Hence the King from Kagehana, Pt. II

Issue #82

Concluded from Pt. I, in Issue #81

“You know the Knots,” Saga muttered to still the panic-tide. “You know the Knots. You know the Knots. You know the Knots.”

They all had to die. That was the right thing, Saga knew for certain, so he buried his fingers into the mound and found the fuse. He yanked it free, unraveling hand over hand, clearing it of fetid earth and inspecting it for rot and wear as he went. When he held a full thirty sticks’ worth, he laid straight the line and prepared the flint and replotted his escape route, upwind so the little things couldn’t smell him when they came. But here he paused.

Obey Kagehana was the First Knot. Complete the mission, was the Seventh. And the mission wanted no evidence. Wanted no witnesses. Wanted this, Saga thought of the fuse in his hand. But there were questions that needed answering. There were Tomuchi’s intentions. There was Amé and her thieving. Marrow hated him at the moment: Saga was a target no matter what he did. So the choice was his, truly his. Flee the compound. Or infiltrate.

(Please... please... please....)

Saga lit the fuse and ran.

He knew of Amé’s approach long before Tomuchi and the others knew, felt her silken steps rolling in undulations through the woodbeam floor. She slid open the door without preface or invitation. “Greetings, warlord-sama,” she said in a strained voice and sat heavily upon a cushion facing him. The gathered samurai muttered at her audacity. She stank of blood.

“You failed,” Tomuchi said.

Amé laughed a quiet laugh while tapping a code against a column. And a human, who had impossibly gone undetected, shifted positions somewhere upon the roof.

“Failures imply an end, o’ wide-browed one. Ours is not a business at its end, so let’s leave off talk of them.”

Tomuchi’s heartbeat settled pace. “He lives.”

“Ehh.”

“But he escaped.”

“I was forced to retreat, actually. But how clever you are. A stupendous observation. Was it this wound adorning my shoulder? Or my missing agent? My returning completely bereft of a tall, woolen-haired man in tow? What clue stimulated that mighty intellect? Please. I must know.”

The samurai guard bristled.

“Be careful,” Tomuchi said between his teeth.

“Care is at my side, warlord-sama. It’s tea I wish to be full of.” She poured for herself. “Urine,” she declared after a taste. “You should’ve waited for my return. Your men are virgins fumbling at an obi when it comes to brewing.”

“They were occupied preparing the compound for the prisoner, as befitting the plan. Your plan. Which I indulged because your clan’s broker has avowed over and again that you are a fo—”

“Expert.” Amé said quickly.

Tomuchi hissed his anger with a slow exhale. “An expert. My men starve. My emperor suffers. I have lost Kumo. And in exchange, your expertise has earned nothing but a shadow in a box.” He declared this last with a slam of his fist against his leg and immediately growled in pain.

A worried guard leapt to his assistance. Tomuchi waved him away—”Sit down!”—then labored under his own power across the room where he claimed fresh bandages and liniment from a shelf in the wall.

“Shall I help?” Amé said when he’d returned to his cushions.

Tomuchi adjusted the hem of his hakama to expose a leg and peel away his old bandages. He grunted.

Amé fanned herself with her hand in the heat of Tomuchi’s brazier but slid closer and anointed a fresh bandage with oil of astringent aura. Tomuchi held it in place across his thigh while she set about wrapping him with a new dressing. “Seems time I made more,” she said after a sniff at the liniment. “How’s this batch been working?”

“Better than the last,” Tomuchi admitted.

They plied in silence for a time, stretch and wrap and pull in a practiced fricative rhythm, the cotton and mint-oil smell adding its presence to a room already crowded in odor.

“Is he still in the forest?” Tomuchi asked.

“He was,” Amé replied.

“Jimushi is best to lead the team, then. That old goat knows his way through a mountain wilderness. And he has no love for Saga.”
“Jimushi is dead, peerless-sama. Your men were fishing him from the moat on my return. But were he living and still in possession of his face, I’m confused as to what team you’d have him lead.”

“The team to capture Saga!”

“You’re planning to go after him, then?”

Tomuchi’s amazement nearly choked him. “Of course! You had your chance, akunin. A failure, no matter your tedious definitions.” When Amé said nothing he turned to his personal guard. “Send word. I want bowmen guarding the Shinzaemon and Hanbei passes within the hour. Hunters should sweep east and south, trap him against the cliffs. Take plenty of torches.”

Two samurai leapt to obey.

But as Amé finished Tomuchi’s leg and switched to the other—repeating their rhythm, stretch and wrap and pull—she asked a question.

“What do you know of ghosts?” she said.

And Tomuchi ordered them to wait.

Saga crashed through a thicket. The night was on the wane and he had no time for grace. Though with his foot in agony and his vision still spotted, he couldn’t hope for more than an ox’s agility anyhow. An ox skinny and lame. Kumo would have laughed.

Be akunin. Be sly. Be silent. Attack from the blind. He skidded to a halt near his bundle and armed himself with more throwing knives, a giant war fan, and chisshi bombs.

The akunin with the ruined throat lay nearby, propped in the bamboo. A woman, Saga realized after he pulled back her armor. One of Amé’s maids. And the other he guessed was the skillful code-tapper positioned on Tomuchi’s roof. While Saga waited to gather his breath he stared at the corpse—its humors already dripping to the forest floor reeking of corruption. How many times had he seen her in Amé’s company, all scented hair and painted lips and overlapping kimono worn like a sun-seduced blossom? With an effort he contorted that memory beside the sight of the dead warrior before him and saw the resemblance. The deception was no less astounding.

Time was burning. Behind him the urn was sealed and fortified in iron and buried deep: the explosives that would breach it were mighty.

Twenty-five sticks left.

He clamped against the sneaking tug at his mind (please help kill rip hate hate hate please) and set off. The Hanbei pass was east, the Shinzaemon pass southeast. He took the long way south, avoiding them both.

How long had he been their fool? Since taking this inn? Before? The promotion had been part of the trap, that much was certain. It too neatly forced his schedule. But they couldn’t have planned for his fight with Jimushi, could they? And it was sensible, though risky, to arrange Marrow’s capture within the stronghold of Tomuchi’s headquarters. But Kumo....

Saga shook his head. There was only one question he wanted to ask. The others were just a distraction. And so he focused instead on keeping his sanity.

Marrow was scathed. Blasted down by Amé’s light. And that terrible cauldron at his core—where Saga compressed and folded the rage he couldn’t tame—had exploded. What churned inside Amé’s trap was a form of Marrow that hadn’t existed since—since a time before Saga’s memory. It was thinned but erratic, its pressure creeping like vines. Saga focused every moment to keep his tongue from blurting wildly that constant please!... hurt!... rip!

He caught his hand reaching uselessly for his hip and rebuked it. “You know the Knots,” he muttered again. “You know them.”

Be samurai. Be bold. Be honorable. Look your enemy in the eye. He found his hidden cache in a rocky hollow downslope and yanked on his samurai armor. He stuck the two swords in his belt and retied his hair and tried his best to arrange the akunin weapons comfortably with the samurai garb. He largely failed. He wrapped an extra layer of leather over his foot—the toeless socket throbbing with pain—cinched his shoe in place, and hobbled on.

Twenty sticks.

“Speak your mind,” Tomuchi commanded of Amé.

“First, I believe it’s time to end our little pretense,” she replied, plucking loose a bandage at Tomuchi’s knee before wrapping it more tightly. “Don’t you agree?”

Tomuchi was suspicious. “What are you babbling about?”

Yaré yaré! You samurai are impossible sometimes. Fine. I’m suggesting, lightning-minded lord of men, that we stop pretending our alliance is anything more than a façade.”

“We swore a bargain,” Tomuchi said icily.

“To capture Saga,” Amé agreed, “and parade him in Nikyō before the courtiers. To reverse this most shameful of scandals upon the Denrai and their northern emperor. But afterwards....”

“Ah. Afterwards.” Tomuchi shifted his weight painfully. “Afterwards we will have a problem. Because you want him. And so do I.”

