Semi-Historic Japanese Mythology
|Sakamoto Hiroshi was tired. Setting down the brush he had been practicing his characters with, he reached up to rub his eyes for the tenth time in half an hour. Around him, the small castle he called home was silent, the majority of his forces out defending his territory now that the peasants were harvesting the year’s rice crop. The smell of wood, old tea and new wet washi covering the windows mixed and spread throughout the airy complex, a cool afternoon breeze skirling through the halls and picking up stray dust bunnies the serving girls had missed. Looking through the open sliding doors of his terrace, he saw his lands spread out across the Arakawa river basin and moped.
Before him, the half-finished character for “perseverance” he’d drawn seemed to decry his dark thoughts. Oh, how he wished his men could be practicing in the courtyard below as they normally were! Oh, how he wished his neighbor to the north east, Lord Hiranuma, could learn the truth of enlightenment and become happy with the lands he had! Not with the lands of his neighbors, which he always seemed to chase after!
“Dono!” a sergeant clad in brilliantly inked o-yoroi armor scuttled into the chamber and knelt before him, his helmeted head nearly touching the polished wood of the high lord’s floor. “The great lord Hiranuma has destroyed your outposts east of Enomoto! Are we to call up the ashigaru and return in force!?”
“Another attack,” Hiroshi said quietly, staring out the window and refusing to acknowledge the sergeant. The soldier was a lesser officer in one of his younger units, so he would not take offense at the slight. Besides, Lord Sakamoto was tired. He did not want any of this.
Only recently, one of his sergeants had returned from another skirmish with the Hiranuma forces north of his territory. Yet again, Lord Hiranuma was pressing him when his peasants were busy harvesting and his units were short of ashigaru warriors. It seemed Hiranuma was determined, this year, to take from him the portions of his realm north of the Arakawa River. There wasn’t much there to begin with, but that area happened to hold the site of the Enomoto sake brewery. Lord Sakamoto derived more than half of his annual income from the sale that place’s revered drink. Losing the brewery would effectively destroy the Sakamoto clan, and Lord Hiranuma knew that.
“Dono!” the sergeant called, trying to draw his lord into a response. “We must respond! Hiranuma threatens Enomoto!”
Lord Sakamoto stared, glancing only sidelong at the sergeant. The lord knew his sergeant was speaking the truth, but did he truly wish to sap his peasants from the fields, where they were most needed to harvest the year’s crop, just to fight Hiranuma yet again? Already, he’d done so and over half the fields were still burgeoning with rice yet to be gathered. Hiranuma’s fields were probably already bare, the stalks cut and hung out to dry before threshing. If they did not harvest soon, the crop would be ruined.
Sakamoto Hiroshi felt his jaw clenching and his lips drawing back into a dark smile. Fine. If Hiranuma thought he could destroy the Sakamoto clan when they were at their weakest, the Sakamotos would prove just why they still held the least defensible point in the valley. Wide and filled with alternating fields of rice and bamboo groves with the Arakawa meandering through like a snake, there were few defensive positions once the fortified village of Enomoto was lost.
But Enomoto only secured one end of the valley. The other was open to their peaceful neighbors to the west, the territories of Lord Yoshida and the greater Lord Ushijima and his city of Sainoyama. Both Yoshida and Ushijima counted on the Sakamoto family to protect and defend the eastern end of the valley from invasion. For generations, Sakamotos had defended against the mountain-based Hiranuma clan, and it seemed to Hiroshi Sakamoto at least, that the Hiranuma had forgotten the great defeat dealt them at one point in the past.
It was time to remind them.
“Leave the peasants in the fields,” he said, turning to face the sergeant fully. Reaching out with a single hand, he swept up the piece of paper he’d partially drawn “perseverance” on and crushed it, crumpling it into a rough ball and tossing it to one side.
“Dono!” the sergeant replied, smiling and bowing. What the lord said next, however, wiped the smile from his face and replaced it with a look of surprise and fear.
“We will face the Hiranuma,” Lord Sakamoto said, standing easily. He tossed the brush casually into the lacquered box it had come in. “I will call upon our ancient pact to see to it that the Hiranuma do not threaten us again.”
“H… Hai, Dono!” The sergeant bowed once more, his helmet nearly touching the floor, before rising and rushing out. It was not until the servants had slid the doors closed behind him that he looked back uncertainly. The last time the Sakamoto ancestors had been called upon, not only had the Hiranuma threat been defeated, but three clans lay in ruins. For generations, no Sakamoto had dared raise their voice in anger, lest they give way to the all-consuming fury their ancestors brought with them.
