Samurai’s Blood Prose Stories

 

The Chinese Phoenix

 A story from the world of Samurai’s Blood

by Owen Wiseman

PART I

Arrows and Laughter

Ita has only vague memories of his early childhood. He remembers a tiny hut, with thin walls that hardly seemed to cut the wind at all and a dirt floor harder than rock, with only a tiny bit of straw for beds. He remembers the one tiny cookpot his mother had owned, and the meager things with which she would occasionally manage to fill it. He remembers the pangs in his belly and the taunts of the other children with fuller bellies and hunkering down in a howling wind, trying to forget them all.

 He also remembers being smarter than everyone else. His mother was a fool and his dead father likely was as well, but he was precocious and then he was clever and suddenly he was brilliant. As young as five years old he remembers listening to his mother haggling with a merchant for vegetables and being overcharged. He remembers the contempt he felt for her. He remembers stealing a scroll from that merchant, the man’s most prized possession, and using it to teach himself to read. It was the first time he had ever knowingly done something wrong. And yet all these memories are hazy, now that he is a man, everything lit dimly, until that first shining moment, the first thing he really remembers that doesn’t feel like it happened to someone else.

That shining memory is of the bare torso of a young man. Ita is ten years old, and the young man is not quite eighteen. He sees the young man standing in a field at the edge of town, practicing archery, the lean muscle of his back and shoulders bunched and corded and hard. He sees the young archer and he grows hard under the threadbare fabric of his kimono, and he does not understand the desire but it is undeniable and unforgettable, such that Ita can still feel the memory shining bright even after he has become a man and taken a new name.

He is far too frightened of his urge to contemplate it, and so he stuffs it away, but he cannot hide that he is different. He begins to run scams on the village’s other children, using his superior intelligence to cheat them out of treasured possessions, and then paying the biggest children to protect him from reprisal. He does not give any of the money to his mother. Instead he buys finer clothes, for his greatest pleasure is to have fine things. He sees the silken kimonos worn by the village’s finest ladies and feels pangs of envy, but he knows that to wear them is impossible. Even the relatively ostentatious men’s clothing he buys become the object of whispers that pour from the village around him. They begin to call him Hou-oo, the Phoenix, symbol of the Empress, and the word is a sneer, but he finds that he cares less for the sneers as he piles up a life behind himself.

Four years pass. Ita rises in status among the villagers, gaining some measure of respect through the wariness and fear of the others. His mother does not understand his power but still she is proud to have a son whose name is known by all. She seeks to make him a match with one of the village’s women, and they line up to be his choice, for he is good-looking and imperious and better-dressed than men with twice his wealth in towns twice as sophisticated. He is fourteen years old.

 There is another fourteen-year-old boy in the village, the son of one of its most prominent men,  a samurai connected by marriage to the family’s ruling province, the Sanjo Clan. The son’s name is Jore, and he is Ita’s ostensible rival, teasing him at every opportunity and occasionally beating him. Jore is everything that Ita is not. He is a fool but a brave fool, the best at games, the best with a sword, willing to jump from the highest cliffs and trees into the frigid rivers of this northern land. Jore makes Ita’s life miserable, and unlike the rest cannot be deterred by the force of Ita’s mind.

 And yet Ita sees behind the mask that Jore has affixed to his face. He sees behind Jore’s every glance and beneath every ounce of his spite, to the naked desire that is hiding there. Jore wants Ita with every bit of himself, wants his fine clothing and his coiffed hair, wants his blinding intellect and sharp tongue. Jore wants all this and cannot even acknowledge to himself that he wants it, and Ita knows that Jore must spend make nights crying and touching himself and thinking of the very same things that Ita thinks of. For in spite of Jore’s more pathetic moments, he is the most beautiful thing Ita has ever seen, the very equal of that young archer who first awoke desire, and more beautiful still because Jore is not older and distant and unattainable but here, now. Ita cannot put a name to what he is, for he has no concept of homosexuality, but he knows that he and his rival are different from the others in the same, unspeakable way.

 The village boys whom Ita holds in thrall turn into young men, and they dare each other to go to the city, a week’s walk from their village, to get a whore and make themselves into men. Dares turn into plans despite Ita’s efforts, for his followers are eager to taste such fruits, and soon enough he finds himself in the back room of some fetid brothel, on top of a used-up woman, thinking of Jore and trying to stay hard enough to finish the job. He thinks of paying her off, but he can’t take the chance on her silence. He is sixteen years old.

 Two weeks later Ita is on his back, with blood and dirt smeared on his face and his fine clothing. Jore sits astride him, beating him, while a half-dozen others stand in a ring around them. Ita does not struggle. He can feel Jore’s torso pressed against his and it feels good. He presses his pelvis upwards into Jore, who feels the motion and stops the beating and looks down at him for a long, paralyzed moment, the mask slipping away in that one instant before snapping back into place. Jore hits him once more, then rises and walks away and does not look back. Ita does not move.

 That very night, Ita stands in the doorway of his mother’s hovel and sees Jore a hundred paces away, hiding behind a water trough and looking at him. Jore is alone, as he almost never is, and hesitant, as he almost never is. And it is now that Ita feels most in his element, for his glance has far more power than his fist. This is the game he plays best, this unspoken language, though he hardly gets to practice at all, in the brute life here in this village.

He catches Jore’s eye and holds it, then cuts his look sideways at a distant grove of trees, half a ri west of the village, where the village children sometimes go to play. Ita slowly moves his gaze to the horizon, then leaves his mother’s door and walks along the path towards the grove. The route takes him past the water trough, just a few paces from where Jore is still crouched in hiding. Ita feels each bruise on his swollen face, but the pain is a sweet pain, laced with anticipation of pleasure. He refuses to turn and look at Jore as he passes, though he desperately wants to look, and he can feel Jore’s eyes on him.

At sundown he is in the grove, sitting on a fallen log and waiting patiently. There is no one else here. Jore steps out from behind a tree. Ita had not heard him approach. They move with slow steps until they are face to face. Ita’s heart begins to pound. Jore stops before him, and lowers his eyes, suddenly deferential, and excitement shoots up into Ita’s belly. Here is this man, this beast, submitting itself to him, begging for his approval and his touch. He steps even closer, and he feels Jore’s breath on his neck like a dragon’s fire. He reaches up a hand and caresses the beast’s mane, and slides a manicured hand down inside the opening of his kimono. His fingers slide across tiny, smooth chest hairs. Jore exhales a long, slow breath.

But then a laugh from a nearby set of bushes. A young laugh, full of scorn. The world slows down, each moment stretching out into a thousand years, as if that laugh had been a spear. Ita sees the exact moment that Jore hears the laugh, sees the wondrous light steal away from his eyes, sees the mask of the wolf slam down back onto his face. There is never any question of Jore being in on it. Ita never thinks of it. He can see too plainly the sadness and anguish, exposed for just a moment while the mask slips into place. Each of these boys had found something in that moment, and now it is gone. Now it is all over. Ita cannot yet feel the pain, but he knows perfectly well what will happen.

