© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
A nest of serpents
whether twined in love or hate
a poisonous embrace
The Island People -Thyriel
Umiko felt that she was being watched. It was like the prickling of heat across her shoulders and back. She was working to beautify the foyer of Shinji's home, arranging flowers in the manner she had been taught. Shinji's other servants were gone for the day. There had not been as much use for them with her in the house, but she was certain there was someone near. Only there wasn't someone. Her imagination must be playing tricks on her.
Outside, there was a shout. The prince's afternoon meal was prepared, but Umiko knew he would not eat until he was finished with his forms. She stepped out, watching, and though the names of the motions were beyond her, she had come to recognize much of it.
Shinji went about in the manner of an angry ghost. Whatever style he was practicing was not the precise and reserved fashion of a prince who was meant to be kept alive. It was heedless, fierce, like the assassin that had wounded him. Shinji was adopting his style. Someone who had not spent time on the Kensai’s porch might have overlooked the change, but Umiko saw the differences clearly. It frightened her.
Cherry Blossom appeared beside her, dressed in a pristine white kimono. Umiko startled, then bowed, glad she had already set down Shinji's lunch box. Otherwise, she would have dropped it.
"There is no need for that between us," the beautiful Fae woman said. "I am as much in bondage as you."
"Excuse me, mistress, but you surprised me."
Cherry Blossom nodded toward Shinji. "Do you notice the change in him?"
Umiko sat on her heels and felt the patio was warm beneath her legs. “The way he fights is strange, reckless."
The Fae courtesan took a seat beside her. She smelled of a far off spring. The birthmarks dappling one side of her face reminded Umiko of clouds, though she would never say so.
Cherry Blossom allowed a small smile. "It is strange, for it is used by but a few in all the empire. He is practicing the Bloodhunter's way of fighting."
Umiko shivered. The Bloodhunters verged on mythical proportions for simple people and servants. They were nightmares for children, symbols of the emperor's immortal displeasure. "Why?"
Cherry Blossom lifted one hand, but whatever gesture was meant quickly died as it fell back to her lap. "I don't know. He fought one of them recently and may have found much to admire. He seeks to better understand his enemy. You are a perceptive girl. What do you believe has brought him to this?"
Umiko wondered if she was being teased. The courtesan was vastly more elegant and educated than she; what could she hope to gain from a servant's opinion. Yes, she was a slave, but there were degrees of slavery, and Cherry Blossom's burdens seemed particularly light.
"I would not guess, mistress."
"I did not ask you to guess," the faerie said. "What do you believe?"
Umiko was accustomed to being addressed as an inferior. She responded to the tone as much as the words.
"I think that he is so angry he no longer cares whether he survives or not."
"That is a part of it," Cherry Blossom said, "but not all. Does the air around him feel different as well? Has the temperature changed?"
"Yes," Umiko said, somehow unaware they had begun discussing something she had never shared with anyone.
"Do you notice that some people have a gleam, like firelight reflected, and others have no light at all?"
"I spoke of it when I was a child," Umiko said, "and I was punished for lying."
"I want you to begin paying closer attention to that light. If you do, you will notice the weaves within it. All people have them, though some are so faint they are hardly alive. A man's mind is written in that weave, for those who are meant to read it, and once you know it well enough you may be able to twist the lines a little in one direction or another."
Umiko's head snapped around. "Stop it!" Her voice was pitched low and harsh.
Cherry Blossom gave her an approving look. "You noticed my influence very quickly. You will learn quickly as well, if you choose to."
Shinji chose that moment to finish his kata with a shout. He sheathed his blades and came to the patio, smiling at the two women who awaited him.
"You came to visit me," he said to Cherry Blossom. "I am honored."
"You have a special servant," she said, "I can see why you are so taken with her."
Shinji rinsed his hands and face in a bowl of scented water Umiko had provided for that purpose. "With your approval in hand," he said, "I have nothing to question."
He began to eat, and Umiko found herself looking into the saffron eyes of his lover. There was a question there, but not one the prince would have imagined. Her heartbeat quickened, and she thought, “Show me.”
Cherry Blossom nodded, as if she could hear her thoughts.
* * *
Rod thin, the man was dressed in a simple grey robe. Two plain scabbards were at his sides, the swords in them as valuable as a thousand slaves. They had been enchanted by the emperor and forged from materials far rarer than steel. A carefully groomed line of hair crossed his upper lip.
