The ceramic cup was hot enough to burn his hands, but Yute sucked the tea through his teeth anyway, letting the steam fill his throat. There was a phrase he’d heard, “lying through your teeth,” which meant lying while you grinned. It made him smile to think of that. Most of the teeth in his jaw didn’t belong to him—after one-hundred and eighty years and a small mountain of corpses, he lied through other people’s teeth. He’d pulled them out of the mouths of other mages, mostly dead ones.
He was seated in the Ozamashi, the most famous tea house in Senkaku if not the northern world. The main room was only eighty square feet, with wooden walls decorated with old yellowed ink paintings and a low weathered table in the center. The only light came from two windows whose openings were covered in white cloth, and one stick of incense burned on the table, tracking ash on a long dish. The whole room was dim, silent, and small, like the womb.
Folded in his pocket was a three-year-old letter, badly spotted by water. It was six pages long, written by Tenza, the former colleague who had systematically slandered, sabotaged, and backstabbed Yute out of their shared tutelage in the art of immortality over a century ago. Among its very eloquent pleasantries and subtle apologies was a reference to a little black book that undermined everything they had learned. According to Tenza, it contained deep, old mathematics, and Yute, despite being an unfashionable disgraced hermit with no title, was now regarded by his old peers as one of the only people alive who might be able to understand it.
He had purposefully waited three years to answer.
He had been living in a yurt in the far North for almost two decades now, studying old books on blood, mathematics, and immortality. He had found a reference to the Ozamashi in a book of poetry from five hundred years ago and was pleased to learn that the original teahouse had been excavated and refurbished since then. It even had the original dishes and tea kettle. Everything in the little house bore the marks of time: the table was gouged and scratched, the tea cup had a chip in the rim, and the walls were spiderwebbed with cracks. He had written back to Tenza saying he’d meet him here.
Yute sipped his tea. He was a tall man, with black bangs over his face and the rest pulled back in a messy knot. He had a short bristly beard and smelled of snow, sweat, and ash. He looked to be in his early forties, but the tight, leathery sheen of his skin betrayed his age—his tea of choice was boiled from the sap of a rare tree, the urushi, and it slowly mummified anyone who drank it. He knew Tenza would come. After three years of poring over that little black book in vain, Tenza would be desperate.
Yute raised his head at the sound of footsteps outside the house and the noise of a crowd of people. Tenza had arrived.
At the sound of a small gong from outside, an attendant appeared from one of the tiny side rooms of the tea house with folded black robes in her hands. She knelt near the doorway, which was low enough to make most guests duck their heads, and set the robes on a small bench. A man entered through the door, doubled over and dressed in huge flowing white robes with sleeves that touched the floor. The edges were trimmed with black velvet, and at least a half-dozen necklaces of round silver beads hung from his neck.
The man bowed to the attendant, then to Yute, then to the room, and gracefully shed his outer robes so the attendant could hang them on the wall. Silently, he put on the black robes, tied the sash, and seated himself across from Yute. The man had giant silver gauges in his ears and piercings in his eyebrows and lips. He seemed to relish running his eyes over Yute, drinking in the details while the attendant fastidiously bustled back into the kitchen to get the tea ready.
“You haven’t aged a day,” Tenza said, smiling with teeth capped in silver.
Yute looked over his old colleague’s robes, frowning. “When I want attention, I just talk louder. But you...” He traced Tenza’s face in the air. “You’ve made it into an art.” He bared his stolen, mismatched teeth and ran one finger along the gum line, comparing them to the silver ones in Tenza’s mouth.
Tenza chuckled. “I know it seems gaudy, but I enjoy it. I’m opening my own school soon, and I need to dress the part of a master. Speaking of fashion, where did you find this place?” he said, picking up his empty chipped cup and looking around bemusedly. “I appreciate you agreeing to meet with me, but this place seems a little shabby, even for someone as frugal as you.”
Yute decided not to tell him the obscene amount of money that chipped cup was worth, or that the Ozamashi was booked at least nine months in advance. Tenza had never studied history, like Yute had. He had been busy dressing the part.
“This place suits me,” Yute replied, sipping his tea. “They don’t let idiots in, unless I invite them.”
