The woman – whose face was hidden carefully under the hood of her dark cape – stopped in her tracks and took a peek over her shoulder in concern. There was not a soldier in sight as she feared, but she still couldn't shake the feeling that she was being followed. This morning, the sun was shining brightly over her head and the village buzzing with sounds and voices. The market was monopolizing everyone's attention. And the woman was precisely taking advantage of the agitation to make her way through the village unnoticed. She had been waiting three long weeks to execute her escape plan. It couldn't fail now; not when she was so close to reaching her goal.
She took a cautious look around the main street, before raising her gaze in the direction of the distant castle. She was glad she managed to make it safely out of the vicinity of the castle without alerting a single guard, but she was aware that she was not completely safe yet. The castle she had fled still represented a serious threat, and she needed to distance herself from it as fast as possible.
Her heart was still pounding inside her chest when she tugged at the top of her hood to bury her slightly pale face underneath it. It didn't matter how many precautions she had taken on her way here: the apprehension simply refused to leave her. Her identity was cleverly hindered by her dark cape. And it was not the few strands of long, black hair escaping her hood that could have alerted any bystander. Since she had left the castle, she had crossed the path of many. But not a single person could have guessed the surprising identify of the woman who was trying to flee the lands of the clan Ashikaga.
The longer she stayed in that place, the longer she was in danger of being captured. That notion in mind she set her eyes back in front of her and moved forward in determination. There was no turning back now. It was out of the question to return to the castle. She was definitely not going to comply to her father's wishes and marry the shogun's son. Her father could dishonor her for all she knew. It was impossible for her to forget about a certain someone. Someone she had been forced to lie to.
Her eyes lit up in expectation when she noticed the gates leading outside the village. Once she would have passed them, she would be free. Free to look for the person who had stolen her heart so many years ago.
Apprehension gave way to relief when she noticed her personal maid waiting at the entrance, holding the reins of a saddled horse. Perfect. Everything was going according to her plan. A few more steps, and she would escape this place.
As she was about to send a smile of gratitude to her maid, five guards in arms appeared behind her servant. She stopped her advance at once and froze: it was the personal guard of Ashikaga-dono. Considering their serene appearance, it was evident they had been waiting for her this whole time. Her eyes flickered back to her maid in incomprehension, noticing the way she was nervously avoiding her gaze. That's when it hit her. She had been betrayed by the only person she trusted in the castle.
Without thinking twice, she turned abruptly on her heels and walked in the opposite direction, her eyes seeking desperately left and right for another escape route. She had made it all this far. She couldn't give up now. She simply refused to. Her pace quickened up, and she rushed into a narrowed alley on her right.
Think, Arisa, the fugitive repeated in her head over and over. She was trying her best not to panic at the unforeseen turn of events, but her mind was stubbornly refusing to come up with a solution for her problem. There was only one way out of the village, and her means of transport was now out of reach. How was she going to make it, now that her escape had been discovered? Where could she possibly hide?
The view of five guards waiting for her at the far end of the alley jolted her out of her thoughts. She halted immediately – ready to retrace her steps – when she discovered five other men blocking her way on the other side. She was completely trapped. A mix of anger and despair invaded her when she saw the captain of the guards walking towards her. Furious she was to have placed her faith in someone she wrongly believed trustworthy. And desperate when she realized she would be brought back to the castle. The last place on earth she wished to be.
“Onishi-san, could you please follow us back to the castle?” the dark-haired man, now standing in front of her, inquired politely.
It was nothing but an order. Arisa didn't fool herself into believing she had any choice in the matter. Only her noble rank was forbidding the man to grab her by the arm and bring her back to the castle forcibly. She could already hear the steps of the guards getting closer behind her. And she knew struggling was much useless against ten armed men. Her tanto hidden under her kimono was of no use. She was at an impasse.
“I will not try to run away,” Arisa affirmed as she addressed the captain. “So tell your men to leave.”
Arisa knew she had not chance to leave the village now, but she certainly didn't wish to be brought back to the castle surrounded by ten soldiers like a vulgar criminal. Everyone would be turning on her way and staring at her in curiosity. She had too much pride to let such a thing happen.
The captain gazed at her for a little while – as if measuring the sincerity of her words – before waving at the guards with the back of his hand. Out of the corner of her eye, Arisa saw the men obeying and moving back from the pair, though still staying close by enough. The captain stepped aside and raised his hand to indicate her to move forward. Maybe it was out of refusal to accept the harsh reality, but her feet stayed stuck on the ground at first.
Her attempt to flee had failed miserably. And there was no way the shogun's son would ever take the risk of it happening again. After today, her guard was going to be doubled. And her every move closely monitored.
