Spring followed Horimachi as she hiked up the steep trail. The branches of the cherry trees had been heavy with flowers when she left the capital at the end of March, but here the cold mountain air hindered even the turning of the seasons. She was condemned to make her entire trek under pink petals that drifted down from the trees like snow.
It reminded her of the cherry blossoms that she’d tattooed into her daughter’s skin. Months of pain, and the faeries killed her anyway. After ten years’ service as an artist for the Imperial Army, Horimachi had left the capital in shame. Her tattoos were failing, and soldiers were dying for it.
Aya had died for it.
The ancient road that Horimachi walked was lined with abandoned shrines and thousand-year trees. There were no other travelers. Forests were the domain of the gaijin fae, invaders from the West, and there were dark rumors even in the most isolated villages. Horimachi had done hundreds of tattoos for the Imperial Army, but her own skin was unprotected. Her tattoos were from before the war, when black ink was made of soot instead of faery blood. The only color on Horimachi’s skin was a cadmium red, not the deeper crimson of ground faery wings. She carried the protective inks with her, but she had vowed never to use them. She was done with soldiers, and cities, and war.
Horimachi hesitated at the edge of the village, at the bottom of the hundred stone steps that led up to the outermost temple. She’d lost her eldest daughter to the war, but not her youngest. Suki had been too small to go to the capital, only twelve when Horimachi left with Aya. She had always been respectful in the messages they exchanged—tiny scrolls of paper tied to the legs of gray waxwings—but a relationship only on paper was not the same as living under the same roof. Horimachi’s last scroll, the one she could not force herself to send, was in the breast pocket of her shirt, close to her heart. It bore the news of Aya’s death.
Swords clashed in the temple courtyard. Two women fought with wakizashi, short swords like the one Aya had practiced with before she joined the Imperial Army and graduated to a longer katana. When the women noticed her, they stopped their practice, and one of them rushed over to greet her.
The woman who approached bore an eerie resemblance to Aya. Suki was a nurse now, tending the fae-addled veterans who had retired from the war, but Horimachi still remembered her as a skinny twelve-year-old girl who had bravely fought back tears the day she and Aya had left. The sword tied to Suki’s waist sash was Aya’s practice sword.
Horimachi bowed her head. “Suki. I’m so sorry. I didn’t protect her well enough.”
“Aya.” Suki mouthed the word but had no voice to speak.
They held each other and cried.
The cold mountain air had not kept away the destruction of war. Men and women, covered head to toe in tattoos, wandered aimlessly through the village and babbled about sources of life energy and swirling eddies of time. These were the soldiers that had been ridden but not killed. Men and women who had watched, helpless, as the fae used their bodies as puppets, forcing them to slaughter their compatriots. It was probably for the best that their minds were broken, because it spared them the knowledge of what they had done. Horimachi spent two days nursing the veterans before Suki pulled her away from her work.
“I need a tattoo.” Suki had shaved her head to prepare herself for the protective ink. Without her hair, she looked like a new soldier, like all the soldiers that had been assigned to Horimachi in the capital.
“The northern provinces are falling to the fae. I am going to fight and banish these intruders back to the West. Will you offer me protection?” Suki stood, her bald head bowed in respect, waiting for Horimachi to reply.
“Tattoos are painful. They take a long time. They are not for foolish girls who rush off to the city to be soldiers.”
Suki lifted her head and stared in disbelief. “The waxwings from the north no longer bring news, only scrolls of names, soldiers killed by the fae. Thousands of people died in the early attacks, before we knew to protect ourselves, before the tattoos. Nearly all our men are either fae-addled or dead. Foolish is not a young woman wanting to fight. Foolish is pretending that war will not come to the village when it is done with the cities.”
“If so many soldiers are dying, it means the tattoos are not working. My tattoos are not working.” If she had done better work, Aya would be alive.
“I’ve seen your work, and it isn’t flawed. The fae are getting stronger somehow. The tattoos aren’t giving as much protection as they once did, but they are better than nothing.” Suki paused. “But I will go to battle with bare skin if you refuse to help me.”
Suki was so much like her sister, with the same soft fierceness. They were rivers that wore away at rock. Flexible but persistent, fluid but strong. Horimachi would do the tattoo, despite her old back and her aching hands. She would cover every inch of her daughter’s skin, so that she could fight.
Horimachi started with cherry blossoms, their outlines winding up Suki’s neck and covering the pale skin of her skull. The branches and flowers were carefully arranged to ensure that there were no gaps large enough for a faery to slip into her body and drain her life away. Never more than fingertip’s width between two lines of faery blood. Suki was a good canvas, quiet and still. She bore the pain well. Over her breathing was the clicking sound of needles sliding in and out of her skin. Shakki. Sha sha sha sha. Horimachi dabbed away the ink and blood that pooled on the surface of Suki’s skin, then continued making the blood-black outline of petals. Around the lines, the skin turned pink and slightly swollen, a temporary effect that made the flowers look three-dimensional and almost real.