Tenza broke into a grin. He seemed to think that everything had been forgotten between them. He nodded toward Yute’s cup. “Still drinking that urushi? Have your organs shut down yet?”
“Oh, yes, almost all of them,” Yute said, his eyes locked on Tenza’s. “Except my tongue. And one other thing, which is still in working order.”
Tenza shook his head and looked around to see if anyone had been around to hear that, laughing incredulously. “Charming.”
Yute grinned at Tenza’s discomfort. He’d removed his heart, kidneys, and spleen one by one, filling the empty spaces with resin and sawdust, keeping his muscles alive with oil. He was more or less hollowed out now, with a lacquered shell of skin stretched over his bones. “I’ve asked for thick tea. I hope that suits your taste.”
“As long as it’s not your urushi.”
At that moment, the attendant came in and knelt by the table, setting out the plates and cups. The ceremony began, with each plate and cup placed according to the old patterns. The attendant had immaculately clean black hair that hung like two curtains around her face, and her movements were so practiced that Yute could both see the geometry in the way her hands moved and measure the angles in her wrists as she poured the tea. She set a third place apart from he and Tenza, which would remain empty until later in the afternoon, then bowed, stood up gracefully, and went away again. After the attendant had left, he and Tenza bowed toward the empty place and drank a little from their new cups.
The Ozamashi was one of the only tea houses that retained its original function: allowing a small group of educated people to summon a ghost and speak to it in private. There was always one empty place set aside for the ghost, and after the living drank their tea, they would discuss who should be summoned. After offering drops of blood to the empty cup and pleading to grace them with its presence, the ghost would come.
“You’ve been keeping busy, I trust? How is your work?” Tenza asked.
Yute sighed, letting a cloud of steam rise from his mouth. He hadn’t spoken about his work to a fellow immortality-seeker in years. Even if it was Tenza, he couldn’t resist giving him a taste. “A lot of history. A lot of mathematics. Strange things. But interesting.”
“What kind of things have you learned?”
Yute chewed on his lip for a moment. “Lift your arm.”
Tenza set down his tea and raised his right arm obediently. Yute ran his index finger from the tip of Tenza’s middle finger to his wrist.
“Six and four-fifths inches, correct?”
Every necromantic student of Togorun had a table with all the proportions of their bodies memorized.
“And the distance from the bend of your inner arm to your wrist—eleven inches?”
“The ratio between those is roughly one and six hundred eighteen thousandths, same as almost all humans.”
“I’m very familiar with that ratio.”
“I’m sure you are. Could I use your stylus?”
Tenza drew out a thin metal rod about four inches long and a few centimeters thick. Yute took it with a nod and a mouthed “thank you,” brought out a battered leather journal, and began drawing on a blank page. He drew a tiny square, then an identical one next to it, then a third one that was twice their size, connected to both. From there, he added more squares in a clockwise sequence, growing in size until he had a rectangle about the size of his hand. Then, starting in a corner of the original square, he drew a spiral that curled outward, stretching larger as the boundaries of the squares grew.
“This...” he said, tapping on the spiral, “...is a graph with a growth pattern of one and six hundred eighteen thousandths, the golden ratio. For every quarter-turn it makes, it moves farther away from the center. The pattern can be used to plot the growth and decay of all kinds of living things. Plants. Animals. Human skin.”
Tenza frowned, his curiosity piqued. “I see.”
“Look at the floor.”
Tenza glanced down. The planks of the tea house were cut into squares that mirrored the drawing, arranged in a grand spiral that centered on the stone hearth, where the tea was kept warm. The entire room was built upon the pattern of growth and decay, the very shape of it.
As Yute watched Tenza look over, he glimpsed a small hole in the wall. Even in the dim light, he could spot a shadowed ear pressed against the other side. Yute smiled a little at the tea attendant’s boldness. Eavesdropping could very easily get her dismissed from her post.
When Tenza brought his eyes back up, they were filled with admiration and a hint of wonder. Yute felt satisfaction trickle down his body.
“I knew I’d made the right decision,” Tenza said. “Your mind is...inimitable. I came here to talk to you about this sort of thing. Mathematics.”