The blows come hard and furious, and he curls into a ball on the ground, taking the ones to his body to shield his face. The bruises are bad enough, but something deeper in him is killed that day, something he will not understand or accept for years to come. He drags himself back to his hut and refuses to speak to his mother and lays in the corner for two weeks until the worst of it is healed before showing his face outside again. Less than a week later he leaves the village of Eiwa, never to return, except in the form of the thugs he will one day send to burn it to the ground.

 

PART II

 Twelve Coppers and a Hundred Silver

The hand-painted cards make a slight grinding noise against the low, wooden table as the dealer slides them out to the players. The dealer’s arm is fluid, his rhythm unceasing. He knows every groove and knot of this table, and he maneuvers the cards to avoid flipping even one of them over. Ita—or Tomotoshi, as he has taken to calling himself—is not yet playing, merely kneeling off to the side and observing the game. The deck is 48 cards, divided into twelve suits of four cards each, three normal cards and a high-scoring special card. The cards come from the West, and the suits are thus marked with the 12 months of some arcane calendar, but each suit has a symbol associated with it as well. Players are dealt cards, and then more are turned up in the middle of the table. Players must take turns capturing cards from the middle by matching the suit with a card from their hands.

 The main room of the gambling hall has four low gaming tables, each with a game happening, all for different stakes. Tomotoshi kneels next to and watches the the table with the lowest stakes, a square of drunks reeling on their cushions and miscounting their copper jots. The adjacent table is little better, but still copper stakes and not a proper game. At the room’s other end, however, behind a semi-translucent veil and a couple of very large guards with swords, are the other two tables. Tomotoshi had noticed when he first entered the room that those other tables appeared to be of finer wood, and that the serving girls on that side of the veil were prettier than those on this side of the veil. And on those fine-wood tables, Tomotoshi can see silver, and perhaps even a flash of gold.

But so Tomotoshi is watching at the copper-jot-table as the players receive their hands, and then the first card is turned up in the middle, and what should it be but the Chinese Phoenix, the special card in the suit of Dragon Flowers. One of the players exclaims its name, Hou-oo, and Tomotoshi becomes Ita for a moment again, hearing the jeers of the children as they taunted him back in his childhood village. But then he sees that it is only a card, and more importantly, he sees that these fools are not skilled at their own game. The game is mostly luck, but even a little skill pays off over time, and Tomotoshi knows that he can stay in the game long enough to build up his luck. A rush comes over him, tingling up from the floor into his knees and toes, up through his legs, up through his whole body. The Chinese Phoenix seems to spring up out of the card and take wing for a moment, alive and soaring around the frozen room and the frozen world. He feels deep down inside himself that these cards, this Chinese Phoenix, is some great measure of his destiny.

And so he goes out behind the hall, and he tears open the hem of his kimono, where he had sewn twelve copper jots before setting out from his village. He had promised himself then that they were to be only for the direst emergency, but now he digs them out without a moment’s hesitation. As he tears the fabric away, his consciousness tears out the top of his skull, and flies away. He is out of his body, like the Chinese Phoenix out of the card moments before. He soars around the hall, as below he sees his corporeal form re-enter the hall, kneel beside the card table, and place any chance of a meal or a bed that night on the table to bet.

Tomotoshi the Phoenix dips his wings and flies towards the veil, towards the tables of fine wood, towards his destiny. He passes through the veil as if it were liquid, and now he can look down and see details of the landscape that no part of his mind ought to be able to perceive. He flies behind players and reads their cards. He crests and hovers and sees a birthmark on the back of a bald head. Then he alights in the center of the table, and sees a pair of eyes that strike fear into his heart. The man is ugly, but his eyes burn with a light whose shining could crumble a castle wall. His kimono is marked with the falcon sigil of the Sanjo Clan. Every eye at the table turns from his gaze. Tomotoshi the Phoenix watches as the man reaches to play a card, and knows what that card will be, and yet still feels a shock when the Chinese Phoenix, the Special in Dragon Flowers, hits the table to end the game.

As the man’s card hits the table, his eyes chance to wander for just one moment directly onto Tomotoshi, and it seems as if the man can see him. Tomotoshi jerks aloft, wings he had forgotten were his now pinwheeling, invisible to the players below as he streaks back through the veil and into his own body. He jerks a bit as normal consciousness returns and he finds himself kneeling at the table. Before he can control himself, he cranes his neck and looks back through the veil, and sees the Sanjo man, whether by fate or by chance, looking right at him. Their eyes meet for a long moment, and then the Sanjo man’s eyes widen in angry surprise as Tomotoshi does not look away. Tomotoshi comes to his senses and jerks his eyes away from the veil. He does not dare to look again, and the Sanjo man does not come over to confront him.

Tomotoshi examines his own table, and is surprised to see that he has a single card remaining in his hand, and at least thirty jots in front of him instead of twelve. The card in his hand is the Chinese Phoenix. He plays it, and captures the second-highest-scoring card in the suit of Dragon Flowers. He wins the game. He gets a dozen more coppers. Another tingling wave rolls through him. The Sanjo man beyond the veil is forgotten. Tomotoshi is unstoppable.

He has the luck like no man has ever had the luck before. Years after this night, men will brag of being there when an unknown man still half a child silenced the room at the Daishi House. He wins ten games in a row, laughable games, over before they ever start. His opponents grow restless but the cards are not his and he cannot be blamed for luck. He wins five more and the copper-jot drunkards are through with him. He moves up the the second table, closer to the veil, and wins more. Onlookers run to get their friends and return to find him still winning, piling up a mountain of copper and trading it in for silver, the first actual silver he has ever touched. He knows his opponents cards by the way they move their hands. He looks into their eyes and sees their births and deaths, sees their deeds and takes control of their fates. He wins nearly all of twenty hands before the first knife comes out, threatening his life or the coin back. The giant guards emerge and suddenly the knife looks very small, and the man wielding it is ejected from the premises. Tomotoshi feels a palpable rush through his body as the guards hurt the man, as if he himself had ordered it done.

 The guards return, take a look at his bulging purse, and motion him toward the veil. He does not put fresh jots up to play in the next game, but instead gathers his winnings, noting with pride the relieved faces of men who have been playing this game for years. He rises smoothly and walks towards the veil. He can feel each step. He is aware of the breath moving past his lips. A dozen pairs of eyes from the other side turn to the veil and look through at him, and he feels somehow as if he can meet all their gazes at once. As if the phoenix itself is looking out from within him. Here, in this old humble room of luck and fate, stepping on the sweat and spillage and even blood that coats the floor, he has somehow stepped onto his home ground. The fear he had not even realized he was feeling evinces itself by suddenly departing him. This is what he was made for.

