The vampire is waiting for me when I open the door to the basement, off to the left, away from the light.
“I was starting to think you’d never come.”
“I debated it. Got held up.”
“I can see that… Should I be concerned?”
“No. Back to the Depths with it. I’m starting to put a picture together of what this guys is doing, and I don’t like it.”
“Let me guess, just enough to be dangerous type?”
“What was your first clue?”
“He seemed… apologetic, when he kidnapped me. As though he didn’t really mean it but didn’t have a choice. When you know what you’re doing there’s a little bit more resolution to your actions.”
“I think he’s using the dead to get revenge on the living that have wronged him. But those deals tend to escalate quickly.”
“Well… while I certainly could eat a whole wheel of cheese right now, shall we?”
I nod and turn around. “There’s a lot of bright spots and reflected light filtering through the building, but I imagine he’ll be back here later tonight, so I don’t have another option to get you out. If you can run through the hallway half a floor up you can get to the service elevator…” I can feel her breath of my neck. Tense.
“And ride it up to the second floor?” Her voice runs along my flesh like satin, with an edge of diamonds caught in lace spiderwebs. Its a voice that could turn lumberjacks into simpering sycophants. I think about her face, what I saw of it, contorted by hunger.
“Yes.” My voice still cracks. I cough. “I’ll leave now and pull the blinds on the hallway window. 22A is on the right. Give me a count of 60 before you head out.” I start walking up the stairs. When I get to the normal elevator I toss the coffee into a waiting trash can, and run up the stairs the rest of the way. Halfway down the hall, I hear the service elevator door open and sprint the remaining distance, tossing my shirt up over the window to help obscure some it. She runs out the hall and into 22A, breaking the lock as she goes. When I hear the door click, I take the shirt down, putting it on while shivering. When it comes down off my face there’s a young man staring at me.
This time, my brain isn’t hyper alert, I’m not thinking of an excuse as to why my shirt was off, or why I’m putting it back on, I’m just staring back at him and waiting till he breaks the silence.
“What’re you doing?”
Still can’t think of anything. I can hear a whisper from the door of 22A, “There was a perv taking pictures on the street, thought I’d give him something to take pictures of.” He doesn’t respond, so I repeat what the whisper said. He nods, apparently not having heard it the first time.
“Fair enough. Wish I’d seen it though.” The dude shrugs then turns towards the stairs, and continues out the building. I shake my head and prepare myself to go into 22A.
Through the hallways, only slightly different from what I felt earlier traveling through as a ghost. More real, vibrant in the quick. My pulse is speeding up with the impending sense of conflict. I know what to expect, I know not to be ambushed, and my body responds by being hyper-alert. Eyes darting from movement to movement, stomach clenched, skin tingling. I start at the door to 22A. Heading down and mapping the spots of sunlight. Only problem is everything here is too bright, reflected light off of floors and white-washed walls now yellow. Move faster, I think to myself. I want to forget about the vampire, find someplace isolated and face down this thing that’s coming for me. I’m not sure why I want to save that thing, other than wanting to stop whatever this guy is doing. Making friends is a good thing right?
Only if they’re actually friends.
When I get to the first floor hallway, I realize that whatever it is, it’s here, and its not looking for me, its looking for it. I can feel the primal hatred moving through the building underneath me, going towards the basement. Sprint forward. Take stairs two and three at a time, hoping not to break my neck. I get to the landing just before it does. I can see the haze of darkness floating there, a spectral face distorted scrunched together and screaming. A woman and her child come out the first door on the right, look at me in the landing, right through the thing and scurry off, apparently scared by the look on my face. It hovers to a stop. I don’t bother trying to reason or talk to it, I leap forward, fist raised up to slam down on it before landing. My stomach relaxes enough to pull the energy up and out.
Contact. I stop midair, connecting with invisible solids, the grave-cold specter reels back from the blow and screams.
I hear a pop, and then nothing out of my left ear. A trickle down the side of my face, a rip through my shirt that barely misses passing into my abdomen.
Fists up, fighting stance. A man comes into the foyer and stops, looking at me, confused and somewhat alarmed. “Shadow boxing,” I say back to him, taking some jabs at the darkness that he can’t see. I’m distracted though, so I don’t connect. The thing scratches out at me, and I make a show of being light on my feet. Not light enough. It catches me on the same side, and I move so that the dude can’t see it. I can feel the blood. He rushes into his apartment, and I hope doesn’t call the cops.
I throw myself at the thing, grabbing it by the manifested face and somewhere that I want to call a chest but doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t have an abdomen. It screams, more of my skin rips open, especially on my face. I force some inner essence into the wounds so that the wounds seal into bruises rather than obvious cuts. I whisper some ancient Greek that I picked up from a book, entreating Hekate to claim her own. The two of us can hear the barking of dogs throughout the building, and the thing quivers, wretches left, trying to escape my hold, I keep going on the exorcism as it writhes, and I’m holding it, mentally hoping another one of the tenant’s doors don’t open.
