Post by Hida Tetsuko on Jul 21, 2017 10:43:12 GMT 10
This is real growth for Arahime, she's learning resilience. This is the same girl who a year and a half ago (I think) was upset she didn't make her gempukku with Harun because she wasn't ready. And the following year was angry with him because he didn't make it back in time for hers. Much bigger priorities now.
Hida Tetsuko, Hida Pragmatist, Chuubushi, Kuge, Gunso of Teitetsu Platoon, Survivor of Isawa's Shadow
Seawatch Castle. Where the Crane had sent their embarrassments for many centuries. The blue sky here met the gray sea in endless curls of white foam that beat against the dark cliffs. The keep had been damaged in the tsunami that had ravaged Crane lands, so there was no place to escape the sound of the waves against the shore, even in his dreams.
Harun was dreaming.
Behind him, the ocean lapped a sandy shoreline. Before him the jungle was a solid wall of green, as impenetrable as Kaiu Kabe, as obscure as the mountains. As he walked towards it, its curtain parted slightly, and emerging from it a small figure, clothed in the pure white of death.
A white veil hung over her head, masking her face and hair completely. It could not conceal the curves of a female form. It not hide the cloth of white and gold that surrounded the figure’s waist, leaving the belly bare, or the chains of gold and jewels that encircled her hips. The figure cradled two katana in her arms. One was slender, wrapped with blue in a pearl-white saya. It looked familiar…Harun had seen that sword in the ancestral shrine of his aunt Kyoumi and uncle Kousuda’s home in Otosan Uchi. The other, however, had tsuka, tsuba, and tassel all of fiery orange, with a saya of purest copper tipped with small gold flames. It shone with an unearthly silver light that sent flickers across the white veil that shrouded the figure’s features.
He heard her voice, Arahime’s voice. “Harun-kun!” She sounded very far away.
He stepped closer. Could it be her? “Arahime-chan?”
She took a step towards him and suddenly she was very, very close. He could see the ornate jewels that crossed her brow, holding the veil in place. He could see more jewels on her hands, with rings on her fingers attached to chains that extended to bracelets at her wrists. He could hear her soft breathing, feel the warmth of her presence. He reached forward to touch the veil that hid her face, then gripped it and lifted it up.
She looked up at him. Those same wide almond eyes, gray as the sea on a cloudy day. Hair as white as the sea foam at the crest of the waves. But completely alien too. Around her neck, a heavy collar of diamonds and emeralds, ivory and jade, lavish with gold. And in one side of her nose, a large but delicate ring of pure gold, decorated with tiny pearls, attached by a chain to her hair above her ears. In her ears, earrings, ornate with jewels, hung.
He staggered back, completely shocked, “Arahime?” he asked again.
The one he thought he had always known gave a small, mysterious smile, reaching up to touch his hand with hers. “I am not dead. Please don’t forget me. I’m alive! I promised I would come back and I will. I’m trying to get back.”
At her words, he reached forward to grab her, to make sure she could not escape him, to make sure he would not lose her for even one more moment. But even as reached out, she disappeared in his arms like an illusion of mist and magic, the creation of one of his aunt Kyoumi’s stories.
Her words lingered on the sultry air. But his hand grasped at nothing. She was gone.
She’s alive! Harun awoke before dawn. The first real smile on his face for the for the first time in months. His hand still fresh from the touch of Arahime’s hand. She was different, not just the gaijin jewelry she wore, but she looked thinner, harder. She looked as if she had been through a great ordeal, she had survived but it had changed her.
And it was that, more than anything else, that convinced Harun that this wasn’t just a dream borne out of his own desires and fancies. That convinced him that Arahime was still alive. And that he had been right all along.
The question now, of course, was what to do about it.
His first instinct was to start a letter to his Aunt Kyoumi. Surely this would lighten the load of her new duties as the Voice of the Emperor. But he had scarcely put his brush on the page when he stopped.
How could he explain this properly? It seemed so silly when he tried to write it down. Harun knew that Arahime was alive, but somehow he couldn’t translate conviction onto paper.
And there was another reason he couldn’t say anything. He had promised his Uncle Kousuda that he would never speak of Arahime to Kyoumi. And even though things had changed, that he was now certain Arahime was alive, this wasn’t enough to break the promise he had made. Not when it still could cause so much pain.
Harun put down his brush.
Outside, the sun was rising above the sea. Another day was beginning at Seawatch Castle. Harun carried around the secret inside him without saying a word. However, more than once he caught himself thinking back to the previous winter. When he had been at Kyuden Hida. And remembering a conversation he had had with Lord Shibatsu, brother of the Emperor and Champion of the Spider Clan.
The two Vānara had left. Ou’bouji was once again on his way with promises to return in a month when Arahime was ready to travel. And Yu’genta was out foraging in the jungle. They left her alone to examine the rest of the gifts she had received.
She removed the tray in the box that had held the necklace and found below it many more pieces of jewelry. She picked up the first and largest piece, some sort of jeweled belt with dangling chains, meant to go around the waist. Its colors and style matched the necklace; it was clear all the pieces were part of a set. She wrinkled her nose. The Kakita of course knew she had an important duty of representing her clan, bearing herself with dignity as a representative of the Lady Doji. Many female courtiers wore some beautiful jewels. But these jewels were so lavish, so colorful and overdone. Even Harun would laugh at her if she wore such things. She took out a pair of large, dangling earrings such as the finest courtiers might wear. Fine battlegarb, Bushi, she smiled. A fine hoop of gold wire larger than a koku coin and attached to a chain followed. Three earrings? That’s different. A headpiece of jeweled gold disks. Rings and bracelets joined by chains, anklets and broaches. She pushed all the strange jewelry back into the box and shoved it aside. None of these were useful for travelling.