Sakamoto Hiroshi had always been a contemplative type, but it seemed that the Hiranuma had finally pushed him over the limit. A man given more to thoughts of peace and making his peasants and warriors happy rather than warfare and domination, the current lord had apparently decided that enough was enough. He would go to the family shrine, the sergeant imagined, working his way back down the stairs to the ground level, and then the anger of the Sakamoto clan would be allowed back into this world.
The sergeant stopped in the courtyard, to look up at the balcony Lord Sakamoto was now standing on, staring into the distance toward Enomoto. He only hoped that, this time, the Sakamoto fury could be put back where it had come from…
The air was abuzz with cicadas as Hiroko tried to focus. Seiyuu-sensei stood nearby, counting down to the moment when his staff would next rap across her bare back in an attempt to break her concentration. In the training area, her sister Rya was practice-fighting with an oak fighting stand, learning the positions and striking angles Seiyuu-sensei had her studying. On the other side of the temple, the young Shrine Maiden knew, her youngest sister, Naoko, was fetching water from the well, carrying two buckets per trip across a path made entirely of the tops of old bamboo stalks.
The Temple of The Way, as it was known, was a rambling complex, built upon a hillside in a small, unnamed village in the farthest western reaches of the Arakawa river valley. Near the border with the plains between it and the Imperial capitol, it had acted as a defensive bulwark against attacks from the horse-riders of the plains, a civic center for the region, and as the spiritual guide for an entire way of thinking. Seiyuu-sensei was the foremost master of the three-fold path offered by The Way and instructor in all things great and small within its walls. When he was not dealing with the public that constantly clamored for his guidance and leadership, he was training his students. Chief among them were the three girls, Rya, Hiroko and Naoko.
Children of a lesser daimyo, or clan lord, but by different mothers, they had each been given to the Temple as offerings of familial blood and patronization as was custom. Daughters who were not to be married off to end feuds were frequently sent to the temples that dotted this part of the empire, to both lessen the food and sustenance requirements at home, and to provide the necessary hands to maintain the temples in question. Sons, of course, were never allowed far from home, for they became heirs and soldiers in the armies of the empire’s various daimyo.
Tsukanori Koto was titular lord of the western areas influenced by the Temple of The Way. An active warlord, he spawned several children on several women in between fighting to maintain his territories and to expand them where others were weak. Of his daughters, Rya was first, followed three years later by Hiroko. Five years after, Naoko was born to yet a third woman. Each was given to the Temple by their mothers, who gave them their own last names in order to hide their true identities and keep them from being drawn into the power politics of the empire. The Temple of The Way was a perfect opportunity to keep them from Lord Koto’s influence, as it was a separate and distinct entity of its own, owing allegiance to no daimyo and no power back in the Emperor’s court.
“The Way,” Seiyuu-sensei taught anyone who came to the temple, “is distinct, separate, and above earthly concerns. Justice, Fealty and Redemption are above mortal concerns. No earthly lord or leader has fealty over such concepts.”
Because of this teaching, those who knew of the Temple of The Way left it to its own devices. So long as it stayed out of the way and espoused such philosophies as bettered those under its sway, the Emperor would let it stand and protect it from harm. Any who threatened the Temple, it was said, would face the Emperor’s permanent wrath.
Rya, Hiroko, and Naoko had disappeared within its voluminous walls and left the face of the known world for their training.
For years, the three daughters knew they had a common bond, but were uncertain of the truth. Each went about the tasks given by their Master, studying and training under his watchful gaze. They cleaned the floors, repaired the paper walls, carted supplies and practiced constantly. Strength-building, Seiyuu-sensei told them, was paramount. “If one cannot hold up one’s arms without fatigue, one cannot hold up OTHERS’ arms and teach them The Way.”
As such, each girl, as she matured into a young woman, became beautiful in her own way. Strong, slender and sleek, they were beauties to behold. Ready smiles and pleasant personalities were ever at the fore when it came to interacting with others. Seiyuu-sensei would have it no other way. “One cannot teach others if others fear or despise their teacher,” he would tell them. Manners were paramount.
Despite their similarities, the girls were different, each in their own way. Rya was carefree and frequently ignored her studies, earning disciplinary action from her master when she was caught (and it seemed he had eyes everywhere). She was quick, agile, and strong in body, but just as strong, quick, and agile in wit. Naoko was more spiritually-inclined, focusing more on her own betterment than on teaching others. When asked why, she would reply that she would not feel able to teach others until she had mastered herself. Hiroko was most formal of the three, earnestly studying cultural patterns, the language of the Emperor (High Shou) and the ways of leadership. To her, understanding the complexities of the Way of Redemption came easily. It seemed she was the obvious choice for Seiyuu’s replacement when the time came, though none hoped it would come soon.
Finally, when each girl would come of age, Seiyuu-sensei would take them aside and explain their lineage and why they were present in the Temple of The Way. He would ask them if they wished to leave the Temple and return to the life they could have had, knowing full well that, by this time, HE was the life they knew and the father they cherished. Still, he made the offer, and the girls and their belief in their master was only strengthened by it. They would die for him, and he knew it.
