After the pain, after the burials, after the Shogun has left and the Lady Mika has pushed back her shoulders and taken on her father's mantle, the province is settling.
The court is rearranging itself. So many dead, and the clerks who worked for Kira are mistrusted. A lot of work goes into the running of a castle when the fighting is done, and somehow the Lady Mika wants him by her side. She has been given another year to mourn and then she is expected to marry, and until then Akou is hers to administer.
To heal, Chikara thinks.
It's a wound ripped open when he first slides aside the door to their old rooms, and next to him his mother is still, and silent. He's only seen her cry once, the night of his father's burial and then she thought he was asleep.
This needs to be cleansed of evil, of the witch and wherever her spirit may be. He still sometimes dreams of the witch. But it is where his mother should live, widow and mother of samurai. A room in a palace, not some hovel with a mud floor and the cold creeping in at night.
It doesn't smell like Father, or feel of home. It feels like a drawing of the past someone has smudged over, the five or so men who had their homestead here and their dirt and dust. But underneath he still knows where his parents used to sleep, and where Mother made their dinners, and where he used to wait for his father to come home.
His mother takes a step past him, nods her head. "This will need some tidying," she says like she's making plans. "It seems like unmarried warriors lived here, not a family." She gives him a smile. Maybe this pain is a wound bleeding clean.
He sits on the council with the Lady Mika, even though he doesn't feel like he belongs. He listens to everyone, the clerks that remained and the Shogun's adviser. Listening comes easy to him and doesn't anger anybody. Afterwards the Lady Mika often asks him to stay and asks for his thoughts. Not many people have ever done that. She's one of two.
There are always servants in view, because the Lady Mika is proper, but they can speak without being heard, and he even dares ask her the thing he doesn't understand.
"I was surprised that the Shogun did not choose a husband for you," he confesses. He doesn't say it makes him glad, because Chikara doesn't criticise the Shogun. He only serves.
"The Shogun is a wise man," Lady Mika says, though there is a tilt in her head that by now lets Chikara know she means something else than wise.
"My lady," he says.
"He knows that what Akou needs is a stable lordship," she says, arranging her embroidery neatly on the table. "And does not need questions about lineage." There's a sadness in the flicker of her smile that lets him put it together. To comment further would not be right.
He wishes, only briefly, that the Shogun had been wiser before. But then he wipes the wish away and bows his head.
"But I will need a husband in a year," she adds. "And I'd like you to help me build a province that a good man wants to run."
The Lady Mika speaks with him often, though never about the time of the ronin. Never about that.
The province is healing and Chikara serves it as best as he can.
The boy is scrappy and he struggles, possibly a reflex. He's still got the folds of cloth pressed to his chest. One of Mika's ladies-in-waiting called him when the thief was discovered, and Chikara knows him as a farmer's son because he lived in the village while his father was in chains. The boy knows who he is too.
"We don't steal here in Akou," he says, a strange shiver running through him when the boy's eyes flicker to the sword at his waist.
There is no one who is responsible yet for what to do with thieves, even small, scrappy ones with ragged clothes. His father would have known what to do but his father is dead.
He takes the boy home to his family's house. They used to be some of the richer farmers and it still shows in their wooden floors and wide ornate doors, but the girl who is in the yard when he gets there is in rags just like the boy. There's a young man too about Chikara's age, fixing a chicken enclosure. He only has one hand, and Chikara remembers Lord Kira's justice.
There's fear in their eyes when they bow to him, before the girl runs off to find the parents. The parents and older girls are in the field, working, and while they wait Chikara can feel the tension all around.
The clucking of the chickens makes the wait longer and stranger and eventually Chikara lets go of the boy, who shakes himself, defiant and scared at the same time.
The mother is all but stopping herself from running, and she sways like she wants to clutch her son to her. The father bows to him but also looks him up and down like he remembers how Chikara used to live and heard everything else that happened too.
"Your son stole a bundle of cloth from the Lady Mika," Chikara says. "I want you to bring him to court two days from tomorrow for his punishment."
The father grips his son's shoulder as if he, too, thinks the boy might run away. He stands straight and there's defiance in his stare. "We will bring him," he says. "And he will face the consequences of what he has done."
There's an undertone there that makes Chikara ill at ease, and as he retreats from the yard he feels like he might be an actor leaving a stage.
