled at his eyelids, and Jin was acutely grateful for it, if only because there was little else to be grateful for in the position he was in. He had rolled over on to his side during the night, and his shoulders and arms had gone completely numb. His mouth was parched and tasted foul, and he still had a pounding headache eclipsed only by a thirst that seemed to run through every fibre of his being.
Still, at the moment he was grateful that most of the blurred patches of colour he could make out were attributable to actual objects. He blinked a few times, screwing his eyes shut to dislodge the salty crusts his constant tears had left, then tried again.
The image had sharpened considerably, and the movement was not just due to the pounding of blood behind his eyes. Most of what he saw defied the twitching rhythm of the green and purple spots and moved quite purposefully.
There was the bulk of Ichida, squatting by the burned-out fireplace and shovelling the leftover rice, sticky and cold now, into his bowl for breakfast. There was Karagawa with his trousers down and kimono up, half-hidden behind the tree, doubtless relieving himself. Strangely, Jin felt no such desire. He was quite certain he would have been incapable of producing more than a few drops - although he felt up to putting away a bucketful of water.
Not that the others were in any way taking notice.
There was the gold and black of the boy Benjiro, kneeling on his sleeping mat tying up his hair, then rising gracefully to rummage through the small pile of saddlebags. He came back smiling, carrying his rice bowl, a stick of something yellow and undefinable, and one of the bamboo bottles Jin had been carrying. He uncorked the bottle, rinsed out his bowl with it, then filled it full of water. Jin felt his cracked lips twitching.
Oblivious, the boy dipped the yellow stick into the water and began rubbing it between his palms until a thin white lather dribbled from between his fingers. Soap, that was what it was, and the boy spread it carefully on his cheeks and chin, then produced a small knife from where he had tucked it into his belt and proceeded to shave himself methodically. It was almost hypnotising to watch, the slow deliberate strokes of the short blade across youthful skin, the quick splash as the knife was rinsed off in the bowl, and the next stroke, laying bare more soft skin. When his face was quite satisfactorily smooth, the boy ran an experimental hand over the top of his head, but apparently deemed the short bristles there not worth bothering with yet.
Rising up, he picked up the bowl and soap and offered it to his master who had just come back from his duties behind the tree. Karagawa shook his head, stroked his own bristly beard and muttered something Jin could not make out. Benjiro nodded and looked over at the captive, thin-lipped as if angered at having been saddled with servant work yet again.
Nevertheless, he did go over to where Jin lay on the ground, placed his implements next to the bound figure and proceeded to unknot the ropes that held him in their grasp, leaving only the one that bound his wrists. It was obvious from the way the man's limbs fell that he would not fight back, but he was not going to take any chances, not with a commodity like Jin, battered and bruised though he was.
Reaching over, the boy picked up Jin's torn loincloth from where it lay among the remains of his beyond-redemption kimono. The longer part of it would probably suffice. He threw it over his shoulder, then dipped the shorter one in the bowl of soapy water and wiped at the smudges of dirt on the man's knees, and at the smaller and less obvious smudges on his thighs. White and mostly dry, but he knew enough of the man's sense of honour to be certain they would burn as red as bloodstains, were Jin to look at them. That groan of reluctant defeat was still very much on Benjiro's mind, and it was too precious a memory to let go of quite yet.
Jin lay very quietly, evidently still not in control of his limbs. Benjiro massaged a thigh experimentally, saw the man's foot twitch and concluded that it wouldn't be long until he was able to walk again. Wasting no time, he rolled the captive over on his side and began fastening the abbreviated loincloth around his hips and genitals. Large, dark-skinned and soft, the man's cock was altogether too inviting not to give it a rough squeeze with a soapy hand. Jin's thigh twitched again, but no sounds came from his mouth. Hurriedly, Benjiro finished tying the loincloth and dipped the wet rag into the bowl again, then scooted up to where Jin's head lay and began to wipe away the dried mud and tear tracks on his captive's face.
The eyes that flew open at this unexpected kindness were almost clear again. Bright blue, the whites still veined pink, but they were most certainly seeing. They were full of unspoken words as Benjiro roughly wiped the man's face clean. A tongue darted out to lick at cracked lips, and the eyes kept looking at him, calmly but unwaveringly. Benjiro understood.
Chucking the remaining soapy water aside, the boy walked back to the pile of saddlebags, neatly stowed away his shaving implements and retrieved another of Jin's water bottles.
Jin had sat up painfully by the time Benjiro was back. Unbound mud-grey hair streamed over his face and shoulders, and Benjiro twisted it back impatiently with one hand before uncorking the bottle and setting it to Jin's lips. He drank greedily, and though he did his best not to spill any of the precious liquid, a thin rivulet of the stale water snaked its way from the corner of his mouth across his chin and throat, slipping down the man's broad chest, barely halted by the few curly black hairs there, and watched eagerly by Benjiro.
The bottle was empty in only a few moments, and Jin winced a little at the sudden fullness of his stomach, then sat up straight in an effort to disperse the discomfort, breathing deeply, willing his aches and pains to fade. He rolled his shoulders slowly, then stretched his arms, wrists still bound, and wiped at his mouth with his hands.
"Thank you," he said hoarsely.
Without saying a word, the boy nodded curtly and motioned to his master, signalling that the captive was now fit for travel.
Travel, it turned out, involved Jin having to walk, sometimes jog, alongside the party's horses in nothing but his loincloth, wrists secured by a rope tethered to the saddle of Karagawa's horse. His muscles protested at the pace he was forced to keep up, but a small part of him was grateful that he was at least not bound to Ichida's horse. That brute of a man would surely have come up with more inventive uses for that sword of his, and would probably not have been afraid to exercise them in the relative public of the path they were travelling.
From the weak glare of the sun trying to fight its way through the morning mist, he surmised they must be heading south, slowly descending the flank of the hill range towards the Tokaido road. Already, the wet forests had given way to scraggly meadows of waist-high grass that he was often forced to wade through as his captors, naturally, took up most of the path.
Ichida rode ahead, sitting heavily on a horse that was so suited to him they might have been of shared ancestry - broad and thick-boned, its coat a dark muddy brown and its demeanour sturdy and boorish. Neither of them would be scared of anything that could come their way.
Behind him was Karagawa, tall on his elegant grey stallion, with Jin in tow. Benjiro had clearly been left with the least impressive of the horses (with the possible exception of Jin's own), though he tried his best to look dignified astride a short reddish-brown Chinese pony with a shaggy mane. Behind him, her reins tethered to the rear of Benjiro's saddle, Jin's old mare trotted along amiably, laden with Jin's own saddlebags as well as the men's sleeping mats and anything else they could tie to the old girl's back without too much trouble. The rope, Jin realised with a wince, was a familiar one.
The journey was an uneventful and for the most part silent one, and although the sun never quite made it through the high mist, the oppressive humid heat of the day took their toll on all of them. Though Ichida refused to take off his body armour, it was he who in the end gave in and ordered a stop at a small stream that hissed and babbled its way across the grassland. Karagawa had the good grace to let go of the rope that held Jin's hands and give it to Benjiro, who nodded gravely and led Jin down to the water like a dog on a leash.
He was expected to drink like a dog too, although drinking was at least possible with his hands bound in front. Kneeling down, Jin dipped his hands into the blissfully cold water, bringing as much of it up to his face as he could manage in the palms of his hands, drinking greedily. Everyone else had used their bowls, of course, so Jin was the last one to finish, and still the boy allowed him to splash himself with more of the fresh cold water before tugging him to his feet again. Almost as an afterthought, he dropped a pair of ripe kaki fruits he had picked in passing a few miles ago into Jin's open palm. The sticky juice made all efforts at washing pointless, of course, and the lukewarm sweetness of the pulpy flesh made him even more acutely aware of his hunger, but he said nothing. Nothing except a quiet 'thank you' he wasn't even sure the boy had heard. He certainly hadn't replied.
Later that afternoon, when everybody's hunger convinced them to set up camp for the night, he was confined to the edge of the camp once more, wrists secured behind him and arms bound to his sides with a loop of rope that was more to make sure he didn't escape than to actively torture him this time. He sat cross-legged, his ankles roped together and the rope attached loosely to the one across his chest, ensuring that he would be unable to stand up but otherwise leaving him enough room to occasionally flex his muscles. It had been Benjiro's hand that bound him, and although the boy had not said a word, Jin felt a certain kindness in his arrangement of the ropes. Either that, or an uncertainty, a reluctance to imitate the cruelty he was so patently being taught by his masters.
He hoped that that kindness would extend to feeding him too, as he was beginning to feel faint with hunger. Still, at least his eyes were almost recovered by now, and he resolved to put them to good use and watch.
Since the evening had not yet even begun, Ichida had announced he was going to hunt for some food, and none of the other two had protested. Benjiro had wandered off to find water and had returned heavily laden with pots and bottles, his kimono clinging to his chest from where he had held the rice pot that was now sloshing with fresh water. He had found his master rearranging the contents of their various saddlebags and had therefore deposited his load and come over to where Jin was sitting to give him a drink.
The bottle was full to brimming, and quite a bit of the water spilled out on to Jin's naked chest, a welcome refreshment. He drank with his eyes closed, savouring every sip and swallow, trying to fill his rumbling stomach this way at least, drinking until there was not a drop left in the bottle. When he opened his eyes again, Benjiro's own were staring at him, unreadable. The collar of his kimono clung to his chest wetly, gold darkened to a warm brown, the scattered pine twigs no doubt revelling in the unexpected moisture.
Blinking, the boy withdrew the bottle, shook it, raised his eyebrows minutely and silently went back to where Karagawa was setting out the night's camp. This time, Jin did not bother speaking his thanks aloud. The boy was clearly unhappy with something, and while it did not take a wise man to guess what that was, Jin caught himself wondering what kept the boy here, with masters that weren't his own. If indeed he had been telling the truth when he had said his name. But whatever the truth, this boy was not the kind one would expect to see in the company, nay service, of Karagawa Rai, much less his boorish companion. Something seemed to bind him to the two, and strangely also to Jin himself, though he could not quite put a finger on it.
He probably shouldn't be alive any more than I should, he thought darkly. And they've taken him in... still, there could be far worse ways. With looks like his, the boy could count himself lucky to not have ended up as a prostitute... although he would doubtless be a prostitute fit for princes and generals, and would have them wrapped around his little finger in no time if he used that stride of his to maximum effect...
It took no time at all for the strands of stray thought to come together.
Ichida had come home with nothing but a grim expression, and their dinner would have been meatless had it not been for Karagawa sorting through Jin's belongings and disgustedly throwing out the bundles of rice that Wa had so considerately packed. They had gone mouldy in the humid heat, of course, and still were apparently not disgusting enough yet to be unattractive to the local wildlife. The rabbit that had come to sniff at them stood no chance against a suitably enraged Ichida and his arrows, and so it was that the scent of roasting meat added an extra layer of mouth-watering temptation to the smells rising from the fireplace.
Benjiro was stirring rice in the pot, Ichida was nibbling at the last of the dried fish, impatient and unwilling to wait for dinner to be served, and Karagawa was sipping tea and talking to Ichida, who may or may not have been listening.
"Not much in this one's bags, as we'd expected. I've appropriated the few useful things into our own baggage, and we're now one summer kimono, some hemp rope, a fan, a knife, a little oil, some bottles, five copper coins, a sleeping mat, two swords, and two linen blankets richer. Oh, and the man's trousers, though I suspect we'll give those back to him when we arrive."
Ichida snorted. "Don't see what he wants with trousers where he's going."
"Ah, ah, Ichi, you never know. The Lord might take a shine to him and offer him a place in his service. Look at him - fine strong man, and from the looks of these swords, he'd make a decent bodyguard."
"Bodyguard!" Ichida grumbled, mouth half-full. "Would strangle the daimyo in his sleep!"
Karagawa held his hands up in a gesture of placation and defence. "I'm not saying he'd take it, Ichi, but think about it. Not many men enjoy the life of a ronin, and I'd say our Lord is a paragon of kindness in that respect. He'll gather the good and lost ones to him. If they're prepared to make concessions, of course." A faint smirk.
"I don't see why we bother, really. This one? Stubborn as a donkey. Why not just kill him and move on, huh? We'd still be two swords and some bottles and all that richer."
Karagawa sighed. "I'm sure even you can calculate the difference between two swords, some bottles 'and all that', and two swords, some bottles, 'all that' and the bounty on top of it. At the very least we'd get the price of a half-decent workman for him. And you don't really think that coming back home and telling tall tales of how we've killed this or that famed wandering warrior would make us any richer, no? This stuff," he gestured at Jin's now-empty saddlebags and the two swords lying across them, "does not exactly speak of a legendary samurai owning it, now does it? Much better to have the man along with it. The killing can be done later."
Frowning, stabbing at the nearly-overcooked rice, Benjiro swore he would never tell them what they had in their hands. Whom they had in their hands. Let them think he was some worthless ronin grateful for employment as a hired thug with a crest on his back. He knew better. At least he was almost completely certain he did.
Ichida had said something to the effect of how he'd like to be present at the killing, but Karagawa had brushed the remark away. Ichida bristled at that, and, deeming it too risky to oppose his companion further, rose to take his dissatisfaction out on their captive. Benjiro stopped him, a hand on his arm, holding up the spoon sticky with rice.
"With all due respect, Ichida-sama, my Master is right. This man is - was - one of us, one of our kind, and harming him without reason or orders would only bring shame upon your soul. We have captured him, we will give him to our Lord, and that should be enough to satisfy us."
Ichida stared. "The little pup is trying to lecture me on the way of the warrior? Rai! This is damned insufferable! Do something about it!"
Karagawa placed a hand on Ichida's other arm. "All he's doing is agreeing with me. Well, mostly. Why would I want to punish him for that? Sit, and eat. And Benjiro? Give the Jin man some rice when you've finished. We don't want him fainting."
Ichida grumbled all the way through the meal, refusing to acknowledge just how delicious the fresh meat was after days of only rice and dried fish, refusing to even look at Benjiro, who was trying his best to not look happy while finishing his meal at record speed before sneaking off to where Jin sat, bearing a bowl of rice and some shreds of meat liberated from his own share.
"Thank you," Jin murmured as Benjiro squatted down in front of him, offering him a dollop of sticky rice on the tip of his chopsticks.
"I'm only doing what is my duty," Benjiro replied softly, not looking into his eyes. He fed him in silence, and Jin savoured the salty rice and the earthy flavour of the meat, meanwhile feasting his eyes on the boy. Beautiful and prideful. Perfectly suited. He would go far, and he would come to like it soon enough. It was better that way anyway, better for his conscience. The boy had blinded him, but he had fed him too. He deserved revenge, a small measure of revenge, and kindness.
When Benjiro returned to the campfire with an empty bowl and dipped it in the water pail to bring his captive a drink, Ichida looked up from his pile of rabbit bones, and his grumbling broke into a full-fledged shout.
"What, more water for that bastard? He'll only piss himself in the night! I think you're treating him better than you're treating us, boy. And I think there's something that can be done about that."
"I am only doing what is my duty," Benjiro replied quietly. Ichida leapt to his feet.
"All we want is for him to be alive! No need to go pampering him. Next thing I know you'll be shaving and clothing him too, and combing his hair, huh? We're not gonna sell him as a footwashing-girl or a geisha, boy! Never mind that we'd have to cut off his bits first, and I tell you, I'd gladly do that if it stops you from fawning over him like he's your sweetheart! This is a man's world, lad, and you're in it, so stop being a girl!"
Benjiro darted him a dark glance from where he was kneeling by Jin's side, but said nothing in reply. Jin could see the frown line between his eyebrows, thrown into sharp relief by the flickering firelight.
Enraged, Ichida trotted over to where Jin sat and knocked the half-full bowl from Benjiro's hand, soaking the bound man.
"Enough of that pampering! Time to go to sleep, Master Jin!"
With that, he kicked Jin in the chest, causing him to topple over backwards, his bound ankles in the air, still secured to his chest by a rope now stretched taut. Laughing grimly, Ichida placed another well-aimed kick on Jin's exposed bottom, then pulled an unprotesting Benjiro to his feet and dragged him back to the fireplace. The look in Benjiro's eyes was cloudy, unreadable, but the frown line had deepened.
The last thing Benjiro dared give Jin that night before curling up under his rug was a long look. Jin had rolled on to his side again, head held high, hair everywhere, silent.
For all that his stomach was full, the sight awakened a peculiar hunger in Benjiro, a deep soft hunger he had not felt since his master's death.
He awoke to Ichida's insistent grumbling about having to spend two nights in a row out in the open and how surely they could afford better than having to camp out on their mats in the wet meadows, and besides, he hadn't had a decent meal in days.
By the time Ichida had finished detailing what constituted a decent meal by his standards (including, among other things, liberal amounts of sake and pretty serving girls), the rest of the company were wide awake, and Karagawa only managed to silence his growling companion by promising him to at least stop under a solid roof tonight, provided they made it as far as the deserted temple that marked the junction of the path they were on with the Tokaido road.
As for decent food, Karagawa calmly suggested that Ichida go and procure some, as that would almost certainly work better towards filling his stomach than grumbling would.
"But... Master Samurai! You can't take that... I've only just bought it!" The woman was clearly outraged despite the fact that she was shaking with fear. To make matters worse, her husband was out in the fields, and her youngest son was cowering in the far corner of the room, rightly afraid at the sight of the polished blade in the stranger's hand.
Ichida took yet another step closer, causing the seated woman to almost fall over backwards.
"No. I have just bought that, understood? And I pay you with your sorry little lives. Don't even dare to leave this house before sunset. I don't want to see your faces ever again, right?"
Tucking the bolt of fabric under his arm, Ichida stamped towards the door, grabbing the family's rice sack on impulse and tucking it under his other arm.
It had begun to rain by the time Ichida returned from his raid, heavily laden with the things he had managed to barter on the market for the bolt of fabric. Seeing as its saddlebags were mostly empty now, Jin's horse was made to carry the loot, consisting of, among other things, a sack and a half of rice, a box of tea, several bottles of sake, a basketful of vegetables and several fish caught freshly that morning and smelling softly in the warm rain. Ichida droned on for quite a while about what a wonderful meal he would be having at the temple tonight and how negligent Karagawa was in not teaching his apprentice the finer points of food acquisition without the need to resort to money.
Benjiro's mouth was a thin line, but he had to admit he would be hard pressed to have procured a meal as sumptuous as this without resorting to money, which he plainly didn't have, and neither, he suspected, did Karagawa. The bounties they were after made up more of their living than he had assumed, especially given Ichida's boastful behaviour. He just hoped that Ichida's little 'shopping raid' had left nobody dead or injured, and that the insistent rain would do its part in shutting him up.
It certainly did its part in drenching them all. Maybe they'd automatically ridden (or, in Jin's case, walked) faster to reach their next resting place, or maybe the leisurely downpour had just made the paths so slippery that they spent most of the morning sliding downhill towards the bamboo forests of the plain, a thick green band beyond which lay the Tokaido road, and then the sea.
There was a little-known temple half a mile or so off the road, just at the foot of the hills, and it was their luck that today it was not being sought out by any other weary and rain-sodden travellers. They moved in at what must have been barely early afternoon, though it was hard to tell with the sun hidden behind heavy bluish-grey clouds. Anyone who had had hopes at setting up for the night in just that temple would just have to move on.
"After all, it isn't like there aren't guesthouses on the Tokaido," Karagawa said, pulling off his soaked hakama. "It's just that we're not particularly disposed towards availing ourselves of their services at the moment, neh? What with our precious cargo... people might get jealous."
"I am," Ichida grunted, half-naked himself. "He ain't got clothes to get wet."
Gruff laughter. Benjiro darted a glance over at Jin, still clad only in his loincloth, hair soaked and snaking over his shoulders, raindrops in his beard. His skin glistened, and despite the still muggy warmth, he though he saw gooseflesh rising on the man's arms.
"Ack, look at that, will ya?" Ichida grunted as he removed the loop of hemp rope from where it had been attached to his pack. It dribbled a steady trickle of water on to the worn wooden floor. He yanked at it. "Hard as rock. Well, Master Jin, looks like you'll have to do without it tonight. I'm certainly not botherin' with this tangle."
Karagawa grinned in sympathy. "I bet the one on his wrists will be a pain to get off too... Benjiro, boy, why don't you see what you can find instead, huh?"
Benjiro nodded curtly, searching around the various bags and packs in their various states of soddenness. The best thing he could come up with was the blankets that Jin had been carrying - packed on top of Karagawa's things, they had been thoroughly soaked by the day's rain and were therefore not any good as bedding. Holding them up for scrutiny and catching his master's nod out of the corner of his eye, he began tearing one of them into wide strips.
Benjiro winced slightly at the sight of the raw red marks the hardened rope had cut into the captive's wrists. The skin was unbroken, but it still looked painful. Actually, even getting the knots untied with his clammy hands was painful enough... hurriedly, he applied the same restraint technique as the evening before, leaving Jin a little room to stretch his limbs without giving him enough slack to work himself free. Not that they wouldn't notice that anyway, as the temple only had one small room to offer.
"He's not sleeping in here with us, is he?" Ichida asked indignantly.
Karagawa sighed, and Jin thought he saw a flash of anger in Benjiro's eyes. It was hard to tell with the boy's eyes downcast, seemingly intent on fastening the last of the strips about Jin's ankles.
"Do you see another room here?" Karagawa replied tiredly. "Of course he is. Can't leave him out with the horses where everyone can see him, can we?"
"He stinks," Ichida replied waspishly.
"Actually," Benjiro said quietly, "he's had more of a chance at getting clean in the rain than you have. No clothes."
"And you like that, don't you? Playing with your little captive? Why don't you sleep next to him, then, and save me from his stench."
"He stays!" Karagawa boomed, "and the boy can sleep next to him. And Ichi, don't even think about it. We've got enough mats lying around here that we can use."
Guiltily, Ichida placed the wooden memorial stele back on the altar. There were enough of those here to start quite a substantial cooking fire... but there was all this stuff about souls that Karagawa resolutely believed in. And he had to admit that there were indeed straw mats lying around that weren't theirs, weren't valuable, and would make for a little fire.
They'd used the rice pot to make the fire in, and the teapot for the rice and vegetables. There was no tea, but that didn't bother Ichida in the least, seeing as his sake stash had just recently been replenished, and he was intent on making a sizeable dent in the row of bottles tonight.
The fish was good enough half-raw, and the luxurious food, together with the smoky air inside the old temple and the constant drumming of the rain on the roof, made everyone sleepy long before darkness had fully fallen outside.
Karagawa did a bit of perfunctory rearranging of drying clothes and wet bags, leaning their swords against the rear wall of the room, while Benjiro washed the pots and bowls in the rain. He came back inside with his hair glistening, stacked the clean bowls against one of the bags, grabbed a mat and pulled off his wet kimono, then realised that the rugs were probably even wetter, and with as much dignity as he could muster, lay down on the mat in his loincloth, using the kimono as a blanket.
The fire had long gone out, and Ichida was already snoring sonorously when Karagawa retired to bed as well, casting one last fond look over at his apprentice. He would learn the ways of the warrior soon enough, even if they were not what he'd thought they should be, the poor silly kid. He'd make his way, and one day he'd be grateful. Fine reflexes and a sharp mind.
Perhaps he ought to give him his sword, just in case. He didn't expect any trouble overnight, but Benjiro was the one nearest the entrance, and he didn't want the boy coming to any harm. Not after he'd invested that much energy in him anyway. Getting up as quietly as he could, he felt his way over to where he had put the swords, running his hand along the handles. Ah, no, that was his own. Then Ichida's. A short one, probably one of the ones they'd taken off the ronin. Benjiro had an elegant long katana, almost too long for someone as short as he was, but he wielded it with grace. That must be it, then. Carefully so as not to topple over the other swords, he lifted the katana up and placed it on the mat next to Benjiro's right hand.
In the near perfect darkness, he didn't see the blue eyes watching him.
The rain continued unabated through the night, drumming on to the tiles of the temple roof, making the wet beams creak and groan, inciting the horses to annoyed grunts and whinnies. In short, there was noise enough.
Certainly noise enough to cover up the stealthy movements of Jin's body, thighs trembling with the effort of prying his ankles apart, stretching one leg and pulling the other close to his body, first one way then the other. He knew the fabric of his blankets, knew that there was some slack in the weave if one didn't bother to stretch them to their intended size after washing.
He usually bothered to do just that. But the rain, of course, hadn't.
Stretching and pulling, tugging and wriggling, he dimly noticed that the bindings around his chest left him enough slack to take deep breaths. That was promising. Elated by the prospect of escape, he renewed his efforts on his ankles, finally managing to slip one foot free of the loop, toeing it off the other and stretching his legs out, giving his aching muscles some time to adjust.
Now for the arms... if he could get the bonds to slip down far enough so that they'd no longer be at his chest, that would give his bound hands enough slack to wriggle free. Breathing out and writhing back and forth until he had to draw in a gasp of air again, he tested the slack in his wrists, still tied snugly high on his back. Again, then.
After half a dozen attempts, the sweat on his chest was making the passage easier, and after a few more minutes, he had the bindings lying loosely around his waist, loosely enough at least for his hands to reach for the uppermost knot and undo it.
Taking another deep breath, Jin revelled in the feel of the bonds sliding off him. This was it, he was free.
Now for the easy part.
To his surprise, he found the sword that Karagawa had placed at the boy's right hand very similar to his own, its weight and hilt easy in his hand. Such a long blade in the hands of such a short boy... still, it made his task fractionally easier, and really, what choice did he have? And it was not like he was doing the boy a favour by leaving him in the service of these two scoundrels anyway.
Unsheathing the sword with a soft hiss, he placed the blade against the boy's throat.
Benjiro's alarmed squeak as he woke was stifled quite authoritatively by one of Jin's hands clamped over his mouth.
"I think keeping quiet is a good idea, don't you agree?" Jin whispered in his ear. He saw the hairs on the boy's nape stand on end and his eyes widen, then felt a minute nod under his hand. "Good."
"I am not going to do you any harm, boy," he continued. "Not if you cooperate."
Dimly, he saw the boy clench his eyes shut, heard him take a deep shuddering breath. He was afraid for his life, clearly expecting revenge for the sajinrai attack.
Jin shook his head, aware that the boy probably couldn't see him. "You'll be better off where I'm taking you, I should think. Certainly happier. And more admired." He snorted. "What am I talking about? Your hands, please."
Still numb with fear, and still with Jin's blade at his throat, the boy held out his hands. Jin grasped them and wrapped one of the linen strips around them that he had just freed himself from, leaving the blade lying against the boy's throat under its own weight. He was not struggling. Well, not much. He must love life, Jin thought. Well, what I'm going to give him is a kind of life.
Saving his thinking for later, Jin secured the boy's upper arms to his sides, then dragged him upright. "We're leaving. Say goodbye to your master, but say so quietly," he whispered, then, on impulse, picked up the kimono Ben had been using as his makeshift blanket and threw it over his own shoulders. With a hand on his shoulder and the tip of his sword pointing at the boy's ribs, he ushered him out of the door into the rain.
The horses weren't alarmed in the least to see two of their masters coming out in the middle of the night, and Karagawa's grey stallion only gave a slight snort of discomfort when Jin mounted him somewhat ungracefully. Which was forgivable considering the fact that the saddle was rather further back than either Jin or the horse were used to, on account of a near-naked boy being slung in front of it.
Benjiro squirmed fiercely, trying to get comfortable resting on his belly across the horse's back, squashing his bound arms under him and kicking feet that were now secured together with a strip of fabric too. Jin kept his sword pointed at the grunting and struggling boy, although he was fairly certain he would not attempt to wriggle off the horse's back, if only because the rope that was currently lying loosely around his throat was attached to the saddle at the other end, and would tighten quite uncomfortably, were he to squirm too much.
"Would you prefer a gag?" Jin asked conversationally, almost amused at the boy's efforts to free himself and keep quiet at the same time. Benjiro frowned thunderously and shook his head, biting his lip and redoubling his efforts to squirm into a more comfortable position. Somehow that seemed to involve getting his hands on the front of the saddle, although Jin could see he was not in a position to extend his arms that far.
He was quite a lovely sight though, all creamy skin and white linen in the cool moonlight filtering thinly through the rain clouds. His beauty would be quite welcome - more than that. Much more. It would be his own redemption as well as Jin's, and really, what better way was there? They both stood to gain.
"Quiet now," he murmured, punctuating his words with a light slap to the boy's exposed rump. "We've made our goodbyes, now let's be off."
