I glanced over at Tamazusa. She was dressed in a kimono a shade of black that seemed to absorb light. Samojirou wore an indigo kimono and was her escort for this gathering. I trailed behind the two of them, dressed as Sakura, my feminine persona, my kimono and obi as colorful as theirs were dark, various shades of gold and red, with many layers and my obi tied in front. The only concession to the party being outdoors was that I wore small geta, not the tall ones I usually wore, which were the kind all tayuu wore. I still dressed as one when I went anywhere with Samojirou. Aboshi and I had been together for more than a year now, and we had become a familiar sight to the lords of Nippon. But Tamazusa accompanying us was unusual, and she created a small stir when people started to recognize her.
Tamazusa looked relaxed and happy, and Samojirou was thrilled she was here. Even if I had lost Samojirou’s undivided attention for the evening, I was glad she had come with us, since I thought Tamazusa spent far too much time alone. We were here to attend a sakura—cherry blossom—party, since it was the beginning of their bloom. There were any number of parties going on in Nippon, scattered all over the island, in celebration of the event, and I knew our entire week would be devoted to attending as many as possible. Samojirou was able to take us anywhere we needed or wanted to go using his ability to walk the shadows. It was an advantage few of the other lords had, and Tamazusa had decided to take advantage of it.
“Sakura-chan, attend us,” Samojirou said as they settled into a corner of the orchard. Two tatami mats had been laid out underneath a couple of cherry trees, along with a low table. The three of us were to sit and admire the flowers’ beauty. While we were doing that, Tamazusa would also be playing the Game, and Samojirou would watch over us.
Samojirou’s words sounded like an order, but I didn’t mind, knowing Samojirou and Tamazusa trusted me to guard them as well as serve them. They would play the Game—which was, to me, an incomprehensible combination of scheming and power plays most of the lords of Nippon participated in—and I would be observe them, silent and unseen, in a manner of speaking. Lesser beings usually were, even in this outfit. I nodded and bowed deeply to him. We were still working with the “no speaking in public” rule. I got a kick out of it, really. I was also nervous that I would slip somehow and embarrass him if I actually talked to people. But Samojirou’s mysterious, mute companion intrigued people, so we continued with the charade. There were a lot of wild theories about me, and I was grateful that none of them even came close to the truth.
I glided over to where the basket with the sake, tea, and snacks had been left for us. It was supposed to be someone else’s job to serve, but I wasn’t going to let anyone else near them. Tamazusa was here to relax, mostly; but she’d never stop playing the Game, and having someone else serve her, someone who might overhear an important remark, not meant for his or her ears, would put her on guard.
I was making my way back from the area where the refreshments were located when an older samurai stepped into my way. I looked up at him, my head tilted down, peeking up at him through my lashes. I recognized his mon, the crests all samurai wore to identify their rank, clan, and family, as belonging to a lord from the far south of Nippon. He was named Iida Hideaki, Lord of Tsushima, an island off the coast. I had memorized the mon for all the lords of Nippon, so I knew who they were, even if I didn’t talk to them. He stared at me for a moment before stomping off. I hesitated a second before returning to Samojirou and Tamazusa, confused about exactly what had happened.
“That was interesting,” Tamazusa said with a small frown. “I wonder what issue he has?”
“Rude,” Samojirou drawled, his eyes hard and flat for a moment before smiling at me. “That was most insulting to our Sakura-chan.”
I bowed to them before starting to set out the snacks and sake. Samojirou looked like he wanted to kiss me. Tamazusa shook her head at the two of us as she asked, “I take it that everything is arranged?”
“Of course, my lady,” he said smoothly. “Would I have it any other way?”
“You wouldn’t,” she told him with a smile. She sat down gracefully, elegant in a way I could never hope to match. Samojirou moved behind her, and I continued to serve the two of them.
One of the lords came over to speak to Tamazusa, accompanied by his concubine. She sneered at me for doing what she considered to be such a menial task, one that a tayuu left to others. I stared back at her with a cool smile. I knew what my worth was. I saw that her clothing wasn’t as fine as mine, and I thought she was either a temporary companion or one only worthy of short-term contracts, perhaps an oiran or even one of the other lower-class concubines.
“Lord Sazuki,” Tamazusa purred, “It has been too long since I enjoyed your company.”
He bowed. “Your beauty has grown over time.”
Sazuki Yoshinobu was a high lord who ruled a large kuni that was part of the island of Kyushu in southern Nippon. He had a very formidable wife, and they lived very separate lives, from what I have been told. I thought it was very odd that Tamazusa and Samojirou seemed to have a better relationship than most married couples.
