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Tahomaru to Hyakkimaru

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Tahomaru knew about prophetic dreams. A wandering priest had once stopped by his father's mansion when Tahomaru was returning from a hunting trip. The war outside the Daigo land had made it a lot harder for people to travel around and locals knew not to disturb the lord, so Tahomaru had been curious about this fellow. The priest had ended up telling him many tales about Buddha and epic stories of people touched by divine intervention.

Sadly he never saw the priest again.

But back to the moment, the sensation of solidness yet of fluidity seemed pretty much in line of what he had been told. Tahomaru placed a hand over his chest, oddly feeling the softness of his sleeping garments. He lowered his hand and surveyed his surroundings.

He was standing in one of the mansion’s rooms.

In the only room he had never wanted to step a foot in. The room where his mother was always seen close by or inside, praying. The room which haunted his worst nightmares.

The headless Buddha stood in its usual shrine, almost as if laughing at Tahomaru’s unease.

The boy bit his lip and made to get out of the room, not wanting to deal with the headless curse again, only to freeze when he detected a new presence in the room.

Looking at it, it seemed like blob with a vaguely humanoid shape, shifting and pulsing. Muddled white and blood red mingled and separated in ever swirling spirals, ever changing except for a green dot in the middle. It had no defining features nor the impression of eyes, and yet it gave the feeling of staring intently at the headless buddha.

Tahomaru’s brows furrowed, an odd sensation of longing bubbling in his chest. His feet dragged across the floor as he approached the flickering presence, hand reaching for it.

The blob shifted, the intense staring fixating on Tahomaru. The boy halted in his approach, hand still extended out.

A moment passed and then a tendril formed from the blob and reached for Tahomaru, matching longing radiating from the shifting mass. The teen didn’t move, letting his fingers touch the presence. It felt like touching smoke and electricity.

Suddenly, the tendril bulged and crunched as it formed into fingers leading to a palm and then an arm and Tahomaru’s eyes widened as they traveled up and met with dead eyes.

Tahomaru stumbled back, wooden fingers slipping out of his hold. He startled and looked down, realizing he had touched doll like arms. He snapped his head up to the dead eyes and his breath hitched.

Not dead, fake.

Doll eyes stared back, calm, emotionless. A mask covered the presence’s face, black hair framing the unblemished wood.

A living doll?

What was a doll doing in his dreams? He had never seen anything like it before.

After a moment of regaining his calm, Tahomaru managed to look properly at the doll and noticed how… perfect it seemed.

Who created it? He stepped forward again, the longing overtaken by curiosity. The living doll regarded him for a long time, fake eyes staring deep into Tahomaru.

The boy shivered at the intensity, yet only smiled. “Good evening, Mister Doll. May I ask what you need from such a dreadful room?”

The doll didn't answer, never giving even an inclination of hearing him. Could the doll be deaf as well? No one in the Daigo clan ignored him if they knew better… maybe except for his parents... still! No one in Daigo’s clan ignored Tahomaru! Even Hyugo and Mutsu knew better than ignore him!

But perhaps the dreamscape gave the doll a bit more courage...

Nevertheless, the doll didn’t reply as it turned back to the headless Buddha and began moving towards it. Tahomaru didn’t like the doll’s seeming obsession with the cursed sculpture - almost like his mother’s obsession with it - and stepped in front of the doll’s advance.

The doll didn’t stop, immediately going around Tahomaru. The teen gritted his teeth and turned around, sending a leg out to trip the doll.

Only the doll wasn’t there anymore. It had jumped to avoid the attack and Tahomaru was tackled to the ground. The teen yelped and struggled, trying to push away the foot sitting slightly on his throat in a veiled threat. He gulped and tapped at the wood pleadingly, his shallow breathing loud in the silent dreamscape.

He didn’t want to die.

Then he was freed. Tahomaru immediately scooted back, a protective hand over his throat as he glared at the doll, which only stared back. “What was that for, you jerk? I just tried to stop you from doing something stupid!”

The doll didn’t comment, hovering a bit closer and extending a hand to the fallen teen. Tahomaru narrowed his eyes but relented and gripped the wooden hand, the touch soothing as he was pulled to his feet.

But Tahomaru didn’t have time to interrogate the doll on what was going on since the door slammed open, startling the already tense teen.

Tahomaru felt the doll tense next to him and looked back with a bated breath, waiting for something terrible to happen.

Only for his breath to leave him in a relieved exhale. He smiled happily and rushed to the entrance, spreading open his arms. “Father! I’m so glad to see you!”

His father stood at the door, looking a decade older, face darkened by the harsh light behind him. Tahomaru’s steps slowed and dread gripped his heart.

Confused at the strange reaction he was having towards his father, Tahomaru forced a smile. “Do you need something, father?”

His father stepped inside and suddenly Tahomaru noticed something odd; the criss-cross scar on his father’s forehead was glowing.

A hand grabbed the back of his hakama and pulled him back, far from his father. Tahomaru flailed and tried to wrench his clothing free. “What are you doing, Mister doll? Let me go! It’s only my father!”

Only the doll wasn’t listening to Tahomaru’s demands, and his father wasn’t moving from the entrance. Slowly, the teen ceased his struggling and stared at his father properly, unable to look anywhere else.

...

Was that a red hue to his eyes?

“Fa...ther?”

His father stepped into the room, a burst of air following him. The room rattled ominously. Subconsciously, Tahomaru inched closer to the doll and grabbed the cloak the doll was wearing.

What was going on? Why was he suddenly so afraid of his father?

Who was it?

Huh?

Who ruined my future? ” The voice rattled Tahomaru’s bones. The boy’s eyes widened as the glowing scar came closer, seeming to grow and take over the darkened face. His father stepped closer, looming over Tahomaru. “ Who did it? Who killed the demon?

A demon? Why was his father raving about a demon being killed? Weren’t demons just legends? Was his father delirious? Was he sick?

Tahomaru bowed slightly, not wanting to set his father off. “Father, I think that you are having a bad dream now. You should head back to bed. I’ll call one of the servants to fetch you water.”

It seemed to have been the wrong answer since his father roared. Tahomaru reeled back, shocked at the sight of his father raising his hand and a bamboo riding crop appearing, ready to strike down.

Tahomaru covered his face and braced himself for the pain.

But then he felt something shift and fabric brushed past him, a loud thump echoing in the barren room.

Tahomaru lowered his arms and gaped in disbelief at the doll standing before him, head flung to the side by the force of the riding crop’s attack.

A mask clattered to the ground, a few drops of blood following it. Tahomaru gasped in horror, frozen to his spot while the doll’s head returned to face his father, its face hidden from Tahomaru.

His father took a step back, riding crop falling from his slackened grip. “ You… you’re alive… how? The demons agreed to the deal! How are you alive?!

The doll didn’t answer, stiffly turning to pick up the mask, more blood dripping to the tatami. Tahomaru was by the doll’s side instantly, picking the mask to return it to the doll, subconsciously making eye-contact.

