Updates:  Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books

William Myrlhigh fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

​Chapter V


How goes the soldier to the field so cool?
In life his heat was something to behold,
but all that heat has burned out,
in a stroke.


-Travelling Coins
Hollen the Bard

Rain was falling when Shinji returned home. Umiko had waited for him beneath a parasol at the Raven's gate. Cherry Blossom stayed behind, aware that he might scale the walls as he had on other nights. But tonight he walked like a normal man, without his weapons and hardly recognizable as a prince. He was favoring his left side, and Umiko helped him without a word. Cherry Blossom held the door for them when they returned, having sent the servants away. There was no reason for anyone else to see the prince like this.
            Umiko shivered as she let him go. He had never felt so cold before. "Dry yourself," Cherry Blossom told her, before ushering Shinji upstairs. She laid him on his bed and used a wet cloth to wipe the blood from his face. He had suffered worse at the hands of his brothers, but it had never affected him this way. "What have you done?" Cherry Blossom asked, not accusatory, simply as a woman who expected an answer.
            "I killed a man." These were his first words since entering through the gate.
            "When you are emperor," Cherry Blossom said, "you will kill many men."
            Umiko could be heard ascending the stair. She had dried and brushed her hair as quickly as practicality allowed. With the blood gone, she could see clearly the extent of Shinji's wounds. There was a cut above his eye and on his cheek, neither serious. More concerning was the purple splotch across the ribs on his right side. Cherry Blossom undressed him, looking for more injuries, and gave Umiko the peasants garb to dispose of.
            "You are a fool boy," Cherry Blossom said, and the prince grunted.
            "I won't try to run," he said. "I have to stay here. I have to do this."
            "Receive beatings in the rain?"
             Shinji looked rueful, his eyes searching away from the present space. "That was stupid, but it’s done now. I can't fix it. Saving people isn't what I was made for."
            This struck Cherry Blossom as an odd statement, but she said nothing.
            "Sometimes I dream," the prince said, "that I am a dragon in the skies. I can't land, because if I do, I will burn whatever I touch. But I have to land, because I am hungry, and I eat the islands one by one, and burn the seas."
            “The dreams tell a story.” Cherry Blossom focused her orange cat's eyes, looking at Shinji, but examining the whorls of light that made up his aura and connected him to the world soul. "The first faerie and the first dragon were sister and brother, born before the gods."
            "Before the emperor, you mean," Shinji said.
            "As you say."
            Umiko returned with the prince's sleeping robes, and he dressed himself. "Leave me," he said to them, and then more quietly, "Thank you." As he prepared for rest, his heart was empty, and that emptiness was a kind of peace. 
            "He may need our help when they call for him." Cherry Blossom walked ahead of the younger woman as they descended the stair to the servant’s quarters.
            "What can we do?" Umiko asked.
            "Shinji is a bloodhunter," Cherry Blossom said, "but he has not been trained. He can only use that power when he enters the proper state of mind. We can help him do it."
            "How can he be a bloodhunter if he has not trained?"
            Cherry Blossom had no answer to this.


