by Nene Adams © 2001
- All rights reserved
- Firefly Secrets
If the divine winds
Kumo no kayoiji
Would blow the cloudy corridors closed,
Fuki toji yo
I would be able to
Otome no sugata
Keep these pretty girls
For a little while.
Kanatzuki, the Month of
No Gods (October)
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
9 p.m., the second Hour of the Dog
"To you, Cricket! Hai!"
Two little girls, swathed in colorful, wadded
silk robes, were playing hanetsuki in the garden, batting
a paper ball back and forth with unfolded fans. According to custom,
the girls' heads had been shaved from forehead to crown in a wide
circular tonsure, the remainder of their hair pulled into a rolled
butterfly twist at the back, ornamented with gold lacquer combs.
Despite the darkness of the late hour, the
children could see well enough to play. Big stone lanterns squatted
in various strategic locations, providing some illumination. The
remainder of the soft, golden light came from paper lanterns hung
from branches of the dwarf willow trees that gave this secluded
garden its name.
The older of the two, a thin nine-year-old
named Cricket, swatted the descending ball and mocked her sister
with a shrill, "Hi-ya, Moth! Can't beat me so easy!" Despite
the muffling layers of clothing they wore, both girls were able
to run about and play with the unthinking abandon of the young.
Moth made a face and stuck out her tongue,
helplessly giggling. This cost her a point; absorbed in mocking
her older sister, she missed the ball and it bounced on the grass,
eventually rolling into a nearby bamboo thicket.
"Ma!" exclaimed Moth in annoyance,
not caring that her nurse disapproved of such common language. At
seven, she considered herself old enough to not have to listen to
Nurse Miya all the time, even if the woman was her "little mother."
She didn't drink milk anymore, anyway, and thought Miya was very
vulgar to keep offering those bulging, purple-nippled, milk swollen
breasts to her at every meal. Still, what could one expect of a
peasant? As Father said, hoping for refinement from the lowborn
was like expecting a pig to recite sutras.
It had been a stroke of good luck when Mother
had decided that slow, dependable Miya was needed at her party to
look after their honorable newborn brother. This decision provided
a rare opportunity for the two sisters to play without supervision
for a while and made them feel very grown up... although not adult
enough to scorn a fun, vigorous game of hanetsuki.
"I'll get it!" Moth cried. Snapping her fan
shut and with a look of serious concentration on her pumpkin-round
face, she hiked up the skirts of her kimonos and waded into the
dense thicket, soon disappearing from sight.
Cricket sighed. "Hayaku, Moth! Hurry
up! You know Honorable Nurse will be thinking of us soon and we'll
have to go to bed."
Suddenly, she heard the dry bamboo rattling
fiercely, a sound that reminded her of fortune-telling sticks rolling
back and forth in a celadon vase. At the same time, Cricket felt
a cold shiver traveling up her spine, making the hair on her arms
and neck prickle in alarm. There was no wind; the air was perfectly
still and calm.
Maybe it was an animal...
Cautiously, Cricket said softly, "Moth? Is
A strange, choked murmur came from the thicket,
almost like the deep, belly rumbling growl of a beast.
"Moth? Stop trying to fool me, little sister.
I'm not afraid."
The only answer was a breathy moan, almost
a whimper. Thin bamboo canes whipped together in a frenzy, broad
leaves lashing themselves to pieces with such fury that the air
was full of shredded splinters and glittering dust motes. The clicking
rattle was like desert-dried bones tumbled together in a cask; the
sound grew louder and louder until it was almost deafening, splitting
the night like a rolling drumbeat of thunder.
Cricket was growing more frightened by the
second. Half of her wanted to run for help; the other half was mesmerized
by the display, feet rooted to the ground as she waited in breathless
anticipation for the suspense to end. Her heart fluttered in her
chest like a caged bird. "Moth?" she whispered.
Just as suddenly as it had started, the bamboo
became still again, quiet and motionless, but the silence was ominous
and oppressive. This was more frightening than its fierce activity
Cricket tentatively put out a hand and touched
the plants with her fingertips, holding her breath.
Feeling bolder now, as well as sheepish for
her earlier fright, Cricket squared her shoulder and pushed into
the bamboo thicket, laughing under her breath. "That was a good
joke, Moth. Just wait until tonight. I'll get you back for this,
Dazzling balls of fiery light burst from
the thicket, one of them narrowly missing Cricket's nose. She screamed,
stumbling backwards, and fell sprawling on the grass. Looking up
in a terror induced daze, she watched the flickering, flame-engulfed
balls whirl about in a stately dance, reminding her of nothing so
much as a swarm of summer fireflies.
Cricket's throat worked. Her mouth opened
but nothing came out.
The fireballs zipped back and forth in complicated
patterns, leaving trails of ghostly pale light that wavered in the
air for a heartbeat before fading. They bounced erratically, bumping
into one another and changing direction, droplets of sizzling flame
melting away from the orbs like candlewax, dripping onto the scorched
garden earth and barely missing the terrified girl.
Without any warning, just as suddenly as
they had appeared, the flaming spheres were gone, vanishing silently
and without a trace, save for some patches of smoldering grass and
wisps of smoke that smelled strongly of cheap, acrid ansoku-ko
Cricket whimpered, unconsciously gouging
up clots of earth with her spasming fingers.
Finally, two tears slipped over her round
cheeks, squeezed from wide and staring eyes.
Sucking in a deep breath, Cricket began to
scream. "Oni-bi! Oni-bi!"
The girl continued to scream long after adults came running to
see what was wrong; long after her weeping mother smothered her
in caresses and comforting murmurs; long after her brave and clench-jawed
father waded into the silent bamboo thicket...
And returned with a blood-stained paper ball balanced on his unfolded
- Clouded Thoughts
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Court of Golden Koi
9 p.m., the Hour of the Dog
"I will not marry him and that is final!"
"Of course, my lady," soothed Izumi, her
full moon face perfectly tranquil. "We can always move back to our
old quarters; it will be no trouble at all. Here; have another cup
Kimiko took the cup absently. "Uncle-san
thinks he can force me into marriage with that horrible wife slayer,
eh? Ha! I'm only nineteen and he's at least forty! It is a disgrace!
And I don't like this apartment, anyway. Does uncle-san think he
can buy my obedience with finer quarters, like a child who must
be tempted with sweets before a dose of nasty medicine? Ha! I would
rather kiss Lord Emma's black buttocks than marry Suwa Denbe! I
would rather pillow with the Great Stone Monkey! Saneyoshi-sama
makes a grave mistake if he thinks I will be traded against my will
to that grasping turtle-head like... like... as if I were a cud-swallowing
buffalo cow! Giri is giri and clan business is clan
business, but I don't have to like it! And I'm not going to!"
"Of course not, my lady," Izumi murmured.
"Would you care for some sembei?"
Kimiko wrinkled her nose and waved away the
offered dish of rice crackers. "This is not to be borne! I will
shave my head and join the lowest temple in Wa before I will pillow
with that red-nosed son of a baboon!"
Ayumi cleared her throat with a polite, "Ano!"
and held out her cup for more tea. The samurai knelt in her usual
position to Kimiko's left. "I think that is not entirely wise, my
lady," she murmured after taking a sip. "Unless, of course, you
plan to follow the example of Faceless Fusako."
This gave Kimiko pause. Slowly, she turned
her head to glare directly at Ayumi, who had assumed a carefully
blank expression. Lady Fusako had been a celebrated beauty in her
day; rather than marry, she'd wished to retire from the world while
still young and spend the remainder of her long years in service
to the Merciful Amida. Rejected by the priests, Fusako had taken
a red-hot poker to her incomparable face, mutilating herself in
devotion to Buddha, and was accepted as a wandering nun for her
Kimiko felt no such compelling vocation.
She'd only been airing idle threats; Kimiko was young, pretty, intelligent
and in no way wanted to lock herself away from the world in a bare
cell, counting beads and droning sutras until she was a withered
old crone. Complaining loudly, at great length and with as much
dramatic theater as possible made her feel slightly better about
the dreadful situation and she'd expected her retainer to know that.
"Have you a more practical suggestion to make?" she asked Ayumi
"Gomen nasai, my lady," the samurai
replied without a trace of a smile on her lips, although her black
eyes may have twinkled, "I meant no offense."
Kimiko turned away with a sniff.
Izumi glared at Ayumi, who shrugged and set
her cup down.
While the three women sat closely together,
their thoughts were worlds apart, even if they centered around a
Kimiko was fretting about the impending marriage
with Suwa Denbe, a universally acknowledged madman who was older,
steeped in vice and probably riddled with debt. Her uncle, the Kanpuko
Fujiwara Saneyoshi, had arranged the marriage without her knowledge
or consent. Under the law she was free to refuse, but such an act
would be considered unfilial and dishonorable to the memory of the
clan's ancestors. She would be stripped of her ancestral lands;
the wealth she'd inherited from her father would be confiscated;
she would have absolutely nothing, not even a good reputation, to
Trapped between the boar's tusks and the
devil's blade, Kimiko had sought the advice of the Dowager Empress,
Lady Hisame. That interview had been most unsatisfactory;
the Dowager hadn't had the least interest in helping Kimiko out
of her situation. Instead, the hateful woman had carefully mashed
soft fruit with her black pearl teeth, cackled with ill-timed glee,
and offered marriage-bed advice that would have made a back-passage
whore of the fifth rank blush with shame. There would clearly be
no escape from this route.
The trouble was that no one, with a few exceptions,
felt the marriage was at all inappropriate. Most girls her age were
already wed, with families on the way and discreet love affairs
on the side. Kimiko wouldn't be Denbe-san's principal wife, after
all - only his second. First wives were more mature than their husbands,
capable of running a complicated household. Kimiko's position would
be below Lady Ryoko, Denbe-san's principal wife, but above any concubines
he might take later. It was considered a good, sensible match for
a nineteen-year old who was too precocious for her age and station.
Still... the marriage ceremony had not yet
taken place. Indeed, the traditional "three visits" had not been
scheduled, either. Kimiko shuddered. Merciful Kwannon, have pity
on your daughter! she prayed silently but fervently. Make
Denbe-san's jade scepter shrivel like a mushroom in the sun! Make
my yoni close as tightly as a miser's chest of gold! Let
my breath turn as sour and rancid as spoiled rice! Anything, O Merciful
One, anything would be better than spending three nights with him
in my bed and my body! It isn't fair! Oh, oh, oh! I will do my duty
but it is not fair!