A skinless face with eyeballs etched in and a wooden nose remaining attached to the muscles faced him, a wooden hand blindly reaching for him.

Tahomaru screamed, throwing the mask at the doll and scurried backwards. “What the hell are you?!?!”

The doll, as expected, didn’t react to the noise. Simply catching the mask and jamming it onto its face. Blood framed the edges of the mask, but otherwise the doll was back to normal.

But Tahomaru could not get the image out of his head. Was the doll actually a human being? Why was it then covered in wood? What happened to the skin? People died from flaying, not become dolls! Was he supposed to continue call him a doll? A person? A no-name? Faceless?

How dare you? ” His father’s voice bellowed, shattering the momentary unease. Tahomaru scrambled to his feet.

“Father! What are you doing, striking down a cripple?”

Shut up! ” Daigo Kagemitsu yelled, grabbing the sheath of his sword and swinging at Tahomaru. “ You’re the one who brought this abomination here!

The sheath striked down, digging into a cloaked arm. Fake eyes tore into Tahomaru’s, as if asking for something.

Tahomaru bit his lip, wanting to stop his father but terrified of the consequences of disobeying.

Faceless moved to stand with its back towards his father, protecting Tahomaru from the man’s rage.

And then the katana sheath cracked down again, the shouting and cursing ripping into Tahomaru’s soul while the whipping tore into Faceless’ back

“Please, Mister Faceless, don’t let him hurt you,” Tahomaru begged, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. “I must have done something really wrong to anger him. He had never hurt me before. Please, don’t let yourself be hurt for my sake.”

But Faceless remained in place, unflinching. Crack after a crack and Faceless didn’t move, didn’t flinch, didn’t look away.

Could it even feel pain?

His father’s shouting grew more desperate and beast-like at each crack, the man looking less and less human, more and more monstrous. His eyes and scar glowed red and his teeth bulged out, face contorting into a nightmare inducing snarl.

Tahomaru shook uncontrollably as he watched the transformation, hands trying to block the sight and yet somehow burning the image into the back of his eyelids.

“Stop this, father! Stop this! Please!” Tahomaru cried out.

I should have killed you myself! ” His father roared, the sheath flying to reveal the blade as it flew down towards the unprotected back.

Tahomaru cried out, reaching to stop the attack in vain.

CLANK

A wooden arm flew past him and hit the wall.

Two swords were locked together, faceless pushing and flinging the Daigo’s katana away. The katana’s blade burying into the tatami.

Tahomaru, once again unable to help or save faceless, could only see the doll like presence stand over his father like an avenging angel, a sword in place of an arm raised high up.

The blade glimmered.

“Don’t kill him!” Tahomaru rushed forward to stop the carnage—

Only to gasp as he rolled off the futon and hit the back of his head at the wall.

 


 

 

A room by the green hue. Too small. Didn’t like being closed in without Big Soul.

Golden object. How strange. Never saw one before other than small gold objects Big Soul possesses. Drawn to it. Strange aura. Familiar.

A white soul appeared from nowhere. How? Missed them? How? They seem to be approaching him with a hopeful flare up, reaching out to him. Not Big Soul, too small. Too… white.

Soul muddled. Not good. Need comfort. Yearning for the small soul.

Can’t move properly, why? Where’s green limbs? Wait, can move something. It’s… colored his colors and it’s misshapen.

Strange limb then. Can reach white soul. It’s okay. Big Soul taught what to do.

Touching edge of small soul. Feeling world shift. Something turned green, back to green limbs. Back to normal. Relief.

Small soul stumbling back. Wary? Shocked? What’s wrong? Reaching out to relieve backfired? Retract green limb?

Quickly fear fades and curiosity and yearning flaring up in the small soul. Confusing, overwhelming. Calming. It moved, limbs gesturing but appearing to doing something strange. Wait, look like when Big Soul communicates.

Can’t understand. Maybe golden object can help communicate. Maybe important.

Moving towards golden object, small soul flare in anger and appears before him. Can’t communicate. wait a moment, impatient Small soul.

Small soul sends a limb out. Attacking? That impatient? He jumped above the attack and twisted in air, pushing impatient small soul to the floor and keeping the soul there. Calm down, small soul, can’t understand you.

Stop struggling, why so terrified?

Oh, neck. Important part. Big Soul tapped so.

Release small soul and reaching to help it get up. Apologetic for mistake. Small soul wary but complying. Soothing again as it held green limb. Help get up, good.

Now back to golden object—

New soul.

White but filled with so much red.

Danger.

Danger!

Need to protect small soul. Familiar new soul. Want to stop it from attacking but familiar. Why? So confusing. Big Soul, help. Big Soul!

Small soul suddenly leaving his side, running to the dangerous soul happily. Why? Why familiar? Danger!

Small soul stopped finally, scared. The red in the familiar soul grew. Must get small soul away!

Yank clothing back. Get small soul to safety. Small soul unhappy, fighting his hold. Impatient small soul only gets hurt if move towards dangerous soul.

Stopped fighting. Finally. Good.

Dangerous soul comes closer. Bad. Bad. Bad. bad.

Small soul drawing closer to him, holding his clothing. Good. Stay close. Stay safe. Can’t decide if demon or human, but it’s only hovering so can’t attack yet.

Dangerous soul drawing closer and small soul growing more distressed. What can do to stop this? Need help. Big Soul!

Red white soul raising a limb, something held. It’s striking down towards the bowing small soul - when did it bow down? - must stop it!

Step before small soul. Something forcing head to the side. Droplets of white gold fly out along with green mask.

Oh.

He got hit.

Big Soul worried over hits.

Turn to red white soul. Shocked. Surprised? It didn’t want to hurt? Maybe red possessing? No, anger. Meant it.

He needs to get mask back. Big Soul made it for him. Turn towards the green mask, more white gold dripping. Not good. Small soul bringing him the mask. Good.

Small soul spikes in distress and throws mask at him. Not good.

Did he do something?

Oh well. Mask first, bad soul afterwards. Small soul needed out of here.

Place mask on, soothing.

Small soul rising up and dangerous soul attacking. Not good.

Why fixated on small soul? Small soul have something bad soul wants? Body? Soul?

Bad soul holding a red gold stick. Stop with arm. Must protect small soul. Can’t be hurt so must take the attacks until knowing if can attack back or not.

Turning to small soul, wanting to beg it to run away but can’t. No one other than Big Soul can communicate with. Not good.

Turning fully to face small, must protect. Yearn for.

Body shifting when stick hitting. Blunt hollow hits. Not stick? Small clutching his arms, distressed. Must get him out.

Fight bad soul? Need to get source of red away. Maybe not stick?

Sword. Sword in hand. Must stop it and get it away from bad soul. Off green limb, defend with sword limb. Throw bad sword away.

