“It is with great sorrow, Great Lady Doji-ue, that I have been instructed to inform you that my Lord Togashi, Son of Heaven, has passed into death, on that path where none may follow.” The clean-shaven monk – so young! – bowed deeply and reverently before her, never rising to meet her eyes.
The sunlight was bright on the crystal-encrusted mountain slopes, refracting in brilliant colors from the sparkling icicles that hung from the curved, snow-laden eves of this High House of Light. The great, golden-carved door was shut against her.
The words the monk spoke: they were a lie, and they were the truth. Of all her brothers and sisters, Togashi had had the most foresight, the most vision. She could not imagine him being caught unexpectedly by death, stealing upon him in the night like a thief. If death was coming, he would have known enough to at least say goodbye. If he had wanted to.
But he had not. Togashi had no final words to share with his sister. The monk’s message was clear in that. Whether or not he truly had left Ningen-do, Togashi wished to be dead…to her. The pain clenched her heart, but there were no words left to say. She bowed to the monk and turned slowly away from the closed gate.
A respectful distance from the final steps to the High House of Light, her followers awaited her. Hirasue gave her a tentative smile, but it slid away when he realized they were not being welcomed into her brother’s stronghold. Hirasue’s hair was streaked with gray now. She could remember him, no taller than her waist, on the day he laid his little wooden stick at her young husband’s feet and begged to be taught to fight as he did. That child was a Kenshinzen now, and his students had students of their own. She gave him a nod as she approached. “I am sorry, all of you. I have been told that Lord Togashi, my brother, is dead. We must leave. I am sure we will receive a warm welcome at the village of the bottom of the mountain, where we can rest before we return home.”
The Lady Doji climbed into the palanquin, the ache in her heart too much to share. Her attendants drew the shutters against the harsh light of the mountains, leaving her in a dimness that suited her spirit. The rawness of her heart played a discordant ache of pain that thumped with the jostling of the palanquin as the young ones who bore it lifted it up on their strong shoulders. I am alone. At least the others had said goodbye.
She could feel Shiba’s arms wrapped around her as they embraced that final time, tears soaking into the braids of red silk woven into his armor. ‘One of them is alive,’ she had said. ‘I know you can find them, if anyone can.
He had spoken to her so tenderly as he embraced her back. ‘If your daughter lives, I will bring her back. I swear it.’ He had known what a fragile flame of hope had flickered in her heart. Shiba had always had so much compassion…too much compassion to crush out such a tiny thing.
‘Return safely yourself, Shiba. Your people need you. We need you.’
‘I swore I would protect the children of Isawa and I don’t intend to fail in my pledge now, Big Sister. But if I do not see you again, know that you will always have my love. One day your smiles will return to bless ningen-do with their beauty. You will see.’
And with that…he was gone.
The palanquin shook as the bearers struggled over the steep and rocky ground. She again felt a pang of guilt being carried thus, and pulled open the curtains. “If it is heavy, I can walk. The ground here is dangerous.”
The bearer who carried the ash-wood pole of the palanquin laughed. “Ha, My Lady. A feather couldn’t be lighter. None of us want to see you get those pretty robes dirty. Rest easy now. We have you.”
Doji offered him a pained smile and nodded before drawing back the curtain again. How Shinjo would laugh at her, carried down the mountain in this little box. In her memory she could still hear the sound of her laughter from the day she departed.
‘Please, Shinjo. Take this with you.’
’You know me. I’ll just break it, Doji. You don’t need to give me anything.’
She pressed the delicate sandlewood fan into Shinjo’s hands even more earnestly. ‘I’m not giving it to you. I’m /lending/ it to you. I expect you to come back and return it to me someday.’
Shinjo was like that…a kite who never wanted to feel the strings upon her. There would always be another horizon, and who could say what wonderful thing lay beyond that horizon. Shinjo could never resist it calling to her. Maybe she could hang on to one tiny string, at least?
‘All right, sister. For you. I’ll keep it safe and bring it back safe someday,’ Shinjo’s voice was warm and reassuring as she embraced her. ‘I know it’s been hard. Your children….Shiba…Ryoshun….Fu Leng…’ She hugged her tighter. Shinjo was always so brave.
