I have decided to try and post chapters twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays...with luck I shall stay ahead of that schedule! Now, On to Chapter Two
Dai Ni Shou
Mai waited patiently for the emperor’s attention to turn to her. “Brother, you look tired.”
"My councilors believe it is time you were married,” he said without preamble. “The Shogun is looking for a new consort and they think it best it were you. It would strengthen his loyalty to our house.”
"I shall not,” she declared, eyes flashing angrily. “I am not some piece of meat to be bartered at your whim. The Shogun is old and ugly. Besides, he already has a wife and a concubine. Surely the sister of the emperor deserves better than the position of third plaything. Is that really the future you wish to sentence me to?”
"Do you have a better suggestion? I am open to other alliances, but it is high time you were wed.”
"I have thought long and hard about it,” Mai admitted. “My preference would be never to marry, but I know that is not an option. Still, there is one man I would consider.”
"Who is this mysterious man my sister deems worthy of her attentions? And what benefit does such a joining bring to our house?”
"Yakushi Kenshin, my lord. He is the chief retainer of Murakami-sama, a strong warrior with the ear of his liege. A marriage to him would solidify your ties with that region. He is also still single. The position of first wife is certainly more appealing to me.”
"It would be a marginally acceptable match,” the emperor admitted. “But he has always avoided the ties of marriage. What makes you think you can convince him?”
Of course, that had been part of her plan. The fact that he had no interest in marriage made it less likely she would be forced into a traditional relationship. She hoped to convince Kenshin they could form an alliance of convenience. She would be his wife in appearance only, with no obligation on his part to visit her bed. In return, he would help her become stronger and give her the freedom to train openly, perhaps even fight at his side. Just in case, she had picked a man who would appeal to any woman – strong, fair of face and relatively young. If he insisted on consummating the relationship it would not be offensive. “I believe I have more to offer than the average candidate,” she replied. “Arrange a meeting and let me try to convince him, at least.”
"I will consider your proposal,” the emperor decided. “You will be notified if a meeting can be arranged. Until then I expect you to consider other possibilities. One way or another you will be wed this season.”
"Yes, my lord. Thank you for your patience.”
"You are my sister. I would like to see you happy, if such a thing is possible.”
Mai made the required formal prostrations, backing out of the room as quickly as possible while keeping her face averted to hide the gleeful smirk she could not contain. Once outside she raced to her rooms, heedless of the disdainful looks she received from her brother’s concubines as she passed. She had been subjected to more than enough lectures about how a woman of her status should behave. The thought of spending her life wrapped in elaborate silks and tittering behind a fan filled her with contempt. She had no desire to act the simpering fool, even less so if it meant she had to suffer a man’s heavy hands and sour breath in her bed. She would make Kenshin accept her, whatever it took. The alternative was too grim to contemplate.
* * *
Kenshin swept through the corridors of the daimyo’s palace, the look on his face causing everyone he passed to fall back in fear. It was obvious the powerful samurai was angry, beyond angry, he was livid with rage, and the pampered courtiers did not wish to provoke him further. No one wanted to risk losing their head over something they had no part in.
He roughly yanked the reins from the servant holding his horse, vaulting into the saddle and galloping off. As he rode he cursed the kami for his change of fortune. He passed a small shrine and decided to stop, lighting incense and clapping his hands three times before bowing his head. “Amaterasu, you have withdrawn your warmth. Tsukuyomi, you no longer light the darkness. You have abandoned me to my fate and delivered me into the hands of your brother Susanoo with his penchant for chaos and destruction. I curse you and these islands to eternal darkness. May the yokai come and devour all your faithful. May their blood run like rivers across this land while I watch and laugh.”
Then he was back on his horse, speeding for home. The last thing he wanted was his new charge to arrive before he did.
Once there he gathered his servants to inform them of Hiroshi’s impending arrival. “He shall use the rooms next to mine. Have them aired and fresh tatami laid. We do not wish to make our guest feel unwelcome.”
"No one could look at that face and feel welcome,” one of the maids whispered. “Yakushi-sama looks like a storm cloud.”