 A guard pulls aside the veil as he approaches and allows him to pass. It is the first time anyone has ever made such a gesture for him, and inside he smiles, loving the attention, basking in the glow of all those eyes, eyes filled not with the scorn of village children but with the wariness of men trying to take his measure, unsure of what he can do or will do. He drops down into an empty seat at the near table, the third table, and though the wine flows at this table as at the others, those seated around him do not appear drunk. These are real men, rough to be sure but refined for the world Tomotoshi knows, and lords all compared to those now-forgotten copper jot drunkards. And yet the fear does not return. Sometimes, when a head is cut cleanly from its shoulders, the body will remain erect for a time, knees locked and balanced, gathering itself for the long fall. Tomotoshi looks around at these men at this table, and knows in his heart he has already cut off their heads. Their bodies just don’t know it yet.

He receives his first hand, and picks up the card. It is the Chinese Phoenix. He cannot suppress a smile. The luck is with him now. He wins that first game, and then a second, and then a third, dominating them, taking nearly all the coin off the table, when usually each game has several winners. He wins a fourth game, and now play at the other tables is slowing down, as other players crane their necks to watch him.

Tomotoshi looks up and his eye is captured by the most beautiful set of eyes he has ever seen. The lines of the the face that surround them are perfect, aesthetic and pleasing and sculpted by careful attention. Not a single wisp of the man’s topknot is out of place. His garments hang from him, of some fine material Tomotoshi cannot even yet name, their pattern alluring yet subtle, perfectly understated to capture the colors and shape of his flawless form.

Somebody at his table barks something at him angrily, and he realizes that he has missed a turn. He looks at the single card in his hand, plays it to secure another win, and elicits an exasperated harrumph from the table. He sneaks another look over at the fourth and final table, at those eyes and that face, and now he is sure: Those eyes are the same eyes he saw as the Phoenix, when he left his body and traveled across the veil. The same eyes, no question, but before the man had been ugly, and now he was beautiful. Tomotoshi feels a great longing in his heart, and the idea comes to him that perhaps this is a sign from one of the gods, marking this man out as somehow special and important. Perhaps the Phoenix is his personal protector spirit, to walk with him on the journey he is sure waits in his future.

The beautiful man’s eyes meet his once more, and captures him. Tomotoshi’s heart is pounding. He fears that the other players at his table will hear it. He gets another hand and he knows he will win but now instead of enjoying it he is impatient, wanting only to get to that fourth table, where that perfect man awaits, the man he knows now he must possess, the man who will change everything for him. This is the last hour of his innocence, for there is still too much about the world that Tomotoshi does not know, and cannot even imagine. A thousand new things have been wakened inside him, but he is still very much the boy from the tiny village, in the city for the first time.

Ten more games with eight victories, and the third table has had enough as well. He has two bulging purses chock full of silver, and needs a third to gather his stake off the table as he makes his way over to the fourth and final table, where the big fish swim. Halfway over to the table, one of the burly guards leaps out and stops him. The guard turns to the beautiful man with the Sanjo sigil on his kimono, and asks if Tomotoshi is permitted to join them. The Sanjo man waves him over without speaking.

Tomotoshi sits at the table. All the men here are already glaring at him. They have watched his meteoric rise, and are none too pleased that the Sanjo man did not deny him entrance. Tomotoshi sweeps a glance over them and declares them beaten. But then there is the Sanjo man. His perfect eyes reveal nothing. And now, for the first time, Tomotoshi feels he has met a true rival in the Art of the Glance. This man’s breeding, his life, his experiences at court, of a kind that Tomotoshi cannot yet imagine, have made him the equal of Tomotoshi’s natural gift. It thrills Tomotoshi without end, and only reinforces his feeling that he and this beautiful Sanjo man have a great destiny together.

The cards come, and it is as if they are the only two playing. None other has a chance. Other players try to leave, but the Sanjo man orders them to stay. He speaks to everyone, except Tomotoshi. But his glances say far more than words. They say: You are not my equal. Your luck cannot touch me. The force of your will and your charisma will fall on me like rain on the ocean. I am more than you can grasp with your feeble mind.

 Tomotoshi loses a hand. Then he loses another. A murmur spreads through the room. His mind begins to slip from the cards. He can feel it start to crack under the weight of that perfect stare. Tomotoshi leaves himself again, not a ripping free this time but a letting go. A giving in that somehow draws power inside him. It is a dissociation that he will spend the rest of his life chasing, and trying to understand. He speaks without thinking of the words.

“I tire of these stakes. Let us play one final hand. You and I. A hundred silver to the winner.”

Gasps from around the table. Tomotoshi is still a passenger in his own mind. A hundred silver on a single hand? He recoils from such a thought. But then he glances up, and sees the Phoenix, circling still in the shadows above his head. The luck is still with him. He hears the slight clink of coins against the table, and knows without looking down that it is a bag of fifty silver fallen from the Sanjo man’s hand.

He looks back down, at the Sanjo man, and now meets his eyes with true sincerity. The games at the other three tables have stopped. Every gaze is upon them. Tomotoshi puts most of his winnings down to match the Sanjo man’s wager, then takes his cards from the dealer, glances at them, and sees the Chinese Phoenix. He looks to the table and sees Dragon Flowers looking back at him from among the community cards. He is first to play, and he lays the Chinese Phoenix on the table, never taking his eyes from the Sanjo man.

The Sanjo man’s eyes flicker downward, and he sees the card. He locks his gaze on Tomotoshi once again, but something is gone from the Sanjo man’s power. He is already defeated, and they both know it.

 

PART III

Castle and Clansman

 Tomotoshi can feel the weight of his gold, and it feels good. He has traded most of the copper and silver in for gold, a service for which he paid the Daishi House a hefty percentage. But he found that he literally had difficulty walking with the full weight of all those inferior coins, and besides, he wanted the gold. He has turned his twelve copper jots into a sum it might take a successful merchant a year to earn, and he loves to feel the most beautiful of metals bulging against the side of his purse.

 He is acutely aware of the security problem that confronts him. He has taken the gold purse and strapped it to his inner thigh, but there is still the matter of a barn-full of drunk, angry gamblers, any of whom might be waiting for him in the unfamiliar turns of Yamagata City. His preferred option would have been to bury the coins somewhere safe, but he dares not spend the required hours alone in the woods. However, he had heard on the road that the Sanjo Clan kept good order, at least in the city, and so he decides to take the chance.

He enters Yamagata in what he will later learn is the sprawling low ground that houses most of the city’s poorest inhabitants. The makeshift streets are busy with people, bundled up against the encroaching cold. His tolerance for cold has been heightened by shivering years in his mother’s shack, but now, suddenly, the cold seems intolerable. He pays five silver for a heavy cloak lined with some kind of incredibly soft fur. He has no idea what it’s really worth, and the wide eyes of the merchant tell him he’s overpaid, but he doesn’t care. Winter is here and he is not cold anymore.

Tomotoshi looks up, stopped in the middle of the street, looks between the rooflines of two buildings, and sees Sanjo Castle for the first time. It overwhelms him with its size and power and majesty. His little bag of gold is rendered tiny and inadequate by the sheer, eye-goggling size of this place. Its blue roofs and rising donjon seem to cut not just through the gathering night but the winter itself. Solid. Meaningful. Eternal.