She pulled apart the bundle of white and gold cloth. Within there was a piece of clothing of some kind, similar to the gaijin tunics the heimen of the Ivindi wore, but made of gold cloth and very small. She pulled it over her head. It fit snugly about her, with sleeves that covered the upper part of her arms. It was not uncomfortable – indeed, it seemed to fit perfectly – but it showed every curve and barely reached the bottom of her ribs. It still felt good to have the wound on her back protected from view and further injury. A pair of finely embroidered cloth shoes fit her feet perfectly, though it felt strange to walk in them. There was a sheer white veil which she set aside. The only other thing within was a single very, very long piece of white silk edged with gold embroidery.
Taking the long piece of cloth, she tried to figure out a way to wrap it around herself to grant her at least some measure of modesty. She thought, perhaps, with time, a needle and thread she might be able to rend the delicate silk into some sort of wearable kimono, though her Crane blood was horrified she would consider destroying cloth of such beauty. Even if she had wanted to, however, she had no needle or thread. She needed to find some way to make this work intact. But her hands fumbled, and it slipped down after only a few steps. I can’t even walk in this!
‘Here, little sister. Let me help you. The voice was her own, the thoughts nearly indistinguishable from her own. But it felt as though another’s hands were guiding hers as they picked up the fallen fabric. Her hands, simply, with practiced skill, wrapped the cloth around her waist and pleated it smoothly in front of her, securing it with a small gemmed broach from the box of gems. More practiced pleats, and Arahime drew the cloth across her chest and over her shoulder, securing it with another broach. By the time she was done, all was secured and covered, and the duelist was able to move freely.
“What is this? How could this be?” Arahime said the words aloud to the empty room. “Who are you?”
A hesitation, and then the voice in her head answered, “My poor lost sister, to be raised in such foreign and violent lands. I made this sacrifice to help teach my younger sisters to learn all the things that you must know to create peace and prosperity for all people. I will teach you, little sister. Do not be afraid.”
I am afraid. Arahime thought about ripping off the necklace and sending it back to wherever it came from. But the specter of loneliness frightened her worse. She had not lied to the Vānara; the Crane valued peace and prosperity. All her life, all her mother’s life, they had lived in the shadows of war. The world had been shattered by it. Now, though, things were changing. It would be the duty of the Crane to rebuild the world again, and rebuild it in a different age, an age filled with gaijin and rinjin and Daidoji pepper and shattered Isawa and giant Kaiu machines. Her father had told her how difficult that would be. If she passed up this unique opportunity, it would be a loss.
If I could learn how to deal with the courts of Zogeku…maybe I can help Mushari even if I can’t fight properly. She brushed her fingers across the beads of jade and ivory, historically immune to the taint. It doesn’t feel evil. It doesn’t seem to be for evil purpose. Maybe I can use this to help my family. A twinge of pain in her chest, just the memory of the much greater pain she would feel if she pushed herself too far. Maybe I can still be useful to my clan, even if these wounds do not heal.
She did not take the necklace off. I never had a sister. I always wanted one. It would take time to get used to, but the Kakita was willing to learn.
Arahime picked up the jeweled belt. With no obi, she did not have much choice. She secured it around her waist, the jeweled chains flashing and sparkling at her hips. It was gaudy, but held firm and steady enough for her daisho. When she slid the blades into place, she almost felt whole again.
The cool nights and warm days of winter gave way to the heat of spring. Arahime poured her days wholly into regaining her strength and her training. She began to forage in the forest with Yu’genta, who showed her which foods were edible, which trees had healing properties. The old Vānara was crotchety and philosophical. He grumbled about everything, though never in Ou’bouji’s presence…the guru reminded him that one must receive one’s circumstances with acceptance. He told her of the great numbers of Vānara had been slaughtered by the Spider in the Empress’s name during the Age of Conquest, and how those who remained had hidden from the Rokugani, save for a few who had met with the Mantis before the Spider came. Those who had become cut off from their people fell to human ways, which from the way Yu’genta described them, were weak, violent, and decadent.
Arahime tried to explain to the old man that not all Rokugani were like the Spider. The warriors of Rokugan shielded the world against the forces of Jigoku. She spoke of the mysticism of the monks and the devotion of the shugenja and the discipline of the bushi.
Yu’genta, unimpressed, snorted and walked away.
Her dreams grew strange. Arahime rarely remembered her dreams, but those first few days after Ou’bouji had left were different.
She dreamed of her youngest brother, Hideyaki, dressed in red hakama and a white jubon, meditating in a large, cold chamber with heavy stone walls. She could see him perfectly in her mind’s eye: his curly brown hair and dark black eyes. Before him was a small red paper pinwheel. Her heart filled with fondness then pride, as the pinwheel started turning quickly in the windowless room. The boy allowed himself a small smile as he watched the pinwheel spin.
She dreamed of Masarugi, his wavey black hair cut short, as he practiced his kata side by side with another student. The student next to him was dressed identically to him, but Arahime knew immediately that the slightly chubby boy was Iweko Kiseki, oldest son of the Emperor. Both were doing well, but Masarugi had a grace, a gift, and the boken moved like it was made to be in his dark hands. Arahime always remembered Masarugi as a laughing child, full of fun and tricks, but this teenager was deadly serious. When Kiseki whispered some laughing comment, Masarugi shot him a glare. “Be serious!” That was not like what she remembered at all.
She dreamed of her father. He was arguing passionately with a Daidoji on a dock somewhere. By his mons, it was the Shireikan of the Iron Warriors, but surely Arahime was dreaming that, for she had never seen the man. Her father’s hair was much grayer than it had been at her Topaz Championship. Eventually, the Shireikan threw up his hands in defeat and gestured her father on his way. Her father bowed and continued up the gangplank onto the ship that was docked there.
She dreamed of her mother, but she could barely recognize her. She was dressed in a stiff, formal kimono in imperial jade and white, embellished with gold chrysanthemums. Her hair was dyed black, and was lacquered into an ornate style with jade hairpins. Her face had been painted white with lips of cherry red and gray eyes shadowed with blue. It was an expressionless mask offering nothing but beauty. Her mother stood at the top of three steps before a room full of elegantly dressed courtiers. At the top of the stairs, there was a heavy gold screen; Arahime could not see who was on the other side. Arahime knew it was her mother who stood there, could hear the warmth of her voice when she spoke. Even so, her mother seemed as distant as the moon.