Doji couldn’t bear to say his name, after he had fallen. It hurt too much. She could at least offer what bravery she had in return. ‘Go see the world, Little Sister. I’ll keep this a home worth returning to.’
So much had happened since then. It seemed so long ago. For a time, there were reports. Doji knelt over a cradled mirror, learning stories of that great world that Shinjo found out there. The tribes of the Ujik-Hai that greeted them. Great birds and winged serpents. Deserts and strange cities and alien gods. Until….
‘Our supplies are running low. But Martazera says that there is an oasis not far from here….we can refill our watering skins. Don’t worry, Doji…we have enough to make it easily. And Iuchi is making new breakthroughs on how to commune with the kami out here. I can speak with you again after…’ Shinjo’s face was worn with the harshness of the desert, and cowled in a soft purple cloth, but her smile was ever-ready, and her dark eyes twinkled. Doji’s fingers brushed the surface of the enchanted mirror, wishing her fingers could reach through and touch her sister’s hand once again.
‘Shinjo-ue…from the sky! We are being attacked!’ Doji could not see the speaker, but her sister’s startled face turned to look. ‘You are needed.’
Shinjo reached out to touch the mirror herself, fingertips meeting at the cool sheet of silver. ‘I suppose I must go again,’ she said, her voice full of her usual confidence. ‘But I will always return. Until then, Sister.’
The blurry image gathered up her sword, and disappeared into the dimness of the tent beyond.
An intuition…a feeling of unease…left Doji kneeling in the darkness by the blessed mirror’s side, waiting to learn the outcome of the battle. The night passed, and the next day. At first there were the sounds of screaming and fighting, then silent hours of gazing into the blurry dimness of the tent. It wasn’t until the following evening that another came.
Doji brightened when the light of a flickering torch illuminated the face of the mirror, but it was not Shinjo. Instead, the one who approached was burly and musclebound, with a shrewd expression in his eyes, clad in barbarian furs and gaudy gold ornaments. He spoke to himself in the words of a gaijin tongue she could not quite make out, and then he knelt and picked up the mirror. “You. You who watches in the mirror. You are Doji? I am Martazera. Shinjo-ue, our Blessed Lady, she has spoken of me. Yes?”
“…Yes…” Doji’s pale eyes swept across the small image of the man and the room, but there was no trace of her sister present. Shinjo had spoken of Martazera as being a leader of the Ujik-Hai and one of her closest confidants.
The man set down the mirror and bowed down to the ground in front of it. “Lady-who-watches. I must tell you now that the Blessed Lady is dead. Our camp was attacked by a great being of wind and flame. She saved us all. But her wounds were too great. We will take her body to the oasis to rest.” His words were clear, if halting for the flawed form of their Rokugani. Doji could not let him see her pain. She asked a few questions, which he answered, but beyond that there was nothing left to say.
She returned the mirror to Genji, her brother’s son, to wait to see if any of Shinjo’s people would ever ask to speak with her again, but they never did.
The palanquin rocked heavily as the bearers set it down, and Hirasue politely knocked before opening the door to let her out. “We are securing lodgings for you, My Lady, and the baths are being prepared. Will you take your meal in the common room, or in your own chamber for this evening?”
Where had that brash little boy become so courteous? She allowed the Kenshinzen to help her stand. “In my own chamber, thank you. I must offer prayers for my brother’s spirit.” So many prayers…
Her followers left her in peace. The room was quiet and dim, a soft futon laid out for her. It was still and in the end, she was alone. After those first aching losses, after Konishiko and Yasurugi, she had had her husband’s arms to wrap around her, to hold her as she wept upon his broad shoulder, as he wept into her ebony hair. “Children are not supposed to die before their parents,” he had said. “In the world we are making…children would never die before their parents…” Kakita spoke those words like a mantra that first night, after seeing the oni rip their oldest son’s lifeblood from his throat in front of their infant grandson.