"Master Kensai," Shinji said, "I am honored."
The old man sat on a pillow at the low table in Shinji's receiving room. He was wiry, and possessed of a hard won durability that suggested the rocks of Nihon, and the forests, might pass away but he would remain. He was decades advanced beyond what he appeared to be, another gift of the emperor.
"The Lord Raven has been generous with your accommodations." he said.
"He is kind," Shinji said, taking a seat across from his master and bowing at the waist, "and still I am ashamed to not have more to present to you than what you see."
The Kensai found humor in this, perceivable only by the bare flicker in his eyes. He knew that Shinji was so formal only because of how rudely he had left his master's house the last time they had met.
Umiko presented each of them with a porcelain cup filled with hot water, and they politely refused. She poured a small quantity of green powder into the cups, and stirred them four times clockwise, five counterclockwise. When offered again, the Kensai accepted his. For Shinji it required two more refusals to achieve the perfect strength of the tea. Of course, Umiko knew exactly how much of the powder he preferred, but when company was present, the forms had to be observed, especially company as august as this.
The Kensai took a single sip, and set the cup aside, forgotten.
"Sosuke has gone from the city," he said.
Shinji furrowed his pale brow, an expression Umiko found oddly attractive. "I did not know," he said. "We have not spoken since we last trained together in your home."
Since the announcement of their impending tournament, there had been no more practices among brothers. The Kensai would not risk one of them being harmed or killed by the others under his authority.
"I assumed as much," the Kensai said. "I have already informed Jushiro and Kirisaki of the change. There will be four of you, a neater arrangement than if he had remained."
Shinji leaned forward, his hands on his knees. "You mean he will not return?"
The Kensai nodded. "Never. His title will be forfeit when the arbiter sees he is not taking part in the emperor's contest."
Shinji resented Sosuke, and envied him. His eldest brother had escaped. There would be no tests for him but what nature could provide, while Shinji would remain with the others to fight for his life. It was possible that Bloodhunters would be sent for him, but Shinji doubted it. If Sosuke was gone, he had ceased to exist in the mind of the mask. He could never lay claim to a prince's rights. This was not the mainland, where kings died and bastards warred over the fragments of a realm. In Nihon, there was only one ruler and only one heir, always. The mask was not taken by force. Shinji did not truly wish to trade places with his half-brother; he wished that his half-brother had not found the way out so easily.
"Thank you for telling me, master."
The Kensai folded his hands in his lap, watching Shinji drink. Umiko's head was bowed, and she used her secret sense to try to gain some understanding of the aged teacher. He was cool, temperate; the most placid creature she had ever encountered. Because of her conversation with Cherry Blossom, she had begun to exercise her talent consciously, but it still felt clumsy. She was amazed when her attempts passed unnoticed by the few subjects she had had the opportunity to assess. The Kensai was peace.
"It was my duty," the Kensai said. "Tell me, Shinji, do you also intend to go?"
Shinji was shocked that he would be asked, though it was not so outlandish a question. No, master," he said. "I obey the will of my father."
"You will grow into yourself." The Kensai looked now into the tea where it rested on the table. "You will be a good man, if you are given the chance. I have seen many sons die at the hands of sons. I would not fault you if you chose not to be among them."
"You are suggesting I run?" Shinji wondered if his master said this out of concern, doubt of his abilities, or to favor one of his half-brothers in their ascent to the mask.
"I suggest nothing," the Kensai said. "I merely share a thought with one of my students."
"I will not run."
"That is your choice," his master said. In another moment, he rose, and Shinji followed suit, bowing. The Kensai let himself out.
"May I ask you something, my lord?"
Shinji blinked. It was easy to forget Umiko was in the room when she wanted to be innocuous. "Of course, what is it?"
Umiko hesitated, her hand hovering over the Kensai's barely used cup. "Why don't you go, Shinji?"
The prince answered immediately. "I am what I am. I have to fight."
* * *
Before the Bloodhunter, Shinji had often gone to the Raven's castle to visit Cherry Blossom. Now, it was as if he had forgotten her. The Fae woman knew it wasn't so; Shinji's feelings were conflicted, but never absent. He felt guilty about his increasing attachment to Umiko, though it could hardly be said that what had been between him and Cherry Blossom was a great romance. It was bewildering to her, how unlike his father he was, that he could translate adolescent infatuations into the obligation of internal loyalty. He was torn between two women who didn't claim him; one of them totally unaware that it was happening. For all Umiko's talent, she was quite ignorant when it came to the prince. Cherry Blossom could only think him foolish, and hold in her heart the hope that this part of him would remain so child-like forever. It was not a virtue to stop caring.
Cherry Blossom came often to the home of her ambivalent lover, not for him, but for his servant. She shadowed Umiko as she went about her duties, speaking to her of the nature of their talents and how they could be used.
"A person's mind is like a folded flower," she said. "Tug on the correct petal and the whole will unfold for you." In her hands was a paper bloom, just finished. Cherry Blossom was skilled in origami, the art of paper folding, due to the endless hours of boredom inflicted on her by the more callous of her masters. If pressed to it, she could create life-sized models of animals with interlockingsheets.
Umiko pursed her lips. "Yes, lady, but if you have the paper whole then you have lost your flower."
Cherry Blossom demonstrated by dismantling her flower with a few deft motions. "You see, there are the creases that tell us how to put the mind together again. If you first learn to read the folds of the mind around you, then you can decide whether you prefer the parchment to the bloom."
Umiko examined the rice paper sheet, yellow and translucent. "I see lines," she said, "I don't see how they came to be, or how to make them what they were again."
"It will come with practice." They sat outside in the small lawn behind the building that Shinji used as his practice field. The master had gone out, and Umiko found herself with more free time than she had ever had before becoming his personal attendant. He did not demand much of her, given that he was a prince, and other servants managed the general maintenance of his home. More and more of her days were taken up with Cherry Blossom’s conversations and practicing skills she did not understand.
"Do you think he will win?" the Fae asked.
"I have watched them fight," Umiko's said. "I do not know that he can win."
"Sosuke is gone," Cherry Blossom said.
"Truly? That would change things.” The eldest half-brother had been the most formidable by far. Perhaps then, there was a chance.
"It doesn't matter that he's gone," Cherry Blossom continued. "Shinji will survive because we choose that he will."
Umiko was not so tactless as to let her incredulity show. She passed the rice paper back, unable to see the way of it. "I do not want him to be hurt," she allowed.
Cherry Blossom recreated her paper bloom almost as quickly as she had taken it apart, her small, dexterous hands working precisely and without direction. She was looking into the sky. The days of fall were often the clearest, and the shadow of the tree of the world could just be discerned above the burning eye of the sun. She raised the paper bloom, and it was caught in a breeze; carried high over the wall of Shinji's gifted estate.
"Such a simple wish. How could the gods deny it?"
"There isn't anything I can do," Umiko said. "I am a servant, whatever you say."
"And I am a slave," the Fae answered. "But I am not so defeated as you. I have brought fortune and despair to men both higher and lower than our prince. It will be your choice whether he succeeds."
"I am not as strong as you." Umiko felt strange; there was a coolness upon her neck, and a hot prickling in her scalp. What her talent was telling her didn't make any sense.
"That is correct." Cherry Blossom said. The sun had grown pale, and the moon was its sickly mirror in the far corner of the sky. "Yet you have power. When he goes to fight, make certain that you are taken with him. It is the only way he will survive."
Umiko shook her head. Was the other woman meddling with her mind? Was that what felt so strange?
"What can I do?"
Cherry Blossom smiled to herself, an invisible expression. "You are going to cheat."
* * *
Shinji had changed into a commoner's garb, and left his swords behind in a secret cubby. There was an inn he knew of on the edge of the city that catered to laborers who were not of the servant caste. These men were issued temporary licenses to work in the capitol. Only servants and immortals could have permanent residences. These were mostly artisans, brought in by one lord or another to fill a gap in the workforce. Some were guards and soldiers, who had stations on the walls but lived beyond them.
The Hungry Boar had a clean facade; it had to maintain appearances to retain its right to operate. Inside, there were stains more difficult to remove.
Shinji ordered a bottle of rice wine and sat at his own small table, listening to the conversations of the laborers around him. It had been easy to don a disguise. Few people on this side of the city would recognize him, and those were unlikely to look past the drab tunic he had stolen to wear. What was a prince without his kimono and his swords? What was an emperor without the mask? Sosuke had run away, and he knew now that he could as well. There had been no one waiting to stop him, no one trailing his to this inn on the outskirts of the city. When night came, he could sneak over the wall, or tomorrow he could hide in a wagon of materials heading out of the city.
It would mean leaving Cherry Blossom behind, but he was not so delusional as to believe she needed him. The faerie courtesan had been well enough without him for far longer than he had been alive. It was Umiko that concerned him, though they had known each other for scarcely any time. She too, had had a life before they met, but it had not been a privileged one. He wanted her to have more than servitude offered, and the tattoos that gave her the honor of feeding princes might well lead her into harm. If someone like Jushiro took an interest, she would not last long. It had happened to others, and Shinji had not given their hardships much thought. It was different if it was Umiko.
She had asked him why he couldn't leave, and he couldn't answer her. It would not be impossible for him to excuse an excursion out of the city. It would be expected that he take an attendant, and they could carry supplies and disguises with them.
Shinji drank cup after cup of rice wine, the conversation of the laborers buzzing meaninglessly around him. He entertained the fantasy of a life with Umiko, travelers until his gold ran thin and they settled somewhere. He imagined himself a fisherman or farmer, and dismissed both notions with equal intensity. A merchant could have his excitements and craftsmen the pleasure of their art. He would apprentice if he had to. Why couldn't he leave as his brother had done, where was the weight and the chain?
He could never be a soldier. They would be found out if he ever attained distinction. He could never wear his swords.
His palms ached at the thought, and he knew then why he would not go. He was a prince, and would remain, so long as his hands could raise a blade.
The bartender brought him another bottle, noting the contrast of bright coins to worn clothes, and calloused fingers to clean nails. The way the young man took in the world, then dismissed it with his eyes, didn't fit with the form he was pretending. The bartender, Satamoto, did not question such things. It did not pay to do so. If a noble boy wanted to wear a servant’s costume it was no business of his. He was clearly upset about something, his face growing darker with every drink he took.
One of the off duty guards was laughing loudly over a game of stones. He was winning, apparently. The noble boy threw a small cup at the back of the man’s head. It was a remarkable throw, straight as a shot arrow and with hardly any motion. The glazed clay shattered, and the guardsman turned in a rage. His good humor forgotten, he seized the young man by the collar and dragged him outside. Satamoto considered his options. The scene had passed mostly unnoticed, and if he was wrong about the brat and he interfered he would have trouble with the guards, his best customers. But if he was right, and the boy was noble, acting out for whatever fool reason, doing nothing could mean the enmity of one of the great families. That was an outcome infinitely more terrifying than the loss of a little business.
Satamoto brought a complimentary bottle to the table of a lieutenant captain, and leaned in to whisper his thoughts. The man frowned, took another shot of rice wine, and went outside with two of his subordinates.
Shinji could not have said why he was allowing himself to be beaten. He was angry, and it was the sort of anger that would not be assuaged by harming others. The man he had chosen was strong, and Shinji could have broken his arms anyway. Instead, he stood up, and was knocked down. He felt blows land on his skull, his chest, blood welled from a swelling lip, from his temple where it scraped on the street. The man was drunk, or mean enough to keep going with an opponent who didn’t fight back. If he killed some no rank servant he wouldn't even be disciplined. No one would care.
The lieutenant captain pulled him off of the boy. "Contain yourself," he snapped, then he bent over to examine the pummeled face of the offending party.
Once, he had seen the prince entering the palace of the Emperor. This prince. Shinji was still too groggy to understand why he was being helped to his feet, or who was helping him. His vision was clearing as his assailant let out a pitiful sound, a desolate regret, and was driven to his knees. The lieutenant captain drew his dagger and sliced the man’s throat without hesitation or ceremony. Shinji watched him convulse, bleeding out on the smooth rocks that the lowest class of servants would be cleaning in the early morning hours. It reminded him of his early lessons, of the girl in the garden. He had not meant for the man to die. He had not meant anything; he had just acted as his petulance dictated. These were the natural consequences.
He heard his father's voice as clearly as if he were beside him.
"There is no one but you in the world, and so, you are responsible for everything in it."
This is what it meant to be a prince, and this is what he could not escape. His fate was already written. The anger drained from him like blood from the man, and he was left with nothing.
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