That was not, strictly speaking, true, though it only took Jin a second to make his own goodbyes, patting the old mare's mane as he rode past. She would get along without him, just as she had before he had bought her. And Karagawa's horse was the only one that looked capable of carrying two people and still managing a reasonable pace.
Urging the grey stallion on, Jin and his squirming cargo left the temple courtyard and headed for the bamboo forests.
5. Dawn over the sleeping city
Getting the sword from its hiding place under the floorboard had been the easiest part, though she suspected that that would come as the greatest shock to her father. Had he truly believed Tamae did not know what he had been working on in the hours of dusk after the shop had been closed for customers, after Shinkichi had been fed and sent home? It didn't take a wizard to work out what he was making, though why he was making it had puzzled her for most of that time.
Until she had met the intended owner of that sword. Who had, it would appear, refused it. He had left without it at any rate.
The better for me, she thought grimly.
Behind the shed at Ryo's store was not the perfect place for this transformation to happen, but she had been afraid to do it at home. She did not want to have to try again. This time it would work. She had the men's clothes (well, one of her father's drab kimonos and a pair of hakama wrapped in a bundle at her side), she had the men's words (which she had had for years, although her father would threaten beatings, and occasionally go through with it, when he caught her talking like a boy), she even had the men's loincloth. Wrapped tightly around her chest to keep the treacherous flesh in check.
With a look of grim determination on her face, she rammed the heavy sword into the ground behind Ryo's shed, let her pack drop down softly, grabbed her long unbound hair in both fists on either side of her face, and nodded fiercely.
This time it was going to work.
Dragging her girlish tresses along the blade, she was pleasantly surprised at its sharpness. Soft black hair fell to the ground like feathers. How appropriate, she thought. The downy feathers of youth are coming off. I'm ready to fly.
She was certain she still looked a bit rough around the edges when she'd tied the remaining short length up in a boy's topknot, but that would just have to do. She certainly did not have the time and leisure to enlist the services of a barber. Then again, neither did most boys.
And Ryo would just have to forgive her for the act of petty crime she was about to commit. He could curse Tamae the ironsmith's daughter for all he liked as far as she was concerned. For today, Tamae the ironsmith's daughter ceased to exist.
Stuffing the dotanuki sword inside a huge bale of raw cotton, heaving it on his shoulders, and walking carefully, but with head held high, towards the Tokaido road was Watanabe Takada, fourteen or fifteen years old maybe, and most definitely on his way to Edo.
It must have been a favour of the gods, Tamae thought, that it had taken her so little time and effort to get there. Well, nearly there anyway. The roadhouse in which she was currently sharing a guestroom with another boy and his aged grandfather was the last one on the Tokaido before the city gates. She stared up at the beams of the ceiling, trying hard to grasp how lucky she had been.
They hadn't complained when she had insisted on taking that huge bale of cotton to the room with her instead of leaving it out in the yard with the guests' horses and the baggage. She had said it was not to get wet, and that it would be used as payment for the trip here, and she would rather not leave it out of her sight, thank you.
They had left it at that. They had raised a few eyebrows when she declared she could not join the other travellers in the tubs at bathtime, citing a disease of the skin that made hot water unbearable to her. But they had left it at that. If anything, she was learning very quickly that boys of her age were uninteresting entities that needed not to be convinced of what's supposedly decent and good for them. It made for a very refreshing change.
Besides, the story about the cotton being payment was true; she had been picked up by a passing trader in a mostly empty two-horse cart on his way to Edo, and he had agreed to give her a lift in exchange for the bale of cotton. She had thought the deal fair enough, and it had got her to the capital in less than two days. The trader had agreed to pay for her staying in the roadside guesthouses too, provided she slept in the cheap rooms.
Decent fellow, she thought, at least he didn't ask me to share his bed. I'd have had to walk the rest of the way.
Levering herself up off the sleeping mat, she peered out through the transparent square in the paper wall. Daylight was just beginning to filter through the trees in the orchard. It was time she was on her way.
Taking care not to wake the boy or his soundly snoring grandfather, she got dressed except for her belt and tiptoed around to where she had stacked the bale of cotton against the wall. Untying the top, she reached for the handle of the dotanuki and pulled it out. Still covered only in its brown cloth sheath, the blade was almost as long as her arm, and she wasn't the shortest of people. Carefully, she slid the sword hilt-first into the collar of her kimono, letting it slide down until its pommel rested comfortably against the low-slung waist of her hakama. Checking that the tip was not visible, she tied the belt tightly around her waist. For the short way to Edo, it would do. After all, nobody would expect a common boy like her to carry such a formidable weapon. And nobody should expect that either, seeing as she wasn't here to be apprehended by Edo's notorious police forces.
She was here for greater things. The sword would merely ease her way there. Ease her way to the man whom this sword had once been made for, and who was somewhere within the new castle that the shogun Tokugawa-sama had built for himself. And she would find him.
Tying up the bale of cotton and hoping the trader would not go looking for her too extensively, Tamae slipped out of the room, out of the house, and out into the early dawn on the last mile of the Tokaido.
Walking very straight, she set out for the city, the rising sun on her right, a good sign.
When the sun had gathered enough strength to illuminate the small room inside the old temple, it illuminated a deserted sleeping mat by the doorway. A little further back, a disgruntled samurai was desperately trying to rouse his companion from the drunken stupor that had had him snoring soundly all through the barely-ended night. But save for a few grunts and some tossing and turning that very nearly left the first samurai bruised, there was no reaction to be had from the jumbled blob of humanity that had been a proud warrior only yesterday.
Now, a thin thread of drool hung from the end of his moustache.
Disgusted, the samurai rose and stepped outside to consider his options, peering into the sun as it fought its way through the low-hanging clouds, staining them red and pink.
His instincts were telling him to get up on his horse and rush after them, of course. And yet the problems with that notion were manifold.
First, there would only be him, as Ichida seemed determined to remain in his sake-induced vegetable state for at least another few hours. Not that he wouldn't take off in pursuit alone - but then what of Ichida? He wouldn't be able to follow him of course, wouldn't know where to. More likely he would sell off their remaining possessions and drink himself stupid. And leaving a note was out of the question too - the only one with a measure of reading and writing to his name had been the boy.
Who had taken his kimono and sword, so it seemed. Karagawa's lips thinned. He had been so oddly silent over the last few days, especially since they'd picked up that ragged ronin up in the hills. Quite likely that the boy had been plotting something, and had now gone through with it, the little daredevil. Taking on that big silent brute of a ronin all by himself. Was he hoping to make it to Ueno first, to deliver his prize and claim what little bounty there was alone?
Well, he had taken the right horse, Karagawa reflected sourly. Which left him with the choice between Benjiro's pony and the captive's old mare.
Turning on his heel, he stomped inside again, intent on waking Ichida even if he'd have to burn down the temple to achieve that.
Sunlight was slow to trickle through the thick canopy of the bamboo forest, and what little there was was green and dim, barely enough to tell Jin that it was a good idea now to veer off the path they had been thundering along since their surreptitious escape. Slowing the horse to a walk, he guided it into the maze of smooth green trunks as thick as a man's waist, and taller than ten men. They were as thick as an army here, their feet hidden under a carpet of light brown leaves that deadened any sound. After a few steps, the path was invisible behind them, and the only noise was the heavy breathing of Karagawa's horse.
Well, and the struggling. The boy had taken their sudden change of speed and direction as a cue to start squirming again, now that the horse's back was no longer trying to grind his innards to pulp. Hands still scrabbling for the saddle even though he was in no position to reach it, bound feet kicking the air, the boy was fighting a losing battle but was apparently not ready to give up quite yet.
What is he trying to achieve, Jin wondered idly. He knows he can't wriggle off the horse without endangering his neck, and he'd be wiser to conserve his energy, especially when he doesn't believe I'm not going to harm him. Not that I'm complaining about the sight, mind.
The boy's face had gone red from his efforts, and his unbound hair obscured his face almost completely, with only a glimpse of his cleft chin peeking through now and then. Even more rarely, Jin caught a peek at the boy's mouth, open in a gasp or biting his pink lips as the lithe young body squirmed on the horse's back, making it nervous now that they had slowed down to pick their way through the dense forest.
The river had nearly cut off their path - Jin had really only heard it when the horse was about to wade into it, and it wasn't a trickle by any means. But it was flowing north for the time being, so they could follow it for a while.
He slapped the boy's exposed buttocks lightly to get his attention. The faint pink flush from where his hand had landed caused Jin to blink, quite unsure if he had ever seen a man blush there, and even less sure he didn't want to keep trying to deepen that blush. He shook himself out of that particular reverie.
"Hey, Akimoto-san, I would greatly appreciate less struggling on your part. It makes riding quite uncomfortable, and personally I think our horse agrees with me."
As if to rejoin, the stallion gave a loud snort and shook its sweaty mane.
The boy must have glared, then realised that the effect of that was somewhat lost under the hair obscuring his face, for after a brief pause he snarled, "Mock me with politeness, will you? If you're going to keep me slung over the back of your horse," a gasp for breath, "like a piece of meat, you might as well call me Ben. Before you sell me."
"Sell you? Akimoto-san, I am wounded." The smirk in Jin's voice had barely bloomed when he continued, more soberly, "Selling you has never for even one moment crossed my mind. Benjiro, may I call you that? Benjiro the peaceful, neh? I dare say we are both headed for a more peaceful career, boy."
He laid a hand on the boy's lower back, pausing to admire the contrast between the weather-beaten skin of his own hand and the smooth taut buttocks of a boy whose beauty would have been a crime to waste in the service of a pair of scoundrel samurai.
Benjiro spat, or at least tried to spit, then coughed convulsively, causing the horse to rear its head again.
"What do you say to breakfast, then, Akimoto-san? Regrettably, I can't offer more than water at present, but at least that we have in abundance."
At that, he dismounted with a groan, stretched his limbs, threw off the kimono he'd been wearing and waded into the icy clear water of the stream. Bending down and dipping his forearms in, he sighed deeply, then scrubbed his arms, face and chest with handfuls of sand from the bottom. On second thoughts, he took his loincloth off and threw it on to the bank, then submerged himself to the shoulders, washing his face meanwhile and spluttering delightedly, taking a deep draught of the clear water now and then.
When even his nether regions had been scrubbed and rinsed thoroughly, he emerged again, unselfconsciously naked, his unbound hair streaming over his shoulders, dark with moisture at the tips. In his cupped palms he bore a small pool of water, and it was only when he placed it under Benjiro's nose that the boy lifted his head to see, and closed his eyes almost in reflex.
Jin snorted, reminded of how the boy had first seen him naked, but was determined to repay the kindness of giving the captive water, especially when said water was being lapped out of his hands by an undeniably eager pair of lips.
The softness of those, and the occasional touch of Benjiro's tongue against the soft centre of his palms, together with the endearing warm roughness of the boy's stubble, conspired to have Jin's recently-washed nether regions very interested by the third time he returned from the river to quench that eager mouth's thirst.
After the third time, he thought it safer to get dressed, lest he feel compelled to put that silken mouth to better use. And parts of Jin's anatomy had very clear ideas about what that 'better use' entailed... not yet, not yet, old boy, his mind kept chanting, much to the chagrin of most of his body. Maybe later you'll get to enjoy him now and then, and maybe later he'll be grateful and the sweeter for it...
Though there had to be certain things said in favour of the appeal of a squirming naked boy, bound hand and foot and licking with abandon -
Jin mentally slapped himself out of that particular fantasy and bent down to pick up his loincloth.
"Thank you," Benjiro murmured sourly.
Jin nodded and tied his loincloth tightly about his unruly flesh, then shrugged into the boy's kimono, belted it loosely and wrung the water from the ends of his hair. Casting about for something to tie his hair with, he was once more reminded of how he had left the temple with nothing but a horse, a saddle, his sword, a stolen kimono and the owner of said kimono, currently slung across the stolen horse.
He shook his head and sighed, then walked around to Benjiro's feet and worked the linen strip around them loose. Throwing the strip over his shoulder, he grabbed the boy's legs by the ankles and spread them wide, hefting one of them over the horse's back, then clasped the boy around the waist and tugged until he was in a more or less sitting position astride the slightly irritated horse, hands now finally grasping the front of the saddle as they'd been trying to ever since he'd first been thrown across the back of the horse.
Humming tunelessly, Jin loosened the rope that held Benjiro's neck bound to the saddle, giving him some slack so he could sit up almost straight. He did, throwing back his head, exposing a proud neck encircled with coarse rope, and amber eyes that glittered with contempt.
"I know, I know," Jin rumbled. "Accept my apologies for the knots, but you will agree that they are necessary under the circumstances." He took the liberated strip of linen between his teeth and gathered his wet hair with both hands. "And at least I'm letting you have the horse -"
He caught the movement in the corner of his eye, and before he had had time to think, had reacted, grabbing the boy by the hair and twisting hard, making that sullen sweet mouth open in a yell of pain.
In the boy's bound hands shone the thin blade of a knife.
Shocked, Jin yanked harder at the boy's hair, causing the noose around his neck to tighten, watching as the blade slipped from his grasp before it could slash the horse's neck or the bonds that held him to it. With a soft thud, the knife fell to the leaf-covered ground, and with a groan that was almost a sob, Benjiro slumped against Jin, despairing of his life.
Jin nodded grimly, stepping on the fallen blade as he pushed Benjiro upright again. The metal felt cool against his bare foot. Stroking the tangled hair out of the boy's face, Jin could see that the resistance in those eyes had snapped and broken. The pink that coloured Benjiro's cheeks was quite likely equal parts fury at being held captive and shame at having failed to free himself even with a weapon at hand. The boy lowered his lashes, sighing deeply.
Probably wise of him not to speak now, Jin mused. There's enough samurai left in him to make him want to hide his tears at any cost.
Jin bent down to retrieve the knife that had been hidden in Karagawa's saddle, used it to cut a piece off the linen strip he still held between his teeth. The shorter piece of linen he wrapped around the short but sharp blade before tucking it into the belt of his kimono. The longer one he tied around the thick twist of hair he'd gathered at the back of his head. There would be time for proper dressing later, and it was still quite a long way to Edo.
"There. Are we going to cooperate now, Akimoto-san?" Jin asked, picking up the horse's reins and setting off at a leisurely pace, weaving his way northwards through the dense bamboo forest.
The boy glared weakly, but remained silent.
"Really, I commend your skills, but... you will agree that it is hardly fitting for a samurai of," he gestured at the small crest marks on the kimono he was wearing, "wherever this here is, to attack passing strangers with sajinrai, much less try to assassinate them with hidden knives after they've just given you breakfast." He forestalled a comment from the boy with an upheld hand.
"Ah, I do accept that it is less than polite behaviour to knot a rope around a fellow samurai's neck," he continued, "but it is the aims that count, Akimoto-san, not the means. You will admit that your masters' aims were less than honourable, for I had done nothing to offend them. You were little more than a common highwayman, Akimoto-san, for all that they purported to teach you. A highwayman's servant at times, I might add."
He paused, gathering his thoughts. "I, on the other hand, am on a quest for honour. Originally mostly mine, but now I see I can do both of us a favour if I can win you round to it. Actually," he tugged on the rope around Benjiro's neck fondly, "even if I can't. Where you're going, there won't be any more grouchy masters making you do servant work. And no more grizzled ronin stealing your clothes," he added with a smirk. "You'll be clad in silk and having a servant of your own, and the men and women will be on their knees to see you on yours. Or spread deliciously on deep red sheets. Men like your masters will bow to you and pay you in silver and silk for your favours, and the ladies of the court will be vying for your attention. Akimoto Benjiro, they will say, or whatever name you choose to bear, is the sweetest flower of the Yamato."
He purred slightly at the image of Benjiro on his back, spread out on a dark red silken sheet, then pulled himself together.
"You'll be a great help to me, you know? I could hardly return to Edo empty-handed, but I confess even I hadn't dreamed of riches the likes of which you wear on every inch of your skin. The reception will be triumphal. And you can, if you wish, avoid me for the rest of your sumptuous life in the castle at Edo. Though I would be greatly honoured to be received into your chambers once in a while of course." He patted the boy's rump affectionately.
Benjiro's head whipped around, eyes narrowed and still suspiciously moist. His voice was flat and tight.
"You're he, aren't you? The one who shouldn't even be alive any more? Hasegawa-san... you're the Indigo Warrior, aren't you?"
"That was the name I once went by, yes. Hasegawa Kaemon, at your service." He sketched a bow. "Well, partially anyway. Let us say I'm doing both of us a service, neh?"
The boy's lips remained tight, and silent.
His frown still hadn't cleared when Jin had eased him off the horse towards evening and set him down on the leaf-strewn forest floor. The rope still around his neck like a leash, Benjiro had staggered off behind a bamboo stalk to relieve himself, and came back disgusted with the thin rivulets of moisture that ran down his legs, his frown even deeper.
Jin nodded and led him down to the river, wider now that it had been this morning, and certainly only a few miles away from its estuary. He did not, however, untie the boy's hands. Instead, he untied his wet loincloth, rinsed it in the cool water and splashed the reluctant boy with it until he understood and squatted down in the water, emptying his bowels and bladder, letting himself be washed clean by something slightly less offensive to him than Jin's hands.
Even after several minutes in the icy water, his cock's still an impressive sight, Jin thought absently as he wrung the moisture from the boy's loincloth and wrapped it around him again, holding the rope between his teeth. When the boy could be considered dressed again he pulled him up short by the rope, tipping up his chin with one hand.
"Now, please don't take this as an affront, but I'll have to keep you restrained while I go hunting for something for the two of us to eat. After the little stunt you pulled this morning, I'm sure you understand. And I'll make it as comfortable as possible," he added, leading Benjiro by the rope, back to where he had tethered the horse.
Comfort, it turned out, involved Jin removing the rope around Benjiro's neck. Not that that gave him more of a chance to escape, as Jin sat astride Benjiro's chest, his weight pressing the boy into the admittedly soft leaf-strewn ground and crushing his still-bound hands between their bodies.
"Now," Jin said conversationally, "please try not to struggle. Unless you prefer death to a career as an acclaimed courtesan, which I am led to believe you won't. Well, not prefer death over anything anyway."
The boy blushed furiously as Jin took the knife from his belt and rammed it into the ground next to Benjiro's neck, the top of the handle about level with his chin. Then, he place a hard but warm hand on the boy's forehead and held him down while he carefully jammed his sword, Benjiro's own sword, into the ground on the other side, at an angle so that it would hover above his throat but not endanger him unless he tried to escape. He swallowed, and Jin smiled. Benjiro returned the smile shakily, then thought better of it and closed his eyes, willing himself to calm.
It did not escape his notice, however, that the bonds that Jin fashioned out of the remaining linen strips, including the one from his hair, were unknotted this time, true to his promise. Wrapped tightly and artfully around his wrists and ankles, the cloth strips kept him stretched out on the forest floor, but the only knots involved were the ones holding the attached ropes and strips secured to two lean but tough bamboo stalks at either end. No knots on his body - for all that the ronin had announced he was going to sell him into prostitution, he treated him with the respect due a samurai, something he himself had most certainly not done when Jin had been under his hands to be bound.
Well, not that he had had a say in how it was done then - but still.
The thoughts were still rushing round his mind when Jin had long finished his work, taking the sword and knife with him to go and find food and leaving him stretched out on the forest floor, helpless but oddly comfortable and blushing furiously at the thought that the old ronin's hands on his body had felt quite good, massaging the aches and kinks from his limp arms, or wrapping the loincloth around him with almost loving tightness.
He sighed, very quietly seeing as Jin had seen it fit to leave him gagged. He couldn't really blame the man.
The revelation that he was the famed Hasegawa-sama, and that he was going to Edo of his own accord, had left any plans Benjiro had hatched in shards. Escape was impossible, that much had become overly clear over the course of the day. But something else was beginning to dawn on him too, and he didn't like the taste of that at all.
Escape was becoming more and more undesirable.
As the sun set behind the hills to their right, Ichida got his way and convinced Karagawa to lay off the wild chase that had led them southwards along the Tokaido, hurtling along madly on their remaining horses in an effort to make it to Ueno before that traitor Benjiro did.
They hadn't seen him along the way, and privately neither of the two thought they would ever see him again, though neither of them spoke it aloud of course.
Just as the long shadows of the bamboo stalks began to smother even the faintest slivers of daylight between them, Jin returned with what he had managed to procure - an armful of kaki fruits he carried in the lap of his kimono, and a rather large and fat fish that had evidently been severely mutilated by the man's sword. Still, it was food, and it was delicious, for all that Benjiro had to take the morsels from his captor's fingers as Jin refused to untie him for the meal.
He even refused to build a fire for fear of unwanted attention, and so they were very soon dining in complete darkness, with nothing but sound, touch and taste to guide them.
As the succulent raw flesh of the fish dissolved in his mouth, followed by a splash of fresh water and then the sweet, ever-so-slightly tart juice of the kaki fruit that Jin dismembered gently with his huge hands and fed him bit by bit, Benjiro felt his hunger deepen and widen until it filled his whole body, until it made him want to eat that infuriating man's hands along with the food they were offering.
It made him want to scream for more of those hands, and he resolutely swallowed the inappropriate sensation, along with more sticky kaki, and refused to think about what the trickle of juice out of the corner of his mouth reminded him of.
The lanterns had already been lit, and the small courtyard at the end of the lane was bathed in their flickering light, warm gold and pale yellow against old wood and the grey dust of the road. Tamae walked right up to the armed guard who dutifully pointed his pike at her.
"Considering the lateness of the hour," she said calmly, "would you be so kind as to let a boy willing to work into the walls of this venerable house?"
The guard laughed. "House? This ain't no house, lad. And no guesthouse twice not. Get yourself off to where ya came from and don't bother us again, will ya?"
"It is not my purpose to bother you, and I apologise," Tamae replied stiffly. "All I ask is to be considered for a position in the service of this palace. And surely that does not depend on the time of day?"
The laugh was somewhat rougher now, less sure. "Tell ya what - slug it out with my boss. Here he comes." With that, he sketched a brief bow at the broad surly man in armour who had appeared in the gateway, and sneaked off behind the guardhouse, no doubt to relieve himself of duty.
"What do you want, lad?" the senior guard said curtly, broad face under the helmet frowning only slightly.
"Watanabe Takada, sir," Tamae said, bowing briefly. "I seek employment - I am skilled with my hands, eager to learn, and easy to keep. All I ask is to be admitted into the presence of the person in charge of servants, please."
"Ah? Pretty urgent, is it? Or are you just trying to find a cheap place to sleep for the night? That I could get you..." Tamae's smile flickered briefly, but she could not detect any signs of obvious lechery on the guardkeeper's face.
"I can pay you richly," she said firmly.
"Oh?" The guardkeeper chuckled. "What valuables could a boy like you be carrying about his person? Especially a boy looking for servant work?"
Tamae looked about herself, then reached into the back of her kimono and carefully pulled out the cloth-wrapped sword.
"This." She held it out to the man, who gingerly took it, as if fearing the blade could be poisoned. He hefted it in his hand, swung it experimentally a few times, then glanced around self-consciously, as if being seen with a sword as fine as this one would disgrace him immediately.
As it was, nobody had seen the transaction.
Tucking the sword into his belt, realising that the sheath of his existing one would be too narrow to accommodate such a mighty blade, he motioned Tamae to follow him inside the lantern-lit courtyards of the Tokugawa palace.
Tamae remained behind, shaking her head. "Promise me one thing."
"What?" The guardkeeper turned around, glee and uneasiness mixing on his broad features.
"Gosu Ashitaka, guardkeeper of the West Gates."
"You owe me a favour, Gosu Ashitaka."
The guardkeeper fingered the hilt of his incredible new sword, then nodded.
"You know where to find me. Just ask for me by name, boy."
"Takada. My name's Takada."
"So it is." Ashitaka rapped on a doorframe and pushed aside the paper door, ushering Tamae into a brightly-lit room that seemed to serve as some kind of office. The piles of paper on the floor and the surly demeanour of its inhabitant seemed to point to that, anyway.
Ashitaka let his broad face split into a huge smile. "Danjuro? Danjuro, old friend! Remember I told you about this nephew of mine who was looking for respectable employment? Well, he's taken a bit of time getting here, but he's safely made it now, and I'd be really grateful if you could squeeze him in somewhere, neh?"
The officeman's puzzled expression stood no chance against the guardkeeper's earnest smile and the proud hopeful glimmer in Tamae's eyes.
6. These oblivious raindrops
Drip, drip, drip.
They quickly became too many to count, raindrops dancing on his bare skin, small wet touches insinuating themselves into places he had never thought of as being sensitive. Armpits. The insides of his forearms. Cool clinging rainwater slipping between his toes, making him want to curl up and pull his blanket tighter around himself and curse the weather and the fact that his masters couldn't afford a decent guesthouse.
Only there was no blanket, and there was most certainly no curling up. He only noticed the restraints once he tried to hide from the gentle but insistent tickling of the raindrops, but they were very much present, keeping him from doing anything but squirming uselessly on the still-warm ground. He was trapped. He was, still, in the power of this infuriating ronin who had turned the tables on him in the middle of the night and whose plans for him did not bear thinking about.
He was also quite unmistakably hard.
Groaning as his stiff limbs protested the sudden exertion, he rolled over on to his side, arching his back as far as he could, then, with more effort than it should have taken, relieved himself on to a patch of ground that he told himself would not feel any different from the rest of the wet ground, and it was far enough away for him not to have to lie on it. Or so he hoped. He wasn't going to wake his captor quite yet anyway.
Much to his dismay, the erection refused to go away even after his bladder had been quite emptied, and he had a feeling that the old ronin had more than a little to do with that.
Not that he was doing anything - he was probably still asleep. It was hard to tell as Benjiro couldn't really raise his head for longer than a moment at a time, and the man was little more than a tight curl of body leaning against the trunk of a nearby bamboo, sitting with his knees drawn up and his arms crossed on top of them, head resting in the crook of one arm, his greying hair, unbound again, straggling all over the place, giving him the impression of a lichen-covered rock.
A rock wearing his kimono, mind, and a rock with hands that were the only indication that this was indeed a human being. Benjiro sighed at the memory of these hands. Doubtless strong and capable, as the fact that he was quite inescapably restrained illustrated only too clearly. Large, the hands had been very large, with thick blunt fingers, but again, that was to be expected under the circumstances. Jin was quite a bit taller than most men he had met in his life, and it was only reasonable that his hands and feet should match the rest of him.
Benjiro blushed a little at the thought of the rest of him. And yet, the man had not taken advantage of his helpless state, the way he had when Jin had lain bound before him. A pang of hunger bloomed in his body, and he was quite sure it was not his stomach that it came from. Oh, that groan, that helpless tight moan when Jin had finally been overcome by the sensations he had pumped into the mighty body... Benjiro longed to return to that time, and he was a little ashamed to admit that it wasn't because he had been free then.
It was because he had been doing the touching then. He had been able to force that formidable man into intimacy, make him tremble with need and moan with lust, all semblance of pride gone, the master no longer anything more than a man...
The master. Yes. The last man who had inspired this kind of manic hunger in him had been his own master. Akimoto Katsuo, most perfect of warriors, most wise of teachers. Who had proceeded to gently feed that hunger with his exquisite flesh, lesson by excruciatingly delicious lesson, allowing his eager student to learn the pleasures of the body and reduce his glorious master to a moaning thrusting animal with just his mouth. And who had held him in his arms, in his battle-roughened hands afterwards and caressed him to sleep.
It had been his hands, his immortal master's hands, that he had imagined on him every time he had managed to sneak away from his servant duties to fulfil the needs of his youthful flesh, hidden away from his new masters who, thank Kannon the Merciful, had never made advances and quite probably preferred women anyway.
He would have sneakily touched himself now too of course, either squeezing his disobedient member into softness again or stroking it to a quick frenzied completion, but with his hands bound above his head, there was little he could do.
And looking at Jin didn't make it any easier. The memory of that groan, the sight of those hands, hands that had, damn him, massaged his unresisting shoulders and arms before applying unknotted restraints - why was he treating him with such respect anyway? When he had every right to exact revenge? Was he trying to shame him? If that was the case, Benjiro admitted grudgingly, it was working. Much more than the prospect of losing his warrior's honour serving as a palace courtesan in Edo, it shamed him to see this simple, rough-living ronin treating him, in some strange way, with more respect than even his masters had afforded him.
Well, except Master Katsuo. But he had already gone over that.
Privately, he knew too well that he had lost his warrior's honour the moment Master Katsuo had died. So what was making it so hard to give up the last remaining shreds of it and face the silks and strangers' bodies that were to be his fate?
Drip, drip, drip.
The rain caressed his unruly flesh silently, offering no answers, only cold touches.
