“My fellow councilors, it is time!” Sir Nobutsuna declares. “Surely this is the time for a gesture so bold! Is’t not so?”
His voice is strong, but lacks the iron quality Kasuga had even at her frailest. But with Kasuga having passed on to the next world, the strongest bastion of tradition fallen, the barons and knights beyond the council of six sit bristling.
From her cushion, Iemitsu watches and notes it without feeling. The men around her look as if the world was shattering, and in a way, she supposes it is. What has just been proposed is a desperate bid for survival. With the country’s ratio of men to women at an all time low, the cry for the right to install female heirs grows ever higher and not just among the commoners—Arikoto and Masakatsu have enough reports of nobles in desperate straits. However, these same had always been men unused to admitting defeat, unused to fear and yet, here they are: admitting to one dead son after another, the birth of disappointment and despair, choking on their own anguish.
Listening to the sorrowful litany, she thinks of her own daughter. How she loves Chiyo, how dear the child is to her despite having to endure that presumptuous fool O-Raku in her bed. The idea of a plague coming to take her baby makes Iemitsu shudder covertly, but it is the thought of her own helplessness—like a blind kitten—before that invisible red-faced demon that makes her sick to her stomach.
Even that Chiyo is female is of little comfort, for Chie had been one as well, but had endured a different sort of death. To say daughters didn’t face extinction as well is a lie.
“Sir Nobutsuna,” She takes advantage of a brief lull in the sad conversation and her voice is surprisingly even. “and all ye other gentlemen assembled here, accept my condolences for the losses you have suffered, what the mothers of these boys have suffered. However—“ She pauses briefly, thoughtfully.
“As your own liege, I stand by my word—this country will not fall to ruin so long as there is one more man or woman left standing.”
“I fear my lord will not find it necessary to keep that word for long.” Sir Katsuta mutters between clenched teeth. His peers give him shocked looks, but Iemitsu’s expression doesn’t change. In the past, a lesser form of disrespect would have been enough to send her flying into blind rage; enough to make her ache to anoint a cold steel blade with hot blood and glut herself on vengeance. But now, whether it is her own motherhood or the shreds of compassion Arikoto wraps her in most nights, she finds herself looking for signs—trembling, disappointment, and the flatness of grief in Katsuta’s eyes make it hard for her nerves to set crackling with familiar anger.
She settles for Katsuta fidgeting under the sharp sting of shame instead. “I understand your grief,” she replies softly. “But I fear you miss the point of all this: you have lost sons, yes, but you are hardly without heirs.”
“Women!” Sir Kiyonari sputters weakly, his hoarse voice laced with resignation. “Females heading warrior clans…’tis not just unseemly, ‘tis—“
“—‘tis what must be!” Nobustuna counters heatedly, at once defending his family and political foothold from his fellows’ scorn. “When we councilors are in agreement, do ye barons mean to tell me you cannot see the wisdom of adapting to our dire straits? Of bending like the river or the resilient willow to the winds of fate ‘til such time when this plague will have taken its course?”
The grumbling intensifies in reply and Iemitsu only pays it half a mind while her heated gaze sweeps the testy crowd. “As I have mentioned to one in your ranks before,” She says softly, almost to herself, but the expected silence quickly falls. “I am not discontent with my life, but as your liege, I am lately discontent to languish in this castle!”
In the back, Masakatsu inhales sharply at the hints of obstinacy in her voice and Iemitsu smiles mirthlessly when several other men flinch. “Be sure ye gentlemen do not mistake this most necessary gesture for a maid’s fancy.” She states firmly, but softly. She has long since learned about respect, which is more valuable when gained by words than voice. “From your confessions here, it is clear that there are precious few nobles with living sons. The daughters of our warrior clans will inherit from their fathers, if they have not already and they will want for an ideal. A perfect model to gaze upon.”