There’s a whoosh, an out-gassing of air as I’m left breathless, suffocating. The archway into the stairs turns black, and the darkness in my hands is gone, sucked through. The world pops back into place. I take a deep breath and cough. I need to quit smoking. As I’m walking back into the foyer to grab the coffee I glimpsed when dude-face came in, someone else is walking in. The gasp at the blood.
“Shooting an indie film. I forgot my coffee.” I manage to look apologetic. Its a pretty close look to being in pain, so it works.
The coffee is cold again. I hurry down to the basement.
“He said the things below needed something more than human. I remember being ambushed in an alley, then I woke up here. That was weeks ago. Can I eat you?”
I can feel the need pulse, pass through the bars of the cage like they were nothing. “I can’t touch the cage, but you can. Know how to pick a lock?”
“Not in decades. Show me how?”
I pass a thin sliver of metal through the bars, floating it with ghostly hands. I should’ve had more of the cardboard pastry. Or her hunger is starting to get to me. Its hard to tell. She takes it. “We don’t have a hook?”
“Not that I can tell. Can’t see everything though. Not really physical.”
“This will have to do.”
I guide her, more with feeling than with actual words in what to do. A light brush along her hands here and there to let her know which way to turn, push and pull.
“So it does work like in the movies.”
“I can still leave.”
“You have to admit though—”
“No. No I don’t. I’m not actually dead, and this is not a pottery wheel. End of discussion.” The lock clicks open.
“Why not just talk me through it like I thought then.”
“Takes effort to talk, move things, not to be felt, ‘specially when you can see me.”
She takes the lock and opens the cage, stepping out and stretching. I am not reminded of domesticated animals, I am reminded of fierce, man-eating predators in the jungles. “Do you know a way out, or should I just wander?”
“Apartment 22A is empty. But its daytime.”
“Shit. Wondered why I felt tired.”
“Wait, ambush him.”
“I would need to eat for that to work.”
I can feel something. Something dark at the periphery of my senses, something non-real that could rip me to shreds, a dark reflection of hatred. I pull myself slowly inward.
“You’re fading. What’s happening?”
“Something comes. I’ll meet you up there.”
I pull back, fleeing not the way I came but through the walls and floor of the building. Coming back to myself in the alley. I gasp awake, the first breath of an entombed miner. The coffee is already cold. “Damnit.” I walk back into the coffee shop. “Can I get some hot water in this?”
A different girl than the one that got it for me smiles “Sure.” I’m bouncing a little on the balls of my feet. I can’t feel it anymore, but I know that if it finds the vampire, things will happen. I have to get the passage safe. “Here you go.”
I speed walk out, down the street a little ways to the entrance, double-locked. There’s a call-board in the foyer. I hit a random button.
“Hi.” My brain stops, too many things happening. “Building super sent me to take a look at some of the pipes on your floor, but didn’t give me a key, think you could let me in?”
The door buzzes, and I hurry inside, leaving the coffee cup in the foyer.
I walk out of the cafe and turn into the alleyway next to it. Dead end. Fitting. Everything so far has been a dead end. The summons, the ghosts, no one knows who this guy is dealing with, and no one seems able to find out. Or wants to. I can’t tell which. So, time to bust out the walking shoes and tail him. This looks like the place he usually gets his coffee, but I think I was made since he came in, didn’t get anything and left, I decide this is as good a break as any and I get myself something to eat. After a few cardboard-tasting bites, I throw it away in favor of the burnt coffee. At least its warm. I set it down outside, in the cold of the city, by the wall I’m leaning up against and close my eyes. I breath outward, extending myself, pushing, feeling, arcing over and under the doorways in the building, saturating the alley, the street, the building, feeling everything.
Bellow me, in a basement, I can feel a need so strong it startles me, and I have to refocus. Its a need for life that I haven’t felt before, and wouldn’t mind ever feeling again. I draw myself down, a ghostly specter into the basement, feeling the doorway and hallways, the locks on every one, planning the route out, planning on keeping everyone safe. This need is dangerous, deadly, a hunger so keen it will cut you if you’re not careful.
In the room there is no light, but I see through being everything, all awash in the strength of that need. I can feel the cages, the strength of high-grade steel and old magics deep within them, keeping me out. Chains built to withstand the strength of the elements, but certainly not the strength of this need. I see everything lit up in the reflector glow a red so deep it doesn’t project, a red that isn’t human. The thing in the cage turns to look at me. Long legs in a torn dress, hips and waist curvy and beautiful, strong, but still supple. Breasts to complement the figure without overpowering, one of which is free to the air since the dress stops existing at the waist for half her body, no bra. A slender neck, and then the face kills it. The need has contorted it, made it its own. Pretty eyes though, but the bulging upper jaw and incredible muscles look like they could bite through steel; the extra-long, sharp canines are bulging out, dying for flesh to rend and blood to drink.
“I always thought vampires would be prettier.”
The voice is sweet, incongruous with the distorted jaw in the way that possessed people talk: disembodied. Just like me right now. “We are, on our good days.”
“This then, is not a good day?”
“Are you here to help or mock me?”
“Depends. Who put you here?”