Their training would then intensify.
“San… Ni… Ichi…”
Hiroko’s eyes widened, teeth gritting faintly in preparation for the blow she knew was about to fall. Continuing to mutter the sutra she’d been commanded never to stutter during this practice, she waited for the painful smack of the reed across her bare back…
It never came.
It broke her rhythm and she stuttered, glancing around instead of at the white sand she knelt in. Spotted with her sweat where it had rolled off of her pale form, it still held the shadow of Seiyuu-sensei behind her, telling her he was still there.
Just as she began to tense her muscles to turn and see if everything was normal, the blow came, drawing a cry of pain as her body convulsed. Her legs jerked and she sprawled in the raked sand, the white stuff sticking to her body and getting in her mouth as she rolled to look up at her master.
He stood there, smiling faintly. The staff was held lightly in his hand, his kind eyes bereft of any anger.
“You came to expect it,” he said quietly. “Repetition is only useful if one learns the skill, student of mine. If you learn to accept a blow only when you expect it, will you be prepared when a blow comes you are not expecting?” He nodded down at her, crusted now with sand that had stuck to her where sweat had laid before. “Obviously not.”
“Sensei!” she cried, tears springing to her eyes, “This one was not…”
“Quiet,” Seiyuu said softly, stopping her as effectively as if he had screamed or even struck her. She fell silent immediately. “You were not prepared for a blow you did not know was coming. THIS is the point of this exercise, student. In combat, one will be struck when one is in the midst of something and one must… MUST be able to maintain focus!” Though his voice did not rise, the intensity of his words did, and Hiroko knew he was disappointed. “Remember this when we study this practice again.”
“Hai, sensei!” Hiroko flopped forward in the sand where she knelt, throwing her arms out forward, her upper body to the ground as she knelt; a position of abject obeisance.
“Rise,” Seiyuu commanded her. Immediately, she did. “The student who fails only does so because the student does only what they are told, without comprehended WHY they are told. Remember this well, student of mine. Rake the sand properly and clean clean up. There are other studies this evening.”
Seiyuu stood there for a moment while Hiroko gathered her thoughts. Tears of anguish had come to her eyes when she realized she’d failed the test, but there was enough sand on her hands at this point to make any attempt to wipe them away a painful experience, so she left them. Rising, she bowed to her master before walking across the carefully raked sand to where the rake waited.
He watched, her pale skin glistening in the sunlight, the black and red dragons tattooed into her oddly pale flesh seeming to writhe in disappointment as she walked, the red welts where he’d struck her seeming as brands. His students practiced wearing little more than under-things during the summer even late fall, when the weather began to change. For the girls, a simple wrap about their chest and waist protected their privacy while they sweated beneath the hot sun. When their duties called for them to be in public, they wore the light weight yukata decorated with the coiled dragon symbol of The Way in summer or brilliant, multi-colored but heavier kimono during winter. But for now, while they practiced, it was enough to keep them covered where they needed and no more. Seiyuu-sensei’s ways were minimalist in nearly every sense.
Besides, wearing so little made it obvious to each girl that outer trappings were not as important as what was inside, or what was being done. “Overcome your embarrassment,” he told them. “One must be ready to act without concern no matter the situation. If you are attacked when bathing, your gifts will still be there. You must be ready to use them at any time.”
Seiyuu himself rarely wore more than a loincloth when practicing, and as a result his body was butternut brown from years of toil. In Hiroko’s case the choice of clothing, he was pleased to see, allowed the dragon tattoos she had been given to see the light of day, even if her pale skin was beginning to redden with the beginnings of sunburn. Each tattoo was a brand, stating her completion of a particular ritual in the Way of Healing. Rya and Naoko had chosen not to undergo such treatments, but Seiyuu bore his own accomplishments in his skin, and Hiroko wished to do the same, if only to please him.
She hadn’t understood the pain the work entailed the first time she had it done, but by now, when she was nearly a walking form of art. Black and red celestial dragons coiled about her biceps and forearms, curling about her calves and wrapped about her chest and back, each telling of a deep and abiding comprehension of the mysteries of The Way. She understood and appreciated the lessons it gave. She’d literally bled for those markings, after suffering simply to earn them. Seiyuu understood that she had more strength than even she recognized…
Alone of the three, Hiroko’s skin had failed to tan. Where Rya and Naoko were burnished creatures of sun-drenched beauty, Hiroko remained alabaster pale, the sun’s hot touch burning her rather than aiding her. Due to this, she had studied more indoors than the others, mastering High Shou while her sisters studied battle tactics, turning her thoughts to The Way and all its understanding offered more completely than wily Rya or the internally-drawn Naoko.
