Back then, I believed that fate was unavoidable, a series of events predestined to occur that could not be changed or altered in any way. I thought that human choices simply led us down that road, but that in the end, all things would occur exactly as planned.
I was wrong.
Ichiko sat in the gardens, looking out at the flowers. She loved the blooms and the way they smelled, even though they made her best friend, Sashiro, sneeze. She would giggle innocently when Sashiro let out one of her perfect little sneezes, when she would pull out her handkerchief so-very-carefully and wipe her nose with a sense of embarrassment that she had even sneezed in the first place. It was how she had been taught to behave, since she was betrothed to the lord of Mikran province, one of the many provinces which made up the land of Izura.
Even though Ichiko knew that Sashiro’s eventual marriage to Lord Mikran would separate them, she was determined to enjoy every moment with Sashiro. They had been friends since childhood, lovers since adolescence and Sashiro had never cared that Ichiko was from the peasant class. In return, Ichiko had never treated Sashiro like she was only to be a wife and mother, though she had accepted the fact that Sashiro’s fate was set.
Sashiro, however, would not accept it. She acted out the things that she had been taught in order not to anger her father or shame her family, but she was a dreamer who dreamt of reaching the stars and roaming the world, not becoming the wife of an old lord who she had been promised to since birth.
Sashiro let the handkerchief fall as she realized she was acting out her airs and graces in front of Ichiko. Ichiko reached down and picked up the dainty white cloth, placing it in Sashiro’s hands and closing them around it.
“You don’t have to mind yourself around me,” Ichiko said, “Just be yourself. Do what comes naturally. Don’t put on airs and graces around me if you don’t want to, but if that’s what comes naturally to you now, then don’t drop them on my account. I love you either way.”
“That’s the problem,” Sashiro said, “I don’t know what comes naturally any more. I don’t know which of my mannerisms are really mine, and what are graces I’ve picked up from my training. I’m scared that I’m spending my whole life acting. Even in front of you.”
“I still see the same Sashiro that has been by my side always,” Ichiko said, holding Sashiro’s hands that were now clutching the handkerchief in her lap, “Whether or not you hold your handkerchief correctly doesn’t change who you are inside.”
Sashiro looked down at the ground, “I feel like I’m changing,” she said, “I feel like I’m losing something vital to me. I’m scared I’m accepting this fate.”
“A part of you will have to,” Ichiko said, “It has been set for many years. All we can do is enjoy the moments we have now. You know the day is soon. Your birthday was several months ago, and your training is all but complete.”
“Don’t,” Sashiro said, shaking her head, “I have to believe there is a way out of this! I want to stay here with you, Ichiko. I don’t want to… become intimate with him. That’s something special between you and I…” Tears started to fall down Sashiro’s face, making her makeup run. She wiped them away angrily, soiling the sleeves of her kimono with streaks of makeup.
Ichiko leaned over and took Sashiro in her arms. Once, she had felt that Sashiro had been her protector, but now, the tables had turned. Sashiro was vulnerable and frightened, and it scared Ichiko to see her like that.
“Nothing can take what we have away from us,” Ichiko said, “Not distance, time… Not even him.”
“Ichiko… What will I do without you? What will I do if I only see you once a year, when I come to honor my ancestors? I will go mad for sure.”
“It will all be okay,” Ichiko said, “Everything will be fine…”
Ichiko was summoned to the main house, and she bowed before Sashiro’s parents. She trembled a little as she stood there, but she knew what this was about. How could she not have known this day was coming?
“Yes?” Ichiko said meekly, “How may I be of service, Lord and Lady Ahira?” She scanned their stony faces, but could read nothing from them. Still, she sensed that the time was soon; that they would tell her to keep her distance, to make it easier for Sashiro by making a clean break. They had been tolerant of her visiting their home, but in the end, she was just a peasant. She could not be allowed to undermine their plans for their daughter’s future.
Ichiko knew they believed they were doing the best both for their daughter and their family’s honor. Lord Mikran was wealthy, and would provide for Sashiro. He was renowned for his generosity, and it would bring the two houses closer together to have this marriage. There was no question that in their mind, it was the best match. Still, Ichiko knew that they had not considered her feelings, but perhaps that was impossible. Sashiro was a wild card, a complete oddity in her society. She was intelligent, strong-willed, free-spirited and wanted to break out from the mold set for women. Perhaps, Ichiko realized, it was cruelty to be born into a high class family. Peasants were held to no such standards. Ichiko was only expected to survive, and if she found a husband and managed to move up in society, all the better, but she was not forced to meet anybody’s expectations, only to cease depending upon her impoverished parents.
“Sashiro seems upset by recent events. She cries randomly, has fits of rage, and ruined her best kimono. Ichiko, please help us to understand. What is happening?”
