November 5, Yondaime Year 5
The wooden box of wagashi Ginta carried was deceptively plain on the outside, made of an unstained light wood that dented easily. Inside were an assortment of elaborate confectionary creations—chestnut paste buns shaped into shiny whole chestnuts, near-translucent muscat grape jellied sweets rolled in coarse sugar, delicate pressed-bean-paste cart wheels, crumbly sugar chrysanthemums with every petal delicately shaded from base to tip—a fitting accompaniment for the bitter tea he’d be sharing with his teacher soon. The box swung in a silk chirimen furoshiki, dangling from one seemingly careless hand when he stopped at the compound gate.
From this side, like his box of sweets, it was deceptively plain. Unpainted, weathered wood planks formed the walls around the estate with doors that were almost seamlessly contiguous. Only the slatted balustrades at their tops gave them away. A simple wooden name plate hung on the right side, with the carved characters picked out in bright red lacquer: Yuuhi.
Ginta didn’t bother checking his watch; he was there early on purpose. He touched his hand to the left of the gate, dark and polished where hundreds of hands had touched before. Chakra tingled through his palm like a question, Who are you? He answered it with a brief flash of his own chakra, It’s me, I am invited. The door sprang silently open, just a few centimeters. He pushed, and it swung freely, perfectly balanced, hinges perfectly oiled.
The Yuuhi gardens were as beautiful in this border season to winter as they were at the lush peak of spring. A few slender maples still held their scarlet foliage. More orange and red leaves littered the paths and raked stone seas, artfully haphazard. An island of moss rose from one of the stony regions. Chrysanthemums thrust elaborate heads of gold, white, and purple above serrated green leaves at the base of an ancient camphor tree so broad and thick it had to be at least five hundred years old. Old enough to have manifested a spirit of its own, if you believed that sort of thing.
Ginta didn’t, but he did believe in the serenity that standing next to something so rooted and alive could bring. Every living thing, even plants and trees, held chakra. It was how the first Hokage had been able to create the massive forests surrounding Konoha. On this misty November afternoon it felt just a little easier to breathe, standing under the twisting branches and rich evergreen leaves.
He gave himself eight minutes to walk the paths that didn’t lead to Benihime’s garden-maze of terrors, just taking in the beauty of the place. It wasn’t dissimilar to the Sakamoto estate’s gardens, in terms of overall aesthetic, but you would never mistake one for the other. Here there were camphor and pines, groves of bamboo, rivers of pale white pebbles with stepping stones of slate. At home there were cypress and willows, with streams and ponds full of bright koi, crossed by multiple arching bridges. Both were fire-bright with multicolored maples, and would be candy-colored in the spring when the plums and cherries bloomed.
Both were home to dozens of family and staff. Here the household staff wore soft greenish-grey. A maid with an armful of freshly laundered bed linens emerged from the side of the wash house and stopped to give Ginta a curious look. He waved and smiled. She waved and nodded, and kept going. He wasn’t out of place, dressed in a violet-blue woolen kimono and light haori with koi leaping around the hem, and the Sakamoto mon on each shoulder. He could have disguised himself with a henge or tried to hide in the leaf-shadows, but in the heart of the Meikougan-holders’ home, employing a genjutsu was as foolish as walking naked into battle.
If he weren’t sure Kurenai would be here any minute, he would have called the maid over. But Kurenai would be here, he was confident, because she’d said she’d be, when he’d asked her to arrange this pre-tea encounter with her cousin Yuuhi Chikao. Chikao had been a guest at Ginta’s grandfather’s most recent Tea-Appreciation Society meeting with Shimura Danzou. Along with Hyuuga Hakaku, Akimichi Kunikada and Nakamura Yuuzou. And that was interesting. Very interesting.
Very much worth digging into.
She’d said she’d meet him at the turtle lantern, a heavy bronze pillar supported at the base by a ring of stalwart bronze turtles, each with their heads rubbed shiny by generations of Yuuhi children. It had the benefit of being tucked behind a screen of evergreens, out of sight of the Yuuhi dwellings. He headed towards it—not directly, of course.
