The sea was cold, its tendrils cruel where they lashed the pillars and the crags, whorling in a sandless bay. A crab the size of a small horse crawled onto the gravel shore, eye stalks waving. A gull landed on its upraised claw. Snap. The crab lowered its claw and fed.
Shinji stood on a balcony overlooking the rest of the palace, the distant wall, and the near edge of Onshu. It was a rare day when the mondial was thin enough that it seemed you could see forever; leagues and leagues, at least. Shinji, still weak from his duel, was disappointed that Jushiro and Kirisaki had ended the way they did, though he would not shed tears over his lost brothers. He had not loved them, but he felt that he had cheated by winning with only one fight. Looking down, he saw a clump of the Immortal guards travelling around the base of the main building. He imagined leaning over the railing and falling, falling until he was among them. Heights had never caused him discomfort, but they gave him strange thoughts.
In the two days since the death of his brothers, the only communications he had received from his father had been through the servants. They had shown him to his new quarters and told him to await the emperor’s pleasure. They had bowed more deeply to him than they would have to one prince among many. It was the surest sign of his victory. The emperor did have other children, of course, but they were either female, too young to compete, or disappointing to their immortal father in some other way.
"You're gloomy." Cherry Blossom had her back against the door frame. Her kimono mimicked the pattern of her birthmarks down one side, done in orange on black. Her obi was green silk, as reflective as metal.
"What is it?" Shinji asked shortly.
"Nothing, my prince. I merely wanted to see that you are well. Was I wrong to interrupt your brooding?"
"I am not in the mood for your games." He brushed past her into his chambers, far too rich a place for his taste. Everything was wrapped in gold or silk or both. He had stripped his bed down to a regular sleeping pallet.
"Where is Umiko?" he asked. Shinji felt calmer when she was near. She was his servant, and a witch, apparently. The duel with Hoshi had been eventful for both of them. Cherry Blossom had been his companion for far longer, but he found he trusted Umiko in a way he couldn't trust the Fae. What he had taken for devotion to Cherry Blossom he now viewed as an infatuation.
"She is being fitted for a new kimono," Cherry Blossom said. "Her status has increased with yours."
Shinji nodded, and went out of the room.
* * *
Umiko was not treated as a servant by the other servants. She tried to help them, bowed as deeply to them as they did to her, and all it brought was mutual embarrassment. A gaggle of seamstresses had sequestered her in a fitting room. They were incredibly skilled, as would be demanded of anyone who regularly serviced the high ladies and courtesans of an overdressed court. The emperor was notorious for his relatively bland attire, and some of the nobility had taken to imitating him for a time. They had fallen out of favor, and no one had been able to say if it was because of their clothes or not. Now, it was a sort of contest among the ladies and a few of the men to see who could don the most overwrought costumes. What they were measuring Umiko for now was thankfully of a more reserved style. She would have been very unhappy in a headdress and a mobile prison of gems and precious metals.
"Pretty girl, no extra meat," one of the older women muttered.
Umiko felt blood in her cheeks. Deftly, and without questions they had undressed her, measuring and examining for the minutest of flaws. Most of their caste carried scars, either from their labors or from early punishments. Umiko was immaculate. No one who was to serve meals to the emperor’s own blood could have any scars or unnatural marks. They had been even more thorough before she progressed to the ceremony that created her tattoos. Regular tattoos would have disqualified her, of course, which is why people like her were marked in a ritual that created the ink beneath her skin, from her own blood. It was more painful than needles, but had left her pure.
The seamstresses were suitably impressed. They gave her an under robe that was softer and sheerer than anything she had worn before.
Umiko paled when she saw the kimono they intended for her. It was lovely, all white with flecks of crystals embedded in the fabric so that the surface sparkled at the slightest motion.
"What are those?" she asked.
"Diamonds," one of the women told her.
Umiko had feared as much. The garment was worth a hundred of her lives, finer even than many true ladies wore.
"It cannot be mine," she protested. "It wouldn't be proper."
"It is the arbiter's will." One of the younger seamstresses approached her. "Is it true that you showed the arbiter magic, and that you fought at the Prince's side?"
The others tried to shush her. Umiko's mouth moved wordlessly for a moment before she could reply.
"No, of course not." But why had the arbiter chosen this kimono? When the duel had ended, Umiko had been fearful of reprisal for what she had done. Sala was a noble and had nearly been killed. Instead, everyone had behaved as if nothing had happened. If there was an official record, she was sure it did not mention the servant slamming a lady of the court against a wall using only her mind. Shinji had won almost in the same moment, taking attention away from them, but it wasn't as if no one would have noticed. The arbiter had, and he was sending a message she didn’t dare try to interpret.
