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Vaster Than Empires

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The day of her wedding dawned soft and grey. Kaoru refused her breakfast and sat on the porch outside her room, watching the mist rise from the courtyard garden.  Her father had designed a garden for her mother, long before she was born, planting every sprout and sapling with his own hands.  Even after her death he had never suffered another to tend it, and her last memory of him was this: her father standing at the edge of the shallow pond under the maple tree, and the leaves drifting down like bloody snow.

Our lives do not belong to us, Kaoru, he’d told her, breaking off a single slender twig and handing it to her.  You know that.

But why do you have to go? she’d wanted to ask.  A child’s question, when she was no longer a child.  Should he stay, and watch his brothers and cousins send their sons to die?  Such a thing was unconscionable.  So he had gone to war, and she’d placed the twig and the leaf that clung to it on the family altar, praying that he would return.

The door to the hallway opened.

“My lady.”  Tae knelt and bowed to her, a handful of junior maids scattered behind her like migrating geese.  “It’s time.”

“Of course,” Kaoru said, and smiled.

They dressed her in layers of white silk, winding her like a corpse in a shroud, and when they were done she could only move in small, slow steps.  A lady’s steps, delicate and graceful.  Not her own: not her long warrior’s strides that ate up the ground.  

Her little sisters came in to watch with awed eyes, and she smiled and laughed and accepted their compliments because they must not know, they would not know.  Not from her lips.  She would never let them know that father’s promise had been broken, and if that meant pretending she had chosen this, then she would pretend with all her heart.

“You’re beautiful, m’lady,” Tae said, holding a mirror up for her to see.

She looked into it and saw a stranger staring back.

“Thank you, Tae,” she said anyway.

One of her uncle’s retainers knocked on the screen, bowing as he opened it.

“Is all in readiness?”

“Yes,” Kaoru said, letting Tae help her to her feet.  “Is there time to stop at the altar, first?  I should say goodbye.”

The soldier looked at her for a moment, and she held his gaze.  An understanding passed between them, and he nodded.  His eyes held a terrible compassion.

So they walked the long way around the new house in the new capitol, to the room that held the great altar.  She bowed before each ancestor’s memorial, lighting incense and praying, and tried to imprint the memory of the place in her soul. 

Eventually, her escort began to shift nervously.  She was taking too long; if she lingered, it might insult her husband. 

Before she left, she took the twig and its blood-red leaf from her father’s altar and tucked it into her wedding kimono, over her heart.

Her clan was assembled in the forecourt to see her off: her aunt and uncle, her cousins in the first through third degrees, chief retainers and their wives and those children old enough to stand still and not disrupt the ceremony.  They flanked the path to the gate where her wedding palanquin waited at the head of her bridal procession. 

Her husband stood beside it, holding the reins of a stolid grey mare.  He was a smaller man than she’d expected: compact and agile, with ruddy hair drawn up in topknot.

And despite her morning of meditation, despite all her prayers for calm and her fierce self-discipline, fury flared in her heart.  So the clan needed her – so what?  How did that give them the right to trade her like so much meat, to sell her like a chest of kimono to a murdering bastard

Her father’s voice echoed in her memory. 

Our lives do not belong to us, Kaoru.

But he’d promised: sworn to her mother, on his swords, that their daughters would be free to choose, that they would never need to fear the unknown and gamble with their lives and bodies as the stakes that their husband would be a good man…

And her father was dead.  And her uncle headed the clan.  And if she did not do this, then all hope would be lost.  Her family would be masterless, landless, without status or wealth or holdings, and what would become of her sisters then?

Her shoulders drew back and she raised her head, knowing that it distorted the lines of her wedding kimono and not caring one whit that the cloth wanted her to bow her head and yield.  Her life did not belong to her, and never had: but her mind and heart and soul were hers to command.  This man she had been sold to would only ever have the least part of her.  That much, she could be sure of.

Kaoru walked into her future, standing tall

~*~

She held on to her defiance as she swayed in her palanquin, peering at the busy Edo streets though the barred window.  Passers-by stopped and bowed respectfully as the lavish procession passed.  Then they noticed the man riding next to her and began to whisper and crane their heads, hoping to catch a glimpse of the demon’s bride.  She turned and looked steadfastly forward, denying them the sight of anything more than her profile through the slats. 

She kept her back straight and her core strong as they arrived at his manor, nestled in the shadow of the shōgun’s palace, and refused to be afraid.  Instead, she fixed her eyes on her husband’s back as she followed him into the great hall and held her face in careful neutrality as they knelt side by side.  The priest spoke his words and waved his branches; she sipped sake that she couldn’t taste; and then they were married.

The reception was a tense, quiet affair, broken only when her sisters suddenly threw themselves onto the dais and into her arms, wailing that they would miss her.  The room drew a frightened breath and every eye fixed on her husband, wondering how he would respond.  Kaoru ignored them as pointedly as she could.

“It’s not so bad,” she told her sisters briskly as they sniffled into her skirts.  “I’ll be home for the first visit in just three days, remember?  And I’ll come see you whenever I can after that.”