But she was to raw, too filled with grief herself, to fix the pain that fueled his passion to come. Kakita had to turn back to his charge, defending their brother Hantei as they battled and claimed vengeance for all that Jigoku had taken from them. And she had her own duties. Bayushi had loved Shosuro, and Doji knew he would speak to none about it save her. She had to be there for him.
They had sat in silence for hours now, cool in the underground cavern that hid the black lake. It was a dark place, a secret place, lit only by tiny glowworms that clung amidst the stalactites up above and reflected in the silent waters like luminescent stars. Not a breath of wind disturbed the mirrored surface. Not a whisper or cricket’s chirp disturbed the silence. This was Bayushi’s secret, the place he came to grieve, but he was willing to share it with her. They grieved together.
‘She was always a mystery to me. I never knew if she would smile or be angry with me. Every day was an adventure…a game to try to find out. But if I guessed right…’ Bayushi sighed wistfully, though his lips were hidden behind his black mask.
‘She was a thousand riddles for you, little brother,’ Doji offered tenderly. ‘And you never could resist a mystery. But you knew her heart in the end. She came back to you, through everything. Despite everything. Even if it cost her life, she came back to you. She loved you. And that was what was most important.’
Bayushi looked up at her with his dark, dark eyes, and an expression she could not read slipped into them. ‘She did come back to me,’ he agreed.
She was not ready for the tsunami of grief that washed over her at Bayushi’s affirmation. It stripped her breath from her; the pain of Konishiko’s loss clenched her heart like a fist, tied her tongue afresh so she could not speak. Bayushi delicately took her hand. ‘She’s dead,’ he offered gently. ‘Shosuro told me that she saw how bravely your daughter died. It was quick. They are both in Yomi now.’
‘I…wish I could believe that,’ Her words were forced out with such harshness she could not recognize her own voice. ‘They…cry out to me.’
Bayushi just held her hand as she wept in the dark silence, his own expression hidden in the gloom. Finally, after her sobs had faded, he gently asked, “Your husband, Kakita. How is he?” Even in her sorrow, Doji recognized what her brother was doing. It is easier to turn from your own pain when another needs you.
“He trains, day and night, in the dojo,” Doji whispered. “He says that it is wrong…that our children were not supposed to die before us. And he thinks….” She trailed off, but Bayushi touched her chin to tilt her face towards his, silently urging her to continue. “He thinks if he can just refine his technique enough…teach his students well enough…he can save those who follow us from suffering such pain. I…do not know if he is right. He’s changing.”
Bayushi released her chin. “People change.” He spoke in a low voice, only partly, it seemed, to her. “A War like this, it has changed many. It is one of our great shared sorrows.’ He paused and locked eyes with hers again. “I know Kakita still cares for you deeply. You can look after him. Care for him. See that he does not hurt himself.”
Bayushi’s words warmed her, at least a little. “What will you do now, Bayushi?” she finally asked when the words would come.
“I….will look after those I care for also. I will do what I must.”
Doji had left believing that Bayushi would be all right. That he would find renewed purpose in the world they had created together. When the letter came two weeks later that he had taken his own life, drowning himself in the black waters of the underground lake, she raced on the fastest horse to see for herself. But standing on that dark lakeshore, all that remained was some whisper of him echoing in the empty stone.
Bayushi. Didn’t you care for me?
The sound of music filtered through the rough screens and into her room, a mournful song accompanied by the aching sigh of the flute. The man who sang had a smooth voice that washed over Doji like the brush of a silken sleeve. They had so many gifts, these children of Ningen-do. So much capacity for beauty. Despite the years, they still surprised and delighted her.
Her heart warmed as she remembered glimpsing her own children’s gifts, all gone now. The music reminded her. Yasarugi’s steady hands, that could fold steel so well, created origami animals for her before he was ever big enough to hold a hammer. Konishiko loved flowers, finding just the perfect blossom to accompany the teas they shared. Nio’s sharp mind always surprised her with his keen insight, but his brushwork and paintings carried a depth of emotion his carefully-chosen words could never convey. Shimizu danced with a fan as easily as he danced with a sword and they held hands and spun in the gardens together while the cherry blossoms fell around them. And Hayaku had his song…
The singer’s voice grew still, leaving a small gasp of devoted silence as the listeners allowed the beauty of his song to hold their spirit a moment longer before releasing them. Hayaku’s voice, too, had been silenced. Her youngest child had saved her two oldest. But the cost was less beauty in the world…one more source of music silenced.
