The tale of betrothal between the Dragon and Unicorn Clan Champions continues.
By Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
Many years ago…
At the top of the hill, the plum tree was in full bloom, a lone pink island suspended above the swaying sea of green. It was midday in early spring, and the world teemed with color. Even the still pond, whose surface was littered with fragments of the deep pink flowers that swayed above it, seemed vibrant with the reflection of the cloudless sky.
Mirumoto Shikei slowed his pace as he neared the top of the hill, feeling heat in the muscles of his calves and back. It was a two-hour run from the nearest waystation in Mirumoto provinces, even when one cut across the span of the winding river. His muscles ached from the run. The breeze was welcome against his tattooed skin, glistening with the sweat of a long exertion. There wasn’t a single person in sight. Shikei smiled.
He arched his back and stretched, the sun cutting well-defined edges around the muscles of his stomach and back. He inhaled the scent of ume blossoms, knowing that the breeze would carry the fragrance for miles. Seemingly alone, he scanned the vast meadows for a sign of the escort party that he’d long left behind.
A lithe figure swung down from the pink-clustered canopy of the tree, hanging upside-down from her legs and suspending her head just behind his. In silence, she savored this victory. “I win,” she finally said.
Shikei jumped. She laughed, eyes twinkling. She’d never seen him startled before, didn’t think he was even capable of it. She’d pictured this moment a dozen times before: he would slowly turn and cast her his trademark grin, crossing his arms as he often did whenever she’d bested him. This reality was unlike how she’d pictured it, but even so she preferred it by far.
He recovered slowly, like a cat that had missed its landing, as if his startled jump had been entirely intentional. It was a charming, if blatant, deception. His smile came easily as he realized what had happened. Their eyes met. He crossed his arms.
“I told you that I would surprise you someday,” she said, swaying gently from the branch as the breeze winded between them.
Gracious even in defeat, Shikei still smiled.
“And,” she added, casting a meaningful look, “you lose.”
“You cheated.” Shikei said, finally finding his words. Clearly amused by the notion, he began looking for her horse.
“What an accusation.” Moto Naleesh began to swing herself forward and backwards, her ponytail trailing lazy arcs as she swung. Each swing brought her inches from Shikei’s nose before pulling her suddenly away. She unhooked her legs partway through a backward swing, landing deftly on her feet after a practiced flip. Her black and purple kimono folded around her, fluttering with the swinging sleeves of an unmarried woman. She shot her betrothed another triumphant look. “Yesterday’s kemari match,” she said, “were you not cheating then?”
Shikei appeared to ponder the possibility. “I personally think kaze-do and kemari go hand-in-hand.”
“I personally think that’s cheating,” she insisted. There was no judgement in her voice, and the spring grew more vibrant with their laughter.
At last, he conceded, bowing in defeat. “In that case, it seems you bested me once again.” He rose. “Now,” he said, making to pluck a cluster of pink blossoms from a low-hanging branch, “what did we wager on this contest, again?”
Her eyes twinkled brightly. “You said you would clean the stables at my home, so that the servants could have a day off.”
He paused, his fingers suspended around the proximity of a blossom. “Did I promise that? That doesn’t sound like me at all.”
“I remember it quite clearly.” She weaved between him and the plum tree. “And we decided that the loser would brush off his obligations tomorrow in favor of a ride across the plains.”
That drew another laugh from the Mirumoto prince. “How irresponsible of me! Did you happen to get this agreement in writing?”
She stuck out her tongue. “You’re incorrigible. It was your idea to race, anyway. You should consider the consequences of your actions sometime.” She gave him a knowing look. “Then again, the only reason you proposed the race in the first place was to get me away from my honor guard, right?”
He snaked his arm around her to finally pluck a blossom from the tree. “She knows everything I am thinking. How frustrating.” Smiling, he set the flower in her hair. “Anything else you recall about this agreement of ours?”
“Just one other,” she said. “That the winner could ask the other a question, which the loser must answer truthfully.”
He nodded. “Well then, I have no choice but to oblige. Ask me anything.”
Her smile softened. Her eyes turned serious. In the distance, the voice of her honor guard called her name.
“Anything?” she whispered.
* * * * *
Four Weeks Ago
“It’s outrageous!” Utaku Eun-Ju shouted, storming back and forth in front of the dais, where Moto Naleesh stared into her teacup with an unreadable expression. Ide Takeru kept his face neutral, his hands calmly folded behind his back. Between the three, hanging from the edge of the dais, was a scroll that displayed the Otomo family Mon.
Takeru quietly eyed the scroll. The engagement between the champions of the Dragon and Unicorn had carried on for over fifteen years now, and for fifteen years the negotiations between the clans had stalemated. Yet the two clans seemed content to ignore the issue as the years had passed, the champions themselves even more so. They were in no hurry, it seemed, to break the reverie of their time together. But now the Dragon Champion had sought the council of the Otomo family to mediate the issue. He’d asked them which champion should leave his or her clan in the marriage.