Seiyuu watched her, her movement sometimes catching at the pain across her back. Now that she was no longer so concentrated, the pain was making itself more evident to her. Still, she had not entirely failed. She had held off the pain while she concentrated, and that was more than many could accomplish, whether or not he varied the routine. In fact, ceasing the regular count was the final test. Hiroko had failed this time – the first time. She would not fail again, he knew. The lesson was learned.
Soon, it would be time to send the trio to the West, on their Proving. It was then that their master of The Way would make itself evident even to them. He kept a private smile to himself as he left, the sound of the rake moving through the sand evident below the buzzing racket in the hot afternoon air.
“Dono, Lord Hiranuma has sent an envoy. Will you see him?”
Hiroshi Sakamoto looked up from his letter and eyed his castle seneschal seriously. Hiranuma must believe he was in a position to take Enomoto to be sending a communiqué. That meant that time was no longer something he could waste. Setting down the brush, he eyed the letter he’d penned for delivery to his allies, reading the words quickly. Then, looking up, he nodded at the seneschal.
That man, a servant of forty years, let forth a soft sigh at this sign and turned to leave. Hiroshi knew that such a display meant far more than the breath. It meant the seneschal felt his daimyo was about to surrender, meaning the eventual dissolution of the Sakamoto lands.
“Before you escort him here,” the lord said, causing his seneschal to stop and turn, “Have my captain of the guard join me. Tell him to remain armed.”
The seneschal’s white eyebrows rose toward his hairline and he stared for just a moment than was proper before turning and moving back out the doorway. Keeping an armed man in his presence meant one of two things – either his lord expected an assassination attempt, or it was a sign of force meant for the envoy’s eyes. Either way, to keep a swordsman nearby was sign that peace would not be coming soon. Instantly, the old man wished he hadn’t sighed in his lord’s presence. His thoughts had betrayed his beliefs to his lord, and his lord had immediately acted. He prayed the events of this evening would not go badly, for his soul would be burdened with a feeling of responsibility if they did not.
Moving down the stairs, he used a side corridor to bypass the room where the envoy waited, fanning himself in the still afternoon air. Hot tea and bittersweet cookies had been offered, along with a wrapped bar of soft, sweet mochi. The envoy would not be able to claim that Sakamoto did not offer full welcome, even to its enemies. Turning down a side corridor, he hurried along to the hall where the guards normally slept. It was quiet, only a skeleton crew still within the castle to defend it in case of attack. The envoy had taken many by surprise.
Entering a dining area, he bowed to the head samurai. “Echigo-sama,” he said quietly, “Sakamoto-dono requests your presence when I introduce the envoy. He says,” the seneschal paused a moment for effect as the soldier stood, reaching up to loosen his belt, where his katana hung, “he says you are to remain armed.”
The warrior’s expression immediately went from resigned to thoughtful. A moment later, a wicked grin creased his expression and he nodded. “Hai. I will attend immediately,” the warrior said. Tightening the ties to his blade, he left, leaving the seneschal even more worried.
Returning to the sitting room, the servants there slid the doors open, bowing as he entered and did so himself. “Most honored envoy,” the seneschal said, noting the fellow had barely touched the food, “honored Sakamoto-dono will see you. Please follow me?”
The envoy sniffed softly, an insult in the restrictive culture of diplomacy in the empire, and stood, bumping the table with his sword (another insult) and sending the cookies sliding across the red silk tablecloth. Waving and using insulting language, the envoy told him to move.
The seneschal had to bite his lip once he’d turned away to avoid an insult about the man’s lineage and any who had taught him, or failed to have taught him, his manners. Instead, he led him upstairs, suddenly hoping the dono had asked for his warrior to be with him in a display of force this envoy would never forget. The seneschal had no idea how right he was.
Reaching the daimyo’s personal chambers, he spoke to the serving girls kneeling to either side of the sliding doors, causing them to slide the doors back before returning to a curled position and touching their heads to the floor. They would not meet the eyes of any visitor, he knew. To do so would give permission to the one thus eyed to kill them on the spot. The envoy strutted into the archway leading to the daimyo and then stopped, staring at the armed soldier standing at the side of Sakamoto-sama. The daimyo, immersed in finishing the letter he’d been writing, barely looked up as his visitor was announced.
Insult for insult, thought the seneschal, grinning once the girls had slid the door back. Backing away, he listened carefully to the words about to be said.
“Sakamoto-dono,” the envoy said roughly, “is this how you receive a visitor from your honored neighbor and friend, Hiranuma-dono?”
“Hiranuma-san,” the daimyo replied, using the lesser title equating equality purposefully, “is not a neighbor, nor a friend.” He continued writing without looking up.
