A Thousand Springs
One: Red string
It was like any other spring day.
Mio watched the cherry blossom petals flutter in the air, some carried into the garden by a breeze. The pink blossoms matched her kimono today. She breathed in deeply. The air was heavy with humidity, telltale signs of incoming rain.
A gasp from beside her broke her from her wandering thoughts, after the droning of her grandfather's voice stopped.
"Thank you for this honour," her sister, a girl who looked about eighteen according to years in the real world, bowed her head down to touch her hands on the tatami floor. Her wisteria hairpiece tinkled with the movement. Mio watched from the corner of her eye. Despite the grateful tone of her voice, her expression was stony.
"It is fortunate that this union has been accepted, considering your family before you were adopted," her grandfather replied in the sort of tone that Mio secretly disliked—one that addressed her and dismissed her at the same time. Grandfather always talked like that to her sister, always bringing up her 'humble origins' from a lower-ranked noble family.
Well, she was family now, what did it matter? Of course, she could never voice her discontents. Mio had a feeling that her grandfather was aware of her thoughts from his disapproving stares even though she said nothing.
"And young Mio. I have arranged for you come with me tomorrow. Make sure to prepare well and to impress them. Conduct yourself with the knowledge that you represent the Houjo family when you are outside." The clouds darkened the sky outside, and casted shadows over her grandfather's stern face.
She tilted her head down. "Yes, Grandfather."
"Good." He said as he picked up his teacup. This was a signal to leave. She rose to her feet, as gracefully as she could without looking like she was trying to escape. Only as she left the room did she notice that no one was waiting in the hallway. No servants.
Her sister was still inside.
She slid the door closed herself, leaving a small space.
Mio paused for a moment. Was she mistaken? It was clearly a dismissal, yet she was not called back in.
Looking around her, there were no servants around. Her personal maid, Tomo should be hovering somewhere but she was nowhere to be found.
Her sister was still inside.
She turned left into an alcove between the meeting room and the empty room next door, usually used as a shortcut by servants to ferry food in from the kitchens. Tomo always regretted telling her about the hidden paths the servants used and made sure to tell her all the time. It was not respectful or particularly honorable to eavesdrop.
Quietly, Mio crouched down, hidden in the darkness next to a cupboard. She could hear her grandfather speaking, but she couldn't make out the words. Maybe she should have left the door wide open?
No, too obvious. An amateur move.
A higher voice, her sister's, was more intelligible. Mio strained to listen, a silent shadow.
"…I greatly apologise."
"…dishonour…I know…stop meeting…"
Her sister's voice seemed to become softer, but more frantic. "But…for love…"
A lapse of silence. She held her breath in anticipation.
The sound of something—maybe a hand, hit the low table. Mio could hear every word her grandfather spoke this time. It was the first time she heard this sort of dangerous tone from him.
"Do not ruin this family, Chiharu." It was faint, but she heard sobbing.
Her heart sank at the realisation. Maybe the looming clouds she thought were rainclouds were actually storm clouds.
That night, lightning struck down one of the cherry blossom trees lining the Houjo family home. As a result, some other flowering trees caught fire and they were left bare of blossoms.
Spring was over.
Surprisingly, Mio slept well. The memory of hearing Chiharu sobbing through the walls still unsettled her, but not enough to ruin her good mood. Today she would finally travel outside the gates!
"My lady?" Tomo called from outside her bedroom. Mio sat up, stretching as her maid strode in holding a facecloth and a rather large wooden bowl. Curious, she peeked inside the bowl when Tomo set it down beside her.
She sniffed lightly, trying to name the flower's aroma. "Roses. From the greenhouse?"
"Yes, my lady." The servant knelt by her bedside, and carefully wiped her master's face with a face cloth soaked in rose water.
Mio smiled. "It's lovely. Thank you. Tomo."
Tomo always knew how to cheer her up. Unlike Chiharu, who was moody, Tomo was a cheerful, optimistic person. Her recent cheer could be because her younger brother had been accepted to study at the Spiritual Arts Academy. Apparently he had deferred because he wanted to earn some money for the family, which made Tomo very proud. Mio, by association, was also proud.
The servant girl was around Chiharu's age. She could be a bit older, but maybe that could be because she never seemed to rest. Tomo was always busy doing something for her.
Slowly, Mio reached out to pluck a stray petal from her chestnut hair. She put it on her small palm and blew.
The petal flew right into Tomo's forehead before floating down.
"Petal attack!" she laughed, turning sheepish when at Tomo's unimpressed expression. The servant cleared her throat and Mio prepared herself for the impending lecture.
"My lady," Tomo began seriously. "Today is an important day, where you will again accompany Houjo-sama as a representative of the Houjo family."
"You will be meeting very important people. And what is more important are their sons."
Mio loosened her sleeping yukata to allow her to wipe her back with rosewater. It was pleasantly warm, and the scent was calming. Still, it didn't keep her sarcasm at bay.
"…and their innocent, pure grandsons," she added. "Who is it today?"
The servant lowered her voice to a whisper. "The honourable Kuchiki family! Very, very, very important people."
She masked a sigh by coughing lightly. Mio felt tired already. "I see."
Whilst she was distracted, Tomo took out a pair of small metal tweezers, inching them towards her face.
"What are you doing?" she tried to stand up, but a hand on her shoulder pushed her back down into a sitting position.
"Your eyebrows are looking rather unruly, my lady. It's detracting from your natural beauty," Tomo purred, her eyes like a cat's locking on prey. "This time, I simply must tidy them up."
It wasn't as painful as Mio thought. Tomo said it was because she was still and not squirming around trying to escape like the last time.
She sat in her underclothes, peering into the mirror as Tomo deftly braided her dark, wavy hair. For some reason, Tomo always avoided the fashionable hairstyle trends set by the courtesans. She claimed that high-born girls shouldn't follow the gaudiness promoted by the women in the pleasure quarters.
Personally, Mio thought that there was nothing wrong with being a courtesan, but Tomo definitely had some fierce opinions about it. Showing off wealth was rather bourgeois, which she agreed was distasteful.
To match her youth— she was only fifty one, or around fourteen years old in the living world — her braids were gathered at the base of her neck. Rather cute. Mio liked it even more when two white camellias were pinned to her hair, accentuated by a smaller, pink one.
Next was the outfit of the day. For unmarried young women, a furisode kimono was a must. The long sleeves that hung down were impractical to wear, and Mio preferred the more casual komon, but obligations were obligations. Her duty was to present herself as an chess piece for marriage, for the family.
Tomo held up two different kimonos for her. A pale green one with pink and white camellias and a pink one with colourful camellia embroidery. Mio deliberated, going with the one that caught her eye first.
"The pink one."
She ran a hand over the chosen garment, noticing how each petal detail was sewn with care. This was yet another expensive one. She imagined an older woman sitting by a flickering lantern, sewing away on an empty stomach, slaving during the chilly winter nights to hand it into the shop for a fraction of the exorbitant price her family paid.
"Wait, Tomo. I want to wear the green one instead."
The journey was uneventful and boring. Usually, Mio would have been peering outside the carriage with wonder and asking question after question about the world outside the gates. Today, she left the curtains drawn as they traversed the roads of Seireitei.
Her grandfather, Houjo Tokimune remained silent, which was a relief. She did not want to seem petty by explaining that Chiharu had ignored her that morning and had one of her servants tell her that she didn't feel well. Nor did she want to reveal that she had listened on a conversation she was not party to.
To her surprise, her grandfather did not say a word to her until she was sitting in a beautifully decorated room filled with priceless artifacts. That vase displayed the corner of the room? That was expensive Ming pottery, it matched the descriptions in her studies of the histories of the world of the living. The wooden display stand? Carved mahogany.
None of the decorations were ostentatious, however. She was just discomforted by the amount of historical artifacts in one room. She had never set foot in the ceremonial meeting rooms in her home, only peeked in when Tomo checked that the room was not being used.
Although Mio felt like a puddle of nerves, she remained calm when she was told by her grandfather to greet Kuchiki Ginrei. Raising herself from the deep bow, she locked her joints to slowly blink away the dizziness. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice her internal panic, or the bead of sweat that rolled down her forehead.
She was always a little nervous when meeting very important people. The pressure was overwhelming. Kuchiki Ginrei's strong stare made her shiver. Not in a good way either, whenever Tomo smuggled in forbidden scrolls that made her giggle. Mio showed her sister once and it made Chiharu blush. She had asked Mio for the next scroll after a week, successfully inducted into her clandestine erotica club.
What Chiharu didn't know was that Tomo was part of a network — forbidden scrolls were borrowed from one of the daughters of the Fujiwara family, who had borrowed from a daughter of the Mori family, who borrowed from one of the ladies of the Sugawara family who owned a publishing house with a reputable public face and a clandestine one that published imaginative stories of all kinds.
Thinking of Chiharu made her grumpy again and Mio willed her worries away.
Ginrei addressed her grandfather. "Tokimune, your granddaughter has spiritual sense?"
Pardon? This was the first time she had heard of this.
Grandfather Tokimune gave her a considering look. "Yes. I have been monitoring the growth of her reiryoku since her birth. She has been taking meals regularly."
"There is potential," Ginrei paused as a servant poured two cups of tea. She was not offered any. This was a good sign. This meant that she would be set free at any moment.
"Will you consider training her as a shinigami?"
Her breath caught in her throat. Mio waited, filled with trepidation. Maybe she wasn't expected to marry just yet, maybe instead of waiting for her white knight, she would become her own white knight? Just maybe…
"No," Tokimune took a sip of tea. White Jasmine tea, judging by the smell that wafted to her as she sat a step behind him to his left. "I've made arrangements with the Department of Research and Development to work on a limiter."
"I see. Urahara is reliable with inventions."
"Indeed, he was recommended highly by Yoruichi-san."
Mio lost interest once names she did not know were being tossed around. When was she going to be dismissed? Or was this a test of patience? She was unsure, so she dared not to fidget. The moments she sat with her legs folded felt like years. About a hundred passed until she a female servant slid open the door to the garden, bowing whilst remaining on her feet. The shift of her grandfather's eyes towards her kept her in place.
"It would be a good time to stroll in the gardens," Ginrei stated, looking directly at her.
It was her chance. "I agree, Kuchiki-sama." She bowed to him first, then to her grandfather to excuse herself. She stood up slowly, keeping her balance despite the ache in her legs and walked to the outer pathway towards the gardens. She was being led to view the gardens to view the flowers or a grandson or two.
Mio had no idea what kind of chaos she was walking into.
The female servant stopped by a corner turn, and gestured for Mio to keep walking. The spot she stood in probably gave her a view of the whole area, she guessed as she walked past.
A chaperone, then. So it was an esteemed grandson she was going to informally meet.
The garden was empty. A wooden sword lay abandoned on the grass and not a soul was present. Although the sword was out of place, the flowers still bloomed beautifully. She eyed the red camellias near the small pond in particular. She could probably write a poem if she were feeling inspired enough.
Mio sat down by the edge of the outside hallway. Quickly checking around her, she daringly let her legs hang of the edge, making sure her white tabi socks remained clean. She straightened her legs outward, leaning back on her hands for the greatest stretch of the week.
The female servant from glided towards her, setting down a tray of snacks next her. Mio thanked her before she turned to leave her to her thoughts. She examined the offerings: green tea in a ceramic mug, and several types of dessert lay enticingly on a small plate. Strangely, there was a banana, glass milk bottle and a glass of water. Strange, but healthy and safe choices. She left them untouched.
Mio was not here to play safe.
She spotted a red bean mochi and immediately popped it into her mouth. Chewing thoughtfully, she evaluated the taste.
A butterfly flew by as birds twittered overhead. She closed her eyes, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. She sipped at her tea. It was brewed wonderfully.
Someone was yelling.
It was far away, but Mio could hear someone yelling. They were getting closer, but all she could see was the empty garden and the expanse of wall. Suddenly, silence reigned supreme.
Maybe she was hearing things. She adjusted the folds of her kimono ever so slightly, allowing for a little more room for her to swing her legs. Her grandfather hopefully wouldn't notice. If he did, she would blame it on the desserts she ate. Thinking of desserts, she reached for a sakura mochi this time.
Just as she was about to close her eyes to relish in the taste, the yelling resumed again.
"Demon cat!" someone shouted, sounding clearly aggravated. Distinctively male voice. He was much nearer now. Still, she couldn't see anyone.
She blinked. There was a woman crouching on top of the tiled garden wall. Correction: there was a laughing women in a shinigami uniform standing on the wall.
Mio sipped her tea to keep calm. Suddenly, the woman appeared next to her and it took all her willpower at present and for next year to stay still. Her heart beat rapidly in her chest as she made eye contact with the sharp, glowing eyes. Like a cat's.
"Oho? Who do we have here?"
She inadvertently shivered, her shoulders feeling heavier then usual.
"Hello, I am Houjo Mio," she bowed her head to the woman who was wearing a similar white haori that Kushiki Genrei wore. She was committing no faux pas today. "A pleasure to meet you…Captain…?" she trailed off, unsure of how to address the woman chugging down the bottled milk.
"Yoruichi." She sat down on the other side the snacks, taking a red bean mochi and eating it in one gulp. It was a good choice.
"Yoruichi-sama." The slight twitch of a slender eyebrow revealed that she did not like the honorifics. Mio made sure to note it down, however, she could not do without them.
Not only was it improper, honorifics helped her build a wall between her and other people. It protected her. Only people she truly trusted, she would address by name and allow them to address her in the same way.
Yoruichi leaned back on her elbows, lounging. "Tokimune's kid?"
"I am his granddaughter," Mio smiled, covering her teeth with a long sleeve.
"Hm." The older woman hummed lowly for a few moments before getting to her feet. She grabbed the banana and disappeared before Mio's eyes. The next second, she was standing on the wall again. Mio watched Yoruichi reach under her garments - somewhere near her chest - and pull out a a long red hair tie.
That was something from the forbidden scrolls.
"Yooohoo, slowpoke. Did you get lost on the way home?" she called out at someone over the wall. A hand appeared, gripping the top. Another shot up to grab Yoruichi's ankle. She hopped over it nimbly as a boy climbed up.
His hair was a mess, and he looked very frustrated. Mio sipped her tea, watching from her front-row seat.
The boy, who was a little older than she was (but not by much), rested a knee whilst balancing on the ledge next to the older woman. He was out of breath and muttering something Mio could not hear. Tensing, he jumped towards Yoruichi but she escaped again, appearing the middle of the garden.
"Byakuya-boy! How forward you are, jumping straight into my arms!"
"I would never, cat demon! I was tagging you!"
"Oya? Weren't you trying to get your hair tie back?"
The boy named Byakuya was the supposedly esteemed grandson of Kuchiki Ginrei, head of the Kuchiki clan and Captain of the Sixth division. This was the person she was supposed to meet? Mio stared at the teenager standing on top of the wall of his garden, sizing him up.
He was good-looking, but his eyes seemed a touch insane. She would have preferred if he were a few decades older. A calm, cool and collected older man was more of her ideal.
For some reason, Byakuya was fuming.
She looked towards the 'reason' as she sipped her tea, now waving a banana in the air. "You're struggling to breathe because I have your banana? How immature."
Yoruichi peeled it and took a big bite.
"Don't you think your banana is kind of…small?"
Mio choked on her tea the same time Byakuya screeched in rage.
The game of tag was back on.
The fun only lasted for a few minutes until Yoruichi dropped the hair tie in her lap and ended playtime by disappearing with a quick wave. Mio shyly raised a hand to wave goodbye, but by then she was already gone.
She looked at Byakuya. Their eyes met briefly, before they look away from each other.
A rustling sound behind her caught her attention. The chaperone was back.
Mio put down her mug on the small tray next to her. She thought about standing up, but she wasn't wearing any shoes. So she resorted to smiling her most lady-like and proper smile at him, close-lipped to be polite.
"Hello," Byakuya replied politely. He walked a few steps closer, unsure whether to ask what she was doing in the garden.
As quickly as she could, she lifted her legs to tuck them underneath her hips, once again sitting formally. She bowed. "My name is Houjo Mio. It is a pleasure to meet you."
"I…I am Kuchiki Byakuya. A pleasure to meet you as well." Byakuya bowed back. "I…apologise for allowing you to see such unsightly actions."
His placid turn caused her nerves to resurface. Mio bowed again. "No, no…you must have been preoccupied whilst training. I am at fault, I should have made my presence known earlier."
"No, I must apologise to you."
"As a guest, that was impolite of me."
"Of course not! As you are a guest, it was entirely my fault."
It was ridiculous, this to-and-fro of meaningless apologies. It was so ridiculous, she forgot about her manners and laughed openly, forgetting to cover her mouth with her sleeve. Lightly wiping at her eyes in case of any stray tears, she laughed softly again.
When was the last time I laughed?
No matter, it felt good to laugh like this.
Mio held out her hand, the red hair tie dangling in the air. "Would you like your hair tie back?"
She looked up at Byakuya, who was quiet for some time. Mio did not know him well enough to read his calm expressions. He walked a few steps closer to where she sat.
"…Yes." He held out his hand in response, a respectable distance below hers.
The ends of the red string brushed his outstretched hand. She dropped it in his palm.
For a moment, they were connected by both ends of a red string.
Wow. I typed this strange chapter non-stop today since I kept thinking about this character. Mio is different from the normal, straightforward-speaking characters I usually work with — she is much more reserved and disciplined. It's funny how this flowed out so organically, I was going for a rather complicated tone with Byakuya but…am I imagining it or there's a bit of chemistry with young Byakuya?
It doesn't matter, I am dead set on my original plans. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this — any suggestions?