The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game

“It’s good to feel you are close to me in the night, love,
invisible in your sleep, intently nocturnal,
while I untangle my worries
as if they were twisted nets.”
- Pablo Neruda, “It’s good to feel you are close to me”

The light entered Yuuko’s room without grace or apology, waking her. The servant bowed low. Yuuko turned away, shielded her face behind her arm.

“Yuuko-sama. Soshi Hige-sama requests your presence at breakfast.”

Her skin tightened, suddenly she was quite awake. Last night came back with a pang of something like fear, Hige had proposed to her and she had accepted. In Crane plays and pillow books when the handsome man of status a girl had pined for finally proposed, the following morning was typically punctuated with light, flowers, a fortuitous wind, a song. Yuuko felt none of those things.

“He insists that I remind you this is a request for your company, and not an order of official business.”

Yuuko exhaled, twisting to bury her face in the soft black cotton of her sleeping clothes, the dark and warm crook of her elbow. “Please inform him I am unwell. I traveled quickly to return and…” she coughed feebly. “I seem to have taken ill. Thank him for the invitation.” It began gnawing at her the moment she said it, it wasn’t the right answer. It was untrue, and left her feeling lonely and sullen, even moreso. What was the truth, anyway? The only word that even began to explain her strangeness was ‘lacking,’ she simply felt as though she lacked some center to herself, the part from where light and songs were born.

“Hai, Yuuko-sama.” The servant bowed and shuffled from the room. Yuuko dragged her other arm over her head, wrapping her face in the dark cotton before dozing off again.

-

Yuuko spent entire mornings at Shiro Soshi entirely preoccupied with her own suffocation. The castle was oppressively quiet, hollow chamber after hollow chamber linked together by black hallways. The acoustics were a trap, every footfall and breath shattered the stifling void of sound. The great cathedral halls with their vanishing point corners gave Yuuko the most bizarre sense of guilt, as though her breath would ruin the effect the architects had worked so hard on. Her respiration, the death of their design. It reminded her of her mother.

She pressed her hands to the heavy door and pushed out into the courtyard, sighing vocally. The sun blinded her momentarily even behind her mask, and she staggered a bit, grateful to be without the screaming silence and lofty ceilings. Stretching, she stepped near the pond. Only in this place would she of the late nights and full pipe be the one most likely to seek sun and a breeze. Blessedly though, the courtyard was typically empty.

Her vision settled in the bright light and she was not alone at all, rather, in the courtyard sat Soshi Hige upon a bench, the often flashily dressed bushi she had come to befriend. It was not a friendship of necessity, though due to the castle’s other residents being primarily teenagers or dottering old sensei, it had the convenience of appearing as one. A convenience that Yuuko took advantage of when she could – Hige was incredibly good looking under that mask and conversation poured as easily as wine between them.

“Yuuko-san.” His eyes grinned. “Had enough of shadows for an afternoon, or did you just drink something bad?”

“Huh?” Yuuko closed her lips quickly and smoothed her clothes. Years of training for these sorts of conversations, and sun in the eyes could reduce her aptitude to huh. “Pardon me?”

Hige crossed the courtyard with a few sure strides. “You burst out here gasping.”

She smiled, shaking her head. “Everyone is so quiet here, the simplest displays are so much to you. When I spent court at Kyuden Ikoma I couldn’t have been loud enough to save my life, there!”

“Then you are just here to get out of the castle?”
“For a bit, yes.” She paced around the edge of the small koi pond a moment, looking from the water to Hige and back a few times.

