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The new Master of the Hiten Mitsurugi style, Seijuro Hiko the 13th, can't get the geisha Hikaru out of his mind. At no point, no matter how I tried, has their relationship gone smoothly as I wrote it. This is no exception. But at least they come to an agreement.

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The geisha Umeko was plump and pleasing, and her eyes smiled roguishly at him over the patterned silk of her fan. But Seijuro Hiko the 13th had no patience for flirting. That wasn't what he was here for. "I just want to know where I can find Hikaru. Where is she working now?"

The fan folded with a snap, and the eyes brightened with interest. "I know you! I thought I recognized you, but the cape makes you look different. You're Hikaru's boyfriend."

"It was never like that," he growled. "We're just friends. But I would like to find her, preferably before the era comes to an end. I've asked two other girls, but neither of them knows where she is. They say she just disappeared. One of them said you were her best friend, however. Is that right, or not?"

"I still am her best friend."

He hadn't realized how he'd tensed when talking about Hikaru disappearing until he relaxed at those words. "Then tell me where I can find her."

"I'm not sure I should."

"I'm very sure you should."

She smiled. "That sounds like a threat. What a bad man you are. But Hikaru is married now, you know."

Married? Hikaru married? He would have been less shocked to hear that she'd died. People died all the time, but... married? The country was in turmoil, his Master was dead, and now Hikaru was married. Didn't anything stay the same?

None of what was in his mind showed on his face, however. He said evenly, "I didn't know. When did she marry? And who?"

"Mr. Murasaki, an important man in the city," Umeko said, sounding as pleased as if she'd arranged the match herself. "They married about a year ago now. Yes, a year ago, because it was in the spring, I remember."

He knew Murasaki, by sight and reputation, a chubby little man in his 60s at least, a merchant who had earned all the money he wished and now sought to become as influential as he was wealthy. Hiko really didn't want to hear any more, but he asked anyway. "Is she happy?"

"Why wouldn't she be? Mr. Murasaki is rich and has always treated her well."

That wasn't what he meant, but he didn't think Umeko would understand what he did mean. He wasn't sure he understood it himself. For a moment, he hesitated. Since she was married now, she'd have no use for him. She might not even remember him, or, if she did, she might not want to bother herself to see him. On the other hand, she was the lodestone that had drawn him to Tokyo. If not for her, he'd be far to the west, where his skill was needed, not here in this dirty, overcrowded city.

No, he wouldn't waste his time and energy. Since he'd come all this way, he would finish this. "I'd still like to see her. Where does Mr. Murasaki live?"

Following Umeko's directions, he found his way to the Murasaki estate home without trouble. It was enormous, looking from the street like a rambling collection of colorful tiled peaked roofs behind walls of pale stone. On a sure instinct, he circled it, looking for the gardens he knew he'd find. In the back, he heard feminine laughter. A sturdy wooden gate pierced the wall nearby; when he tried it, he found it unlocked. Stupid. Why have a secure gate, and then leave it open? Without apology, he let himself into the garden.

Two women were about ten feet away from him, one on her knees planting a sapling, the other holding a parasol over her, a wooden bucket beside her feet. For a second, he didn't even recognize Hikaru as the kneeling woman. She wore loose pants and a plain kimono, her hair was done up in a casual knot under a broad-brimmed straw hat, and her face was bare of any make-up. Bemused, he simply stood and stared at her. Of all the ways he'd imagined meeting her again, none of them had even approached this. Yet, once he'd absorbed the differences and knew her again, he felt the same strong internal pull toward her and the same pleasure in simply seeing her and hearing her voice. That, at least, was one thing which hadn't changed in this world.

With her hands protected by heavy leather gloves, Hikaru patted the earth around the sapling's roots and tilted the bucket to pour water over them. Then she removed the gloves and stroked the bark of the young tree, saying, "There, that should set you up very well, and you'll grow tall and straight and beautiful. Won't you?"

The other woman giggled. Hiko didn't blame her. What an idiotic thing, to talk to a tree. But Hikaru had some silly notion that talking nicely to plants helped them grow better. He'd seen her do it on their river walk. It was absurd, but it was Hikaru, so it was also charming.

He realized that seeing her like this, paradoxically, only made her more dear to him. For once his Master had been wrong about something. Three years ago, Seijuro Hiko the 12th had laughed at him, insisting he suffered nothing more than a boy's infatuation for a pretty face, a charm of manner, and a bottle of sake. Hiko still didn't know much about women (his Master always said there was no way to know about them), but he knew he'd never get this one out of his mind.

