The Master's Niece

Part One

Written by: Kat

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

In the first place, it wasn't a boy. It was a girl in boy's clothing. That in itself was odd enough to catch Keitaro Himura's attention, especially since no one else seemed to have noticed.

The clerks at Kimiyama Ceramics couldn't be expected to realize it. One usually saw only what one expected to see. But Kei had a sensitivity to that particular disguise, since his mother had lived as a boy for many years, and his sister, before she'd settled down, had sometimes dragged him off into mischief dressed that way. Basho and the others couldn't be blamed for some annoyance, since not only did she appear to be a boy of about 12 years of age, but she was also a vagabond, lugging around a pack on her shoulders that looked as if it might hold all her worldly possessions. Yet she stood with feet braced, self-assured, clearly expecting them to help her despite her appearance. His curiosity stirred, he moved closer and picked up a plate, turning it over in his hands as if examining it while he listened.

Basho was saying with exaggerated patience, "We've told you and told you, he never comes here. You are wasting your time."

"He must. How else would you have his pottery all over your store?"

"He sends it to us."

"From where?"

"Go away."

"You know where he lives."

"Even if I did, why would I tell you?"

"Why wouldn't you? Is it a secret? Is he a criminal? What?"

"If you don't stop harassing us, I'm going to set the police on you."

"I'm not doing anything illegal. I'm just coming into your store and asking questions."

"You come here every day, with the same question, and we give you the same answer. Why don't you accept that and go away?"

She shrugged, with a rueful expression that acknowledged the clerk's position. "I'm sorry. I can't."

A thought tugged at Kei's mind, and it brought a wisp of mischief with it. He wondered if she were talking about someone in particular, someone he knew. If so, he sure would like to find out why this odd girl was looking for him. He set down the plate and stepped forward. "Is there a problem here, Basho?"

The clerk bowed deeply. "Nothing we can't handle, Mr. Himura."

Basho's respect made the girl look at him speculatively, but she apparently wasn't all that impressed. He knew what she saw, a short, trim young man in Western clothes, with black hair, nothing out of the ordinary about him except the violet color of his eyes. Still, she was willing to try him out. She bowed and said, "Are you the owner?"

"No, that would be Mr. Watanabe. I'm just a friend of the family."

She brightened. "Then you still might be able to help me. I'm not trying to make trouble, honestly. I'm just trying to find someone."

"Who?"

"A potter named Kakunoshin Niitsu. Do you know him?"

His guess was right, then. Now, why in the world was this girl looking for Seijuro Hiko? If it was trouble, he didn't want to bring it down on Hikaru, but if it was just a nuisance... well, that was another story. Hiko's life flowed far too smoothly under Hikaru's protection. A little annoyance wouldn't harm him and a little shaking up might be interesting to watch. Still, one always tread carefully around the old bear. "I know him, yes. But I don't know if that will help you. He's reclusive. I'm sure Basho and the others told you that."

"They haven't told me anything. I had to hold a pot with his name on it, from their own shelves, right in front of their noses before they'd even admit they'd heard of him." She sounded indignant, as if she didn't expect to be lied to. He wondered how she survived like that, if she were the vagabond she appeared to be.

"That's called discretion, and loyalty to your artists," he said with an approving nod at Basho, who beamed. Then he bowed to the girl politely and left the store, in the hope that she might follow him and allow Basho to relax and get on with his work.

She came pattering after him, just as he expected. "Wait! Wait!" She stopped just short of tugging at his sleeve. "Tell me where I can find Mr. Niitsu. Please."

"Why?"

"Why should you tell me, or why do I want to find him?"

She was sharper than she looked. He smiled. "I meant why do you want to find him."

"I think he might be a relative of mine."

That was impossible. "He has no living relatives."

"He doesn't know about me."

"You're going to have to come up with a better story than that."

"But it's true! That's why it sounds so stupid."

"I don't believe you," he said, mostly to see what her reaction would be.