A door slammed in the women's chambers, and a hush approached through the partitions, moving with the sinuous immutability of a dragon. Umiko saw him enter, a storm upon his brow, and the other women went to their knees with the immediacy of lifelong practice. She didn't, she was arrested by his look, and by the webs of light she saw revealed around him. It changed as they saw each other, shifting from reds to orange and gold. Shinji put one foot on the dais she occupied, raised up and kissed her lightly on the lips.
It was too quick and too unexpected for her to formulate a proper reaction, though she had no idea what would be proper in this situation. He left the chamber before she could say anything.
The seamstresses, for their part, kept silent, but their sidelong glances were almost too much to bear. She could hardly protest the dress any more.
* * *
Shinji didn't always understand his emotions. He could feel emptiness, rage, and weightless happiness all in the space of an hour, his mind moving cleanly from one to the next as if the previous had never been. He had come upon Umiko in the midst of an anger cycle. Whether angry at himself or his father was hard to parse, but he had scared a few servants before he saw her at the center of those women. She was wearing a shift and seemed to him, for the first time, beautiful. Umiko was not as striking as Cherry Blossom. It was doubtful any human could be, but Umiko was infinitely more present. She had grown large within his thoughts, and he saw her in a different light than when she was only the girl who brought them their meals at practice.
Seeing her made Shinji happy, so he had kissed her for the first time. Perhaps he should have explained himself to her, rather than simply leaving, but he didn't know what he would have said. There had been nothing planned about the encounter, and he wasn’t sure how he should treat her. He didn't think of Umiko as a servant, though that is what she was. As the heir, could he change that? Make her a free woman of means? It wasn't something he had considered before or something he was sure he wanted to do if he could.
In the upper halls of the palace, a servant bowed to him as he walked by. Lost in thought, Shinji passed by, so the servant followed in silence until he was noticed.
"What is it?" Shinji asked, not stopping.
"An invitation," the servant proffered a gold limned scroll, head down as he walked.
Shinji took it and read. His was to help officiate his brothers' funerals.
* * *
Three young men were carried in separate palanquins, dressed in pale pastels. They had become like flowers, or origami creations, meant for display. Jushiro and Kirisaki, so staid in life, were now painted into the semblance of happiness. They were returning to the mondial, their sparks given back to the sky. They had every reason to rejoice.
The common folk believed their race had arisen from the sea, that their skin had been steeped in grey horizons. Shesh, lord of storms and seas, had been the chief deity revered before the advent of the Mask. The emperors had discouraged the worship of the old gods, but some practices remained despite discouragement. The more rural coasts were said to be white with the bones of those who had died and had their bodies given to the sea. In the city of immortals, where the emperor's blood was thickest, a different tradition had arisen.
They had erected two platforms. One, the highest, held the emperor behind muting paper screens. His consort, Henai, would be with him. It had been rumored that she had fallen out of favor, not being seen in the higher circles of the court for many months. Whispers shivered through the ranks of nobles when a glimpse of her was caught in the cracks of the screens.
Shinji was standing at the base of the structure, attired in a grander version of the immortal guard armor. His was not treated wood slats, nor was it painted red. True steel coated in gold was woven into lamellar by silk ties enchanted to be as strong as chain. His helmet was huge, antlers jutting out from the front and the back. An ivory mask concealed his face, replacing it with a reptilian visage. His task was clear, to light the bier.
His brothers were placed together, drums thundering from a further stage, and ribbons dark with oil were stretched over them in a web. The servants were all young women draped in white, and they fled the bier after the silk ribbons were in place. The drums increased their fervor as a man ascended the funeral stand. He carried a wooden box, intricately graven with the symbols of witchery. He was glassy eyed, drugged, as they always had to be. He ducked under the silken sashes so that he could stand at the center of the three dead princes.
Shinji ascended after him bearing a torch, careful not to light the ribbons as he passed to where the man waited with the box. The arbiter was speaking, but for Shinji his words were lost to the shouting of the drums. He knew the moment had come when the man who was to be sacrificed opened the box. Inside there was nothing, though Shinji imagined he could see a translucent orb, the barest glitter of an edge giving it shape. A trick of his eyes.