He gets those looks on his way back through the village, too. People greet him and are friendly but he also hears whispers, mentions of his father's name when someone doesn't recognise him.
It used to be that no one saw him. Too young, too weak, too protected. Now everyone sees him.
It's on his mind through the rest of the day. What exactly they see. His mother lays out the dinner at night and he takes his place as head of the family where his father used to sit, and still hears the whispers in his mind.
"What's wrong, Chikara?" his mother asks.
Chikara picks at his rice and thinks. He's never found things easy to say to most people, and this…
"I took the farmer's boy who tried to steal clothes back to his family. It was from a gift chest for the Lady Mika, I don't know if you heard."
"Oh, that was all over the court," his mother says. Her smile isn't always sad now and she looks almost amused. "The ladies would not stop talking about it."
Chikara nods. They looked it, too, like it was just the right level of excitement. No danger from a dirty scrappy boy but a break from the endless marriage speculations and the big, old story that everyone avoids.
"Do people talk about me?" he asks. He glances at his mother long enough to see her confusion.
"What do you mean?"
He looks down; puts his chopsticks down too because he is not a nervous child and doesn't want to look it. "I was there with everyone and I'm still alive," he says. "Sometimes I think I can hear people whisper about it. Like they look at me and think I escaped my punishment. That have no honour."
She takes a moment, a long moment, to answer.
"You did your duty," she says. When he looks up, her thin frame is rigid like a sword. "And you accepted the price. Now you have another duty, and you are doing it well. Your father is proud." She looks at him so hard he doesn't dare to flinch.
The Lady Mika orders the boy to come work in the castle kitchen every day for a month in penance. Then she has him taken away by one of her guards to see her seamstress for new clothes, as someone who works in the castle cannot be going around in rags.
It's a long audience. There are still food shortages all over the province from a harsh winter under an even harsher Lord, and at the end of it Mika looks exhausted and Chikara feels a strain in his back from standing still for so long. He doesn't mind, though.
"Walk with me," she says to him, and as always, Chikara follows. Behind them are the ladies-in-waiting, doing their duty of observing as they approach the inner rooms.
"You dealt with the young thief very wisely, my lady," he says, though it still feels strange to just speak without waiting for her question.
"I'm glad you think so," she says, sounding wearier than she has all day. "I cannot wait for the harvest. People stealing to eat or have clothes on their back… Akou wasn't like this before him."
"No, my lady." It's better than it was now, but many farmers are still struggling. The Shogun has sent help, and for some reason several of the Lady Mika's courtship presents have arrived in the form of rice and cattle, enough to ease the worst of it.
For a moment Lady Mika's stare burns, but then she takes a breath. She stops outside her rooms while a guard slides the door open for her, and then invites him into the outer room, where he is permitted without question, and tea and sweets are waiting for them. Her ladies settle in a corner and take up their handcrafting.
"I know you're young," Lady Mika says to him. "But I want you to lead my castle guard."
Chikara blinks at her and doesn't know how to answer. Not even politely, not even on the surface.
"Are you still surprised?" she asks.
He doesn't know if he should be, if he's allowed to. He understands the one reason: everyone more senior is dead or an outsider. He'd never have thought that was enough.
"I want you to be to me what your father was to my father," she says. It's not a command. But it is for Akou, and that's why Chikara still lives.
They are the strangest court yet. She's a woman and he is too young. Some people, maybe even his father, would have been scandalized. But it's the Akou they were left with.
"It would be my honour, my lady," he says, and thinks his father would have said that too.
It's a grey day, the paths soft and muddy. When he closes his eyes he can smell how crisp the day was. Everything was bright and clean, and he felt ready for the pain.
This is all dull and treacherous, like the way his sandals sink in and make his steps heavy. He walks past the names and he stops at the last one before he says his prayers for all of them, together. The last one with the shortest name.
He says what he can in the prayer but he misses the answer more than ever.
In the early summer, she travels to neighbouring provinces and they stay for a week with Lord Naganao, whose son sent some of the most impressive cattle in the early days and has a sparkle in his eye when the Lady Mika thanks him again and tells him it was just what she wanted.
From his court they bring back a master swordsman who teaches all the men what Chikara can't.
