One of Arai's men--she remembered his name was Niwa--greeted her at the veranda's edge and led her to the doorway. The shutters all stood open. Arai sat at the end of the room, three of his men next to him. Niwa spoke her name and the warlord looked up at her. For a moment they studied each other. She held his gaze and felt power's strong pulse in her veins. Then she dropped to her knees and bowed to him, resenting the gesture yet knowing she had to appear to submit.
He returned her bow, and they both sat up at the same time. Kaede felt his eyes on her. She raised her head and gave him the same unflinching look. He could not meet it. Her heart was pounding at her audacity. In the past she had both liked and trusted the man in front of her. Now she saw changes in his face. The lines had deepened around his mouth and eyes. He had been both pragmatic and flexible, but now he was in the grip of his intense desire for power.
Not far from her parents' home, the Shirakawa flowed through vast limestone caves where the water had formed pillars and statues. As a child she was taken there every year to worship the goddess who lived within one of these pillars under the mountain. The statue had a fluid, living shape, as though the spirit that dwelt within were trying to break out from beneath the covering of lime. She thought of that stone covering now. Was power a limy river calcifying those who dared to swim in it?
Arai's physical size and strength made her quail inwardly, reminding her of that moment of helplessness in Iida's arms, of the strength of men who could force women in any way they wanted. Never let them use that strength, came the thought, and then: Always be armed. A taste came into her mouth, as sweet as persimmon, as strong as blood: the knowledge and taste of power. Was this what drove men to clash endlessly with each other, to enslave and destroy each other? Why should a woman not have that too?
She stared at the places on Arai's body where the needle and the knife had pierced Iida, had opened him up to the world he'd tried to dominate and let his life's blood leak away. I must never forget it, she told herself. Men also can be killed by women. I killed the most powerful warlord in the Three Countries.
All her upbringing had taught her to defer to men, to submit to their will and their greater intelligence. Her heart was beating so strongly, she thought she might faint. She breathed deeply, using the skills Shizuka had taught her, and felt the blood settle in her veins.
"Lord Arai, tomorrow I will leave for Shirakawa. I would be very grateful if you will provide men to escort me home."
"I would prefer you to stay in the East," he said, slowly. "But that is not what I want to talk to you about first." His eyes narrowed as he stared at her. "Otori's disappearance: Can you shed any light on this extraordinary occurrence? I believe I have established my right to power. I was already in alliance with Shigeru. How can young Otori ignore all obligations to me and to his dead father? How can he disobey and walk away? And where has he gone? My men have been searching the district all day, as far as Yamagata. He's completely vanished."
"I do not know where he is," she replied.
"I'm told he spoke to you last night before he left."
"Yes," she said simply.
"He must have explained to you at least--"
"He was bound by other obligations." Kaede felt sorrow build within her as she spoke. "He did not intend to insult you." Indeed, she could not remember Takeo mentioning Arai to her, but she did not say this.
"Obligations to the so-called Tribe?" Arai had been controlling his anger, but now it burst fresh into his voice, into his eyes. He moved his head slightly, and she guessed he was looking past her to where Shizuka knelt in the shadows on the veranda. "What do you know of them?"
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