Then Tomotoshi is splashed with mud and horse dung as a wagon nearly runs him over, and a half-crazed driver screams obscenities at him, and Tomotoshi remembers that he is not in that castle, but out here, on the street, in a slum and carrying enough gold to start a riot. He hurries to the side of the street, struggling to breathe normally, and then sneaks another glance up at the castle. It is still there, in all its majesty, backlit by the moon and the glowing in the starlight. Tomotoshi can see a human shape looking out a window. It’s too far too see the face, or even be sure if it is a man or a woman, but Tomotoshi imagines they are looking right into each other’s eyes.

He doesn’t consciously decide to, but suddenly he finds himself walking towards the castle. He is now half street-urchin, dodging carts and horses and picking his way through the throng like he’s been doing it for years. On every side of him are a thousand new sights. The last gasp of autumn is here before the winter truly sets in, and the hardy people of this Northern Land are out in droves. Samurai stumble out of dimly-lit buildings, chased by clouds of opium whose smell Tomotoshi cannot yet identify. Women scurry in twos and threes, hiding their painted faces behind painted fans.

Tomotoshi races past all this in his desire to see the castle up close. It pulls him to itself. He does not even notice as the ground around him rises, and the lowland slums become sturdy houses, even some with real ornamentation on them. Yamagata is no fine city like Edo, but it has a bit of finery to it. Tomotoshi would cherish all this, has been dreaming of it, but ignores it all until he finally emerges at the base of the wall of the tallest structure he has ever seen. Up and up and up it goes, and as he places his hand on the wall’s lowest stone, he half-expects to hear a heartbeat, as if this castle were some living beast.

The gate is shut tight now, thirty paces down from where he stands. There are guards outside the base of it, their faces bright and glowing within the circle of torches they carry, laughing at some bawdy joke or other. He envies them for a long moment, just for their ability to stand so close to this wall and not have their hearts set to pounding. But then a growling voice emanates from the shadows behind him.

“You’re all alone in the dark, boy. Come closer.”

And Tomotoshi realizes that he has left himself very vulnerable even as his legs coil underneath him and launch him back towards the nearest row of buildings, across thirty paces of cleared ground in front of the castle wall. He re-enters the town and keeps on running, filled with terror, until his lungs can get no more breath, and he stops, and leans against a wall. The fur lining of his new cloak is soaked through with sweat. He can feel his pulse pounding through his entire body, as if his heart will burst out of this chest.

He looks around. This is the rich section of Yamagata. The streets are quieter. The houses are built up high, on tall foundations to protect against the piles of snow which will soon begin to fall. He looks across the street and sees a beautiful building, with sleek lines and carved details on its roofline and doorways. One of the outside doors is open on the street-side, and through the portal Tomotoshi can see a sculpted bonsai tree, with the flicker of firelight rippling on its leaves.

Tomotoshi crosses the street. He is stopped by a guard outside the door, but displays a fistful of gold and is ushered inside instead of turned away. The manicured tree turns out to be part of a small garden, all maintained inside this Tea House for no better reason than being pretty. It nearly makes Tomotoshi cry. He sits on a thick, comfortable tatami mat next to a roaring fire in the center of the room. He takes off his cloak and warms his fingers. He is served the most delicious tea he has ever tasted, and tiny balls of rice with flowers on the plate, flowers somehow preserved until this late autumn date.

Tomotoshi now sees the full scope of his problem. He is brilliant, this much he knows, and over time he can trust to that to help him succeed. But there seems to be a great deal that he does not know, simple things that most people take for granted. There is a whole world that is already in motion, and he can’t take so much as a running start. It makes him wonder about the possibility of things that he does not yet even know that he does not know. Who can he trust to watch his money? Where can he sleep in safety? How much is fair to pay for things that aren’t vegetables and gruel? His challenge, then, is to keep these unfortunate areas of ignorance from getting him killed before his natural intellect can take over.

He sits in relative comfort and mulls these ideas over in his mind, not solving them but also not anxious to give up and move on from the warmth of the fire. He sits there and thinks until suddenly another voice seems to come out of nowhere, this one not a growl but made of silk, like sweet oils poured over waiting skin.

“I know a place where they clean clothes. I could take you there.”

Tomotoshi turns, and sees a man who is not just everything Tomotoshi desires, but everything he wants to be. His hair is carefully shined and sculpted to the last detail. His clothes are of silk, and hang from him with the precision of the finest tailoring. He meets Tomotoshi’s gaze with a casual assurance that borders on insolence.

And without another word being spoken, Tomotoshi finds himself rising and donning his cloak. His mind is screaming no, but his body is obeying some other command. He follows the perfect young man out into the street, and then along several other streets, until suddenly they are at the entrance to an alley. Tomotoshi’s mind finally breaks through and stops his legs from moving forward. The perfect young man stops and turns and smiles at him, teasing him. Tomotoshi shakes his head, afraid to speak. The perfect young man is suddenly right up close to him. His breath is fragrant. His body gives off a pleasing heat. Tomotoshi can sense the taut muscle that waits underneath his cloak.

“There is a place here where certain things are permitted.”

He steps back. Tomotoshi takes a step forward without wanting to, and then another. He stops, fighting it. He glances up, and sees the stars above his head. A cluster of stars suddenly resolves itself into a shape: The Chinese Phoenix, gazing down at him, reassuring him that everything will be well. He looks back down and enters the alley.

Twenty paces inside, and the perfect young man turns, but now there is no smile on his face. His mouth is set in a grim line, and in that one look, Tomotoshi knows the terrible mistake he has made. He doesn’t even need to turn and see the other two men who have entered the alley behind him. As his physical arousal suddenly retreats, the whisper of danger in his mind becomes a piercing scream, and he realizes that it had been screaming all along, and he had been ignoring it.

There are no words. Tomotoshi tries to run, but it is a pathetic, abortive attempt. One of the other men hits him once, and knocks him to his back in the dirt. Tomotoshi is crying, begging them not to, but then the kicks come. He curls in on himself to absorb them. Then the beating stops. He throbs from a dozen places on his body. The perfect young man, snarling now, looms over him, then reaches down and pries his knees apart, spreading his legs.

The perfect young man holds up a knife. He plunges it downward, and for a moment Tomotoshi thinks he will be stabbed, but instead the perfect young man cuts the pouch of gold away from his thigh, picks it up, and pockets it. The knife returns to Tomotoshi’s groin. He can feel the blade pressing against his member. It starts to slice through the flesh, and he gathers himself to scream, but suddenly the perfect young man and the two other men are up and off of him and scrambling, going to a knee in the dirt of the alley, speaking words of apology.

Tomotoshi grabs at his groin. There is blood, but he is still intact. The cut is not deep. He rolls over to look for his savior, just as his three assailants leap to their feet and sprint headlong for the alley’s entrance and escape. Gentle hands pull Tomotoshi to his feet, and he finally gets a glimpse of his benefactor: The Sanjo man, from the Daishi House. A dozen men surround him, and a dozen women as well, all beautiful. The Sanjo man speaks to him, and as he does, a woman comes up from either side and starts coquettishly grooming him and keeping off the dust of the alley.

