Saga was standing guard when the wasp found him.
He was a unique man. He alone could prove it was useless to stand upon a wall, watching outward, when the true danger to his lord was lurking on the inside. He could prove the terror that crept the night shadows invisible. He could prove the compound was haunted.
But Saga was bound by the rules. He was samurai. He obeyed his lord. He did his duty. No matter if he labored at futile work or if the hot afternoon slapped its glower upon his neck, or if his bladder quivered at capacity and his sore feet could nearly growl and his blisters displayed the ingenuity and diligence to grow blisters of their very own. He stared out over the lands cleared by axe and careful fire, and he regarded even the twitch of the brush in the wind with diligent suspicion.
The brown speck didn’t escape his notice. Across the blasted lands the wasp came, arrowing fast with no regard to the hover-flit-flutter of the insect swarms it passed. It dipped low and high as if tasting the air, twice circling round to sample again some invisible flavor. Then it was darting through the bubbling moat’s vapor and, with speed, over the bamboo spikes and up the face of the wall and between the slats of the palisade. It circled Saga thrice, warily out of arm’s reach, before coming to hover in a satisfied dance above his brow.
Saga was trained in sword and bow and wore the scars of their hard use. But he trusted his own eyes before any steel. He was vigilant as he lifted his hand.
The wasp alighted, fluttering its wings and settling in a brown and black curve over the bump of Saga’s knuckle. There was a time when the pinch of a wasp’s foot had set his nerves atickle, and a time later when it became so familiar he’d forget the creatures’ presence and be reprimanded as a dullard. Now the alighting was both second nature and substantial as a wound.
Saga propped his bow against his shoulder and glanced around with all casualness. He was alone on this stretch of the wall, none of the other guards in the distance paying him any mind. Certain, then, that he was unwatched, he steadied his pulse, ran a finger under the wasp’s pleated body, and found the reed glued to the thorax. It was a longer reed than those past, and thick, and this told him much. But he would have to decipher the message to be sure. Saga scratched along the edges with a fingernail filed thin for the purpose. Slip tug and prise, gentle lest he harm the tiny messenger. Tug and prise until the adhesive began to—
A footstep sounded.
Saga coughed as a cover, flicked the wasp from his hand and smoothed the gesture into a shading of his eyes against the red weary afternoon. In half a beat of his heart he’d erased any thought of the wasp from both mind and muscle. His existence was once again his watch. The shadows had grown longer. The cicadae still droned.
The footsteps belonged to the relief guard approaching with the slap of a quiver at his side marking percussive time. The guard climbed the ladder and eased himself upon the narrow plank walkway that was their post.
“Good evening,” the soldier said once he’d caught his breath.
Saga returned his bow. “It’s a hot one, isn’t it?”
“Ehh,” agreed the man, Meko by name. “But it’ll be cold again soon enough.”
“K’so! That’s the truth! Between the sweat-rot in the summer and the frostbite in the winter I’ll be lucky if my private pestle survives another year.”
They laughed tired laughs, and Meko strung his bow and breathed deeply the sulfur-scented air. The joke had done its job, easing the tension on Meko’s brow. The man was heading into a night watch. The disappearances had all occurred at night. The ghost fires too.
“Is all well upon our lord’s wall?” he asked when he was ready.
“The wall is secure,” Saga replied.
“Would you allow me the honor of relieving your post?”
“Please, the honor is mine.”
They bowed to each other once more. Saga handed him the signal bell. And with the change of the guard complete, Saga was free of his post for the day. He pissed gratefully between the slats of the palisade and cheered when a measure made it all the way to the moat. He said his goodbyes. He climbed down the ladder.
He staunchly paid no attention to the wasp that followed.
♦ ♦ ♦
The stronghold had once been an inn for relaxation and avail among the hot springs, an unsafe place. With the peasants too few and too frail to erect the fortifications alone, Saga and his fellows had been forced to labor beside them—hacking the gardens back, running horses in pounding monotony to flatten new paths, slathering fireproof plaster over the rustic rough-hewn pillars—making their new stronghold suitable and tame. The wall upon which Saga stood his posts represented a nightmare month of construction. The moat, fed by canals cut from the scalding pools, represented two.
The wall was imperfect, of course. There were gaps, thin and unobvious but enough for the odd breeze to keen despondently through. Whistles and moans. Weary witches, the troop called them. It was a dirgeful noise, contrapuntal to the hiss, bubble, and spit of the hot springs mulling across the grounds in copses and rocky corners—sulfurous mists floating like curtain tatter. This was the theater that escorted Saga and the other members of his watch as they climbed from their perches and made for the barracks.
Saga fit in with the others. He was ai no ko like they were, a “mongrel of the between,” a mixed-race man bearing both the features of his samurai heritage and the foreign lines that spiced it. For Saga this meant an unusual height and skin the color of barbarian tea. Others bore blue eyes or an eagle’s hooked nose or hair red and stiff as a broom’s foot.
Among the motley throng, Saga jested as they jested and spat like they spat and bent the curves of his face to hide the fear and sickness and exhaustion just like they did. He even walked like they walked, but faster on this evening, faster so that none noticed the wasp nagging the air above his brow. His goal was the barracks and the dark privacy of his corner thrush mat, and he very courteously sped his way along.
He hadn’t gone far when he was hailed by a voice eager and loud.
“Oi, Saga! Tell us barters!”
Saga looked but did not slow and saw the fleshy-nosed man, whose bombastic voice was outmatched only by the untamed immensity of his mustache, leading a group of samurai in a briskness to match his own.
It was Uji, an ai no ko, privileged to wear the two swords in his belt but who nonetheless suffered from a barbarian education. “Come, give us challenge!” he called.
Saga thought of pretending he hadn’t heard, but his heart panged, and he knew the rules wanted otherwise. He paused and bowed to the group of men in Uji’s company. “My mind’s worn thin this evening. If I don’t sleep soon my tongue will turn stupid.”
“Good! I look better when you look stupid,” Uji declared with a grin. He dipped his finger into the kettle at his side and absently licked a black clot the size of a plum stone.
Saga smiled at the jest, fell in step with the group—their pace decidedly lessened—and relented to the game. “I’d give my nipple for new armor,” he said, challenging.
Uji tch’ed, nudging the fellow at his side. “Dung on new,” he said. “Take nipple for armor that fits.”
Saga thought of the sweat-soaked days leading to damp, chill nights, of the men shivering on their mats in the night. “Piss on the armor, then. Take mine for a new blanket.”
“Snot on that. Patches for blanket.”
“Snot on that!” Saga declared, walking with a hitch to pantomime a tangle in his crotch. “You can have my nipple for a new loincloth.”
“Ehh!” the group agreed in unison, giving Saga the win and chuckling to a man.
“Give me a first-class courtesan,” came next from another soldier, “with a good mouth and soft hands. I’ll give you a nipple and a toe besides.”
“Dung on your first-class,” returned Saga.
The “ehh” was sounded among a chorus of laughter.
And so the game went—competitors pairing, the simplest and cleverest receiving applause, new bouts forming without rhyme or pattern.
They had traveled around a bend in the path near Tomuchi-sama’s headquarters—someone offering an eyelid for rice free of weevils, someone else a fingertip for fresher chugi sticks with which to wipe one’s anus—when a flash of color caught Saga’s attention. He and the others stopped, their game fallen silent.
Across the audience yard Lord Tomuchi sat upon his dais, his unadorned and ever-present palanquin waiting nearby. On the ground the troop commander General Kumo waited with his sword raised over the slumped form of a kneeling man, waiting patiently while the condemned stuttered out his final words. In attendance were the honor guard, the peasant palanquin bearers with their faces low, and an audience of lesser samurai. And of course there was General Kumo’s consort Lady Amé who waited with her two maids, all three garbed in artful layers of kimono colored gaily as sipping birds.
The general’s blade flashed fire in the sunset and the kneeling man was felled, the aortal rush of blood chasing his head across the yard in pulses. All in attendance bowed to his corpse.
