To Touch the Sky - WC5 Story Dec 24, 2018 16:53:01 GMT 10
Post by Hida Tetsuko on Dec 24, 2018 16:53:01 GMT 10
I am glad to begin posting the first chapter of To Touch the Sky, the final story to wrap up the Winter Court 5 Arc. Jeanne and I will be writing this jointly and are looking forward to writing it, especially the ending which we have had in sight since the very beginning.
So, here we go...
Second City, Zogeku – Summer 1236
The first ship from the Empire at the end of the summer had long been a cause for excitement in Second City. After the long heat and pounding monsoons had driven all the inhabitants of the city inside, the first round-bellied kobune brought news, tradegoods, and visitors from afar. This last Summer Court had been as turbulent as the bitter monsoon winds. But the last ships at the start of the summer had brought news of the death of Yuhmi and the end of the War with the Onyx. A generation had been in born and grown up under those dark shadows, far from Zogeku.
Now, everything was changing. And the first kobune would carry many of those changes with it. Heimin, Ivindi, and Samurai all found reason to gather at the docks to greet it.
One passenger stood at the railing of that ship, anxiously waiting to dock. He wore the pale blue of the Crane clan, but he was almost as dark as the Ivindi. The daisho on his belt marked him as samurai, a duellist of the Kakita school. Kakita Harun, finally coming to the end of a long journey.
Since he had heard the news confirming that Kakita Arahime was alive, all that mattered was getting to her. Seeing her again, hearing her voice and never leaving her side again. It had been two and a half years since he had seen her, since they had said good bye to her that morning in Tsume. Much had changed since then; war, deaths of those he had cared about, he had changed. Had Arahime? And if she had, how much?
As the ship docked and the crew unrolled the gangplank, Harun saw a face he recognised in the crowd. Kakita Kousuda. The sight of him made him smile...in a strange place, it was a reminder of home.
Like a man used to making his way through many a crowded marketplace, Kousuda navigated a path towards the newly-set gangplank. His eyes widened in recognition as he spotted the young man in blue waiting to disembark. He pushed through the busy crowd of eager rinjin and merchants waiting for their shipments from Rokugan to be the first to greet Harun as he stepped onto the shore. "I had expected only to receive correspondences, Harun-kun,” he said with a bow. “And here I get so much more! What a pleasant surprise. Welcome to Second City."
"It's good to see you too, Oji-san," Harun smiled.
They stepped away from the gangplank while dispatches and supplies for the Crane stationed in Zogeku, like decent tea and sake, were hoisted into the dock. Harun's eyes were everywhere. The different colours and sounds of the Second City. The smell of spices that seemed to permeate the air. It was all new and exciting and he hoped he would see much of it while he was there.
"You look well, Harun," said Kousuda. "Better than I last saw you. Are things...better now?"
Harun knew what Kousuda meant. The last time they saw each other was at Kyuden Hida. Kakita Karasu, Emerald Champion and Harun's adoptive father, had sent Harun to his new posting at Seawatch Castle. A place reserved for embarrassments to the Crane Clan, which was how Harun was seen. His actions in the taking of Toshi Ranbo, shooting Daigotsu Shimekiri with a gaijin pepper weapon during an iaijutsu duel had shaken the clan to its very foundations. It was a flagrant rejection of the traditions of Kakita, and had led to a rift between father and son.
Harun had eventually taken his punishment keenly though, knowing he deserved it though not regretting his actions.
"A little," Harun said quietly. "Father and I spoke before I left." And that was all he would say about it, for now at least. "Is Arahime here?" He asked, his voice brightening a little. "I came as soon as I could, and the journey wasn't fast enough."
Kousuda's face was unreadable to Harun. "Oh, certainly she is here. But all that can wait for later." With a courtier's grace he smoothly changed the subject. "We need to find you a proper place to stay. There is an inn...The Inn of the Silver Lantern...”
