It would have been surprising to an outsider, how easy it was to secure an audience with the emperor. The lord of Nihon had an official hall for greeting foreign dignitaries, for making a show of the show of state, but it was not often in use. There were few duties required of him, few matters significant enough to warrant his exhaustive and exalted attention, so he spent his days as he pleased. One imagines that is the point of being emperor.
Shinji ignored the elite guards stationed at the entrances and in the alcoves. They were dressed in the red lacquered armor the peasants called lobster shells. Wooden strips were alchemically hardened to mimic the endurance of steel, strapped together into plates that indeed gave the appearance of some monstrous insect delicacy of the sea. Tallo was not native to Nihon, and its working was a most precious art. The swords that Shinji and the other princes wore were worth fortunes beyond counting. The palace guards were given spears with the barest tips of steel, and their officers held naginata, which required no more Tallo than a large dagger would. The weapons of conscripts were made of the same treated wood as their armor. It was a disadvantage against the mainlanders, but there had not been war with them in many ages, and in any case, the emperor would not tolerate any incursion of his islands long enough for there to be a war.
The palace was immense, even by the admittedly egregious standards set by the rest of the City of Immortals. An unacquainted spark would soon be lost in its chambers and its halls. It was not as large a structure as the palace in Petronica, but it could house thousands of servants and guards and young nobles without losing its sense of space and grandeur. The gardens were as large again, and though not as high, they dug deeper into the bedrock of the realm.
Shinji knew well the halls of his father's house and the gardens better than he would have liked. No one stopped him or required the release of his swords, and they would not have done so even if he were not a prince. What prevented commoners from foisting themselves and their travails upon the emperor was not his guards or his edicts; it was the fearful majesty of his person. It was the strength of tradition and respect for the rightful order of the realm. Servants who crossed paths with the emperor dropped to the floor in obeisance not because they would be put to death for the impertinence of meeting his lidless gaze, though they might be, but because that is what they were meant to do. Emissaries from the mainland were often surprised that they were not required to relinquish their weapons, or to suffer an escort of lobster armored soldiers. They wondered how an emperor could survive who did not protect himself. But an innate understanding of correct action was bred into the people of Nihon. It was not only for the simple fact of his owning the loyalty of all the best assassins that the emperor was not assassinated.
Shinji arrived in the sublevel gardens. Here the plants were fed sunwarmth by mirrors and sky window shafts that created a hall of shadows walled with light. The prince roved the darkened ways in search of his father. He had no particular assurance that the emperor was here and not in some other far flung corner of his creation, but he had a sense that he was. Most of the blossoms were closed or dead for the season. Alchemy and mancy kept them in perpetual blood in other chambers, but this one had been allowed a slightly less uncanny ambience. Little stars, and tiger darlings, and graceless purples were all evident, and their mingled fragrances hung heavy in the gloom. Nearby there was a sand plot raked in smooth furrows. Stones had been tossed in, seemingly at random, meant to simulate the ripples of a real pond.
"Shinji, what brings you to my gardens?"
The emperor stepped out of the light, despite not having been inside of it a moment before. He wore a pomegranate robe with a golden obi and stood barefoot upon the cobbled path. His true face was hidden behind an ivory mask in the visage of an old man. It changed expressions as he willed, and its detail was such that it almost appeared to be of flesh, though it was lifeless when he spoke. To take the throne of islands was to don the mask and never to remove it.
Shinji bowed automatically, perhaps less deeply than his brothers would have bowed. Being in his father's sight always unbalanced him, and any potential for an elegant exchange vanished with the greeting.
"Why are you doing this to us?"
The emperor folded his hands together at his waist, not at all off put by the abrupt question. "To see which of you is strongest," he said.
Shinji dug his nails into his palms, his voice strained. "We will die fighting, no one will submit."
"That is your choice," the emperor said.
"It isn't," Shinji snapped. "It’s what you want of us."
The emperor paused to watch the sandlot, which had begun to flow. There were two drains, one which let in a fall of pale granules, the other that drank them, and with a quiet sussuration the sand moved, liquidly replacing itself.
"There was once a fisherman ," the emperor said, " who lived on a bluff overlooking the sea. He was starving, and every day he went out onto the waves looking for the schools of fish that would feed him and repair his tipsy home. One day he caught the strains of an unearthly music, and found a mermaid wounded upon the rocks. Desiring to help her, he carried her back to his small vessel and dug her a pool of seawater inside his shack. The mermaid grew sick, and so did the man, and one day she died. But in her last breaths she whispered to him the secrets of her flesh. So the fisherman ate her.