General Kumo presented the head to Tomuchi-sama, who nodded his approval, but it wasn’t until the general turned to slip the token into a sack that Saga recognized it as that of Sleepy-Eyed Gozen, a soldier from the night watch. Fair with the sword, better with the bow, best with a sake cup. The contorted face disappeared into the sack, its eyes large and pained and drowsy no longer.
Saga bowed like the rest, and he realized here was an opportunity to be on his way. He set off once more for the barracks, ignoring the muttered conversations that sprouted among the troop, and refused to turn when Uji’s artless boom rose above the chatter. “What was crime?” Uji asked.
“Treason,” came the answer. It was Jimushi, standing apart from the others with the shaft of a long naginata propped against his shoulder, his countenance one of a soldier just starting his watch, fresher and less worn than those returning.
“What do you know of it?” someone asked.
“Little enough,” Jimushi called. “Another invisible fire destroyed a storage shed last night. We have an execution today. It takes a brief reasoning to suppose he was held at fault.”
Saga was nearing the corner of the headquarters building when he heard, over his shoulder, Uji rumble his confusion. “You think Gozen was traitor?”
Jimushi scoffed aloud, provocative. “Do you?”
The group weighed the question in silence. Their defeats, their hunger, their aches and sicknesses were woes that any warrior could accept. But what about the other calamities, the impossible ones—the water tower that rotted overnight and collapsed; the epidemic of lame horses and cancered messenger birds; the village crops that wilted without blight or pest? And what of the corpses? The deserters found dead in the forest, carcasses whole and unmarked by tooth or claw, drained of blood? Tomuchi-sama had dismissed any idea of ghosts. And the men, despite their superstitions, were forced to accept that word as law. A traitor then, most of them believed, hoped. But was it a man like Gozen who could cause these things? Just an ordinary man? Did they believe that? Saga halted—the wasp zooming ahead but looping back, impatient—and examined the lean faces, dread seething from one to the next like a disease recurred. And he knew the answer, unanimously, was no.
“Piss on all things,” said Uji in his thick foreign cadence. “I give life to see real spy dead.”
“Ehh...,” agreed the gathered samurai darkly, and in ones and twos they drifted off for the barracks. Except Uji, who knelt in his barbarian way to pray for the dead man.
And except Saga, who now had an affront to correct.
♦ ♦ ♦
Law for a samurai was very simply the word of his lord. For a servant to call his lord’s word into question was disloyalty at best, sedition at worst.
Saga debated between urgency for the wasp and duty to Tomuchi-sama’s honor. One pushed him to the barracks. One told him to stay. Finally, with a compromise and a sigh, he braced himself and hailed Jimushi. He wasn’t surprised by the haughty irritation on the man’s face. Jimushi was pure-blooded.
“What is it?” Jimushi said, returning his bow with a shallower one.
Saga felt his own irritation rise but remembered his duty and kept his voice calm. “You owe an apology.”
Jimushi grunted. “Isn’t it rude, to say a thing like that so bluntly?”
The samurai on the lane passed them by and watched the wind in the clouds and otherwise gave no indication they were listening. But they were listening. Saga spoke loudly. “I didn’t know soldiers of the watch were on formal terms.”
“A symptom of your youth,” Jimushi said, the flesh of his starved face loose and dancing. “Maybe you’ll better understand courtesy when you’ve put on some years.”
Saga eyed the half-shorn gray stubble atop Jimushi’s pate. “Judging from you, old man, I think that unlikely.”
Jimushi smirked and looked up at Saga sidelong, the gaze condescending despite their difference in height. “You forget yourself.”
“Don’t presume and so on and so forth, yes?”
Saga frowned. “If you want a—”
“I think there’s nothing you could offer to make this conversation any less tedious. But I do see we’re to expect some liveliness soon.” He turned his back to Saga and nearly earned a lump for it.
But from across the lane, in beautiful silence upon a glide of tiny footsteps, Lady Amé and her maids approached in their customary splendor. And Saga’s hand fell still of its own accord.
While most of the consorts and wives were unreachable across the field of war, Lady Amé had been trapped with her retinue during a visit to General Kumo. It was Tomuchi-sama himself who’d arranged their coupling, and though the general had accepted solemnly, there was not a man under his command who failed to notice the lighter spirit on that old gruff face of his. In time Amé and her ladies also became Tomuchi-sama’s joy. He invited them to serve tea just to hear their wit and twittering gossip, while they doted on him as upon a favored uncle. For Saga, Amé was in one body artistry, nobility, and almost peasant pragmatism. She was a goddess of good nature. She was a friend.
When the she caught sight of him beside Jimushi she waved cheerily. The bow Saga returned was outlandishly somber, the gesture of a man done great favor. Her maids giggled behind their hands.
“Good evening, Honorable and Deeply Serious Little Brother,” she said in mock solemnity.
“It is that, Heavenly Elder Sister. Your grace brings life to even the gravest twilight.”
“Oh, stand up,” Amé said after a brief bow. “This languid air has made you boring.”
Saga straightened to a painted smile and the scantest flower of perfume.
“And aged beyond your years,” she told him, continuing her thought. “You unbend like the withered penis of an old and decrepit turtle.”
The overwrought courtesy was itself a joke between them, for they’d discovered some time ago how much each enjoyed embroidering the crude. Saga flattened his grin with an effort and said, matching her tone, “As the estimable lady has mentioned, I am unaccustomed to performing my duties in this climate. But if she would care to stand my watch tomorrow, I would be honored to receive her instruction in the art.”
“Oh, I could never consider such a thing. You’ve been a man some two years now—”
“Forgive me, but I must disagree,” replied Saga with a bow. “I completed my rite thirty-one months ago. Tomorrow will make thirty-two.”
The lady returned his bow. “Months! Of course! Your wondrous experience is evident by the—” she squinted “—tens of hairs decorating your face. There is nothing a lowly woman could hope to teach you.”
“Quite the contrary! I am disadvantaged in matters of war, for my sword has but a single edge, where certainly the Lady Amé’s tongue is dreadful for its two.”
The maids affected shock before giggling all the more.
“Do you see, ladies?” she told them. “Never join in a watering match with a man: we lack the equipment to compete!”
This was met with good humor by the soldiers passing on the lane, including Uji who’d risen from his prayer, broad barbarian face cleft in a grin.
Pleased, Saga opened his mouth to continue their duel.
“You two play a cute little kyougen,” he said. “But these farces are typically performed on stage, yes? With nobler audiences?”
His mockery was vinegar over the sweetness of the moment, smiling faces gone long. But the bitter air lived a meager life, banished by the snap of Amé’s fan. “Oh, but every audience is noble,” she said, the paper trifle conjured in full flutter to tease with wind a hair astray from her chignon. “Thank you for trusting me with your questions, Jimushi. Though, and forgive my woman’s mind—as I said it’s unaccustomed to considering the facets of a soldier’s duty—aren’t you delinquent for your watch? The hour does seem late. And Kumo-sama is very strict when it comes to timeliness.”
Jimushi’s rheumy eyes flicked briefly at mention of the general, but he recovered his smirk and said, “It’s a simple matter. Saga has had the courtesy to inform me of a grievance for which I must apologize. He’s samurai of a fashion. He deserves my attention.”
Abruptly all eyes turned to Saga. “Of a fashion?” he demanded.
Jimushi grinned all the wider. “Dirty, of course.”
Uji frowned and spat. Even Amé’s fan hitched its rhythm.
Saga, though, clenched his features into careful stoicism. “‘Barbarian-’ or ‘mix-blooded’ are the legal and more acceptable terms.”
“But ‘dirty’ is legal too, isn’t it? Both that false Denrai-dog emperor in the north and our beloved true emperor of the southern court have declared it so, correct? So you’re dirty. Legally dirty.” Jimushi’s delight was smeared from ear to ear.
An ai no ko was a creature of inconvenience. He was what the Denrai clans called unclean, confusing, evidence of the rape of their beloved empire by the Khan’s Peace. The Kindai clans, ever more permissive, politely named him an “unfortunate.” The greater part of Tomuchi’s fighting force comprised mixed-blooded men who’d sworn their swords to the Kindai for a chance at a better way. Judging from the angry faces, Jimushi’s philosophy was proving unpopular.
“We should return to our earlier conversation,” Saga told him, “and not waste time grinning over japes.”
Jimushi aimed a moping swat at the wasp dancing on the air between them. “You’d like to scrape this smile from my face, wouldn’t you?”
“I’d like to get this finished and complete my routine for the evening. But what I’d like is irrelevant. Our lord has declared there to be no ghost. And yet you implied the opposite, publicly, in the presence of our lord’s servants. You owe an apology.”
“So that’s what has your navel bent?” Jimushi waved his hand dismissively. “I was caught in the emotion of the moment just like Uji and the rest, just like you. I’m no rebel, so don’t worry.”
“Good,” Jimushi said, and began to bow.
“But you must apologize.”
Jimushi stopped half-bent, his embarrassment blatant in the flush of his face. “Again with your bad manners, barbarian!”
“So sorry, but I am samurai. And you must apologize.”
Jimushi growled, pulled the sheath from the blade of his naginata and grasped the shaft in both hands. “Who are you to command me? Step away or be cut down.”
“Lady Amé,” Saga called.
The lady stepped closer, her fan held circumspectly before her face. “May I be of assistance?”
“If I’m cut down, please inform General Kumo of Jimushi’s words and ensure that my remaining coins and rice are burned with my body for the journey toBuddha Amida’s land.”
“Thank you, lady.”
Jimushi slid deeper into a fighting stance, thenaginata poised for a heavy downward cut.
Saga set his bow aside and removed his two swords from his belt. He knelt on the path, wiped the sweat from his eyes, and laid the swords in front of him, the long before the short. He carefully set his hands on his knees and waited.
For a time Jimushi stared, taken aback. “Are you mocking me?”
“Take back your words.”
“I’ll kill you first.”
Saga nodded, unsurprised. “My life is my lord’s. Your life is my lord’s. I’ll not end either without his permission.”
The quiet had fallen as a curtain. None were walking, none were speaking. Lady Amé’s perfume floated to Saga on an occasional ebb of the heavy air. In the distance belched the gurgle-hiss of the hot springs, their mists gliding out across the grounds. The wasp droned past his ear once, twice.
Finally, Jimushi made up his mind. He shiftedboth hands to the end of the naginata’s shaft and swung for Saga’s neck.
“Enough!” came a guttural shout, its echo ringing Saga down to the belly. He rolled in the same instant that Jimushi swerved his blow.The naginata clanged to the ground. Saga came to his feet some three paces distant.
He immediately dropped to his knees again, bowing low as did every man in sight, a cacophony of jostled armor. For it was General Kumo who’d shouted, his brow dark and his fist clenching the neck of the grisly sack. And beside him was the palanquin, its door open and Tomuchi-sama watching.
♦ ♦ ♦
Tomuchi no Yoshihiro had earned his reputation as a young man, no older than Saga, when two traitors had thought to catch the emperor alone with naught but powdered servants and this the weakest of lords. They erred. The first of the assassins found himself dragged to the floor and his eye sockets gouged empty. The second knew his last healthy stride before the gilded edge of a writing desk smashed his spine.
The gaze that swept the yard now was as steady and strong as a mountain root, unchanged from that young man who had fought heedless of sword blows for the life of his emperor.
“Kumo,” said Tomuchi-sama into the sudden quiet, his voice weighty and broad. “Our men are livelier than you had me believe.”
“Yes, lord,” replied the general.
Tomuchi-sama leaned forward from the shadows, the sleeve of his haori green and marked with his family’s crest. “Saga.”
Saga dipped his head. “Yes, Tomuchi-sama.”
“We have not spoken in a while, have we?”
“You seem more stubborn than I remember. Or was that courage you showed there?”
“I—I cannot answer that. I merely did what I thought would honor you most.”
“You would have died.”
“Without regret, lord.”
Tomuchi-sama grunted. “What did Jimushi say that involved my honor?”
Saga bent until his head touched the dirt, watching Jimushi’s troubled face from the corner of his eye. “I should not say, lord.”
“Fool!” shouted the general, but Tomuchi-sama stilled him with a gesture.
“You have ordered us to respect each other as brothers. My brother, Jimushi, has been sick with the heat and thus spoke outside of his mind. It would be poor service to repeat such absurd, mad gibberish to you, our lord, and shame my brother needlessly. Please accept my silence on this matter.”
“I see .... Kumo.”
“Saga here is the one you call ox?
“He is, lord.”
“For his dependability?”
“And his stubbornness, yes, lord.”
“Do you have any concerns regarding his lineage?”
“He is pure samurai on his father’s side, a line back to Baba Akifusa. They are a good family. His mother’s people, though, are traders from the far edge of the Khan’s emp—” The general’s words choked off. “Tomuchi-sama!”
Saga raised his eyes to see his lord climbing from the palanquin.
Tomuchi-sama was not an old man, not old enough even to be Saga’s father. But of his father, his brother, four uncles and nine cousins stricken by the Bone Fever Plague, only Tomuchi-sama survived to be lord. The Crippled Lord. The Bone-Fever Samurai.
From his palanquin he stepped to the ground upon feet swollen grotesquely, knees showing bulbous beneath his kimono, hands marred by zigzagging fingers. The yard was susurrant with gasps of sympathetic pain.
“I am fine,” growled Tomuchi-sama, waving away General Kumo’s help. He surveyed the yard, veins jutting stark in his neck but features stoic. In a battlefield voice, he boomed: “Death lives with us. We are samurai and want nothing less. For without death’s friendship, without the proper contempt for our bodies, we cannot do our duty to its perfection. Saga, raise your sword.”
Saga did as he was told, holding the weapon in its sheath across his palms. He watched Tomuchi-sama reach for it. He smelled the sting of liniment. He saw the tremble in his lord’s hand, and he was smitten by a pang in his heart. He pushed the sword forward until its scabbard touched Tomuchi-sama’s crooked fingers and stilled them.
“It’s been well kept,” said Tomuchi-sama between his teeth. “Show me the blade.”
Saga unsheathed a finger’s breadth.
“Is it sharp?”
“It is, lord.”
“Good. A warrior’s sword isa reflection of his soul.” By now the pain was beginning to show on Tomuchi-sama’s face, but he kept his dignity as he strode back to his palanquin and climbed inside. Without assistance, Saga noted with pride.
“Kumo,” Tomuchi-sama said when he’d settled.
“Promote him to my personal guard. He knows honor. And his wit has always been a good match for Amé’s. Their play will perhaps make this summer pass more quickly.”
Tomuchi-sama closed the palanquin’s screen with a hand pale and unsteady. “And do something about these mists, Kumo. The visibility at this hour is appalling.”
“Yes, lord.” General Kumo bowed low.
At Tomuchi-sama’s gesture the bearers rose as one and set off, the palanquin swaying in stately rhythm until it disappeared at a bend in the lane.
The silence over the yard endured even then, for the instant Tomuchi-sama was out of sight General Kumo came to stand above Saga, glowering. “Do not embarrass me,” he said by way of greeting, pointedly lifting Gozen’s head in its sack. He then gave the new orders. Saga was to finish his day in the lower barracks, but at dawn he was to report to the watch master to receive the armor, arms, and passphrases of his new station. The instructions were punctuated with more thrusts of the sack. “Do you understand?”
The general’s face broke into a smile. “Congratulations, then, skinny ox. The honor is well-earned.”
“Thank you. Kumo-sama.”
The general dipped his head and set off, Lady Amé at her place behind him. As she passed she gave Saga the barest smile. He saw congratulations there in the turn of her mouth. And to his disquiet, faintly sketched but too soon gone again, a trace of sorrow.
♦ ♦ ♦
Once their masters had gone, the others in the yard got to their feet and immediately began the gossip of this most incredible circumstance. They eyed Saga jealously and all but shunned Jimushi as he made his way on unsteady legs to his post.
“That maggot carcass!” muttered Uji, watching him go. “Cowardly whore pus.”
“That’s rude,” Saga told him seriously.
“You’re right. He’s arrogant whore pus, then. And he smiles too many times, like monkey.”
“He invited me to scrape that smile from his face.”
