"Don't speak of it," Kaede interrupted. She finished the last of the rice, placed the eating sticks down on the tray, and bowed in thanks for the food.
Shizuka sighed. "Arai has no real understanding of the Tribe--how they work, what demands they place on those who belong to them."
"Did he never know that you were from the Tribe?"
"He knew I had ways of finding things out, of passing on messages. He was happy enough to make use of my skills in forming the alliance with Lord Shigeru and Lady Maruyama. He had heard of the Tribe, but like most people he thought they were little more than a guild. That they should have been involved in Iida's death shocked him profoundly, even though he profited from it." She paused and then said quietly, "He has lost all trust in me: I think he wonders how he slept with me so many times without being assassinated himself. Well, we will certainly never sleep together again. That is all over."
"Are you afraid of him? Has he threatened you?"
"He is furious with me," Shizuka replied. "He feels I have betrayed him--worse: made a fool out of him. I do not think he will ever forgive me." A bitter note crept into her voice. "I have been his closest confidante, his lover, his friend, since I was hardly more than a child. I have borne him two sons. Yet, he would have me put to death in an instant were it not for your presence."
"I will kill any man who tries to harm you," Kaede said.
Shizuka smiled. "How fierce you look when you say that!"
"Men die easily." Kaede's voice was flat. "From the prick of a needle, the thrust of a knife. You taught me that."
"But you are yet to use those skills, I hope," Shizuka replied, "though you fought well at Inuyama. Takeo owes his life to you."
Kaede was silent for a moment. Then she said in a low voice, "I did more than fight with the sword. You do not know all of it."
Shizuka stared at her. "What are you telling me? That it was you who killed Iida?" she whispered. Kaede nodded. "Takeo took his head, but he was already dead. I did what you told me. He was going to rape me."
Shizuka grasped her hands. "Never let anyone know that! Not one of these warriors, not even Arai, would let you live."
"I feel no guilt or remorse," Kaede said. "I never did a less shameful deed. Not only did I protect myself but the deaths of many were avenged: Lord Shigeru; my kinswoman, Lady Maruyama, and her daughter; and all the other innocent people whom Iida tortured and murdered."
"Nevertheless, if this became generally known, you would be punished for it. Men would think the world turned upside down if women start taking up arms and seeking revenge."
"My world is already turned upside down," Kaede said. "Still, I must go and see Lord Arai. Bring me..." She broke off and laughed. "I was going to say, 'bring me some clothes,' but I have none. I have nothing!"
"You have a horse," Shizuka replied. "Takeo left the gray for you."
"He left me Raku?" Kaede smiled, a true smile that illuminated her face. She stared into the distance, her eyes dark and thoughtful.
"Lady?" Shizuka touched her on the shoulder.
"Comb out my hair and send a message to Lord Arai to say I will visit him directly."
IT WAS ALMOST completely dark by the time they left the women's rooms and went toward the main guest rooms where Arai and his men were staying. Lights gleamed from the temple, and farther up the slope, beneath the trees, men stood with flaring torches around Lord Shigeru's grave. Even at this hour people came to visit it, bringing incense and offerings, placing lamps and candles on the ground around the stone, seeking the help of the dead man who every day became more of a god to them.
He sleeps beneath a covering of flame, Kaede thought, herself praying silently to Shigeru's spirit for guidance, while she pondered what she should say to Arai. She was the heir to both Shirakawa and Maruyama; she knew Arai would be seeking some strong alliance with her, probably some marriage that would bind her into the power he was amassing. They had spoken a few times during her stay at Inuyama, and again on the journey, but Arai's attention had been taken up with securing the countryside and his strategies for the future. He had not shared these with her, beyond expressing his desire for the Otori marriage to take place. Once-a lifetime ago, it seemed now-she had wanted to be more than a pawn in the hands of the warriors who commanded her fate. Now, with the newfound strength that the icy sleep had given her, she resolved again to take control of her life. I need time, she thought. I must do nothing rashly. I must go home before I make any decisions.
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