Her love was reserved for Ayumi; night and
day she burned for the samurai's embrace. She was absolutely positive
that the gods had tangled their unmei together; it was only
a matter of time before their sleeves touched and they began to
tread the path of common fate as lovers and more. Why, oh why, did
her hateful uncle have to try and spoil it all? And why, oh why,
wasn't Ayumi doing something about it? The samurai's apparent indifference
to Kimiko's trouble made the situation all the more heart-rending.
Kimiko stared into her teacup and swallowed
against a rush of hot tears.
The maid Izumi eyed her silent mistress and
sighed. Many girls feared marriage and her lady was no exception.
It will be good for her, Izumi thought. Buddha forgive
me, but my lady can be as flighty as a flock of young sparrows.
A husband will steady her, make her more sober, and cleanse her
blood of that samurai's heat. True, Ayumi-san has behaved in an
honorable fashion, as is proper... even so, it is one thing for
my lady to seek pleasure with another woman, and another entirely
for her to pine and waste her young soul's measure of love on such
Izumi did not feel as if she were behaving
disloyally. Giri was giri, after all, even if she
did look upon Kimiko as her own child. If there had been any sane
objection to Lord Denbe's suit, she would have been the first to
leap to her lady's defense. His other second wives all had bad
karma, the maid thought. Nothing to do with Denbe-sama. He
is a perfect husband; is old enough to have patience, old enough
to spoil her without losing face, and old enough to put up with
her tempers without losing his. All around, an excellent match.
It was not a question of supporting her lady's
wants; in Izumi's mind, the issue was to fulfill Kimiko's needs,
even against her own wishes. Having decided that Kimiko would be
better off marrying Lord Denbe than continuing in her present virginal
(and therefore unsafe) state, Izumi sat back on her heels, offered
a plate of steamed buns, and wisely kept her own counsel. No sense
disrupting the harmony of the household with arguments and tears.
She knew she was right and that was enough... for now.
In anticipation of Kimiko's ultimate acceptance
of her fate, Izumi had already scheduled Lord Denbe's "three visits."
The bridegroom had to sample the charms of his intended bride before
the wedding could take place.
It was a most sensible arrangement, satisfactory
all around... except, perhaps, for Kimiko.
Ah, my lady will come to her senses eventually,
the maid thought. It is really for the best. Court gossip is
nearly always untrue and I am sure he is a fine gentleman.
Meanwhile, Ayumi rolled her eyes and fought
the urge to beat Kimiko with the flat of her katana in the
vain hope of pounding some sense into the girl. Didn't her lady
understand that she only had to give the word and Lord Denbe's head
would roll in the dust? Of course, such an action would result in
the samurai's immediate death as well, but that was of little importance.
She weeps, rails against the gods, and burns enough incense to
suffocate an entire village instead of simply ordering the man's
death, Ayumi thought sourly. Baka!
Izumi thrust a plate of buns under her nose
and Ayumi took one, biting into the soft white dough and barely
tasting the spicy vegetable filling.
Ayumi was feeling a little put out by Kimiko's
attitude, which was why she'd taken to teasing the girl instead
of offering open sympathy. It was insulting that her lady had not
yet comprehended that Ayumi would never allow anyone - not even
a lawful husband - to offer her the slightest harm. The moment Denbe-sama
raised the smallest finger towards Kimiko with evil intent, he would
find himself lacking both hand and head.
And then there was the matter of Kimiko's
infatuation with her, which had not abated and showed no signs of
doing so. It was all Ayumi could do to keep their relationship a
proper one between mistress and servant without giving offense.
Kimiko flirted shamelessly, took every opportunity to prance around
in the flimsiest garments, used any excuse to touch and caress Ayumi's
body until the samurai's liver flopped over and she began to sweat.
Their sleeves had not yet touched but it was only a matter of time
before they were exchanging pillows and chasing the Clouds and Rain.
Ayumi wanted to put off that time as much
as possible. Not that she didn't find Kimiko attractive - far from
it! - but she didn't want to disappoint the girl. I cannot return
her love and it would not be fair. Although I am quite fond of her.
Very fond, in fact. Very, very fond...
Baka! Apparently, I suffer from a state
of extreme fondness, the samurai fumed.
I dare not tell her now; my lady is the
type to think shinju is an oh, so romantic option to marriage
with Denbe-sama. Double lover's suicide - stupid! I will die for
her but I will not let her throw her life away on a scarred, flat-nosed,
flat-footed samurai like me. She must marry Denbe-sama out of duty
- I will not add to her regret by professing my affection. Besides,
Ayumi thought, it is good for my lady's karma to be forbidden
something she wants from time to time. It is good for my self discipline
to be denied an anticipated pleasure. No doubt we will both be rewarded
with better fortune in another life. Then again... maybe not.
She risked a glance up to Heaven.
Which one of you honorable monkey-san
gods is pissing on my head these days?
As usual, there was no reply. Not surprising,
considering the gods were meeting in Izumo Shrine in Shimane province
this month to decide the fate of all people and the world for the
coming year, but it would have been nice to get some sign from the
pantheon. A rain of chamberpots, perhaps.
Ayumi glared at the bun in her hand and took
another savage bite.
Kimiko rose, smoothing down the blue-and-white
cotton yukata she wore. She was tired of sitting there with
her own thoughts and desperate for a distraction. "I think we will
attend Lady Ryoko's moon viewing party after all. Due to all this
dull silence, I suddenly find meeting my betrothed husband's first
wife a pleasant alternative to being bored to death. Well, what
are you waiting for with open mouths? A swarm of flies? Help me
get dressed at once! And Ayumi-san, please wear the outfit that
matches my new robes. Hayaku!"
Izumi got up as quickly as dignity allowed
and scurried off to the clothes trunks, wondering what demon had
possessed her lady. Then again, perhaps this was the first step
towards acceptance of the inevitable and all those sutras she'd
paid the priests to chant were doing some good in Heaven, after
Kimiko lifted her chin proudly and stared
down at Ayumi. "Do you have anything to say about it?" she asked
"Gomen nasai, my lady," Ayumi answered,
strangling a chuckle into a smothered cough; she would have slit
her belly open before hurting Kimiko's feelings but that didn't
mean she couldn't apply some gentle sarcasm. "This miserable worm
has absolutely nothing to say at all."
From across the room, Izumi suddenly sneezed.
Kimiko looked at Ayumi suspiciously. Everyone
knew that a sneeze meant someone was telling a lie.
The samurai smiled and shrugged, face a perfect
picture of innocence.
The girl couldn't help but have the feeling
that some god, somewhere, was laughing at her.
- White Sand, Red Blood
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
11 p.m., the second Hour of the Boar
Lady Ryoko had a face like a razor-edged hatchet. It was as though
at birth, the midwife had grasped the infant girl by her soft facial
features and yanked outward. Ryoko's narrow slitted eyes were set
so close to her long, needle-sharp nose that she could practically
stare up her own nostrils, and her chin protruded so far that it
was a wonder she could eat without dribbling like a toothless ape.
Her forehead was too low and her hairline grew down almost to her
shaved eyebrow ridges. Rather than use the thick, leaded make-up
that was fashionable at Court, she merely blotted her complexion
with a layer of rice powder. Some of the powder invariably wore
away, leaving unattractive blotches that gave the impression of
dirty ground peeping through cracks in an otherwise flawless snowdrift.
Despite being unattractive, Ryoko had a reputation for serenity,
smiling calmness and quiet acceptance of fate; she was graciousness
itself and never lost her temper, even with the clumsiest servant.
The gods had not seen fit to allow any of the children of her womb
to survive - she'd had five miscarriages since her marriage to Denbe-san
- but she was raising the daughters of her husband's deceased second
wives as well as taking on the responsibility for his illegitimate
son by a courtesan. Lady Ryoko never complained and if she suffered
at all, she hid it well.
Which made it all the more shocking when Kimiko and Ayumi arrived
at the Court of the Green Willow and beheld the chaos that reigned
in those once quiet rooms.
The place was in an uproar with servants scurrying mindlessly about,
nobles whispering behind their sleeves, maids weeping copiously
and beseeching Heaven, priests waving burning incense and droning
prayers, and the Dowager Empress herself trying to comfort a dry-eyed
and red-nosed Ryoko. Lord Denbe stood in the middle of the central
space pulling violently on the little wisp of beard that decorated
his chin; other than this nervous gesture, he appeared relatively
calm and collected.
Kimiko shuffled on her knees towards the dais at one end of the
room, where the Dowager knelt on a plump cushion, futilely offering
cups of warm sake to Lady Ryoko, who stared dully and ignored the
bustle around her.
"Gomen nasai, Your Highness. This miserable worm has only
just arrived." Kimiko bowed deeply to Lady Hisame, folding her hands
flat on the tatami mats and knocking her forehead three times against
the floor as protocol demanded. Nobody forgot to kowtow to
Old Lady Spider twice. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
The Dowager Empress, Lady Hisame, whose name meant "frowning woman,"
peered at the bowing girl, then beyond her to the stone-faced female
samurai who attended her. "It is not an auspicious evening, Kimiko-chan.
Ryoko-san has lost a child; her youngest daughter called Moth."
Kimiko sucked in a breath. "Is there illness in the palace? I had
not heard the plague bells."
"Iye! Of course we are not troubled by sickness demons,
child." The Dowager Empress had an unpleasant habit of clicking
her false pearl teeth in and out of her mouth in times of great
stress; she did so now with gross liquid noises, oblivious to the
Glancing down at Lady Ryoko, whose head was pillowed in her lap,
the Dowager slurped her teeth back into place and commanded sharply,
"Chigau! Don't be ridiculous. Plague, indeed! Don't wish
ill luck on your betters, child."
Kimiko gasped softly and trembled, stomach knotting in sudden panic;
behind her, Ayumi unconsciously grasped the hilt of her sword, face
screwing up into a fearsome grimace.
"Gomen nasai, Your Highness. Please forgive me!" Kimiko
bowed profoundly, face ashen.
The Dowager spat over the edge of the dais, a gesture meant to
avert evil and one which betrayed her peasant class roots. Around
them, some of the nobles ceased their whispered conversations and
drew away from Kimiko, pulling the trains of their robes around
their feet as if to avoid guilt by association with the condemned.
Lady Hisame was terrified that her young son, the Emperor, would
die before she had a chance to rule the Floating World from behind
his throne. To ensure his continued health and well-being, she spent
a fortune on amulets, charms, prayers, potions, incense, blessings
and special sutras; her cunning and icy ruthlessness kept the scheming
nobles and daimyos in line. She was the most powerful woman
at court and didn't scruple to wield every ounce of her political
might like an ox driver's whip.