“Excuse me for my directness, and please do not take it as judgment upon your actions, but she does not wish to marry Lord Mikran. It frightens her deeply to know she will soon be separated from her home, from me, from everything she knows…”
“It is normal to have such feelings,” Lady Ahira said, “I was afraid when I left my home to come here and marry Lord Ahira. But I am happy now. Is there no way you can communicate that to her?”
“I have tried, my lady,” Ichiko said, “But it is almost as though she refuses to accept that she will go. She dreams constantly of a way out. Facts are useless in such a situation.”
“Thank you for enlightening us,” Lord Ahira said, “I think I know how best to handle this now. You may go, Ichiko.”
“Thank you,” Ichiko said.
When Ichiko saw Sashiro next, she looked pale and ashen. She was running across the gardens to the bench where Ichiko sat waiting, and she was weeping openly.
“It’s time, isn’t it?” Ichiko said. She felt fear rising in her gut. The day she had dreaded was finally coming, and she would be separated from her dearest friend, her only love. She would no longer be sheltered from the harsh realities of her world, and would have to find her way alone. Perhaps, she realized, she too had been running from this day.
“They are sending me tomorrow!” Sashiro wept, “I can’t go, Ichiko!” She seized Ichiko by the shoulders, “Do something, Ichiko! Plead with my parents! They have always loved you. Do something!” She started to shake Ichiko.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Ichiko said, “If there was, don’t you think I would have done it? I don’t want to be parted from the one person I love most in the world. I don’t want to lose you! But this fate has been hanging over us for a very long time. Now we have to face it.”
“I won’t accept it!” Sashiro said, “I won’t be separated from you! I refuse to be married off to an old man I don’t even know! I’ll do anything!” She rushed off.
Ichiko stood rooted to the spot, lost and frightened. What could she do? She was only a peasant girl who had been allowed into this beautiful world for a brief time. Now it was over. She could see that, why couldn’t Sashiro? She didn’t want to lose the woman she loved, but it was fate, and fate was set in stone.
“We can’t find Sashiro,” Lady Ahira told Ichiko, “Please, Ichiko, if you know anything, please tell us.”
“I don’t know, my lady,” Ichiko said, “I’m frightened for her. I’ve never seen her so agitated. I’m going to look for her.”
Ichiko racked her brains, trying to think of where Sashiro would go. What places had been important to them and had held special memories?
She remembered the first time they had made love. Their confessions of love for one another had sprouted in the warmth of Spring, and they had been dizzy with mutual longing and desire long held back. They had found a small room in the manor that nobody had used for a long time, and had spent hours exploring each other in that room, taking their time, as though it would last forever.
Ichiko ran through the halls of the manor, knowing that if Sashiro went anywhere, it would be that room, to relive those warm memories and take comfort in them. Ichiko ignored the curious glances of those who wondered why a woman should be running through the halls at this hour, but it was urgent that she hurry. As she ran, she recalled fragments of conversations that had seemed sweet once upon a time, but now scared her.
“If I ever have to leave you, I’ll kill myself,” Sashiro had said, “I would rather die than live without you…”
“No,” Ichiko whispered, running faster, “Sashiro, you mustn’t…”
She flung the door open to see Sashiro knelt down on the floor, holding a knife in her trembling hands.
“No!” Ichiko cried, and Sashiro dropped the knife. It fell to the floor with a clatter, and Ichiko rushed to Sashiro’s side, taking the woman in her arms and holding her close, thanking the gods she was unharmed.
“I love you, Sashiro. I won’t let this happen to you. We’ll find some way to get through this, I swear. But not like this. Not this way…” Ichiko said. She called for a maid, and Ichiko told her to summon Lady Ahira at once. When Lady Ahira let herself in, Ichiko was rocking Sashiro in her arms, soothing her as she wept uncontrollably, so much that she could not even speak.
“She tired to kill herself,” Ichiko said, “I got here just in time… Now she won’t stop crying…”
“Thank you, Ichiko,” Lady Ahira said. She looked tired and old, exhausted by recent events. “The doctor is on his way. When he takes Sashiro to rest, will you walk with me?”
The doctor came, and a team of maids helped him to take Sashiro away to rest. Ichiko walked with Lady Ahira down the hallways.
“I don’t know what to do,” Lady Ahira confessed, “I never knew that this was causing Sashiro so much pain… Lord Mikran is a good man, but he will be offended if we back down now. Our family’s honor is at stake… But, she is my daughter, Ichiko. The thought of her being so sad that she wants to end her life saddens me. I thought sending her away sooner would make it easier for her, end the long period of waiting and worrying, but I was wrong.”
“She said she would rather die than being parted from me,” Ichiko said, “Perhaps there could be a way that I could go with her? Perhaps as a maid, or something…”
“I’ve always seen you as a part of this family,” Lady Ahira said, “I never employed you because I thought you were above being a maid. I always thought life would have a great calling for you someday, no matter your origins or class.”