“Well said,” Amé replied, sweet and lilting. “Truly well said.”

Wordlessly Tomuchi shifted his grip as she worked down to his ankle. She was deliberate here with the more swollen flesh, their rhythm slowing, Tomuchi’s breath strained.

“I asked what you know of ghosts,” she said. “The answer is nothing. You know nothing. You can’t control him with any hope of success.”

Tomuchi laughed. “Is discipline a concern? Safety? I will have my emperor and all the swords he commands.”

“And you’ll still lack my knowledge.”

“Oh, yes. Your expertise.”

“Knowledge and timing, venerable lord. What I choose to share. To whom. When. All weapons stronger than those stiff little idols hanging from your waists. For instance, tell me, what did you see tonight, when my trap was sprung?”

This changed Tomuchi’s mood. “Nothing,” he said warily. “A nothing in the shadows. A blot. Then, once the lamps ignited, there was a... a hole in the air. There. Impossibly deep. A piece of chain and some metal shards fell to the floor, the strongbox you placed jolted, and suddenly all was as you see.”

“That, what your eyes couldn’t apprehend, was the ghost of Sofurabi Saga.”

“His ghost? The ghost of a demon....”

The curious among the samurai leaned closer to the strongbox. The wary leaned farther away.

“No, great one. The ghost of a man. The same as that of all men. It can’t be evil any more than a plow can be jealous. But it can be tamed, and yes to purposes that reflect all of the goodness and badness in the mind of the tamer.

“Four generations ago an akunin agent did battle with one and survived. He fled across the Kanpekimushi swamps, reaching a trading village on the river, and collapsed half-dead at the village gates. He managed to toss a message to the night guard before a shadow dragged him back into the wilderness. ‘LIKE INK,’ was all he’d had time to write. And that’s what we call it still.”

Saga reached the edge of the wood at the clearing surrounding Tomuchi’s stronghold. And here he stopped. For beyond the moat, the compound shone like a lake of fire. Torchlight burned in all quarters, countless samurai shadows cutting through the flicker, the wall-top a congregation of flares, even the clearing dotted with tossed brands smoldering in the brush. Smoke came down on the wind in a dry bitter cloud that stung Saga’s eyes. He was a moment making sense of the spectacle, but then he crouched and, full of care, made his way along the wood’s edge, watching, gauging.

When he found a path dark enough, he darted out into the clearing among the chopped and fired stumps. He stepped on a root with the wrong foot and curses crowded the backside of his lips, but he pressed on full-tilt, eyes roving, breath pumping, and at last plunged headlong into the steaming moat. He swam below the surface until his fingers met the wall where, with all stealth, he began to climb. Flushed with the heat, soggy and weak, he clung partway up, listening for alarm, hearing none. He was low enough that he wouldn’t be seen but high enough to be free of the steam and, hopefully, dry out. There was nothing for him to do except trust in the strength of his fingers. And wait.

Five sticks.

When they finished his legs Tomuchi replaced his hakama. They moved to tend his arm, he holding one end of the bandage while Amé wound the other.

 “How did they... make it?” asked one of the anxious soldiers.

Tomuchi turned to stare and the man’s breath caught in shame. But Tomuchi let the question hang.

“Kagehana used a codename for their experiments,” Amé said as she worked. “Mihashira-no-kami, three-pillar god. Out west in the Jade Plains they have a flower by that name. Have you ever seen it? Three petals, three different hues? Each petal grows from a separate stem, but the stems are nourished by the same tangle of roots. The little peasant girls know that to untangle any two of the flowers, the third must be torn away.

“By their theories, Kagehana described a man’s soul as composed of three stems—his intelligent self, his primal self, and his moral. And like those little peasant girls they took view of this nature and decided they could do without a third of it. Using some art carried in the minds of mystics from half a world away, they managed to untangle the intelligent man from his ghost. But to do it, they tore away his conscience.”

“This is nonsense,” declared Tomuchi. “How did they achieve it? When? Why have they never fielded an army of these ‘Inks’? And why do they still skulk in their secret mountain villages? You are rich in legend and rumor, akunin, but bankrupt in facts. This is the ‘knowledge’ you intend to wield in claiming your prize? Thanks to you I have Denrai letters, dispatches, proof of their scheming. But this? I call it trash. And a waste of precious time.”

Amé tch’ed and let his bandages fall.

Tomuchi laughed bitterly. “You elected to share this information. Lay me no fault if its worth is meager.”

“I’d thought to enjoy a negotiation with an adversary. Not suffer fumbling notions of subtlety from an idiot posing as a tactician.”

The guards hissed as Tomuchi’s mirth died with a grinding of his teeth. “Your tone is discourteous.”

“And your ambition is terribly naked. ‘How did they achieve it,’” she said, mocking. “So I’m to take your dripping bait in my teeth, shout the secrets I know simply because you threw a jape my way? To try to goad me with so juvenile a ploy is very simply insulting. I meet foolishness like that with the incivility it deserves.” She leaned back from him, dismissive, and sipped her tea.

“If your injuries run that deep, I suppose the fables are finished.”

“My fables are worth a great deal.”

“Worth more than legitimate business? As in capturing this man already once proven defiant to capture!”

“That is up to the lord warrior. How much is the secret to a successful mission worth to you? How much for the very information that would make your years of suffering, your three years of dishonor, worthwhile?” Amé took more sips, long slurping pulls that irked like cuts through the heavy quiet air.

“Now you are trying at clumsy ploys.”

“Am I? Then please, explain how you’ll capture Saga. And after that, how you’ll control him on the long road to Nikyō. And days later, assuming your survival, how you’ll coerce him to parade his devilry in front of the courtiers. Or perhaps you’ve given up on Saga. Perhaps your enemy’s paperwork is sufficient munition for your counterblow.”

Tomuchi was a time in silence, his fingers trying incessantly to strangle the air.

Amé drank on.

“I hate this new face of yours,” he muttered.

Amé’s laugh was dry. “The one you knew was a mask—makeup and putty. This new face is, truly, my old face.”

“And yet you wore the mask every day. It was more familiar than this—”

“Ugly thing? Peasant’s visage? Please, amazing-sama, don’t spare me by courtesy.”

“I was going to say ‘truth,’” Tomuchi snapped. “But, yes, you are frightful, and in contrast to your abandoned disguise, unworthy of eyes accustomed to beauty. Not that I ever derived great joy from our meetings. Your honeyed prattle has always been a cloy in my throat.”

He exhaled sharply, his impatience at its peak. “Continue your tale.”

“You interrupted.”

“Am I barring you now?”

“I’d not assume to know your mind. Perhaps you have more fumbling questions.”

“I said continue!”

Amé returned her cup to the service with the barest clink. She rubbed at her shoulder. “What was I explaining?”

“The conscience!”

“Yes, yes. There’s the attention I would expect. The conscience....”

Parasitic wasps hunted alone. And as far as Saga understood, they felt no conscience. There were as many of the little devils as there were types of prey. The poufu would attach its eggs to the belly of a slain beetle. The pitou would paralyze grubs and inject her eggs inside the still-breathing victim. Every child in Kagehana could name hundreds of such hunters by his sixth harvest. But only one breed had excited Saga.

The youpi, a lone hunter like the rest, paralyzed its prey with a sting then injected its eggs into the living prize. But unique among its cousins, youpi venom had more power than simple paralysis. In moments, the chemical magic took control of its victim, took ownership of its mind, and turned it into an unwilling bodyguard for the precious eggs. Caterpillars became defenders of wasp broods. Spiders fought and killed to protect the young of their own assassins. With one injection, the prey belonged to the wasp. That is, until the eggs hatched....

Saga had been a boy when he’d learned of the youpi, barely two years into his training, but an idea exploded in his imagination fully formed and with all the brilliance of a Dadu rocket. Here was the opportunity he’d dreamed of, curled sleeping among the lonely water-drip echoes in his cell. Here was a way to make a home for Marrow.

