The Eastern House
by Nene Adams © 2001
- All rights reserved
PROLOGUE - Moon Rises, Cold
Mame de iyo
Mi wa narawashi no
I pass as all things do
Kusa no suyu.
Dew on the grass.
Month of Long Days Turning (September)
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant
In Azumaya, the Eastern House
3 a.m., the second Hour of the Ox
Lord Genji Kanemori, fifth son of the Genji clan and a favored
courtier of the Son of Heaven, lurched down the deserted corridor,
singing loudly through his nose, punctuating his song with occasional
sour wine belches. The tall gauze cap on his head was askew; he
had discarded the various layers of robes he usually wore and his
light silk underkimono gaped open, showing a bony, hairless chest.
The wide, stiffly starched legs of his brocade hakama trousers
rubbed together, making a sound like a striated cricket's call.
He staggered, nearly falling through a paper screened shoji
door, and cried a good-natured, drunken apology although he knew
the room was unoccupied. "Gomen nasai!" he called with a
giggle. "Forgive me, ghosts! Too much sake!"
This wing of the palace had not been lived in for decades, although
servants still kept the dust and spiders at bay. Lord Kanemori wasn't
sure how he'd ended up here; the last coherent thing he remembered
had been a drinking game with some lovely peach-bottom boys in his
private chambers. The lord's jade pestle throbbed when he recalled
the luscious Kitten, all smooth white skin and flashing dark eyes
and the soft, jiggling velvet surprises that lay beneath the boy's
Perhaps Kitten had enticed him into a game of Catch-the-Fan. Yes,
that was it! He had come seeking Kitten, who was probably hiding
in one of these very rooms, waiting to be found and smothering his
giggles behind a thin elegant hand. It was the Hour of the Ox; most
of the palace courtiers had long since sought their beds and even
the guards were nodding over late night sake. A perfect time
to play without interruption.
Lord Kanemori straightened up with a jerk, tugging at the waistband
of his hakama. The tall gauze cap fell off his head and he
kicked it out of his way, foot booming on the wooden floor, the
dull sound echoing down the hallway. Beads of sweat cascaded down
his forehead, making his eyes sting, and he thrust out his lower
lip in a petulant pout. He would find Kitten and when he did, he'd
use that peach bottom until the boy couldn't sit down for a week!
The drunken lord staggered a few more steps and stopped. A whisper
of cold breeze wafted down the dark corridor, curled around his
neck and made him blink. "Kitten?"
There was no answer. Lord Kanemori belched again loudly and yelled,
"Mou! Enough of this foolishness! Come out now, I command
Again, there was nothing but silence... and abruptly, the lord's
skin prickled, making the hairs on his arms stand on end. The freezing
wind whispered down the hallway, caressing his face, fluttering
the hem of his kimono. He turned around. "Who is there?" he murmured,
suddenly fearful and not knowing the reason why. "What do you want?"
A blue-white light blossomed ahead of him. He squinted, blinded
by the glare, and shielded his eyes with a hand. "What do you want?!"
he shrieked. Fear made his bowels turn to water but he was frozen
in place, unable to run. His hand scrabbled at his side but he'd
left his daisho, the two swords of his rank, back in his
The light grew in strength until it illuminated the entire corridor
in ripples of azure and white; the wind blew harder and just at
the edge of his hearing, the lord detected a whispery voice. "Onaka
ga suita," it moaned.
Lord Kanemori was suddenly released from paralysis. He whipped
around and began to run, the split-toed tabi socks on his
feet making him slide on the smoothly polished floor.
"Onaka ga suita..."
His mouth gaped open wide and he sucked in air with desperate gasps
as he slipped and slid, trying to run, nearly falling and catching
himself upright again. The corridor stretched out impossibly long
in front of him. Shoji doors began to rattle violently in
"Yamero!" the lord whimpered. "Stop this, please!"
The brilliant ball of light behind him began to coruscate, pulsing
in time to the frantic beating of his heart. The chill wind freshened,
grew colder still, and the sweat on his face began to freeze. Lord
Kanemori screamed thinly and cried, "I beg you! Let me go!"
"Onaka ga suita..."
Lengths of wide white silk suddenly shot out of the light and wrapped
themselves around his legs, making him fall heavily to the floor.
The breath was knocked out of him and the lord's fingers scratched
frantically, seeking purchase on the wooden floor. Ice frosted his
eyebrows, the stubble of his beard, mingled with the thin strands
of black hair fallen from his topknot. "Please..."
The silk wound around his legs from toes to thighs with a whispering
sound. Something gave the silk a jerk, as if testing the firmness
of his prison, then Lord Kanemori was hurtling backwards, splinters
gouging his cheeks as his head bumped violently along the floor.
He screamed again, arms windmilling, eyes nearly bulging from their
And disappeared into the light.
The corridor was silent once again; the brilliant light bobbed
up and down slowly and its pulsing beat slowed as well. After a
time, a dark line appeared, running down the center from bottom
to top, and the ball split in half. Something fell with a rattling
thud to the floorboards and the light winked out like a blown candleflame.
At last, a shoji door slid open and a pretty boy peered
out of the room he'd been hiding in, rubbing sleep from his eyes
with a knuckle. "My lord?" Kitten called. "Gomen nasai...
I fell asleep. Too much wine, I think."
There was no answer.
"My lord? Are you there?"
Still nothing. Kitten got up from his knees, swaying a little from
side to side. The hem of his kimono was quite tight and he could
only take tiny, mincing steps. He finally stepped up into the corridor
and looked from left to right.
Something was on the floor at one end of the hallway. Kitten squinted;
the heavy lead makeup and rouge on his face had smeared, giving
him the look of a melted china doll. "Kanemori-sama?"
Kitten moved closer to the object, each step clattering on the
floor; he'd forgotten to remove the high wooden platforms he wore
and the geta clogs scraped up curls of dark varnish from
the boards. Another moment and he hovered over the object. "Kanemori-sama?
Did you fall asleep, too?"
The boy bent his knees and leaned over, his balance precarious.
A long sleeve of his robe brushed the huddled heap and came away
Whimpering now, Kitten struggled to make his eyes focus on the
shattered thing. Abruptly, everything came into focus and he began
to scream hysterically.
Lord Kanemori's sightless eyes leered up at him from the broken
ruin of his face. His limbs were twisted into limp knots and his
torso gaped open, showing loops of intestine and white, jagged lumps
of bone protruding from the oddly bloodless wound. In fact, except
for a few broad spots of blood that slicked his bluish skin, all
the vital fluids had been drained from the proud Genji lord.
Kitten screamed again and again and again...
Until the palace bushi, roused by the commotion, came rushing
in with torches and swords to discover the latest victim drained
of life and soul by the hungry ghost of the Eastern House.
- Laughter in Hell
Nora ni saku
Flowers of the grass
Na wa kore made zo
Scarcely shown, and withered
Kusa no hana.
Name and all.
In the Bathhouse of the
Rushing Carp, Heian-kyo
Noon, the first Hour of the Horse
Ichijo Ayumi, samurai and retainer to the wealthy daimyo
Inokuma Yorimachi, settled herself down on the low wooden stool
in the Rushing Koi bathhouse. She had just returned to the capital
of Heian-Kyo after spending a month chasing bandits in the daimyo's
Issan province and her ragged, dusty appearance was proof of her
Five pretty maids, called bathhouse-hell-women, giggled behind
their sleeves and rolled big cow eyes as they stripped the filthy
samurai of her single kimono and hakama, both items so dirty
and tattered that one of the girls made a show of holding her nose
and carrying them away on the end of a stick. A brand new set of
kimono, hakama and a short haori jacket had been laid
over a bamboo frame in another part of the room; a brass incense
pot smoked beneath, impregnating the cloth with the subtle scent
"Ma!" cried one of the girls named Yumiko, peering at Ayumi's
naked body and affecting astonishment. "So big, so strong! I feel
faint! But where's your honorable flagpole, eh? Did the bandits
steal it?" She made a show of searching for the missing male organ,
ducking her head between Ayumi's thighs and squinting, tongue caught
between her teeth.
The other girls collapsed with shrieks of laughter.
"I keep it in my saddlebags," Ayumi replied with a good natured
grin, gently pushing Yumiko away, "to protect my peerless parts
from devouring nighthawks like you!"
More peals of laughter erupted at this sally. The infamous yotaka,
or nighthawks, were the lowest class of prostitute who solicited
their customers at night under the shadow of a bridge, avoiding
the moonlight that would illuminate their wrinkles, missing teeth
and sagging skin.
Exchanging jokes and banter, the girls brought bucket after bucket
of steaming water and poured it over Ayumi's head. Tying back the
long sleeves of their black and white checked kimonos with thin
cords, they scrubbed the woman's body with bags filled with rice
bran and soap while Yumiko shampooed her short cropped black hair.
One of the few female samurai who followed bushido, the
Way of the Warrior, Ayumi was in excellent shape. Smoothly rounded
muscle bulged beneath the skin of her arms, shoulders, back and
thighs. Her breasts were small and firm, her belly flat, legs bandy
from a lifetime of horse riding. Old silver scars marred her flesh,
particularly on her arms and torso. The cheekbones of her face were
high and prominent, nose slightly crooked from numerous breaks;
dark eyes set a shade too far apart for the current fashion. Still,
she was young, strong, had all her teeth and was more than handsome
enough for the present company.
The scrubbing complete, the bathhouse women poured more hot water
over Ayumi's head, rinsing away soap, dirt and dried sweat. A young
girl named Peach brought a small curved knife and began paring the
samurai's finger and toenails while the others trimmed Ayumi's hair
with iron shears, used a pumice stone on the thick calluses of her
palms and soles of her feet, and scurried to bring clay pipes, tobacco
and hot sake.
At last, the samurai allowed herself to be led to the big wooden
tub of clean water; a wood fire beneath ensured that the water would
remain at near simmering temperature. Ayumi lowered herself into
the tub, sucking in her breath at the heat. Within a few moments,
her skin began to turn scarlet and she relaxed, leaning her head
against the wooden edge, stretching out her legs and resting her
arms on the sides of the tub.
Peach poured a dish of sake and handed it to the soaking
woman with both hands. "I hear the kusojiji-sama has returned
to the palace," she said lightly, pursing her crimson-painted lips.
Ayumi nearly choked on a mouthful of sake. "Lord Old Fart"
was the vulgar nickname of Fujiwara Saneyoshi, the Kanpuko
or Senior Regent who ran the kingdom in the name of the child Emperor.
"Best not even to whisper such a thing," she cautioned the bathhouse
girl. "Do you want to be imprisoned for treason?"
Peach blanched. "Gomen nasai!" she said several times, bowing
rapidly. "Please forgive this miserable worm, Your Honor! I meant
"Mou... I will hear no more. In fact, I have heard nothing
at all. Wakarimasu ka?"
"Hai! Wakarimashita!" Peach bowed once more to signify
her understanding and began to fan herself so hard that wisps of
hair fluttered around her round face. It had been a narrow escape;
Ayumi would have been well within her rights to arrest the girl
for daring to mock the powerful Regent. There was a saying in Heian-kyo
- Speak in a well today, hear in the street tomorrow. There
were no secrets in the nation's capital and even a pretty bathhouse
girl could lose her life if she offended the wrong person.
Ayumi relaxed again and held out her dish for more sake.
"Leaving old farts with the nightsoil - which is where they
belong - what other news of the palace?"
Manami, a narrow-faced teenager missing a front tooth, took a puff
from her pipe. "The Lady Hojo Masako has been divorced from her
husband. It is said she was having an affair with a gardener who
was really an oni in disguise."
Another girl, Dragonfly, nodded sagely. "We talked of nothing else
for days!" She clapped her hands together excitedly; the neck of
her kimono slipped, showing an indecently wide swath of white shoulder,
but Dragonfly didn't notice.
She continued in a breathless rush, "They said Masako-sama was
possessed. When she and the oni were separated and the devil
banished back to Hell, the lady wailed and cried pitifully for her
demon lover. The whole palace was kept awake by Masako-sama groaning
for the return of the oni's jade pestle; she said her yoni
was on fire for it! The Dowager Empress was so fearful of bad luck
that she had priests reciting sutras and burning incense for days!"
Just then, the owner of the bathhouse - a tall, solid, coarse-looking
woman named Blue Carp - entered the room. "Dragonfly, we're not
running a flowerhouse and you're not a third grade courtesan!" she
admonished the girl. "Cover up before someone starts negotiating
Dragonfly hitched at the neck of her kimono and adjusted it properly,
a blush creeping across her full cheeks.
Blue Carp wasn't finished. The towel tied around her head to keep
back a shock of wild black hair was askew over one eyebrow, giving
her a slightly sinister air. She pointed with the pipe in her hand.
"Peach, Yumiko, Dragonfly, Manumi, Yodo - we have other customers
Chastened, the five bathhouse girls bowed deeply to Ayumi, then
to their mistress, and scuttled out of the room in a group, smoothing
their hair and casting longing glances over their shoulders at the
Carp puffed quietly on her pipe for a few moments. "More sake,
my friend?" she inquired politely.
Ayumi declined. "Iye. I have an appointment later and my
lord does not like his retainers to become drunk."
The coarse woman raised her visible eyebrow and scowled. "Hah!
That miserable turtle-head master of yours would rather drink from
a wine-sot's pisspot than pay for a gou of decent sake!
He pinches every mou until it's thin as rice paper. I know
for a fact you haven't seen one koku of your salary since
the last Peach Festival."
"Damare, Carp!" Ayumi chided affectionately. "Hush! Yorimachi-sama
is not a miser; he is merely careful with the wealth Buddha has
seen fit to bestow. I cannot let you ill-say my lord and besides,
I have heard so much heresy spoken in your house today that my head
"Iye! That's my perfume you smell, not imminent arrest."
Carp squeezed her narrow eyes nearly shut and abandoned her pipe
on a nearby table.
"Oh? I thought it was the scent of your heavenly-fragrant jade
gate that was making me dizzy." The samurai hunkered further down
in the steaming water and closed her eyes. She often patronized
the Rushing Koi bathhouse when she was in Heian-kyo; she and the
owner had carried on a teasing, flirtatious, totally non-serious
relationship for years. In truth, both women silently acknowledged
that there could never be anything at all between them, but each
was willing to play her role for the sake of friendship and the
joy of the game.
Changing the subject, Ayumi continued, "So, what news of the Son
of Heaven's court? Has much happened while I was away?"
"Nothing." Blue Carp shrugged. "Not much gossip out of the palace
these days... unless you count the murders."
Ayumi sat up with a splash. "Who has been murdered? When? Why?"
With another chuckle, the bathhouse owner drew closer and took
a seat on a stool near the tub. "As I said, no details have come
from the palace, which is unusual enough - all people know that
the noble monkey-samas don't squat on a pot without the entire city
listening to the music of their divine farts. The only thing that
is known for sure is that three high-ranking lords have joined
Merciful Buddha within the past three weeks, probably at the hands
"Were ninja clans involved?"
Another shrug. "Again, unknown. Could be poison, I suppose. Or
maybe they all died from poetic excess!" Carp's tone was full of
scorn; as a working member of the peasant class, she resented the
nobility who lived their lives according to complex ritual, valuing
elegance and refinement above all else.
The coarse woman sighed and tied back the wide sleeves of her checked
kimono. "But enough of the woes of the wealthy, my friend. Shall
I send for tea? Or a meal?"
Ayumi stood up, water cascading in a sheet down her body. "Iye!
No, thank you," she replied ruefully, stepping out of the tub. "I
feel too much like a steamed dumpling myself."
Blue Carp eyed the samurai's wet, nude body appreciatively. From
the base of her throat to her toes, the woman's skin was tinged
scarlet from the heat. "You do look good enough to eat."
"Ma! You're as bold as your hell-women!" Ayumi exclaimed
with a laugh. "Another time, Carp. Your offer is tempting but I
must report to my lord too soon. I'd hate to leave you unsatisfied."
Both women bowed in acknowledgment of a well-played round of their
After toweling the samurai dry with a rough cloth, Blue Carp led
her into the other room. While Ayumi stood still, arms extended
from her body, the bathhouse owner applied a thin layer of rice
powder over her skin, then took a rectangular length of cotton and
tied it in a flat knot around her waist. Another width was drawn
up between her legs and the ends tucked under the waistband to form
a loincloth. Afterward, Blue Carp drew a simple cotton kosode
over Ayumi's head.
