The Master's Niece

Part Three

Written by: Kat

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

"He'll know we're here, of course," Kei said, reaching down a hand to help Mikiko up onto the rocks which formed rough stairsteps. "His senses are still sharp."

Mikiko tried very hard to pretend that it wasn't exciting to hold his hand for the first time, gathered the front of her kimono, and let him lift her upward. "If he will, then why are we going to all this trouble to sneak up on him?" Until now, she'd approved of Kei's suggestion that she get a look at her uncle before she met him. Everyone else seemed to think it was a good idea, anyway, and she was curious.

"There's a difference between disturbing him and interrupting him."

"There is?"

"Believe me. There is. And you don't want to interrupt him."

"He gets cranky?"

Kei laughed. "Something like that."

"Why does everybody talk about him as if he's, oh, not normal or something?"

"Because he isn't."

"Is he insane?"

Kei slipped and almost fell, then turned a laughing face to her. "I wish I didn't like you, so I could repeat that to him."

"All of you act as if he's some sort of monster, except Hikaru-san. Even your father, in a way."

"You'll understand when you meet him."

"I feel as if he might roast and eat me, at this point."

Kei looked back at her again, this time seriously. "Just don't let him hurt your feelings. He's not very tactful. Or kind."

"Hermits usually aren't. There was an old man who lived alone on the south shore of the lake near our village, and he used to keep all his garbage in one place, so that if any of us kids got too close, he'd have something nasty to throw at us. And he'd yell things at us to keep us away, things that, really, nobody should say to children. So if Uncle Ka - I mean, Uncle Seijuro gets too rude, I'll just think of the Garbage Man and I'll understand. You're laughing at me again, and I'm serious!"

"That's why I'm laughing."

She really didn't mind. At least he was paying attention to her, and if he didn't take her seriously, there was less chance he'd notice if she slipped up and revealed anything of how she felt about him. She thought that seeing him in the midst of his family would shame her into losing interest, but the opposite had happened. Meeting his parents, and watching him sitting, a quiet and amused observer, in the delightful chaos of his sister's home when everyone had gathered, had made her love him even more. Especially when she found he wasn't married. It was hopeless. As soon as she met her uncle, she would have to go back to Itokoshi and get far, far away from Kei. With that gloomy thought, she kept climbing, grateful that she'd had an active childhood and a lot of reason to exercise since.

"Here we are," Kei said cheerfully, giving her one last tug onto the top of an anvil-shaped rock the size of a small house. She mastered her disappointment in having to release his hand and looked where he pointed.

At first she didn't see the man at all, so absorbed was she in the view of the waterfall, which was the highest she'd ever seen. The scene was serenely magnificent, with the early morning sun glinting on the colors of the changing leaves and the water flowing green and foaming from its great height. The sound of the water was vaguely rhythmic and soothing, and she smiled without knowing it. Then other sounds intruded, movement other than the smooth flow of water caught her eye, and she saw the man on the ledge, level with them but a good distance away.

Her jaw dropped. He was huge. He was probably taller than even Hitomi's husband, and he was massively muscled, especially in the upper body. He was working with a sword which looked as long as she was tall, wielding it as if it weighed no more than a toothpick, and no matter how hard she stared, most of what he did was too quick for her to follow with her eyes. But whoever he was, he couldn't be her uncle. He moved like a young man and his long hair was black. He must be an apprentice of her uncle's, although no one had mentioned him having one.

She tugged on Kei's sleeve and whispered, "Where's my uncle?"

"That's him."

"Where?"

"There."

"All I see is the man with the sword."

"That's him."

She searched his face, frowning. "If this is a joke, Kei, it's not very funny."

He looked down at her, amusement glinting brightly in those beautiful eyes. "He and Hikaru lead a simple life. I suppose that helps keep them looking younger than they are. Didn't anyone tell you how old Hikaru is?" She shook her head, and he said, "She's 75."

"That's impossible!"

"Ask her, if you don't believe me."

"Nobody asks a woman her age. It's not polite."

He chuckled, knowing he'd won that round. "He'll be done soon. We'd better go."