“How dare he offer such an insult!?” the battle maiden continued, “He makes us look like fools! He has gone too far!”
“It was the natural progression,” Takeru said, voice calm and steady as always, “the Imperial Families have traditionally overseen influential marriages. To defer to the Otomo in these matters is not without precedent. What I find most concerning is that, after all this time, we were not alerted that he was taking this course of action.”
Eun-Ju ignored him, as her pacing increased. “He kept this from us! He’s always intended to do this! From the start!” She came to a halt squarely before the dais, fists clenched and eyes burning. “My Lady, I beg you, as your yojimbo and loyal servant, give me the opportunity to avenge this slight to our clan! With your blessing I will show him the foolishness of crossing a goddess!”
Naleesh lowered her cup. She seemed to be smiling. “How clever Shikei is,” she said softly. “This is a fortunate turn of events.”
Takeru was well-practiced in hiding his reactions, but Eun-Ju was not. Her jaw dropped in naked surprise and confusion as she was stunned into silence.
Takeru stroked his chin in consideration. “You suspect Shikei has done this on our behalf?” he asked. The thought had not occurred to him.
There was a twinkle in Naleesh’s eye. She was not troubled in the slightest. “Shikei does not care about things like status or carrying a family name. He told me so himself. Were it solely his decision, I believe he would have joined us years ago.” She looked to the window. Outside, the wind scattered the petals of a nearby plum tree.
“It is politics that has tied his hands all these years,” she continued. “Shikei is bound by his obligations. Even if he wanted to leave, he could not cast them all aside.”
“My lady!” Eun-Ju protested, “with due respect… is he not a Dragon? They are famous for ignoring their obligations!”
“I see,” Takeru nodded, ignoring her. “If the Imperials find in our favor, then he will have no such obstacles. And because he was the one who lobbied for their aid, he would be seen as merely honoring the arbiter’s decision.”
Eun-Ju looked desperate. “But what if they favor the original agreement?!” She looked from Takeru to Naleesh, as if shocked that either of them could remain calm. “Don’t the Otomo still look upon our clan with disdain?”
Naleesh met the eyes of her yojimbo. “I trust Shikei, Eun-Ju. You should as well.”
The Unicorn Champion returned her attention to her tea, lifting it to her nose to savor its fragrance before sipping. She did not see how Eun-Ju’s jaw clenched, nor how she balled her fists to contain her feelings. But Takeru saw. He saw, and then he looked away.
* * * * *
Fourteen Years Ago
“…and it seems you haven’t heard a word I’ve said.”
Shikei looked down upon the gardens of Kyuden Bayushi. “Mmm?”
Naleesh rapped the balcony’s wooden banister, snapping Shikei out of his fixated stare.”Oh, hello,” she said, “am I interrupting?”
He made a concessionary look. “My apologies. You were saying?” His gaze returned to the gardens below, a snowcapped field of white scattered with black rocks and skeletal trees. Following his gaze, Naleesh spotted a man in crimson ambling through the gardens. He made his way along an obscured path, stopping now and again to stoop beside a rock or tree and reach his hand into the snow. At was as if he was searching for something. If he knew he was being watched, he made no sign. Shikei wore a satisfied smirk, amused by what was unfolding below.
The sound of whispering came from the hallway behind them. Two other guests at the Winter Court had approached the balcony before realized it was occupied; a young man in Scorpion colors and a woman in the deep blue of the Crab. They bowed politely and continued on their way. Naleesh could almost feel their cautious glances and hear their whispers.
When it was discovered that she was the Soul of Shinjo, resulting in her ascension to Clan Champion, the other clans believed that they would call off their plans for marriage. After all, two clan champions joining houses was unheard of. She and Shikei had decided to move forward regardless. That was almost a year ago, and their decision was ready on the lips of the Great Clans ever since.
“Why should they care?” she whispered.
“Mmm?” Shikei still watched the gardens.
Naleesh flushed for a moment. “The others. They talk about us.”
“You should get used to being whispered about,” he said, “it comes with being clan champion.”
“Perhaps they feel threatened,” she pondered, “Our union will secure one the greatest alliances of our time. So they seek to make villains of us.”
He shrugged. “Let them whisper. What does it matter? We make one-another happy, and you’re Shinjo reborn. Why shouldn’t you have what you want?”
She changed the subject before his words could redden her face. “You’ve been staring at that man since I got here,” she said. She craned her neck to watch him. He was crouched in the snow now, digging at a mound with one hand and cradling his fan in the other.
Shikei’s smirk broadened. “That is Bayushi Rentatsu,” he said. “I met him several days ago. He was making a passionate speech about the impermanence of wealth, how it taints the soul and that it is folly to seek it. I mentioned to him that I thought I saw the glint of gold in the gardens one morning. He remarked that perhaps it was a trick of the morning light on the snow, and I agreed. Since that day, he has spent much time in these gardens.”