And she dreamed of Harun. He stood balanced on a stump jutting out of the narrow beach near a heavily-damaged castle. He was gazing out to sea, eyes fixed on distant horizon. He was different too. His hair was long and curly. His scant beard had grown thicker. He had a pair of scars on his jawline that were visible because the beard had not yet hidden them. He wore a thick purple cloak, though his armor was sky blue. He balanced on one leg without the slightest waver, drawing and resheathing his katana in fluid motions.
She couldn’t tell what he was thinking. But he was alive.
When she told Yu’genta about the dreams, he shrugged. “Ou’bouji told you he would tell them you lived. He kindly shares them with you also. He may not have the skills En’you once had, but your samurai ways killed him. Ou’bouji is a wise teacher, and generally kind. You should be grateful.”
There were other dreams: of walking through the endless halls of a painted palace gilded with gold, of playing a strange stringed instrument, of dancing and making men smile until they agreed to do things they never would have otherwise. Those dreams weren’t like her at all. But she didn’t speak of those to Yu’genta.
A month had passed. Arahime and the old Vānara had prepared supplies for a journey, travelling further and further away from the hut to build the duelist’s endurance. The guru of the Vānara had arrived the night before, and they planned to depart at dawn before the heat grew intolerable. Yu’genta changed Arahime’s bandages one last time.
“Humm,” her caretaker made a thoughtful grunt.
She knew. “It’s not getting any better. My endurance is not returning. This wound is not healing, is it?”
Yu’genta shook his head. “No. It is not. I had to remove too much that had been poisoned. If I did not, it would have rotted and taken your life.”
She knew. “Will it ever?”
“Only Vishnu knows of forever. But not by any skill I know. It is healed that way now. It is part of you.”
The guru arrived, and, together, they headed into the jungle on ways known only to the Vānara. Arahime glanced over her shoulder as the little clearing in which she had lived for so long disappeared from view. I thought I knew who I was when I was brought to this jungle. But do I know who will emerge from it? Resolving to hide her weariness as best she could, she straightened and pushed forward on the path her caretaker’s had made. Someone who tried her best, she decided. That would have to be enough.
The ways of the Vānara are not the ways of man, and the face the jungle shows to the Vānara was not the face that had gazed upon Arahime when she had travelled it before. In many ways it was far less generous: Arahime had been fortunate to travel when fruit was in season; she doubted she would have found anything to eat in these days. But at the Vānaras’ touch the jungle did not hesitate to open other kinds of bounty of plants and foods she would not have considered edible until Yu’genta had introduced them.
Their passage was swift enough. Both of her caretakers knew of hidden roadways and secret bridges buried beneath the jungle plants, and it was on these roads that they moved. They walked or swung easily through the trees above. But Arahime’s ability to travel was hampered; she could not travel more than a few miles without resting. It made for slow going. The duelist knew that once it would have spurred her into hours of extra work just to hide her embarrassment at her weakness and out of impatience to get there. But she knew what death tasted like, now. She had to be gentle with herself or she would never reach Second City at all.
Ancient pillars of stone or fragments of buildings peaked out from under draping veils of green vines blessed with big orange and red blossoms. The carvings on them were eroded heavily with the passage of water and time, but sometimes Arahime could make out a few of the designs. She paused before one slightly less worn the others, gazing up at the line of swirling designs that decorated the top.
Yu’genta grumbled again when he realized she was not with them. “She stopped again.” He and Ou’bouji easily swung back to the place where she stood, a puzzled crease between her eyebrows.
“When the battle of the Jareshi river?” she asked.
Yu’genta made a low rumble in his throat. “About seven hundred years ago. A great war leader of the Rakshasa emerged with the goal of conquering all the lands east to Ivory Palace and slaying the maharaja. He hoped to free his brothers from Vishnu the Protector’s imprisonment, and his armies stretched to the horizon. He was defeated here. My mother was there. She was considered a great healer in her day.”
The girl nodded and turned away from the pillar, continuing along the path.
Ou’bouji watched the exchange with a private, knowing smile. “The Princess likes her,” he said softly, though his fellow could not overhear. She will serve us very well.
The Ivory Palace stood at the heart of the ruins of a great city that once dominated the countryside all around. The jungle, however, was quickly claiming the ruins and twisted trees and bushes grew in and amongst all the rubble of the city. Around the outskirts of the city, warning symbols and grim graffiti painted the walls of various buildings. Many shredded and tattered wards sought to repel ghosts and unnatural creatures, but Arahime could only hear the normal cries of jungle animals.
Towering above the jungle and the ruined city rose a huge staircase reaching upwards into the sky. When they reached the bottom of the steps, the Vānara stopped.
“We will go no further. At the top of the steps is the Ivory Palace of the Maharaja. When the cult of Kali-Ma gained in strength, we sought him out with our warnings, but we were ordered away, and we shall not return until a new Maharaja invites us to,” Ou’bouji told Arahime.
Yu’genta agreed. “The Samurai is inside. The samurai has been there many, many years. The samurai will tell you how to reach the sea, and Second City, and help you find your place. The samurai is very powerful and knows many things.”
“How do you know this? Which samurai is this?” Now that the moment was on her, Arahime felt a surge of both elation and fear. She knew she would face and defeat Purashi one day, but so much had changed.
Ou’bouji waved his hands in the air as if the questions were annoying insects. “Why? You will find out soon.” He then lowered his hands, and said, “We will not meet again, except in dreams perhaps. But it is your destiny to bring endings. May such endings be peaceful ones, and may they bring peace to all those who lie within the living.”
Yu’genta unshouldered the bag she had created long ago from her hakama once, now fully laden with fruits, vegetables, and starches for a journey. “There is food here, and medicine, and water, enough for a week, if the Samurai is unready or unwilling to travel. The sea is only three days south of here, along the royal road. Do not forget to treat your wound each day.” Arahime knelt on one knee before the old Vānara. “I won’t. Thank you, Yu’genta, one last time, for saving me.”
