A Dangerous Game: A Tale of Winter Court, Part Two
The Kuni had been a fool.
Everyone in the Winter Court was whispering about it – the life of the daughter of the Shosuro daimyo, saved by the first son of the Crane daimyo. Really, it was too much to ask, that such a thing could occur. And to see it happen, in front of the entire assemblage of courtiers, well, that had been a singular event.
He had deserved his death. Any man foolish enough to stand between a Scorpion and their destiny can only receive a bitter end. It should be a lesson to those who would try.
In the wings of the Imperial Palace at Otosan Uchi, the courtiers were buzzing like the bees of spring, desperately searching for some reason, some blackmail or skillful political pressure that had been applied to the Crane. Why on earth would he have done such a thing?
Kachiko blessed the easy outrage of the Crab. Without a single push, he had risen to his fee,t screaming about her dishonor, and shouting the most outlandish stories. Under such circumstance, how could the ‘noble’ Crane refuse her?
The Crab are outraged. There may be war.
“Let war come,” Kachiko smiled to herself. “And I, as the Lady of the Scorpion Clan, I will be ready for it.”
“Meet me in the garden,” she had whispered.
Easy enough, for the daimyo of the Doji family. he could go anywhere, see anyone he wised with in the palace of the emperor – his Uncle. A cheerful smile touched Hoturi’s face as he strode toward his chambers.
It had been a simple thing, the duel. Once Hoturi had been told that the Shosuro maiden was breaching her engagement, the rest fell into place. One stroke, one dead Crab, and the Scorpion now owed the Crane the life of their daughter. Hoturi had known the night before, and had been careful to find the ideal location – not too close, and not too far away. Before the court, Kakita Yoshi had been quietly sent to speak to the Hiruma boy, raising his anger with talk of the Scorpion maiden’s unfaithfulness, and to spread rumors of a baby already in her womb. An accusation, a duel, had been inevitable.
When it came, Hoturi was there to collect the spoils.
The politicians will argue about it for days. He paused near a sliding paper door to look in at the giggling maids inside, rolling the blankets for the day.
“I will have her.”
The maids looked up, shocked, and Hoturi realized he had spoken aloud. As the giggling girls touched their foreheads to the floor, he smiled again, bowed slightly, and continue on.
Let them say that the Scorpions are masters of manipulation. I have used their compassion as easily as if they were no more than the youngest maiden of the Isawa. I saw the Lady’s eyes, and I already know her heart. Hoturi paused to allow the guards at the door to slide back the thin paper frame. I know how a woman’s mind works….
In the garden, three Scorpions – all maidens – looked up from their whispers. As he approached, the daughter of the Shosuro daimyo bowed slightly and her maids did the same, hiding quick, blushing smiles behind their lace masks.
…and I will have her.
“My Lady.” He bowed with practiced ease and a faint smile touched her features. With the maids a discreet distance behind they walked toward the water’s edge.
“Your arm, my Lord Hoturi,” she murmured. “Is it well?” He is beautiful, but there is no more intelligence to him than a used rag, she thought. He is worse than my brother, who inherits his position through birth, and wastes the strength of the clan on uselessness.
As the hour passed, the maids watched the expressions of the two. Though little seemed to pass between them it was a masterpiece of move and countermove, their eyes shifting like animals in cages of glass. Between them, something stirred. Some strange destiny, a thousand years in the making, twisted their lives to this point and the stars stood, breathless, to watch the game unfold.
“I am sorry that the Crab caused you such pain, Shosuro-san,” Hoturi spoke quietly, unwilling to disturb her beauty.
She sighed carefully, raising her fan with her dyed cotton glove. “My lord, you should not have concerned yourself.”
“While others lament what they should have done, the wise man prepares for what he should do next,” Hoturi stepped to her side, pushing one of the branches of the pine trees aside so that the snow would not fall upon her sleeve.
Kachiko smiled. “Shinesei’s Tao, Doji-sama?” She should not have been surprised, of course, she thought. All noblemen are taught to quote a few verses, here and there. Her brother had been carefully schooled in the Tao, quoting his recitations for hours on end with no sign of comprehension. Of course, the son of the Crane would known his share.
“My sister, Shizue, reads it to me when I practice kata at the Academy.”
Kachiko looked up, surprised. “Your sister? I had thought such tasks were ‘beyond’ the minds of noblewomen.”
Hoturi laughed. “My sister is unusual. Besides, why should women be refused anything?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Those who say that women are not ‘suited’ to learning are unaware of their abilities. I have met many Isawa and Shiba maidens,” Hoturi’s lips curled in a faint grin at the thought, “who are well-versed in such things, and that does not make them any less desirable as wives.”
Kachiko paused. Once, she had approached the sacred book, but Hametsu’s tutor had blackened her hand for it. Suddenly, this arrogant Crane had caught her interest.
“At the house of my father, such things would not be tolerated, of course,” Hoturi continued, “but I see no reason that she cannot aid me in my studies….”