Leaving Ayumi clad only in the light underkimono, Carp brushed
her cropped hair, anointing it with camellia oil. She pulled most
of the locks to the crown of the samurai's head and secured the
base with a flat paper ribbon; when released, the hair sprang out
in a boy's jaunty tea-whisk style. Two long, smooth locks were allowed
to frame the woman's face on either side.
Satisfied with these preparations, the bathhouse owner began dressing
the samurai in her other clothing - a pair of starched ochre-dyed
hakama; a plain, unadorned silk kimono in a bright orange
color; and over that a more formal robe with wide sleeves in a deep
crimson patterned with big white fans. A brown, tasseled silk cord
was wound around her hips six times and knotted in a butterfly bow
in the front; this nagoya obi would keep the kimonos decently
Finally, Carp pulled the short, padded haori coat over Ayumi's
kimono and spent a few minutes adjusting the fit. The haori
was brown and printed all over with a pattern of small red and orange
leaves, very appropriate to the autumn season. "Do you wish full
court make-up?" Blue Carp asked. "I have a jar of white lead around
"No, thank you. I will not see the Son of Heaven today and my lord
is a man who appreciates plainness, especially in his retainers."
Blue Carp sighed and rolled her eyes at the perfidy of the noble
After the bathhouse owner drew clean, white tabi socks over
Ayumi's feet, she stood back and admired her handiwork. "Ma!
By Buddha, the handsomest samurai in the land!"
Ayumi tugged on the knot of her obi to make sure it was secure.
"Domo arigato," she said, bowing her head in thanks. "I feel
like a new woman."
Blue Carp gave her a saucy grin. "You could feel a new woman,"
she said, waggling her hips. "Just reach out your hand, O Mountain
of Love, and give this a squeeze!" She smacked her thigh and grinned
Ayumi slapped the proffered flesh medium-hard, making Carp jump.
"Again, my thanks. If matters were not so urgent, I would not be
able to resist such a ravishing beauty as yourself."
"Oh, ravish me! Ravish me!" the coarse woman exclaimed, rolling
her eyes and sticking out her tongue in imitation of an actor in
a popular melodramatic play. "Or is it radish? Help! I'm being ravished
by a radish!"
Retrieving her two swords from the rack, Ayumi laughed. "Now I
am reminded of why I love you so dearly, Carp. No other woman in
Wa has a dirtier mind or a filthier mouth!" She thrust the swords
- one long, one short - through her obi.
Blue Carp smirked. "That's why you keep coming back for more."
Ayumi tossed the bathhouse owner a paper packet, the ends twisted
into flower petal shapes. Carp caught it in mid-air and expertly
estimated the contents with her thumb. At least three silver mon,
more than twice the usual cost of a bath.
"Domo arigato gozaimasu. Generous as always, with everything
except your love," Carp said with a deep bow, sliding back the paper
screened shoji-door so the samurai could pass.
"Shigata ga nai," Ayumi replied, allowing Blue Carp to escort
her down the hall to the bathhouse's threshold. "It can't be helped.
My sleeve has yet to touch another's and unmei cannot be
"Don't speak to me of fate," Carp said with a grimace. "I have
enough trouble as it is."
Reaching the threshold, the coarse woman stood to one side and
bowed again deeply, giving the traditional call, "Itterasshai!"
which meant, "Go and come back again!"
To which Ayumi replied with the equally traditional, "Ittekimasu!"
- I will go and return.
Blue Carp touched the samurai's shoulder. "Be careful, my friend,"
she said, a worried frown on her flat face. "These days, the palace
seethes like a pool of iron-jawed pike at feeding time."
Ayumi traced a fingertip across the woman's jaw. "Thank you." Stepping
into her straw zori sandals, the samurai left the bathhouse,
one hand on the hilt of her sword, back straight, striding across
the bustling street with the typical, bow-legged warrior's gait.
The bathhouse owner watched her go and hoped that the gods would
be kind enough to lay their protection over the strong, handsome
and oh, so desirable Ayumi-san... especially in the man-eating,
treacherous, three-sided court of the child Emperor Kaika, his ambitious
mother Lady Hisane, and the ruthless Kanpuko, Fujiwara Saneyoshi.
- Stone Falls, Water Ripples
Tsuchi kane ya
Earth and metal...
Iki wa taete mo
Although my breathing ceases,
Time and tide go on.
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
In the Hall of Plum Blossoms
1 p.m., the 2nd Hour of the Horse
The lady Fujiwara no Kimiko, widely acknowledged as one of the
most beautiful, talented, intelligent and elegant young ladies at
the Imperial Court, knelt before the mirror of her dressing table
and stared at the boxes, jars, vials and brushes that comprised
a noblewoman's beauty.
They have hearts as false as their faces, Kimiko thought
pensively. These noble ladies pretend to be loving sisters but
all the while they wait in glee for a single misstep that will bring
one of their rank crashing down. Just like poor Masako-san...
Her maid, a cheerful, moon-faced, middle-aged woman named Izumi,
chattered as she lightly dressed her mistress' long black hair with
scented camellia oil. "I hear Yorimachi-sama has summoned a certain
samurai back from Issan Province," she said slyly. "This person
is to appear in the lord's private audience chamber at the Hour
of the Sheep. Perhaps one can catch a glimpse of this wondrous warrior
if one were to take a turn around the Hall of Golden Finches about
Kimiko blushed slightly and cast her gaze downward, thoughts suddenly
a-whirl. "Oh?" Despite her effort at casualness, her voice trembled
a little. "Who is this samurai you speak of?"
Izumi rolled her eyes. "Ma! Who has my lady been mooning
after for the past month? Have you forgotten the warrior's name
The young lady raised her face and met Izumi's glance in the mirror.
"Can it be? Has she truly returned?"
The maid didn't answer immediately; instead, she thrust a stick
of paulownia wood into a nearby charcoal brazier. As soon as it
caught fire, she retrieved it and blew out the flame. Allowing the
stick to cool off a little, Izumi used the charred end to smudge
false, dark gray eyebrows high on Kimiko's forehead; the girl's
real eyebrows had been shaved off according to custom. Next, a heavy
layer of rice powder on face, throat and hands, to give a fashionable
pallor to the skin, followed by crimson rouge painted on the lips
in a petite bow shape.
As she worked, Izumi said, "I heard the Number One Cook's third
assistant, whose cousin is married to the undergroom's sister, talking
about it this morning when I went to fetch your tea. Ayumi-san arrived
in the city this morning and will be in the palace in a few hours."
Kimiko sighed and quoted, "Oh, the foot drawn trail of the mountain
pheasant's tail, drooped like a down-curved branch! Through this
long, long-dragging night, must I lie in bed alone?"
The moon-faced maid giggled, drawing a brush through Kimiko's hair
and sniffing the delightful citrus fragrance that rose from the
smooth dark locks. "If you wish to invite Ayumi-san to an assignation,
your reputation will be safe as long as I remain to chaperone. And
you know I am blind, deaf and dumb at your command."
The lady was silent, thinking furiously while Izumi gathered her
hair in one hand and wrapped a paper ribbon around it, about two-thirds
down the length, allowing the long end to hang in a loose, bone-straight
mass that coiled gracefully on the tatami-mat covered floor.
Following this, the plump maid moistened some lampblack with water
and used a tiny brush to draw a line at the base of the girl's upper
lashes, extending it beyond the fold at the outer corner of her
eyelid to give her the swallow's eyes so admired by the nobility.
Finally, Kimiko turned to Izumi. "I have decided to walk in the
Hall of the Golden Finches at the Hour of the Sheep," she ordered.
"Fetch my finest junihitoe. Oh! and order some umeboshi
from the kitchen."
"Does the noble lady wish to upset her digestion?" Izumi wrinkled
her nose and bustled across the room to fetch the girl's formal
court robes. "Does she not remember the last time she ate salted
dried plums and groaned with stomach devils for a week?"
"They aren't for me." Kimiko blushed. "She likes them. I
heard Lady Tokimune say so."
The truth was that the girl had yet to really meet Ayumi or even
speak to her; she'd only seen the bold lady samurai at a distance
in court, attending the daimyo Yorimachi-sama. Youngest daughter
of an impoverished clan, Ichijo Ayumi was becoming something of
a legend at Emperor Kaiko's court; as one of the few martial warriors
of the female sex, she was unusual and special. Her career was being
watched with eager anticipation by jaded courtiers and retainers
Kimiko was absolutely positive that she was in completely, utterly,
buttocks-over-crown in love with the fascinating, dangerous and
beautiful samurai woman.
She'd spent many sleepless nights since Ayumi went away, composing
torrid poetry by the light of a single oil lamp. Just thinking about
the samurai made her liver flutter, her palms sweat, her virgin
yoni swell and overflow like a rain barrel in a summer storm.
Kimiko was innocent of physical love; although she'd had many infatuations
and affairs since coming to court, none had progressed beyond a
few heated kisses and fumbling caresses. Whenever she fantasized
about Ayumi, the girl had only vague notions of the actual act of
Clouds and Rain but judging from the veiled allusions she'd heard
from other ladies, Kimiko knew it would be the most wonderful experience
in her life... and Ayumi was the one, she was sure of it.
If only Ayumi would notice her! If only the samurai shared her
Kimiko's romantic notions were like something from a classical
poem - a smoldering jewel in the moonlight, gauze curtains barely
shielding two writhing bodies, declarations of eternal love whispered
by night. She had just turned nineteen and had lived a sheltered
life in the country before her father's death and her mother's retirement
to a Buddhist shrine. Her uncle, Fujiwara Saneyoshi, had insisted
she leave the estates she'd inherited and move to the Imperial Palace,
ostensibly to provide paternal guidance and protection for his niece,
but she rarely saw the busy Kanpuko and was mostly left to
her own devices.
Izumi chuckled as she laid out her mistress' ceremonial robes.
She'd seen this all before; her precious Kimiko-chan was as vagrant
in her affections as a wandering cloud. It seemed as if every week
brought a new infatuation, a new fascination, a new overwhelming
passion that the girl declared she could not live without. Yet the
relationships never amounted to anything and the maid wasn't surprised.
Kimiko was young, untried and still new to court despite having
lived here for two years.
Let her get married, Izumi thought fondly. Or at least,
let her find a steady, reliable lover; an experienced, sensible
woman is exactly what my mistress needs to settle her character.
Such liaisons were not unknown; in fact, a girl was encouraged
to have sexual relations with other women before she was wed, as
a means of gaining experience without losing her most precious commodity
- her virginity. But such relationships were considered temporary
and unimportant beside the duty one owed one's husband.
At least little mistress has not followed in the footsteps of
many court ladies and taken a male lover, the maid thought as
she adjusted a thin, muslin bag over Kimiko's head to prevent the
girl's makeup from smearing her clothes. Aiiie! That would be
a disaster if kusojiji-sama found out! By merciful Kwannon,
it is safer at her age to fall in love with women; there will be
time enough after her wedding to accustom Kimiko-chan to the marriage
bed and the differences between yoni and yang.
Kimiko was too absorbed in her own thoughts to wonder what Izumi
was thinking. She stood in the center of the room, arms outstretched,
while the maid dressed her in layer after layer of kimonos - twelve
in all - for while she was a blood relation of the powerful Kanpuko,
Kimiko was not yet so high in Imperial status and rank that she
was allowed the full forty robes of a high status courtier.
Izumi had chosen kimono in the autumn colors and designs, for it
was vitally important that one follow seasonal fashion in the court.
Thus, the first eleven layers of junihitoe that Kimiko wore
were all in shades of gold, purple and orange that simultaneously
complimented and contrasted one another, with a dark green cord
obi wound around her hips to keep them all together. The last kimono,
actually more of an open robe, was made of sheer cream silk with
wide sleeves that nearly touched the floor; there was a band of
gold around sleeve hems and neckline, and the whole surface was
patterned with bronze chrysanthemums.
As a final touch, the maid inserted an ivory folding fan into the
lady's obi and tied a set of the small nesting boxes called inro
through the sash. The inro contained paper handkerchiefs,
a tiny mirror, a few slices of fresh ginger to keep her breath fresh
and a string of copper cash to use as tips for maids when she visited
Deftly pulling the gauze bag off her lady's head, Izumi beamed
and said, "Well, little mistress, I don't see how Ayumi-san could
possibly resist plucking such a pretty blossom as yourself!"
Kimiko minced over to the mirror and appraised her appearance.
"Oh, Izumi!" she wailed, "I'm too thin! I look like a turnip sprout!"
She poked miserably at her small breasts, concealed beneath the
many layers of her robe and partially flattened by the tight obi.
"Now, now," Izumi soothed. "Your breasts are like peaches, Kimiko-chan.
Absolutely perfect for a girl your age."
"And I have no hips! I might as well be a boy!"
"My lady, after you bear children and grow as wide as a well, you
will remember the slenderness of youth with affection."
"I am too ugly, Izumi! As unformed as a tub of tofu. She will never
Izumi sighed patiently. "Little mistress, you are perfectly beautiful,
fresh as a cherry blossom in springtime." Tears threatened in the
girl's eyes and the maid hastened to say, "Do not weep, I beg you!
Remember your makeup!"
Kimiko snuffled and tilted her head back until the urge to cry
"Why do you not compose an invitation to Ayumi-san while I go to
the kitchen?" Izumi coaxed. "When I return, we can arrange the umeboshi
in a pretty box, eh? And I will also bring some tea and a plate
These slices of crispy fried tofu, so crunchy on the outside and
light as cotton pillows on the inside, were Kimiko's favorite snack,
but rather than being pleased, the lady regarded Izumi with disfavor,
a frown creasing her smooth forehead. "Do you wish to make me fat
as a sweet-seller's wife? I cannot eat such heavy foods and hope
to please my new lover!"
The maid sighed again and bowed. "Iye, mistress! Of course
Mollified, Kimiko knelt gracefully down before her writing desk,
buttocks settled firmly on her heels, back absolutely straight.
Selecting a piece of delicate, pink-tinged mulberry paper, she opened
a crimson lacquered box and mulled over her inksticks. "Get the
plums for Ayumi-san, some tea, and on your way to the kitchen, stop
by Old Kyuri's stall in the Court of the Flying Scribes and buy
me another weasel-hair writing brush."
"Hai, little mistress." Izumi bowed again, this time to
conceal her look of disgust. Old Kyuri, 'the Cucumber', was the
nickname of an ancient and doddering courtier who made his genteel
living by selling writing supplies, calligraphy lessons and performing
as a discreet go-between for high-class courtesans and their noble
clients. Despite his honorable age and the perpetual limpness of
his jade pestle, the old man was still lewd and lecherous, delighting
in tussling with ladies' maids; the last time Izumi had visited
him, Kyuri had left bruises on her breasts and buttocks that had
lasted for a week.
Nevertheless, giri was giri and duty must be obeyed,
no matter how distasteful. "Shall I fetch some sembei for
you to nibble on while you write?" the maid asked.
Kimiko considered. Dry rice crackers, even flavored with seaweed,
weren't terribly delicious but on the other hand, miso soup
for breakfast had been a long time ago. She certainly didn't want
to be mortified by her stomach growling for food when she was in
the middle of romantic negotiations with Ayumi-san. "And a small
bowl of sembei and perhaps some cha soba."
"Ah, yes. Excellent choice! Cold noodles in tea broth and rice
crackers. Very filling." Izumi wrinkled her nose; whenever her mistress
fell in love, she alternately bewailed the slenderness of her figure
and feared becoming fat.
Kimiko shot her a look. "Will you stand there all day while I wait
to join my unmei to Ayumi-san's? Our sleeves long to touch
and be touched! Hurry, woman! Hayaku!"
Izumi scurried away, rolling her eyes and hoping Old Kyuri would
be napping so she could deal instead with his polite, soft-spoken
and shy nephew who would never dream of laying impious hands on
any woman... mostly because he preferred opening his back-passage
to a rough warrior's spearshaft.
Ignoring the maid's departure, Kimiko took a deep breath and composed
herself, seeking to settle her churning ki. This could possibly
be the most important note she would ever create and it must be
Grinding the inkstick with water against her writing stone until
it was the right consistency, Kimiko took up a brush, pulled the
paper towards her and began to write.
- Seven Fall, Eight Arise
In the mountain depths
Treading crimson leaves
Naku shika no
The wandering stag calls.