"How our master looks or feels is none of your concern,” the housekeeper hissed. “Your job is to follow his instructions, not meddle in his affairs. Murakami-sama is an honored guest of our master. Make sure you treat him as such.”
Kenshin quickly retreated to his own rooms, his mood improving as soon as he exchanged the too formal kimono for his more usual hakama. Once he stopped to think about it, the situation didn’t seem nearly as dire. He tried to picture his new charge, but the only memories he could conjure were of a small boy in a grass-stained kimono with a smile like the sun.
* * *
Jun studied his reflection in the small hand mirror, tilting his head from side to side to make sure the illusion was perfect. “How do I look?”
"You look beautiful, as always,” Hiroshi assured him. Indeed, with his makeup applied and dressed in layers of silk, Jun could rival any courtesan. “Are you off to the theater, then?”
"No, silly. I'm going with you.”
An icy frisson crept up Hiroshi's spine. Jun might be beautiful, but the thought of passing him off as a woman to his father was one he couldn't contemplate. “That would not be wise. If you are discovered we will both suffer for it. Just wait here for me, I will be back soon.”
"But if he thinks you've found someone he will stop pushing you to marry. I do not wish to lose you to another.” Jun pressed himself against his lover, using all his skill to convince Hiroshi to go along with his plan.
The heady scent of sandalwood and sakura left Hiroshi breathless. It was all he could do to fight the urge to unwrap the layers hiding his lover from view and carry him back to bed. For a moment he was lost in contemplation, picturing that perfect mask smeared across pristine sheets. The consequences of being late to a meeting with his father, though, outweighed his burgeoning erection. “It is impossible. Even if he were to believe your disguise, you lack the pedigree he demands. I will deal with my father. I've managed to evade his matchmaking this long, I'm sure today will be no different.”
Jun's smile slid into a pout. “But I get so lonely when you're away. You wouldn't want me to have to seek another's company.”
"Threatening me isn't going to change my mind.” The blatant manipulation turned regret into anger. “Perhaps it is time I find a more suitable consort.” Hiroshi pushed his lover away to continue dressing, pulling on his heavily embroidered kamishimo and sliding his swords into the proper place. And then he was gone.
The mirror smashed against the wall, followed by an assortment of bottles and boxes as Jun vented his fury on the contents of his dressing table. Rage dissipated and turned to tears. The illusion broke, leaving a weeping mess crumpled in its wake.
* * *
"You summoned me?” Hiroshi knelt before his father, head bowed subserviently.
"Your rebellion has gone on long enough,” the daimyo declared. “I have made arrangements for you to apprentice with one of my samurai.”
"I respectfully request you reconsider. I am far too old for such an arrangement. It would be unseemly.” Inside Hiroshi was panicking. An apprenticeship would put an end to his freedom. Instead of long lazy days in the arms of his lover the future would be filled with hours of tedious practice and meditation under the eyes of a dour warrior.
"What is unseemly is your behavior. Did you think me blind, that I wouldn't notice your dalliance with that actor? You will do as I say, today. I have already sent some men to gather your belongings and take them to your new home.” The daimyo was unmoved by his son's protests. In his heart he hoped Hiroshi would find happiness, but he couldn't allow that wish to compromise his actions.
"And if I refuse?”
"Refusal is not an option. You will do as I command. Go willingly or suffer the insult of being bound and delivered. The choice is yours.”
Hiroshi briefly considered resisting, if only for the pleasure of seeing his father discomfited. The daimyo would certainly suffer more from the loss of face caused by him leaving under duress. But then he realized arriving at his new home bound and gagged would eliminate any chance at freedom. Perhaps, if he cooperated, he would be able to slip away and at least bid his lover farewell. Regret threatened to overwhelm him. If he had known what awaited he would never have passed up a last chance to lay with the man who had captured his heart. “I will go willingly. Anywhere is better than here.”
The daimyo nodded to the waiting guards. They flanked Hiroshi, leading him out of the hall to the carriage that would deliver him to his future.