Kurenai was there, dressed for the chill, though not as formally as Ginta, in a body-skimming burgundy sweater dress that ended above the knee, and a pair of heeled boots that made her just a bit taller than Ginta. Next to her, with his back to Ginta, stood a tall, dark-haired man in uniform, though he’d swapped out the usual inky-blue uniform shirt for a dark red one that echoed the red spiral on the back of his vest.
The man had all the hallmarks of an active duty, high-level ninja—sharply defined muscles, light-on-the-feet stance for quick mobility, chakra as glossily well-ordered as Ginta’s own. Unsurprising that he was someone Danzou might be interested in recruiting.
Ginta let his own chakra presence grow slowly, so as not to startle anyone, and approached with a grin. “Kurenai-san! Yuuhi-san! I mean I presume Yuuhi-san. I suppose I shouldn’t jump to conclusions but—ah, I see I was right.” Chikao had naturally turned at the interruption, and his scarlet eyes were a dead give-away to his heritage.
“Sakamoto-san,” Kurenai said, with a polite dip of the head. “One of Grandmother’s old students,” she explained to Chikao. “We studied together years ago. Ginta, this is my cousin Chikao.”
Chikao took that in with a grunt and a stiffer nod. “Gousuke-san’s grandson? Or a branch line?” he asked.
Interesting guess, given that Ginta’s cousins outnumbered him considerably. Maybe his grandfather had mentioned him. Or maybe it was the fact that Ginta had studied with the illustrious Benihime-sama. That bespoke a status that perhaps only a direct descendent would be privileged to.
Ginta filed that under ‘things to investigate further’ while he returned the bow, following it with a bright smile. “The former, how did you guess? Sakamoto Ginta. Delighted to meet you.”
“I had the privilege of tea with your grandfather a few days ago,” Chikao said. “A distinguished man. He must have been exceptional in his prime.” He studied Ginta a moment longer, red gaze almost unnerving, if Ginta hadn’t spent countless hours under Benihime’s critical scarlet scrutiny.
Ginta studied back. Chikao was a few years older than he, with one or two silver hairs threaded through the black, and the beginnings of creases under his eyes. But still very much in his prime.
“He mentioned his grandson was a skilled genjutsu user,” Chikao said. “An unusual specialization for your clan, isn’t it? No wonder you had to seek training from Yuuhi.”
“That’s absolutely true,” he said. “I mastered my clan’s ninjutsu, too, of course, but it was your own esteemed grandmother—or great aunt?—who taught me higher level genjutsu. I apprenticed to her when I was thirteen. That’s how I met Kurenai-chan. She was adorably obnoxious back then, with giant new front teeth. I liked her immediately.”
“Fortunately I grew into them,” Kurenai told them with a sweetly edged smile. “While some of us failed to do any more growing at all.”
“Ouch,” Ginta said with a light laugh.
“Are you here to visit Grandmother, Sakamoto-san?” Kurenai pressed, ignoring the invitation to demonstrate their camaraderie. Her eyes held a warning—get to the point. Well, she had agreed to arrange this meeting without an explanation. He supposed he owed her a concession or two.
“I am,” Ginta said, holding up his cloth-wrapped box. “She invited me for Tori-no-Ichi tea, so I brought sweets. I’m sure she’d be pleased if you joined us, but first, I have to ask, since your cousin dropped such an interesting tidbit—what did Grandfather say? I hope it was all praise.”
Chikao snorted, more cool than genuinely amused. “Fishing for compliments does sound like the grandson he described.” Oof. “But I don’t suppose my grandmother would train a fool. And if your grandfather is waiting for you to grow up and stop sowing your wild oats, he must see some merit worth cultivating.”
Ginta let his eyes grow wide. “I’m glad to see Grandfather maintains a decorous humility about his own family. I haven’t seen any signs that age has begun to take a toll on his manners, but it’s nice to have that confirmed.” He smiled, cooler this time, to match Chikao’s reserve. “Are you a tea-lover then, Yuuhi-san? Or perhaps you share Grandfather’s interest in koi. He always says breeding for the best traits is more art than science.”