Koe kiku toki zo
When I hear the lonely cry,
Aki wa kaneshiki.
Sad - how sad! - the autumn is.
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
3 p.m., the 2nd Hour of the Sheep
From the Gate of Meeting Hill to the Hall of the
Ayumi walked in a flat-footed strut through the maze of shoji-lined
corridors on her way to the Hall of the Golden Finches. From the
Gate of Meeting Hill - the single entrance/exit of the imperial
palace accessible from the outside - she had been strolling for
nearly a half-hour, following the discreet scroll-pictures of a
yellow bird posted as sign-makers in the twisting, confusing labyrinth
of corridors, courts and residences that made up Emperor Kaiko's
Finally reaching the long Hall of the Golden Finches, where daimyo
who did not live at court were granted the use of private audience
rooms, Ayumi was accosted by a palace guard clad in the distinctive
scarlet and silver livery of his office.
"Your papers?" he asked abruptly, hand on the hilt of his katana.
He was young, as evidenced by the scant fuzz on his upper lip; many
of the ga-domen were attempting to grow mustaches in honor
of their fierce and flamboyant commander, the jiechou Oshida
Ayumi regarded the young man impassively. "I am Ichijo Ayumi, retainer
to Inokuma Yorimachi-sama, daimyo of Issan, Ote and Kamakura
provinces. I have been summoned to attend upon my lord; let me pass."
The ga-domen licked his lips. "Your papers!" he ordered,
an arrogant expression on his pudgy face.
The samurai woman glanced at a nearby table where an incense clock
smoldered; the iron box's lid had an intricate, intaglio dragon
pattern and powdered incense burned in the sinuous coils of the
beast's body. She knew that servants recharged the palace clocks
at the beginning of each hour and judging by the amount the box
had already burned, it was nearing the second Hour of the Sheep.
She was almost late for her appointment and that was completely
As required by law, Ayumi's katana hilt had been bound to
the lip of its scabbard by a twist of soldered wire, sealed with
a blob of wax, as soon as she'd entered Heian-kyo that morning.
To break the seal within the city walls was punishable by immediate
execution; however, the palace guards had no such restrictions.
That didn't stop the woman from replying impatiently, "You are making
me fail in my duty! Stand aside and let me pass or I must fight
The ga-domen drew his longsword and held it at his side,
the slightly curved blade pointed directly at Ayumi's narrowed eyes.
"None may pass without the proper authorization."
"By whose order?"
"Mine! I, Ukita Goemon, have decided that security has been too
lax in this area. By my own authority as a servant to the Son of
Heaven, I have decided that no one may enter this sector without
the proper papers!"
A small crowd of noblemen, ladies and servants had gathered by
this time. They watched with avid eyes, covering their mouths with
their sleeves in eager anticipation of spilled blood.
"Gomen nasai, Ukita Goemon. I am sorry that I must kill
you in order to fulfill my lord's orders," Ayumi said with regret.
"Would you like a moment to compose your death poem?"
"How dare you threaten a retainer of the Mikado!" The guard charged,
heedless of the danger to the closely clustered bystanders. His
sword swept out and then across, intending to cut the arrogant samurai
woman in half at the waist.
Ayumi pulled the scabbard from her obi; she thrust it out in a
parry that clicked against the ga-domen's blade and slid
down the steel with all the force of her body behind it. The hard,
heavily lacquered bamboo sheath struck the guard's knuckles, momentarily
paralyzing his hand, and his katana fell, skittering across
the floor, while the crowd scattered like chickens disturbed by
Chuffing out a breath, Ayumi struck the guard across the face with
her other hand, delivering a blow that knocked the small gauze cap
off his head and sent him sprawling on the tatami mats. Her
foot slammed down on the floor near his head, making the wooden
boards shudder. "Do you yield in honor?" she asked. "Or do you require
another lesson in good manners?"
The ga-domen shook his head, stunned. A trickle of blood
stained the corner of his mouth. "I am not permitted to yield to
Ayumi leaned over and grabbed the young man's topknot, forcing
his face up to meet hers. "I am not just anyone," she answered in
a silky voice. "I am Ichijo Ayumi, who has enough patience and good
nature in her soul to spare a foolish bakayarou whose pretensions
outweigh his skill. Now get up and stop making a spectacle of yourself,
Ukita-san, or else you may be demoted from ga-domen to onbou
in a blink of your commander's eye."
Although he burned under the insult of being called an asshole,
the possibility of losing his coveted position of palace retainer
and becoming a low class cemetery guard made the ga-domen
scramble to his feet, tugging at his bright haori jacket.
His face was flushed and his lower lip trembled.
Ayumi retrieved the young man's gauze cap and thrust it into his
hand. "There is no shame in being beaten by a more formidable opponent,"
she counseled kindly. "Even Suwa Jiro knows that."
Leaving the abashed guard behind and accompanied by the twitters
and soft fan clapping of the watching courtiers, Ayumi stomped away,
holding her scabbard in her hand.
Her heart was pounding and a fine sheen of perspiration dotted
her forehead. Baka! she admonished herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Getting into a duel while Yorimachi-sama awaits!
By the time she arrived at the daimyo's delegated audience
room, Ayumi had calmed somewhat. She knelt by the shoji-door
and bowed her head, touching her brow to the mats and softly calling
The answer came immediately. "Enter!"
The samurai slid back the shoji and stepped into the room,
closing it behind her. Slapping aside the stiffly starched legs
of her hakama, Ayumi knelt on one knee, the other leg stretched
out in front of her; she used the heel of her out-thrust leg to
pull herself along the floor, bending and rolling her leg until
she knelt on both knees. Then she repeated the operation with her
opposite leg, alternating until she reached her place before Yorimachi-sama's
dais and performed the full kowtow, placing her hands on
top of one another, flat on the tatami, and pressing her
forehead to the backs of her hands.
Yorimachi-sama grunted. He was a pot-bellied, gnarled monkey of
a man; the white-lead makeup fashionable at court had soaked into
the deep creases and crevices of his face, giving him the look of
a wind-weathered, white-washed pine tree. His eyebrows had just
recently been shaved and a tiny scrap of bloodied paper near his
left eye was testament to the unskilled hand of the cheap groomer
he'd employed. His robes were not the luxurious silken kimonos worn
by the nobility; instead, he was clad in worthless paper imitations
of imperial junihitoe, the garish colors already bleeding
into his skin.
"Were you successful?" he asked in his rough, staccato voice. Yorimachi-sama
was as stingy with his words as with his not inconsiderable fortune
and rarely wasted time with pleasantries.
Still bowing, Ayumi replied, "Yes, my lord. As you suspected, the
bandits in that region had organized themselves into a professional
akuto band led by a ronin named Banrai."
The lord's hairless brow ridges quirked upward. "Heavy thunder?
Appropriate for a bandit chief."
"Yes, my lord. As instructed, I challenged Banrai to a duel but
he did not accept. Instead, he and his men fled while I followed.
I was able to corner them at the wooden bridge south of Magoi village.
There was a battle, Banrai and many of his followers were killed.
The rest scattered to the four winds. I tracked them down, one by
one, and executed them."
"Twenty, my lord, including Banrai. Eleven I killed at the wooden
bridge; the rest were taken by the Lord Emma of Hell following public
execution, as per your orders."
"Excellent!" Yorimachi-sama closed his fan with a snap. "The punishment
of slaves, I presume?"
"Of course, my lord. As you had ordered." Unseen, Ayumi's lips
twisted in distaste. The punishment of slaves was upside-down crucifixion,
a shame that would taint the men's families for generations. Those
nine, X-shaped crosses with their pitifully crying burdens would
haunt her nights for many months to come.
Yorimachi-sama settled himself more firmly on his threadbare cushion
and poured himself a cup of lukewarm tea. "Have the heads been preserved
in cedar oil and sent to my castle?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Good, good. I am very well pleased, Ayumi-san." He took a sip
of tea and grimaced at the bitter taste. "When you entered my service
three years ago, you were an untried, untested samurai just finishing
your training. Many of my fellow daimyo thought I was a fool
for employing a woman but I had faith in you. I am pleased to see
that faith has been returned a hundred-fold."
"Hai! Domo arigato, my lord."
"Now, there is another matter we must discuss."
Ayumi waited in anticipation. It had been more than a year since
Yorimachi-sama had paid her salary, a measly twenty koku
of rice from which she was expected to pay all her expenses for
twelve months. Coming from an impoverished clan, she had no family
wealth to fall back on and had been forced to put off bill collectors
with promises, a very distasteful and shameful situation. The silver
drops she'd given Blue Carp had been the last of the money she'd
been able to scrape together. She hoped a bonus would be forthcoming
for her bandit chasing expedition; Yorimachi-sama had hinted as
much when he'd given her the assignment.
"How shall I put this?" the daimyo muttered to himself,
then continued aloud, "There is only one way to deliver bad news
- straightforward and abrupt. So... Ayumi-san, I am dismissing you
from my service."
Sheer overwhelming shock squeezed the samurai's heart so hard that
it stopped beating. Foulness gusted up from her bowels and for a
moment, she thought she might vomit. Dismissed from service?
Yorimachi-sama, oblivious to Ayumi's distress, went on, "This is
no reflection on the quality of your service, of course. Revenue
for the year has not been as high as anticipated; I simply can no
longer afford your excellent services."
Which means, Ayumi thought scathingly, that the old gold
hoarder has enjoyed the benefits of a highly skilled and well trained
samurai as a retainer, increased his own standing within the court
and with his fellows, and managed this feat very cheaply - two years
for the price of three. The woman had no doubt that the daimyo
intended to cheat her out the rest of her rightfully earned pay
Sounding quite pleased with himself, Yorimachi-sama said, as if
on cue, "Naturally, I cannot afford to pay your entire back salary,
but here is a small compensation." He tossed four strings of copper
cash in front of Ayumi and the bad taste in her mouth soured even
further. This was barely a tenth of what he owed her.
Ayumi ground her teeth together so hard that a splitting pain shot
up her temple, struggling to remain in control. Being a masterless
samurai was bad enough; she did not want to add to the shame by
losing her temper, especially in front of a man she could have cheerfully
chopped into a dozen or more pieces.
Besides, true warriors were above the concerns of money and it
was against the dictates of the Way to even mention such a distasteful
subject. She knew it, the daimyo knew it, and she would rather
kiss Lord Emma of Hell's back-passage than give this smug bastard
the satisfaction of seeing her beg.
With a fine sense of timing, Yorimachi-sama yawned behind his fan
and ordered casually, "You may go."
The woman considered leaving the strings of mon where the
daimyo had dropped them but expediency was more important
than pride. Instead, exuding every drop of dignity she could muster,
Ayumi took her time gathering up the rolls of copper coins threaded
onto knotted strings, one hundred mon in all, counting each
coin slowly and deliberately, then placing the meager amount in
her cloth wallet, which she tucked back into her kimono.
The only gestures of contempt she allowed herself were neglecting
to bow and exiting Yorimachi-sama's room by turning her back on
the daimyo. A prouder man might have taken offense at her
rudeness, but the miserly lord only yawned again and poured himself
another cup of scummy tea.
Once safely outside the audience room, Ayumi began to shake.
She'd finally realized her dream of becoming a fully fledged samurai
on the day Yorimachi-sama had accepted her pledge of fealty, giving
her the chance to prove herself that every other daimyo had
denied. It was commonly believed that women were emotionally incapable
of following the way of bushido and Ayumi had been eager
to prove that convention wrong. The lord had given her dangerous
tasks - such as the recent bandit extermination - and expected her
to succeed alone, without aid of any kind save her martial skills
and wits. She'd done everything he'd ordered, obeying his commands
and the dictates of giri as flawlessly as any warrior of
old. Now her dream had shattered, crumbling into fragments like
a stale rice ball.
She was a ronin, no better than the bandit chief she'd killed.
The worst of it was, no matter what Yorimachi's reason for dismissing
her had been, she'd never find service in another lord's household.
Everyone would believe that she'd failed, that her womanly weaknesses
had at last brought her low... and many would say that it was no
more than she deserved.
Ayumi stared blankly at the clusters of pale faced men and women
in gorgeous kimonos that floated up and down the hall, chattering
and whispering behind their sleeves. Although she knew that the
news couldn't have possibly gotten out yet, she still imagined that
every glance, every unheard comment concerned her shame, and a crimson
flush spread from her neck to her hairline.
A young girl swayed close, her gorgeous robes of gold and orange
and tan creating a dazzling kaleidoscope of color and patterns.
Ayumi closed her eyes against the sickeningly sweet fragrance of
lemon-scented oil that wafted in a cloud from the girl's sleek black
"Gomen nasai," the young lady said softly. Ayumi opened
her eyes. From the rapid fluttering of her fan, it was clear that
the child was flustered about something. The pretty girl continued
in a rush, "Please accept this token from Fujiwara no Kimiko."
She thrust a folded piece of paper into Ayumi's hand and scurried
away so quickly that the embroidered heels of her slippers winked
beneath the hems of her many-layered kimonos.
Drawing a deep breath, the samurai gazed at the letter she'd been
given. A twist of straw decorated with a spray of maple leaves had
been tied around the tightly fan-folded paper. With a surge of grim
amusement, Ayumi noticed that the girl had dry-brushed ink into
the creases of the letter, ensuring that if it was opened, any tampering
would be quite noticeable.
While courtiers, ladies, courtesans, musicians and servants paraded
up and down the hallway, creating a constant humming drone of noise,
Ayumi found a tolerably quiet corner and settled herself on the
floor before opening the letter.
At first, she could make nothing of it. Although the handwriting
was impeccable, very smooth and flowing, the contents were so full
of poetic allusion and metaphor as to be nearly incomprehensible.
Ayumi toyed with the idea of discarding the missive unread but decided
that the intellectual exercise might calm her down somewhat.
After nearly ten minutes of struggle, understanding began to dawn.
"Tamoto ni kori," Ayumi muttered. "Have ice in your sleeve.
That means, I think, read this letter privately." She scanned a
bit more. "Oki naka bune... a boat floating in the river.
If I remember my classics correctly, she desires to meet me secretly
at the second Hour of the Ox. Hmmm..."
Apparently the letter was a request for a romantic assignation.
The girl's prose rambled on with references to mandarin ducks -
a symbol of lovers; the rabbit in the moon - a symbol of physical
lust and the Clouds and Rain; and other inspired flights of fancy
pertaining to love in general and sex in specific. Ayumi didn't
know whether to be shocked, angered or flattered, or pull out her
shortsword and slit her belly immediately.
"Baka!" she exclaimed aloud, startling a passing bonze.
"Am I not tormented enough?! Why are the gods defecating on my head
The shaven-headed priest shook his head in disapproval. "When Heaven
rains with luck and nightsoil, is not even the shit of the gods
Meaning, whatever the deities see fit to bestow, good or bad,
Ayumi chose to deliberately misunderstand his words and gave him
an ugly scowl that made him step back a pace. "I don't need any
more luck, honorable bonze. And I certainly don't need any
The priest shook his staff at her, the three brass rings in the
top jangling, and fled while his dignity was still intact.
Ayumi transferred her scowl to the letter in her hand. What was
the girl's name again? Ah... Fujiwara no Kimiko. Try as she might,
she couldn't remember meeting the girl in any of her visits to court.
"This is ridiculous!" she chided herself, careful to keep her voice
down this time to avoid attracting attention. "Today must be a very
inauspicious time for me. First I get into a fight with a ga-domen,
then I lose my position, and now some barely budded child wants
me to share her pillow. Ma! Either I'm under a curse or I've
somehow offended the entire pantheon and must bankrupt myself further
offering incense and persimmons at every shrine in the Empire!"
The sweet chiming of bells nearby broke her reverie. Ayumi glanced
up and met the inscrutable gaze of a fortuneteller.
The woman was dressed in saffron yellow robes that ended at her
ankles, exposing bare feet and numerous silver ankle bells. The
cotton cloth was printed all over with mystic symbols and edged
at the hems in dark blue. Tattoos of dragons and other needle-ink
charms covered her hands, including palms and fingers. There was
an enormous, bowl-shaped straw hat on her head; her hair had been
pulled through a hole in the top and allowed to flow down like a
wild horse's mane. Very little could be seen of the fortuneteller's
face except for her mouth and chin, but through a rectangular hole
in the hat, her red-rimmed eyes burned with an odd fanatical fire.
