by C. Thomas Hand
Edited by Fred Wan
THE TALE OF THE SECRET HEART
(The Devil Chaser chants and dances around the stage. His body moves in the ancient rhythms and his heavy mask bounces. Seppun Asagako becomes visibly nervous and there is a high scream from somewhere off stage.)
SEPPUN ASAGAKO: “We must leave. Now, Miaka-sama!” (Asagako shudders and moves far from the dancing Devil Chaser.)
PRINCESS MIAKA: “But I do not wish to go.” (Miaka scowls at the yojimbo when the Seppun lays hands upon her form. Her voice is sweet.)
(A momentary pause. Asagako looks left, then right, as if trying to find escape. She yanks the Imperial Princess forward. Light from off-stage grows dim and shaky to enhance the chaos of the scene.)
SEPPUN ASAGAKO: “We must go NOW!” (Eyes wide and frantic, an animal seeking freedom.)
Yasuki Keirohime paused for a moment, wondering if she should specify which animal. A hare seemed not to fit. “Too frightened.” A wary fox, perhaps? As she considered the matter, two voices at a table nearby drew her attention. She did not look their way, for in unsavory house, sake people did not take well to being noticed.
“You think she is still really a child? After the recent rumors from court? Not I, my friend!” A merchant bearing the seal of his patron Miya shook his head. “No sir, mark me, but that little girl is no child.”
“And what you believe she is, then? A demon? A creature from beyond this realm? You really think the Empress would allow something foul to sit upon her throne?” The second speaker was a woman, a low-ranking but ambitious Otomo. Keirohime recognized her as one of the information gatherers of that family and knew the Otomo’s career to be doomed. The family would never allow one so easily identified to rise as high as this one desired.
“They say she is multiple spirits housed in one form. They say she returned to this realm to watch over the Rebirth of Shinjo herself! They say - ”
“They say many things my friend, but you would do well not to repeat them all.”
Keirohime chuckled. The final days of court were upon them and the gossips would grasp at anything. She took a sip from her tea and looked at her notes. A tiny scribble of a kanji at the bottom of the page made her smile.
“To my future bride. May your words flow free.” – Agasha Kyokuta
The words did flow freely. In just a few short days Keirohime had created an entire play. Her first! And as far as she knew it would be the first play to represent Iweko Miaka, the beautiful Princess, her Iron Blossom.
Keirohime skimmed over the sections left for Miaka to speak. She would come back to those later. They would require the most detail. They must be perfect.
(The revealed oni scowls. The sack of skin that was once Seppun Asagako hangs down like a curtain from its broad and massive back. The Oni towers above the stage, mere inches from the face of Princess Miaka as it screams.)
KOMMEI NO ONI: “HOW?!” (Its voice is high and screeching.) “HOW DO MORTALS EVEN REMEMBER THAT PRAYER?!”
(The broken bodies of 8 wooden puppets – Seppun Miharu – lay scattered about the stage. To the side, Seppun Teshan looks with a face painted for terror and anguish.)
A few quick notes are scribbled and the Yasuki moves further down the page.
(A huge origami bat slaps into the oni’s face, distracting it. While the controllers of its multiple arms flail them wildly, other samurai step onto the stage in full armor and regalia. An arrow erupts from the beast’s flesh as if fired upon by Tsuruchi Kinuyo, off-stage. Actors dressed as Seppun Kyosuta and Bayushi Norimasa leap forward to assault the demon.)
SEPPUN TESHAN: “No! You shall kill no more this day! I unleash the Blood upon you, foul beast!” (Teshan meddles with some heavy box, Yasuki Tono uncorks a vial of what appears to be writing ink and throws it in the demon’s face.)
KOMMEI NO ONI: “GAH! Pestering creatures!” (The voice has grown desperate and off-stage thudding sounds to mimic a dozen boots grow closer.)
(Bayushi Atsuto wielding a mock Kaiu blade and Moshi Durocho carrying a heavy stick each fall in around the demon. Behind it, Otomo Hisoka lifts one of the swords from a fallen Seppun and holds it firm.)
A heavy thud at the edge of the table snapped Keirohime out of her writing once more. A pillow book bound in wooden slats lay in the middle of her work. She recognized it at once by the markings on the cover. When she looked up at the man standing before her, she knew immediately why he was here.
