pg-13 | child abuse | mention of animal abuse
The water in the basin turned pink as she dunked the rag into it and squeezed out the excess fluid. Then she resumed her task of wiping off her son's face. Even in the midst of battle, even as his face became stained red with the blood of their enemies, he hadn't stopped smiling and cooing at her.
Such an odd child.
But he had also managed to hold up his head, even though none of his siblings had been capable of such a task at their age. When she brushed away a trickle of water to keep it out of his eye, he grasped her finger with a strength that was remarkable for a newborn.
She knew, somehow, that this would be the child who would strike her down.
The first time Rokurou held his bamboo training sword, Ichirou held nothing back.
Shigure expected no less. Indeed, she would have been disappointed had he not given the sparring match his all. He had appeared frustrated that he was being asked to pair up with his youngest brother, but had not objected. Traditionally, sparring partners were closer in age. However, Rokurou was such a clumsy little boy, and none of that would improve if he was not challenged. She could already see strength and potential in his form.
But she had said the same about her second son, and his name would never be spoken by anyone in the clan ever again.
It was unwise to give praise. It made people feel they did not need to work for their accomplishments. Infinitely preferable to point out failings and shame her children into bettering themselves. It had been her father's way and had helped craft her into the warrior she was.
Ichirou knocked the sword from his brother's hand, then drove him to the ground with a single blow to his back. Even from where she was sitting, she could see blood from scrapes on Rokurou's hands. It must have hurt when he tried to push himself back up, but he did it anyway. He rose, faced the brother who was at least twenty centimeters taller than him, and attacked.
His brother simply took him down again. And again. Until the tears obscured Rokurou's vision and he sat in the dirt, blood staining his kimono, snot running down from his nose. Ichirou laughed and pulled out his great sword, putting it in front of his brother's face, so Rokurou could see his reflection.
"Get used to it, little brother. You're going to lose to me every time."
And with that, he walked away.
She could have gone to Rokurou and helped him up, assured him that she had failed in her first challenge, as well. But it would have only harmed him. One must suffer to grow.
The expression on Rokurou's face was not simply one of anguish; determination flashed there as well.
It was after the etiquette tutor complimented Ichirou on his handling of the chopsticks that Rokurou started holding his differently.
When she passed by the library, she paused; the tutor had already gone and Rokurou was embracing the gardener's child. She barked his name and he released her reluctantly. The little girl was so intimidated that she ran out the side door.
"What were you doing?"
Her son brushed his hair out of his face. "She's sad because her mother left. Her father said she went to a better place and she doesn't understand why her mom didn't take her, too."
"Her mother is dead. And her father is a coward if he dares not to speak the truth to his child."
The gardener's wife had begun to grow weak last summer, forcing her to quit her employment as a maid at the estate. The gardener should have said something to his child then, to prepare her for what was to come. Instead, he had lied to "protect" her, and now his child was even more woefully unaware of the harshness of the world.
Rokurou bowed his head, and she knew him well enough to know what was coming. She took his chin and forced him to look up at her.
"What have I said about crying?"
"That if I am to do it, I should do so in private. Crying in public makes me appear weak."
"Precisely. Now go wash up for dinner."
Rokurou nodded and ran off in the direction of the bathroom. She didn't have to follow him to know that when the door closed behind him, the tears would resume.
Emotions were a part of being human. Normal and necessary, even in battle. But the boy felt too much, and in his sparring matches, none of it was evident. His movements were precise. Measured. Cold. Detached.
For all that she advised him to restrain his crying in front of others, she would have welcomed tears in a fight if it meant he could break loose of the perfect, predicable style he exhibited.
She was woken up in the morning by shouting outside her window. The sword was too big for him, but he swung it anyway, yelling with each blow given to an imaginary enemy.
The wine was a tad too bitter, but the doctor hadn't brought any laudanum. She would make do with what she had. So she finished the glass and examined the wound on her stomach. Not terribly deep. Although it would still leave a scar.
She pulled her shirt back down and turned around to face her littlest one, coming towards her carrying a tray.
"I made you apple curry," he said as he set it on the table. She reached over and tucked his hair behind his ear. He absolutely had to stop letting it fall in his face. On the field of battle, one needed to be able to see everything clearly.