She shook a long bamboo vase that held slender beechwood sticks
and intoned nasally, "Blessings of Benten on the kind stranger!
A small donation ensures much luck for the donor."
Ayumi snorted. Benten was the god of good fortune and to her mind,
the woman couldn't have chosen a worse moment to invoke the notoriously
skittish deity on her behalf. "Excuse me, honorable elder sister,
but are you a fortuneteller or a nun? You beg as badly as a novice
The fortuneteller ignored the question and shook the joss sticks
again; they sounded like dry bones rattling together. "The kind
stranger who gives generously will have bad luck changed to good,
ill fortune transformed into blessings of Heaven! Consult the Hundred
Sacred Auspices of Benten!"
"I am grateful for your concern," the samurai said tightly, "but
I do not require your assistance."
"A small donation ensures an excellent future!" the fortuneteller
called loudly. "The Oracle of Tree-Giving-Life-Fortunes never lies!"
People around them were beginning to notice. Reluctantly, Ayumi
pulled the cloth wallet out of her kimono.
"Very well," she said, "if I'm going to appease the Heavenly Masses,
I might as well start with an important god. But your persistence
in annoying me will not benefit you much, as you will discover."
She removed two strings of cash, wrapped them in a paper square
from her sleeve, and twisted the ends together. Then she laid the
small packet on the floor and pushed it politely towards the waiting
The strange-eyed woman squatted and tucked the money into a bag
woven from lengths of hair. She shook the bamboo vase until a stick
fell out. "Number One Hundred!" she cried. "Rained-on ground hardens."
Ayumi turned her head away and rolled her eyes, politely hiding
her grimace behind a hastily raised sleeve. The well-known proverb
meant, Adversity builds character. Since most people had
trouble of one kind or another, this type of generalization would
fit anyone's situation.
The fortuneteller shook her vase again; another stick fell to the
floor. "Number Eight! Overturned tea does not return to the cup."
Don't cry over misfortunes you cannot help. Ayumi was beginning
to think the fortuneteller and the loud mouthed bonze who
had admonished her earlier were related.
More shaking. "Number Seventy-Six! Hawk flies; frog hops."
This one was a bit more esoteric than the others and Ayumi lowered
her sleeve to glance at the slender sticks that were beginning to
form a pattern on the tatami mat. The proverb meant that
each person must seek a situation for which they are suited. The
saying also carried the unspoken advice that losing one's position
was not necessarily a bad thing; it provided an opportunity to find
one's proper, Heaven-ordered place in the world.
Another joss stick bounced out of the vase. "Number Fourteen! Sleeve
touches sleeve as it is meant to, nothing more."
Despite herself, the samurai was beginning to get intrigued. Lovers
met because it was their unmei, their destiny, to come together.
To say that one's sleeve had touched another's meant that one had
found the mate of their soul, the nightingale-joy of two ki's
in perfect harmony. Ayumi had never experienced this incredible
happiness, although she'd hoped in the secret recesses of her heart
she would... someday.
The fortuneteller rattled the sticks, rolling them skillfully around
in her bamboo container. Another fell. "Number Twenty-Eight! Your
present affairs are like Saiou's horse."
At first, Ayumi was inclined to scoff at this mossy old proverb
but some inner instinct made her pause. The saying meant, Just
because it looks like bad luck doesn't necessarily mean that is
so, and concerned an old farmer whose horse runs away and is
gone for several days. All the farmer's neighbors think that losing
the horse is bad fortune, but then the animal returns with another
of its kind, thus doubling the farmer's property and turning bad
luck into good.
She was startled out of her thoughts by the woman calling, "Number
Forty-Six! A miser may hoard his cash but can never grasp the heart
of true courage; no shame lies in one's surrender to fate."
Ayumi was momentarily taken aback. She'd never heard of this proverb
and it pertained so directly to her own situation that she wondered
if the fortuneteller had had an ear pressed to the shoji-door
when she'd been interviewed by Yorimachi-sama. She opened her mouth
to ask a question but was forestalled by the woman shaking one last
stick out of her bamboo vase.
"Number Sixty-Four! New horizons beckon, drawn on wings of mulberry
and ink." The fortuneteller's strange, mad eyes seemed to swivel
in their sockets. She briefly examined the pattern made by the six
joss sticks on the floor. "Fortune favors boldness. Exchange your
sorrow for a pillow and be guided by a fountain. Divine Benten orders
The woman abruptly scooped up the thin lengths of beechwood and
stood, ankle bells chiming. For the first time, Ayumi noticed that
the joss sticks, which should have had tiny writing symbols engraved
on them, were completely blank. She looked up in surprise and the
fortuneteller smiled. "Remember my counsel," the woman said. "The
Oracle of Tree-Giving-Life-Fortune never lies."
With that admonition, the fortuneteller turned and began pushing
her way through the crowd of courtiers. Ayumi jumped to her feet
but in a matter of heartbeats, the strange-eyed woman was gone,
disappearing like a soap bubble in the rain.
The samurai had forgotten Fujiwara no Kimiko's letter; in her agitation
she had crumpled it into a ball. Now she smoothed the mulberry pink
paper out carefully.
New horizons beckon, drawn on wings of mulberry and ink.
Sudden determination flooded Ayumi's soul as she came to a decision
born of desperation and a fortuneteller's cryptic words.
She would meet with this noble child Kimiko-sama and follow the
unmei that had been laid out for her. Divine Benten had apparently
ordered it so. There it was; shigata ga nai.
"Just don't ask me to pillow with her," Ayumi murmured in the direction
of Heaven. "My sword arm might be for sale, but my yoni is
And if the smiling, laughing god of good fortune heard her in his
far-flung celestial palace, he didn't reply.
- BARKING DOGS AND MOONBEAMS
Like Michinoku prints
Of tangled fern leaves,
Tare yue ni
It is because of you
Midare some ni shi
That I have become confused;
Ware naranaku ni.
But my love for you remains.
-----Kawara no Sadaijin
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
In the Hall of Plum Blossoms
2:30 a.m., in the middle of the first Hour of the
Ayumi swaggered through the palace corridors, making a slightly
uneven bee-line towards the Hall of Plum Blossoms and her assignation
with Fujiwara no Kimiko. In the hours since she'd received the girl's
letter and made her fateful decision, she'd gone to the Court of
Trembling Irises and visited a number of wine shops, swilling sake
and avoiding payment by a combination of polite promises and
blustering arrogance. The samurai wasn't falling down drunk; she
had reached that pleasant state of inebriation called mikeneko
meitei, three-colors cat drunk, because every movement was accomplished
with exaggerated dignity and a highly concentrated awareness of
one's self-importance... just like the feline for which the condition
At the entrance to the Hall of Plum Blossoms, Ayumi nearly tripped
over a kneeling woman. The stranger was plump and not a youth; her
features seemed crowded together in the round, doughy sphere of
her face. She was dressed in a plain, navy blue kimono and wore
a length of cloth wrapped around her hair, tied in a simple knot
below her bottom lip - a maid's uniform. Sighting Ayumi, the woman
bowed and knocked her forehead against the floor.
"I am Izumi," she said quietly. "My mistress is waiting. Please
She got to her feet with an effort - Izumi had been kneeling a
long time in anticipation of the samurai's visit - and began leading
the way down the long, shoji-lined corridor, an oil lamp
in her hand casting a golden glow and deepening the shadows in every
corner. Ayumi trailed behind, bemused; the maid's name meant "fountain."
Apparently, Benten-sama loves riddles as a howling dog loves
moonshine, the samurai thought, remembering the fortuneteller's
injunction to "follow a fountain."
Having decided upon this course of action in obedience to the luck
god's enigmatic instructions, Ayumi had regained her emotional equilibrium
to a certain extent. Shigata ga nai... there was no help
for it. Her future was unknown, her destiny tangled like skeins
of kitten-clawed thread, and there was nothing to do but accept
it. Still, she'd felt the need to bolster her faltering courage
with sake and now a pleasant wine fire warmed her belly,
tingled her toes and pulled a comforting haze around certain unpleasant
Like how Kimiko-sama was going to react when she found out that
Ayumi hadn't come for a romantic liaison at all.
Kimiko knelt before her dressing table, clad
only in a misty, translucent kosode that enhanced her budding
charms rather than concealing them. The neck of the underkimono
had been pulled down dramatically at the back, leaving her most
deliciously erotic parts - white shoulders and neck, the straight
knobs of her spine - revealed almost to the dimples above her buttocks.
Following Izumi's advice, Kimiko had forgone make-up; not even a
touch of rice powder dusted the sheen of her creamy skin.
The maid had spent hours preparing her mistress, dealing with hysterics,
despair, terror and a flood of tears with equal amounts of coddling
and common sense. In the time since Kimiko had boldly accosted the
samurai in the Hall of the Golden Finches and delivered her passionate
missive, Izumi had bathed her several times, dressed and undressed
her in every combination of outfit from her extensive wardrobe,
perfumed her, washed away the offending perfume, fetched basins
and tea when nausea threatened, burned feathers beneath her nose
when fainting seemed imminent, propped her up when she collapsed
and ran every errand the girl could think of, even to the point
of fetching a marriage-book from a neighboring lady.
Now Kimiko sat waiting for Ayumi, gracefully arranged by the maid
so that her body formed a pleasing curve. Her muscles were beginning
to cramp from the artificial position but she would have died rather
than move so much as a hair. The only thing she dared do was flip
the pages of the marriage-book in her lap with a finger and occasionally
suck in an awed breath.
The marriage-book was called Night of a Thousand Fragrances and
dealt frankly with sexual positions, ways of pleasing one's lover,
advice and more information on the myriad combinations of pillowing
than the girl could have ever dreamed existed. The book was actually
a long sheet of thick rice paper, folded into leaves and sandwiched
between two thin sleeves of gilded wood. It was difficult to keep
open to the correct page without using both hands but Kimiko was
managing, too fascinated by the subject matter to consider putting
Even the woodcut illustrations were astounding.
"Ma!" Kimiko exclaimed over a particularly impossible-seeming
tangle of arms, legs and heads. "Is that a man or a squid?" She
squinted but unwilling to break the statue-like perfection of her
position, eventually gave up on deciphering the complex picture.
Although such books were commonly given to girls of marriageable
age in order to prepare them for the realities of the wedding bed,
this was the first time that Kimiko had been exposed to such candid
instruction. Although the Night of a Thousand Fragrances was mainly
based on yoni/yang pairings, there were also sections dealing
with female lovers as well as pleasing one's self and others with
artificial phalluses called harigeta, which were of such
amazing size that Kimiko could not imagine how one accommodated
these imposing devices.
On the other hand, just imagining herself and Ayumi embarking on
even the simplest sexual liaison made the girl's heart beat faster,
her yoni swell and burn with desire, caused her liver to
flip over and quiver with excitement, longing and dread.
I'm sure she's very experienced, Kimiko thought, palms suddenly
slick with nervous sweat. What if I don't please her? What if
she finds me unattractive? O Benzaiten-sama, goddess of love, lend
your blessing to my venture and I promise two gold koban
of incense to your temple tomorrow!
A sudden scratching on the paper screens of the shoji made
her jump. A moment later she heard Izumi's soft voice announcing
her long awaited visitor.
Kimiko hastily shoved the marriage-book beneath the dressing table,
still careful to maintain her cramping position, and to her eternal
mortification squeaked, "Enter," in a voice like a mouse's fart.
The door slid open.
Ayumi had arrived.
Izumi had retired behind a finely woven bamboo
screen in a corner of the room. Ayumi and Kimiko were, for all intents
and purposes, left alone.
They both cleared their throats at the same time and Kimiko suppressed
a nervous hiccup. "Welcome to my home, honorable Ayumi-san," she
said, lowering her chin in a minimal bow as befitting her higher
rank. To her relief, her voice was back to normal. "A thousand times
welcome. Come and sit, if it pleases you."
Ayumi stomped closer but did not sit down. Instead, she loomed
over Kimiko like a statue of Hachiman, the grim visaged god of war.
"I wish to speak to you," she said gruffly. A wave of sake
fumes gusted from her lips, nearly overwhelming the girl. "There
is a matter which we should discuss. It is important."
Kimiko noticed that Ayumi was staring owlishly at the exposed skin
of her back and immediately wished she could make herself decent,
toss the drunken samurai out on one ear, and retire to bed for a
good cry. Instead, bolstered somewhat by the enormous love she felt
for the other woman, the girl smiled and said, "Please sit, Ayumi-san.
I beg you. Refresh yourself first; the morning is still far away
and there is plenty time for talking."
The samurai lowered herself to the tatami-mats carefully,
as if she feared being bowled over.
Kimiko sighed and unwound her body from its aching curve, her face
showing no trace of pain as her muscles protested. She glanced at
a brazier where a kettle of first grade sake was being warmed
and decided that Ayumi had had enough wine for one evening. A small
footed table between them held dishes of finger snacks - umeboshi,
the dried salted plums she'd heard the samurai enjoyed; bite-sized
rice balls filled with sweetened red bean paste; delicate cubes
of deep fried tofu, each tied with a "ribbon" of spring onion, making
petite and pretty packages; and a plate of peeled ginko nuts sprinkled
with dried hibiscus flowers. Altogether, the perfect lover's feast.
Kimiko offered the umeboshi first. "I ordered these especially
from the kitchen, just for you."
Ayumi didn't reach for the proffered dish. "My lady," she replied,
clearly ill at ease. "Gomen nasai, but we must talk together
Kimiko's hand trembled and a wrinkled plum spilled to the floor.
"Perhaps you would prefer some tea," she said with artificial brightness.
She could feel her beautiful romantic fantasies shredding like sun-tortured
silk. "Izumi! O-cha o kudasai!"
The maid rustled behind her bamboo screen and Ayumi leaned forward
desperately. "Please, my lady! I do not want tea. I do not want
food. I do not even want more sake!"
Fragile control breaking at last, Kimiko wailed, "And you don't
want me!" and burst into tears.
There followed a scene that could have played in a country comedy
as Izumi, finally realizing her mistress was in true distress, came
barreling out from behind the screen like a mother water buffalo
summoned to defend her only calf. Ayumi could only watch in acute
embarrassment as the plump maid comforted the hysterical Kimiko,
fetched paper handkerchiefs and cups of calming sake, and
loudly scolded the insensitive samurai in language that would have
done the crudest kago bearer proud.
At last the storm passed and Kimiko stared at Ayumi with wet eyes
and a sorrowful, hurt expression that reminded the warrior of a
kicked puppy. "Sumimasen," the girl said in an attempt to
salvage some shred of dignity from the situation. "Please excuse
me. I did not... that is, you may have been mistaken about my intentions..."
Ayumi took the girl's letter from her sleeve. The pleasant wine
haze had passed and a headache of massive proportions throbbed behind
her eyes. She had refolded the missive neatly and now offered it
to Kimiko with both hands. "The fault is mine," she replied with
a low bow that made her head swim. "No doubt I have misinterpreted
your beautiful prose."
"I am often praised for the elegance of my handwriting and the
brilliance of my poetry," Kimiko said with a sniff, refusing to
take the offered letter. "You must be very stupid to have misunderstood."
Now that the weeping was over, a bright ember of anger was beginning
to burn in her breast. There was more than a grain of truth in the
old Heian-kyo saying - Better to embrace a viper than scorn a
Izumi clucked and gave the samurai a poisonous glare.
"Again, the fault is mine," Ayumi said. Things were going worse
than she'd thought and she wondered if the luck god Benten-sama
was up to his tricks again. "I regret that I have disturbed you,
my lady. Perhaps it is best if I go." She stood up, tugging on her
haori jacket, and made as if to leave. Kimiko's voice stopped
"Wait!" the girl called. She stood up also; the open kosode
gaped wide, revealing her pert breasts, flat belly and the soft,
silky darkness nestled between her thighs. Kimiko blushed and quickly
pulled the robe closed while Izumi hurried to bring a more proper
Decently clad in a simple cotton nightrobe called a yukata,
Kimiko felt more confident and better able to deal with the politely
waiting samurai. "What is it you wished to speak to me about?" she
asked. Although the samurai's rejection still hurt, she felt compelled
to clutch at any excuse to make the woman stay.
Ayumi waved a hand. "It is not important, my lady. I wish you good
"Don't go!" the girl commanded desperately. "I demand that you
tell me about the matter!"