The envoy took the bait, his anger immediately rising at the slight. Sakamoto would not play a game this day. What words were to be said would be said straightforward. Fine.
“Enomoto is ours,” the envoy said smugly. “Our forces can crush the village and destroy the brewery in a matter of minutes, should we wish. Your defenses have been swept aside, your paltry soldiers slaughtered to the man.” He grinned at the stone-faced samurai standing beside the lord. The soldier’s eyes never wavered; never leaving the face of the envoy, as if memorizing him.
Sakamoto dipped his pen in the ink at the end of his inking stone and glanced up while it dripped. “You will not do so,” he said simply.
“And why not?”
“Because the only reason Hiranuma wants Enomoto is for the brewery. Destroy the village and you destroy the people who work there. Destroy the brewery and you destroy the reason for taking the village.” He shrugged, putting his brush back to work. He continued to refuse to meet the eyes of the envoy. That, plus the fact that he had entirely left off a title this time for the Hiranuma daimyo were insults that would only be settled at the end of a sword.
“Hiranuma-dono will not stand for…”
“NO!” Sakamoto said, stopping and looking up. The envoy, not expecting to be interrupted, said a few more insignificant threats before coming to a halt and staring at the man he’d been told would be nearly cowering in fear; a scholar forced to fight a war he could not wage, against a clearly superior foe. Something was not right, here.
“No?” the envoy ventured after a moment.
“Hiranuma will receive nothing from the Sakamoto clan. He will leave Enomoto and return to the mountains, and he will not return.” Hiroshi Sakamoto finished the letter, set his brush aside and then carefully blew across the ink to make it dry. A moment later, he reached out to pick up the square red block stamp that was used to mark his personal seal and marked the letter, making it official. The envoy watched all of this in startled anger.
“You are in no position to make threats, Sakamoto!” he finally gathered the anger to say.
Hiroshi Sakamoto finally looked up and met the envoy’s eyes. When he did, his eyes were the glazed, flat darkness of one who’d seen hell and was afraid of nothing anymore. “If Hiranuma does not do as I say, Hiranuma will face the full capability of the Sakamoto clan.”
The envoy snorted. “Your full capability is less than a quarter what we field NOW, Sakamoto-dono. You cannot stop us. Surrender while you can, and we will…” He stopped, looking up as adrenaline and fear coursed through his veins for the last few moments of his life. Then, he saw nothing, his head severed from his body by the blade of the warrior, who had finally taken action at the word ‘surrender’ and ended this farce of a friendly visit. The heavy thump of the envoy’s head, followed shortly thereafter by his body were the only sounds in the otherwise silent room.
“Send his head to his lord,” Sakamoto Hiroshi said flatly, eyeing the dead envoy impassively. “Burn the body.”
Hiroko watched as Rya ran the obstacle course Seiyuu-sensei had set up for her this morning. A mixture of potted plants, rows of bamboo poles set into the mud of the practice area and armored dummies, it was meant to test both her mental faculties and her agility. She was to deliver three pots of water from one end of the course to the other, attacking each dummy as she went while avoiding Sensei’s pole thrusts from beside and below the course. She had already delivered two, deftly avoiding the thrusts at her legs and feet, slashing the dummies as she passed with a wooden katana known traditionally as a bokken.
“I do not think Sensei will let her deliver the last,” Naoko said, grinning an aside to her. The two were seated on the balcony of a rearward extension of the Temple that overlooked the moss-covered stones and placid waters of the reflecting pond. It had rained hard recently, and the pool had overflowed. Seiyuu-sensei had requested that Hiroko and Naoko take buckets and spread the water over the already soaked practice area each had spent days in learn martial techniques from their master. Then, he had directed them in placement of the obstacle course, until they realized what it meant. From the flat, dirt area they practiced in, gradually climbing upward until Rya would be moving on the bamboo poles Naoko had practiced on the day before, the path rose until a fall could be lethal.
There was only one reason such a test would be initiated. Rya’s final test had come.
The woman in question bounced back to the collection of pots they’d set up at one end of the field. Sensei stood in the middle, holding a long pole he’d brought from his own personal quarters within the temple. Square and decorated with calligraphy, its ends were wrapped in red cloth tied there with golden thread. It was very attractive, but apparently somewhat bulky to use. Naoko had noticed Sensei’s apparent lack of grace in wielding it during Rya’s first two runs and made comment.
“You may be right, but I think Rya will find a way past him. She always does. She has probably already determined how Sensei will attack and alternate routes.” Such was her specialty, after all.
“That does not mean he will do what she expects,” Naoko said softly.
Hiroko winced. That had been the meaning of her last training with her master, after all. She nodded, wondering what Rya would do when something completely unexpected came her way?