Yu’genta snorted. “Goodbye, Egret. You are a pretty enough bird. May Vishnu the Protector smile upon you. Do not damage my Dharma with your murdering ways!”
Arahime, used to such talk, gave a small smile. “I will try not to,” she answered quietly,reaching out to take the big Vānara’s hand. “Be well.”
The foolish old man did not answer, instead pulling his hand back and putting it over his eyes so he would not have to watch her leave.
The guru, Ou’bouji stepped forward. “Many blessings upon you. May you help lead the samurai of Rokugan far to Viveka, the path of discernment. Or at least help teach them the ways of non-Violence so they are not all lost. Goodbye, little one.”
Arahime bowed to Ou’bouji. She then straightened, shouldered the bag, and turned away, already setting her feet on the steps up to the Ivory Palace and its fabled ghosts and secrets.
The ruins were eerie now that Arahime was alone. From the steps, she could see the outline of the great city through the trees below her. She imagined it bustling with thousands of people. Warriors. Priests. Elders. Children. Thousands sacrificed for power, to summon the Goddess Kali-Ma. It was all silent and still now. Is that what it would be like in the Empire if Kanpeki had won? Is this what Yuhmi wants? She could not imagine.
The gates to the Palace had fallen down. Most of the gold that had leafed them had been scraped off by greedy looters…heimen or samurai, Arahime could not say. She could see places where jewels or sculptures had been broken away. A thick layer of undisturbed dust blanketed the remaining pieces of shattered furniture. The palace itself was dimly lit by shafts of sunlight piercing through holes in the roof. The ever-pervasive vines draped themselves near such pools of sunlight. Occasionally, she could hear the sound of a snake slithering away, or a rodent skitter out of her path, but otherwise, the palace was completely still.
“Hello?” Arahime called as she moved forward through the gloom.
There was no response.
The green gloom did not frighten her. There was an odd familiarity about the place. As a small child, she’d often been within the confines of the Imperial Palace in Otosan Uchi, though never in the forbidden areas reserved for the Imperial Household alone. Moving through these silent halls felt like she had passed the gate guards and was just venturing into new rooms in a place she had often thought of as home.
An unfamiliar broken polearm with three points lay on the floor before her, atop a large spot of smeared dark brown. A trishula, the voice in her head offered. It was quiet, hard to distinguish from her own thoughts, but Arahime could sense the sadness. This was Big Sister’s Home. No wonder it feels familiar. She took a drink of water from the gourd Yu’genta had given her and pushed on.
Led by instinct and half-forgotten memory, Arahime found herself approaching the columns of a vast audience chamber. A window made of diamonds of stained glass cast rainbows of light throughout the room. The walls were painted with many pictures of strange, alien gods and goddesses with many arms, holding flowers and weapons and musical instruments. But the paint was flaking off, and many of the tiny panes of glass were broken. Vines and flowers curled around some of the broken pillars and statues at the edges of the room, these blooming with tiny white flowers that looked like stars. The duelist walked forward slowly, gray eyes wide with wonder.
At one end of the chamber, below the stained glass, seven steps of scarlet tile led up to a similarly-tiled dais. Rotted pillars, still flaked here and there with gold, no longer held the broken lattice-work canopy that stood over the place. Jewels clearly had pocked the whole canopy over, but they had all been stripped now. One or two, glistening, remained, but Arahime refused to touch them. She drew her hand away. “This would have been amazing, once,” she said aloud.
“So pass Emperors and Maharajas and Gods and Men.” The voice was old, ancient even, hoarse from disuse.
Arahime whirled, trying to find its source. “Who are you?” she said, her eyes making patterns out of shadows. “Are you a Samurai of Rokugan?”
One of the piles of vines she had dismissed as an overgrown statue moved slowly, pulling away the vines that had concealed it with a wizened hand. “Yes.” The voice was like the sound of the wind rattling the dry leaves of autumn: peaceful, ancient. Arahime hurried closer to help.
Once the vines had been pulled away, the light of the stained glass window revealed a very old woman who had been almost completely hidden by the plants growing over her. A hood was pulled far down over her face; Arahime could barely see her wrinkled lips, pursed with thought. Her hands were webbed with veins. The cloak she wore covered her completely. It was ragged with the passage of time and the jungle’s humidity. A naked katana lay in her lap, her hand resting lightly on the black-wrapped tsuka decorated with a red tassel.
Arahime took a step back, remembering her courtesy. No matter who this person was, to have reached such an age, to have been here so long, surely demanded her respect. The Vānara spoke of a powerful and trustworthy samurai. The Crane gave the woman a very deep bow.
“Honored Elder,” Arahime said, presenting herself as is right for an inferior samurai. “My name is Kakita Arahime of the line of Kashiwa. I am honored to be in your presence.”
The old woman slowly reseathed her blade in a black saya encrusted with pearls. “So polite, Crane. It has been many years. What brings you to the Dead Kingdom?”
Arahime hesitated. She was not wearing her mons or kimono; she had nothing to explain herself but her daisho and her white Crane hair. If the old woman could see at all with her hood pulled that low. What can I say really? She settled on a simple version of the truth. “I am only just past my gempukku from the Kakita Academy, Honored Elder. I was sent to be Yojimbo to the Crane Ambassador to Zogeku, Doji Mushari. I…fell…overboard, and was lost in the jungle.”
The old woman smiled gently. “I can tell you are alone, Kakita Arahime-san. I can tell you are young. I can hear in your voice that you have not been in the Ruined Kingdom for long. You have the chi of a bushi trained. I can tell there is Shiba in your blood. These old eyes, if blind, see more than perhaps you might think. My name is Shiba Tsukimi. Have you heard of it?”
The Crane’s eyes widened with surprise and she threw herself down in the full bow appropriate to a Clan Champion. “Of course!” she offered. “The missing Champion of the Phoenix! I didn’t realize!”
Tsukimi made a gesture with her hand indicating that she should rise. As Arahime did so, the Phoenix Clan Champion then pulled back her hood. She wore a red blindfold over her eyes, and her long hair was thin and gray. She must be a hundred years old!Arahime realized with wonder.