Kurenai’s very subtle smile could have been approval or warning—Ginta was sure she’d elaborate later. Chikao’s eyes narrowed under heavy brows as he deciphered Ginta’s words. Not a fool, then. Ginta prepared to parry the next verbal barb, but unexpectedly, Chikao’s expression lightened, and he clapped Ginta on the shoulder. “Perhaps he won’t have long to wait after all,” he said, with mingled condescension and approval.
No wonder Grandfather had entertained him—Yuuhi Chikao was clearly a Clan man to the bones.
“I can’t claim any interest in koi,” he continued. “They swim around looking pretty, that’s all. But any well-educated man should know how to appreciate tea.”
“Certainly,” Ginta agreed. He tipped his head in the hidden direction of Benihime’s sacred tea retreat. “My grandfather and your grandmother both have made sure to educate me in the way of tea. Speaking of whom, I should not be tardy. It was such a pleasure to meet you, Yuuhi-san. Shall I bring Grandfather your greetings?”
Assuming tea was still the official double entendre for ‘reactionary thinking’, that ought to at least set a small hook. Something that would get back to Gousuke if Chikao were continuing in his circle. And could just as easily and deniably be an innocent comment on brewed dried leaves.
Chikao gave another condescending, approving nod. “Please do. Perhaps I’ll see you again at one of his gatherings. You’ll escort Sakamoto-san up to the pavilion, cousin?”
“Of course,” Kurenai said. She inclined her head at Ginta, encouraging him to follow. “This way, Sakamoto-san.”
They were well into the Nightmare Grove, navigating through layered illusions they were both long familiar with, before Ginta said, “Which one of us was that parting shot supposed to hit? He’s saddled you with caretaking the visiting idiot, and strongly insinuated I couldn’t find my way out of a proverbial paper sack with a genin’s genjutsu on it. So maybe both?”
“He’d have said that about anyone outside the family,” she said with a dismissive wrist snap. “Though it’s probably wise not to let you go rummaging around the estate without an escort. What are you up to?”
“Bringing tea sweets to Benihime-sama,” Ginta said with perfect innocence. “I did mention that.” When her eyes shaded maroon under lowered brows, he flicked his hands through seals to create a somewhat more elaborate than probably necessary aura of silence around them. “Have I told you about my grandfather’s ‘Tea Appreciation’ meetings? He and Shimura Danzou-san host them together. The invitees have been very interesting. I’ve only been able to eavesdrop on one or two, but they haven’t been confining themselves to the subject of tea.”
The sharpness in Kurenai’s gaze shaded from irritation to suspicious intrigue. She’d recognized the jutsu, as intended, and recognized its implications. “Sakamoto Gousuke, Shimura Danzou, and a bunch of ‘well-educated men’ like my cousin Chikao? If they are like Chikao… Competent but not brilliant jounin, always griping about that promotion they deserve but haven’t yet gotten? Chikao should’ve been a jounin commander by now. As he reminds us frequently.”
“Exactly that sort,” Ginta said. It was a relief to have a smart friend like Kurenai, who got it immediately. He could skip the boring parts and jump to speculation, knowing she’d follow his lead, and find the traps he missed. She probably needed a little more background, though.
“They’ve held four or five meetings now. The first one had only one invitee: Shibata Tomohiro. That set my teeth on edge. I didn’t know his politics, but I know he’s a legacy from Sandaime’s day, and given his position…”
He flicked a glance at Kurenai, who made a small, agreeing sound.
“So I decided to clean the leaves under the teahouse, as a favor to grandmother, who’d been annoyed with the gardener leaving them there. They mostly reminisced about the war. It wasn’t so much what they said, as it was the way they were clearly recruiting Shibata. Nothing specific.”
“And now they’re recruiting more,” Kurenai said.
“And now they’re recruiting more.” The weight of the thing they were accusing the two Village Council Members of sat between them, pulling in the air around it.
“You’ve reported this, I assume.”