“K’so! I wish I had invitation. I’d scrape twice.”
Saga said nothing to that.
Uji went on his way, tugging at his fierce mustache, but dusk was in full flame before Saga was alone enough to stand. He retrieved his bow and replaced the swords in his belt.
The men were hungry for detail, following him with their stares as he set off to begin his toilet. What would he do? How would he behave? Conscious of the audience Saga ignored the wasp yet longer. He walked to the edge of the compound and meticulously blew his nose into the brush, holding one nostril closed then the other. He turned around and moved his bowels. When he was finished he found chugi sticks upon the ground, not fresh. He cleaned them as best he could, careful to hold them by the right end, and wiped himself. Later in the baths he stripped naked and scrubbed his body with fine ash then rinsed inside a great stone basin full of cold water. He watched the peasants who, with the water tower in ruin, now refilled the basins with buckets hauled from the nearest mountain stream, a rocky torrid rush that had already claimed one of their lives.
When Saga was clean he moved to the hot springs and soaked until the air of rotted eggs became tolerable, his muscles unraveling to sink him in torpor. But he roused himself, leveling a burnished steel mirror against the torchlight to pluck the edges of his beard and shave his pate—paying close attention to the beard, for his barbarian hair was curly and if barbered undeftly returned ingrown. By the time he finished, a crew of peasants and samurai had arrived, as Tomuchi-sama had ordered, to tame the pools for lesser mists. They were having little success when Saga left them to their work.
There was always someone asleep in the barracks, so removed his shoes and entered quietly through a door in the folding screens that served for walls in the summertime, light-stepped on padded tabi socks past the curtain partitions that divided the barracks into rooms. He found his corner and lay upon his rush mat with his swords beside him. He waited, listening, until all from his watch had arrived, gossiped, and settled—their open-mouthed snores and mingled breath playing harmony in the familiar refrains.
Only then did he open the secret window he’d cut into the screen wall.
The wasp entered immediately, buzzing with an energy heedless of the quiet room. Saga offered his hand to quiet the thing, and again the wasp alighted. By touch Saga repeated the process of removing the reed, his hands more sure in the dryer air. And when the reed at last came free it was by touch that he read the coded message. Twice.
He lay in silence for a time under the gravity of his orders. Then he put the reed in his mouth and chewed. The wasp began to skitter, sensing the change as Saga slipped his own reed from a compartment in his scabbard, a message he’d written long ago in readiness of this day. “Prepare the children,” it instructed. And when it was secure in place beneath the wasp, Saga blew gently, giving the insect its return scent from the chewed reed on his breath. With a flick of his hand he sent it on its way.
♦ ♦ ♦
Saga the samurai, faithful servant to the lord Tomuchi no Yoshihiro, had been born less than three years ago, when one living boy assumed the identity of one dead in the crowded and bloody aftermath of the Battle of Henten.
Saga the akunin was much older.
On the evening of his promotion to Tomuchi’s personal guard, he pretended to be restless from nightmares and left his barracks with an offer to relieve a member of the night watch. The nerve-wracked guard accepted eagerly, grinning as he walked off into the night. Saga then promptly abandoned the post.
With a box of crickets strapped to his back to mask the shuffle of his steps, he snuck beyond the compound’s perimeter and picked his way up Mt. Yaban’s slope through a bamboo grove, following it to the edge of a sandstone outcrop where he watched the last of the sunlight melt away from his former lord’s encampment. He’d spent three years maiming the troop, eating the food he’d made scarce, guarding the wall he’d studied for weakness. But now he had new orders, and his dubious service to Tomuchi was at an end.
Once the sky grew dark, Saga sat in the brush among the softly flashing fireflies and curving bamboo leaf, the wind strumming a music of the hollow trunks, thock, thock-thock, thock, thock. He’d hidden his samurai clothes and weapons and chosen to dress as a peasant, girding his waist with a long sash and his feet with hempen sandals. His face he covered from nose to chin with a soft green cloth, his rice-straw hat pulled low over his shorn pate. To his side he laid his walking stick and a black cloth bundle.
Across his lap he laid the Knotted Rope.
He closed his eyes.
Saga’s first lesson—or, to be true, the first he could remember—had been given to him by an elder of the village Kagehana, a woman whose name he never knew. She slapped him awake when he was four years old, him with no memory of who he was or where, and held up three fingers. “The conscience drives duty,” she told him. “The ghost drives want. And wisdom negotiates between them. Every one of us is composed of these three natures—conscience, ghost, wisdom—all working together. But you, Sofurabi Saga, are not one of us.”
So that’s my name, he’d thought.
It was the day he’d tied his first Knot.
It was the day he’d met Marrow.
Saga, now in deep darkness under the bamboo, arranged his hands and limbs in the patterns he’d been taught, slipped away all the burdens in his mind until his own nature loomed great like the world. Then he pushed.
Threads of heat unspooled from the pit of his belly, strand by strand and with greater speed until he felt his very life spilling in gouts from a burning wound at his navel. The music of the crickets fell away, the touch of the wind, the press of the earth beneath his legs all fell into an ungoverned void... then all came rushing back, a flood of awareness, of thought, searing thought, magnified. And when a familiar cold crept from the crown of his head and the tips of his fingers down into the core of him, he clipped off the hot thread and came back to himself.
Saga opened his eyes.
His vision was double. With one regard he saw himself as others would—thin, shadowed with his large hat, sitting cross-legged beneath the forest. But with the other regard, his natural regard, he saw a ghostly version of himself—lean as he was, muscled as he was, but shadow from head to foot and faceless, a silhouette blotting out the night.
His name was Marrow, and he was Saga’s ghost.
♦ ♦ ♦
Marrow stretches the void of his arms into the air and howls, free! free! free! ....
The slow-men playing their stupid rules while he’s quiet smelling the hot stink of their food and their women and their blood and wanting it all on his tongue, in his arms, with his teeth, with his sex, and not having any of it, being quiet and wanting and having nothing. Will he get to play now? Or is it time for work?
“It’s work,” Brother-Anchor says with voice and mind.
Is it more killing the little animals? Because that is the most boring thing Marrow has to do and he doesn’t even want to do it because he likes some of those animals and they aren’t even food.
“But they would have been game for the samurai, and my assignment was to make the samurai hungry. I have a new assignment now.”
Brother-Anchor explains their work with thoughts, what he will do and what Marrow will do and why.
Marrow grasps a bamboo stick and breaks it because he doesn’t want to do this work because this is bad work because he likes Safe-Father-Leader Tomuchi.
Brother-Anchor holds up the knotted rope. “The Rope’s will is my will. I’ve compromised as best I can.”
Marrow wants the children then, the children sleeping hidden nearby, wants them awake so they will do what he wants.
“No!” says Brother-Anchor, touching a knot in the rope, the one that commands them to be as safe as they can. “I won’t use them unless I have to.”
Marrow’s fury boils up to the surface of his skin, and he reaches to claw the rope down to shreds and dust and nothing, but Brother-Anchor makes him stop before he can even move because Marrow always obeys his brother and his brother is a slave to the rope, and the sorrow-hurt-rage of it Brother-Anchor just presses down, down, down into the pit in Marrow’s belly where the other troublesome things are held, down until it’s small and hard and quiet....
So instead of ripping, Marrow glares his anger, and glaring he sees the new knot. Why is there a new knot? Why are there new rules!
“Because I was promoted.” Brother-Anchor grasps the first knot in the rope, the most powerful one: Obey Kagehana.
He grasps one in the middle: Become invisible among the samurai.
He grasps the new knot: Serve as Tomuchi’s personal guard.
Marrow hates the rules because they make no sense and hate each other, stupid hate-slavery, and he wants to get away from the rope, wants to go. When can he leave?
Brother-Anchor unrolls the bundle of things and there in little pockets are throwing knives and powder bombs and weapons and several lengths of ordinary good rope and a pocket that’s just for Marrow packed with seeds for him to use, many seeds, but Brother-Anchor gives Marrow only two: the links of a chain and the broken tip of a blade.
“Make them yours,” Brother-Anchor tells him.
And Marrow does, swallows them and breaks them into pieces and energy so that later he can make the pieces into stronger things, things to do this bad work.
When he’s finished, a need fills his fingers and reaches them to Brother-Anchor and Brother-Anchor reaches too, but when they touch there’s nothing more than a thread of feeling between them, a thread because the rope won’t allow more, and so sorrow replaces the need and Marrow’s hand sags.
Instead he bows to Brother-Anchor because the knots in the rope say he must.
Brother-Anchor pulls his hand away, sits quiet and thinks and Marrow feels impatience hitch up his spine with dry clutches until at last comes the word.
And Marrow goes....
Ignores crevice and crack and grasps the rock with strong fingers and feet most cunning, and in moments is on softer ground darting in a crouch through the brush with the earth flying beneath him and the wind churning about him and his skin knowing the creeping things and crawling things and growing things and his legs flowing past them, staying silent, always silent, and hidden....
Finds hot bubbling water and speeds across the surface quick and light, and though he leaves ripples, the sounds in the wind tell him the slow-men upon the wall ahead continue their slow walks—flesh, thick, slow, very slow—”samurai,” they hear nothing, know nothing....
Finds the place at the wall for him to sneak in, the place the slow-men forget to watch, and speeds up the rough wood—stink of tar, scratch of beetles—but along the way a desire blossoms in his throat: left, Marrow wants to go left, wants the Cruel-Word man, the Ugly-Smile man, the—
“Jimushi,” says Brother-Anchor across the distance. “You have time. But be quick.”
Marrow’s joy burns with his hate in streaks down to his fingers and down to his toes and explodes as the energy that pushes him clambering across the wall face in the way Kagehana teaches Brother-Anchor to teach Marrow, past the unknowing slow-men above—past one, past two, past three men—and the fourth is the one he wants, the one he can hear there coughing and pacing and....
Remembers the blade seed he’s swallowed and assembles it and sprouts it from the depths of his belly as a black knife straight and keen, keen, keen, hard as his hate, and he takes the knife in hand and leaps over the palisade and lands silent and crouched, ready for the lunge....
Ready and wanting, but jarred by a hard urgent rule, “forgotten something....”
Forgotten to look for men? No.... Traps? No....
Hating and straining and stalking and he’s forgotten, and now he’s in the light of a torch, smoke odor and light, terrible light, strikes him on the back with the force of agony and bliss and pierces him through until Marrow shudders as it sweeps a measure of his stuff off into the night, tugs him bodily like the tow of a river’s wash toward a place past the stars and over the edge, a place he recognizes, wants to see, wants to surrender to the light and let it spread him, but he knows he’ll never come back, and he wants more to stay....
And to stay Marrow leaps free of the torch into the succor of the shadows and feels himself cool into his comfortable form, his body reforming while the torchlight shines awful and beautiful there to one side—Cruel-Word Jimushi leaning against the palisade, ignorant, on the other....
“Did it take you?” worries Brother-Anchor. “Are you safe?”
Wants to spill blood and kill breath and....
“Then be careful! And be quick.”
But Marrow already knows this, is watching Ugly-Rude Jimushi, is enjoying it in a seething roil across his breast because there will be no more ugly smiling and no more cruel words....
Rises, careful to avoid the light, black knife ready, and dashes forward to do as Brother-Anchor teaches—snatches the signal bell, holds it hard to keep it safe from noise....
Thrusts his knife into Cruel Jimushi’s skull to part the slow-man’s stuff and pierce the inner meat....
Pulls free the blade when the muscles go slack—wet whisper-sliding vibration at his fingertips—and the meat he’s parted seals again, the shadow cut hidden as the wound closes without a mark....
Work done, so Marrow swallows his knife and drops the corpse and forgets the bell....
Clang goes the bell....
But Marrow is quick and inhales the noise and makes it his—breaks the energy small, spits it out as quiet invisible heat—then grasps the corpse head by the topknot and scrapes its face across the planks until the corpse’s grimace-smile is smeared darkling red clean, which makes Marrow shake the blood from his fingers with glee coursing through them because the Funny-Friend Uji thinks it takes two scrapes, but Marrow has done it one—
“That was clumsy,” says Brother-Anchor. “You must do better. And watch for torches!”
Marrow’s gut satisfaction shrivels, but he throws the body down into the bubble-water and moves when Brother-Anchor says move, a leap from the wall to the grass, from the grass to the trees, from the trees to the roofs where he wants to stop and watch the night bird soaring overhead beautiful, strange, exciting—jealous—but the rope knots have their rules and Marrow moves, leaps....
Twice more to the roof of Rough-Teacher Kumo where three slow-men idle at the front of the house, but only one slow-man idles at the rear, rocking in rhythm and humming low a song that sounds nice—Marrow catching the rhythm and rocking to the song as he creeps to the edge of the roof and stretches his arm out over the slow-man’s head....
Sprouts a chain from his palm—dark, quiet, better than the seed—and drops the chain down in a coil around the humming man’s throat, making the song stop so that Marrow pauses, listening to the gurgle of the man’s voice, wondering if somewhere in there is the end to the song where the rising hmmnn might fall into another tone, but then the man tries to kick his heels against the veranda to warn the others and Marrow has to yank him into the air and let him swing until he’s still....
Draws the body up onto the roof and cracks its limbs at the joints and arranges it more easily in the shadows so it can’t be seen and swallows his chain through a cloud of pride splashed by veins of cold wistful mist, for though he works strong and works quick and works well, half a song is not very fun....
Resprouts his knife and drops down to the veranda, slides the paper door a fraction—sniffs for torches, smells sex on the air, wants the sex with his touch....
Slips inside a room, an open room, an open and stark room with Strict-Kind Kumo asleep in the middle and beside him Warm-Sister-Mother Amé, her hair loose and spread about them in a pool black like Marrow, sleepy body heat rising from the folds of their kimonos’ silk and lofting the flavor of their skin across the space for Marrow’s tongue to taste....
Wants to go to them....
Wants more to stay away, because this is bad work....
“This is important. This is my duty.”
But Marrow wants to get away from “duty” and forces his hand to the door and slides it open and steps backwards and—
Strict-Kind Kumo begins to stir....
“Stop!” demands Brother-Anchor.
Marrow trembles, fighting the word, wants to flee, far away, now....
“I promise I will soothe you later,” says Brother-Anchor. “I will make you feel better and happy. But he’s waking now. He’ll light a torch and then I’ll have to do so much more bad work, and you’ll fill up with sorrow. I have to compromise, small pain in place of big pain. You understand that, remember: small pain in place of big pain. It’s not what you want, but you have to do it. Quickly.”
While Brother-Anchor worries, Kind-Rough Kumo looks about himself in a slow-man’s waking confusion, then sits up propped on an elbow and coughs phlegm and swallows it and peers into the dark near the door, then suddenly comes more sharply awake....
“Obey,” says Brother-Anchor.
Escape jetting in streams through his legs, making them ache with the want to speed away fast fast fast, but the “duty” squeezes him and his want and binds him and pulls him....
Strict-Teacher Kumo sits up further and touches the slow-sword lying beside him—rustle of steel in wood on silk—and Warm-Sister Amé makes a gentle sound in her throat and begins to wake because Kind Kumo is now rising to his knees with his sword in both hands, and then to one knee, foot flat to the rush mat—legs spread, stink of his loins—and then leaning forward with the sword loosened in its scabbard, breadth of metal gleam—
“Kill him,” commands the rules with Brother-Anchor’s voice.
And Marrow’s obedience takes hold.
Obedience darts him across the room and thrusts his knife into Kumo’s breast.
Obedience bends his arm and jabs Amé—twice in the neck and once in the temple—tap tap tap, the secret touches that will leave her in a deep sleep.
Obedience wrenches Marrow around to catch Kumo’s body before it falls.
“Skinny Ox?” asks Kumo’s dying mouth as his dying eyes see what can’t be seen. His expression hasn’t had time to change, still peers with a quizzical stare as Marrow’s obedience settles the body stealthily upon the bedding and watches the blood spill around the knife in pulses until the heart stops. Then the obedience retrieves the knife, checks that the wound has closed, and makes Marrow leave the pair of them with Kumo’s blood seeping through Amé’s hair, wreathing them in a new pool, black like Marrow.
The obedience swallows Marrow’s knife into Marrow’s arm and releases him.
Hate! Hate! Hate spits fire in gory gouts to the roof of his skull, the ache in his fingers an ache to rip Brother-Anchor and the rope and Kagehana and the slow-men and all things that bitter the sweetness of his want, rip and burn, burn it all, slash it all, rip bones and make them his and spit out dust and—
“Shou ga nai,” says Brother-Anchor in the slow-man way. It can’t be helped. And fold by fold he bends the rage-hurt down deep into the pit of Marrow’s belly, presses it small and hard and leaves it there with all the others. “I was able to spare Amé,” he says. “I can be glad for that.”
Marrow creeps from the house naked of his hate, its echoes churning sluggish in the pockets of his elbows, the mission compelling him onward....
Compelling him to sneak through the shadows and dodge the ignorant slow-men and dodge their torches and find the site where the slow-men-slaves take their slumber beside the new water tower they’re building to replace the one Marrow struck down, and here he finds a shovel and breaks a seed off the shovel’s blade and swallows it and makes it his, then speeds off a long way through the steam-stink pools, his footsteps’ ripple and splash hidden by the bubble of earth water....
Doesn’t stop until he reaches the shadows skirting Safe-Father-Leader Tomuchi’s headquarters, the house looming three stories high, its banners limp in the windless night....
Knows twenty-four slow-men patrol these grounds making a trap-field of flesh and torchlight, but knows from Brother-Anchor about the old dry well sitting broken in the garden, and sneaks his way there and climbs inside and drops into the earth’s bowel where the ground is hard to the touch and cold, but he sprouts a shovel blade from his arm and guts the stubborn clods, burrowing underground....
Makes his way through the forest maze of dirt—feeling the root, feeling the rock, following the patterns that match the garden’s design—all while his breast roils in wants:
Wants to quit this bad work and play with the worms and chase the rodents through their tunnels to their homes....
Wants to continue where he’s going and find Safe-Leader Tomuchi and protect him from the terrible rules....
Wants to run back to Brother-Anchor and hate him or kill him or hide within him and mourn, because Kind Kumo is dead....
But more than all others, hotter than all others, coiling ceaseless and hungry around the secret core compressed in the pit in his gut is the want the rules hate most, the want to be king, King of Himself, King of the Night, King of Where-He-Goes....
So he burrows onward hoping now for the mission to fail, for failure means Brother-Anchor’s “contingency,” and to be king, Marrow will need his children....
♦ ♦ ♦
Some fifty years ago, the Emperor of Wa opened his borders to the Khan’s Golden Road, the mercantile torrent that ran by caravan and sleigh and ship, across desert and snow, market to market in reaching branches across all the world.
But with the Golden Road came the multitude of cultures of the Khan’s vast empire, the invasion the Denrai hated so. There came riches of silver and iron, yes, and of glass and gems and perfumes of surpassing delicacy. But there came also barbarian beasts and barbarian pests, virulent barbarian weeds, the barbarian Night Pox, and a stauncher plague of bad barbarian manners.
And where, in the past, poor Wa samurai might have bettered their fortunes by marrying rich Wa merchants, there were now richer foreign merchants and a generation of samurai with half-barbarian faces.
Where there had been pirates scavenging the coasts and starving bandits fretting the roads, there were now stalwarts armed with chemical magics and blades of foreign forge.
And where there had been sneak-thieves, many skilled but dispersed agents who had protected their mountain villages with martial and political subterfuge, there were now great clans of saboteurs, spies, thieves, assassins, and mystics. These new clans were labeled here perhaps by the old name sneak-thief, or there “macaques on the eaves,” or there “the eyes in the grass.” But by the samurai at large they had come to be known simply as akunin: villains.
Kagehana’s akunin were trained to keep time using incense clocks with sticks of a standard cut, the length of incense resembling the width of an average man’s thumb. Saga, though, was an Ink agent, and the intervals of the stick clock were conditioned as a constant notch into his very thoughts. He and his sort couldn’t forget the passage of time in reverie or in sleep or blind-drunk in the honeyparlor of a Dadu pleasure house.
So while Saga sat under the bamboo and stared at the Knotted Rope, he knew half a stick had passed before he’d deciphered the right thing to do.
The reed had been explicit: Remove Tomuchi’s heart without a trace. Draw his neck as far as it will stretch. Kumo to die. Erase all evidence. Contract completed.
Saga understood the client’s ultimate goal without being told. Primed by their three years of mysterious catastrophe and bloodless corpses, the troop would find a slain Tomuchi looking every bit the rokurokubi—one of the legendary demons, formerly human but transformed by evil deeds into neck-stretching monsters that frightened mortals and played sabotage and, yes, drank blood. None of the man’s virtue would save his reputation when the troop scattered to the winds, spreading the horrible truth of the famed crippled lord, of the friend and servant of the Emperor in the Southern Court. It was the climax of a long sabotage, and in a war of esteem between demigods it was a magnificently destructive blow.
The reed had given Saga a deadline of summer’s end, but Tomuchi in his magnanimity had just this evening promoted Saga to a station that would limit free movement tightly. Saga’s best chance then was to consummate his mission at once. The haste was of no concern, for he was ever prepared to act quickly (Knot Seven). He was accustomed to the hatred between Marrow and the Rope, had been trained for it in fact. But the Rope itself, the rule upon which was woven the precepts of his conduct, was in conflict.
While Marrow stepped from Saga’s belly and stretched and howled in his silent way, glad to be free, ignorant of the dung mire they were in, Saga ran the Knotted Rope through his hands and found the point near the middle where the confusion began. On one side the older Knots commanded that he be akunin: sly and cunning and fulfilling the client’s wishes to the highest possible standard. But on the other side the latter Knots commanded him to be samurai: honorable, forthright, bold, serving Tomuchi and becoming a steadfast member of his troop. Dishonor Tomuchi while honoring Tomuchi. Obey the client while disobeying. How was he to behave when both were right, and both were wrong?
Add to this the bolt of hot information running into his mind from Marrow (likes Safe-Father-Leader), and his mire was feculent indeed.
“Tell me,” he muttered to the heavy Knots sliding across his palm. “Tell me the right thing.”
In the end he compromised.
“You’ll bring Tomuchi here,” he told Marrow, “and allow him the time and peace to take his own life by seppuku. His hands are bent, but they’re strong enough to make the belly cut. I’ll act as his second and end his agony quickly.”
Tomuchi would be furious at Saga’s betrayal but grateful for the honorable death. And afterward Saga could position the corpse into whatever state would suggest a “demon.” It wasn’t exactly what the client desired, but he would lie in his report with only the warped and chewed-over superstitious rumors to contradict him. There was nothing he could do for Kumo. And Saga the samurai would be little missed in the chaos of the mass desertion.
All Knots satisfied. Mission accomplished.
Marrow didn’t take the news well, did in fact shatter a sizable bamboo thicket in his fury, Saga wrenching every grain of his self-control to keep that fury in check.
Thwarted, frustrated and sorrowful, Marrow reached his fingers for Saga with that old quiet ache, seeking comfort, and Saga, his own yearning for the moment larger than his reason, stretched out in kind. One hand passed through the other with the barest sensation, just as he knew it would, disappointment in its wake, and their threadbare bond was once again as a jaw quivering at the promise of taste and closing vacant upon its own hollow.
Perhaps, he thought, with the Rope in conflict, it was time he tried another wound.
Saga swallowed in a dry mouth, pressed the point of a throwing knife against the soft flesh in his throat where the thick flowing vein would give him a slow death. Careful placement, careful angle, just so....
Live for Kagehana.
The terror came like a tide, rising and rising and drowning his heart until its very beat was pain, until his breath came chopped and his eyes crossed over the agony in his skull. Saga’s body went numb. He dropped like a sack.
Quickly he abandoned what he’d been musing, a bad idea forgotten, and at once the panic-tide vanished.