He put the torch down to the open box, and his world erupted in green fire. It did not blind him, it was not hot, and yet it burned everything else upon the bier. The man evaporated before his eyes, the emerald flames devouring the box and then his arms in the same instant. The bier became a pyre, and the sacrifice turned his gaze heavenward. Shinji caught a glimpse of something shooting out of him into the sky. It was his spark, leading the princes to the realm of stars.
The armor Shinji wore protected him from the witch fire, even as it burned flesh and wood and stone, erasing the platform from under him.
Beneath the platform was a pillar reinforced with a magic more durable than the flame. Shinji stood without moving. To the crowd he had become no more than an apparition. He could not hear if there was any outcry, where he stood may as well have been the center of a storm. Wind battered his senses, leaving his body untouched. Through the emerald heat and haze he saw his father’s mask, revealed for a moment in the gaps of his screens.
When the flame at last died, he was left standing on a stone spar ten paces high, easily visible to the furthest reaches of the gathered subjects. His armor was awash with burning light, a rippling Xanthus dapple that covered his whole form. Upon the tips of the antlers of his helm, points of brilliance shone, the seven colors of a broken prism.
The arbiter appeared in the lower balcony of his father’s wooden tower. He raised his arms, and an already hushed crowd became absolutely silent. There were two golden masks now, looking at each other from across a gap of air.
"The prince of Nihon is before you. Kneel." The crowd responded immediately, the nearest rings falling first, and then outward. Shinji barely registered them, watching for his father to appear.
"He is not yet the heir."
Shinji's confusion was shared by the court. If not the heir, then why the regard? The arbiter continued after a brief pause.
"He has one task left to him, and the emperor has decreed he will be the successor should he succeed."
Shinji smiled grimly within his resplendent costume. Naturally, it was not finished. He had not had to fight the second day. That trial had been lost when Jushiro and Kirisaki killed each other. So his father had conceived of a new test. It was not surprising.
"He shall travel to the mainland, and there lay claim to a prize worthy of the Emperor. Should he return, he will be named heir to the mask Until such a time as he is called upon to wear it, he shall be the Prince of Ravens."
The ceremony did not linger much longer than that. A stair materialized for Shinji to descend. It was all coiled light and serpent’s bodies, but Shinji didn't notice. To be the Prince of Ravens would make him heir to the Lord Raven, whose home he now occupied. He couldn't imagine the man had been in favor of this outcome. It would also give Shinji an impressive position to occupy for the next forty years or so until the Emperor actually died. His father was in his eighties, but years didn't mean the same thing when you wore the Mask.
The bridge, the work of witches, evaporated when his boots touched earth. A flood of attendants ushered him away, out of sight of the crowd and toward the palace. A journey to the mainland was hard to countenance. Shinji had sojourned from the capital before but never off of Onshu. It was a daunting prospect, not because he feared the people who dwelled there, but because the mainland was so far apart from his experience that it would be like riding into legend.
Cherry Blossom watched the prince be led away. Seeing him in that armor reminded her of someone, though she could not have said whom.
* * *
Shinji kept his own counsel that night, fully expecting to be summoned by the emperor so that the details of his coming adventure could be divulged. Umiko served his dinner, and his breakfast, but did not try to break his silence. His expression was almost meditative, and she did not wish to disturb it.
There was a quiet knock upon the chamber door, and Cherry Blossom announced shortly after that the Lord Raven had arrived seeking audience with the Prince. Shinji met with him across a balcony table. It was the mainlander style, high enough that you had to use chairs to sit at it. There were many such pieces in the palace.
The Lord Raven was tall and austere, his kimono blue black and traced with fine silver that mimicked the reflective lines of wing feathers. He was clean shaven, with long hair he had tied in a topknot. He looked to be about twice Shinji's age, quite young for someone to achieve such status. Of course, he had held his position for several decades; agelessness was one of the emperor’s gifts to his high lords. They would die with young faces, decaying from within unless murdered sooner by their own families.
They waited for Umiko to bring them tea before they began speaking. The Lord Raven dismissed her with an absent gesture.
"You have not given her witch marks."
"It isn't necessary," Shinji said.
The Raven raised an eyebrow. "Oh? I suppose not. Some rules can be bent for men such as we, can't they." When Shinji didn't respond he went on, "One of my daughters is with child."
"That is joyful news," Shinji said. "Thank you for bringing it to me."
The Lord Raven smiled, donning a wistful gaze as he looked out over the vast number of structures that surrounded the palace. "I have many children, many grandchildren; most of them cannot live in this city. They would have to give up too much. I allow them to find their happiness elsewhere; though I would rather the whole clan remain with me."