“I won’t help with your accountancy.”
“No, I wouldn’t expect you to.” Tenza leaned in. “Everything is falling apart, very quietly. It’s already begun. All the old masters...their acolytes are defecting to form their own schools. No one has faith in the old ways. Not after what happened.”
Yute obligingly raised his eyebrows and leaned in too.
Tenza began to whisper. “Thirty-two years ago, a man came to the masters’ courts, asking them to anoint him as a new master. He said he had found a novel way to immortality, enlightenment, everything. They’re still trying to understand what he told them. But he said one thing that everyone understood: the end of the world was coming, and when everyone was either dead or mad, he’d be the last one left standing.”
Yute rested his chin on his hand, more a gesture of boredom than contemplation.
“After everyone threw him out, he wrote a manifesto,” Tenza said quietly.
Tenza reached into his robes and pulled out a weathered little book with a black cover, bound with knots along the spine. It was thin, only about eighty pages. There were no words or images on the cover, just bookcloth. Tenza set it on the table carefully, making sure it was far away from the dishes.
“Have you ever heard of the Nokizi?”
A moment of silence passed between them. Yute stared back at Tenza, his fingers resting around the warm rim of his tea cup. With one hand, he opened the book and turned the pages.
Of course he’d heard of the Nokizi. He’d written it.
Slowly, Yute closed the cover of the book. He knew that, from the outside, he appeared completely relaxed. “Never heard of it.”
“I didn’t think so. You fell off the face of the earth before it surfaced. The author, this person, he writes very clearly, very easily, but what he’s saying is...bizarre, insane. He says time is an illusion, that change is impossible. He says there’s another way to immortality—he calls it ‘slipping through the cracks in time’s teeth.’ It’s all mathematics, deep mathematics, but no one can understand it.”
Yute shrugged. “Maybe I’ll get a copy of it for myself.”
“No, you don’t understand.” Tenza held up the book. “This is only a loan from a friend. No one will sell their copy, not for love or money. I’ve been copying out of it on my own.”
Yute raised his eyebrows. “It’s popular.”
“It’s banned. Togorun and Amassad have been collecting and burning these things.”
The room seemed to darken with the names of two of the greatest masters of immortality. Those were the secret names, the ones never spoken outside of the circles of necromancy. A hundred years ago, Togorun had taught Yute and Tenza together, before Yute had been turned out of his school. Tenza kept talking.
“Only ghosts can make sense out of the patterns and mathematics he’s dealing with. I was never strong in that suit, you know that, but even the patterners are going insane trying to replicate what he’s describing. All of his spells make sense on paper, but they’re impossible in practice—he’s doing something strange with the concept of infinity. Then he claims the only way to his immortality is the annihilation of the self. He says our personal identities are lies, and you have to kill those lies to see the truth. He says you have to kill the mind. Turn to chapter four.”
Yute turned to the chapter and found an underlined passage. He read it aloud so the tea attendant at the peephole could hear it, too:
...the sensation of seeing eternity is that of seeing infinite mirrors, and looking back at oneself from a thousand different angles. But there is no person at the center of it all. The mirrors reflect nothing. And so you become eternity.
Yute laughed a little, calibrating it so it sounded like amused indifference. “Cryptic, isn’t he?”
“That’s just the beginning. The last chapter of the book is on his methodology, how he’s doing all this. The diagrams are there, but the text is all encrypted. No one, and I mean no one, can figure out the cipher.”
Yute started thumbing through the book, smiling to himself. “Who is this person?”
“He goes by the name ‘Old No-Eyes’. That’s what he calls himself in his introduction. The scholars just call him ‘that Madman in the North’. Turn to the commentaries—Part Six.”
Yute turned to the page in question and found a commentary by the scholar Uden, written in Cozu, a language he hated translating. He passed the book to Tenza. “Read it for me.”
