Another one of the stories I'm posting from Winter Court 5. Set in that world about 10 years before the current events of winter court.
Light in the Leaves
"Oh no. Not again." The aged Kakita rubbed his wrinkled forehead at the sight of the grim Daidoji Iron Warrior before him. No, not the Daidoji, but the squirming, wriggling burden the bushi carried.
"She was outside the gates. Again." The Daidoji was not amused. He thrust the girl out towards Toshiki as if expecting the master painter to tuck her under his arm like a bundle of rushes. Toshiki did not oblige.
The girl used the opportunity to tear herself free and stand on her own, turning defiantly to glare at both of them. "The cassia are in bloom, Uncle Toshiki! I had to go!"
Toshiki gestured sharply with his fan for her to hush and she clamped her mouth shut tightly in response. "Thank you so much, Daidoji-san, for retrieving her. I'm sure she just did not comprehend how dangerous it is beyond the walls."
The Daidoji grunted. "All travel is restricted. Every person must stay strictly on the approved roads, and no one may travel without proper papers and a Daidoji escort. You know this! Any deviation from these orders and the Daidoji cannot guarantee her safety!"
Toshiki nodded his head. It was left unsaid, of course. It was always left unsaid. But the fields around Kyuden Kakita were heavily trapped, even with gaijin pepper. There had been previous...mistakes...among some of the children of the local heimen. The Daidoji's warning was sound. If only his grandneice could be made to understand!
"I will try. She is getting older, now, though, and it is not like we can lock the gates to keep her inside. I am sorry, once again."
The Daidoji snapped up his yari to his shoulder and nodded at him. "See to it. Next time it happens, and I won't leave my duties to bring her back."
Kakita Toshiki bowed his head and sighed, and even the girl had the good grace to look embarrassed. They both knew full well that, without the help of the Daidoji, the next time she ran, she might not return at all.
"You should not have gone. You know better, Kaoko-chan." Kakita Toshiki knelt at the low table. The girl, perhaps eager to make up for her previous transgression, was carefully holding her sleeve and pouring him a cup of tea.
"I know. But you don't understand. I had to see the cassias in Golden Petal Village. And if you climb the tallest one on the northeast side, you can see all the way to Tsuma village. Did you know they used to hold the Test of the Topaz Champion in Tsuma village? They would have duels, and poetry, and catch Tsu Fish. I heard that once an old man was waiting on the side of the road when a young group of students going to their gempukku...." Her voice picked up the first rhythyms of a child about to launch into an eager yarn, but Toshiki held up his hand to cut her short.
"No. Not now. Tsu Fish and stories of the Fortunes visiting us belong to long ago. Tsuma is nothing like it once was, and you live here, now. Not in the past, however beautiful it might have been to those of us with ancient eyes who remember it."
Koako thrust out her lower lip in a small pout and finished pouring before kneeling across from her great uncle. "Daitsu and Shinichi used to listen to my stories."
Toshiki sighed again at the memory of his wayward and glory-gathering sons. "So they would. But they would tell you not to leave the Academy grounds also. It is too dangerous here." He let his disappointment color his voice.
Koako bowed her head. "I'm sorry Uncle."
Toshiki watched her in silence for a few moments, sipping his tea. Her apology was sincere. He did not doubt that she would try to stay within the walls that protected them both. But the blood of his sister, the blood of the Kenshinzen, was too strong: fear held no grip on this child's heart. The blood of his brother-in-law, the Kitsune blood, was too strong. She was too wild to be kept in a cage forever, no matter how beautifully gilded it was or how safe it was in the midst of vast ugliness.
He was old. Too old to be raising this fox-child, but he was all she had left. There had to be some other way.
After the tea, he dismissed her to her rooms and opened his calligraphy box. Surely a master painter still had some allies, allies of his family who lived in the lush forests a young girl's fox-heart yearned for. Allies far from Daidoji with their traps and Spider and the webs of horror they spun across the countryside around them.
The old painter watched the small cart as it rolled away. He watched as the smaller head that was craning to look back at him and waving fiercely back at him finally turn back towards the road ahead. It seemed like the sunlight that shone over Golden Petal Village turned more gray and lost its luster as the cart rolled out of sight. Some small part of the sunshine of his world had left, and he knew it would never brighten for him again.
Someone at the Academy would have to paint the gardens in winter. Snow on the plum branch could be as beautiful as plum blossom, for those with the eyes to see it, and his eyes would see beauty through ugliness for a little while longer. He'd already seen so much of both, after all.
But his pictures were for the passing of a time, holding onto memories of beauty that had faded. It would take new stories to create new beauties. He hoped Koako's mother's family would nurture her stories. He would love to hear her spin her tales in a happier age to come, stories of the heroes that would bring that new age into fruition. But he felt certain he would never live to hear it.
If she could be free, climbing the dusky pines and laughing the pure laughter of a child for just a little bit longer, that was enough.
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