Ayumi glanced at the child over her shoulder. Kimiko was very pretty;
without the elaborate court make-up, she had an unspoiled freshness
about her that was very appealing. The samurai's yoni gave
an unexpected tingle as Ayumi realized that under different circumstances,
she would have had no trouble at all pillowing with the maiden.
Now I'm as bad as the rabbit in the moon, she thought ironically.
All these troubles and my mind-of-its-own still acts like a monkey
Nevertheless, Ayumi realized that she owed Kimiko an explanation;
it was the least she could offer since she'd disappointed the girl
so severely. "Yorimachi-sama has dismissed me from his service,"
she replied bluntly. "In all honesty, my lady, my only purpose in
coming here this evening was to obey divine instruction."
"From Benzaiten-sama?" the noble lady squeaked in surprise.
"Iye, the love goddess had nothing to do with it," Ayumi
said with a touch of regret. "It was Benten-sama who directed me.
I had an idea that if I obeyed, my luck would change, but now I
see that I was mistaken. Please excuse me."
Kimiko shook her head. "Please stay, honorable Ayumi-san." An idea
was beginning to form, created from pity for the now masterless
samurai and a strong desire to keep the woman as near to her as
possible. Her hurt and disappointment began to fade under the excitement
of a new consideration. There was a way she could bind Ayumi to
her with ties stronger even than those of lovers.
The young lady began to speak. "You may not know my situation,
Ayumi-san. I am Fujiwara no Kimiko, niece to the Kanpuko
and an orphan. My honorable father was taken by Buddha two years
ago by the poppy-blooms disease and my honorable mother is now a
nun. But besides that, I am heir to my father's fortune and very
wealthy; my rank is high enough to permit me to accept the fealty
of personal retainers... which I have not yet done."
She gave the samurai a significant glance and waited for her reaction.
A disbelieving Izumi made strong protests but was hushed by her
mistress' command and subsided unwillingly, still pointing angry
triangle eyes at the samurai and huffing in injured pride.
At first, Ayumi wondered what Kimiko was talking about; her words
seemed as nonsensical as the mutterings of a magpie. Then the enormity
of what the girl was suggesting struck like a landslide and her
brain felt as if it had exploded.
"Do you mean...?" Ayumi began and stopped; her voice had failed.
Clearing her throat, she tried again. "I beg your pardon, my lady,
but do you mean to suggest...?"
"Hai!" Kimiko exclaimed in triumph. "Swear loyalty to me
as your new overlord. I will offer you a salary of one hundred...
no, two hundred koku per year."
The samurai sucked in a breath in astonishment. Two hundred koku
was nearly the entire yearly revenue for some provinces. "My lady,
I cannot accept such an enormous sum," Ayumi said modestly, startling
herself by even considering the insane proposition.
On the other hand, I have no further prospects, the warrior
thought. Baka! I do not know whether I am a bigger fool to accept
or reject the noble lady's offer.
Kimiko waved away any objections. "I require a strong retainer,
skilled in the Way and of excellent reputation. As an unmarried
woman, it is forbidden for me to have a man who is not my husband
living in my chambers. You require a position of honor and dignity
as befits your rank. This solution solves both our problems."
Put like that, it made perfectly logical sense, although Ayumi
still wondered if she was lying passed out in a wine shop and hallucinating
the entire business. With a sense of amazement at the strange workings
of unmei, she bowed to the inevitable and said, "Very well,
my lady. I agree to your terms. If your maid will fetch a priest,
we can see this thing completed immediately."
Delighted, Kimiko sent the reluctant Izumi away to the nearest
shrine to get a bonze who would act as witness to the brief
As soon as the plump maid had hustled away, Ayumi said stiffly,
"Of course, my lady, you understand that there are some duties
to which I cannot be ordered?"
For a moment, Kimiko didn't know what she was talking about, then
understanding dawned and she blushed. "Of course not!" she cried
with offended dignity. "What do you take me for, a mackerel seller?"
Ayumi wisely stifled a chuckle. "Mackerel seller" was the common
nickname for married ladies who visited houses of male prostitution,
paying for the pleasures their husbands could not provide at home.
She was surprised that Kimiko even knew the term and made a light
comment about it.
"I am not entirely ignorant of such matters," the girl replied
- not entirely a lie but not the exact truth, either. "There are
a great many gossips in the palace and news travels faster through
these hallways than... well, than a bonze's wind-breaking
through a shrine." She said the vulgar expression defiantly, as
if she expected to be corrected.
Ayumi did no such thing. "I quite agree," she said politely.
Having run out of things to say and far too excited to make small
conversation, Kimiko maintained an awkward silence until Izumi returned,
bearing with her a sleepy eyed bonze who rubbed the stubble
on his shaved head and yawned widely until Ayumi rattled her longsword
and barked impatiently, "Will you close the gaping hole beneath
your nose and get on with it?!!"
Startled into action, the priest scurried about, making the necessary
Kimiko glowed with pride. She had a feeling that her days in court
were about to become much, much more exciting, indeed.
The ceremony was brief and almost anti-climactic
after the emotional frenzy that had already taken place.
While pots of incense smoked and beeswax candles burned in their
holders, Ayumi knelt before the small, portable shrine of Hachiman
and carefully pricked the forefinger of her right hand with a long
needle. Three drops of blood were allowed to fall into the ink she
had already prepared.
Taking up a writing brush, Ayumi wrote on the rice paper with flowing
strokes, declaring her desire to unite with Fujiwara no Kimiko as
a retainer, pledging her unalterable loyalty unto death, vowing
to serve her faithfully, obediently and without reservation, all
according to the dictates of bushido.
As soon as she'd finished, the bonze took the paper and
presented it to Kimiko. The girl knelt on a makeshift dais of cushions;
although her face was still devoid of make-up, she'd had the maid
quickly dress her in elegant robes. She glanced at the document
and nodded acceptance, whereupon the priest pricked her finger and
added a single dot of blood to the bottom of the paper, blotting
part of Ayumi's signature and symbolically representing Kimiko's
new authority over the samurai.
The edge of the document was set alight and the ashes stirred into
a cup of fresh water on the altar. Impassively, Ayumi drank the
mixture in a single gulp, then crawl-walked over the floor and bowed
deeply to Kimiko, performing the formal kow-tow nine times as required
by the ritual.
Kimiko's face glowed with pleasure as she looked at her new retainer.
Ichijo Ayumi, the girl thought, at last you are mine!
She was not troubled by the servant/master aspect of their new
relationship; she was absolutely positive that the love she bore
for the bold samurai was true. Now they would be thrown together
in daily contact and she was sure that eventually, similar passion
would flower in Ayumi's heart. It was only a matter of time.
The priest bowed low. "It is finished," he said. He had already
gathered up the instruments of his calling and placed them within
a big cloth bag. "Does the noble lady require anything else this
Izumi discreetly pressed a pouch of silver drops into his hand.
"If the honorable bonze will follow me, I will be pleased
to escort him back to the shrine." Giving her mistress a troubled
glance that promised they would have a long, long discussion
about this later, the maid led him away.
Kimiko's good humor was undisturbed by Izumi's disapproval. "I
will have Izumi prepare another futon for you," she said. "At the
foot of mine, of course."
"Of course, my lady" Ayumi replied dispassionately. Now that the
deed had been done, she felt equal amounts of relief and nervousness,
and hid this behind a mask of formality. It remained to be seen
whether Benten-sama had thrust her into a treasure cave or a pile
of pig dung. Shigata ga nai.
Suddenly, the women's individual thoughts were interrupted by a
shrill scream of sheer terror.
"Help me! For the love of Buddha, tasukete kure!"
Ayumi leaped up and plunged through the paper wall while Kimiko
shrieked, "Wait! Wait!"
What she saw in the corridor was enough to give even the bravest
- Broken Lantern
Hito koishi I
long for people...
Hito matsukashishi Then again
I loathe them:
Aki no kure.
End of autumn.
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
From the Hall of Plum Blossoms to Azumaya, the
3 a.m., the 2nd Hour of the Ox
Standing in the corridor was a wailing, hysterical woman. Her pretty
yukata of fresh green cotton was spotted in drips and dabs
of dark crimson blood and the horrified expression on her face was
closely akin to madness.
"Help me!" she screamed, yanking on a double fistful of her disheveled
hair until it threatened to come out in clumps. "For Buddha's sake,
Shoji-doors were sliding open, wary occupants peeking out
to discover the origin of the trouble in the corridor. Ayumi ignored
the whispering, fearful audience and walked up to the woman, grateful
that the palace wasn't under attack as she'd feared from the loud
commotion. It was just an overwrought woman whose maid had probably
cut herself on a pair of nail shears.
"What is the matter?" she asked calmly, although her pulse was
still racing in reaction to imagined danger. "I will help you."
In the meantime, Kimiko scrambled inelegantly through the hole
the samurai had made in her wall and was peering at the weeping
woman in shocked recognition. "That's Lady Sakura-hime, one of the
Son of Heaven's honorable and blessed nyogo."
Ayumi's brow rose. What was an imperial concubine, a second 'small-wife'
of the Mikado, doing out of her official quarters in the middle
of the night? "Lady Sakura-hime," she said, gently pulling the woman's
hair out of her clutching fingers, "what has happened?"
Sakura-hime, a princess of the fourth rank, stared at the samurai
with round, terrified eyes. "It killed him," she whispered. "I was
there. It killed him, tore him into pieces like a wild animal and
devoured his soul. My pretty precious Houfu, the baiwa player...
oh, Buddha, he's dead and I did nothing but flee for my miserable
life! My love! Come back! Come back! Don't leave me here alone!"
Looking at the lady's blood spotted robe in new appreciation, Ayumi
put a hand on her katana hilt. "Where did this happen?" she
asked shortly, black gaze steady and intense.
"There!" Sakura-hime screamed thinly, sinking to her knees and
pointing a finger towards the shadow-draped end of the corridor.
"It's there! In the Eastern House! Merciful Kwannon, save me! Return
Kimiko hurried over and attempted to calm the princess. "Stay here,"
she ordered Ayumi curtly, cradling Sakura-hime's head in her lap.
"I forbid you to go to Azumaya without a detail of bushi.
It's too dangerous and I will not risk you."
Ayumi looked down at her mistress. "Whatever the cause," she answered
grimly, "someone has apparently been murdered. I don't know if it's
a human agent or not, but the matter must be investigated before
the criminal strikes again. Kimiko-sama, the entire palace could
be in danger... even the holy person of the Mikado himself! However,
your safety is my primary concern and I cannot ignore the
implications of a fatal attack so near your quarters. Stay here,
my lady, while I take care of this and please - I beg you - close
the honorable nyogo's mouth before she commits more public
treason. Now... Izumi!"
The moon-faced maid hastened to appear and Ayumi continued in a
voice that brooked no denial, "Attend to your mistress."
Kimiko frowned. "Don't ignore me! I insist you wait here until
someone comes to help!" She thrust the fainting Sakura-hime into
Ayumi chose not to hear the girl's order. Bushido demanded
that her mistress' safety come before anything else and not even
a direct order from divine Buddha himself could have made her disregard
that rule. Giri was giri; if Kimiko didn't know that
now, she would have to learn.
Instead of replying to her lady, the warrior turned and pointed
to a pair of horrified maids who had come in from another hall to
find out what was happening. "You! And you!" Ayumi barked. "Go to
the rooms of the Grand Chamberlain and tell him that the supreme
and honorable Lady Sakura-hime is ill and has wandered to the Hall
of Plum Blossoms. The blessed lady requires attendants and a physician.
Well... why are you still standing here, eh? Go!!"
The maids gasped, turned and fled as quickly as their tight, hastily
donned kimonos allowed. Kimiko's mouth dropped open and she stared
up in absolute adoration at the bow-legged, powerful figure of her
samurai. Merciful Kwannon, Ayumi had the cutest nose! And the most
irresistibly flashing eyes! She was so bold - so fearless - so magnificent
- so commanding - so... so... gone!!
Without another word, Ayumi had turned her back and was moving
down the corridor at a swift trot, shrugging out of her bulky haori
jacket and tying back the voluminous sleeves of her outer kimono
with a length of cord. Within seconds, she had completely disappeared.
Kimiko got to her feet, assisted by Izumi. "Stay and comfort Lady
Sakura-hime until her own attendants arrive," she ordered breathlessly.
"Where does my noble lady think she is going?" Izumi tried to scowl
but only succeeded in looking very worried. "Ayumi-san said..."
Kimiko snatched the ivory and paper fan out of her obi and flung
it to the floor as if in challenge. "I am the master here, not the
other way around!" she answered. "Send the palace bushi and
ga-domen to Azumaya as soon as they arrive - too late, as
Hiking up the long skirts of her robes above her knees and scandalizing
everyone in the hallway, Kimiko took off after Ayumi, determined
not to leave her precious samurai alone for a second.
Although Ayumi had gotten a decent
head start, it wasn't difficult to discern the path she'd taken.
Obviously frustrated at the twists and turns in the maze of hallways,
she'd decided to take a more direct route... plunging directly through
the paper screened walls of the suites and rooms that separated
the Hall of Plum Blossoms from the Eastern House.
Kimiko stared ruefully at the shattered wreckage of wood and paper.
She could actually mark Ayumi's progress quite well. Heedless of
the consequences, the woman had gone through one wall after another
in a more or less straight line, leaving behind a trail of warrior-shaped
holes in torn paper as well as fist shaking, cursing, or hysterical
Taking a deep breath, the young girl began walking rapidly through
the ruins, following in Ayumi's wake. As she scurried through what
amounted to other people's homes, she averted her eyes and began
a rapid-fire litany of "Gomen nasai! Gomen nasai!
Please excuse me!" punctuated once by, "Oh! I didn't know you could
do that with a duck! Gomen nasai!" until she reached the
end of her retainer's devastation.
Azumaya, the Eastern House, was a section of the palace that had
not been occupied in decades. Kimiko wasn't sure why it was deserted,
but the seed of the imperial residence Katsura-no-miyo in the capital
of Heian-kyo had been created centuries ago by First Emperor Jemmu
and added on to by each successive emperor since. The palace complex
was a sprawling maze of courts, corridors, halls, storage and living
facilities, kitchens, laundries, shops, gardens, houses and rooms.
More rooms than there are white grains of sand on the beaches
of Owai, went the saying, and it was very nearly true. Katsura-no-miyo
was a city in and of itself, both the hereditary dwelling of the
Son of Heaven and the members of his court, as well as the center
of power in the Floating World.
Even after two years, the girl had yet to explore more than a tiny
percentage of its wonders. There were many abandoned places which
even the rat-catchers dared not disturb.
It was dark in the Eastern House. Essentially a long hallway with
rooms on either side, it had a window at its further end and the
moon shone brightly through, sending a wash of rippling, milky light
onto the varnished floorboards. It was quiet; not even a whisper
of wind vexed the tomb-like silence. As Kimiko tip-toed along, opening
her eyes wide in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Ayumi in the
shadowy blackness, her tabi-clad foot crunched loudly into
something and she jumped back with a strangled shriek.
Instantly, a warm presence appeared at her side. "My lady? This
is no place for you. Please go back at once."
It was Ayumi. Kimiko pressed a hand to her throat, trying to still
the over-rapid fluttering of her heart. "What did I step on?"
"A broken paper lantern." Ayumi moved away slightly and a bar of
moonlight illuminated her face. "Kimiko-sama, please go back."
"What is it? What has happened?"
The warrior sighed. "I found the remains of the baiwa player,
Houfu. Apparently, you were not the only noble lady with the Clouds
and Rain on her mind tonight. He and Sakura-hime must have met here
because it is very quiet and they were unlikely to be disturbed."
"Was Houfu murdered?" Kimiko couldn't help darting her glance around
the corridor, anticipating some dreadful, green-faced monster or
giant claw to emerge from the silence at any moment. Or worse, a
band of black-clad ninjas wielding esoteric weapons and poison smoke.
"Yes, in a manner of speaking. Please, my lady... you do not want
to see this." Ayumi put out a hand and wrapped it around the young
girl's arm. "I will escort you back to the Hall of Plum Blossoms."
She gently but firmly began to guide Kimiko away.
The girl resisted. "Please, Ayumi-san... what has happened?!"
The samurai sighed again. Her voice, when it came out of the darkness,
was as reassuring as her touch, but the words made a chill race
down Kimiko's spine. "The baiwa player has been devoured
by a hungry ghost. There is nothing more to be done here. Let us
return to light and life."