Horimachi stopped after five hours of work. The fine-lined blossoms and branches on the back of Suki’s neck and skull looked almost like the hair she’d shaved away. “We will continue in two days’ time.”
It was the schedule she had used with the soldiers in the city, five hours of work every other day. It was painful, but fae-based inks healed faster than ordinary tattoos, and by the time a soldier’s entire body was covered in an outline of black, the first sections of tattoo had healed enough to begin shading.
“Tomorrow,” Suki countered. “At this rate, the tattoo won’t be finished until the end of summer. If I don’t leave for the capital soon, there will be no capital to defend.”
“Two days. Be glad we aren’t using cadmium and soot because then you’d have to wait two weeks. Even with the fae inks, your body needs time to heal.” Horimachi didn’t say it, but her own body also needed time to heal. Her aching joints were getting too old for so much work.
Golden magic was strongest at sunrise. An hour before dawn, Yōsei went to a field outside the capital where humans buried their dead soldiers. The ancestors told Yōsei to practice magic on the dead. Safer that way.
The corpses were arranged in neat rows. Yōsei could feel the blood of the ancestors embedded in their human skin, even buried beneath several feet of earth. The humans preferred to burn their dead, but the blood on the soldiers’ skin made them impervious to flame.
Yōsei uncovered a girl, three months dead. Even in the dim predawn light, her skin was striking. She was a canvas covered in black and red, decorated with an intricate design of dragons and flowers and koi. There were swirls of water below her waist and swirls of clouds above. Water lilies floated on her hip, the line where water met sky. A symbol of summer, and even in the early hours of the morning, the August heat was enough to make her body reek of death. The tattoo that protected her skin slowed internal decay but did not stop it.
Stolen blood from Yōsei’s ancestors, injected into human skin. An ink made from ground red wings tinted the petals of flowers and the scales of dragons and fish, granting protection against red magic. Generations of red-winged warriors had died trying to reclaim the sacred land where the humans had built their capital, but Yōsei was different. A thousand generations ago, a group of ancestors left the war and escaped into a faster swirl of time. Centuries flew by in less than a decade, and they used that precious time to breed themselves for color. Instead of red wings, and red magic, Yōsei had wings the color of gold.
In a thousand generations, the magic was not the only thing that had changed. The ancestors were filled with a rage as red as the magic of their wings, but Yōsei was calmer, more rational. Most of Yōsei’s generation favored war, but some believed that peace was possible. What they needed was a way to communicate with the humans, a puppet to speak on behalf of the ancestors. Any human would do, but as the ancestors said, corpses were safer.
The blood-black outlines of the dead girl’s tattoo were enough that Yōsei could not have killed her, had she been alive, but there were more subtle magics to be done. The first thin crescent of the sun appeared on the horizon, filling the sky with golden light, and Yōsei knelt beside the girl.
Slipping into her body was like meditating inside a stone, cold and still. Yōsei filled the girl with tendrils of gold and divided life energy between two bodies—one cold and dead, the other hot and familiar. The girl was too plump, too dense, and filled with tiny creatures that decomposed her flesh. These Yōsei banished, drowning them in golden light.
She merged into the human.
Yōsei began to mend her otherself. She used golden tendrils to draw blood upward from where it had pooled in the lower portions of her body. She collected the blood back into her vessels and repaired the veins and arteries where they were broken. She inspected all her flesh and healed it, and when the work was complete, she restarted her heart and opened her eyes.
Yōsei’s true body recoiled in distaste. Her human body sat up, disoriented. There were traces of the dead human lingering in the connections of her brain. The ancestors said that humans were like puppets to be worn and discarded, but the dead girl had memories and emotions, and even a sense that Yōsei did not know.
Mosquitos buzzed. Hateful little birds flaunted their ability to fly, calling attention to themselves with boastful songs and trills. Wind rustled through the tree branches, and dark clouds drained away the powerful light of dawn. Fat raindrops fell with a steady patter, striking the skin of both her bodies before dripping down to the earth. Discordant yells, almost meaningful to her human mind, came from the far side of the field. Unfamiliar with the workings of her brain, she could not quite remember words.
It was known from prior generations that humans communicated through this unnatural sense, but Yōsei had never experienced it. The meaning was incomprehensible to even her human mind, and spoken words seemed a poor substitute for the more intimate bonding of ancestral minds and communion of images. Still, something in the shouting signaled a warning. Yōsei ran with both bodies out of the field and into the forest, at a pace frustratingly slow because she was unused to her human muscles. The movements of that body were jerky and uncoordinated.
The other humans dared not follow into the shadows of the forest.
