Chapter 2

Uba watched her charge playing on the rug in the nursery. The small girl was both the easiest child she had ever worked with and the most difficult. Easy in that she never cried, never threw a fit, never actively attempted to cause mischief. She was almost always serene, with a quiet eagerness to learn her world. But she was also stubborn and at three years old, already had a way of standing her ground that defied conventional training. Her vocabulary wasn’t up to carrying an argument and yet, Uba found herself on the losing end of more than one battle. But then Amari would look up and grin, golden eyes gleaming, and Uba’s heart would melt.

Her name wasn’t even Uba. That was a title. Uba meant “nanny.” When Amari started to speak, earlier than most children of course, “Jacqueline” was far too difficult for her to say. The intent was to start with Uba, then move on to the more difficult sounds. It wasn’t to be. Everyone picked up on the nickname and now it stuck. Another battle lost.

Today, she was watching Amari with a closer eye than usual. There was something off about the girl. In her less forgiving moments, Uba would call her creepy. A better word was uncanny. Or unsettling. Just the night before, Uba had been helping Amari out of the bath. As Uba reached for a towel, Amari ran around behind her. What looked like the start of a silly game turned out to be self-preservation as a small shelf fell from the wall and shattered jars in the spot Amari had been standing. She could have heard something, or seen the jars start to slide. But from Uba’s viewpoint, the child just knew what was happening and moved to safety.

It wasn’t the first time, either. Most often, it was a small moment. Fetching a sleeping baby for her scheduled feeding, only to find her awake and staring. Anticipating. When she was learning to walk, Amari would yelp a heartbeat or two before she tipped over. That could be written off as losing balance, but when Uba looked back and put those occasions together with other signs, it made her wonder.

Akane’s talent was not unknown, nor was it widely shared. Lady of the Kanto Empire or not, she would be constantly badgered if too many knew she had the Gift of Sight. Her staff was aware, though, so Uba wasn’t alarmed that Amari was behaving strangely. She had never heard of the Gift so young. But Amari wasn’t a normal child, additional talents or not. Watching now, as small hands were waiting to catch toys that hadn’t yet fallen, the nanny decided it was time.

Uba knocked gently on the frame of the shoji door. She could see the shadowy form of her mistress moving about, but was hesitant to intrude. Akane-sama had so little time to herself. But it was a warm and welcoming voice that responded with a simple, “Hai.” Uba moved gracefully to her knees and slid the door open.

“Akane-sama, please excuse my interruption.”

“Think nothing of it. What concerns you?”

“It is Amari-chan. I believe she is showing signs of your Gift.”

Akane set down the datapad she had been reading, “Show me.”

They crossed the house to the nursery, where Amari was playing with blocks. Each block had numbers painted on it, each side in a different character representing a different language. Amari wasn’t reading the numbers, though. She was stacking the blocks up, then knocking them down. Over and over. It was clear she was having a very good time.

Akane looked from her daughter to the nanny, “Uba?”

Uba took a small bottle from the nearby dresser and, without warning, threw it directly at Amari’s head. Eyes never leaving her blocks, Amari reached out and plucked the bottle from the air. She set it on the floor beside her and continued playing.

“Huh,” Akane’s head tilted ever so slightly. She knelt beside her daughter and ran delicate fingers through the tousled black hair.

“Hello, my love.”

“Okasaan!” Amari threw her arms around her mother’s neck and squeezed, “See my new blocks? Otosan brought them to me when he, uhm, visited yesterday.”

“They are beautiful. What does this one say?”

They ran through all the blocks, Akane asking out of order. Amari scolded her when asked about a block more than once. “Okasaan. I told you that one is three. Like me!”

After the scolding and giggling and a bit of tickling, Akane took her child by the hand and led her outside, stopping at the kitchen along the way. They took their time strolling to the koi pond. It was a huge structure, with a boardwalk criss crossing and a pavilion with covered seating. Heavy cherry blossom trees, blooming in shades ranging from white-pink to purple almost black, gave off rich embracing scents. The gardeners had spent years coaxing various strains to create the effects they were seeking. Their efforts had paid off. Kanto Blossoms were known across many worlds, but never sold. Occasionally, for the rare guests, branch clippings were given as gifts.

When Amari was born, part of the koi pond was redesigned so a child could explore without fear of tumbling over an edge and into water too deep. It was to that area that mother and daughter took their small bag of dried oat cereal. Amari clapped with glee and reached for the bag, wanting to feed the fish, but Akane stopped her.

“Wait, musume. I want to play a game. Would you like that?”

“Yes, please, Okasaan.”

“Good. Close your eyes. I am going to throw a bit of cereal into the air. Every one you catch, you can feed to the koi. They look hungry today, so be fast!”