She stamped her foot, a purely feminine thing he'd seen his sister do hundreds of times. She couldn't have been wearing this disguise for long. "But it's the truth! I swear on my ancestors." She took another look at his clothes and added, "Or whatever you want."

He was going to start laughing out loud any minute. The whole situation was too absurd, and so was she. Whatever her story was, he wanted to hear it. "I tell you what. I'll make you a deal. We'll sit down and talk, and you convince me you are who you say you are. Tell me the whole truth. No lies."

"And if I do?"

"Then, if I believe you, and if I think it won't trouble Mr. Niitsu, I will tell him about you. After that, it's up to him whether he wants to see you or not. But there's another part of the deal."

"What?"

"Whether or not he wants to see you, you promise to stop harassing the pottery shop. He never goes there anyway, I promise you. You won't find him like that."

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously as she weighed his deal. They were black, like Hiko's, and she had a gamin face with his pointed chin. She just might be telling the truth. He sure hoped so. She said, "Very well, I'll promise not to go back into the shop or talk to anyone there."

He noted the careful phrasing, and hid another smile. "It won't do you any good to talk to the carriers here in town. That's not how his pottery gets delivered."

"I know. I already did that."

Then what the hell did she...? Oh. "It also won't do you any good to follow the Kimiyama servants. That's not how it's delivered, either." Which wasn't a lie, strictly speaking.

Her face fell, but she rallied at once. "It has to be delivered somehow."

"Only a few times a year. You'll have a long wait."

"But that's my only lead!" she said desperately. "That, and you."

"You're better off placing your faith in me. Come on, we'll go get something to eat. You look like you can use it. My treat."

She nodded fell into step beside him. "Thank you. I'm starving."

"Before we do, though, I think you should take a bath."

She stumbled. "B-bath?"

"There's a public bathhouse right at the end of this street."

"But I don't have any money!"

"I suspected that," he said dryly. "I'll treat. Just so I won't have to eat with someone who looks like he's been sleeping in an alley."

She fired up at that. "I'm not dirty!"

"Humor me."

She bit her lower lip, and he wondered if she were going to tell him the truth. He almost hoped she wouldn't. He had no idea how far she'd go to get what she wanted, but he'd have fun finding out.

But her nature was basically an honest one. "I can't," she said, staring down at her feet.

"Can't?"

"No." She stopped, and he turned to look down at her. She said, "You're not going to believe this."

"Try me." He bit his tongue to keep from laughing.

"I... I'm not a boy. I'm a girl."

"Really?"

Her expression changed at his tone. "You knew!"

He couldn't help it, he either had to grin or burst. "Of course I knew."

"When?"

"Right away."

"Then you're a lot sharper than those clerks. I swear they didn't know."

"They have other things on their minds."

"Whereas you don't?" A sudden thought occurred to her and she took a step backward.

Her expression was an open book. He sighed. "Don't worry, I don't have any designs on your virtue, either, as the saying goes. Except for the bathhouse, everything I said was serious."

She gave him a relieved smile. "I have to admit I wondered a bit. I mean, a guy like you could have any girl, so why would you want someone like me? But I am not dirty," she added with firm self-righteousness.

"You look dirty."

"It's part of the disguise."

"That's not going to make any difference to the restaurant."

"Oh. You're right. I'd offer to change into a kimono, but..."

As if he wanted her to do that. His entire family would hear about it before they got through their first bowl of rice, if he took a girl to the Aoiya for a meal. There'd been far too many marriages in his family lately, and now everyone was looking at him. "But what?" he asked, hoping she'd have a good reason.

"But I'm afraid you'd sneak away. I'm sorry, I don't mean to say you can't be trusted! It's just that I've been looking so long, and I don't want to take any chances, now that it's so close. Do you understand?"

"Yes. All right then, come with me as you are. I'll just say I'm doing a charitable deed, giving a vagrant a meal."

She eyed him suspiciously, as if she suspected that he was making fun of her, which he was. But she didn't comment.