Got it away! Good! Now bad soul good again—

No! Not good! Still dangerous! Must not be white soul then! Fake! Must stop before small gets attacked!

Strike down

Only to fall face first onto a patch of swaying green blades.

Chapter Text

Having a midwife as a mother in law was a strange concept, Harume thought to herself as she rushed after the elderly woman towards the lady’s quarters. As a woman born to a samurai family, Harume was expected to be married into an aristocratic family and give birth to sons for the blood-line continuation.

But instead, she had managed to convince her parents to let her marry a midwife’s son, a low ranking samurai; but he was rising in the ranks thanks to his abilities and charisma.

Toshi was a kind man she had loved since she was young and she was never gladder that her father had agreed to the marriage.  

And yet, the only reason they could still afford their house was because of Lady Daigo’s kindness. The lady had heard of Harume’s marriage and had reached out to congratulate Harume and also ask for her help since her own nursemaid and constant companion had passed away, so a position opened for a higher ranking servant and the lady trusted Harume’s family and reputation.

And for that, Harume would always be thankful Lady Daigo.

At times it still felt strange being connected to a midwife, but right now it only made her work perfectly in tandem with her mother-in-law as they prepared the hot water and the cloth, helping Lady Daigo crouch down and get in a proper position. The water should cool to a comfortable temperature by the time the baby was born.

Her mother-in-law smiled warmly at Harume and gave a short prayer to the buddha statue at the end of the room. Harume copied her and then held the lady’s hand, the midwife’s assistant coming in and taking a hold of the other hand while supporting her back.

The hours of the labor passed slowly and soon Harume’s hands numbed, but she didn’t release her hold until the midwife switched her for short period of time so Harume could switch the waters and keep watch of the progression of the labor while the lady was helped into a lying position to let her rest.

Lady Daigo was in terrible pain, and Harume knew first hand how painful labor could be. Her beautiful children were her precious prize for bearing that pain though, so she knew that the lady would not regret going through the pain.

Then, at last, the lady released her final scream and the midwife smiled as the baby’s cries rose in volume in the room. Harume and the midwife’s assistant shared relieved smiles, calming the lady down and cleaning her privates so she could finally lie down comfortably while the midwife cleaned and prepared the baby.

When the lady was decent again, Harume was told to call Lord Daigo to meet his newborn and she was just out of the door when lightning struck the room.

Everything seemed to twist and explode into white, as if the world tilted out of focus and shattered. Harume covered her head, begging for Buddha to at least save her lady and the innocent newborn from whatever hellish force unleashed the horrible lightning.

Finally the light faded and Harume was able to raise her head, eyes widening at the sight from the midwife’s arms. Where the newborn, previously sporting a scrunched up face and a plume of black hair, now lacked any humane features.

The newborn was nothing but a bleeding skull.

The moment the midwife’s assistant saw the newborn, she screamed and ran out of the door, past the trembling Harume. The midwife could only scream as well as she pushed the bundle into the lady’s arms and scooted back as far as she could. Harume could only quiver in horror in her place, glued to the wooden frame.

Then Lord Daigo rushed in, stopping when he saw his wife with the newborn in her arms. He looked around and then back at his wife. “What is it?”

Harume wanted to scream in horror. It’s a demon baby, a cursed baby! That’s what it is! A normal baby cursed to be a demon! But in fear of saying anything to the lord, she remained silent as he approached his wife and kneeled to accept the bundle.

The midwife immediately tried to stop the lord from witnessing the horrible of his mangled child, but he brushed her aside and continued uncovering the cloth, his back to Harume. She could not see his probably horrified expression.

The midwife tried to explain what happened fearfully, how the baby was born without many parts and yet still lives. Harume winced at the lie, the baby was cursed! Not born like that!

She could imagine the rage in the lord’s eyes should he learn of such a lie.

And yet.

And yet, the lord…

Began to laugh.

He… laughed?

How could he laugh at the baby’s misfortune?

The lord turned to his wife in glee, talking about dreams being fulfilled; about demons agreeing to the deal. How she did well giving birth to this curse.

Harume felt herself grow more and more horrified for an entirely different reason than before.

The curse? It was the lord?! The lord cursed his own son?! For his own dreams? She always knew that samurai lords would do anything for their own ambitions. Her mother always warned her to be wary of samurai lords’ plans and blood lust.

But… to curse his own child?

She held her hands to her heart while the lord held up the deformed baby and celebrated, not daring to make a sound lest he remember she was a witness to this.

Then the midwife took the bundle and rushed towards the exit at his orders. Harume was startled when her mother-in-law stopped by her and stared into her eyes. “Harume, Buddha saved this child. Look at the statue.”

It was headless. Harume turned to ask what did that mean, but her mother in law was already speeding away with the cursed baby.

Why did her mother-in-law tell her that? What was she planning? Was she… saving the child or relieving him of his pain?

Lady Daigo was crying out for her baby, making Harume snap out of her fears to take care of her mistress. She pushed aside the thoughts of the soon to be dead baby, her lady needed her more, so she rushed to her lady’s side, begging her to lie down. She couldn’t let her mistress down, even when the lord was there.

But then Lady Daigo attempted to persuade her husband; he demanded her to stop it and stood up, his sleeve being ripped away by the lady’s death grip on it. Harume could only watch in terror and despair as the lord dismissed his wife’s protests and reminded her that she would have to bear another child.

A child who would be an heir for a great ruler.

What had the lord done?

Lord Daigo then walked over to the shrine and picked up the buddha statue that was blown away when the lightning struck. The one that had sacrificed itself, as Harume explained when the lord demanded an answer.

The lady’s wails went ignored.

 


 

 

A few hours later, Harume was dismissed and she rushed out to find her mother-in-law to know what became of the unnamed baby.

And yet… she couldn’t find her.

Her mother-in-law, the midwife, disappeared into thin air.

Terrified, Harume thinned her lips and rushed to where she knew her mother-in-law would go to get rid of the baby like she had done multiple times in the past.

But she wasn’t there.

Harume stood by the foggy riverbank and frantically looked around for any clues to her mother in law’s whereabouts. But the riverbank was silent and peaceful. A faint sound of creaking was heard and Harume’s head snapped towards the sound but could see nothing beyond the fog.

Nothing. Her mother-in-law and the baby vanished from the face of earth.

Did the unnamed baby die? Did the old woman run away? Perhaps she had died as well? What happened in the few hours her mother-in-law was gone?

An hour later found Harume walking into her house, unwrapping the scarf around her head and the coat over her kimono, letting her hair down. Laughter echoed as a fourteen year-old-girl and a toddler rushed out to greet the woman.

Harume sighed in relief and spread her arms, hugging the two tightly. “Hello there, Yukine. Shinmaru. Where is your father?”

“Dad is in his room again,” Shinmaru whined into the embrace. Yukine nudged him, shrugging at her mother. “He’s working on reports for the lord.”