Bayushi Karyudo leaned against the table and examined her writing with unabashed interest. Keirohime examined him in return. A loose, but heavy kimono hung over his athletic form, the body of a duelist, not a brawler, she thought with an inward smile. The mon of the Bayushi upon one arm, the Kakita on the other. His skin was tanned, even in this later winter period, from time spent out of doors. It glinted in the lantern light as if oiled.
Perhaps it was?
He looked up and she matched his gaze. The missing eye did little to detract from his appearance – even less since Keirohime knew he lost it saving a young Crane from a bandit’s arrow. He had a gentle face, but the lips quirked upward in a clever, knowing smile. Rakish, she thought. Beautiful.
“Already working on a second book?” Karyudo’s smile widened, but did not reach his eye. “Will this one glorify the Crab as well?”
Yasuki Keirohime set down her quill and leaned back to gather herself. It was disconcerting trying to form an argument in the face of such a face. He moved with liquid grace to sit before her and she could smell a hint of sandalwood. Before she could speak, Karyudo held up a hand.
“The Tale of the Secret Heart is a popular pillow book this court and only written in the last few weeks. I applaud your talent, Keiro-chan. I do have to wonder at your purpose.” Keirohime watched his slender fingers arch over the cover of the book. “It is clear to anyone who reads this material and who was in this court what hero this describes. And who wrote it.”
“I would hope so. It was my intent to show the effort put forth by, not one man, but an entire clan. They deserve the recognition.” Keirohime challenged.
“I have no doubt. It suggests that this “Secret Heart” went to great lengths to win the heart and affection of the Imperial Princess. This man, this Hiruma,” Karyudo winked, a disturbing gesture with the patch on the other eye, “he tried so hard to win. But you know what?”
“What?” Keirohime said. You will not intimidate me.
“No one won. Now, you might say that because I am her betrothed that is a lie. But I counter, gentle Yasuki, that even I did not win her hand.” Karyudo leaned even closer, his voice smooth as silk upon the naked form. “I earned it.”
Abruptly, Karyudo rose. “I came to tell you there are no hard feelings. I want you to continue your publication of this heroic story. It will grow in the telling and in time the reality will fade away. In its place, people will think ‘who but to Karyudo could this story refer?’ ‘Who could have put in this much work if not the winner of the Princess’s hand?’”
Karyudo smiled at Keirohime’s incredulous look. “Your words only increase my glory, Yasuki-san.”
“You do not deserve her.” The words flew from her lips before she could think. One day, this man would be married to her muse, her Miaka. Even as she regretted her statement, Keirohime refused to take it back. Her body became like steel, her chin tilted upward.
Bayushi Karyudo chuckled. “I have no doubt. But I will. I will work every day to improve myself. I will take this meager soul and fashion it into something more and even then, when I fail to achieve the standards of worth for my love, I will continue to strive. And you will be there, oh yes!” Karyudo’s grin revealed every last white tooth. “I am going to ensure you are kept on in my lady’s entourage. Even when she becomes Bayushi Miaka and we venture home to Scorpion lands, Yasuki Keirohime, Scribe of the Imperial Princess, shall journey with us.”
“But…why? I am to be married into the Agasha.” Despite the minor protest, Keirohime’s heart flared with joy. I will stay close to her? To chronicle the most important soul in the land?
“Yes, well, the Agasha will come too, I guess.” Karyudo picked up the pillow book. “You are one of the few in this world I trust to perceive the true feelings of my Miaka. You, above all, will ensure that the story of our tale, of our great love is laid down with a perceptive eye, for I know you love her almost as true as I.”
The Scorpion turned to leave, but stopped. He reached into his loose-flowing kimono, chest glinting in the light, and produced an inkwell sealed shut with wax. Next, he lay down a thin pair of gloves. “I almost forgot. Bayushi Geboku, our Ambassador and Lord Nitoshi’s personal…ink master. He wished you to have this to write the future of my story. He suggested that you not handle the ink without the gloves in its liquid form.”
Keirohime eyed the bottle for long minutes pondering Karyudo’s words. Then, she took a deep breath, shook away the encounter and began work on her play with renewed vigor. She would be close to Miaka once more! The true light of heaven would guide her way.
Fire and Honor
Ikoma Aimi contemplated the burned husk of the building. Frigid wind bit through layers of heavy brown and yellow silk. Anxious carpenters moved around the Lion, granting her wide berth. Aimi admired their determination. The obedient drive they felt to restore the ruins could not be weakened by the potential to insult some unknown Lion. They knew their duty. They performed it well.
“Would that we all could say the same.” Aimi’s lips pursed with annoyance and her island of solitude grew wider. With a sigh, she stepped off the smooth stones into the powdery snow. She would not allow her reflection and pity to slow the workers.
She stopped at the edge of a pond fed by a winding stream. Where water moved around the rocks ice edged outward as if growing from the stone. Where the water ceased its flow and collected in the pond, it froze. An opaque sheet fogged the view of fat koi. The gardeners had cultivated small holes to feed the contented fish. Aimi idly wondered how long they would survive without such effort. How long would anyone survive without the work of others?
We all have our place and yours is not to ponder how to kill fish. You are Omoidasu and you came here with a purpose. Fulfill it!
Aimi hefted the wooden plaque in her hand, enjoying its weight. It was the weight of work. At her feet the snow soaked through her tabi socks and numbed her feet. It was painful, but she welcomed the discomfort. The cold numbed her nerves, raw with experience and expression of emotion. She was a bard, willing and able to project the sorrow and joy of others. Her training taught her how to shape those feelings like clay and mold them into living art. But when emotion was so personal, the sculptor’s hands faltered. The work suffered.
“You will ruin expensive clothes.”
Aimi turned without thinking, her free hand closed into a tight fist. On the path, in the very spot she had vacated, stood a Spider. Handsome and muscular, Daigotsu Atsushi struck a relaxed pose, hand resting at the end of his sword. Aimi was tall and their eyes met evenly across the distance. She saw Atsushi recognize the thin film of moisture around her eyes, open his mouth as if to speak, and instead close it with a click of teeth.
“Why do you stand in the snow?”
“Unlike some, I take little joy in hindering others. I trade discomfort for the knowledge that my actions will not cause one of these poor workers to slow in their task at rebuilding.”
Atsushi seemed to realize just then that he was in the way, but did not move. He watched as two men carried the heavy, burned out scroll case around him. They had to trudge through thick snow one of them stumbled. In short order, they lifted the case again and carried on as if nothing happened.
“They seem capable enough at creating their own path.” Atsushi glanced down at the plaque Aimi held. “If you hoped to drop off some work of art or history, I think you might consider another library. This one has seen better days.”
Aimi felt a rush of adrenaline. She imagined herself leaping forward, fingers of iron driving into the Atsushi’s throat. She gestured expansively to the ruins and spoke with tight control.
“You make mockery of the final resting place of real samurai. Honorable men and women suffered here, died here, to rescue what they could. When the flames rose high and inferno roared all about them their honor, their courage held true. What did you do that night, Daigotsu?”
Daigotsu Atsushi gave the question full thought, then looked up to the bard with a hard smile.
Before Aimi could offer a biting retort, the Spider held up his hand. “Do not vent your fury at me, angry beast. I was far from here that night and could not come to help in time. Besides,” Atsushi glanced down to the plaque she held now like a cudgel, “I don’t think it’s me you are angry at anyway. There were…rumors. You had a certain fondness for the Crab who gave his life here.”
The memory wormed its way past her hate and Aimi remembered the long conversations, the polite, but heady and flirtatious banter. Both she and Yasuki Aitoko were married, but the bard never spoke with such openness to her husband. She suspected the same was true of the Crab and his wife. They had done nothing dishonorable, nothing to discredit either their spouses or their clans, but…it was a bond Ikoma Aimi knew she would never experience again.
“It was not a pleasant court for the Lion. Or the Yasuki. Kyoko and Aitoko dead. Keirohime as well as banished. To be honest, I am quite surprised Yasuki Tono made it through. Maybe next year.” Atsushi grinned in what Aimi knew he thought of as a lighthearted way, but the smile forced. Fake.
“You mock my loss and theirs, Spider. Tread lightly.”
Atsushi’s reply was intense and sharp, a violent whip cracking amid his calm. “You think I have not felt loss as well? Did I expect Yasuki Kyoko’s blade to strike so true? To bite so deep?” Atsushi took two steps into the snow to face the Lion. “A karmic strike no less, and a deadly blow. I began to understand the nature of mortality that day. You think I am a monster, Lion?”
Aimi turned and a flash of silver caught the Spider’s attention. A tiny flower hairpin, a gift from the Princess herself. “I share nothing with you. I know your history, the trail of bodies you have left behind you. I have heard the whisperings of the court. You are remorseless. You care about nothing but yourself.”
“Too true,” Atsushi’s placid demeanor returned and he looked back at the heimin working. “I did not say our loss was the same. Mine is introspective and personal, unrelated to the whims of the Fortune of Romantic Love. But you do not get to call me remorseless, Aimi-san. Of the two of us, only one gave away their child to the enemy.”