Normal conversation began again. The dance goes on, though one musician only carries the melody for a little while.
It cost his voice, his beautiful gift. But Hayaku had brought her her children’s soul, out of the dark place where it, and her own spirit lay. It had enough to carry on. Through Shinjo’s departure. Through Kakita’s death, and Hantei…
’You mourn too well, Doji. I prefer your smile.’
She forced a smile to her lips, for him. ‘As you wish, my Emperor.’
Hantei’s pale hand fell back upon the coverlet. ‘That’s better. I never wanted to create an Empire that existed just for tears. We wanted an Empire of peace and joy.’
‘You made one, Hantei-sama. It will be. You’ve made it so.’ Her brother looked so pale, sweat-soaked hair plastered to his forehead. She brushed an ebon strand away from his eyes. ‘You saved us. Saved us and led us well. We’re grateful.’
Her youngest brother gave a thin smile of his own, though every muscle seemed to scream of pain. ‘Take care of Genji for me. Teach him what I can’t. Show Yamato how to be a good brother to him.’ His voice was growing softer. The oni’s poison would not leave him long now.
‘I will, Little Brother. He will make an Empire even more beautiful than you can imagine.’ Doji silently swore that she would make that happen, no matter how many more sorrows she had to bear to do so.
The Emperor’s body shook with a spasm, but when he opened his eyes, they shone golden with the light of their Mother’s smile. He looked from her to those who stood behind her…her three remaining brothers, catching their gaze with his own in a long unspoken moment. Hida, Togashi, Akodo…each bowed deeply as they felt their chosen leader’s end approach. But only she dared take his hand.
Finally he spoke, his words a bare whisper. “I’m going ahead, now. Mother calls for me. But….I order you…remember what Shinsei said…”
She leaned closer, gripping his hand more tightly. No…don’t go….
He spoke no more.
Ameterasu’s light beat down upon the palanquin, her warmth making sitting within unbearably hot. She had no choice but to open up the screens. Outside, the long grass swayed, golden, in the long light. She could see for miles in every direction. Lion lands, she thought. Akodo chose lands that suited him well. If Akodo were here, she’d have to do everything she could to keep the tears that threatened to slip down her cheeks hidden. Emotions were something too difficult for him to share.
She always hid her tears from Akodo,
“So, Akodo, when will you come visit me again?”
The great warrior shifted uncomfortably. “You know I promise nothing,” he answered, his deep voice rumbling with quiet reserve. Sometimes he seemed as awkward as a little boy, for all that he was her older brother.
It drew a small smile to her lips. “I know. I won’t you hold you to a promise. But I like to look forward to your next visit.”
“I’ll try to visit before harvest. These creatures my scouts have spotted...I have not had a chance to observe them. They are not tainted but they...are due careful consideration. I prefer not to make guesses without proper information.”
Doji bowed to her brother from her kneeling position, drawing her hands together. “Then I shall wish you continued success in your battles, and look forward to the harvest when you can tell me of your great victories.”
She almost got his lip to twitch; Doji counted that as more than a success, and they drank tea in companionable silence for a while.
It surprised her when Akodo was the one to break that silence. “Doji?”
She lifted her head. “Yes?”
“Do you ever wonder what our brother meant when he asked us to remember what Shinsei said?”
A tiny crease formed between Doji’s elegant eyebrows as she thought back to Hantei’s last moments. “I thought he was reminding us of one of the teachings of the Little Teacher -- that the Fortunes favor the mortal man. I don’t know why he wished us to remember it.”
“Ah.” Akodo settled back, falling silent again.
Doji knew not to push the subject; Shinsei had always been a bit of a sore spot for her restrained older brother. Akodo knew what was so and what was not so, and it took more delicacy than Shinsei was inclined to share to bring him around. But, on this day, the warrior seemed particularly thoughtful.