The maid saw him first. She gasped and went pale, which he supposed was natural for a woman turning in her familiar garden and seeing a stranger standing there, a very large man with a sword under his cloak. The woman's hand reached down to Hikaru's shoulder and gripped convulsively. "Madame...!"

Hikaru looked up, alert but unalarmed, and saw him. For a long, long moment they were frozen, staring at each other, her eyes growing huge and round, and he knew that he'd been right to seek her out. She hadn't forgotten him, any more than he'd forgotten her. Everything he'd sensed between them, three years ago, which his Master had laughed away, had been real and true, and still existed in all its strength.

Both of them completely forgot their surroundings and stared at each other, silent, Hikaru not even breathing, until the maid bleated, "Madame, we should run."

Hiko's lips twitched as Hikaru's face lit with appreciative amusement. She rose smoothly to her feet, saying to the maid, although she never looked away from him, "Don't be ridiculous, Sakue. This is a guest, a friend of mine. Go inside and prepare the garden tea room. Go on, don't be afraid, it's all right, I promise you." She waved a hand, vaguely, and the maid bowed and went away. When the door shut behind the girl, she said, "Kakunoshin," on a breath, and walked without hesitation into his arms.

He held her for a moment, unable to believe this was the first time he'd ever done so. It felt as comfortable as coming home to his own room after a long trip. She smelled of jasmine and earth. He tilted up her chin. "That's no longer my name," he pointed out.

"I don't care," she said, and closed her eyes for his kiss.

The kiss was also their first, but it was she who was tentative, her lips testing before she gave herself to him. He knew what he wanted, waited a moment for her to soften, and then took it. He kissed her until she was breathless, released her for a few seconds to see the dazed smile in her eyes, took off the ridiculous hat (which was getting in his way), and then kissed her breathless again. This was all he had come to Tokyo for, so he took his time and took his fill. When he finally let her go, it was only to keep her against his chest, where she rubbed her cheek like a kitten. Remembering his Master's laughter at all the sake and company Hikaru had given him for nothing, he remarked, half to the old man's spirit, "I got that for free, too."

Under his hands, her shoulders shook before the laugh broke out. "You are the rudest man I've ever known. Couldn't you say something romantic at a time like this?"

"It was too good for anything so trite."

"That," she sighed, "was romantic enough." She tilted her head back to study him. "You've changed."

"I'm older."

"It's not just that," she chuckled. Then a tiny wrinkle appeared between her brows. "What do you mean, Kakunoshin isn't your name?"

"My name is now Seijuro Hiko the 13th. I'm the Master of the Hiten Mitsurugi style now. When an apprentice becomes the Master, he inherits the cape and the name."

She fingered the red collar of the cape. "I feel silly. I never even noticed. I only saw your face. So you are now Seijuro? That will be difficult," she smiled. "I've been thinking of you as Kakunoshin, all these years."

"I didn't believe you would think of me at all."

"You are either lying, or far too modest. And somehow I suspect the former." Her face was serious but her eyes sparkled with laughter, just as he remembered her. They could have been on the river walk together again. "So what shall I call your former Master then?"

"He's dead."

The laughter went out of her eyes and she pulled a little away from him. "I'm so sorry. What happened? I know he was old, but I thought he was in excellent health."

Somehow, at this moment, he simply couldn't bring himself to tell her the truth about his Master's death. He said, "He died in battle."

"He would have preferred that. But I always heard he was invincible."

"No man is." Particularly if you teach your apprentice exactly how to beat you.

"You must miss him terribly."

"Yes," he said, and realized, with some surprise, that she was right.

A door scraped, and she pulled away from him sharply. "I don't know what I'm doing. It was just such a shock to see you again."

"You didn't think I'd come back? I said I would."

"I thought you would for the first year or so. I hoped you would. But then I gave up."

The maid, Sakue, came up the path toward them. "Madame, the tea is ready."

She turned with a smile. "Have the tray brought out to the table in the garden. And get some sake for the gentleman."

Sakue bowed and left them. Hiko said, "In the garden? For old times' sake?"

"No," she said, a mischievous gleam in her eyes. "For privacy. And I thought you might prefer sake to tea."

"Infinitely. Is it good sake?"

"The best. Better than I could offer you at the teahouse."