“Forgive me, but I know that’s not it. You didn’t want me to be in Sashiro’s life after marriage,” Ichiko was forthright, “You didn’t want me to be a distraction to her role as wife and mother. I understand and accept that. But I see no other option. Please allow me to do this, and perhaps I can save your honor, while making Sashiro happy as well.”
“You are more intelligent then anybody ever gave you credit for,” Lady Ahira said, “As you wish, Ichiko. If it makes Sashiro accept this fate, then perhaps it is for the best. Just do not anger Lord Mikran. You will be bound to his laws, and if that means you must never touch Sashiro again, then that must be so. If you cannot hold back, then say so now.”
“I will be content just to be by her side, if that is all I can have,” Ichiko said, “Anything to keep her safe.”
“Sashiro! Sashiro!” Ichiko burst into the room where Sashiro was resting, eager to deliver the good news that they would not be separated after all. Several figures surrounded the bed, including Sashiro’s father. Their faces looked grim. As Ichiko entered the room, the doctor turned to look at her directly.
Falling silent, she stepped forward with frightened curiosity as fear clenched an icy hand around her gut. Something was wrong. The crowd separated to let her through, and then she stood by Sashiro’s bedside. Her eyes were closed, and her face was pale – so pale! – that Ichiko instantly reached out and touched her cheek. It was cold. She was dead.
“Sashiro! Sashiro! No! How?” She looked around at the gathered crowd. The doctor stepped forward.
“The knife was not how she intended to kill herself…” the doctor began, “She imbibed poisonous herbs from the garden… When the pain became too great, she realized she would have to kill herself quickly… Only, you interrupted her.”
“Why didn’t she say anything?” Ichiko cried, “She was there, in my arms, crying for a while! She was all right! She was…” Ichiko started to cry.
“She knew it was already too late,” the doctor said, “She was probably content just to die in your arms. When we took her here, it was only then that we realized what she had done, but it was too late.”
“No! I was going to go with her! We were going to be together! Sashiro… I never would have cared if you had married him… I always would have been by your side!”
There was only darkness. Ichiko had considered killing herself, but the doctors and maids had been watching her twenty-four hours a day. She couldn’t get a moment to herself, lest she end her painful existence.
She told herself that it was no different than if Sashiro had gone to Lord Mikran, but it was. She could have gone on, knowing that Sashiro was out there somewhere, lighting up the world with her presence, but now, that light had been extinguished forever. She would never see Sashiro again, not even once a year.
In many ways, Ichiko blamed herself. If she had used her courage sooner and broached the subject of being a maid, perhaps she could have prevented Sashiro’s suicide. Dark thoughts tortured her as blame swirled around in her head.
On the third day, Lady Ahira entered the room, dressed in black. Heavy makeup attempted to hide the bags beneath her eyes.
“I could blame you for what happened,” she said, “But somehow, I can’t bring myself to do it. I always knew Sashiro was different, yet I didn’t know what to do about it, so I treated her like any other girl who would someday become a woman. I trained her for a world she didn’t belong in, a world she didn’t want. So perhaps it is my fault more than anybody’s.”
Ichiko was silent. She couldn’t bring herself to talk, but she had to. There was something she had to say… Something she wanted to ask.
“Lady Ahira…” Ichiko said, “I have one final favor to ask… that might make this easier for all of us.”
When the carriage drew up, Lady Ahira stood by it. Ichiko came out of the house, dressed in Sashiro’s finest kimono.
“Are you sure you want to give up the rest of your life… to preserve our family’s honor?” Lord Ahira said.
“There is nothing left for me in this world,” Ichiko said, “Perhaps, by becoming Sashiro and marrying Lord Mikran, I will come to understand everything better. To make sense of this tragedy. Besides, I owe you a great debt. You were always kind to me, and accepting of my relationship with Sashiro. I am grateful for the time we were able to spend together because of that.”
“To the world, it will be as if Sashiro never died,” Lady Ahira said, “Lord Mikran hasn’t seen Sashiro since she was a child. It is not unfathomable that you could be the woman she has grown into. But still, to give up your life for this… To hide the fact that Sashiro committed suicide in order to protect her honor and ours… It is a huge sacrifice.”
“I have made my decision,” Ichiko said, “Please, let me depart…”
“Goodbye, Ichiko,” Lady Ahira said, “I always felt you were like a daughter to me… Now, I suppose you truly are.”
Ichiko stepped up into the carriage, and it drew away into the dawn, leading her into a new life…
“I have bound myself to your fate, as my punishment. I should have done more to help you, Sashiro. I should have helped you break the chains that bound you to this fate, instead of just accepting it. Now, I will redeem myself by preserving your honor. Nobody will know that you committed suicide, for I am now Sashiro. I will take Lord Mikran into me and bear his children, just as you were expected to do. I will know how it feels to take on such a burden…
…Then perhaps when we meet again, you will be able to forgive me, my love.”