Swallowing the last of his pride to feed the expanding hunger inside, he hoped that Jin would be one of those strangers' bodies.
Of course Jin was far from asleep. In fact, he justly feared that the rings under his eyes would very soon match the semi-legendary blue of his irises if he didn't find some extra clothing to cover up that infuriating boy with. As it was, he was pure temptation, stretched out on the ground, prey to the weather's careless caresses, glistening.
Even through his unkempt hair, and even without turning his head, he saw more than enough of that radiant skin. Oh, he would be a star - a star dressed in gold and brown to match his eyes, and bright red to bring out the passion that had to be lurking under that cool exterior.
He was watching Jin. Interesting.
The fact that the boy's morning erection hadn't quite subsided didn't exactly make Jin more comfortable, though it at least served to reassure him that the boy's carnal desires were well intact. Good. Though it would have shocked him to find a young man of his age and physical attractiveness still uninitiated in the arts of love.
Well, that much was obvious. The touch of those hands on his unwilling flesh had been more than expert. And he would do everything in his power to ensure that they weren't repeated. Well, not on his unwilling flesh anyway.
Feisty, and prideful. Jin surmised that the one thing that held him down now were not so much his physical bonds as the shame at having been unable to free himself. And, quite certainly, the shame at where he was headed.
False shame. Jin shook his head minutely. For all that you think yourself a samurai, boy, he thought, look at what you've been doing. In your heart of hearts you know that you were even less of a samurai than I have been these past years. And the gods know I would have given up the sword and what little name I have left if it hadn't been for the hope I had, and the knowledge that I was doing no wrong. You know that you're no longer doing honourable deeds, boy. And really, you know that you're heading for a richer life, if you think about it for a moment. I would, in your position. But who would want a greying old giant with a beard and hands the size of shovels? Much better that it be you.
No more fearing for your life, boy. Isn't that worth it? For both of us, at that. I'm doing you a favour.
Keep telling yourself that, Jin, he thought sadly, and you'll believe it. I'm doing the boy a favour. When all I'm hoping for is that he returns the favour.
To have that creamy body, that soft mouth. Willingly.
It's been too long since I've had a lover, too long since I've even wanted one.
Merciful gods, let me go through with this. And let me come to his chambers an honoured samurai, and let him receive me. An admired courtesan.
We should be not much more than a day from Edo.
Time to think about selling the horse again.
The boy had been silent all through the morning, eating in silence as Jin fed him leftover fruits and waiting patiently for the man to bring him water in the cupped palms of his hands.
He had been silent all through Jin's morning ablutions, and had not spoken a word when Jin had released the restraints about the boy's feet to tie his own hair up with the liberated linen strip.
Only when Jin had freed his hands as well had he spoken, placing a shaky hand on the other man's shoulder.
"You won't need the restraints any longer."
"Oh?" Jin quirked one eyebrow at the boy's earnest face. "And what makes you think that?"
"I won't attempt to escape again. I promise." The sparkle in his eyes had dulled, but the little line between his eyebrows spoke of his honesty.
"You promise?" Jin snorted, a touch of amusement flickering across his features.
"Upon my honour as a samurai," the boy said, knowing full well that that was not much to offer. "For the day or two I can still lay claim to that."
Jin smiled and placed his hand on top of Benjiro's, encompassing it totally. The hand was warm and gentle, and even Jin found it hard to believe it had wielded a hidden knife only yesterday.
"You attacked me with a knife," he pointed out, "even though you knew I had a sword."
"My sword," the boy replied dryly, then lowered his gaze, his lips a thin line.
"Well, considering I left two perfectly good ones of mine in the possession of your redoubtable masters, I should think this only fair. However, I do think I should return your kimono to you. Or even better, provide you with a new one. As for the restraints, let me think about that. For now, I'd prefer you with them."
Taking a deep breath, Benjiro nodded. "As you wish."
Jin raised his eyebrows minutely. That fire, kept under such tight rein. And only one more overnight stop before they got to Edo.
In the end, Jin agreed to leave Benjiro unbound, though he kept the kimono and the horse, making the boy walk alongside his captor in nothing but his loincloth. Nevertheless, they made good headway, and would rejoin the Tokaido road just a mile or two outside the city gates by tomorrow morning if they kept it up.
Not that Jin was planning to enter the city in their current garb, though it would of course display the boy's talents to best effect. No, he owed him a decent outfit at the very least. Besides, a stolen kimono and unkempt hair hardly befitted the legendary Hasegawa Kaemon either.
And Benjiro had been keeping to his promise, even when Jin wasn't looking, and he wasn't sure whether to relax in the newly-won meekness that radiated from his features or whether to mourn the disappearance of his pride.
In private, he hoped that was only temporary. The stride, at least, was still very much in evidence.
The last village before the Tokaido had housed a shopkeeper who had just stocked up on new fabrics fresh from Edo, and though it took more than a little convincing, he had eventually consented to letting the dishevelled stranger leave with his only finished model creations. The money raised by the sale of Karagawa's stallion had spoken very clearly, and Jin's voice and his lavish praise of the man's taste in fine men's apparel had done the rest.
Benjiro had been waiting outside the shop, leaning against the wall in nothing but his loincloth and a faint sheen of sweat from the oppressive afternoon heat, and the glimmer in his eyes at the sight of Jin laden with folded clothing and still carrying some copper in his fist spoke of true appreciation.
He took the load from his captor's hands without protesting, then looked at him quizzically, lips still tightly closed.
Jin looked at him earnestly, indigo eyes narrowed. "You promise?"
"Right, then." Jin cast an assessing glance at the coinage left in his hand. "I should think that'll pay for a bath and a mat. Wouldn't want to enter the castle dirty, would we?"
They had slipped into the new clothes as they were, though, assuming rightly that even a bathhouse attendant would expect her customers to arrive fully dressed. As it was, she wrinkled her nose slightly at the sight of Jin's unkempt mane and the dark stubble on Benjiro's cheeks, but welcomed them in anyway, diligently forgetting to offer to wash their feet. Jin glanced down at his bare feet, grimy with several days' worth of travel on foot and not enough washing and rest, the nails as grey as his hair, and smiled tightly. Still, it would be the last time for both of them, and very soon now these new clothes would contain freshly scrubbed men on their way to a new life.
He watched Benjiro untie his ample brown linen hakama and step out of the puddle of soft fabric, still clad in a kimono that had cost him most of the price of Karagawa's horse but barely did justice to the boy's beauty. Red and gold warred for supremacy in the pattern, embroidered cranes spreading their silvery wings in a landscape of vibrantly coloured morning clouds. It was still as nothing compared to what he would be given to wear in his new position, but... the thought that something he, Jin, had chosen for the boy suited him so well filled him with satisfaction. And, he had to admit, wistfulness. He would be clothed by others soon, and bowing to others.
And though Benjiro had never kissed him, the thought made Jin inexplicably jealous.
Only when the object of his silent admiration had left their room and headed for the bathing pools had he been able to concentrate on peeling himself out of his own clothes, folding them neatly on the floor next to the puddle of fiery silk that Benjiro had left. He had brought Benjiro's old kimono as well, though he wasn't sure it would serve as anything more than a pillow in its present state. It could certainly do with a wash in any case. As could he.
Running a hand through his less-than-impressive hair, Jin set out for the baths.
Unlike most other bathhouses, this one had both natural spring pools that one had to climb over roughly hewn rocky steps to get into, and large wooden tubs big enough for three or four seated people at the same time.
And unlike even those bathhouses that had both natural springs and tubs, this one was unusual in that the natural springs were uniformly scalding hot, and the tubs filled with cool water, rather than the other way round. The hot pools were small and quite full, and Jin dimly remembered the attendant saying something about this being the only bathhouse in the area since the one in the woods had burned down last year.
At any rate, he had to wait for a free place in one of the pools, and decided to put the time to good use. Squatting down on one of the stools provided, he picked up a folded towel from the pile and dipped it in the bucket of soapy water that was set in front of the stool. A mirror would have been even better, but Jin was fully prepared to forgo that particular luxury, and anyway, he knew his beard by touch after having worn it in the same style for years. Picking up the small knife liberated from Karagawa's saddle, he carefully scraped at his soapy cheeks and the underside of his chin, tilting his head backwards and enjoying the rare moment of complete carefree calm, the voices and scents of a bathhouse at evening enveloping him in a cocoon of easy warmth.
His eyes flew open when he felt the hand on his, pressing the sharp blade against his throat. All he saw was Benjiro, smiling wickedly, withdrawing his hand immediately and gesturing at the hot pool.
"You can have my spot, Jin-san, if you want. It's too hot for me in there," he said curtly, the deep pink of his skin adding ample evidence to his words. He must have stayed in the hot pool for quite a long time - his shoulders and neck were still his customary pale, standing out in stark contrast, as if he'd clad his body in translucent red silk from the shoulders down.
"Thank you," Jin murmured, still busy shaving. "I'll consider it once I'm finished here."
"Too late," the boy relied impishly, indicating a fat, nearly-bald man taking the place recently vacated by him.
Jin rinsed the knife off, wiped his face with a fresh towel and glanced at Benjiro. "Well, I suppose you'll have to wait with me, then. Or I could shave you."
The little line between Benjiro's brows made a brief appearance as he reached for the knife and found Jin withdrawing his hand.
"I'd rather not be found at a disadvantage, Akimoto-san," Jin said with a slight smirk. "Besides, with no mirror available, you'd stand a chance of looking better if I shave you. Allow an old man the indulgence, will you?"
Benjiro sighed theatrically, then sat down on the stool next to Jin. "Do your worst," he said, not without a hint of amusement in his voice.
Jin had not been entirely facetious about the indulgence that this delicate operation would be - it gave him the freedom to cup that fine face in his hand, press a thumb into the corner of that delicious pliant mouth while pretending to smooth out the skin of Benjiro's stubble-shadowed cheek. And the boy sat very still throughout it all, as if he was truly enjoying the experience and not just very aware that a big ronin with a sharp knife was currently very close to his head. His breathing was deep and even, as if he was in meditation, and his eyes only snapped open when Jin scraped the knife over the cleft in his chin in short strokes, causing his lower lip to wobble and make funny noises. He laughed and shook his head, but Jin silenced him with a finger to his lips.
"I'm not finished yet."
Placing a heavy hand on the boy's head, he bent it down until he could reach the tie in Benjiro's hair, then cut the thong open and spread out the thick black tresses, exposing the bristly patch of short hair on the top of his head where he hadn't shaved for a while. He massaged soapy water into the stubbly growth until it was white with foam, then picked up the knife once more.
A hand on his wrist cut him short.
"Please leave it. I rather think I'm not suited to that style any more." The sad smile in Benjiro's eyes told him more than he had wanted to know. Gathering up his hair on top of his head, the boy excused himself, probably to wash the soapy suds out and clean himself up thoroughly.
Momentarily at a loss for what else to do, Jin laid down the knife and tried to untangle his own hair with a view to washing it.
When his eyes were clear of the soapy water again, and his hair was once again bearing more resemblance to a man's hair than to a wolf's pelt, he could just see Benjiro retreating from the bath area, clutching a towel to his front. His skin was still very pink, so maybe the water was just a little too hot for him, Jin mused. Still, it would not do not to try. Taking advantage of a free spot, he gingerly levered himself down into the steaming pool that smelled of earth and soap and overheated skin.
It stung, and he could not contain a long gasp of surprise at just how hot that water was. Still, he would not give in so quickly, and besides, he felt like his pores could do with a good boiling, if only to take his mind off the sight of a naked and very pliant Benjiro allowing himself to be shaved by him. Well, it was a good start, and by tomorrow they would have made it to Edo, and all would be well. Very, very well indeed.
With a slow smile spreading across his face, Jin scooted forward and leaned his head back, letting the hot water soak into his hair, hoping it would melt the last tangles from what looked deceptively like a shiny black mane in the hot water, even though Jin knew that the grey in it was only temporarily covered up by the moisture.
The tangles proved to be impervious to such minor magic, of course, and the stinging on his skin had abated into a maddening itch, and he kept getting his fingers caught in a particularly stubborn nest of hair at the nape of his neck... all this conspired to convince Jin that getting out of the hot pool now would in no way make him look like a weakling, and besides, the knife that would put an end to that miserable tangle was just out of reach where he had left it by the stools.
Except it wasn't. Benjiro must have taken it, then.
A slight sense of dread flashed through him for a moment, but he crushed it ruthlessly. The boy would not go about ending his life now, not after all that he'd been through. He'd always been one to choose life, even when it wasn't the choice that had been expected of him. Still, Jin was not exactly comfortable as he wrapped a towel around himself, perfunctorily wrung the water from his hair, and headed for their room.
The sight that greeted him stopped him in his tracks, the door only half-open.
There was Benjiro, lying on his back on the mat, naked and very aroused, squeezing and pulling his erect cock with one hand while the other was fisted in a thick bundle of crushed fabric that covered the boy's entire face, muffling his urgent sobs and moans only slightly, needy noises that penetrated the gaudy silk and went straight to Jin's groin, punctuated by deep sniffing breaths, as if the boy wanted to inhale the fabric and everything that clung to it.
Everything that clung to it.
Jin shivered in the doorway, and the door answered with a faint rattle. Enough to alert Benjiro that he was being watched.
Just as he hastily shut the door, Jin caught a last glimpse of the boy's lust-flushed face as it emerged from where he had buried it in the folds of the dirty gold-and-green kimono that Jin had been wearing for these past two days.
It had taken more than the cold tub and a few minutes of serious meditation to calm his racing heart, not to mention other parts of his body. Biting his lips as he dug his fingernails into the pressure points he knew would release his mad arousal, Jin willed himself to calm, if only for the benefit of the other denizens of the cold tub who had doubtless been less than amused at finding themselves splashed all over by a big old samurai hell-bent on getting in as quickly as possible.
It would just not do, he mentally chanted to himself. One more day. It would just not do to take him now, though the gods knew it would be a delight, and his body made sure it told him that the gods knew it. Not now!
Not that it would have mattered to the boy's status - he was anything but a virgin, and the more valuable for it. And he doubted that old Tokugawa-sama would expect his house's courtesans to be untouched and unpractised before he received them. No, it wasn't that. It wasn't even respect for his old lord - he knew him too well still. It wasn't even respect for Benjiro - the boy had just made it abundantly clear just what he fantasised about when stroking that fine body of his to ecstasy.
Plainly and simply, Jin feared he would not go through with his plan if he were to give in to the boy's charms now.
And this close to Edo, that would mean danger. If he couldn't make it to the palace by tomorrow, with an ostensibly lavish gift in tow, he would be treading on very dangerous ground indeed. Without the boy, he stood little chance of making it directly to Ieyasu-sama's audience chamber (or his bedchamber, if his health was as bad as it was rumoured to be) and every chance of being apprehended by some little underling who would pass him up the hierarchy until he came across someone who would recognise him and arrest him. And then what? Even if Tokugawa Ieyasu was in a position to pardon him, why should he, when faced with nothing but a stubborn old ronin who had the cheek to come to the tiger's den empty-handed?
No. He needed the boy. And it was purely that which kept him from giving in to his desires and taking him, grabbing him and pounding him into the mat until his screams became too loud to be muffled even by silk, and only a kiss would do to silence him.
Sighing deeply, Jin concentrated on the relative coolness of the water he was immersed in. Above his chest, where there was nothing but the humid evening air to touch him, he had begun to sweat again.
One more day. One more day of keeping the boy down, of giving him the impression that he is still my captive, he thought. When all evidence really points to the fact that I am his.
7. Dawn with flying cranes
Benjiro's new kimono had only just begun to outshine the colours of the morning sun when the first houses of the city came into view, muted and dim, as if the place was holding its breath, waiting for something grand to happen.
He had expected to reach the city around mid-day actually, but was reminded painfully of the fact that he had not been near Edo for the best part of fourteen years. And in that time, Edo had had ample time to come nearer to him, though he could not say he recognised anything about the greyish streets of the new quarters. Nobody seemed to be about either, nobody but those who were on indispensable business, and even they had a shade of ash-grey to their faces that made Jin wonder where the gay and bustling Edo he had passed through on the travels of his youth had gone. Maybe the place has grown too big, he mused, and all the life in it spread too thin.
He followed the sun as it slowly tilted southwards, picking his way along the larger streets, always choosing the ones with a view of taller buildings, more closely-spaced houses, anything to remind him of the Edo of his youth - a town that had been as much construction site as capital, with the noise and colours to match.
Today, the two of them were often the only people to be seen on the street - and had anyone seen them, they would have wondered at the odd combination. Two richly-dressed men, old enough to be father and son or master and apprentice, and yet so oddly mismatched. No, it wasn't the fact that the elder one wore a beard and a dark blue kimono with rather striking white and grey stripes that looked severe next to the bright design on the boy's. It wasn't the fact that the boy's elaborate hairstyle was growing out.
It was the fact that only one of them bore a sword, and neither of them bore a family crest anywhere on their person. For all that they had more colour about them than an entire Edo street on this dim morning, they might as well have been nobody.
To the guard at the castle gates, they were.
But then, there had been dozens of nobodies entreating entrance that day already.
One glance at the world beyond that gate made it starkly clear to Jin what had caused the oppressive quiet in the city. White hangings, white flags that streamed down the towers of the castle like sighs in the becalmed midday warmth. That could only mean one thing.
Tokugawa Ieyasu was dead.
Jin's thoughts raced. Ieyasu-sama dead! His former lord, the reconciliation with whom had been the purpose of the entire journey, and here he was, standing at the palace gates being stared at quite suspiciously by the guard. Behind him, several other condolents shuffled their feet. Benjiro stood silent as a statue.
Tokugawa Ieyasu was dead.
Which meant his eldest living son would be acceding, or had acceded already. He had heard of the messengers calling him back from his travels, Tokugawa Hideyasu the diplomat, the winner of strangers, the tamer of words and whatever other names he had been given in his long career. He had been the second son, the first had died in battle years ago. Hideyasu, the new lord, was maybe thirty-five years old now. A long reign ahead of him, then. A long and prosperous one. And Jin was going to wish the man well. It was his only option.
Actually, he thought as he drew a deep breath, watched quizzically by a thin-lipped Benjiro and impatiently by the guard, this may make things easier for me. Better for all of us.
"Your name, I said?" The guard was getting impatient, as were the other people waiting to enter the forecourt of the palace. "What uncrested person bearing a sword demands entrance at this hour?"
Jin shrank back from the guard's impatient tap against his shoulder, there where the samurai would wear his family's or his lord's emblem, and where Jin was patently wearing nothing at all except for the indigo and grey stripes of his new kimono. He cleared his throat, then nodded formally. Into the breach, then.
"Hasegawa Kaemon. This here is Akimoto Benjiro. We are here on a matter of some delicacy. Personal, I might add."
The guard snorted. "Hasegawa Kaemon of where?"
"Mikawa, though I doubt that will mean anything to you. I am here to offer my sincerest condolences and kindest wishes to the most noble son of the deceased Lord Tokugawa."
Now the guard, unlike the other mourners, began to laugh.
"You... you uncrested ronin, if that, with a name that means nothing, want to wander in there and see the young Lord himself? I shouldn't think so, stranger. Pardon, Hasukawa-san."
"Hasegawa," Jin repeated calmly, peripherally aware of how odd that name tasted after years of not wearing it. "You may want to relay the message that... well, I used to teach the old Lord's other son. I went, through no fault of my own, by the rather too flattering name of the Indigo Warrior."
The guard coughed, though whether in embarrassment or from having choked on his own laughter was hard to tell. At any rate, he waved Jin and Benjiro inside, motioning to a colleague to pick them up and keep them under close surveillance.
The other guard nodded curtly. "Nozomi?" he asked casually.
The first guard, still coughing and quite crimson in the face now, and quite without control of his vocal cords, mouthed "Honda, Honda" and bowed profusely in the general direction of the three retreating figures.
Just like the town, the palace itself had spread beyond what little Jin remembered from his brief stays in his younger years. As a young fatherless samurai boy, just entered into the service of the area's most promising and certainly most ruthless warlord, he had often heard of how Tokugawa Ieyasu would build himself a castle in a town that was only to become a town as a result of his being there. As a man, he had come to see that castle being built, had come to see his master settling in it and making the promise of the blooming city a reality. He had known every soul in the castle back then - now, by the looks of it, even if these people were all still alive, they would amount to less than one-tenth of the people needed to inhabit this sprawling complex.
He knew not a soul, and not a room, for all that the rooms were hung with white door-curtains and the shrines in the courtyards covered up with paper still. The death must have been very recent, then, if the altars still needed protecting from the breath of death as it entered the house in search of the ghost of the old lord.
"The noble one died only recently?" Benjiro enquired softly, taking the words right out of Jin's mind.
Their escort nodded. "Only yesterday morning. He is setting out today."
The boy nodded thoughtfully, understanding the allusion to the body's cremation to prepare the soul for the journey to the next life.
"You knew him?" the guard enquired of Jin.
"Almost all my life," Jin replied. "Well, the more illustrious parts of that anyway. Though I don't expect you to believe me, as I have already had it pointed out to me that I am an 'uncrested person' today." He snorted ruefully.
"Ah, I'm sure that'll all be cleared up. The venerable Honda-sama will remember you, if you are who you say you are. Let me just see if he is officiating... you never know, on a day like this..."
With that, the man slipped inside a wide sliding door. Fragments of a muttered conversation, doubtless with others of his kind, drifted through the opening, then the door slid open quietly, and the guard motioned his escortees to follow him into the depth of the room.
In the gloom, behind a low lacquered table, sat a richly attired old man, his hair impeccably tied, his face emotionless. Only the slight flicker in his small dark eyes betrayed the fact that he was indeed alive and not an artist's imperfect rendering of a minor deity.
The guard bowed deeply. "Honda-sama, I bring noble guests who arrived at the Great Gate this past hour. They state their business is private, and their names are -"
The seated man cut him off with a slow gesture of his hand, then smiled minutely.
"Hasegawa Kaemon, I presume? What is this business of yours that leads you to Edo on such a gloomy day?"
The guard stared. Benjiro raised his eyebrows, strangely satisfied to finally find his suspicion confirmed by a third party. Not that it helped him in any way, but still.
Jin bowed earnestly, then sank to his knees on the polished floor, making himself comfortable, motioning Ben to do the same.
"My heartfelt thanks, noble Honda Masanobu, for the kindness of receiving us on such an indeed gloomy day. I had heard of the grave illness that had befallen my old Lord, and my heart commanded me to observe the duty of the true samurai, the true servant, to stand by my lord in the hour of his death. Alas, it was not to be." He paused.
Honda did not bat an eyelash.
"Late though I am," Jin continued, "I can only humbly ask to be received by the young Lord Tokugawa, to assure him of my unwavering loyalty to the family and to renew my pledge of service. As a token of my devotion and admiration I have brought a rare flower indeed, one fit to make a dying man's eyes light up. Please accept him as a gift to the spirit of my dead lord, and to the living delight of my new young lord."
Benjiro kept his head bowed, and although the sweep of his hair hid his eyes from view, Jin could see his lips were a thin line.
The old official cleared his throat, a sound like rustling paper.
Silently, an attendant emerged out of the shadows of the room and stood next to Benjiro. At a nod from Honda, he put a hand to the boy's chin and tilted his head up.
Benjiro's face was closed, earnest, but calm, the fire in those amber eyes banked to a tiny spark. Jin bit his lip.
"Adequate," Honda rasped, "quite adequate." He picked a scrap of paper from the neat little table, placed it in his lap, and made a few quick notes. "Name?"
"Akimoto Benjiro," the boy said, his voice admirably calm. Jin's heart swelled with pride, seeming to press into his chest by doing so. Soon, soon he would have made it, made the new life for both of them. Soon, he hoped, he would be allowed to stoke that fire, gently, and hope to be received.
Honda scribbled. "Fine," he said finally. "Toshi, Kenji, escort him to Date-san's office and wait for my instructions there. Meanwhile, Hasegawa-san here is to be put up in guest quarters until such time as the young lord is available for audience."
Jin breathed a sigh of relief. Beside him, Benjiro rose gracefully to his feet and followed the two attendants into the depths of the palace. Thoughtfully, Jin watched him go, wondering when, and how, he would see him again, and whether he would be received with open arms. Still, that was the future, and the future would happen come what may. He was being announced to speak to Lord Hideyasu, gentle sharp Lord Hideyasu, and Honda had recognised him and found it in his heart to at least be polite.
Well, fourteen years is a lot of water under the bridge, Jin mused.
Honda Masanobu had finished folding his note into a tiny square and was staring mildly at him, evidently expecting words.
"Thank you, Honda-san," he said quickly, shaking himself out of his reverie. "I am honoured and grateful indeed to be received so well into the house of my old and new lord. I shall find your guest quarters far exceeding any wishes I may have harboured in the last fourteen years, I am sure."
Honda smiled thinly. "That is quite possible, given the fact that you appear before me in the clothing and bearing of a ronin, Hasegawa-san. Frankly, I had thought you dead."
Jin nodded. "Nevertheless, I thank you for not treating me as if I were a ghost. Very much appreciated. May I enquire," he added as he slowly rose to his feet, "when I am likely to be summoned by Lord Hideyasu?"
Honda's smile froze on his pale lips and was replaced with an expression that could only be described as brittle. Underneath the cracks lurked things that his ingrained courtliness forbid him to express directly, though it oozed from his voice as he slowly said, "Lord Hideyasu may receive you when he arrives here; I am told he has been severely delayed by storms. But I take it you are here to congratulate our new shogun, are you not?"
He paused dramatically, watching Jin's face like a predator.
"And his name," Honda continued pointedly, "is Tokugawa Hidetada. One might want to remember that when meeting him. You will be summoned. Goodbye."
Jin was speechless, his heart sinking towards where his feet were carrying him across the polished floorboards of Honda's office towards the door, towards where some insistent servant kept telling him his quarters would be. The voice was hard to hear over the humming in his ears.
Hidetada, his ears said, repeating the name over and over, just like its bearer had done. Over fourteen years ago.
Hidetada, Hidetada, Hidetada.
"Takada! Over here!"
She still wanted to pause every time she heard herself called by her new name. Pause and savour the moment. She would have done so too, if that hadn't meant attracting more attention to herself. And it was the complete lack of attention that cheered her most, as if the boy Takada was the most normal thing in the world, someone who, unlike the girl Tamae, could be taken for granted and safely ignored for long stretches of time. Left to his own devices. And it wasn't like they were treating her with great respect, but at present she couldn't find it in herself to be angry at that. Maybe later.
It felt like an arrival, a homecoming to a very foreign shore. She would take the time out to look around some time. Later. Right now, she was in a hurry, as were the men around her. The fireworks had to be primed and ready to go before nightfall, to suitably accompany the old lord's spirit into the heavens and announce the beginning of a new era. And they needed every hand available for it - which was how Tamae had come to be here in the first place. As a new and as yet unassigned pair of hands, she had been shoved in the general direction of the fireworks-master, an ageing Chinese gent with an incongruously beardless face, who had promptly passed her on to his local assistants. They had given her a hammer and a plate of water and told her to even out the floorboards of the patio that opened out on to the main courtyard.
And so she did, occasionally shooed away by an impatient official who insisted he needed to cross said patio at that very moment, more often than not completely undoing her work by that and leaving her biting back a barbed remark, or, as was the case now, called to the other end of the parqueted enclosure to level the floor where it was needed most urgently.
Around her, the bustle of excitement was palpable, barely banked by the fireworkers' professionalism. This evening's production would have to be perfect, flowers of fire to outshine anything the palace gardens could produce even at this season. Flowers that had to outshine their own dangerousness, covering the incendiary in the shiny. And covering up the stink.
Tamae coughed as a puff of gunpowder flew her way from where one of the older boys was stuffing a paper tube with the explosive mixture that would, Gods permitting, bloom into the finest red and gold later. Her job was to make sure they went up straight and did not hit any of the roofs or trees, thereby bringing fiery destruction upon a house so in need of an auspicious beginning.
Actually, the fine dusting of gunpowder helped - it settled on the water on her plate, a grey rim clearly delineating the line where its surface met the glazed clay of the receptacle. The distance to the edge of the plate had to be the same all the way around - then the floor was level.
Here, of course, it was not. Picking up the plate with one hand and holding it still, she methodically applied the hammer to the higher end of the floorboard.
She was not a blacksmith's son for nothing.
The sounds of the smithy had long died down, Shinkichi had gone home leaving his master to his empty house, an uneasy silence between them as they parted. The same uneasy silence that had taken up residence in Wa's house the day his daughter had left.
The same uneasy silence that was now broken by a sound the house had not heard since it had been built.