His father is in everything around him, the flourishing province, the rules he makes for the men and his mother holding her head high. When Chikara settles a dispute or rides out into Akou, it's almost like he's still there, and Chikara fills the hole in his heart with order and good work.
It's when he's alone in the evenings, his mother asleep and his work done, that he feels the empty space. The silence that exists in the only place where he could ever just speak, and be heard. Work himself into a sweat against a greater power and a stronger frame, learning but also teaching.
"I think Akou could do a lot worse," she says on one of their walks around the castle. The first frost has made the ground soggy and Chikara feels the chill through his winter dress. It's no weather for a lady to be outside. But Lady Mika does not like to spend whole days indoors, even saying it's too much like being a prisoner. Her ladies and guards are less fond of this, and Chikara has noticed that the ladies appear to take shifts in who has to follow them around in the winter air.
"He seems capable," Chikara agrees. "And not cruel."
The look she gives him is sly, if that is a thing he can think about a princess. It was her idea for Chikara to put spies to work at Naganao's court, chief amongst them the little farmer's boy, who's now being trained by the cook and nicely fattened up from his stay in the kitchen. All they heard from servants and warriors alike was that Naganao's son was fair and even-tempered, his main flaw a peculiar fondness for bookkeeping.
But then Lady Mika stops and faces him straight on. "What do you think?"
"It's not for me to judge, my lady."
Her face gets stern. "I am asking you, so it is."
"I know people can deceive you, or that things can be different than they seem," he says slowly. Even his father wasn't always right in his assessments. "But he seems to be a good man, and not greedy." It may be prideful but Chikara has never been betrayed by one he found trustworthy from the beginning.
"He knows I was close to one they called a demon," she says, a tightening around her eyes, and her eyes slip off him and, briefly, go distant.
The cold air turns hard in Chikara's lungs. They never mention this. But she is right, was right to ask. The rumours are out there and she always thinks of Akou first, too.
"And what did he say?"
She smiles a little. "He said if demons are so brave and honourable, he doesn't see why one should fear them."
It's a good answer. Chikara pushes the memories under, looks at it as the adviser to a princess. He's grown, and just because there is cold emptiness where a friendship used to be, it does not take away from his responsibilities.
The wedding is in late spring, and the Lady Mika looks beautiful. Her new husband has a soft smile and wears his new title as Lord of Akou with pride.
The small council is just him, the Lady Mika, Chikara and the treasurer. The witch was brought before the Lord for cursing a neighbour's goat, which has since died.
"Did the man not admit it was a very old goat?" Lord Naganao says.
"She admitted cursing it," Chikara says. The chill still runs up his neck. His fingers itch to hold his sword ready. "She carries amulets and ground bone for her witchcraft."
Lady Mika is thinking. "I don't think she's a witch… in the way of a witch," she says eventually. She was held prisoner by a witch for a year, and Chikara does not understand her calmness.
"She calls it magic," Chikara insists. "What she does."
"She is an old woman who helps birth babies," Mika says softly, and Chikara stares at her. She raises an eyebrow. "And occasionally curses old goats that would have died anyway because a man was rude to her. That is bad manners, not evil."
"I've seen real curses, too," Lord Naganao says with a glance at his wife, but mostly to Chikara. "It's not just Akou that's been visited by creatures. If she was a witch, I think we would have heard more about it by now."
"But she said it herself," Chikara replies. "She put a curse on something." The heat won't stop, this pulse under his skin, tight around every thought.
"I know witchcraft when I see it," Lady Mika says. "Let her go, Chikara."
So the witch is let go. Chikara does as ordered, towering over the witch and harnessing his fear by warning her to lay off the curses, a hand on his sword all the time. At least she looks a little scared.
It takes him a long time to calm down at night. He's never angry with the Lady Mika because it's not his place to be angry with those he serves, but if it was, if he could… He lies on his back on his futon and tries to breathe it away. Witches.
Days later, when he's had time to take in more talk from the village and talk to his kitchen farmer boy, he admits to himself that the Lady Mika was probably right, and this is village gossip and an old woman enjoying the illusion of power.
They always had village gossip about demons too.
Lord Naganao leads a party of twelve and Chikara can read the marauders' tracks, feeling wistful when he's praised for the skill. Those tracks are easy.