He glanced at her. She was smiling.
The two stood on the balcony in silence for a while. The sky above them threatened snow, but so far nothing was falling. As of late, there was far less time for pleasant visits. Moments like these, even under the watchful gaze of her honor guard, had become more precious.
“How long will you keep me waiting, then?” Shikei asked.
Naleesh’s smile softened. She kept her eyes on the gardens. “We are more than ready to welcome you into the Moto, Shikei-san.”
“I recall the agreement differently,” he said. “Your father agreed that you would marry into the Mirumoto.”
“That was before the priest’s revelation.” She fixed him with an annoyed look. “You can see how the circumstances have changed, yes?”
He crossed his arms. “Interesting. Were you not Shinjo-no-kami reborn when the agreement was made? Are you Shinjo-no-kami now?”
She closed her mouth tightly. The two met in defiant stares, she staring up at him and he looking down at her. “You don’t understand,” she finally said.
“Help me, then,” he said, his voice softening, “what is so different now that this truth is known?”
“I am the Champion of the Unicorn,” she replied, “Have you not noticed?” She paused, then said, “My people need me. I can’t leave them.”
It looked as though he could argue, but instead he simply nodded. “You came to them after a difficult time of many losses. You give them hope like no other has before you. I think I understand, now.” His smile returned, and he uncrossed his arms. “I believe in many things, little orchid, and among them is impermanence. Let the negotiations continue, then. I can wait for you as long as it takes.”
“And I,” she said, boldly stepping into his reach, “can wait for you.”
He leaned in, his nose but a finger’s breadth from hers. He whispered, “Let us see who can wait the longest.”
She was suddenly aware of how closely they stood. When his lips parted, it was so natural for her to reply in kind, to close her eyes as he began to lean…
They froze. Naleesh opened her eyes; Shikei’s face was suspended no closer than when he’d began. Her honor guard, a battle maiden named Eun-Ju, stood at the balcony’s entrance. She seemed caught between instincts to draw her sword and maintain her distance. Her face was red.
“It’s okay, Eun-Ju,” Naleesh said, holding up her hand. With the other, she patted the side of Shikei’s face in consolation. “My yojimbo is very alert,” she said, “she was hand-chosen by Min-Hee to protect me.”
“She brings honor to her house,” he replied, casting a weary look. He stepped back. “I suppose I should be on my way, then. I am meeting with a representative from the Phoenix in less than an hour.” He bowed. “Tomorrow then? Lunch?”
He turned and left. “Walk with the fortunes.”
She watched him go, releasing a gentle sigh into the crisp winter air. When he was gone, Eun-Ju approached with a look of urgency. “My lady,” she said, the words tumbling from her mouth, “if your father discovers that you almost-”
“He won’t,” Naleesh assured her. She made sure that her yojimbo heard the wistful tone in her voice as she spoke. “Nothing happened, anyway.”
Naleesh retreated from the balcony as well, making her way to the Unicorn embassy. Her yojimbo dutifully followed, muttering, “I wish you would treat me more kindly, my lady.”
* * * * *
Two weeks ago
“That concludes my report,” Takeru finished, returning the scroll to its ceramic case. “I regret that I cannot comment on the Khan’s letter, except to say that she has matters well in hand.”
Naleesh continued brushing the horse, clicking her tongue to soothe the animal. “You should have gone with her,” she said. “Your courtly experience could come in handy.”
He smirked. “She commanded that I stay here, my lady. But at your word-”
“No,” she decided, “I trust her intuition.” He paused for a moment. “Any word from the Dragon?”
“Not yet,” he replied, “but I am watching the horizon.”
Naleesh smiled. She continued brushing her steed, humming gently to herself. Takeru excused himself to leave his Champion with her thoughts. Just outside of the stables, Utaku Eun-Ju waited for him.
“Did you ever consider,” Eun-Ju said wryly, “that they are trying to teach us something? That this whole matter is just another one of their foolish riddles?”
He regarded her patiently. “It seems you have considered this.”
“We have done everything to complete this agreement,” she continued, “yet the Dragon always find some new complication. A new lineage to be decided. More stars to consult. More philosophy! More words!” Her face contorted as she struggled to contain herself. “If the Dragon had ever been sincere in this whole matter, it would have been done by now!”
“That it could not be satisfactorily resolved in all this time is a testament to the difficulty of this arrangement,” Takeru reasoned. “Is there a precedent for this in the known history of the Empire? There is more at stake here than a marriage between champions.”
“You seriously believe Shikei would have gone to the Otomo if he believed there was any chance they would find in our favor?” She kept her voice at an intense whisper.
“What I believe is of little consequence,” he replied. “I cannot claim to know the mind of the Dragon Champion. Perhaps you should offer to kill him again, I think that went well for you last time.”