“Something wrong with the fish, Yuuko-san?”
It was her favorite thing about talking to him; she could nearly always hear him smiling at her when he spoke. It was fairly irresistible, the idea that someone couldn’t help but smile when they spoke to you. She opened her mouth to speak and realized she was smiling too. “No, I…ah. I wanted to put my feet in the water, honestly, but. The courtyard isn’t empty.”
The lilt in his voice dropped somewhat. “Ah. I see.” The awkward silence as he scanned the grass with his eyes for his belongings.
“Oh, you don’t have to go! Just.” She waved her hand in a lazy circle.
He paused a moment, gave a playful little bow and turned away from her. “Apologies, my lady. But of course.”
Yuuko waited until Hige had turned around before pulling off her tabi and sitting on the small bench nearby, dipping her feet into the water and carefully arranging her kimono so it did not become a home for fish. She cleared her throat.
Hige turned around. “So you are decent, now, among the koi?”
“You turned around before you asked.”
In the long silence that followed, he paced around a hydrangea. “You must be terribly offended.”
Yuuko’s coyness shattered with a cackle. “Oh yes, very.”
Hige crouched on the bank of the pond, shifting his daisho so as not to rest in the dirt. “It’s not something I would expect of you anyway, to do something like stick your feet in a pond.”
“Oh, all girls do it. It…keeps one’s feet pretty. The koi come and nibble to make them soft and nice.”
Hige peered left, and right. “Really?”
“Yes, but.” She pressed a finger to her lips. “It’s something of a secret amongst ladies. To let any of them know you knew of it, well…they would be indeed most offended at the implication their feet were anything but naturally so beautiful.”
“What does it feel like? Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Hm? Oh, no! It sort of tickles a bit, but it’s refreshing. Like having one’s hair brushed when it’s tangled.”
He mimicked Yuuko’s earlier gesture and she hid her eyes behind her hand, heard some shuffling and after a moment, two soft splashes. She leaned back on her hands and watched him a moment as he plucked the ends of his patterned hakama out of the water.
“Well? Your verdict, Soshi-san?”
His mask scanned the courtyard casually for a bit. “The fish aren’t doing anything. Nothing but swimming.”
“Oh?”
“Indeed.”
“Hm. There must be something wrong with your feet.”
She watched him scan the grass, the water, his feet beneath. Watched his eyes travel across the water’s surface and peek underneath at her own feet, and the fish that were not there. A laugh escaped her lips and grew, she smothered her face in her hands, her hair barely grazing the water.
“You made all that up, about the fish?”
“You tried it!”
“I did.”
She inhaled deeply, staring up at the sky. “I like that.”
-
A knock at the door woke her again.
“Yuuko-sama?”
“Hmm?” She stirred to peer at the servant through her hair. She carried a tray that was brought beside Yuuko’s futon, set down and arranged neatly. “Oh. Thank you.”
The servant hurried out of the room as Yuuko pored over the tray’s contents. A dish with several sugared pancakes sat beside crisply cooked fish and a bowl of prettily cut fruit, melon and pear. A bright wisteria branch laid among the plates. Yuuko murmured acceptance and rolled over to grab her pipe. She rubbed out the bowl just enough and sprinkled a pinch of tobacco within, propping herself up on pillows. The servant hurried out and Yuuko poked at the food, eating a melon flower and a bit of the crispy fish. Her hand lingered on the flowers, her expression warming at the gesture even as she turned away to light her pipe and inhale. She closed her eyes and let the embers die in the bowl as she dozed off again.
-
The road to the Emerald Championship had been long enough. The carriage was beginning to feel just a bit small for three people, and though Yuuko shared a bench with Soshi Hige, it was Soshi Yagyu who seemed to take up the most space. He sat across from them, a strange shadow of a person garbed in heavy reds, and inwardly Yuuko coped with her frustration that she could never quite remember what his voice sounded like, or even if ‘he’ was the proper pronoun. While so many shugenja spoke of learning libraries of value from their sensei, Yuuko could not help but feel like a bother to Yagyu-san. Perhaps it was some unseen spirit that had hovered around her her whole life; most Soshi had always just treated her like a bother.

Yagyu hadn’t spoke, and didn’t look like he planned to. He simply filled his side of the carriage. Mercifully, he had turned his gaze out the window some time ago, freezing up the air for conversation. Hige, so unlike the other Soshi, had filled the space happily.