Harun raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Of course, it’s better for everyone that I’m out of sight.
The courtier described the inn and the glories of Second City as they evaded the crowd and the docks and travelled the wide road through the flooded rice-pastures to Second City proper. Ox-drawn wagons passed them along the centre of the road, while to the edges, small merchants booths, unwilling to fight for space in the city to set up shop, crowded either side of the road to sell their wares. The recent monsoons meant planting season had returned, and farmers were wading through the waters, setting the rice. As the huge, Kaiu-built walls of the city’s military district came into view, with the peasant and merchant districts sprawling beyond those walls, Second City was more crowded than any Harun had ever been in before. Once Toshi Ranbo, or Otosan Uchi might have matched this. Not anymore.
Any subtle hesitations Harun saw from Kousuda were immediately swept away by the noise and press of the crowd. So many people, so much noise. It was unnerving. Not just because he was long used to the quiet of the ship and before that Seawatch, but because it reminded him of the fight for Toshi Ranbo. The crush when fighting in the narrow streets, allies and enemies trying to push through. Harun struggled to keep his composure and hoped Kousuda had not noticed.
If Kousuda had, he did not show it. He led Harun to a small inn just inside the imperial district. Low eaves on a red-tiled roof sheltered the wide verandas and open layout of the well-appointed inn. It was square and raised above the level of the streets by a short staircase. Two squat trees with huge leaves as long as a man is tall flanked the intricately carved wooden doorway. A servant, dressed in a lightweight, but simple, yukata, bowed as they approached, and opened the doors.
"Welcome to the Inn of the Silver Lantern," he said, his Rokugani marked with a distinct accent Harun was not familiar with.
Kousuda spoke to the attendant and disappeared inside to make arrangements for Harun’s stay. Harun waited in the courtyard, the lingering heat seeping into his skin. The heat...it sort of hung in the air and never truly dissipated.
Harun could feel beads of sweat running down his back. How do people get used to it?
Kousuda emerged. “It is all arranged. The Embassy is full, and can take no more guests. But here you can bathe and rest, and I will see you at the Embassy at dinner.”
As the servant led Harun to one of the inn’s best rooms, the duellist mostly just felt relief. He would see Arahime soon enough.
That evening, Harun stood before the grand steps leading up to the Crane Embassy. He was early; he had thought to see some of the city on the way, but thoughts of Arahime turned his feet to the building of cool plaster and blue tile.
Another time, he promised himself, with Arahime...
As he climbed the steps, Harun remembered how Kousuda had responded when he had mentioned her. Casually dismissing the question with no more effort than swatting away a fly. Was he trying to avoid telling me something? he wondered.
Harun dismissed the thought, certain that if something were wrong, Kousuda would have told him. There was so much he had been wanting to say to her ever since he had discovered she was alive. How he loved her, he never wanted to be parted from her again, and that he would go anywhere to be with her. Could she ever accept me? He wasn't sure what he would do if she didn't.
The Crane embassy was clearly well-populated, many rooms showing signs of occupation and servants busy cleaning after the day's tasks. However, for now, there were few samurai about: in the cooler evening, many had left to enjoy the pleasures of the Artisan's District.
Impatiently, he asked the servant at the door where Arahime could be found.
"She is training in the dojo. Shall I tell her you are here, Kakita-sama?" the servant asked.
"No, no need," he said. "I will find her myself."
Harun followed the directions the servant had provided until he could hear the rhythmic steps and kiais of a bushi training nearby.
He cracked open the dojo screen open to peek inside. At a glimpse of white and blue, Harun slipped in to stand in the shadows behind a post, stealing the chance to glory in this first moment, and hoping to surprise her.
Harun’s eyes drank in the sight of her, like a ladle of well water at the end of a thirsty day of travel. She was doing the Ten Thousand Days long-form, a Kakita Academy staple. Her movements were as graceful as a bird in flight, her strike as accurate as a heron’s. She wore clothing similar to that he had always known: a lightweight indigo yukata and white silk hakama. Her white hair tumbled down her back in a cascade of curls. He remembered how Arahime would drive herself forward after receiving some particularly embarrassing correction, long after the others had gone to bed, just like this. It was as if nothing had changed.
The "except" kept him from approaching. At first it was hard to pinpoint what was wrong. He had seen the flash of gold at her neck -- a necklace? That surprised him; Arahime had always laughed such finery. As she pivoted gracefully, he saw that it was more than a necklace – it was an elaborate band, gaudy with gemstones. He couldn’t even imagine her choosing such a thing. But here she wore it, even as she trained. A necklace? Or a collar? he wondered.
The other "except" was more subtle. Her face was beaded with sweat...not unusual given the heat. But her breathing was off. There was a weakness in the way she moved her left arm. She did not strike with the energy he expected.
Her knees buckled and she collapsed to the ground with a tearful curse in a language Harun did not recognize.
Harun shrank back in shock. His immediate instinct was to call out to Arahime, go over to her and give her comfort. But she would never accept that, never forgive him for surprising her in a moment of weakness. And he did not want to spoil their reunion with her anger at his pity.
So, as quietly as he could, he slipped out, gently closing the shoji soundlessly behind him. He closed his eyes and put his head in his hands.
Arahime, how truly awful for you…
They had trained together side by side at the Kakita Academy, lost and won many practice sparring matches between them. And now...something was terribly, terribly wrong. And he couldn't do anything, say anything to her. Not now. she would have to tell him herself.
He composed himself quickly, drawing on his training with the Legions to keep doing your duty, no matter what. Then, he called out loudly, as if he had only just arrived and was looking for her. "Hello?" he called. "Is there anyone here? Arahime? Are you near?"
There was a pause, a gasp, and then Harun heard the sound of footsteps hurrying away.
His heart sank.
He was eventually found in the hallway by one of the embassy servants. Harun was told that Kousuda was ready to meet him to dine. The servant led him to the dining room. He pulled open a shoji screen and stood aside to allow Harun to pass. There, Kousuda knelt alone at the low table; he gestured at the cushion opposite him. Harun knelt as a second servant brought him a damp towel to wipe his face and hands.
As the soup was brought out and the two were left alone, Kousuda finally addressed the gaping void in the room.
"Arahime-chan will come soon. But I first wanted to give you an opportunity to ask your questions,” said Kousuda. “Much has changed for her, Harun-kun. It has been very difficult. She is still my little Wildflower. I do not want her to be hurt any more than she already has been."
Harun met Kousuda's eyes unblinkingly. "Hurting Arahime, Oji-San, would be the last thing I would ever do." He hesitated for a moment, he couldn't lie but how could he say it? "But I have to tell you, I...I saw her practicing. I saw her...her weakness. I shouldn’t have, but it has been years since we have seen each other and I wanted to speak with her...to see her again...I am sorry..." He looked down, the apologies flowing fast from his lips. "What happened?"
Kousuda frowned. "It would be better if you had not seen that," he said mostly to himself. With a gesture, he indicated that Harun could go ahead and eat while he retold the tale.
"Little enough has been spread to the mainland, since communication is limited during the summer,” Kousuda began “I was certain Kyoumi would have told you before you left, but I guess there was no time...”
He picked up one chopstick to roll it between his fingers. "I do not have every detail, but the gist is this. The Warlord was in the process of arranging a marriage between his grandson Seiho and Arahime. Certain forces in the city were against that marriage: it strengthened ties and bonds to Rokugan, while these forces seek greater separation from the Empire. These forces were dragging Arahime's name through the mud to block the marriage, but Ambassador Mushari learned of it and demanded the Warlord commit to stopping it. He removed her from the court under other pretences for her safety and give the Warlord time to act.”
He paused a little, his voice becoming more controlled as he spoke.