She bristled. “I only meant to protect her,” she said, “as I have always done. She is our clan’s future! I cannot stand idly by while the Dragon Champion tries to take her from us!”
Takeru stepped forward abruptly. “Do you not know the heart of our Lady?” he hissed, meeting her gaze with his cool eyes. “It is my duty to know, so I will enlighten you. Whatever the Imperials decide, Lady Shinjo promised that she would never leave us again. Do not shame her by believing otherwise.” After a prolonged moment of angry silence, he broke his gaze. “In any case, you will see for yourself. The Otomo will deliver their decision within the week.”
Eun-Ju was silent long after Takeru was gone.
* * * * *
Five Years Ago
Shikei stopped mid-stride, balancing carefully on the rocky incline. The mountain forest teemed around him, and the canopy above swayed in the breeze, casting pin-points of light on his burlap gi. He looked behind him as Eun-Ju struggled to crawl up the face of a large boulder.
“Can she keep up?” he called to Naleesh. Eun-Ju stopped, clinging to the rock’s edge, and glared.
“Don’t worry about Eun-Ju,” Naleesh called back. She was the furthest of the three, passing over the rocky incline as though it were level ground. Even in her good kimono, with its rich purple sea and yellow abstract patterns, she navigated the brush gracefully. “She’s used to this sort of thing.”
There was a sort of deflation from Naleesh’s yojimbo as she stirred up some motivation to continue. The Unicorn Champion had fallen under a spell of wanderlust as of late, but this out-of-the-way excursion was Shikei’s idea. Seeing Eun-Ju drag herself across the rocks in a desperate effort to keep up, Shikei couldn’t imagine that he was very popular with the battle maiden right now. Not that he was particularly concerned, of course.
“Where is this place you wanted to show me?” Naleesh called back. She was leaning on a tree suspended dangerously over a precipice and looking down at her betrothed.
Shikei smiled back and hoisted himself up through the brush. “Just a little farther,” he replied, “we’re almost there.”
They continued on. The forest began to level out as they progressed, and so there was considerably less climbing involved. Gradually, a path began to appear through the brush, and the two champions took to it, walking side-by-side. Naleesh glanced behind her. “We left Eun-Ju behind,” she remarked.
“She’ll catch up,” Shikei said, grinning. “We’re here.”
Before them was a small mountain hollow beneath a tall cliff. A waterfall of pristine mountain water gently cascaded down the face of the cliff, crashing noisily on a rocky outcropping and emptying into a wide pool below. Shikei’s smile broadened as Naleesh’s eyes lit up at the sight. After the hot climb through the forest, the cool wind from the crashing waters was welcoming.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“It is,” he said, guiding her along the outside rim of the pool, “but this waterfall is not why I brought you here. What I wanted to show you lies beyond.” He led her to the waterfall itself, pressing his back against the sheer wall and maintaining his footing carefully on the glistening rocks. From this vantage, the waterfall was revealed to hide the mouth of a cave behind it. An arm’s length from the watery barrier, Shikei gestured for her to enter.
“Through the waterfall?” Naleesh said, her face making an incredulous smile.
Shikei nodded. “Of course! You didn’t think we’d be stopping here, did you?”
Naleesh crossed her arms and looked at him pointedly. “I’m wearing my good kimono,” she said. The tone of her voice was accusing.
“Are you? How… unfortunate.” His smile turned mischievous. “Well, I wouldn’t want you to ruin it on my behalf. I suppose you could always-”
She held up a hand, cutting him off. “That’s enough.” She was smiling, but her eyes were disciplinary. “You are incorrigible.”
As she spoke, Eun-Ju appeared by her side. The battle maiden had positioned herself underneath the lesser stream of the waterfall and was holding her arm at an arc above her head, creating a break in the stream that Naleesh could pass under. In doing so, she was quickly becoming soaked. Her eyes never left Shikei, her mouth pressed into a thin line on her face.
“Thank you, Eun-Ju,” Naleesh said, flashing Shikei a playfully triumphant look before passing under. She vanished into the darkness of the cave.
Shikei cast the yojimbo a disappointed look. “Yes, Eun-Ju. Thank you.”
Having passed through the waterfall, the three found themselves surrounded by darkness. Naleesh peered into the gloom. The sound of the water at the mouth of the cave echoed within, and it muted the light that came through. Her eyes adjusted very slowly, and she could just make out looming shapes that clung to the walls.
She heard Shikei talking, but could not see him. Patiently, she stood still. “Just a moment,” he said, his voice seeming to come from all directions. “Ah, there we go.”
The darkness lifted. Using a flint and steel, Shikei had lit a primitive ceramic brazier in a far corner of the small cave, painting the cave in the orange hue of burning charcoal. Naleesh found herself standing before a tall human form carved from the stone wall of the cave. The dim light sheared the darkness away from its face, revealing a bald, monkish head with smooth and handsome features. The statue loomed above her, looking down with an inscrutable expression. At his feet, Naleesh saw spindles of incense, bowls of fragrant oil, and the trimmings of roses and lavender.