                                                                                               *     *     *


            It was Simber, the month of the huntress, and warmth was beginning to leach from the islands. Sing was a beast goddess, but no one paid her homage in the cities. It would have been sacrilege to honor any god but the emperor in his very domain, but the exalted old ones lived on in the names of the months and the rhythms of life. The leaves turned and men thought of the tiger. 
            The contest of princes was to take place in a temple of the inner city, within the outer circuit of the palace itself. The courtyard was set with flagstones that had known only the bare feet of servants for many decades. There were countless places such as this in the city of immortals, grand and unused. A previous bearer of the mask had once been quite demanding of active worship. By tradition, the emperor was spoken of as a single deathless entity, and indeed he did live long, but he was not truly everlasting. That was why there were princes, and that is why there must be an heir.
            The wooden dais and benches were freshly lacquered, and the stone was swept clear and polished smooth. The servants prepared this place each day as if it would see use. The single change today was that it actually would.
            Incense burned in floating censers, the bitter medical scent of taxil root. Bare feet shuffled along the boards, heads bowed. The will of the arbiter was awaited by the lowborn. It was death to view the true face behind his golden mask. As with the emperor, it was proper to refer to the golden judges as if they were all a single entity, despite there being a dozen in the great city at any given time.
            Jushiro and Kirisaki were the first to arrive with their entourage. Each had brought a woman and a man, the expected symmetry. The woman would act as a witness and a comfort; the man as a second should a ritual suicide be called for, though none other than the emperor and his arbiter could demand that of a prince.
            The women were both daughters of the noble Buta family, the boars. It was likely that offers of marriage were already written and sealed pending the outcome of the day. Buta was hedging its bets, assured that one of them would win and become the heir. Of course, an emperor does not have a wife, but the wife of an heir can do much for her family before she is put aside in favor of the mask. The men were warriors, likely cousins of the women, and were meant to be chaperones as well as possible seconds. Being members of the nobility, their lineage would trace back to a previous emperor. They all did.
            It was morning, and bright mists flooded the streets. The princes and their parties were shown to their rooms. Their servants remained outside, as the temple keepers would see to their needs for the duration of the stay.
            Hoshi was next. Like his half-brothers, he was accompanied by the grasping claimants of a noble house; a brother and sister of the Crab family, among the poorest of the clans. There was no mystery how the prince had been snared. The girl was stunning, full bodied yet fine, and with the too bright eyes of a Fae. Most Nihonjin had brown eyes. Hers were a deep blue; from a distance nearly black. Her name was Sala, and she clung to Hoshi in a manner that bordered on the improper. She looked odd beside the prince, with her Fae features, whereas he was the darkest of the princes. His mother had been a Nacrean sorceress, come down from the far north as a member of an ambassadorial commission. She had been the color of midnight, with a scarlet gaze, and she had returned to her home nation after giving birth to Hoshi. It was not an uncommon diplomatic strategy when dealing with the emperor.
            As the last of the mists were burned away in the sunflower’s growing heat, Shinji arrived with the two women who made up his entourage. He didn't greet his siblings, but went directly to his chambers, 
            At noon, sunbright, the arbiter came at the head of two dozen guards and as many attendants. Bells were rung and drums sounded. Chimes played as the black-robed man entered the temple. The Kensai followed one step behind him.
            Four sons of the emperor were shortly called to the stone courtyard that was the heart of the temple. The arbiter rose upon the dais, his black robe flowing from his golden face as the night from a flame.
            "Princes," he said, "I will be brief. Two and two you will fight today, and tomorrow the victorious pair shall fight again. No match is finished until I raise my hand to signal the chimes. Death is not preferred. The prince declared champion at the end of tomorrow will be presented to the emperor as his heir apparent. Now kneel, for your benediction."
            They sat on their heels and bowed to the arbiter. Umiko and Cherry Blossom were watching from their own dais on the left side of the field. 
            "Raise your face," the Fae woman said. "You are not a servant today, but a companion to the man who will be heir." Umiko did as she was bid, and looked at all the others, trying to read what she could from their manner and bearing. Sala, the Crab girl, met her gaze and smiled at her in a way that made her shiver.
            The arbiter spoke over the heads of the princes. "You are to spend the next hour in meditation. At the end of that time the names of the first combatants will be called. May the emperor watch over you, and his will be in your favor."
            With that, he turned from them and reentered the temple, walking between stone pillars and into shadow. His guards went with him, but the musicians remained. The drums overrode the voices of the sundry companions, allowing them the freedom to speak. It would have been proper for then to share in the meditations of their patrons, but Cherry Blossom seemed unconcerned with the formality, and Umiko followed her example. The men bowed their heads, and the women kept their eyes open.