Tenza took the book and began reading in a low voice:
“I was in the court of the White Architect when a man with no eyes in his sockets approached the Architect’s throne and demanded an audience... Despite the temperate climate of the Immaculate Palace, he wore a scarf and gloves and dripped meltwater on the floor, as if he had just come in from the snow... He spoke of grand, nested circles spiraling down forever and a kind of pyramid whose dimensions could not be measured, except in larger and smaller infinities. He was a very learned man, shockingly well-versed in texts that I had thought were highly secret... Indeed, the Master seemed to become agitated after some time and interrupted the man with a challenge: to give a succinct summary of his Way. The man stopped short and smiled widely... He then said ‘Here is no, there is no. That which can be expressed in speech is not the eternal.’
The Master became angry and asked if the man intended to speak in absurdities and gibberish, or if he was a scholar, as he claimed... the Master asked the man his name and title, so that he might know who would dare disrespect him in his own court.
‘It is the wrong question,’ the man replied, still smiling, though more uncertainly. The Master was furious at this point, and asked if the man did not know his own name or if he was afraid to speak it. To this, the man appeared angry in turn, and said ‘There is no name, and no one to speak it. There is only eternity.’
The Master asked again ‘Who stands before me?’
And the man seemed ready to speak, but stopped himself, frustrated and upset. Finally, he said ‘No one.’
At those words, the man left the hall as quickly as he had come.
There is no doubt that ‘Old No-Eyes’ is that madman from the North... This manifesto, the ‘Nokizi,’ is his attempt to save face, to make up for the humiliation that he brought upon himself.”
Yute smiled at the memory of Uden. He’d seen him there in Amassad’s court, kneeling at the throne. Mealy-mouthed, always cultivating appearances. Amassad was worse—he was an unabashed hedonist, surrounded by fashionable sycophants.
Tenza handed back the book and Yute thumbed through the other chapters, skimming the familiar passages he’d written three decades ago.
He’d crafted it carefully, so that anyone could grasp it, then he’d put it into the right hands and watched it spread. He had given his peers just a glimpse of the truth, and the sheer awful weight of it was already unravelling their world from the inside out. The entire edifice of necromancy was built upon the promise that its practitioners could live forever as they lived now—with fame to their names and silver in their mouths. The Nokizi had revealed the flaw in the masters’ teachings: the mind. If his peers knew that he was behind the book, the game would be over. He was a known malcontent, and anything he was known to have written would be discredited, but everyone respected the mysterious writer Old No-Eyes, who came from no one knew where. He had shown them that immortality wasn’t enough—the decay of the mind wasn’t a risk, he said, it was an inevitability when you aimed to live forever.
That’s what he’d told Amassad, and Togorun, and Banasail, the masters of his art. Whether it took a thousand years or ten thousand, the mind and the ego would strain under the weight of eternity until they cracked—it was like staring at the sun. You had to unhinge your jaw and vomit out the mind, the ego, the self, until you were an empty cup. Then eternity would flood in and fill you up to the brim, until you were the infinite in the shape of a man. But Amassad had decided to call him a liar to keep hold on his mean little empire of acolytes. Togorun did the same. Then Banasail, a master who knew better than anyone how time decayed the self. They’d thrown him out again to keep their grand façade intact.
Now the word was out that the emperor had no clothes and his empire was built upon sand. There was no escape from madness in the face of eternity, except through the Nokizi. It made Yute smile, because no matter how many interpretations or translations gained prominence, no matter how much money, time, and blood his peers poured into understanding his words or cracking the cipher, it would all amount to nothing. The Nokizi was never meant to save anybody. It was his little joke; a brick wall he’d built for his peers to bang their heads against until the day eternity caught up with them.
Yute looked up, the light refracted through the glass eyes in both of his desiccated sockets. He didn’t need eyes anymore. He operated in a world that was lightless, above flesh and time. He saw eternity gaping in every pore of the wooden table, and at the bottom of those deep black holes, he could see himself looking back.
Tenza, meanwhile, hadn’t even noticed that his eyes were fake.
Immediately, Yute slipped back into character. He looked up from the book. “I’m guessing you want me to help you sort through this,” he said, taking a deep, reluctant breath.
“Just the last chapter. The encrypted part.”
Yute perused the last chapter, which was encoded in a cryptographic style built on base-sixteen counting; an obscure form of encryption that no one living understood, apart from him. He’d known from the letter that Tenza had found the book and what he’d want from it. “You think I can make some kind of dent in this?”