"And this new child?" Shinji asked.
The Lord Raven touched a finger to his lip, as if struck with a sudden realization. "You know that we are cousins, my Prince?"
"This is a city of cousins." It was true, everyone who lived in the capital as anything more than a servant shared lineage with the emperors. It was usually distant, however.
"Yes, and we are closer than most," the Raven said. "I would have to review the records. Second cousins twice removed, perhaps, the minutia of genealogy escapes me."
Shinji doubted that it did.
"I am fortunate to have been sheltered by my family for so long."
Shinji inclined his head. Neither of them drank.
"Family," the Raven said, "yes. Do you have any rice wine, cousin?"
Umiko brought then a warmed bottle and a pair of cups, then left before she could be dismissed.
"An efficient servant. I see why you do not want to change her marks."
Shinji poured himself a cup and downed it.
"When I opened my home to you," the Raven said, "I did not consider how long you might stay. This city can be dull, and you have proved an interesting houseguest. How many duels has it been?"
"Three." Shinji soured at the thought.
"All of them had something to do with Cherry Blossom, didn't they?"
Shinji gritted his teeth. "You are correct, as always, my lord." He was embarrassed by his temper on those occasions. He had come far in the year since his last personal duel, and liked to believe he was less susceptible to bating now.
"You have my thanks then, prince." The Raven smiled as if at a shared secret. "She is a perfect creature. Though the Fae are not really to my taste, I can appreciate excellence where I see it. And those spots; very Wabi-Sabi. They make her seem almost wild. I am verging off point now, what I mean to say, my prince, is that it has been an honor to house you."
There was a moment of silence as Shinji breathed. "You mean that time is at an end."
The Raven poured himself a second cup. "You have residence at the palace now. I could have your things sent, though none of that matters now. You are leaving Nihon, are you not?"
"Only to return."
The Lord Raven nodded, as if they were in agreement. "What if you did not return, Shinji? It is no secret that you do not love your father, may he rule forever. You have never sat easy with your place among us. You can escape all of that. Nihon is no place for a creature as restless as you. As your near cousin, I feel compelled to give you this advice. When you leave the islands, bring Cherry Blossom with you, and your servant. Find somewhere to settle far from here where no one will follow. The hand of the empire does not reach far into the mainland. You could find peace there." He spoke with true sincerity, not intending to offend. Shinji found it transparent.
"You think it would not be well for me to be the Prince of Ravens."
The Raven looked uncomfortable, "I have not yet named an heir."
"It is the will of the emperor," Shinji pressed.
"Only if you return."
"You ask me to abandon my destiny."
The Raven shook his head slowly. "A destiny you never wanted, no? I would not overstep myself in such a fashion as to demand anything of you. As I said, I am merely a member of your family voicing my concern. I am advising, and giving warning."
Warning, so there it was. "I am not afraid," Shinji said.
The Raven stood with the practiced grace of a theater performer. He wore no swords at his hips, but empty sheathes. It was the sign of a confident man. "It is not fear that motivates us to do what is right, cousin, both for ourselves and others." He paused at the arch that led onto the balcony. "Consider my words, for I have known this world and those in it far longer than you. I have known those whose sparks burned hotter than others, and how often they burned out. I hold no spite for you. I would not see it so."
The Lord Raven left, and Shinji understood. If he returned, the Raven family would move against him.
* * *
Rarely, do ships from the mainland dock in Onshu. There are a number of ports along the coast of Okkaido, and trade is limited through them. The merchant ships seen in those ports are not like the small sailing ship that arrived now. This ship carried but two men; one dressed in white and the other in a tawny bear cloak and little else besides. The white robed figure led as they entered the city, and the human press parted before them. He was a shiro, walking death, and no one would risk barring his path however odd his companion.
The mainlander was huge, bronze of skin and eye. His name was Bawn. When they passed a servant auction his eyes narrowed, remembering scenes from a life before. His hands could have torn chains like paper, if he burned as he had when in his youth. Instead, they marched on. He had spoken words that could not be unspoken, and he was here to fulfill a bargain, no more.
Where the big man passed, beasts grew restive, and dogs bit their master’s hands. There was a smell like musk, a predators den, wafting in the air. Children grew afraid, and did not know why.
The barbarian carried a god in his belly. He had carried it some thousands of years. He didn't notice the side effects any more. He had other thoughts to occupy him. Bawn was going to the capital.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
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