“And of course, she is only reading the book for you, not for her own benefit.” She smiled and was surprised at the touch of true amusement in her motion.
Two courtiers passed in the snow, whispering behind raised fans, One man, too fat for his elaborate kimono, seemed too calm, too sure of himself. The other had a face the red of the sunset, blustering and waving his arm in an exaggerated motion.
Kachiko raised her chin, amused at their ineptitude, and caught the same smile reflected in Hoturi’s eyes. He knows the game.
“Those two men,” Hoturi began, turning away. “one is the Unicorn ambassador, Ide Itagi. He has every intent of bringing home a rich wife so that his house will prosper.”
“Too bad Itagi is a self-absorbed, gaijin-smelling boor.” She smiled delightedly, again amused that he would share these thoughts with her.
Hoturi chuckled, surprised that she knew so much. Perhaps she is not the weak-willed harridan I had thought. “the other,” he pointed at the calm-looking courtier, “is Akodo Matsigoshi, a man with thirteen daughters, each uglier than the next. He plans to arrange the marriage with Itagi without allowing the groom to see the bride before their wedding day.”
“Perfectly suited,” Kachiko turned away, “save for the fact that Matsigoshi’s eldest daughter has planned to run away with a Matsu samurai this spring, despite her father’s wishes.”
At this, Hoturi raised an interested eyebrow. “Ladies’ talk, Shosuro-san?”
She looked up into his eyes, a touch of frank anger kindled in her gaze. “Do you believe that women have no skill in such matters?” His comment reminded Kachiko of her father’s disparaging remarks about the ladies of the court.
Amused, the Crane tilted his head to the side, appraising her beauty and poise. “No madam. I only imply that politics are not usually the province of women.”
“You underestimate us,” she snapped irritably, a touch of emotion sneaking beneath her mask.
“No, lady, I overestimate myself.” She raised her eyes at his disparaging comment, and then laughed.
“Do you enjoy go, Shosuro-san?” Hoturi smiled.
“Of course, Doji-sama.” Her eyes lowered. “I have learned much of it from watching my brother.” It was not the answer Hoturi had expected. A woman, skilled in the game of battle and strategy? Unusual.
“Do you play often, my Lord?” She moved toward a large stone board hidden beneath a lowered branch near a frozen stream.
“No.” A pause. “I once did, but that was long ago.” Images of his mother laughing on the beaches of Doji castle flooded his mind, and he turned his face to the sun.
Melodramatic fool. Kachiko forced a seductive curve to her lips as her hand brushed icicles from a nearby pine bough. “Do you think I would be challenge enough for you, Doji-sama?” A step closer, and the snow hushed around her feet.
Hoturi looked into her eyes, surprised by the intelligence there. “Yes, my lady Shosuro-san,” he smiled charmingly, and Kachiko felt her own smile turn genuine.
She was amazed at the tone in his voice, as if he truly understood the game she offered. Looking up at the tale, pale-haired Crane lord, she recognized not only a skilled opponent, but one who understood the game as well as she, and knew the price of failure….and the sweet taste of victory.
“So, Shosuro-san, shall we play?” Hoturi reached into the cups on the table and brushed a faint drift of snow from the marble board. Hidden beneath the limb of the pine, only the faint whispers of Kachiko’s maids penetrated the gentle stillness.
White and black. Two stones lay in his hand cupped in his palm. Kachiko reached for them, her gloved fingertips brushing against their cold surface without picking up either. Their eyes met for a moment and she murmured, “Of course, I shall be white.” White, the color of the board’s owner, the master of the territory on which the game would be played.
“Are you so sure, Shosuro-san?” His hand closed, nearly trapping her fingers. “I think, perhaps, that your color is black. After all, your skills at the game are not so great as my own.” His voice held a challenge that could not be denied.
“Do you believe that to be so?” She whispered, moving closer to him.
Her perfume was intoxicating – but not more so than hundreds of others. Her beauty dazzled him, but he had seen beauty before, in all its forms and colors. It was the intelligence in her eyes that caught his imagination, more than her seductive movements and the soft skin. “It may be, Shosuro-san,” he murmured, tasting the scent of her hair.
His gaze held lust, and lust was an emotion that Kachiko knew well. Men of all clans, all families and social strata had looked at her that way, form the day of her gempukku at fourteen. Her nurse had taught her to foster such feelings, to control men by their needs and desires, but Kachiko paused. More than mere lust, she saw another sentiment warring in the Crane’s eyes. Respect.
And respect was something Kachiko was unprepared to accept or control.
“We shall see,” she whispered, her body inches from his. Stepping away, she bowed slightly and turned , moving past the snow-covered branch.
As she walked with her maids back toward the awning of the Imperial Palace, Hoturi’s hand closed again around the two stones. “Yes, Kachiko,” he murmured thoughtfully. “We shall soon see.”