Yōsei let her human body choose their path. She seemed to be seeking something, grasping at vague familiarities in the landscape. Yōsei hoped to use her to negotiate with the humans, and the humans most likely to listen would be those who had known her in life. She had to make them understand that the ancestors were not invaders from the West but natives returning home after a long absence, distant descendants of the tengu.
The girl was often confused, but she walked a road that led away from the capital and into the mountains. If nothing else, Yōsei was pleased to escape the humid summer air for the cooler mountain breezes.
Suki lay face down on the tatami floor while Mother shaded the koi and chrysanthemums on the back of her right leg. She stared at the finished design on her forearm, a snake that wrapped itself around her arm, the gaps between the coils filled with peonies. Studying the completed design drew her focus away from the burning in her leg and the rhythmic tapping of the needles that seemed to vibrate down into her bones. She counted the scales on the snake, each one shaded in red and bluish black.
Faery blood ink was pure black at first, but even in the month since Mother had finished her arms, it had taken on a slightly bluish tinge. It was work well done, as Mother’s work always was. She was a master, with decades of practice. The fan of needles at the end of her bamboo handle moved in perfect rhythm, the depth and angle changing to make subtle variations in the shading of the design. Variations in color and variations in pain.
Eternities of pain, and each day she looked more like Aya. It was the same design, and as the resemblance grew, Mother became pensive and moody. Not as she worked. Those movements were so practiced that her art flowed from her automatically. But when the needles stopped, and the work was finished, it was always the same.
“Come back in two days,” Mother said. She turned her attention to cleaning her tools, refusing even to look at Suki.
Sometimes Suki tried to stay, to make conversation. To be something other than a reminder of Aya’s death. She had not complained when Mother left, and she did not complain now, but she wanted to have some part of their relationship back, some sign that her mother had really returned. Instead she was a client, and a reminder.
Suki slipped into her clothes and secured her sword to the sash around her waist. She slid the door open, but then she froze, unable to make sense of what she saw before her.
There, outside, was Aya. She was naked despite the cold autumn air. Suki remembered her sister as being taller, stronger, older. The only difference between Suki and this Aya was that the woman outside was finished, her tattoos shaded in red and black from head to toe. Suki had always assumed that Mother had given them identical designs, but now she realized that they were mirror images. This other woman bore the face she saw every morning in the mirror, a face protected with cherry blossoms and clouds, done in delicate lines and only the palest shading of pink. It was meant to be protection.
It had failed.
The body that had once held her sister was clearly a puppet, standing several yards away with an odd posture, as though she might fall over at any moment. Movements that should have been smooth—the bowing of her head, a glance at Suki’s face—were done in uncoordinated jerks and fits. A faery stood behind Aya. Suki had never seen one before. It was smaller than she expected, coming only to Aya’s shoulder, with thin, twisted limbs like tree branches. Its wings were not red but gold.
“And so the war has come to the village,” Mother whispered, tears flowing silently down her face, “brought by my own failure, and wearing the face of my child.”
There was no end to the horrors of war, no final peace, not when the faeries could take someone even after they had died. She’d spent years tending to the veterans, back from the battlefield with their minds broken, but this was worse. How could Aya free herself from want and sadness in the afterlife if she could not even escape her physical form? Suki did not know if some part of her sister’s consciousness remained, but she was certain of one thing. She could not let the fae desecrate her sister’s body this way. She had to defeat this new evil, or they would never be free of the fae, even in death.
She approached her sister slowly, arms held wide as though preparing for a hesitant embrace. Before she could reach for her sword, Aya spoke.
“Return our sacred land.” The voice was wrong. Harsh.
Suki drew her sword from its sheath. The faery turned to flee, but Suki did not care whether it lived or died. It was the wings she wanted. Golden wings to make new ink and turn the tide of the war.
“Stop,” Aya cried. Suki did not listen. She swung her sword and sliced off a large section of the faery’s wing.
The faery erupted in golden light, blinding and hot. The gold cut through the useless red ink of Suki’s tattoo, and she could feel her energy being sucked away as the faery tried to heal itself. She would not be what Aya was. She tried to slash at the faery, but it danced away from her, too fast for her to catch in her weakened state.
She could feel the faery at the edges of her mind, in the pulsing of her own blood. The heat of the faery magic burned like needles on her skin. They were merging. She did not have a second, a fellow soldier to grant her a quick and merciful end, but she would not be a puppet to this golden creature. She turned her sword upon herself, slicing through her midsection from left to right, the traditional beginning of an honorable death. The faery realized what she was doing and came forward to stop her. Smiling through her pain, she pulled the blood-covered sword from her own abdomen and sliced the faery in half.
Blood ran onto the dirt, human red and faery black. The colors of her tattoo echoed in the moment of her death. The autumn air was so very cold, now that the bright heat of faery magic was gone.