Her eyes widened when he was greeted at the Aoiya with all the casual pleasure of a member of the family, and got even wider when Isamu came out with all her usual boisterous buoyancy and hugged him. But when they were shown upstairs to a private room, she got nervous. "I'm not sure we should do this."

He slid the door closed. "Now you're starting to show some common sense."

"I know. I suppose I'm stupid. But there's something about you that's so trustworthy. I hope I'm not wrong."

"You aren't, but I hope you don't go around doing this sort of thing all the time."

"This is the first time."

"Make it the last."

She giggled. "You sound like my grandfather."

That was probably because she made him feel old. The girl was scary, the way she just trustingly followed him.

Mention of her grandfather reminded him of what he was curious about, but he kept quiet until they were served and the Aoiya servants (and Isamu) went away. Once served, the girl ate like a wolf, so he waited a little longer, until she slowed down a bit. When she realized he was watching her, she blushed. "I said I was hungry."

"I remember that."

She grinned. "I like the way your eyes twinkle. Maybe that's why I thought I could trust you. They're a very pretty color," she added.

He blinked. "Thank you."

"You looked surprised. Did you forget I was a girl, for a minute there?"

"Yeah, I guess I did. I was thinking about your grandfather. Is that who you're related to Mr. Niitsu through?"

She shook her head, stuffed her mouth with fish, chewed and swallowed rapidly, drank a sip of tea, and said, "My grandmother. She was his older sister."

Not a lot of people knew Hiko once had an older sister. He never talked about his past. Kei himself knew it only indirectly, through Hitomi, who had learned it during one of her long visits with Hikaru. He said, "His older sister died when she was 12."

"No, she didn't. He probably thought she was dead, but he was only 5, after all. What did he know?" She suddenly dropped her chopsticks. "You really do know him, don't you?" He nodded, and she swallowed. "He's still alive?"

"Very much so."

"Oh." Her chin trembled.

"Don't start crying," he said, alarmed. He wasn't used to women crying - the women in his life hardly ever did it, so he didn't know what to do. And Hiko's usual advice ("Hand them a handkerchief and leave them alone") wouldn't work here. He didn't have a handkerchief.

"I won't," she sniffed, and promptly burst into tears, hiding her face behind a napkin. "I'm sorry! I'll stop in a minute! I just..." She hiccupped. "I just... He's all the family I have, and I wasn't sure he was even alive. I mean, he's over 70, after all. I've been looking for him for years, but all the time I was afraid he was dead, and you're the first person to tell me he isn't."

He was feeling a bit guilty now. If she were telling the truth, then having Hiko for her only living relative wasn't going to be a great boon to a girl this tender. "Look, Miss... What is your name, anyway?"

Her face emerged from behind the napkin, and she put it to use cleaning away the tears. "Yoshida. Mikiko Yoshida. But just call me Mikiko."

"Mikiko, listen. If you've built up some kind of fantasy about him being some sort of grandfatherly person who's going to welcome you with open arms..."

She was shaking her head. "No, I tried very hard not to come up with any idea of what he might be like. That way I couldn't be disappointed. I just wanted him to be alive, and I want to meet him. After that..." She shrugged. "All right, I thought it might be nice to have a relative who cared about me. But I can't expect him to. After all, he doesn't even know I exist." She met his eyes. "I take it he's not the kindly grandfatherly type?"

"Not even one little bit," he said emphatically.

"Oh. Do you think he'll even care that I exist, then?"

"That, I don't know." He really didn't have the faintest idea. Not that it mattered. Whatever Hiko thought or desired, let Hikaru get one look at this girl, and the so-called Master would have no say in the matter. But Kei wanted to know more about her before he dropped her on the two of them. And he wanted to check her story out. She rang true to his instincts, but he preferred being able to couple his instincts with some good hard facts. "I promise to ask him, though, once I believe you really are related to him. Your grandmother was his sister, then?"