Harume smiled and withdrew from the embrace. “Can you both call him? I need to speak to him about something. Then you can play until dinner.”

Shinmaru and Yukine cheered and ran towards the back room. Harume sighed and quickly trotted to prepare dinner.

Toshi tapped her shoulder moments later, worry in his eyes. “What is it, Haru?”

Harume looked at him and then drew a shaky breath, leaning onto him while she stirred the stew over the flames. “I saw something horrible today… and I think your mother is dead.”

Toshi tensed. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

So Harume told him, shaking from the memory of the horror she witnessed. How she found out that lord Daigo had sold his son’s body to the demons in exchange of something she wasn’t told of.

How his mother took the baby to be put down and never returned. How Harume went to search for his mother and never found her.

How she was terrified of the lord possibly killing her for witnessing it all and Toshi for simply being her husband.

And how she has this strange feeling that it wasn’t over.

“I can’t help but wonder what happened to the baby,” She lifted the pot out of the fire and placed it in a small pit, pouring portions into small bowls. Toshi was grim faced, though he was taking the news of his mother’s probable death better than she had anticipated. Perhaps he had been silently expecting it for years, as midwives tended to accumulate dangerous secrets that often caught up with them.

He rightfully seemed more concerned with the safety of his own family, should Lord Daigo catch wind of what they knew.

Harume shook her head. “I don’t know what to do…”

There was a moment of silence and then Toshi smiled. “For now, just be there for Lady Daigo. Try to help her through her mourning.”

Harume took a deep breath and faintly smiled back at him. “You’re right. I can’t think about it too much. I’ll also take care of mother’s things tomorrow.”

Toshi nodded, pleased. “That’s my girl. Let’s call the two rascals and eat.”

Harume smiled hesitantly. Her husband’s confidence gave her hope.

 


 

 

That smile disappeared two days later when she was stopped at the entrance to the Daigo’s estate by guards.

“What is the meaning of this?” Harume inquired, showing her pass. “I’m a lady in waiting for lady Daigo and you’re about to make me late.”

The two guards shook their heads, the left guard giving her a smirk. “Lord Daigo has dismissed all of the lady’s servants. He wanted to bring new blood to the house. Now leave or we’ll make you.”

Harume balked at the guard’s coarse words, eyes growing wide. Dismissing or hiring servants was the lady’s job. “But why? Why would lord Daigo bother with such matters? Wh-what about my wages? What am I supposed to do from now on? I must have my wages!”

The guards stepped forward and the smirking guard roughly grabbed the terrified woman’s arm. Tearing the pass out of her hand, he was no longer smirking. “I don't know and I don't care. You no longer belong here, so off with you!”

“Let me speak to the lady at least!” Harume tried one last time but shrieked when she was pulled down roughly by her arm, falling to the ground and hitting her head on the hard ground. Her head pounded as she sat up, staring at the guards in fear.

“No more warnings!” The right guard pointed his spear at her. “A woman shouldn’t be talking back to us, wench. I’ve been too patient with you just because you’re pretty, but I’m annoyed now so you better leave.”

Harume, out of options, could only shakily collect herself and limp away, tugging her coat tighter around her.

First her mother disappeared and now she had lost her job. All because of the birth of a cursed child and a deal made with demons. Now who would be there to soothe the lady’s misery?

How could the lord just throw her away after so many years of loyal servitude?

The baby… if only she could give the baby to her lady so she could have a moment of respite?

How could she look after the lady now?

“Momma!”

Harume looked up, seeing her daughter run to her with a kind smile and arms full of laundry.

Her daughter, born to a samurai servant, who was exactly at the age to become one.

The lord was bringing new attendants to the mansion.

Her lady needed looking after. Harume needed to repay the lady for her kindness.

She needed a way to find more about what happened and maybe even find the baby.

Harume stood before Yukine and smiled warmly. “There is something I need you to do.”

 


 

 

For sixteen years, Harume was only able to catch glimpses into the mansion.

For sixteen years, she could only supervise the lady through Yukine.

For sixteen years, she could only sneakily send sweets and gifts to the young lord Tahomaru, hoping one day to meet him and talk to him about the truth of his father.

For sixteen years, she watched the land prosper on top of a cursed deal while she had lost her husband and son to bandits, the attack leaving her leg deformed forever.

For sixteen years, she had kept quiet.

And then the landslide happened.

Yukine returned home several weeks later in hurry, her beautiful face contorted into fear. Harume stood up and limped towards her daughter. “What’s wrong, Yuki?”

Yukine looked behind her as she closed the door quietly and trotted to her mother, cupping the wrinkling face. “Mother, you need to leave this land immediately.”

Harume grew fearful. “What happened?”

Yukine sobbed and hugged her. “They’re searching for grandmama, the baby, and anyone who was around back then. You need to get to safety. I can’t lose you like I lost dad and Shin!”

Harume’s heart ached as she realized that the day she feared came. The day that the past would catch up to her. She took a deep breath and patted her daughter’s back. “Thank you, Yukine. But I can’t yet. I haven’t found any leads on the baby. How could I run away when I haven’t given the lady respite from her mourning?”

Yukine withdrew back and shook her head. “It’s not important right now. Please reconsider, mother.”

“Yukine…”

“Lord Tahomaru wants to know about that day as well!” Yukine blurted out desperately, paling when she realized what she had said, slapping hands over her mouth and looking back as if fearing being heard.

Harume urgently guided Yukine to the fire, sitting her down and passing her a cup of tea. “Tell me everything right now, Yukine.”

Her daughter inhaled shakily, tucking her long hair behind her ear and held the cup gently to her chest. “I caught Lord Tahomaru snooping around. When the lady and the lord had been talking, I spotted the young master spying on them. He already asked some of the servants about what happened sixteen years ago. Fortunately none of them knew what happened and he didn’t find out.”

Harume hummed, interlacing her fingers on her folded legs. “Did you tell him?”

Yukine shook her head. “I only told him to meet you in the stables tonight.”

Harume braced herself against the floor, nearly fainting into the fire. Yukine dropped the cup and caught her, boiling tea staining the tatami. Harume looked at her daughter with alarm, clutching the kimono sleeve tightly, “You did what?

Yukine exhaled, terrified. “He needs to know and you have to leave for your safety. Tonight is the only time you would be able to meet up. And I made sure that the stables would remain empty tonight.”

Harume shook her head. “What have you done?”

Yukine’s expression hardened. “I did what you wanted me to do all those years ago, to make sure lord Daigo’s deed and the lady’s agony would not go unnoticed. Please do this, mother.”

Harume stared into her daughter’s shiny eyes, realizing that without noticing, she had grown numb to the horrors she had faced. That she had become complacent.

She had disappointed the lady.

Not anymore. She had to fight again. The unnamed baby needed to be found. He needed his family.

His family needed him.

So she sighed and nodded. “Alright. I will go.