“Come. Sit with me. Tell me of your journeys,” Shiba Tsukimi gestured to a place opposite her on the step. “There is wood there for a fire. You are hungry.” She pointed over at the shattered remnants of a cabinet across the room. “The mysteries of the Path of Man transcend the desire for base comforts like food or companionship. But such comforts are…nice…at my age.”
Arahime did as she was bid, forced to admit to herself that she was getting very tired and hungry anyway. Yu’genta had shown her how to start a fire, so she cleared a space around the ancient Champion and laid out a meal for them to share: manioc cakes and roasted poon tree seeds, lotus root baked in the coals and strips of dried bael fruit. She felt a little rush of nervousness as she presented the meal on a banana leaf to the Champion. She had walked in the halls of power of Otsan Uchi. Her mother served the Chosen. She had served as assistant instructor for the Emperor’s oldest son, and her younger brother was Kiseki’s classmate and best friend. But those relationships were all strictly bound by tradition and the laws of courtesy. Here, the Phoenix Champion was just a person, a strange old woman in a jungle temple. There were no rules for this.
For her part, Tsukimi seemed happy to let propriety fall, complimenting her fire-making skills and the food that had been prepared and telling a story of a time soon after her own gempukku as a bushi fighting the Yobanjin. With gentle encouragement, she drew Arahime’s story from her. Arahime told her of her family and being sent to the Colonies, of Doji Mushari and the arranged marriage, and being thrown overboard by Arashi Parushi. Of surviving, wounded, and of the Vānara who cared for her and brought her to the palace. Tsukimi listened attentively through it all.
“And how goes the war?” Tsukimi asked when it she was done. “I was in Second City with Isawa Shunryu when the Emperor’s edict was declared, ordering the surrender of the Elemental Masters. We decided that he should deliver himself to the Emperor’s mercy and join the Brotherhood, and he has told me of the affairs of the Phoenix Clan. But he is closely watched and rarely comes with news from the rest of the Empire.”
Like most of her classmates, Arahime had eagerly followed every rumor of the war that she could glean from her sensei at the Academy, and what little news letters from her parents or Uncle Karasu might reveal. But she was still considered a child until her gempukku, and then she had been sent far away. “I don’t know what you already know Shiba-sama. There is so much, and for most, I only know what I have been taught…”
The Shiba’s lips curled upward as she warmed her hands by the small fire although it was not cold. “Then tell me everything. For, by your years, I think you were not even born when the Emperor’s Judgement upon the Phoenix was announced, and it would be interesting to hear the perspective History will make of it.
Kakita Arahime drew her knees up. Where to begin? “I will try, Shiba-sama.” She took a deep breath, focused on the firelight, and began the tale.
“I suppose I can start at the Winter Court where the Edict that deposed the Council of Elemental Masters was passed. The Lord of the Dragon had called the clans together to Winter Court before the Emperor to unite. That is where my father, Ide Kousuda, met my mother, Kakita Kyoumi, and married into the Crane. I was born the following year.
“There had been a peace, but I know fighting began that spring. Daigotsu Kanpeki, the Onyx Lord, struck with great fury the summer after the Winter Court. Thousands died. But the greatest target of his wrath was the Scorpion who had betrayed him. He was thwarted by the Scorpion Daimyo, Bayushi Nitoshi, who struck at him with some terrible poison. It did not kill Kanpeki, but made him insane, shattering his mind but leaving his body living. Nitoshi was killed for it, most of the Scorpion that had followed Kanpeki were slaughtered by the Onyx forces. After that, the Onyx armies became erratic, misguided. They began fighting among themselves, or moving in strange directions for no reason, as if the forces of Jigoku did not know how to fight together without one will to guide them. They were still terribly strong though, and the lands suffered greatly.
“At that winter court, thanks to the forgiveness and grace of the Fire Dragon, it was learned that the seals that bound Jigoku could be resealed. I know they first tried the ritual at the location of the seal in Crane Lands the following spring. There was a terrible battle as the Onyx tried to stop them. It took two more years for the shugenja to figure out how to reseal the site of the seal in Mantis lands. I am told the Phoenix Shugenja who still served were able to raise it from the ocean floor while the fleets kept the shadow-tainted sea monsters away. As each seal closed, the power of Jigoku grew less, and that, combined with the Onyx Lord’s mad behavior, greatly weakened the forces of the Onyx.
“The third seal was deep in Shinomen forest. The Crab were able to create a huge siege as a bluff, Sensei Kenshin said, while a small scouting party was able to locate the site itself and seal it. But when they did so, they realized that there were two other seals...that there had once been a seal for each element, but the remaining two seals had not been previously known.
“The year I started at the Academy, the Dragon determined that the site of one of the remaining seals was the Second Festering Pit in Scorpion Lands. It was Kanpeki’s study of this seal, broken by the fall of the Destroyer, that led to his learning of the Seals and their power in the first place. But the Second Festering Pit was deep in Onyx Lands. The Shogun, Akodo Kano, raised a mighty army from the Imperial Legions and the Lion to capture and seal the Pit, but they were defeated. Kanpeki was killed, during the battle I suppose.
“Many people thought, even after this defeat, with Kanpeki dead things would get better. But it got much, much worse. Famine struck again; I know our sensei went hungry. The Unicorn Lands, Scorpion Lands, and much of Crane lands were still tainted. The armies of the Onyx were able to rally in a way they had not in the previous years. They were weaker; three seals after all had been closed, and the forces of the Empire were united against them. But the Empire lost much of the ground that had been retaken. As children, we were sheltered from it, but even the Academy had to be evacuated twice. I remember my mother speaking of terrible fighting amongst the clans and between the Shogun and my Uncle Karasu, the Emerald Champion, as people tried to determine who to blame. Much later, we were told that a new being, as much oni as man, by the name of Yuhmi, had taken Kanpeki’s place. He had risen as the new Lord Onyx.