Of course. Nothing but the best for Mr. Murasaki. He followed her through the garden and thought that, whatever Murasaki was like as a husband, this was the perfect setting for Hikaru. The gardens were lush and extensive, and the tea table was in a pavilion which overlooked a pond complete with a tiny boat decorated with a swan's head. The pavilion was exquisite, the wood pillars carved and polished, the rice paper panels cleverly set to move in several directions, depending on sun and wind. The table was lacquered and trimmed with gold, and the tea service, decorated tastefully with plum blossoms, was of a porcelain so fine he was glad not to have to take any of it in his own hands. Even the sake cup was glazed and nearly translucent, and the sake was fit for gods. The plain kimono Hikaru wore, he'd noticed when holding her, was of softest silk, she wore a jade luck pendant on a gold chain, and her hair, even in a plain knot, was secured with silver combs topped with what looked like amethyst beads. Yet there was nothing of pride about Hikaru. She ordered the servants kindly, sent them on their way with smiling thanks, and poured for them both with all her geisha grace, as casual as if she had never known any other way of life than this.

It hurt. He'd never had anything to offer her, never expected more than what they'd already had, stupidly expecting her to still be a geisha and his friend. Never once had anything like this crossed his mind.

"Why are you scowling so?" she demanded, and he looked up, met her eyes, and saw the same woman. Whatever had happened in her life, Hikaru was still Hikaru.

"I'm wondering why you married."

"I see. And you are thinking it was for this," with a wave of her hand at the garden, "or this?" She pulled one of the combs from her hair and tossed it at him. He caught it automatically, watching as the released strand hair tumbled slowly down her shoulder and leg, to coil on the ground. "It wasn't. I am very fortunate that Mr. Murasaki asked me to marry him, but if a another man who was equally kind, but much less wealthy, had wanted to marry me, I would have accepted him gladly. You don't understand, do you?"

"No."

"All this you see around you, it is mine, through my husband. By law. It can't be taken away from me. And I don't have to work hard, every day, every night, always on not enough sleep, to keep it mine. I'm secure. If I get ill, I won't have to worry about losing income, and someone will care for me. My friends now are not only geisha and customers, women who wanted to be my rivals and men who only wanted my pleasant lies. They're wives and mothers, respectable women, and if they must lie, as all women do, it is only to one man and only occasionally."

"All right, stop it. I get the point."

"I don't want you thinking I married only for gold. Give me back my comb." As she tucked her hair back, she suddenly smiled at him and said, "You know, if I married, it would inevitably be a rich man. Except for you, rich men were all I ever met."

He laughed. He didn't want to, but she'd always been able to make him laugh with her. Then he asked the question he wasn't sure he wanted the answer to. He couldn't see how she could love Fujio Murasaki, who was old and wrinkled and paunchy, who fawned on all men of power and looked down on all men without wealth. But he asked her anyway. After all, as his Master had warned him, there was no way to fathom a woman.

"No, of course I don't love Fujio," she replied, as casually as if she'd told him the color of a new fan. "I esteem him, and he treats me as if I were nobility. That is a great deal, and I am fortunate. But we didn't marry for love, neither of us. You know why I married him, but you are wrong about why he married me."

"Am I?"

"You think it's because I'm pretty and charming and compliant. You think I have nothing to do but sit around here looking lovely."

"Well?"

"I'll have you know I work very hard. Fujio didn't want a wife in the ordinary sense. His first wife had given him all he needed as far as wives go. She gave him good connections, help building his businesses, and two strong sons. But she lacked refinement and culture. What Fujio wanted in his second wife was a woman who could create the kind of home that was right for a rich and powerful man. He wanted to bring men of influence here and have them envy him. Do you see? My beauty means little to him, no more than the beauty of his front door. For that sort of thing, he has a mistress, just as he had me when his first wife was alive." She laughed. "You should see your face."

No one else could read him, but she always could. "It's disgusting."

"You are an idealist. I am a woman who, two years ago, had no husband and no future other than what I could earn for myself."

Being called an idealist made him stop and think. She was right, of course. Those who studied the Hiten Mitsurugi had to balance the fine line between ideals and real life, but they could never afford to lose sight of the ideal, or they risked becoming corrupt. He'd just never applied any ideals to specific people before. Only to her. Was he disappointed in her now? No. If anything, her clear-eyed honesty only made him respect her more. But he felt sorry for her, being trapped between two such unpalatable positions and having to decide. She'd picked the right one, and he wouldn't change his own life, but he still wished things had been different for them. "Then you're happy here?"

"I'm contented. I enjoy my work, my home, and my companions."

"I should leave. Or is it conceited in me to think my presence might make you less contented?"

"Your presence makes me happy."

His chest hurt. How could mere words have that effect? "There's no place in your life now for me."