“When I found out about Shibata’s invitation, I started working with Hatake on an electric jutsu. He passed a message to his teacher, and we arranged a meeting, which ended up taking place at the Hokage’s residence instead of his office. Interestingly, Jiraiya-sama and Hatake were both there. So I reported on what I’d heard under the tea house, with an unexpected audience. Jiraiya-sama was pissed, but Minato-sama said he knew about the situation already, as Shibata had informed him days ago. So…” He shrugged. “Turns out it wasn’t actually necessary for me to clean up those leaves. But it did give me the opportunity to have a frank conversation with the Hokage about where my loyalties lie.”
She looked at him, brows raised. “Your loyalties? Because you’d come in to levy an accusation against one of the Hokage’s closest advisors?”
“Because it’s never a given that a clan ninja will serve the village before his family, no matter what oaths he swears.” Ginta tapped his right hand against one of the Sakamoto crests—a five-petaled blossom within an eight-pointed star—on his chest, then the hidden ANBU tattoo on his left arm. “Minato-sama asked if I was willing to betray my family. I told him I was doing this to save my family. The way is forward, not back.”
Kurenai was silent for several moments, looking up the hill as her grandmother’s pavilion came into view through leafless plum trees. “So you’ve been spying on your grandfather. And now my cousin is entangling himself in this. Probably very proud of himself for getting invited, too; he must think he’s finally getting the recognition he’s due… It won’t be hard to get him to talk.” Her bleak expression spoke volumes.
She stopped walking, turning to face Ginta. “You say they’ve met four or five times now. Has Shibata-san attended all of those meetings? How many of them have you managed to overhear? I must assume, if you’re pursuing Chikao, that you still think there’s danger.”
“Wouldn’t you?” Ginta asked. “I spied on one more meeting, which Shibata didn’t attend, and he’s been at two others, from what I’ve heard from the house staff. They were still talking generalities at the one I listened in on, finding ‘right-minded people who want to see the village prosper as it should’, or some bullshit like that. But there was definitely a ‘bring your friends next time’ vibe. I think the situation is getting more dangerous.
“When they reached out to Shibata, it was just a feeler, but he played right into their hands. The man is good. He had me fooled. And now they’re recruiting people like your cousin. I don’t think they have an actual plan yet. Not enough of a cohort. But what happens when they get, say, a substantial portion of the Uchiha on their side?”
“Shimura Danzou and Uchiha Fugaku are practically at each others’ throats during Village Council meetings, from what I’ve heard,” Kurenai said. “But if your grandfather bridges the gap… Even the Uchiha clan elders respect Sakamoto Gousuke, the Shodai’s left hand.”
She stood as still as the stone lantern next to her. Not even her eyes were moving, but Ginta could see her thinking.
“Most of the Uchiha are on good terms with most of the Yuuhi,” she said, breaking her reverie with a deep breath. “We have distant cousins in each others’ estates. If Chikao talks to more of my fool cousins, and they talk to their friends…”
Ginta grimaced. “How many of your cousins would you consider subornable?” he asked. “There’s definitely an age range the ‘Tea Society’ is looking at. Shinobi who fought in the last war at high chuunin or jounin rank. Old enough to have been invested in who Sandaime named as his successor. I’m probably a little on the young side for their tastes, but I’d be in range. You’re definitely too young. They don’t want anyone they think has been brainwashed into the ‘Cult of Minato’.”
“The ‘Cult of Minato’? Really?” Her scarlet-painted lips twisted in disdain. “Let me guess, it’s all complaints about how he promotes clanless nobodies above their betters, all the changes he’s made from the way things used to be run back in the ‘good old days.’”
“Good guess,” Ginta said. “All butt-sore because they think they deserve something more than just living in a peaceful and prosperous village.”
“The jounin corps supported Minato’s appointment because they wanted change,” Kurenai continued. “But there’s always reactionaries. I can think of… three more of my cousins—not including Chikao—who’d say that when a Yuuhi or an Uchiha or Hyuuga speaks in the jounin lounge, the clanless should listen.”