“Promise?” Ayame looked up at her with tearstained eyes. 

Double promise?” Suzume chimed in.

Triple promise,” she said, holding her sister’s hands, and that completed the spell.

She felt her husband’s eyes on her.

“Can we stay with you until the party’s over?” Ayame asked, all artlessness.

“Well,” Kaoru said, smoothing her hair.  “I’m not sure…”

“Let them stay,” he husband said abruptly.  It was the first time she’d heard his voice.  It was gentler than she’d thought it would be.

“They can stay,” he said again.  She risked a glance at him, but his eyes were fixed on his food and shielded by his strange, light hair.  Dyed by the blood of his victims, so the stories said, and it could almost be the color of dried arterial blood in the diffused candlelight.

“Thank you, my lord husband,” she said carefully, bowing as much as she could without dislodging her headdress.  The words felt strange in her mouth.  He shrugged – it’s nothing – and the room exhaled. 

Her sisters stayed with her until it was time for all the guests to leave.  They played together, and sang and told stories, and she burned every moment into herheart.  But she could feel her husband’s eyes on her the entire time and wanted to shudder.

Her courage faltered as the reception ended and she was ushered into the bath house to be prepared for her wedding night.  Tae had established dominion over the household in the hours since the ceremony and seen to it that everything was exactly as Kaoru preferred, from the temperature of the water to the lightly-scented incense burning in a high nook.  She dismissed the attendants – Kaoru preferred to cleanse herself – and stayed behind, because of course Kaoru could not be left entirely alone.  Not in circumstances such as this.

Steam rose from the tub, filling the room.  Kaoru perched herself on the bench and scrubbed automatically, taking none of her usual pleasure in the process.

Tae sighed from the corner where she knelt silently, watching over Kaoru as she had since her mother died.

“What is it?” Kaoru stood, dumping a final bucket of water over herself before climbing into the bath. 

“I only wish there was something I could do, dear,” Tae said quietly.  “Your father…”

The water was bone-meltingly hot, just as she liked it, and Kaoru sank into it with a grateful sigh.  On top of everything else, her wedding regalia had been as heavy as armor and twice as constricting.  At least she would go to her sacrificial bed without knotted muscles.

“Don’t talk about it,” she said firmly.  “It doesn’t do any good.”

“Are you sure you can go through with this?”

“It’s a little late for second thoughts, Tae.”  Kaoru rested her folded arms on the side of the tub.  “What choice do I have?”

“There are ways…” Tae said vaguely.  “Whatever the stories say, he still has a man’s body.  And I’m sure you remember…”

“I know.”  She remembered Tae’s lessons: herbs and potions and small woman’s magics, to ensure children of one sex or the other, to inspire and to stifle desire, to protect against fire and disease and evil omen.  “But… if he doesn’t – if he’s not happy…  What if he divorces me, and disclaims our clan?  Then…”

She closed her eyes.

“I have to do this,” she said, small and frightened.  “I have to.”

Tae made no further objections.

Kaoru stayed in the tub until one of the maids entered, trembling, and informed her that her lord husband awaited her.  Then she rose, toweled herself dry, and donned a thin silk sleeping robe.  The maid tried to help her and Tae shooed her off, casting an apologetic glance at Kaoru.  It made her smile, a little.  They didn’t know her here, not yet; it had been a long time since the staff at her family home had tried to coddle her.

She walked along the covered stone path across the garden to the porch and the open bedroom door.  Her husband knelt at the head of the joined futons, waiting for her.  He was also dressed for bed, and had taken his hair out of its topknot and drawn it back at the nape of his neck.  She knelt across from him, and her damp hair spread heavy across her back.

“Forgive the delay, honored husband,” she said, bowing so deeply that her forehead brushed the mats.  “I beg your patience in the coming days.”

“It’s no trouble,” he said, in that same unexpectedly warm tone.  “It’s been a long day for us both, so it has.”

She straightened, then; to her immense surprise, he bowed as well.

“One prays for your patience in the days ahead as well, honored wife,” he said.  Then he sighed. “But, as it has been a long day, perhaps we should retire.”

“As you wish, my lord.”  She froze like a rabbit in the jaws of a wolf, numb-fingered, unable even to fight her fate.  Her heart raged in her breast as she stared at the mats, refusing to close her eyes, and waited for the first hard touch of his hands. 

“Sleep well, my lady wife,” he said, and she heard cloth rustle. 

She looked up, confused.  He stood, smiling down at her – he smiled like a little boy, clear and guileless – and bowed slightly to her as he left the room.

And Kaoru had no idea what to think.

~*~

They’d told her the name of the man she was to marry after the peace accords were settled: signed, sealed, and witnessed, and she was part of them.  Her hand was given to their new lord as surety that her clan would not be cast entirely aside.  It was the only concession that her uncle had been able to wring and so he had agreed blindly, selling her into an unknown fate to save them all. 

She’d known that she was to be sold, but had only learned to whom a week before her wedding.  Her uncle had come into the room where she was waiting, family elders filing behind him, and they had all knelt and bowed low as priests to an honored sacrifice.

Then her uncle had looked up at her, pity and horror warring on his face, and told her who her husband would be. 