“I will not be dishonored by having a man who beat me fairly robbed that same night. If only you were such a fool with cards as you are with friends, I would still have that gold in my own pocket. A strange man, to carry both such skill and such foolishness. But then, the world is filled with strange men. Tell me, stranger, what is your name?”

Tomotoshi knows that there is an offer in that question. But it is an offer with conditions attached. Right there, in that moment, Tomotoshi sees his entire life play out before him. He sees the choice that he will have to make. For there is something inside of him, some desire which he cannot name, and that desire is weakness. It was weakness when he was a child, being pummeled by the other village children. It is weakness on this night, when it led him down a dark alley and towards possible death. And it will be a weakness in the future, at some moment far from this one, when he will face some other choice at some other dark alley.

There is a world, perhaps, in which Tomotoshi could have quenched these deep desires of his heart. There is a life he could have lived in which such a thing might have been possible. Even in the time and place where he was born, there were closed doors behind which all manner of things happened. But that world was not to be his world. That life was not to be his life.

For the offer that the Sanjo man was making, the offer implicit in his question, was of an entree into the world of real power. Tomotoshi knows that this Sanjo man has the key to that impossible castle, and is offering to open the door for Tomotoshi, if the right steps are taken. But such steps along such a path cannot be made under the yoke of that weakness which lives inside him. He knows in that moment that he cannot have both. The weight of them will surely crush him. He must choose between the worlds. And so he does.

“My name is… Gakushi.”

Gakushi? Where does such foolishness come from? It is nonsense sounds, no proper name for anyone. And yet Gakushi knows that it is his name. It is the name for the man that he has just become.

“Gakushi? A strange name, as I expected. Well then, Gakushi, I may have use for a man of your particular talents. Will you come with me so that we may discuss the future?”

Gakushi nods. He literally pictures himself using a sword to cut away part of his body. He is leaving something behind, something now hated and reviled instead of feared. A weakness he will no longer indulge. The Sanjo man and his retinue turn and exit the alley, and Gakushi exits with them, already part of the flock. He captures the eyes of the most beautiful woman in the group, and smiles at her, like a wolf showing its teeth. She will be his first conquest, he decides. And when he takes her, he will not think of a man instead. He will think of that look, that terrified look that his would-be thief had given to the Sanjo man, terror offered up as a sacrifice to beg forgiveness. He will think of all those looks, of all that power, of all that deference which will surely become his due.

What Gakushi does not yet know is how that desire he calls weakness will smolder inside him, like a vein of toxic gas spilling from the earth. So long denied, so long ignored, that desire will turn to hatred. That hatred will turn to murder. And that murder will turn into history. At that moment, in that dank and dirty alley, the downfall of the Sanjo Clan begins.

 

The Empty Sisters

A story from the world of Samurai’s Blood

by Owen Wiseman

Kayo mumbles something as she is dying, but it is impossible to make out. She dies sweating. None of the wheezes or coldness or stillness of the deaths of old women. Kayo dies with fever, her eleven-year-old body fighting up until the very last moment and then giving up suddenly. She lapses into unconsciousness, wakes up long enough to mumble something, and stops breathing.

For a long moment her two twin sisters are still. They are close to her death, all three of them shut up in the dank, tiny room they share, one of many just like it set into the walls of the main training room of the Farm. The twins can hear the rustling and the small breaths of the other girls in the other rooms, but Kayo’s breath is gone. They look at each other. They are eight years old, or perhaps nine. It is not clear exactly when they were born. Kayo has led them this far, held their hands and sheltered them, warmed them with her own body on frigid wintry nights here in this Northern land, washed the wounds of punishment inflicted on them by cruel Taro with his cane of reeds, and now she is dead. They both know it but they cannot speak it, not even to each other, for several breaths. Then their eyes meet again and it is undeniable. She is dead. Seki and Sata are alone.

They do not get up and do not call for their minders, who may punish them if they draw any attention. They hold each other there, next to their sister’s corpse, and they whisper soothing sounds into each other’s ears, and after a while they begin to talk of Kayo. They find strength and solace in each other, and their whispers grow stronger. As the first rays of dawn start slipping through the cracks between the boards of their tiny room, each twin reaches out and places a hand on Kayo’s body. She is cold now, all the life already long gone. They swear to her and to each other that they will raise themselves out of this life. All the things that she had promised to get for them they will get for themselves. It is the promise of children, children grown up all too fast but children all the same, with no real idea of what the world has in store for them. And yet that promise binds them, and they will keep it even when they do finally discover its true, terrible cost. They are sworn.

 “I’m cold.”

“Me too.”

“How long do you think, until dawn?”

“I don’t know.”

“It will get warmer, once dawn comes.”

“It will, Sister. It will.”

 Morning comes and they are rousted and Kayo’s death is discovered, and they are beat for failing to reveal it as they would have been beaten for revealing it before dawn. Taro stinks of cheap wine like every other morning, and he groans as he wields the cane against their tiny bodies. They have been at his mercy for three years now, and neither girl cries while being beaten anymore.

On the farm there is work, pain, practice, and rest, with just barely enough food eaten hurriedly in between. There are thirty girls there, aged five to fifteen, and every one either is or will be beautiful. Those who do the dirty business of obtaining girls are well-practiced in the choice, and Taro and his assistants work them hard. They learn the arts of makeup and the arts of dance. They spend long hours working in the gardens and doing chores. They play whisper games at night, passing messages from tiny room to tiny room, trying to stay quiet enough to keep the minders at bay.

Seki and Seta retreat at first, after Kayo dies, in spite of their promises. Swearing and doing are two different things, and for a year the two girls always have a tear in at least one eye. They do what they are told to do and try their best to hide their despair, but that first year is a fugue. One year to the day after her death, they spend the night in the same tiny room where she died, and they cry, and they cannot console each other, and when the dawn comes they have cried so much that it shows on their faces and they are beaten again, and must feel Taro’s sweet, hot breath coming down at them with each blow. They are nine years old, or perhaps ten.

That afternoon they are out in a vegetable garden pulling weeds, side-by-side in a row of other girls. They both glance upward at the same moment, to see a giant bird, unlike any they have seen before, glide out from behind a distant evergreen tree in the direction of the nearest mountain peak. It is a Mountain Hawk Eagle, though neither girl knows its name, rare and proud, brown and white and with wings longer than they are tall. The Hawk Eagle begins circling over their heads. Seki and Seta both know that bird is their sister, come to visit them once more. A peace falls upon them.

 “What can this mean, sister? Why would Kayo take such a form?”

“Perhaps she wishes us to be strong, and powerful, to strike down our enemies.”

“Perhaps she wishes for us to grow wings and fly away.”

“You there! Seki, Sata! Stop your chattering!

“She has come to remind us of her love.”

“Her love reminds me of our promises.”

“Me too, sister. Me too.”