She was also a deeply superstitious woman. The Dowager was convinced
that once something bad was spoken aloud, the sentiment was likely
to come true, and there was only one way to avert manufactured misfortune.
The entire palace, from servants to the highest nobles, guarded
their tongues with care; a chance remark in Lady Hisame's presence
or in the presence of her spies was likely to result in a sudden,
unwanted familiarity with red-hot brands and burning pincers.
Noting the girl's frightened reaction with satisfaction, the Dowager
decided to overlook Kimiko's exclamation. Although she would never
admit it, even to herself, Ayumi's fiercely scowling countenance
and the way the samurai fingered her sword hilt significantly contributed
to Hisame's decision to be merciful... this time.
The Dowager allowed her lips to curve slightly upward in as much
of a smile as she permitted herself and said in a pleasant tone,
"It's all right, I am not angry with you, child."
One of her hands, lily white and criss-crossed with snaky veins,
absently caressed Lady Ryoko's hair. "You are still young and foolish,
Kimiko-chan; with age will come wisdom." She sharpened her gaze;
her next words were sheathed in menace. "One hopes that you will
live to see such age and such wisdom. It will not come to pass if
you continue to allow your mouth free reign without consulting your
Kimiko let out the breath she'd been holding and Ayumi relaxed
a trifle. During the dramatic pause, Ayumi had been noting various
exits and mentally mapping a route through the palace, calculating
how many of the palace bushi and ga-domen she'd have
to kill in order to get her mistress out alive.
Conversation resumed with a buzz.
Lady Ryoko stirred. Her narrow eyes darted from side to side and
she asked in a slurred whisper, "Where are my children?"
The Dowager continued to stroke her hair. "Cricket and Little Brother
are with their nurse. They are safe, I assure you. Do you think
you could drink a little sake? It will help warm you."
"No." Ryoko struggled weakly to sit up. "Where is Moth? I had a
dream, a terrible dream..."
The Dowager's eyes flashed at Kimiko in clear warning. "The captain
of the ga-domen and his men are still searching. They will
find her, never fear."
Ryoko's lips were cracked, her face paler than a spring moon. "I
must find her. The dream... I saw a dog. A dog!" Her voice rose
into a high-pitched screech. "Monster! What have you done to my
Bystanders sucked air between their teeth and smiled widely in
embarrassment at Ryoko's lack of emotional control. Some laughed,
burning inwardly at the shame of a noble lady who had lost so much
face by her breakdown. It would have been better if Ryoko had endured
stoically in public and wept in private, which was the proper way
of dealing with such things in the Floating World; as it was, Ryoko
lost a great deal of respect from people who would never allow her
to forget this lapse.
As the Dowager tried to calm the hysterical woman, Kimiko wondered
what interest Old Lady Spider could take in the wife of a relatively
minor lord. After a moment's consideration, she had the answer.
In the days before her concubinage to the old Emperor, Lady Hisame
had a younger sister named Plover, who'd married a low-ranking daimyo.
Although Plover was long dead, victim of one of the terrible fevers
that periodically swept across the island, her daughter was named
Ryoko, making Hisame the woman's aunt.
Well, that also explains why Her Highness doesn't object to
my union with Denbe-san, Kimiko thought angrily. Her nephew-in-law
getting a connection by marriage to the Fujiwara clan is quite a
coup; no doubt her spies are even now settling into Denbe-san's
home in the hopes that I will reveal my clan's secrets. But uncle-san
must have known about the Dowager's relation with my betrothed husband.
Hmm... he must hope that I will remain loyal to my clan and act
as his spy in Old Lady Spider's household. More intrigue!! Why do
I feel as if I am playing a game of go without all the pieces
on the board?!
Then Kimiko noticed something that snatched her thoughts away from
the gloomy subject of her upcoming marriage. Lady Ryoko's layered
kimonos - about thirty in all - were in various shades of dull scarlet
and tissue gold. The beautiful brocade overrobe she wore was heavily
embroidered in a cranes motif, cream against purple and copper,
bound with a tasseled obi of deep bronze silk. Her ensemble
was tasteful and elegant, crafted with the deceptive simplicity
that only a trunkful of gold koban could buy. However, the
hem of the overrobe was considerably darker than the surrounding
material; the fabric appeared to be wet and the moisture was creeping
up to Ryoko's knees.
With a thrill of horror, Kimiko realized that the woven tatami
mats Lady Ryoko was sitting on were smudged with spots and splashes
of bright crimson.
She glanced behind her at Ayumi and saw from the samurai's expression
that she had noticed it, too.
Before Kimiko could act, Ayumi rose on one knee, the other leg
stretched out in front of her, and 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 the edge of the
dais, where she bowed. The crawl-walk was much more masculine than
the graceful shuffle most ladies performed, but it was also more
efficient, and Ayumi did not care what might be whispered about
her personality or sexual proclivities behind her back.
Looking up, she met the Dowager's flat, hostile gaze. Keeping her
hands away from the hilt of her sword, Ayumi said quietly, "The
honorable Ryoko-sama has been injured. Shall a doctor be fetched?"
Startled, Hisame bit back whatever cutting remark she'd been about
to make about the samurai's boldness, and looked at Ryoko carefully.
Finally, she nodded. Hiding her mouth behind a raised sleeve, the
Dowager said softly, "Discreetly, if you please. Send a message
to the steward of my household; he will know what to do."
Ayumi bowed. Crawl-walking away, she rolled her eyes at Kimiko
to let her know that all was well, and within moments had dispatched
a reliable looking maid to the Dowager's wing of the palace with
a verbal message to the steward. Selecting a pair of strong, broad-shouldered
female servants, she led them to the dais, where all bowed once
again to the Dowager Empress.
"Since Lady Ryoko is feeling unwell," Ayumi said loudly, attracting
the immediate attention of everyone in the room, "I will help her
to her room where she may rest a while." Standing up swiftly and
gathering the unresisting, sobbing Ryoko into her muscular arms,
Ayumi made sure to tuck the lady's robes well around her lower limbs
to catch any more tell-tale blood droplets. In her characteristic
bow-legged, foot-slapping stomp, the samurai led the two servants
to a back room, where Ryoko was deposited onto a two-futon bed with
As Ayumi disappeared into the other room, the Dowager called, "Poor
woman. Keep her there for a while; she is really too delicate of
temperament to be subjected to such terrible strain."
Kimiko glanced from Lady Hisame to the back of her vanishing retainer.
Only the sternest control kept her jaw from dropping. Suwa Denbe
appeared suddenly, kneeling before the dais and offering his kowtow
to the powerful woman and completely ignoring the girl he was supposed
to marry. From his calm demeanor, it seemed the lord had recovered
from his earlier hysterics.
"Gomen nasai, honorable auntie! I trust my wife's unfortunate
weakness does not inconvenience you?"
The Dowager bestowed a rare grin on the man. "It does not inconvenience
me but your appreciation is gratifying, Denbe-san. Will I be granted
the privilege of one of your incomparable poems to commemorate the
Denbe bowed again at the compliment. He was beyond the first flush
of youth; at fifty, he was a mature, slightly pot-bellied courtier
who wore exquisite clothes, paid excruciating attention to detail
and fashion, read all the latest poetry, and affected a round-eyed,
grimacing expression that made him look like a constipated frog.
He had lost the tall, gauze cap of his rank and Kimiko could easily
see the blue-painted area of his scalp revealed by the semi-circular
tonsure that swept from forehead to the crown of his head. A fat,
oiled topknot fastened with a paper ribbon had been folded over
and arranged in the center of this bald space.
Kimiko thought the rolled bundle of hair resembled a fresh dog
turd and she wrinkled her nose in disgust.
Denbe slewed his eyes towards his prospective bride but did not
acknowledge her presence in any way. That would have gone against
protocol, which demanded that betrothed couples could not meet socially
until the first of the traditional "three visits."
Instead, he kept his gaze fastened on the Dowager and plucked the
fan from his obi. "I will begin work on my new poem as soon
as the ga-domen bring word of my daughter."
In sharp contrast to his wife's behavior, Denbe's eyes were dry
and his face was calm. He acted as though the disappearance of his
daughter was no more than a minor inconvenience. This was only right
and proper. Each of the nobles who looked upon him felt their breasts
swell with admiration at the excellent way he hid his grief and
pain behind a wall of seeming indifference.
The Dowager said, "It is very sad that your moon viewing party
had to be interrupted. I was looking forward to the poetry competition.
I even had some special incense made up for you - it is called Precious-Moondew."
Kimiko bit her tongue and decided to join Ayumi and Lady Ryoko;
she had seen the Dowager's personal physician and his helpers arrive,
discreetly sliding into the apartment and oiling their way quietly
through the crowd. She bowed to the Dowager, with a slightly shallower
bow to Denbe-san - neither of which was acknowledged - and shuffled
away, pushing through the kneeling nobles and using her fan to poke
the most stubborn obstructers in semi-sensitive areas.
It took only a few moments before she reached the area where Ayumi
had taken Lady Ryoko.
The doctor was a shrunken but still vigorous old man, whose bald
pate was the color and sheen of fine mahogany. He wore billowing,
saffron-yellow robes, belted with a hemp cord, and simple rice straw
sandals. He had a huge mole growing by the side of his nose, from
which two long hairs dangled; Kimiko fought the urge to grab those
silvery hairs and pluck them out.
One of his assistants knelt on the floor, a big wooden medicine
box strapped to his back. Another boy twirled burning incense sticks
between his fingers, while yet another banged bronze cymbals together
and droned healing chants through his nose. A cloud of overly sweet
smoke drifted into Kimiko's face; she coughed and waved a hand.
Oil lamps cast a faintly golden glow over the proceedings, although
the doctor held a candle in his trembling, liver-spotted hand as
he puttered around his patient, peering at Ryoko's legs and muttering
into his thin, wispy beard.
Ayumi glided to her lady's side. "Honorable Ryoko has a leg wound,"
she muttered out of the corner of her mouth.
"How did that happen?"
Rather than say she didn't know, Ayumi merely replied, "The doctor
is examining the injury now."
Kimiko looked up at her retainer; Ayumi's crooked nose and square
jaw were limned in shadow, throwing these features into prominence.
With her short black hair drawn up into a jaunty tea-whisk style
topknot and the fierce grimace she usually wore on her face in public,
the samurai was so handsome that Kimiko felt as if her belly was
melting, dissolving like barley sugar in a hot saucepan.