Slumped on the floor, one hand mindlessly stroking the hollow of a carved-out beam underneath a loose floorboard, Wa wept, his tears doing nothing at all to fill the empty space where the sword had lain hidden.
She had taken it. She had gone. She, his daughter, would not be back.
The empty space she left was much larger and darker than a mere floorboard could hide.
Miles further south, a knife was jammed into the crack between the floorboards of the roadhouse, polished smooth from years of wear and the feet of thousands of travellers.
The fist that held it slammed down on the polished wood next to it, its owner giving vent to his frustration. Granted, the fact that they had been able to bed down at the guesthouse was largely due to the few coins they had taken from the blasted ronin's belt, but he'd just as well never have met the man in his life.
He'd made off with Karagawa's horse (and his knife, so that Karagawa was reduced to moping in the corner of the dimly-lit room, which he did rather stoically given his circumstances). And he'd got the boy to run with him, sword and all. The little traitor, may the gods punish him for deserting the care and tutelage of a perfectly good master and running off with some nameless bastard son.
They hadn't found him nor word of him along the road to Ueno, and even with Karagawa's horse, he could not have got that far ahead.
He didn't have to say it out loud. He saw it in Karagawa's face that he knew. They'd have to start all over again.
The lad had run.
It was a poem of autumn, that much Jin could deduce from the colours, from the spindly maple leaves scattered across the background of the paper, from the silvery grey of the cloud border above the thick black writing that seemed to drip out of the painted sky like so much rain.
It wasn't that he couldn't read. He had learnt to read during his boyhood years, even scrawled some words into the sand of the gardens, and had pestered his masters to read out every road marker and house sign they came across so that he could commit them to memory.
That had been the simple script, though, syllables, words made for passing strangers. And it was very much like a stranger that he felt, at the sight of the bold scrawl of black ink across leaf-strewn paper hung up on the wall of the narrow corridor outside his guest room at the castle. The picture told him nothing, just like the faces of the people here, blank and unfamiliar, disregarding him completely as if he was only passing through.
As if he hadn't just taken the most important decision in his life, blindly, and got it wrong.
For want of anything to do, anyone to talk to, he had taken to pacing the length and breadth of the palace, or at least as far as he was allowed to go. They had given him access to the bathhouse and the gardens, and left him to his own devices. They had taken his sword and Benjiro's knife from him, a sensible precaution really - he didn't for the moment want to think about whose sword it actually was, and what fate awaited the boy now, now that the stage had shifted under them and upset Jin's footing, leaving him flailing silently, an actor in search of a plot.
And plot he would have to, if he wanted to get out of this alive. The boy didn't bear thinking about. Or maybe he did, and it would be better to think about the boy's fate than about his own. And then again he told himself he was prepared to bear any kind of pain and any kind of humiliation serenely, as a proud warrior like himself would... but what about the boy, what about Benjiro? What would become of him once Jin was no longer there to look after him?
As if he would let me look after him, he thought ruefully. It was I who dragged him into the tiger's palace with promises of a rich and pleasurable life, and now look at me. I can't even be sure of my own life, let alone that of my gift.
He could be lying strangled in some dungeon already. Or worse, lying half-strangled underneath some dungeon-keeper, held down by half a dozen dirty hands and doubtless wishing he were dead.
Wishing I was dead, more likely.
No executions during the mourning period, something at the back of his mind said, adding another tinge of horror to the dreadful muddle his thoughts had been in all through the night. Benjiro would still be alive. As am I. For as long as it takes for them to finish the fireworks and ceremonies. And then what? He screwed his eyes shut, longing to dispel the headache that had been sitting behind his temples all night, keeping him from sleep. Unbidden, images of lurid clarity sprang to his sleep-deprived mind.
Hidetada, the boy grown into a man, smiling, brandishing his weapon against his old swordmaster. Unarmed, Jin would make for an excellent proving ground for the latest wonders from Edo's swordsmithies.
Red. He had to blink his eyes back into focus to remind himself that the red splashes he was staring at were maple leaves painted on an illegible poem. Not blood. Not yet.
He took a deep breath and willed himself to movement, slowly walking along the corridor that opened out onto a small garden on one side. What if all his worry was unfounded? What if Hidetada had forgotten him? Or needed an example of lordly clemency to start his reign off with? Surely he had reached his goal in life, and had little left to prove?
If I didn't know him, Jin thought miserably, I would believe that.
The floorboards under his feet creaked melodiously, a slow soft groan that followed him wherever he went, hanging over him like a cloud of gloomy sound. Intellectually, he knew that the floors must have been constructed that way - no way would a new floor like this creak so evenly, announcing even the stealthiest of visitors by dint of his weight - and intellectually he also knew that it must have been Lord Ieyasu who had ordered for them to be made that way...
... but in his heart, he sensed the mistrustful eyes of a young Hidetada upon him.
Sleep would not come easily tonight either.
He had just lain down on his mat, trying against all odds to catch a nap in the afternoon, when the noise of several feet heading his way across the creaky floorboards jerked him awake again. What -
They had walked into his room without so much as knocking. They were apparently unarmed, though it took Jin a sleep-addled moment to notice that. They were liveried in the Tokugawa family's crest, three, four of them, their leader wearing the small black paper cap and oily smile of moderately high office.
Jin hurried to rise and sketched a bow as the oily man spoke.
Jin nodded, swallowed.
"Good," the man continued. "The most noble lord and shogun Tokugawa Hidetada sends his greetings and requests your presence at tonight's festivities as an honoured guest." A slight twitch in the man's eyelid. "Furthermore, given the sorry state of your apparel," he gestured at Jin's new but sleep-rumpled and still painfully uncrested kimono, "His Lordship has seen it fit to equip you with robes more befitting your state as a long-standing servant of the House of Tokugawa. Set to, boys. Akira, you first."
With that, he took a step back to allow Jin a glance at the bundles his three attendants were carrying. Clothes made of elaborate silks easily on a par with what Benjiro had been wearing when he had last seen him. Jin's hopes soared, and he blinked away a tear of relief as he watched the boys stand to attention while their master settled down on the floor with a petulant groan, waving at one of them to begin his task of undressing Jin.
He felt the thick coat of sorrow slip off his shoulders with the dark blue of his kimono, felt the boy's deft hands stripping him of his loincloth, then gently tugging on his hair, urging him to sit down. Jin sank to his knees, allowing the servant to comb out his hair and oil it with something shiny and faintly scented. Light-headed with relief, he let his thoughts wander back to their favourite subject, back to Benjiro. Was he being prepared in the same lavish way now, dressed in even finer silks and colours, his soft face shaved peachy smooth and the scented oil rubbed into his thick black hair, his sleek body, and... he allowed himself a smile at his fantasy of where he would love to spread that thick scented oil, drive it in with his fingers until the boy was open and ready and whimpering for him...
With a jerk, he realised that he was fully naked, and that his inevitable reaction to his little reverie was being ogled by four pairs of curious eyes. He coughed in embarrassment, and just caught a broad grin on the face of one of the boys before said boy strode over to him and showed him the armful of silk he was carrying.
"Thank you, Akira, you can go," the oily man said, and the boy who had been so sensuously tending Jin's hair disappeared out the door. "Now, now," he continued in an overly distinguished-sounding voice, "allow me, honourable Jin-san, to show you what the Lord's wardrobe holds in store for you. Pure white against your skin, of course," he motioned to a folded kimono of thin white silk that the boy dutifully picked up and held out for Jin's inspection, "followed by light blue and silver to match your eyes and hair." The boy held up the other half of the pile of fabric, revealing it to be a lavish kimono of textured silk dyed in a pattern of light blue and silver bamboo shoots outlined against darker blue and grey clouds.
The oily man waved a hand, and the remaining servant boy stepped forward. "And to top it all off and give you the gentlemanly appearance your standing so craves, the hakama and stolas, expressly made to suit your height, I might add, and coloured suitably to make you a jewel of the court, of course."
The boy gestured at the neatly folded arrangement of dark blue stiffened fabric, picking up one corner of the stolas that would sit on Jin's shoulders, making them appear even broader than they were. Picked out in green and silver against the jewel blue background was the one pattern that was the most beautiful in the world to Jin's racing heart.
The triple mallow blossom. The crest of the Tokugawa family.
He had made it. Had been stamped with the mark of his lord's family again.
He had a hard time keeping from fidgeting, torn between wanting to embrace the lad who held up the pile of deep blue silk and wanting to fall to the floor in gratitude, naked as he was, and babble his thanks to the gods, the spirits and Honda Masanobu for getting him where he was now, where he was again, a respected samurai of the House of Tokugawa. And to thank Hidetada, he supposed, for a leniency he had in all honesty not expected to see.
"I thank you most hum-" he had begun to say, bowing low to the oily man, when he found himself cut short by the haughty voice.
"There is more," the man said coolly. "We have not quite covered the subject of underwear yet, have we?"
Confused, Jin straightened and smiled shakily at the unperturbed court official who proceeded to slowly and haughtily extricate a sword from his robes, but left it sheathed at his side, holding the silk-bound hilt with one hand while the other motioned to the servant to peel away the last layer of the jewel blue silk he was holding.
Seeing what lay beneath, Jin had to bite his lip to keep silent.
8. Flowers of fish and fire
Elsewhere in the palace, a teacup shattered on the narrow strip of floorboard visible in the chamber it had come from. The lady who had thrown it showed remarkably good aim - it would have been near-impossible to break any porcelain anywhere else on the mat-strewn floor or on the walls that were covered in rich Chinese drapes from ceiling to floor. In truth, the cup had been aimed at the head of the maid who was now hurrying down the corridor with the remaining cups rattling on her tray, her head bowed to hide inappropriate tears.
The lady had balled her tiny hands into fists inside the wide sleeves of her lavish kimono, looking for something that would shatter with an appropriately satisfying crash and finding nothing. In the end, she swept her sleeve across the low table that held the tea implements, watching impassively as the golden liquid spilled from the pot and spread on the floor in a widening dark stain.
She dipped her toes in it, just to feel. It was warm, and wet, and stained her silken slippers. Warm, wet and dirty. That was all that counted.
With a grunt of unladylike rage, she tore the slippers off her feet and threw them at the half-open door. She missed. One wet shoe left a trail of tea on the paper panels of the door.
Trembling, she sank down onto the floor. She might as well remain barefoot now, for all she cared. It wasn't like she was going anywhere tonight. She hadn't been invited.
She, Yoshikuni Seihako, Lady Seihako, First and Exalted Wife Seihako, had not been invited. He had sent a runner to inform her. The runner had run, true to form, and so it had been the maid who had borne the brunt of Lady Seihako's fury at her husband. Not that she was desperate for the formal seating order, restricted conversation and religion-imbued food. Or even the chance of sitting next to her husband once in a while - her curiosity had waned with the frequency of his nightly visits; he hardly ever bothered to come to her during the day, at least not privately.
She wouldn't even have minded if she could have been sure it was going to be the typical hidebound court ceremony that required men only. But the stupid maid had been altogether too enthusiastic. About the entertainment. And this time that did not refer to the exciting and ever so slightly risqué theatre plays coming in from Kyoto, the slices of song-filled life that the ladies of the court were so hungry to see, if only they'd make it to Edo already... no, tonight was most certainly not about the ladies.
She was not invited. The geishas, dancers and courtesans were.
She pulled one of the long elaborate hairpins out of her hair and threw it at the door, where it tore a hole but fell back out and dropped sadly to the floor next to her sodden slipper.
A whole night to think up ways to get revenge on him, she thought sadly. Yet another of those.
The floor had been levelled - the fireworks masters were still bustling about the place, but they had made it unmistakably clear that the presence of unskilled labour such as Takada was no longer desired. Consequently, she had slipped into the palace kitchens to see what kind of leftover food was available and could be eaten with impunity while the kitchen staff were fretting over the evening's delicacies.
The rice pot turned out to be as full as always, and a few pieces of cooked fish skin and some carrots deemed too ugly for the lord's table rounded off the meal. Stomach well-filled, she was just about to rinse out her rice dish and make herself inconspicuous for the rest of the night when a small thin girl even younger than herself bumped into her, scattering teacups on the floor.
A hitching sob, then a stream of muttered apologies from a face that would not look up from the floor even as Takada knelt beside her to pick up the intact cups and gather the shards of the broken ones.
"It's all right, girl, it's all right... I could have made myself heard a bit more, really." She burped delicately, then chuckled apologetically. "What's wrong, little one?"
The girl looked up at her, tearful eyes wide. "It's nothing... nothing, really. Or it will be." Screwing her eyes shut, she convulsed in another sob, turning her face away.
Takada placed a tentative hand on the girl's bony shoulder. "I'm sure it will be nothing. We'll get these broken things replaced, and that'll be it. You won't get beaten, will you?"
The girl looked up again, tearful eyes narrowing, her voice tight. "No. I won't. I won't be here any more for that... I'm going, and I don't care what they say at home, and I don't care if I starve or if I go to the whorehouse, I need to run... she'll kill me."
The girl was clinging to Takada's shoulders, her head pressed against her chest. She felt hot tears seeping through the fabric of her kimono. "She's never liked me anyway, and now... anywhere's better than this. She's angry, she's not invited, and... she's tried to wound me, and I know that's not the end of it... she's the queen of Hell." The girl's voice had faded to a hoarse half-choked whisper. "Promise me you won't tell where I've gone?"
Takada blinked, brows knitted, then nodded. "Of course. I don't know anyway, so that's easily promised. I can't help you otherwise, I suppose?"
The girl shook her head, then swiped at her eyes with her sleeve. "I would have had to take these round the ladies' rooms, but... who cares now... no more, no more!" Almost a shout, both hands wiping tears from swollen eyes. "No more Lady Seihako."
Takada patted the girl's hair, feeling oddly old and out-of-place doing so, then laid a hand on the tray that still stood between them, full of overturned cups and shards in a puddle of cooling tea. "Tell you what," she said softly, "I'll take these if you tell me where. That way no one will go looking for you - I hope not anyway. I certainly haven't seen you."
The girl hugged her uncomfortably tightly. "Thank you, oh, more than I can say. I'll... I'll lay flowers and words at the shrine for you... back home."
Back home, Takada thought. It's amazing how little that can mean in so short a time.
Well, she did get the tour of the palace, or at least she did get to see most of its non-ceremonial rooms. After standing up to a good dressing-down from the scullery master and receiving a clip round the ear for her troubles, she had been running errands non-stop. A boy carrying a tray, it turned out, equalled a boy who carried trays for a living, and so she was in and out of the kitchen all evening, in preparation for the banquet. She'd brought the ladies tea and endured their probing questions about where she had come from and whose favourite she was. She'd completely failed to meet the 'Queen of Hell' as she had withdrawn to the baths and left her to pick up yet another shattered teacup and, improbably enough, a pair of wet slippers and a hairpin that had left a hole in the door.
She'd ferried platters of food between the kitchens and the anteroom that opened out on to the large hall where the courtiers were already beginning to assemble, milling around in small groups, anxious to remain standing and unattached until the master of ceremonies would announce their seating order. Takada was decidedly underdressed for the hall of ceremonies in her plain cotton kimono, but what little she saw through the doorway of the anteroom made her wonder why the Lady Seihako had been so keen on participating. An air of tension was palpable between the ceiling beams hung with banners bearing the triple mallow crest of the ruling family. Small groups of men convened and scattered on the cushion-strewn floor, talking in hushed voices and looking over their shoulders a lot as if afraid that a word out of line could cost them their place in the court of the new lord. Or even their heads' place on their shoulders.
The kitchens were a warm haven of humanity compared to the tension of the great hall. Of course, Nozomi-san's spoon was only too quick to connect with the backsides of maids and servants who weren't doing their job fast enough, but laughter came easily here too, easy and unpunished. The steam from the pots and cauldrons filled the air with the thick scents of a dazzling variety of food, and today even the scraps tasted fine, courtesy of a multitude of pungent sauces bubbling away on the hearths, waiting to be decanted into dainty porcelain dishes and iron-framed wooden tubs.
Knives glittered in the blazing light of the fires, and almost everyone was half-naked and streaked with sweat and smoke (or, in Nozomi-san's case, soy sauce, following an unfortunate incident involving a speedy and very unlucky boy and a misplaced sauce pot) save for the runners who carried the food to the hall's anteroom and had to be at least half-decently dressed. Takada, despite her less-than-perfect haircut, had been deemed decent and now had her hands full, lugging the platters of cold delicacies on to the trestles set up in the anteroom, so that the more gaudily dressed boys and girls could offer them to the honoured guests.
And delicacies they were - more than once, Takada found herself at a loss as to what exactly it was she was carrying. In the end, it was the scent that guided her, revealing the delicate confections to be made up of the fish, rice, fruits and vegetables she had seen going into the kitchens, to disappear in the hubbub of knives, sauces and busy hands. Small yellow fish turned out to be marinated radish, and the real fish took the shape of flowers, fleshy red and white flowers growing from a tangle of hairy moss that turned out to be a mixture of cunningly chopped seaweed and yet more and differently marinated radish, all on a bed of snowy rice. The colours were fit to match and outdo the garb of the men of the court, Takada thought, save perhaps for the complete lack of blue on the dishes. Well, and the artful arrangement of the food still surpassed the maze of milling silks in the great hall, for all that there seemed to be a little more order now.
Between runs, Takada caught a glimpse of the throne dais where the new lord would be sitting. It was empty as yet, but next to it stood an elderly man in very rich clothing, reading out names and titles in a reedy voice, and in the tone of a man used to wielding power. His hair was perfectly white and perfectly tied, and Takada found herself wondering whether he had been here since the old lord's accession. She had never seen the old lord, nor was she supposed to see the new lord. Faces didn't matter. She was a pair of hands, that was what mattered. For now, she could cope with that. She had someone to seek after all.
The old man had sat down next time she caught a glance at the hall, waiting to unload her tray of sweetmeats. He had sat down in state, as had the gentlemen ranged around the hall's perimeter in two long rows. Here and there, the sheath of a sword gleamed black in the low light. Caps of office and shiny oiled top-knots dotted the rows of seated men, with only the occasional flash of colour from the robes of someone finding his seat. They were nearly complete, it seemed.
As was the banquet. Only a few more plates of sauces to go, then the pretty boys could take over. Balancing her last tray of spiced sesame oil and fish sauce, Takada was wondering what to do next, idly scanning the rows of heads for anything out of the ordinary, say white hair or a red cap, or even a woman's flower-adorned coiffure, when she caught sight of something. Wasn't that - surely there weren't many gentlemen here with such long hair. And greying at that? That could only mean one thing - Jin. Jin had made it!
And she was nowhere near in a position to meet him. But the thought alone, the thought that the man she imagined as her master or even her father in her dreams had achieved his goal and sat with the lords and courtiers, that thought filled her with pride. He would notice her soon enough, she thought absently - the palace wasn't that huge, and she already knew her way around fairly well courtesy of the extra runs she'd been doing all afternoon -
"Happy about something, Takada? Good. One of the girls has disappeared, and we need the extra hands for the hot stuff. Here, put this on. And hurry!"
Takada must have stood in the anteroom gaping for quite a while, at least if the stinging pain on her left cheek was anything to go by. But she couldn't find it in herself to be angry with Nozomi-san, not this time. She was far too busy fighting her way through to the kitchens, there to turn into a properly-attired serving boy who would serve Jin.
Well, not quite as she had planned, but it was a beginning.
She felt the sweat running down the back of her neck and disappearing into the collar of her rich orange kimono. If you added the black-and-brown striped hakama, the fast pace and the bowl of steaming rice cakes stuffed with prawns she was carrying, that amounted to a very plausible explanation as to why she was feeling hot.
Well, it certainly wasn't the men in the room. Richly dressed though they were, there was hardly one among them that could be described as even attractive, let alone handsome. And those who weren't old beyond belief or scarred in battles of the wartime decades wore expressions of such tense blankness that one would have been hard-pressed to recognise them, had it not been for the crests emblazoned on their shoulders. Such as it was, the new lord certainly won the prize for being the most handsome man in the hall, if only for the fact that his face was utterly relaxed, fingertips playing about pale lips that would occasionally curl into a smile, elaborate cap balanced carefully on luxuriant black hair. His features were sharp, his nose beak-like, but the amused glitter in his eyes at the antics of the comedians on the small stage set against the far wall of the hall made him look positively joyful compared to the constipated expressions surrounding him.
That said, what little she had caught of the entertainments was exquisite, always slightly beyond the edge of what was decent, as befitted a handsome young man come to power in times of peace really. The comedians juggled a wealth of silly accents while apparently engaged in some complicated family quarrel involving more than one god and more than a few pretty courtesans. To Takada's amazement, these were played by, well, actual courtesans, as was more than evident when the dress of one of them 'accidentally' slipped during a scene.
Actually, taking off clothes sounded like a brilliant idea - if only she'd had the time to even contemplate it. These gentlemen in there were stuffing their stony faces with the delicate titbits at record speed, as if they were involved in some sort of contest as to who could eat most and speak least. For all the strident dance music and shouts of the jugglers and swordfighters, the hum of conversation in the hall was virtually nonexistent. They were waiting, though they didn't seem to be sure themselves what for.
Not for the entertainments, anyway. Every time Takada rushed in bearing a fresh bowl or tray of something steaming and fresh from the kitchens, they were staring at the goings-on on the stage with exactly the same frozen expressions of admiration, whether it was an old woman singer clearly dismayed at having to accompany a young girl's frivolous dance with her artful warbling, or a troupe of barbarian boys from the south doing acrobatics almost in the nude.
But what worried her most was that Jin's face was one of them too. Well, not quite one of them, not quite frozen in a rictus of cheerful courtly caution. But she couldn't get him to look her way either, not with an apologetic laugh at tripping over a gentleman's sword sheath and not with the scent of the finest cakes balancing past within reach of his arm. He was dressed in fine silks, blue and grey to match his striking eyes... but she could not catch those eyes. The man sat as if in meditation, eyes downcast, face closed and silent, unheeded by his neighbours who knew better than to regard an unhappy samurai with their precious attention.
Out with an empty tray, in with a full one. More sweat, more stony faces. Though something was different this time.
The silence was complete. And Jin's eyes were open, staring intently at the small stage, an expression of terror on his face. Takada's eyes followed his, but encountered nothing but a lacquered screen behind which the preparations for the next act were apparently taking place. Slowly, the reason for the awed silence filtered through. The young shogun spoke.
He spoke in a quiet, cultured voice, so nonchalant as to be almost languid. He did not seem to find it necessary to rise from his throne of cushions where he was elegantly sprawling in his purple and yellow embroidered robes, blatantly disregarding the etiquette that kept everyone around him staring stonily at the stage, for fear of attracting unwanted attention.
"Honoured lords, servants of the family... friends," Hidetada began. "It is a momentous occasion indeed that we are celebrating here tonight, and you must believe me when I say I was the last to expect it to happen so soon. But enough words have already been made about my dear lord and father's sudden demise, and I think it is past time to be merry again and enjoy the richness of life in all its glory. You, my dear lords and faithful samurai, have seen the pleasures I have been gifted with by my delightful court, and I assure you, they have been well received."
A murmur of relief among the black caps and shiny top-knots. Hidetada held up a hand.
"Ah, but I had not finished quite yet. Imagine my surprise at a most lavish gift from unexpected quarters - indeed, from a man I had presumed dead for the best part of a decade! Yet he has come here to wish me well, and has brought the most wonderful little plaything with him. Gentlemen, behold the true beauty of mankind in a tableau of most arousing art, executed by our dear Master Mifune. He has graciously left it to me to name it, and so I shall call it - The Flower in a Tight Embrace!"
At a hand signal from the master of ceremonies, the screen was carried away, revealing a beautiful creature in a most humiliating position.
He was a boy only a few years older than she was, and yet so much older, so much more a man. His eyes were downcast, and a deep red bruise was marring the skin underneath one of them. He was standing up - barely, his trembling thighs betraying the tension in his body as he held his balance, refusing to go slack and give in to the ropes gripping his body and holding it defenceless. One leg was bent at the knee and lashed ankle to thigh, held up at an awkward angle so that he was spread wide, half-suspended from a beam in the ceiling, with nothing for balance seeing as his arms were bound tightly behind his back, rough hemp rope snaking among the shreds of a red and silver kimono that barely covered anything any more, ropes biting into the muscle of his upper arms, stretching across his chest, snaking tightly around his throat and his mouth, splitting a pair of stubbornly silent lips.
The whimper of pain did not come from the boy. It came from Jin.
The boy's head lifted minutely, as if he had to gather the strength to look up. Hidetada laughed.
"Regretting giving this beauty away, are you? Gentlemen, the man you just heard uttering this sweetly feminine noise is the generous giver - a man I could never best at swordfighting in my day, and who now comes before me bearing such sweetness. Of course, it would have become him much more to be in this delicate position himself, at least if his unmanly leanings are anything to go by. And wouldn't I be more than happy to oblige with a hard rod." A dramatic pause, a few timid titters in the hall at such unprecedented rudeness. Faces that had been staring at the boy were now staring at Jin.
"This is the man," Hidetada continued, "who fancied himself my master in the old days, and who now comes creeping back, all that criminal pride gone, bringing me a sweet little boy who will do just fine as my dear wife's chambermaid. For how could I reject a gift from the mighty Hasegawa Kaemon? Yes, I hear you gasp! Gasp away, for he has returned from the dead, and dead he should have remained, so as not to stain his reputation with the silliness of old age. For would you believe that this is the one they called the Indigo Warrior? Stand, Hasegawa-san, so that all may see you in all your glory!"
Silently, Jin rose from his kneeling position, standing tall and silent among the court. Those nearest to him cautiously scooted a little further away, as if their proximity to him could taint their own grace with the young lord.
Takada stared, oblivious to the waving and signalling from the anteroom. Food was nobody's concern right now.
"And now," the shogun's silky voice continued, "take off your kimono, so that all may see the scars you sustained in battle in the service of my father and my family. Go on, shyness is not required."
Clearly uncomfortable and avoiding the gaze of both Hidetada and the bound boy on the stage, Jin tore the stolas off his shoulders, grabbed the collars of his kimonos on either side and tugged.
This time it was the boy who gasped.
For underneath the blue and grey and white silks lay an intricate web of knotted rope, cinched tightly about the man's mighty chest, enveloping the strong body in a mesh of humiliation. As if to add insult to injury, a highly prominent noose lay about the man's proud neck, hitherto concealed by the collars of his clothes. It dug into the skin, leaving pink chafe marks where nothing should ever touch an honourable man.
Jin's blue eyes were not looking at the man who had done this to him. He was seeking the eyes of the captive boy on the stage. And finding them. The boy's face was red with shame and barely banked anger, but underneath all that, something else bloomed. His eyes were wide, and yet not wide enough to hide the tell-tale shimmer in them. His breathing was loud as Jin held his gaze, nodding minutely and blinking slowly, screwing his eyes shut against the painful sight.
Jin's skin had flushed slightly, pinking the chrysanthemums tattooed on his shoulder, held tight in the web of the ignominious ropes. There was something in the air that their gazes travelled along, a despair and a heat that made Takada shiver. For all that she had never seen the boy before, she knew he meant more to Jin than what the shogun had intimated. This was not Jin's gift.
This was Jin's lover.
The scene ended more quickly than Hidetada would have liked - but the murmurs rising from the assembled courtiers were beginning to gain volume, and questions were beginning to be asked. Anxious, worried questions about what would become of them if this was what happened to a once-revered and legendary samurai. Questions that Hidetada did not want to have spoiling his accession party.
They could ask them later, in private. And they would be answered. Oh yes, they would.
Armed guards removed the half-undressed man from the ranks of the court and escorted him to the palace's prison cells. He would be dealt with later. Really, the cheek to spoil a perfectly good show by acting all noble and upright, even when he was constricted by the most unbecoming rope harness Master Mifune could come up with. The man required special treatment. He would see to it. Later.
For now, there was a celebration to be had, and a delicious boy in an even more delicious predicament to be ogled. He would see to him later too, no doubt. If the boy was still conscious then. It would not do to enjoy an unconscious pleasure boy. The whimpering and moaning was the best part, after all.
For now, there would be plenty of that. Well, he hoped so anyway. Even the most stoic of noble boys (and who knew where Hasegawa had found this one? He certainly had taste, for all that he lacked a healthy dose of mistrust.) would go slack eventually. That was what the ropes were for. To hold him open, on display.
Chuckling with a sudden flash of inspiration, Hidetada leaned over to the old man seated in state next to him.
"I say, noble Honda-san, wouldn't you find it delightful to have the boys and girls lavish a bit of attention on the dear sweet thing every time they pass? Such as, oh, maybe fondle his little balls, pardon the expression? Or slap his delightful rump? What do you think, Masanobu, eh?"