She nodded. "You know their parents were killed by a bandit gang, right? Well, she lived through the attack and made it to the village of Itokoshi. A doctor named Tomonaga nursed her back to health and unofficially adopted her, and eventually his son married her. They were my mother's parents. And then my mother had me."

He waited, but when she went back to eating, he pointed out, "That doesn't explain why more than 60 years have gone by since anyone started looking for Mr. Niitsu, or why you're doing it now, or what happened to the rest of your family."

"That's all kind of a long story," she said sheepishly.

He sat back and folded his arms. "Shorten it as much as you can."

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, stop that."

She burst into laughter. "I'm sorry, but you looked so stern just then."

He grinned. "Go on."

"Nobody knew what happened to Kakunoshin, you see."

"Your grandmother must..." He stopped because she was shaking her head.

"My grandmother least of all. She was never quite... right after the attack. Not that you would notice unless you knew her for a long time. But sometimes she would just sort of fade out or go blank, or answer questions you hadn't asked. That kind of thing. And she'd forgotten the entire attack. She believed - I mean, she made the story up to hide the truth even from herself, I suppose, but by the time I got to know her, she believed it - anyway, she believed that her little brother had died when he was four years old. Drowned. And that her parents had died of the influenza, and that's why Dr. Tomonaga was treating her, because she had it, too."

"Nobody corrected her?"

"Itokoshi is a very small village, Mr. Himura. And everyone there felt sorry for her. No, no one corrected her. They all pretended to believe her, and eventually that just became the story, period. It was my grandfather who told my mother the truth, when he thought she was old enough, and she told me." She went back to the food, talking and eating at the same time. "We all thought Uncle Kakunoshin was dead anyway. When my grandmother first appeared there after being attacked, the village sent young men to bury her parents and find out what happened to her brother, but they never found a trace. He was just forgotten, finally."

"What changed that?"

"Two things. The first one, I'll show you." She pulled her pack forward, dug into it, and pulled out a sake cup. He didn't need her to turn the bottom toward him to know whose name was on it. He recognized the style. "My mother found this in a shop. She thought it was just a coincidence and brought it home on a whim."

"But you didn't think it was?"

"At the time, I did. But then, the second thing happened. About six years ago, both my parents were killed."

"I'm sorry. Killed? How?"

She waved away his sympathy. "They were taking a boat to visit some friends, and a storm came up, and it sank. Anyway, I had no family at all, after that. My father's side died out with him, too, and my grandfather was the last Tomonaga. The village took care of me for a year or so, and they would be doing it still, if I'd stayed. They're all very kind. But that's not the same as a family. Do you know what I mean?"

"I think so." He'd been blessed with a family as stable and loving as any could be. But he also had an excellent imagination. He knew how he would feel if his mother, father and sister were all stripped from him at once. The love of the Sagaras and Hikaru wouldn't help to fill the gap at all.

She was staring at him. "Don't look at me that way. It's really all right. I'm tougher than I look, you know. But," she added, "I admit, if not for this cup, I don't know what I might have done."

"The cup gave you a purpose. To look for your great-uncle."

"Yes! That's exactly what it did. So I started looking for him."

"Where did you start?"

"Well, with the cup first, of course, but that turned into a dead end. So I had to just do some guessing and hope I got lucky. I figured that the bandits had either killed him or kept him, one or the other, right? And they were even more local than the pottery shop where Mother got the cup, so I began with them. They were a famous gang in the area for a long time, and there were lots of stories about them. I heard the stories all the years of my childhood, and in them, sometimes, there were young boys traveling with the bandits, even if not so young as five. So I thought that might be a good guess. If I couldn't find him there, then I wouldn't find him anywhere or he was dead. It was worth one try."

That was pretty logical thinking. "So how did you sort out legend from truth?"

"That was the easy part. Everyone knew where the gang met their end. They all got killed by one old man, at a farm they were looting. I know that sounds incredible, but it is true."

"It doesn't sound incredible to me. Go on."