“Some ass-hat in a bowler hat. Ugh, god-awful thing that I thought had died long ago.”
“No, the hat.” She describes my mark.
My stomach rumbles.
I knew I should’ve eaten before the ritual, but too late now. Besides, better for my sensitivity to be hungry, the more aware of my surroundings, if the more likely to mess up as well. Oh well, no one said magic was going to be easy.
I can’t let the thoughts of what to eat afterwords distract me from what I’m doing. I can already feel some of the energy slipping away, leaking back into the unformed void. I refocus, pulling it all back into shape. It’s like gathering putty or clay together, unyielding and… goopy. Then trying to harden it into the shape I needed…
My stomach rubles again.
Deep breath, ignore it. I didn’t waste $75 on chalk from the cliffs of Dover, overnighted, or crystals from the four corners of world. I need this portal…
There’s a sudden, not-audible, whoosh as the pressure in the room drops, and with it the temperature. My breath comes out fogged as the crystals begin glowing and the chalk lights up from the glow. The spirit within rumbles, throws itself against the bindings and then turns to me. The thing is no bigger than your average toddler, except hunched over, a snout with long whiskers coming off the end the only thing to poke out from the depths of a hooded garment. Rat-like hands test the binding once more, and the thing turns to look at me.
“Who are you? What gives you the right to call me from the depths?”
My stomach groans. “Lawkeeper of the Depths. You will answer my questions to the best of your knowledge, without complaint and with complete honesty.”
“You do not command me.”
“I do not bargain, either.” A shaft of brilliant white energy arcs from the crystal towards the spirit. It screeches, mostly in the ultrasonic range, as far as I can tell.
“The day will come, mortal, when you shall be under my care.”
“Yes well. In the meantime I’ll just have to make offerings in apology. Father always said better to ask forgiveness than permission.”
The Lawkeeper looks at me. “Ask your questions.”
“Accept my terms.”
It sighs, throws itself against the bindings for a brief moment. Another arc-flash, another screech. Finally it looks back up at me.
“I accept. I will answer to the best of my knowledge without further complaint and with complete honesty.”
A picture comes out of my jacket, I turn it towards the creature. “This man has had trafficking with the dead. He calls them forth from the Depths in order to accomplish his foul deeds. No mortal can bring him to heel for his crimes. The living demand justice.”
It looks like its about to turn around and walk away, then stops, slumps forward. “I’ve not heard of deals broken or sundered, nor have I seen that man.”
“What tenant of your domain has made such deals, has wandered back to the physical world. Give me their name, that I might question them.”
“They are not lawbreakers, I have no command over their names.”
“One of them is. One of them has broken the balance and killed a guardian. Find that ghost and deliver me their name.”
“This is not our bargain.”
“I do not bargain, Lawkeeper.” Another arc-flash. This time I don’t stop until the thing screeches out an agreement. It is panting on the floor of the circle. The chalk undisturbed.
“I will bring your their name, guardian.”
“Without vengeance or malice. They are Lawbreakers. Do your duty.”
A growl, this time not from my stomach. With a deep breath I pull the energy closed, sealing the portal, the chalk bursts into embers briefly. Another expense I can’t afford.
I get it now. Those scenes in books where you can’t see a couple feet in front of you because of the flurries of snow coming down. It isn’t that bad, honestly. Minus the shadowy figure up ahead that I can’t tell if they’re coming towards me or away from me. But that’s just the way life goes. You wake up at four in the morning in order to take your time getting ready to get to work at seven so that you’re not a wound up ball of stress eating away your own insides with concerns about whether or not your doing your job right. The price for this is walking down a dark street in what feels like the middle of the night when everyone else should be asleep and the world is not really anything more than a flurry of snow. Crunch crunch crunch of your shoes and the brief prayer-thought of “I hope I don’t accidentally find ice and fall on my ass.” There’s the debate of whether or not its too late to call in, considering you’re already on your way to the bus stop. Still that figure up ahead.
And its not that you can’t see because of the snow, because really, it isn’t a blizzard or anything. Just some unexpected freezing cold fluff. It’s because you’ve bundled up so much to keep your face warm that you don’t have any peripheral vision. It makes it creepier, and it also makes the snow even more blinding. Even though it has nothing to do with the snow. But you’re not going to let your face get cold, so the fact that you can’t see has nothing to do with your own actions and everything to do with the snowflakes falling down and around you. You’re thankful for the scarf covering your face, even as the snowflakes find ways around it to land with brief freezing pinpricks on your forehead, under and around your eyes. People tell you it isn’t THAT cold, that you’re too bundled. They don’t understand that its just as much to keep you in and everything else out. Nothing to do with temperature, everything to do with wind, thoughts, voices, words. Precious precious words. You have to keep them close, nurture them, let them percolate through the drawn-out and aging filters of your experiences in order to get them into some sort of shape that eventually becomes something that you can use to help yourself get better. The help you purge the things that are festering inside your head, but you can’t just let them out all at once. Too many uses for them, like the stranger obscured by snow and scarf. You can’t see them anymore and you wonder where they went. Whether the Great Old swallowed them up. There is a peace to the chthonic entities that you read about. Yes it is the graveyard peace of the end, but it is a peace nonetheless. Something to be wished for.