“The last duty of a commander is to train the next commander,” Akodo again offered, a seeming non-sequitur. This one she could not allow to pass unspoken.
“What do you mean?” Something in Akodo’s words made her feel uneasy.
Her brother sipped his tea, choosing his words with deliberate care. “I train my people to excel, as warriors. As commanders. As samurai. But there is one more lesson I have yet to teach them. But once they have been taught, is it not right that they step up to take command themselves? How will they learn to do so if they always follow me?”
Doji frowned. “I am not certain what you mean brother. What are you planning?”
Akodo’s voice was grave. “I am...still considering.”
He would speak no more of it that day, but his words troubled her.
The letter came the day after she learned of his death. A vast horde of creatures from the Realm of Slaughter had descended upon the Empire, she had heard, and Akodo had brought down the mountain pass upon himself, destroying the enemy’s army single handed.
She didn’t cry; Akodo would not have wanted her to. Her brother was always was vexed by tears. Some say it was because the General of the Lion saw emotions as weakness, but Doji knew better. He was the oldest of them, at least after Ryoshun had died, and he always felt responsible for his younger siblings. Tears were something broken that he could not fix, not with all his strength and all his strategy. Some problems were not meant to be fixed. Sometimes you just had to listen. But that was not something that Akodo could bear.
When the servant had laid the message before her, her hands trembled, but still she did not weep. It took many minutes before she could crack open the seal.
I saidI would try to visit you before the harvest, but I am writing to tell you that I will be unable to meet that obligation.
I have been following our brother’s last command. To remember. Shinsei is a man who would use us for his ends: this has not changed. But so we have used him, also. This does not make him wrong. And if our Emperor says I must remember, I remember.
The Children of Earth cannot reach their full potential if they simply follow. They must lead. They must take command of their own destiny.
I have my final lesson to teach, however. They will understand that to be the greatest leader means to be willing to offer the greatest sacrifice. To lead all is to serve all.
I will teach them this lesson, and then they will be ready.
I will not return.
But I will stand with a lantern on the other side of death. Then you will know the way.
They had reached the sea. The tang of it reached her nose long before the waves came into view. The green rice fields, the small hedgerows, flowers blossoming with wild abandon under the sun-soaked leaves of maple and cherry, and crickets that sang the song of summer.
The song was the same as it had been last summer. And the summer before. And the summer before that, right up to the summer she and her siblings had first set foot upon this changing earth, and felt the touch of love, the touch of death upon them. As it had been the moment she first fell in love with the beauty of that song, and tried to share it.
The dance goes on, though one musician only carries the melody for a little while.
It had changed so little. The Children of the Sky had come and gone, and, now with Togashi’s end, only she and Hida remained.
But there would be no song for Hida. Not any more.
Doji rested her forehead wearily against the frame of the shoji, unwilling to be so rude as to enter unbidden, but making her plea all the same.
“Hida….please. It’s not good for you to stay here in the darkness like this.”
“I said, Go Away!” His voice was a growl, and Doji could hear the black veins of grief that was woven through it.
She stifled the sigh that threatened to slip past her lips. “I know how it feels, Hida. I miss them too! Your son and mine…But you don’t have to be alone. I understand!”
“No, you don’t, Doji. There are things you can’t understand. Things you must /never/ understand. Leave me alone.”
I do understand some things, Hida, she thought. Yasarugi’s blood spilled across the tatami mats...splashing across her kimonos. Hayaku’s many scars… But this was not the time to argue with her brother.
“All right….I won’t understand. Not if you don’t want me too. But your people are here. They’re asking for you. They need you. Just come out and talk with them...let them know you’re still alive.”
With a bang and the crunching of wood, the shoji screen was ripped open inches away from her face. Hida towered over her, his face flushed red with rage.
“Our people don’t /need/ us anymore, Doji. We’ve done our job. You just are too much of a busybody to see that. The Crab will be fine without you. They know what they have to do, and they’ll do it, not matter how much blood it takes.” He seemed to loom even taller, bearing down on her. “So take your pretty pictures and your pretty words and your pretty Empire and… GET...OUT!” He roared, his voice rattling the other screens on their slides.