Her first thought had been: this is not real.  But her senses had told her otherwise, and it seemed to her that she had never felt the world so keenly.  The noon sun had filtered through the shoji and scattered, sheathing the world in a terrible radiance.  Somewhere far away, she had heard her little sisters playing.  Or perhaps they were some other children. 

No, she’d decided, they would be her sisters.  She would accept her fate with their fearless laughter in her ears.

And she’d returned his bow, just as deeply.

“Thank you, honored uncle,” she said clearly, “for this chance to serve the clan.”

But she hadn’t been able to keep a bitter smile from her face.

They had sold her to shōgun’s demon, to the man who had cut a bloody swath through the Hojo and turned the tide at Sekigahara.  The man who was, according to rumor, not truly a man at all but a monster bound in human form.  Where he walked, it was said, he left bloody footprints; and the scar that marked his face would open and run red when battle-lust was on him.  He could cross a room in the blink of an eye and kill five men with each swing of his sword, a sword that drank the blood of those it slew. 

He had killed his first wife with his own hands for her disloyalty, and would do the same to anyone who betrayed him.

So she was not to be a bride after all, but a sacrifice.

That was what she had resigned herself to.  She had prepared for her wedding as for her death in battle, ready to yield up her body for the honor of the Kamiya.  And then her husband had bid her goodnight with a gentle smile and left.  As if she was nothing more than a houseguest.

Kaoru rose slowly to her feet, fists clenched.  She took a deep breath and let the cool twilight air sit in her lungs for a heartbeat before she expelled it slowly.

Then she marched into her adjoining suite, almost slamming the door behind her.  Tae scrambled up from where she had been unpacking.

“My lady…?”

“Nothing happened,” she ground out.

“Nothing…?”

“Nothing,” and her knees went suddenly weak, “happened.  Nothing at all…”

Then Tae was at her side, supporting her as all the rage and fear she had knotted up inside herself came flooding out.  She sobbed into her nurse’s side, and Tae crooned to her, rocking, as though she were a little girl again.

“He didn’t touch me,” Kaoru gasped out between sniffs.  “He didn’t even – Tae, I don’t understand!”

Tae shushed her, stroking her hair, and managed to coax her onto the futon she’d prepared, in case Kaoru’s husband was the sort who preferred not to sleep separately once the marital duties were done.

“There now, my lady,” Tae said softly.  “Rest.  Things will be easier to make sense of in the morning.”

Kaoru wanted to protest: she was not a child.  But she had been strung tight as a bowstring for days now and to have that tension suddenly relieved was too much to bear.  And it was so easy to sink under the covers, curl into a ball, and pretend that nothing had changed.  That Ayame and Suzume were in the next room, tangled in their bedding, and her father’s garden was outside, and when she woke up it would be to the smell of miso and the sound of her sisters protesting the early hour, or chattering about a festival, or arguing over who would wear a favorite ribbon.

She choked back another sob.

“What am I going to do, Tae?”

“For now?”  Tae leaned over and blew out the lamp.  “Nothing, little one.  Do nothing.  Wait and see.”

“But…”

“Patience is not weakness, Kaoru.”  Tae’s voice was firm.  “You’re tired, dear heart.  You’ll only chase yourself in circles if you try sort it all out now.”

She wanted to protest, but the blankets were heavy and warm around her, and the room was dark and silent, and she was tired, as tired as she had ever been.  Also, there was a strange scent in the air, gentle and soothing and it made her eyes feel so very heavy…

“…Tae?”

“Hmm…?”

“Did you… incense…?”

“Of course.  You need your rest, after all,” Tae said serenely.

But Kaoru was already asleep.

~*~

The moon had risen and was glowing soft through the clouds, like foxfire in mist.  Kenshin let his head fall against the wooden pillar on the porch outside his room and half-closed his eyes, softening the stark lines of the garden.  A flask of sake and a cup sat on a tray next to him; some of it had been poured and left untouched, cooling in the night air.

“The stars in autumn, was it?” he said quietly, to no one in particular; the only person who would have understood the comment was years and miles away.  “They’re not out tonight.”

The day had been grey, not wet but threatening wetness.  The rains would start soon. 

He let his hand rest on his sword, drawing comfort from its presence. 

The shōgun’s demon.  Lord Tokugawa had very nearly smiled when he’d first heard the name; it had been a public audience, after all, and more than that would be uncouth.  Later, in private, he’d roared with laughter and slapped Kenshin on the back, proud of his retainer, proud of the legend that added to his esteem, and amused beyond words at how a thing could be both true and not. 

Kenshin sighed, reaching for the sake, and then thought better of it.  He wasn’t going to sleep tonight.  Sake wasn’t going to help.  The house was different now, and he just wasn’t going to get any rest until he’d accustomed himself to the feel of the new lives within it, to their rhythms and natures.  All that drinking would do was get him drunk, and his wife was frightened enough as it was.

Instead, he tucked his arms in his sleeves and settled cross-legged against the pillar.

It wasn’t as if he’d wanted to marry her.  He’d never met her, never even seen her face until that morning.  Lord Tokugawa had summoned him two weeks ago and told him he was to marry, and he had bowed low.

“Eminence,” he’d said carefully, pressing his fingers hard against the mat.  “One is honored by your concern.  However – ”

“You have no desire to marry again.  I know.”  The great man had snorted, disturbing the hawk perched on his wrist, and he’d taken a moment to soothe her.  “It’s not healthy for a man to live his whole life without a woman.  You don’t even have a favorite courtesan, for heaven’s sake – don’t argue with me, Himura.”

Kenshin had been about to protest further.  He’d sat up and back on his heels, instead.

“Forgive one’s impertinence, my lord,” he’d murmured.

“I’m wary of this clan,” Lord Tokugawa had continued, fussing with the hawk’s jesses.  “I admire their tenacity; I’m told their former lord died well.  But they still remain a dagger at my back, and I need strong, loyal hands to bring them to heel.  Which your previous experience leaves you well equipped to do so.”

And Kenshin hadd tried to hide it, really; but he’d known what had been written on his face. 

“Is it your belief, then, that one will be called upon…?”

“No,” his lord had said, flatly.  “I do not refer to that particular incident.  Only to what came before.”

“If this is your will, then,” he’d said, bowing again, because there was nothing more to say, “one will fulfill it.”

“Himura.”  Lord Tokugawa had said it casually, as if it had no weight: and why not, when they were in the presence of retainers and subordinates who had no need to understand.  “Regarding that specific incident… should such a thing be required once more, I will grant you the request I have previously denied.”

“Thank you.  My lord.”

“You are dismissed.”

And that had been that.  He’d left the arrangements to his lord and resigned himself to the situation.

He closed his eyes completely, head drooping forward, and sighed heavily, fingering the binding on the hilt of his sword.

His new wife had been crying.  He hadn’t intended to hear it, but he’d started pacing out of sheer habit and forgotten that those rooms were inhabited, now.  So he’d passed by them, instead of avoiding them, and heard it.  Only for a moment before he’d hurried on, ashamed of invading her privacy; but he hated that he was so terrible a fate, and hated that he hated it, because what right did he have spy on her private anguish?  He wasn’t the one who’d been sacrificed.

Kenshin cast a longing glance at the sake.  Then he reached out and carefully overturned the flask, pouring the alcohol into the soil.  There.  Temptation removed.

He was too honest when he drank.  If he drank, he might go to her – after all, she couldn’t keep him out.  He might go to her and try to explain, that he wasn’t a demon, that he would never hurt her, that he would honor and protect her even if he hadn’t noticed and admired her pride and her courage, her tender care for her sisters and the sheer flint-edged stubbornness glinting out from those deep blue eyes…

…and then she’d come into the bedroom still damp from her bath, jasmine-scented steam clinging like gauze and her long hair spreading across her shoulders and down her back.  It had wet the silk of the bathrobe, made it cling to her, and he’d been able to see the outline of her hard curves.  She’d knelt in front of him like a warrior going into battle, all her strength and her terrible resolve offered up to him as tribute.  In one searing moment, he’d wanted it to be real.  For her to be coming to him as a bride, and not a sacrifice.  So that he’d have an excuse to reach out and smooth the damp strands of hair from her eyes, to cup her face in his hands and…

Kenshin groaned and slammed his head back against the pillar.  Then he stood up, rubbing gingerly at the lump.

Right.  No sleep.  No drinking.  Only one option left.

He picked up his sword and headed for the dojo.

~*~

Kenshin had dozed a little towards the end of the night, propped against the wall of the dojo with his sword in his arms.  Not true sleep, only a resting of the eyes.  He had been too keenly aware of the changes in his environment for that, too uncertain of what tomorrow would bring. 

He’d half-expected the lady to plead exhaustion and sleep in, the better to avoid her demon-groom.  Yet when he padded wearily into the dining room an hour or so after dawn she was already there, kneeling beside a small raised tray with her hands crossed demurely on her lap.

“…good morning, honored wife.”  He lingered in the doorway, suddenly unsure.  “Did you sleep well?”

“Very well, honored husband.”  Her voice was carefully even, betraying no emotion.  “Please forgive the delay.  The meal should be ready shortly.”

“That’s fine,” he said absently, edging into the room.  “Have you eaten yet?”

A light blush crossed her face and he remembered: of course not.  Nor could she, now that he was here: a wife’s duty was to serve her husband, and she would have to delay her own breakfast until he was done.  If he’d been thinking he would have lingered in the dojo another hour, or taken a bath, done something to give her a chance to eat before she had to attend to him.

“Himura, you idiot,” he muttered to himself, and only realized he’d said it aloud when she looked up suddenly.  “On second thought,” he said quickly, covering.  “One would prefer to bathe, first.  Please inform – ”

But the door to the kitchen was already sliding open and three maids were filing in, eyes downcast.  Two of them he vaguely recognized; he didn’t really know any of the household servants, but he’d learned their faces as much as he could when they were so careful to never meet his eyes.  The third, who he didn’t know at all, moved with graceful assurance and knelt next to Lady Kaoru, ignoring him completely as she set a tray of tea things in front of the lady.

“My lady.”

“Thank you, Tae,” Lady Kaoru murmured.  “That will be all.”

The maid looked up then, and a strange looked passed between her and her lady, questioning and reassuring.  The loyal retainer in attendance, in the last moment before the final battle.

Kenshin looked away from the little drama in front of him, trying to swallow the lump in his throat.  It said something about Lady Kaoru, that she could inspire someone to follow her into the demon’s lair.  Confirmed it, really; he’d noticed it as soon as her little sisters had thrown themselves at her skirts, bawling.  He could feel the pain and fear radiating from her but she’d hidden it from them, smiling and assuring them without words that everything would be fine.

One hand, hidden behind his back, clenched into a fist.

The maids left, filing obediently after Tae like ducklings following their mother, and Kenshin turned his attention back to the lady.  Her shoulders straightened and her chin rose fractionally: he could almost see the white cloth wrapped around her legs and the dagger in her hands, rising towards her neck –

He looked sharply away.

“Please, honored husband,” she said, bowing.  “Won’t you partake of the morning meal?”

Kenshin forced a smile onto his face and took a step into the room.

“Since it has already been prepared.”  He knelt at the tray holding his meal. “One is honored to receive it.”

Lady Kaoru poured a cup of tea and offered it.  He declined it quietly, watching her only from the corner of his eyes. 

“One prefers not to drink at meals.”

“I see.”

She knelt silently at right angles to him.  He studied her profile as much as he could without making it obvious that he was staring.  She was… pretty.  Not beautiful – he’d seen beautiful – but there was an indescribable realness to her that the oiran and the court beauties lacked.  They were ephemeral creatures, all smoke and silk and moonlight on water, and she was – solid, and there, warm in a way that the beauties he’d known never were.  The kind of warmth that a man could curl himself around, safe in the knowledge that he would never freeze again…

A man.  Right.  Not this man.

But he still couldn’t tear his eyes away.

He finished his rice and held out the bowl for more without thinking.  She took it, and as she did so the tips of their fingers brushed together.  It shook him to the bone and he froze, hand outstretched as though he was grasping for her sleeve.

“Honored husband?”

She was looking straight at him, confusion in her eyes and a dawning… fear.  Of course.  What else could he expect, when he was acting so strangely?

“Apologies,” he said shortly, rising.  “It seems one was not so hungry after all.  The fault is not the cook’s – it was a feast.  One only seems to have no appetite this morning.”

And now he was babbling.  He turned quickly towards the door, almost knocking over the tray.

“One should prefer to take a bath now, so I should.  If anything is required, one will be in dojo today, I will.  Even in peaceful times, one’s sword must be kept sharp, mustn’t it?”

The lady was staring at him now, and he saw her thoughts written in those blue eyes that a man could spend his life drowning in: not only a demon, but a blithering lunatic.  Kenshin closed his eyes briefly, pained.

“Your pardon, please.  Honored wife.”

And then he fled, wondering if there were enough words for all the kinds of idiot he was.

~*~

There was a summons from Lord Tokugawa waiting for him when he got out of the bath.  The shōgun would be holding court in the gardens of Grand Outer Palace in the Inner Citadel, and requested his presence as soon as he was available.  It was gently phrased, given that it was the day after his wedding, but it was still an order; so Kenshin donned his black court clothing and went, hair drying on the way.

An audience was already underway when he arrived.  A lord he didn’t recognize was kneeling on the platform below the shōgun, in the middle of some indirectly phrased petition about something or other.  Kenshin settled himself quietly by the door and tried to pay attention.

“…therefore, given the situation, we of the Mōri clan beg His Eminence to reconsider the decision to relocate our capitol so far from the lands which we have always held and defended.”

The lord was young, Kenshin realized belatedly, barely past his coming-of-age.  Not the head of the clan, then, but a representative.  The tall black court cap sat awkwardly on him, not quite fitting.  The boy did an admirable job of keeping himself under control, but he could see the nervous energy crackling in the young man’s veins.  Lord Tokugawa frowned.

“And where is Lord Mōri?  Why does he send another to petition on his behalf?”

The boy swallowed.  “My lord uncle’s health is not good,” he said weakly.  “It was determined by his doctors that he should not travel at such a time.”

“Hmph.”  Lord Tokugawa looked down at the papers on the desk in front of him, shuffling through them.  It was a ploy, Kenshin knew, used either to buy time or increase the tension.  Probably that latter, in this case.  “Lord Mōri led the Western Army, did he not?”

“He was one of the commanders of that force, Eminence.  Yet, our forces were not present for the battle, instead being deployed to protect Lord Toyotomi at Osaka…”

“An admirable cause.”  The Shōgun looked down at the papers again.  “And yet, it displays a certain cowardice.”

“…Eminence?”  The boy paled, and Kenshin stifled a sigh. 

“If Lord Mōri had displayed the courage to openly oppose me, I would have granted him an honorable death,” Lord Tokugawa said sharply.  “Similarly, had he been decisive enough to side with me, his boldness would have recognized.  Yet, Lord Mōri chose the path of least resistance, neither devoting himself wholly to his overlord nor daring to stand against him.  A lord who cannot commit does not deserve to have his commitments honored.  My decision stands.”

The boy was white as rice paper now, save for two red spots of rage high on his cheeks.  He bowed low.

“I apologize for troubling you with this impertinent request, Eminence.”

“See that you do not trouble me again.  Dismissed.”

The boy stood, gathering his robes around him, and went to leave.  Then he spotted Kenshin sitting by the door, and against all reason and biological probability managed to get even paler.  Kenshin looked away.

He couldn’t move out of the way.  He outranked the boy.  To yield before him would dishonor the status Lord Tokugawa had bestowed on him and therefore, by extension, Lord Tokugawa.  So he was just going to have to sit here, politely ignoring the situation, until the boy found the nerve to pass within inches of the shōgun’s demon.

The boy’s throat worked.  Then he stared straight ahead and marched past.  Well.  Points for courage, if not for brains; then again, he was only the messenger and Lord Mōri never had been the quickest thinker, so it was hardly fair to blame him for the petition he’d had to deliver.

“Lord Himura,” the shōgun said, inclining his head in greeting.  “We did not expect you to join us so early.”

“Eminence.”  Kenshin bowed.  “One came as soon as the summons was received.”

“Ah.”  The very mildest hint of disapproval, there, and Kenshin found himself hard-pressed to care.  An order to marry was not an order to bed, after all.  “Come, take your proper seat.”

“As my lord wishes,” he said blandly and moved to the head of the chamber, taking his place on the platform below the shōgun, at his right side.

“And how is your honored wife?”

“The honorable lady is… adjusting, Eminence.”

“Oh?”

“One does not believe the lady had ever traveled before arriving in Edo for our wedding,” Kenshin invented furiously.  “It was a tiring experience.”

“I see.”  That seemed to satisfy him, and he gestured to the retainer closest to the door.  “Bring the next one in.”  Then, quietly, to Kenshin specifically.  “Pay attention to this one; I want your thoughts on it.”

The morning of audiences dragged on, and despite his best efforts Kenshin quickly lost track what was going on.  So many of the petitions were the same: I was given this, I’d like something else.  This was done, but it shouldn’t have been.  I was promised that, but received the other thing.  Only the names involved ever changed.

When noon rolled around, Lord Tokugawa dismissed everyone except Kenshin and called for food.  He sent his guards outside, too, and stood.

“That’s better,” he said, stretching.  “Well, Himura?  What did you think?”

“…of?”

The shōgun waved his hand, silently encompassing the audience chamber and all that had gone on there.  Kenshin blinked and tried to pummel his thoughts into something coherent.

“…that one is grateful to be only Lord Himura, and not shōgun, that I am.”

Lord Tokugawa snorted, amused, and began to pace around the chamber.  “I’m told you haven’t met with your administrators yet?”

Kenshin shook his head, once.  “That is not so.  One has met them, and seeing that they were all competent for the task…” He spread out his hands, helplessly.  “One does not wish to interfere, so long as all is in order.  Is it your desire that one take a more active hand?”

“No, not an order.  Only a suggestion – ” 

The door slid open and conversation paused while the maids brought in lunch.  They ate without conversing, as custom dictated, focusing on the food.  Kenshin barely tasted it.  Afterwards, Lord Tokugawa dismissed the maids and they sat in silence for a little while, sipping tea. 

“It’s hardly unusual to leave the administration of your lands completely to your subordinates,” the shōgun said at last.  “But I had thought you would take an interest.”

“My lord knows that I have no head for politics,” Kenshin murmured.  “One does not wish to be a bother to those of greater skill with such matters.”

Lord Tokugawa laughed.  “It’s not all politics, Himura.  After all your talk of bringing a new world into being, have you no desire whatsoever to live in it?”

“One… that is to say…” Kenshin turned the teacup in his hands, watching the foam swirl white-on-green.  “It is not so simple as that.”

“It never is.  But, Kenshin,” and here Kenshin looked up, because the shōgun had only used his given name twice in the fifteen years they’d been vassal and lord.  “…it’s been ten years.”

In another man, Kenshin might have called his voice gentle.

“One is,” and Kenshin swallowed down a sudden catch in his throat, “very much aware of how long it has been.  My lord.”

Lord Tokugawa sighed.

“If I had known, then…” he said, addressing himself more than Kenshin.  “Well, it can’t be helped.  The Lady Kaoru, then.  Does she please you?”

And Kenshin was, abruptly, completely sick of it all. 

“She’s terrified of me,” he said flatly.  “She’s been sold to a demon, and she’s waiting to be devoured.  No, my lord, it doesn’t please me to have a wife who thinks herself a sacrifice.  Would it please you?”

“Shall I order you divorced, then?”  Lord Tokugawa said it so casually that for a split second Kenshin found himself considering it.  He could release her, untouched.  She could go home and marry – marry someone else.  Someone more suitable.  Someone who didn’t trail bloody myths behind him like a ragged banner; she’d have no choice in who she wed because women never did, but at least she’d marry a man

He’d never see her again. 

And she would always be marked.  She would be the demon’s bride for the rest of her life, and what kind of man, exactly, would take the hand of a woman tainted by such a legend? 

“…No.  What she did – she has behaved, in all ways, with honor.”  He couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice; the only way to soften it was to remember the proud set of her shoulders when she spoke to him.  “She is a woman of extraordinary valor.  One does not wish to dishonor her with divorce.”

“I see.”  Lord Tokugawa raised an eyebrow.  “Well.  Give it time, Himura.  Perhaps I’ll have the Lady Kame pay her a visit; it will do her good to have some female companionship.”

“As you wish,” Kenshin said, because there was nothing else he could say.

~*~

The shōgun had dismissed him after lunch.  Kenshin had considered going home; then he’d remembered what was waiting for him there and decided to find something else to do for the rest of the day.

That was why he found himself standing outside the barracks that housed his personal guard and the chief administrators of his estate.  He’d only visited here once before, to meet chief members of his staff.  He had yet to actually tour his new lands.  Hito province was about a day’s travel from Edo, not very wealthy when compared to other fiefs, and known primarily for turning out artists, scholars, and priests.  The Kamiya family had been patrons of the arts since the Kamakura shōgunate, and even the warriors of Hito province were renowned for their intellectual bent.

He wondered, sometimes, if giving him this domain had been Lord Tokugawa’s idea of a joke. 

Eventually, he would have to travel there and take up residence.  But the shōgun desired him to reside in Edo for the first year of the new regime, so here he was and here he’d stay.  It was probably better that way.  It would give his people – and there was a terrifying thought – a chance to learn that nothing was going to change.  For everyone to settle in a bit before the demon came home to roost.

The guards outside the barracks bowed as he approached.  There were two of them, and older man and a younger one.  The younger was remarkably skinny, and Kenshin found himself wondering how his armor stayed on. 

Kenshin returned the bow with a nod.  He had tried to bow back properly to his retainers only once, when he had just been elevated; it had touched off a remarkable chain of bows, each one trying to be deeper than the last, which he’d been hard-pressed to return until he realized that returning the bows was triggering even more bowing, at which point he’d decided to err on the side of not giving everyone whiplash from then on.  It still felt strange, though, to bow to so few people.

“How may we be of service, my lord?”

“One wishes to…” Whatever he said had to be non-committal, something that couldn’t be interpreted as a criticism.  “Check on the progress of the transition, that I do.”

The older guard blanched.  “Is – is it not satisfactory, my lord?”

Dammit. 

“Ah – that’s not the case, it is not,” he said quickly.  “One is curious, only.”

“Mr. Iwaji,” the guard said, nodding to his counterpart.  “Go and tell Mr. Uramura that our lord wishes to make an inspection.”

“A – at once, honored elder brother!” the boy said in a rush, and darted off.  The elder Iwaji paled and bowed to him again.  Sweat beaded on his forehead.

“Please forgive my worthless younger brother’s lapse in protocol,” he said, fear straining his voice.  “Allow this lowly one to assure you that he will be disciplined for it.”

Kenshin furrowed his brow in confusion, and then realized that the boy had forgotten to bow before he ran off.

“That’s hardly necessary,” Kenshin objected, raising his hands in a peacemaking gesture.  “Is the lad new to the post?”

“Y – yes, my lord.” The guard swallowed.  “He came of age only last month.”

“Well, he shows spirit, that he does.  One is certain he will be a credit to your family, in time.  Ah – might one ask your name?”

“…Ichiro, my lord.  Ichiro Iwaji.”  The guard still hadn’t straightened from his bow.  It was starting to hurt Kenshin’s neck, looking down on him.

“Please stand up straight, Mr. Iwaji,” Kenshin asked mildly, and took a startled step backwards when Ichiro sprang up like a catapult.

“And what is your brother’s name?” Kenshin started to ask, and then said brother returned with a man Kenshin dimly recognized as his chief retainer, Uramura, in tow.

“My lord,” Uramura said, bowing.  He was about Kenshin’s age, although he looked older, and had a stern, narrow face.  “You wish to inspect our progress?”

“That’s so.”  Kenshin tucked his hands inside his sleeve.  “But only if it is not too great an interruption, that is.”

“Not at all, my lord.”  He was telling the truth, mostly.  Kenshin weighed causing a minor inconvenience to others against going home to the Lady Kaoru, to her courage and her fierce pride and her endlessly deep blue eyes.

“In that case,” he said a little too quickly.  “Please, permit one to impose.”

His Edo household consisted of one hundred retainers, all samurai.  His seat at Hito hosted considerably more; however, they were needed throughout the province, to govern, administrate, and keep the peace.  All of them had served the late Lord Kamiya, although Uramura hastened to assure Kenshin that they were all completely obedient to the shōgun and understood absolutely that he, Lord Himura, was their master now. 