 Five years pass. They are fourteen, or perhaps fifteen. They are the most beautiful girls on the whole farm. They are unmistakably twins, almost identical but with enough difference to tell them apart. Two sides of the same coin. They have transformed themselves into the rising stars of the house, the in-demand girls who will perform for the lords and perhaps even catch one’s eye. The are the best dancers and the best at pouring tea. All the things that girls have whispered of are within their grasp. Taro no longer beats them, but praises them lavishly and beats other, younger girls. He brings Seki and Seta favors when he comes from the city, tokens of esteem from gentlemen he has told of the sisters’ beauty. They have moved out of that tiny closet to a larger room at the front of the farmhouse, with one wall against the back of a firepit so that it stays reasonably warm even in the winter.

Spring comes, the time of year when a crop of new girls are taken from the farm to the city, to begin work in the House itself. Seki and Seta know this is their year to be taken, and so they are. They sit on the wagon as Taro steers it along a jouncing dirt path, the girls staring into the far distance, past the stunning beauty of the mountains and towards the city which they imagine will be somehow even more beautiful. They catch each other’s eyes, and smile just slightly, and each knows the other is thinking of what this day means. Today is the day they leave behind all the horror of the Farm, all the beatings, all the frigid nights, the terrible food that they ate ravenously to still growling bellies. The girls of the House are required to be beautiful and perfect at all times, and so they are given decent food, and warm beds, and creams for their skin. This, at least, is what is whispered of on those long farm-nights, the dreams passed from girl to girl and from generation to generation.

They arrive in Yamagata and something seems wrong. The wagon passes a castle, its rising walls and towers painted a strong, striking blue, but the wagon just keeps right on rolling. They pass through streets lined with well-constructed wooden buildings, filled with women in beautiful kimonos stomping along with span-high, wooden platforms strapped to the bottom of their sandals to keep them up and out of the mud. They leave this behind and enter a drab area, where no one makes eye contact, where the clothing is duller and coarser, and they finally pull up outside a large, wooden building with high walls surrounding it, and a trio of giant, scowling guards out front. Seki and Sata are frozen in the wagon, staring up at the sign above the door of the building, a sign which they now realize they cannot read, until the guards lift them roughly and take them inside and lock them away.

By that very evening, the sisters are side-by-side attending to the sweatiest, filthiest mob of drunks who ever walked the earth. They are fighting men, rough men with coin and with nothing to lose, and the dances they spent all those childhood years learning are interrupted by pawing hands with disturbing frequency. At the end of the evening, they are taken each to her own room at the back of the building, and each finds a different nobleman there waiting for her. These are the men who sent favors to the farm, and who have paid high coin for the privilege of deflowering the girls everyone is talking about. And Seki and Seta do as they are told, for there were those whispers back on the farm as well, of the things that were expected. All their dreams come crashing down that night, and each girl wonders how she could have been so foolish as to think that anything but a hard fate awaited her. Neither one sees her lord again after that first night. There will be no rescue.

They are the lowest girls of the house, and in-between violations they are made to do still more chores, to wash the clothing and draw the baths of the older, established girls. Seki and Sata are whores, forbidden of any learning, of any possession, of any pride. All the arts of dance and makeup and coquettishness are just ornamentation to their bodies, which are the real objects of sale. Perhaps somewhere there is a place where those other skills are valued, but that is not this place. For a time, they try to resist. Not with their bodies, for that way is death, but with their hearts. They are silent when on display, and go through the motions of dance without really dancing. Only the roughest of sailors wants them, and life grows even worse. But then one night, late at night when the House is quiet and they are supposed to be asleep, the girls remember that this was the night of the year when Kayo died. They look into each other’s eyes and whisper again the words of their vow. They had indeed forgotten, but now they have remembered. This is not the life she wanted for them. This is not the life they promised to live. They swear again that they will get that life no matter the cost.

They are great beauties and quick studies, so they rise swiftly through the House. They learn the tricks that men like, learn the subtle breaths and widening eyes that accompany genuine pleasure, learn how to tease those reactions from their clients. The scene in a brothel is ugly but even ugly things have their winners and their losers, and Seki and Seta are winners. They find a few rich patrons who become regular customers, and provide them enough status to get a small room together where they can be alone. They realize that they must learn to read, so they begin to wheedle a few kanji out of their favored patrons. They assemble a rudimentary alphabet. They have no writing implements or ink, so they bring in pockets full of dirt from the gardens when they work outside, then slowly dribble the soil out of a fist to form the characters on their wooden floor. They memorize hundreds of characters this way, magicking language out of the very ether. They learn to speak Chinese and Korean from the men who pass through. They learn how to talk just intelligently enough about battle and learn when to titter brainlessly.

Soon enough they are at the top of the House. It is a rough House, true, of no great name, but they are its greatest assets. They are seventeen, or perhaps eighteen. Lords come from the castle to receive their ministrations, and send them trinkets the next day. One night they are taken to the castle, and spend a luxurious night with the heir to the mantle of daimyo, Sanjo Ujimori. He is twenty years old, and after it is done he gives them each twenty gold coins. It is as much coin as they had made in their entire lives previously, and Taro gives them each their own quarters after that. And so they settle into a rhythm of life that actually is close to what Kayo wanted for them. The next time the date of her death comes around, they buy good wine and rice balls and have a feast, but in the middle of it all, they realize at the exact same moment that this is not enough. Everything they could ever have imagined means nothing now. Kayo and her dead dreams mean nothing, for now there is nowhere to go. The striving itself was all that had ever kept them going. Now there is only the future, very much like the present, with sweaty men and dreary nights and painful mornings, until they are old and feeble or dead. They will have to invent a new dream.

“There is something strange about this wine.”

“Are you troubled by the taste?”

“No, the taste is sweet.”

“Then what can it be?”

“This wine begins as grapes. A trader from Edo told me that. They allow the grapes to rot, then they can turn them into wine. And everyone knows that wine left out too long turns to vinegar.”

“Of course all you say is true. But what can this mean?”

“Well, from the moment a grape begins to grow until the moment that I take a sip of this wine, the wine is always becoming something else. It never stops changing. It seems to me this is a strange thing about wine. Do you find that strange?”

“I do, Sister. I do”

The decision to kill comes rather easily. Commonplace horror is no horror at all, and Seki and Seta have seen many people die before. The move from observer to cause does not trouble them overmuch. They choose one of their most dedicated clients, and enlist his help in their scheme, promising him rewards beyond all measure. The client invites Taro over to his house for dinner and drinking, and get him very drunk. Seki has developed a pleasure relationship with one of the House’s guards, who lets them out of their room for the night. They go to the client’s house and Taro is there. They knock him unconscious, then tie him and wait for him to wake. When he does, the torture begins. They pull his nails from his fingers. They pull his teeth from his mouth. They take his own reed cane and poke his eyes out of his head with it. Three hours and more he suffers before he dies. The client and the guard who cooperated with them are too frightened of them to turn them in. They take Taro’s body and dump it in a river, and he is never found.

They return to the brothel that evening, and find they are not troubled at all. All that we might call goodness has been burned out of them, and only strength remains. Only the strength to do what they must do. They throw themselves into their work, bringing twice as much pleasure to twice as many, and the knowledge of how easily they could kill any of these men brings them some solace. Taro is dead and the House is without an owner, but another rich man appears and takes control, just as Seki and Seta had known he would. The new owner’s name is Akira. One week after Akira appears, he is dead from poison. Another new owner emerges and that same month he is murdered by thieves in a dark alley. This goes on, with no one knowing how it is happening, until one of the owners dies and no one is willing to take his place. A month later, the house is in chaos and rumors of a curse abound. Clients are unhappy, girls are restless, and guards are not being paid. Seki and Seta, at the behest of everyone involved, reluctantly agree to run operations until a permanent solution can be found.

That very same evening, the twins send a letter to Sanjo Ujimori, their old patron. They ask that he make a special exception and allow them permanent position as head of the brothel. In exchange they offer him pleasures untold. He accepts, and Seki and Seta find themselves ruling the world in which they were once prisoners. They never go to bed with another sweating, stinking man, but only with the daimyo himself. Within a year, what is now called the Kinjo House is the best regarded brothel in the province. Their feminine touch in decoration and atmosphere sets it apart from all other houses, and men come from as far away as Edo to sample their delectations. They have invented their new dream and achieved it, and will rule their world for fifty years with a ruthlessness that few men or women are able to display.

They are twenty-two, or perhaps twenty-three. They sit in the main office of the Kinjo House, wearing the finest silks, with dozens of guards and servants waiting just seconds away to attend to any whim. From the farm and Taro’s cane to this in eight years. They remark that it is the anniversary of Kayo’s death, and they reflect on how far they have come. Each congratulates and thanks the other. But secretly, inside, they feel nothing. Each hides this emptiness from the other, one of the few true secrets of their life together. And so for all their lives, each woman will think herself alone with the struggle.

“Should we be condemned, Sister, for the things we have done?”

“We would be condemned, if we were discovered.”

“That is not what I asked.”

“You mean to ask of Kayo? I cannot say.”

“Would she have done the same, had she lived to discover the truths we lived to discover?”

“Perhaps she would have made different truths of them.”

“And what might she have made of Taro-san and all the rest?”

“She was one of us.”

“She was, Sister. She was.”

 

The Fish-Killer

A story from the world of Samurai’s Blood

by Owen Wiseman

It begins with a fish. He is eight years old, already quick enough and smart enough to sneak up and get his fingers under the fish far enough to flip it up out of the water and onto the bank. He stands between the writhing creature and the water, to keep it from flopping towards escape, but he does not reach for a rock to end it. He watches it die slowly, and feels for the first time that perfect detachment, that invincible, floating, whiplash high of dominion over life and death. It is only a fish, not nearly so powerful as the spirits he will soon command, but it is his first and it is that fish which sets the hook deep within his own jaw. It is that fish which makes Mitsumo Tomotori—fourth son of Mitsumo Iwada, Lord of Bifu Castle—fall in love with death.

A year goes by. He thinks often of the fish, but life is busy and he has few opportunities to slip away and be alone. Then one evening he captures a bird that lands on his open windowsill. He grabs it by the neck and squeezes with his tiny fingers as the bird flaps and tries to claw its way free. Eventually the bird’s effort slackens. It cannot breathe. But rather than let it die, he releases it with just a spark of life left inside, and instead stomps on its wings, making sure to snap them both. He spends most of the night sitting alone, watching the bird drag itself around his quarters trying to find its way back aloft, and it is his only happy memory of being nine years old.

Two more years go by with only these petty crimes. Tomotori is eleven years old. Meanwhile, the lowest-ranking of the sons of Mitsumo Iwada is quickly becoming the best swordsman. He battles his older brothers fiercely, and at thirteen he defeats the eldest, a proud samurai of twenty-two years who cannot look his father in the eyes after retrieving his wooden sword from the rich courtyard grass of their grand castle. Pride shines on Tomotori’s face at his victory, but when he turns to his brother he sees the hatred that has settled there.

Tomotori looks back to his father, with hope still shining on his face, and at that one moment, if he had found what he was looking for on the face of Mitsumo Iwada, everything may well have changed for Tomotori. He might have stopped loving death. But he does not find what he is looking for, because Mitsumo Iwada is not looking at him. The old man is looking at his older brother, the meaningless brother he had just defeated, and Iwada is exhorting him, demanding more and better and harder. And it is then that Tomotori realizes that there is no competition between them at all. He strove to be a better sword than his eldest brother, but they are not both swords. They are different tools, different sons, moving through different passages and unable to cross over. The world around them swirls, the hand of servant turning against master as the civil strife of Sengoku-Jidai winds itself down, and men change their destinies by conquest as Japan is united once more. Yet in this world that is their castle, the world where Mitsumo Tomotori is prisoner, he is one thing and his eldest brother is another thing. Their destinies are immutable.

His brother hates him, and that means everyone hates him, because his brother is going to be lord one day and so everyone aches to please him. Their father pits brother against brother, and every night Tomotori is victorious. As they grow older and Tomotori comes into his full powers, the beatings get worse. Servants come to Tomotori’s quarters and beg him to throw the matches, to allow his brother to win for everyone’s sake, but he refuses. He is merciless. But every night, standing over his brother’s bloody form, he looks to his father and finds the old man’s eyes averted, staring instead at his eldest son, willing him to be something he is not.

Meanwhile, Tomotori piles up suffering and death to move mountains. He stalks the castle grounds at dawn and dusk, hunting vermin, on pretext of training but truly so that he might take any captives back to his room for experimentation. He evolves from simple murders to vivisections. He comes into possession of a small, leather bag, open on three sides but with ties to keep it closed. Inside the small bag, held in by straps that he makes himself, is the collection of knives and metal pokes that he uses as instruments of vivisection.

He turns fourteen on a perfect day just as the cherry blossoms are falling in the courtyards. He is presented with a katana and matching wakizashi. All his father’s samurai retainers and many of the palace staff gather. A condemned prisoner enters the courtyard. The man is not blindfolded, and Tomotori looks long into his eyes. The assembled samurai murmur, for he does not tremble as most boys in their memories trembled. He looks at his father, and his father finally looks right straight into his eyes for the first time in what seems like years. His father draws the katana from its scabbard and hands it to him. He turns and looks at the prisoner again. He has grown used to hiding his thirst for blood, through the long nights of furry little bodies, and so now he tries to wipe away the smile that wants to creep onto his face, but as that blade bites into the man’s neck and slices through clean, he cannot help himself. He grins and releases a roar of what can only be called triumph, and yet his father turns his back on him once more after that night, despite his bravery. And so Tomotori’s heart is hardened. There is nothing to be done.

Tomotori begins to seek more opportunities to kill. Vivisecting animals no longer excites him now that he has tasted human spirit, and he begins to regret having performed the vivisections in the first place. He throws away his leather bag with his tools, and he stops searching the castle for vermin. That he used to do this strange thing becomes a deep and shameful secret, as time piles on top of it, and he tries to bury his deep, dark impulses under the veneer of justified killing. He volunteers to carry out executions. When he cannot find someone to kill, he will walk through a crowded market, hand to his sword, knowing that people will recognize him, just to see the fear on their faces at the thought of what he might do.