Mother came to her side and cradled Suki’s head in her lap. For the first time since her return, she was not a tattoo master. She was the woman that Suki had missed. She brushed the tears from Suki’s face and held her hand.
“Mother,” Suki said, her voice soft. There were others out there, she knew. Other gold-winged fae, killing soldiers and raising the dead. Her body shook from the cold and from fear. With her last strength, she held up a section of golden wing. “Please,” she said. “Finish me. Don’t let them take me.”
Dry Fallen Leaves
Aya woke empty and lost.
Time swirled aimlessly around her, pulsing like blood through her veins. She could not see beyond the inside of her eyes, and the gold that had filled the spaces between her fragmented selves had seeped away. She felt tendrils of death seeping in to fill the void, a reassuring emptiness, freedom from the constant longing and need that came with physical form.
A familiar sound came to her ears. Shakki. Sha sha sha sha, The rhythm brought her back to the slowness of time, the solidity of reality. It was a sound that should have been accompanied by pain, but there was no pain. Distracted by the sound, Aya lost the tendrils of death. She tried to find her lost oblivion, but instead of searching within her mind, she inadvertently opened her eyes.
She was home. Mother knelt on the tatami mats on the far side of the room, working on a soldier. The soldier was Aya. Time shimmered and broke. There was no pain, so Mother could not be inking her tattoo.
In another place, she remembered dying, falling into a state of clarity and peace. An army of tattooed soldiers had marched against her, puppets of the fae. If they were not protected, why did Mother still sketch color into skin? Aya opened her mouth to ask, but instead of words her dry throat only croaked.
Mother set down her tools. She brought tea. It was warm like golden magic, and Aya choked and knocked aside the cup. Heat spilled down her chest, then quickly passed. Cold damp cloth against her skin brought remorse. A sense of loss. A memory of thoughts that did not belong to her. Yōsei. The faery had wanted something. Something important.
She chased the memories in her mind, but reality shattered any time she came too close. The muddled sensations of life were overwhelming. The gold had controlled her, imposed an artificial order and a clear goal. Peace. The faery had brought her back to negotiate a truce. The only peace she’d ever known was death, and she longed to slip back into that unending darkness.
Mother brought another cup of tea. Aya let it warm her from the inside, longing for the golden magic that she loathed. Anything to help her find a direction. When the cup was empty, she practiced setting it on the table and picking it up. After several repetitions, she heard the sound that called her back to the present moment. Shakki. Sha sha sha sha.
She stood on wobbly legs and carefully walked across the room. The girl that was not Aya had dried leaves tattooed on the bottoms of her feet, the fallen leaves of winter. Mother had drawn those very leaves onto Aya’s feet, but these were different. Aya’s leaves were red and black. Faery blood and ground red wings, dark-colored protection against dark fae magic.
These leaves were tinted with gold, as though illuminated by the first light of dawn. Aya picked up a small vial of golden ink. If she drank it, would the gold pulse through her veins and make her whole?
“I sent most of the golden wings with a runner to the capital, for the Imperial Army,” Mother said, gently taking the vial from Aya’s hand. “I should have sent it all, but I kept enough for Suki, and for you, if you can bear the pain.”
Pain was nothing, but Aya wanted death, not golden skin.
She reached down and touched her sister’s face. In broken mirror-shards of time, she remembered the baby she had held so carefully when she was six, the wide-eyed confidant she had whispered to when she had her first kiss, back before the fae had slaughtered most of the men. Suki’s body was cold and hard like winter stone. Her skin did not swell pink or bleed where Mother poked it with her needles. She did not smell like gold, and she made no sound.
Tears ran down Mother’s face as she worked. “She always wanted to be like you, except in this. I abandoned her when she was alive, but I will grant her final wish. I will finish her tattoo and keep her safe from the fae.”
Suki had been alive.
Aya remembered watching through a golden haze as her sister died by her own hand. Suki had wielded the sword, but Yōsei had killed her nonetheless, while Mother stood and watched. Was that peace? The fae could remake themselves on a whim, and even if Aya could negotiate peace with the current generation, it would not last.
She would let Mother tattoo her with gold, and she would continue to fight.
But gold would not be enough. The fae would retreat for another thousand generations while only a decade passed here, or perhaps just the blink of an eye. Time was always changing, never constant from one swirl to the next. Eventually there would be magics in silver or green or blue. And each time another color would need to be added to the tattoos, until the pictures held all the colors of the world. Only then could the fae be banished for good.
Shakki. Sha sha sha sha. Layers of color, cycles of war.
Someday, the dragon on Aya’s back would be richly colored in blues and greens. She would be adorned with pink cherry blossoms and white water lilies, yellow chrysanthemums and brown fallen leaves. The signs of all the seasons, set in human skin. She would fight against faeries with wings of every color, and when the war was truly finished, she and Suki—and all their fellow soldiers—would find peace in the eternal black of death.