The fisherman's fortunes changed, and every day that he went out onto the sea he found the schools of fish that had eluded him for so many months. Soon he had hired another boat, and in a few years he had a fleet. That tipsy shack upon the bluff became a mansion, and he wore the finest clothes, ate the finest foods, and married a pretty young woman. He was respected in the town below the bluff, and that regard was as valuable to him as the croaking of the seagulls. His silks chafed, and his mansion was empty of joy. Food was tasteless, and his pretty wife knew not the songs that he had known when he was young. Every day, the fisherman went out onto the waves in search of that mystic strain that had called him once so long ago. It would not be again. One day, he did not return, and his wife was made to hide her gladness."
"I don't understand." Shinji said.
The emperor shrugged, "Then you were not meant to."
Distantly, there was music in the garden. At the edge of hearing, there was a pool of doleful chords, so that you could wonder if the mermaid had lived after all. The emperor's menagerie could scarce be called complete if there was not one such.
"You aren't going to learn anything by this," Shinji said. "Your sons will die for nothing." There had been other sons before, and they had killed each other or been killed, but the emperor's hand had never been as visible in those deaths as it would be in these. It was the nature of the selection process that an emperor need be callous with his potential heirs, so that one blood could prove itself the most worthy, but never in history had it been demanded that they literally kill each other in a ritual arena. What did the swordsmanship of a single day prove for a lifetime of statesmanship?
"Do you think me a fool?" The mask was cold, the voice cool.
Even Shinji was not so far gone as to answer yes to that question. He went to his knees.
"No, my lord."
"Then that must not be my reasoning," the emperor said, "and you must know less than you believe. Now, I have other business to attend."
Shinji bit down on his tongue, tasting copper, and departed the emperor's immaculate presence without further comment.
* * *
On the mainland, the Fae had been driven from the open places and into the deep woods of Mori. In Nihon, they were part of society, slaves for the great houses, and prizes for the emperor's garden.
Cherry Blossom was over five hundred years old, and her secret name was Sappho. No one had called her that since her mother went to rejoin the life of the world some centuries ago. Her age made her valuable as a breeder. It was common wisdom that older mothers gave birth to more docile children. Cherry Blossom had never spent enough time with her own offspring to say if it was so. Fae women were the genuine immortals in a city of humans who claimed the title. Their brothers and sons were rarely allowed to live long, or allowed themselves to live long. It was a woman's prerogative to endure, and even so, Cherry Blossom was one of the oldest to remain. For a Fae to die, all she must do is decide to stop living, and not even the emperor had discovered magics fell enough to prevent it. Cherry Blossom had been sorely tempted to give up in her lifetimes as a pampered bed slave. She was given as a companion to a child of the Tora clan when she herself was an adolescent. The tiger family was not kind to its slaves, but the boy was tolerable until he reached his nonage and became increasingly cruel. He had been in love with her, the worst of outcomes for a man of his upbringing. She was not a real woman, after all, but a plaything, and to love her was a betrayal of his family. He punished her to show himself his feelings were a lie.
A successful lord, they called him the fire cub and he hated it. He won a position in the City of Immortals and traded her to secure the status of immortal for himself. It freed him of his love for her, and honorable bureaucrats are as fond of ageless and obedient lovers as any other class of person. She was traded on many more occasions down through the decades, whenever a wife grew too jealous or a new suitor offered too much for her for a master to refuse. Most masters tired of her within a few years. The weaker the man, the simpler it was for her to influence his desires. The Fae are creatures of desire, they feed on it, control it. Cherry Blossom had not the illusions to make herself ugly, but many a master had felt desire shrivel before her glance, and she generally found herself traded to another shortly after. In this way, travelling through the years, she had come to be in the possession of Lord Raven. He was a rarity among men in that he did not enjoy lovemaking with the unwilling, and rarer still in that he appreciated Cherry Blossom's talents far beyond her value as an object to incite lust.
She had intimate knowledge of the other great families that spanned the generations, secrets of all kinds from bedrooms across the City of Immortals. The Raven had made her useful, and he had come to enjoy her companionship for its own sake. For men in his position, a confidant is difficult to procure, and the ritual for a Fae transfer of ownership includes a clause that prevented her from abusing his trust. She knew she would never leave his service alive, which was comforting, after a fashion.
One gift of her new station was a mirror that would never cloud or warp. It reflected her in perfect detail. She was almost five feet tall, tawny and speckled like a leopard down half of her body. It was these marks that had given her her name, for an early master had likened them to the petals that fell in spring. On either side of her spine were rows of coin sized scars, reminders of the wings she had never used.
* * *
Cherry Blossom could feel Shinji approaching before he was halfway across the yard. He had always burned hotter than most, and to someone who registered the emotions of those around her as unconsciously as another would feel the temperature of a room, he was hard to miss. Since entering the Raven's house she had not been required to satisfy the needs of mortal men. This did not prevent suitors from trying, and it was amazing how often a person as solitary as she could receive invitations to private events, and how commonly serendipity brought her face to face with interested parties. They approached her in different ways, many appearing sincere. She read them all as quickly as wall scrolls. Their interest was shallow, and they offered nothing she desired. Shinji had become the exception, both because of his natural passion and the amusing fact that all the other men disappeared when he began courting her.