They follow the band to their camp, silent through the frosted underbrush. Chikara has trained his men well. None of the marauders notice before Chikara's men have them surrounded.
There's a fire from the kettle in the middle, an eerie light over the calm. Lord Naganao offers them surrender and a trial, and for a moment it's a possibility. Then one of them lurches, throws an axe towards their Lord, and the samurai move in.
Chikara's heart is pounding but his hands are sure and his sword a part of him. A bunch of robbers are no match for their training and discipline. Chikara kills the last of them with a clean arrow from his bow.
They take three wounded as prisoners, and free two women who had been taken from farms.
It's riding back that Chikara notices his knees are shaking against the saddle. Lord Naganao rides beside him, a smudge of blood on his face and a grim expression that Chikara hasn't seen on him before. He fought well, even though they still protected him.
"I've fought before," he says only to Chikara. The Lady Mika is not the only one to tell him confidences now. "But I don't like it very much."
"I think it's happier provinces where the Lords don't like fighting very much," Chikara replies.
"A new princess for a new time," Lady Mika says. She's not a young mother and the strain shows on her face the next day still. But maybe that's what it is.
"We had one when I was a boy," Lord Naganao said in council, with his grim, fighting face. "Sometimes, something comes and turns them bad. Then you have to find it and kill it."
They track it by dead trees and the horrible cold and surround the clearing with torches. The water spirit is an ugly lump with yellow eyes, and it has no purpose or wants, just likes to destroy. That frightens Chikara more than the magic and the deadness around them. There's a hiss in the air about magic and spirits, demons.
Chikara looks at Lord Naganao, waits for the nod and draws his sword. The creature twists and hisses, aware of the threat. A clean cut, his Lord said. Chikara slays it, though green blood burns where it hits his skin. He groans as he falls to his knees.
"Quick, water," Lord Naganao calls out, "clean water, from home." He insisted on bringing it, and it washes off the worst. But spots on Chikara's hands and arms are a sore red and black, a rough pain that keeps burning all the way back.
He can't sleep that night, the magic unsettling him and the pain flaring up with no cause or reason. He knows his men are still gathered somewhere, maybe drinking. It's not every day you ride out to kill a water spirit. But now Chikara is their leader, and he can't join them or disturb their camaraderie just because he's in pain.
He was always on the outside, even then. But now he's always alone.
Lord Naganao finds him a week later when it's too hot for training and Chikara has let his men off with polishing their swords and the practice room in the morning. Now everything is quiet in stifling heat.
Chikara moves to sit up from his seat in the shade, but Lord Naganao waves him off and waves his entourage away.
"Chikara, I've come to ask a favour," Lord Naganao says. "And I don't expect it to stay a secret forever, but I wanted to come to you and not have it be in front of everybody."
"Whatever you need, my lord," Chikara says.
Lord Naganao nods, and sighs. "Would you teach me?" he asks. "I know I don't have to be the best fighter out of all of you, but I would like to be maybe not the worst."
Chikara likes the smile with which he says that. Lady Mika chose well. "You're not the worst out of all of us."
Lord Naganao tilts his head. "Are you perhaps generously counting the pages and the water carriers?"
He almost laughs. It's a strange feeling, and not just because this is his Lord. His throat finds the sound odd. "I don't think I was counting the water carriers," he says humbly.
Lord Naganao is better at laughing.
"It would be my honour to assist you, my lord," Chikara says next. And again, he's telling the truth.
Chikara comes to the end of the row and instead of a stone, there is a hole in the ground and instead of a prayer there is a gaping wild blackness, spreading from somewhere inside of him.
Someone tore up Kai's grave. A mess of scorn and dishonour, like a wild boar upturning the ground, like a grave robber, like the worst of the people who beat him and called him names and threw rocks.
It's deep enough that he'll be gone. The bones will be gone. Chikara casts a frenzied look around, who knows what they did, how they would tear Kai apart even in death but there's nothing there. Whoever did this took him…
He feels sick, and only his standing at court holds him together and makes him swallow the bile and see anything but that helpless anger.
He rages at his men and lets them know that they will find whoever did this, who saw fit to do this to a samurai who died with honour.
Then he's strangely numb as he tells the Lady Mika, shares her look of quiet horror. Even Lord Naganao looks like he knows what a sacrilege this is.
Chikara will do something about this. He'll make this better.