“Even so, the forces of the Empire were able to push back and capture the Second Festering Pit and seal it four years later. The Shogun died heroically in battle the following spring, and a new Shogun, Utaku Chikara, was picked by the Emperor. That ended the infighting also. It took another year to locate the site of the last seal: a secret temple in Moto lands. I don’t know how it was found. But the Unicorn took the site and sealed it four years ago this spring.”
Arahime took a sip of water from her drinking gourd. “The fighting did not stop, but hope survives. Yuhmi still controls the Onyx, though they draw their forces in towards the Shinomen and Toshi Ranbo. Harun...” she paused, trying to hide a blush she was somewhat certain that Tsukimi could see despite her blindfold. “...I mean, I have friends who were going to be deployed in the Imperial Legions. So the battle goes on. I do not know what will happen next. There were hopes to kill this oni that leads them, and to, somehow, purify the lands and reconcile the heavens with the earth again. The shugenja still preach of the failure of the samurai, but we do not know what to do.” She shakes her head. “I’m not a shugenja. Maybe not even a bushi any more. I don’t pretend to understand the Heavens, so I just try to serve with honor and follow in the path of my ancestors as best I can. That is everything I know.”
Shiba Tsukimi was silent throughout. When the young woman had finished, she gave a small, sad smile. “Appeasing the heavens. Even the Fire Dragon can forgive us, but how do we forgive ourselves for our failures?”
The pain in the old woman’s voice stirred Arahime to try to offer comfort. “All the clans failed, Tsukimi-sama. It was not just the Phoenix. All the clans are trying, now. If the heavens are still angry with us, they should tell us what to do. Otherwise, we can only do the best we can.”
The Phoenix Clan Champion closed her eyes. “Maybe they have told us, and we are too frightened to listen.”
Arahime did not know what to say. The sun had set and she gazed at the fire and the outlines of the old woman engulfed in shadow in silence.
After a time, the Champion caressed the katana she held one last time. “Thank you for sharing your meal and the news with me. It would have been nice to see Shunryu again, but I am certain for a Master of the Void, nothing is ever far from his gaze. I think...I would like to sleep now. Do you sing, young Crane?” The question was strange, and Tsukimi’s voice had grown weary. It seemed, for that moment, that the Champion of the Phoenix really was just an old, tired woman who wanted to rest.
“I know many songs,” Arahime confessed. “My mother loved to sing. But I am not very good at it.”
The old woman lay down on the ground near the fire, wrapping herself in her cloak. “Please sing to me, Arahime-chan. We have been away for so very long.” She rested her head on her hand, speaking in sleepy whisper.
Arahime blushed. Her voice was certainly nothing worthy of merit by the standards of the Kakita. But how can I deny such a request? She tried to think back to the songs her mother had sung her as a little child. One, she remembered, had come from her mother’s years at Kuyden Shiba among the Shiba Artisans.
I am a child of the sea. In the pine-covered seashore which white waves wash upon, there is a humble home, and smoke comes out from its window. That is my dearest old home. Right after I was born, I took my first bath in sea water, heard the sound of the waves as lullabies, breathed the sea air which was carried over a long distance, and grew up as a child. The strong smell of the sea is like the fragrance of flowers that never fades throughout the year. The wind that sways the pine branches upon the shore sounds like wonderful music to my ears.
She fell silent. The old woman had fallen asleep, curled up peacefully with the sword she bore. Arahime curled up on the other side of the fire, holding her own daisho protectively. Maybe she will be able to tell me how to get back to Second City in the morning.
The voice was deep. Powerful. Serene. Arahime opened her eyes.
It was still dark. A few stars twinkled through the small gap in the cracked dome of painted sky. On the ground before her, the fire glowed as a handful of rosy embers.
Across the fire, she could see the cloak that had covered the old woman, but she was not there. Arahime sat up, laying her hand on her saya.
Standing over her was a tall shadow barely visible in the dim light. The shadow walked to the small pile from the broken cabinets, picked up an armload of wood, and returned, setting the biggest piece on the low coals. The dry wood crackled into life with a burst of flame and a small shower of sparks.
In the brighter glow, Arahime could see that the shadow was really Shiba Tsukimi. But not as she had left her. This woman was old, true, but strong. She stood straight, like a trained soldier, and carried the wood like a bushi half her age. Her daisho rode easily at her hip. Arahime rubbed her tired eyes with the back of a hand and climbed to her feet. “Tsukimi-sama…has something happened?”
The deep voice answered, the Phoenix reaching out a hand to rest it on Arahime’s shoulder. “Tsukimi-san has finally decided that the time has come for her to lay down her burden and rest. She at last realizes that it is time to let me go.”
Arahime looked up into the taller woman’s face with eyes still hidden behind the blindfold. Confusion occluded hers. “I don’t understand. I am sorry.”
Tsukimi-not-Tsukimi gave her a sad smile, filled with compassion, and lowered her hand. “You may be Doji’s Daughter, Arahime-chan, but your grandmother, Nejin, was one of mine, and you have her smile. I have never forgotten even one of my children. None of us have. Perhaps that is why it has been so hard for us to leave you. There is duty and honor and glory in Tengoku. But the virtues of Ningen-do are love and death, and Ningen-do is a jealous realm. To touch Ningen-do is to know love. It is a hard thing to let go. ”
To say it aloud seemed like utter foolishness. But here, in the quiet darkness so far from everything she had ever known...she could accept that. She thought she understood. “Shiba-no-kami?” Arahime fell to her knees and pressed her head to the floor.
“Yes. Rise, little one. I do not want to fail to do what I must any longer than necessary, for your sakes. Tengoku is closest to Ningen-do at dawn. You must listen now, and do as I say.”
Arahime straightened, still kneeling before the Champion. “Hai!”
“You will go to Second City on the first day of Summer Court and present yourself to the Warlord. Powerful representatives of all the clans will be there, as will representatives of the Emerald Champion and of the Brotherhood of Shinsei.” Tsukimi Shiba paced with a calm energy as she spoke.