“Don’t know what you expected,” he said as he righted himself. Live for Kagehana was only the Third Knot, but it was broad and strict and brooked no challenges great or small. With reverence he re-coiled the Rope.
Marrow had watched it all, naïve, unknowing, restless.
Saga sent him away. He sat in the brush with his eyes closed to monitor Marrow’s progress. And only when Kumo was dead and the first major obstacle passed did Saga muffle their connection and set about preparing the rest of the plan.
He shrugged more comfortably into his cricket box and tested the mask of noise over the shuffle of his footsteps. The jostle irritated a chorus of angry chirping from the little territorial males. They didn’t like being forced together. Saga for his part offered them the only advice he knew: “Time is the mother of chance.” It was the Twelfth Knot and the favorite saying of Kagehana’s escape master. Employ enough patience and even the strongest prisons will show you a way out.
Saga wasn’t sure he believed it. But when it came to the Knots, belief was insignificant.
Suitably camouflaged beneath the crickets’ song, he gathered his gear and used his walking stick to pry a way among the bamboo until he found near the sandstone cliff a clearing large enough for Tomuchi’s seppuku. It was a place to appreciate the stars daubed across the sky and the rhythm of the wind. A good place to die.
Saga brushed clean a flat-faced stone, set it to one side of the clearing, then folded a square of cloth upon it, the stone to serve as a plate, the cloth to be wrapped around the blade of Tomuchi’s knife to ensure his grip. Afterward, Saga stamped a portion of the clearing flat and arranged one of his climbing lines into a cushion for Tomuchi to kneel upon.
He was an hour into the meticulous arrangement when a trick of the wind saved his life.
Like the etch of time, Kagehana had trained his body to the knowledge of the rhythm of the life of the world. When all stirred and rustled and chirped as it ought, the awareness felt peaceful and right. But in that moment among the cadence of the bamboo forest the tiny creak that caught Saga was most certainly wrong—his ear knew it; his skin knew it—and before his mind had caught on he’d dropped to the earth and scrambled toward the cliff’s edge.
The arrows came like sighs, whispers from the shadows that ended loudly in the ground he’d just abandoned.
Instantly a tug from Marrow (wants to fight alongside Brother-Anchor and kill and win and....)
“Quiet!” Saga ordered and clamped down further on their link. He dug the fingers of one hand into a crevice in the cliff rock and swung out into space, bounced against the vertical face, jammed his free hand into another crevice, released his first grip and swung out again, losing his hat to a gust of wind and twisting his shoulder in a blaze of pain. He shoved the agony aside and this time kicked up a burst of momentum to fling himself back onto level ground, three body lengths from where he’d begun.
By then he knew the second volley had been nocked, and within an eighth-stick he was up and sprinting in a crouch-and-sway along the cliff, using the breeze-rocked stalks to his camouflage. The archers would be trained on him now, waiting for a gap in the bamboo, waiting for line of sight.... Now. Saga skidded to a halt just as more whispers sliced the air in front of him. Two, he saw as they clattered against the stone at his feet.
And with that he shoved back into the thicket. He fought against the stubborn bamboo until he found a reedy hollow and slithered inside. He at once set about calming himself—breathing, heartbeat, the throbbing fire arcing through his shoulder. His body heat had risen significantly, the crickets at his back responding to the warmth with louder, faster songs. That wouldn’t do. He let his mouth hang open to better his hearing—his eyes, more harm than help from this vantage, he closed—and imagined himself one with the soft, cool earth, consumed in its musk, drawn down into its moist embrace (DO-ki-DO-ki-DO-ki beat his heart) down where he felt every brush of grass (DO-ki, DO-ki... DO-ki) every marching ant, every scuttling leaf as a caress on his flesh. (...DO-ki... DO-ki....)
When he was centered, when all inside was calm, he turned his focus outward.
There. Footsteps. Twenty paces northeast, quiet, expertly laid. Stalking him. But where was the other? And were there more than two? It was too soon for Tomuchi’s men to have noticed him missing. And with their frailty and the strange corpses in the wood, they didn’t range out this far without a reason. But this was no chance encounter. His attackers had been nearly silent in their approach. And the footfalls he tracked now were too swift for the little noise they made, too purposed for an ordinary sentry.
Saga opened his eyes, reached back to tease the axe from his bundle.
He opened his mind to Marrow enough to feel him cutting beneath the floorboards to Tomuchi’s quarters, then again squeezed the connection tight.
He spread a dank layer of mud over the scrapes in his arm and reached to rip the swath of cloth from his face as a dressing for his aching hand—gashes on his palm, three fingernails torn back. He paused, decided to leave the hand. Blood could be useful.
He considered his chisshi bombs but discounted them as too risky. Instead he grasped a throwing knife for his off hand and crept out from the hollow under the cricket’s masking song, axe at the ready. The game was simple: There were at least two men out there, but Saga could hear only one. Use what is known to reveal the unknown taught Knot Twenty-two. So he moved low, sucking in his belly to squeeze among the bamboo, angling to converge on the one man’s progress.When he found another shelter he stopped to listen, adjusted his direction, and again crept into the bamboo labyrinth, always advancing.
This was how he first spotted his quarry, a bent shadow of a man feeling his way around the stalks with the care of a veteran—slim, agile, face and head wrapped in dark cloth, but clad in light samurai armor. A deserter, then. Or bandit.
Of the other man—or men, he reminded himself—Saga still heard nothing. Thus the other was far more skilled than his companion. Or he hadn’t moved since the first attack.
Saga studied his prey intently. Was this the man to give him the wound he needed? The wound he couldn’t give himself? He’d pinned that hope on others before....
He rubbed his fingertips over the Knots in the Rope at his side. Be a sneak-thief, commanded the akunin Knots. Be bold, declared the samurai half. He compromised.
He flexed and squeezed his injured hand, letting blood flow down the haft of his axe and off the blade. It would make his grip less sure, but he only needed one pass. He squatted low with his legs bunched under him, body tilted slightly forward, swaying with the bamboo to the rhythm of its thock-thock-thocking. When the slim outlaw stepped into a clear space, Saga shouted in a voice to make Kumo proud. “Tomuchiiii!” And like a good quarry the errant samurai startled toward the noise.
Saga pushed off with both legs, sprang forward, flung his axe arm outward in one burst of movement. The outlaw’s eyes opened wide, the whites round and clear in the starlight, and for one continuing instant all hung on the moment—that startled gaze locked on Saga’s, the stringed droplets of blood a misty bridge between them—until the blood spattered the outlaw in the face. He flinched. And Saga, with one more lunging step, closed the distance to bury his axe in the outlaw’s throat. The impact jarred Saga to the teeth, but the sound that followed was a wail from the land of wind and ghosts—breath and blood hissing death throughout the nighttime wood.
Saga kept his body moving, swiveling, ears strained to the forest, gaze hunting the patch from which the first volleys came. And there!, faintly over the death rattle’s fading, the creak of a distant draw, the glint of an arrowhead against a bow. Saga twisted, dodging, flung the knife with all his might at the vague shape of the second man. Found you, he thought, watching his knife sail in a perfect arc, the same moment the enemy arrow hissed from the shadows and crunched through the bones of his foot.
The agony was an instant burn gouging streaks up his leg and Saga toppled, slammed against the press of bamboo, landed hard on his back in a splintery crash.
A distant shriek. A mangled thud. His throw had struck home.
♦ ♦ ♦
For a stick of time Saga lay still, commanding the moans back into his throat and watching, through the forest’s murmuring canopy, tattered clouds skate across a star-speckled sky. The part of his mind that belonged to Kagehana reviewed his circumstance and noted for future reference the events that led from a moment in perfect control to a moment laid flat and bleeding in a mass of escaping crickets. His tiny partners were swift to abandon the broken box, several having the bad manners to first hop across his face. Time is the mother of chance, Saga thought and wished them good fortune.
His fingers, filled with overactive nerves, trembled as he probed the wound: foot cleft in twain to the instep, one of his toes flopping loose and gristly inside his sock. But he tasted the blood for poison and let out a shuddering breath when he found none. Not the wound he needed. Another failure.