It began with one wasp. He preserved her carcass and was years studying her, using Marrow to learn her on the inside and out—the work of her organs, the chemistry of her sting. In the muttered conversation of the village elders observing his work she was the potential for an exciting new tool. For Saga she was just a test, a model of what he would, if given respite from the command Live for Kagehana, do with a proper body. In the end she became something else entirely.

Saga still clung to Tomuchi’s wall when two sticks became one stick and time at last burned out.

The explosion smote the air hard. A heaving pressure against the ears. A distant rain of earth. For the briefest moment he knew peace as Marrow fell silent, but all at once the rage-song returned, redoubled, swelled into an exultation of terrible joy: (Come help! Come hurt! Evil-Tomuchi and Evil-Amé and Brother-Anchor and the slow men, hurt them all! Come here! Come now!)

The urn was broken. The ghost wasps were waking. Marrow’s children were free.

“What was that?” whispered one of the samurai. But his friend merely shrugged, intent on Amé’s words.

While Tomuchi struggled to wrap his own hands, bandage clenched in his teeth, Amé slid her wounded shoulder from beneath her armor and claimed some of the liniment for herself. “Kagehana’s first success was a massacre,” she said, dousing the knife wound. “The Ink hosts, boys and girls like Saga, had no morality, no conscience, no capacity whatsoever for discipline. They did what they felt, heeded whom they wished, and released their primal Inks whenever they pleased. Rage and lust incarnate. The ghosts ripped through Kagehana like wars unto themselves.

“The village learned by blood and ruin the strength of what they’d wrought. They learned the ghost could live without the host’s body, but never the body without the ghost, for the ghost came first. They learned it was a thing made to be hidden, and so abolished by light. And, of course, they learned of their terrible need for taming.

“You’ve seen the wasp messengers we’ve intercepted,” Amé said. “They represent but a small portion of Kagehana wasp lore. It’s an art centuries old, bending wild creatures to village purpose. So Kagehana soon understood the solution to this final problem with the Ink. Kagehana understood conditioning.

“From birth they subdued the Ink child host into a deep and abiding half-sleep. Then they tamed him to the rope.”

“Rope?” Tomuchi hazarded.

“An elegant solution, greatling-sama. While he went about a stuporous life in the care of the village—fed and exercised but with his thoughts and emotions stifled flat so that his powerful spirit was never released to harm—a rope of uncommon durability was conditioned into the child’s instinct as the very embodiment of authority. When he awoke from his stupor, every lesson was personified in the rope—’obey the village,’ ‘protect the village,’ ‘never lie to the village,’ you understand—lessons to which he clung with utmost dedication. To disobey was to suffer a crisis: paralyzing fear and pain of a power to drown him senseless. And should he persist in his defiance, that crisis would eliminate the threat to the village by stopping his heart within his chest.

“The training was an enormous burden on the village’s resources, and in time the elders came to understand they could only afford to tame one Ink agent at a time. But by it, Kagehana manufactured a conscience. And the Ink host, with a rope to remind him of duty, became a member of the clan. He trained and studied and added to the village’s wasp lore.

“And this was how Saga destroyed Kagehana.”

Some distance away, the children took flight. Once a swarm of thousands, only five wasps remained, and they were five rocketing through the night, intent on Tomuchi’s compound. Black and swift and without sound they moved at the will of their father Marrow the Ink, ghosts incarnate. They were of him but not entirely like him. They gave no heed to man. No heed to ropes. They were untamed. And they were furious.

With cries and bells, the sentries on the wall turned their focus to the plume of dust rising from the wood, and Saga once more began to climb. When he reached the wall-top he breathed once, deeply, and crashed through the palisade to the abject shock of a mixed-blooded samurai on the other side. The man’s gaunt face was pale against the redness of his beard until Saga choked him and his torch in the blast of a chisshi bomb. Man and torch fell to the planks with a clatter. Saga held his breath through the astringent powder cloud and hobble-charged the next man on the wall, launching another chisshi blast and snuffing another torch. He wheeled. A strike of the flint, a well-aimed toss, two more men fell senseless, two more torches gone dark.

Finally the soldiers down the line spotted him. “He’s there!” And the alarm bells pealed. But Saga grasped a ladder top and slid to the grounds and made headlong for the sulfurous embrace of the mists of the pools.

What he knew, Marrow knew, so the children halted, hovering in the safety of the dark of the wood before changing course and speeding toward the gap he’d made in Tomuchi’s barrier of light.

Saga found a defensible position in the mists, his back to a rock. He crouched small, opened the giant war fan and held it as a shield. And there he waited, senses strained.

Judging from the shouts some half-dozen men had pursued him from the wall, with more detaching from companies stationed on the grounds. He watched their torches bobbing close, the fiery halos shrinking tiny in the hot mineral cloud. Fifteen, all told. The swarm would be terrible.

Across the blasted lands and the bubbling surface of the moat, up the face of the wall, through the gap in the torch line and down into the mists, the children struck without a sound. To Saga’s left came a strangled cry, and one torch fell. Another cry and a second man went thrashing to the ground with whistled gasps of breath. “Hhhhhelp,” came the plea before his throat closed forever. The soldiers halted their advance and turned in circles, their blurred torches dancing like wisps above a marsh grave. Another man vanished in a splash of hot water. Another with a sigh and thud. A samurai fell just at Saga’s feet, his eyes bulged and twitching in terror, a silver line of drool running from his lips as he sucked hopelessly for air.

Finally under cover of the mist, darker than shadow and on silent wings, five little dooms hasted for Saga’s flesh. He swung his fan and caught four against the iron spines, sent them spinning off into the night. The fifth stung his hand with the heat of fire. He smacked the wasp away and immediately knifed thrice at the back of his hand. Watched. Counted. Sighed in relief as the triangular cut spilled blood and shadow venom and stopped the creeping numb. But the eggs had been laid. And inside his flesh he felt the little stones turn and grow until the back of his hand was dotted by fevered blisters.

Saga ducked from the noise—samurai gathered cursing near his hiding place—and stabbed thrice to destroy the eggs in his hand. He wrapped the new wound and folded his fan away. A tiny scream pinged inside his skull, one of the wasps dying in the light of a torch, but Saga, with his lungs heaving short and sharp, gave it little heed. His attention was on the man at his feet. The man who had stopped struggling. Whose skin darkened in a sudden rush and whose features began to twitch. Saga weighed his chances—the stung man, or the angry samurai gathered near—and chose to stand and draw his sword. For the venom had finished enslaving the victim’s body, thew and bone and blood, and at last claimed full ownership of the flesh of the brain.

The hemorrhage-brown eyes took a new nature. They focused on Saga.

The man began to rise.

Tomuchi’s head snapped to attention. “What?”

“Saga destroyed Kagehana,” Amé repeated. “Four years ago, probably during the summer Uremon festival. We found rotted food on plates and laundry still wet in tubs swarming with mosquitoes. It was a week until we hunted down the village records, longer still before we unearthed evidence of the mass pyre.”

“Then how—who have the Denrai contracted in this business?”

“Saga alone.”

“But that makes no sense! The wasps, the messages....”

“Kagehana’s network of contracted spies and plants—peasants and merchants, mostly, traders too, with an occasional noble. Your enemies, the Denrai, secret their messages to the network. The network, knowing no difference, forwards the messages to Saga.”

“But by your own description he’s following the orders of his village.”

Amé shook her head. “According the records, the elders knew he was a danger the moment he became wakeful. For safety, the Ink hosts were normally bred dim. They needed only the intelligence to obey. Saga was different. He was beyond clever, took to his training faster than was natural and asked questions he ought not have asked. But his conditioning held, and there were those among the elders who became excited by his potential. He was allowed to live.”

At that moment a man approached the room, knelt, knocked at the door respectfully.

“Come,” said Tomuchi.

The messenger at the threshold bowed low. “Forgive me, Tomuchi-sama, but the guard has reported a disturbance in the wood. A plume of smoke, they say.”

Inside the prison, excitement swelled. The children were close, closer every instant, tension growing like voided sound drawn tight on the edge of hearing. The more sensitive of the samurai began to squirm, sweat budding pungent on their skin.