He retreats to his room, does not speak to his mother. It's in the dark that it all wells up, a fright he can't control and everything he misses, every time he could talk to Kai or laugh with him or learn from him. His face is wet and he shakes himself, he is Commander to Lord Naganao's samurai and his father's heir and this is not his duty. This is just pain.
That's the rumour that gets through to Chikara after he's made it clear he's interested, very interested, in what happened at the graves. Demon's bones and their uses.
"I heard from somebody who heard from someone that someone said, with the ghosts and that water spirit and all," Asahiro the kitchen boy says, "that some people think they work against evil. The bones, I mean." He takes a step back and eyes Chikara warily, and Chikara realises he has not kept his face calm.
He breathes deeply and reminds himself to focus his anger, and the boy is not where it belongs. "Did you hear who did it?"
Asahiro's brow furrows. He's not usually frightened of Chikara and already recovering. "No? Or I'd tell you."
"Keep listening," Chikara says.
"One of the graves of the forty-seven has been desecrated," he says loudly. Nobody is touching their drinks or dice. "The remains have been stolen. Anyone who knows about what happened to them or who did this, you are to report it to me."
"Forty-six, more like," someone mutters. Chikara's hand flies to his sword and everyone draws up, even his men holding their breaths.
Chikara stares down the patrons in turn. Not one of them answers, though not one of them looks like they would make some jest about forty-six now either.
"Anyone who has information on what happened and does not come forward is defying the orders of Lord Naganao, and will answer to me." Just for a moment it sounds like someone else's voice, someone older, but the words come easy and are exactly the truth.
"Did you do it," he asks, "did you steal him for some curse or magic trick?"
"Steal who?" she asks. She puts down a bucket she is carrying with the slow movements of the aged, and flinches when he steps closer.
"I mean it, witch," he says. "You heard what happened. Was it you?"
"I heard about the grave," she says. "But after it happened. I don't know anything about who did it." She's leaning into the doorway and trying to look smaller, get away from him. More like an old woman than a witch.
"You hear anything, you come to me, you understand?" he says. "And anyone offer you demon bones, don't you dare touch them."
Chikara does his duties, but when he rides out with the men, he often stays behind, stops at the farms further out and asks about travellers and demon bones. He learns to keep his face calm but his horse is often wet and exhausted when they arrive back at the castle, and still he is not rid of the heat that burns him up whenever he thinks of Kai's bones ground up for some trickery or thrown away out of spite.
"What else can I do?" he says, the first time he talks to the silence. But it stays as quiet as always.
He's on the fringes of Akou and the man is a blacksmith who doesn't like talking to strangers and didn't think he owed Chikara an answer.
The tip of his sword is holding steady, not even a tremor. His father would be proud, he thinks. Of this at least. The rest is Chikara's business.
Chikara sees the blacksmith take a breath and change his mind. "They passed through four weeks ago," he says very fast. "Heading north but I don't know where they went, I swear!"
The witch brought him this, something she heard when she was called out to a difficult birth. There was an odd look in her eyes when she told him, something like pity. Chikara was grateful anyway.
"What else do you know?"
"Nothing! Not much! I shod one of their horses and they worried the horse was lame, that it was some curse because of a demon they had disturbed." The man's shoulders are shaking. Chikara doesn't move a muscle. "I saw nothing, I swear. I didn't even know if they meant it."
He asks again, just to be sure, before he puts his sword away. It settles in as the blade rests.
It might not even be real. Just a story. People tell stories about demons all the time. In his mind he's haggling with his father over how long he's served and how well he's done, and what that means now. At some point he calls his father a rebel. At another he remembers his father letting him sign the oath. Letting him choose what was right.
In the morning he goes to the Lady Mika, who is with her two children. Her eyes on him are troubled, but she nods, ready for the news.
"I heard of a group of travellers who spoke about disturbing a demon," he says. Hearing it back, it sounds thin, worse than village gossip. "They travelled north. I want to find them and hear what they know."
Lady Mika's frame seems to shrink. "Chikara…" They still share a pain, and he is sorry to have stirred it.
"This is the first real thing I've heard in months," he says. "I need to bring him back."