Eventually he managed to cut away the sock, losing his toe to the darkness of the brush. With deep breaths he steeled his nerve, reached out thinly to Marrow (climbs through a hole into a dark room) and closed their link again to the barest thread. He wadded his face cloth between his teeth. He clenched them until they creaked. He grasped the arrow in both hands, snapped the shaft in half and ripped it from his foot.
The cloth muted his scream.
The rest was a haze of routine: sprinkling medicine herbs and flinching from the burn, dressing the wound, cinching his foot with his belt to hold it together. He braced himself against the cage-lattice of bamboo and stood slowly on shaky legs. But he stood. And he set about investigating this bloody mess.
The throatless man had fallen wedged among three fat stalks, axe jutting from his throat, the night making pitch of his blood and a wide wet mouth of the ragged wound. His cap was no longer in place, hair fallen loose from its knot to hang in a cascade, unusually long and sleek. With his knife unsheathed beside him and his bow trapped against his crumpled corpse, the wayward samurai resembled Izanami incarnate, ready to usher souls into the gloom. A wind stirred at the dead man’s hair, giving witchly life to the illusion. But Saga was undisturbed.
Until he saw the face, and his skin went cold.
With gritted teeth and the haste he could muster he hobble-hopped to a better vantage and leaned forward to see that, no, the shadows had not deceived him. Stretching from the ruin of the throat to the samurai’s waxen brow was a pulpy swath of flesh where a face should have been. Eyes, nose, lips, all vanished into a mass featureless as rice meal.
Saga’s conditioned mind sped through the facts and left him a possibility, and a swift search of the corpse made that possibility a problem. Trapped in the body’s nerveless hand was a clay vial half filled with an evil-smelling powder, traces stilled sprinkled on the body and around. And Saga knew what this had to be: houmatsuteki na fukumen, the phantom veil.
Akunin spies lived and died by their secrets, a fact Saga knew only too well. But unlike him, many worked in teams, and the exposure of one was a threat to all. Houmatsuteki na fukumen was a technique of the clans of the south perfected as the ultimate shroud should any one agent be cornered in the course of duty.
Not samurai. Two akunin. Sent to stalk him. And this one... even with an axe in his throat had performed houmatsuteki na fukumen. Two strong akunin, and skilled.
With a wet twist Saga tore his axe free then flung himself through the bamboo, head low and shoulders high, bouncing from stalk to stalk, cries and growls as his foot crashed fitfully against one hard thing and another. He heard the second man moving, then saw him, there, climbing to his feet. Saga put on a last burst and leapt upon him with a blunt strike to the back. The man cried out, fell beneath Saga’s weight, the forest leaves hissing hatred at their play. They grappled, Saga muscling to the top face-to-face with his enemy. And at once he knew his mistake.
She was bloody and smelled of leather and oil instead of perfume; her hair was hidden beneath a cap and she wore a bruise at her temple from Marrow’s jab. She was a stranger in most respects: nose gone crooked, lips thinner, wrinkles at the eyes, skin uneven and blemished. But that mocking smile, grim though it was, was unmistakably Amé’s.
The rules and the stratagems and the lessons of nerve and sinew all collided in the fore of Saga’s brain to produce the single most worthless reaction possible. His skin went cold. “What?” spoke his lips.
He had time only to register the shift in her smile—even in that ridiculously stretched moment their roles ever the same—before her hand shot down and cruelly vised his testicles. His body heaved of its own accord and Amé twisted free like fish from a child’s hand. She spun. His jaw rattled. And all at once he was prone once more, listening to the liquid rush of her flight through the brush.
Saga scrambled to his knees blinking the haze from his eyes. He froze.
His thinking, despite anguish in his foot and groin and skull, had recovered to clarity. So he promptly abandoned any idea of pursuit when he spied what Amé had used to strike his jaw. Lying there beside him, heavy and glinting dully, was a small wire box filled with a waxy mass. A red glow sparked inside.
Bomb, Saga thought at once, and in a painful seize of muscle he dove from the thing with all his power. But before he could duck his head or cover his ears, a tremendous flash of white light burst soundlessly from the box, destroying the night and sending Saga reeling. All color fled; the forest became of a graveyard of bone and shadow, as if the sun throne itself had descended in all its shattering glory—and then in an instant, as mutedly as it had come, the light was gone.
Saga’s vision was bleached and dizziness plagued him, but he in his panic noticed neither. Amé was akunin. And this weapon, a flare as if stolen from the sun.... There was only one reason for akunin in this place on this night disguised as samurai to have such a device at hand. Saga fought pain and the fog of blood-loss to fling his soul outward, heedless of the mission, heedless of safety and caution. He poured himself in a bolt toward Marrow, shivering with the gravest, loudest, fiercest warning he knew. Beware! BEWARE! BEWARE!
But Saga’s great effort had failed.
For it was then that Marrow, his ghost, the secret and deadly Ink of Kagehana, began to scream.
♦ ♦ ♦
Trapped! Hate! Help! Grief and sorrow forever and stifling fear from the god-rope and rage, all of the rage, a sky of rage, rage-rip and burn-gut the filthy slow meat traitor trappers, please kill, please come, please help, please, please... please....
♦ ♦ ♦
He was small inside the trap, stripped away and missing most of him. But outside was a death of light. And though dooms and insanities of fury tempested him full to swelling, he dared not break free.
He could see nothing but smelled much, and heard, and felt. It was plain that Tomuchi sat nearby in the stifling heat of his brazier. He spoke to a personal guard of eight samurai. The samurai listened. They asked tentative questions. A conflagration of chemicals fouled the air around them. Tea was waiting nearby.
Other samurai patrolled or lounged in rooms above and adjacent, uneasiness in the way they shifted, in the questions they muttered. All were marked for vengeance as Tomuchi had been marked, over and over again, time churning in a constant now filled with primal schemes and the agony of captivity.
“Do not assume,” Tomuchi was insisting. “His alibis mean nothing. Yes, he was asleep at times in the barracks or patrolling in groups when the sabotage was at play. But trust that he is the traitor. There can be no excess of care with this man.”
“But... Saga?” the stunned soldier asked again. He and the others muttered to each other in disbelief.
Tomuchi gave them a moment to air their astonishment before he brought the discussion back in hand. “Despite your feelings, he will require a horse. Beyond that, twelve more mounts should suffice: one for each of you and three in reserve; the strongbox will ride with me.”
At this mention every face turned toward the prison, and several men shuddered as though an echo of the hatred roiling inside touched their necks.
“You’re to travel with us, lord?” asked a soldier. “Nikyō is several days distant, even over good terrain. We ought not—”
“My palanquin will not clear the blockade,” Tomuchi said with finality. He stretched his gnarled hand, then clenched it. “Speak no more of the matter. I know intimately what this will cost me. What it has cost. We will sneak through on horseback. All of us. The rest of the troop will remain here for appearances. Even so, we can expect no more than two days’ head start.”
The men took this with respect, only slow exhales and tugged lips betraying otherwise. Their lord had just explained in curt detail how he’d kept deadly secrets from them for months on end, how the man he’d only hours before praised for honor was the saboteur in their midst. They were uncertain.
“Pardon me, Tomuchi-sama,” said the youngest of them. “But what of Kumo-sama? Has he any suggestions on—”
“Saga killed Kumo.”
Gasps, then silence.
“And to answer the faithlessness in your thoughts,” Tomuchi continued, “no, Kumo knew nothing of this business. But should I have warned him? Should I have taken him for some curd-bowelled peasant to coddle him against fear? I needed him to remain ignorant. He was samurai. He served in the manner his lord required, and would have cursed me for expecting of him anything less. He.... In the next life he will conquer half the world.”
Some clenched the hilts of their swords. Others pinned their emotion quivering to the backs of their throats by the weight of manliness. A solemn energy fell over the room as betrayal died, rotted, gave root to the single-minded bloodlust only samurai could bear. In that moment there was not one among them who wouldn’t gut Saga on sight. If any had wavered, they were Tomuchi’s men once again.
The lord’s voice was hoarse. “Any more questions?” he asked.
There were none.
Until Amé arrived.
♦ ♦ ♦