“In the wood?”

“Yes, lord.”

Tomuchi’s teeth ground. “Tell them to hold fast,” he ordered and gestured anxiously for Amé to continue.

“It was the last night of summer,” said Amé, “during the Festival of Uremon where Kagehana youth would pass into adulthood by adding to the village lore. Saga was no exception. The schedule of record gave little detail, noting only that Saga’s contribution was of the utmost value, and that he would be first to present.”

Amé gave her shoulder dressing a final hurried wrap before using her chin and deft fingers to cinch it tight. She slipped her armor back in place.

“Not even the Ink could have slain the entire village,” she said, “not when the elders knew its weaknesses. No, whatever destroyed the village was presented by Saga that night. And of its nature there is no record. What power did he find? And does he possess it still? It’s a mystery, samurai-sama, one I hope to solve very soon.”

“If his elders are dead,” growled Tomuchi, “what is he doing here!”

“The Ink agents can abide in two places at once. They have what was supposed to be an utter dedication to any code of behavior. They are perfect for infiltration. And their specialty, the appearance of divine retribution, is a weapon in high demand. Saga’s mission was to infiltrate your troop, to be the best samurai possible, to destroy the troop from within at the client’s discretion. The village made plans to monitor and adjust the lessons of his rope as needed. But then the village died.

“Do you see, now? He is an arrow aimed at your heart, and here he flies still, unable to stop. He answers the client’s requests, maintains Kagehana’s network of spies, and memorizes reports for an empty village because that’s what the rope tells him to do. But he’s also learned new lessons continually for years, informing his ‘conscience’ on samurai duty. With no handler, the samurai ideas have begun to rival the akunin. And Saga has become a confused and broken tool.”

Inside the prison there was naught but excitement and hate, pressed hard to the corners. The walls creaked.

K’so!” muttered the nearest man as he moved away. The others clenched their swords.

Tomuchi rushed to finish wrapping his hands, his jaw working with stonelike grinding. “So he’s powerful,” he said, “and intelligent and mad besides, no different than half the men in my command. What does this matter to my plan, woman?”

Amé spoke as if she’d been waiting in ambush, her words coming with the weight of axe blows. “Very little I suppose. But it is, no doubt at this very moment, having great impact on Saga.”

It took a long moment before the implications struck home. But when they did, Tomuchi struggled to his knees and hissed at the trap. “He is listening!”

“Of course he is.”

“Akunin peasant! With everything we said... everything he knows....” Tomuchi called for his guard. “He could be headed here now!”

“That is a certainty.”

The samurai were on their feet, swords drawn as if their enemy were already in their midst. Tomuchi growled for calm and spat orders for the troop to be brought to alert. Then he rounded on Amé. “Why would you do this? Tell me before I take your heart!”

“No need for coercion, knowledgeable lord of winged wisdom. I’ll tell you freely. I did this because, as you so noted, Saga must be captured. Because I want him captured in my fashion.

“And because, not one hour ago,” she told them, laughing, “I stole Saga’s rope.”

You know the Knots, Saga insisted to himself. He slashed right like a samurai. Skirted left like an akunin.

But the owned-man clenched both dark fists and lurched savagely, battering Saga into a full hobbled retreat. “Hate,” the man promised gutturally, dashing low with impossible speed. He caught Saga round the legs and dumped him hard to the stony earth.

Saga twisted and bit and punched, but the owned-man knew his every effort the moment it birthed in his mind and smacked each down with all of Marrow’s primal quickness. The man’s muscles crackled aloud as hard hands split the air and seized Saga at the throat, squeezed, yanked upward until their faces touched. “Bad. Work,” the man moaned, tears in his eyes, breath hot on Saga’s cheek. “Brother. Anchor. Makes. Pain!”

Saga’s skull felt full of blood. But even with his breath dying in the clench of those fingers the will of the Rope was god. Obey Kagehana. Complete the mission. Over the owned-man’s shoulder three soldiers fought another thrall in macabre imitation of combat. Without a voice, Saga changed his grip on his sword and threw it at the feet of the samurai closest. The soldier turned. Saw. Cut at Saga’s assailant. Enraged, the owned-man threw Saga to the ground and leapt, twisting like a tiger to pounce on the samurai.

Saga found his balance and fled.

The five wasps were dead, killed by torchlight. But in their rampage they’d stung some two-dozen samurai, men that Marrow made his. On the rocky beds surrounding the hot springs and out in the smoke-spiced open ground the owned-men fought without hesitation or the weight of thought, muscles owned by Marrow, broken down, made better, just like he’d been taught. Saga limped past as one thrall split a samurai’s helm and cheek by the weight of a slap. Two more beat a phalanx to the ground with hurled stones and torches swung as clubs. The torchlight meant nothing to them, Marrow’s work done in the harbor of their flesh. They dragged and ripped and stamped like children made terrible and strong. Tomuchi’s samurai fought nobly for all their shock and fear, learning with swiftness to cut the legs out from under their enslaved friends—ordinary blows having been shrugged off and ignored. But the samurai were just men, and the thralls were fast.

Saga melded into the confusion, another soldier caught in the madness of the night. He crossed the grounds shouting contrary warnings to send the samurai scattering, but he was unrecognized in the chaos and steadily made his way just ahead of his war. The owned-men pressed their attacks close at his heels, intent on the same place as he.

Saga passed Kumo’s house and the water tower site, the peasants having long since fled, and finally ensconced himself in Tomuchi’s garden near the well Marrow had used to very carefully sneak into a trap. The headquarters building was ringed with thrice as many samurai as normal, torches jammed in every corner and crevice. And somewhere on the roof was Amé’s “maid.”

Soon the battle came spilling near. Battered samurai falling like lumber. Owned-men dashing from shadow to light and back again, teeth bared, fists clubbing. Curled reek of struck flint and shit and smoke. Saga watched the thralls closely, noting the angry blisters growing on their flesh, feeling a growing anticipation in the vines of Marrow’s emotion. He hadn’t long before the swarm.

The headquarters guard admirably held their ground in the ring of torchlight. But they were fixated. And as Saga stood and quick-stepped his way into their midst, dressed like they were, moving like they did, there was not a man among them who paid him any—

“Bastard son of dog!” came a cry. Saga had only a moment to duck before Uji’s hairy fist came flying for his skull. The punch swiped air, but Uji’s momentum rammed him bodily against Saga and together they crashed into another man.

“Traitor!” Uji growled before planting a blow in Saga’s ribs. “Trash!”

Saga shrugged off the blow, wrapped Uji’s arms in a hold, then tripped him to the ground in a tangle of scabbards and loose armor. Uji was starved and fever-lean beneath Saga’s press, but he fought rabidly, kneeing and kicking and biting for exposed flesh, long enough for the other soldiers to recover from their surprise and grasp at Saga with a dozen hands.

They dragged him away, thrust torches in his face, menaced him with their swords. But their grips were amateur and with a twist of his body he was free and on his feet. He snapped open the war fan and slashed with its pointed spines in an arc for their legs. They scrambled backward in a ragged circle, giving Saga an instant’s respite before an arrow, glowing white hot, whistled down and exploded the fan from his hands. That damned maid, Saga thought, his ears ringing, just as a natural arrow flew from the roof to impale the ground near his foot.

He danced to his flank but had hardly cleared his head when Uji tackled him, fists raging, contorted grimace of frustration. Saga took blows to the jaw, nose and brow before he wrenched his arms free and hugged Uji’s face to his chest. “Hold your breath!” he hissed in the man’s ear, then flung the last four chisshi bombs skyward and watched them explode their suffocating powder over everything in sight.

Over-I

The room was organized with precision: scrolls and books in attentive formation against one wall, shelves bearing bandages and bottles of liniment and clay jugs of boiled stream water standing rigid against another. The eight-man samurai guard waited in likewise punctilious array, aiming the points of nocked arrows and the edges of drawn swords, none with steady hands. At their feet a stretch of raw planking marked the obstruction used to seal Marrow’s tunnel, the smooth wood floor an otherwise clean-swept uniformity. Amé and Tomuchi sat upon the platformed half of the room near a heavy strongbox, side by side, the crippled lord’s brazier adding heat to an already stifling room. Tomuchi held one half of the Knotted Rope in his lap. Amé toyed with the other. And ruling all, clearly of akunin make, four lamps squatted in each corner, heavy on iron legs, pouring the stink of burning chemicals and a scathing, white, unflickering light. Beneath them, there were no shadows.

Saga observed this detail in an instant before he shoved Uji inside and slammed the door behind them.

His mind was strained taut, his senses and Marrow’s and the thralls’ telling of footsteps thudding through the floor, the stifling prison of the strongbox, the odor of samurai being beaten and the thud of Amé’s heart and the green of Tomuchi’s robe and.... Saga steadied himself, brought his physical person to the fore: quiet inside the room; the war raging outside.

He jammed the door with a throwing knife. “You’ll die here,” he told them all, wedging more knives. “There’s nothing you can do to change that. So I’m asking that you please cooperate without theatrics.”

Uji, sooty and bruised, gathered himself to stand with his fellow samurai, all staring at Saga with hatred.

“You look terrible,” Amé said.

“A mirror wouldn’t flatter you either,” retorted Saga, leaning on his knees. She still wore Marrow’s bruise at her temple—and how she’d resisted the three-tap sleep, he couldn’t guess—but her new face was what he’d meant, so like Amé’s and yet so different. There was more age in her brow. And that cant to her lips.... Anxiety? Excitement?

“I know you’re angry—”

“Wrong,” Saga interrupted, gesturing to the strongbox. “Marrow’s angry.”

Tomuchi’s grunt was bitter. “So it has a name,” he said, face waxen and sheened with sweat. Even in the heat of his brazier the old chill in his joints seemed to bend him small.

Saga bowed, as was Rope-proper. “I apologize, but I’m not here to discuss that.”

Tomuchi scowled. “I? Which is the real I? The shadow? The rope?” He pointed at Saga with the hilt of his knife, a gesture of deep contempt. “Do you even know?” Tremors shook the building as one of the akunin arrows exploded outside in a muted thump and frizzle.

Saga found himself unprepared for Tomuchi’s question. The real “I” was a thing he’d never known, a thing he sought to find, both facts of an intimacy hardly fit for sharing in the circumstance. He anxiously felt he was losing the initiative.

“You out maneuvered me,” he admitted, “thinking to manipulate me by capturing Marrow, stealing the Rope. But you miscalculated. Your prizes are only extensions of me, and I, however you wish to define the word, don’t matter. My wants don’t matter. The mission goes on. And not one of you,” he said meeting their stares, “has a shield for what’s coming.”

A trick in echo smuggled rumor of the battle through odd places in the walls—one man screaming hoarsely for his arm, curses from another before a blast cut him short, the thud of flesh, the snap of bone, a truncated explosion of breath from a broken chest. The fighting was closer by the instant.

Saga bowed once more to Tomuchi. “I would know something of you,” he said, then to Amé, “of both of you.”

Her smile was joyless, her head inclined to the noises without. “A shame, then, that we’ve run out of time. I do hate leaving young men unsatisfied.” She gathered the Knotted Rope in both hands and held a length of it taut for all to see. “I admire your skill—marvelous cunning, and patience to match. If you’d even suspected the truth of my purposes here, I’ve no doubt that all you said about this assault of yours would be true, the lord and I trapped hopelessly at your mercy. So trust me, Sofurabi-child, when I say that your miscalculation is not your fault. My hostage, you see, was taken the moment we met. And my shield. Well, it’s here.”

Saga’s mouth had gone dry, Marrow-tendrils grasping at his thoughts with confusion, his jaw twitching in time to the chills thrilling anxious pulses at his nape. “What did you do?” he whispered, reaching toward the gap where three Knots had been undone. Serve the client: gone. infiltrate the troop: gone. destroy the troop from within. All three, with their familiar twists and twines,vanished.

He started forward to grasp that horrible naked span, but his legs held rigid as ideas he’d once known for law simply ceased to exist. He remembered the message reeds, and the Denrai clients, and the terrible need to kill Tomuchi. But suddenly he couldn’t care a whit for them. They were obligations struck, baby teeth knocked free to leave gaps full of empty space and a deep discomfiting apathy. What need did he have to ruin Tomuchi? What did it matter if there were witnesses? To what purpose had Kumo died? Saga had no answers, not anymore. The mission was untied. “How?” he asked. But even as his lips spoke the words his akunin mind, meticulously trained, ever-working, made abrupt sense out of mystery. And Saga’s already haggard breath caught hard.

Amé nodded, her voice rising rich and steady over the approaching carnage. “I am a leaf of the grass. I ply the earth. I tread the wind. I birth wraths of fire and take suck from the rain. I have slipped the light into a world of shadows and am returned to the field bearing a gift of seed. I am a leaf of the grass.”

Lord Tomuchi looked from Amé to Saga to the Rope with a brow knit hard and dark.

But Saga pressed his fists to the floor and knelt to Amé in humble respect. The way he’d been taught. The way the Rope commanded. For she had given the code phrase—in perfect gesture, intonation, and word—for welcoming agents safely home to Kagehana.

“I was away on a mission the night of your—” she jumped at the crash of another explosion and waited, listening, until a code pounded from the roof. She stood. “On the night of your Uremon, and your... gift to our beautiful Kagehana. And I’ve been a long time contracting with the southern clans. But I do remember the day you were presented to the village, so long ago, the little Ink boy, wide-eyed and knowing nothing. One of the elders gave you a gift of a beaded necklace and you asked her if it was another rope for you to mind. The elder laughed. We all laughed.”

Saga, on his knees, stared at the jut of a throwing knife in his own belt. Amé... of the village? He raced his thoughts over all he knew of her, and a picture emerged that alarmed. How they’d become friends, and that fastly. The easy cadence of their wordplay. The comfort she’d always made him feel. And tonight, the conversation he’d spied upon between her and Tomuchi, it came to him in a new understanding: the things she’d chosen to say, the way she’d curbed Tomuchi’s words, the lies she’d told. She lied so well.

Saga stared his knife. She could be lying now. She’d admitted to finding the Kagehana archives, hadn’t she? She could have gleaned the passphrase from them, could have discovered accounts of his Presentation Day. Could have studied him for three years. Could have planned the lie, every day, for three years. She could be lying. But from the knife he raised his eyes to look at her and her pitying mouth and her mother’s eyes, and he knew it didn’t matter. He was convinced. So the Rope was convinced. And he suddenly realized why Amé, unlike her maids, had allowed him to see her true face.

(Filthy trap!) Marrow declared.

Saga agreed.

He was lost in the immensity of it, his efforts through the night finally overtaking him in an abrupt onset of leaden muscles and remembered pains. And thus dazed and weary, he felt nothing of the invading thralls.

Two owned-men came crashing through the wall with demon faces torn and chests gone ragged by impossible wounds. The samurai leapt in shock. Tomuchi shouted for attack. Saga scrambled upright, grasped for his killing sword, remembered throwing it to escape a death by throttling. He lurched to a protective stance in front of Sister Amé and drew his short swordinstead.

(Come!) Marrow cried as the thralls stumbled clumsily upon a pile of debris, crawling for the nearest lamp. The samurai arrows hit them in a swift meaty tattoo, thud-toc-smack. The first volley yet thrummed as Tomuchi’s men nocked and drew and fired again. And again. And again, until the owned-men were bristling. Too little, Saga thought. Too weak. Yet he watched, startled, as first one thrall then the other flopped to his belly and begin to writhe, their blisters full and pulsing, Marrow shouting joy clear as a birdcry through Saga’s mind. And abruptly he realized what came next. He tackled Amé to the floor beneath the safety of a lamp.

“What’s this?” growled the soldier who stood above them, an instant before the blisters erupted.

From eggs to larvae to pupae in less than an hour, the new wasps burst from the flesh six-hundred strong. They were identical to the first five dooms, darkness in motion, grave silence where buzzing ought be. Many died instant deaths in the light of the lamps, dark vapors vanishing upon the air, but others forced directly from the flesh through the wooden floor, into the safety of the crawlspace.

They began to tear the room apart. Under the floor, through the walls, against the stout beams that held the ceiling aloft, the children swarmed and sped and bashed. Where one could do no damage, thirty gathered in an amorphous fist of Marrow’s will to crush the wood to splinters. The samurai turned this way and that, shuffling into ever-tightening formations to protect the light of the lamps. When a floor beam snapped and sent one lamp rocking, three pairs of hands jerked to hold it still. Ten throats sighed in simultaneous relief.

Footsteps pounded and a squad of the troop came thundering down the hallway to stare agape through the hole in the wall.

“Get those things out of here!” Tomuchi commanded of the two shredded corpses. “And seal up that hole!” He had taken a defensive position beside a column, one hand clutching a samurai’s shoulder, the other his drawn knife.

Saga helped Amé stand, bit his cheek as a jut of floor jammed his torn foot. His fist clenched so hard his fingertips went numb. But he fought the agony and closed his eyes. All across the grounds the owned-men fell as the new swarm burst to life, dozens of bodies, thousands of wasps, and every wasp intent on this room. “You untied the Knots,” he said, coming back to himself, “but too late.”

Amé was brusque. “You can’t control them, I know. But you survived Kagehana. You defended the village against your own creations—you had no choice—and yet here you stand. So it’s not too late, child. The wasps won’t attack you if you combine with Marrow.” It was not a question.

Was he so naively transparent, his history nothing more than a flippant simplicity to this woman? “Sister Amé is correct,” he said begrudging.

As the samurai carried the corpses out, every soldier flinching at the roar of the chaos of the wasps, a slim armor-clad figure slipped through the breach in the wall. She wore a cloth face-mask like her partner and moved with the same grace, and like the throatless carcass in the bamboo wood, she was at once familiar to Saga and strange. This the second maid leaned near Amé and whispered fiercely. Amé nodded, coiling the Rope at her hip.

“Have your men build a shelter over the strongbox,” she said to Tomuchi. “Use this debris, this wood, and those planks there. No need for precision, just a place of shadow large enough for Saga to fit. Saga, you help.”

He bent and grasped a plank, Rope-proper and obedient, but inside him Marrow’s influence was seething. (Fingers full of lusting wrath to shred the hateful trapper’s skin, shred her bones, shred her life, shred her stupid heavy burning choking hating slavery....) The building shuddered, the swarm a din of enormous brutality ripping through the outer rooms, lashing down beams and columns and plaster until storeys collapsed and splinters pinged against the walls with the sound of jagged hail. Uji fought a slat bulging from the wasps pushing on the other side. Many samurai had fallen to their bellies to hold the lamps in the hug of their arms.

Saga was slow to realize that no one had heeded Amé.

She was staring at Tomuchi. “He’ll protect me,” she assured the lord. “He’ll protect Kagehana, and you too, if you stay close. We can survive this night with your mission intact. But we must act now.”

The sound as Tomuchi spat was thick and flat and hard with force, loud even over the din. “Take her!” he ordered, furious.

Swift as a doe the maid nocked her bow and took a position at Amé’s flank, even as the samurai leapt, swords leveled, arrows aimed. Protect Kagehana was the will of the Second Knot, but the soldiers dashed to hold Saga in hard grips across the chest and arms, his sluggish muscles affording no time for escape.

“Peasant bitch!” Tomuchi, still propped on a soldier, pointed at the Rope at Amé’s side. “You could have taken command of him at any time. Days ago. Months! Oh, fool that I am. I see it now. This was a... a test! A test of his strength. My men dead, for a test. My honor, for a glimpse of this monster’s power.” He stomped against the strongbox with all his might, pain and rage cavorting upon his face, unseemly. “Do not deny it!”

Amé for an instant seemed poised to do just that, but then she shrugged. “We approached you, you arrogant idiot. Or did you forget?” She produced a flare from somewhere in her sleeve, similar to the one she’d used to blind Saga in the wood. “This was our operation from the beginning.”

Saga twisted against the hands that held him, struggling hard so as to stay ahead of the bubbling panic-tide creeping cold and inchwise over his heart. Protect Kagehana. He was obedient. He was a proper agent. No matter if he failed those years ago on the first night of wasps, no matter if he failed to protect Amé now. He was safe from punishment, so long as he gave his all. So long as he tried. And he did give his all. All to the Knotted Rope. He struggled.

But abruptly, with all the skin-prickling bliss of true epiphany, he made sense of a beautiful truth, quivering so ripe here on the murderous air he could pluck it for himself with the ease of a spoken word: he no longer needed to struggle. Not for the Rope, not ever again. For, Amé by haste or ignorance had untied only those Knots as governed his mission. The Knots of akunin behavior remained. And so did the samurai. And here, in this dying room, the akunin and samurai, the two halves of his Rope, the poles of his conscience, stood ready to kill each other. Time was the mother of chance. And this was the moment, his chance to be free, to go where he would, to do what he would. Free to finish his experiment. Free to—

(Be king!) exalted Marrow.

Just that, Saga thought.

But there was first a thing that nagged him. An important thing.

“My question,” he shouted, still contesting against his captors. The samurai squeezing his chest hissed in his ear and squeezed tighter. Saga rounded his back to give room for breath. “You never answered my question,” he said, Marrow’s influence making him loud.

“Quiet,” Tomuchi ordered.

Amé arched her brow, taunting, and brushed her fingers against the First Knot. “Speak.”

Obey Kagehana above all.

“We’ve all done our duty,” said Saga, “and deceived each other. But yesterday, before. Was it only a lie? Were we truly friends?” he asked of Amé. “Were you truly proud?” of Tomuchi. It seemed so foolish a thing to ask in a moment as this, but for Saga it had been a horrible puzzle. As a boy he’d watched the families in the village, and he’d recognized nothing of what heaved their breasts and tugged their smiles and set flowing their tears, nothing of “family” in his own understanding. Was he incapable? Deformed? Or had he simply been deprived? The troop, this mission, was the first season of his life spent in close company with others. And that season was dying. He had to know.

Amé, in echo of a playfulness that seemed long dead, said, “There are some things, Deeply Serious Little Brother, that can’t be feigned.”

Tomuchi, ever gruff, met Saga with a hard stare. “You were a good samurai, for a liar.” But as his mouth swallowed the end of those words, its corners turned down in the slivered hint of sorrow.

Saga took their gifts, knowing for once that he could be acknowledged as a human being, and gave his thanks.

Then he betrayed them both.

“Sister Amé,” he said with the strength left to him. “It’s my duty, made law by the will of the Knotted Rope, to inform you of a danger, the chance that Tomuchi-sama has begun to suspect the First Knot, there at the end of the Rope nearest your foot, controls my loyalty to Kagehana. And that if he were to destroy that Knot, he would be better able to claim me for himself.” It was something she needed to know. For her protection. Just like you want, he thought to the Knots. If it was betrayal, then legal betrayal, and no fault of his own. Still, Saga braced for the panic-tide, clenching his teeth. But there was nothing!

In response, Marrow’s swarm drew back as an ocean on the ebb before crashing in with ferocity to burst a half-dozen holes in ceiling, floor, and wall, wasps bulging into the white-lit room, the creatures at the fore dying in ebon wisps to screen the others behind. In this wise they cascaded arm lengths inside before the samurai recovered and raced with debris to force them back. Men were stung and fell prone. Their fellows dragged them into the hallway and hacked off their heads.

The air was sweat-dank and alive with swirls of dust, lamp light dancing crazily. As death pressed in, deforming one corner and the next, the samurai threw Saga to the floor and all but crushed him in their fervor to protect their lord.

Their lord, however, had other business.