Going down in the kimono was even more difficult than going up, and she missed her boy's clothes. But she'd wanted to look nice when she met her uncle, so with some help from Hitomi the night before, she'd cleaned and pressed her best kimono for use once more. Now she either had to hold the material up almost to her knees or accept Kei's help all the way back down the rough path, and both of those seemed too much like flirting to her. Worse, whichever she chose at whatever time, Kei accepted it with the same cool, disinterested, cheerful, helpful friendliness. By the time she got to the bottom she was scarlet with humiliation and frustrated embarrassment. Kei, of course, thought she was too hot from the exercise and offered to fan her while she rested. She either wanted to die or to kill him. She settled for telling him grumpily that she was fine. Naturally, he believed her and led her blithely onward. She decided killing him was the better option.

By the time they were back on the main path, her murderous thoughts were gone and she was seized by an attack of nerves. Her mouth went dry, and she had to force her feet to move. At one point she simply stopped walking, and when Kei turned, questioning, she squeaked, "Maybe I ought to wait until tomorrow. Give him more time to adjust to the idea of having a relative around."

"If you don't come on, I'll carry you," Kei said firmly.

The image of being carried in Kei's arms made her knees turn to water. Now she really couldn't keep walking. She leaned against the nearest tree, and (luckily) Kei misinterpreted her expression, thought she really was going to be sick from nerves, and took her fan and plied it gently for her until the flush went out of her cheeks. Then he told her to stop being a baby, her uncle wasn't really going to eat her. She wondered how it could be possible to love someone and hate him at the same time.

Being introduced to Hikaru's gardens made her forget her nerves. She'd heard about them the night before, at dinner, but everyone talked about them so casually that she'd assumed they were gardens such as she'd seen in some towns and cities. But (as Kei informed her when she stopped dead, gaping, at the sight of them) Hikaru had begun them back before the Revolution, had started formal expansion on her wedding day, and in the almost 30 years she'd been married to Hiko, had never ceased adding to them. "We've been watching them grow all our lives, slowly," he added, "so I suppose we're used to them. They'd be even more extensive, except Seijuro refuses to allow her to have live-in gardeners. People come up from the village to help her, and so do we when we're in Kyoto. Ki, as you see, is the family's most enthusiastic gardener."

To her left, Kiyoshi Sagara, Koneko's father, whom she'd met the night before, heard his name mentioned and waved at her from a bed where he was carefully planting bulbs between a series of pearlescent stones. He was shirtless, his shirt flung onto an overhanging branch to form a shady spot for Koneko, who was doing her infant best to crawl to the edge of her blanket and get into the dirt with her daddy.

Kei touched her shoulder and pointed. "Here comes Hikaru. You're about to be forced into a tour of the gardens. All of them."

"Forced? But I'd love to see them! Oh, you're teasing me again."

"Yes, but there's another reason for the tour. She wants to be sure that The Great Man has had his after-training sake and bath before you meet him."

She giggled, then covered her mouth. "If you keep doing that, you're going to create disrespect in me for my Honorable Ancestor," she said, and they were both laughing when Hikaru came up to greet them.

Hanako was with Hikaru, but she hurried off to rescue her child, who had managed to put chubby hands on Ki's sword and was chewing on the sheath. As Hikaru led her and Kei away, Mikiko could hear Ki and Hanako having a good-natured argument about whether he was a careless baby-sitter (Hanako's view) or Koneko was just a natural swordswoman (Ki's view).

Half an hour later, dazzled by the peace and beauty of the gardens and by another half hour in Kei's company, she found herself being left at the door of the cottage, with Hikaru saying casually, "Just go in. He's expecting you."

Kei frowned at this. "You should go with her, Hikaru."

"He wants to see her alone," Hikaru said gently. Then, to Mikiko, she said, "Don't be so worried. He would never admit it, but he's very happy that you're here. Go on," she encouraged. Then she took Kei's arm and said, "You come with me."

Abandoned, Mikiko stared at the door, which was an ordinary door made of ordinary wood. Deliberately, and with difficulty, she banished all the ideas and fantasies that remained in her mind about this moment. Then she drew a shaky breath, wiped her palms on her thighs, and went inside to meet her great-uncle.

Her first impression was one of stillness. Seijuro Hiko, who had once carried her ancestral name of Niitsu, had the same quality of collected stillness that Kei had, only on his massive frame, the effect was something like facing a bit of the mountain. He'd put on a white cape with a large red collar shaped like the wings of sea birds, which reached from his wide shoulders to his ankles and made him look even larger. There was no trace of grey in his black hair, and although his face had deeply cut lines, they were nothing like the wrinkles and folds that her grandfather's face had collected by the time he was in his 70s. He was staring at her with a flat black gaze, waiting for her to speak after her bow. Completely intimidated, she forgot all her carefully phrased words of greeting and blurted, "You can't be my grandmother's brother!"

"In that case," he said in a deep, cool voice, "you have misled yourself and wasted not only my time but also that of my wife and my former apprentice's family and friends, and the best thing for you to do would be to apologize and go back to searching for your grandmother's brother somewhere else."

Her face felt hot enough to fry rice on. "I just meant..."

"I know what you meant," he said, cutting her off ruthlessly.

She wrung her hands. "Are you my great-uncle? Are you, I mean, were you the Kakunoshin Niitsu who had an older sister named Chieko and who lived in Itokoshi until the summer of 1840?"

"We didn't live in the village. My father didn't have a lot of use for villagers. We lived on a farm, but I can't tell you how far from Itokoshi it was, since, obviously, I wasn't allowed to walk there. My sister," he said, bending to pour himself sake from a nearby table, which was also set for tea, "had a small crescent-shaped scar under her chin, but I have no idea how she got it. At that age, I simply assumed she was born with it. Other than that, she had no identifying marks or quirks that I can use to prove to you that I knew her, if it is proof you desire. Except that she had no patience with young children."

"She didn't," Mikiko said, a little surprised that her mouth still worked. His calm matter-of-factness was both disillusioning and bracing. "I always thought it was me, because I talked too much."

"It wasn't. I didn't talk much at all, and what I remember best about her was being beaten for doing something I didn't comprehend."

"You didn't like her."

"I haven't thought about her since I was around six years old. Did she live a good life?"

"She lived a life like anyone else's, some bad, some good. I don't think she was the kind of person to ever be really happy, but she was contented. And she was a good wife and a dutiful and careful mother."

"You've thought about that answer," he said, mild approval in his tone, "and you wanted to be honest. Very good. Hikaru set out some tea for you. Would you like some?"

Cheered by even this small concession to courtesy, she sat opposite him and poured herself a cup of tea. The cup was of paper-thin porcelain exquisitely painted with a flight of cranes, and she held it up and said admiringly how lovely it was.

"It's my wife's. In fact, if you've been looking for me all this time for mercenary reasons, you're unfortunate," he added coldly. "Of the two of us, my wife has the money. I have nothing except this house and the kiln. And I won't let you take advantage of Hikaru."

Mikiko had a temper, but she could usually divert it into harmless displays like stamping her foot, or cool it quickly by simply pausing and forcing herself to be rational. But every once in a while it burst its dam and erupted too quickly for her to catch it, and with his words - even more, the way they were said - she felt herself losing control. She wanted to throw those words right back in his face, but she was far too angry, too quickly, to do much more than grit her teeth on it and get herself away. She would not shout at this man who, by his age and relationship to her, if nothing else, deserved her respect. That wasn't how she'd been brought up.

Instead, she rose, bowed, and said, "If you will excuse me, please?" Then she turned and walked out the door, shutting it a little too forcefully.

She kept right on walking, straight for the other side of the gardens and the path that went down the mountain. She didn't look for Kei or anyone else. She walked, fast, and she planned to just keep right on walking until she wasn't angry any more, even if it took three days. Then she would find a place to hide and cry her eyes out. Her quest was over, and she'd gotten nothing from it. How dare he assume she wanted nothing but money from him, without ever getting to know anything about her? The Himuras were right, he wasn't normal. He had no concept of what a family was. She'd wasted four years of her life. That had always been a possibility, since she'd often thought he must be dead, but to find him alive, and then to discover he was heartless and uncaring, hurt even more. She furiously dashed away a sudden tear, determined to be far away from here before she indulged herself.

~*~

Kei was with Hikaru and Hanako when the door to the cottage slammed, and they all three turned and saw Mikiko stalk off toward the path. Hikaru said, "Oh dear."

Hanako said, "That didn't take long."

"That might be a record," Kei said. "I don't think he even made my mother mad that quickly."