The little princess can walk now, if unsteadily, and she gives Chikara a grin. Then she looks disturbed when he doesn't smile back. Mika pulls her in and strokes her hair absent-mindedly. "I want to see his honour restored, too," she says. "But are you sure it's worth this risk? On a rumour? It's getting on winter, would it be worth your life?"
Kai wanted to die and be buried as a samurai, together with them all. Maybe she's not sure anymore, but Chikara is.
"Please let me go, my lady," he says. "I will come back, and I'll do my duty. But please let me go."
He takes it fast for the path out of Akou, though takes care not to tire out his horse. He knows bones will stay dead and the silence is back with him, but his heart is beating quickly and he hardly feels the cold.
He's ten days out of Akou and the first sleet has mixed with the rain when he stops at a farm to ask for shelter, and their fear of strangers is a clue, turns out to stem from men who threatened them with a demon spirit as they demanded food and lodging.
Chikara does not demand anything, but after the first bout of suspicion, the farmer decides to take him for an honourable samurai, probably helped by Lady Mika's coin, and he warms up in their house and shares their dinner. He gets a description of the men, six traders travelling with three wagons and some cattle.
The farmer's daughter keeps catching his eye from the corner, but all Chikara asks for is a place to sleep. He's already gotten what he needs here.
And the traders are easier to track than rumours. Like tracking a wild boar when before you were on a rabbit's trail. Kai would smile at that.
Chikara finds them just outside a village where they last stopped, their wagons trundling along the dirt road. They don't like being interrupted. Chikara imposes anyway.
He kills none, as he's in someone else's province, but two of them are on the ground and he's got the leader pinned to a wagon wheel with his sword when they are ready to hear his questions.
"I heard you disturbed a demon and took his remains," he says. "In Akou."
The man flinches, too scared to conceal the truth in his eyes. Chikara breathes slowly. A calm colder than snow sinks into him.
"I want them back. Where are they?"
The man's blinking fast. "It's not here, we… we sold it on weeks ago."
"You sold the bones?"
"Bones? What bones? We sold the beast, it was--- we---" The man's chest is heaving and something is flickering in front of Chikara's eyes, little bright dots.
Beast. The demon beast.
For a wild heartbeat Chikara doesn't know what he's doing, how to stand and hold a sword, what to do. The demon beast.
Chikara puts his sword through the man's shoulder and then waits for the man's scream to thin out. "Who has him?"
He's been going in the wrong direction but now his target is easy to ask for, track down. A troupe of travelling entertainers. Dancers and whores and bears that perform shows. And a demon beast.
He finds their camp near a village on the coast. The wind is biting into his face and it's so cold his eyes feel frozen.
Patience. He becomes his own commander and does the wise thing, instead of giving in to impulse and anger. So he hides his horse and circles the camp, counts the men he can see, the shadows outlined in the tents. It's cold and only some are around the fire. He counts five people there, and three more tents that are illuminated.
There are dark outlines where the wagons with the wild beasts are. Chikara inches closer and tries to calm his pulse because it is too loud and distracting. Dark, sleepy creatures. One cage of monkeys, who are not happy with the cold.
One of them is a man. A sunken figure in chains but no bear and no beast moves like that. And Chikara would never take him for a demon.
He marches towards the fireplace and the monkeys give a scream, or maybe it's a woman, everything rising and loud at once. The first man who tries to fight, he kills in a stroke. The second evades him once, but not a second time. Two women stumble out of a tent and then run, and Chikara lets them. He's outnumbered but it's like they don't know that and he doesn't know it and he stays wise and smart and doesn't let up until there's no one at the site but him, four dead bodies around the fire and the shrill shouts of frightened animals.
Only then does he turn for the cages. Only now…
Chikara doesn't feel the cold. He doesn't feel much at all. He doesn't even know how he moves.
The figure has stirred. There's a clinking of chains in the cage, the light of the fire disappearing in dark, wild hair, but reflecting from the eyes and one dirty hand, wrapped around a wooden bar.
"Chikara?" Kai says. His voice is hoarse, muffled under hair and filth. But it's him. It's his voice coming from the darkness.
"Yes," Chikara says and then his own words are gone. Kai's alive. Not bones, not memories. It's years of training that lets Chikara not drop his sword, but he steps in without breathing. Slowly, with his left that's not cramped and full of blood, he covers the hand around the bars. He's real. "I've come to take you home."