Iemitsu sits taller and her sharp features become lofty. “As the first and grandest of those, they will look to me. And I will command their loyalty. Surely, all ye gathered cannot argue against consolidating our support base.”
The men gathered look at her with something close to awe, but Iemitsu finds herself growing tired. That her intelligence seems to take them by surprise every time is a sign of weakness in her opinion. She, of all people, could understand the trepidation and the crushing anxiety of being uprooted. She knew all about life crumbling around a body and the screaming agony of helplessness before something greater than her. But then, had she herself not been a girl then? Had she not endured?
“Then it will happen at this year’s ceremony!” Iemitsu states over the newest murmurs of assent. But even as she snaps her fan shut, the tension builds inside her and her heart pounds loudly in her ears—like it will at the ceremony when she takes Masakatsu’s place (her rightful place) behind the screen and gaze into the eyes of hundreds as their shogun.
Tokugawa Iemitsu, of all people, has no illusions. Her inheritance is a country riddled with death and famine, peasants and warriors alike on the edge of revolt, desperation and the inhumanity that was sure to follow…
Suddenly exhausted, she leaves her councilors and goes to see instead, a man who will understand, who has a scope beyond the murky waters of politics and this sad, tired world itself.
“I have not fallen in disfavor, have I?”
Arikoto blinks once, twice, before his face melts into a winsome smile. Reaching out, he tangles his fingers into silky ink-black hair and pulls until his forehead touches Iemitsu’s own. “’Pon my troth, Your Highness thinks not much of me at all! What could have put such a thought in your heart?”
Iemitsu smiles, reveling in the touch of her lover in the semi-darkness, the slight kiss of his lashes on her skin. “Verily? But I did openly admit my fear regarding mine own ceremony. A shogun must not be afraid to show herself to her own subjects.”
“Before those selfsame subjects, yes.” Arikoto pulls her closer, whispers into the crook her neck while his hands trace the curves of her waist and hips. “But a ruler without her private fears is a greater sign of trouble, I fear.”
“So you are assuring me this plan is sound?”
“Most sound, and necessary.” Iemitsu gasps when insistent hands gently push her on to her back and Arikoto looks down at her adoringly. So many seasons, and she still feels like a maid of fifteen under his gaze, humbled and yearning. “Every day, Your Highness grows wiser and more beautiful—it is truly a good thing that you do.”
“What thing?” Iemitsu shivers at the feel of his lips on her. “Arikoto…”
Arikoto sits up and kneels beside her. “Verily, ‘twill take more than lessons for daughters to manage a warrior house, but you, my love, will give them confidence.”
“Oh…?” The tension she believed to have left outside the chamber returns. Suddenly, the Inner Chamber looks more brilliant than it is because it she knows it to be safe. Why overreach, her mind asks, when she is doing perfectly well ruling from the dark? Why invite the gaze of those who will cause her more pain? Why—
“Uncertainty and loneliness are our worst enemies in these trying times, and I was sorry to see the honorable Reverend Kasuga give in to them in her final moments.” Arikoto’s voice drops to a whisper and continues after a short silence. “’Tis why it gladdens my heart that you have made a decision to banish that darkness.”
Another moment passes and Iemitsu rises herself, body curving into a sitting position and her hair a dark waterfall across her face. “Ne’er has such a thing crossed my mind, Sir Arikoto.” She murmurs. “I am not quite as compassionate as that. ‘Twas a political matter, through and through, and I do not intend on taking pity on those who cross me because they are like me—daughters forced into armor, heart and soul.”
“Pr’aps not,” Arikoto returns as softly, fingers sifting through her hair to reveal a face more haggard in the dim light. “but Your Highness forgets I know her heart and despite everything, it is always good. I am honored and proud to stand beside you, at your every step.”
The shadows lift as Iemitsu turns to face her companion. Her arms reach, and her voice is breathless. “Verily so?”
Arikoto wraps his arms around her in a tight embrace, inhaling in the fresh scent of his lord and friend and partner. “Always.”