The sun went down as they drew closer to the championship’s grounds. “We should arrive early tomorrow morning,” Hige offered.
“Oh? Thank the heavens, my legs need to stretch! And I could use a drink, a bath, a meal…” She laughed a little as she caught Hige’s playful nodding. She’d been lamenting for the same things the entire trip. “I apologize!” she chuckled. “I don’t like traveling.”
“It’s more fun if you ride, sometimes. At least then there’s air, and scenery.”
Yuuko sneered. “I don’t ride.”
“Never?”
“Not since I was a child.”
Hige shifted to draw a foot up onto the bench, leaning against the carriage’s wall. “Go on.”
She smirked, searching for the story. Her eyes followed the carriage’s lines as she spoke, where the ceiling met the walls. “My father tried to have me taught. None of the horses would let me sit atop them; even the apparently docile ones grew frustrated with me. I was tossed off a few times, but always caught by my father’s pupils, who encouraged me to get back on and try again. When my father heard, he wasn’t pleased.”
Hige’s head tilted. “Wasn’t pleased they wanted you to keep trying?”
“Wasn’t pleased they’d risked my life. Father always wanted me to be a courtier – how pointless was it to train me to butt headlong again and again into a foe that wanted nothing to do with me? He said if I wanted to ride, I’d convince the horses to let me.” She fished in her obi for her pipe, cleaned it out with a bit of silk. “In any case, he didn’t think I would be a very marriageable young woman with missing teeth or a broken arm.”
“And was he disappointed? That you never learned?”
Yuuko’s eyes grinned playfully up at him under the lace of her mask as she sprinkled tobacco into her pipe.. She fished out a small match and lit it. “Well, I’m not married, either, so I think I’ve successfully distracted him from the horse disappointment.”
Hige threw his head back and laughed, instantly covering the mouth of his mask with a hand as he remembered Yagyu, who seemed to be sleeping. He coughed, stifling the laughter into a quiet chuckle. “Quite an elaborate plan, you have there.”
She exhaled smoke through the window. “Those horses made an enemy for life.”

The night rolled on outside of the carriage, the wheels marking time with their steady rhythm. Yuuko lost count of filling her pipe; it was something to do with her hands, made the night air taste sweeter, helped her control her breath when his grin or a word would make it quicken. The space in the carriage seemed to open up as their conversation began, seemed to close in around them as the night became later, as their words were hushed and the same casual conversations, the same stories and jokes seemed more intimate somehow. Somehow Hige’s mask had come off, it was too hard to hear him with it on any longer. Somehow they were both laughing in that silent way that made one breathy, somehow they both needed to stretch their legs out in front of the bench before them as they shut their eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Yuuko woke when it was still dark, when she shifted in her sleep and her knee came to rest gently against Hige’s, the layers of silk warming between them. Her eyes fluttered open and she stared a moment, in the strange place she inhabited between sleeping and waking since coming to hold her tablet. Let her gaze wander, and told herself to move away. Caught his eyes, half-awake, for a second that woke her as the bottom dropped out of her stomach. She wondered if he could see her eyes, now open, through the lace. He gazed at her, sleepy and guileless, his knee unmoving. She turned away lazily in her best impression of sleep.

When she woke again the carriage had stopped, the air around it bright and bustling with activity. She disembarked to find Hige being attended by a servant she didn’t recognize, addressing him with times and names. She stretched, finding her geta with her feet and finding her steps toward him.

She opened her mouth to speak and he was bowing a goodbye to her, his mask in place once more. “Yuuko-san! Here we part. I’ve got to attend the registration for the competitors.”
“Competitors?” Her brain felt foggy, her mouth dry.
“Hai.”
“Of course.” Of course. She bowed. “May the fortunes smile on you, then. If you’ll excuse me, Hige-san.” She found her wits in her saunter; the ride home would be long enough.
-
Sleep was such a different animal to her now; where once it had been a constricting serpent, wrapping languidly around her and squeezing, it was now a symbiote. It lived in and around her at all times, the spirit realm of Yume-Do just out of her reach. She could sleep for no reason at all, now, the way monks spent days in meditation, she could find something similar in sleep.

