“I know.” The foolish old man hung his head in shame as he laid the last sacred stone into the circle on the dusty floor.
“You risk your own dharma to even remain near one who walks the path of violence and death.” The guru reached out with his crooked staff and touched the stone circle. A spiral of light and heat spun around the stones and curled in towards the middle.
“I know.” The old man gathered fistfuls of flowers and leaves from the hundreds that filled every part of the rude tree-bound hut. He threw them onto the stones. “I had no choice.” A plume of grey smoke swirled upwards, filling the air with a sweet and exotic scent. “That is why I have asked you to come.”
The guru spread a broad hand, palm down, over the smoke. He recited a prayer, the ancient sutra of creation. The smoke shifted color from grey to a pure white. “There is always choice. Tell me why you have done this thing. Only then may I truly be able to advise you where the path of good dharma lies.” He sat, lay his staff across his lap, and looked at the old man expectantly.
The old man glanced over at the silent corner of the room. He crouched down on the ground across from his teacher, the smoke rising between them. With a sigh, he began his tale.
“I listened to the trees and found the forest was greatly disturbed. The greatest story I heard was that the Bonedrinker was dead. I know to feel gratitude for this is to imperil my hopes for Svargam. But the Bonedrinker is no natural creature. It burns with the eternal hunger and has caused much violence for the last century. It preys on our kind. I felt gratitude to think that such a demon might be returned to the wheel. But I needed to know this truth for myself.
In the lands of the Bonedrinker, I found it was true. The eaters of the dead had come, but there was no mistaking. I did not go near. Satisfied, I turned towards home. As I journeyed, I saw before me a fan of white spread across the forest floor, concealed by leaves. I thought it was a great egret, most beautiful of the birds of the jungle. I mourned its passing. But then it moved slightly. I immediately thought it must be hurt. For the sake of its beauty and majesty, I resolved to show it compassion and bring it healing, that it might bring further joy and beauty to the forest. I hurried to give it aid. It was not until I reached its side that I realized it was no egret. It was this.”
The foolish old man gestured to the corner of the room. There lay, under a covering of brown cloth woven of simple plant fiber, the unconscious body of a young woman. Her white hair spilled around her and her tanned skin held the sickly pallor of death. “I had already resolved to act in compassion. To refuse to render that compassion when I saw its true nature would be to render a violence upon it based on its place on the wheel. I had no choice.”
The guru nodded thoughtfully, scratching his hairy stomach in thought as he listened to the old man’s words. “Perhaps. But the provisions of compassion do not compel us to aid the cannibal. It is their nature to feast upon their own. We are to avoid them lest we be tempted into violence to save our own lives. Their spirits have become corrupted with the eating of flesh. We pray for their swift return to the wheel.”
The white smoke swirled around the foolish old man as he answered and started to disperse as the plants turned to ash. “I thought the same, Ou’bouji. I too have silently watched them from the shadows. But I smell its skin. I see the stains of its past. This one has tasted no hot blood, only that of the cold fish and insect, much as the egret itself. If I did not condemn the egret, I could not condemn this one. I had no choice but to bring it here and care for it, as I had originally agreed within my own spirit. Viveka, the path of discernment, demanded it.”
“Humm.” Ou’bouji shifted heavily to his feet. “I can see the difficulty. What of the knife, Yu’genta? The knives are their instruments of destruction. They tell the fuller story.” He leaned on his staff and removed the gourd from the end of it.
The old man, Yu’genta, gestured with a broad hairy hand to the opposite corner of the hut, where, discarded like a couple of abandoned sticks, were a pair of blades. Each were in a shiny and glistening sheath, like a pair of fish.
“Their fates are bound together. Knife and human. I had to bring them.”
Ou’bouji made a low rumbling noise of distaste. “You risk being made Shojo for even touching this. Such things are not of the Vānara.”
The old man tilted his head and looked at the Guru with a lack of understanding. “We take and protect many such things when we find them. Hide them. They are not ours to destroy, but we keep them from being used.”
Ou’bouji paused, then slowly nodded. “You are right. I spoke too hastily. It is the one who wields the tool that does evil, not the tool itself. Even tools to cause great violence. Still...” He slowly approached the pair of swords, picking one up, then the other, smelling them with a flattened nose. “There is a history of violence, it is true. But the only blood I smell within the last quarter century is...” he sniffed again, “...that of...the Bonedrinker?” He dropped the sword with a clatter. “So that is why.”
Yu’genta nodded. “Yes. Not only had I already chosen compassion, but the violence done saves the lives of our people. So I brought it here. I cast it into the deep sleep, for its wounds caused pain beyond bearing. I lowered the fever and drew forth the flies. I cleansed the blood and bound the wounds. But it will be months before it can travel. The lung will never heal or function again. ”
The old man, Yu’genta, hung his head. “I do not know the right action to take. It is a creature of violence and madness. If I awaken it, it likely to do violence to me. And if not me, to others. As the scorpion knows only its sting, its nature exists only in violence.” He pressed his knuckles against the ground as he swung to his feet. “I am willing to take the burden of keeping it asleep, here, for the rest of its life. It will only live fifty or sixty monsoons longer. If it sleeps, it can do no more violence.”
The guru, Ou’bouji, turned and approached the fire again, unstoppering the gourd. “That is worthy. But to do so would prevent it from completing the dharma it was sent in this form to accomplish. Before the summoning of the great Destruction, the Vānara helped the holiest, those who tried to follow the path of Brahmin. These can grow towards enlightenment in this form, even in a limited way. If there was more this one was meant to complete before it is returned to the wheel, that would not be achieved. It could not progress to a higher life.” He sprinkled droplets of liquid from the gourd onto the glowing circle. New smoke arose, this time a pale blue.
“Yes, Guru Ou’bouji. What is your recommendation?” The old man of the woods, his once orange hair now almost gray with age, crouched down before his honored guide.
Ou’bouji, his broad gray face troubled at the deep questions, looked down at the sacred stones. “Your actions have been worthy, and you have shown no temptation to fall into human vice in this. To let it stay sleeping would be kind and easy and safe. But courage too is a virtue. If it launches into violence, I will support you and show you how to quickly return it to lifelong sleep. If it does not, then it may earn its dharma here, far from the ways of violence. You may be destined to teach it. Or it may leave and let the violence of the jungle guide its path to the end its futures hold. ”
Yu’genta knuckled his forehead in agreement. It would be awakened.