“You flatter me,” Tamazusa said. I noticed his companion wasn’t bold enough to sneer at her and hid my smile. Tamazusa wasn’t someone who she would dare act snobbish with as she had to me.
“I see that you have added to your household,” Sazuki said with an empty smile, fishing for information. That was stupid, since it wasn’t like Samojirou and I hadn’t spent the last year together. Or did he think I was a different person than the one who had accompanied Samojirou everywhere? “A pretty little thing.”
“Sakura-chan is dear to Samojirou-sama,” Tamazusa told him with a chilly smile. “As he is to me.”
Sazuki nodded, realizing he was coming close to insulting both Tamazusa and Samojirou. While not a lord, Samojirou was a very powerful oni, someone to be feared for any number of reasons. I was just wondering about which he Tamazusa was talking about: Samojirou or myself?
Nothing was said for a moment until someone else stopped by to talk with us. I wasn’t surprised to see that it was Fuse, and her consort Yatsufusa, since she was very fond of Samojirou. Fuse was dressed in a rich, deep pink kimono, looking no older than sixteen, even if she was wearing a kimono of a married woman for once. Yatsufusa, as usual, appeared as the dog he had been in the real world, one of the ones that had been caught up in Tamazusa’s curse.
“Samojirou-sama,” she called out, ignoring the tension in the air. “We are looking forward to viewing the blossoms with you.”
Yatsufusa drew back his lips in a half-snarl at Samojirou, but that was normal. He loathed Samojirou for a number of reasons. But he wasn’t going to cause a scene if Fuse said they were going to be visiting with Tamazusa and Samojirou.
Sazuki raised an eyebrow at Fuse, and she smiled coolly at him. “Samojirou-sama mentioned that he would be here when we met at an ikebana exhibit two weeks ago. Yatsufusa-sama decided to accompany me, since some of our sons would be here also. He also enjoys the blossoms.”
“It is always an honor to be with you, hime,” Sazuki said stiffly, knowing better than to comment upon Samojirou’s and Fuse’s relationship, as they were friends, having many interests in common. Besides, while people may have said many things about the two of them, everyone also knew Samojirou wasn’t interested in women. My being dressed as one, as a tayuu, was thought to be an amusement for him and not the disguise it really was. And I knew both Samojirou and Tamazusa hoped I wasn’t aware of why I needed to be disguised. “And all your sons are always amusing.”
“Shino-chan and Sousuke-chan,” Fuse said, thawing slightly with Sazuki. “I fear not all my sons are interested in such things.”
“And will the charming Hamaji-dono be with them?” Tamazusa asked with a warm smile, using the older honorific for “lady” for Hamaji.
“She will be,” Fuse said. “She’s looking forward to the party.”
I almost smiled at that. I liked Hamaji. We had met when Fuse took me for a two-week stay at my brother Shino’s kuni when we had all gotten back from the real world after the Trust had taken me by force from the Dreamlands and Samojirou, Tamazusa, and my family, the Hakkenshi, banded together to rescue me and stop the threat from the Trust.
As part of that trip, I had been introduced to my brothers, the Hakkenshi, again, but as Keno, not Sakura. It hadn’t been the most comfortable trip for me, but it had been interesting. I got used to the idea that I had a family again, more than just Tamazusa and Samojirou. My brothers had to get used to the idea that I was going to continue to live with my lord and my lover, as unhappy as it seemed to make some of them, Shinbee and Dousetsu in particular. They hated that I stayed with Samojirou as Sakura rather than living with them as their dead brother’s avatar. But no one argued with me when Fuse, my brothers’ mother, made it clear that she approved of my relationship with Samojirou and that I would continue to be Sakura to the rest of the Dreamlands.
Hamaji had been the only one who had not argued with Fuse about it. In fact, she had made a joking comment that having another “girl” in the family would make it easier on her. Aside from her husband, my brother Daikaku seemed to be the only one involved with a woman, even if they didn’t seem to be living with each other. Not that I thought that the Hakkenshi were all gay or something, but I thought they were like Mason and Wolf, guys more involved in their work at the Trust than relationships. Most of my brothers were lords in Nippon, like Tamazusa and Sazuki. The ones who were not were still powerful men to be feared, like Samojirou.
There was a pregnant pause, the silence almost becoming uncomfortable, when Shino, Sousuke, and Hamaji joined us. Shino and Sousuke were dressed as mirror images of one another, in black and red kimono and hakama. Hamaji was also in a deep-red and black formal kimono, her hair arranged in a formal style. It was a shock to see her like that, since she had usually worn her hair in a ponytail and dressed in very simple kimono during the time I stayed with them in Shino’s castle.