"I shall issue orders," Honda said stiffly and motioned for the head servant to come over.
Takada did her best under the circumstances, but it wasn't much. There was not much to be found out about a shamefully bound boy on a stage in the middle of a ceremony, even when one was required to administer a humiliating touch of choice to the boy every time one passed into and out of the hall.
Jin's lover. It was out of the question that the Indigo Warrior could have offered him up for this kind of treatment - out of the question even before the man had revealed the web of rope marking him a captive too. A captive! He, Jin, the man who by rights should leap up to the throne and strike this thinly smiling abomination of a nobleman down with one mighty slash of his sword. A captive, bound by his own pride and sense of dignity. It made her sick, full of an all too familiar bubbling in her stomach, waiting to boil over.
She ached - her face ached with the tension of keeping in her anger. They simply could not do this, not to this innocent boy, not to Jin, her hero. Not to her.
The entertainments had begun again, the comedians and dancing girls arranging their acts around the silent figure in the middle of the stage, the young man clad in nothing but shreds of silk and tight ropes that were beginning to cut off circulation now that his efforts to remain standing were weakening. She could see his left foot was paler than the rest of him, could see the rope biting pink marks into his ankle and wrists and forearms, feel the coldness of his fingers as she brushed past him.
"Moan," she murmured, and the boy did, thereby relieving her of the duty of having to actually slap him. She wasn't allowed to linger, but one glance at the boy's dry lips, parted by the cruel rope, convinced her that he had been holding out longer than was humanly possible already. He had to be thirsty, and exhausted, and the bruise in his face was probably not be the only one.
She hurried away to deliver her tray to the still ravenous courtiers whose stony expressions had dissolved in a haze of sake masking their fears. Everyone hoped that Jin would be the only casualty tonight.
And whoever the boy was - he was with Jin. He was important.
"Don't make such a face, Asahi. Go and see the fireworks. I'll take care of him alone." Picking up a kitchen knife, she nodded at the pair of armed guards who had wandered in from the great hall which was fast emptying as the nobles vied for the best place on the patio, the better to be seen basking in the red and gold light of the new lord's incipient reign.
Asahi, a stocky boy of maybe sixteen, looked doubtful. "I would love to, but... they said I should, you know..."
Takada snorted. "Look. I've got this," she brandished the kitchen knife at her colleague, who flinched slightly, "and we've got people with swords only too happy to help. All this against a bruised, tied-up pleasure boy? Go and see the fireworks, Asahi. Much more fun. I'll tell everyone you helped me."
With a hurried thank-you, Asahi vanished in the direction of the patio, where the first pops and flashes of red were signalling the beginning of the fireworks.
Grimly, Takada hefted the knife in her hand, then entered the empty hall. A wilted flower held up by nothing but willpower and taut rope, the strange boy stood in the middle of the deserted stage, eyes downcast, thighs trembling with exhaustion.
"Careful now," Takada murmured as she cut through the rope securing him to the ceiling beam. A split second later, she cursed herself for overestimating her own strength - you're not quite a boy yet, Takada! - as the captive crumpled to the floor, too heavy for the arm she had flung about his waist.
"Wait," she said breathlessly as she knelt beside him, sawing at the rope that constrained his bent leg. "Now. Can you move it? I'll get the guards to carry you..."
The hiss of pain as the boy stretched out his abused leg with its anklet of red chafe marks was only surpassed by the fire in his dark eyes as he ground out, "I can walk. I must." He swallowed thickly around the rope still tethering his mouth, bending his head reluctantly as Takada made an effort to free him of it.
"There," she said. "I'll leave your hands bound until you've reached your new home. There'll be minders to look after you, I'm sure." She darted a glance at the guards who were loitering at the entrance to the hall, doubtless wishing they were watching the fireworks rather than having to make sure the captive pleasure boy did not harm the serving boy.
"I'm taking him to the Lady's quarters," she called out to them. "Expect me back before the fireworks are over. Else, feel free to come to my assistance," she added cockily, feeling far less confident than she looked. What the hell was she doing? It didn't matter - whatever she was doing, she wouldn't be seen doing it.
The guards nodded, not at all dismayed at getting to stay closer to the fun. Besides, there were colleagues in the Lady's wing, should the boy try anything. Should either of the boys try anything, in fact.
Takada grabbed the captive by the ropes around his chest and dragged him through the door none too gently as he stumbled along behind her on one tired and one numb foot. The anteroom was dark now, the lights all burned down and the trestles empty save for fallen bits of food and the lingering scent of the delicacies they had groaned under. Flashes of red from the fireworks pierced the gloom now and then, followed by distant cheers from the crowd.
The boy gave a muffled yelp as Takada shoved him against the wall in the darkest corner of the room, her hand small but unyielding as it clamped over his mouth. Mustering the last of his strength, the boy struggled against the ropes binding his arms, struggled to remain upright as Takada shoved her thigh between his, breathing heavily. In the end, only a swift kick to his shin brought her the attention she needed. The boy convulsed in pain, panting, but no sound spilled over those tight pink lips. Good.
"Now listen," she hissed. "I don't know who you are, but I know who you came with. His name is Jin, correct?"
The boy nodded silently, stilling. Takada took a deep breath and plunged in.
9. A Sunset Missed
Cold. He was cold, for all the late-summer heat that enveloped the palace like a blanket. For all that his clothes clung to his skin with the cooling sweat of a moment of terrified revelation. He shivered, uncomfortably reminded of the harness of rope still constricting his upper body. He could begin to unknot it, he supposed. They were not watching him. Not that he could see more than flitting shadows through the head-sized hole in the solid wooden door that provided the only escape from the cell.
The shadows were red. They were watching the fireworks.
His fingers felt numb. Shaking his head slowly, he gazed down at his hands. Big useless paws, clumsy things they were. Not strong enough. All he could earn from even attempting to break down that door would be a set of bloodied knuckles. And the attention of the guards. And who knew what they had been told to do to their newest acquisition? Precisely.
Hidetada's remark still stung. Unmanly leanings. One unguarded remark a decade and a half ago, and now it came back to haunt him. He had been a fool to think the prince's admiration for his teacher would have been enough to put that little remark into perspective, to turn it into a lesson even. A lesson in balance, balance in all things, in the art of battle as much as in the art of love.
Fool. As if he had ever been in a position to fancy himself a master in the art of love. And now? A master no more, in nothing, least of all the art of love. A grown man, a bearded man, who had once, long ago, confessed to a willingness to be taken, to be consumed by a precious lover should he meet one.
He wiped his face with clammy hands. Willingness to be fucked, Jin. Say it. Everyone else is probably whispering it in the halls now, whispering at least until the news reached the smelly little room the prison guards passed their working hours in. Then, it would turn into a roar of laughter and taunts, and sooner or later one of them would boast of being willing to put that willingness to the test... no, it did not bear thinking about. It would not be willing, could not be when the only male he would want to give his body to was in no position to take it. And probably not willing either, given what had happened. Though that heated look in the boy's eyes had been... a deep sigh fought its way out of Jin's chest. That'll be my way of suffering in dignity, he thought. Deluding myself into thinking that it's Benjiro's sweet hard body spearing me, flaying my insides open and filling them with himself until I spill over...
For all that he clenched his eyes shut, he could not stop the tears from squeezing through. Pray that I am at least allowed to see him again in my next life, he whispered. Pray that it be soon.
"You know him," Takada hissed. "Intimately."
The boy's eyes widened, and for a split second he made as if to bite his lips. Then he looked down at the floor, murmuring, "Yes."
Takada nodded, her face tight. "You want him, and you want him alive. And free. Correct?"
"Good. So do I. Not in that way," she added hastily as she noticed the fierce frown forming on the bruised face. "I know him. I want him for my teacher, my master, whatever. I don't know you, but it's obvious what you want him for. We both want him out of here. And... and us as well."
The boy stared, waiting for the next sentence. If only I had one, Takada thought miserably, if only I had a grand master plan to throw at him. Or, failing that, a weapon to throw at Lord Hidetada. And at the Queen of Hell...
The boy blinked, watching Takada rub her forehead as if to speed up her thinking. "You're going to the Lady's quarters," she said, hesitant. "That's where I'm supposed to take you. Right. I'm going to the kitchens to be a runner. What if we... what if you took me to the Lady's quarters? And you would be free to run around the palace and..."
The boy waited, watched as Takada shook her head in frustration. "What?" he offered, cautiously.
"It's madness. You would have to overpower the guards, and you can't do that any more than I could... forget about it. Forget I said anything." The fury on her face was evident, anger at herself and at being unable to get her way when she knew she was in the right.
"No." The boy's voice was cracked and hoarse, but urgency made it powerful, only a breath away from her face. "You underestimate me. I may not be worth much as a fighter without a sword, but as a thief I come with a lamentably good reputation. Seducing keys out of guards' belts would be something I'm far more confident at than you are, lad."
Takada bristled at the boy's rudeness, but had to admit he had a point. Besides, the seducing bit... well, that was best done by someone who actually had the body to match his boyish name.
"So be it, then," she ground out, turning the boy around and hacking at the rope that held his arms bound. "You'll be me, and I'll be you. Takada is the name, Watanabe Takada."
The boy massaged his abused wrists, wincing slightly. "Won't they know you? I mean..."
"I've been here for a day," Takada replied matter-of-factly, beginning to pull her clothes off. "We're the same height. Your hair is as much of a mess as mine. Your voice is lower. You... I don't know, pretend you've got a hangover. And get out of your clothes, we haven't got all night!"
The boy nodded, emotions chasing each other across his bruised face. Only as he bent to pick up the orange kimono did he notice Takada had been wearing slightly more than just a loincloth under her clothes. His mouth dropped open.
"Yes," Takada hissed. "You hadn't noticed? Good. I want it to stay that way. Not a word, you understand! Put the damn ropes on me."
The boy hurried to comply, biting back a remark about how surely it was a mistake on the gods' part to put something so angry and bossy into a girl's body. He was fairly certain the girl in question would agree anyway, and in an angry and unpleasant way. Still, she was his only chance of an ally right now. Tying the straps of the hakama about his waist, he bent to pick up the rope that had marked his body with pink rings now hidden under clothing once more.
"Ow - not that tight, idiot! Remember I'm not quite a boy up there!"
The boy growled at the insult. "Hold your tongue, or I'll be forced to add my marks to your skin to make us true twins," he hissed. "I'm this close anyway," he added as he yanked the final knot tight. Not pretty, but it would hold. Remembering his own predicament all too well, he tugged and pulled the shreds of his old kimono in place on the girl, hiding her physical attributes, or rather the bandage that concealed them.
Taking a step back, he squinted a little, his face doubtful. "Could pass for me if you avoid daylight. Ever," he asserted, then wrinkled his nose at a wet spot on the floor he had just stepped in. Some sauce, by the smell. Sticky and reddish.
With a dry-lipped and bruised smirk, he squatted down to dab his sleeve in it, groaning as his feet protested the sudden strain. Takada flinched a little as he swiftly brought his hand up to her face, cursing herself for such cowardly behaviour.
"There," the boy said, voice dead quiet over the distant cracks of the fireworks. "Saves me giving you a real one. Not that I would have minded, but... I don't hit girls."
Takada glared, then caught herself. Ally, she remembered. There were worthier and more deserving targets of anger in this place. Although a lot of her just felt like hiding from them, like a little girl... no.
"What's my name?" she demanded in a voice that was anything but girlish.
"Huh?" The boy blinked, stopping in mid-motion, his hand halfway to picking up the knife Takada had been holding.
"My name. Your name. What did they call you before they called you Takada?"
"Oh... sorry." Was that a blush? How unmanly. "Benjiro. Akimoto Benjiro, though I doubt anyone here knows my family name."
"Benjiro," the girl replied, weighing her new name against her tongue. "Benjiro. Takada. We have work to do." And frantic thinking to do on how the hell we're going to achieve that, she added privately. I must be mad! Well, yes I am... very mad. Not at him, though. Not that mad at him anyway.
The nudge in the ribs made her stumble a little, ropes digging into her upper arms.
"Lead the way," the boy whispered. "And make it look like you aren't."
He'll make it, Takada thought, curling up on the hard mat she had been given as her quarters for the night. The Lady had not been awake to take her in, and the guards hadn't even bothered to untie her hands.
He'll make it as me, she thought. The only people who've really seen much of me here are the fireworkers, and they're leaving tomorrow, and that little maid. Who must have run last night. Gods, little girl, she thought, that was not what I meant when I said I'd take your cups.
He'd make it. But what she had let herself in for, she wasn't sure at all.
He had made it. The kitchen master, one Nozomi-san, had squinted at his face for a long moment, his watery eyes apparently seeking something, but he had turned away with a grunt, mumbling something about how he'd better not get any of that hair in the food, and to report to Usagi for duty.
Benjiro, now known as Takada, had carefully straightened the thick strand of hair that concealed the bruise under his eye, before admitting to himself that he was completely lost. Who was Usagi? Was he supposed to know? What did a Takada do anyway? The girl had not exactly been forthcoming with details. To be fair, he had not been in a frame of mind to ask. Actually, if he'd had any sort of choice in the matter, he would not have chosen to talk to her at all. Rude and full of herself, and yet she'd taken his place, leaving him with hers, which was doubtless a better place to be right now even if he had no clue as to what to do in it.
A sharp slap on his behind brought him out of his meandering.
Frowning, he spun around, only to see Nozomi brandishing his wooden spatula and a meaty grin.
"What happened to your voice, lad, huh? Broke at last?" The wet-lipped smirk was anything but appealing.
"Had a few too many of the dregs," Benjiro murmured, trying his best to sound hangover-ridden. Nozomi laughed, then slapped the boy's bottom once more for good measure.
"Usagi!" he bellowed. "This one wants a few runs in the fresh air, I think. And not too fast ones either - don't want him adding extra sauce, now do we?"
Half a day, Takada thought. What half a day can do.
She was dressed in male finery once more, at the insistence of her mistress who clean refused to accept her husband's humorous idea of dressing the new boy as a serving maid. The Lady had sent the messenger who had bought that proposal scurrying for the door, shoulders hunched, trying to dodge a well-aimed hairpin.
Currently Takada, known to the world as Benjiro, was bent to the task of polishing the Lady's extensive collection of hair ornaments, under strict orders to throw anything out that she deemed anything less than seductive. The Lady, meanwhile, lounged on her futon, picking at a rice cake doubtless left over from last night's festivities, her luxuriant hair in a state of complete disarray, her brightly coloured uchikake overcoat lying abandoned in a half-dried puddle of tea on the floor, and talked.
There was more than a little hangover in the Lady's voice too - a tang of metal in the milky jade of her speech. Yes, that was what she sounded like. Metallic and jaded. Milky, too. Pale despite not wearing any make-up. Takada was a little shy of looking at her for too long, lest she give away a sentiment she had thought impossible only yesterday afternoon, when her hands had picked through the remnants of the broken teacups on the maid's tray. Wet with the very same tea that now stained what was probably a priceless overcoat on the floor.
She liked the Lady.
Liked her not for her milky skin and her marvellous hair, not for her jade voice and the dainty way in which she kept herself from swearing at the last minute, time and time again, rendering her speech incomprehensible at times.
No, she liked her for what she was saying. And couldn't agree more.
"First and Exalted Wife! First and f... forgive me. Exalted! Exalted above those little sluts he spends his evenings with? Oh, I wouldn't mind, but what about me, now? What about me? Do I ever get a little boy to keep me entertained? Do I? Well, yes, but.. you're the first, you know, Benjiro? The first - and the Gods know he's not going to leave you here for long enough, the ba... anyway."
And so on and so forth. Takada had long since contented herself with listening, and making the occasional noise of assent. Queen of Hell indeed. It would appear, so it transpired, that she could only be called that by dint of being married to a veritable King of Hell. And then confined to a Lady's Rooms where her highest privilege was the privilege to listen to her husband's escapades as they were relayed to her through palace gossip and the occasional messenger. Messengers! From what she was saying, the Lord had not seen her in person for weeks, let alone done anything about producing an heir with her, or at least producing some noises out of her that she seemed only too willing to make. Never mind that she wasn't allowed out in any official function unless it was absolutely inevitable, in which case the young Lord apparently acted as if embarrassed to have a wife at all, demonstratively flirting with everything that had two legs, and the occasional four-legged entity too. Quite a bit of incomprehensible near-swearing had followed that last remark.
Takada was glad to be a boy for now. Although men in general were beginning to appear less and less attractive. Well, no. Jin was still worth admiring. And, she suspected, the boy who'd given her her temporary name probably had his merits too. But Lord Hidetada was fast beginning to look like living proof that the King of Hell was male for a reason. Enma, King of Hell, she thought, smirking sadly at her reflection in the silver-plated comb she was holding up to the light for inspection.
It just gets better and better, doesn't it?
Two nights, three? What did it matter - it was not like daylight ever illuminated the cell much. He could sleep as he pleased. And that was about the only thing he had to please himself with. Once a day, a guard would unbar the heavy door and stomp in, dumping a bowl of rice and a jar of water on the floor and taking the crock of Jin's waste outside, then pick up the previous day's empty rice bowl and stomp out again, without so much as looking at the prisoner. As long as I make noises, Jin surmised, resting his head heavily in the crook of his elbow, they assume I'm alive. Anything else probably doesn't matter to them.
At least he was alone in the small cell - most of the prisons he had seen had the inmates crowding into a cell the size of this one with at least half a dozen other unfortunates, often making the executioner's work that much easier by brawling amongst themselves in their attempts to establish a pecking order, eliminating the weak ones as they went.
He'd rather not sleep with a dead man in his cell.
What am I saying, he thought, drawing a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh. I'm no more than a dead man myself. Soon to be, anyway. That I have not heard a word spoken to me does not necessarily mean anything good.
Make it a swift one, he thought. The waiting is the worst part. Waiting and thinking of what could have been. If I hadn't been so stupidly proud, so sure that I was right in my assumptions about what people are like. Hidetada has proven me wrong, and in a way I deserve punishment for that. But the boy - Benjiro, he reminded himself, Benjiro had been his name, he at least should keep it sacred - the boy had not deserved the punishment. The boy had deserved better. Not necessarily what he himself was hoping for, foolish old man that he was. Would have been better if he had never met him - better a common highwayman than a disgraced and bruised samurai... if only he could be sure that the disgrace and bruises were the only thing that had happened to him.
He had no way of making sure, of ascertaining the boy was even alive still.
The guards had not come for him yet. That this might be because they had other, younger flesh to mutilate and enjoy, that was a thought that made him wish for a swift end. For both the boy and himself.
Or, failing that, at least some sleep.
Benjiro had ascertained the location of the prison cells as soon as he had an unobserved moment. It had taken him a frozen minute or two to come up with the nonchalance to ask the guards how many prisoners they had. After all, he reasoned, he would be the one running food back and forth to them, and he only hoped that that included food for the prisoners too.
The reply, accompanied by loud miscellaneous eating noises and scattered grains of rice, had been enough to render his life worth living again.
They'd had one new man coming in the night of the feast. Yes, great big tall one, but weak. Weak? Well, no fighting, they guard explained with a phlegmy laugh.
And none of the prisoners had been removed from custody for days. He had come back every day to check. No executions, no pardons, no natural deaths.
Jin was still in there.
What he had also come back for every day was to look for weaknesses in the guards. Befriending them, I suppose that's what they think I'm doing, he thought.
A bitter thought, given what he was doing at this very moment.
His legs were still protesting against the kneeling position he'd forced them into, and yet he endeavoured not to make any sound, much though he would have liked to retch and spit in disgust. At himself, but also at the man whose lap he was burying his head in, over and over.
Shuji, he had heard him called. He was unshaven and champion at games of chance, and it was little things like these that kept Benjiro's mind off what he was doing here, kneeling on the floor sucking off the most revolting of the prison guards purely because he was the one who spent most time down here, in the smelly little mess room that held their eating table and their cards and their keys, the most important part, their keys.
He could see the cell doors from where he was, could hear the occasional groan of a prisoner rearranging aching limbs, and bit back his own groan of humiliation and frustration at where he was, what he was doing, forced himself to remember what he was doing it for. For fleeting moments, he could trick himself into believing it was Jin he was doing this to, not just doing it for him, but to him, the man's thick flesh stuffed into his mouth, filling him, making him gag with its length and urgent hardness...
Not with his stink. Benjiro's eyes watered as he forced the bile down, inwardly begging for the man's climax. How long had he been groaning and moaning now?
How much longer would he have to do so until Benjiro could even think about swiping the keys from wherever they were kept?
And then, what? They would still only be two against half a dozen guards. With swords. At the deepest point of night, maybe two against two. They could still both get killed. But he had no better plan, and it would have been a crime not to at least try and make something of the situation that insane girl had put him into. There's more I can do here, here thought grimly, running his teeth over the sensitive spots of the man's rank penis, repressing the urge to bite, than I could anywhere else.
A hand came down on the back of his head, fisting in his hair, pushing his face into the groaning man's groin until he was sure he'd choke to death on the revolting flesh. He felt something hot in the back of his throat, mercifully beyond taste. Only when Shuji sagged in his chair, his hands dropping to his sides and his breathing heavy, was the boy sure that that had been the man's semen and not his own bile. Swallowing thickly, trying not to think about what it was he was swallowing, Benjiro made as if to rise up.
A hand on his head stopped him, heavy and relaxed this time. Petting his hair.
A second later Benjiro was grateful for that hand - the door to one of the cells creaked open. He could hear the heavy footfalls of the guard doing his daily duties in there. Could not hear nor see the prisoner.
Biting his lip, he turned his face away from the door, buried his head deeper between Shuji's unwashed thighs. Jin would not see him like this. He would not be able to look the man in the eye, not now. Not because he was kneeling on the floor servicing some disgusting prison guard.
Because he wanted the man behind that door to remain the Jin of his dreams for as long as possible. That smouldering gaze at the nadir of last night, standing proud and humiliated in the middle of the Great Hall - it may have been a trick of the light. Blue eyes were hard to read.
But it was all he had, all the armour and weaponry he had, and he would have to make do with that. He owed Jin this much.
A niche in the wall. A tear in the fabric. Her heart wanted to hammer its way out of her chest, out through the bandage constraining her flesh, out through where he had ripped the collar clean off her kimono. Panting, trying to calm the frantic rushing in her head, trying hard to hear anyone coming.
Nobody came. She - he, to everyone concerned - was safe for the moment.
How dare he, was her first thought, still, and no amount of reasoning could wipe that from her mind. Kill the messenger, will you? Or worse still. Far worse. Well, yes, nobody had expected Lord Hidetada to even be in his chambers, or else the Lady would not have asked her new 'boy' to relay the message that she was now disinclined to receive him tonight, or any other night in the near future, thank you very much.
The man had jumped to conclusions, and it was probably only the unavailability of any weaponry in the Lord's inner chambers that had allowed her to escape with her life. The words he had shouted had been hurtful enough. And untrue. Not that that mattered where Lord Hidetada was concerned. Or some young boy given to the Lady as a maidservant. And whatever else that entailed in the Lord's twisted mind.
He'd almost had her clothes off, by brute force. At present, she wasn't certain what would have been worse - being raped by the King of Hell or being exposed for who she was. Namely not the boy Hidetada had been looking for underneath those clothes.
Her stomach rebelled. Clamping her mouth shut, she gingerly felt her cheek.
She had Benjiro's bruises once more, to match his name.
The Lady had given orders not to let anyone enter her chambers. At swordpoint. And yes, that included her Most Exalted Husband.
Inside, a faintly trembling hand caressed a tear in the fabric of Takada's clothing. They had not spoken a word to each other, Takada because she was trying to rein in her unmanly tears, Lady Seihako because she could as yet not find words that would suitably express her feelings without resorting to indecency. She had let her hands do the talking, enveloping the sweet boy in her robes and her arms, keeping him safe from the evil that lay outside.
The boy Takada breathed deeply, trying to relax a cramping stomach, a trembling hand, a whirling mind. The Lady could feel his soft panting through the layers of her clothes. It sounded sweet to her. Sweet and furious. At long last, the Lady spoke, and it was a whisper against the boy's ear.
"If only you had had a sword."
The silence was absolute, save for the occasional rustle of silk.
The Lady's hair ornaments had all been polished, arranged, selected. As had the shoes. Now it was the belts. Plain narrow bands of cotton that had tying and holding to do, twined strands of silk in all colours of the rainbow. And the obi, dozens of them, one wider and more ornate than the next. Her hands, still somewhat shaky, caressed the fabric as they folded. Her mistress was kneeling behind her, breathing down her neck, slipping whispered words into her ear under the rustle of the stiff fabric.
We must look like a pair of secret lovers, Takada thought, twitching at the thought. I bet everyone thinks we are. Are we? Would we?
Her rather than anyone else here, she decided.
"A hundred years old," the Lady murmured over her shoulder, gesturing daintily at the pale green sash embroidered with geometrical patterns in orange and white silk threads. "My ancestress Yoshikuni Tamae had it made... ssssssh."
The Lady definitely had no clue as to what had made her boy start. There was no movement outside, and it was out of the question that anybody should hear them.
"You could have brought one in and hid it cunningly. There are so many places one can hide a weapon about their person... and you're not exactly the most dangerous-looking man in this place. Let alone anywhere near owning a blade."
Takada snorted. "I had one once," she whispered. "Nobody noticed I was carrying it. All the way to Edo..."
The Lady's eyebrows rose. "See. Now if only you could procure one again, you would be the perfect one to deposit it in the Lord's chambers."
"I could," Takada said grimly. "It is here in the palace still. And I know someone to get it."
"Waterlilies," the Lady said, brightly. "Legend has it the pattern came all the way from China, but looking at the flowers in the ponds around here, I am led to doubt that."
Ah. A shadow had just passed outside the paper door.
"Bathtime," she continued, in a whisper once more. "That is when he is alone, I know. Alone and divested of his weaponry and even his clothing. If you could let me know where the blade is hidden, I would be able to enter unchecked and..."
"And be the murderer?" Takada's head had whipped around, a wild mixture of anger and fear playing about her features. "You would throw your life away for his?"
"What other way is there?" the Lady replied, eyes sparkling. "I would not dream of sending you in there again. You could not hold the sword straight after what he's done to you!"
Takada gripped the Lady's collar. Soft, warmed by the skin underneath. Pulled her close to hiss in her ear. Barely scented. Warm.
"Neither you nor I nor any living soul will put that blade in him. There will not be a murderer."
A wave of unaccustomed warmth swept over Takada as she boldly licked a trail along Seihako's earlobe. The Lady shivered.
"You propose to use magic, Benjiro?" Her eyes were narrow.
Yes, that's probably what I need, Takada's mind screamed at her. Insane, but can anyone here see any other way out of this? Alive, I mean? Both of us, and Benjiro and Jin into the bargain? Jin, Master Jin, can I at least imagine you're guiding me through this? I was a little girl until a week ago, curse it!
Magic. She breathed deeply. The scent of the Lady's skin did nothing to calm her, but at least it distracted her sufficiently to be capable of speech again.
"No, not magic." Almost too loud. "I... I propose to use the arts of the smithy. Help me?"
"Anything." The Lady's voice was firm.
Takada sighed, shook her head, then composed herself, looking straight into the Lady's eyes. She saw lines at the corners, and a tiny reflection of herself. Of himself.
"Send for Takada. The runner from the kitchens."
"You're planning to what? To m-"
Two hands clamped over Benjiro's mouth simultaneously, choking off the rest of his reaction. The set of his chin and the deep scowl between the brows was enough for Takada and Seihako to guess the rest.
"Sssssssssh," Takada hissed into his ear. "There may be listeners outside. And yes, we are."
The muffled grunt from Benjiro was abundantly expressive of his thoughts on the matter. It was most likely only the presence of the Lady that kept him from uttering them in less verbal ways.
"Listen to me," Takada whispered urgently. "There is a guardkeeper out by the West Gates. Gosu Ashitaka is his name. He owes me a favour. And by that I mean me, in other words you."
Benjiro looked outraged. The Lady looked confused, withdrew her hand.
"Oh dear... later, my Lady. I will explain. Anyway, go find Gosu-san, tell him your name and that you require two small favours of him. The first is that he lend you his new sword for a day. Ensure it's the new one, and promise him upon your life you will not do any harm with it nor be seen with it. Tell him... I don't know, tell him you made a friend at the swordsmithy and want to impress him or something..."
Benjiro growled, then tore the hand away from his mouth.