The doctor finished his poking and prodding. Ryoko whimpered but
did not move; her body was as rigid as a wax doll's.
"It appears that the Most Honorable Lady has suffered an attack
by some sort of animal. Possibly a dog," he concluded. "There are
definite tooth marks. I will apply a poultice; the wound is not
very large or deep and should heal cleanly."
Ayumi raised an eyebrow. A dog?
Kimiko shuddered. She remembered Ryoko's outburst on the dais.
She said she'd dreamed about a dog...
On the bed, the lady whispered, "I had a dream..."
Kimiko suddenly felt faint.
- Life is Fleeting
The cricket cries
Naku ya shimo yo no
In the frost.
Sumu shiro ni
On my narrow bed,
In a folded quilt,
Hitori ka mo nemu.
I sleep alone.
-----Fujiwara no Go-Kyogoku, Regent
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
12 a.m., the Hour of the Rat
Ayumi's wrapped her hand around Kimiko's upper arm. "Are you feeling
unwell, my lady?" she asked. Although the girl's dead white make-up
prevented any hint of her complexion from being seen, there was
something about the tight set of her lips that made Ayumi feel very
Kimiko leaned into the samurai, grateful for her strength. She
felt as if someone had doused her spine in icy water; chills made
the small hairs on her arms twitch as if struggling to rise. "I
am well," she replied softly. "Only..."
Ayumi leaned down a little so she could look her mistress directly
in the eyes. "What is it? What do you feel?"
"Something is... not right." Kimiko shook her head. "Gomen nasai,
Ayumi-san. I suppose I am feeling bad because poor Ryoko-san has
lost a child. The Dowager did not tell me precisely what had happened,
Ayumi had already gotten the pertinent parts of the story from
a gossiping servant. While the doctor gave detailed instructions
to Ryoko's maids, she put her mouth close to Kimiko's ear and said,
"The honorable lady's daughters, Cricket and Moth, were playing
in the garden of the apartment next door - the Court of the Silver
Bamboo - since their father was hosting a moon viewing party. Some
creature attacked Moth but there was no body left behind - only
a small pool of blood. No trail, either. The palace guards are conducting
a search but all they have found is a single footprint going away
from the scene."
"The girl's?" Kimiko whispered. Ayumi's breath in her ear tickled
and thrilled at the same time. She suppressed the urge to turn her
head and steal a kiss; such a whim was inappropriate to the time
and circumstances, although the girl wished it was otherwise.
"Iye, my lady. It looked like the footprint of a dog. A
big dog, not a noblewoman's pet."
"Where was Lady Ryoko when this was going on?"
The samurai scratched the side of her crooked nose. "The Honorable
Ryoko was suffering from a headache and retired to her room to rest.
She was asleep; two maids were sitting outside the door in case
she awoke and needed anything."
"So how did Ryoko-san come to be bitten by a dog? This is very
"I agree." Ayumi shifted her weight on her feet. "Perhaps there
is some sort of enchantment on the honorable lady? When her daughter
was attacked, she bled from the wounds?"
"But where is Moth?" Kimiko wrinkled her brow in thought. "And
what is the significance of Ryoko-san dreaming of a dog and then
clearly being bitten by one?"
"When questions are many," quoted Ayumi from an old folk tale,
"seek the three impossibles."
"An honest fortune teller, an attentive god or a priest who has
no lust in his heart," Kimiko replied, finishing the ancient saying.
She glanced at the samurai from the corner of her eye.
On the bed, Ryoko muttered, rolling her neck on the wooden stand
that served as a pillow. The doctor hastened to wet her lips with
black liquid from a small vial.
"What is the Dowager up to?" Kimiko asked. "Why try and keep Ryoko's
wound a secret?"
Ayumi said quietly, "Honorable Ryoko is the Dowager's niece. That
is enough of an explanation."
Kimiko thought about that for a moment and made a face. She knew
all too well how the game of palace intrigue was played, and Old
Lady Spider was a champion. Of course, Hisame-sama wouldn't want
speculation scattered around the court like rice grains before a
windstorm. Her niece's child disappears in mysterious circumstances,
leaving only a pool of blood and a canine footprint behind. The
child's mother, supposedly sleeping alone when the attack came,
has a wound that could have come from a dog. What if Ryoko is involved
somehow? There is a door in this room that leads to the verandah
and the garden, and maids have been known to fall asleep. Denbe-san's
guests would have been gazing at the moon and writing poetry. Servants
would have been attending braziers and sake bottles. It would have
been easy for Ryoko to slip away, and the lady's hysteria could
be misinterpreted as guilt.
Kimiko sighed. This is the sort of scandal that the Dowager
would want to squash like a mosquito before it breeds gossip and
rumor that could damage her power at court. Truly, Hisame has a
mind more crooked than a dog's hind leg.
"I am afraid for her," the girl said finally, nodding her head
in Ryoko's direction.
Ayumi raised a brow. "Why, my lady? Old Lady Spider will protect
Kimiko looked gravely into the samurai's face. "That is exactly
what I'm afraid of," she murmured. "We can do nothing else here.
Come with me into the garden; we may find more information there."
Ayumi shrugged. She did not know why her lady was getting involved
in this affair - did Kimiko-san not have enough troubles to ruin
her sleep? - but a samurai was born to obey. If poking into other
people's business made the girl happy, why not? Life was too fleeting
for misery. After all the tears the lady had shed over her upcoming
marriage in the past few weeks, Ayumi would have painted her buttocks
blue and capered like an ape if it brought a smile to Kimiko's lips.
Indulging her mistress' curiosity without too much fuss was the
least she could do.
The samurai just hoped this wasn't the prelude to more rains of
chamberpots from Heaven.
How much incense would it take to purchase a spiritual umbrella,
she thought idly, following Kimiko out onto the verandah.
Behind them on the bed, Ryoko muttered indistinctly while the doctor
stroked the twin, silvery hairs of his mole and signaled for a vial
of stronger medicine.
Oshida Saburo, newly appointed jeichou
of the palace ga-domen, stroked his mustache and made a face
like a demon mask, screwing up his mouth and scowling so fiercely
the men around him flinched. "And you say there is no blood trail?"
he asked in his booming voice.
The guard who knelt on the ground in front of him kept his eyes
fixed on the commander's sandaled feet. He appeared to be fascinated
by the bunions, gnarled toes and jagged yellow nails that were exposed
by Saburo's disdain for tabi socks. "There is no trail
at all," the guard said, "and the bamboo is only disturbed in the
area around the blood pool. Some grass has been scorched, as if
by fire, but no other plants have been damaged. There is no sign
of the girl."
"I see." Saburo was a big-bellied but solid middle-aged man, squat
and powerful, who disdained the colorful, multi-layered kimonos
of the nobility and preferred to wear lacquered bamboo armor strapped
over a black, formal five-crest robe. His hakama - also black
- were made of the coarsest grade cotton and heavily
starched. He ate plain food and lived as simply as possible. While
Saburo had heard of subtlety, he strongly disapproved of the notion,
believing that any problem could be solved if you threw enough common
sense at it.
The guard trembled slightly; the involuntary motion was barely
perceptible but Saburo had very good eyesight for a man his age.
"You may go," he said gruffly, dismissing the man, muttering under
his breath, "Weak livered spawn of a moon-crazed toad. You and your
soft-palmed kind are as useless as tits on a mountain boar."
The commander stroked his mustache again. The ferociously bristling
mustache hung over his upper lip, almost obscuring his mouth, and
the tips curled around almost to his ears. Saburo's rank entitled
him to wear a small, four-sided gauze cap but he preferred a helmet,
the neck guard dangling loosely down his back. He spread his legs
apart to ease the ache in the small of his back and wished that
the Emperor had not forbidden torture as a means of obtaining confessions.
The jeichou was positive this case could be solved in heartbeats
if servants, maids and other lowly persons had been subjected to
persuasions of the bamboo splinter and plaited whip variety. They
are all guilty of something, he thought glumly.
A woman's voice beside him made him pause. "Have you questioned
the other child, Saburo-san?" it asked.
Saburo turned his gaze towards a petite and pretty lady of the
nobility, who smiled gently and bowed her head. She was unmarried
- the girl's teeth were salty white instead of gleaming black -
and the thick lead make-up and rouge on her face failed to disguise
the lady's obvious youth.
He cleared his throat. "I am Oshida Saburo of the Standing Cranes
clan," he said politely. "Commander of the palace guards, protector
of the Son of Heaven - may he live ten thousand years. Gomen
nasai, my lady, I mean no offense, however... might one ask
who you are and what is your interest in this unfortunate matter?"
The girl might have flushed - it was difficult to tell. "I am Fujiwara
no Kimiko," she said. "Lord Denbe is my betrothed husband."
Saburo's eyes flickered. This Kimiko-sama was clearly related to
the powerful Kanpuko, Fujiwara Saneyoshi. Much as he disliked
civilians thrusting themselves into his investigations, especially
noble monkey-samas with more breeding than brains, he had not gained
his position by acting like a fool. She would have to be tolerated...
for now. Should the chit's interference escalate to annoying proportions,
he would assign some handsome and vacuous young guardsman to keep
her occupied - in bed and out
"Please forgive my ignorance," he said, giving the girl a low bow.
"How may I be of assistance, Kimiko-sama?"
"The missing girl's sister, Cricket... have you questioned her?"
Saburo raised his eyebrows. "The child is ill," he replied. "I
understand the attack frightened her so much that her soul is wandering."
Kimiko frowned. "Gomen nasai, honorable commander, I do
not wish to tell you how to do your job..."
"Then do not," he suggested firmly. "I assure you, we will find
whatever - or whoever - has done this terrible thing. I do not tolerate
murder within the palace walls."
"Then you believe Moth is dead?"
Saburo shrugged. He'd had enough of this impertinent lady's questions
already. "The child is gone. Probably attacked by an animal that
dragged the body away, some wild beast..." He shrugged again. "Shigata
Another voice spoke up - also female, but with a deeper, more resonant
tone. "You found a dog's footprint." It was not a question but a
statement of fact.
The woman who had spoken strutted up to the commander in a bow-legged,
stomping stride that put him in mind of the cock that ruled the
dungheap. She had two swords, long and short, thrust through her
obi, and her nose looked like it had been stepped on by an ox. "Who
are you?" Saburo asked, chuffing air through his mustache.
"Ichijo Ayumi," the female samurai said with a bow, "of the Rising
"My personal retainer," Kimiko chirped helpfully.
Saburo regarded the samurai with initial disapproval. A quick flick
of his gaze revealed that the hilt of her katana had been
bound by wire and sealed in wax to the scabbard, as required by
law. Her clothing was no less rich than that of her mistress, if
much simpler. A persimmon red overrobe in a subtle leaf pattern
was held closed by a knotted gold cord; the thinnest line of a pumpkin
colored kosode worn next to her skin was revealed at throat
and wrists. Her hakama were gold brocade, so stiffly starched
they could have stood by themselves. Ayumi-san looked like one of
those prosperous, useless samurai who composed poems to their swords
and couldn't wield one properly to save their lives.
And yet... there was clearly muscle beneath the silk. Her eyes
burned with a true warrior's passion. That katana was not
an ornamental blade but clearly a practical weapon. Judging from
her attitude - how could one swagger while standing still?
- Ayumi-san knew how to use it. Saburo suddenly had the feeling
that this was one samurai he wouldn't want to offend... not unless
he was tired of the world and felt a craving to visit Buddha's country
until the Wheel turned 'round again.
"Gomen nasai," he said, keeping his hands well away from
the swords in his obi. The soft wire binding the woman's katana
was a symbolic gesture and not really meant to keep her from drawing
it. Of course, it was death to do so within the city walls but she
looked fanatic enough not to care. "Hai, Ayumi-san, you are
perfectly correct. A dog's footprint was found. It means nothing."
Ayumi cocked her head to one side. "Please forgive my ignorance,
honorable Saburo-san, but does the footprint not suggest that Moth
was attacked by some sort of dog?"
Saburo shook his head. "Alas, no. Many of the noble women have
pets who are permitted free reign of the palace grounds. Ill-tempered
beasts but hardly capable of killing anyone, including a child."
"I see." Ayumi glanced at Kimiko and pretended to be satisfied
with the commander's answer. Saburo was concealing the fact that
the footprint could not have belonged to a court dog; they were
bulging eyed, curly tailed Chin who lacked in height what they made
up for in sheer yapping stupidity. The samurai had found out about
the size of the print by servant's gossip. Fairly reliable at this
moment but given human nature...
By nightfall tomorrow, Ayumi thought, that single piece
of evidence will have been transformed into a fifty foot tall, fire
belching, lightning farting monster and there will be at least fifty
witnesses who will swear they saw it swallow Moth in one gulp and
then fly away to rattle the Rainbow Buddha's nightsoil bucket, shitting
snakes and pissing sake all the while. Baka!
"Some of the guests have told me that they heard Cricket crying
out about demon fires," Kimiko said, quickly changing the subject.
"Could a fox spirit have been involved?"
Saburo crushed the urge to roll his eyes impatiently. "The Abbot
of Kashikodokoro has already assured me that no supernatural or
magic influences have been at work. Perhaps a wild beast has escaped
from the Son of Heaven's menagerie. I have some of my men questioning
Kimiko bowed. "It is a pity that Cricket's soul has wandered away
from her body. I suppose it was the shock."
"Hai," the commander replied, catching the eye of a ga-domen
who was trying to be noticed without interrupting his superior's
conversation. "The Abbot took the child to the shrine; I suppose
he hopes to cure her with healing prayers and rituals. If he is
successful and revives Cricket from her sleep, I will certainly
ask some questions about the younger sister's death."
Saburo bowed to indicate the interview was over. "If you will excuse
me, please." A wave of his beefy arm brought the ga-domen
"Gomen nasai, honorable commander," the guard said breathlessly,
dropping to his knees and bowing low. His robes were askew, the
gauze cap on his head hanging down his back from its cord. He had
clearly been running. "There is news from the Hall of Moonflowers."
Kimiko did not have to strain her ears to listen; Saburo had not
moved away, just turned his back on the females he had dismissed.
That part of the palace houses the courtesans of the nobility,
she thought. I wonder what has happened?
"Yes?" Saburo rumbled, finger going up to rub his mustache, the
type of gesture a man might make when stroking a lucky charm.
The ga-domen bowed again and kept his face turned to the
ground. Delivering bad tidings to one's superior was the most dangerous
part of his occupation. "Something has happened in the Hall of Moonflowers,"
he said, his voice slightly muffled. "An honorable 'one night wife'
"So?" Saburo felt relieved. "She is merely kuragae, a change
of saddles. Probably packed her jewels and ran off with a smooth
tongued clerk who will pillow her like a crazed rabbit and dump
her in the nearest brothel. Why do foolish women always confuse
lust with love?" He sighed. "Pick five other men, go down to the
city guardhouse and see the captain - you do know Honorable Shrike,
don't you? - and coordinate a search with his men. Alert the gate
guards as well. You should be able to find the stupid whore before
her lord gets wind of the affair."
The guard kept his head down. "Please forgive me, honored commander.
The courtesan called Small Water Dragon has not run away." He gulped
and Kimiko had to strain to hear his next words. "It is believed
that she has been murdered."
Saburo stared, mouth dropping open, mustache suddenly limp.
Ayumi bent over and hissed in Kimiko's ear, "What is the name of
Kimiko blinked. "I... I think it is Small Water Dragon," she whispered.
The women looked at one another.
Things were looking very inauspicious for the house of Suwa Denbe.
- Dancing Teacups
Na mo kaesu
I give my name back
Hana jo jodo e
As I step in
This heaven of flowers.
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Court of Golden Koi
2 a.m., the Hour of the Ox
"Come, my lady," Izumi said soothingly. "Sit
down and I will comb your hair. "
Kimiko and Ayumi had returned home after
a brief visit to the Hall of Moonflowers. The courtesan Small Water
Dragon was indeed missing; a few small spots of blood and a torn
scrap of white silk were the only clues to her disappearance. Of
course, the woman could have run away, but her connection to Suwa
Denbe and his very recent misfortune made that possibility unlikely.
While Kimiko gratefully shed her cumbersome
kimonos and allowed Izumi to run a comb through her knee-length
locks, Ayumi squatted on the floor beside a charcoal brazier and
stirred up the fire with a pair of long brass needles. When the
coals were glowing hot crimson through a layer of crumbling ash,
the samurai reached into her sleeve and withdrew a bit of cloth.
Kimiko had been watching with slitted eyes;
now she opened them wide. "I thought Saburo-san took that!"
Ayumi shrugged. "He thought he did, too."
Her tone was slightly smug. The ragged piece of white silk had been
found near the verandah door in Small Water Dragon's tiny room.
Saburo might have thought he had thrust the clue into the breast
of his kimono, but the samurai's clever fingers and light touch
had liberated the scrap from beneath his very nose, so to speak.
Now she held the fabric up to the brazier
and squinted. "Hmph." There was a look of fierce concentration on
Ayumi's face. "This is unexpected."
"What is it?" Kimiko was rapt.
Ayumi looked up, distracted. "Hmm? It is
nothing, my lady. Nothing of consequence." She looked thoughtfully
at the white silk and then it seemed her fingers lost their grip.
The little white rag blew into the brazier, there was a tiny puff
of flame, and a few black cinders swirled out of the burning charcoal.
"Oh, no!" Kimiko wailed, hand reaching towards
the brazier. It was too late.
"Gomen nasai," the samurai said, bowing
her head. "The fault is mine. Please forgive my clumsiness."
Kimiko frowned. Ayumi couldn't have done
that on purpose... could she?
"Well, my lady, would you like a nice cup
of tea before retiring?" Izumi asked brightly, getting up with a
smothered grunt and straightening her plain blue robes. "I will
fetch one for you as well, samurai."
Ayumi raised an eyebrow in surprise but decided
not to comment.
Kimiko hid a huge yawn behind her hand, deciding
she was too tired to pursue the issue of her samurai's suspicious
clumsiness tonight. She did not see Ayumi take a clay vial out of
her sleeve and quickly down the contents.
Izumi returned shortly, carrying a tray.
"Here you are, my lady," she crooned, kneeling down with stiff kneed
grace. She poured two cups of tea and, when she thought no one was
looking, dropped a small white tablet into each vessel.
"Tea is very soothing for the nerves," Ayumi
said in a friendly manner, "and we have all had a long day. Please,
Izumi-san, have some yourself."
Kimiko nodded. "Yes, Izumi, I insist you
The moon-faced maid glanced at Ayumi, whom
she trusted no further than a pig could fly. The samurai's expression
showed no trace of suspicion. It really is for the best,
Izumi thought, pouring herself a cup of steaming green tea. My
lady will sleep through the first visit, just as I told Denbe-sama,
and the drug has no ill effects. The lord has promised to be gentle
but my lady is so fragile, so frightened... it is better that he
pluck her 'barrier blossom' when she can feel no pain. The next
time, after her yoni has stretched, his honorable eel will
find its nest easier and she will be able to enjoy the game of Clouds
She also had no qualms about drugging Ayumi.
That samurai will only cause difficulty. Now she will get a good
night's sleep and be none the worse for it tomorrow.
Three identical cups sat on the tray. Tendrils
of steam curled softly into the air. Izumi reached for one and was
forestalled by Ayumi. "Please allow me to serve," she said with
"It is my duty to serve the mistress," Izumi
"You have much on your mind," Ayumi replied
reasonably. "Wedding rites, the feast, my lady's robes, gifts...
it has been a busy time for you lately, Izumi-san. Let me do this
for you, please, as a token of gratitude for your excellent service."
Put that way, Izumi could not refuse. She
settled back with ill grace, seething as she watched Ayumi distribute
the cups - giving Kimiko the one that had not been drugged.
Thinking fast, the maid looked over her shoulder
and cried, "Oh! What a beautiful moth!"
Ayumi and Kimiko turned to look, and Izumi
quickly exchanged cups with Kimiko.
When both women transferred their gazes back
to the maid, she shrugged and smiled. "I must have been mistaken.
How foolish of me! I am not getting any younger and my eyesight
is not what it used to be. Please forgive this poor old woman."
"You might be going blind," Ayumi replied,
"but has your nose fled the waking world as well?" When Izumi gave
her a blank look, the samurai continued blandly, "I smell smoke,
oh honorable elder. Your sleeve is on fire."
Izumi snatched the smoldering sleeve of her
kimono from the brazier with a blistering oath.
The maid pulled the edges of her slightly charred sleeve through
her fingers and considered. While she'd been distracted, had she
perhaps heard a soft clatter - the sort of tell-tale whisper of
a sound, just on the edge of perception, that might, just might,
indicate two cups quietly exchanged by a samurai with more predictability
than cleverness? Was there perhaps a trace of self-satisfaction
in Ayumi's oh-so-bland expression?
Izumi decided that this was exactly the case. "Do I hear someone
creeping onto the verandah?" she asked calmly, once again switching
cups with Kimiko. She didn't need to think about whose cup to take;
of course Ayumi would want to protect her mistress by taking the
drugged tea herself.
Ayumi reached out and took the cup in front of her, holding it
in both hands. "I am afraid, honorable elder, that your hearing
has fled this vile world as well. It was only the wind."
"Ah." Izumi bowed her head. "Please forgive this miserable worm."
The samurai smiled. "Let us drink our tea and retire. I have heard
that chill winds love nothing better than to gnaw on old bones and
I would not see you become a feast for the elements."
The maid flushed slightly. Ayumi seemed too confident, too amused.
Something was wrong.
"Oh! Let me take that!" Izumi exclaimed, deftly plucking the cup
from Ayumi's fingers. "There is a crack in the rim. You could have
Kimiko burst out, "For Buddha's sake! Here!" She grabbed the offending
vessel from Izumi, shoved her own cup at Ayumi, and drained the
tea she was holding in one gulp. "I am tired and I wish to prepare
for bed without listening to the two of you bicker like the nightsoil
collector and his wife. Damare!"
Izumi gathered the shreds of her dignity around her and said, "Of
course, my lady." She drank her tea, got up from her knees, and
went to a beautifully lacquered chest to bring out the bedding.
Kimiko glared at Ayumi, who quirked her lips into a half-smile
and hastily slurped the cup of lukewarm tea in front of her. "It
is a fine night," the samurai said. "I think I will sleep on the
Izumi whirled about, a look of dismay on her full-moon face which
changed in a heartbeat to one of smug triumph.
Ayumi pretended not to notice.
Kimiko yawned again, this time her mouth stretching open so wide
that tiny tears sprang from the corners of her eyes. "Sleep where
you please," she said grumpily. "Just don't wake me up with the
roosters. Izumi! Is my futon ready yet?"
"In a moment, my lady," the maid replied, rolling out the thick
mattress and flipping a quilt in the shape of a kimono over the
top. Kimiko's wooden pillow, a block with a half-moon cut out of
the top to accommodate her neck, was placed on the floor at the
Kimiko could barely keep her eyes open. Izumi hardly had time to
peel off her saffron yellow kosode before the girl literally
fell into bed, asleep before her body hit the futon.
The maid carefully covered her up and shoved a charcoal brazier
closer to Kimiko's feet. "Sleep well, little mistress," she said
Ayumi stroked her upper lip. Her eyelids fluttered and the muscles
of her jaw contracted, as if she was stifling a prodigious yawn.
"I, too, will retire," the samurai said with a strangely nasal undertone
to her voice.
Izumi nodded. The drug was working, just as she'd planned.
Ayumi stumbled out of the room and onto the verandah, closing the
shoji-door behind her.
Izumi yawned. It had been a long day but the night would be even
longer. She would wait for Denbe-sama's visit and make sure all
She settled herself on her knees, hands together in her lap.
The flames in the brazier flickered, drawing her gaze.
Silence except for the pattering of raindrops on the roof.
A heaviness settled in her breast, drawing her downward.
Slowly, slowly, became darkness and...
Suwa Denbe glided through the garden,
adjusting his tall gauze cap of state. He wore his most colorful
set of robes, including a new silver tissue overrobe, and all of
his kimonos reeked of the clove incense he preferred. His plump
face, adorned with a ridiculous tuft of hair on his chin, was slathered
in greasy white lead cosmetics, with dots of scarlet rouge on lips
and cheeks, and his eyebrows had been shaved off. Denbe's hair was
newly dressed with camellia oil and blue make-up filled in the bald
area of his tonsure from forehead to crown.
He was the very picture of a pampered court dandy and the way he
strutted up to the verandah outside the Court of Golden Koi showed
that he knew it, too.
He stopped on the steps, smoothing his robes and checking to see
if the bottoms of his high platformed geta were clean of
Suddenly, he paused, drawing in a quick breath. Cold steel pressed
against his throat, the razored edge dimpling his tender flesh.
"Dame duso," a voice said in the darkness directly behind
him. "A very bad idea, thief."
"I..." Denbe cleared his throat and the sword bit sharply, almost
but not quite drawing blood. "I... I am no thief... I am..."
"Silence!" the voice hissed. "Anyone who creeps on cat feet through
a lady's garden and prepares to enter her rooms without being announced
is definitely a thief. Do you know what I do to thieves?"
"Neither does anyone else. They just disappear - poof! - like a
fart in a windstorm."
Denbe thought about this a moment. Knees knocking together, he
gulped and said, "M-m-m-may I go now?"
The voice said thoughtfully, "Now, if I were - for the argument's
sake - a lord who was visiting a girl he hoped to marry..."
"Yes?" Denbe sounded hopeful.
"And I came to her house, thinking to share her pillow and wet
my jade pole in her maidenly juices..."
"Then I would go home right now, write a nice 'morning after' letter
and spend the rest of the evening contemplating my navel in the
hopes of eventual rebirth as something higher than a cockroach."
"And I would not, if I valued the attachment of my head to my shoulders,
want to be mistaken for a thief again. Do you understand me?"
"I think you do."
The sword withdrew. A shadow stepped to the side, within Denbe's
range of vision. He could not make out a face or form.
"Good night," the voice said. "Please remember that I guard my
lady's chambers night and day, and I am always very watchful of
thieves." There was a movement which may have been a bow. "I hesitate
to mention this, but if I were this questionable lord and I thought
of canceling the marriage over such a trivial matter as this, thus
causing shame to the lady and dishonor to her house..."
"Then I might find comfort in contemplating the little fishies
swimming past my toes because I will have foolishly thrown myself
into the Kamo River chained to a stone anchor. How long did you
say you could hold your breath?"
"I see." And he did. Despite his foppish appearance, Denbe was
not a fool. He clearly understood the threat and wondered if this
guard was in the pay of the Regent. Preventing him from despoiling
his niece - even under the auspices of ancient tradition - was something
Saneyoshi-sama would do if he felt it necessary. After all, Denbe
could cancel the marriage if he did not find Kimiko pleasing in
bed, and that would make the chit less desirable to other suitors.
According to custom, refusing to send a 'morning after' letter after
the first visit would sever his betrothal... and then he was sure
he would suffer the wrath of Kanpuko and Dowager alike.
If I do not marry this little bitch, those two will cut me to
pieces and feed me to the dogs, he thought. I dare not refuse,
even after such an insult. I will have to suffer this humiliation
silently... and when we are truly wed, Kimiko-san will feel the
weight of my displeasure, I swear.
"I have a letter to write," Denbe said, seething inside but outwardly
as cold as a kappa's backside . "I am sure this lord of whom
you speak would never dream of violating a young lady's hopes by
refusing marriage even under such unusual circumstances."
"I am so glad we understand one another. Sleep well and be careful
on your way back. The palace guards are not known for their discretion."
Denbe gave a shallow, jerky bow and stumbled off the steps, thoroughly
enraged by his inability to act. He comforted himself with the thought
that when the marriage was consummated, Kimiko would pay for her
I will keep her pregnant and exiled to the country, he raged
to himself on the long walk back to the Courtyard of the Green Willow.
I will dress her in rags, make her beg for every grain of rice
and brick of charcoal. I will make sure her house is poor, the paper
screen full of holes, the floors resounding with the scurrying of
rats and roaches.
In the end, she will beg me to allow her to shave her head and
become a nun!
I, Suwa Denbe, thus swear!
- Scorpion at the Tori Gate
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Court of Golden Koi
8 a.m., the first Hour of the Dragon
Izumi groaned, rolled over and opened her
eyes with a shudder. Buddha!
Ayumi was mending a sandal; when the plump
maid groaned again and made thrashing motions as if to rise, she
put the zori aside. "Do you require assistance, honorable
elder?" she asked with raised eyebrows.
Izumi snapped a foul oath and rubbed her
forehead. "Ai-eee! Oni demons are dancing in my skull, wearing
needle studded geta!" she complained, managing to heave her
stiff body into a sitting position.
"Then I had better mix some Four Mystic White
Tiger Water for Kimiko-sama," Ayumi said, referring to a popular
hangover remedy imported from mainland Kara. "Judging from your
condition, our lady will need it when she wakes."
"Did some lecherous priest pour sake
down our throats while we were asleep?" Izumi asked, digging the
heels of her palms into her temples.
"No," Ayumi replied calmly, putting an iron
kettle of water on the charcoal brazier to heat. "It was the sleeping
drug you got from Old Kyuri. Only a fool buys medicine from a pimp
and expects it to be first quality."
Izumi's eyes opened wide. "Oh! My lady! The
first visit!" she exclaimed, and made as if to rise. Ayumi grabbed
her sleeve and forced her to sit again.
"Kimiko-sama is fine," the samurai said with
an angry glint in her eyes.
"But the lord! It is past dawn... he must
return to his quarters..."
"He already has."
"I must have fallen asleep. I was not even
awake to greet him properly..." Suddenly, Izumi's eyes narrowed
as she recalled Ayumi's earlier words. "You!" she spat. "How did
you know about the drug? And what have you done?!"
Ayumi's face was set like stone and despite
her anger, Izumi flinched slightly at the terrible look in the samurai's
black eyes. "Of course I knew about the drug, old woman. I am in
charge of our mistress' security; nothing escapes me!"
Izumi stared in increasing disbelief while
Ayumi went on, "I pay the Old Cucumber a few mon a week for
the names of those who buy his drugs... just in case someone tries
to add a surprise to Kimiko-sama's morning rice."
"You switched cups..."
"No, I didn't, but you obviously thought
so." Ayumi shrugged. "The first time I distracted you, I added a
sleeping potion to your cup."
Izumi's mouth opened and closed a few times.
The samurai continued, "That business of
switching teacups was nonsense; they were all drugged. You were
very clever, though, with all your distractions. I was very impressed."
"You drank it, too!"
"Of course! But I took the precaution of
swallowing oil beforehand to coat my stomach, then I stuck a finger
down my throat when I went outside." Ayumi shuddered. "I beg you,
woman, do not make me have to do that again. Tea is pleasant going
down but tastes terrible coming up!"
Izumi shook her head. "What happened with
"We had a very pleasant chat. He decided
that custom could be waived; there will be no more 'visits' until
after the wedding. I found my sword to be an excellent argument
against a cruel tradition."
"Hateful, shameful woman!" Izumi hissed.
"You only did this to keep my lady's innocence for yourself! You
act like a bitch in heat with no thought for duty or honor. If my
mistress suffers for your selfishness, I will..."