 


 

 

Harume didn’t like the smitten look the stable boy gave her daughter, but when Yukine waved to him and smiled, the boy blushed and left without protest, so it was good for something.

Still, Harume frowned at her daughter, who at least had the dignity to look sheepish. “He knows a lot about the goings of the mansion, so I don’t mind.”

“How could you find a husband if you seduce children?”

Yukine gave her a weird look. “He’s twenty. And besides, you did the same thing with the old cook. That’s how we had food after Dad and Shin...”

Harume’s face heated up. She had completely forgotten about that man. Thank goodness Toshi wasn’t there to see her humiliating actions. Oh Toshi… how she missed him… “I… guess you have a point. But stay safe, alright? And I want grandchildren someday.”

Yukine smiled warmly, hands slightly shaking as she set Harume on one of the boxes. “I’ll go get the young master so just stay comfortable, okay? Tomorrow I’ll have a transport ready for you.”

Harume sighed and brushed her daughter’s hair back. “I would miss you terribly, my beautifully cunning daughter.”

Yukine chuckled, eyes whiny with tears. “We’re not separating yet, mother. There’s still work needing to be done. I’ll be back.” And then she slipped out of the stables.

Harume took a deep breath and raised her head to look at the horse closest to her seat. A beautiful dark brown creature with black mane. She remembered the days she would watch the lady ride on her horse, looking far more serene than before she became pregnant with the cursed baby.

“How I miss those days…”

“Hello?” An unfamiliar voice echoed in the stables. Harume startled and snapped her head to the open door, tensing when she saw a familiar face.

Oh, it was lord Tahomaru, she relaxed when the boy became clearer as he came closer. But oh Buddha, how similar did he look to his father. She wondered if the unnamed baby would be similar to the lady had he grown up with a face.

She stood up and bowed deeply to him, bending her back as far down as her injury would allow. “Good evening, lord Tahomaru. Thank you for meeting up with me in such a short announcement.”

Lord Tahomaru, clad in his sleeping garments and a belted short sword, strode to her and helped her sit back down before giving her a slight bow. Harume’s eyes grew wide in alarm and she tried to get him to stand up. “Lord Tahomaru, you shouldn’t be bowing before an old woman. Stand up. Please.”

Lord Tahomaru shook his head. “I need answers. What happened sixteen years ago? Why were all my mother’s servants fired?” He raised his head. “You were one of them, weren’t you?”

He was intelligent. He caught onto things pretty quickly. So much like the lady. Perhaps he was less like the lord as she thought.

Harume sighed and patted the place next to her. Lord Tahomaru stood up and sat next to her, gazing at the sleeping horse and then at her. His eyes shone with innocence and curiosity. He was too sheltered. Could Harume bear to ruin that for her own sake?

No, it was for the lady’s sake.

She took a deep breath. “Sixteen years ago, your older brother was born.”

Lord Tahomaru stared at her incredulously. “Older brother? But I’m an only child! Are you delirious?”

Harume regarded him sadly. “Lord Daigo has done many things for his own gain as lord and master of these lands. While some of them were for the good of the land, this deed took your brother’s life.”

“What… what deed?”

“He sold your brother to Hell’s demons in return for glory and honor. The baby was born a normal child, yet soon after he  was cursed to become a being without any limbs, nor a face and skin. He was cast away and sent to die by your father. My mother-in-law, the midwife at the birth, was ordered to go and kill the cursed baby. But she never returned. And I had never been able to find out what happened to her nor the baby. And yet somehow… I have a feeling… that the baby lived.”

Tahomaru gazed through her, shock and denial playing in his eyes. He shook his head, rage building within his body. He stood up and faced her, hand settling over his sword hilt and tightening over it. “What kind of nonsense are you feeding me? How could you accuse my honourable father of such horrible acts? He is a kind man and a kind father! He would never do such a thing!” He nearly shouted at her, expression so similar to Lord Daigo’s that Harume had to fight from balking in fear, the threat to her life evident in the young boy’s eyes.

She calmed herself down and regarded the young boy as serenely as she could. “You came here to meet me because you knew something was wrong. You were snooping around the lord and the lady, weren’t you?”

Tahomaru’s head snapped to her in horror. “How did you-?”

Harume smiled mysteriously and pressed a finger to her lips. “You must be more vigilant if you want to find information, young lord. We women learned the art of gathering information like the air gathering the breaths of the living and so must you.”

Tahomaru scowled, not liking her answer, but he finally released his death grip on his sword hilt and sat back down, arms folded over his chest. “So you were telling the truth about my brother?”

Harume nodded. “He was a beautiful little creature before the demons took away his body. Buddha was the only reason he even remained alive, sacrificing a sacred part of himself for the baby’s life.”

The young lord’s eyes widened. “The headless statue in mother’s room?”

Harume nodded. The young lord gritted his teeth and looked down. “That would explain so much… she was mourning my brother…” He then covered his face. “She resents me for living while he died.”

Harume quickly shook her head. “Of course not, lord Tahomaru. She cares a great deal for you despite her pain. She always worried you would meet the same fate as her oldest son and she made sure to have the most promising retainers to guide you and protect you as you grew up. The lord agreed since he knew you needed protection. They both care for you… but I fear the lord might care more for his honor…”

She looked away when the boy glared at her. “My apologies, lord Tahomaru. I spoke out of line.”

Lord Tahomaru nodded, pleased. “Do you have any information regarding my lost brother?”

“No yet. I’m planning on embarking on a search for him tomorrow. If I’ll find anything, I’ll inform you right away.”

Tahomaru seemed relieved at that. “Thank you.”

Harume smiled. “Thank you, lord Tahomaru, for seeking me out. I’ll pray for a joyous reunion between you two.”

Lord Tahomaru finally gave her a bright smile and stood up, giving her a bow of his head before walking towards the stables’ doors and disappearing into the night.

Harume took a moment and then slumped in her seat, relief and giddiness filling her heart.

She finally took the first step towards her goal.

She was still alive.

She hasn’t failed the lady .

 


 

 

She hasn’t failed the lady, she told herself as she was snuck over the border.

She hasn’t failed the cursed baby, she said as she took residence in the village her husband’s father came from.

She hasn’t failed lord Tahomaru, she begged her heart to understand while she learned to sew and create practical and unadorned clothing for peasants.

She hasn’t failed her daughter.

She hasn’t…

Harume looked at the cloudy clouds hanging over her head, feeling the cold stiffen her deformed leg, pain throbbing all over her body. She had grown too old. She couldn’t travel far anymore.

How could she ever hope to find any clues of a missing child in the wrong territory? The Sakai lands had no relation to Daigo’s. There was no way the baby was here.

So why couldn’t she leave?

Why…

She lowered her head and forced her legs to move forward. She needed to buy food or she would starve. She needed to force herself to live.

She—

Lady Daigo passed her, her beautiful long black hair trailing behind her.

Harume spun in her place, heart hammering in her place as she searched for her lady in the crowded market.

Why was the lady here? There was war now between Sakai and Daigo! Why would she be here?

She held onto her bag and forced her way between annoyed shoppers, frantically scanning the formless blob of people for the lady. She needed to plead for forgiveness. She needed to know if she had truly seen her or had finally succumbed to hallucinations.

The familiar face appeared at the edge leading to the river had Harume double her efforts, pushing and shoving people as she rushed to the lady.

But the stress climbing in her body had her deformed leg buckle at the worst moment, sending her tumbling to the ground with a cry, pain exploding in her limb. She curled into a ball, unable to stand up, furious tears forming in her eyes.

She had failed the lady, she had failed her daughter, she had failed lord Tahomaru--

“Hey, are you alright?” A young voice sounded, two sets of footsteps coming closer. Harume raised her head to see an adorable round face stare at her with huge worried eyes. The young child looked to the owner of the second set of footsteps. “Aniki, can you help me pick her up?”

A soft grunt was heard and Harume felt wooden fingers close around her hand and a wooden arm circling her waist, gently helping her stand up. She took a deep breath and looked up to thank the kind man for his help.

Only for her eyes to fall on lady Daigo’s face she had been pursuing moments ago.

She froze, eyes growing wide in shock.

Unnaturally blank eyes stared back, a youthful and charming face emotionless except for a pinch of distress around his eyes. A cloth was tied over his ears and his hair flowed from it, dark and glossy.

Just like the lady.

Her eyes travelled down to his ragged kimono and then to his necklace…

His necklace!

It was the pouch her mother-in-law carried! The one with the symbol of the Daigo clan! The lady gave it so the midwife could come in and out without any trouble.

She gasped and reached for the pouch, only for the young man to step back and hold the pouch away from her.

“Hey! We were nice to you! Why are you trying to steal his stuff?” The child stepped between them, regarding her warily. “That’s rude!”

Harume felt the child’s voice echo in her head as she stared at ‘aniki’. He looked too familiar to the lady for it to be brushed as pure coincidence.

But the baby was left with no skin.

And no eyes.

Nor limbs.

The young man had wooden hands. His eyes were too unnatural, so probably fake as well. Was his skin fake? But it looked too real for a mask.

And he had the pouch.

“Do you…” She took a deep breath and bowed her head slightly, “To apologize for scaring you, would you like to stay over at my place for the night? I can tell you two are travellers and I have extra room.”

The child folded his arms, mulling over her offer. “We don’t know you and we can’t pay you.”

Harume smiled disarmingly. “My name is Ito Harume. I am myself a traveller who decided to live here for a while so do not worry about payment. I thought your companion resembled someone I knew, so I was simply taken back a bit.”

The child raised a brow at her and then looked at his ‘aniki’. The young man looked down and shrugged. The child perked up and gave her a thumb up. “Sounds like a deal. I’m Dororo! And this is Hyakkimaru!”

Harume smiled in relief and gestured at the crowd. “I was going to buy food when I tripped, So we’ll have to do that first before we could head home.”

Dororo seemed a bit reluctant at that suggestion. “Aniki doesn’t like too many people at one place. He has sensitive hearing…”

Harume frowned, wanting more time to investigate the young man, and then perked up. “Perhaps you could run the errand for me, young man,” She said to Dororo, “And I will show your brother to my house. That way you’ll repay me for the room and board while he’ll be away from this much noise.”

Dororo mulled over the suggestion for a moment, but then agreed and she passed him her bag and the food money pouch. She knew that he would come back judging from the gaze the child gave his brother; he won’t run away when his brother was counting on him to come back. Dororo pocketed the money and after hearing the directions to Harume’s house, waved his brother goodbye and disappeared into the crowd.

Harume let Hyakkimaru watch the child disappear before offering him her hand. “I figured that you can’t see, so hold my hand. Would that be okay with you?”

Fake eyes bore into hers, almost looking deep into her, before the young man nodded and placed his hand accurately over hers. His aim was really good, she noted in awe as she led them away from the crowd and towards her street.

They walked silently, Harume keeping stealing glances at him. His profile was a near copy of the lady. He looked to be in his middle teens and she had been just thinking of the baby cursed with a useless body. And he had many prosthetics, she could see from his wooden leg.

And he had the pouch.

Could it be? Had found the cursed baby? She wanted to ask him how he regained parts of his body back, but she was terrified of the answer.

And so, she kept silent until they reached her home at the edge of the village. She helped him into the house and sat him by the fire pit. “I’ll make you some tea while we wait for your brother, would that be alright with you?”

Lord Hyakkimaru nodded, looking at her intently despite not seeing her. It almost felt as if he stared into her soul. She shivered at that, knowing her soul was probably shriveled from cowardiance, and quietly prepared the kettle.

As the water boiled, she knelt at the other side of the pit and looked at the unmoving Hyakkimaru for a long time before sighing. “Have you ever wondered who your biological parents were?” She went straight to the point.

Lord Hyakkimaru didn’t reply, but he raised his hands to untie the cloth covering his ears. When the cloth was removed, his hair cascaded down his face, framing his grayish skin.

And for a moment, Harume forget she was facing the young man and not the lady.

Then lord Hyakkimaru brought out a ribbon and tied up his long hair and the image broke. Harume placed a hand over her heart, faintness creeping up on her.

It was too much to be pure coincidence.

She had the cursed baby sitting in her house. She had found the lady’s oldest child. She knew it for sure now. Somehow, Buddha had led her sole goal to her.

She must tell lord Tahomaru immediately.

But she had to make sure the two remained in her house until she could convince them to see lord Tahomaru.

But how?

She prayed for Buddha to give her one last spurt of good luck and then took off the kettle, pouring a cup of tea for lord Hyakkimaru and herself. She passed the cup to the young man and then settled in her spot again, hardening her resolve.

“Lord Haykkimaru,” She began. That had garnered a response, the young man looked up with a confused frown. Harume smiled and nodded. “Lord Hyakkimaru, I believe I was there when you were born. I wasn’t certain until I saw that pouch of yours and your face.”

Lord Hyakkimaru touched his pouch and then something inside his kimono, looking almost… reluctant.

But Harume couldn’t stop now. He must know about his real family. How the lady yearned for him. How lord Tahomaru searched for him. He must know! She must complete her life long goal.

“I know your parents, lady Daigo Nuinokata and lord Daigo Kagemitsu. You have younger brother named Tahomaru. Lord Hyakkimaru, I know you must believe that you have been abandoned, but the lady was forced to give you up and she regrets that act every day. Lord Tahomaru wished to find you and requested me to find your whereabouts. Please consider meeting them.”

Lord Hyakkimaru stared at her, face blank. And then he placed the cup down.

Nno. ” A deep slurred voice echoed between them.

Harume stiffened at the harshness of his voice.

A harshness similar to lord Daigo’s orders.

