A pair of vignettes, detailing the various events from around the Emerald Empire and its Colonies!
Scenes from the Empire
By Yoon Ha Lee & Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
She came to Bayushi Nitoshi dressed in red, the way she always did. The silk was bright, almost Phoenix-red, and gold-and-cream embroidery traced out the shapes of moths, butterflies, and beckoning lanterns. If you looked closely, you could see beads of jet and onyx sewn into the design. Nitoshi knew who had provided her with the silk, and who had come up with the kimono’s design. He didn’t imagine that the besotted man was getting much joy of his gift, but then when you gave someone a choice between common sense and passionate idiocy, passionate idiocy won every time.
“I could have told you she was a dead end, Bayushi-sama,” Baysuhi Misaki said to her champion. She was carrying a black-and-red umbrella, ordinarily useless in the warm, dry, dreary shadows, but probably possessed of a poisoned end or some similar gimmick.
Nitoshi was in the process of cleaning his blade. The corpse lay flung to the side. It had once worn a kimono and a gauze jacket almost as fine as Misaki’s, ruined now by the staggering number of knife-slashes and, of course, the dark stains. Several netsuke beads were scattered by the corpse, and stray fibers from the cut cords floated in the air. In the darkness of the alley it was hard to tell whether the kimono had been white or pale blue, but they both knew the answer to that.
“Oh, I knew that,” Nitoshi said. He liked Misaki as much as he liked anyone, which was to say that she was useful and she hadn’t yet gotten in his way. “But she was a storyteller. Storytellers lie, it’s what they do, and it was frankly insulting to have to listen to her do it so incompetently.”
Misaki coolly studied the corpse’s outflung arms, the parted lips. “I imagine she begged.”
“It doesn’t matter what you imagine,” Nitoshi said, “dead is dead.”
“Unless it means undead.”
Nitoshi’s blade was as clean as it was going to get. It was a pity, really. On the one hand it was imperative to take good care of your tools, and on the other hand, the obliteration of the evidence made the experience less satisfying. But his mother had always come down firmly on the side of the former, and as a dutiful son he ought to honor her wishes.
“Tell me,” Nitoshi said, straightening, “do you have something more interesting to report than the latest fashion in obi? Bearing in mind that the latest fashion in obi is of paramount importance around here, since we live in a culture obsessed with masks and appearances. I always wonder if what I wear to court is going to be in last year’s style. I imagine you see more of these things in your travels.”
As a point of back, he hadn’t expected Misaki back from her visit to Crab lands for another few weeks, but she had always been unpredictable and it wasn’t one of the faults he tended to hold against people, especially when they entertained him.
“The Crab idea of an obi probably hasn’t changed in the last century,” Misaki said dryly. “In the meantime, there are a lot of ghost stories, or lies if you prefer. Peasant tales for the most part. Pennagolan that carry away houses. Rice grains that grow eyes and report the movements of scouts to the black winds. Crab bushi telling tall tales around the campfire, that sort of thing. But I managed to get an audience with a few Kuni who weren’t already up to their ears in mujina and goblins.”
She looked at him directly, then, not sidelong as was her wont. “The Crab are hiding things from you, Bayushi-sama. I know it is a terrible claim to make–”
“Misaki,” Nitoshi said with great patience, “our only audience is a corpse. Even the dogs and roosters know to stay away from people like us. Skip all the courtier obfuscations and get to the point.”
“There have been three or possibly four reports of the Disgrace in Crab lands,” Misaki said. She reached into her sleeve and drew out a scroll bound in fine red cord with white beads hanging from the ends. “This is what I was able to find out. I left before my prying could be noticed further.”
Nitoshi made no move to take the scroll from her. “What would the Crab gain by keeping this information from me?” His voice was quiet, but not calm.
“I dallied with a witch-hunter,” Misaki said. “An invigorating experience if you’re willing to put up with jars of pickled anatomy lessons staring at you the whole time, not to mention the weight of all those books breathing in your ears. I don’t know that he is representative of the Kuni as a whole. I mean in matters of policy rather than matters of the bedchamber.”
“Under other circumstances, I would find this all very illuminating,” Nitoshi said, although the odds that he would have to seduce a witch-hunter in the near future were probably dim. “But the night isn’t growing any younger and that corpse isn’t getting any fresher.”
“There are at least some among the Kuni who feel that bringing the Disgrace to heel on your behalf would indebt the Scorpion to the Crab,” Misaki said. Her eyes were dark and clear and thoughtful. “That our current dependency on the crustaceans for protection and expertise is a congenial state of affairs, one to be prolonged as much as possible.”
Nitoshi finally took the scroll. “I must investigate your report, Misaki.”
“Of course, Bayushi-sama,” she said. Her smile had broken hearts. It didn’t break his–it couldn’t–but he saw why others might fall into the abysses of desire that it promised. “In the meantime, shall I continue listening at doorways and prying secrets out of people’s hearts with my teeth? It’s what I’m best at, after all.”
“You like whispering in the ears of fools,” Nitoshi remarked. It wasn’t a judgment.
Misaki smiled demurely. “The softer your voice,” she said, “the lower they bend to listen.” She was not speaking softly now.
“Go,” Nitoshi said. “Find the Disgrace for me.”
She bowed deeply and watched as he slipped into the darkness. After he was gone, she smiled to herself. She already knew where Paneki’s Disgrace was, but there was no need for him to find that out yet.
* * * * *
Kakita Hiro dropped his brush at the sudden rapping on his doorframe. His heart raced as his eyes turned to the moonlit door. Silence fell within his study. He didn’t speak, he didn’t breathe. He waited.
“My lord?” a timid voice came.
The moment of relief was short lived. It flowered for mere seconds before a surge of anger burned it to ashes. “I was not to be disturbed!” he shouted, the reaction automatic and without restraint.
He heard a tremble in the servant’s voice. “I… your evening tea…”
“Leave it outside the door,” he commanded, rising from his desk. His bones ached, but he balled his weathered hands against the pain and stood at the center of his room. He waited until he heard the clatter of teacups and the shuffling of movement from the door, and then finally the anticipated creak of the nightingale floors, signaling that the servant had fled the hallway. Only then did he retrieve the tray, sliding the shoji door open and exposing the interior of his moonlit study for only moments.
He sat down, placing the tray on his desk to the right of his work. He noticed there were two cups of tea. Usually there was only one. An Asahina blend, the “Kiss of Yume-do,” sweet and peppery, a sedative. In his advanced age, he could no longer sleep without it. But tonight there was another cup, containing a black oolong that, from its smell, had steeped for some time. This tea would have the opposite effect; it would keep him awake.
A gift from his apprentice, no doubt. Hiro looked to the unfinished scroll on his desk. To finish it, he would need the entire night.
He stared at the scroll for some time. The candle in the far corner of the room gave just enough light to make out the kanji painted on the surface. Hiro laid his hands on the face of the scroll, reading the same passage over and over. His fingers curled into fists, dragging the paper into his palms. The sound of tearing echoed in the darkness, and just like that, days of work were undone. This scroll, his latest play, was no longer fit to present to the patron that commissioned it. But then, it wasn’t his best anyway.
Hiro pulled himself away from the bands of moonlight cast over his desk. He moved to the far corner of his study, to a small, personal shrine. Kakita Morushijin, one of the greatest playwrights of his time, watched blankly from an inkwash depiction hanging from the wall.
Hiro lit a spindle of incense beneath the shrine. His old lungs shuddered as they drew in the smoke, but he endured, bowing deeply to the image of his honored ancestor. As he rose, he clapped once, and the sound buffeted off the walls and into the shadowed corners of the room.
“Honored ancestor,” he whispered, “help me. What should I do?”
Tell them the truth.
His brow furrowed in pain. He laid his hand flat against his chest. The voice spoke not in his ears, nor in his mind, but within his heart. It was the sound of a child. A girl. An echo. Tell the truth. Father.
He stood. A draft snaked between the doors of the balcony and rustled the papers on his desk. He shifted in the dark towards the noise and faced the room beyond his study. Illuminated by the candlelight, his eyes rested on a corner of his bedroom that he had not looked upon in many years.
Soon he was there. With weathered hands he felt for the edges of a trapdoor in the floor. Finding it, he curled his fingers beneath the rim and lifted. The hidden compartment yawned darkness at him. He felt as though his heart was suspended above a pit and he could not see the bottom. With trembling fingers, he reached inside.
It was still there, after all these years. Cold and porous. He lifted it out of the square hole and brought it into the candlelight. A clay lily, pale and unfinished, the same quality of sculpture expected of a student that had just passed gempukku. But Hiro knew this was the work of a girl only six years old.
He closed his eyes. It was autumn in the palace gardens. “Little Hana,” his name for his daughter, ran to greet him amid the falling leaves of the maple tree. For her sixth birthday, the priest that had overseen her birth showed her how to sculpt flowers from clay. She held her little sculpture up to him, her face beaming, and his vision blurred from tears of pride. She had an aptitude for the arts; the noble line of Kakita Morushijin would be continued. Together, they watched the sun set over the rooftops of Shizuka Toshi, the clay flower cradled gently in his hands.
All this time, he’d kept it. All these years. In the candlelight, it looked darker than he remembered.
Where was she now? He could not say. When the guards took her, he knew that he would never see her again. One word could have saved her. But he’d said nothing.
His hands tightened around the fragile sculpture. This was why no words would come to him now. This was his punishment, the favor of his ancestor turning away. To allow his daughter to take the blame for his own mistakes was unforgivable. If he had no words then, he would have no words now.
The old man looked to the shrine in his study. His honored ancestor was smiling.
Suddenly, Hiro realized that he did have words to say after all. He had the truth. He’d been a coward then, but now? In that moment he felt a surge of inspiration unlike any he’d felt in his entire life. It was not born from desire for fame, nor from obligation. It sprang from the seeds of redemption.
“Very well,” he said, lowering the sculpture. “I will do as you say.”
His former patrons wouldn’t like it. They would consider it betrayal. But then, what could they take from him? His pride had driven his only daughter away, his neglect had killed his wife, and his stubbornness had ruined his reputation. Even his new lord did not know his name. So what did it matter if the truth destroyed him? At this moment he wanted, more than anything, to be destroyed. There was nothing left, nothing except…
Tell them the truth.
Hiro sat at his desk. His hand passed over the cup containing the “Kiss of Yume-do,” instead choosing the cup of the dark oolong. He raised it to his lips and sipped. It was bitter, but he would need its energy. He would need the entire night to finish this new project. He felt his little girl’s smile, and for the first time in years, he smiled as well.
Tell the truth.
He lifted his brush. “I will.”
* * *
When his apprentice rapped on his door in the morning, Hiro did not answer. The apprentice supposed that he had a long night, which is why she’d left him alone. When she returned mid-afternoon and he did not answer, she supposed he’d left, and resolved to return that evening. It wasn’t until the third time that she suspected something may be wrong. There was no logic to the sensation, but since it came from the gut, she trusted it, like any samurai would. That is why she entered his room uninvited, something even the servants didn’t dare to do. That is what she told the magistrates.
Dusklight flooded the room with muted oranges and yellows. But the floor was swathed in red. Hiro lay slumped over his desk, his blood staining a torn scroll beneath him. His face was oddly serene. Outside, the sun was setting, but the evening birds were silent. Kakita Hiro, the master playwright of Shizuka Toshi, was dead.
* * *
Pale sunlight burst into the dark shed. Maratai awoke and sat up, squinting blindly into the light. She was lying in hay pulled in from the stables, wearing the same short kimono she’d worn for the last three days. Her hair was stiff and unwashed. Three empty sake bottles lay at her feet. She sniffed the stale air and moved her hand to block the painful light.
Otomo Abare, her patron in theSecondCity, loomed over her. He looked furious. “What do you think you’re doing!?” he shouted. She winced, the muddiness of sleep slowing her movements. He thrust a finger into the washed-out light behind him. “It’s the hour of the goat! Why aren’t you up yet!?”
“Mmm?” Her mouth was dry. She stared at him blankly.
Angrily he turned to a chipped pillar of marble at the center of the shack. “That better not be the commission for my garden!” he shouted. “It looks like you’re just haphazardly hacking at it!”
She frowned. “It’s not done yet,” she spat.
He gritted his teeth, unaccustomed to being talked back to. “My charity has limits, Maratai-chan,” he replied, pointing at her threateningly. “Or perhaps you’ve grown tired of eating?” He turned away. “If that sculpture is not done by tomorrow, I’ll have you enlisted with the Imperial Explorers!” With that, he stomped away, slamming the door behind him and returning her shack to darkness.
Grateful to be alone again, Maratai rolled over and reached for a bottle that she hoped contained another sip of sake. As she did, she looked upon the rows of sculpted flowers laying on her desk. Although they were unfinished marble fabrications, they seemed just as real as those which grew in the gardens of the embassy. She’d come a long way since she was just a child.
A child named Little Hana.