"The guardkeeper owes you a favour? Owes me a favour?" he hissed, crushing Takada's wrist in his grip. "And you're telling me now?" The bile that rose in the back of his throat still tasted of Shuji's dirty seed. "A favour of a sword? I could have had him out of there by now -"
"Shut up!" Takada growled, shocked at the grit in her own voice. "You would only have got the both of you killed. Get us the sword from Gosu-san and come back here immediately. I can't leave these rooms, boy. Look at me."
The line between Benjiro's eyebrows deepened as he took in the bruise on Takada's face, matching his own fading one. Her clothes were torn. He shook his head.
"Takada, I would be the last one to deny that he deserves to die, but... but this is insane! There is no way you would get out of there alive after you've killed him. And then they'd find what's under these clothes, and that you aren't me. That has the real me in the noose faster than I can say 'Jin'. And whether Jin gets out of this alive or not is really a moot point after we've both been butchered, is it not?"
"Trust me, Be... Takada. There will not be a murderer-"
"Fate will do its deed," the Lady interrupted quietly, her voice uncertain.
Benjiro's head whipped around. He took in the two, the woman and the girl who was a boy. What in Hell were they playing at? Risking all their lives for an affair?
For love, something small in the back of his head asked. Risking all our lives for love? And what else would I risk mine for now?
"Gosu is his name?" he said quietly. "Gosu Ashitaka."
And without another word, his throat tight and his head aching, the lover Benjiro, bearing the name of the runner Takada, ran.
It was hard to work with trembling hands, with tears waiting to fall, tears that no longer knew whether they had been tears of rage or of terror or of girlish despair. They had been held back too long to remember what they were.
The sword had felt so familiar against her back, reminding her of the happier days only a week ago, the first day of her new life. And now today might very well be the last. If she wasn't careful.
The blade was warm from her skin, wide and heavy and a deep matte grey, and she sent a silent prayer of thanks to the Gods for giving Benjiro the powers of persuasion he had used to get this. He had found Gosu-san in the prison wing, or so he said. A small prayer of thanks to her father for making it, too, she supposed. Thinking gave her too much of a headache at the moment.
Silence. They must not hear what she was doing. Not that they would check on a mere servant puttering about in the Lord's chambers... but she'd rather not be seen until the blade was tucked away where nobody would find it. Well, nobody except the Lord. And he would hopefully not be in a position to tell.
Yes, a prayer of thanks for the colour of this blade. The edge of the bathtub swallowed it up into its muted iron grey, invisible but deadly. The grip... nothing could be done about that. A carelessly draped towel would have to do to conceal the equally grey but somewhat more prominent hilt of the sword. In the end, it wouldn't matter. She hoped.
That was the silent part.
Now for the crucial one.
Picking one of her Lady's blunt silvered hairpins out of her belt, she critically surveyed the bent tip. What am I doing, a small part of her mind screamed at her, immediately silenced by the rest of her that had been busy shouting 'shut up!' for most of the day.
Floorboards, that's what I'm doing, she thought grimly. Floorboards.
They were surprisingly easy to lever up, one after the other, until the entire area in front of the bathtub was clear.
Another prayer of thanks - they were short floorboards resting on narrow beams at the ends only. Not that she could have planned for anything else. She screwed her eyes shut. Breathe. You're such an idiot, but such a lucky damned idiot. And they're going to find you if you don't hurry.
With clammy fingers, she replaced the floorboards one by one, canting them slightly so that the front ends only barely rested on the supporting beam. The backs would stand out, but that would hopefully be concealed by the bathtub. Another prayer. The Lord would not look underneath his bathtub, would he?
There. Only a man with a plate of water and gunpowder floating on it would notice the slant... wouldn't they? To be safe, she dragged one of the floor mats to the edge of the narrow gap in the parquet. There. Nobody would see. Cautiously, she took a step back. The floorboards creaked, as they did everywhere in the palace.
These ones would now fall. As soon as someone stepped on them.
Turning to the door, Takada heard it sliding open and found herself staring into the surprised face of a guard.
Jin wrapped his wrist in his sleeve and bit it, then pinched himself between the nostrils. Hard.
Tears shot into his eyes, washing away the grimy sleep of the last days. No. He had been awake. And he had had enough water and food to ward off the worst of hunger hallucinations. That left only one explanation, insane though it seemed.
That had been Benjiro's voice.
Granted, he had not caught much of it, but... he was certain it had been the boy's voice, even though he was unable, from where he was, to make out his accent or even what he was saying.
But of all boys in the palace, this one was the only one who could reach him without making sense. Without even talking to him, it seemed.
And that was what the voice had been doing. Talking. Not screaming, he reminded himself. Not gasping in pain or horror. He had been talking, with the guards outside probably. And however much he had hoped, in that flash moment, to find the boy thrown into the cell with him, he forced himself to believe that whatever fate Benjiro was pursuing out there was a better one.
The boy was still free. The boy was alive.
The boy was talking to the guards. How he could have achieved that status did not bear thinking about. He could not have... could not have betrayed him again, could he? And did it matter now? Yes, he admitted quietly. It did.
That look in his eyes. Suffering so proudly. And he had looked at him without fury in those dark eyes. Hadn't he?
Would that I could take my head off and lay it in his lap, Jin thought miserably. I must be going mad.
Benjiro's fingers crushed a rice cake that had long since gone cold on the tray he had been carrying. Between the fingers of his fist, a pink prawn appeared like an obscene maggot.
Like a dead man's finger. He was furious.
"Floorboards? Is that all? Floorboards and a hidden blade? Would you mind killing me now, because that's what you've just done here? All right, your little floorboard-polishing thing got you out from under the guard's eyes, but... That sword, when they find it, is Gosu's, who got it from you, who is me, and then what? Floorboards? You're expecting him to just fall?"
The Lady glared at him. Takada, white as a sheet, gripped the front of his kimono but hadn't the strength to pull him up close.
"He will fall," she whispered. "Have you seen them?" She made a tripping motion with her hands, unsteady as they were. "Fall forward - it's the only way anyone can fall when they step on these boards. They'll... they'll give way... that way." She repeated the motion, more urgently, like the upside-down chop of the executioner's sword.
"Takada. Takada, listen! That is not the point! If he falls as you say he will, and all right, he will fall. But what do you do if you fall? You grab the nearest thing there is! Your ingenious trap will have Hidetada coming away with a pair of bloodied hands, nothing more!" He shook his head in frustration. "I should have known better than to trust in something a pair of... of... girls like you come up with!"
The Lady glared at him, even darker than before. She gathered her boy close to her, then spoke in cool, measured tones.
"There is no need to insult your friend. Nor me. We have done what we could. The rest lies within the Gods' hands now. Or what do you propose?"
"The Gods' hands!" Benjiro felt like screaming. "Have you two ever been in a fight? Well, I have. Keep his damn hands occupied, that's what we need to do!"
"With whom?" The Lady's voice was cold. "You?"
"Nobody! Anything... something!" He cast around for words. "Something that'll keep his hands full. Something... something he'll only see as he comes close to the bathtub. I don't know... something that'll intrigue him. Papers. Sealed papers. Wrapped stuff. Write him a letter, whatever..."
"Sealed and knotted," Takada added, tonelessly. "Benjiro, thank you. I think." She shuddered at the thought of how wrong this could have gone. "Will you do one more thing for us?"
Benjiro was silent, unable to think of a reply for the moment. He watched the Lady rummage in her trunk for a writing brush, then spit on the inkstone and scribble a few lines. He observed the determined expression on the Lady's features, making her look much older and much less attractive. What is she doing this for, he thought, what makes her hard and ugly, her whose purpose in life it was to be soft and pretty? Hate? Love? Love, he thought as he watched her fingers tie elaborate knots around the rolled-up paper, bind the letter up the way he had been bound... was still bound. Bound to them at least, if not much more tightly to the man they were doing this for. Jin. In the commotion, they might have a chance of escape. It was the only chance they had.
"Yes," he said, defeated. "Yes. What?"
This time it was the Lady who spoke. "There is a man by the name of Tsuji Genshichi in the west wing of the castle. An old man, well beyond his sixtieth year. If you ask for the Keeper of the Hour Bell, you will find him."
"What do I-" Benjiro found himself cut short by a gesture of Lady Seihako's hand.
"You do not do anything," she continued. "Get Gosu-san to do you his second and last favour. Tell him to hover outside my rooms tonight and await orders. The Lady is feeling playful, tell him that. I'm planning to play a prank on someone. Hell, tell him I'm inviting a secret lover in, whichever suits you better." She waved her hand impatiently. "What matters is that you get him, once he has received the signal, to run to Tsuji-san's rooms and stop him from ringing the hour bell properly. I don't care how he does it, let him stumble into Tsuji-san's back or knock him out and do the ringing himself. Whatever, whenever. What matters is that it appears wrong. Faulty. Uneven." She waved her hand in the air again, fingertips catching on a strand of hair that had come loose from her coiffure. She was quite flushed with urgency. Out of the corner of his eye, Benjiro caught a glimpse of Takada staring at her admiringly.
"Uneven," he repeated. "Gosu-san is to await orders, then make the bell ring uneven."
"Yes," Takada confirmed, voice tight. "I will take care of the orders. You can busy yourself in the prison tract. Once you hear the faulty bell, you'll know he's dead. Act fast, before all hell breaks loose."
Benjiro nodded grimly. All hell would break loose, whichever way this hare-brained venture would go.
"Where will you go?" he asked, the only sensible thing he could think of at this point.
"Wherever we won't be found. Where will you be?"
"Alive, I hope. Takada, we should meet. I can assure you we won't have our old names any more by the time this is all over. And I'd like to see that you are at least alive, you fool." The tense smile on his face belied the insult. "I know a place not too far from here... well, far enough to be out of the way. I heard about it on our way here. The first wayside inn on the Tokaido road, you know where that is?"
Takada nodded. "Been there. You're not proposing to meet there, are you? The roadhouses are going to be swarming!"
Benjiro shook his head, frowning. "Of course not. But there is a ruined bathhouse nearby, in the woods to the north. There's only one path that goes there, and no, I haven't walked it, but I know it's there. It burned down last year."
The Lady nodded, her face pale once more. "The burned bathhouse in the woods off to the north of the Tokaido from the first wayside inn. I shall have to write that down, but it sounds like directions to me. We will be incognito, of course."
Benjiro laughed, a grim little laugh. "Lady, if you're going to make it there, you're not just going to be incognito, you're also going to be in an unholy hurry. And you're hopefully going to be the only ones there anyway. Well, plus me and Jin. If we haven't made it by nightfall tomorrow, you will move on, do you hear? Move on and become whoever you want to be. We will most likely have become food for the worms by then."
"One day precisely from now," the Lady said gravely. "The sun has set. Go find Gosu-san, and may the speed of the Gods be with you. My boy has a highly conspicuous letter to conceal in my Most Exalted Husband's chamber."
The sun has set, Benjiro thought as he set off at a run. Here's hoping I'll live to see it rise again.
10. Becalmed midnight
The floorboards creaked melodiously under him as Benjiro paced along the maze-like corridors of the palace, walking for the sake of movement. Standing still was not an option at the moment, not with all this trembling energy inside him, all this hope battling all this fear that things could go terribly wrong. Things had gone terribly wrong before, and in a way, that was his chief consolation, the fatalistic belief that he - that they deserved to be lucky this time.
Everybody he encountered in the dark polished corridors seemed fairly happy to be stationary - the line of armed men protecting the Lord's and Lady's rooms from any unwanted intruders, the ageing maidens of the household in their stiff silks, enjoying the mild evening air in the gardens.
Not even the air moved.
Outside the Lady's quarters, a pudgy man in the imposing armour of the palace guardkeepers squatted on the ground, ostensibly mending one of his sandals. He flashed a soft smile at Benjiro as he saw him going past, and Benjiro smiled back reflexively.
It is people like him that get the short end, Benjiro thought, people like Gosu Ashitaka with his round face and his gentle demeanour. It shamed him that for all his helpfulness, this man would not reap any rewards for what he had done. After all, it was not like he could claim his marvellous new sword back after it had been... well, used. Actually, Benjiro had made sure that Gosu had not boasted of the new blade among his colleagues yet. He was not at all sure he would have been able to 'borrow' it off him for a day if he had been sure that Gosu would be identified as its owner after the murder. Thankfully, it had not come to that, and the guardkeeper would merely be one sword down, and included in the grateful prayers of four runaways who would never be able to thank him in person.
Still, that was the way life was, and Benjiro's current priority was on there being four runaways in the first place. How much time until the hour bell now? And what would it matter? He inwardly slapped himself for his stupidity. The bell would be rung whenever the time had come, regardless of the hour. He had better be in the right place when it did.
And even though he had little more than a vague idea of what he would do in that right place, he knew where he had to be. Speeding his steps again, he headed for the prison cells.
"Oh, look who's coming to visit us in our little den of debauchery, eh Masaki? Going to keep us poor lads company, are you?" Shuji's voice was thick with alcohol, as was the air in the small room. And even though there was ample space on the bench Shuji and his half-asleep colleague Masaki were sitting on, Shuji felt compelled to scoot aside a little, if only to pull Benjiro onto his lap.
"So quiet, little one? Come on, you can tell Uncle Shuji. I'm pretty sure I've got an idea of what you've come here for anyway, what, sweet boy? It's, what, early night at best, and you haven't brought any food. I rather think you haven't come to bring stuff, eh?" His hand grabbed the back of Benjiro's head while the other slipped into the boy's kimono, roughly caressing the warm flesh there. "You've come to get stuff. Haven't you?"
Benjiro looked blank. Truth be told, he did not know what he had come here for, but it certainly wasn't what Shuji was offering.
"Well... not really," he offered, as much to fill the uncomfortable silence as to win some time to sort his alarmingly unfocused thoughts. He tried to take in as much of the surroundings as he could, but found little beyond the obvious fact that there were only two guards on duty tonight, and that they had seen it fit to deposit their swords under the bench they were sitting on, for greater ease of movement.
The guard Masaki had snorted and turned over, apparently satisfied that he was not getting a free show tonight. Shuji shot him an accusing glance, then turned his full attention back on the unresponsive boy on his lap.
"So you haven't come to get some... but how about getting some anyway?" He roughly squeezed one of Benjiro's buttocks. "I have lots of it, you know. And I'm quite happy to force it on you if you like." A gap-toothed grin and a squeeze to his own genitals accompanied that last statement, just before Shuji's hands went back to working on Benjiro's flesh.
The boy gasped, caught himself just in time, and turned his startled twitch into a sinuous little wriggle.
There on the floor, fallen from the small trunk they were usually kept in, lay the keys to the prison cells. There, three feet away from him, lay the answer to all his questions, and if getting at them meant taking the road of shame, then he would. For one last time, he would.
Trying his best to disguise the determination in his eyes behind a seductive smile, Benjiro slowly slid down off Shuji's lap, settling on the floor on his knees. Just as the leering guard fumbled with his clothes to free his cock, the boy's hand on his wrist stopped him short. He watched in awe as the boy slinked even lower, an elegant puddle of youthful body there on the floor, squirming around and rising again to his hands and knees, presenting a shapely backside under a thin cotton kimono.
"Now that sounds more like it," Benjiro purred, hoping that the quiver in his voice sounded more like arousal than disgust. "Force me. I like that. Use me like you would use your captives, mh?" He shuddered inwardly at the image, keeping his mind focused on the keys.
Shuji growled something incoherent but affirmative. Red-faced with lust, he freed his cock and knelt behind the boy, ready to tear his clothes off and shove himself in without any preparation. When Benjiro sat back on his haunches with a disappointed look on his face, the man frowned in brainless confusion.
"Really, Shuji-san. We don't want to alert the whole palace, do we? And I promise you, if you're going to put that thing in me, I will scream like the good little captive I am." The suggestive tone in his voice should have been enough, but Shuji, in his lust-addled state, was in no position to follow the boy's lead.
Benjiro sighed. He didn't like the idea himself, but if he had to go through with this, he had better not attract everybody's attention, and besides, it looked like he was really going to take him without any lubrication whatsoever. That would be painful.
And he didn't want Jin to hear. Gods no, anyone but him.
Forcing a seductive smile to his face, he unbound his belt and tied a series of knots into it, watched avidly by Shuji who would have been drooling if it hadn't been for the thickness of his bottom lip holding it all in. The purpose of Benjiro's little exercise clearly didn't dawn on him until he found the belt placed in his hand, a thick knot of hard cloth in the middle, one end trailing along the length of his greedy erection.
"Gag me," the boy murmured, "and then make me scream as loud as you will."
Lord Hidetada was already half out of his clothes and ready for the steaming bath awaiting him when he spotted the little package on the table at the side of his most private chamber. Shaking one arm free from the confines of a half-pulled-off kimono, he reached for it.
His wife's seal? Interesting. Was she entreating forgiveness after her recent escapade? If so, he was more than inclined to grant it to her, provided he received his due share of the pretty little boy who must have been behind all this. Really, to think she could just have a sweet young thing like this... what was his name again? Akimoto Something? To think that she could just have that to herself. How selfish of her! And after all, it wasn't like he was going to forbid the frigid lady from seeing the pretty young thing and getting her dainty little pleasures out of whatever it was that women like Seihako did with inexperienced young boys.
He was perfectly fine with that, as long as he got to do something about the inexperience of that particular little delicacy. Having seen him standing proud and exhausted in that tight embrace of ropes had rather whetted his appetite for the delicious young morsel... and as Seihako had already announced her unwillingness to see her Most Exalted Husband earlier that night, chances were that this was a very formal apology.
She had certainly tied it with enough rope to make it seem really reluctant, he thought with an amused grin. Rope and reluctance seemed frightfully appropriate to the likely subject matter of the missive. It would make for wonderful bathtime reading.
Just as he untangled the last knot, fumbling with the bindings on the letter as much as with the sleeves of his own clothing, the floor fell out from under Lord Hidetada's feet, and the world went very red, then swiftly black.
He had to have gone in by now. Takada was certain he could not possibly have tarried any longer, and at any rate, the letter had been fairly conspicuous...
There was nothing to it - she would have to go in and see for herself.
Armed with a tray of teacups the contents of which had long since gone cold, she left the Lady's chambers and slipped along the quiet corridor, her bare feet hardly making a sound. She dipped her head to the guardkeeper critically examining the fit of his armour and rushed past, heart hammering in her throat.
She stopped outside the Lord's door, taking a long time to calm her own breathing enough to actually hear what was going on inside.
She heard nothing.
Carefully, she pulled the screen door aside, just a crack wide enough to allow her a glimpse of the interior of the room.
The cups on her tray rattled a little, but she remained outside the door, in plain sight of the bored-looking guardkeeper. Gently, she pushed the door closed again. She had seen enough.
"Asleep," she whispered to Gosu as she passed him on the corridor. "Go ring the bell."
Maybe, she thought as she slipped back into the Lady's chambers, just maybe her smile had looked innocent in the darkness of the palace night. Maybe she hadn't looked as terrified as she felt.
The hour bell rang.
Over the tiled roofs of the palace, over the scaffolds of the city springing up around it, over the broad streets and the small piles of humanity lying huddled asleep in shacks by their sides, over the moonlit maze that was Edo, the great bronze hour bell of the palace sang its hoarse low song.
Time and time again it rang, long sonorous peals like the breath of night itself. Then suddenly, a break in the rhythm, a cough in the middle of the night. Three, four quick abbreviated beats, uneven and quiet, then one more deep resounding ring.
Out in the streets, a recent arrival to the city jolted from his sleep, looking around in confusion.
"Tsuji-sama's drunk," said an old man in one of the small public houses clustered around the palace precinct, and the girl who had just replenished his cup of sake smiled faintly.
In the middle of the palace, Tokugawa Hidetada, recently-acceded Lord of the city and the land, lay motionless, slumped over the edge of his bathtub. His left foot stuck out at an unnatural angle from his leg, and in the hole in the floor that it was wedged in lay an unopened letter. Hidetada was still only half-undressed, one of the wide sleeves of his green silk kimono hanging into the tub, darkened to a brownish shade with moisture from the bath.
Green silk and pale skin were adorned with the most striking pattern of bright crimson, centred on a deep gash that had opened up the Lord's throat completely on one side. His handsome face, ruined by blood and the expression of shock he had worn during his last moments, rested on the blade of an iron-grey sword.
The bathwater was deep red, and the floor was swimming with Hidetada's eager blood. It trickled over the edge of the hole in the floor, staining the letter crimson.
The bell rang one last time.
Benjiro cursed behind his gag, releasing his pent-up anguish into what surely sounded like a lustful groan to the man who was currently busy shoving his thick cock into him, burning his insides and making him want nothing more than to expel that vile intruder as quickly as possible.
That was the bell. She's done it, she's done it, he thought, in time with the thrusts that rocked his aching body. The crazy girl has really done it! Clenching all his muscles in a feverish attempt to hide his elation, he winced at the pain in his arse, intensified by Shuji's increasingly erratic thrusting.
Benjiro's knees were already hurting from being pushed along the rough floor, pushed closer and closer to the bench, closer to the keys, but apparently no closer to Shuji's orgasm. He clenched his buttocks, trying to milk it from him, trying to force him to collapse into the one sweet moment he would need in order to overpower the man... but all he got in return was more groaning and more hard thrusts. His bottom felt raw already, and in all honesty he was grateful to be gagged. He would not have been able to hold in the whimpers of pain otherwise, grown man or not. It had been too long since anybody had entered him there, and even then it had been eased by oil and his own willingness.
And if he could get this beast off his back within the next few minutes, there was a chance that such a willing encounter might happen again. Jin, you are the one I'm doing this for, he reminded himself as he forced his aching muscles to massage Shuji's cock, wishing it was Jin's.
Come already, you brute, he chanted to himself, moaning loudly into his gag in the hope that the muffled sounds would help the guard over the edge. Were those footsteps outside? He froze for a moment, but heard nothing. Whimpering faintly, he renewed his efforts, sweat running into his eyes from the exertion.
I could just faint, he thought. I haven't got him where I want him, but I've got myself where I want to be... The keys lay right underneath him now, and if he hadn't had his mouth stuffed with tightly knotted fabric, he would have allowed himself a grim smile.
Squirming harder and panting hectically, Benjiro let his whimpers and moans fade until, with a trembling of muscles and a deep sigh, he collapsed on the floor, taking the panting and sweating guard with him. He felt Shuji scrabbling for purchase, scrabbling for orientation against his back. But he also felt the reassuring metal of the cell keys pressing into his left shoulder.
A mere hand's breadth from his outflung arm lay the sheathed swords belonging to Shuji and Masaki. Forcing himself to breathe shallowly, Benjiro counted down the heartbeats.
The teacups rattled more loudly this time as Takada deposited the tray on the floor with a thud. Rubbing her hands across her face as if to wash away the sight she had just seen, she straightened herself, only to be enfolded in Lady Seihako's silken embrace. She knew she was going to cry at some point, but prayed it would not be now. She had a message to relay, after all, even though the recipient already knew.
"My Lady..." she began, her voice small and flat against the silk of Seihako's robes, "my Lady, you are widowed."
A delicate hand tilted Takada's face up, and she found herself staring at the most beautiful smile ever. A wild manic laugh was fighting its way out between those small painted lips, and ended up colouring the Lady's reply, whispered against Takada's hair.
"We have got to..."
Even before Takada had fully extricated herself from the Lady's embrace, they were both frantically getting ready to leave, breaking out the sad little bundles of provisions they had made, Seihako tearing off her rich robes and pulling the silver and flowers from her hair. Takada just stood stunned for a moment, watching the transformation from dainty lady to a wild-haired half-naked woman passionate about life, or at least about getting out of here with her life. She could have stayed here, something small inside Takada's head said, she would have had them convinced she had nothing to do with it. She could have stayed and remained a lady of the next court... but she wasn't, and Takada would have been the last person to ask her to.
"Get changed," the Lady hissed, hurriedly and inexpertly wrapping a common woman's skirt around a kimono Takada had procured from the kitchens. "You look like the servant Benjiro like that."
Slowly, Takada nodded. There was no other way. She slipped out of her boy's clothes and bent to unfold the disguise she had found for herself. Cast-offs, of course, almost to the point of raggedness. They would be inconspicuous enough, and would hide her more effectively than anything else could.
They were girls' cast-offs.
Hurriedly, she unwrapped the bandage from around her chest, taking a deep breath as her small but nevertheless noticeable breasts sprang free. The silence in the room was perfect. The rustle of clothes from Seihako had stilled completely.
"Yes," Takada said, turning around to face the Lady in her nakedness. "Not quite the boy you knew. But this," she added, gesturing at her body, "this feels like as much of a disguise as these clothes. I'm not a woman, you see..."
The Lady shook her head, slowly, composing herself. "You are more of a man than most of the ones I have met. That warrior spirit - you have it in you. And I have yet to meet a man who can impress me with that."
Takada smiled earnestly, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "Jin," she said. "He probably would. Benjiro. The real Benjiro... he too. The ones we are doing this for. Jin, and Benjiro... and you. I've done it for you too. Will you come with me anyway, with me and Jin? And Benjiro?"
"Benjiro..." the Lady said quietly, advancing on the naked girl. "You'll always be Benjiro to me."
Benjiro, Takada, Tamae, what does it matter, the naked girl thought as she found herself wrapped in a tight embrace of rough cloth and womanly hardness. "And the answer is yes," the Lady continued, her voice almost inaudible, "if you hurry. I can find out what to call you once we're away from this demon-infested place!"
Nodding grimly, her heart leaping in her chest, Takada groped for the clothes that would disguise her as a girl.
In the general commotion that had followed the discovery of Lord Hidetada's body, Gosu Ashitaka had thought it best not to move too much. He had stayed outside in the corridor and told his story again and again to the various detachments of armed guards rushing past him, struggling to keep the authority in his voice even though he felt as if the floorboards had just dropped out from under his world.
Yes, he had been on this corridor all evening. No, it was a private matter. Yes, he had seen the Lord enter his chambers. No, he had not seen anybody else, not until the tea boy, what was his name again, the Lady's servant, poked his head in the door. No, he had not gone inside, and the Lord had been asleep.
No, he honestly had no idea how he could have been killed. There hadn't been anybody in the room. There still wasn't anybody in the room, at least nobody except the guards and officials tearing the place apart looking for clues or hidden passageways while under their feet the blood of their late Lord congealed.
No, he had not seen the tea boy, nor had he seen the Lady for that matter. He had seen a few people rushing along the corridors, doubtless frightened of the men with swords running around the place, and possibly even running the place, who knew, who knew?
But they had all been women. Common women, yes, maids, kitchen girls, you know the kind of women you see around the palace. Gods forbid, of course none of them had a sword.
As the questions died down and the stomping feet carried the news to the outlying regions of the palace, Gosu Ashitaka realised that he, too, was lacking a sword.
That boy Takada had it, bless him. Such a sweet, kind soul. He reminded Gosu of his own children. Well, when this was all over, he was sure the boy would return the sword, and apologise for the delay.
He was sure Takada would not have run away with it.
Three, two, one.
With a sudden jerk of movement that made every muscle in his body protest, Benjiro lunged for the swords, managed to grab one by the hilt and unsheathe it. Gazing around wildly, he scrambled to his feet, stepping on the keys and surveying the scene.
In front of him, Shuji lay on the floor gasping, still flushed from his sexual exertion, his small eyes darting from the point of the sword in Benjiro's hand to the sheathed one still lying under the bench. Benjiro risked a glance at the other sword. There was no chance the man would get at it without risking being skewered by him. Consequently, Shuji lay very still, staring at the half-naked gagged young man who was pointing his own sword at him, with a very clear message at the tip.
Gathering his clothes about him, Shuji ran as fast as his stumbling feet allowed him. One gentle pat with the flat of the blade to the sleeping Masaki engendered much the same reaction, only accompanied by a slightly louder noise of surprise.
He was alone.
Bending underneath the bench, he retrieved the other sword. He would have tucked it into his belt, if only he'd been wearing it. Shaking his head in frustration, he pulled at the gag in his mouth, unable to dislodge the tightly-knotted band around his head. Angrily, he slashed at the cloth with the tip of his sword and watched the severed parts of the belt fall to the floor, the ends stained red. It didn't matter. What mattered were the keys under his foot, and the fact that it was still quiet out there. It wouldn't be quiet for very long.
Picking up the keys, he went for the first cell door. The key creaked. Nothing happened. Stumped for a moment, he was torn between trying all keys on one door or trying one key on all doors, then thrust the key into the adjacent door, the only other one behind which he suspected prisoners.