“But…an Arashi on the ship had been placed to remove her more permanently,” Kousuda continued. “He threw her from the vessel in an area known for its hostile terrain and its crocodiles, likely believing that she would not even survive to make it to shore.”
He set down the chopstick. "Fortunately...but unfortunately for him, I suppose, she did survive. But there are many dangers in the jungle to one who is alone, without lore or medicine or the gifts of the kami.” His voice grew quiet. “As I understand it, Arahime was wounded and the wound became infected. I will speak no more of it, because to do so is inappropriate, but she came very near death indeed. She says that some of the Shojo...” He blinked. “The wild people that used to live in the jungles...saved her life. But their healing powers must be primitive.” He cleared his throat. “She received a terrible injury. I have had our Asahina look at it. She claims that one of Arahime’s lungs has been destroyed, a rib removed.”
"She returned. Arahime did duel…and succeed…against the man who attacked her.” Kousuda winced. “But beyond the narrow bounds of the single strike..." he shook his head. "Doji Sawao says it would be a cruelty to train her further in the techniques of the Kakita school. That she must come to know and understand her limits, that that path is blocked to her." He had to shake his head, a little admiration in his voice. "He does not know Arahime-chan very well."
Harun’s heart ached. For someone like Arahime...so much potential, so much skill, so much love for the art of the blade. But if her father was right, she could never truly fight again. Never be the Kenshinzen he had been sure she would be someday. His thoughts grew bitter at the irony. In some ways, she had redeemed his actions at Toshi Ranbo, given the Crane and all of Rokugan a shining example of what Iaijutsu was supposed to be. And this was the result for her.
Still, it was just like Arahime to fight against it, to meet a challenge head on and overcome it. Even one that couldn't be. Even one that was staring her in the face. Harun knew all too well that that there were some things that one had to accept, and there were some wounds that would never heal.
Perhaps, I could help her...
"What paths do you see open to her, Oji-san?” Harun asked.
That gave Kousuda pause, and he hesitated before he answered. "I...it is hard to tell. I could teach her the skills of the Ide, what my father taught me, but I began my training as a child. It would be many years before she achieved any mastery, and I am not supposed to pass Unicorn secrets. Her mother's studies with the Shiba..." He shook his head. "Given all that had happened, more recently and in Phoenix lands, that would be a terrible place for her to go, even were she accepted among the artisans. Among the Kakita artisans, I see only a life of sorrow there, so close to the Iaijutsu school, and yet so far. Perhaps I could arrange something with the Doji, if they would accept her." He shook his head. "No. To start so old there, even with our protection, is its own cruelty. I will teach her what I am permitted, but it is probably for the best that we try to arrange a marriage where she will be given a comfortable home and the leisure to do as she pleases."
Even as he said it, Kousuda looked as though he had tasted something sour. The servants came to remove the soup bowls and replace them with a course of sashimi.
Harun’s heart was beating fast, he had waited years and travelled hundreds of miles to speak these next few words. If he did not speak them now, Arahime might be lost to him forever. "I could give her that future," Harun said, his voice hushed and breathless. "To help her, to provide the ground so she can grow as she needs to. Kakita Kousuda-sama," his voice took on a far more formal tone, "I humbly ask for the hand of your daughter Arahime in marriage."
The courtier inclined his head in an expression that Harun could only read as pity. "Oh, Harun-kun. I know you have been fond of Arahime for many years. I would say that she is fond of you. But times have changed now. Perhaps in times of desperation, as with your father and mother, the risk of death was near and we all took our moments as we could. But that is not how it is for the Crane. I am her father and I have to see what is the best way forward for her. What will be done will be what is best for the clan.”
Harun looked down, doing his best to compose himself from the disappointment.