Hikaru touched his arm. "Kei - she's crying."

He swore under his breath in general, then more pointedly at Hiko as he strode rapidly after her. Couldn't the man behave himself just once? He was perceptive about people, so he must have known how sensitive and nervous Mikiko was.

He was about to break into a run to catch up with her, because she was walking much faster than he'd realized, when he saw that Hiko had come out of the cottage and was also following her. His legs were a lot longer than Kei's, and he was much closer to Mikiko, so he got to her first. Kei's hope that he was going to offer her an apology was swiftly put to rout, however, because when Hiko caught her arm and turned her around, he didn't speak to her or allow her to speak. Instead, he picked her up and threw her over his shoulder like a sack of rice, turned, and headed back for the cottage with her. She shrieked at this, naturally, but whether from fear or outrage he wasn't sure, until she started pounding on Hiko's back and demanding, "Put me down, you bully!" Then she spotted Kei, and her eyes lit. "Kei! Help!"

Kei didn't think twice. He put himself in the path, cutting Hiko off and blocking his way. "Put her down. You have no right to treat her like that."

Mikiko seconded him. "That's right, you don't," she said, giving him a thumping whack which didn't register at all with Hiko.

From his advantage of a foot in height, Hiko stared down his nose at Kei and said, "Get out of the way, Keitaro. This is family business."

Those words made Kei take a second look. The words and tone were harsh, but Hiko's eyes didn't have the flat obsidian black they took on when he was angry. In fact, if anything, they seemed amused. He said the word family, Kei reminded himself, and hoped he was doing the right thing now. He bowed and got out of the way, and when Mikiko gave an indignant cry as she was carried past him, he just shrugged and held his hands out helplessly. Unfortunately, he also had to smile, and by her expression, if Hiko didn't work some magic, she might never forgive him.

~*~

All desire to cry had left Mikiko. When Hiko dumped her unceremoniously onto the tatami floor of the cottage, she bounced back up again, ready to kill both him and Kei, even if only by sheer force of anger. Hiko, with a movement so fast she never even saw it, kicked her feet out from under her and sent her sprawling. "Stop that!" she yelled.

"I will when you stay where I put you."

"I won't. Stop bullying me! You do not act like anyone's great-uncle!"

That only made him laugh, and he had an irritating laugh. Acknowledging that she was helpless, at least for the moment, she arranged herself neatly and glared up at him.

He leaned casually against the wall, arms folded on his chest. "Nobody's ever treated you like that before, have they?"

"No, of course not!"

"They should have. It would help you control that temper of yours."

"I had a right to be angry!"

"Yes, you did. And after you answer one question, if you still want to stomp out of here in a snit, I won't bother to fetch you back."

There was enough justice in his words to keep her from retorting in kind. She said stiffly, "What question?"

"You've been looking for me for four years. Why? What did you want from me?"

"Nothing. I just wanted... you're my only living relative. I just wanted to meet you."

"That's crap. That might suffice for a trip down the road, or a little local research, or even a month or two of digging around. But nobody in their right mind hunts for something for four years unless they have a very good reason," he said, punctuating the words with a finger pointing at her. "So I ask you again. What did you want?"

"Not money," she growled.

"I think we've adequately established that."

"I never even thought of money."

"Stop being an idiot. You're evading the question. I don't care what it wasn't, I asked what it was. Until you answer me, you're going to sit right there until I get bored with watching you. Which, since I'm well stocked with sake, might be a long time." "Hikaru will come rescue me."

"No. She won't," he said, with assurance too calm to argue against. "So, why won't you answer? Are you so unused to thinking that it hurts to do it?"

The worst of it was that he never raised his voice and didn't seem at all excited or upset. He might have been discussing the weather. "If I answer, I can go?"

"If you want to, you can go to America for all I care. If you answer honestly. Look into your mind, you silly girl. Why would you waste a fifth of your life looking for a great-uncle who, as far as you knew, was probably long dead?"

Challenged like that, she was forced to stop and think. She'd already told him she'd been looking for a family member, so that wasn't what he meant. Was there more? She really hadn't given it much thought, which, in retrospect, did seem strange. The story of the disappearance of her grandmother's brother had always interested her, even from when she was a very young girl, but it hadn't taken complete hold of her mind until some time after her parents had died. Out of the grief, she had emerged with two things she was determined to do - make her own way in the world without charity from her neighbors, and find what happened to her great-uncle. Once she'd talked to the monk, who had remembered the boy and described him so clearly, the latter had taken over her life. She'd lived, worked, even laughed and played in the past four years, but never had her search been out of her mind.

Wasn't that natural? Why wouldn't she hunt for her last remaining relative? Yet she knew that wasn't enough. He was right, that reason might have taken her even as far as the monastery, but it wouldn't have set her to following the swordmaster's trail all over Japan. If that wasn't her object, then, what was? What had she wanted from him? Not that he accept her or even acknowledge her. She'd always known he might not. What, then? If he offered her whatever was in his power to give, right this minute, what would she ask for?

The first answer that came was, nothing. She didn't want anything from him. Then why four years of searching?

Then the second answer, the real answer, came. She didn't want him to give her anything. She'd wanted to give him something, something she hadn't been able to give anyone for six long years now. It was so simple. But it was also so painful that the tears rolled down her cheeks for a long minute before she was able to frame her mouth around the words. She whispered, "I just wanted someone to love."

A handkerchief landed across her hands in her lap. "That's a good answer," he said approvingly.

She wiped her eyes and her face. "I never cry, and it seems that's all I've been doing lately. And it's not a good answer. It's ridiculous."

"But it's the truth. Nothing else cuts so deep."

"You are very cruel."

"Not half as cruel as you were being to yourself, leaving here in a childish snit. Where would you have gone to look for someone to love, once you walked away from me? What would you have done with yourself?"

"I don't know. Gone back to Itokoshi, I suppose."

"Do you want to do that? Honestly," he added as a warning.

She thought about the village, and about the people there whom she'd known all her life. She was an ungrateful wretch, she knew it, but she already felt more love toward the Himura and Fujita and Sagara families than she did toward anyone in Itokoshi. "No. I don't. Not really."

"A lot of life's problems could be easily solved if people understood what they actually want instead of only what they think they want," he said smugly, sitting opposite her. He reached for the nearby table. "Here. This will do you some good."

It was sake, and very strong. She drank it anyway, determined now that she was not going to show one more sign of weakness in front of this terrible man. Not temper, not tears, nothing. Certainly not that she wasn't accustomed to sake.

She was still angry. Neither the revelation or the sake had completely eased that away. "Are you going to be honest with me, too? Or does that sword only cut one way?"

"In my experience, most people don't want true honesty. They want their truths sugar-coated."

"You've already hurt me. Why stop now? Go on being honest."

"Hurting you was not my intention."

"Then what was your intention?"

"I don't have a lifetime to get to know you. You're already 20 years old, not a child, and I'm not going to live forever. I also have never had the patience to wade through the social niceties. So, I attacked you. And from your response, I already know more about you than I suspect anyone but your parents knew. Probably even more than they did."

His arrogant self-assurance made her teeth grit again. "How? We've barely talked five minutes."

"I'm experienced. However, to answer your question, yes, I'll be honest with you. You have a question to ask?"

For a moment she quailed, even driven by temper. She'd been brought up to be a proper lady. This was not right, to be challenging an older person, and a man, with her thoughts. Without the easy relationship she'd had with her grandfather, she might not have been able to do anything more now than swallow her tongue, and her ire. Instead, she decided to see if he could take what he could dish out. "You don't want anyone to love you, do you?"

He didn't so much as blink. "I have one person. That's more than sufficient for me."

"And if I decided to do it anyway, you'd reject it?"

"That would depend on if you were obnoxious about it."

"Obnoxious?"

"Have some tea. That might suit you better than the sake, now that you're more calm. Yes, obnoxious. I don't know what you call love, exactly, but what most people call love is a sort of business arrangement, conditional on your response. Parents love their children as long as those children do what they are told. A husband loves his wife as long as she is sweet and submissive and keeps him fed. If you decided to love me, would you continue to do so if I sent you back to Itokoshi with nothing but a kick in the butt?"

"If I decided to love you - and that is an enormous if - then yes, of course I would. You're wrong about love. What you're talking about is duty, not love. And if you don't know that, then I'm very sorry for Hikaru."