“You will need proof.” She stripped the blindfold from her eyes. They were a mass of hideous scars, destroyed by the poison of a Scorpion’s blade. She carefully folded the red strip of cloth and handed it to Arahime. “That will serve.” Arahime reverently accepted the blindfold, still not entirely certain she was not dreaming.
The Phoenix turned and went to the place where Arahime first saw the old woman wrapped in ivy. She bent and pried a stone from the floor, itself hidden under the vines that had concealed Tsukimi. She pulled a wood and cloth prayer satchel from under the stone. Then she strode back towards the kneeling Crane.
“Within this satchel are letters. They are not for you. They regard the future governance of the Phoenix clan and the Shiba family. Much sorrow has come because the Phoenix look outside themselves to find the wisdom to stay their hand. They have always relied on me. I have loved them and not abandoned them. Even when my mother called me home, I heard their cries and returned to guide them, as we always have.” She gave Arahime the satchel. “The heavens groan with the lessons they failed to learn, for we were always there. We withdrew to see if they would find their way without us. The pain of such testing may have torn the Phoenix apart, but they are rising again, without us.”
Arahime, gray eyes wide, accepted the satchel also, carefully setting the blindfold on top of it.
“I do not want to leave,” Tsukimi-not-Tsukimi said aloud, still pacing. “But the influence of Tengoku must decrease if the influence of Jigoku is to decrease. We disrupt the balance. Hantei understood this. All of us followed in our turn, even Shinjo, but love keeps calling us back. The touch of Ningen-do is strong. Tell them I do not abandon them...I hear their prayers even now, and I will when I stand with the Fortunes. Tell them...”
She looked down at the young woman with wide, innocent eyes who clearly understood very little, and gave a crooked smile. “The letters say what must be said. I consign my clan to the Brotherhood of Shinsei. Shinsei will help them make their new way.”
“Yes, Shiba-no-kami,” Arahime accepted the burden, numb in her confusion but humbly accepting the task she was given.
The Phoenix Champion looked satisfied.
“There is one last thing you must carry. Ofushikai,” She gestured at her obi and the pearl-encrusted sword that hung there, “and I are bound. It must come with me. But return this gift of the Heavens to my clan and it shall stand in Ofushikai’s stead, so the Phoenix know that they have been forgiven.”
The Champion held out her hand. A radiant light began to form under her fingers. The light grew brighter and brighter until Arahime had to hide her eyes from the silver glare. When she lowered her arm, the Champion held in her hand a katana, simple in appearance, with a copper saya and wrapped with orange silks. An orange tassle hung at the end. “This is Keitaku. I removed it from Midoru’s shrine when the Masters bound the Fire Dragon. It is time for it to be returned. I will pay any remaining price for my people to appease the heavens. And then we shall let a new balance be formed.” The sword lost its brilliant silver glow as Shiba passed it into Arahime’s trembling hands.
Arahime just nodded, dazzled and overwhelmed with the responsibility.
The Champion looked around the room, but could see no task remaining that had not been completed. The sky that peeked through the cracks in the dome above was beginning to brighten, though the sun had not yet risen. They sky was growing pale. “One last task for you, Little One. When these things have been returned, you must go to my sister. She has been dreaming for many years, but it is time to awaken. It is time to go home. Tell her I will wait for her there. Will you tell her this?”
“Yes, Shiba-no-kami, I will tell her.” Arahime answered, before her mind could really comprehend what she had been asked to do. She had no idea what Shiba was asking of her, knowing only that she would try her best to do it, even if it cost her life.
Shiba Tsukimi smiled, gazing down at the young woman. “You will understand. Be wary of that gift you wear. Even Doji’s daughters can lose their way gazing at foreign stars. But I do not think it would displease her. Farewell, Little One.”
The Phoenix Champion turned away, slowly ascending the steps of the dais to the place where the shattered throne once stood. She drew Ofushikai from its saya and held it up to the growing light. As the first rays of the rising sun streaked through the cool, jungle-claimed ruined palace, its light caught on the shining steel and flashed brilliantly.
Arahime blinked. When she opened her eyes, Shiba Tsukimi was not there. A tumbling cascade of peach blossoms fell from the dais, blowing and spilling all around her and filling the tropical air with the smell of springtime...and the sea.
The sun had climbed even higher in the sky before Arahime stood, still dazed at what had just passed. Had that really happened? But there was no denying it; the satchel, blindfold, and sword lay on the ground beside her in the empty throne room.
“You never told me how to get to Second City from here…” she said aloud.
Well. This is a problem.
For a time, she wandered through the great palace, though she did not know what she expected to find there. Overgrown gardens bursting with flowers, empty kitchens with broken dishes and dust, decayed chambers where once a noble court walked, but no trace of the passage of other people, at least not for many years. She returned to the throne room.
Sitting down next to the spot where she had found Shiba Tsukimi amongst the vines, she rested her chin in her hands tiredly. As she had been walking, her problem became more and more apparent to her. She had food for five days. Better than being here with nothing, but not enough that she could afford to stay for long. She could strike out into the jungle to find more, but she knew, better than anyone, how dangerous the jungle could be. Her stamina had been badly damaged by her injury, and she had barely survived before. Still, the Vānara had told her she was not far from the shore and more inhabited lands. She could reach the shore. But what then?
She had been so concerned with surviving and getting to Second City, she had not considered what she would do when she got there, other than dueling Parashi. To her, it didn’t matter before: she figured that she would find out where the politics of Second City stood by speaking to the local Samurai or Heimen and then determine an approach from there. But that was before she had been entrusted with the Celestial Sword of the Phoenix and Shiba’s letters, and that changed everything.
If Zogeku had decided on conflict with the Empire, those items could be held hostage over the Phoenix. Certainly their political leverage was vast. Even a single samurai or rinjin without honor could find great glory in taking them for himself, killing her, and presenting the bequest of Shiba as given to him. It would be a great temptation to any samurai, and as for her….she was already dead. If she were slain to win such glory, no one would ever know. And her recent experiences of rinjin honor found it very wanting.