She looked at him curiously, but continued without asking. "There was one survivor from the farm, a young woman, and the old man took her to a monastery. She was famous in the area for a while, because she witnessed the slaughter, so I didn't even need to guess about that part. I went to the monastery and talked to the oldest monk there. He remembered the whole thing, and he remembered there was a boy with the old man, and that the two left together. And he remembered the old man's name was Seijuro Hiko. I figured that if my great-uncle had survived the slaughter, he'd gone off with this Hiko person."

"But that boy might not have been Kakunoshin Niitsu."

She shrugged. "True, but I didn't have anything better to do, or to work with. I went on the assumption it was him, and started following their trail. That's when I started having trouble. I won't bore you with all the details, but Mr. Hiko was a Master of some kind of sword style and traveled all over the country. I've been everywhere! However, I did learn that it was my great-uncle traveling with him, as you know, and I eventually made it here. Following the pottery again, so I guess you could say I've come full circle. I finally found someone who knew it came from Kimiyama Ceramics in Kyoto." She grinned suddenly. "Of course, once I got here, my luck got more normal, which is to say bad. But you know all that."

"So you've been traveling all over Japan, dressed up like a boy, for six years, just looking for your great-uncle?"

"No, only about four years. And not always like a boy. There were a lot of times I didn't travel, too. I had to stop and do something to earn enough money to keep going. It's not as if I've been doing nothing but tramping around the countryside, asking people if they've heard the name Niitsu. I just did that between jobs. Sort of."

"You have to be the most determined woman I've ever met. Except maybe my mother."

She shrugged. "I'm not determined. I just didn't have anything better to do. And I didn't want to have no family at all, so it seemed like a good thing to work toward. Everybody has to have a goal in life, right?"

After a moment of silence, while he digested this, he said, with a smile which he hoped would take the sting from the words, "You know I'm going to have to check your story out, don't you?"

"Sure. I can give you the names of some of the places I worked for, too, if you want."

"Just the last few. What kind of work did you do?"

"The only kind I was suited for, really. Cooking and cleaning. There's always someone who needs that."

He hid his relief that she hadn't done something more obvious and less savory. Not that Hikaru would care, but some of his other relatives might. Everyone was so protective of Hikaru, which he thought was amusing, given her background and the kind of woman she was. She only seemed femininely helpless, but it was an awfully good act. Hikaru didn't do it on purpose, of course - she just had a way about her - but he'd catch hell for sure, and probably some mangling from Hiko, if he introduced Hikaru to a girl who'd been a thief or prostitute. "They might need some of that around here. Think you'd be willing to give the Aoiya a hand, in return for a place to stay? That way I'll know where to find you."

"Sure!" She added sheepishly, "I got kicked out of the boarding house today. I guess you figured that out, huh?"

She was so damned naïve! But it wouldn't do to underestimate her. "I'm going to ask Isamu to keep an eye on you. So you don't follow me when I leave." He laughed when her jaw dropped. "I'm not stupid, you know."

"No, I see you aren't. All right, I promise to wait here for you. Will you tell him about me?"

"I don't know yet. There are a couple of people I want to talk to first."

"Who?"

"My parents, and his wife."

She didn't even ask why, but fastened on the one thing that interested her most - another family member. "He's married?" she asked eagerly. "What's she like?"

"You'll like her." A lot better than you'll like him, he thought ruefully, but he didn't say it aloud. He didn't quite have the heart to wipe that bright smile from her face.

~*~

Of course, the first people he had to talk to were the Shinomoris. He didn't tell them anything about why Mikiko was in Kyoto, except that he was trying to help her find a relative. Then he had to get through the hilarity of Isamu and her mother, Misao.

"So he's a girl?"

"No wonder you wanted a private room!"

"Does Yuki know about this?"

"I think she's one of his girlfriends, and he's just being clever, hiding her here."

"Kei, you wouldn't do that to the Aoiya, would you? What about our reputation?"