The prince was a jealous child. He had killed a Tora swordsman in a duel over the mistreatment of a servant when he was thirteen and someone else nearly every six months afterward. The nobles took him quite seriously as long as he was in earshot. At seventeen, he was still a child and still jealous, and Cherry Blossom was fond of him despite of herself. He could not bridge the hole in her heart, but he was pleasant to be with.
The prince was a skilled sneak, so she dutifully pretended not to notice him entering through the screen door that opened onto her balcony. She was unclothed and made motions to cover herself when he appeared, gasping with feigned surprise. He genuinely believed that someone like her could feel modesty and embarrassment over her nakedness. His naïveté was part of the attraction. Shinji never thought about what her life had been like before he was with her; the sleepy shortsightedness of the very young.
Something was wrong. She turned to the prince and read his pain and confusion without recourse to her supernatural sense. He went to her, and there was an intoxicating desperation in his embrace beyond his usual heat. It was a storm where there had before always been fire.
Afterward, she opened the screen onto the balcony to let in the night air. Cherry Blossom had been bestowed rooms in the Raven's own palace, each story rising in shrinking tiers. She occupied the corner of the fourth tier above the lowers levels, which had no differentiation from the outside. The tiers were not difficult to navigate for someone of Shinji's talents. He could use the overhanging eaves to rise from one to the next. But the lower levels were a steep stone incline without handholds, and it was thought only a blood hunter could scale them without aid.
"I am going to be killed." Shinji spoke as a man resigned, lying on his back on her sleeping mat. "There is nothing else they can do to me."
Cherry Blossom could hardly repress her smile at that, naïveté was precisely the word. She returned from the balcony to the bed. "They could strip you of your title," she said, “or imprison you. They could cut off your hands so you would never fight again, or your feet so that you would never walk."
"They won't," Shinji said. "It needs to be this way."
Cherry Blossom stroked his hair. Black hair and black eyes, as a proper nihonjin, and skin almost as pale as mainlanders. He probably was half Fae, many royal children were, but she had the sense that there was more to it than that, an added flavor to his blood she could not identify. The Fae were sweet, and this was bitter.
"I did not know that you believed in destiny," she said.
The prince frowned, then pulled her down and held her to his chest. He was not much larger than her, the smallest of his brothers by far, but his body was taut and strong, and he could have crushed her if he wished. The immortality of the Fae is a delicate sort.
"I met a girl," he said distantly.
"That is not unlikely." Was this jealousy? Not so much as its shadow.
"She was a servant, and she was interesting." He concentrated, trying to find the words for what he had felt. "There was something special about her."
"Ah," Cherry Blossom said, "you are in love."
"No." His reply was immediate. "She was like you, though not beautiful like you, but she was bright like you are."
"What?" It was not often that the prince said something she could not decipher.
"Your brightness," Shinji explained, "like the way that a sword gleams, except there isn't any other light."
The prince could see auras? Fae heritage seemed more likely all the time. They were so obvious to him that he assumed everyone could see them.
"What was her name?"
Shinji had learned her name from another servant only that morning, so it was already at his lips. "Umiko," he said.
"So it is love," she teased him, not yet certain what to do with this new information. His response was quite out of proportion to her jibe. He flung her across the room, and she landed hard on the varnished planks. There was no opportunity to be outraged, however, as in the next moment she heard the telltale hiss of steel sliding across steel.
Shinji stood naked except for his two blades, and the ribbon of blood down his right arm, a wound he had sustained throwing her to safety. Across from him was a warrior dressed all in black, and wielding identical swords. It was the mask that caught her breath, a blank mirror that prevented her from using her talent to sense the man. It had been enchanted with the emperor's own mancy, as the masks of all blood hunters were, personal assassins for the island throne.
They fought with similar styles, flowing and testing, never revealing too much of their strength. That this assassin wore black meant he was the lowest of their order, and yet by reputation he would still outmatch the prince by a safe margin. They had talents of their own, and though they at first glance appeared evenly matched, things swiftly changed.
Shadows lengthened and writhed, blinding and binding the prince. The room became a jungle umbra, and the form of the blood hunter became a series of mirror images impossible to follow. Shinji received another shallow cut to his bare chest, blood welling freely in a splash of red.
All of this happened in the space of a breath as Cherry Blossom rose from the floor. She watched as if from a distance, this savage play commissioned by one of her crueler masters. Slaves were sometimes made to kill each other for the amusement of the Tora warriors. It was a punishment for disobedience. The slave was made to redeem himself in a final act of repentant subservience. They were never so skilled as these two, nor so frightening. With all his disadvantages, Shinji still matched the speed and intensity of his opponent. It would not be long, however, before his inability to land a strike made this battle unwinnable.