Hida knew he was intimidating, used it as a weapon. But Doji did not feel fear now. It was his crushing loneliness that wounded her. He was so strong...but in her mind, she saw him as he was, long ago, still strong, but oh, so vulnerable.
Hida turned his back on her.
Doji spoke softly, picking her words with care. “If that is what you wish, Hida.”
The big man grunted.
“Shall I come back...maybe in six months?” she offered the proposal gently, hopefully. Maybe this phase will pass.
“No. Don’t come back. This is no place for you.” Hida’s words were clipped, angry.
“You’re certain?” For one last moment, she stretched out her hand.
“Yes.” He would not turn to face her. His tone was finality.
“Then….Goodbye, Little Brother.”
Hida grunted again, but said nothing more as she slowly walked away.
Two weeks had passed since she had reached the gentle meadows around her chosen home. Letters. Arrangements. Meetings to be done. Lessons to be taught. Great grandchildren to hold...at least for a little time. Each thing to its proper place. Let no one say she had left things undone...that she had done less than her best.
The voice of an old beggar came back to her, a beggar in the snow. “Are you more than just one life among many? When you die, will you be remembered, or will you be another strand in the tapestry – uncounted, and irretrievable? The snow will melt, Lady Doji, in a few days it will be gone and forgotten forever. Who will remember it? Who will remember you?”
She had tried. Through all the grief, through all the loneliness and heartache. She hoped what she had built would last a little longer than the snow. But what does a snowflake know of summer? Togashi might have known. But Togashi was giving her no answers. Not any more.
But she walked the halls of the home she had built, and heard snatches of song, and amidst the threads of music, there were her melodies interwoven. She saw the paintings on the wall, and saw her brushstrokes. She saw a skilled swordsman offering a gentle word to a weaker man...there was something of her left in these halls. But it would all become empty echoes with time unless they created something new. Unless they became more. It was as Akodo said. One last lesson to teach.
She did not leave behind commanders or warriors or scholars. She left behind fathers and mothers. A future that must grow.
“Great grandmother? You called me?”
Doji turned. “Sasageru. Walk with me.”
Together they left the lovely garden of her home. She led her great grandson east, towards the sea. As they walked, she told him stories. Stories of Togashi’s foresight and Bayushi’s wits. Shiba’s humility and Shinjo’s free spirit. Akodo’s honor and Hida’s strength. She told him of Hantei’s courage, and of her brother’s last words. Ameterasu, her mother, donned her gown of crimson as she slipped behind the Western horizon while Doji told him of her parents, and the evils wrought of wrath and fear. She told him of her brother, Fu Leng, and price of jealousy and regret. They spoke of honor, of duty, of devotion that lasts across the ages. For one last time, she tried to share the heart of her own story....that your world is something you must create, moment by moment, stone by stone, not simply through a simple, glorious, and heroic act, but through pain, through patience, through the passage of years.
Sasageru listened, and she hoped he understood.
By the time they had finished speaking, they had reached the cliffs.
Reaching out, she took Sasageru’s hand. Is it such a terrible thing, to wish for your children to be happy? “This world belongs to you now. You...and your brothers and sisters...all the Children of the Earth. Take care of it. Take care of them. Teach them peace.” She whispered a prayer to her mother. Keep him safe.
At her touch, the last rays of the setting sun settled upon Sasageru’s shoulders, cloaking them in light. Silver and blue, reflections of the sea and sky, settled about him, too bright to look at for a moment. But the the light died, the sun slipped below the horizon, leaving the young man encased in a beautiful armor of silvered steel. Her last gift.
“I will see you again.”
The Lady Doji left him on the shore, moving towards the water, climbing up to a high rock as her father, Lord Onnatengu, rose to fill the eastern sky, full and round. The sky grew dark, and the stars twinkled over the blackened sea. Its endless sigh, ever changing, ever the same, as wave after wave swept over the rocks. Despite everything, still so beautiful.
The world exploded into starlight and water, salt spray and stone, moonlight and sand...
It was time to let go.
For discussions on official fictions and fan-fictions alike.
1 post • Page 1 of 1