Chapter One - An Herbal Infusion

16 BK - A Small Tea House in Sugi, a border village between River and Fire.

Her hand is shaking, the tremors are so slight they're almost invisible, but he will notice. So she slows her breathing further, she's almost a statue.. a picture of perfection. She's done this many times before, so there isn't a reason to be nervous.

"Jiraiya-sama," she greets as he stumbles into the booth. He is rank with the stench of sweat, blood and sake. This isn't the first time she's hosted him though, so she's not unprepared.

"Umeki," he shoots back as he lazily slumps in the booth. "You're looking particularly... put together."

It's the understatement of the year, she's certainly more than put together. She's not a meek young maiko anymore though, and she tilts her head just slightly averting her eyes away from him. "You're quite... put together... yourself, Jiraiya-sama."

He is, she thinks, normally quite well dressed. It's a rare occasion that he hasn't soaked off the battles before he makes his appearance in their world of flowers and willows. His armor is still in place this time, not sealed away in scrolls as it normally is. He must be straight from a skirmish because his left arm is soaked in dried blood, the rusty flakes falling on the table. She imagines that hand might have gone through someone's chest and wonders at the strength so tightly bound inside him. She thinks normally this would be quite repulsive, him with a splattering of Iwa in his ivory hair, but in her current mindset he rather suits her taste.

She pours his tea first and then hers... she doesn't bother waiting on him before she begins to sip, he won't drink his. She can taste the bitter oil tainting her tea, but swallows it without expression, it's necessary. It's also an expense far beyond her means. This infusion has no scent and no color, merely a bitterness that follows in the wake of the sweet jasmine tea she takes it with.

He watches her... they've sat like this many times before. Sometimes he is jovial and laughing and then there are occasions like this where she is a poor distraction for his thoughts.

"Do you remember my sister Tsukiko?" She begins without hesitation, "She has entertained me with me many times. The mother has agreed to send her to River to be with her new danna. She's quite young for it, and it's actually somewhat of a scandal."

She can't tell him outright, she's not sure if he always understands, but it's important that someone knows. Sugi is a bordertown, but Umeki was born in the Land of Fire, she's loyal to the Fire Country, and she'll do what she can in this war.

"There aren't many in River Country that can afford Tsukiko, she may be very young... but her debut..." Umeki paused in consideration, would he have heard? "Tsukiko's patron remains undisclosed, but her mizuage price was three times that of mine, greater than any sum I know to have been paid."

Jiraiya remained expressionless, reaching for a bottle of sake he lifted it to his lips, bypassing all ceremony and decorum. She had his attention. She enjoys the moment, drawing him towards like the lovely spider with her web waiting in the shadows. A small bite of sweet cake, a sip of tea and then she brushes invisible crumbs from the breast of her kimono, his eyes follow her movements like a drowning man whose seen a boat.

"She's already sent several messages home. I'm quite jealous. That danna of hers has promised to take her to see the Katabami mine. I don't think there is very much appealing about the mine itself, but the gold they're digging up might be something to see."

This time he almost hums in response, encouraging her to continue. He's young and rough around all the edges, this is a game she knows he'll one day learn well, but for now she limits her tricks and games to those who need them. Jiraiya needs information, he needs intelligence that will win the war, and for reasons he doesn't quite fully understand he can always find it in the gossip of the hanamachi.

"She tells me though that her danna is an awful bore, so I wonder that she'll enjoy much besides the sightseeing. You would never bore me with awful business meetings though would you?" She says inclining her head just slightly, the milk white skin of her neck bared just so. "All sorts droning on and on for hours... you wouldn't have me serving so many others when I could just serve you?"

He drains the last of the sake bottle in one swift motion before lazily resting it on the table, his gaze lingers on her for awhile as she nibbles on the sweet treats that litter the table. They're both quiet in the moment, expectant, but he doesn't say anything and neither does she. When he leaves she doesn't see him rise and there isn't the telltale chime of customers coming and going through the main door... he is simply gone and she hesitates only a moment before she smiles to herself and snuffing out the incense burning at the table follows behind him.

There is no comment as she leaves, shinobi are known for their strange ways and it's a credit to her that she'll be able to take one as a customer at all. The more experienced geisha tend to entertain them when they traipse into this world of flowers and willows, they need an expert hand to keep at bay the destruction that follows in their wake. Reiko who owns the tea house inclines her head as she passes, everyone is grateful when the shinobi leave peacefully.

She doesn't pause to relish the bite of the chilled air outside, instead taking small reserved but purposeful steps. The okiya is close but a little further will take her to a more private onsen, one that provides a discreet service. Jiraiya has followed her there before, she's no blushing maiden. This time she thinks will only be slightly different, the bitter taste of the tea long since washed away with sweet cakes is still strong in her mind.

She gives away nothing as she reserves a private room, the indoor pools are less popular for their greater expense and their proclivity for rumors. There can only be so many reasons for requiring such privacy, she doesn't fear gossip though. She has already established a reputation for taking a certain kind of customer, she's said to be an artist who enjoys a more primitive form of dance. She makes a subtle gesture towards the incense burning behind the front desk and the attendant sets an extra stick to burning. Somewhere deep inside where no wisp of emotion escapes she is laughing, that he will pay her for the great disservice she does him is an irony she can't escape.

She is no shinobi, but likewise chakra is no mystery to her. The dance of the geisha requires a perfect balance of the physical and spiritual energy within the body, anything less is imperfect, so subtly wrong that though you may not see the error you know it's there. Just as she can feel the perfect balance in a well executed routine, the centering of her energy as she stretches beneath the sun... she can feel his very presence permeating the room even before she opens the door. Her hand resting on the handle she knows that he's waiting for her.

She runs her hand unconsciously across her abdomen and she takes a deep breath, one she knows he must hear... will he interpret as nervousness? He's still rank with blood and sweat and desperation. She can smell the death on him and thinks he mustn't have enjoyed the soft touch of loving hands in an age. Her smile is suppressed as she opens the door, a deep satisfaction welling up in her. This time she will be victorious, she will earn her place with every ounce of guile she has.

15 BK - Summi Okiya in the flower district of Sugi.

Chiasu screams.. and it's certainly Chiasu with her bare face screaming because Umeki is strong and cunning and endures all things, she wouldn't balk at this pain. She gasps for breath and shivers in fear waiting for the next contraction. Her sisters surround her, but they're no comfort.. this is her pain to endure, she created this life.

The contractions are coming with almost no relief now and she knows the child must be close, she can feel it's pressure bearing down on her frame. She grasps at the bed post lowering herself down, spreading her legs as Hanako crouches between them.

"Almost..." Hanako murmurs encouragingly. "Just a few more... it's almost here."

She screams again and pushes with all the strength she feels she has, and then again with more. She can feel when it begins to make its way through, a horrible tearing sensation as it forces its way out. The world fades in and out in front of her and Tsukiko holds her steady when she fears her legs will give out beneath her.

"More!" they demand of her, "You need to keep pushing!"

She pushes once more and the pressure begins to lift, but not their insistence. Giving up thought she mindlessly grasps onto Tsukiko and rides the waves of agony with all she has until they lower her onto the bed.. the work finished.

"The boy.. where is he?" She asks, straining her ears for his cries and hearing none.

The room is silent for a moment before Hanako places her son into her arms, he's wrapped in a soft blanket. He's quiet but he's breathing, soft pants she can barely hear as he strains his little hands trying to reach up. She can see the soft red lines beneath his eyes, invisible unless you're searching for it, and knows her job was done well.

She reaches for the red silk ribbon, finally ready to pass on this burden she has borne for so long. Tsukiko's hand reaches it first and pulls it out of her reach.

"The child is a girl," she whispers, her disappointment audible in her voice.

It's nothing though, to the disappointment, the anger that Chiasu feels. Her life is tied up in beauty... this child would ruin it and for nothing... she's not an heir... she's a daughter and useless. Her grip on the baby tightens in anger before she remembers herself.

"Take it away," She says pushing it towards Tsukiko. Chiasu has no use for a daughter, Konoha has no use for a daughter. She will have to try again... someone will have to try again... the order is for a son.