IMPORTANT NOTES: For those who haven't already seen it on my profile or the fic summary, me and my fics have moved permanently to Archive of Our Own and will no longer update on this site. Since I can't just leave a notice on its own, here's a preview of the new chapter, which you can read in its full glory over on AO3—look me up as peccolia, google the fic title, or check my tumblr for links. No changes have been made to previous chapters so there's no need to reread unless you want to.

Please continue to support it there as you did here!


Chapter Seven (Preview)


Mitsuba passed her tenth birthday far away from home.

Once upon a time, it was exactly where she wanted to be. And, in a sense, where she was now had everything she'd ever wanted.

Only, too little too late. Far too late.

The compound she'd been sent to was filled with women, and mostly women. Only one man, an old, blind man who had brought his two daughters here when they were young to protect them and since opened the location as a private ryokan for others seeking refuge. There were boys, too—infants, and toddlers, shielded from the ways of war.

Mariko accompanied her here, but not Touka. No, instead of being sent away and punished for aiding her, Mitsuba was the one who'd been cast off.

But despite his cold heart, Butsuma did keep his word. Among the dozens of women populating the compound were a handful of kunoichi capable of training her (the way he wanted her to be trained). Some young, some retired. All skilled.

A necessity, to protect this place from those whose sole interests were to plunder and harm.

Rumor had it that the old man had been a shinobi once, too. But all she knew for fact was that he had connections with the Hou clan and, in turn, the Senju clan.

Mariko always shut her down when she asked too much.

"Mitsuba-sama! Mitsuba-sama, quit brooding and come out here right now, child." Said old harpy rapped her hand sharp and impatient against the door of Mitsuba's small room, even jostling it to try to get it open—but it was locked. "Oh—I have no time for coddling you. Be in the kitchen by sun-up or I will have you cleaning out the old baths for a full week."

"I'm not brooding, I'm tired," she grumbled into her blankets, breathing out a deep sigh that ended with a groan—none of which the old crone heard, too busy huffing and tromping away down the hall. "Oversleep one time and get branded as a broody problem child for life."

Never mind how punctual she actually was, save for the rare day or two where training put her off schedule. Even then, it wasn't anything to scrutinize. Mariko was Mariko, no matter where they were. She'd even usurped the place's original matron and took over as head of housekeeping.

Well, it was easier to just let her do as she pleased, or else she'd nitpick and complain about every little thing not done to her liking until her breath ran out. No one wanted to hear that.

A few moments later, another knock sounded at her door in a pattern signaling Mariko's complete absence.

Fortunately, the sisters she'd found herself among were far kinder than the old woman.

"I'm up, thanks," she called, lifting her head from the futon and blowing long strands of hair from her drool-dried mouth, swatting them over her shoulder as she stumbled to her feet and searched the room for her kimono…and all the layers that went into putting it together.

Before, when she'd had Kanae's, Touka's, and Kiku's help dressing, she'd never realized just how much effort went into properly wearing a garment. So many rules, so many customs—so many layers and belts went into making it neat. Especially the obi bows. God, the bows.

It wasn't impossible to accomplish alone, but the learning curve had bit her in the ass more times than she could count. Mariko never passed up the opportunity to criticize her when she did something the wrong way—when her collar was too close to her neck, when the sleeves were crooked, when her obi bow was too lose, when her hem dragged too close to the floor—because she had "so many fine examples all around" to learn from.

And, most common of them all, a wrinkled kimono was tantamount to murder, in Mariko's book.

She'd developed an infinite fondness for wearing single-layer yukata instead. Would have worn one now, too, if not for the rapid approach of winter.

At least her hair was easier to tame, and once she had it wound high atop her head in a tight bun, she hurried out into the hall.

Sunrise was only seconds away.

And—unfortunately, her room was one of the farthest from the kitchen.

…There was another, specific, reason her kimono didn't always look up to par in the old woman's eyes.

Mitsuba hauled herself up on the windowsill across from her room, holding onto its frame as she glanced outside, to the treetops and to the landing below. This floor—the third floor—hosted the residents. The one below was meant for temporary guests, and the bottommost…was where the kitchen was, among everything else recreational and necessary. Her eyes rose to the sky.

A fine, needle-thin ray of light spread across the horizon as the sun prepared to peek out across the world.

She jumped. Barely touched the railing of the second floor's landing before zipping toward a sturdy, overhanging gingko tree branch that curved around the corner of the inn, then dipped close to the ground—beside a conveniently open window.

She leapt through it, landing in a crouch—right in front of a chubby, dark-haired child, who stared up at her with an offended frown pulling down his round cheeks.

"Mariko-san says no ninja business inside the inn!" he pouted, shoulders squared and feet set sturdily apart as he stood directly in her path like his short and stubby, four-year-old body would hinder her. "She said you're," he pointed up at her to emphasize it, incredibly rudely, "not allowed, especially."

"Come on, Haruhiko, since when were you a tattletale?" Her eyes darted to the outside, where the sky steadily grew lighter. Not long, now.

But long enough for a little fun.

His frown deepened. "Since you forgot to give me an extra dango when you promised."

She hummed, straightening out her kimono sleeves. "Did I? Sorry, but how about I give you one today for lunch?"

"No."

"Two?"

"Don't want two." He crossed his arms.

"Three?"

"Nooope!" He wouldn't budge.

"Uh—alright, listen, I'll teach you an amazing, secret ninja technique if you promise not to tell her you saw me."

His eyes widened. "Wha—really? Okay, okay! I won't tell!"

"Good—so, watch close," she said, bending down toward him and folding her hands together in the tiger seal for him to better see, smiling as he watched with those wide, mystified eyes.

A puff of smoke enveloped her—and revealed nothing but empty space the instant it faded away.

Haruhiko blinked, jaw dropping open as he whipped his head around to find her. "Hey! Where did you go, Mitsuba? No fair! What was that?!"

"It's what I've dubbed the 'avoid annoying children' technique!" she called from further down the hall, waving at him with a full-blown grin as he whirled around to face her.

But even if teasing the local kids was entertaining, her time for fun was up. She turned away from his red-faced sputtering and power-walked—no running allowed—out of sight before he got the bright idea to follow after her and bitch to Mariko.

The kitchen was just around the corner.

As expected, Mariko stood in the doorway, arms set firmly on her hips, eyes glued to the open window and the sky—still just shy of full sunrise. She all but rolled her beady, wrinkled eyes away from it as she looked down at Mitsuba, scrutinizing her appearance.

"So you did hear me—you are even on time for once," she said, voice strained high and gruff, maroon-painted lips pursed into such a pinched frown that it looked more like a prune than a mouth. "Hmm. You're looking a bit fat lately, and I won't have you stealing scraps from the kitchen."

Nothing wrong with being a little round. Not everyone can be skin and bones like you. God, she wanted to say it out loud, but only kept her smile firmly in place on tightly shut lips.

"Go and gather some root vegetables from the garden today. And do try not to get leaves in your hair." She pointedly eyed the top of her head, but didn't try to swat the offending foliage from her hair. Only turned on her heel and disappeared into the kitchen.

Mitsuba unclenched her jaw and let her smile fall. "Just send me to the garden first, why don't you, you hag?" she grumbled out loud, leaning against the wall as the soft pattering of quick little footsteps fast approached.

"Mari—!"

She reached out and wrapped her arm around Haruhiko's entire head, pulling him into an iron-maiden hug the instant he rounded the corner—just to keep him quiet. His yell for Mariko drowned out into a muffled babble against her obi, unheard.

"Looks like I captured a little garden gnome. Lucky me!" A nasty grin spread across her face.

His scream of despair also went unheard.