Kimiko was frozen with horror. A yureii destroyed more than
the body, it completely drained and consumed the vital ki
energies, effectively eating the victim's soul and leaving an empty
space on the Wheel of Rebirth. It was the most horrible fate imaginable
and the girl reacted accordingly. "A hungry ghost? Here?" She whipped
her head from side to side, trying to see everywhere at once. "Merciful
"Please do not overexcite yourself, my lady." Ayumi's voice held
more than a trace of staid amusement. "Unless you are a middle-aged
baiwa player with the sole virtue of possessing a jade pestle
the size of a turnip, you have nothing to fear."
Kimiko began to relax a little, although now she pretended to be
frightened and slyly snuggled into the safety of Ayumi's arms. While
a yureii was a terrible thing, they were still bound by certain
limitations - a hungry ghost was only permitted to attack a specific
victim for the purposes of personal revenge.
"If it was only after Houfu, that explains how Sakura-hime escaped,"
the girl said, her words muffled against Ayumi's kimono. The cool
silk felt wonderful against her burning cheeks, and the amazing
contrast she could feel between the samurai's hard muscle and certain
areas of womanly softness caused her to experience a chill of a
Ayumi grunted as Kimiko's hands roamed indiscriminately and she
politely disengaged herself from her mistress' clutching, groping
grasp. "We need to return to your quarters before the palace ga-domen
and bushi arrive."
"I'm certain you could beat them all, imperial guards and common
warriors alike," the girl murmured.
The samurai rolled her eyes, knowing her expression couldn't be
discerned in the dark. "Kimiko-sama, if you do not want to be arrested,
we must leave immediately."
"Arrested? We haven't done anything wrong!"
"We are both witnesses; someone in authority will want to question
us about what we've seen here. From what I remember of palace law,
my lady, that is enough to detain us at the very least."
"But we haven't done anything wrong!" Kimiko felt secure enough
on this point to repeat it.
Ayumi silently asked Buddha for patience. "My lady... one of the
Mikado's concubines has had an illicit liaison with a commoner -
that's high treason. His dead body is here - where we will be found.
We are witnesses to both the princess' confession, if you care to
call it that, and the unmistakable evidence of her lover's body
- which is rigid in more places than one and has an imperial purple
ribbon tied around his jade pole. It is not unreasonable to assume
that someone, perhaps the Dowager Empress, might want this evidence
of a concubine's infidelity suppressed, especially since the Mikado
is so young and public executions are so messy. If such were the
case, what do you think will happen to anyone unfortunate enough
to get involved?"
That made sense in a twisty political way but Kimiko still wasn't
convinced. "My uncle will not allow..."
"The Kanpuko will not be here. A group of hairy, ignorant,
sleepy, half-drunk men with many sharp weapons will, and while I
would gladly forfeit my life to save you from the humiliation of
being publicly dragged to the Son of Heaven's dungeons, I think
a little prudence will save us both a great deal of trouble."
Ayumi was on the point of hoisting the stubborn chit over her shoulder
and carrying her back to the Hall of Plum Blossoms when there was
a sudden flood of lantern light.
Kimiko opened her mouth to argue further... but the sound of sandals
slapping rapidly on the floor and the roar of men's voices shouting
commands to "Halt!" effectively drowned out anything she was going
It was too late to flee...
Officers of the Mikado's law had arrived.
Ayumi whispered, "Fortunately, your high rank will protect you
from the torturer's art... I hope."
Kimiko squeaked and stared, too frightened to make another sound...
And the samurai smiled slightly, very well pleased by her new mistress'
blessed silence, indeed.
- The Reflection of the Law
Kore ya konoyo no Of this world
Aki no mizu.
From my drunkeness.
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Wellspring of the Mirror, audience hall of
the Kanpuko Fujiwara Saneyoshi
5 a.m., the second Hour of the Tiger
Fujiwara Saneyoshi, Kanpuko and the most feared nobleman
in the Floating World, second only in rank to Emperor Kaika and
his mother, the Dowager Empress, did not look like a man hastily
roused from his bed in the early hours of the morning.
In complete disregard for fashion - which dictated that kimono
colors, patterns and even thicknesses be changed in strict accordance
with the seasons - he was dressed in his usual thin, dark gray robes,
the dull silk enlivened only by a discreet pattern of white feathers
on hems and neckline. His overmantle had big, stiff black shoulder
wings of cotton stretched over bowed bamboo that were likewise unadorned.
As befitting his high station, the black gauze cap on his head
was extremely tall and impressive, much higher than anyone else
was allowed to wear, and the binding cord that crossed his cheeks
and tied beneath his chin helped give him a stern, solemn expression.
However simply he preferred to present himself, even Saneyoshi-sama
had to bow to some imperial customs. Like all noblemen, his eyebrows
had been shaved and his hairline artificially heightened by plucking,
leaving him with a semicircular bald spot that stretched from his
forehead nearly to the crown of his head. As a married man of high
rank, he wore the most formal court make-up; his face was covered
with a thick coating of white lead, enlivened by blue paint in the
area of his tonsure; false eyebrows smudged on with paulownia ash
high on his forehead gave him the much admired "surprise" look;
and his teeth had been blackened.
These necessary affectations may have given the Kanpuko
the appearance of a high blooded fop but Saneyoshi-sama was far
from that - he was a ruthless, expedient man who would rather have
swallowed his own tongue than give up a single mote of the immense
power he wielded.
"You are Ichijo Ayumi, daughter of the Twin Waves clan," he said
gruffly, not asking questions but making statements of fact.
He sat cross-legged on a flat cushion, staring down at the woman
warrior from the vantage of a raised dais. "Despite your female
sex, you are a martial samurai of the 2nd rank, hereditary class.
You studied at the Diving Crows school and received your sword from
your father. You are a retainer of the daimyo Inokuma Yorimachi."
A pair of tough looking men dressed in plain brown kimono and hakama
crouched behind him, left hands knuckle-down on the floor, their
right hands on the hilts of their katanas, almost in an attitude
of attack. They did not carry the shortsword because they were bushi
rather than samurai, common warriors for hire. The Regent surrounded
himself with a growling, posturing pack of these unsworn soldiers,
who were nicknamed the kasojiji's dogs, as well as the more
usual samurai retainers.
Ayumi knelt on a tatami in front of the dais, staring down
the hands clasped in her lap. Only the fact that Kimiko was waiting
outside with a contingent of the imperial ga-domen kept her
from insisting on not being separated from the girl she had sworn
to serve. "I was a retainer of Yorimachi-sama, my lord,"
she said. "He dismissed me from his service yesterday."
Saneyoshi-sama shot the woman a sharp glare, his mouth screwed
up in a frighteningly fierce frown. "Then what were you doing with
my niece in the Eastern House, ronin? Did you hope to take
her for ransom? Did you think by threatening her life you could
gain a fat blood price? Eh, masterless one?!!"
"Iye, my lord! Gomen nasai!" Ayumi risked a glance;
the Regent's face was as forbidding as an oni devil mask.
"I would never do such a thing! It is true that my former lord abandoned
me but I have since had the honor of having my services accepted
"Oh?" This pronouncement seemed to take Saneyoshi-sama aback. It
was clear that his information sources hadn't caught him up on all
of the night's events. He slammed his iron-ribbed fan down on the
dais, clearly annoyed. "And who is your new overlord?"
Ayumi tried to still her thudding heartbeat by will alone. "Gomen
nasai. Your niece, my lord. Fujiwara no Kimiko."
The Kanpuko's eyes widened... then narrowed into tiny slits.
For a long time, he said nothing at all. Ayumi took in the fragrance
of the man's favorite incense - a musky sweet, slightly acrid odor
called Fires of Fuji - and waited, trying to calm her thoughts and
ease the tightness in her chest by breathing exercises.
Meanwhile, the Regent was thinking furiously.
What has my scatter brained niece gotten herself into? he
fumed silently. It is bad enough that the Dowager Empress - may
devils gnaw her boil-poxed buttocks! - is insisting on Lady Sakura-hime's
infidelity being covered up to spare the Son of Heaven the humiliation
of his concubine being publicly executed. Now this!
He'd known that bringing the provincial girl to court would cause
some trouble, particularly since she'd never been exposed to the
deep, dangerous waters of Emperor Kaika's world. He'd been poised
to hush up whatever minor scandals might erupt around Kimiko but
to his surprise, the girl hadn't done badly at all, taking to a
noblewoman's life as if she'd imbibed protocol and fashion with
her wetnurse's milk. Kimiko was still quite naive and blissfully
unaware of the darker side of palace life, but her wide-eyed innocence
was considered charming instead of a disadvantage. She truly loved
her uncle and had always come to him for advice on matters great
and small, deferring to his instructions with a fine sense of filial
obligation and respect.
Now she'd apparently taken a personal retainer without his knowledge.
Saneyoshi-sama's frown grew deeper. The Regent had plans for his
niece... and they did not involve her suddenly discovering an independent
streak or being encouraged to disobedience by the presence of this
"The ceremony was witnessed?" he asked finally.
Ayumi kept her head bowed. "Hai, my lord. By a bonze from
the temple of Hachiman and by my lady's maid, Izumi."
"Ah, I see."
The Regent thought some more. He could send for the priest and
the maid, interrogating them to make sure the ritual ceremony had
been legally binding, but he had a feeling that he'd find no discrepancies.
How unlike his niece to take such a step without consulting him
first! He briefly wondered if the woman warrior had worked some
magic on Kimiko but dismissed the thought. She looked more the type
to bludgeon someone into submission than use more subtle methods.
He did not like this. He did not like this at all! A devious and
dangerous man himself, Saneyoshi-sama always suspected the worst
of everyone. He spent a while examining his niece's actions and
assigning possible motives, running through dozens of scenarios
and schemes, following each trail of supposition to its bitter end.
At last, he decided that this Ayumi would simply have to be eliminated
- it was the safest course of action, even if Kimiko's motives had
been innocent. At the very least, it would serve to bind the girl
more closely to him, make her more dependent on him for guidance
It wouldn't be the first time that someone close to Kimiko disappeared.
Saneyoshi-sama took great interest in his niece's friends and anyone
who was in danger of supplanting the loving uncle in her affections
made a sudden acquaintance with a knife in the dark. It was vitally
important to his plan that the girl remain compliant and submissive
to his wishes; he simply would not tolerate any other way.
So used to being surrounded by servants whom he considered practically
deaf and invisible, without realizing it the Kanpuko murmured
aloud, "What has been witnessed can be unwitnessed."
Ayumi looked up at this remark... and simultaneously, a row erupted
outside the room.
The lord's bushi looked at him for instructions but he shook
A moment later, the shoji-door slid open and Kimiko stumbled
"Kimiko-chan," the Regent said calmly, "did you grow weary of waiting
for me in the corridor? So sorry, little one, but business must
come before pleasure. I do hope you didn't permanently injure anyone
in your rush."
"Uncle-san, gomen nasai!" Kimiko seemed out of breath. One
of the imperial ga-domen poked his head inside the room;
his eye was bruised and swelling rapidly. The girl let the shattered
remains of her fan flutter to the floor and bowed deeply. "I...
I apologize for my impatience," she continued.
Saneyoshi-sama nodded. "You may go," he coolly ordered the scowling
ga-domen. The man's expression changed to one of abject fear
and he immediately exited, closing the door behind him.
Kimiko knelt on the mat in front of Ayumi. "Uncle-san, I suppose
you've heard that Ichijo Ayumi is sworn as a personal retainer to
He nodded again and she said in a rush, "A woman of my rank is
entitled by law to personal retainers. I have chosen Ayumi-san."
Saneyoshi-sama sighed. "Little one, you don't need to quote the
law to me. Our ancestors created it."
Kimiko stared at him defiantly although she felt sick and faint.
This was the first time she'd confronted her uncle directly instead
of meekly allowing him to have his way. She loved the Regent and
was sure he loved her in return, although she was still more than
a little frightened of the man. She was ignorant of some of his
blacker exploits but had heard enough from court gossip to make
her wary. Now Ayumi came first in her affections and she was determined
not to back down.
Her worry for Ayumi had grown while she'd been waiting in the corridor.
Bribing one of the ga-domen to take a message to Izumi, she'd
asked the maid to bring one of the court law diviners in case uncle-san
proved to be difficult. When she'd heard his involuntary remark
regarding 'no witnesses', she'd panicked and rushed in, certain
her beloved samurai was on the verge of being executed.
There was a polite scratching on the door. The shoji slid
open and a voice announced, "Doctor Phoenix."
The law diviner came inside and after bowing deeply to the Regent,
settled himself on the mats with much creaking and stiffness. He
was an old man, as evinced by the scanty white locks scattered over
his liver spotted head, the toothless gums and trembling, gnarled
hands. Doctor Phoenix wore a simple sleeveless robe in saffron yellow,
which exposed the wrinkled, sagging flesh of his arms, and went
barefoot. His feet were as warped and twisted as cypress knots and
his toenails that had not been cut recently.
While the laws of the Floating World were carefully written down
and stored in the Thousand Year Shrine of Zenmai, no one wanted
to plow through thousand upon thousand of scrolls seeking specific
answers to their questions. The office of law diviner was a hereditary
one, passed down from father to son, and involved memorizing every
law of Wa, from common to obscure, and sharing their knowledge as
required. This was a sacred and holy occupation; law diviners were
exempt from taxes and military obligations, received a pension from
the imperial household and their persons were inviolable on pain
of immediate execution. As far as rank was concerned, the lowliest
diviner held a social position above that of an emperor, for even
the Son of Heaven must be obedient to the law.
Doctor Phoenix had served the imperial household for forty years.
His son, Little Phoenix, would take over the position upon his father's
The octagonal mirror tied around the old man's forehead flashed
as he eyed the silent occupants of the room. When he spoke, the
two halves of his long, thin, drooping mustache quivered. "You summoned
Saneyoshi-sama replied grimly, "No, most honorable. It is my niece
who has disturbed your rest."
Doctor Phoenix slowly turned to regard Kimiko. "Why have you called
me, my lady?"
Kimiko gulped, feeling the weight of her uncle's disapproving eyes
upon her as well. "I have recently sworn a samurai into my service.
I wish to know what the law says about such matters."
"Is the noble lady unmarried?"
Kimiko nodded and the diviner went on, "And this is the samurai
Ayumi answered softly, "Hai, most honored."
Doctor Phoenix looked again at the rigid figure of Saneyoshi-sama.
"Do you wish me to instruct the noble lady in private, my lord?"
"No," the Regent said with a twist to his lips. "Please go ahead."
He could feel his plan slipping through his fingers; as long as
he could have claimed ignorance over the samurai's true status,
he could have eliminated her without a second thought. But now,
after Kimiko had made such a fuss and dragged an honorable diviner
into it, he would have to bide his time and wait for another opportunity.
It wouldn't do to be caught flouting the law of the land; even the
Kanpuko could lose his head over such a public mis-step.
He hid a disappointed scowl behind his sleeve as the old man's quavering
voice filled the room.
Doctor Phoenix chanted nasally, "Gaze into the mirror and see reflected
there the personification of the divine law of heaven!" - the traditional
phrase which indicated he was ready to begin.
As Kimiko listened attentively, the old man continued, "Noble lady,
as an unmarried woman, you may swear four personal retainers to
your service. These may only be samurai, of good clans and excellent
reputation. We need not concern ourselves with the injunction against
strange men since your retainer is unquestionably female." Doctor
Phoenix drew a rasping breath. "The duties of your retainer are
thus - to attend to your personal safety at all times without regard
for their own, to obey your commands without question, to follow
the tenants of bushi and never fail in their duty towards
Saneyoshi-sama lowered his sleeve and asked abruptly, "What is
the difference between common and personal retainers?"
The diviner cleared his throat. "A common retainer may be either
samurai or bushi, sworn in fealty with binding oaths to his
lord, although he also owes allegiance to the lord's personal retainers;
anyone above his lord in rank may command his services at will,
providing their lord agrees, thus preserving the chain of command
and duty that heaven has decreed. Now, a personal retainer may not
be separated from his lord and cannot be commanded to obey another,
no matter how high the other's rank. He is an extension of his lord's
will, takes charge of his lord's personal security and other private
matters, and commands his lord's common retainers."
The Regent regarded Kimiko impassively. "Did you swear this woman
as your personal or common retainer?"
"Personal." Kimiko's tone could have almost been considered pert.
The law was on her side and she was feeling quite a lot more confident,
knowing her uncle-san couldn't take Ayumi away.
For her part, Ayumi just wished it would be over. She was well
aware that Saneyoshi-sama didn't approve of her link to Kimiko and
everything she'd heard about the ruthless Kanpuko suggested
that his solution to this problem would be expedient and bloody.
She wished she hadn't been forced to surrender her swords before
entering into this interview. On the other hand, Lord Old Fart's
dogs owed their reputation more to bullying than actual skill; she
had no doubt she could take both of them before the alarm was raised.
Better to die as a warrior than live as a coward, she thought.
Still, unless and until Kimiko ordered such action, or until the
samurai decided it was necessary to save her mistress from danger,
Ayumi watched, listened and waited.
Saneyoshi-sama bowed low to the old law diviner. "Thank you, most
honorable. We have taken up enough of your time."
The ancient man unwound himself from the mats with difficulty and
returned the Regent's bow.
As soon as Doctor Phoenix had gone, the Kanpuko turned his
attention back to his wayward niece. "I cannot change what has been
done," he said a bit wearily. "Shigata ga nai. I can only
say that I am disappointed in you, little one. Swearing a retainer
is not done on lightly or on a whim and I wish you had consulted
me first. You, too, have obligations and duties towards your samurai.
I only hope you are mature enough to appreciate the honor and difficulty
that attend your new role."
Kimiko didn't smile but her face glowed. "Domo arigato gozaimasu,"
she said, touching her forehead to the floor. "Thank you very much,
Ayumi said nothing and didn't move a hair. The immediate danger
was past but she had glimpsed the brief, unguarded look of hate
in Saneyoshi-sama's fathomless eyes. She would have to be careful
not to call too much attention to herself and hope that the Regent's
animosity would lessen in time. The samurai didn't know why he was
so angry with her and thought, Perhaps I should seek a discreet
source of information and discover what secrets our glorious Kanpuko
has up his sleeve.
Kimiko sighed in pure happiness but Saneyoshi-sama wasn't finished
yet. An excellent plan had just occurred to him, a way to get rid
of Ayumi without compromising his position or reputation.
I'd almost forgotten, he thought gloatingly. Oh, this
is an elegant solution, indeed.
"The Dowager Empress has asked me to take care of a small problem
which occurred last night - that business of Lady Sakura-hime and
a baiwa player," the Regent said. "I speak of this so openly
because you are already aware of the situation."
Ayumi felt the small hairs on the back of her neck begin to rise
and she involuntarily put a hand on the hilt of her longsword. Instantly,
the bushi on the dais partially drew their katanas
and stared at her intensely.
Unperturbed, Saneyoshi-sama continued, "You are the only ones who
saw the baiwa player's body and can link it to the concubine's
ravings. Palace gossip has been satisfied by the invention of a
sudden fever and Sakura-hime is confined to her quarters until the
infection has passed, thus preserving the honor of the Son of Heaven.
To make sure her divine child is spared humiliation and pain, the
Dowager has given me secret orders to have any witnesses executed.
Fortunately, I can use my discretion to save you, niece." He permitted
himself a small, smug smile.
To Kimiko's horror, her uncle-san then said, "Gomen nasai,
but I cannot spare the samurai. You must order her to commit immediate
The growling bushi whipped out their swords...
And Kimiko stared in complete disbelief.
- Brief as a Cherry Blossom
Mika no hara
Over Mika's plain
Gushing forth and flowing free,
Is Izumi's stream.
Itsu mi kitote ka
I do not know if we have met:
Why, then, do I long for her?
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
From the Wellspring of the Mirror to Kyudan,
Gathering Court of Wa
8 a.m., the first Hour of the Dragon to 10 a.m.,
the first Hour of the Snake
Shaking off her fear, Kimiko sucked in a breath, flung out a hand
and cried loudly, "Machinasai! Wait!!!"
The two bushi on the dais flickered their eyes towards her
but did not relax their aggressive stance.
Ayumi murmured, "Baka wa shinanakya naoranai..." - a
fool is cured only by dying. The insult was directed
towards the brown-clad Dogs who now held fully drawn swords in an
outswept position, the slightly slanted tips of their katanas
resting lightly on the floor.
Kimiko hissed, "Don't be a fool yourself! Damare! Keep quiet,
retainer, I so command!"
Ayumi did not remove her hand from the wire-bound hilt of her longsword.
"If I am ordered to join Buddha, my lady, I request a few moments
to compose my death poem."
"Damare!" Kimiko repeated. Her brain was whirling a thousand
ri per second, trying to come up with a solution to this
sudden, shocking problem.
The Regent allowed himself a small, almost undetectable smirk.
"Should you require any assistance in funerary preparations for
your retainer, little one, I will be more than happy to assist."
Ayumi was not afraid to die; few samurai lived to see old age and
it was considered shameful to lose one's life outside of battle.
But although she had only met Kimiko last evening, and under such
embarrassing circumstances, she had already grown a little fond
of her young, impetuous mistress.
It is a pity, the samurai thought, that our time together
has been so short. I thought we shared a common unmei; now
that promise will never bear fruit. Truly, Benten-sama has a strange
sense of humor.
The luck god had brought them together; now it seemed he was tearing
them apart. Shigata ga nai. The ways of the gods were incomprehensible
and sometimes Ayumi thought the universe was just a big practical
joke to the deities who watched over the Floating World.
For her part, Kimiko was stunned. She'd never really considered
her uncle to be a bad man; a little ruthless, perhaps, more expedient
than diplomatic, but she'd never known him to be deliberately cruel.
However, she knew full well that if he wanted to, Saneyoshi-sama
could extend mercy to Ayumi. She'd caught his imperceptible smirk
and the realization that he was enjoying this came as a shock.
Ayumi licked her lips. "My lady, perhaps you should not witness
The Regent interrupted with a snort. "Of course she will witness
your death! It is part of her duty as your overlord." He turned
to his white-faced niece. "And you will watch, Kimiko-chan, even
if I must pry your eyelids open. You have insisted upon assuming
responsibilities you are not ready for; well, let this be your lesson
then. Giri is giri, little one, and cannot be escaped
Ayumi bristled at the threat towards her mistress but knew she
was powerless to address it. Instead, in an attempt to give some
slight amount of comfort to the girl, she said, "Do not be sad,
my lady. Life is brief as a cherry blossom and death more beautiful
than a sunset. Do your duty and I will do mine."
Kimiko rolled her eyes. She had the feeling that she was trapped
in a nightmare and any minute she would awaken to the smell of fresh
tea and the feel of sunlight on her face. Unfortunately, she also
knew that this was reality and if she didn't think of something
quickly, she would lose the woman she loved.
"Be silent!" she commanded her lunatic samurai who seemed hell-bent
on suicide. A desperate idea had occurred to her; not a solution
but a means of buying time. "Uncle-san... I regret that I cannot
immediately comply with your wishes."
"Wishes?" The Kanpuko's bare brow ridges rose and he scowled. "Niece,
I have given you a command in the name of the Dowager which I fully
expect to be obeyed!"
Kimiko bowed low, touching her forehead to the mats. "Gomen
nasai, uncle-san. There are many preparations to be made first,
as I'm sure you know. I must send to the Court of Flying Scribes
for suitable paper for my retainer's death poem; I must purchase
death kimonos appropriate to her rank; I must arrange services at
the Shrine of Fallen Warriors; I will have to commission a red urn
coffin and engage the services of a barber to shave her head; there
will have to be perfumers to anoint her body, bonzes to prepare
the cremation fire, bone-grinders must be brought in from the Unclean
Village to reduce the corpse to ash, a holy blacksmith must perform
the breaking-sword ceremony... oh! So many things!"
Saneyoshi-sama's scowl grew more frightening. "Little one, we are
talking about the death of one samurai of middling rank, not the
suicide of an Emperor!"
"But uncle-san! Is not my rank and blood of the highest in the
land? Will not the perfection of Ayumi's death ceremonies reflect
upon me?" Kimiko glanced up with glittering black eyes; she had
inherited more than a little of the Regent's ruthlessness, although
that part of herself had been long asleep. Now a dragon coiled around
her spine, roused by love and desperation; the shy, weak-willed
girl had been replaced by a cunning tigress who would stop at nothing
to rescue her beloved retainer.
She pressed her point home, continuing, "You are the most powerful
man in Wa, barring the Son of Heaven. My actions reflect upon you,
uncle-san. If I lose face because my retainer died poorly, will
you not lose face as well?"
The Kanpuko paused, gripping his iron-ribbed fan so hard
it creaked. Face was a difficult concept for an outsider to understand;
it combined pride, self-worth, ego and much more. To lose face was
a great and sometimes lasting shame; many would rather die than
suffer such an embarrassment... himself included. By appealing to
this side of the Regent, Kimiko had unerringly hit her target.
"Very well," Saneyoshi-sama yielded with poor grace. "You have
until the second Hour of the Monkey."
"But uncle-san!" Kimiko exclaimed. "That is only nine hours, not
nearly enough time!"
"Mou!" the Regent roared. "Enough!" He slammed his fan down
and glared, face screwed up into a devil's mask of thwarted fury.
"At the Hour of the Monkey, I expect to see your retainer in the
Courtyard of the Magpie Bridge, fully accoutered and ready to obey
her mistress' command. There will be no more arguments, no more
debates, no more squirming! Little one, you will do your
duty! Do you understand?"
"Hai! Wakarimashita!" Kimiko bowed her head in acknowledgment.
"The second Hour of the Monkey."
Saneyoshi-sama ground his teeth together in frustration. Nothing
was going the way he wanted!
"Now, get out!" he almost shouted. "Go! Begone! I do not wish to
see either of you again until the appointed time!"
"Hai, uncle-san!" Kimiko rose and with Ayumi silently following
her, fled out of the Wellspring of the Mirror and away from the
Once in the corridor, Ayumi touched Kimiko's shoulder. "This delay
serves no purpose," she said calmly, her face expressionless. "The
Regent might be your blood relative, my lady, but if you enrage
him enough, he might forget you are kin."
That was as much of a warning as the samurai felt she could deliver;
it was not her place to disillusion her mistress as to the Kanpuko's
true character. Ayumi had heard enough stories from Blue Carp and
others to know that Saneyoshi-sama was a power-hungry tyrant held
in check only by the Son of Heaven and his fierce, protective mother,
Kimiko sighed and laid a hand on her samurai's cheek. "If he had
no affection for me, Ayumi-san, he would have ordered me dead as
well. No, my uncle-san has a fine sense of family duty; I am in
no danger from him. You, on the other hand... whatever possessed
you to come to my uncle's attention so soon? I hoped to introduce
you to him under better circumstances!"
Ayumi prayed for patience and forebear to point out that their
arrest had been Kimiko's fault. If she hadn't insisted on dawdling
in the Eastern House, they would have gotten away and been spared
all this trouble. Or perhaps not; who could understand the workings
of unmei? Instead of answering the girl's unfair accusation,
the samurai said dispassionately, "Forgive my foolishness, my lady."
"Baka! Oh, well. Shigata ga nai. It can't be helped
now. Come, we must hurry. I have another idea and the court will
be opening soon; we must get changed and prepare for the imperial
Court? Ayumi opened her mouth to ask questions but Kimiko had already
turned and was flying down the corridor as quickly as decorum allowed.
The warrior followed in her bow-legged, flat footed trot. Shigata
She could only hope that her noble mistress' impetuous nature wouldn't
get them out of the brazier and into the cooking coals.
Kyudan, the Gathering Court of Wa,
where all the nobility came together to bask in the imperial presence
of His Majestic Highness, the Mikado, the Son of Heaven, Oho Wakai
Yamato Nekohito Oho Bibino no Mikoto, known as Emperor Kaika...
who was only nine years old.
Every morning it was the same. At dawn, bronze and iron bells rang
out in myriad towers, welcoming the sun goddess, Amaterasu, the
ultimate grand-mother of the imperial dynasty, to another day of
granting her divine presence and golden glow upon the earth. In
the three sacred shrines attached to the palace, billows of incense
smoke and the droning chants of priests competed with the deep,
hollow booming of conch shell trumpets and the clashing of gongs.
Servants wakened their mistresses and masters, the kitchens bustled,
shops opened, couriers began their daily rounds of message bearing,
and the hereditary palace of the Emperors of the Floating World
resembled an anthill stirred with a stick as thousands of people
went about a new morning's business.
In the first minute of the Hour of the Snake, there began a grand
procession into Kyudan, performed by all the nobles and their wives.
After this came the lords' servants, entertainers, musicians, dancers,
jugglers, poets and petitioners. When everyone had found their place
- dictated by a custom that was stronger than law - the divine Emperor
Kaika, his mother Lady Hisame the Dowager Empress, and the boy's
nurse, Lady Butterfly, mounted the high dais at the end of the vast
room and knelt on cushions to receive the ritual homage of their
Thus did every day begin in Katsura-no-miyo and despite the excitement
of the previous evening - not to mention the conspicuous absence
of Sakura-hime, the supposedly feverish concubine - the court opening
ceremony continued as usual.
As Kaika was only nine years old, he was not expected to sit on
the imperial dais for hours at a time; in fact, this public court
only lasted as long as it took to burn nine incense sticks - approximately
two hours. After that, the nobles scattered to their own pursuits
and the child Emperor to his studies.
Like the rest, Kimiko knocked her forehead against the floor three
times to signal her obedience and reverence to the Son of Heaven.
Behind her and slightly to the left, Ayumi did the same; although
not of noble blood, the samurai's presence was allowed because of
her status as the girl's personal retainer.
Noble men and ladies knelt in serried ranks, the colors of their
outer robes reflecting their rank. The Emperor and his mother were
dressed in a purple so deep as to appear almost black; the Dowager's
mantle and her son's hakama were a gorgeous gold brocade
studded with pearls, the only jeweled ornaments permitted in open
court. The first rank of nobles, those who bore the proud title
of oshaku - Duke - were dressed in a lighter purple that
indicated their distant connection with the imperial line. Behind
them knelt the lesser peers, clad in the dark scarlet known as 'the
color of feeling'. The third row was a sea of charcoal gray; daimyos,
the martial lords who were not royal but still the backbone of Wa,
paid proud homage. And beyond them were the commoners who had come
to entertain the Mikado; they and the servants of the hall prostrated
themselves and moaned in humble supplication.
The high abbot of Koreidan, the imperial shrine containing the
bones of Kaika's ancestors, sang a nasal prayer and lit bronze bowls
of incense in every corner of the room. There were twelve steps
leading up to the Emperor's dais; on the fourth step squatted the
Jijucho, the Grand Chamberlain, whose task it was to ensure
that all the necessary rituals were completed successfully and smoothly.
As soon as the abbot finished, the Jijucho nodded, a gong
was rung, and the opening ceremony complete.
Kaika was given a paper ball to play with while the Dowager Empress
and his nurse looked on indulgently.
Released from ceremonial restraint, the nobles and daimyos
began talking amongst themselves. Because it was forbidden by protocol
to speak aloud unless one was replying to the Emperor, everyone
whispered behind their fans, exchanging gossip and news, making
assignations, ruining reputations, planning outings, picnics and
poetry contests or complaining about this and that. The soft susurration
of noise surrounded Ayumi, who began to feel very uncomfortable.
It's like being caught in a cricket cage! she thought, careful
to allow none of her discomfort to show on her face. If my lady
has to face this every morning before she eats her rice, it's no
wonder she's slightly mad!
Kimiko caught the samurai's eye. Gathering the luxurious folds
of her multi-layered, light purple robes, the girl began shuffling
on her knees towards the imperial dais. Ayumi following, doing the
more masculine crawl-walk. There was good reason why few, if any,
walked on their feet in the imperial presence. It was taboo for
anyone to take a position that was higher than the Emperor's head,
and although Kaika sat on a high dais, it was still much safer to
move about in an awkward shuffle than risk impiety and the Dowager's
People politely made room for them to pass, although a few hissed
their annoyance behind their sleeves. Ayumi marked these last as
potential enemies, raising her flashing eyes and imprinting their
faces on her memory. One daimyo who was arranging a courtesan
for the evening took great exception to being interrupted... until
he got a good look at the warrior's grim face. After he melted meekly
aside, the women had no more trouble.
It took quite a while to transverse the great hall but soon, Kimiko
knelt at the bottom of the dais, arranging her kimonos gracefully
and then making a profound bow. Ayumi, unfamiliar with high court
protocol, followed her lady's example.