The bard’s eyes flashed wide, her teeth clenched tight. She had given up her only daughter to the Scorpion to appease them, for a tremendous faux pas. She had lost everything this court and the Spider was baiting her to lose more.
But she would not give up her honor. Not this day.
Daigotsu Atsushi watched as Ikoma Aimi moved through the snow. He glanced to the water, to the ice, and back to the burned out husk being rebuilt before him. An eerie similarity of thought flashed through his mind, as if he were connected to the Lion.
“We must keep moving. Or we will freeze.”
“Get away from me!” The body of Otomo Terumoto slapped the tray out of the servant’s hand. Porcelain cups shattered into the thick wooden slats of the wall.
“Fire, the world is fire and you are trying to burn me!” The voice was frantic, but it would not carry far. The Otomo daimyo’s son – no, now he was the Otomo daimyo – had been moved to a secure location far from prying eyes and eager ears. The servants here were loyal. More to the point, they were never allowed to leave.
“There is an ocean of spiders crawling from the depths, churning waves belching forth the death of us all!”
Otomo Demiyah made a calm gesture to the servant. “Leave us.” She moved over to her master-in-agony and replaced the damp cloth upon his head. Otomo Terumoto’s body radiated a palpable heat so she felt it through her kimono. His body, his mind, his very soul was on fire with pain.
Terumoto and his father, the venerable Otomo Taneji, had been found in the basement of a private Imperial house. She knew from reports the two were meeting to…settle differences of opinion. And then the demon came. From what Demiyah could gather, it had killed Taneji’s yojimbo and took his skin. Then, it had led the father and son below.
“The demon was a skinchanger, my lord. You could not have known.” Demiyah’s steel voice softened, encased in velvet. She tried to soothe her liege lord to no avail. Days had passed and only herself, a few trusted servants and guards, and certain shugenja had been allowed to see him.
“You are not corrupted. They assured me of that, my lord. Do you understand me?”
For the hundredth time Otomo Demiyah wished it would be over. Dead or healed, Otomo Terumoto would resolve many matters. In this state…he was a roadblock. She came down here each day to speak to him, to relay information of the court. She did not know if he could hear, but it was a way to pass the time in this maddening place.
“I do not even know if it is you in there, Terumoto-sama.” Seppun Teshan and others had told her the demon’s vile breath could pull the very soul from a body. It could force the swap of souls. “You could be lord Taneji. What would we do then, I wonder? Such an unnatural thing.”
Demiyah was certain he could not understand. She had grown bold over these past days talking as if to thin air. “The Empress has chosen Seiken, my lord. Already there are rumors of his plans for the Imperial Bureaucracy and we must prepare. You cannot wallow forever in this abdication of your duties.”
Terumoto screamed in pain and flailed about the bed. Sweat soaked through his clothing, the blankets, and even the tatami beneath him. Pain addled his mind and senses and he could not even tell where he was. Perhaps not even who he was?
“The so-called ‘Progressive Alliance’ is moving already. They backed the wrong brother, but I do not think them weak. The Crane seem to ready themselves for whatever retribution our new Emperor plans to unleash and our fate is linked to theirs. Wake up and help me deal with this matter.”
But he would not wake. Instead, fire and pain and screaming and sweat and broken porcelain cups filled the room. Demiyah grew tired of walking around the shards. She had considered more than once simply smothering the man.
“There is one saving grace. Lord Shibatsu is to be honored it seems. Something to do with the Spider, the Susumu, if rumors are not mistaken. We cannot yet be clear what will happen, but Lord Seiken will not simply marry him off to some backwater family. The love between the two is real.” Demiyah pondered this for days, but came to no further conclusions. Iweko Seiken kept his secrets close even from his most trusted advisers.
“You will find this part interesting, I think, if it is really Taneji in there, instead of Terumoto. The Boar have returned with the help of the Mantis. Tsuruchi Kinuyo played nakado and arranged for a hero of the Crab, Hida Tadama, to marry this Tochiko.”
“Blood! And Fire!”
“Yes. Blood and fire. That reminds me! Seppun Teshan has been punished for his failing. Investigation revealed just after the demon killed Seppun Asagako, it spoke to Teshan. The man told it secrets about its own suspected existence. He begged to fall upon his sword, but we convinced the Seppun lord otherwise. His sole remaining job will be to uncover a use for that…Blood.”