The door opened, and the confused and frightened face of an old man greeted him. Then, many more faces emerged from the depth of the cell, all confused, all strangers, all not what he had come here for. Impatiently, he gestured for them to run, and when that did not cause the reaction he had hoped for, he shouted at them to get out, to run for their lives while the place was unguarded. In the end, he just shook his head and ran, back to the other door, back to the other keys.
Window, the cell had a window, and he ceased his desperate fumbling with the keys for a moment to look inside. What he saw made his heart melt.
Jin had heard his voice, had heard the shouting. He had stood up and was coming towards the door, dishevelled and weary, a look of incredulous joy on his face.
"Have I died?" he murmured, pressing his face to the opening in the door as Benjiro's hands fumbled with the lock and bar.
"No," Benjiro replied, voice choked with tears of relief, unwilling to tear his face away from the door, from where he was now close enough to brush his lips against the face of the man he had learnt to love harder than anyone in his life. "And I will see to it that you don't."
The lock snapped, the bar fell away, and the moment that Benjiro had to spend away from Jin's skin, his blue eyes, his pale lips, only in order to open the door, felt like a small eternity.
The kiss, when it came, made him want to jump out of his skin with sheer giddy happiness. The once-tidy beard had grown scruffy and the stubble scratched his cheeks, but the mouth was every bit as sweet and hard and hungry has he had imagined it in his desperate dreams.
Only when Jin's huge hand came up to caress his cheek did he realise he'd been crying all along. Those fingertips were wet, and they spoke more clearly than any words could ever have done.
It was Jin who had to pry the sword from where Benjiro had tucked it under his arm - Benjiro himself would have forgotten about it entirely, even though it was jabbing him in the ribs rather forcefully as Jin enfolded him in a crushing hug.
But they had to be armed, and they had to be fast. Jin was right. Of course he was right. He had been a swordsman for far longer than Benjiro had even aspired to be. But Benjiro had been a runner, and it was he who picked their way out of the palace, followed by a gaggle of freed prisoners trying desperately to keep up with the half-naked boy and the big greying man as they dashed along the corridors, making the floorboards sing with the speed of their escape.
The man and the boy could not care less - this was their escape, their only chance, and words would come later. Lots of words would come later, interspersed with touches and rough bearded kisses and soul-deep lovemaking, at least if Benjiro had anything to do with it.
For now, they had to get away from here, and fast.
Jin almost ran into Benjiro as the boy stopped abruptly at the mouth of a corridor where it led into an empty courtyard open to the night sky. "Sssssh," the boy hissed, and startled when he felt Jin's hand settle over his mouth. He turned around to gaze into a shaky smile and stormy blue eyes surrounded by tiny lines.
The Indigo Warrior. He was back.
Keeping to the shadows and keeping his breathing as shallow as he could, for all that he wanted to scream with joy, Benjiro slipped across the courtyard, motioning for Jin to follow him. For a moment, he saw the tall man standing bewildered in the pale moonlight, then he felt the gaze of those blue eyes upon him again and knew he would not lose the man again. Not in this life anyway.
And it was his responsibility now to keep both of them in this life as long as possible.
Ducking inside a narrow doorway, Benjiro disappeared into the smelly warmth of the palace stables, Jin close behind him.
"Get on. Any one will do, they're all good. Hurry."
Jin snorted, then thought better of replying. Balancing precariously on a wooden pail, he levered himself onto one of the taller horses, holding on to the beast's mane as he looked around for Benjiro.
The boy hadn't been any luckier, as there were no saddles immediately visible anywhere. He was squirming up on to a powerful-looking and rather shaggy horse, grimacing as he tried to find a comfortable position astride its broad back. His sore bottom protested, but he shoved the pain aside, then urged the beast on through the doorway out into the courtyard, Jin close behind him.
A horse for each of us this time, he thought giddily as they cantered across the courtyard, through another passageway, the horses' hooves beating a wild tattoo on the palace's restrained floorboards, across a garden path and through the adjacent garden, leaving the cries of a surprised stable boy far behind.
Out there, beyond the knot of rushing people desperate to get away from the house of yet another lordly death, was the West Gate. Behind that was freedom.
Behind that gate was life. Not much more than that, no riches and no honours, and most likely not even a life that would allow them to keep their old names. Behind them, as they galloped through the streets of Edo, lay the richest and most glorious palace the land had seen in centuries. Before them lay a burnt-down bathhouse in the woods off the Tokaido road.
Ruins have never sounded so appealing, Benjiro thought as he pressed his thighs to the horse's heaving flanks, racing Jin and his long-legged mount to freedom. The older man's unbound hair whipped around his face as he turned to grin at his companion, blue eyes full of the shock and exhilaration of a new life gained.
His hair was silver in the moonlight, and despite the mildness of the night air, Benjiro shivered at the sight of Jin's smile. This had nothing to do with wind, nothing to do with being half-naked. This had everything to do with gazes and touches and words that would come.
Kisses, brutal hungry kisses would come too.
"The bathhouse, the burnt bathhouse off the Tokaido!" Benjiro shouted, breathless.
"Sounds good," Jin growled back, hands fisted in his horse's mane. "I could do with a bath!"
Benjiro's breathless crazy laughter mingled with Jin's, trailing an echo of insane joy out along the road.
11. Slanting sun on wet cloth
They had had to slow their steps once they'd turned off the road and into the wooded hills further inland. Past the roadhouse and the village surrounding it, the last lights of human habitation had disappeared, leaving them to pick their way along a little-used path in the thin moonlight that filtered through the thick canopy of trees.
Although Jin's eyes had had ample time to get accustomed to darkness during the days and nights he had spent in his cell, there had been nothing to prepare him for this rich darkness he was now riding through, borne along on the back of a large sweaty horse, surrounded by the babbling of woodland creatures at night, wondering time and time again if he was still alive.
This could be the realm of the spirits for all he knew - what with the pairs of small yellow eyes blinking at him from the gloom and scuttling away as if they belonged to little messengers about to tell the King of Hell that he was coming. No, he chided himself, this could not be the King of Hell's realm. Not with the guide he had been given.
He was close enough now that Jin could almost smell him, inhale his subtle scent, pick it apart from the musky aroma of summer-bleached woodlands and sweating horses and fill his head with it, fill his whole body with it lest he ever lose sight of the boy again.
He filled his senses with the sight of him, the boy with the unbound kimono and the dishevelled hair, thighs clinging tightly to the sides of his mount, keen eyes piercing the soft darkness that surrounded them like a cloak.
Through the trees to their right, the sun was just raising itself out of its bed of ocean waves, bringing about the start of a new day.
Seeing Benjiro in daylight was something he could not even fathom yet. The boy had come back. Whatever had made him do so, he had come back, had cast aside all the reasons he could have had and come back for the man who had allowed him to be humiliated in a way that Benjiro would never live down. And yet, he had come back.
And if Jin had any say in it, he would never leave again.
"Forgive me?" he whispered, unsure of whether he wanted the boy to hear quite yet.
Benjiro's head turned around, brows drawn together. "Forgive you?" he said flatly. "What for? For wanting to place me in a better life than I had? For having the wrong friends and altogether too much faith in them? No. There is nothing I have to forgive you for, Jin. Except for making me desire you more than any earthly creature. And... there's really nothing I can do about that," he finished, his voice softened. After a long pause, he added, "Forgive, me, though, for blinding you."
Jin snorted. "That, I think, is impossible. I find I rather like the kind of blindness you've left me with. Inability to see anyone but you. I must have gone insane in my old age, and I haven't the power to fight it any more. Indulge me, Akimoto-san?"
"Anything," the boy replied, shaking his head and grinning. "Insane old man... you must have lost your mind to think of yourself as that. Who but you could have stood up to the shogun in nothing but ropes and his pride -"
"Don't call him that," Jin interrupted, growling. "He does not deserve the title. He is a cruel, petulant child who nearly took both our lives for my stupidity-"
"And lost his own in the process," Benjiro continued, steel in his voice. "And you're not stupid, you're-"
Jin cut him short. "He's dead? Hidetada? Dead? How..."
Benjiro laughed, a grim little laugh forcing itself out past the terror of the last few days. "Dead through no man's hand. The floor swallowed him, so they say, and a sword held by nobody slit his throat. A boy who was a girl told me to heed the hour-bell, and there I was in the cells, left with the task of letting you out." The grin on his face was more than a little forced, as if talking about what had happened brought him pain.
"You speak in riddles," Jin observed. "You killed him and ran?"
Benjiro shook his head. "I wasn't even there. Nobody was, that was the beauty of it. Revenge by the hand of nobody. Though I expect she'll be able to tell you more about it..."
"She?" Jin frowned. "Who?"
"The boy who was a girl. Takada was her name, and... I don't know. She just... well, she nearly got us all killed, and now look where we are. I believe I'll have to apologise, for all that I still owe her a bruise." He shook his head. "Completely insane. You'll meet her soon enough, if all goes well. She and the Lady are meeting us at the ruined bathhouse."
"The Lady?" Jin felt increasingly lost in the woods of Benjiro's abbreviated attempts at explaining what on earth had brought them here.
Benjiro grinned. "The Most Exalted Lady O-Seihako was instrumental to the plot, though I think she's in for a nasty surprise fairly soon."
"Well, her pet boy... isn't. And I don't suppose a bathhouse is the best place to keep that fact under wraps."
Benjiro's wicked grin made Jin acutely aware of a number of other things he wanted unwrapped once he had begun to make sense of just what was going on. Alternatively, he suspected he would feel quite happy to just push aside his confusion and enjoy the pure and simple fact that a half-naked Benjiro was very much at his side, currently astride a horse a few feet away, but most certainly in his heart.
And whatever had brought him, Jin swore he would do everything in his power to keep him there.
The sun had fully risen by the time they reached the charred remains of the bathhouse - privately, Jin suspected they would not have found it at all had it still been dark. Overgrown with the rampant weeds of a summer and a half, it looked less like a house than like a craggy rock dotted with lightning-split tree trunks pointing accusingly up at the sky.
The roof had fallen in completely and strewn the charred floorboards with shattered tiles. It must have been a pretty little place once, if the remnants of the small rectangular guest rooms and the porcelain shards scattered around the place were anything to go by. Of course, after a year, the rooms had decorated themselves with new mats of tangled green, and the porcelain had been sifted through by passing looters who had left smeared, rain-shattered footprints in the soot that covered every surface still standing.
Porcelain, fabric, wood - nothing had withstood the blaze save for the stone of the hearth, sitting there innocently amid the fallen timbers and cracked earthenware as if it wanted nothing to do with the destructive power of the fire.
Mercifully, Jin could not find any remnants of the inhabitants - a pile of unwashed towels and yukata kimonos charred to a brittle heap of greyish-black flakes was ample enough testimony to the fact that the place had been left in a hurry and that nobody had ever really tried to live there again. For now, that was good. There was nothing left to find here, so chances were that they would be safe here, at least for a time.
A crash from the hillside behind the ruined house and a startled neigh of their horses made Jin drop everything and rush towards where he had heard the noise coming from.
Amid more fallen timbers and shattered tiles from what had once been the roof, there were two rocky pools carved into the hillside, the lower one of them half-filled by a small landslide that had been allowed to go unchecked and overgrown with weeds. The water was murmuring and bubbling with the underground spring that must be feeding it, filling the top pool with faintly steaming water before cascading into the mud-swamped bottom one, slightly cooler and dotted with leaves drifting around its murky surface.
In the middle of this lower pool sat a spluttering and cursing Benjiro, his means of entrance evident by the skid marks along the muddy slope that had turned out treacherously soft despite the vegetation covering it.
Jin could not help laughing, laughing loudly and wildly until his belly ached and his eyes watered. Such a sweet sight, the boy with that tiny frown line between his eyebrows, mud and leaves in his streaming hair, kimono half-slipped off his shoulders as he tried to wipe the muck out of his eyes. He must have taken a headlong fall into the tepid pool, and judging from the stream of curses issuing from his sweet mouth, he had not been planning on it.
"Lost my footing," he spluttered when he caught sight of Jin standing at the far end of the pool. "Quit laughing and help me up - I think I'm stuck in this cursed mud!"
Needless to say, that did not do much towards making Jin stop laughing, and truth be told, he enjoyed laughing far too much. How long had it been since he had been able to really laugh at something that was simply funny, silly without any vile aftertaste, and just plain adorable as a mud-spattered wet Benjiro was? Still chuckling, he carefully balanced along the edge of the lower pool until he felt he was close enough to the boy without being in danger of slipping in himself. Holding on to the knee-high rock wall that separated to two pools, he crouched down and extended his arm.
A small and wet but strong hand gripped his wrist, and Benjiro rose out of the water like some disgruntled water deity. Well, wet enough to be one, anyway, and the way the abused kimono clung to the boy's chest and thighs acutely reminded Jin of why worship was really a rather good idea when it came to this particular young man. His own thighs trembling with the effort, he pulled Benjiro out until the boy could stand on solid ground again.
"Got a little weak-kneed there," Benjiro panted, resting his hands on his knees and spitting out some water.
Jin laid a comforting hand on the boy's back, surprised at how cool the wet, cloth-covered skin felt. "Benjiro," he said quietly, "after what you have done, anyone would have. You've been more of a hero than most grown men can claim to have been in their whole lives, boy." Not waiting for a reply, he took Benjiro by his shoulders, wanting to embrace him again -
- and found himself toppled over backwards into the rushing water of the upper pool.
When he surfaced again, his vision was filled with the grinning face of Benjiro, who had climbed into the pool after him, clothes and all, and was now busy pushing strands of soaked hair out of Jin's face.
"That," he said with a smirk that made Jin's heart squirm, "was for laughing at me. Heroes don't take that lightly, you know?"
"I know," Jin replied after he'd finished coughing, "I know." Placing his heavy hands on Benjiro's shoulders, he made as if to dunk the young man under water, but thought better of it and went for the intended embrace instead. The boy's face settled against the side of his, Benjiro's wet eyelashes tickling his scruffy cheeks, the boy's soft panting loud in his ear. I love you, he wanted to say, his mouth unable to form words, his body unable to do anything but hold on to this bright flame of a man, unable to do anything about the incipient arousal that was beginning to assert itself over the mad rushing of adrenaline through his veins.
He let his hands do the talking, gripping Benjiro tightly, caressing his hard lean body with small strokes, reciprocating in kind when the boy decided it would be a good idea to make use of all that hot water and get somewhat cleaned up.
He pointed out to him, when his mouth was capable of uttering words again, that what with their only change of clothes now being soaked, they had no option but to stay in the warm water until the sun had dried their kimonos.
The moment Benjiro had realised Jin had full use of his mouth again, he had dived in and plundered it in a kiss that was as steamy as the pool they were stuck in, as hot and bright as the morning sun creeping across the rocks and gingerly touching their wet clothes, and as long as life itself.
It was laughter, small cheerful laughter that made them realise they must have fallen asleep in the pool, Jin's head pillowed on the hard rock of its edge, Benjiro's head on Jin's arm. He had left a red spot on Jin's skin where he had lain, and he was sure there was a matching red spot on his cheek. The woman seemed to find that very amusing.
He blinked. The woman, clad in the browns and blues of a common peasant, laughed at him, then motioned for her companion to come closer. Wiping the sleep from his eyes and thereby inevitably nudging Jin awake, Benjiro squinted at the girl who was now approaching the rock pool.
"Takada! You made it!" He was out of the water before he had even thought about whether his nudity might offend the strange woman. Not a strange woman, he corrected himself. She's with Takada. She must be the Lady, surely?
The milky voice coming from the unusually unpainted lips reassured him of the fact.
"I see you have made yourselves quite comfortable already," she said, amusement evident in her voice. "It is good to see you... Benjiro?"
Benjiro nodded and sketched a bow, which seemed to amuse the Lady further.
"Oh gods, no need for that any more! Though it is somewhat amusing to have a naked man bow to you, no?"
Takada giggled, an utterly girlish sound. Benjiro shook his head and turned to his lover.
"Meet the Lady O-Seihako, former First and Exalted Wife to the late shogun," he said, the evident sarcasm in his voice making Jin grin. "And her faithful serving boy, well... girl really, the totally insane but admirable Watanabe Takada."
Jin cast a quizzical glance at the girl. "You?"
Takada nodded. "You didn't believe me when I said I would run away from home? Went to Edo, after you, and now I've caught up with you," she said, shrugging, her brilliant grin belying the stoic calm of her words. She was fair trembling with relief.
Benjiro's mouth stood open. "You... you know her?" He stared at Jin, unable to grasp the idea that his masterful new lover and this cross-dressing... person could be acquainted.
Jin's face relaxed into the lopsided smile Benjiro had come to love so dearly. "Benjiro, meet Watanabe Takada, though I knew her as Watanabe Tamae only a matter of days ago. Daughter of my old friend Watanabe Kenji."
"Son," Takada corrected with a hint of seriousness in her voice as she rid herself of her feminine garb. "And I demand to be let into the men's bath now."
Laughter was the only option, Benjiro thought. He was confused, he was clueless, and he was alive in Jin's arms. Words would come later, and they would do away with the confusion, he hoped. At the moment, he did not care one bit.
Words came of course, and the men's bath had become a convivial family bath the moment Lady Seihako had stripped off her peasant clothes and climbed into the pool, and it felt like they had been talking and talking for hours, piecing together a story that neither of them had felt inclined to believe, had it not been for the others' testimony that yes, they had indeed been in it.
It was only when Jin's and Benjiro's stomachs rumbled simultaneously during one of the few lulls in the conversation that they realised they'd gone hungry for almost a whole day.
Lady Seihako, or Seihako as she temporarily wanted to be called, 'at least until I settle on a permanent name', laughed. She had a lot of bright metallic laughter concealed in that dainty body of hers, and Takada, who was also called Tamae by Jin and occasionally even Benjiro by a very agitatedly talking Seihako, revelled in the sound of it.
Jin blushed slightly, his cheeks already flushed from having spent almost the whole day in a pool of hot water. The chrysanthemums on his shoulder were a deep pink, and Benjiro had gazed at them lovingly for long stretches while he listened to the others' versions of the adventure they still could not quite believe they had put behind them.
"I'm afraid I have nothing in the way of food to offer our lady guests... our lady guest," he corrected himself as he caught Takada's glare. "But if you would bear with me for a while, I'm sure I could find something edible in this wilderness," he gestured at the forest that loomed above the rock pools, and looked surprised when Seihako's small white hand cut him short.
"There's no need for more heroic acts from you, Jin-san," she said lightly, "allow me to contribute my share too." With that, she pushed herself out of the water enough to reach for the pack she had dropped on the pile of her clothes, producing a paper-wrapped stack of fried fish and several boxes of cold sticky rice.
Benjiro's eyes lit up, and Jin dipped a hand into the water they were sitting in, raised it up as if it were a cup of finest warm sake, and rumbled, "To our new lives."
"To our new lives," Takada repeated, pouring the water on her head to straighten her hair out into the boyish style she preferred.
"To our new lives," Seihako confirmed, grabbing a mouthful of rice with her fingers and determinedly eating it.
"To our new home," Benjiro added, splashing his handful of water down into the lower pool.
"You're thinking of staying here?" Seihako said, clearly torn between satisfying her curiosity and not speaking with her mouth full.
Benjiro nodded, catching Jin's surprised but affirming glance. "They told us back at the bathhouse that this had once been a flourishing place. Before it burned down, that is. And the way I see it, if the owners haven't rebuilt it by now, they're not likely to do so."
"Not that I blame them," Takada cut in, gesturing at the pile of rubble that had once been a bathhouse.
"But what better place to start again as complete strangers?" Benjiro argued. "Nobody here knows us, and if we swear off our old names, nobody ever will. We'll just be the two fellows running the bathhouse. No more samurai for me!"
Jin snorted. "Well spoken, lad. We would be hiding in plain sight at that. So close to Edo, who would expect an escaped prisoner and a failed pleasure boy to set up a cosy little home?"
Benjiro hid his face in his palms, chuckling. "You know, the way you're talking, I'm beginning to be afraid of being the housewife here."
"Oh no," Jin replied earnestly. "You're too much of a man to even pretend to be one. Well, except in joke comedy, maybe."
Takada's face had remained impassive throughout the little exchange between the two lovers. It had become obvious to her that these two had indeed found each other, and were already finishing each other's sentences and thoughts.
She cleared her throat. "Well... don't count on me, Jin-san. For all that I have always dreamed of learning from you, I don't think I could be the housewife around here either. Besides, well..."
"You, Tamae... Takada, from what I've heard today, have learnt far more already than I could ever teach you," Jin replied. "In fact, I have a mind to keep you around to learn from you - if that didn't mean you'd be stuck in the company of two wanted men."
"Wanted men," Takada said, shaking her head. "Wanted by each other more than anything, I see. And given your atrocious way with words, maybe you should consider a career with the jokers, Master Jin?" To her amusement, Jin flushed slightly.
"Anyway," she continued, voice full of youthful earnestness, "what I wanted to say was... I think it's no longer you that I need. Well, don't get me wrong, but..." She floundered.
Seihako came to her rescue with a well-turned phrase and a finely-chiselled smile. "He has had other priorities creeping up on him, I think."
Takada flushed. "If you will stay with me?"
The metal in Seihako's voice told her all she needed to know, even without the actual words she said. They were passionate words, words about how she had chosen, and chosen the real world and would go through with it because for the first time in a long time she did not feel alone in where she was. They were words full of pathos and naivete, full of shreds of ancient poems, but to Takada they were all she wanted, all she needed to hear. Seihako had called her by her male name, and she stood by it. To our new lives, she thought, head whirling. But what would we do, a middle-aged lady recently fallen into the real world, and a boy in the body of a girl?
The question hung unanswered between them as the sound of Seihako's passionate speech faded from her ears.
It was Jin who picked it up in one of his large wet hands, turned it around and flung it back at where it had come from. "Maybe it is not I... maybe it is you who should be in comedy, Ta... Takada. You had a lot of us fooled at one point or another, and I'm sure there is call for talented boys there. You could even have your lady write your speeches," he added with a nod to Seihako, who looked shocked and slapped her own forehead, then splashed her fist into the water, sending up a spray of warm droplets.
"How could I... of course! Jin-san, this could be the answer! How could I forget... the court has been abuzz with it for almost a year, and gods how we were jealous of the ladies of the Kyoto court for at least being able to send their maids out to see it! Far beneath our station, of course," she snorted derisively, "but the talk of the town - stories told in artful song and dance and acted out by lively young women and men, and oh, the months we have waited for the rumours to be true that Okuni-san and her players would come to Edo! This is it... boys, this is where we're going!"
Takada looked as confused as she was wet, but the rush of excitement in her blood made it more than clear to her that she would do anything that Seihako was passionate about, and which would allow her to remain a boy.
Benjiro had furrowed his brow again. "Artful song and dance?" he enquired.
"They named their art thus," Seihako enthused, "think about it, what a plain and truthful title. Kabuki. How exciting and lifelike! The stories I have heard - why, we could end up seeing the story of our lives played out on the stage, and everyone would cheer us! To Kyoto it is, my boy, and to our new lives!"
Benjiro and Jin shared a knowing grin, and it was only when the general excitement and splashing was beginning to die down that Benjiro allowed himself one cautious remark.
"Our new lives... under one condition, though, O-Seihako."
She raised an eyebrow. "What?"
Benjiro grinned. "Takada gets to play me. I understand he's rather good at that."
A pair of swords in battered scabbards lay forgotten among the debris scattered in what used to be the kitchen of the old bathhouse, ignored by its new inhabitants as they went about attempting to return the ruins to some semblance of habitability.
Well, Jin was going about said business anyway, dressed in nothing but his loincloth and a rag tying his still-long hair back. He did not have the heart to wake his young lover who lay curled up against the old hearthstone on a mattress of dry reeds and a pillow of thick weeds, imperfectly covered by the worn kimono that had been his only item of clothing when he arrived here.
Plans had been made, of course - Jin had been somewhat amused at how the necessity of selling a horse had cropped up yet again in so brief a period of time - and the jewel-blue silks Jin had worn from the Great Hall at Edo to the palace's prison cell to the ruins of the bathhouse had been washed and bundled up for inconspicuous exchange against more modest garb. Benjiro had spent a long evening picking apart the embroidered Tokugawa crest with the tip of Shuji's sword, arguing that there was no point keeping the crested items under wraps, and that they could do with every coin they could make, seeing as there was little that was salvageable in the ruins.
As far as the house was concerned, Jin tended to agree - it would take them the rest of the summer to at least rebuild the roof and clean out the pools, never mind restore amenities such as the guest rooms and cold tubs, the iron reinforcement rings of which had rattled under his feet every time he'd crossed the yard, and which were now stacked neatly against the growing pile of charred wood that would serve them as firewood for the upcoming winter. One thing they would not have to spend money on.
At least we have plenty of warm water, Jin thought, his heart warming as he gazed on his sleeping lover, youthful features slack in slumber, shiny thick black hair everywhere, lashes and fingertips twitching in a dream he could only guess at. If it was anything like the dreams he had been having recently, he would not wake the boy unless his life depended on it. He deserved the rest, deserved the peace.
He deserves to be left alone once in a while, Jin thought with a rueful grin, though he does his best to persuade me to stay as close as possible at all times.
The boy would take some getting used to. But Jin was determined to make it worth it.
As if he had somehow perceived the tightening of Jin's brow, Benjiro murmured something in his sleep, burrowing deeper into his makeshift bed until his face was all but invisible among a wild swirl of hair and vegetation.
A violent sneeze, and a pair of bleary brown eyes gazed up at Jin.
"Just watching you. Indulge an old man for a moment?"
Benjiro snorted, then sneezed again and shook his head. "Not happening. If you could make it an hour, I'd be inclined to... you know. Accept."
An arm reached out from under the crumpled kimono, and Jin found himself drawn towards the sleep-warm young body by a force stronger than gravity.
Hands found soft flesh and delighted in its hardening, mouth found mouth, and for the hundredth time Jin found himself wondering what he had done to deserve this delicious tongue for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and at all times inbetween. The boy devoured him, eating the words from his lips before he could even say them, staking his claim with young strong hands, possessing him in such a way that he felt his last reserves crumbling.
Take me, he wanted to say, take me and make me yours, and yet the words would not come, swallowed by Benjiro's eager tongue and painted mutely across his skin as the boy licked him all over, taking his ability to speak and leaving him with a mouthful of moans and soft sighs.
The places that he would touch, caress and taste with his tongue... it was enough to make Jin flush wildly. Those teeth nibbling along the side of his neck never failed to reduce him to a gibbering needy wreck, as they were doing now, inbetween tender licks to his collarbone and chest. He would soon lose all power over his limbs if he didn't act swiftly - grabbing the boy's head in both hands, he tilted the beloved face up, gazing deeply into Benjiro's glittering eyes.
"Take me," he whispered.
Benjiro smiled, a slow languid smile, then slipped the tip of his tongue out to lick the palm of Jin's hand where it held his face. Jin groaned. The boy could carve me up and eat me, he thought, and I would die happy...
Seconds later he was being eaten, as Benjiro's deft hands had pushed aside his loincloth, and that tongue was doing unspeakably delicious things to his most sensitive flesh. His world narrowed to the point where he saw his cock disappearing between those eager lips, felt himself wrapped up and consumed in the moist heat of his lover's mouth. There, right there - the tip of the boy's tongue pressing against the soft skin at the underside of the head drove the breath out of his lungs in a deep hoarse gasp, answered by a low chuckle from Benjiro as he blew cool air across the throbbing flesh, one hand snaking down his own body to squeeze his erection.
Oh, that, that tightness, to feel himself stretched around his lover's cock, open and willing, entirely his, with no name or age or history to come between them - just two men in a moment of sheer timeless bliss, Jin wrapped in Benjiro and Benjiro buried in Jin...
Gathering the last of his willpower, Jin lunged up, bringing his face close to Benjiro's. "Take me," he repeated, voice quivering with need. "I mean it."
Unable to face the boy's reaction to such an audacious request, Jin closed his eyes and blindly dove in for another kiss, a kiss that the boy returned with such fervour that Jin felt his balls tighten just from the sensations of Benjiro's tongue taking complete possession of his mouth. He moaned urgently into the kiss, hands scrabbling to get the loincloth out of the way, writhing to get himself into the right position and achieving nothing but to topple them both over on to their sides, mouths still locked in a hungry kiss, no longer sure whose laughter it was that was filling both their mouths.
With some effort, Jin broke the kiss, turning over to crouch on his stomach, willing his limbs into submission as Benjiro continued to nibble and lick at his skin, leaving little bites scattered among the chrysanthemum petals on his shoulder, trailing wet shivering lines down his flanks as he moved closer to where Jin wanted him.