“This is a shrine,” she said, glancing to Shikei as he lit another brazier. He nodded, his eyes seeming to glow from the light of the fire. Bathed in orange, with his bald head and his plain gi, he seemed far more like a monk than a samurai. Naleesh looked to the entrance and saw that a stone torii had been carved above the entrance. She turned back to the statue, supposing from the depiction that it must be none other than Togashi-no-kami. She folded her hands into her sleeves and bowed deeply. Shikei watched and smiled.
As she straightened, a thought occurred to her. “I am confused,” she admitted. Her voice echoed in a stumbling distortion off the walls of the cave. “The tales I have heard said that there were no shrines to Togashi in the lands of the Dragon.”
“That is correct,” Shikei said, lighting the final brazier, “and this is not a shrine to Togashi.” He approached, gesturing to the statue. “This is a statue of my grandfather, Mirumoto Daini.” For a moment, he seemed to admire the face of the statue. “It is a terrible likeness,” he finally said. “I suspect that the Shiba who carved it held a grudge against him.”
Naleesh looked away from the wall and spotted a small gathering of tatami mats collected at the center of the room. With them stood a ceramic teapot and a wooden box. The aroma of Silver Needle Tea wafted from the pot. Shikei followed her eyes. “Oh, look. Offerings.” His words did not fool her; she knew he’d left them there. He sat down on one of the mats and opened the box, revealing preserved balls of rice and other food. “Why don’t you join me? It was an exhausting climb, wasn’t it?”
She tilted her head. “Is it proper to eat in a shrine?”
He looked up, brow pinched, as if this hadn’t occurred to him. He waved his hand dismissively. “The whole thing is rather casual,” he admitted. “I don’t concern myself too much with propriety.”
“And besides,” he added, his voice taking an uncharacteristically serious tone, “I think grandfather approves.” His eyes flitted away to the ground, almost shyly. “I wanted you to meet him.”
Naleesh’s eyes grew soft. “This place is sacred to you,” she said. This was a side of him she’d never seen before, hidden from the world like the mouth of the cave. He looked up, radiating warmth in his expression. “You honor me, Shikei,” she said, and sat down beside him.
He poured two cups of tea, then after consideration, poured a third. “There is enough for all of us,” he remarked, looking to the entrance. Eun-Ju had retreated to the mouth of the cave, sitting beside a brazier and watching them from a respectful distance. It took her a moment to realize he’d addressed her, and she shook her head.
“I really shouldn’t-”
Naleesh interrupted her. “Please accept the Dragon Champion’s hospitality,” she ordered, lifting her own cup to her lips. Eun-Ju bowed and edged close enough to take the cup from Shikei’s outstretched hand. To her credit, her face showed no expression.
The two champions admired the statue in silence. After a while, Shikei spoke. “A few of the monks visit this shrine regularly,” he said. “They say the statue can offer some clarity regarding the future. All one has to do is meditate before it, think of a question within your mind, and then look into the statue’s eyes. If there is white in the stone, then your path is true. But if there is shadow there, to continue your path is unwise.”
Naleesh looked into the statue’s eyes. “Is it true?” she whispered.
He shrugged. “How should I know? They are always grey for me.” He sipped his tea calmly. After a moment, he added, “Besides, I don’t believe in that anyway.”
“You don’t believe in what?” she asked. There was concern in her voice. Eun-Ju shifted uncomfortably.
“Fortune-telling,” he replied simply. “How can one predict that which is always changing? The mere practice seems to contradict the Tao. Men who look to turtle shells, fish scales, and stars for their answers see only that which they want to see. Better to trust in the guidance of our ancestors than the scattering of stones.” He looked to her for reaction, but she gave him none. She listened to his words and gently accepted him without judgement. Emboldened by this, he continued, “That is not to say that I don’t believe in omens. But to seek them… that is to surrender a piece of yourself to the universe.”
She furrowed her brow at this. “I don’t understand what you mean,” she said, “In what way?”
He put down his teacup and sat up straight, facing her squarely in the lotus position. “The Tao reveals that we are made up of only three things,” he explained, “Our bodies, which we inhabit, our minds… or perhaps more accurately our perceptions… and our actions.”
“Our actions?” Naleesh asked, fascinated.
“Of course,” he replied. “You own everything that you do. Every action leads to consequence, even those that you do not take. In this way, you shape your world and the worlds of others, even in ways that you cannot know.” He gestured around him. “My actions have consequences that influence your actions, and these themselves have consequences that influence mine. It is like a thousand voices speaking within a cave, echoing off the walls and rebounding ten thousand times, their song droning into eternity.”
“What about the Self?” she asked. When he did not reply, she smiled. “That’s right, I’d forgotten. The Dragon do not believe in the Self, do they?”