Kousuda went on. "Harun, your mother was my friend, Karasu-sama, my wife’s cousin, and you are like a beloved nephew to me, no matter our lack of blood-ties. You have seen much and changed much since you saw her last. Arahime also has seen and changed much. You knew her once, perhaps very well. But you knew her when you were both little more than children, playing at being samurai. But she is not who she was, and fights to understand those changes in herself. You do not know each other. You both need time to find out who you are before I would choose a husband for her, or a wife for you. If I had the freedom to choose. A luxury I do not have."
Utaku Asuna's mocking words came back to Harun to taunt him again.
She’s never going to marry you...she is going to be traded away like a sack of rice...
After all that had happened, after how far he had come. Those nights he had spent at Seawatch, the fantasies he had had in his bunk on the ship over. Whisking Arahime up in his arms and riding away with her, somehow also with them both fending off half a dozen swordsmen. Unrealistic? Of course, but...
Kousuda interrupted his fractured daydream with quiet laughter. “Believe me, you would not want to be wedded to one such as Arahime unless it was her choice as well as her duty.”
He hasn’t said no, Harun reminded himself. I need to focus on facts not my own anxieties. Kousuda hadn't refused, he had merely pointed out realities. Ones that Harun needed to hear even if he didn't like them. Marriage with the Crane was political, everyone knew that.
But Lord Shibatsu said he could arrange it, Harun’s mind raced. As for the rest...
"My apologies, Oji-san," said Harun, he cleared his throat. “You’re right. It has been a long time since we saw each other. Things have changed and I know there are...things I need to tell her." He paused again. "But you know, I would never do anything without Arahime's consent. I would never ask her to marry me unless that was what she wanted as well." He took a deep breath. "I guess...what I wanted was your permission, and your blessing, to try. Even if, in the end, she does refuse me."
Arahime's father considered that with a frown, and Harun could see him considering the cost of the duel with Shimekiri, almost smell the gaijin pepper. After an endless moment, however, the older man nodded. "Yes. If our daimyo were to grant permission for such a marriage, I would not contest, and give thanks to Benten. You can try. But be patient with her about raising the issue. I do not want to get her hopes up and see them denied."
A servant came to clear the plates, while a second came and knelt by the courtier, whispering something quietly before hurrying away, closing the screen behind her.
“She will be here in a moment,” said Kousuda.
Harun didn’t think he could bear to wait much longer to see her, but that didn’t stop the butterflies beating in his stomach.
In a few moments the screen slid open, and Arahime entered. She moved gracefully past Harun and sat down next to her father.
She was dressed in a full-length, if light, kimono of light blue, decorated with a bamboo pattern, and her obi, tied up in a traditional butterfly knot, was silver. Her long hair was up in two braids, but the curls that had always plagued her broke loose at every opportunity and still framed her face in white. Her stormy grey eyes and proud features were much the same as Harun remembered. But there were differences. Around her neck, she still wore the thick, collar-like necklace Harun had noticed while she was practicing, ornate with gold and diamonds, jade and pearls, with ivory flowers and a single, large emerald lotus at her throat. Even more exotic, Harun realized that her nose had been pierced in one nostril, and she wore a small gold ring there, similar to the small gold earrings she wore in her ears.
The corner of Arahime's mouth quirked upward in a small grin, taking in Harun's shocked expression. "You're late."
"Late?" Harun repeated, then quickly recovering. "Oh yes, I'm terribly sorry," he said, a sly smile appearing on his lips. "You see, first there was a funeral, and then there was a war. As well as a whole bunch of things that are rather hard to explain, though I think that is something you know about as well." He looked at the necklace and the nose ring. Then he sighed and gave her a genuine smile. "Arahime-chan, it is so good to see you."
Her gaze dropped to the table, her hair shadowing her face and leaving her expression unreadable. "It is good to see you too, Harun-kun. It has been a long time." Her voice was flat, emotionless.
Is she embarrassed? Harun wondered.