            "An hour?" Umiko asked.
            "Yes," Cherry Blossom said, "it will give you a chance to prepare. Look at Sala and tell me what you see around her."
            Umiko relaxed her vision, allowing the usually invisible lines of the mondial to rise before her. The word soul was represented by innumerable weaves of light that wove in and out of all living things. People had patterns unique to themselves, changing as they changed. These patterns could be read, though it was mostly a process of intuition to do so. Each viewer would see in her own palette of colors, in the shapes and signs that existed only in her own mind. For this reason, a teacher could help you to see, but not help you understand the symbology directly. Umiko was learning the language of her talent, and it felt more like guessing than anything.
            "Tell me what you see," Cherry Blossom said.
            "Blue swirls, yellow sparks, and violet running through everything." Umiko paused. "She is reserved, maybe bored. Very intelligent. And the violet, she has Talent, doesn't she."
            "Very good," Cherry Blossom said. "Sala is a witch."
            As if on cue, the exquisite face of the young temptress turned to Umiko. Yellow burgeoned in halos of orange, interest and surprise. Then the violet lines multiplied, sheathing the rest, surrounding her in a purple cocoon.
            "She is shielding herself," Cherry Blossom said, "a useful tool. We will have to practice it when all this is done."
            Umiko felt naked before the other woman, which she was, in a sense. She was defenseless if Sala wanted to examine or even to manipulate her aura.
            "She won't," Cherry Blossom assured her, " That will wait for the duels. She doesn't yet know if our prince will face hers or one of the others."
            "What will she do?" Umiko asked. She was growing uncomfortable, sitting on the hard wood of the dais without a cushion, but she was too well conditioned to shift or stretch. She would be still for as long as the princes were.
            "Cheat," Cherry Blossom said, "just as we will. If Hoshi and Shinji compete against each other, it will be our task to prevent her from interfering. And I believe they will meet today."
            "Why?"
            "The emperor’s tastes are sometimes predictable. Jushiro and Kirisaki are too similar, one of them must eliminate the other before the final battle."
            Umiko glanced at Shinji, expecting to see the blotchy red nests of anger that so often burst around him. Instead, there was almost no light surrounding the prince. A few faint, shadowy lines spiraled around his skull and crackled about his hands. She had no idea what that meant.
            A bell was rung to signal the passing of the hour. The arbiter returned with the Kensai a step behind and the copper moon of day burning above.
            "Hoshi Noha and Shinji Ikari. You will be first."
            Servants scurried onto the field of flat stone, carrying bowls of powdered chalk. They scattered it where the princes were meant to stand, and then retreated.
            Shinji came swiftly to his feet, hiding any stiffness in his legs. Hoshi was a bit slower but no less assured as he went to his place. His swords hung easy at his sides.
            Umiko's breath caught, but she felt Cherry Blossom's desire to have her focused on Sala, and forced her gaze away from the prince. The witch was watching them already, and shared with her a secret smile.
            Umiko felt the strength of the woman's will wrap around her head like the limbs of a kulu and squeeze.
            Shinji drew his blades. Hoshi had adopted an unusual stance, a two-handed grip, as Sosuke would have. It was a strategy that could favor either of them. Shinji was not accustomed to Hoshi using that style, but he had always lost against Sosuke when he used it. But Hoshi was not Sosuke, and had not practiced in this manner of fighting as thoroughly as he had with two blades. Shinji decided it was a ruse, that Hoshi would switch grips and bring his wakizashi into play when it would have the greatest effect.
            Chimes shivered as they were struck, and the two swordsmen came together in a twist of flowing flesh and steel. Hoshi fought aggressively. He had to prevent Shinji’s double swords from giving him the advantage. With a shout, Hoshi swung his weapon overhead, bringing it down and up again in a seamless motion. Shinji dodged to the side, ready to parry the thrust that came next. He redirected the katana with his own and nicked his brothers cheek with his wakizashi. The exchange was a prolonged heartbeat, and they parted to reassess. Hoshi was not one to display his anger, but it was there, building behind black eyes. He came again with a series of horizontal slashes, pushing Shinji back. He intended to overwhelm with the speed and ferocity of the rush, but lightness and quickness to react had always been Shinji's surest assets, so he kept his footing. He had never been as strong as any of his brothers, but that did not matter so much in their style of fighting. Mainlanders slammed each other, battling like bears in full plate. They did not know the refinements of real mastery that any of the princes could display.