Cherry Blossom acted without thinking, speaking words to the shadows in a language she did not know, commanding them to recede. The room cleared, but she could do nothing more to interfere with the illusion that protected the bloodhunter. His mask rendered her talent useless against him. There was no point in calling for a guard. There were none stationed in her hall, and the match proceeded at such a pace that it would be finished well before help could arrive. Shinji would have to defeat the assassin as he was, or both of them would die. Cherry Blossom did not consider running. She could only watch.
The shadows gone, Shinji was better able to defend himself. The bloodhunter’s blurring shape was still always just out of the area his arcing blades. Cherry Blossom felt Shinji's attitude shifting, all of the heat draining into an icy void. This is the end, she thought, this is his despair.
It was not so. Shinji blurred into a dozen versions of himself, and shadows exploded around him. The bloodhunter's blades chopped swirling darkness, and Shinji's katana burst from the assassins back.
Shinji dropped his dead opponent and turned to her. His eyes closed, and he dropped beside the body of the assassin with the barest exhalation. Their blades are always poisoned.
Umiko was leaving a building where she had assisted in a tea ceremony when she was accosted by a messenger. He was even younger than her, not superior in status, but the tattoos on his forearms were fresh, and he was full of the pride of his position.
"Are you Umiko?" He demanded his hand gripping her arm over her own markings.
"I am." She extricated herself gracefully, showing none of her distaste for his manner.
"The Lord Raven has requested your presence in his compound." The boys bow was scarcely a nod.
"Excuse me," she said, "what do you mean?"
"That is the message," he said tersely, "who are you to question the messenger?"
Umiko laughed at him, a more cutting reply than any words could be to the boy's ego. She bowed to him, and went on her way. Though she had no idea what the Lord Raven could want with her, it was a summons that had to be obeyed instantly. Thankfully, she was at a point in her day when she did not have more than one order she would have to obey instantly.
She knew the locations of the entrances to all the family districts, though she had been within only a few. The man at the Raven gate was not familiar to her, but he recognized her tattoos and let her in without a word. He gestured down a branch of the road to a somewhat worn tower of three stories. It was clear he did not approve of it, or of whatever dwelled inside, and it made Umiko uncomfortable.
"The Lord Raven sent for me," she said.
"To go there," the gateman answered tersely.
A young girl opened the door of the tower when she knocked, and bowed deeply.
"The master is waiting for you upstairs," she said, and Umiko hastily removed her sandals before heading for the stair.
There was nothing on the walls, and little in the way of furniture, giving her no clues as to the identity of whoever awaited her. The Lord Raven certainly didn't live here.
The third floor was all a single room, and the master of the house sat up on his pallet with a scroll in his lap, not reading it, but listening for her footsteps. He was a pale, sinewy young man with a beautiful face.
"Hello, " Shinji said, "I'm glad they found you."
Umiko immediately dropped to her knees and tapped her forehead on the wooden floor. "How can I serve you, my lord."
"Please stand up," he said, "You can keep that sort of thing for the ceremonies, not when it is the two of us. I don’t want anyone I am to spend my days with fawning at me."
Umiko obeyed, rising slowly and keeping her gaze lowered. Though he had fewer resources to draw upon, in point of fact, a prince was higher than the head of a house. "My lord?"
"I've taken ill," Shinji said, "and I need someone to look after me. You have the proper marks, and I know you, so it is you, that is all. In any case, I'll be dead in a month, so you can serve me directly until then. Afterwards, you can go back to handling lunch and tea."
Umiko bowed, what was there to say?
* * *
Cherry Blossom watched the city from the balcony an assassin had recently used to enter her rooms. It was the month of Simber, the tiger's month, so the Tora family would be celebrating. Shinji would have died that night, had she not discovered the power to heal him. Cherry Blossom was from a line of powerful mothers, the famous and famously cursed Asylphian was three generations removed. It was said she could cause an army to kneel, or bewitch even one of the gods. Not so for Cherry Blossom, and without her wings, no Fae could hold more than a sample of her talent. A year ago, she could not have healed the prince. Something had happened on the mainland then, and magic had begun to flow more freely. It was a mystery, but it stirred a gladness in her. It reminded her of what she should have been, and what had been denied.
It had been her suggestion to call on Umiko. The girl had a minor talent of her own, which could prove useful if they were to keep Shinji alive in the coming weeks. Cherry Blossom had realized she did not want him to die. If it meant that he did not visit her anymore that was alright. She did not desire to possess him and whether he believed it or not, the prince was cultivating a love for this servant Umiko. Cherry Blossom found the whole thing more engaging than she had found anything in years.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
They say they spent so long at sea,
these men, with skin so grey,
that wave foam flows instead of blood,
and red has been at bay.
Updates: Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted