A delightfully seasonal tale from the Story Team! Happy Halloween!
By Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
“This place is haunted, you know.”
Her voice carries to my corner despite its volume. I watch the chain reaction of turning heads and snuffed conversations. I chose my seat well; from this cushion, I see every furrowed brow and curious glance. They try their best to conceal their interest, this gathering of cultured men and women. They cling to their training, hiding their attentions with the flick of a fan or a subtle change in posture. But together they cannot hide the sudden dimming in their tone, the abrupt wave of quiet. Even the biwa player has paused for too long. With five words she’s seized them all.
You would get a similar reaction if you tossed a piece of cooked fish into a room of starving dogs. Courtiers of this city feed on rumors. It sustains them; I have watched many waste away from boredom, becoming grey and thin as the bare winter willows. Without gossip to consume, they simply starve.
And if rumors are their preferred food, then scandal and intrigue is its seasoning. Even Phoenix diplomats would agree, although they would insist that just a pinch of spice is enough to season the broth. But these courtiers, half-starved by the boring winter and sensing the promise of savory rumors, licking their lips, chewing their tongues, relishing the anticipatory rumble in their bellies… these courtiers like their broth spicy.
Ah, that look! She knows that she has everyone’s attention. So young, and already a master of her craft. Marriage-eligible, a bright cherry blossom of the Scorpion, brilliant and beautiful in interwoven layers of black and crimson. Her mask is a graceful face painted white and black, save one splash of red on her lips. I watch appreciatively as those red lips smile. I alone do not conceal my interest; my posture is one of rapt attention. That is why she looks at me when she speaks, the fire light flickering in her brown eyes. The others will believe this was for their benefit, but truly this story is meant for me, a gift extended to the only one who is above these courtier’s games. Let the dogs eat whatever falls from the table.
She settles in her seat before the fire. Her slim body casts a slimmer shadow behind her. She knows I’ve been watching her since this court began weeks ago, knows that she fascinates me. Her eyes never leave mine, even as those red lips part to speak.
“Long ago,” she says, “this was the castle of a lord named Shosuro Tobane. He was a wealthy man with the good fortune of a quick mind and faster tongue. Handsome in his darkness, influential, and hand-picked to serve as Hatamoto to his daimyo, he had the power to choose his own wife in all but explicit right. So when the time was right, he was given leave by his lord to marry whomever he wished. A man like him could have any woman he wanted, and he wanted Suzume Misaki.
“Many saw this as unwise. It was not that Misaki was a bad choice. She was gentle, courageous, intelligent, and would make for any man a lovely wife. Anyone, that is, but Tobane. You see, Misaki loved to talk. She talked at every opportunity, told long and intricately detailed stories with little point, sang often and out of key, and asked questions constantly. It was truthfully a little thing, and would be easily overlooked by one who was well-matched to her.
“Tobane, however, had little patience and valued silence. It was clear that such a marriage would not work. But he did not care; Misaki was one of the most beautiful women in the Empire, and that was all he cared about. Anything else he could live with, but if this radiant flower must be plucked by a man’s hand, then it simply had to be his.
“And since it was in his power to convince the nakado of this, none could stand in his way. Their marriage took place within these very halls.”
The room is entranced. They are whispering; her tale has just started and already it is an ample offering. I smirk at her charm. She controls this entire room from her perfect seiza. Truly she’s wasted amongst the Scorpion. I think that she would make an excellent wife herself; the Kitsuki would welcome one this clever and beautiful. It is not the first time I have thought this, and as she continues, I re-calculate what it would take to make her mine.
“Tobane was happy at first. He was now the man with the most beautiful wife in his entire family. Other men looked upon him with envy. Misaki had served her purpose well, and his status grew now that he’d accumulated her amongst his other prizes.” Her red smile grows wider. “However, as time passed, Tobane began to think that perhaps he’d made a mistake. With Misaki as his wife, his household was never silent. She talked always and without pause, completely incapable of silence. In fact, in his presence, she spoke even more! She’d fallen for him, and his mere sight caused her heart to flutter and her tongue to wag.”
She closes her eyes, shakes her head sadly. “If only Misaki realized that this man was using her, that she was little more than furniture to him. He’d married her only for beauty, and nothing else of her was of any value to him. It was worthy of pity.”
I shift in my seat. This cushion has become uncomfortable.
“Little by little, Tobane grew weary of her. This weariness turned to bitterness, and with time, became a permeating anger. She hadn’t provided him with any children; by the second year her beauty was stale to him. Her talking was relentless, for she had long believed he’d found that endearing about her. ‘Why won’t she shut up?’ he thought. But he remembered the whispers of their poor matching, and out of fear and pride, he said nothing.
“At last, he reached his breaking point. Months and years of this tore at his cruel mind and weak soul. One winter night, in this very castle, in the middle of one of her longest and most pointless stories, he suddenly grabbed his tanto and seized her by her hair.”
She makes a savage gesture. Those graceful fingers curl as if holding a knife, her other hand balls into a fist as she pulls the phantom head back.
“‘You have a big mouth!!’ he shouted. And then he slashed her, again and again, cutting her mouth from ear to ear.”
The room is deathly silent. None hide their attention now. Some cup hands over tight mouths, eyes wide with horror. The storyteller’s smile curls back. Her teeth are white as her face.
“After his rage faded, he looked upon the lifeless body of his wife. Her eyes were wide open, her split mouth yawning darkly at the ceiling. That is how the servant found them, and Tobane made the horrified man dispose of the body, threatening him with the same fate if he told anyone. The frightened servant buried her in those gardens.” She gestures towards the window. The snow-swept gardens, aglow with moonlight, lay beyond.
“And that was that. Everyone believed his story, that his wife had fallen ill and passed away in the winter. Nothing ever came of it. Time passed, years rolled by, and soon all forgot about poor little Misaki.
“Eventually, Tobane grew so influential that he was granted the right to host a Winter Court within his own halls. These halls. This he did, and soon his castle was aglow with winter festivities. Guests from all clans played their political games throughout his home. It was his greatest honor.
“One night, much like this one, Tobane was entertaining his guests in this very room, when he spotted a woman he’d never seen before. She was beautiful, adorned in the colors of the Scorpion, but she was not one who served him. Even though a silk mask obscured her face, he was transfixed on her. She glowed in the firelight of the room, almost supernatural in beauty.
“When he had the chance, he approached her. She tilted her eyes away from him shyly, feeding his boldness. He offered to take her for a walk in the gardens, and quietly she nodded acceptance. Together they walked into the chilly night air; they were alone, and taken by her beauty, his heart raced for the first time in years. In the quiet of the gardens, drawing boldly close and cascading her with his charms, he dared to ask for her name.
“But she tilted her head and asked, ‘do you think I am beautiful, Tobane-sama?’
“‘You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,’ he replied.
“She pulled aside her mask. Her ruined mouth was split from ear to ear. It yawned wide and empty. Cold. Dark.
“‘And now?’ she said, the words stretching her abyssal mouth.”
Silence. Her back straightens, drawing her away from her audience. Her voice is so low, they have to lean in to catch every dreadful word, which exposes their backs to the dark corners of the room. “They found him in the snow,” she says, “frozen to death.”
She looks to the window with half-lidded eyes. “They say she still haunts this place,” the storyteller whispers, “on nights like these. But no one here will see her.”
Her last words linger in the silence, and her eyes meet mine one more time. “She only appears to men who would use women as a stepping stool to get what they want.”
There is polite applause. As horrifying as the story was, it seems to have sated their hunger. She bows, accepting the praise with appropriate humbleness. Conversation resumes. I stand. The tea is warm and ready to serve, but I’ve no appetite for it now. As the biwa player picks up the song again, I spot the storyteller’s approach. I’ve no desire to speak with her, yet I cannot move except to bow.
She stands too close to me. I can smell her perfume. “I think I will visit those gardens,” she says absently. Her head tilts, she matches my eyes from the corners of hers. “Care to escort me?”
I glance at the corner of her mouth. Is that a scar there under her makeup, or just a trick of the light?
I politely decline. Already I have forgotten my excuse, but I know it was flimsy. She sighs and shrugs, backing away with the slightest step. I do not know if she is disappointed or simply playing coy, but there is a predatory gleam to her eyes, something unsettling about her smile. It’s too wide for her face. As she turns away, the gaping maw of the passage beyond swallows her, and she chuckles coldly. I cannot hide my shivering.