She found nothing so tranquil in this day’s sleep; this was a hiding sleep. Hunger gnawed at her for a moment and she reached for the breakfast tray, only to find it replaced by a rapidly cooling supper. Crispy dumplings in some sort of broth had gone soggy, but the rice was still good. She picked at it, noticing the moon now high in the sky, and the small violet wisteria branch from earlier had been replaced by one much more blue.

Her thoughts fell to him momentarily, wandered indulgently as she tapped the branch against her lips. He had nobly refused her offer of late-night company after she accepted his proposal, her thoughts chewed on the fact like a hound. And yet flowers, breakfast, dinner. Such gestures were kind, sweet, but hardly interesting to her – it was his desires that intrigued her. His needs, he had kept so closely in check.

The rice had tasted like sand to her, anyway, and the lonely sweat of her bedclothes was becoming cold. She tugged a blanket around herself, exhaling around the lump in her throat.

-
It was morning again, breakfast was sent and ignored. She dragged her fingers across the pinkish wisteria branch and across the pillow, through her hair and bringing her tepid palms to rest on her forehead. She woke as though she hadn’t slept, her mind meandering through her last few nights.

The night she returned from the Topaz Championship, alone in his chamber, plates of food and musicians playing softly. His hands rested on the floor before him, his body bent in a full bow. She recalled using a fan for the first time in as long as she could remember, not merely to hide her face, but to catch her breath. Hige’s voice was low and full of promise, and all she could say was “Hige…marriage is for having children.”
He pressed on as she evaded and hid, as she offered herself to him as a confidante and lover, outside of the confines and visibility of a marriage, but the stubborn junshin, moved past her weak refusals like an ocean wave around stones, and reached her.

She rolled onto her side, curling around her stomach. She could not hide forever, but she could speak to him. If he wanted to marry her, if she was going to be a wife and a magistrate, she would have answers. He had offered her acceptance or refusal, but not questioning. She would force him down the third road, if he wanted her so. It would be foolishness to simply trust his love without pressing him first.
-

Yuuko climbed out of the bath and dried herself, the sleep washed from her eyes. Hunger rose in her and she balled it up inside her, fed it to the determined fire that burned in her stomach. With the servant’s assistance she dressed simply for dinner – a plain red silk kimono that typically was reserved for lower layers due to its bright colour, but tonight – the color of bruised lips and pomegranate stain – it would serve her just right. Painted her lips the sheerest red and touched her pulse with a fragrance of cinnamon and plums. “Yuuko-sama, you have not been left any messages while you slept,” the servant suggested.

“He will see me,” she informed her looking-glass, combing out the heavy cloak of her hair. Pinning the black lace mask over her eyes, she found her sandals with her feet and strode with practice down the corridors to Soshi Hige’s office. Yotsu Rei stood at the bottom of the stairs, said nothing, but bowed a greeting and stepped to one side, letting her in.

Yuuko strode in and inhaled, her lines well prepared. Hige sat at a table alone, a second place set for supper across from him. His eyes studied her over his mempo as he rose, only to bow again with a reverence that bordered on intimacy. Something in her chest caught, suffocating the words, gently laying the practiced lines to rest. Her mouth opened, and shut, a rush stung the back of her eyes as she felt stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Is something wrong, Yuuko?” His head tilted, his words were warm and gentle.
She stepped to the table, suddenly dizzy, resisting the urge to throw herself against him and cry like a little girl who had to admit to making trouble. She sank into place across the table, brushing at the lurid red silk, feeling shy.

“No,” she spoke, finding her voice. “No, I’m feeling much better.”

The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game

Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men tini