The heavy, pungent smell of eucalyptus filled the air. The sound of drumming shook the floor and walls of the hut. Ou’bouji held up his staff, ready to unleash the power of dreams to protect them both from the creature’s wrath. But Yu’genta shook a rattle over the sleeping form and chanted the Sutra of the Dawn.
For a few minutes, it seemed like nothing would happen. That the dreams that held this one and kept it from pain would never release it.
But as the smoke cleared and a shaft of sunlight fell upon its face, this white-haired creature, born to a legacy and a destiny of violence, opened her stormy gray eyes.
For nine days, she only watched him. In her waking hours, those strange gray eyes followed him around the room as he prepared food or ground medicines. He could feel her eyes on him as he meditated, as he slept. She watched him look into the waters and sing the sutras. But she did not say a word.
Yu’genta at first feared she would spring from her bed to attack him at any moment, though he was not sure she was well enough to do much harm. He knew she suffered pain despite his medicines, and after so long asleep she would have had great weakness. Still, many creatures attack even those who are trying to heal them in the face of pain. It is difficult to adjust to so much stripped from the body. But she did not attack, even when he came to change the bandages. Much of the time, she slept. Any pain she had, she suffered in silence. He allowed himself to grow slightly more comfortable in her presence, but continued to be wary. She is probably just too weak to dare, he thought.
On the tenth day, as he crouched by her and lifted a spoon of broth to her lips, she spoke a word-sound for the first time. Her voice was hoarse and dusky with misuse. He merely grunted in response. Perhaps the word for food. No matter.. She made the same sound again later in the evening when he brought mashed breadfruit mixed with juice to feed her. Though…perhaps there is more. Guru Ou’bouji spoke of me teaching her. He scowled. He would say I should teach a tiger next, I suppose. I must have much dharma I must earn before I reach the end of my years if that is my future.
Still, this sound she made was interesting. She used it the next day when he brought her a meal, as he expected, but then surprised him by making the same sound after he had finished binding her wounds again, despite flinching and what was clearly an unpleasurable experience. Why would she make this sound both for receiving food and for having bandages changed? He tried to offer her a scoopful of dung, but she did not make the sound, instead recoiling from him. Yu’genta came to realize in a few days she made the sound whenever she received something beneficial, even if that benefit involved immediate pain for her long term good.
One morning, he found the most beautiful of the healing flowers he had gathered and presented it to her, carefully looking for her response. It serves no benefit to her. What will she do? His patient paused as she accepted it, looking down in the delicate, curving purple depths of the lovely orchid. Then she looked up at him, and he could see the glimmer of actual tears on the corners of her eyes. She made the sound again.
It gave him much to think about that night. I do not know what the sound means. But perhaps Ou’bouji is right. Maybe there is a chance she actually has a soul.
Yu’genta continued his work, and he was beginning to grow concerned. Although her body seemed to be healing, and he was fairly sure she was past the pain, she was starting to eat less and sleep more, making little effort to rise. This confused him. He would expect her to try to slink away as quickly as possible, or, if more intelligent than that, to try to shore up her strength to prepare for a more powerful attack. But she seemed to grow less inclined to do either. He touched the waters to send a message out to Ou’bouji to ask why that might be.
“Show her the knifes.” came back the response.
He did so, picking up the pair of weapons from their discarded corner, and, with great caution, bringing them to her. She lifted her head at that, and her eyes widened. Yu’genta jumped back, ready with the chant that invokes sleeping. But she merely took them and said those words again before lying back down in exhaustion. The creature…The Human, he corrected himself…seemed to do somewhat better after that.
In the days that followed, ate and drank a little more and was slowly growing in strength, growing able to feed herself and move within the confines her sleeping pallet. One afternoon, as the winter sunshine slit down into the hut through the leaves of the roof, she looked at the cup from which she was drinking, and the flowers near her bed that he had brought for her healing. She tilted her head to one side thoughtfully, and then took three different kinds of the flowers around her and arranged them in the water cup, trimming the ends and leaves to make sure they were arranged ‘just so’.
Yu’genta found himself curious, and swung over to land beside her, looking at the cup with the flowers. What is her intention with this? he wondered.
The human held the cup with flowers out to him. He eyed it carefully up and down. Humph. The shojo would know what this was. But it is….sacred. In a way. He accepted the cup from her. And, almost as a test of his own understanding, he grunted out his best imitation of the sound that she had been making. “Ari-ga-tō.”
She did not repeat the sound this time, but she just silently put her hands together and gave him a small bow.
Yu’genta put the cup on a shelf in the hut, and noticed her watching it often.
After that, she began to make a variety of different sounds, but Yu’genta mostly ignored them. He expected screaming and threats, as is. No need to encourage it. It was annoying enough that she was there. “Teaching or not, speaking with corrupted souls will corrupt your own.” He found it more pleasant when she was silent.
The human was getting stronger. One day while he was sitting on the floor of his hut weaving baskets, she pointed to the pile of rushes next to him. “Hachimitsu kudasai?” The sounds meant nothing to him, but she pointed at the rushes and then pointed at herself, a pleading expression on her face.
Is she asking for the rushes? Why? He ignored her for a while, but she made the same sound again. This is too difficult! the old man groused to himself. He pointed at the reeds.
She pointed at them also. “Hachimitsu.”
He grumbled to himself, then repeated, “Hachimitsu.”
She nodded at him eagerly.
“Hachimitsu kudasai?” She pointed at the reeds and back at herself.
The old man snorted loudly. “Fine! Let’s see what you do with them. They aren’t food. Or flowers.”
He gathered up a bundle of reeds and brought it to her.
“Arigato,” she repeated, as she usually did when given something, and accepted the reeds. He grunted and returned to his basket making. After a time, he looked up to notice her watching him, copying his motions, slowly weaving a basket of reeds similar to his. It was a poor, simple thing, but it left him with a thousand questions.
Was she actually building something? Was she even trying to /help/ him? Was she learning from him? He brought her more reeds, and she continued to try to weave, fingers clearly unused to the work. But she slowly worked on finer baskets, even alternating color and design. That had even broader implications. Is she actually creating beauty? Was that not the hallmark of a soul?
The days passed. With time, she was able to rise. Yu’genta expected her to leave, then, weak and unsteady as she was, knowing that most creatures could not bear to be caged. He hoped for it, really…an excuse to return to his solitary life. She disturbed his serenity.
She did not go.
The human did, however, start changing the Vānara’s small world in ways that confused him. It started with trying to weave baskets or helping him to prepare food before she could walk again. One day, she cut a hole into the center of the fiber cloth he used to cover her for warmth. With more time, she started to do simple things inside the hut like remove the dead flowers or grind medicines. She would place the blanket over her body and move in the hut, especially when he was not present. He would leave and find the place cleaner when he returned. Or find a meal prepared where there had been none. Sometimes, the effort of it was enough to send her back to her bed in exhaustion. But then she would begin again.
It was not behavior that Yu’genta expected. But he slowly came to accept it.
One day, he returned from gathering in the forest to find a meal prepared. After he had eaten, he looked up to see her kneeling before him, wrapped in the plant fibers from her bed. She bowed, looking down at the floor. He could see the glimmer of pride, of wildness, that intimidated him, but her manner was humble.. She said only, “Kiru fuku kudasai?”
“Kudasai.” The sound she had made when asking for the reeds. She had made that sound asking for other things. What does she want? He grunted. Then he reached over with a foot and grabbed a fruit that was near him, and offered it up to her.
She shook her head. “Fuku….” She gestured to the blanket around her. ““Kiru fuku kudasai?”
Yu’genta scowled, trying to figure out what she was wanting, when suddenly he remembered. When he had found her, she had been wrapped in filthy pieces of cloth. They were wet and covered with insects, blood, and filth. He had had to destroy them. He had none to give her. He reached forward to pluck at the plant fiber and made a non-committal sound of inquiry.
She nodded eagerly, gesturing at the cloth. “Hai!”
He offered her the fruit again. She shook her head and made the sound “Īe.” Her face showed disappointment.
Humph. The nod and the ‘Hai’ must mean Yes, the old man thought. And shaking the head and ‘Īe’ must mean No. It probably is not that great a danger to me to learn that much. I shall ask Ou’bouji. But as to the cloth…
The next day, he went out into the forest and brought back sheets of coconut fiber for another blanket and set to work. She watched him as he made it with a sigh, looking disappointed. He thought, again, about her attacking him, but she did not do so. When he was finished, he presented her with the finished blanket.
“Arigatōgozaimashita,” she said, taking the blanket and curling up with it to go to sleep. But she didn’t seem pleased.
That evening, he touched the waters again, reaching out to the Guru.
Ou’bouji’s broad gray face gazed calmly back at him through the waters. “May the light of holiness guide you, Yu’genta. How are you and the one you have placed under your charge?” He may have sounded a little amused.
“She greatly troubles my serenity. She does not do as I expect. She is well enough to move now, though weak. But she has not attacked me at all. Instead she weaves baskets and prepares food and wipes away dirt and grinds medicine.”
The guru scratched the broad rim of dark flesh that protected his throat, a sign of his caste. “Has she asked for anything from you?”
The old man of the forest sniffed. “She makes sounds. I ignore them. You yourself have said is dangerous to listen to such violent creatures. She sometimes indicates she wants reeds for basket making. She seems to want a new cloth covering. Perhaps as she had when I found her? I gave her a new blanket but she does not seem happy.”
The guru considered this closely. “I have spoken to you before of the ancient times. I should have been more clear. Since the summoning of the great Destruction, the Vanaprastha have known only two kinds of humans that remain. The first are the Ruhmalists, who drew forth the great Destruction and live only for the creation and proliferation of destruction. The second are the ones known as Samurai, with their narrow eyes and their love of their knives. This one looks like neither, but it had the knives. So, as you did, I believed it was Samurai.”
Yu’genta listened carefully to the teacher’s wisdom.
Ou’bouji went on. “The Vanaprastha, as all Vānara who seek Svargam do, have avoided the Samurai. But we know some amount about them. They consume the flesh of their kin, Brother Goat and Sister Deer. They hunt the messengers of the heavens, the birds of the air. This causes the corruption of the body. They create and offer sake, which causes the corruption of the mind. Vānara which fall prey to this corruption become shojo, at the mercy of their basest instincts. Even the Vanapasthra and the seers can fall victim to their corruption; to lose En’you was a great tragedy. We know they train incessantly for war, and are quick to use their knives against any that do not do as they will or do not treat them carefully.”
Yu’genta rumbled, "I have watched them move through the forest. They are dangerous. That is why I keep silent.”
The image of Ou’bouji reached towards him through the water, appearing to touch the water’s surface. As he did so, an image became visible in the waters: an image of a group of samurai bearing the symbols of spiders on their black and white metal shells, cutting a swath of destruction through the jungles. “They are dangerous. And cunning...willing to lie and deceive to get what they wish. They have, according to those who know them best, only one virtue: utter loyalty and obedience to the one who leads them. But, in that loyalty, they have the seeds of virtue from which other virtues may spring. Perhaps even the beginning of a soul.”
The old man glanced back at the bed upon which the young woman slept. “This one...seems to want to help. When I refused her, she did not attack. She tries to make beautiful things, though it is clear she has no skill. That is why I thought she might have a soul.”
The image in the water cleared. It was replaced with another image, an image of a simple Ivinda farmer. Ou’bouji’s voice said over the seeing, “Before the summoning of the great destruction, there were many humans indeed. Most were of these, Ivinda. They have their equivalent among the aliens who have come to this land. For either, they do not seek enlightenment or purity. They earn their dharma in simple lives. They do not have the touch of Heaven upon them. The Vānara acknowledged them long ago, though did not communicate with them much. They usually hide from us. They are much given to their vices, even if they avoided violence, and caused some of the weakness of the shojo. But they are never allowed to carry the blades. The Samurai and higher castes forbid it.”
Yu’genta just grunted. His lost egret did not seem to him a laborer. A laborer does not carry the knives of a killer. And those not touched by the heavens would not carry the blessings of the kingdom of animals upon them.
Ou’bouji’s face reappeared in the water. “Before the great destruction, however, there were some among the Ivinda who the Vanaprastha did meet with. Those we could trust to treat us with courtesy and to keep their word to us. Those who sought the Way and led their people. The Vanaprastha came to them to create treaties. To teach them…to help them guide the humans on the path to freedom from the wheel of incarnation. Sometimes, even the Sannyasin would commune with them, they who are almost all removed from the world. These humans were the Brahmin of the Ivinda. They were holy.” The guru’s eyes were dark and intense. “Perhaps, among the Samurai, as among the Ivinda, there are Brahmin. Or at least, perhaps she is samurai who has been endowed with virtue despite her caste. Perhaps she has been sent to guide her kind on the path. Perhaps that explains what she is.”