Kaori wakes first, before the first rays of dawn truly make their way into the Shrine chamber. She wraps the warm blanket provided by the monks around her and steps outside, into the chill pre-dawn. The monk that once helped her resolve the original dilemma, only a month and some change ago, approaches her as she steps down into the garden.
“Are you nervous?” He speaks quietly, respectful of Kimiyasu and Katai’s sleep.
Kaori shakes her head, then stops. “I am sad, and fear that this is perhaps not the best choice, but I am willing to do what my parents wish.” The lie of this being what her parents wish tastes bitter in this holy place.
The monk nods, “Come. Dawn is spectacular from the hill. We have just enough time to get there.” Kaori turns and follows the monk up the hill and to the bench. They sit just as the light begins flowing into the valley. Kaori watches it chase the darkness across the farmlands and the fields, turning the deep void of the black earth into something fertile and new. She watches houses emerge from under the starlight, the first green shoots coming forth to meet the dawn’s rays, and finally again she watches the light reach out and caress the mountains and the hills, turning the black-and-purple shadows into fiery red-orange-yellow and white at the heights. She sighs at the peace of everything, and watches her mother and sister exit from the Shrine chamber. The monk grabs her arms suddenly and she turns towards him alarmed, but he is not looking at her.
Kaori looks out, at the close end of the valley, a cloud of dust comes around through the pass, and Kaori sees it now that it has been pointed out: a column of soldiers. She gasps. The monk seems to read her mind.
“This is a sacred space. They will not defile it. Go, warn your mother and sister.”
Kaori does not waste time, she rushes down the hill, almost falling at several points as the songbirds begin their morning notes. “Mother, Kimiyasu!”
“What, was it daughter, what happened? And look at your kimono, you look like you’ve mucked in with pigs.” Kaori gasps for breath.
“What is it Kaori?” The worry is apparent on Kimiyasu’s face, and Katai’s anger quickly dissolves.
“Soldiers… coming through… the pass…” She collapses into Katai’s arms.
“Soldiers?” Kimiyasu places her arm on Kaori’s shoulder. “Are you certain?”
“I saw the dust, and the formation. They had banners, but I didn’t know the sign.” She hugs onto her mother tightly.
“Shhhh,” Katai holds her daughter, trying to stop her from trembling and holding back from doing such herself. “We are safe here, no one would dare spill blood on sacred soil; no one is suicidal enough to offend Heaven.” Kimiyasu and Katai share a look, and then the three are comforting one another as much as they are comforting themselves.
When the men arrive, they come already aware of the news. Huiren speaks to Katai away from the rest of the families. “It seems they are on their way here. It is my hope that they need only provisions and then will be on their way. Their mark is not the Governor’s though.”
“Surely they would not attack a holy Shrine?”
“War is a devil that taints the minds of men and makes of them its slaves. I dare not speak to what they will and will not do, but I believe you are correct, my dear wife.”
“Oh husband,” she collapses into his arms, “I am scared…”
Away from their parents, the three siblings are also conferring as Hensei approaches their parents.
“Do you think they’ll postpone the wedding?” Kaori says.
Weili shakes his head. “There wasn’t an auspicious time for another two seasons for this marriage. It is today or not at all in the eyes of the Tsukino family.”
Kimiyasu fans herself erratically. “But Hensei will have to treat with them, how will he do that when he is here overseeing the paperwork?”
“Hensei doesn’t need to oversee anything, the priest can officiate the wedding without him. He needs only witness the sharing of the wine.”
Kaori also begins fanning herself erratically. Weili reaches out and places a hand on both their shoulders. “Baichang and I will be here to protect the both of you, don’t worry. You’re safe here.”
Kaori and Kimiyasu nod their head.
As the ceremony begins a man on horseback approaches the wedding party, on his back is a banner, at his sides are weapons of war. He waits patiently until after Kimiyasu and Baichang share the rice wine, then Baichang and Kaori. Hensei extricates himself from the wedding party and approaches the man on horseback.
“I am Hideki Hensei, goverment liason for this village. I see you do not carry the banner of our lord, Governor Harukaede Daning.”
The man does not dismount. “That is most unfortunate, Liason Hideki. I have heard good words about your skills as an artist. I did not realize you had been stationed here. My name is Warchief Wunuo Sukehide. I am heading an occupation force into this valley to claim it for my Lord.”
“It would seem this is terribly unfortunate. Honor dictates that we should resist as is our duty to our Lord Governor.”
“As I said. I would regret having to kill such an exalted artist.”
“Your men are not attacking though.”
“This is a holy place. More importantly, we do not wish to destroy the village. I have strict orders to kill as few people as possible. Our Lord needs this village and its produce in order to continue his war effort, and in order for that to work, he needs this village producing, not razed to the ground. We have heard of the skill of the Tsukino family in producing more than most thought possible from this soil.”
Hensei looks over his shoulder. “Their eldest son is the groom in today’s marriage.”