Amari’s features twisted with skepticism, “With my eyes closed?”

“With your eyes closed.”

The child sighed, “Those fish are going to go hungry.”

Akane laughed, but said nothing until Amari stood perfectly still in the middle of the walkway and closed her eyes. Even then, she waited and watched, but the girl didn’t try to peek or cheat.

The first bit of oat was silent as it flew through the air. No sound at all gave away its location, or even that Akane had started the game. Amari’s hand snapped up, catching the small piece in delicate fingers. She opened her eyes, “Okasaan! I caught it! Can I feed them now?”

“Just that one. Did you see me throw it?”

“Noooooo. You said to keep my eyes closed, so I didn’t see anything!”

Akane processed that as she threw bit after bit to her daughter, watching her grab each one from the air. She sped things up, throwing more. Eventually, Amari missed one. But she caught the other six that were thrown at the same time.

“Very good, Amari-chan! Here, let’s feed the rest of these to the fish so no one knows we took them from the kitchen.”

Amari giggled, happy to share a secret with her mother. She didn’t know she shared more than one. Akane was going to have to think on this afternoon for a while. It would seem her child knew without Seeing or even being aware, and that was a very different talent to consider.

Akane laid her daughter down for a nap, gently admonishing the child to stay in bed. Even if she wasn’t sleepy, she could rest. Yes, she was welcome to look at her books, but she had to stay in bed. No, stay in bed. Rest. By the time she left the room, Akane herself was considering a nap.

Instead, she made her way across the estate to the small, quaint house on the outer edge of the property. The building had a long porch, but only two rooms. It was traditional in the extreme. They had to convince the resident to allow running water and electricity. It would have been a mistake to call him eccentric. Interesting was kinder. Unpredictable was safer.

Akane climbed the few stairs, staying one step below the porch. She knocked on a wood pillar and called out, “Jun?”

She didn’t hear his footsteps on the polished wood floors, or see his shadow behind the shoji screens. She only saw the door slide open, and then he was there. He wore a warm smile and his impossibly dark eyes gleamed with welcome. Short, trimmed black hair did little to hide the thin scar that ran from left temple to right jaw. That story was whispered that in his younger days, Jun had crossed swords with an opponent who switched from right to left hand mid-fight. Once, she had asked why he didn’t have it removed. He had smiled and said it was an old friend who reminded him to stay humble.

Akane didn’t know much about his humility, but she knew he had been with Hideyoshi since they were young boys. She didn’t know exactly what he did for House Kanto, but she was wise enough to admit that was because she didn’t want to. She trusted him with her husband’s life, with her daughter’s life. Even with her own life. She just wasn’t overly comfortable around him. Now, though, she needed his experience.

“Akane-san! How wonderful to see you. Would you come in?”

“Ahhhh, no. Thank you. I will feel better moving.”

“You are anxious.”

“I am concerned.”

He nodded and dropped onto the stairs as she moved away. One leg stretched out, the other drew up so he could lean both arms on his knee and focus on her, “Tell me.”

And so she did. All of it. The bottle, the fish. The things she herself had noticed since Amari’s birth, but was too close to actually see. She paused often and chewed her bottom lip raw. She knew what it had been to grow up with something so intensely different about you. Fortunately, her own mother understood her Gift, even if her father didn’t and died with the word “majo” on his lips. Witch. Amari would grow up loved and encouraged, but they had to know what they were dealing with.

“Predictive reflexes.”

Akane shook her head, “I’m sorry?”

“That’s what we call it in training courses. Someone who is so good, so tuned in to their environment, so absolutely aware of their own body that they seem to respond before an action occurs.” She started to speak and he held up a hand, “No, I know. Amari is too young and what you are describing is not quite that. But it’s close. Your Gift has been passed along to her, but not as expected. A little too much of her father, it seems. Monks of old would enter a sort of meditative state and achieve something close to what she displays, as if they were vibrating with the universe. Again, not exactly right. But close.”

“This isn’t making me feel any better.”

Jun smiled and bowed his head in recognition of maternal worry, “I do not see any danger, Akane-san. Quite the opposite. This altered Gift will serve her well, especially if she is trained to respond to it without being made aware of it.”

“Not aware? But why? That makes no sense.”

“She is a warrior born. She will live and breathe and move by instinct. If you teach her to wait for a sign or question her reflexes, she will be handicapped. You have learned to move through your world without thought. Allow her the same. There is research I can do for you. A variety of texts that speak tangentially of such skills. They may help you understand her better.”

Akane wanted to bristle at the idea that she needed lessons in understanding her child. But she heard the wisdom in his words as well and nodded. She was both thoughtful and relieved on her walk home.