Tenza looked at Yute plaintively and tried to make a conciliatory smile. Yute knew this was going to be the big request, what Tenza had been leading up to all this time.
“A little whisper in my ear told me you have the tooth of a dead cryptographer called Old Roku in your jaw.”
Yute felt the mirth drain from his body and a tiny bubble of rage rise up, but he kept looking back at Tenza steadily. Old Roku was the same person he’d used to help create the cipher. Tenza, or someone else smarter than him, had figured that much out. He hadn’t expected that. He rested his elbows on the table and cradled his chin in his hands, looking at Tenza. Inside his mouth, his mismatched teeth clenched hard enough to loosen one of the bottom canines. The rage subsided a little as he realized that it didn’t matter if Tenza knew about Roku.
Yute took a sip from his cup and swallowed. “As the graverobbers say, “what’s in this for me?”
“Remember how I said neither love nor money nor power could make anyone part with a copy of this?”
“I’ve got no need of the first two, if you’re offering. Always could use more of the third one.”
Tenza leaned forward, excited. “If you help me decode that last chapter, you and I will be the first people besides Old No-Eyes to understand his work. People will be coming to both of us on their knees. And that’s always an advantageous position for people like us.”
“People like us,” Yute repeated casually.
He took a sip of his urushi tea and looked over at the hole in the wall. The ear was still there, and so was the young woman attached to it. He sighed, looking at Tenza with a smile. His eyes narrowed, but his smile stayed.
“I remember a time when you wouldn’t be seen with me.”
Tenza replied immediately: “That was back when we were pupils. Everyone was trying to save face in front of the master, everyone was trying to climb the ladder. I apologized, in my letter, for being so callous towards you.”
“I remember,” Yute said, swirling his tea absentmindedly. “that you called me an illiterate grave digger who wore sandals because I couldn’t tie my own shoes.”
“I don’t remember that, but I may have said it. I may have.”
“You said...” Yute drew it out. “I was a skinny little lunatic who sold organs for my books.”
Tenza sighed deeply. “I said some terrible things about you, you’re right. And I apologize. Sincerely.”
Yute sipped his tea. “You told Togorun I was eating people.”
Tenza’s face drained of color in an instant. Yute could see that he hadn’t realized Yute knew about that one. That was the lie that had finally gotten him on Togorun’s blacklist. Everyone’s blacklist.
“I...know you—” Tenza started.
“You spread that one as far as you could. I had to go by a number of different names after I left tutelage.” Yute widened his eyes to let the light gleam off the glass orbs in his sockets, but Tenza didn’t catch the hint. That was all right. ‘Old No-Eyes’ was just the latest in a long string of pseudonyms and identities. In the past century, he’d gone through so many that he’d all but forgotten his real name. ‘Yute’ was just the one he’d grown familiar with—Tenza and the rest of the former pupils under Togorun knew him as ‘Zini.’ Judging by the table of contents, even some of the commentaries included in Tenza’s edition of the Nokizi were ones submitted by him under different names, mostly for his own amusement. There was no such thing as the self. The self was a convenient fabrication, just like this conversation.
Yute leaned back from the table. “We could go on and on with this. I remember everything you said, everything everyone said. But let’s forget all of that. What matters is now,” Yute said, picking up the Nokizi. “This book is just what I’ve been looking for. I’ll help you.”
Tenza shook his head slowly, his eyes locked on Yute. “I know it’s not that easy...not with you,” he said, desperation finally breaking through. “I know you hate me. Whatever you want me to do, name it. I’ll apologize. I’ll help you repair your reputation. I have influence with—”
Yute stopped listening and just watched Tenza’s silver teeth flash as he talked. Tenza didn’t understand. It wasn’t about reputation or his standing; it was about the truth. The world was made up of illusions, layers and layers of appearances and lies. While Tenza and the rest of their peers built their careers on whispering in the right people’s ears and learning the fashions of the hour, Yute was in the North, gouging out his eyes to see the truth. That was the infinite gulf between them, one that could never be crossed, until Tenza understood eternity.
Yute interrupted. “Just give me your clothes. And all the silver. Then we’ll be even.”
Tenza fell silent. “Are you joking? You’re robbing me in a tea house?”