            Umiko wasn't able to watch the princes. It was all she could do to fend off the witch's assault. She had to steel herself against her own emotions, because they were not her own. Anger and fear and abject defeat flooded through her in an unrelenting current. She could do nothing to influence Sala in return; her battle was to keep herself from passing out or showing outward signs of their struggle. Pain congealed behind her eyes, growing into a thick spike that threatened to destroy her. A small sound escaped her throat, and her head bowed, no longer even looking at the witch. She felt she was going blind, that she was dying. A fever washed over her, and sweat drenched her back despite the coolness of the day. Cherry Blossom had not taught her how to protect herself from a psychic assault, and soon she was unable to differentiate the false fear from the true.
            Shinji circled his brother, testing with quick strokes, each one deflected expertly. There had been no more wounds since the first cut, and he would have to close the distance between them to bring his short blade into play. It was strange to fight without anger, to feel so removed from himself and from the outcome. He had found a place in himself much like resignation, and it allowed him to observe the combat as if from the outside. Blades cried against one another, and he pressed nearer to his goal. Hoshi struck wide, both katanas turned aside, and Shinji brought his wakizashi forward in a quick thrust. It should have pierced his brother just below the ribs. Instead, it caught against an invisible barrier, and was turned aside. Shinji was committed to the attack, and he found himself with both arms out flung. His brother had expected this, his right hand releasing the hilt of his katana as their blades met. He had not bothered to dodge because he knew he did not need to. The short blade edged free, and Shinji did the only thing he could to keep from being gutted. He kept his momentum and charged into his brother. His wakizashi flew clear of his hand, and they both went down hard. 
            Hoshis head cracked against the stone flag, stunning him. Shinji rolled away, springing to his feet with his katana in an uncomfortable two handed grip. He could have killed Hoshi then, but something tugged at his mind, slowing his instincts enough to give the other prince a chance to find his feet. Then he noticed the blood running unhindered from a long slash down his side. Hoshi had done it in the same motion that brought his short blade out of it’s sheathe. The black prince bared his teeth. It was two swords against one again, but with their roles reversed.
            Umiko didn't entirely know where she was anymore, but she knew that she was losing. Somehow, through the pain, she felt Shinji being hurt. Umiko was a servant, had always been one, and some part of her accepted it as right that a noble lady should best her so easily. But it was not right that Shinji should lose.
            In a place far away, Umiko saw a giantess bound in chains. The creature was all of loveliness and sorrow, and she was trapped within a sort of mechanical sphere. This did not make any sense to Umiko, but that was the way with visions, and she could only watch and experience, not choose.
            The woman's eyes burned behind closed lids, and Umiko heard her ask a question, though the words themselves were beyond her comprehension.
            Umiko answered in assent, and the vision of the gears and chains went away, replaced by the real world. Chains of light bound the three women together. Sala and Cherry Blossom were engaged in serious, if silent, contest, and Umiko was beaten by a single hanging spell. She could see it clearly now, and she reached out with one hand to tug at a lambent strand. The spell unraveled, and her pain faded, though the memory of it still throbbed in her skull. The emotions that had rioted through her were no less wild, and she felt herself giving in to panic, ready to flee the temple and the contest. Her roving gaze fell upon Shinji, saw him bleeding, saw him losing. The whirlwind of her feeling spiraled into being around her, bent into a spout, and she directed it at Sala. It was a violent sort of rainbow, invisible to any who did not share their talent. Sala saw it coming, and protective webs sprung around her in an instant, and then were torn away. The witch was blasted into the temple wall with a force that rattled the wooden stands.
            Shinji saw his death approaching as a veil was lifted from his mind. Inside of himself, he found a rare channel of energy he had touched but once before. Hoshi's next attack tore into an afterimage, and shadows stretched around them both, becoming monstrous despite the power of the sun. Shinji’s blades screamed as they were struck faster than Hoshi could respond. His short sword was knocked loose, and Shinji severed the other arm at the wrist. Blood spouted, and Hoshi looked at his lost appendage without comprehension. But Shinji couldn't stop. This was not fury that drove him, but the merciless logic of an assassin. The shadows swallowed them both as he danced around his half-brother, stabbing and slashing with precision. The dark prince stood for a breath longer, and then disassembled, becoming a gory mound of once human parts. Shinji withdrew from that river of umbral energy within, and looked at what he had done as if it were the work of a stranger. He glanced up, and saw Cherry Blossom cradling Umiko. He thought it might have been horror at what he had done, until he saw the woman across from them being carried off the stage, her brother in tow. Those had been Hoshi’s followers.
            What had happened?
            The arbiter raised his arm, and then came the chimes. Shinji had won.


                                                                                               *     *     *


            In another hour, Jushiro and Kirisaki clashed. It was a fair match between two who were like twins, and it lasted nearly twenty minutes. In the end, to attack is to sacrifice defense, and they skewered each other in a solitary, crimson instant. The chimes sounded, but there was no victory.

   © Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl