Well, I'm back. And this story is back, with a rewrite of the last chapter. I think I'm back on a roll now, after lots of brainstorming, revising my outlines, and lots and lots of prayer. Thanks to everybody for sticking through.
Darkness had its grip on me. Alone, I stirred beneath a weight, tangled in a prison of silk. My head throbbed, and around me, I could hear the steady beat of distant drums. I flexed my fingers first, made a fist, stretched my arm…
Groaning at the pain in my head, I opened my eyes, the sight of the wood beams of a ceiling making me gather that I was laying on my back. I lifted my head, coming to the realization that I was not hearing drums; the noise was the pounding of blood in my head.
I turned my head, seeing a shape in the flickering candlelight. The sound of dripping water reached my ears. As I looked, I made out the figure of Komo, her hands inside a bowl of water that sat atop a low, round table. As she lifted her hands, I saw that she was wringing out a cloth.
I propped myself up on my elbows. Komo turned her head, her eyes pointed in my direction.
"Yori? Are you awake?"
I nodded and, remembering that she could not see, I forced myself to speak. "Yes."
She reached for me; guiding her hand with mine, I let her place her hand, still wet, on my forehead. Her finger stroked my eyebrow as she felt around my face.
"You feel cold," she said.
I sat up all the way, my head heavy from my hair being piled atop it, and looked down the length of the futon. I still wore the white robes, my feet small and white sticking out from the hem.
"You fainted," Komo said, bringing the cloth to my forehead. I smelled something sweet, and as the damp cloth touched my skin, the throbbing went down.
"What happened? After that, I mean." I lowered my head, rubbing my temples.
"I think...I believe you were carried here."
"What is 'here'?" I looked about. I was in a large room, some trunks in the corner, and altar against the wall...I spotted the door of the balcony, through which the faint light of lanterns could be seen, bobbing in the breeze. I could hear the wind around the walls, the creak of wood…
"Your quarters," Komo said. "The moment you fainted, Lord Ashiro-han carried you here."
In front of all the guests, and the people of his island...I groaned again, this time out of dread for what might have come. Mother would be furious with me. I could almost feel her hand on my face again.
Komo took my chin in her hand, and lifted my face, the cloth caressing my forehead. I shut my eyes as it pressed against my eyelids.
"The feast has been put off," she said. "The guests have been sent away."
I felt even heavier, as if the robes were pulling me down, into the futon, and they would crush me flat like parchment. How much humiliation would I bring to my lord's island?
Komo dipped the cloth in the bowl again; I watched the tendons in her thin hand work as she wrung it out. I pondered the presence of the child, remembering that Ashiro had told me to tell Komo if I had ever seen the child again, but…
I opened my mouth to force the words, then closed it, pursing my lips. How foolish I would sound! Komo, I saw a bald child that caused me to faint...I shook my head to myself, not wanting to paint myself as more of a fool. I had already brought humiliation to the island of my husband, and to simply say it was all because of a bald child…
My husband. I took a deep breath as Komo massaged my forehead with the cloth again. "Are my parents still here?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied. "Lord Ashiro-han refuses to let them see you."
I stiffened, my blood suddenly feeling hot in my veins. I sat up further, pushing Komo's hand aside. "Where is he?" I demanded.
"I believe he is outside the door."
I gathered the hem of the robe and lifted myself to my feet. Despite my head swimming, I was furious with my lord for keeping my family from me. I crossed the room, hearing a protest from Komo. I ignored it, lunging forward to the door, leaning on it to regain my balance. I slid it open, greeted with the sight of Ashiro kneeling before the door, his head bowed and his hands on his knees.
He lifted his head when he saw me. I felt strange, then, to be looking down at him, and as he rose to his feet, my anger faded into dread in his presence.
"You're awake," he said, sounding neither happy nor relieved that I was. He seized my arm, and I cried out at the pain of his fingers digging into my skin. He dragged me into the room, my feet hardly able to keep up with him. He snapped his fingers at Komo.
"Leave us," he said.
Komo stood, her eyes fixed in our direction, as she went forward, a hand outstretched to feel for the door. Once she had left, after throwing a confused expression over her shoulder, Ashiro slid the door shut, finally releasing my arm.
I took a step back from him, poised to run, afraid that he might have hit me after grabbing my arm so roughly. I then realized that, with such heavy robes on, and with my legs still weak, running was most likely out of the question.
"You have much to explain," Ashiro said, turning to me.
I studied his face for that expression Hotaki had told me of, but I saw nothing there save his anger, his eyes made more menacing by the flickering candlelight. I straightened myself, fighting the fear that was beginning to take hold of me.
"My lord," I began, searching for an explanation. I paused, and hung my head. "My lord, I don't know."
The creak of floorboards told me he was approaching me, but I did not look up. I started when I felt his hand on my chin, and he lifted my face, forcing me to look in his eyes. With his other hand, he smoothed my hair back from my forehead. The black zho remained on his forehead, but I guessed that mine had been washed off with the cloth Komo had used on my face.
He held my face in his hands, looking into my eyes, his expression almost...frustrated. "Of all the women who have come to my island," he said, "through some chance, I had to pick you. I could have picked a woman, not a child."
I took a deep breath. He saw me as a child? I had meant to ask for my parents, but since he had called me a child, it was the last thing I wanted to do in his presence.
"What are you, Yori?" he asked.
"My lord?" I was puzzled at his question, wanting to move away from his touch. His hands, though gentle on my face, caused gooseflesh to creep up my body.
"You faint at your wedding, and offer no reason why."
"My lord, I was exhausted. And the cold had settled in my bones..."
"There is something more." He released my face, and stepped back from me, tucking his hands in his sleeves. "I should feel concerned for you, should I not? But I don't. You are my wife now, and are to be the mother of my heir, and so little is there I know about you. I have no desire for you."
I had no idea what to say in response, thrown off that he had voiced the same things I felt towards him. He looked away from me, and the overwhelming sense of sadness that I had felt those years ago, the day I had seen him from the balcony, returned, settling over me. I reached back, leaning a hand on the altar to keep myself from falling over. His attention went back to me, as if he felt my sudden weakness.
"Look at you," he said. "You cannot even stand. You are weak."
I did not know if he sought to insult me. I stood before him, my face on fire with shame, and once more I hung my head. He moved past me, towards the door.
"All the people of my region witnessed your collapse," he said, his hand on the doorframe. "And now it shall be known throughout the empire that Inugoya Ashiro, lord of the seventh region, has married himself to a creature hardly worth the title of lord's wife."
"My lord," I said, forming words of protest.
He held up his hands, and in that moment, I realized he made the silencing gesture. I tried to calm my breathing, unsure if I should have been furious with him or not. He shook his head, sliding the door open.
"What have I done?" he said in nearly a whisper. "I am a fool for choosing you."
He stepped out of the room, shutting the door behind him. I stood there, alone in my room, my heart pounding with the shock of his words to me.
Why should I have been surprised? He saw me as nothing more than a child, unworthy of being his wife. But it was by his choice that I was his wife, not mine. He picked me, even if he thought so little of me. Out of all the women who had come to his island over the weeks, I was the one he chose, by some freak chance. And it was he who regretted his decision.
I collapsed onto my futon, burying my face into the pillow, hoping I could cry out the feelings that had begun to flood my body, but my eyes were dry. I could do nothing but lay on the futon, twisted in my robes, a pitiful white figure against the darkness of my room. Around me, the winter wind moaned through any opening in the walls it could find, and a distant bell ringing somewhere on the island. I could imagine the sight of many boats returning home, and the title of the newspaper the next morning: INUGOYA ASHIRO'S BRIDE COLLAPSES AT WEDDING.
I wanted to scream, as if I could empty myself of the shame and the remorse that was building up inside me, but no sound came from my mouth. It was as if dishonor ran thick in my veins, and I could not step around humiliating those around me.
I gripped the pillow until my knuckles ached from the tightness of my clutch. No, I would not wallow in the embarrassment I had brought to myself and the house of my lord. I took a deep breath, praying to the Creator for strength. I had promised Father to be brave.
I sat up, crawling to the altar, setting myself back on my knees. I snatched up the matchbook and struck one, lighting the red prayer candles, and the cone of incense in the center. I placed my hands together and bowed three times before touching my forehead to the floor in front of the altar, making a silent prayer.
Great Creator, I prayed, give me courage, and give me strength. I have done many things wrong, and I have been selfish, and I have been afraid. I have only thought of myself. I am a lord's wife now. Give me the strength, the ability, to act as such now. Let me bring no further humiliation to those I love, and those I am now bound to.
I made this prayer with my heart, my soul, all the strength left within me. Letting the incense burn and fill the room with the lulling scent of meditation, I breathed it in, feeling renewed. Lord Ashiro's words would not have a lasting effect on me. If he thought me unworthy as a wife, I would prove myself worthy.
It was time for me to be strong.