Hands stroked and petted him, feathering touches along the soft pale skin just above his buttocks, Benjiro's short nails leaving pink trails of exquisite sensation along his broad back. When the young man's hands gripped his buttocks and spread them wide, Jin gasped in anticipation -
- and howled in surprise and pure animal lust when he felt Benjiro's eager wet tongue caressing his most intimate place. His cock twitched convulsively, and his whole being was swamped by the sensations - Benjiro's tongue toying with his anus, Benjiro's hands spreading him wide, Benjiro's breath sending shivers up his spine and making every hair on his body stand on end.
"Unnnghh... now..." he grunted, certain of nothing so much as that he would have to orgasm or die if the boy kept this up any longer. He thought he felt a cool chuckle against his moistened flesh as the tongue withdrew, leaving him empty and aching, his mind fogged and swamped by images of Benjiro's cock entering his body, spearing him in his most intimate place, taking all he had to give and giving it back tenfold.
It was all that and more when Benjiro carefully pushed inside, and Jin's muscles trembled with the effort of keeping his balance, keeping himself from thrusting back onto the delicious hot cock that filled him, slowly and lovingly, until he could do nothing but sob with the need that Benjiro had kindled in him, the need to be filled, owned, the need to have that brilliant cock slamming into him until he shattered with the sheer joy of it.
Disjointed moans were all he was capable of, and that was all it took for Benjiro. Slowly, the boy pulled out of the tight channel almost to the tip, then shoved himself into his lover hard and deep, their groans of pleasure becoming one, their hips twitching of their own accord, flesh urging mind to give in to the age-old rhythm.
It took no more than a few thrusts to make Jin fall over the edge into blind screaming ecstasy, spurting his seed onto the ground as he roared his orgasm over the steady beat of the boy's groans, speeding, speeding towards his own completion, hips pumping erratically into his lover's softening body until he collapsed heavily on Jin's back, panting and twitching, leaving breathless kisses on whatever patch of skin he could reach.
"Thank... you," Jin groaned when he felt sure enough of his voice to attempt to use it.
The shaking of a head against his back was all he felt.
"No," Benjiro replied, equally breathless but with an edge of determination in a voice hoarse from screaming his passion. "Don't ever thank me for what is my pleasure, do you hear?"
Jin tried to turn his head to gaze into his lover's face, would have wanted to kiss away the little line between Benjiro's eyebrows that he knew was there... but all he managed in his current limp state was to get his hair in his face.
Sighing, he let his head drop back on to the wilting pillow. "Yes, my Lord," he murmured amusedly. "Would Akimoto-sama wish to bathe first or second, now?"
"First." The smile dancing in Benjiro's eyes coloured his voice. "And with you, if it pleases you, Jin-sama."
And a concept of bathing with Benjiro that could possibly not be pleasing to Jin, it had to be said, had yet to be invented.
12. Dance of autumn leaves
Benjiro's hand lovingly smoothed down the collar of Jin's outer kimono, aligning it with the just-visible one of his undergarment, an edge of washed-out dark grey under a broad expanse of pale olive green. He couldn't help but caress the belt too, the narrow band of brown cotton that encircled his lover's still-slim waist, holding up a pair of plain brown hakama and ending in a small and modest bow in a place that Benjiro needed no excuse to caress.
"Now you look like a proper gentleman," the boy continued, nimble hands carding through the thick hair that was already passing the colour of iron, definitely headed for silver. He still regretted Jin's having to cut it short to avoid undue recognition - though he would have preferred any disfigurement to the loss of his lover, and really, short hair was not such a hardship. It was still thick and strong and prone to standing out in all directions at once, more often than not making Jin look like he had just risen from a bed that had seen some delicious action.
More often than not, of course, this was simply true.
A summer and a half had passed, and still Benjiro could not remember a day where they hadn't woken up wrapped around each other, and proceeded to either profess their passion in words, touches, and unspeakably delicious deeds, or at least share a lingering kiss when nobody was looking.
That there were people around now who could have looked was a good sign. It had been a hard winter for the two of them, rebuilding the bathhouse from its wreckage while building a new life for themselves - a life that contained, for each of them, a man they had had no intention of spending the rest of their lives with only a few months prior. Yes, Benjiro mused, occasionally the rows had been considerably more flaming than the fires built from the timbers of the old bathhouse. A few silences had competed with the snow for coldness. But the moments of regret, of softening and acceptance, the moments when they both admitted that their love for each other was as vast as it had been inexplicable, these moments had also been hotter than the glowing embers of any fire.
They had re-opened the bathhouse around the time of the cherry blossoms, simply by putting a sign on the path outside and hoping people would come in. With time, they did, and soon the news had spread around the village that the old man and his boy welcomed guests. Business had been slow but steady over the summer, keeping them in rice and clothes, and keeping them in the hearts of the villagers and travellers who would frequent the bathhouse. Somewhere along the line, it had become known as 'the temple', possibly because it had lain unattended for so long, or maybe because its owner, with his gentle demeanour, lack of wife, and almost-white beard, had something priest-like about him.
That the young man who served sake and attended to the visitors' clothes was not in fact his son was something that never really made it into the vast repository of village gossip that bubbled in the warm rock pools and the crude iron-ringed cold tub. In truth, people would have been hard pressed to even recall the full names of the two men, and would dismiss this sad testimony to their own inattention with an airy wave of a hand, thinking maybe they would ask next time. The old one called himself Kiyonaga, that much they remembered, and the young one called him Kiyo, in a loud and melodious voice. The young one, if they weren't very much mistaken, answered to the nickname of Obi, probably because he looked after the clothes. He had a way of tying artful bows into the belts of particularly honoured guests, hadn't he? And they would shrug and smile and say that whatever their names were, they were good men and really, who cared where their families had come from? Probably from some faraway part of the land anyway. Just look at how tall the old one was.
Benjiro reluctantly finished fussing over Jin's hair, allowing himself one last stroke along the man's bearded jaw. Grey before his time, he thought, and in no small way due to meeting me. But still, he comforted himself, so tall and unbent by age, and certainly strong enough to best me in a fight. Even though most of that fighting took place between the sheets these days.
"My Indigo Warrior," he murmured, "prouder than any samurai."
He felt the head shaking gently, bearded cheek scratchy against his palm.
"No more, love, no more." A big hand reached up to wrap itself around Benjiro's wrist, and the boy shivered at the firmness and warmth of Jin's grip.
"Oh yes," Benjiro replied, staring earnestly into those strangely blue eyes. "They may not call you that any more, but to me you're more of a warrior than any of the ones I've seen in my life. You're my warrior, Jin."
Small laugh lines crinkled around those eyes. "In that case, I concede defeat. Would you be so gallant as to get dressed yourself, then, so I can properly escort you to the entertainment you have been going on about for the last week and a half?" The amusement in Jin's eyes was unmistakable.
Benjiro grinned, straightened his own hair, tucking the outgrown strands above his forehead into the topknot as best he could, then tied his belt and slipped into his sandals.
"One could almost think you're eager to go yourself, love, and in all your finery," he quipped. "Looking for someone younger, are you?"
Jin frowned. "Anyone younger than you would seriously break my back. Impudent boy," he added, unable to completely hide his smile. "And anyway, where would I look? On the stage?"
Benjiro snorted. "Once more it becomes evident that old Master Jin is no longer cognisant of the latest developments in the talk of the town. You haven't heard, have you?"
"Boys. Lord Hideyasu, may the gods give him a life only slightly shorter than their own, has had enough of the scandals and fighting over the pretty young actresses in Okuni-san's theatre. Hence, he has decreed that all female roles are to be played by young boys from now on, and that goes for a ll theatres. Including the rag-tag lot we're going to see."
"Remarkable," Jin mused. "It's taken them, how long, half a year maybe? Not even time enough for the actresses to bear their admirers' love-children..."
Benjiro laughed. "That's Edo for you. I'm sure the various admirers had their swords at the ready the minute the girl in question appeared to have put on a tiny amount of weight around her middle. Anyway, that's a problem of the past now - as of this season, they can go fight over the cream of boys in women's clothes."
"I wouldn't," Jin said simply, wrapping an arm around his young lover's waist and pulling him in for a tender kiss. "But we should really be going if we don't want to miss the play."
Benjiro's nod was curt and quick, as always, although another kiss was something that was only marginally less attractive than seeing the troupe of strolling kabuki players in the village.
Two kisses would have made him stay at home.
In the end, it was one particularly long kiss halfway along the path that led to the village, a kiss brought about by how regal and simply gorgeous Jin looked in his new kimono, with the sunlight turning the grey in his hair to pale gold and the screamingly bright leaves of autumn settling on the muted green and brown of his clothes.
Benjiro wanted to throw this impossible man down on a bed of autumn leaves and ravish him, here and now. Sighing into the kiss, he felt himself hardening, tried to rub himself against that big warm body but found himself going nowhere.
Strong hands were holding him by the wrists, and Jin's piercing blue eyes gazed down at him.
"Want something, do we?"
"Y-yes," Benjiro breathed, shamelessly licking his lips. The fire in Jin's gaze burned just that little bit brighter.
"Trying to seduce me? Make me really uncomfortable knowing that I can't just give in because my dear boy wants to drag me to some theatre performance half an hour away? Knowing that I can't just roll in the leaves in these new clothes... well..."
Benjiro gaped as he felt himself dragged along by one wrist, away from the path, into the moist sun-dappled riot of colour that was the autumn forest. He caught a glimpse of Jin's other hand fumbling with the belt of his hakama before finding himself slammed against the trunk of a massive tree, Jin's soft growl in his ear.
"I suggest you think again, boy." A hand fisted in his neatly-tied hair, wrenching his head around. There, in the yellow autumn sun, stood the finest warrior he could ever have imagined, cheeks flushed with arousal, lips smiling ferally, one hand clasped around a very urgent erection poking out from above the waistband of his trousers. He was fully dressed, no skin visible save for the thin, soft and heat-flushed skin of his cock. And he just stood there, holding Benjiro by his hair, a mute challenge in his eyes, waiting for permission.
Benjiro whimpered. His cock had just reached a whole new stage of hardness, and his mouth watered in anticipation of what would come. "Oh... oh yes," he murmured, licking his lips once more, trying to entice that gorgeous hard flesh closer.
Jin's lips narrowed, and Benjiro found himself pressed face-first into the tree again, while a determined hand pulled his clothes out of the way, just enough to expose his buttocks. The other hand let go of his hair, but fairly soon Benjiro could do little but hold on to the tree trunk, trying to stay upright while Jin's hands were busy reducing him to a puddle. A half-dressed and very eager puddle, it had to be said, and when those hands spread him wide and he felt a drop of spit landing on his exposed opening, holding on to the tree was all he could do to stop himself from melting. Jin would take him, just like that, hard, rough... Benjiro whimpered.
Jin thrust inside, groaning at the burn of the barely-slicked passage. Benjiro howled. It was so thick, so fast... and yet so good. Filling him with the desire of the man he still couldn't quite believe was his. When Jin pulled out a little, then pushed in again, deeper than before, all Benjiro could do was wail his happiness and need to the skies, wordlessly begging for more, harder, oh more...
He dimly noticed the hot hard hand clamping over his mouth and muffling his urgent cries as Jin's cock impaled him fully, his warrior, his lover riding him to a climax that had him clinging to the rough bark of the tree in a vain attempt not to collapse on the leaf-strewn ground.
Arms caught him around the waist and he found himself leaning heavily against the tree trunk, sandwiched between the cool bark and his very hot lover, panting softly.
Words failed him as yet. He simply hoped the moist nuzzly kiss he offered would be enough to express his boundless devotion to Jin.
By the time they had picked themselves up from the warm man-shaped puddles that they were, and actually got anywhere near the village, the play was, predictably enough, in full swing already.
At least that was what Jin, inexperienced in such matters, gathered from the goings-on on the small stage that consisted of little more than the public house's veranda augmented with a few banners proclaiming, in a haphazard arrangement, "The Soga Brothers' Revenge", "The Great Bando Dosaburo", and "Kajiya no Ryo, Most Exotic Portrayal of Ladies". Jin was thoroughly confused, especially as he had little idea as to which of these slogans referred to the plot and which to the actors currently busy bringing it to clanging and shouting life, accompanied by an old man beating various gongs, cymbals and drums, often simultaneously, while on the small stage the Great Bando, or one of the Soga Brothers, or possibly one masquerading as the other, massacred a pot-bellied villain with his face painted in bold indigo lines.
Inbetween the various battles between good and evil, the aged percussionist sipped tea from an earthen cup while on the stage the hero and his brother and various other people that were somehow connected to them but somehow played by the same set of actors wooed a pair of young ladies in silken kimonos with sleeves that swept the floor and hair that touched the sky. And with voices that made Jin doubt whether they were actually played by boys, so convincing was their portrayal of the delicate flowers of the court.
It was only when one of them had wilted in the arms of a distressed hero and the other had decorously melted into the arms of the other hero, whether he be a Bando or a Soga brother or possibly both, that Jin knew the play was over. They had simply got through all the available villains, and the percussionist had finished his tea and was making ready to strike a large battered gong.
The audience applauded, bewildered at first, then more enthusiastic as one of the heroes stepped up to the lip of the stage, striking a wild-eyed pose, exposing his painted wooden sword and the sweat stains under his arms, thanking the audience with a deep bow.
"Thank you most humbly for hosting Bando Dosaburo's players in your most noble town," he shouted, his voice a little hoarse from all those heroic acts. "Once more, and only once more, tomorrow night we will give you The Courtesan In Winter, most edifying and entertaining of the plays of this age. We thank you for your patronage, and hope to welcome you again tomorrow! Until then, Bando Dosaburo is your humble servant!"
He bowed deeply once more, thereby solving one mystery as to who had been who in the play Jin had just witnessed, well, most of it anyway.
Benjiro turned around, grinning. "Like it? Probably not the way they intended it back at Kyoto court, but... this could be fun."
Jin nodded numbly. "Provided I get a full run-down of the plot and characters next time I go to see one of these, I might even understand what's going on."
Benjiro laughed. "Come on now, that can't have been that difficult. The Soga Brothers... that was Bando-san and whoever the second hero was. You know, the one with the red cheeks and the green kimono. They were out to get revenge for... something, I think it had to do with their father, but really all they were after were these two girls being held captive by the intrigue spun by this villain, what's-his-name, I think he turns out to be the one who murdered the brothers' father in the end, or at least they were played by the same fellow... ah, here comes the star of the play. I'm sure he'll be able to enlighten you!"
You're doing quite well under the circumstances, Jin thought with a smirk, then turned towards a sweaty Bando Dosaburo, floppy hair falling into his face, make-up still not quite fully removed from his expressive face, hands massaging each other as he waited to be spoken to.
"Bando-san, I presume," Jin said stiffly, then sketched a bow and smiled at the jittery actor. "What brings us the honour of meeting you in person?"
"The honour is all mine," Bando replied, and Jin could have sworn he saw a smirk on the man's agile features, "though I am merely the messenger. Kajiya no Ryo humbly asks for the pleasure of meeting you in his dressing room - I believe you are acquainted?"
Jin darted a glance at Benjiro, who however looked just as puzzled.
He cleared his throat and smiled at Bando, watching as the man's hands formed themselves into a cup as if to receive Jin's reply in them. "I know nobody of that name, Bando-san, but will of course accept an invitation brought to me in good will. May I bring my friend to the private audience, if I may be so bold?"
"Certainly, certainly," Bando replied eagerly. "Ryo-san is keen to see you both. If you would follow me, I shall be happy to reintroduce you."
Jin and Benjiro exchanged a confused glance, neither of them quite ready to voice the all too unlikely suspicion that had crept up on their minds as the actor had talked.
The back room of the public house had been cordoned off with mats and rugs, forming small makeshift dressing rooms for the actors. Trailing Jin and Benjiro behind him, Bando navigated his way through the maze, exchanging a glance here, a word there with the members of his colourful little troupe.
"Into the lady's chamber," he said with a flourish, throwing back a printed curtain that opened into a small corner room illuminated by a half-open paper door admitting the dim evening light, and a lamp burning on top of a large wooden trunk. "Though you may find the lady has already departed." He gestured at the trunk and the costumes lying around, then turned to the room's inhabitant. "Ryo, lad, wonderful performance. I'll leave you to your guests, shall I?"
With that, the actor-director-hero slipped out through the curtain, leaving nothing but a faint smell of greasepaint. They were alone.
Ryo turned around, and the light from the lamp illuminated his face, the lips still stained slightly red from the make-up, though the rest of his face had already been wiped clean of the creamy white that had turned him into the Most Exotic Lady advertised on the banners outside. His hair, now out of its elaborate style, fell down to his shoulders in lanky strands, and his eyes danced with mirth as he watched recognition dawn on his visitors' faces.
"Kajiya no Ryo, at your service," he said, bowing slightly, his voice a pleasant high tenor. "You must excuse me for still being in costume," he gestured at the sweeping flower-embroidered kimono he was still wearing, "but when I saw you in the audience, I just had to get you up here as quickly as possible. Jin-sama. Benjiro."
He embraced them both, and it was only when Jin felt the thin slight body under the costume that he fully believed what his eyes had been trying to tell him for a while now.
She had turned into a fine young man. Well, a fine young boy anyway.
"Kajiya no Ryo," Jin mused. "I should have known."
A dancing laugh, a laugh that almost betrayed Ryo's feminine past. "A blacksmith's child for the longest part of my life - it was only appropriate that I should reinvent myself as Ryo of the Smith, no?"
"Besides, if it hadn't been for your iron stubbornness and that hellish contraption with the sword, we wouldn't be here today," Benjiro added. "It's good to see you."
"And you," Ryo replied, voice choked with emotion. "Gods, you're still here. Still together, too. What do you do these days?"
"You will find there's a rather modest little bathhouse a quarter of a ri into the forests to the north of here," Jin replied, smiling. "The news is spreading, and we're able to live on the proceeds for the moment. Oh... they will know of it as Kiyonaga's bathhouse, of course. Kiyonaga being myself."
Ryo grinned. "I shall remember to call you that from now on, then. How about you... dare I call you Benjiro?"
"Beats me calling you Benjiro," the boy replied with a smirk. "I'm not really known as anything. 'The boy', mostly... Obi to the bathhouse patrons. I fold clothes and things, you see? And big names are so overrated anyway..." He winked.
"True," Ryo answered, angling for a strip of cloth that would tie his hair back. "Well, as you can see, I'm still very much alive too... and somewhat amused you didn't recognise me immediately."
"In all fairness, we weren't expecting a lady," Jin answered, deadpan, and Benjiro added, "Well... not from you anyway."
"Oh... yes," Ryo nodded. "She is not with us. Well, she is affiliated with Bando-san's troupe, but... let's say a winter of travelling brought it home to her that this was not what she had bargained for. Not the real life she wanted after all." A touch of bitterness had crept into Ryo's voice. "She has settled in the Yoshiwara, and is to all intents and purposes living the life of a lady there. Well, a lady compared to the courtesans, and last I heard she was very happy with that. Rich inspiration and all that... she writes novels now. And our plays."
Jin nodded thoughtfully.
Ryo waved a hand as if to dispel a wisp of lingering smoke. "I know, I know... you thought we were lovers. Well... to be fair, so did we for a while. And... well, we're still friends. Admiring each other. But from a distance. I suppose, if you wanted to put it really bluntly, I was not man enough for her in the end. Not that that has ever bothered my other admirers," he finished, overly brightly.
"You've turned out a fine young man," Jin said softly, startled when Benjiro nudged him in the ribs and made a fake jealous face.
"No really, he's right," Benjiro rejoined. "Hard to believe you didn't used to be one. Even with all the, you know, Exotic Lady Portrayal business."
Ryo smiled slowly. "That was Bando-san's idea... he knows of course, and keeps it nicely secret. It keeps me in business, now that the real women have been banned from the stage. Whether I'll be able to graduate to hero roles in a few years' time remains to be seen. For now I'm the most admired onnagata, the lady who isn't one, and enjoying myself shockingly."
Jin arched an eyebrow. "Your... body is a well-kept secret, then?"
Ryo snorted. "You might say so - though you will be surprised at how little that matters to most people. Look at this place," he gestured around the small dark costume-strewn nook that was his dressing room, "we usually finish after dark, and it's easy enough to extinguish the lights at the crucial moment and allow them to learn your body by touch. Well, the bits that you want learned and touched anyway."
Jin nodded mutely, barely catching the beginning of a question forming on Benjiro's lips.
Ryo grinned at him, a disarming boyish smile. "The men don't notice at all, ever." He patted his flat chest, then let his hand slide down towards his bottom. "I have the right orifice, and a taste for it, and that is all that matters to them. As for the women... I have become good friends with a certain master craftsman in Edo, supplying the ladies with instruments of pleasure..."
Jin could see Benjiro had already blushed deeply even before Ryo had finished rummaging in the bottom of his costume chest for the 'instrument' he had been describing. It was rather life-like, if a little smaller than either his own or Benjiro's. Made of wood and covered with a thin hide that was almost as soft to the touch as human skin, it was attached to a set of straps that looked like they had seen some use already. Jin watched the boy run his fingers over the thing, obviously intrigued and somewhat excited at the idea.
"It doesn't afford me the pleasure that yours gives you," Ryo said simply, "but the sound of a woman's voice in the throes of ecstasy is worth the trouble. Take it from me," he smirked, "it's the best kind of whoring one can get."
He took the artefact from Benjiro's hands and stowed it away in the chest again, holding the lid open, one hand resting on the piles of silk and cotton therein. "Now... Kiyonaga, was it? Kiyonaga-san, and Obi... I would be inclined to regale you with more stories from my varied and adventurous life if you were inclined to follow me outside for a drink. What say you?"
Ryo's voice was bright, almost metallic in a way that reminded Jin of Seihako, or whatever her name might be now. The resemblance to Tamae the blacksmith's daughter was almost gone, and in her place stood a fierce, handsome and cynical boy, Ryo of the Smith, who would go far and had every intention to do so.
At Benjiro's acquiescing nod, Ryo made to rise and close the lid of the trunk, then seemed to suddenly be struck by a thought and opened it again, digging under the gaudy fabrics.
"Would I have forgotten... of course I would, stupid me. If I may use you as messengers, gentlemen? Jin... Kiyonaga, you will know where to take it, won't you, if I tell you who it's for? What am I saying," he shook his head, face slightly flushed, "you know the length and breadth of the country, don't you. Here," he said, thrusting a small rolled-up straw mat into Jin's hand. "I'll tell you all over a drink, I'm dying of thirst."
He extinguished the lamp and threw aside the curtains, stepping out into the bustle of the public house.
"Come, come, gentlemen, or are you shy about being seen with a popular boy? Not you two, surely, the warrior and his sweet friend, heroes more admirable than any the stage can offer. Kajiya no Ryo bows to you... Shoji, a bottle for each of us, and a toast to the heroes of the real world and the heroes of the stage. Indeed, to the hero of next season's play!"
He stood in the middle of the crowded public house, still clad in his feminine finery, hand raised in a dramatic gesture, a wide smile on his face, and his eyes glittering with a wild excitement. His voice trembled slightly, and the boyish tenor shimmered like brass above the dying murmurs of the crowd.
"To the hero of next season's sensation," he repeated, his gaze darting from a surprised Bando to a blushing Jin to Benjiro, smiling admiringly at his lover.
"To the Indigo Warrior!"
The old man pushed himself up shakily from his bed, the place where he had spent so many of his recent days. He had had it moved to the workshop so that he could at least partake of what little life there was in his house these days. For all that he no longer trusted his legs to carry him, he could at least warm himself on the fire of the furnace and supervise his apprentice's slow but steady progress.
He thought he had heard someone enter through the front door, unusual behaviour for his apprentice, who had after all known the house for years and wouldn't think twice about coming in through the back. A customer was pretty much out of the question, though, as it was long dark and the fire had died down to embers. Even an emergency repair would have to wait until tomorrow, until Shinkichi had fired up the workshop again and was ready to attend to strangers' wishes.
The old man frowned, nervous. There was little worth stealing, he knew, but he also knew he would be incapable of defending any of it. Not even his own life, coming to think of it. Sighing, he sank back onto the bed, hoping his ears had deceived him.
"No," a soft voice said from near the front door. "Not Shinkichi. Watanabe-san, is this you?"
The voice sounded unfamiliar, the cultured tones of a young man of some distinction. Well, not a peasant boy anyway. He heard soft footfalls approaching, turning the corner that separated his little nook from the main hall of the workshop.
It was a young man of maybe eighteen, twenty years, he supposed. Long hair neatly tied up in a topknot, although he had neglected to shave his forehead like most men would have. Dressed in simple travelling clothes. The old man thought he detected a whiff of horse about him - he had certainly come a long way. He had never seen him around the place before.
The stranger smiled, then knelt down by the side of the old man's bed. There was no sword by his side, the old man noticed peripherally, and anyway, if he wanted to rob me, he would not call me by my name first.
"Yes," he croaked, frowning at the hoarseness in his voice. "Who are you?"
"You won't know me," the young man replied, "even if I tell you my name. Akimoto Benjiro is what I used to be called, though nowadays I mostly go by the name of Obi. But it is not I who is important here. You know a man named Hasegawa Kaemon, also known as Jin?"
Wa's face hardened, and he remained stubbornly silent. What was that boy driving at?
The boy shook his head. "Apologies. I should have said - he is the one who sent me here. Well, one of the people who sent me here. He sends his warmest greetings to his friend of old, Watanabe Kenji, and asks that you receive and listen to me, who shares his life in every way..."
"Hasegawa - Jin?" Wa pushed himself upright again, groaning at the pain in his lower back. "He lives? With you? Where on earth..."
The young man smiled. "You would not find him under that name, Watanabe-san. He runs a bathhouse off to the north of the Tokaido road, one roadhouse away from Edo. He is known and respected as Kiyonaga there, and... well, loved as well." The young man's eyes glittered, and a faint smile played about his earnest features. "Anyway," he continued, "he was of the opinion that I should under no circumstances be left to run the bathhouse on my own and besides, that my bottom was far more apt to riding long distances than his these days. Which is why I'm here."
Wa snorted. "That sounds like him all right. Well, tell him that if he wants to see me alive, he had better hurry." A rueful chuckle. "Old age has struck me down hard from one day to the next, boy. Life has little to give me any more, so it takes from me instead. So, tell me quickly, what other people sent you?"
Benjiro nodded earnestly. "I bring a message from your son."
Wa frowned. "My son? But he was here only a fortnight ago, with his maid seeing as his wife could not leave the family business alone for that long. Gave the house a good clean, as you can see - surely he wouldn't write to me so soon? Is there something wrong?"
"No, Watanabe-san. Nothing is wrong. It is your other son that I speak of. He sends this, to the house that was his home and to the smithy that formed him."
Wa shook his head. "You must be joking, young man, and a cruel joke it is too. I have no other son."
Wordlessly, the young man handed over a rolled-up straw mat bound with a thin cord, and watched as Wa unravelled the knot and smoothed the mat out on the floor.
It contained a sheet of paper, one span wide and two long, printed with the image of a dazzling young lady in the finest of clothing, holding a fan in her delicate hand, balancing silver hairpins and tortoiseshell combs in her elaborate coiffure, trailing layers of delicately embroidered silks on the imaginary floor of the painting.
Not a painting. It was a print, Wa noticed upon closer inspection, one of the prints that graced the fine houses of Edo, always depicting the latest in fashion and fame, coloured by hand by artists never too proud to elevate a pretty whore or a shameless actress to the status of a goddess with their art.
He could not decipher the signature, and it didn't matter. Such a picture had little place in his house, in the house of an old man far from Edo, and farther still from worshipping the bijin, the beauties of the season. And the boy said his son had sent this? He must be under a delusion. Such showy beauty was not something his son would have appreciated, the fake silver and paper flowers of some actress, if actress she was, now that the women had been thrown off the stages by Tokugawa-sama's decree. Who was she anyway - what did the artful scrawl in the little cloud at the top edge of the picture say?
Kajiya no Ryo, celebrated onnagata of Edo, in his seventeenth year of age, playing the Maiden Shinbei in the Third Month of the Second Year of Tokugawa Hideyasu's reign.
Kajiya no Ryo. Ryo of the Smith. Seventeen years.
He did not feel the young man's hand gently touching his shoulder as he clutched the picture to his chest, smearing the artful colours of the Maiden Shinbei's kimono with his tears. The Maiden Shinbei. She had sent him her best attempt at what he had always wanted, and known he could never have, from the moment she had left. It was only a picture, but it had come in time. Maybe this would be the last he would see of her, but he would see it for every remaining day of his life. The picture would take pride of place in his house, by his bed, for everyone to see.
She had come home.
--- The End ---