He wasn't given a chance to answer, of course. More speculation popped out of their mouths, growing ever more wild, and he had no recourse except to wait it out. When those two got something in their heads and began to run with it, one might as well try to stop a train as them. To his relief, Aoshi came in before they got too carried away. Wiping tears of laughter, they explained what Kei wanted.

Aoshi gave Kei a piercing look. "Is this another of your strays, Kei?"

"Yes, I suppose you could say that. She can't be more than about 15 years old, and she's just wandering the streets. She doesn't even have a place to sleep tonight."

"Then of course she can stay here for a few days, but she doesn't have to work for the privilege. Not if she's a friend of yours."

"I think she'd prefer to work, really."

Aoshi gave one of his small smiles of approval. "All right, then. Misao, Isamu, go make her comfortable, find her some decent clothes, and put her to work." With the women gone, however, the look he turned on Kei was not an approving one. "What's the whole story?" he asked in his quiet way. "Is she really just someone you're trying to help?"

"If you saw her, you wouldn't even ask. Yes. That's all there is to it. She… Look, Aoshi, don't repeat this, all right? I think she may be related to Seijuro Hiko." It was rare to see expression on Aoshi's face, but this got a surprised lift of the brows. "Is that possible?"

"I'm going to check it out. But I don't want her finding out where he is and wandering up the mountain until I know for sure."

Aoshi nodded. "I'll take care of it for you. Do whatever you have to do, and don't worry about her in the meantime."

~*~

Mikiko went to bed that night after a hot bath, on a plump futon with pillows and clean covers, wearing one of Isamu's sleeping robes. She could almost have been back in Itokoshi, and tears came to her eyes at the thought. She'd been away from anyone who cared about her well-being for so many years now, she'd almost forgotten what it was like. Her tears were partly from joy, too, however. Her grandfather's spirit surely must be watching over her! Look at how lucky she'd been this day! She'd found out her Uncle Kakunoshin was still alive and may even be here in Kyoto, and she'd met an angel.

Well, if not exactly an angel, definitely the kindest and most beautiful man she'd ever met in her life.

She hugged the pillows, her tears drying as she thought of Keitaro Himura. She could remember every detail about him, from the way his black hair curled at his neck to the color of his Western-style shoes. She'd never seen eyes like his, clear violet in color, kind and humorous. She could have stared into those eyes forever. She might have, except she'd been afraid to raise her eyes to his, most of the time. What must he think of her? Probably that she was a gauche fool. She was, she supposed. She normally didn't mind what people thought of her, but it mattered what Keitaro Himura thought. It mattered more than anything else in the world, even more than finding her great-uncle.

That thought shocked her. Finding him had been the only thing that had kept her going for the past few years. Now she was ready to toss it aside, for a young man she'd only just met?

Yes. She was hopelessly and idiotically in love with him.

Infatuated, she corrected herself firmly. You can't possibly be in love with someone you only just met. You're just infatuated because he's so beautiful. And kind. And smart. And funny. And he has those eyes… She hit herself with the pillow to jolt herself back to reality. Whatever it was, infatuation or love, made no difference. Soon, in a few days, he would be a memory. Either a nice one, if he kept his word, or a painful one if he didn't. Whichever, after that, it would be over. She'd very likely never see him again. After all, he must be rich, and he was so handsome, he probably had his pick of any girl in Kyoto. He might already be married, even. She was sure that he hadn't looked twice at her, and he never would, either, married or not. Not at a plain, ignorant little village girl with nothing but what she carried on her back. She'd be much better off forgetting about him entirely, right now, and going to sleep. Tomorrow would be a busy day. There were a lot of places she could help around the Aoiya, and that's what she did best - help people. She'd spent a lot of time with her grandfather not because he was so fond of her, although he was, but because she helped him with his practice. She'd found something to do everywhere she'd gone, once she left Itokoshi, so she was sure she'd find plenty to do here. She'd think about that until she fell asleep.

Instead, she lay there, curled on her side like a baby, and had impossible fantasies about Keitaro Himura.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Part Two

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