He couldn't be sure; she seemed so guarded. Questions could wait until later, until they were alone. He decided to keep things more conventional. "I only just arrived today, so I haven't seen much of the city," Harun said, his tone gentle, conversational. "You'll have to tell me what's worth seeing, everything looks so different here."
Arahime looked up a little. "Of course, if you like...but....How long are you planning on staying?"
Kakita Kousuda smoothly stepped in before Harun could answer. "We can find out about that in the morning. Perhaps you can take Harun-kun when you go to the Ivindi quarter tomorrow?” He suggested. “There has been some fighting with the guards and it would comfort me to know that you did not need to involve yourself."
Despite how politely her father phrased it, Arahime stiffened, though she did not retort and held her tongue. "Of course, Otō-sama." She used the formal suffix.
Kousuda shared a look with Harun, but accepted the answer. He gestured for the servants to bring in the rest of the dishes for the meal and they dined, speaking of the current situation in the city and various sights that Harun should go visit.
Harun listened with interest. He had heard about Zogeku. The almond groves, spice markets, the exotic temples and strange animals. He then related a little of his own travels. The lands of the Unicorn, Dragon and Lion in his wandering year. The lands of the Crab Clan, the Wall, Seawatch. If Arahime noticed Harun skipped a little lightly over his time in the Emerald Legions, she didn't say anything.
At the end of dinner, tea was brought out as well as daifuku which bore the mon of Imperial Treasurer Doji Arami. These had come with Harun to a rather grateful embassy.
"Well," said Kousuda. "I know you've had a long journey Harun and I don't want to keep you much longer."
Harun would have liked to stay, but he knew how to take Kousuda’s hint. He bid them goodnight.
After the pleasantries had been completed and the duellist had left, Kakita Arahime was left alone with her father.
Her insides felt twisted in knots at the sight of him. She had driven herself on through so much just at the thought of seeing him again, but now that he was here she did not know what to say or what to do.
You could dance for him, Big Sister offered helpfully. Arahime could feel the heat rise in her cheeks and she fought to keep her face still. She wished again that the soul within the navrathran haar had not become quite so helpful. At least her father did not appear to notice.
He may have come just to see you..That was a nice thought. But unlikely, Arahime dismissed.
"Otō-san...” said Arahime. “You said Harun was in the Emerald Legion. Why is he here?"
Kousuda smiled at his daughter. His little Wildflower, thought lost forever, now found and he felt that he could soon be losing her again. She was a woman now, and had to find her own path. But...it was hard to let go.
Should he tell her what he and Harun had spoken of? How Harun had asked for her hand in marriage?
No, not yet, he decided. If something is going to happen there, it needs to develop naturally.
"I think he has left the Emerald Legion to come here, Arahime-chan," said Kousuda. "As for why he is here, why don't you ask him?"
Arahime studied her father's face for a long moment in silence. Finally, she nodded. "I will." She looked down at the bracelet on her wrist. "When are you leaving?"
Kousuda lay his hand on Arahime's shoulder. "Very soon, your mother needs me. I know she is hungry for news, even if she cannot show it. Her duties prevent her from coming or she would have flown here on paper wings if she could. I have passage on the ship that departs in seven days. There is room for two—or three. You should come with me."
Arahime shook her head. "I truly cannot. Shiba gave me one more command and I cannot return to Rokugan until it is done. I will return to Rokugan when I've done it." Shinjo...she is here somewhere. I am sure of it.
"So you have said before," said Kousuda.
Arahime dipped her head in a silent assent.
"Walk with him tomorrow,” Kousuda suggested. “Ask him what he thinks. I know you will do what you must." He smiled ruefully. "Just like your mother."
As they stood he gave his daughter a quick embrace in that private moment.
"I'm sorry, Otō-san,” said Arahime.
"I would expect nothing less of you, daughter,” said Kousuda.
Arahime's heart was full as she returned to her room. Summer is over. Harun is here. Now if I could only spin out the tangled skeins of my own heart.