<center>NINE YEARS PASS </center>
"Yoakimu," Imai-sama began. "I have a request of you." Joachim tilted his head curiously, since a 'request' from the head of his family seldom meant anything less than an order. It meant a task from the clan leader, which meant something important was happening. "You know that not everything we do can be done openly." Joachim nodded. "Just as we perform services for Emperor Takahashi that he cannot be seen to handle himself, so must we occasionally protect our good name from the necessary work of protecting this empire. You understand."
Joachim did, though he liked what he was hearing less and less as Imai went on.
"We have been on strained terms with the Kasai clan for some time now, as such traitorous dogs cannot be permitted to live a day without the eyes of the Emperor upon them. They resent us, of course, for our loyalty to Takahashi is beyond question, and he knows it. Accordingly, we are awarded privileges not permitted to those who have not proven the unshakeability of their love for the Takahashi house."
Imai was gloating again, but Joachim supposed he had little else to boast about. "And we have caught a Kasai spy. In accordance with the wishes of the Emperor, all intelligence gained from such agents must be brought to his officials. But I do not want to bother them until I am sure we have something to share, you see?" He spread his hands innocently, but Joachim knew that Imai-sama was likely trying to leverage this intelligence for all it was worth before playing his role of dutiful servant to the Emperor.
Joachim nodded once more, allowing Imai to continue speaking. Frequently his elders and betters explained themselves to him as though he were a child, something that Imai ought to have been aware of considering how often he had accompanied Nashi, in hopes that Imai enemies would do the very same.
"We are keeping this prisoner under guard until we can extract what information was gained from the Takahashi archives." Joachim blinked. Their archives? Who was this person? Were they dealing with someone so cunning? "We will conduct the interrogation, but the spy cannot be kept hooded and blind at all times. On other occasions, you are to be her attendant. You will not answer any of her questions, pose any of your own, or speak to her at all beyond the absolute necessity of performing your duties. In this way we will remain unassociated."
That went without explanation. Joachim was no one, and if the only face this spy saw belonged to a human vassal, what did that teach her? No matter how canny she was, she could learn little from a house's choice of servants. "Do you understand, Yoakimu-kun?"
Joachim frowned. He wasn't certain he much liked this. He knew that the Imai clan was involved in gambling, smuggling, and some questionable business practices. But they were his family, and what could he say? But this keeping of prisoners did not sit right. When had this become a war? And when had Joachim become a jailer?
"I asked if you understand."
But then again... better Joachim than one of the Imai boys, right? He knew them well, and imagining them with that kind of power over another living creature chilled Joachim's blood.
"Yes. I understand, Imai-sama." He bowed, touching his head to his hands on the floor.
Joachim's first impression of the prisoner was that she was brown. Beneath the dust and dried blood, her fur was the pale golden brown of rolled tobacco. One ear was ripped and ragged along its outer edge, a marker of some old battle, no doubt. The ear and her darting orange eyes gave the spy a cocky and rakish air that Joachim found he rather liked. It was too bad he wasn't allowed to talk to her. He found the whole notion of espionage to be a rather alien and glamorous life, for all that it had landed this Nekojin in the cold stone basement of an unnamed enemy.
"Good afternoon," he said to her, unsure how to begin this odd stewardship that had been thrust upon him.
"So it is afternoon then?" she asked bitterly.
Well, that was awkward. What was he supposed to say to that? "...Yes. I am to care for you while you are here. I brought food."
"Why are you here?" Her eyes went slanted and distant for a moment as she sifted through probable explanations for the presence of a human. "What faction are you? Asharian? White Roses?"
"I'm sorry. I cannot tell you those things. But I brought food. Have they fed you?"
"No," she answered warily.
"Well, you should have some," he instructed, feeling rather like he was attempting to convince a belligerent two year old to eat with the rest of the family. "I have rice, and some water."
She snorted. "Oh, what luxury."
This was rapidly becoming annoying. He could understand that she was not in a friendly frame of mind, and perhaps in her position Joachim would feel the same way. But damn it all if he wasn't going to do his job. "Listen. You eat this. If you need anything, you will get it from me. If you cooperate with me, maybe the others will go easier on you."
The prisoner laughed, a sound that was not so much bitter as astonished at his naÃ¯vetÃ©. "Oh, come on. It's a matter of time before they start playing rough, and no good word from some human servant is going to do me a damn bit of good."
Joachim was flummoxed by this. Because it was true, and he'd just been hoping he wouldn't have to think about it. "Well, I won't touch you. I just want to see you get fed, okay?"
She answered with a sigh. "Fine."
It was a week later that he learned her name. Perhaps it wasn't her real name, and perhaps she'd only been testing him to see the extent of his thorough reporting back to his masters. But at least he had something to call her. Muika. Kasai Muika.