Rya picked up the pot in one hand and set it in the crook of her arm, preparing for the journey. Turning back, she eyed the obstacle course, picking out her path and the variations she would use when Sensei moved to block her. The last time, Sensei had missed her by a hair’s breadth, nearly sweeping her feet out from beneath her as she passed to the left of him on the poles approaching the top of the waterfall she was to fill.
The young woman knew what this was; knew what it meant. None of Sensei’s tests had ever carried this much danger or required this much concentration. Her bokken could be used to attack or defend while she made the run – attack the dummies, defend against his swipes from the sides and beneath. He’d nearly struck her three times on the first run, almost tripped her off the poles the last time. His strikes were fast and lethal. Her skin was rippled with goose bumps due to the challenge. Her lips were drawn back in a rictus of pleasure – this is what she lived for!
With a kiai to let loose her breath and throw herself into the action, she shot back across the course, alerting Sensei that she was ready. He would have been able to tell by the bunching of her muscles anyway, but he’d taught them all to let loose their energy in a single shout, to concentrate it and give it strength. Rya leapt at the first line of bushes, vaulted across and smacked the first dummy with her sword.
She leapt up, tilted and whirled across a series of stone blocks set on edge to test her balance before the coming forest of poles.
She screamed another kiai as she crossed an open void that would drop her into an open muddy pit neither of her sisters could leap.
Turning the pot in her arms so as to not let its contents loose, she tilted and somersaulted sideways into a flat board, the tips of her feet making contact before she bunched and pushed off, somersaulting the other way and landing on the first of the pole forest. Her arm was wet, but none of it had splashed away.
Sensei pressed something on the staff he held, causing twin blades to slide out of either end of the pole, drawing gasps of shock and fear from Hiroko while Naoko merely grinned.
Rya, hearing the sound, paused to eye the weapon and take in the new threat. With the blades extended, Sensei could now easily reach her stomach, ripping her open and sending her flying to the ground with her innards speared on their tips. This was no game. Her smile began to fade before returning in full force.
To hell with it!
Leaping forward with another kiai to release pent up fear and adrenaline, she began cavorting across the poletops, leaping this way and that, balancing for only a moment before lifting her weight to move further.
Sensei spun, instead of raising the blades to spear Rya, using them to chop a section of poles in her intended direction in half, sending them clattering to either side, the girls on the balcony shouting in surprise as severed ends of the heavy bamboo crashed down amongst them. Rya changed course, angling around the now circular opening amidst the forest. One foot touched down on a sliced but still intact pole, and she immediately lifted off, pressing forward despite the danger. Where the poles had stood was now a field of spikes staring her in the face, Sensei in the middle, watching her passively.
The pole shattered beneath her feet, the strike Sensei had dealt it enough to weaken it but not sunder its strength. Rya’s weight, plus that of the heavy pot of water, were enough to collapse it, sending splinters in every direction. Rya counterbalanced by throwing the pot out in the direction away from her fall, pulling herself that way while her feet searched for another pole. Finding one, she leapt again.
To find herself at the waterfall. She poured the water onto the stones gathered there before turning to bow at Sensei, where he still stood, having spun to see her completion of the task.
“Descend,” he commanded.
Rya set the pot down on a pole nearby, centering it on the top of the bamboo before spinning off the top of her pole and clambering down it even as it began to fall in the direction of her weight. Leaping off, she ducked and rolled upon hitting the ground and stood again, smiling in success at her sensei. As she reached the area where the broken bamboo lay, she suddenly found herself staring down the end of the double-bladed staff he’d used, the blade thrust below her chin and pricking the skin at her throat.
She swallowed. “Sensei? Did I do wrong with the pots?”
“No,” her teacher said, lowering the weapon. “Only in dropping your guard before I told you the test was over.”
“You said to descend!?” she complained, causing her sisters to moan and grin at each other. Each time, Rya would battle with Sensei over the meaning of this or that test. Each time, Sensei would explain how she had failed and why, taking it one step further than Rya was ready for. Each time, Rya would complain for the rest of the day that Sensei was being unfair. Hiroko and her other sister had come to expect it.
“That does not mean the test is over, hmm?” Seiyuu asked, smiling faintly. Pressing a hidden stud, he withdrew the blade before tossing it to Rya. “You have completed your test. This is your reward.”
Rya stared at the weapon, reading the symbols written upon its four surfaces. They were sutras, dedicated to knowledge of the mind, the body, the soul, and eternity.
“Only when those are focused as one,” Sensei said, watching her read the sutras, “will the wielder become the blade.”
Rya stared in awe at the incredible weapon before remembering herself (and hearing the snickers of her sisters). Bowing deeply, she thanked her master for the gift and then turned to hold it up in triumph to her sisters.
“I did it!”
“Yes,” Seiyuu said, moving to stand beside her. “You did. There is little more I can teach you about your chosen path. Your time is nearly done here.”