"Why?" she asked. "Is the cook ill?"
He shook his head, causing his hair to come untucked, covering up his eyes again. "Ichirou told me you were hurt so I thought I would make you your favorite meal."
She sighed, causing pain to shoot up her side, so she poured herself another glass as Rokurou stared at her expectantly.
"You shouldn't be wasting your time cooking. I heard you've been neglecting your studies."
"I practice every morning, mother."
"Yet, it's not good enough. You lost in your sparring match today."
Now she was almost convinced he was purposefully hiding behind his hair. "Shirou ... does not always fight with honor, Shigure."
"And is it honorable to make excuses for one's failings? Your stance is poor, you lost balance on your lunge more than once, and you retreat too often."
"He will ... sometimes fake an injury to get me to pause."
"I did not raise you to be this soft. You do not relent when your enemy is injured. You go in for the kill."
He nodded as she sampled the curry, then glanced up at her through the shaggy, too-long bangs. They really needed to find a new family barber.
She pushed the tray back towards him. "Too much salt."
Ichirou insisted on adopting the feral cat that had been wandering around town, in spite of the fact that when Rokurou bent down to pet it, the cat lashed out and drew blood.
Or perhaps, indeed, because of that.
He was still too soft, and all his siblings knew it. The villains of the world knew not of honor, and it while it was necessary to live by the warrior's code, one had to anticipate dishonorable actions and behave accordingly. Ichirou "surrendered" only to strike the moment Rokurou lowered his blade.
The child would not even rush to her to complain that Ichirou wasn't being "fair" or had "cheated". He merely picked himself up, bowed at his opponent, and accepted the loss.
His hair fell in front of his face, and he did nothing to move it aside when he arose.
That night, he brought her the curry again. His cheek was bruised from where he hit the ground, his gait betrayed the blow he suffered to his right leg, and there were claw marks on his arm.
She didn't know why he kept trying to pet that stupid cat.
Or more accurately, she did know, and it irritated her.
The cat was still young, but had led a bitter and harsh life, its story told in missing tufts of fur, a deformed ear, a slight limp in a forepaw. It had been harmed by others, possibly many times, and may have chosen to live on the streets to escape further abuse. It stayed with Ichirou likely because he would toss fish at it, but it would never be a warm and cuddly creature.
But Rokurou kept trying. Kept trying to show it gentleness and kindness and every time, he was rewarded with new scratches.
She hadn't raised him to be such a fool.
She could taste the difference in the curry, where he had reduced the salt, but not so much that it ruined the dish.
"Not enough pepper," she told him.
She pulled his hand away from his face. When he was younger, he had sucked his thumb constantly and it was only with repeated applications of the strongest wasabi that she managed to get him to stop.
He still had a habit of bringing his fist to his mouth, pressing his lips against his thumb, as if he was about to resume his nasty childhood vice. As she had needed her own father to strip her of her childhood blanket, she would teach her sixth son to grow up.
And to learn to not let his hair fall into his face.
"Why do you hide like this?" she asked as she brushed it back, so she could see both eyes. He was such a handsome boy who would undoubtedly have many women wishing to be courted by him once he was older. His hair was like his father's - thick, dark, and soft to the touch, but he had inherited her golden eyes.
"I'm not hiding. I just like the way it looks." He grinned at her, and the sight plucked at the corners of her own mouth, trying to pull them up into a similar expression. She resisted.
"You look like a foolish boy who prefers to see his own haircut rather than the opponent at hand. Do you want me to shave your hair off?"
"No, Shigure," he replied, as he dropped his head. She took his chin and tilted it back up.
From that day on, he wore it tied back in a tight ponytail.
Ichirou avoided her stare as he walked down the hall. She stopped him, ordered him to look at her.
"You were bested," she said, her tone cold and harsh. He had failed to anticipate his brother's swift side-step and had nearly fallen under Rokurou's steel blade. Even she had been taken aback. The determined look on his face had given way to a bright smile as he realized he nearly had Ichirou. In that moment, she had seen pure joy in his expression.
"Briefly. I defeated him in the end."
"And one day, he will defeat you. He almost did today."
He clenched his fist and held it to his chest. "Never. It was a moment of weakness and it is over."
"His skills are improving with every battle. All I see from you is stagnation. You're floundering, Ichirou, and perhaps you are as good as you will ever be."
The rage in him blossomed in red on his face, before he bowed deeply and requested permission to take his leave. His posture stiff, he walked towards the training facilities.
She would see advancement in him now.
She sampled the curry reluctantly; stomach pains had begun the night before and had not subsided.
"Too watered down," she told him. He only nodded. Ichirou's cat had followed him in, and as Rokurou moved towards the exit, he bent down so the little creature could hop onto his shoulders. She could hear the animal actually ... purring.
She watched as the dance instructor kept tapping his arms, his back, as he fell out of step with the others. He couldn't keep up the rhythm and his weight wasn't evenly distributed. His frame was constantly too loose, until he tried to correct it, and then it was too rigid. In what was likely an attempt to be respectful, he was giving his partner too much space, which prevented him from exhibiting the grace that had grown out of his childhood awkwardness.
He could move so beautifully if he only followed the instructor's rules, rather than adhere to his own foolish code of perceived chivalry.
It did not help that he was constantly glancing over at the brunette girl who was paired up with Ichirou. Unlike some of the other girls, this one met his gaze. She didn't giggle and avert her eyes. One of Ichirou's students, her prowess with the mace was well-known. Not many women could wield such a heavy weapon with ease. Her strength was formidable and Shigure would be glad to welcome her into the clan as a daughter-in-law, if such an occasion arose.
She tapped her chin as Ichirou's grip tightened across the young lady's upper back. Her eldest could handle a courtship without it distracting from his studies; given that a simple attraction was ruining his concentration, it was unlikely the same could be said of Rokurou.
Her youngest still had much work to do. A broken heart could be a strong motivator. Perhaps it was for the best.
She slapped him again, this time hard enough to knock him to the floor.
"Shigure, it was only a bucket of apples."
"It was not yours to take."
He had to have known if he rose up, she might strike him down once more, but he did anyway. With a deep inhale, Rokurou stood straight, nearly at eye level with her. At this rate, he would be taller than her by the time his growth spurt was done with him.
They had fired the gardener for exactly this - stealing food from their kitchen. The man had been spending his wages at the tavern in town instead of feeding his daughter. The Rangetsu clan was hardly responsible for his poor decision. If his daughter suffered, well, such was the way of the world. The weak die out and the strong survive.
Now her son was sneaking food out to the daughter. She thought she had taught him better. He still felt too much, in all the wrong places.
"When meals are served to me, isn't that my food to take?" There was a defiant gleam in his eyes.
She crossed her arms over her chest. "You are still growing. What you are given is what you need to be healthy. I will not have you giving away your sustenance."
Later, at dinner, she saw him slipping a roll into the gap of his kimono, but said nothing.
In spite of having no appetite, she accepted the bowl of curry and brought a spoonful to her lips.
He said nothing as she pushed the bowl away.
It was a struggle to get out of bed. She cursed the empty bottle of laudanum and reached for the wine instead, as the healer's words echoed in her ear.
Six months, perhaps a year. It's nearly impossible to predict with these kind of things.
At first, it was as if she was with child again, although her husband's death four years prior made such a thing impossible. Still, she had ignored the problem for entirely too long. Perhaps if she had sought assistance earlier, she would not be doomed as she was.
She ran her hand over the bulge in her stomach. No child. Simply a growth. It would continue to consume what her body needed to survive, and all of the herbs and blood-letting and artes could do nothing. The pain would grow. Her muscles would weaken. Her soul would fade.
The last thing she wanted was to waste away to nothing.
When the wine had dulled the pain to the point where she could walk without wincing, she ventured outside. Ichirou and Rokurou were sparring, again. Rokurou would be defeated, again. He was improving, but not quickly enough. Not quickly enough for her to see it. Or for him to be ready to do what must be done.
She had been wrong, sixteen years ago.
He would not be the child to strike her down.
If it broke his heart to see the girl he adored walking arm-in-arm with Ichirou, he made no indication of it.
The cat no longer came to him, purring and docile, to curl up in his lap. As impossible as it was to train a cat, his brother apparently taught it to avoid Rokurou.
Anything that gave Rokurou happiness, Ichirou was determined to take from him.
Her youngest son simply declared that he didn't care for cats, as if the years of having the ball of fur cuddle with him and sleep in his bed meant nothing.
It was for the best, anyway. He was still just a boy. A boy who needed to harden up.
In spite of being the youngest instructor in the Rangetsu style, Rokurou was perhaps the best that the school had. He could demonstrate and teach technique better than any of the others.
Technique, however, was not everything.
He could not be what she needed. What the clan needed. And that caused a pain in her chest that was sharper than the one that was killing her.
She had done her best to drive him to be a stronger, better warrior. He had within him the ability to become the greatest swordsman the land had ever known - the kind who has songs and stories written about him, even long past his time in the world. He could slay daemons easily but Ichirou still presented a challenge. When every movement in a battle is calculated and precise, they can be easily anticipated by those who have also studied the blade.
No matter what she did, or what she said, he still left his heart out of the fight.
Perhaps it was because his heart was better than hers, than Ichirou's, than anyone else's in the clan, and it couldn't bear to be a party to causing harm. He was still sneaking food and money to the former gardener's girl. He still tried to pet the poor cat, now elderly and frail, even though he knew the creature would snarl and run away. Rokurou could easily outpace it, but never chased it if it turned tail.
He was still too soft. A man who could slice a daemon or an assassin in half without blinking, but would hand over his kimono to a freezing child in the street.
Shigure entrusted her manservant with the message. He would make sure Ichirou received it, and that he knew not from where it originated.
The trap was set.
She was sitting in the garden when she heard the unmistakable sound of a blade being unsheathed. She did her best to rise without giving any indication of the pain raging in her gut.
"It is tradition that you wait to slay the Shigure until she or he is beginning to become infirm. Old. Unable to lead. Yet you come for me now, when the last girl I bore is not even old enough to whelp a child of her own?"
"I'm the eldest. The title of 'Shigure' is rightfully mine."
Even with her illness, she was able to draw her sword with a quick, smooth motion. "The title belongs to the one who earns it."
"And you think that should be Rokurou."
She didn't bother to feign surprise; she had never been one for outwardly expressing emotion. Such a display would be suspicious.
"Where did you hear that?" she asked, as if she did not know.
"It doesn't matter." He pointed his blade at her. "You were going to conspire with him to get rid of me. You both know I'm most deserving. The only way I don't inherit this title is if I'm dead. So you were going to kill me."
It took all her remaining strength in the battle that ensued; she had to maintain the illusion. Ichirou had never been a sentimental boy, but he had never known her as anything but his strong, powerful mother. If he became aware of the reasons behind her actions, he might falter. He might not follow through with his plan. Might try to find an elusive healer who knew the correct artes to draw the growth out of body.
But it was too late. Bits of it had broken off and already started to pollute the rest of her.
She had seen what happened to her clan when her father hadn't the strength to kill Shigure, even though her grandmother had been too weak to stand, near the end. They had nearly fallen into chaos, until he had finally risen to the challenge. That was why she struck down her father while he still had the strength to wield a weapon. It was why Ichirou needed to take care of this, now.
For all the hope she had for Rokurou, he was not ready. He might never be ready.
But she was ready to go. And if her littlest boy was strong enough to lead this clan, one day he would rise up and take what was his.
She allowed an opening and he took it, stabbing her in the chest, just barely below her heart.
Shigure was dead.
Long live Shigure.
She had not been Tamiko for many years, but with that blow, she could allow her persona to shatter, to scatter to the winds, and she could be Tamiko again. Now. In her final moments.
My darling boy, she thought, as she faded. The curry was perfect the first time.
She knew the feeling well, although this seemed different than healing spells that had been applied to her in the past. No one else should have been at the estate, and Ichirou could not have known, would not have attempted to undo what he did.
Unacceptable. The doctors had already told her the artes could do nothing for her condition. They had tried. This was -
A growl as her body jerked, as she sat straight up in the bed.
No, she realized as she glanced down at her limbs with hazy eyes. This is not my body anymore.
"You're awake," an unfamiliar voice said. "Good. We have plans for you."
An eruption, from deep inside her soul, with tendrils of power enveloping it. Binding her.
She was nothing but property now.
At least, the part of her which was Tamiko was still cognizant enough to be able to scream.