Chapter Two: Coming To Terms With Reality

In the middle of the road, the carriage was moving. She looked out, gazing at the road ahead of them. And of course the destination she was arriving at. The city which she never saw, but knew enough of it. It was a cesspool of schemes, lies and distrust. It was one of constant prosperity, and a place of rapid change and a court which emulated the ones outside the country.

She leaned further into the window, as the gates were before her. The gates had been tall, needing Sachiko to strain her neck just from the distance to see the top. There was something taller than that, which was the residence of the Shogun. She knew why they now said that it was noticeable, even if the space had not been necessary for the Shogunate.

And a certainty that it would have been massive upon closer look. Before turning her head to the side, to see her maidservant. A girl with hair reaching around her mid-back, dressed in a normal kimono. With her hands held together, all the while tugging her shawl closer. She was taking one small step at a time, perhaps knowing just how difficult it was to move.

“I forgot how cold Okiban was, especially if it was only a day away from Fukusei.” She had been from Fukusei and was looking for work to become a personal maid. Even as it was strange she would think of finding work as a lady’s maid as opposed to say, as a seamstress or an artisan. But Kaede was quick on her hands and her mind was sharp, and that being a handmaid required much skill in pleasing a person. Or rather to keep her job by Sachiko’s mother.

She was still somewhat shivering, having let down her hair as an attempt to keep her back warm. Tied into a low ponytail as she continued trailing right outside the palanquin. “I thought you grew up in the cold.”

“I’ve gotten used to the cold climate but I didn’t plan on the breeze being so, or I would have chosen something warmer.” She was wearing the kimono which was more suited to summer, something being wholly unsuitable for this sort of weather.

Though Sachiko was wiping sweat off her brow. In lieu of the cold weather, they had assumed that she would have liked to be dressed in as many layers as possible. As though she was cattle to be reared before the slaughterhouse. It could not be more true, as many did hope that she would be marrying someone here and bring a valuable alliance with her.

It was nice to at least not have the marriage be dictated by someone else, but neither had it been easy for her to come to terms to the fact that they wanted her to auction herself. That she bring value to the family through an alliance, since the Saitou clan was in need of one.

Even as she didn’t think she needed an extra layer of her own kimono, being brought on a palanquin for hours on end made her legs numb just by sitting. And her mind bored. Reading was out of the question as it would make her queasy while on the road. So, she had mostly fidgeted trying to find the most comfortable spot. And sometimes taking off layers. She still kept the outer kimono and haori, because those were intricate in detail. And would be immediately noticed if taken off.

But the inner layers, were negligible. She gave a fresh set of clothing to her, as the girl gladly took it happy to be so. It was not going along for much longer, but it would still require time before they enter.

In a moment, they had arrived at the gate. In which she knew would be where the time would go. “It’s Sachiko-hime of the Saitou clan.” A necessity to confirm her identity. Even as Kaede had stood to the side of the window. Even as the guards had came personally to verify. Kaede lifted the cloth cover of the palanquin, and she turned to face the man. Looking above to meet his eyes. While giving a small, gentle smile.

“I’m here on a visit to my brother who stays in Okiban the entire year.” He backed away, before opening the gates. Those will take time, as they were big and heavy. Especially as she looked at it now, and in her memory those thing could take close to an hour.

Even as she took the chance to mostly remind herself of the things that would be waiting for her here. Her mother’s demands, the clan’s anticipation of a match to save their fortunes. Her father was dead, officially so. She need not get married so fast, but perhaps an engagement would be nice. And for it to be solid before it happened. She would need to spend at least a year in mourning before it was respectable, and her father had only been declared dead for less than a month. Which would allow her to play her hands right, as she won’t be fully available for a year at least or older.

And that now, daughters married when they were eighteen at least. The Shogunate lead first, with most of the family never offering a daughter lower than sixteen, even then it was a betrothal. The sons were even older; some were unattached even till adulthood. For most part, those sons happened to be the younger sons while the heir by that point would have gotten plenty of proposals.

She knew that in her families’ mind, a marriage to the heir of the Shogun was the best. They did not want a foreign woman, remembering of the assassination of the previous Shogun. In which his wife successfully plotted to end him.

And the current Shogun, brother of the dead had to divorce his first wive and marry another. Both for stability and to appease them. She was the daughter of a rich and esteemed family, with a line that went back to the first days of the Shogunate and even further. Having once been a part of the imperial clan, but given a surname before becoming a commoner.

Just with her entering, she knew what was to come. As much as she resented it. To be ignored until now, where most had decided to fling themselves at her. Perhaps hoping that she was naive and sheltered and would fall for their charms. Or that her mother was eager to appease them.

“Do you know anything about the best places to buy wine? I can do them if I’m in Fukusei.” Kaede leaned in, knowing of her thoughts. Back to the real reason why they were here, and how depressing it was for her. She had never known much of them, a group so eager to meet her the moment her father was out the door. And how she had to keep her head down and to look out for anyone who might compromise her reputation. Her mother did what was expected of her, but nothing more.

Even her trip here, it was mostly something she negotiated. Find the best deal for her family, get her brother back to Senwari. Even as she hid her own wish to be free.

“I have never been here.” Which was enough to shoot her down. She wasn’t familiar with the city. “And Masaki would not know as he would have never tasted wine. Perhaps ask a servant or two, I’m sure someone would know.”

“True.” Since there was many who would have known this regardless of where they were. Even as they went back to silence, not having much else to talk. Or it was uncomfortable to be speaking of it right in front of others.

It was a long wait, before the palanquin picked up again. As they finally made the entry into the city, where they now passed through the main road. The maps had been provided and a route charted, but it would still be a while. Okiban was a large city, meant to be the heart and central of the country. Even if it had been a city for no more than three centuries, dating back to the Shogunate in its early days. Built as a place to show off to the rest of the world, that even if it was an island so removed from the rest of the world they were still people who could govern on their own.

Passing by the streets, as it was filled with people from all walks of life. The rich and the poor, those who were selling while ignoring those who were begging. A place of desperation, as some took to selling their daughters to brothels or Geisha houses. Boys being lumped off by rich men to work like slaves to them. Where thieves took cash, swindlers cheated.

And then of course, the more unsavory sides of the city had disappeared. Into the districts where the wealthiest lived. To give the illusion that this was a place where all lived like royalty, where everyone was civil. Even when Sachiko knew for herself that those who were depraved were sometimes those sitting right at the top. It was not always so, she knew that.

Before long, she had saw it stop. They were here.

Kaede opened the door, to help her out. Standing up had been difficult, even as Kaede laid out her geta. She got into them, as she took a walk down. Kaede was behind her, mostly to ensure that she won’t fall if there was a need.

Even as a boy stood outside. His hair for most part was still in that of a ponytail, but a topknot would have been preferred for a boy of his age. He looked to her, before breaking into a smile. He was slightly taller than her, something which had been apparent since their last meeting had been years ago. And then sent before he even turned ten.

Their only method of communication was mail. Which they sent as often as it was possible. He had taken the chance to bow to his older sister. “Aneue, what brings you here?”

Kaede took the cue to leave; knowing that this had become a private family meeting. As had most of the servants, who all took the signal to leave the courtyard with no other than the pair of siblings. Years had worn down their relationship. Both of them were being polite with each other, because they barely knew each other.

“I bring a message, you will need to head back to Senwari at this point. Chichiue has been declared dead.” His eyes widened, even as he knew that their father had been missing for a while now. But in his heart, he hoped that it was not true. He had buried his own hands into his face, even as Sachiko had calmly embraced him. She had a month to face reality. He did not. And he was still a child, even as he had been exposed to Okiban in many ways. Their letters had been intimate where he had talked of many things.

And sometimes sought her wisdom in many matters. Feeling too embarrassed to ask his mother, but felt that there was no one else to trust than her. It was a moment before he regained his composure, nothing like the sensitive emotional he had been before. But an acceptance. Such was the way of life, especially the higher they go. There was not a thing as free will, it all depended on the Shogun. Who also was restrained in his actions and choices, or even how he lived in his private life.

She had to continue. Even as she knew that he must have grasped what came next. He was his father’s only son, and that meant that he would inherit. He would have set aside a dowry for her, but most of the land would go to him.

“Haha is asking you to go back, to become the Daimyo.” And it needs to be fast before their lands could be partitioned into many others. Or the Shogun could seize it with little to no effort, and call it on behalf of the regency.

Even as the boy looked up, clear about what it had meant. An exchange. A person for a person. She was taking his place. She knew that it was impossible to avoid, and she was of the right age to marry either way. “I will need to stay here. Besides, it is time that I thought about marriage.”

Those were comfort words. Words spoken to a boy, even as she had no intention of doing it. She would do her level best to avoid it. She never wanted to be stuck here for longer than was necessary. But it was first admitting that this was unavoidable, and that they could only move from here.

“Wouldn’t that be disrespecting chichiue?” She gave him a smile. It wasn’t they would still respect the honor and tradition. She was not yet, but an engagement was not impossible. They happened before, with the Shogun’s family being the ones who had broken it. Bending the rules to allow betrothals but there was to be no solid talk of any marriage until the mourning period has passed. Which could go to three years, but most resolved to be around a year in such cases.

Even as he knew that she did not want it. But to many, it was a willful thing to say. It was impossible to not want marriage, the only difference was that whether she would want to marry because she loved them or because she needed them. For her, all her family wanted was wealth. And to them, they hoped she could catch the eye of the Shogun’s son. Even as she knew that now almost all other families did the same.

“Because it’ll take time. And for me to get the best price we can get.” It was asking her to auction herself. She knew that, but there was a freedom coming down here alone as opposed to say with her mother or any of the officials. None could come, for fear of compromising her. And a small retinue was the best for avoiding attention.

She stepped away. Even as he still came forward. “Would you still want to see the city?” He had asked that.

“I would like that.” It could be their last time, their last time before they would never see each other again. After he had petitioned to leave, it may be their last. They were well aware of it. Not uncommon for siblings to almost never see each other, or perhaps only in occasion when it was possible.

“Tomorrow then?” She gave a nod. Even as she would still be keeping an eye out for many things.

She had taken the time and left. As Kaede had made her appearance known. “I got you settled ahead of time, since you were talking to wakatono-sama. Or should it have changed by now?”

“Not yet, since he hasn’t asked the Shogun permission to leave.” And free him from the imprisonment that dominated them.

“Apparently, I not only found a place but I also gotten a free bottle on the first ask. It’s from an inn in the city named Houya inn, ran by a pair of siblings. It’s her younger brother that makes wine, and his from the first taste has been fantastic.” She looked in curiosity, wondering just what could have been attracting her.

She held out the bottle before her, even as they were walking. It was to an unused room, with a good view on the outside. The servants had been sweeping the garden straight out from her room, and the door open. With them mostly laying out the futon, even as it was clear they finished wiping the floors. All that was left her been her wardrobe.

Once they were done, and asked to leave leaving only Kaede and Sachiko on the inside. It was normal, because Kaede had been her personal maidservant rather than say another maid. She had brought along two cups and poured it. Even as she took a chance to drink it. Gulping it down in one sip.

“It is amazing.” It had not been too overwhelming. And it had been done to almost perfection, since both of them finished. And clear that it was a good option to look into from now on.

“This will be a nice accompaniment for the winter.” She had to admit. Winter was the best time to drink, since it helped to warm the body.

“Indeed.”

They continued to drink. They could start tomorrow, or perhaps even further.

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