Harume held her ground, though. “Why not? At least meet them. Your companion is your adopted brother, right? Introduce them to each other. You deserve to know them.”

Lord Hyakkimaru opened his mouth, and then closed it, turning his head to the door. Harume turned her head as well, startling when the door opened and Dororo strolled in victoriously with a full bag and a huge smile.

“What’s up, Aniki! Miss Ito!” Dororo chirped as he carefully placed the bag far from the fire and settled next to lord Haykkimaru. The young lord regarded the child for a long moment before dropping a hand on the younger boy’s matted hair.

Dororo swatted the hand away, playfully grumbling at his brother. “Stop doing that!”

The young lord gave a faint smile at that, turning his head slightly towards Harume and then back to Dororo. “ Bro...ther…

Dororo beamed, but Harume felt her heart shatter.

Lord Hyakkimaru doesn’t want to meet his family. He was content living as an impoverished traveller with a kid he regarded as his real brother.

How could she convince him of returning home?

Chapter Text

Three years ago

 

“Listen, Tahomaru. Being a samurai lord means bowing to too many people while in charge of too little. ” Soft eyes hardened as the man explained to his son their position in the grand scheme of the hierarchy. “The daimyo have the duty of being the shogun’s sword while the samurai lords are the arms and legs. That means we get to move and enforce, but we do not speak.”

Tahomaru nodded, seated before his writing table, mesmerized by his father’s passion for honor and pride. His father had ran him through different battle formations and regaled stories of his youth in the war, about fallen comrades and honorable wins.

Tahomaru knew the Daigo army lost many battles before he was born, but his father told Tahomaru that he was like a good luck charm that had caused the war to finally tilt in Daigo’s favor and earn them a peaceful era.

Tahomaru loved hearing that, hoping one day to join the ranks and finish the war once and for all. To have his mother finally proud of his achievements and his father finally able to rest, knowing his land was protected.

The teenager nodded as his father changed subjects to the citizens of their land. How taxes were to be collected and what measures to take when these were not enough to cover the government costs. How to judge a good crop and a failure. What rains are a blessing and what are a curse.

And so on and so on.

“Tahomaru,” His father suddenly turned to him, a serious glint in his eyes. Tahomaru sat straighter, more attentive. “I want you to accompany me as I make my way through the land. You need to know the land you will rule one day.”

Tahomaru felt awe fill him at the sight of his incredibly capable father, wondering how would he ever hope to reach such level of knowledge and confidence. “Yes, sir!”

His father nodded, pleased. “We would set out tomorrow. Tell the servants to prepare your horse and gear.”

Tahomaru bowed his head to his father. “As you command!”

 


 

Hyugo and Mutsu were finishing preparing the horses when Tahomaru and his father walked out. The two retainers bowed to them in formal greetings, causing Tahomaru to fluster a bit internally. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to how  the two acted while his father was around. He enjoyed the sense of comradery the three of them shared despite the hierarchy forbidding it, so those moments always jarred him back to reality.

He was the lord and they were his retainers; disposable, according to his father.

That idea left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Tahomaru chased the thought from his head and nodded to Mutsu and Hyogo, mounting his horse silently after seeing his father already situated on his. As he hoisted himself on the stirrup, he slipped and shot a panicked look in his father’s direction. Fortunately Kagemitsu was busy in arranging his reins and did not witness this. Red-faced, Tahomaru mounted his horse properly and silently scolded himself for letting his nerves make him fail at something he’d done perfectly a thousand times.

The trip was silent, occasionally interrupted by his father pointing to far away villages and telling Tahomaru the name of the leader of the village and what they produced for the Daigo estate. At times, his father would also remark that the village was behind in payments and so would have to pay extra next time. Tahomaru frowned at that, for a second wondering how could they pay extra if they had nothing the first time. But then he shook his head and berated himself. His father was right, those villages had some nerve not paying on time the first time.

They spent the nights in comfortable inns and overjoyed citizens showered them with praise and gifts. Tahomaru felt a bit flustered at being overwhelmed by this much attention, but after seeing his father’s composure, forced himself to adapt the same mannerisms; he cordially thanked each the citizens for their loyalty.

At last, after three days of travelling, they had arrived at a pleasant town. The guards stood straight and proudly as they let their group enter through the gates. The horses’ hooves thumped against the wooden bridge as they passed the river before cobblestone replaced the wooden planks.

Tahomaru gazed around him, throughout the three day travel and the many villages they had passed, he thought he had seen it all. And yet, this town was far more impressive than any village. The firmly built wooden houses in the background and the almost glimmering with last night’s shower streets gave the scene a picturesque feeling. Cobblestone clicked under them as the horses passed the entrance and straight to the marketplace. Children were playing with a red ball, running between merchants’ legs and their laughter echoing in the bustling crowd.

So free… no need to hold back their childish urges… playing with friends...

Tahomaru looked down, an ache forming in his chest.

He then shook his head and raised his head once more. A lord never let his head hang down in public. Or at all, he added to himself, almost as an afterthought.

He heard Mutsu and Hyogo ride a bit closer, unable to offer their usual consolations in presence of his father and civilians. Tahomaru was thankful for the sentiment nonetheless. After all, they gave him more companionship and care than any peasant child could.

Tahomaru didn’t know whether to take Mutsu’s veiled exasperated look as insulting or worrying. Hyogo’s fond look, though, banished the humiliation and warmth played in his chest, the rocking of the horse under him soothing.

At the marketplace, Tahomaru and his father approached the trade center after dismounting the horses at the entrance. The merchants greeted them with deep respect and showed them the most interesting and expensive wares they had. Tahomaru was eyeing a fox wooden statue, about to ask for it to be packed away for him when his retainers ushered him back to the horses and onwards to the Headman’s estate.

“Tahomaru,” His father gained his attention, “We’re here. Look presentable.”

Tahomaru sat straighter, his hands clenching around the reins. “Yes, sir.”

His father looked back to him and nodded, pleased. Tahomaru felt a bit more confident at that nod, happiness buzzing in him.

The convoy stopped their horses in front of a respectable looking mansion and dismounted, Hyogo and Mutsu standing by Tahomaru’s side immediately. His father’s guards flanked them as they entered, being welcomed by bowing servants.

“Oh, Lord Daigo,” A nobleman welcomed them, “Young master. What a pleasure to have you in our humble house. Please come in.”

His father accepted the formal greetings and they were ushered into a big room. His father immediately sat down on the raised step, higher than everyone else as was his station. Tahomaru sat on the step below, directly in front of their host and they were served an excellent meal of delicacies. The rice was heavenly and the miso soup gave Tahomaru a sense of serenity. It was a truly tasty meal and Tahomaru was grateful for the headman for growing good rice and developing his town well.
After their plates were cleared away, Tahomaru was allowed to sit at his father’s elbow, with a sake flask at the ready. This made Tahomaru both excited and nervous, since his job was to make sure father was satisfied without interrupting the flow of conversation. He knew he was also expected to pay close attention to the discussion at the same time.