“The Tao renounces the notion,” he said. “The Self is a construct, an illusion that can take the shape of anything the creator wishes. Ask a Shosuro Kabuki actor if the Self exists, and I suspect he will assert that it does not.”
“In that case,” she said, leaning forward with dark, glittering eyes, “if there is no Self, then what reincarnates?” She was grinning, believing that she had trapped him.
For a moment, Shikei seemed lost. But then a slow smile returned to his features. In his eyes, a newfound respect shone. “Let me tell you a story,” he said, “about my grandfather.”
Naleesh sat back and listened.
“Grandfather had an odd hobby,” said Shikei, “he would take a sword into the cold of the mountains and seek a block of ice. Then he would sever it, and in the cold, he would carve marvelous things from it. Dragons, birds, even fragile forms like insects. It was said that he was even capable of shearing small pieces of ice into delicate flowers, as if he’d plucked them from the ground. Eventually, word of his strange talent reached the ears of the Kitsuki Daimyo. He was planning to host many guests at his estate, and as a favor, he asked my grandfather to carve one of his fabled ice sculptures just for him. My grandfather was reluctant, but found that he could not deny him.
“So he went into the cold with a gathering of servants and found a suitable block of ice. He cleaved it from the mountain and then set to work, creating the most exquisite piece he’d ever created. Its beauty defied description, and the servants knew it was his masterwork. When he was done, they carried it into the castle as the daimyo had commanded. The guests all marveled at its beauty, like a crystal glittering in the candle-light. But by the end of the evening, when the guests had all left, it had melted. The servants mopped it up off the floor and carried it, in buckets, outside of the castle.”
Having finished his tale, Shikei lifted his cup again. Naleesh pondered his words in the quiet that followed. That story would haunt her thoughts for many years.
* * * * *
“…Now that we have dispensed with the traditional pleasantries, I will tell you the purpose of this letter. As I am certain you are aware, Mirumoto Shikei, on behalf of the Dragon Clan, contacted my lord seeking a resolution to the outstanding question facing both your clan and his. In this, the Dragon Champion demonstrates great wisdom. It is the priority of the Otomo family to seek a quick and accurate resolution to this unusual problem, for the overall advantage of both the Unicorn and Dragon clans, and for the betterment of the entire Empire.
“The issue of a marriage between clan champions was believed unprecedented, even by my lord’s eldest advisors. For this reason, the issue has been given considerable thought and meditation, and all aspects of this matter have been considered. It has been confirmed that the marriage would be harmonious, and the complete terms of the original agreement have been considered carefully. In the end, an answer was found in the Ikoma Libraries. It seems there has been precedent after all, and having considered the issue at hand, we have made our ruling on what would most benefit both clans.
“As the alliance between the Dragon and Unicorn was conceived by honored servants of the Daughter of Heaven, Unicorn Champion Moto Chen and Dragon Champion Mirumoto Kei, and having been endorsed by both parties, it is in the best interest for the terms of the alliance to be maintained. However, the cementing marriage, as demanded by tradition, was arranged before the revelation regarding Moto Naleesh’s previous incarnation. We have found that, when similar circumstances have occurred in our glorious Empire’s past, tradition and the interests of universal harmony dictate that the original terms of the marriage be deemed null and void.
“Both parties, however, have expressed their intentions to move forward with the original marriage, and it is the opinion of the Otomo that the proposed alliance is worthy of conservation. Having consulted with the Seppun Daimyo regarding the will of Heaven, it is the judgement of the Otomo, with the interest of maintaining harmony between the Dragon and Unicorn clans, that the following outcome will result in the most stability and goodwill between all involved parties: Mirumoto Shikei will fold into the Unicorn Clan and take the name of the Moto, and the originally agreed dowry, or one equivalent, will be paid to the Dragon Clan, to be overseen by the Otomo Family or a suitable proxy.
“This mediation and judgement has been endorsed by powers granted by the Daughter of Heaven, and may be considered of the highest authority.
Takeru lowered the scroll, finishing his announcement. His smile was repeated in the faces of his Champion’s retinue. All at once, a man’s voice in the back of the room let out a hearty cheer, and soon all others were following suit. Utaku Eun-Ju let out a relieved sigh. The presiding shugenja nodded with satisfaction. Even the venerable sensei Shinjo Hayan, who normally did not allow any emotion to show, wore a satisfied smirk.
Among them all, Moto Naleesh was the picture of serenity. Her gentle smile was a declaration of triumph over propriety, an affirmation of the trust she always had in the man she loved. Many had said it could not be done. Their love, through patience, had silenced them.
* * * * *
Two Months Ago
“Tomorrow is my birthday,” Naleesh said. She glanced to Shikei, who stood beside her. The gardens were quiet, save for the noisy bugs and the shuffling of her yojimbo, who watched from a short distance away. “You know what that means, right?”