“If she were Brahmin, or had virtue above her caste, how would we know?” Yu’genta’s could see the intensity in the guru’s expression, and feared he had done something wrong in the way he had dealt with the human in his care.
Ou’bouji’s small brown eyes gleamed with curiosity. “I will come in one turning of the moon. We shall test her. If she passes the tests, then we shall know if she is Brahmin. If she is Brahmin…then we shall speak. And we shall understand one another truly. If she is not Brahmin, I will bring her cloth wrappings the Samurai wear and she shall go. She will be well enough by then. The forest will finish her destiny for this lifetime.”
Harun awoke with a gasp, sitting up on his futon and feeling the cold sweat clinging to his face and body. The grim stone walls of Kyuden Hida offered no response or consolation. They had watched over the nightmares of samurai for generations, and Harun’s were minor compared to the horrors they had beheld. But the bushi’s dreams still had claws buried in his mind that refused to let him go. He sank his head into his hands with a groan.
So real. Even awake, with his eyes open, he could see before him the corpse-littered streets of Toshi Ranbo. Bright colors and brave banners spoiled in thick gray mud. There were places where the bodies of the dead themselves formed the walls that needed to be torn down to get further into the city. To rout out Yuhmi’s commanders, to try to get to the demon himself.
That had been in vain. The oni had fled already.
But that did not mean he had not left ‘surprises’ for those coming after him. Koharu. Sayaka. Harun had forced them through regardless. This was war. There was no choice but victory. There was nothing else left. Arahime.
When the Imperial Legionnaire had come upon that slaughtered unit of Mirumoto bushi...heard that taunting laughter....I did what I needed to do. I ended it. If he told himself that often enough, would that make it true?
The bodies. His hand on the tsuka of his katana. A drift of ash. The burst of sound. White hair, kabuki paint, black blood trickling from the corner of a mouth still laughing insanely as he died.
Saying it again would never make it true for his father. Harun had seen so many different roles that Kakita Karasu had filled in his life. The laughing father who swung him around so fast as a little boy. The patient teacher who carefully instructed him in the lessons he would need to win entry into the Kakita Academy. The brilliant duelist who danced the sword with pure focus and control. The lonely husband who watched his wife depart, once again, on paths unknown, wrapped in a cheap saffron robe and head covered with a basket so that she would travel as nameless monk. Judicious general, listening to the plans of his strategists and deciding how to deploy the Imperial Legions. And as Emerald Champion, declaring the sentence and weight of the law. Declaring someone’s execution. In all those roles, Harun had never seen him as angry as he was after Toshi Ranbo.
After his victory. After his disgrace.
Harun held his aching head, fingers combing through his curly black hair. There were only a few hours left until dawn. Dawn meant another day of winter court. Another day of watching the Emperor, distant as the moon, aloft on his cold stone pedestal. Another day where the Chosen looked down silently at the war-weary eyes of the Emperor’s court full of pleading petitioners. A court in waiting, holding its breath. For something. An end. A world to be reborn. Anything. A future.
While Yu’genta waited for Ou’bouji’s arrival, he watched the human he had found in the jungle grow healthier each day. She used the small blade from the knife to cut a strip from her second blanket, tying the first around herself in a crude mimicry of the outer layer he had originally destroyed. Once that was accomplished, she moved freely about the hut as she willed, though she returned to her bed frequently for rest and for him to teach her how to care for her own wounds.
Finally, around the time the time when they days became their shortest, she was able to leave his tree hut and climb down. He led her into the jungle, and tears glimmered in her eyes as she breathed the freedom of her escape. She did not flee. He led her to the clear-running cool jungle stream from which he drew his water. When she threw off her cloth wrapping and jumped into the waters, he could not help but remember the youngest of the Vānara, born so many years ago. How long had it been since there had been a child among his people? Even if he should be cautious about this being, he had to smile to see her, not too much more than a child, enjoying the freedom and the waters as she washed herself.
He had to spend extra time caring for her wound that night, but she made the ‘Arigato’ sound. He found himself beginning to regret that he would not be ever able to heal the wound fully. Some wounds are even beyond the skill of the Vānara.
After that day, she did spend time helping him in his hut, but each day, she would make the climb down to the ground and begin to dance. Yu’genta watched her carefully from a perch on an upper branch. At first her dancing was done with empty hands, moving back and forth across the jungle floor beside his home. The motion was fluid and beautiful.
It was disturbing, then, when she took up her knife. He kept well away from her, always aware of the edge of madness, but she simply did the same dances over again, this time with the naked steel in her hands. There was violence and death in those moves, and it took all his courage to remain watching. But he could not deny that the same beauty that had been in the dance without the steel was in this dance with it. Could beauty and violence subsist together? A strange step indeed on the path of dharma. Perhaps the unification of such principles is a necessary step along the path towards liberation from the wheel.
Time passed. Yu’genta finally met with Ou’bouji far from his hut while he was out foraging.
“This is the first test. Give to her these, and see what she does with them. The Brahmin passed wisdom across generations with these.” The guru gave Yu’genta a number of pieces of paper. The old man had seen them at times before: when he had travelled on pilgrimage to the holy places as a young man, long ago. There, they recorded the sacred scriptures, with drawings and paintings that showed the images of the gods.
When Yu’genta had returned to the hut, he found that the human had boiled water in an empty gourd using a heated stone, and had made a tea by boiling leaves. She poured out for him a cup. In return, he gave her the paper with a grunt.
She smiled and made the ‘Arigato’ sound again. As he drank the tea, he watched her. After some time, she decided take the first piece of paper and carefully fold it, bending and folding it over and over into a small five-sided shape. She looked at him, and pulled on two parts of the folded shape, which pulled open like a flower. With two more folds, she held it on her hand and offered it to him. It was an egret, a bird made out of paper with a long neck and long wings, looking as though it had settled into her hand to nest.
The other sheets she set aside. After he had finished his tea, she found a stick and laid it upon the hot stones until it was well charred. In her empty cup, she combined the ashes with a little water, and then found a green twig. She stripped away part of the pith of the twig at one end, leaving only a curl of the green bark. Using the twig and the ashen water, she began to make marks upon the paper. The marks were alien to him. But the human’s expression was focused and serious; unlike the creation of the egret, this was no casual craft or play. When she was done, she laid the paper aside. She laid her hand on the paper she had marked when he tried to move it, and since it was bad dharma to take anything that had not been offered, he let it be.