“Done?” Rya turned sharply, staring at her teacher.
“Correct,” the girls’ instructor said. On the balcony, Hiroko and Naoko were moving toward a stair, to come and inspect her prize and to congratulate her with hugs and words of victory. “Now that you have finished your journey within this temple, you must begin your journey outside of it. Take what you know, and bring it to the people, so that they may share in its beauty.”
Hiroko and Naoko arrived, offering hugs and kisses on the cheek, while Seiyuu turned and stared off in the direction of the gates. A moment later, a runner from town came trotting around the corner of the temple and through the mud.
“Someone has need of us,” he said. In the messenger’s hands was an official-looking document. “Perhaps your first duty comes calling?”
Lord Hiroshi Sakamoto walked into the shrine beneath his castle and eyed the brightly lit chamber with satisfaction. As always, the three hundred candles were each lit, their tapers carefully cared for. Above, painted on the walls, images of Fudo Myo, the red-skinned, seemingly angry guardian of The Way, stared down at him, offering images of the fury contained within this shrine even though his appearance was meant to scare others into seeing the truth behind the lies, his sword meant to cut through deception rather than flesh. Lord Sakamoto bowed to the images, closing his eyes and whispering the mantra offered to Fudo Myo, to let the guardian know he understood his meanings even as he moved about the shrine and offered respects to the tablets and statues representing ancestors of the Sakamoto shrine. Everywhere, gold glittered from entablatures, shrines, bowls and basins, each an offering to the ancestors and a show of respect given by those who had come before.
It was the ultimate irony, Hiroshi though, lighting an incense stick in the permanent flame basin at the bottom of the family altar. Fudo Myo carried an angry appearance to frighten off demons and to scare mortals into recognizing that their own path would lead to their doom. His images had been painted here to keep the spirits who called this place home in their place. Nio-sama, or guardian statues, normally placed facing outwards at the entrance to the temples about the valley of the Arakawa to ward against angry spirits making their way into the temples to case havoc, here were placed facing in – to keep the angry Sakamoto ancestors from leaving their home and gold-gilt prison.
Generations before Hiroshi’s time, the Hiranuma’s predecessor, the Inori, had pressed into the eastern edges of the Arakawa river basin, seeking the lowlands to conquer and pillage. They and their allies, the Hino and the Akiyama, had waged war across the highlands, devastating all who opposed them and absorbing those who chose peaceful submission. A mountainous kingdom was in the works, and the Sakamoto clan territories were next in line.
Tsuyoshi Sakamoto had been daimyo at the time, a man of great physical and charismatic presence – a leader among warriors and a hero to the people of the river basin. He had led charge after charge into the Inori forces, breaking up their assaults, tricking them into attacking figments of armies that were not there, and throwing defeat and chaos into the previously undefeated forces of the invader. Everyone thought the Inori would be stopped, but the Inori were not limited to only physical combat. Late one night, as the Sakamoto armies were returning from another victory, a dark mist arose about the Sakamoto compound. Guards grabbed for their throats, but died before they could touch them. Women gathered breath to scream in fear and collapsed where they had worked. Servants dropped their tools and supplies in mid-stride, falling into a hideous, agonizing death.
When Tsuyoshi’s men demanded the gates to their own castle be opened, they were met with a silence so profound that some of the soldiers began to fear the land itself had died. Only when an agile soldier clambered over the undefended walls and opened the gates, his skin pasty white with fear, did the victorious army see the defeat that had been dealt them.
“Majitsu!” the soldiers cried, eyes widening in terror. The entire compound had died, with not a wound to show for it. Even Sakamoto Emi, the beautiful queen of the Sakamotos had been laid low, a sutra of protection held in one hand, her eyes open, seeking that which had cut off her breath, even in death. Not far away, the eldest Ayumi, Masako, three years younger, and Chieko, little more than a babe, five years Masako’s lesser, the three daughters of the young daimyo’s family, lay dead in their cribs and beds, their maidservants sprawled on the floor beside them.
In every room, in every soldier’s billet, death had come. The loved ones of the Sakamoto, thought safe in their fortress, had been taken through magics most foul and died without a chance to defend themselves. Children, aged and loyal servants who had been with the Sakamoto since birth, lovers and friends, all slain before they could even move to defend themselves or their home.
After the terror, after the few weak-willed of the Sakamoto army had fled, screaming into the night, the fury began to set in. Tsuyoshi and his men made a pact, to see the Inori destroyed to the man, along with all of their allies. Anyone with the name Inori, Hino, or Akiyama would pay the price for what had happened this night. Without stopping even to resupply, Tsuyoshi sent a priest to the Temple of the Way, far at the end of the valley, to have him come and cleanse the fortress of the evil taint of whatever had done this. The men gathered their loved ones, tried to organize their thoughts, and mourned.