Ayumi interrupted, "Make no promises you
cannot keep." Finished with the sandal, she carefully wound the
rest of the thread around the needle and placed it in her sleeve.
"I did what I thought was best for Kimiko-sama, which is more than
I can say for you."
"What?! How dare you!" Izumi screeched. "My
lady is making an excellent match with a well respected lord. This
marriage will bring honor to her clan and happiness to her life.
How dare you suggest I behaved improperly! Everything I have done
is to Kimiko-sama's benefit."
"Are you certain of that?" Ayumi held the
sandal loosely in her hand. "Do you know anything at all about Denbe-san
or were you blinded by the brilliance of his title and birth?"
"I did not..."
"He has heavy gambling debts. He is also
a frequent visitor to the pleasure quarter, where he is notorious
for despoiling virgins of both sexes. Denbe-san despises his poor
principal wife; it was an arranged marriage and you must admit the
lady is not a great beauty. I spoke to the midwife who was in attendance
during Ryoko-san's miscarriages; she told me that he beat his wife
until she lost the babies. Then he was cruel enough to give his
wife the care of three children by his second wives and a cheap
courtesan. Is this truly the type of man who is right for Kimiko-sama?"
Izumi lowered her eyes. She had not bothered
investigating the lord's background; indeed, she'd not been interested
at all. The fact that Kimiko's uncle desired the match had been
enough. And, if truth were to be acknowledged, the maid feared her
mistress' growing attachment to Ayumi. Such relationships were dishonorable
and invariably led to tragedy.
"I have tried to protect our mistress in
the best way I could," Izumi said quietly. "It does not matter if
Denbe-sama is right or wrong, cruel or pleasant. She must be married;
her uncle desires it, the Dowager desires it, and it is a woman's
lot to suffer a husband. I only thought to spare Kimiko-sama any
pain in the beginning; she will learn the reality of the bedchamber
"Agreed." Ayumi shifted on her knees. "I
do not like the way you went about it, though."
Suddenly, the samurai tossed the mended sandal
to Izumi, who caught it in one hand.
The water in the kettle began to boil. Steam
poured from the spout, a tumbling cloud of hot white mist.
Ayumi's hand drifted to her sword. There
was a startling chink as the wire tie binding hilt to scabbard
was sent flying, the samurai deliberately re-breaking the hasty
repair she'd made earlier. The wax seal fell to the floor.
In a movement so lightning swift that the
eye could not follow, Ayumi rose up on one knee, drew the sword
and struck, exhaling with a hard chuff of breath, and in the next
split second returned her katana to its scabbard. Her hands
were folded together in her lap and a bead of sweat trickled down
the side of her bent nose.
The sandal in Izumi's hand fell apart, split
in two perfect halves. Her flesh was untouched.
The maid shook.
This was a demonstration of iaido,
the skill of quickly drawing and cutting from a seated position.
It was one of the most difficult arts to master. Had Ayumi desired,
she could have sliced Izumi in half as easily as the sandal, and
the maid would not have had time to blink in protest.
"There are two types of people in the world,"
the samurai said quietly, plucking the wax seal from the mat and
tucking it into the bosom of her kimono. "There are human beings
and there are kuso - shit. I try not to kill human
beings; it is bad for my karma. However, I have no problem ridding
the world of shit."
Izumi could not reply. She stared at the
remains of the sandal and gulped.
Ayumi rose gracefully. "You would do well
to keep yourself in the first category, old woman." Her tone was
friendly. "I do not appreciate people going behind my back. I do
not appreciate people trying to be clever at my expense. And I especially
do not appreciate those who attempt to harm my lady, even though
they do it out of misguided goodness."
The samurai pulled a haori coat from
the bamboo rack and slipped it on. "I must go out for a while. Give
our lady the headache remedy when she awakens."
Izumi roused herself from her trance. "Where
are you going?" she asked, unconsciously rubbing severed bits of
rice straw between her fingers.
Ayumi shot her a sharp glance and the maid
lowered her eyes. "I must see to the state of my soul," she answered
cryptically. She opened the shoji-door and started to leave,
but stopped and looked over her shoulder. "The kettle is boiling
dry," she observed, and then was gone.
Izumi touched the handle of the kettle and
snatched back burnt fingers.
Her hands shook as she used a rag to remove
the scalding iron vessel from the brazier.
Behind her, Kimiko stirred. "Oh!" she moaned.
"My head has been trampled by kago bearers! What in Buddha's
name happened last night? Izumi! Cha, please!"
The maid began preparing a cup of the Karan
And after a moment's thought, stirred up
a second for herself.
It was going to be a long, long day.
Ayumi walked through the palace
corridors in a flat-footed, bow-legged stomping trot, keeping a
hand on the hilt of her katana to conceal the fact that the
wire seal had been broken - an offense punishable by death, should
it be noticed.
The hour was too early for the usual crowd of nobles and courtiers;
instead, servants and acolyte priests haunted the hallways, scurrying
to and fro on errands for their masters. Fortune tellers squatted
along the walls, rattling their begging bowls and crying out to
attract business. A wandering priest of the fertility goddess Amanouzume
had set up a portable shrine and was doling out pregnancy prevention
charms to nervous maids. A sorcerer, clad in impressive black robes
and a high peaked, lacquered silk cap, stood nearby, sleeves filled
with tiny vials of exotic medicines.
Ayumi headed in a southerly direction, towards the main imperial
gardens. Besides the usual plants and flowers, this thirty acre
site boasted an ornamental lake large enough to hold boat races,
a field for archery contests, beautifully sculptured rock gardens,
and a tiny river that snaked around the outskirts, complete with
miniature waterfalls and stocked with ribbon-finned koi.
The imperial garden also contained the only Shinto shrine within
the palace walls.
There was a small forest on the easternmost edge; pines, oaks and
maples had been allowed to grow unchecked for centuries, creating
a dense mass of trees that was home to tame deer, foxes and hares.
It was used mainly by nobles who wanted to experience the thrill
of hunting without the inconvenience of actually chasing wild game.
Ayumi slipped unnoticed into the woods and without hesitation turned
her course away from the established trails and struck out to the
north. Soggy dead leaves squelched underfoot; autumn might have
meant a colorful display from the trees but it also brought heavy
rainfall and the ground was saturated with water.
After walking much further than she'd expected, she arrived at
the tori gate that indicated the presence of the shrine.
It resembled a doorway, with two straight posts supporting a third
that lay horizontally across the top. Swags made from the grain
heads of unripened rice were draped around and over the gate, offerings
to the kami spirits that dwelled here.
The shrine itself was only a few steps away from the gate. It was
a simple, almost crude affair, built of cedar planks and apparently
held together by moss and optimism. As Ayumi approached, a woman
came out of the building.
She was dressed entirely in white - kimono, hakama and obi.
To Buddhists, this was the color of death, a deeply inauspicious
hue that was never worn by the living. In Shinto, white was sacred;
albino animals were held in deep regard, as evidenced by a pair
of pale, pink-eyed snakes that were coiled around a clay bowl of
milk in the courtyard.
The priestess' head was shaven except for a small forelock and
a long, braided tail at the base of her neck. Her skin had absolutely
no color at all; the tracery of blue veins in her hands, arms and
face could be clearly seen. Like the snakes, her eyes were an eerie
pink, lashes and brows so colorless they were nonexistent.
She bowed deeply. "I am called Snow Fairy," the priestess said.
Her voice was deep and melodious. "How may I serve the honored one?"
Ayumi gave her a brisk bow. "Please excuse me for interrupting
your worship. I have come on behalf of Lady Ryoko. I assume you
have heard the news?"
There was no expression on Snow's face. "I live here, far away
from the palace," she replied coolly. "I fear my calling is not
fashionable enough to permit me the luxury of gossip."
Ayumi cocked an eyebrow. This was no real answer but she hadn't
expected anything else. "May we go inside to discuss the matter?
I am very weary from my long walk."
"Alas! Please forgive me, honorable samurai. My house is in great
disorder and I would not subject you to such rude accommodations."
She bowed as if to conceal her shame, straightened up, and waited
The two women stared at one another in silence.
Ayumi suddenly knelt, grabbed the hem of Snow's robe and pulled
it forward. The kimono was rough cotton, a subtle white-on-white
snowflake pattern woven into the fabric... and it was completely
intact. The samurai released the robe and stood. She'd been so sure
that the scrap found in the Hall of Moonflowers had belonged to
this woman and to be wrong about such an important thing was very
The type of cotton worn by the attacker is exactly like this,
Ayumi thought angrily. Snowflake pattern and all. This priestess
is too poor to own more than one robe, so I must be mistaken.
Baka! How many Shinto shrines in the city must I search now?
"Gomen nasai," she mumbled, frustration bringing a flush
to her face. "I thought I saw a scorpion."
Snow raised her brows in polite disbelief. There were no scorpions
in the Floating World. "Have you discovered that which you were
"Iye. It seems I must seek elsewhere for answers. Please
forgive me for disturbing you."
Ayumi turned to go. Snow's lips twisted and she flung out a hand.
The samurai looked over her shoulder.
"I must tell you that your mistress is in grave danger," the priestess
said swiftly, glancing around as if afraid of being overheard. "I
will not... I cannot say more."
"Thank you for the warning," Ayumi replied gravely. She hesitated
and finally asked, "Do you know of any Buddhist sects that wear
"Ah. Well, that lessens my task by half at least." The samurai
strolled away, thumbs tucked into her obi.
Snow watched Ayumi leave, a small smile curving her lips.
"I like that one," she whispered to the snakes. "She will go far,
I think, although I wonder if she is willing to go far enough."
The snakes hissed a warning.
Within the darkness of the temple... something moved.
- Magpie Rice
If I see that bridge
Wataseru hashi mi
That is spanned by flights of magpies
Across the arc of heaven
Shiroki o mierba
Made white with a deep laid frost
Yo zo fuke ni keru
Then the night is almost past.
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
10 a.m., the first Hour of the Snake
Lady Ryoko's condition had worsened. Trapped in the unrelenting
grasp of a deep fever, she sweated and raved while priests droned
sutras, costly incense smoldered, and the doctor tried everything
from acupuncture to burning cones of powdered spice on the lady's
skin in an effort to drive the illness from her veins.
Kimiko patted her forehead with a square of linen. The foul tasting
remedy Izumi had given her for the headache seemed to be working
but her stomach felt a bit delicate. The morning rice gruel hadn't
settled well and it felt as if her breakfast was lodged in one big
lump just behind her breastbone. The girl burped delicately into
her sleeve and settled down to watch as the exasperated doctor called
upon the Myriads of Myriads to witness that Ryoko's continued illness
was not his fault - he now believed the woman was suffering a spiritual
attack by demons.