Huiren and Baichang’s father both step forward. Huiren places a hand on Hensei’s shoulder and the two share a look.
“I will stand with you friend, as is our duty.”
“For the good Inaba Huiren has done this village, I would be honored to stand with both of you.”
Distracted with the ceremony, Kaori does not hear her father’s words, and wonders what is going on with the rider.
“Then I propose a duel, I will fight the three of you in succession. I trust all of you have heirs?”
Huiren complains, “That is hardly fair, unless you judge your skill to be that great, and then I would accuse you of bragging.”
“I have been three years on campaign. I have faced numerous duels and won entire battles because of it. I would wager my skill is suitable to the task.”
“Should I fall, I assume you will take my post, honorable Warchief, as government liason?”
“For the time it would take my Lord to send a more suitable replacement and thus allow me to continue, yes. You do not have an heir?”
“I am as yet unmarried.”
“I see then. I will honor you at the shrine after you have passed on then.”
“Thank you, Warchief.”
Finally the three travel down the hill and to the road. Kaori watches them go, concern growing within her. Kimiyasu reaches out her hand and holds it, for comfort and to prevent Kaori from dashing off in the middle of the ceremony.
When it is over, Kaori rushes down the hill to the road. Hensei and Baichang’s father lie dead to one side, composed for burial. Kaori and Weili see the swords of the Warchief and her father flash in the midmorning light, and then lock together. Kaori screams out her father’s name. Weili and Katai hold her back. The temple priest rushes over to the bodies.
Huiren smiles bitterly. He had not wished Kaori or Kimiyasu to see this, his death on their wedding day. He is skilled enough to know that the Warchief was not being boastful, even with the two surprise wounds from Baichang’s father, the man’s icy demeanor is deadly. He leans in as their swords are locked.
“Make it clean. For my daughter.”
The Warchief nods. The two pull back simultaneously and then rush forward. The Warchief deflects Hensei’s blow with an unexpected twist that leaves him open, and then slices sideways.
Huiren’s head flies to the side by the other bodies. Kaori screams, and the world goes dark.
Kaori grinds the inkstone, sets the papers, and begins writing her letters. The first, she writes to the Governor, as is appropriate:
“Winter snows cover
A humble garden with ice.
A single shoot sprouts.
The stars are unconcerned,
But the Sun takes interest.
She folds it into the shape of a sunburst, attaches a pressed camellia blossom, and sets it aside. She pulls forth another paper and addresses her second letter to Hideki Hensei.
“Pilgrims pack their things,
their faith is commendable.
You stay in taverns.
The ivy that grows outside,
Grows strong because of your care.
She folds Hensei’s letter into a simple, locked triangle. He will recognize it as a mountain fold, and attaches to it a small, shiny pebble with some string. She writes more letters to the others that were present in town that day, now that Kimiyasu has reminded her. The tenor places her as a demure young girl taking uncertain steps, yet the humor is in the possibility that she knows more. She hopes they will be well received. Finally she writes a letter to Tsubasa Changfu, the last in the list of names from her Father through Kimiyasu.
“A single swan sings,
Praised by the one watching.
Empty sake cups.
Best to speak of what is known,
To those who would listen most.
She folds a swan, and to it attaches a stick of temple incense. The subtle message shouldn’t scare him off, but perhaps, Kaori hopes, force him to consider whether or not his undue interest in her presents a problem of etiquette. Although… she would not say he wasn’t handsome…
“Sister?” Kimiyasu enters. “I waited a few minutes after knocking, but you didn’t respond. Are you all right?”
Kaori turns around. “I’m sorry sister, I was writing letters, I didn’t hear you.”
“Shall I go then? I don’t want to interrupt.” Kimiyasu takes stock of the letters, folded and ready to go. She looks at the one that Kaori was tying. “Purity and loneliness? Is that for Tsubasa Changfu?”
“Is it too obvious?”
“From what Father said of the way he behaved towards you? Not at all. I think you’ve done…” Kimiyasu stops herself from saying surprisingly, “Well.”
“I would hope for excellent.”
Kimiyasu smiles at her sister. “We all hope for excellent, and since the only thing I have to go by doesn’t include the verses within, I’m certain you’ve managed to reach excellence, if not beyond. I hope you weren’t too hard on him though?”
Kaori shakes her head. “At least, I don’t think so. I want to continue the conversation. There’s something about him.”
“Mother said his kimono was off color?”
Kaori pulls back just a touch and squints at her sister. “I didn’t think mother had noticed.” She tilts her head. “Which is silly really, when has Mother not noticed someone’s clothing. It wasn’t upsettingly off, just a couple of shades too light to be appropriate for the season, or his status.”
“As though perhaps he is a little forgetful and left to bleach in the sun last summer?”
“As though he does not have a wife to choose the correct colors and fashion something for him on a regular basis.”
“How is that different from what I said?”
“That’s what you like about him though, isn’t it?”
“The off-color kimono?”
“The fact that he’s not certain about how to belong.”
Kaori turns back to her writing desk. Sometimes her sister’s wit can be a little too sharp, too quick. If words were swords, Kaori was certain Kimiyasu would give her Father a fair challenge.