And still the nightly battles of brother against brother continue, and still Tomotori is victorious each and every time. His brother is one of the finest swordsmen in the province, but no match for Tomotori’s viciousness. He fights without style and without mercy, winning with quickness and endurance and ruthlessness. But all this skill cannot bring understanding, and Tomotori cannot understand his father’s aloofness, or his brother’s hatred. Tomotori becomes a ghostly presence in the castle. No one speaks to him. No one looks him in the eye. It is as if he is slowly ceasing to exist.

Then one night, a night much like all the others, save perhaps for some petty annoyance that proves too much to bear, Tomotori and his brother duel in the courtyard while the sun goes down and their father watches. Tomotori is aged sixteen and his brother is aged twenty-five. Five years and more they have fought this way. For three of those years, Tomotori has been the victor, and each night, once victory was assured, he lowered his own sword and offered his brother assistance in rising. Not so this night. This night he beats his brother into the ground and continues beating. He beats him until the wooden sword breaks and then he beats him with the handle. He hears the crack of bone and the cries of mercy, but he does not stop. Not until he hears his father’s voice. When that clarion yell rings out he stops, face splashed with his brother’s blood, and turns to the old man, and again their eyes meet, right on, and the father really, truly looks at his son.

The next day the order comes by messenger. Tomotori is to take only a dozen men and see to the destruction of the Mitsumo Clan’s hated enemy, the Maeda Clan, at their seaside stronghold. It is a suicide mission. Tomotori laughs in the face of the messenger. He sends a message of enthusiastic acceptance to his father. He chooses twelve petty criminals to accompany him, takes them with hands bound out into the forest, and forces them to fight to the death, with the promise that one will live and go free. Once that last poor bastard has killed all the others, Tomotori slits his throat. He does not dispose of the bodies. He leaves them in the forest for the animals, as payment for all the torturing nights of his childhood.

He goes with light feet to the Maeda Clan’s castle, buoyed by all the death in his wake. He reconnoiters the village outside the castle, and discovers where the various gate guards live. He follows them for weeks on their road to and from the castle, listening to them talk and studying their voices. He finally chooses the one he thinks is the biggest coward. He kidnaps the man’s wife and daughter, and it turns out that Tomotori is a good judge of character, because the man agrees to let him into the castle as ransom.

Tomotori sneaks into the castle on the night of a feast. He moves through the entire structure, setting fires and murdering guards, enough to send the whole wooden castle to ashes. Then, in the chaos and the smoke, disguised in a stolen uniform, he slips in amongst the bodyguards of Maeda Dogen, and slides a knife between the patriarch’s ribs. Tomotori slips away without notice, and the incident is later blamed on other parties, but before he returns to his home castle, Tomotori returns to the house of the cowardly gate guard, and kills him, along with his wife and child. Not because he is afraid they will implicate him, but for the same reason he used to vivisect those animals in those long, sweaty nights, with the tools from his leather case. He goes back and kills those people because for Tomotori, the act itself has meaning. Some kill with heavy hearts, and some kill with hardly a thought, but very few kill in the same way that artists paint or sculptors sculpt. Yet Tomotori is one of those.

He returns to his father’s castle and is given a hero’s welcome. He is triumphant. His boldness and daring have finally overcome the lowness of his birth. He sees his eldest brother and some of the hatred has simply evaporated from his eyes, the way it sometimes can for men who must contemplate being stabbed with a sword, and so who are happy to avoid a fight. All those eyes which were averted are shining now. He will not rule, not take his brother’s place, but he has respect, and that is enough. And so there comes another moment where it seems as if he has a chance to turn it all around.

That night, he asks his father why he was hated for so long. What had he done that had made it necessary for him to destroy so many enemies to make it right? And his father tells him, with unusual bluntness, that every single person in the castle knew about his vivisections and his cruelty when he was a child, and that they all thought he was cursed, and that perhaps he still is cursed, but some curses can work in someone’s favor some of the time, and that as long as he only kills the people he is told to kill he will be allowed to stay. Only Tomotori does not hear many of his father’s words after the first few, because the shame wells up inside him so hard and so fast that it becomes a literal roar and blots out all other sound.

And oh, that shame. That old secret that he had stuffed away is not just revealed but revealed as never a secret at all. The only person who did not know the real secret was him, and now he feels all at once those long years of whispered conversations and snickers that must have taken place all around him, while he lived in that pathetic world of secret hiding spots and little leather cases.

He does not show the shame on his face. He calmly expresses it to his father, and abases himself before him. He begs forgiveness and receives it, then goes out into the castle and walks with his head high. He resolves not to linger in the past, but to start fresh. Yet by the time he reaches his quarters, he knows that is impossible. Every eye on him is a reminder of his burning shame. It consumes him that night, and every night thereafter, until one night, a night filled with storms, he realizes that the only way the world can come to life again is for everyone who knows this secret to die.

And so he picks up the katana and the wakizashi that his father had given to him, and he uses the thunder and the storm for cover as he stalks the hallways, until he reaches his father’s quarters. He kills the guards outside without speaking a word to them, then enters, and stabs his father in his sleep. The old man’s eyes shoot open, and his mouth works like a caught fish, which reminds Tomotori of that first fish, by the riverbank when he was eight years old, the day he fell in love with death.

Tomotori gets very close to his father, and looks right down into his eyes for the last time. He touches his father’s face, the first time he has ever done so. The old man tries to speak, but can only get out three syllables, three disconnected sounds from a sentence lost to the winds of death: A—RA—KU. Then he is gone.

Tomotori smiles his last smile of his old life, and embraces his new name. Araku he shall be, once and forever more, and he swears on his father’s blood that all who hear that name will fear it. Araku stalks through the castle, setting fires and killing his brothers one by one. The eldest is last, and he does not struggle. He knows he is beaten and dead the moment Araku walks in the door. In the morning, when the fire has died to ashes, the Mitsumo Clan is no more, just as Araku had intended.

Araku heads north. He spends a decade moving slowly across the country, traversing the newly established domain of the Tokugawas, never thinking or hearing of his family or their castle or their fortunes again. He has forsaken all that he was. He desires no lands or castles or power, beyond the power of his sword. He eats little food, but feasts on the fading light from a thousand dying eyes, and the gurgling screams from a thousand dying tongues. He does not think of the past or the future. He is a Lord no more.

And then, long after the people of his home province have stopped talking about the fate of the Mitsumo Clan, long after some other family has seized power and built a new castle atop the ashes of the old, Araku arrives in Dewa Province, and hears the name Sanjo for the first time. He hears of their goodness, and of their proud history, of their benevolence, and for the first time in a decade his heart is filled with desire. He is weary of the road, weary of the privations of life as a nomad. He decides that he will enter the service of the Sanjo Clan, and in time, will destroy them.

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