Ginta rolled his eyes. “I have a few cousins like that, too. Except of course they think that when a Sakamoto speaks, everyone should listen.”
Kurenai raised a hand in front of her chest. “Not that I think any of my cousins would support seditious talk about regime change, if that’s your true concern. Everyone knows what happened at Hikouto this spring, and why. But they might argue for the Village Council to take a greater role in military affairs, or even the devolution of some powers the Hokage’s office holds.”
“Because everyone also knows what’s happening in Mist right now,” Ginta agreed. “A despotic Kage is as bad as a weak one. I don’t think Danzou or my grandfather would try for a wholesale coup. Just, as you say, a rebalancing of power to put a lot more of it in the Council’s hands. And some careful obfuscation to hide how dangerous a despotic Village Council might be.”
“Well, the Hokage knows,” Kurenai said. “Shibata is observing what he can, as are you. And I’ll observe my cousins, as much as I can. I could ask Yamanaka Susuki and Hyuuga Momoe to keep an ear to the ground in their homes, as well, just in case this spreads.”
Ginta nodded. “Momoe is Branch house Hyuuga, isn’t she? I’ll see who I can recruit in the Main house, too. Seems like disgruntled Branch members would be ripe pickings for the Tea Society, so she might hear more. But if Main house isn’t on board, and things were to go balls up, they wouldn’t hesitate to wholesale activate those curse seals and put their cousins down.” He thought a moment. “If Grandfather and Danzou haven’t already recruited Hiashi-san, they will. Or at least try.”
“I imagine anyone who has a strong voice on the Council may be a target,” Kurenai said. “Yuuhi is out of the rotation this year, since the number of clan representatives was reduced. That may be another of the things Chikao hopes to change.” Her lips pressed thin. “I’ll speak to him. Soon.”
“I know you’ll be careful,” Ginta said, “But please be careful. We as much as told him we’re friends, and I don’t want to put a target on your back if things go… Well, if things go.”
Gently, Kurenai said, “I’m Intel, Ginta. I know.” She added, with a flicker of a proud smirk, “And for all that Chikao talks of Yuuhi pride, I’m Benihime’s genjutsu heir.” Her gaze tracked back up the hill, to the elegantly timbered little tea hut and the pond that reflected it. “An heir who will very shortly be chastised for delaying her guest. Shall we go?”
“I’ll take the blame. Think she’ll believe us if I tell her I got so distracted by the foliage that I forgot my way in the Nightmare Grove, and you had to rescue me?”
Kurenai’s head-shaking laugh was sufficient answer.
“Well how about this: I had to queue for the tea sweets? Then she can just chastise me for not planning ahead. Or for not sending one of the house staff to get them for me.”
He didn’t wait for an answer to that suggestion, either, because a much more important question presented itself. “Do we tell her about any of this?”
Kurenai hesitated for a long momentum, contemplating the tea pavilion. Then she turned and tucked her chin down, head close to Ginta’s to murmur, “No. Grandmother… was not pleased to lose that seat on the Council, either.”
“Of course she wasn’t,” Ginta said. “I should have recalled that.” He took a step away from Kurenai, broke the silencing jutsu, and gave her a bright smile. “I think I’ve confessed my love for you in secrecy as much as I planned to, today. I know you’re disappointed it wasn’t a marriage proposal, but I’m sure you’ll get over it.”
“Just as I’m sure you’ll weather the disappointment of your rejection,” Kurenai returned, with an arch look down her nose. “I have far too much on my calendar; I really don’t think I could fit you in anyway. Though perhaps tea next week? You can tell me about any new varieties you’ve discovered.”
“Yes to a tea date, if it’s the only kind of date I can get with you,” Ginta said. He tipped his head up, studying the lacy weave of bare branches overhead, and the scudding grey clouds behind them. “Maybe we can start a young people’s tea appreciation society of our own. We have one mutual friend who’s already expressed his fondness for our sort of tea, because he’s well-bred even if he pretends not to be. Let me know if you think of others. I’ll see what interesting tea leaves I can scare up for us.”