His father waited until the headman and the lords had their own plates cleared away before he picked up his full sake cup and stared into it, his serious expression softening a tad. “What are the state of the rice fields, headman Shiro?”

The headman raised his bowed head and nodded. “Currently they are…”

Despite his best efforts to stay sharp, Tahomaru nodded absently as the headman droned about the state of the fields and the trade, paying more attention to filling his father’s sake cup than the matters of the estate. He soon realized his full belly was making him sleepy and worried a bit about messing up before steeling his resolve and paying extra attention.

His father somehow managed to keep paying attention to the headman while drinking gracefully, injecting suggestions and praises gracefully. Tahomaru witnessed in awe how his father manipulated the headman to raise his taxes and change his trade roads.
When the sake flask was emptied, Kagemitsu elegantly turned down the offer for a second to be brought and asked for tea instead. Tahomaru realized his father did this so he’d be able to drink as well, and had to keep himself from smiling broadly at his father’s consideration.

After the meeting, their envoy were settled for the night. Tahomaru got one of the better rooms, Mutsu and Hyogo immediately taking position by the doors.

After several comfortable moments of silence, Mutsu fished out a faded red string from her pocket and looped it around her fingers, presenting the loop to Tahomaru. “Here you go.”

Tahomaru eyed her and then the string, the loop tempting him to begin the game. He recalled the children from earlier and reached out to take the string. Just when the flame flickered and snapped him out of his impulse.

Tahomaru immediately sat back and shook his head. “No, I won’t play that anymore. It’s time to put away childish things. Father took me on this trip because he wants me to like an adult, so I shall.”

Mutsu and Hyogo exchanged looks and then nodded, settling back in their previous position, Mutsu slipping the string back into her pocket. The three of them sat for a while, unmoving.

Tahomaru felt awkwardness fill him and glanced at Mutsu and Hyogo. The two sat in attention yet looked at peace. Comfortable. Anything Tahomaru wasn’t right now.

What should he do now that he can’t play? He was bored! He wanted to do something!

Maybe he could play…

No!

Tahomaru threw the intruding thoughts away and took the chance to investigate the room he had stayed at, looking for books or art; anything to distract him. He felt restless and jittery in contrast to his earlier sleepiness; and he wanted to learn more of the place and see more of the land he would rule one day. He almost wanted to go for a ride by himself to survey the land.

Unfortunately, the room did not hold anything interesting besides one scroll of art and soon Tahomaru was left to do nothing but stare at the flickering flame by his futon. He did not trust himself to talk casually to Mutsu and Hyogo, since they didn’t know who might be listening. He had to be on his best behaviour at all times and he declined the notion of playing.

Idiot.

At one point, he fell asleep without noticing.

The next day, Mutsu and Hyogo woke him up and packed all his gear. Because the town was their last stop of this excursion, they were to travel the entire day back to the Daigo estate without any stops. A three day trip would be shortened to one day and his father wanted to leave early to arrive before the night would fall upon them.

The way back was more arduous and yet monotonous compared to their relaxed pace coming here, and Tahomaru hoped his father didn’t see the moments when he spaced out while staring at the nature and the sun setting down in a blazing glory.

The sun was kissing the horizon by the time the envoy reached the estate. Tahomaru struggled against yawning, not wanting to embarrass his father any further.

“Tahomaru.” The twelve-year-old jumped at directly addressed and looked to his father, slightly flushed at being caught off guard.

“Yes, Honored Father?”

His father gave him a gentle smile, eyes warm. “I saw you weren’t paying attention to the meeting yesterday. Was adult talk that boring?”

Tahomaru sat up in alarm and shook his head frantically, almost falling off the horse from dizziness at the action. His father chuckled, causing Tahomaru to duck his head in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, father. I promise I was paying attention, but the soup was really filling…”

His father eyed him knowingly. “I understand, my son. But as punishment, you’re going to write everything we talked about in the meeting. I want you to know about matters in our land and understand how our people live their lives.”

Tahomaru nodded, chastised. “Yes, sir…”

“Good.”

Tahomaru eyed his father from the corner of his eyes, taken aback by how peaceful his father looked. At times, his father looked worn and withered. At times, the man seemed almost… terrifying.

But right now, his father regarded him peacefully and fondly.

Tahomaru turned to face the landscape around them, hoping he wouldn’t have a goofy smile on his face, feeling warmth fill him. He felt loved.

He heard his father’s horse snort and come closer. He raised his gaze and jolted when a hand fell on his hair, ruffling it affectionately.

“I’m proud of you, son.”

Tahomaru beamed at his father.

Everything was perfect.

 


 

His mother was praying to the statue again.

Tahomaru sat on the branch, legs swinging from the branch. He ignored Mutsu tugging at his hakama, preferring to keep watch on his mother. A small place in his heart hoped, despite the near non-existent chance of it happening, that his mother would look up from the statue and gift him her loving smile.

Yet none of that happened.

“Young master” Mutsu placed a hand on Tahomaru’s shoulder. “You have a lesson today. Your father will return soon. You want to impress him, no?”

Tahomaru sighed and sagged, letting his retainer drag him down the tree and towards the main hall. Hyogo followed close by, slipping a small piece of paper to Tahomaru. The young lord stared at the taller teen inquisitively, but only received an encouraging smile.

Curious, Tahomaru unfolded the paper and flushed when he saw its contents; three people sat under a sakura tree.

It was him, Mutsu and Hyogo, drawn in Hyogo’s slightly crude lines.

It was beautiful.

“You ought to be proud, Lord Tahomaru. You’re the treasure of the Daigo clan,” Hyogo said quietly as Tahomaru slipped the precious gift into his sleeve's folds. “We are privileged to serve under you.”

Mutsu nodded. “Despite being extremely childish.”

“Mutsu,” Hyogo stage-whispered to the smug teen while Tahomaru sputtered a retort, looking back with an offended look. The two then caught his eye and smiled warmly, unable to do anything else due to their position and place.

Sadly, social convention dictated that they were both being much too familiar with their superior but Tahomaru ignored decorum for his two confidantes many times and this time was no different. He gave them a quick smile back and then briskly turned to the main hall door just as it opened, praying they weren't seen. He didn’t want the siblings to be scolded for impertinence on his behalf.

The door slid fully open, revealing a servant of his father.

“Young master, your father awaits you,” The servant bowed and Tahomaru nodded to his retainers. Mutsu and Hyogo bowed their heads and left while Tahomaru entered the main hall.

Tahomaru took a deep breath and entered, bowing to his father. “Good afternoon, Honored Father.”

His father hummed. “Good afternoon, Tahomaru. Please sit down. I want to start.”

Tahomaru straightened up and his heart fluttered happily under his father’s warm gaze. “Yes, sir.”

All was well with the world.

It felt as if everything would always remain that peaceful.

 


 

And then that dream occurred.