“You’ve cut to the heart of it, yet again, Kimiyasu.” Kaori has not turned back to her.
“I’m sorry, Kaori. I didn’t mean to imply anything. You are young, and an artist, you are not expected to know yourself, you are expect to explore the arts and through them learn of yourself. But everyone likes knowing they aren’t alone.” There is a pause, filled with the evening notes of songbirds. “Shall I take these to be delivered through post?”
“If you would be so kind, Kimiyasu. I should get ready for dinner. Thank you, sister.”
“For reminding me of these letters, for these illuminating conversations of ours. For being my sister.”
“Your welcome, Kaori. And thank you for much of the same.” Kimiyasu leaves, carrying the seven letters with her.
“I see you’ve been corresponding with Tsubasa Changfu, Kaori.”
Kaori turns to her Father, standing just outside the circle of branches of the cherry tree that Kaori is sitting under. “We have. It has been… proper, in all things. Several conversations, in fact, about the nature of art and the benefits therein. Tsubasa is a font of contradictions, and I think he does so just to get a rise out of me, but I’ve taken to turning his criticisms aside.” Her fan is quickly working in Kaori’s hand. “Has he written you, Father?”
“He has not.” Huiren looks down as he says this, and Kaori’s fan slows. He looks back up at his daughter, his face is smooth, but his mouth has pulled down and his eyes threaten to start glistening.
“What is it, Father?” Kaori moves to one side to allow Huiren to sit down on the bench.
“The plum tree on the hill has started budding.”
“There is no word from the Matchmaker then?”
“And no word from Tsubasa means…” Huiren cannot finish his thought. Kaori’s fan slowly stills and drops down to her lap, still open. The only sound comes from the wind over the eaves.
“I will be prepared to marry Tsukino Baichang.”
Huiren finally walks over and sits next to his daughter. “That is your final decision?”
“I would bring shame to our family if I didn’t follow tradition. I bring shame to our family by not trusting in your wishes and following them, but no one will know that shame, where everyone will know the shame of not committing to the marriage.”
“You aren’t wrong, daughter. I wish you did not have to shoulder such a burden.”
“I will not be shouldering it alone. Kimiyasu and Weili both choose the same path as I do, and now we will all share the private shame for having disobeyed your wishes. Honestly, I wish this also wasn’t the truth, but I do what I do for our family.”
“Our family… yes.” Huiren looks over the pond, he slaps his sigh. “It is supposed to be my responsibility to take care of and decide what is good for our family. But you are not wrong in feeling that such an obvious breach of tradition would be bad for our family. I only hope that the burden of my shame will not drive us apart.”
“Nothing could drive us apart Father, you raised to believe in harmony and the truth of right action, and that is what we will naturally gravitate to.”
“I certainly hope so. You bring honor to me by following what I have taught you. Perhaps one day the honor you children bring to our household will be enough to overshadow the personal shame the three of you shoulder from disobeying me.”
“I should certainly hope so Father… we are making good progress. You are building a pillar of peace within the valley by marrying my sister… and I… to the Tsukino family. Weili’s marriage will also help the valley to prosper. Oh, and I almost forgot! I received another letter from the Governor today.”
“Oh? Any good news?”
“Not particularly, but I’m pleased that Kimiyasu was right and that he is genuinely interested in corresponding and exchanging verses.”
Huiren smiles. “I am pleased to see you forming connections that are appropriate, but also I am pleased to see you making friends, and that your skill is strong enough to make the Governor forget you’re a woman that is writing to him.”
“I know better than to bring it up. I do find it somewhat annoying that these men see me as childish and naive as to the workings of the world of art.”
“But daughter,” Huiren pulls her close to him in a half-hug, “you are childish.”
Kaori taps her father’s thigh with her fan. “You know what I meant, Father.”
“I do, I only hope you do not hold it against them and try to understand their perspective.”
“I do, Father, I do.”
Kaori and her Father sit on the bench quietly, both enjoying the simple smells of winter, the black waters in the pond contrasting with the warm lacquered wood of the house and the white of the last snow on the shadowed corners of the garden. The soil itself, moist and black from its time sleeping through the winter, is ripe for the work the garden will taken after the Spring festival. Eventually the two of them begin discussing the plans for what Huiren will do with the space after the garden, what flowers he will plant and where, the paths and the borders of herbs and ferns, the beautiful colors when the flowering time comes. Kaori nods, enjoying the time with her Father. Landscape is one of the arts Kaori did not take to, mostly because of the exertion involved, the aesthetics that recalled obscure points in the past, and in truth, everything about it was not something Kaori found easily comprehensible, or even remotely exciting. Slowly, the conversation shifted to the wedding of Kimiyasu and Baichang, and the meeting that would have to take place soon. Here, in the garden, Kaori felt calm at the prospect… She was not certain how she would feel later, but for now, she was calm.
The family is sitting down together. Dinner has just passed, and tea is almost finished. Kaori’s sister turns to her.
“Sister, will you dance for us?”
Katai nods, as does Huiren. “It will be good for you. We know the Governor’s decision was hard on you, this will be a good distraction. Go on.”
Her sister jumps in, “Yes, and I will play for you.” She claps, and a servant comes by. Kaori thinks. It has been most of the day that she has been thinking about the Governor’s letter. About her failure. About her brother’s gambling, how dare he! It takes her mind a long moment to switch tracks, to think about dances, about stories, about artwork. Kaori realizes everyone is looking at her. Except her brother. He has not stopped looking at the table since dinner began.
“Play… play The Lone Swan.” Katai and Huiren glance at one another. Kaori’s sister stiffens.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Yes I am. Play the song.”
Kaori rises and moves towards the side of the room, where there is more space. She closes her eyes. Her sister plays the first few notes. She focuses on them, clings onto them. Her father did not raise her to get distracted by the everyday, he raised her to achieve selflessness through artwork. To contribute and produce and change the world. Kaori knows she cannot do that if she cannot forget herself in her artwork. She takes a deep breath, centering and calming herself. The movements begin, almost of their own accord. She feels them, really feels them with everything she has. She does not let herself think, she only lets herself move and hear. She is to become the music, and in becoming that, tell the story of the Lone Swan. After only a few bars there is no more Kaori, only The Lone Swan.
Once, there was a swan
Who traveled with his own flock
And yet was alone.
The swan cried out to the moon,
Why must I be so lonely?
The moon heard the swan,
Lighting a path in the dark
The swan was led away.
Soon, there was no one nearby
Only wind, and wood, and moon.
The swan sang out in the dark
But no one could hear.
The moon turned its face from swan
The wind dies and the wood rots
In his loneliness
The swan does not hear approach
An old and great man.
Why do you sing so loudly?
No one has come to hear you.
I sing to find my way home…
The dance ends. Kaori’s outstretched hand falls back into her now seated lap. Kaori realizes that her sister has cried throughout the whole dance, and played without missing a note, as far as Kaori could tell. Even her father’s eyes are glistening. Weili is no longer in the room.
“It pleases me that both my daughters have such dedication to art. Now go. Your mother and I have much to discuss. Kaori.”
“Yes?” Her voice is as though she has just woken up, raspy and strange.
“Go apologize to your brother.”
Kaori bows instead of trusting her voice, and leaves the room. She walks down the hall, taking the time alone to clear her throat. Her brother’s room is only one on this side of the house with the light on currently. She knocks politely.
Weili opens the door. His eyes are red, but dry. “Yes?”
“I came to apologize. I don’t hate you, Brother. I know you did what you thought was best. I’m just…” Kaori has time to realize that there is a waterfall ahead of her, and then she is cast off. “I’m tired of not being recognized, of not having strangers praise my work. To have the Governor do that was a thrill I didn’t even know I wanted. More importantly though, it was terribly improper of me. The point of my work should be the finding of myself, the finding of my way, not the praise of my peers or even of strangers. You acted within that knowledge, and have proved yourself to be the superior person. I should not hold that against you, or imply my displeasure.” She falls before her brother, bowing deeply to him.
“I had hoped your art would be sufficient to bring honor to our family.” Kaori flinches as though he’s kicked her in the ribs. “But it would seem I too, lost sight of your art’s purpose.” He bends down and picks her up. “It is I who should be apologizing, dearest sister.” He smiles at her. “Can you forgive me, Kaori?”
“Of course, Weili.” He places a hand on her shoulder and smiles warmly at her. Standing like that for a few moments longer, Kaori finally nods her head, and turns to go back to her room.
Several strides down the hall, Kaori turns to look at him.
“One day, you will be the most famous poet in all the land.”
“One day,” Kaori responds, “I will find myself in one of my poems, and be completed.”
Bright stars and chill winds,
shaking loose peach blossoms
Where do the seeds fall?
Saplings prepare to flower,
As nearby trees prepare fruit.
Kaori had carefully folded the reply into a small flower, and gone to her box of curious and chosen a pressed, preserved peach blossom. She had sent it with the messenger when he departed before dawn.
That had been over a week ago. Kaori was now worried. She had agreed to her brother’s gamble because it would cost the Governor nothing to say no, and gain everyone something if he said yes. But Kaori had always grown up with the phrase “Bad news travels slowly”, and now she was worried that bad news was what was travelling towards her. Kimiyasu tried to get her out of the house again, and again Kaori pleaded that she had to work on her kimono. This time, Kimiyasu let it go. Katai found her at her desk, waiting for something to happen.
“Kaori?” She turns to look at her mother.
“The fabric has waited for you, longer than it should have. In your sister’s household you will have much work to do and a short while to do it in. You cannot afford to get distracted so deeply by the events around you. Especially those you can’t control.” She extends her hand out to Kaori, who lifts herself from the chair and heads towards her mother. She takes her mother’s hand, and the two begin walking towards the workroom.
“Let the work you must do, be your refuge against the work you cannot do. Your Father has taught you how to become one with your art, so take those lessons into the household. Learn to become one with the tasks you must do in the household, forget yourself in those tasks, and you’ll find that when they are over, the world isn’t quite as bad as you thought it was.”