His eyes glinted with amusement. "I know the difference. Now I know you do, too."

"Stop trying to open me up like a toy box! You aren't a cat, and I'm not a mouse. And I don't care what your relationship is to me, I don't owe you anything more than you owe me! Less, in fact. You never spent any time looking for me." A thought occurred to her, and she asked, "Would you have looked for me? If you'd know about me?"

"That's a good question," he said, approving again. "I had to give it a lot of thought. Yes, I would have."

"So you have some sense of normal family feeling."

"No, it would have been more in the nature of duty. As you put it."

She put the tea cup down forcefully. "Do you have any friends?"

He laughed. "A few. They're very tolerant and superior people. That's one advantage to having the kind of personality I have."

She sighed and picked up the cup again. "I'm not going to apologize for insulting you, because I doubt I did. I don't think anyone can. So, what do you want me to do? Go back to Itokoshi and forget you exist?"

He frowned, and she knew she had hit something in him, but she was at a loss to know what. His answer, however, was what she expected of him by now. "I don't really want you to do anything. After knowing you so short a time, your presence or absence can't mean anything to me. However, you've already said that going back to the village isn't what you would do by your own choice, and since I bear you no ill will, I won't demand that. If you have the family feeling you claim, then you'd probably be better off settling here in Kyoto. If you do, I will acknowledge you and help you as much as I can."

"Why? I doubt it's from a sense of duty."

"Call it a debt owed to my sister."

"I don't want to collect a debt owed to someone else, and I definitely don't want to be a sop to your conscience, if you have one."

"You can, of course, reject anything I offer."

"Except that would be stupid of me, wouldn't it?"

He laughed again. "You're right, you are not quite the mouse you look. My arbiter on what is considered appropriate behavior is Hikaru, and while I don't usually follow her advice, with you, I will. You're staying with the rest of the crowd at Hitomi's? Good. Have Kei bring you back tomorrow, and we'll talk again."

"If I ran away, you'd probably be happier."

"Stop biting. I'm not challenging you any more, I'm being reasonable. You should work on that temper of yours."

"I'm sorry. You're right, I shouldn't have lost my temper, even if you did deliberately provoke me."

Her sarcastic tone made his mouth curve. "I see the beginnings of wisdom. Shall we invite the others in to share the tea and sake now? I suspect they're all wondering if one of us has killed the other."

She couldn't believe she'd forgotten about the others, especially Kei. "Do I look all right?"

"That depends on your definition of all right."

"Idiot. Do I look like I've been crying? And my hair's all down!"

"No, you don't look as if you've been crying. Here." To her astonishment, he helped her put the loose strands of hair back where they belonged. Then he went to the door, opened it, and came back to sit opposite her. In a moment, Hikaru, Hanako, and Kei came in, the latter two looking worried about her. Hikaru, however, exchanged one glance with Hiko, and although Mikiko could read nothing in it, Hikaru apparently did and settled herself with a smile to be a hostess. After tea and conversation in which Hiko played no part at all, Hanako took a pot of tea out to her husband. She tactfully tried to get Kei to come with her, but Hikaru smiled and told her, "Kei can stay. I think he would like to formally hand over his responsibility for Mikiko."

Hanako smiled, waved, and left them. Dismayed, Mikiko turned to Kei. "I'm not your responsibility!"

Kei opened his mouth, but it was Hikaru who spoke. "Certainly you are. You were as soon as he agreed to help you. Don't be troubled by that. Some responsibilities are welcome ones. Besides, Kei is better at handling responsibility than anyone else I know, even better than his father, since he is good at both accepting it and relinquishing it."

To her surprise, Kei actually blushed at the compliment.

"Hikaru." Hiko said the one word, and all of them turned to look at him, since he'd been silent for so long. He paid attention only to Hikaru. "Think first. Don't start moving the fusama. Miss Yoshida is accustomed to making her own way in the world. I doubt she'll appreciate what she will probably call charity."

Hikaru nodded. Mikiko realized that a great deal went unsaid between those two. "But, Seijuro, she must at least have a place to stay."

"Agreed, if only to give Hitomi some relief."

Kei said, "Hitomi likes her. She helps out with everything."

Which made it Mikiko's turn to blush.

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



Part Four

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