Chapter 1, Part 1

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Time In Remission

She knows she must seem like a wraith. Counts on it, hoping the blue-gray cotton jacket and black hakama will make her just another shadow in the trees. Something not of this earth. She has stayed in the woods that border the lake, following it south to Uji. Away from Kyoto. Anywhere away from Fushimi. A cold moon leeches color from the landscape about her, leaves everything stark and clean. Black and white, shades of gray to ease the heart and mind after the bright red blood on pure white snow.

She leans back against a tree, not daring to sit. Afraid she won’t have the strength to rise again. The bark is rough against her back where the quilted jacket has been cut through and she wants to scream, but chokes it down. She settles for a quiet, “Ch’sho”. It comes out garbled and bloody and a fit of coughing shakes her – leaves it’s mottled sign on the snow by her feet.

Blood on snow. Not an unfamiliar sight. She could not have spent the last eight years in Kyoto, without becoming accustomed to it. The Shinsengumi had turned it into an art form. Even her own blood had had a certain aesthetic quality, shed on more than one occasion, when she’d been careless, or just plain unlucky. But then, she’d never lost quite this much. Or seen so much shed at one time.

Fushimi was a small battle, but infinitely bigger than the back alley brawls and side street duels she was used to. And the cannons! She’d thought the noise would never stop and she’d prayed that last day, for the first time in a long while, as the shrapnel gnawed away at the log she cowered behind with her sword.

She felt fear rise up again as she remembered that and tightened her grip on the sword. It had kept her alive and free all those years in Kyoto and her mastery of it was the only thing that made sense any more. The politics and causes that had once seemed so clear had become muddy with spilled blood and shifting loyalties. Now, even that was over. Simplicity had returned in the guise of Victory and she was beginning to understand how much her freedom had depended on the chaos around her.

She spun from the tree in a sudden burst of anger, determined to walk until she dropped. Ungrateful bastards! In the end, it was the people she had lived with and fought beside for years that had come closest to killing her, and she knew that if she died now it would not be the sword cuts, but the heartbreak of betrayal that would kill her. She found another tree and leaned against it to rest, her head rocking against it in time with her breath.

The cold was seeping into her bones. She struggled to push herself away from the tree and walk, but she had no idea which direction to go. She turned, trying to find the road or the lake, but both were hidden somewhere in the deep shadows. Then, she heard a distant noise. Pain and exhaustion argued with caution, until, finally, she headed toward it.

Off in the distance, a light showed through the screens of a house, the pale yellow of a candle rich and warm against the cold snow. As she got closer, she could see someone dropping shutters against the cold and the glow from inside the house started to disappear, one panel at a time. She broke into a stumbling run, afraid the light would disappear and leave her lost again. Branches caught at her clothes and added scrapes and scratches to her battered body.

She broke through the tree line and out into the open moonlight. A tall, elegant woman in old fashioned clothing watched with calm, but wary eyes, as she staggered across to the veranda and crashed down onto it, her legs dangling over the edge. She lay there, breathing heavily, and she could feel the cuts across her back rip open and start to bleed again.

“What is your name?”

She opened her eyes and saw a woman about her own age, dressed in white and grey silk. Winter colors, like Suki would have worn for a customer who wanted to relive a more refined time. But this woman was no Geisha. She wore no makeup and her long black hair was soft and tied back with a simple dark grey ribbon.

“Can you hear me?” The woman said, leaning closer and staring into her eyes.

She tried to say her name, but it came out bloody, and she had to repeat it. Finally the woman nodded.

“Well, you are safe now, Tomoe.”

Maybe, she thought, and then, beyond caring, she let the darkness take her.