Yu’genta left to report the results to his guru, bringing with him the paper bird he had been given.
Ou’bouji examined the bird carefully and listened to the old man’s description of the marks on the paper. “She has writing then, even if we do not know the tongue. And she can clearly create beauty for beauty’s own sake.” He held up the bird. “We are ready for the second test.”
Yu’genta had left as normal for his daily foraging, but on this day he found a perch high in a tree overlooking his own hut and the jungle floor around. As usual, the human arose and came down to do her dancing with the sword. However, things today would be different.
A chilling, panicked cry emerged from undergrowth near where the human danced. She stopped, sheathed her blade, and looked around for the source of the sound. Then, breathing rapidly and painfully, she turned and went towards the sound, pushing aside the heavy bushes. There, Ou’bouji was ready, his staff in hand, cowering away from what appeared to be an enormous spider, at least the height of a man. The spider bore in on the guru aggressively. Yu’genta, even knowing the plan, could hardly bear to look. Would the human turn aside, seeing nothing to be gained here? Would she wait until the spider had attacked Ou’bouji for the full glory of bloodshed without risk? Or…
The human came running, sweeping up a rock and hurling it at the giant spider’s carapace and shouting as she came.
The giant spider whirled and charged towards the human, huge, hairy, and venomous. But the human held her ground, hand on the handle of the knife but not drawing it, as she waited for the spider to close and attack her. Yu’genta was surprised that the human was able to face such a creature unarmed, without even flinching.
At the last moment the spider turned aside and charged into the forest, disappearing.
Perhaps the sound faded a little too swiftly, for Yu’genta knew that the whole thing had been an illusion prepared by Ou’bouji, though the illusion was so realistic it had seemed real even to fellow Vānara. Illusion gone, he climbed down from his perch and moved towards the human. She was pale and her breath labored. She made some sounds, and pointed up towards the hut.
Ou’bouji then spoke. It was in a tongue that Yu’genti did not understand...but it was clear the human did. The guru translated his words for the old Vānara.
“Yes. We go to hut. Hide from Spider. Arigato...Thank you.”
Oh, so that’s what it meant.
Ou’bouji led the way to Yu’genti’s hut in the tree, and the human insisted on coming last. The spider, naturally, did not follow. It had never existed at all.
On reaching the treehouse herself, she bowed to Ou’bouji and a flood of words came out of her mouth at once despite her breathlessness. The guru held up his hand. “Slow.” He put the banana-leaf wrapped bundle he carried down to one side and settled into a squat at the circle of stones, and the young female nodded and knelt across from him. Yu’genta sat nearby, watching them as the guru kindly translated both her words and his.
The guru pointed at himself. “Me Ou’bouji.” He pointed over at the old man. “He Yu’genta.” He pointed at the human. “Who you?”
The human pointed at herself. “I am Kakita Arahime.”
The guru nodded. “You samurai?”
The human...Kakita Arahime...answered, “Yes.”
Yu’genta bared his teeth, but Ou’bouji stopped him with a glance, saying quickly in their own tongue, “There is more that we don’t understand. We should not draw conclusions yet.”
Ou’bouji turned back and spoke again in the girl’s tongue. “Why you here?”
Arahime look down, as though trying to find the right words. “Another samurai threw me from the ship we were travelling on. He wanted me to die. I swam to shore. I got hurt. I woke up here.”
The words were difficult to translate, and it took Ou’bouji several attempts to get them right. Once it became clear violence that had been done to her, Yu’genta hooted his anger, but Ou’bouji showed more control.
Before he could ask another question, however, the girl turned to Yu’genta and said, slowly and clearly, for Ou’bouji to translate, “Thank you for saving me.”
Yu’genta was pleased and settled back with satisfaction.
Ou’bouji leaned forward to look intently at the samurai. “What you want most now.”
Ferver brightened her eyes and she lean forward intently. “Please take me back to Second City. Please help me go home.”
“No!” Ou’bouji’s voice changed tone dramatically, becoming loud and authoritative, ending with a boom. He held his staff in front of him, awaiting the attack that might come.
Yu’genta almost pitied the samurai when he saw the expression of hurt in her eyes as she drew back. Her eagerness and happiness at being able to communicate disappeared and she seemed to draw in on herself. She was silent for a long time. Finally, tentatively, she asked, “Do you know where it is?”
Ou’bouji’s tone was even sterner in response. “Yes.”
Arahime was still quiet, still controlled. “Will you tell me how to get there by myself?”
The brown-eyed Vānara searched intently in the human’s eyes for traces of violence as he answered, “No.”
She will definitely attack now. She will try to force him to tell. Yu’genta’s thoughts were dark. Together, the two Vānara waited for some kind of response. Any response.
The human knelt there, watching them both for a very long time. The only sound in the hut was the sound of her pained breathing. Finally, she said, in a soft tone. “Could you at least tell my family I am not dead, please?”
The guru said nothing, just looking at her silently. She tried to ask several more times, but neither of the Vānara said anything in response. In the end, she turned and withdrew to her sleeping mat. She lay down, pulled the blanket over her and went to sleep.
Yu’genta turned to Ou’bouji long after she had gone to sleep. “Well? How do you judge?”
Ou’bouji watched the sleeping form. “Remarkable.” He turned to face the old man. “I have no doubts, now. Despite her words, she must be Brahmin.” He ticked off on his fingers the results of the tests. “She had already shown in her interactions with you the virtues of bodily purity, humility, and courtesy. “In the first test, when given paper, she used it to create both beauty and write words, showing herself above the laborer caste and indicating that she likely has a soul. There is no requirement that we understand the words for them to be knowledge shared in this fashion. These show values of scholarship, knowledge, and beauty.
“For the second test, in the face of danger to a stranger, to Venara, she went to the aid the other even at risk of her own life. And yet, she did not threaten violence by drawing her weapon even after she had called the wrath of the enemy upon herself. She saw to the safety of the other before her own. Courage, sacrifice, and restraint.
“And for the third test, you see. She did not respond to denial of the desired with violence, threats, or complaint. She asks to send word to her family…it honors her elders. I do not think that a normal Samurai could have responded thus. She must be Samurai-Brahmin.”
Yu’genta, for the first time, did not feel so foolish for taking in this fallen bird he had found in the forests. Perhaps there were things they could learn from each other. “What will we do now? Will we help her?”