“I’m not robbing you, we’re making a bargain. I told you I want all the clothes and silver you’ve got on.”
“I... can give them to you after we’re done here, if that’s what you want.”
“I’d like them now. Teeth and ears, too.”
“You want me to tear them out, right here?”
“We’re discussing the terms for unlocking the secrets that ‘neither money—’”
“—nor love, nor power—”
“We don’t need to do this!”
Yute slammed the book onto the table. “My terms include your clothes, your robes, and all the jewelry you’ve shoved into your head! I’ll take the piercings now, the teeth and robes afterwards! That’s my best offer!”
Yute sat there, shaking for a moment, before breaking into giddy laughter. He knew Tenza would do it. He’d give up his dignity for a chance at power.
Tenza whispered again. “We don’t need to do this.”
Yute leaned forward, his voice low and calm. “We really, really do.”
One by one, Tenza removed his silver jewelry and handed it to Yute, who collected each piece and inspected it. Finally, only the studs in Tenza’s eyebrows were left.
“I don’t have my tools. I don’t have the right spells prepared—”
“Those, too,” Yute said. “In my hand. Right here.” He tapped his palm.
Tenza reached up, grasped one of the studs between his thumb and forefinger, and dug into the skin with his thumbnail. The skin began to lift and then tear, and a streak of blood went down his face. There was a wet ripping sound, then the stud was in his bloody fingers. Tenza cleaned it with a cloth and handed it to Yute.
“Now summon him,” Tenza said. “Old Roku.”
Yute held the stud in his fingers, turning it in the light. Watching Tenza in pain had brought a wave of calm over him. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Summon him.”
Yute rang a little bell and the attendant came out again. She knelt by the table. Yute reached into his mouth and pulled out one of the back molars. He cupped it in his palm, admiring it. The tooth was seven hundred years old, pulled from the skull of Roku Zhu Gi. Yute looked at the attendant and bowed his head, offering the tooth.
The attendant bowed in turn and took it. She opened her mouth and revealed empty scarred gums—all of her teeth had been pulled out years ago. She slotted the molar into her jaw and sat up straight, waiting. Her face was calm, but Yute could see the tension in her eyes. He whispered Old Roku’s name.
“Roku Zhu Gi...come here.”
The light changed in the room and time seemed to stop for a moment. Then the attendant took a sharp, sudden breath.
“Get her some paper,” Tenza whispered.
Yute set his leather journal and Tenza’s stylus in front of the attendant and bowed his head again. “Thank you for coming, Roku.”
Tenza leaned over the table and let a droplet of blood from his eyebrow fall into the cup in front of the attendant. “Old Roku, I bid you to translate pages seventy through eighty of this book, the Nokizi, into common Carzi, so that I may read it and comprehend it.”
The attendant’s arms jerked as she picked up the stylus, moving like a puppet on strings. The possessed hand began to write furiously, translating the cipher smoothly into sentences:
Id rather have six fingers than six toes Id rather have good ears than a nose And as for my hair Im glad its all there But Ill be awfully sad when it goes
There was an enchanting young bride Who ate many green apples and died The apples fermented within the lamented And made delicious apple cider inside.
Yute smiled as he saw the little poems in Carzi again. He had imagined the decades his peers would spend, all the effort and money and frustration, on trying to decode the last chapter of his little manifesto. All along, there had been no great secret contained in the cipher, just dirty limericks. They’d laughed him out of their world, but now he was in his own, laughing at them from beyond time. When the end of the world came, he would be the only one left to see it.
One after another the poems came out on the page, and with each one Tenza’s face crumpled a little more. Now that he knew the truth, he would undoubtedly go out and tell others. He would spoil the whole joke. But they weren’t done, not yet. Tenza didn’t fully understand the truth.
Finally, when the attendant’s hand stopped moving, Yute spat a bit of blood in the ghost’s cup and spoke. “Show Tenza who Old No-Eyes is.”