Otomo Terumoto writhed in agony and listened to the somber voice of his servant. She droned on and on about the court in the hopes that something, anything would pierce the fog of pain. She listened as he wailed and screamed and begged in a most improper fashion for death. She longed to give it to him, but knew it would leave the leadership of her family in question.
“Best to wait, I think.”
Days passed. A week, then two, and the end of the Court. Demiyah found herself slowly gaining control. Terumoto echoed the same strange fever dreams again and again. In these past few days he would whisper “Who am I? Who am I?” to no one in particular.
“Why, you are the Lord of the Otomo, son of a proud father, inheritor of the duty of our family. And you must awaken before the festivals are over or I will be forced to act.”
Perhaps it was Demiyah’s guiding voice which finally drew him out of the darkness and his insane reverie. Perhaps it was merely time. No matter the catalyst, one day, as Otomo Demiyah entered the darkness of his room, Otomo Terumoto was no longer flailing on the bed. Instead he stood, caked with dried salt of sweat, hair matted to his forehead.
“I want…to speak to…the Empress.” He whispered through pained vocal chords.
“Yes, my lord. Later, my lord. We must clean you first. You cannot go before the Throne in such a beleaguered state.” Demiyah saw to it he was bathed. Old clothing burned and new kimono brought forth with the mon of their family writhing upon his back. She could not tell which soul had risen up out of the darkness to claim the body of Otomo Terumoto. She did not care. It was over now.
For his part, when Otomo Terumoto looked into the shining surface of one of the strange gaijin mirrors he was uncertain as well. He remembered his father, or his father remembered him. Both voices spoke in his head, but he could not tell if one was spirit, or memory, or something else.
But Demiyah was right. It would have to wait.
He had an Empire to help run.
The Imperial Winter Court was over and reconstruction complete. Where once lay charred and sodden wood a small shrine stood. A new stone sentinel guarded the east wing of the Imperial Library, the immediate sections within dedicated to matters of economy and trade. The statue was a lanky courtier with youthful face dressed in flowing kimono with the emblazoned carp upon his breast. The clean-shaven man welcomed visitors with open hands, a smile beaming upon his face. Nearby, a donated wooden plaque detailed his deeds.
In 1199, the fires of conspiracy struck against the Empire, intent on destroying the heritage within these walls. Samurai of all clans and families came to the rescue of history and their quick thinking and action saved countless years of knowledge. One man’s heroic deeds stand above the rest. He gave up his life to destroy the fire, ending the battle with the raging inferno.
Let the world know that Yasuki Aitoko, scribe of the Crab, brought down the building upon his head, giving up his life to smother the source of flame. Aitoko’s lack of hesitation and selflessness are in keeping with the glorious and honorable calling of bushido. Let his achievement embolden us all against enemies in the darkness that would sow ruin and hate. The Empire stands untied against this despicable sacrilege and in mourning for one whose promising life was sacrificed so nobly.
May he be remembered for as long as the Empire endures.
Daigotsu Atsushi stared down at the offerings laid out before Aitoko. Each tiny bowl held the chop of a samurai who aided in defense of the building, each bowl similarly emblazoned with the mon of the Ikoma.
“Aimi honors them all.”
The Spider smiled as his eyes scanned the bowls. Bayushi Norimasa, Isawa Taisho, Yoritomo Mikaru. “More Crab,” Atsushi’s lip curled at the bowls for Yasuki Kaito, Hiruma Tetsuya, and Hiruma Boma. Imperials, of course, who helped rescue scrolls and scribes: Otomo Daisetsu and Koji, Seppun Yukiko, and the Miya, Yasuragi.
And a single bowl near the center for Susumu Naishi.
“You are true to your word, Omoidasu. You show no bias.”
Atsushi remained rooted in that spot for hours contemplating his previous conversation and his fateful confrontation with Yasuki Kyoko. After the duel, he had felt shaken to the core. Never in his life had an opponent been so quick with a blade, so close to ending him. The duelist began to understand the true nature of mortality on that day and why so many of his brethren had been willing to reach out to other powers, to the safety of the Taint.
“She thinks I am a monster.” Atsushi whispered to no one in particular. He looked once more at the statue and considered what it meant. The sacrifice of life for the honor of others? For scrolls and history, glory and fame?
“Why did you do it, Aitoko? What was your purpose?”
There would be no answer. There could never be an answer from this world. From the other…a distant whisper heard all his life offered the promises of power and salvation for such a meager cost.
They think I am a monster?
“Perhaps I should become one?”