The Dowager Empress, Lady Hisame, whose name meant "frowning woman",
let her usually down-curved lips curl slightly upward in a smile
when she noticed the girl. "Ah, Kimiko-san! How lovely that you
join us. My son was asking about you the other day; he wondered
when you were going to compose another wonderful poem for us."
Kimiko bowed again. "Domo arigato gozaimasu," she said in
thanks. "Alas, I regret that I have no poetry in my heart today."
"What's this?" Lady Hisame wrinkled her forehead. "Can it be possible?
What has happened, child?"
The Emperor's nurse, Lady Butterfly, nodded wisely. "Thwarted in
love, no doubt. She is young; such sadness passes away as quickly
as a summer rain." The plain woman leaned forward and caught the
Mikado's sleeve between two fingers. "Many regrets, Your Majesty,
but I do not think it polite to strike Lord Oda with your ball."
Kaika smiled, showing fashionably blackened teeth. He wore his
hair in a child's tonsure, a semi-circle plucked between forehead
and crown, with two oiled locks allowed to frame his face on either
side. The back of his hair had been gathered at the nape of his
neck with a gilt cord and allowed to hang down his back. "Please,
Lady Kimiko, tell us a poem!" He clapped his hands and grinned more
widely; the thick white paint on his face, along with the circles
of rouge on his cheeks and lips, gave him the appearance of a doll.
The Dowager tapped her fan against her upper lip and narrowed her
eyes in thought. "Not today, my son. The lady has misplaced her
Lady Hisame was an ambitious woman; as a fifth concubine of little
rank, she'd been joined to the previous Emperor Asai when a young
girl, bearing his only son and heir. Having risen to the second
highest position in the land and gotten a taste for power, she'd
had it all snatched away from her by the untimely death of her husband.
Relegated to the background because the laws of Wa did not allow
a woman to rule, she'd nevertheless used her will, wiles and ruthlessness
to carve out her own considerable niche in the tangled intrigue
that made up the politics of the Floating World.
She intended to be a shadow empress, ruling Wa through her son.
She and the Regent were blood enemies and she would go to any lengths
to ensure that when the time came, Kaika would dance to the tune
she played. Lady Hisame cultivated Kimiko because of the girl's
link to the Kanpuko, intending to use that bond someday to
further her ambitious plans.
So, Saneyoshi-sama's niece has been touched by sorrow, the
Dowager thought, correctly interpreting the implications of Kimiko's
courtly phrase. I wonder what Lord Old Fart's done. She spent
more than a few sticks of time in his audience hall this morning.
The matter could be important; I must learn what has been going
"Come with me, child," Lady Hisame said aloud, surprising both
Kimiko and Ayumi. "I think it best we speak away from the elephant
ears of gossips."
Every eye in the room was riveted to the commanding figure of the
Dowager Empress and all conversation ceased.
Rising gracefully, the Dowager walked down the steps of the dais
while the Grand Chamberlain gaped in astonishment. "But Your Highness!"
he protested, so strongly that the tall gauze cap on his head quivered
like a willow tree in a gale. "You cannot leave yet! Court has not
He dared not scold her for ignoring protocol and standing in the
presence of her divine son; all men knew that trying to stop the
Dowager from following her own will was like breaking wind in a
typhoon. Still, as the person responsible for court functions, the
Chamberlain felt some small protest was necessary.
Lady Hisame gave him a smile that was more like a shark's hungry
grin. "Please get out of my way, honorable Jijucho, before
I am forced to use your neck as a stepping stone." The threat was
unmistakable and the portly, middle-aged man scrambled to clear
a path for this powerful woman.
Pausing beside the kneeling forms of Kimiko and Ayumi, the Dowager
said, "Rise and walk with me, children. My bones have no wish to
spend the next hour knee-walking through this pretty tomb."
Exchanging a glance, the lady and her samurai quietly got up and
followed the glittering, gorgeous Lady Hisame as she swayed in her
weighty robes towards a private chamber nearby.
Behind them, the crowd inside the Gathering Court burst into a
frenzy of whispering.
Emperor Kaika batted his paper ball with a fan, oblivious to his
mother's machinations. "May I have another rice cake?" he asked.
Lady Butterfly suppressed the urge to snatch the child up and press
him protectively to her broad bosom. The poor little boy, a guppy
in a pool of pike. So many plots, so many threads of deception!
Shigata ga nai. That is his ordained path but I still feel
sorry for the child.
She wiped away a tear with the corner of her sleeve and offered
the Emperor a plate of his favorite snacks while the whispering
around them rose to a discreet but frenzied roar.
- Paper Tiger Dreams
Tender winds above the snows
Nayami mo kiyuru
Melt many kinds
Yuki no kaze.
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
From the Vista of Falling Leaves to the Hall of
11 a.m., the second Hour of the Snake
The Dowager Empress led them to a spacious
room just off the Gathering Court. Called the Vista of Falling Leaves,
it was built onto a small courtyard filled with stunted maples,
a few good rocks and a koi pond. The furniture was simple - four
rice-bran cushions covered with simple red cotton, a low table of
polished ebony and a sample of the late Emperor Asai's calligraphy
on a scroll pinned to a wall. It was the Dowager's private audience
chamber and Kimiko was awed at having been granted such a rare honor.
Lady Hisame gestured to her guests to seat
themselves on cushions and took her own place on a slightly raised
dais. As soon as the Dowager settled herself, one of her maids entered
with a tray of tea and a small dish of peeled, overripe fruit. Kimiko
and Ayumi both accepted cups from the Dowager's own hand and spent
some minutes sipping the hot beverage before getting down to business.
"Tell me everything, Kimiko-chan," the Emperor's
mother said, parting her lips and bestowing another tiny smile.
Lady Hisame had lost her teeth shortly after giving birth to Kaika;
her husband, saddened by the loss and still very much in love with
his lovely Empress, had commissioned a set of fitted dentures made
of black pearls. Utterly impractical for eating, the shining, gleaming
jewels with their rare dark sheen had been slavishly imitated by
the nobles of the court ever since, who used lampblack and squid
ink to dye the teeth of husbands and wives.
Kimiko bowed her head and wished, not for
the first time, that unmarried girls were permitted to blacken their
teeth. It looked so exotic, those nuggets of shining darkness glinting
through rose petal lips! Then she glanced at Ayumi's set face and
mentally scolded herself. Will you take your mind off fashion
for a moment, stupid woman! Your beloved's life is in the balance!
The Dowager Empress' oily black eyes were
beginning to narrow in impatience and her fan went tap, tap, tap
on her knee. Kimiko hastily got hold of herself and coughed softly
to cover her lapse before replying to the lady's command. "Please
forgive me, Your Highness. Gomen nasai. Why should one so
high concern herself with the troubles of a miserable worm like
Well pleased at Kimiko's flattering diplomacy,
the Dowager forgot to be annoyed by the girl's delay in answering.
She inclined her head and spoke in her most motherly fashion. "Please,
Kimiko-chan. Do not concern yourself with rank or station. We are
all friends here... save perhaps for that handsome samurai who acts
like your shadow. What happened to his divine nose? Was it perhaps
stepped on by an ox?"
Kimiko flushed. "This is Ichijo Ayumi, my
Lady Hisame's lampblack-lined eyes widened.
"Saa! Is that so?! The famous woman warrior herself?"
Kimiko's cheeks reddened further. The Dowager's
tone reeked of disbelief. "It is true, Highness," the girl said
with a touch of defiance. "She was abandoned by Yorimachi-sama and
swore fealty to me last night."
Involuntarily, the Dowager exclaimed, "Ma!"
in astonishment. This was an entirely unexpected turn of events
and she couldn't pretend to be anything but pleased. Anything that
drew Kimiko further out from underneath the callused buttocks of
her uncle was an excellent turn of events. "I must say I am very
pleased at this show of independence, child. It's about time you
took on the privileges and duties of your rank. I have heard many
good things about Ayumi-san and I'm sure you could not have chosen
a better retainer."
"Thank you very much, Highness." Kimiko bowed.
"I do have a problem, however, and I hoped to have the benefit of
your wisdom and advice."
"Of course!" The Dowager clapped her hands
together and poured them all another cup of tea.
Taking a deep breath, Kimiko quickly related
the events of the previous evening... including their visit to Azumaya
and discovery of the baiwa player's body. Lady Hisame's round but
beautiful face grew more thunderous with each word and by the time
the girl was finished with the sorry conclusion - the Regent's insistence
on Ayumi's immediate seppuku - the Dowager Empress was positively
"So!" Lady Hisame cried. "The scoundrel hides
his actions behind my robes!" It was true that she'd given the Kanpuko
his secret orders to eliminate any witnesses to Princess Sakura's
infidelity but she had hoped he'd use them with a little more discretion.
I should have known not to trust that son-of-a-kago bearer!
she thought furiously. He cannot even take care of the simplest
task without complicating it beyond all endurance!
And a serious complication it was. Kimiko
was clearly asking for immunity for her retainer. To refuse meant
risking all the good will the Dowager had worked hard to build up
and would almost certainly lead to the girl's being driven further
into her uncle's clutches. On the other hand, granting such a request
would mean openly admitting such secret - and highly illegal - orders
existed, which Lady Hisame could never do. Even she was not above
the law and such a confession would have serious consequences.
I did not labor on my back all those years
under the belly of that fat pig Asai, nearly die in labor giving
birth to my son Kaika, and spend so much energy safeguarding my
throne only to be forced into retirement to the most distant shrine
in Wa because of that bakayarou
Saneyoshi! Buddha! Who knew his niece would be involved? Had things
been different, the sword-of-information that I hold over his head
would have been enough to ensure his silence on the matter. I must
burn more incense and offer a rich gift to the luck god if he sees
fit to untangle me from this net!
To gain time to think, the Dowager didn't
answer Kimiko immediately. Instead, she poured them more tea and
gnawed carefully on a mushy piece of fruit. She never took her pearl
teeth out in public and would rather have died than appear less
than perfect at all times.
How Ayumi felt about all this, Lady Hisame
neither knew nor cared. The wishes of a mere samurai, even one belonging
to a high ranking lady like Kimiko, were unimportant.
Keeping silent and impassive, Ayumi was worried
only for her young mistress.
I hope my lady will not be punished for
her forwardness, the samurai thought. The Dowager is no paper
tiger, fierce on the outside and soft as a ricepaper handkerchief
within. The Emperor's mother is a real tigress who will sharpen
her claws on anyone who displeases her!
Ayumi thought all this fuss was only postponing the inevitable.
Better for me to die now and save everyone a lot of bother.
But Kimiko was clearly fighting, had not given up but gallantly
risen to challenge every obstacle. Her strength of will was astonishing
and the warrior felt amused respect. My lady is no paper tiger,
either! Well, I will live a few more hours yet. Who knows what will
happen? Shigata ga nai.
The Dowager cleared her throat and Ayumi instantly snapped back
"I have given this matter careful thought," Lady Hisame said as
she turned her tea bowl around and around in her plump, pretty hands.
"First of all, Kimiko-chan, I must admit ignorance as far as these
so-called 'secret orders' are concerned."
Kimiko went rigid. If the Dowager denied knowledge of her own orders,
that meant uncle-san could essentially carry through on his intention
to have Ayumi commit seppuku. It was a very sly and cunning
move on Lady Hisame's part.
But the Emperor's mother was still speaking. "However, I share
your distress. I can understand Saneyoshi-sama's concern about Princess
Sakura's lapse; we would all wish to spare the Son of Heaven the
distress of knowing one of his beloved concubines was... ill."
The way she emphasized this word made Kimiko understand the way
the game was being played.
I know - that you know - that I know that Sakura-hime isn't
really ill and she's really been enjoying playing a treasonous song
on a commoner's jade flute, the girl thought crazily, but
I also know - that you know - that I know it must be covered up
as quickly and quietly as possible. Wrap the stinking truth in linen
like a rotting corpse and bury it in a tissue of deceit. Baka!
How could I have dreamed that the Dowager would be any different
from my uncle-san!
Lady Hisame went on, "I know you are a clever and discreet girl
who would never dream of concocting a filthy lie about baiwa
players and infidelity. Am I correct?"
Kimiko nodded. She might have come from a provincial background
but she had not been at court for two years without learning something
about intrigue. So, my silence on this matter buys Ayumi's life.
Not such an unpleasant deal. I like Sakura-hime and would not
care to see such a pretty girl on the executioner's block.
"Unfortunately," the Dowager said, bestowing another rare smile,
"I cannot countermand the Regent's orders, not without good reason.
So I am afraid that your retainer must prepare her soul to meet
Kimiko wilted a bit and waited for the ax to fall. Things were
much deeper than she'd assumed and she had no confidence in her
ability to blackmail Old Lady Spider, as the Dowager was known privately.
"What can be done, Your Highness?" Kimiko asked. "I humbly beg
you to bestow your wisdom upon this poor, miserable worm."
Lady Hisame acknowledged this further flattery with another graceful
inclination of her head. "I will be blunt, child. Houfu the baiwa
player is not the only person to lose his life to a yureii in
the Eastern House."
This was news to Kimiko. Ayumi had already heard of three other
murders in the palace from Blue Carp and wondered if her wits were
slipping, since she hadn't made the connection between the bathhouse
owner's gossip and the dead musician. There weren't that many killings
in the imperial palace!
The Dowager explained, "In the last two months, Lord Satsuma Uji,
Duke Okubo and Lord Genji Kanemori have all been devoured by the
hungry ghost. Houfu was the spirit's most recent victim. All efforts
to have Azumaya exorcised have failed. Even the mountain priest
I summoned was no use."
Ayumi was impressed at the yureii's endurance. The fierce
yamaboshi, the hairy mountain priests of the Shinto religion,
were formidable exorcists and monster slayers. It must have cost
Old Lady Spider more than a few handfuls of gold koban to pay for
such a man... how she must have gnashed her pearl teeth when he
failed to get rid the ghost! Hah!
Kimiko was wide-eyed. "Four have been victim to the ghost's hunger?
Ma! And I've heard nothing of it!"
"Yes," the Dowager said, "We have been keeping matters quiet. The
Regent has assigned guards to keep people out of Azumaya but they
invariably fall asleep or are lured away by a noise. This entire
thing is very, very bad luck and I fear my son will be tainted by
Kimiko murmured some sympathetic platitudes while Ayumi stifled
a snort that quickly turned it into a cough when Lady Hisame's oily
black eyes gave her a sharp look.
The Emperor's mother continued, "Here is my bargain, child. I will
send a letter to the Kanpuko, asking him to delay carrying
out his plans for your retainer until tomorrow, at the second Hour
of the Snake, when the Gathering Court is released. At that time,
you and Ayumi-san will present yourselves before myself and the
Regent and give me a full report of your findings."
"Findings? What do you mean, Highness?" Kimiko was confused. Ayumi
looked grimmer than ever; she had a sneaking suspicion of what Old
Lady Spider had in mind.
The Dowager picked up another slice of soft fruit; a single runnel
of juice inched down her fingers, glowing golden where sunlight
struck it. "Simply, you and your retainer will uncover the mystery
surrounding this yureii. Find out why it has come seeking
revenge on four such unconnected men. Discover its former identity.
And finally, get rid of it. Tomorrow, at the second Hour of the
Snake, I expect my questions answered and the hungry ghost destroyed...
or, so sorry, the brave Ayumi-san will be gathered to the bosom
of the Rainbow Buddha and there is nothing I can do about it."
Kimiko wondered if she had gone mad... or if the world itself had
sunk into a hell of insanity. Not knowing what else to do, she bowed
and said, "Hai! It shall be as you have ordered."
Lady Hisame wasn't finished. "Shigata ga nai, child. I hope
you have no hard feelings towards me." She tried a patently fake
sniffle. "I am a woman alone, a poor widow, and I could not possibly
pit myself against so powerful a man as the Kanpuko without
showing that your samurai has performed some extraordinary service
for my son and is thus deserving of mercy."
Kimiko gulped and said softly, "I understand." She glanced at Ayumi,
unshed tears glittering in her eyes, and mouthed, "Sorry."
Ayumi shrugged. She was getting used to the gods pissing on her
The Dowager clapped her hands again and said, "More tea, anyone?"
Old Lady Spider was so very pleased at her own deviousness that
she could have burst with gloating joy.