The possessed hand of the attendant began again on a new sheet, sketching the outline of a rectangle—a table. Then came the tea kettle, the cups, and a person sitting on the other side. It was a rough silhouette, but what mattered were the eyes: two circles of eyes, meeting on the figure’s face, forming a mobius strip whose crux was the two empty sockets in their head. The person’s hand gripped a cup on the table. Tenza looked up from the drawing to find Yute staring back at him, gripping his cup of urushi tea.
“Who am I?” Yute asked quietly. His glass eyes glinted in the light, and he could see Tenza finally notice them.
“Oh, god,” Tenza muttered, the blood still dripping down his face from the gouge in his eyebrow. “You’re Old—”
Yute lunged across the table, scattering the dishware, and wrapped his hands around Tenza’s neck. Tenza made a strangled yell. He twisted around and started to crawl toward the door on his hands and knees, but Yute bent him backwards. He dragged Tenza across the table on his back until Tenza’s head was looking at him upside-down. Yute pinned Tenza’s arms and tilted his own head forward so that Tenza was staring directly into his glass eyes.
Tenza struggled for a few seconds, gasping as Yute’s hands clenched around his carotid, then he caught a glimpse of his reflection in Yute’s eyes. Yute knew he could see his own distorted, terrified face refracted in the glass, his own frightened eyes looking back from a thousand different angles, like a thousand mirrors. Yute plucked out each of his glass eyes with shaking fingers, dropping them one at a time on the table. Tenza kept staring into the empty spaces in Yute’s skull, searching for something human.
“Who am I?” Yute asked under his breath, again and again, holding Tenza’s windpipe tight.
Yute could see it all falling into place in Tenza’s mind: it had all been a plan. It had all been a façade. But now all the lies were stripped away. Now he could see that the man he’d ruined decades ago was gone, and in his place was the vast, gaping maw of eternity.
This was what no-self looked like.
These were the stakes of living forever.
He could see the epiphany unfolding in Tenza’s eyes and the idea forming on his lips. Yute released Tenza’s windpipe so he could speak the words Yute had been waiting for.
Instead, Tenza began to scream.
Yute lifted Tenza’s head with both palms and slammed it down on the table, his thumbs digging into Tenza’s forehead. Again and again he brought Tenza’s skull down, each blow making the broken dishes clatter. He could feel his oiled, half-preserved muscles tense and release with each blow, and one by one, he felt the strain snap the delicate tendons in his shoulders. He kept his gaze on Tenza’s face, staring into his glazed eyes. Finally he felt the cranial suture at the back of Tenza’s skull split open and the lake of blood pour out, and the eyes went dead. Yute let go of Tenza’s head and looked at him for a few moments, breathing steadily.
Tenza hadn’t understood.
He straightened slowly and picked up a cloth napkin to wipe his hands, making sure to get between his fingers, then picked up both of his glass eyes and slid them back into their sockets. There was no satisfaction. There was no catharsis.
He turned to find the tea attendant sitting frozen in place, her possession-trance gone. She was breathing hard, eyes wide. Yute regarded her for a moment, then stepped over to her, his feet crunching on the broken dishware. He knelt down close to her, so she could smell the deadly urushi sap on his breath.
“Who am I?”
The attendant didn’t speak. Yute straightened her robes and patiently wiped some of the blood off her face with his sleeve. He gave her a moment to calm herself, then asked again.
“Who am I? Who did all this? Who was here? Who is it before you?”
The attendant took a deep breath and said “No one.”
Yute smiled wide and gently opened her mouth, plucking Old Roku’s molar out of the gum. He stood up, took the copy of the Nokizi off the table, and knelt over Tenza’s corpse. One by one, he popped the teeth out of Tenza’s mouth, then with the care of an experienced tailor, he split Tenza’s clothing up the seams and left him naked on the floor. Near the door, Yute shed his black outer robes, folded them up, and left them in their place on the little bench.
Finally, he took Tenza’s outer robes off the hook, folded them over his arm, and bowed to the room, to the attendant, and to the empty space at the table. He had ducked his head to leave when a thought occurred to him. He walked back to the attendant, crouched down, and put the little black Nokizi in her shaking hands.
“You deserve this, more than he did,” he said. “Read it. Once you’re finished, sell it to someone just like him. And make sure they give you everything they have.”
He flashed a grin at her, stepped over the pools of blood, then left through the small door.