“Mother,” she called out excitedly. “I was hoping to see you here.”
Shino and Sousuke were a bit more restrained in their greeting, bowing to Fuse and Yatsufusa, then Tamazusa and Samojirou, before nodding to me.
“Please forgive my wife,” Shino said dryly. “We don’t let her out of my castle too often.”
Hamaji frowned at him, while Sousuke just smiled. Yatsufusa let out a little snort of amusement and Fuse smiled back at Hamaji. “You do know Sazuki-sama?”
Hamaji bowed deeply to him, suddenly formal. “I am honored to meet you,” she murmured. She also bowed to Tamazusa and Samojirou. “I am glad to see friends of Mother here too!”
“You must see if you can join us at the next ikebana exhibit,” Samojirou said with a smile. “And this is my companion, Sakura-chan.”
Hamaji blinked a couple of times and bowed. I bowed back, all very proper and formal. She smiled at me and announced, “I adore your kimono. I must have one like it.”
Shino and Sousuke groaned as one, while Sazuki’s companion sneered openly. Hamaji ignored all of them to smile at me, recognizing me under all the makeup I was wearing, since I was dressed as a tayuu, a concubine, someone no proper Japanese wife wanted to know about, never mind dress like.
“Hamaji—” Shino started.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Fuse promised her, glaring at her sons. “Now is the time that we need to be decorative and admire the flowers.”
I almost laughed at that one. Fuse played the Game almost as much as Tamazusa did.
Sazuki and his companion moved off after a few more pleasantries. Fuse looked at Yatsufusa, and he snorted and sat down.
“I will be honored if you would all join us,” Tamazusa said.
“Of course we’re staying,” Hamaji told her firmly.
“If only to start a whole host of new rumors,” Fuse added with a smile.
I spent the rest of the night serving them. Sousuke looked like he wanted to say something, but a look from Shino quieted him. Samojirou and Fuse made sure the conversation didn’t lag between the visits of the other lords. I wasn’t surprised to see that we seemed to be a popular group. I knew many of the lords were trying to figure out if Tamazusa and Fuse were negotiating some sort of an alliance after so many centuries of frigid politeness. It didn’t help that whenever someone outside our group seemed to be near us, Fuse extolled the virtues of one of her unmarried sons.
It was toward the end of the evening that Sousuke finally brought up the topic that had been bothering him all evening, from the looks that he had been giving me. I was pouring him more sake when he grabbed my sleeve.
“How can you act like this?” he asked. I was relieved he didn’t use my name, and so for a moment I didn’t get angry. And then I did. It didn’t matter that he was a little tipsy or that he was family, he had no right really to question my choices. At least not so publicly.
“Sousuke,” Shino hissed.
Samojirou glared at him, and I said nothing. That seemed to make Sousuke even angrier.
“How can you let him do this to you?” Sousuke continued. “Come back with us!”
“No,” I softly snarled at him, angry that he had ruined the evening by doing this. “Samojirou-sama—”
“We are leaving now,” Shino announced. Hamaji was glaring at Sousuke, and I had a sick feeling in my stomach about the fight I knew the three of them were going to have when they got someplace private.
Fuse threw an apologetic glance at Tamazusa, who nodded at her. Something passed between them that I didn’t understand. Shino, Sousuke, and Hamaji left, their goodbyes formal and stiff. I was a bit stunned at what had happened. Sousuke was usually very easygoing and had spent most of my time with him teasing me. He had acted like the older brother I had never had, almost like Wolf, who had been one of the few people in the Trust who had treated me well. I wondered how long he had felt like this.
“Sousuke-chan—” Fuse began.
“Your sons are old enough to make their own decisions, Lady,” Samojirou said. “I don’t hold that against you. I know that some of your sons are unhappy with me, as is your husband. Frankly, I thought that Inuyama-sama or Inue-sama would be the ones that wanted us to be parted.”
I glanced at Samojirou for permission to speak. He nodded at me. “Fuse-hime—”
“Mother,” she told me with a smile. “There is no need to be so formal.”
“Mother,” I said. It felt odd. I had never been that formal with my birth mother, but calling a woman who looked sixteen “Mother” was just strange. “You and Father must know that I am very happy with Aboshi-sama and Tamazusa-sama. I will not leave them, no matter how unhappy the family is with my choice. I am sorry about that, but if they cannot accept that, we don’t have to meet. Please tell Hamaji and Shino that I am sorry that things ended so awkwardly. I look forward to seeing them again. All of them actually, including Sousuke.”
“We will be enjoying the entire cherry blossom season all over Nippon,” Tamazusa said quietly. “I do hope to see you both again. I enjoyed your company. There is no need for us to hold old grudges. I never thought that you were responsible for anything that your father had done.”
“Tamazusa-sama, you are as gracious as always,” Fuse said as she smiled. “My husband and I look forward to seeing you at the rest of the festivals.”
“Until then,” Samojirou said. Yatsufusa nodded at him as Fuse bowed, and the two of them left us.
I was aware that there were still some lords about, even though it was very late. Most of them seemed drunk, but I knew appearances could be deceptive. Iida was openly staring at us. I thought that was very rude, but he was far enough away for him not to have heard anything.
“I think that it is time for us to retire,” Samojirou said.
“I agree,” Tamazusa said with a small laugh.
“You seemed to have picked up an admirer,” Samojirou said, nodding at Iida-sama.
“I think it is your adorable Sakura-chan that he is interested in.”
Samojirou laughed and took each of our hands. With that, he walked the shadows back to the shoen.
It was late when we returned home. The sake seemed to have made me mellow and relaxed. It was a strange sensation, since I usually didn’t let myself drink that much. But it had been amusing, playing the Game with Fuse, in between the conversations where she extolled the virtues of her four unmarried sons. She seemed to have been almost ready to negotiate a contract with me. Shino had been horrified, Hamaji and Yatsufusa amused, and Sousuke I couldn’t read. I had been as surprised as the rest of them by his anger at Keno. And then there had been that incident with Iida. I didn’t know what the man wanted, and that bothered me. He was a lesser lord of a small island, someone I wouldn’t consider either a threat or a potential ally. So why was he so interested in me?
“Keno-chan, why don’t you get ready to retire,” Aboshi suggested.
“Good night,” Keno told us both with a smile and a shallow bow before going to their quarters. I thought he knew Aboshi and I wanted to talk without him about what had happened. I liked the fact that he had defended us to his family.
“He is delightful,” I said with a smile.
“And I have you to thank for him,” Aboshi said humbly. “I don’t know what I would do without him now.”
“I don’t think that Inukawa or Inuyama will be an issue,” I said, unexpectedly moved by his comment. “And Inue can be controlled by the rest of his family. Yatsufusa, oddly enough, seems to approve of your relationship. None of the Hakkenshi will want to anger their father.”
“I am not worried about that,” Aboshi said. “Fuse-hime will make her wishes known, and her sons will obey her or avoid us. You remember the trouble that she had had with them in the beginning, when we kept meeting at the same events? This will amount to nothing, as that did.”
“The rest of Nippon will be too busy wondering why we seem to have allied after all these centuries,” I said. “I will make sure that no one guesses it is because your beloved companion is Inuzaka Keno.”
“Sakura is the perfect disguise for him for a number of reasons,” Aboshi said with a frown. “I had used it to hide him from his family. Now it will be useful for any number of reasons.”
“Inuzaka Keno’s reputation,” I said after a strained silence. “I must confess I haven’t thought about that.”
The first Inuzaka Keno had been a fierce fighter and one with a reputation for being a cold-blooded assassin as well. There would be any number of lords and assorted samurai who would want to be the one with the reputation of defeating or even killing him. This Keno was a gentle soul, not one who could fight like that, even if he was competent. He would never be a killer. Aboshi would fight through the hells to protect him, and I, too, would do anything in my power to protect Keno from being a killer.
“What you also haven’t thought about is Iida’s interest in us,” Aboshi said.
I shrugged. “As for now, I’m not going to worry about it.”
I felt too good to try and piece together what he wanted from us. I could deal with it either tomorrow or even never. It might have just been an isolated incident or even simple rudeness. Not much was known about Iida. He was a southern lord who held a small kuni off the coast of Nippon. If I needed to know more, I could have my spies gather the information. As for now, I was going to just enjoy the flowers and not worry about the plotting of the other lords, at least not much.
Aboshi smiled at me as if he were reading my mind. “I think that I’ve corrupted you, my lady.” He signaled to the maid hovering in the background, and she scurried off to assist me in my rooms.
I laughed and shook my head. “I simply am not worried about someone who is so inconsequential.”
I wasn’t being rude about the man; his kuni was far away from mine. While not one of the most powerful lords in Nippon, I wasn’t without influence. With Aboshi at my side, I was stronger than I appeared to be. I treasured his support, and I hoped he and Keno spent many years by my side.
“And you shouldn’t neglect Keno,” I mock-scolded him. “The poor child is probably waiting eagerly for you in your quarters.”
Aboshi laughed, which I wanted him to do. I didn’t want to spoil his evening by ending it with dealing with a rude little man, such as Iida. “I will obey your instructions,” he teased. “My lord.”
I smiled at him, knowing what he wasn’t saying: that he was loyal and would never betray me, something I had never worried about with him, no matter that he had betrayed and murdered Jin-yo, his former lord and the reason we both had been banished to the Dreamlands. I retired to my rooms, feeling almost giddy, and hoped Aboshi’s night ended well also.
I walked into my quarters and wasn’t surprised to see Keno and Yukiko giggling over something as she gathered his clothing to be cleaned and he removed his makeup. Yukiko adored Keno, as did most of the servants and the samurai. She bowed to me and bustled off to take care of Keno’s clothing before she retired. Keno looked up at me with a grin, and I was struck by how beautiful he was. He didn’t look feminine now; his shoulders and arms were muscled from his practice with Tamazusa’s samurai every morning.
“Good evening, Samojirou-sama,” he chirped at me.
“I was Aboshi earlier,” I teased him.
He flushed. “I’m sorry that I broke the no-talking rule, but Sousuke startled me. I don’t know why he was upset. He had been very nice when we stayed with him and Shino.”
“I think that he is upset that you were Sakura tonight and not his brother Keno,” I said gently.
“I guess that not everyone can figure out that we are the same person,” he said thoughtfully.
“It is that ignorance that is keeping you safe.”
He frowned at me, apparently confused by what I was talking about. He continued with the disguise of Sakura because it amused him, as well as myself. I didn’t think Keno realized he needed its protection still. I hoped he never would.
He got up and gave me a kiss. “It’s been a good evening,” he said. “I’m not letting Sousuke ruin it.”
I kissed him back. Keno was being bold. We had progressed in our physical relationship to more than kisses, for the most part, including the rare, treasured times of actual sex. He was still uneasy about sex after suffering rape and other abuse at the hands of the Trust. I didn’t know if sex was happening tonight, but Keno was willing, despite the fact I knew it had been a long evening for him. He tasted like tea and the sweets he had been nibbling on.
“A very good evening,” I agreed, kissing him back, running my hands up and down his back, savoring the feel of his skin. He made a small murmur of pleasure, melting into my touch.
I felt him fumbling with my hakama and stepped out of it when he got it untied. Keno undressing me would be delightful foreplay. I didn’t miss his hands lightly brushing over my shaft underneath my kimono, and it was my turn to moan. I let him undo my obi and open my kimono before I unknotted his fundoshi, stripping him bare. He rubbed against me shamelessly, twining his arms around my back and pulling me closer to him. I almost spilled myself at his boldness.
“So bold,” I teased.
He laughed. “I think that I should show you how bold I can be.”
With that he dropped to his knees and started to tease my shaft, licking the tip of it briefly before taking the whole thing in his mouth, tasting the entire length of it before pulling back to flick his tongue over the head of my shaft again. I groaned in pleasure, my fingers twisting in his hair. Not to control him, but because he made me lose any sense I had when he did this.
“Let me get more comfortable,” I pleaded with him after an endless time, my world centering on the pleasure his hot mouth and talented tongue were giving me. My legs were shaking, and I felt that I was going to spill, but I wanted to savor this longer.
Keno didn’t say anything, but he sat back on his heels, looking wanton and wild with his swollen lips and the way he exposed his body to me. I managed to lie on our futon. Keno slowly licked his lips when he saw me lie down, a gesture that made me groan. I almost lost it when he rocked forward and started to crawl toward me, wild and submissive at the same time, holding my stare boldly. He was still staring at me when he took me deep in his throat and bobbed up and down slowly, driving me insane.
It wasn’t too long before I was writhing underneath his mouth, his fingers stroking my thighs and sac as gentle as a butterfly. “I’m—” I choked out, before I spilled into his mouth, feeling him drink it down eagerly.
When I was done, he went back to teasing licks to clean me up. When he finished, he smiled at me, smug and satisfied, even though his own shaft was hard and he had not taken his own pleasure.
“Touch yourself,” I ordered hoarsely. I wanted to see his eyes when he did that. “Take your own joy.”
He smiled, stroking his shaft slowly, but even that was too much, and he spilled, whimpering in pleasure as he coated me with his seed. When he was done, I grabbed him and held him tight, smearing the seed over him too.
“I liked that,” he said sleepily as he nuzzled my chest. I was amazed by how quickly he could go from being a seductive creature to the sleepy puppy he was.
“I did too,” I told him, not trying to hide the amusement in my voice.
I fell asleep shortly after he did, enjoying the feel of him in my arms.