Ou’bouji opened his mouth in a broad-toothed smile. “Yes, indeed, Yu’genta my friend. There is much we must speak of. If she desires to know us, we will guide her. And we will grant her what her heart hopes for.”
The winter wind whipped the battlements of Kyuden Hida, but the stoic Crab guards ignored it. To Harun, it always seemed that there was a taste of ash on the wind, despite the chill air and lack of fire Maybe it was the grit carried over the Shadowlands Waste. Maybe it was just a memory written into the very air. But at least it was outside, a place he could see the sky. On the southern horizon, the true strength of the Great Wall dwarfed all things before it. But there was always the wintery blue sky and the sleeping rice paddies. There was always the sea.
He was not the only one who had stepped out. A pair of Hiruma scouts, at least by the look of their light armor and mons, emerged from the steps onto the battlements only a few moments after he did. Harun gave them a nod to acknowledge their arrival, and one elbowed the other in the ribs and whispered something quietly. After some brief words were exchanged, they approached.
“Good afternoon, Kakita-sama,” the first said. “Congratulations on your part in the great Victory at Toshi Ranbo.”
Harun gave a non-committal hmmm and nodded an acknowledgement. Please go away. Please...just leave.
The second stepped closer. “We were wondering if you could tell us....”
“Pardon me.” A third figure dressed in elegant black court robes stepped up behind the pair of scouts and coughed to alert them of his presence. They both turned quickly away and their eyes widened. They bowed quickly.
A second later, Harun bowed equally deeply. “Lord Shibatsu.”
The daimyo of the Emerald Spider was an older man now, nearing retirement. The years had turned his black hair gray, put wrinkles into the corners of his eyes. His raiment was formal, but his smile was casual. With a gesture, he shooed off the Hiruma. “Friends, A moment to speak to the son of the Emerald Champion alone.”
Much to the Imperial Legionnaire’s relief, the Crab quickly retreated. A flick of the Susumu’s fan made it clear that Harun was expected to follow. He did so.
Shibatsu strolled casually along the battlements, apparently enjoying the view. He said nothing as they travelled towards the south wall. There, the brutal truth of Kaiu Kabe laid out before them, he spoke.
“The Crab bushi are quite interested in your accomplishments in Toshi Ranbo, Kakita Harun. You seem to have made an impression.”
Toshi Ranbo. “I did what I had to do, My Lord. I do not take pride in it.” Harun forced his voice to stay even.
“You removed quite the long-term embarrassment, both to your clan and to the Iweko, from what I have heard. You did as we all must,” answered Shibatsu, his black fan flickering as he gestured over at the Great Wall.
He’s comparing my actions to what the Crab do, Harun realized. He wasn’t entirely sure If it was an insult or a compliment.
Shibatsu swiftly changed subjects. “I find dealing with the Crab has historically been tedious. Their valor and sacrifice is of course worthy of praise and reward. And yet their disdain for honor and right behavior stymies the effort to reward them. To do so would make it seem that their disdain itself is being rewarded. Don’t you think?”
Harun blinked, uncertain at the sudden change in direction. “I…do not consider myself In a good position to judge.”
The Spider waved his fan dismissively at the Kakita mon emblazoned on Harun’s kimono. “Perhaps not yourself, but is it not the Crane’s duty to judge what is and is not worthy? To develop and advance the culture of the Empire?”
The Crane bushi suddenly felt very small, wishing he was somewhere else entirely. He could feel his father’s anger again. “I suppose.” It was all he could do not to mumble.
Shibatsu smiled, ignoring with good humor Harun’s obvious discomfort. “Well. The Crane and the Crab have their duties. My duties offer me a certain...latitude...in rewarding those who are worthy of reward, even if proper face requires their deeds be rightly condemned.”
Harun’s dark eyes were troubled, trying to figure out what Shibatsu seemed to be offering. He was about to say something when Shibatsu made a quick gesture with his fan.
“I do hope you find your assignment to Seawatch Castle pleasant, Harun-san. The ocean can be beautiful in the spring. But if you find your time there taxing, or if there is anything else that you might wish for, please do not hesitate to write to me. Some duties are a pleasure.“
Seawatch Castle? Harun inwardly groaned. Is that where my father has found to put me for my punishment? He knew that, in many ways, he deserved the assignment. But he could think of nothing that he could want from the Lord of the Spider. “I am very grateful, Lord Shibatsu. “ He bowed low. “I will obey my father’s orders gladly, if that is where he sends me. But I am grateful for the kindness of your offer anyway.”
Susumu Shibatsu tucked his fan into his obi, looking as though this was the answer he expected. “Another day then. For now...I think I shall go get some kave. Enjoy the view, Chui.”
He turned back the way he came, leaving Harun on his own to realize they had reached the Eastern Wall. He gazed eastwards towards the shoreline and the greedy gray sea.
Her first thought, even before she opened her eyes, was disbelief that she was actually still alive. The pieces of her memory were broken, shattered like chunks of ice across the surface of a thawing river. The flow of the river below…she remembered the pain, but it was dimmer now. Not like the days of agony that her mind hastened to shy away from. She felt her utter weakness and helplessness infuse every limb of her body. But she was alive. Weak. In pain. But alive. Then how?
When she did open her eyes, she saw the face of a being completely alien to her. He shook a rattle over her and made strange animal-like sounds. She was far too weak to rise. Her head still felt fuzzy, and there was something seriously wrong with her. Rather than startle or fight, she decided to be patient, to wait and to watch. She was alive; it was more than she had hoped for. She needed to conserve her strength and try to stay that way.
Over the next few weeks, the strange being cared for her with tenderness and skill. He was unlike anything she had ever heard of: shaped somewhat like a man, but with longer arms and shorter legs. He had a gray face with protruding jaw and heavy brow, coarsened with whiskers. He was covered with long fur that may once have been orange, but had faded mostly to gray. The room she was in was primitive indeed. But, on the other hand, it was completely filled with beautiful flowers. She had grown up with stories of Kenku and Kitsune, Kitsu and Nezumi. Although his strange appearance was startling, he did not frighten her. Arahime could not help but think that anyone who valued the beauty of such flowers had to be more than he appeared.
Still, the aching loneliness was a dragging burden on her heart. At first the pain, the boredom, the inability to communicate, and the knowledge that her daisho, which she had fought so hard to save, was lost somewhere in the jungle, drove her deeper into a cycle of despair she found it hard to shake, filled with grief and doubt. How would she return to her clan without her daisho anyway? With the weakness that filled her, could she even serve as a yojimbo any more? When the being showed her that her daisho, at least it brought her the relief that she had not failed so utterly, that there was still more to do. That gave her enough strength to break out of the darkness. That gave her purpose.
But it did little to alleviate the boredom. So weak that she struggled for breath, she knew she had to move, and yet knew she could not. When she saw her caretaker making baskets, it was at least something. She started to work. Then a little more each day. She needed to move to get back her strength. And in her, deep in the very core of her being, the need to do something, to make things a little better. It helped drive away the shadows and gave her some sense of accomplishment, however small.
Her caretaker, sometimes, seemed to understand a few words of what she was saying. But he refused to stay and listen to her, or make any effort to understand her. She tried as hard as she could, but she could not understand his speech, for he chose to rarely, if ever, speak to her. It seemed almost as if he wanted her gone. After her previous days of travel in the jungle, Arahime knew her chances were slim of making it alone, at least as wounded as she was. Better to accommodate his silence, but it was lonely.
It was a joy to finally be able to rise and move and care for herself and finally, finally, be able to leave the tree-hut in which she had been confined for so long. To bathe, to move, to even be able to take up the sword again, it was a freedom sweeter than anything she could have remembered. Just to be able to live, and move, in spite of the pain. And to dance the blade again. But in the dancing…her wounds still bound her. Lungs failed, breath failed She tired so quickly. The skin would break open again. But she was getting stronger.
And then another came. The spider had been terrifying, but she was samurai. Weak as she was, it was her duty to stand against all things of Jigoku to defend the weak, and the giant spider was surely of Jigoku. And even if it wasn’t, the one who was being threatened was of the kind that had protected her. She owed her caretaker her life. She would not allow harm to his helpless kin, if she could help it. She wasn’t entirely sure she could prevent it, given her weakness. But it had fled. She was fortunate.
And well rewarded. For the first time in months, there was another who would speak to her that understood her tongue. Who maybe could return her to Second City. There was finally a chance.
“What you want most now.”
Her heart swelled with hope as she leaned forward. “Please take me back to Second City. Please help me go home.”
The rejection stung like a blow. Like a prison door opened for the captive and then slammed in her face. Arahime’s immediate impulse was to lash out, or scream, but she was the one who was guest here. A guest treated well. Guests have obligations, and her personal pain was unimportant compared to that. But it was not their fault if these ones did not know where the city was. She could find ways to make that clear. “Do you know where it is?”
Maybe they are just frightened of going that far. Maybe if I get well enough, I can make it if they show me how. “Will you tell me how to get there by myself?”
Ideas flashed into her head of ways she could try to make them tell. Even if she was sick, and weak, she had the sword and ways to use it. But she was guest. And to do any bit of what was coming to mind was absolutely beyond dishonorable. Her body hurt so much an exhaustion claimed every piece of her. The despair of her situation overwhelmed her. As much as she desired to speak to anyone who knew her tongue, right at that moment, she couldn’t focus, could barely think. She returned to her cot and let the exhaustion take her. She might be able to think of something else in the morning.
When she awakened, her caregiver, Yu’genta, came and brought to her roasted plantain, laid out on a large leaf. He bowed, something he had never done before, and stepped away. The other, the one who had named himself Ou’bouji, approached and also bowed. He straightened and leaned on his staff. “We sorry for test. We can help. But want to talk better. You want to talk better?”
She blinked in confusion, their actions and words so different than their treatment the previous day and the despair she had almost consigned herself to. The promise of hope was far too sweet to resist. “Yes. I would like to be able to talk to you better.”
Ou’bouji bowed again. He turned and went to the corner of the hut, retrieving a large bundle wrapped in banana leaves and presenting it to her. “Here. Gift.”
Her response was almost automatic. “I could not. I am unworthy of such a gift.” A flush of heat went to her face as she remembered the differences in gift giving among the Zogeki. And whoever these beings might be were far more different still. What if they take offense?
But Ou’bouji simply offered again, “Yours. Gift.”
Far more cautiously she offered with hesitation, “You have done me so much kindness already. How could I want more?”
“Yours. Gift.” The monkey-like being offered the gift again patiently.
She bowed from her seated position on her pallet. “Then I accept. Thank you.” She opened the bundle that Ou’bouji offered.
Laying in the banana leaves, she found a bundle of pure white cloth, embroidered with golden thread. Real clothes! Joy burst in her heart. Arahime never in her life imagined being so grateful for just the simple pleasure of having real clothing to wear. It could be the finest kimono in the Empire and she could not treasure it more.
Lying on top of the bundle of clothing, there was a deep plain wooden box. She opened it. In it, the upper tray lay a wide necklace or collar, of a type completely unlike any found in the Empire. It was a full hand-length wide, made of clear and smoothly polished diamonds set in gold. There were eight medallions of ivory amidst the jewels, each carved to resemble a different kind of flower. From the bottom hung two strands of beads: shimmering pearls and green jade. At the center of the collar there hung a large tear-cut emerald encircled with tiny diamonds and gold set to resemble the lotus flower. It was a dark jungle green, broken inside with light reflecting off the numerous flaws in the crystal. At the back was an intricate gold clasp that looked like a lock. The piece was beautiful and strange, and she ran her finger across it curiously, a small crease between her eyebrows.
Ou’bouji nodded, while Yu’genta leaned in to look closer. “Put on. I explain. No harm.”
Do I trust? Is understanding worth the risk? Her heart knew the answer before her mind did. She had seen how fear of the unknown had caused needless pain. Harun. She lifted the necklace. There is always risk in choosing to understand. Someone has to take that risk. She set it around her neck, and let the two ends of the necklace click solidly into place at the back of her neck.
The necklace fit as though it had been made for her. The one who had given her the necklace raised his staff and brought it down with a thud on the floor. “Welcome, visitor from the foreign land of the samurai,” he spoke. Arahime’s mind reeled. With her ears, she knew he was not speaking Rokugani, but his own tongue of inhuman vocalizations. But some part of her mind, an inner voice, clearly understood him. It was not a simple translation of the words, for when he spoke the world welcome, her imagination supplied the image of a mother gesturing a guest inside for a meal. When he spoke the word Samurai, the image arose of a Spider samurai, brandishing a bloodied sword and glorying in the defeat of his enemy. She shook her head to clear it.