“Thank you Mother, you’re right, I should stop worrying. I just… It would be so great an opportunity. I hope Weili knows what he’s doing.”
“Your Father would not have let him do it if he did not believe in your brother. You must have faith. In the meantime, you must have clothing.” Katai smiles at her daughter as the two enter the workroom. Lacquered wood paneling frames a wooden floor and smooth worktables. The fabric chosen in town over a week ago sits folded on one of them, near a series of wooden bars with indentations carved into them where posts will sit in order to measure. Several other colors of thread and sewing needles are arranged on the table. On the other side of the room a few works in progress are drapped over dress forms. Kaori recognizes her mother’s style and her sister’s stitching on some of the clothes, projects abandoned in favor of the elaborate white costume that occupies the focus of the room.
Kimiyasu’s wedding dress, even half finished, looks exquisite to Kaori. Next to it, a more humble white arrangement is even less finished. Kaori realizes that will be her dress for the ceremony.
Against her will, Kaori goes rigid. She knows she will not be working on it, as she should, because she doesn’t know if she wants to. Neither, for that matter, does her family. Katai leaves her side to pull up some painted silk screens so that Kaori can focus only on the task at hand. “Go measure your fabric and make sure we have enough, Kaori.”
Kaori walks to the wall, her movements are stiff, she knows, but she cannot relax. The dress makes everything so real… She puts up the posts, wraps them in silk-covered cotton, then proceeds to measure the fabric. She comes up short for the measurement she needs.
“There isn’t enough Mother, the shopkeep shortchanged us.” The anger restores some of the grace to her movements.
“For a married woman?”
Kaori opens her mouth, stops, then turns back to the fabric. She adjusts one of the posts. The fabric is a little more than enough, exactly what Kaori needs. She realizes that there would have been no where else to get the fabric: he knew they already had the wedding dresses and assumed this would be for after the ceremony, so he gave enough for a married woman’s outfit. Kaori goes to take it off the post, and a small splinter catches at one of the edges, she groans.
“Mother, I’m not ready to do this, I can’t—”
“No. You found within yourself wisdom. Now find within yourself nothingness. Fold the frays into the seam. You can do this Kaori, you must.”
Kaori takes a deep breath, extricates the fabric from the wall carefully and without further damage, and then proceeds to do exactly what her mother has said.
Kaori is taking a break in the fields behind the house when Hensei comes to visit. It is the first glimpse of the bare soil she has seen since last fall, and despite the wetness of the ground and the risk to her clothing, Kaori wishes to enjoy it. The smell of damp earth mingles with the fresh, cold breeze full of ice. It is, for Kaori, a smell that is strictly seasonal. She wishes there was a single word to encapsulate the smell, so she could use it in her poetry. She would use it in her autumn, and winter poems. She sighs, watching the small, faint cloud work its way outward and upward. She breathes in the smell again, her eyes wandering downhill to the row of elm trees bordered by yarrow that reach to the edge of their property.
Mikan finds her here, at the top of the hill where her father likes to rake the snow when there are no plants and no paths. “Miss Kaori, your Father and his visitor have sent me to fetch you.”
“Who has come to visit my Father, Mikan?”
“Hensei.” Her eyes, from their wrinkled folds, speak of more compassion that Kaori has known any other person to have within them. She cannot bring herself to correct how the woman addressed her Father’s friend. Still she takes a deep breath, welcomes the physical feeling of the icy-cold wind in her chest.
“Do you know what they have called me?”
“You know I do not, little Miss. Come let us walk together.” As when she was a young sprout, Mikan takes Kaori’s hand in hers and walks with her back towards the house.
Kaori breaks the silence. “They say bad news travels slowly.”
“They are not wrong. The Governor’s response is late, is it not?”
Kaori cannot speak. Her eyes widen and she looks up and to the left, away from Mikan. She shudders through another deep breath. Mikan holds her hand tighter. Kaori can only take a few more steps before she crumbles into this little old woman, sobbing. Mikan holds this almost-daughter of hers, stroking her hair.
“For all I could, Kaori, I would give you a blessed and trouble free life. As would your parents.”
“But… but wh— why?”
“Only the Sages can truly know the minds of men when war grips the land. He had good reason, Kaori. Or he is a fool. Either way, this is nothing you could have prevented. Now hush dear.” Mikan repeats that small phrase to Kaori until she stops sobbing, the only consolation she can offer.
“Thank you, Mikan. We should go change before meeting my Father.”
“I will tell him you are unfit to receive visitors.”
“No.” Kaori’s forceful hand motion almost knife-hands the older woman in the stomach. “Sorry, no. I will meet with Hensei and my Father. Just… Just give me a moment to myself.”
Mikan takes a small half-step back. “I will have someone bring you a basin of warm water so that you may wash your face, and inform your Father.” Kaori takes the old woman’s hands in her own and looks deeply into the lined face. She forces the corners of her mouth to turn upwards. “Thank you, Mikan.” Seeing the love there threatens more tears; Kaori turns away and runs back towards her room.