Shikei’s attention was seemingly fixed on a lightning-bug floating above the koi pond. “It means that I should participate in that odd tradition of your clan and procure a gift for you.”
“It means I will be thirty-one years old.” He gave no reaction. She nudged him a little. “Unmarried at thirty-one.”
“How scandalous,” he joked, “I suppose the Nakado had better get on that.”
“Perhaps there is some issue holding things up.” The sarcasm was thick in her voice.
He turned his head. She looked in his eyes. She felt for his emotions, the tide of her empathy crashing against the surface of his unyielding On. He was thinking about their future; their engagement had become a sort of fixture in their lives, as permanent and out-of-reach as the sky’s horizon.
Yet as time passed, that horizon seemed more and more unlike a sunrise. When she was younger, it seemed like such a simple thing. They loved each-other, so what else mattered? Yet the years had dragged without resolution, and now the arrangement was long fossilized, the words of the document bleached pale in the perpetual dawn of an almost-future. They blamed politics, duty, tradition, the dowry, lineage, and countless other reasons known only to the courtly-minded. The patterns of the stars themselves were just as much to blame as the duties of clan leaders, or the spark of divinity reincarnated inside her heart. But in the end, she felt more and more that these were only excuses. She knew only that all matters of the alliance had settled except the cementing marriage. Even she no longer knew why the matter had not yet seen an end.
She knew, as objective fact, that he loved her. She had seen it with her goddess eyes, even all those years ago when they first met in the cold Kitsuki mountains. Yet somehow, in recollection, he seemed so much closer then than he did now.
She looked away. The fireflies reflected a blinking sky into a still pond. “What is stopping us, Shikei?”
He became very quiet. When she looked at him again, he was deep in thought. His eyes were calculating something, seeking something…
He finally spoke. “Perhaps it is time to resolve this myself.”
She dared to sneak her hand over his forearm and lay it over his. “Does that mean you would leave behind your family name and join my house?”
His smile broadened, and his eyes were lit with the light of the fireflies. He squeezed her hand, and she laid her head against his arm. But he did not say yes.
* * * * *
Eun-Ju left the Shrine of the Harmonious Chime before the sun broke the cusp of the horizon. Satsuki was well-rested and eager to run, and she carried Eun-Ju across the Moto provinces on thundering hooves. She allowed Satsuki to lead the way, closing her eyes as the wind carried her thoughts like dandelion snow over the swaying plains.
It was the early hours of the evening by the time she reached Shiro Moto, and at last her mind was made up. The chime of the Harmonious Bell had cleared away her anxieties, and at last she had come to terms with her clan’s future. She decided that she would welcome the former Dragon Champion into her clan with open arms. It was the only way to still the unrest of her heart and to atone for her mistake. She’d known Mirumoto Shikei for more than a decade, and for all those years she had misjudged him.
She gave Satsuki to the meadows surrounding Shiro Moto and purified herself at the shrine to Natsu-Togumara. Only then did she enter the palace, the guards and servants swiftly stepping aside to let her through. The palace was busy today, as it had been ever since the Imperial document had been delivered. Many were eager to begin planning the wedding, as security of an heir was now considered an utmost priority, but Lady Naleesh had insisted upon waiting on word from the Dragon.
As she rounded a corner into the main receiving hall, Eun-Ju spotted a Mirumoto herald rapidly approaching her, seemingly making due haste for the exit. She offered him a polite if mobile bow, one that he returned swiftly and without word. He avoided her gaze as he passed, vanishing around a tight corner. For a moment, Eun-Ju felt a strange wrongness to the encounter, like she had overlooked something important. But then, passing by the receiving hall, she saw a contingent of Phoenix samurai waiting there, and those feelings were instantly forgotten.
She entered the room briefly to reach the network of administrative offices beyond. The Phoenix waited patiently, but the youngest drummed his fingers on the rim of his teacup, so Eun-Ju supposed they had been kept waiting. The guards allowed her through the opposite side of the room, where she sought the eastern study where she expected to find her champion. Instead, Ide Takeru had taken temporary residence, numerous scrolls and paperwork stacked neatly on the desk at the room’s center. His tea was untouched on the table’s edge, and as she approached, Eun-Ju leaned down to nudge it closer to the center and away from the risk of spilling.
Takeru looked up when he noticed her. “Good morning,” he greeted, “I trust you had a peaceful ride?”
Eun-Ju nodded. “There are Phoenix diplomats in the palace,” she mentioned.
“Oh? So you noticed?” He made a slight smile. “They are here to speak with Lady Naleesh. I suspect it is about the wedding.”
“The Otomo’s proxy?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Perhaps. They are merely the first to offer. This event is unprecedented. Every Clan will wish to play some role in the proceedings, I expect.” He leaned back in his seizen. “It will be a busy day,” he continued, “A herald came from Shiro Mirumoto this morning. He delivered a letter with Shikei’s personal Mon.”