“What sort of magic is this?” she asked. She knew the words she spoke, felt them as her own, but they were not the words she spoke. Her ears heard similar sounds to that of Ou’bouji. She held her hand up to her throat in surprise, while her caretaker and this other both gave hoots that her own mind now understood as an expression of wonder and pleasure.
Ou’bouji gestured to the circle of heated stones, inviting her and her caretaker, Yu’genta, to sit. She rose from her bed, leaving the white cloth for the moment and the box, to join him. Once they had settled, he began his explanation.
“Since ancient times, our people, the Vānara,” 'The forest people,' that new voice in Arahime’s head interpreted as Ou’bouji continued, “have lived in these jungles. Until the time of the Great Destruction sixty years ago, the people of the Ivinda have been ruled by the Ikshwaku.” 'The Maharajah. ' “By tradition, the first-wife’s sons of the Ikshwaku are raised to be holy warriors fighting the creatures of the hells. A chosen son is granted the sacred tulwar,” the image of a strange, curved sword flashed in Arahime’s mind, “carried by the previous generation, to guide and aid them in battle.”
Arahime nodded her understanding, still getting used to this small bundle of knowledge that helped interpret for her.
Ou’bouji continued. “By tradition, the daughters of the first wife of the Ikshwaku, the Apsaras," 'Princesses,' the voice in Arahime’s head suggested, “are raised to be diplomats, sent among the nations to develop peace and understanding, so that war is not needed save against the creatures of hell. One chosen of each generation was given this necklace, blessed by the sacrifices of the previous generations and by the holiest Brahmin ,” 'Wise Priests' to help them understand and be understood by all peoples. Now, the Ikshwaku are gone, dead by the violence of the Ruhmalists,” 'The cultists of Kali Ma' “and the Vānara serve as guardians and protectors of their memories. Although the Ivindi are only children on the road of Dharma," 'Right living' "the Ikshwaku descend in part from Kesari and Añjanā, from the bloodline of the ancient Vānara. We have an obligation to keep any harm from coming from their legacy. The necklace is called the navrathran haar.” Your big sister… the voice translated.
His words seemed to make sense, but Arahime still was shaky in her understanding, and some words could not have been correct. Sister? She gestured to the younger with the large face. “You are Ou’bouji. And you,” she gestured to the old Vānara. “are Yu’genta. You are Vānara. You found me in the jungle and have cared for me, even though I am not Vānara. I am very grateful that you have saved my life, but I miss my people very much. My family I know will miss me too, and there is a man I have a duty to protect if I can. I would dearly like to return one day.”
Yu’genta gestured at his chest. “I found you. You were foolish to let the flies taste such a wound. You must seal such injuries with the gum of the breadfruit tree quickly. It will keep the maggots from breathing and catches them as they come out for air.”
I did not need that reminder. Arahime shuddered delicately.
Ou’bouji gestured over the heated stones, and the smoke swirled in strange patterns that filled the hut with symbols Arahime had never seen before. “You understand true,” he said. “But we do not know you. You carry the knives of Samurai. Samurai have marched through these jungles under a Spider banner, destroying all before them, including our own people. Some of us have reached out to yours in peaceand found themselves corrupted and made Shojo,” Those fallen to base desire and exiled, the calm voice in Arahime’s head interpreted. “But you do not act like them. Who are you?”
Once, being compared to the Onyx Spider might have triggered her hot temper, but it was such a relief to be speaking to someone, anyone, again that Arahime felt no heat at his honesty. “My name is Kakita Arahime. I am samurai, but samurai and…” she started to say ‘kuge’ but found herself instead making the words, “ ‘of the royal family’ of the Crane clan.” A desire to explain filled her. “We are nothing like the Spider. Our clan treasures peace, and trade, and beauty, and art.”
The Vānara seemed pleased at her explanation and gestured that she continue.
“I told you how I got here, and that is the truth. I do not know exactly what was behind the attempt that was made to kill me. I do not know if it was just the actions of one of the Arashi family, or if it was a decision made for all, or even for all of the Zogeki. I do not know what would happen if I return. But my parents serve an important role in the Empire. I serve the only diplomat of the Crane to these lands. I need to go back.” She made her plea one last time, the Vānara listening carefully to her every word.
Finally, Ou’bouji looked smugly satisfied, though Yu’genta still looked very concerned. Ou’bouji answered, “We cannot take you to this city. But this, we will do. We will take you to the nearest human. That one has been here a very long time. That one will know how you may go back to your people.”
He gestured. “You may take with you the navrathran haar, if you wish. With it, the Ivindi people may be willing to aide you on your journey and tell you if it is safe to return to Second City. The bearer of the navrathran haar is sacred to them. But it is ours to protect. If you leave with it, I will lock the clasp. Once locked, it can only be removed when you choose to break the lock. If you do so, it shall return to our care. Let no one spoil the legacy of the First Princess.”
Arahime held her hand to her throat again, uncertain. Jade, pearls, ivory. Such a thing was no tainted item. To be able to speak and understand…that was a skill of great value, one her father had tried to teach her though she lacked the gift, or the time to succeed given her duties at the Kakita Academy. But....
Yu’genta cut in. “She cannot travel yet. The journey is too difficult. She are still too weak from her long sleep. It would be at least another month of healing to travel, and it will take a month to reach that place. If those who seek to kill you are at the end…” he trailed off.
Arahime took a deep breath, or tried. The yawning emptiness of the left side of her chest and her empty lung forced again the consciousness of her terrible weakness upon her. If she were attacked, she might kill one in a single strike, but she could never take more than one, or a fight that extended past the first blow or two. She had no idea who her enemies truly were. She had to get stronger before she faced Second City.
And the idea of two more months trapped in silence was horrifying. ”I will keep the navrathran haar,” she answered quickly. “I will try to use it …” She wanted to say ‘with honor’, but the gentle voice in her mind whispered the words and shaped her throat to say, “along the path of dharma.” She knew it meant almost the same thing…but there were differences she did not understand. She fell into silence.
The old Vānara nodded. The younger, larger one said, “Very well. This path is chosen. As to your family, duty to family is of great virtue. Among the Vānara we have gifts that can send messages in dreams and prophecy. Show me your heart, and when it is time, I will send your message to those you love the most.”
Mother. Father. Masarugi and Hideyaki, my brothers. A heartbeat. Harun. “How do I show you my heart?”
Ou’bouji smiled amidst the symbols drawn in smoke. “You already have.”