She put a hand on his wrist where it rested between them on the table. "When Fujio asked me to marry him, he was completely honest with me. He told me exactly what he wanted and what he expected from me, and what our life would be like. Then he asked me to do the same, for if we couldn't agree, he would have to look elsewhere for a wife. I said to him that I accepted and would happily do everything he wished, but that I had one condition. I told him I was glad that, of all the things he wanted from me, my heart was not one of them. I told him that had already been given, that I loved a man, and that if the man ever came back into my life, I would have to follow my heart wherever it led. Fujio asked me if that was likely, that this man would come back, and I said I doubted it. So he agreed with my stipulation, asking only that, should the unlikely ever occur and the man I loved came back to me, that I not cause the Murasaki name to lose face. This I agreed to. But you see, I did keep a place in my life for you."

He had no words to answer this. He didn't think there were any which would be adequate. He turned his hand under hers, lifted it, and kissed her palm. She sighed and said, "Then you won't leave me again?"

"I never did leave you. I was just busy for a few years."

She burst into laughter, releasing the tension between them. "Give me back my hand, you beast. In a day or so you will become busy again, and then it will be another three years before I see you?"

"You're right, I have to leave Tokyo again soon. But I'll come back more often. My Master wouldn't allow me to come back before."

"Master Hiko knew I loved you. He didn't want to lose you. That's why he kept you away."

"He knew?"

"Yes."

"That bastard."

"Kakunoshin no, Seijuro. Don't be angry. Can you look in your heart and say he was wrong? Would you have wanted to make the choice between me and the Hiten Mitsurugi? He made that choice for you, and if he was selfish about which path he chose, at least he had the kindness to know you couldn't have made it yourself at that time without great loss. Do you really regret it now?"

He wanted to say yes. But the Hiten Mitsurugi had been a part of him for ten years and more. He'd been born to it, his Master had always told him. And the title he carried now, although bought with blood and sorrow, was his greatest pride. In a way, it was his life. He shook his head.

"I didn't think so. But you have a choice to make now, and no one to make it for you."

"Do I?"

"Yes. Do you want me to come with you now?"

He stared at her. "Would you?"

"If you asked me, yes."

"That would lose face for the Murasaki name, wouldn't it?"

"No. I could arrange something. I have thought about it, you know, from time to time."

He was terribly tempted, and looked into the half-full sake cup, letting the thoughts and images which came to him wash through his mind and go back to the dreamworld in which they belonged. Then he reached across the table, took Hikaru's leg in his hand, and pulled it forward, despite her laughing protest, until he could hold her foot. It was so small, he could hold all of it in one hand. He ran a thumb across the high, delicate arch. "Look at you," he said. "How far would you be able to walk with me on this little foot? How could you sleep in the open with nothing but the clothes you stood up in? Go hungry and thirsty for days? Bathe, when you got the chance, in icy rivers? You'd be dead in a month."

She'd sobered. "Is that how you live?"

"Not always. But often enough. I can't take you with me, Hikaru. I wish I could, but I'd have to change the man I am, to do it."

"I don't want you to change. I love you just as you are."

He released her foot. "You seem to be full of decision, Madame Murasaki. What do you suggest?"

She tucked her leg neatly back under her and pointed past his shoulder. "Do you see over there, that little building against the wall?"

He did. Set in a clearing surrounded by scattered pines, it was built much like the pavilion in design, elegant and airy, but was larger and completely enclosed, a tiny home of probably two rooms. "What of it?"

"That is what my husband calls his summer house. He entertains there, when he wishes to entertain in private. No servants go near, and it is set where eavesdropping would be difficult. Now, look that way. Do you see that building, with the blue roof?"

This one was smaller, tucked in a curve of young cherry trees, but equally pretty. "What is that one?"

"That is my summer house," she smiled. "If you come tonight, after the moon sets, to the same gate you came through today, I'll show it to you."

His heart thudded.

She said, "Will you come? Tonight, and whenever you are in Tokyo?"

He was so elated that he wanted to shout with it, and as a result, was more harsh with himself and with her than he might otherwise have been. "You're asking me to cuckold your husband with you?"

She didn't take offense or even flinch. "Yes, I am. But I am also asking you to love me. If you don't want to do either of those things, I will understand. We will still be friends."

An entire lifetime of self-discipline was exploding in him. He couldn't allow it. He rose abruptly, turned, and strode off.

Her voice halted him. "Seijuro?" It was the first time he'd ever heard her sound frightened.

He stood still a moment, until he could speak calmly. "I'll be there tonight," he said, and walked on. She didn't stop him again.


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