Saga had blurted the words as swiftly as he could, perhaps too swiftly judging by the confusion on Amé and Tomuchi’s faces. But no. No, the grim satisfaction came upon Tomuchi like a dawn, and Amé’s expression ran from shock to fury, to a final wryness as she realized the thrust of Saga’s plan. She mouthed a curse. Saga dipped his head in the only bow he could manage. When he looked again, it was war.

Tomuchi flung himself upon her without hesitation, stabbing his knife and grasping for the Rope with clumsy abandon. The room was thick with samurai, refugees from outside adding to the press. Ai no ko, most of them. Mongrels of the between, like Saga. Men of a loyalty most staunch. And at Tomuchi’s assault there were no less than a dozen who charged to his aid.

Amé saw the odds. She gave a signal and a shout, her lone voice swallowed in the eruption of voices. The akunin maid loosed a flash arrow that sang the air in a streak across the room and struck a lamp behind Tomuchi’s soldiers, exploding it to pieces. Men screamed with burns and bloody wounds. All was made stark in the white of the flash of light. But only for an instant. For the flash died and the corner went dark, darkness swallowing the troop, darkness breeding death as the swarm boiled in.

A second arrow and a second blast and now half the room was in shadow, beneath the smoke and the debris and in the crooked places of the corpses, shadows forming darkling roads for the wasps to steal along, questing for Marrow’s box.

(Come! Come! Come!) The box jolted.

As the samurai were engulfed and stung, Saga scrambled free, stumbling deeper into the surviving light with hot pain throbbing from toe to skull. The air tasted tart from the smashed lanterns’ tang. The falls of venom-sick men shook the floor.

Grunts and the keen of steel and Saga spied the akunin maid dueling a pair of samurai. The last of the samurai, he realized: a man he couldn’t recognize from the blood on his face, and Uji. And they were getting the best of her. They stalked and clashed, exhaustion making them wild, all three yet careful to tread in the safety of the remaining lamps.

But the true battle was nearer at hand. Tomuchi, ears bloody, resplendent haori twisted and torn, grappled with Amé. He stabbed with his knife. She struck with hers. Faces swollen. Jaws clenched in rictus fury. Each wrapping and tugging and cinching greedily at the Knotted Rope.

Suddenly Amé fell back clutching a gash in her brow and Tomuchi scrambled clear. He clawed at the Rope with his enfeebled hands and bit the First Knot with his teeth and availed nothing. But the lord at last turned his back to Saga, to the room, and bent himself over the heat of his brazier. From the litter on the floor he grasped a porcelain bottle and upended the strong-smelling liniment over the coals. A flash of fire shot toward the ceiling.

Protect Kagehana, the Rope commanded as they fought. Saga held himself still. Protect yourself, the Knots roared, live for Kagehana! as they burned. He refused. And with its terrible swiftness the panic-tide struck. His heart leapt so tightly he gasped. He doubled over, shuddering. His pulse was a liquid thunder in his ears, red mist tunneling his vision. But he forced his eyes to work, forced them to watch, for he had to live long enough to see this bit of himself burn. Had to see, for it to be real.

Even Marrow knew they were close, his swarm all a frenzy.

Amé scrambled to her feet, shoved Tomuchi aside, and snatched the rope from the flame. She reeled as if struck. Her bloodshot eyes met Tomuchi’s. And the reality of what the two of them had done descended upon them both.

Amé spun and shouted, “Saga! I can help you!”

Tomuchi glared, panting.

But where the first knot had ruled, all coil and sinuous command, was nothing but a smoking ashen twist. Obey Kagehana was gone, and without it the rest meant nothing: Saga was no longer akunin. He was no longer samurai. The rope was no longer Kagehana’s. It was his.

His heart settled sane. His lungs gave him breath. He struggled to his feet. He dashed for the lamps.

Amé was quickest. She threw down the rope and lit her flare and sprinted off through a hole in the wall, hunched low in lee of her light. Dimly Saga felt the swarm chasing her into the distance. Dimly did he notice, for he reached the first lamp and felled it with a shove. Tilt and crash and puff and flame, its light vanished in foul air, throwing another corner of the room into shadow. The swarm gleefully tore at the last of the walls, flinging wood in a storm of splintered madness.

Now there was but one lamp, the sphere of its glow a tumor recessed in darkness. And there under the tantalizing circle of light was Marrow’s box.

Saga left a smear of himself with every step of his four-toed foot. He passed a tangle of corpses. The akunin maid, outmaneuvered and cornered, had won her fight in an akunin way: she and Uji and the other man all in a heap, all with hair burnt, all with skin steaming as the houmatsuteki na fukumen powder melted them like tar. Saga watched Uji’s untamable mustache disappear with a terrible stench into the puddle of his face, and somewhere, like a strain within the swarm, a mass of Marrow’s wasps shuddered in mourning for the Funny-Friend.

But Saga put it out of mind. For the lamp was his fixation. The lamp was the end. He limped onward, single-minded, and was caught unbalanced when a hand wrenched his foot and sent him sprawling just short of his prize.

Tomuchi, the crippled lord, the iron-hearted friend of the True Emperor in the Southern Court, dragging himself by arm-power and wrath, took another hold of Saga’s foot and smashed it to the floor. Saga howled, folded, reached for the pain, and writhing thus, gave Tomuchi the chance to clamber upon his back and loop the knotted rope around his throat.

Saga clawed at the garrote as its bite sank in, his breath suffering another prison of Kagehana’s conscience.

“Stubborn ox,” Tomuchi hissed between the creak of his teeth. The lord’s own breath quavered and his knuckles wept pus. But the strength in his arms was steel-cord over iron. “You earned this.”

Saga’s face pulsed hot. Tears ran salty past his jaw where the work of the rope cut an aching gouge, blood welling sudden and thick from a torn vein. He could feel the swarm fighting against the intensity of the light, dying short of the box, dying short of the lamp, their numbers thinning fast. They flung stones and detritus and torn corpses—a body thudding to the floor and sliding just near Saga. But the lamp did little more than rock and tilt, and its wobbling drove the surviving wasps mad with frustration.

(Hurry!) urged Marrow. (Brother-Anchor is dying!)

Shut up! Saga snapped in his mind. He knew what was important to keep. And what could be tossed away.

With his vision failing he tried thrice before his fingers found purchase against a warp in the broken floor. He pulled. Tomuchi flopped against the shift in weight, wrenching Saga’s throat. Saga’s other hand found purchase and he pulled once more.

“No!” Tomuchi roared.

Saga pulled.

“No!”

But it was too late. The lamp’s iron strut was in Saga’s grasp. Marrow was ebullient in his heart. And with the greatest joy he’d ever known, he strained against the weight of the lamp and brought it down, heavily down, down crashing upon his own breast.

Fire scorched his eyes.

Sound drowned in Tomuchi’s scream.

The Ink boiled free.

The Majestic Plural

King!

King of Himself!

King of the Night!

King of Where-He-Goes!

He kicks aside the ugly box and dashes out of the room through a hole in the broken wall with his children swarming behind him like a slow-man’s cloak, his children giving him strength, one by one, stinging him and shuddering and passing his life back to him, making him strong again, making him Marrow again....

Ignores the Tomuchi building because it’s smashed down, leaps instead to another roof and dances a king’s dance and howls down for the slow creatures below to feel in their bones, feel and know and fear, then with joy pulsing in thrills through his arms, making them full-heavy-strong, he smashes with both fists and crashes down through the building and kicks apart the walls and finds rice in a pot and swallows it and spits out the water as steam, whistle-sizzle-pop, and paints the starch across a cracked table so that slow-men will come and awe and see his freedom, and stamping backwards across the shattered wood he dances out into the open air and sings to distant owls and snatches wing-powder from the moths and throws blades of grass into the wind and chases their whirling crazy race and, and, and....

Sees the dead bodies....

Marrow stops and crouches, because he knows it’s Kemu there crushed beneath the big stones because of the red charm Kemu wears on his wrist, and knows Kemu shares his food and makes up rhymes about the sea and peaches and money, and Marrow knows Kemu is dead, and that makes Marrow cold....

But the place that Brother-Anchor made, the hard place in Marrow’s belly to put the sorrow and hurt and hate, is gone, and so the coldness runs in streams from his breast to his toes, too cold, too free, too much....

He doesn’t like it, stands and runs away from broken Kemu, but goes only a short way along a hard flat path and sees Arimaki tangled with another slow-man in the prickly clutch of a bush, and Goki—whose topknot is gray-white and whose skin is covered in tiny and wet and messy holes—lying on the other side of the path, and Hatabachi there limp beside the fallen torch, and Meko’s head over against a fence a long way from Meko’s body and Marrow feels full of cold for the slow-men he knows because they’re dead and their company is gone and their fun is gone, and he hates the cold, flooding more and more under his skin, hates it, can’t get away from it, no matter how fast he runs....

Sprints through the mists by the earth-water pools, dodging more bodies and more burning torches and more bodies and more bodies and torches, and rounds back to the Tomuchi building, because here in the crushed room with Brother-Anchor are the last of the stung-men, now becoming owned-men....

Go, he tells them as he folds small and crouches next to Brother-Anchor, his children blanketing his shoulders and head, go make the mourn-fires like Brother-Anchor makes....

And the owned-men rise to their feet and run in the way Marrow orders, to gather up the bodies and the body parts from the stink pools, the bushes, the crushed buildings, and lay them in the wide yard where Sleepy-Eyed Gozen’s blood still stinks in the grass, and they use the wood they find and the oil they find and they light the fire over the bodies, huge, hungry, roaring....

Marrow and Brother-Anchor watch the burning through the owned-men’s eyes, but they know the owned-men too make the deep-cold churn, and so Marrow says go, and the owned-men go, into the mourn-fire where they burn with their sad, dead, gone Tomuchi-brothers....

The slow-flesh becomes sizzling fat and bone and ash and smoke on the wind, and Marrow knows that other Tomuchi-brothers have fled into the cool musk embrace of the forest and wants to follow them, wants to see if they are slow-men he likes, but the cold isn’t gone yet, not all the way, so he wants more to be here with Brother-Anchor and be still and comfortable, and pick at the twist of the grain of the wood of the broken room....

“It’s almost dawn,” Brother-Anchor says—strong in the mind, weak in breath, because Brother-Anchor is dying....

“This is good,” Brother-Anchor tells Marrow about the ruin of his body, “just like the children and the owned-men. Better.” He shows Marrow in thoughts where the slow-flesh is weak—the dying blood, the dying twitch of the nerves—and how as it dies it’s like a seed for Marrow to use. “Come, make it yours.”

And Marrow does, owns the body and breaks it into pieces and energy, but.... But Brother-Anchor’s thoughts, Saga’s thoughts, are with him now. Saga and Marrow. They are touching for the first time, one for the first time, and they draw together like they’ve dreamed, rebuilding the body to be a home, better than the seed. They pull energy from the children and reassemble meat to close the gap of their missing toe. They dissipate the bruises. They seal the cuts. They leave well-knit scars, better sinew, harmonious organs and tempered bone. As they right the damage at the throat where the severed veins nearly killed them, they consider the rope, lodged there in the flesh, and decide to channel the last of the children into its coils, for the rope is as much a part of them as any.

By dawn the work is done. Saga is whole and Saga is king. And pleased in the comfort of their being, they rest.

They wake to warm sunlight and the clatter of Tomuchi’s suicide.

The room is a mess, stale smoke and dust and wood beams slanting from broken walls, at angles to the lean of the sun rays. They guess the hour—not long after daybreak by the look—and watch the samurai lord fumble with his knife.

Tomuchi’s hands are slick with pus and blood and he drops the knife once more. He sees them. “I have an audience,” he mutters with a shudder of humor. Or agony.

Across Saga’s chest the iron lamp still presses down and its weight is becoming vexing. They shove it away, freeing both themselves and Tomuchi lying beside them. Tomuchi coughs blood. “Help me,” he manages.

They ignore him and stand and stretch their new limbs. They extend Saga’s new four-toed foot into a ray of sunlight and shed tears at the play of warmth on their skin. It feels good. Truly. Laughter bursts from their lips.

“Help me with the knife,” Tomuchi says.

They turn their attention to the rope, once an engine of fibers and law, now an extension of their being, vital energy flowing through it like a magnificent new arm. The knots are gone, untied in its remaking, and they know every weave as they know their own breath. They whip it through the air with a crack, make it stiff as a pole, and with a flick send it coiling from wrist to shoulder with all the comfort of a tailored garment. Chuckling, they let it fall into loops and sit down.

“Can you hear me!” Tomuchi screams, his voice edged in hysteria.

“We can,” they say. They touch the rope and release it. Touch it and release it. Enjoying the flow of vitality.

Tomuchi flops and struggles and turns to face them fully. His throat and jaw are burned, char-black and slick, the wound grievous enough to drown him pain. But with his usual samurai nerve he holds fast to his wits and eyes them in contempt and wonder, or some other emotions made muddled by the missing flesh. “We?”

This gives them pause. They were distinct once, ghost and mind, this they understand. But they cleaved that distinction, and now they are just Saga. Saga the We. Saga the I. “Kings can be both,” they say—he says—aloud.

“Kings can...?” Tomuchi studies him with new wariness.

The gaze is annoying and Saga meets it with his own, ire brimming in his eyes and sharpening the world until Tomuchi appears a quivering slab of bloody meat and heat and bones easy, with the right blow, to break.

The lord quails and looks away. “There is black in your eyes.”

“Ehh,” says Saga. His irritation cools. “But no need to worry. I won’t kill you. And I won’t help you kill yourself,” he adds with a twist of his mouth.

Why?” comes the hoarse question.

Saga shrugs. “Because I like you.”

“Then help me.” Tomuchi drags himself closer. “There are liniments here. Salves. Bandages. Treat my—”

Saga cuts the man off, sad at his delusion. “That would be a waste of time.”

Tomuchi’s hope curdles into fury. But he’s used the last of his strength and he collapses to his back, breath coming fast and shallow. “The peasant bitch wins,” he says through his teeth.

“She escaped,” Saga admits. “But she’ll see me soon enough.”

This piques Tomuchi. “Will you destroy her?”

“Probably not.” Saga stiffens one end of the rope and flings it like a harpoon, thunk into a wooden beam. A flick of his wrist brings it back and a hunk of the beam besides. “I like her more than I like you.”

“And the Denrai? How do they stand in your affections?”

Saga mulls the idea. “They’re smug bastards. They think me dirty.” He smiles. “I’ll put my foot in Denrai’s anus for you, samurai Tomuchi. It will be fun.”

The lord matches the smile with a ghastly version of his own. But it soon fades. “I’m sorry,” he says, gesturing at the mess. “For all of this.”

“I’m not.”

“No. No, I do not suppose you would be.” Tomuchi lets go a long shuddering exhale. “What will you do?” he asks faintly. “After Amé. After the Denrai.”

Saga pauses, his new imagination amok with barbarian women and the spice of strange breezes, the stretch of the sea and city riches and wilderness unexplored. He is beset by ten thousand possibilities, and a fear of that vastness strikes him hot in his bowel. It’s a beautiful fear. The best fear in the world. “Whatever I want,” he decides.

He idly makes his rope dance and spends the morning in nostalgia with Tomuchi, laughing about the men they’ve known, bemoaning the malevolence of summer, reliving old battles. When the end comes, Saga holds Tomuchi’s arms to ease the wracking shudders. The lord doesn’t seem to notice. His last expression is an angry one.

Saga thinks of saying goodbye, but the body without breath is only slow dust. So he dries his eyes and coils the rope around his arm. He sets the fire, orange tongues lascivious over books and bandages and splintered wood, and watches it become a cremation.

Watches only for a moment. For when the smoke begins to sting, he turns his back and steps outside. He tests the wind and chooses a direction and sets off walking, breathing in the day, a king alone. He keeps his own pace.


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Michael Anthony Ashley writes in Georgia, USA.  You can find him at michaelanthonyashley.com.

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