Arisa looked up in distress at the castle that was going to be her prison for the rest of her life. The hope of being reunited again with her childhood friend vanished from her mind progressively. Never will her soul mate learn the truth of her actions: that she had only lied to protect him. Forgive me, Nobunaga.
The captain was still standing by her side when she was presented to Ashikaga-dono. The son of the shogun was immerged in a mountain of work when she entered his office and reading attentively a scroll spread in front of him on the desk. After a little while he acknowledged her presence and raised his gaze to look at her. Arisa expected to read anger in his eyes – a predictable reaction to her attempted flee – but to her surprise, she saw no such emotion. If anything, he looked a bit... saddened. That definitely took Arisa off guard, and her silent, defiant look softened slightly.
“You can leave,” the son of the shogun ordered the captain.
From her peripheral vision Arisa saw the latter bowing politely to him, until making his way out as indicated. As soon as the door slid closed behind her, the son of the shogun looked down to his desk and paid attention to his work. Arisa didn't know how to interpret his behavior but she refused to move from her spot near the door, studying him from afar.
The young dark-haired man was a hard worker: of that she was well aware. Each time she happened to be brought to him since her arrival to the castle a month ago, she found him reading or working. If anything, he was definitely not the bloodthirsty warrior she would have feared. Indeed, he rarely left the vicinity of his office. Moreover, he always had been respectful towards her, addressing her politely and calmly when they met. He wasn't a talkative man: their conversations were few and far between. But Arisa could tell it was a man of knowledge. A quality he had probably inherited from his erudite father.
Arisa was conscious she could have stumbled upon someone worse. For example, having no choice but to marry a brutal man who would have forced himself onto her the first days. No, this young man was nothing like that. He wasn't violent or rude and – if she had to admit – was good looking. Nevertheless, it didn't change the fact that she wished nothing more than to leave this place. This person might not be the atrocious monster she dreaded, she harbored no romantic feelings towards him whatsoever. Only one man would ever hold her heart. And he was far away from Ashikaga's lands.
“Do you abhor my presence so much that you felt the need to flee, Onishi-san?” The questioning voice disrupted the heavy atmosphere as the son of the shogun gazed at her again.
This sadness she had distinguished in his eyes was now perceptive in his tone. Arisa truly didn't know what to make of it, and it took her a few seconds to formulate an answer. Her voice was less harsh than initially intended when she replied. “You know why I left, Ashikaga-dono.”
"Yes," the young samurai conceded with a small sigh. “You wish to find the one your heart truly yearns for.”
Words stayed stuck in Arisa's mouth as she looked back at him in bewilderment. How could he possibly be aware of that? Her relationship with her childhood friend had always remained a secret. Not even her father had managed to discover the truth. The only person who ever knew about it was...
Realization hit her. There was in fact one girl she had confided in a few weeks ago, out of deep sorrow. That day, the separation with her loved one had become too hard to bear with, and she had let the confession leave her lips. Unfortunately, her slip of her tongue had reached the wrong ears. Because the only witness of her confession – her maid – had betrayed her not long after by divulging her decision to escape. And evidently also shared all her secrets with the son of the shogun.
Fear took hold of Arisa as she understood the possible consequences of her indiscretion. The son of the shogun was aware of the existence of her childhood friend. Which meant he could be in great danger right now. It might already be too late.
“I would never hurt him,” the son of the shogun reassured her, as if he could read her mind. “Your childhood friend has not been harmed by my soldiers.”
“How can I trust your word?” Arisa couldn't help but ask, her voice quivering for the first time. Never the son of the shogun had demonstrated any sign of violence in the past, but they did not live in peaceful times. Nuisance was taken care of without any remorse, and her dear Nobunaga could still represent a threat in the eyes of her interlocutor. Nevermind if she purposely put some distance between them – and shamefully lied to him – in order to desperately try to protect him.
“This union doesn't please me more than you,” the son of the shogun declared, leaving aside his work to focus entirely on her.
There was a small pause, until he got up from his seat and walked towards her, his hands clasped behind his back when he came to stand a few feet before her. “Believe me when I say I wish there was another way, but we need to unite our two clans.”
“I know the politics,” Arisa retorted. Yes, he was speaking nothing but the truth. They needed peace. And this wedding would assure it. But it didn't make the facts any more acceptable. That's why her tone was decisive when she continued. “But you have to understand I will never be able to love you.”
A faint smile fell on the young samurai's lips, and he nodded slightly. “I'm not naive enough to believe I will ever replace him, but I still hope you will one idea found a place in your heart to accept me.”
Arisa watched silently as he walked back towards his desk and sat down to focus on his work. She was in the presence of a good man: of this, she was now completely certain. Was it truly her fate to marry him and stay forever by his side? Or would destiny enable her – one day – to be reunited with her beloved Nobunaga? For the first time since she joined the castle of the clan Ashikaga, the answer wasn't as clear as before.
It was still daylight that Friday evening when Rena left the dressing room and prepared herself to leave the set. Three weeks ago – after her graduation concert in Nagoya – she had left for Kyoto for the shooting of a new drama: Destiny. A long, period drama of thirty episodes, in which she played the leading role. Arisa Onishi. A woman forced to marry Yoshiaki Ashikaga – the son of a powerful shogun – while still being in love with her childhood friend, Nobunaga.
As Rena left the large set progressively, she replied on her way politely to every staff member who thanked her for her work. The older Matsui knew she was lucky to have landed on such a big project. And chosen by the director to play the main character. It was undreamt of for a young actress such as her. That's why the thought of refusing didn't even cross her mind when her agent brought this project to her attention. It was an opportunity not to be missed.
As Rena turned around to admire the beautiful castle of Kyoto, she let her mind wander and bring her back in time three weeks ago.
The shooting needed to start not long after her graduation concert, obliging her to leave Nagoya swiftly. Jurina was nothing but supportive when she told her about her new drama, but Rena knew the young girl would be dreading the long separation. Two months. They had never been apart for so long. Not even when she occasionally left for Tokyo in the past for Nogizaka46 related works.
Jurina didn't try to stop her from leaving. In fact, she even accompanied her to the train station. But, as they hugged each other goodbye, the older Matsui couldn't help but notice the apprehension behind Jurina's smile. That look made her pause in her steps on the platform. Was it truly reasonable for her to accept such a big project – that would force them to be apart for two months – after everything they had gone through recently?
They had talked about it a few times, and Jurina had assured her that she was okay with the separation. But was she really telling the truth? That day, as Rena was about to step into the Shinkansen leading to Kyoto, she found herself hesitant. As she was about to open her mouth, Jurina had sent her an amused smile and squeezed her fingers. Come on, you're going to miss your train.
Ah, you're right, Rena exclaimed – her attention caught by the announcement of the prompt departure of the train by the station manager – until her eyes quickly fell on the girl standing in front of her. She took a step forward to embrace the young girl one last time and placed a kiss on her cheek. She didn't miss the way Jurina returned the embrace tightly, and only let go of her after a few long seconds. When Rena stepped back to take a look at her, a smile was still plastered on Jurina's face, as if everything was really fine. But the previous gesture was a hint that it was not the entire truth.
We'll stay in contact every day, Rena promised, raising her Smartphone in the air. I'll come on LINE at the end of each day of shooting.
Jurina simply nodded and helped her move her suitcase up the three small stairs leading inside the train. Once inside Rena turned to gaze at her, mimicking her action when Jurina waved her hand at her. Rena heard the final signal and knew the door would close at any minute. She addressed SKE's ace one last time. Take care of yourself.
There were three little – but crucial – words she wished to also add but knew she couldn't utter out loud because they were in public. However, warmth spread through her chest when – before the door closed – she saw Jurina's lips forming silently those exact same words. I love you.
Rena jolted out of her thoughts when she heard a masculine voice calling her name, and she tore her eyes away from the place where she had the privilege to work at almost every day. Standing by the side of a taxi were two people whom she knew well. They were both her co-stars.
Yosuke Masada – 25 years old – was 5 feet 10 inches tall with short, black hair. Polite and respectful, he always arrived in advance on set. Although shy and introvert at first, he gradually became a bit more talkative with her as the weeks went by. After all, they shared most of their screen time together, as the young actor played the role of Yoshiaki Ashikaga, the son of the shogun.
Sayuri Kaneko - 21 years old - played the role of her maid. She was the exact opposite of Yosuke. She had shoulder-length black hair, and a cheerful personality. Sometimes, she even reminded her a bit of Jurina by her playfulness between two takes. And her astonishing capacity to get immediately back into her role as soon as the cameras were rolling again.
Rena sent them a smile and walked towards them, knowing full well what they were expecting of her. Each Friday night, it was their little ritual: they would go out to a restaurant and spend a carefree evening together. The first week Sayuri suggested the idea to both Yosuke and her, Rena found herself a bit hesitant. The shooting of the drama had barely begun, and the older Matsui preferred to spend a quiet evening in her hotel room. However, the younger girl had insisted greatly and – in the end – Rena had relented. A decision she never regretted since, considering they always spent a nice time the three of them.
Sayuri had a low resistance to alcohol. That's a fact Rena discovered their second week of shooting in Kyoto, when they happened to go out to a restaurant. Usually, Yosuke would stop her from drinking too much as soon as he noticed the effects of the beverage on the young actress. If truth be told, Rena did wonder about the nature of their relationship. Both actors knew each other before joining the shooting of Destiny, and Sayuri always behaved in a carefree way with him.
Indeed, it wasn't unusual to hear Sayuri address him in a familiar way on set, or have a few affectionate gestures, such as holding his arm or hugging him. As for him, he didn't seem to mind any of those, even laughing a bit when she happened to crack a joke. To be honest, it wouldn't have startled Rena to learn that they were dating. All the signs would have been right in front of her eyes from the start.
But she never questioned them about it. During their conversations, their own personal lives always remained off topic. Rena didn't mind it as she was a private person. And Yosuke also happened to be discrete. Sayuri however... it was a different matter. And when she started to drink, the situation could escalate quickly. Tonight, after three weeks of shooting, alcohol was going to loosen her tongue as never before.
“I'll never be truly happy,” a now heavily drunk Sayuri stated, staring into space. “I work all day, almost 24/7. How am I supposed to meet someone? Love is not possible for people like us.”
Rena looked up from the ramen she was eating to gaze at the young actress seated opposite her, before stealing a glance at Yosuke who was eating beside Sayuri. Considering the surprise now written all over his face, he truly didn't expect such words to escape her mouth. It wasn't surprising to see Sayuri slightly getting carried away when she had too many drinks, but never had she looked so drunk.
Yosuke always stopped her before it went too far, but it seemed the actor was lost in his thoughts all evening. And, to be honest, Rena had been the same way, thinking about a certain someone waiting for her in Nagoya. That's why they had both completely missed what was going on under their nose.
Rena held her breath when Sayuri's eyes felon her. There was no way to predict what she was going to say next in her current drunken state, and it rendered the older Matsui slightly nervous. To her relief, the young actress diverted quickly her attention to Yosuke, before opening her mouth. “You're so nice,” she declared, placing her head upon his shoulder. “So why do I only see you as an older brother?”
“I think we should bring you back to the hotel,” Yosuke said gently, extracting the bottle of saké from Sayuri's fingers and pushing it away, out of reach. “You've had too much for tonight.”
Sayuri didn't oppose any resistance to the action and laced her hand around his arm, burying her nose inside the crook of his neck and closing her eyes. Rena watched them as Yosuke let her stay into that position for a little while, until disentangling himself from her and helping her getting up. Unfortunately, the steps of the drunk girl were far from steady, and he seized her arm at the last second when she was about to stumble. His eyes fell on Rena once he made sure the girl was stabilized. "Rena-san, can you please help me? I'm going to call a taxi."
“Of course.” Rena nodded immediately, joining the young Sayuri and placing her arm around her waist to make sure she would not fall again. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Yosuke making the call, while feeling the scent of the alcohol reaching her nostrils when Sayuri leaned her head on her shoulder.
Rena had no idea what prompted the usually so cheerful girl to drink so much tonight. And felt bad for not seeing what was going on until it was too late. A few customers were currently looking at them in curiosity, and the older Matsui was glad when Yosuke came back to help her lead Sayuri safely out of the restaurant.
Rena – standing by the front door of the hotel room – watched worriedly Sayuri who was seated on the bed, her back leaning against the headboard. Yosuke was trying to make her drink some water, and Rena couldn't help but feel moved by his kindness and gentle attention.
“I'm going to leave the glass here and a few pills for tomorrow's headache,” Yosuke declared as he placed the glass on the bedside table. He received a few incoherent words in reply. “Try to sleep.”
“I'm sorry about that,” Yosuke spoke when he approached a still concerned Rena. “I don't know what took hold of her. It's my fault, I didn't see it happening.”
“It's not your fault.” Rena shook her head lightly at him. "I didn't see it either.”
“Sayuri is a cheerful person,” Yosuke continued, his gaze falling on the girl who was falling asleep on the bed. “But sometimes, she has that distant look in her eyes, as if she wasn't really here. As if... she was thinking about someone.”
Rena looked back at him, slightly startled by the turn of their conversation. Never had the young actor spoken so freely about Sayuri. And, as he opened his mouth again, she could predict he was about to say more.
“I've known Sayuri for a year now. She's like a sister to me. She's cheerful and affectionate. You witnessed the way she sometimes sneakily kisses my cheek on set,” Yosuke said, giving an amused side-glance to Rena, to which she agreed with a smile.
However, his features darkened progressively, and his tone grew more serious. “But sometimes, I feel like she's keeping something important from me.”
Yosuke watched one last time the sleeping girl, before making his way out of the room. “I can see you two have a close bond,” Rena declared as she followed him, and he closed the door carefully behind them. “But everyone has an inner sanctum. I'm afraid there's nothing you can do about it.”
“You're right.” Yosuke nodded. “It's only human nature to want to keep certain things to yourself. But is it worth it if this secret makes you unhappy?”
Rena didn't reply, watching instead Yosuke sending her one last smile before turning on his heels. The older Matsui didn't know why, but she could feel deep down inside that his words were going to stay engraved in her memory.