She would like to think she could defend herself against an attack, but she knew in her heart that, while she might have once, that path was not open to her any more. Any such fight would be to the death, and she had drunk far too deeply from that well not to know that it lingered near. She simply did not have the stamina needed for such an encounter. It would be a great challenge just to defeat Purashi, though one she was determined to do, no matter the cost.
That left remaining hidden until the beginning of Summer Court. She didn’t know the date, exactly, but that could be some time. Even if she went directly to honorable samurai of the Phoenix, the ones to whom the sword belonged, she still could not fulfill Shiba’s will. Shiba had ordered her to present herself and the sword to the Warlord on the first day of Summer Court. The Phoenix would definitely not wish to do so and would take the blade from her. She had to hide from everyone until Summer Court, but still gain entry to the Warlord’s presence on the first day. In Rokugan, she had allies and friends. But here, there was no one but Doji Mushari, who might himself be dead.
Arahime buried her head in her hands, remembering the giant snake and the vast open wilderness that she had been trapped in. She had survived that, but even if she could get past the jungle between her and Second City, a jungle of politics awaited her. And that, she knew, could be just as deadly. I don’t have a single ally. What am I going to do?
You are Apsara, daughter of the Ikshwaku. Of course the people will protect you. The voice in Arahime’s head, which she had dubbed Big Sister, was calm and confident.
Arahime had not tried to actively seek out the knowledge of the navrathran haar. Such gaijin magic carried risks that should not be taken lightly. But Arahime realized that even long-dead princesses might be able to help her, and this was the only tool she had left. “Big Sister?” she said aloud, her voice small in the vast throne room. “Do you know how to get to Second City from here?”
There was a pause. I do not know this Second City. There was no city called such that I remember.
That makes sense. Arahime lifted her head. Even if she did not know specifically where she was, she knew in general that it was unlikely she was carried across the river. “What about to the river? The great river that lies to the east? Or to the sea to the south, if that is closer?”
There was a warmth in the tone of Big Sister’s thoughts as she answered. Each year at the beginning of summer we would travel the Road of Holy Pilgrims to reach the sea to the south and make salt. The fishing villages to the south are near the mouth of the Narmada river. It is only a few days travel and is an easy road.
The Kakita felt an initial wave of relief. It was too late in the day to start now, but at least she did not have to worry about finding food if she could get to the shore. She had seen small Ivinda fishing villages near Suitengu’s Torch on their journey west. But that left the question of allies, reaching Summer Court unnoticed, and receiving an audience with the Warlord still unresolved. But Big Sister had said…
“Which people would protect me? Would they help me?” Arahime asked the empty air.
Our people. The Ivinda. Of course, you wear a barbarian’s face, growing up in such wild lands. But if it was clear to them that you had been chosen by Lakshmi to bear the navrathran haar, that your desire was to bring prosperity and justice, then they will remember. They would not forget the Apsara so easily. You must convince them. But I may help. Do you wish me to?
To accept help from a mysterious artifact and the woman who seemed to lie within was dangerous, and Arahime was not about to give an unqualified yes. However, no matter how she played the angles out in her mind, she could not see any other prospective allies who would have reason to protect her and take her to the Warlord. “Show me.”
Big Sister offered calm affirmation. First, we must find a proper place to make preparations and sleep. Let us see if one of the Chambers of Bliss remains unsullied.
Following the guidance of the the navrathran haar, Arahime went exploring deeper into the Ivory Palace, lighting a torch to venture into the darkness. Finally she reached a painted wall of rough-cut stone, similar to the stone on either side. But Big Sister pointed out two small holes in the stone. She reached in and each finger found a metal latch. When she pushed both latches at the same time, the stone loosened and she found that it rolled along a hidden track. She pushed it aside and went inside.
The chamber had been left almost untouched by the passage of time. Rich, heavy carpets covered the floor instead of tatami mats, and only a few mice had been able to chew at the edges. She lit the lanterns that hung from brackets on the walls and extinguished her torch. A large teak and gold cage filled one corner of the room, though she felt Big Sister’s amusement as she told her it was a bed. Exploring the cabinets in the cage, Arahime found a large, very soft futon that had been stored away in a box made of cedar. After so many months of sleeping on rushes under a coconut fiber blanket, the softness of the futon was heavenly.
A finely painted stand held a basin and pitcher for water, along with a low, padded stool and a large round mirror. Arahime knelt down to look at herself for the first time in many months. Her hair had grown much longer, but the humidity had made it curl as much as her father’s. She was thinner, her skin pale due to the change in her diet and the time that she had been hidden out of the sun as she recovered; all the darkening of her skin from her days aboard the boat was gone. There were red pocks where the biting insects had demanded their share. The clothes she wore, the Ivindi garments, were, miraculously, only stained and not torn from her journey through the jungle. Her gray eyes were tired. It’s a good thing Harun can’t see me like this. He’d be horrified. She smiled to herself, knowing that that was a lie. Harun wouldn’t care about little things like that. She was alive, and that was really what counted.
You will need to look like an Apsara. You have a barbaric beauty about you, Little Sister, but wearing the sari is insufficient. Most will not have seen the navrathran haar to recognize it. You must pierce your ears and nose to show your favored daughter status. You are not a concubine, after all.
Arahime’s eyes widened and she covered her nose with her hands protectively. “My nose?!” she squeaked. As a bushi, of course she’d seen duelists who had suffered far greater injuries to their faces in the cause of serving their lord, and such was a sacrifice that all had been instructed to expect. And she had heard of piercing the ears as courtiers do. But…
Of course. Only the daughters of a true wife are permitted to wear the Nath.
It was a small enough injury, and Arahime had become well versed in purifying her wounds. She had to laugh a little at the idea of marching into Summer Court looking far more gaijin than any rinjin ever had. Once her mother told her the story of a crow that stole the feathers of an eagle to take a message from Shinsei up to Tengoku for him. If a Crow can disguise himself as an Eagle, surely a Crane could disguise herself as a Peacock for a time in order to carry her own message to the Phoenix.
“Very well. What do I do?”
First…we wash. You are filthy, Wild Princess. Let us seek out some water.