“I saw him as he left.” The unease returned. “What did it say?”
Takeru chuckled. “There are many things I am willing to do, but reading a private message between the Dragon Champion and our lady is not one of them.”
She smiled, perhaps for the first time in many months.
“I suppose I have misjudged Shikei after all,” he said suddenly. His face was to the window, so he did not see Eun-Ju’s surprise. “I was skeptical of this plan. But in the end, it all worked out. His marriage into the Moto is sanctioned by the Imperial families, and because he was the one who requested intervention, he looks all the more valorous for it.”
Eun-Ju lowered her eyes. “Takeru…” Her quiet tone was unlike her, drawing Takeru’s attention away from the window. “About our words the other day… At the stables… I think you should know that I didn’t mean-”
He lifted his hand, halting her. “There is no need,” he said, “I owe you an apology. I should not have said those things to you. I am not your lord, and it was not my place.”
Her stunned silence settled in the room as Takeru sighed. He seemed to deflate. “In truth, I only said those things because you had given words to my own shame. I was raised to be our lady’s advisor… her friend. Not a sentinel.” He met her gaze over the sound of his confession. “I dared to believe I knew better than my own champion. It is shameful. And it is only because I respect you so greatly that I was angered by your words. I did not want you to experience the shame that I felt.”
What could she say to such an admittance? Eun-Ju stared at the ground. “I understand,” was all she could say. And she did, more so than he could know.
Takeru sighed again, and this time it seemed less heavy. “I will spend the rest of my life in atonement for this. But, one day at a time.” He gestured towards the receiving hall. “Has our lady not met with the Phoenix contingent yet? I sent a servant for her some time ago.”
“She was not there,” Eun-Ju remarked. Why couldn’t she shake this feeling of dread?
He shook his head and made to stand. “I sometimes wonder at the state of our servants. I will tell Naleesh myself.”
“Allow me,” Eun-Ju said, “You make headway on your desk. I will alert our lady that she has guests.”
He made a thankful smile as she exited the room. Eun-Ju navigated the halls towards Naleesh’s chambers, finding herself almost racing as she walked. She could not place the source of her alarm, and the sooner she laid eyes on her well-faring champion the better. As she came to the chambers, she found a servant standing outside, wringing his hands. When he spotted her, his face went pale and he bowed as deeply as he could.
“What are you doing?” She demanded, “How long ago were you sent by Ide Takeru to fetch our lady?”
The servant shivered. “Forgive me,” he said, “but I cannot intrude! I called for my champion many times, and she won’t come out!”
At once, Eun-Ju recognized the source of her dread. It was her gut. Something was very wrong. She placed a hand on the hilt of her katana, causing the servant’s eyes to widen. “Step aside,” she ordered, and pressed her ear to the door. There was no sound within.
“My lady!” she called, “Is everything alright?” With no immediate reply, she whispered a prayer and rolled back the shoji door.
The room was dark. Naleesh was standing at her balcony, her silhouette outlined in moonlight. When Eun-Ju entered, she spun towards the doorway. Glittering on her cheeks were streams of tears. Her eyes were dark and sorrowful. She quickly turned back to the balcony to hide her face, but it was too late. Eun-Ju had seen her sadness firsthand.
“My lady,” she whispered, face burning. She dared not to ask what had happened. Her eyes moved to the floor, and she saw a short scroll with the Mon of the Dragon Champion. In that moment, she understood. She saw it reflected on her lady’s face, in the gossamer sheen of her goddess eyes. Eun-Ju was right all along. Shikei had never intended to leave the Dragon, not even after Imperial mediation. There would be no alliance. There would be no wedding. In that scroll, Shikei had shattered fifteen years of her lady’s life. He’d canceled the engagement.
“Eun-Ju,” Naleesh spoke. She did not turn around. “Whatever it is… have Takeru handle it. I will be… indisposed until further notice.”
Eun-Ju found that her mouth was dry. She wanted to be angry with every fiber of her being, but she couldn’t feel anything. As a child who’d discovered her mother weeping alone, she nodded helplessly and backed out of the room. As she turned, she saw the servant staring in, his face wide with shock. “Get out!” she hissed, and he cowered away, scrambling into the hallways. It would not be long before the entire palace knew.
Eun-Ju closed the shoji door. She would speak with Takeru as she was asked. Then, with her sword, she would go to the dojo. Perhaps there she could find her anger undisturbed.
* * * * *
“You are made up of three things. Your body, your mind, and your actions.”
“Every action leads to consequence, even those you do not take. In this way, you shape your world and the worlds of others, even in ways you cannot know.”
Shikei looked up from his meditation on the stone floor. The carved statue of his grandfather stared down at him. He looked into the statue’s eyes. They were stone grey.
“It could not be helped,” he said. His hollow voice echoed through the empty chamber.