In the morning, the ashes of three hundred fires rose into the air around the Sakamoto stronghold. Inori forces on the other side of the valley watched and exulted in victory, knowing their dark attack had been successful.
That night, they were repulsed from the valley altogether, set upon, they told others later, by demons who seemed as men. Soldiers in Sakamoto armor who would not die when struck mortal blows, officers who took tens of arrows in the chest and still shouted orders, striking down scores of enemy before falling, cursing the Inori, the Hino, and the Akiyama with threats so dire as to turn their mouths black as they died.
Tsuyoshi led the way, his daimyo’s armor polished into a burnished brilliance visible from anywhere on the field of battle. He swept aside flights of arrows, crashed his blade through the thrusts of opponents, lopped of heads and limbs without any hesitation in his arm or loss of strength throughout the day. The greatest warriors of the Inori gathered to strike him down, take his head, and carry it back to their daimyo back in their mountain strongholds.
Each warrior fell, bystanders telling shocked stories of how, with each blow that landed, the Sakamoto daimyo seemed to swell in both size and strength, until he towered over those who hacked at him and then fled in terror. Similarly, with each casualty inflicted on the assembled Inori forces, the Sakamoto men grew more angry, more powerful, more immune to blows.
By the time the priest of The Way had come to the Sakamoto fortress to answer the summons, tales had spread across the empire of the Sakamoto war effort. Tsuyoshi’s men had reversed the fortunes of the Inori and their allies. Ambassadors who came to plead for peace were summarily executed, their perfumed heads sent back in lacquered boxes with one word written on blessed rice paper: “majitsu.”
Far behind the lines, the priest of The Way stood in awestruck silence at the solemn line of boxes laid out before the Sakamoto fortress. White boxes, decorated and tied closed, but each holding the remains of a victim of the magic that had taken the Sakamoto clan, had been arranged in neat lines in the courtyard. A single letter, written by Tsuyoshi himself, told the priest what needed to be done.
Sending for aid, he set about doing just that. In the mountains, Inori, Hino, and Akiyama fortresses burned, survivors raving about demons who could not die bearing the Sakamoto flag on their backs.
Only when the last Inori castle had fallen, when the family graveyards of the Hino and Akiyama clans turned to rubble along with the castles that defended them, did the Sakamoto army cease its action. The Emperor had written missives warning that the Inori and their allies ruled a substantial area and should not be entirely destroyed. They had gone unread.
On that day, a roar of unbridled rage filled the skies above the empire. It was said that even the Emperor himself heard the unnerving sound and asked what it could be.
“Loss,” was the one-word response. A priest of The Way, appraised of what was now taking place in the sacred place beneath the Sakamoto fortress, shook his head and went on his way.
That night, after the nameless priest had completed the shrine Hiroshi now stood in, the primal rage of Tsuyoshi Sakamoto and his no longer completely human warriors, was abruptly cut off. In its place, the calm voice of a single, unnamed priest chanting sutras devoted to Fudo Myo echoed in a quiet chamber, the light of three hundred candles filling the newly completed shrine shining off of newly minted Nio statues, turned to face in rather than out.
Nio, it was said, were to keep angry spirits from entering shrines. These, the young priest knew, would keep them IN.
Hiroshi Sakamoto, knowing that to send his peasants into battle would mean a winter without food and a Spring defeat at the hands of the Hiranuma, stood now within that shrine, eyes on the small structure it was said held the angry spirits of Tsuyoshi Sakamoto and his army of undefeatable warriors.
A nephew who had been serving at the Emperor’s request returned to the Sakamoto lands after the warriors and their anger were locked up in the shrine. Told to undertake the study of The Way so as to never let his anger be released like this, he immediately instructed his family and retainers to study reverently and never forget what had happened. Three clans were completely destroyed, a power vacuum had been created in the mountains, and the Sakamotos (those who had been away at the time) were now looked upon with fear and revulsion.
Hiroshi’s father had passed on the story of what had happened, as had his father and his father before him, all the way back to the Sakamoto who had rebuilt the lands after the war and undertaken a familial vow to protect this end of the Arakawa basin. Each Sakamoto lord had taken on the vow upon becoming daimyo, each had learned of the past and been encouraged to undertake serious study of The Way and to pray beneath the scowling images of Fudo Myo, warned what would come if the path and the past were forgotten.
Hiroshi now saw no other way. Lord Yoshida could not spare forces to aid him, and Ushijima would have little to do with the Sakamotos who protected his beautiful town from the mountains of the east. Sakamoto men were counted upon to protect the western regions, and it seemed that he had nowhere else to turn. Looking up at Fudo Myo, painted on the walls, he uttered a prayer for forgiveness…