Yoshimo ran for nine days. He slept in the countryside, hiding under bushes, covering himself with sticks and leaves to keep warm, and eating what little he could scavenge from the fields and forests. He stayed entirely out of towns, not wanting to risk being recognized or noticed. Only when he entered the capital again did he merge back into the populace, hiding himself in the throngs of people and slipping back to Hiruma's home.
As hard as he worked to get home without drawing attention he was surprised when Kaede was there to greet him at the door, but then again, she was a sorceress, so he shouldn't have been shocked to discover that she had known he was coming. He took his muddy shoes off at the door and leaned heavily against one of the wall's wooden supports. "Is Hiruma-san in?" he asked. It was raining outside and water dripped off of his clothes onto the floor, echoing the noise of the raindrops on the roof.
"Yes, go on to his study," Kaede replied. "He said to send out in as soon as you arrived."
Muddy, cold and exhausted by his flight from the Miyazaki household, Yoshimo summoned up the energy to nod. He stepped up out of the entrance area and walked down the hallway toward Hiruma's study, which was located in the very back of the house. His eyes flicked to the door to his bedroom on the way and he wished that he could just go to sleep, or at least be given a chance to change into dry clothes. No such luck though if Hiruma really wanted to see him right away.
Yoshimo turned and saw Kurenai peeking out of her bedroom. "Yes?" he asked.
"When did you get back?" She slid the door further aside and knelt in the doorway, looking up at him expectantly.
"Just a moment ago. I have to go see Hiruma-san now."
Yoshimo looked at her curiously. "I something bothering you?"
Kurenai nodded. "I'm worried."
Yoshimo knelt down in front of her. "Why are you worried about me, eh?" He gave her a lopsided smile. "I can take pretty good care of myself, you know."
"I know, but Akane-chan says you're in trouble."
"Aka... your sister?"
"Your dead sister?"
Another nod. "She says you're going away again."
Yoshimo patted her on the shoulder. "Not if I can help it," he told her.
"Akane-chan is never wrong," Kurenai murmured. She clutched his hand suddenly and looked him in the eyes. "She won't tell me why you're going; she says I can't do anything or else bad things will happen."
Yoshimo started to yank his hand back, but then decided to let it be. "What do you mean? You're not making sense."
Kurenai squeezed his hand. "I know," she said in a soft, airy voice. "Be careful." She let him go and smiled mournfully at him. Then she slid her door closed again, leaving him to wonder just what exactly she had meant.
He stood up, shaking his head and thinking that perhaps Kurenai had finally gone completely insane, and continued on toward Hiruma's study. The poor girl had probably snapped while he was away, he decided. Hopefully the other girls and Kaede were enough to keep her from accidentally hurting herself or others, or from getting hurt by someone else.
Hiruma was waiting for him on a pillow at a low table that was set with a sake bottle and cup. He had another cup in his hand.
"You have the papers?" Hiruma asked. He took a sip from his cup and refilled it.
"I do," Yoshimo confirmed. He expected Hiruma to reply, but the older man only took another sip of his sake. His stomach rumbled, and he wished that Hiruma would say something more, either berate him for nearly bungling the mission or give out his usual left-handed praise for completing it and just let him get something to eat and go to bed.
"Good," Hiruma growled at last, "give them to me."
Yoshimo handed over the bundle that held the papers, he only thing on his person that was clean and dry. He had been hard pressed to keep it that way when it had started to pour on his way back, but he'd been especially careful and succeeded. "May I be excused?" he asked.
Hiruma sat up straight and gave Yoshimo a hard, piercing look. "I didn't expect you to make it back," he said.
"I almost didn't," Yoshimo told him flatly. He was slightly disturbed by the look in Hiruma's eyes. "Miyazaki's eldest son tried to duel me in the courtyard as I was leaving. I got lucky."
"Luckier than I imagined. I don't know why the fates smiled on you, boy, but they won't again." Hiruma leaned over the table, and Yoshimo could smell the alcohol on his breath. Obviously he was well into his cups. "You could have saved me a lot of trouble and just died like you were supposed to."
"Like I was supposed to...?"
"Don't play dumb, boy," Hiruma snarled dangerously. He grabbed Yoshimo by the front of his clothes and pulled him closer. "You didn't actually think you could threaten me like you did and get away with it, did you?"
Yoshimo turned his face aside and swallowed hard, trying to think of a way to get out of this situation. Hiruma sober and in reasonable mood was bad enough, but drunk and angry he was unpredictable, which was far worse. "If you kill me Kaede-san will find out about what you did," he reminded Hiruma.
Hiruma let go of him, chuckling. He stood up and walked over to a chest that sat against the room's back wall. He opened the chest, reached in and one after another pulled out five heads and arranged them in a line on the floor. "My loyal associates destroyed the letters you gave them, and the ones that didn't aren't alive anymore to send them. Neither is that doctor or his apprentice. That was a nice touch by the way. It took me until last week to find them."
Yoshimo's mouth went dry and he struggled to keep the fear he felt from showing up on his face. "I see," he said, surreptitiously putting one hand on the hilt of his katana. "Why didn't you just kill me yourself then?"
Hiruma shrugged. "Because," he said. "Because I didn't really feel like it. Because I'd rather set you up to fail and die." He lurched back to the table and leaned over it again, shaking a finger at Yoshimo as if chastising him for some minor infraction. "You were supposed to die," he repeated. "It was all that idiot's fault. He was supposed to have the whole guard on you, not try and take you in duel." Hiruma laughed. "Even then he should've been able to kill you easily." His smile vanished. "S'pose I'll have to do it myself."
He lunged across the table, sending the sake bottle and cups flying. Yoshimo saw the glint of a dagger's blade and twisted to one side and drew his katana. He managed to entirely block the first strike, which, had he been a moment slower, would have slit his throat from one side to the other, but he wasn't quite as ready for the second. He leaned backward and Hiruma's blade sliced across the bridge of his nose and bit into his right cheek, barely missing his eyes. Yoshimo rolled to one side and scrambled to his feet while Hiruma fumbled for and drew his katana. When Hiruma came at him for a third attack Yoshimo stepped to the right, moving deftly out of the way. Hiruma swung again, and this time Yoshimo barely brought up his katana in time to block him. Drunk or not Hiruma was still immensely strong, and it took all of Yoshimo's own strength to thrust the blade aside.
By now they had maneuvered so that Hiruma's back was to the door way and the Yoshimo's was to the wall. Hiruma attacked him again, and Yoshimo tried to retreat, but he stumbled and fell across the low table. His sword flew out of his hand, and he felt his heart stop as he realized he was going to die soon if something miraculous didn't happen. Groping desperately for something to defend himself with, Yoshimo's hand fell on the dagger that Hiruma had discarded after his two initial attacks had failed. When Hiruma came at him again he managed to deflect the blade enough so that it only nicked his left shoulder instead of plunging through his heart, and then hooked one leg around Hiruma's ankles, knocking him to the floor as well. Hiruma lunged at him, pinning his arms. In response Yoshimo bashed his forehead into Hiruma's face, and the older man let go of one of Yoshimo's arms almost reflexively to cradle his broken nose. His arm free, Yoshimo stabbed wildly with the dagger. He didn't really expect to hit anything, he just wanted to get Hiruma to let go of his other arm, but he felt the blade meet resistance and then overcome it.
Blood gushed and Hiruma shrieked in pain. He lurched backward, blood pouring from beneath his hands as he clutched at his left eye. Yoshimo froze for a heartbeat, barely able to understand what had just happened. Then his instincts caught up with him. He scrambled to his feet, grabbed up his katana and ran.
End Part One
Part One: Chapter 13
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