“That’s good,” Kenshin said absently, taking in the building.  Narrow corridors branched between large rooms that could be subdivided with screens.  The corridor floors were wooden; the rooms were covered in bamboo matting.  Slatted windows let sunlight in at strange angles, creating a slightly gloomy atmosphere.  He received the impression of a place that had quieted itself unnaturally in fear, when it was normally loud and slightly smelly, as places full of men living and working at close quarters tended to be.  Rather like a schoolroom when the headmaster enters.

Kenshin stifled a sigh.

“Pardon this lowly one.” Uramura said stiffly.  “However, since my lord is here, there is a small matter which requires your attention.”

“Oh?” Kenshin turned to face his chief retainer.  “What is it?”

“There is the matter of the initial inspection of the province.”  The chief retainer averted his eyes.  “This lowly self would humbly suggest that it be performed sooner, rather than later.”

“…oro?”  Kenshin covered his mouth with his sleeve, turning the exclamation into a cough.  “Your pardon.  Why is that, Mr. Uramura?”

Uramura bowed low, in the manner of one duty-bound to say what they’re about the say and fully aware that they will probably get their head bitten off regardless.

“Lord Himura, although there is not a single child in Japan who does not know your name, your retainers in Hito have yet to see your face.  If my lord would deign to visit with them, they would be most reassured.”

“…have they expressed concerns?”  He’d thought it would be the exact opposite, that they would be happy to keep their demon-lord as far away from them as possible.

“No one would dare to question your will, my lord.”  Uramura hesitated, then plowed ahead, and Kenshin felt a grudging admiration for his stubborn fulfillment of duty.  It was a chief retainer’s job to say things that his lord might not wish to hear, after all.  “However, the reports this lowly self has received indicate a degree of confusion over what the future is to hold.”

“Was it not made clear that one has no desire to change the traditional operation of the province?” 

“It was, my lord.  However, they are a foolish lot, and it seems they require a firmer hand then my lord might have believed.”

Which, credit where it’s due, was the most diplomatic way of saying ‘they think you’re lying’ that Kenshin had ever seen.  He nodded.

“One perceives the difficulty, Mr. Uramura, that I do.  However, as you know, the shōgun has asked one to reside in Edo until the year is out, so he has…”

“The lowly self has taken the liberty of beginning to make the appropriate inquiries.  The shōgun would be willing to grant my lord a week’s leave in which to tour his new estates.”

“I see.  In that case, then…”  In that case, he hardly had a choice.  If the local lords would be calmed by meeting their overlord, then he had to go; his orders were to ensure a smooth integration of the formerly rebellious province into Lord Tokugawa’s vision of the united Japan.  And doubtless the Lady Kaoru would prefer that they spend as much time apart as possible.

Unless…

“Mr. Uramura,” he asked, raising his eyes to study the ceiling.  Dust motes swirled in the afternoon light, like little dead stars in a golden stream.  “Have my honored wife’s uncle and his family left Edo?”

“Not yet, my lord.  He intends to depart after custom has been satisfied.”

He was waiting for the traditional visit, then.  On the third day of married life, bride and groom visited the bride’s former home to assure her family that all was well.  Kenshin wondered why he was bothering.  He certainly couldn’t expect to hear good news.

The Lady Kaoru had promised her sisters a visit, hadn’t she?

“In that case, please tell him that he may leave Edo at any time, that he may,” Kenshin said, smiling a little.  Maybe it would please her, to go home.  “As one must travel to the province regardless, it seems sensible to travel with the Lady Kaoru, and make the first visit in the process.  Does it not?”

Uramura blinked, taken aback.  “Um.  Well.  That is certainly possible, my lord.”

“Then it’s settled, it is,” Kenshin said, feeling better than he had in weeks. 

~*~

Kenshin spent the rest of the day holed up in a very tiny office with poor ventilation, receiving a far fuller briefing on the current state of his lands than he had really wanted.  His head was aching by the time they were done, and the silence of his manor – even as lonely and fearful as it was – came as a blessed relief.

He had sent ahead with his time of arrival, so that the Lady Kaoru would have time to eat her dinner before she had to serve him.  When he arrived, she was kneeling quietly by the tray already set with his meal.  She held herself proudly even in wifely submission, and he had to look very hard to notice the faint trembling in her fingers.

After he’d eaten, he cleared his throat.

“Honored wife.”

“My lord husband,” she said, bowing with the dignity of a captive empress.  “How was your day?”

“Ah – productive.  There is one matter of which you should be aware, that there is.”

She tilted her head slightly, and a strand of hair fell into her eyes.  He wanted very badly to smooth it away, and took a gulp of tea instead.  A larger one that was wise, as it happened, and he choked a little.

“That is that matter – of the first visit.  Since it seems one is required to tour the province sooner rather than later, it seemed sensible to combine the two duties, that it did.  Therefore, if it’s agreeable, would you be so kind as to accompany one on a visit to your childhood home?”

Shock filled her eyes, although her face barely twitched.

“I – that would be – I would be most happy, honored husband,” she said quietly.  And happily.  She hid it carefully, but he could see it.

He could also see the creeping wariness tainting that relief.

“Good,” he said, standing to leave before he did something stupid, like take hold of one of those graceful hands and beg her not to fear him. 

“Sleep well, honored wife,” he said, and went to bed alone.