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Duty

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There had been a girl at an inn. Saburou, not quite fifteen and moderately drunk, couldn't recall how he'd fallen to talking to her--or if he had talked to her. He awakened in the midst of kissing her, awakened in the rising heat to the realization that he didn't know who she was, the owner of the soft neck, salty on his lips. She might have been a lower-end prostitute or a fisherman's daughter or a bored wife. He had no idea what her name was and doubted he'd recognize her face in broad daylight.

It dawned on him that if he made her pregnant, he would never know his child. Terrified by the thought, he fled, overturning a jar of sake in his haste. People laughed. He thought he felt humiliated, but in retrospect, he hadn't known the first thing about humiliation.

He decided he'd wait until he met a girl he'd like for a concubine--or maybe until he got married. It couldn't be long before Great Uncle would match him up with someone, someone he could get to know and have a life with.

Then that thing happened.

Very soon, he realized it had destroyed his manhood. Though he might look whole, inside he was lacerated. Poisoned. Whenever he thought of taking a woman, he was overcome with nausea. When he imagined pressing a woman beneath him the way those men had-- No, he couldn't stomach it.

But then, Great Uncle announced he'd decided to match Saburou with his daughter. If he hadn't been defective, Saburou would have been pleased. He'd played with her as a small child, before he'd gone away, and since he'd returned from the Takeda, he hadn't failed to note how the curve of her kimono accented her throat and her broad, round hips. But all of that just made it more difficult really--because he did want her and couldn't help but detest himself for wanting to do that to her--and detest himself for detesting himself, because, of course, that was what he was supposed to do.

On their wedding night, they tried for at least an hour. No matter what he did, he couldn't get it more than half hard, and he couldn't get it inside her at all. Eventually, she started to sob.

He kissed her. "Please don't cry. It will be all right. We'll just--we're just frightened children tonight. We should just go to sleep. We can do it tomorrow night; no one will know."

She sniffed and wiped at her face. "But if they don't see blood tomorrow, they'll think--they'll either think we didn't fulfill our duty or--or that I've been a whore."

He'd been a fool not to think of that. He considered. "I'll cut myself, somewhere no one will see. Blood is blood; it will be good enough."

"You would do that, Saburou-sama?" Her eyes were big in the moonlight. She sniffed again, a little more composed. "You are far kinder than I deserve but... what about tomorrow night, when there's more blood, or if you bleed too much or too little or...?" She took a breath. "I think--what I mean is--I respectfully offer to--to do it myself."

He pressed a hand to her cheek. "I can't let you cut yourself to conceal my failure."

"What I meant was I think I can do it for myself--with my fingers."

That left him speechless. He kept searching for words to tell her she didn't need to; it wasn't proper. He couldn't find them.

She moved a little away from him. "Respectfully, would Saburou-sama be willing not to look?"

Numbly, he got up and sat with his back to her on the cold floor, his arms drawn up around him knees, fighting the tears that escaped down his cheeks. He tried not to listen to the sound blankets shifting and the raggedness of her breaths.

When he came back to bed, her fingers were bloody and though they licked them and wiped them as carefully as they could, red fingerprints still dotted the bed the next day.

They didn't do it the next night either; he thought she seemed sore and hesitant. The third night, they accomplished it. She lay still and pliant underneath him and didn't look at him or speak to him afterward (nor did he to her). The whole thing left him disgusted with himself: for doing it, for doing it badly, for enjoying it, for not being able to enjoy it like normal people did.

In other respects, they got along well. They were always solicitous to each other in public and in private. People seemed to think they were a happy couple. Even Ujimasa once called them "charming," although he said it in the same tone of voice he used that time his youngest daughter had found a bedraggled baby rabbit in a puddle and brought it (and half the puddle) into the house: "That's... charming." (In fact, being married gave Saburou a new regard for the much-remarked intimacy between Ujimasa and his wife. It made him so sorry for his brother's loss that he wanted to say, "I would return to the Takeda without hesitation if O-Yakata-sama would exchange your wife for me." But he never did say it.)

Then, only several months into the marriage, Father announced that Saburou was to be sent to the Uesugi as a hostage. That night, his wife cried, and he couldn't tell if her tears were genuine, but he held her and cried a little himself.

"You'll get a better husband," he told her.

She clung to him. "How could anyone be a better husband than Saburou-sama?" (Of course, he reflected, she had to say that.)

The evening before he left, he said to Ujiteru, "Brother, please look after her for me. And if she should find she's pregnant, please look after my child as well."

Ujiteru embraced him and swore he would do so.

And Saburou had lied to him. It had been nearly a month since he'd slept with his wife, and he was virtually certain she couldn't be pregnant, but he said it all the same because he was too ashamed to admit he was not a real man.