This was the signal for the priests to take over. Representatives
of various sects filed into the small, smoky room, each vying to
out-chant the others. Kimiko, the servants and several of the Dowager's
maids-in-waiting were squeezed into a corner, their view blocked
by saffron robes and sandaled feet.
Kimiko rolled her eyes as the Bishop of Onkei's fat, pimpled and
tone deaf acolyte bawled magical spells in a screeching falsetto
that reminded her of a cat with its tail caught in a meat grinder.
She had been ordered to attend Ryoko by the Dowager's command,
a duty she could not avoid. Left to her own devices, unable to escape
and wishing she were anywhere but here, Kimiko folded her hand together
in her lap and cast her mind back to the previous night.
Ayumi's transparently deliberate destruction of the scrap found
in the Hall of Moonflowers both troubled and surprised her. The
obvious explanation had to do with her own security but Kimiko had
no idea how she could be connected to Small Water Dragon's disappearance.
Like the difference between ripples and deep water, the
girl thought. If you cannot find the truth on the surface, look
That bit of white cloth must have been an important clue, pointing
directly to someone or something. Ayumi was protecting... who? Or
Only the Shinto sect wears white as a matter of course,
Kimiko thought. Either that or someone in mourning. Or... could
a walking corpse be involved? Was the scrap from a shroud? But why
would Ayumi-san wish to save a foul kyuketsuki from destruction?
This makes no sense!
Clouds of perfumed incense smoke threatened to choke everyone in
the room. Kimiko snapped open her fan to a chorus of stifled coughs
from the other attendants and waved the offending fumes away.
The girl spent a few minutes running through a mental list of all
the palace inhabitants whom she knew were mourning the death of
a parent, spouse or child. This list included Lady Naisho and Kimiko
permitted herself a small smile, forgetting the vexing problem of
Ayumi's motives for the moment.
Naisho-san is the worst gossip at court, she thought. Ma!
She lives, breathes and eats rumor and innuendo. Her spy network
rivals my uncle's and even the Dowager's! She has eyes everywhere
and I know half her income disappears into the grasping paws of
indiscreet servants. It is a very good thing that Naisho-san is
fond of me... otherwise I'd have never found out about the sleeping
Remembering the antics of her maid and retainer the previous night
made Kimiko tighten her lips against a chuckle. I wonder how
long they would have played dancing teacups if I had not grown tired
of the game?
Fearing a poisoning attempt, Lady Naisho had been eager to inform
Kimiko of the maid's purchase as well as Ayumi's bribery of Old
Kyuri. Kimiko had been touched by her samurai's concern and impressed
by Ayumi's thorough attention to duty. She had also felt a flush
of love at this evidence of Izumi's devotion and care, slightly
tempered with annoyance.
I thought Izumi would try to ease me into pillowing with Denbe-san.
Giving me a potion was a nice touch and very considerate of her;
she was worried that I might be harmed. But there had better not
be a next time! Of course, I hoped that Ayumi would intervene...
which I suppose she did since I am not walking like a duck this
morning, although I did have to drink the drugged tea. Yada!
I wonder exactly what happened last night; Denbe-san's poem was
not very illuminating but it seems that the marriage will still
In his 'morning after' letter, the lord had written in beautiful
"Like the dew of life
To a parched flower
Were your fine promises;
But now autumn passes by
With stilled regret."
Kimiko understood that he regretted not pillowing with her but
beyond that, his words were just that - words. It was not a rejection
but nor did his poem contain any allusions to love, passion or desire,
the usual courtier's themes.
I will have to make Ayumi-san tell me what she did, the
girl thought. It is very annoying that she left this morning
without waiting for me to rise. And what was that nonsense about
seeing to the state of her soul? She is about as devout a Buddhist
as... as...as a Shinto priest.
An explosion of illumination suddenly flooded her brain. Of
course! That is the answer!
Ayumi must have gone to the old Shinto shrine to question the
priestess there. She destroyed the cloth because if the priestess
- what is her name? Think, stupid girl! Ah... yes - Snow Fairy.
That's it. If Captain Saburo suspects the Shinto sect is involved,
if he believes Snow Fairy is the killer, that will cause great shame
to the Emperor. He is considered the father of Shinto and the kami
spirits' representative on earth; the common people believe that
the Son of Heaven is the only barrier between them and disaster,
which is why he must perform important Shinto rituals in addition
to Buddhist rites.
If Saburo-san suspected that a member of the Emperor's sect
was guilty of murder, not only would it cause our beloved Mikado
to lose face, but it might cost him his throne! He has a brother
by an imperial concubine.... ha! Old Lady Spider lost no time in
getting rid of that one when the dying Emperor drew his final breath!
Prince Takashi is in retirement at Zenpoji Temple and may have no
allies at court, but he could be easily recalled in such a situation.
Seen in this light, Ayumi's puzzling action made perfect sense.
Saburo is not a fool. He could use this information to damage
the Son of Heaven... and benefit my uncle as well. If Kaika-sama
is forcibly retired, his mother would have to seek employment as
a nun, and Takashi would be powerless in uncle's hands. I wonder
if the Captain is in Saneyoshi-sama's pay? This sounds like exactly
the kind of plot that Saneyoshi would engineer.
That brought up a new question. Was the cloth a real clue? Or had
it been planted at the scene?
Ayumi-san must have believed it was real. I must learn more
about Oshida Saburo. That will be my task for this afternoon.
A loud wailing snapped Kimiko from her mental exercise.
The priests melted away with the sound of faintly jingling bells,
and a new person entered the room, sweeping towards the ailing Ryoko
with such energy and confidence that it was if the gloomy
atmosphere had been invaded by a glittering sun.
With a clash of cymbals and an ululating scream, the court exorcist
Three Sun Moon, the exorcist, regarded
his patient and absently shook a gourd rattle attached to his sash.
"Have the necessary preparations been made?" he asked gravely.
The doctor nodded. "Hai! Her bed has been covered in rice
to the depth of one knuckle..."
"You have used the special sticky rice from Kara?" Moon interrupted.
"Any other type could prove fatal."
"Of course! And the priests are ready to throw more rice as well
as demon quelling beans when required..."
"Red beans? Not the black!"
"Of course!" The doctor began shoving vials and pots into his medicine
chest. "Do you take us for fools, learned sir? Black beans would
increase the poisoning effect. Any village idiot knows that!"
"The eight-sided mirrors..."
"Have been fastened to a nine-fold screen, the mirrors adjusted
to reflect the honorable patient's body. We also have two cocks,
brass bells, paper sickness dolls and your temple's No. 1 Oni-Repelling
incense ready should they be required. I regret we did not have
time to send for a yamabushi; those mountain priests are
fierce demon fighters."
Sun Moon drew himself up proudly. "Do I look as if I need the assistance
of a filthy mountain dwelling priest?"
The doctor gazed impassively at his spiritual colleague. Like all
exorcists, Sun Moon preferred to announce his profession as loudly
and flamboyantly as possible, pushing the boundaries of taste to
the limit. Layers of black, dull crimson and purple brocade silk
covered his lean frame, every inch woven with figures of dragons,
phoenixes, bats and other auspicious symbols. The wide, exaggerated
sleeves of his overrobe had seven cuffs, all in gold or silver,
and long tassels depended from the points, swinging near his knees.
Sun Moon's gauze cap, shaped like a box with a high front and short
sides, was firmly tied to his head with a cord that passed under
his lower lip. Mirrors, packets of powder, mysterious pouches, gourds,
cymbals and a rooster feather fan were fastened to his obi.
"Gomen nasai," the doctor said ironically, closing his medicine
chest with a loud snap. "I can see that you are a very successful
man. How stupid of me to suggest you might require assistance to
defeat demons which are so powerful that they dare attack a member
of the Dowager Empress' family! It is obvious that you will terrify
them by your appearance alone."
To himself, the doctor added under his breath, "Arrogant peacock."
Sun Moon smiled benevolently. "It is true that I have a terrifying
reputation in Hell." He glanced around. "Where is my medium?"
A fat girl with downcast eyes, dressed no less magnificently than
her master, glided soundlessly into the room. Her hair was caught
up at the sides with a curved lacquer comb and the remainder allowed
to fall to the floor behind her in a cascade of straight black locks.
At a gesture from the exorcist, she knelt on a small cushion next
to the bed and, pulling a length of white silk from her sleeve,
tied her feet and legs together with a strong knot. When the devils
were cast out of Ryoko and took possession of her, the medium might
thrash about and the silk bindings prevented her from exposure to
the witnesses' eyes.
"I am ready to begin," Sun Moon intoned, dipping into a pouch and
scattering handfuls of rice about the room. The doctor, receiving
a full load of rice directly in his face, made haste to haul the
medicine box upon his back and make a dignified exit, spitting grains
Kimiko was fascinated. At other ceremonies, she'd had to be content
with a back row seat and limited visibility. This was the first
exorcism she'd attended with an excellent view of the proceedings
and she was determined not to miss a single thrilling detail.
When Sun Moon began chanting incomprehensible spells in a deep
throated growl and brushing Ryoko's body with his rooster feather
fan, Ayumi pushed her way through the crowded mass of onlookers
at the door and glanced around, obviously seeking her mistress.
Kimiko hissed quietly and waved her fan. The ladies kneeling next
to her gave the girl a glance of disapproval but she ignored them.
Ayumi managed to slip into the room without treading on anyone's
toes or knees, and wriggled her way into the tight space next to
Kimiko. "What is happening?" she asked quietly.
"Lady Ryoko is possessed by demons," Kimiko whispered back, suddenly
conscious of the sweaty, musky smell emanating from the samurai's
skin. Delicious! "That is Three Sun Moon, an honorable exorcist;
he is attempting to drive the devils into his medium so he can communicate
"Why? Is this Sun Moon character going to exchange eel recipes
Kimiko playfully smacked Ayumi's nose with her fan. "Mou!
Enough! Have you never seen an exorcism before?"
More rice rained down upon them and Kimiko brushed it off her clothes
impatiently. "The exorcist will drive the devils into his medium.
Then he will force them to identify themselves; this is so he can
recite the appropriate spell to send them back to Hell."
"Ah. That is interesting."
Kimiko gave her a strange look. "Is it anymore interesting than
what went on last evening?"
Ayumi opened her mouth to reply...
And at that precise moment, all hell broke loose.