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Authors: Jessica Amanda Salmonson

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BOOK: The Golden Naginata
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Inside the small apartment it was dark and hot. The stink of the kimono repair shop was dizzying. From a shadow, the dry voice of an old, old man asked,

“Where is the
ronin?

The fraudulent messenger looked afraid. He peered toward that darkest shadow of the unlit chamber. The shadow looked hardly big enough to hide a man. Although he saw no one, he replied,

“Your money was wasted on that masterless samurai. Tomoe Gozen killed him with ease.”

“What help were you?” asked the dry, accusing voice. “Didn't you try to kill her?”

“I did!” the man said. “I tried hard, but she evaded me!”

“You lie, Shinichi.”

“I don't lie!” he insisted. His eyes danced back and forth, looking for a good story. “I stabbed at her with my carrying-stick, but she stepped aside. She drew her sword too quickly, so I jumped out the window. That's the only reason I survived. I will try again come darkness. You won't be disappointed!”

“How will you kill her?” asked the voice in the shadow.

Shinichi jabbed his stick in front of himself as he said, “Like this! Through her eyes while she is sleeping!”

“What will you do when she is dead, Shinichi?” the voice asked sardonically.

“Take her sword and break it!” Shinichi said. “Smash it on a stone!” He made motions with his stick to illustrate.

“That will please our ‘master,' Uchida Ieoshi.” The voice did not call Uchida “master” with much conviction or respect. “Every sword of Okio is to be destroyed. Tomoe's will be hardest to take. You'll be rewarded if you succeed, Shinichi. If you fail …”

“I won't fail! She will soon be on the road again. I will follow close behind. I'll kill her wherever she camps the night.”

Throughout this exchange, Tomoe Gozen had been listening outside the small door at the top of the ladder. The furtive Shinichi was no expert and had been easily tracked. Now, Tomoe stepped into the room's interior and said,

“Kill me now, Shinichi.”

Shinichi jumped like a rabbit. Tomoe's sword swept toward the pitiful hireling, but he moved backward and parried with his pole. He was better with it than Tomoe had expected. She moved forward aggressively and Shinichi deflected another murderous slash while leaping back. He could not withdraw further in the little room. He tried to block Tomoe's third blow; but a pole could only deflect at angles, not block a direct strike. The sword of Okio sliced through the pole, losing almost none of the cut's force. Shinichi grimaced and spit through his teeth, cut mortally at the temple.

Without waiting to see Shinichi collapse, Tomoe leapt toward the shadowed corner. Her sword met nothing. There was a fluttering of robes. The dark figure had jumped into the rafters. A dart was tossed toward Tomoe's face, but it rang against her sword. She thrust the curve of her blade far above her head, causing the unseen fellow to move again. This time the fluttering sounded more like wings than robes.

“Tengu!” cried Tomoe, recognizing that sound at last. A tengu was a small, winged demon with a long nose. He perched in another part of the rafters where dim light struck. His wings made him look hunchbacked. A sword was sheathed near his groin. His dry, hoary voice clicked and cackled with delight. “You know my race!” he said. “Then you will know we are good swordfighters!”

He spread his wings and lighted on the floor, longsword drawn. The tengu looked like an old man, thin and bony; but he moved with the wiry grace of a youth. There was not much space for Tomoe to maneuver against the long-nosed demon's quick style. He was smaller and could maneuver better. But Tomoe had fought demons many times; and the tengu may have been surprised that his tricks did not work. He would have to rely on skill alone, so Tomoe doubted he could win.

The tengu must have thought likewise, that he could not win. He spread his wings and returned to the rafters, abandoning the fight; then he dove like a hawk toward the small door. Tomoe moved quickly. Her sword cut the demon's tail feathers and clipped his right wing. He was unable to break his descent.

He plunged from the roof apartment into the yard of the kimono repair company. He landed in a vat of blue dye. The women working there fled into the building, screaming shrilly about the monster. Tomoe looked down at the comical sight of the tengu splashing and cussing in the vat. He climbed from his messy post and tried to fly away, but Tomoe had trimmed too many feathers.

“Vengeance!” cried the tengu, hobbling away through the narrow alleys. “I will be avenged!” When he found a shadowed place away from the sun, he turned and shook his knobby fist at Tomoe on the roof outside the vacated apartment. The tengu said, “Mine will be remembered as the Vengeance of the Blue Tengu! I will be remembered when Tomoe Gozen is forgotten!”

His promise made, the blue tengu slunk away through paths too small for Tomoe to follow.

In a clearing away from the road, Tomoe made a firepit. She had previously pulled some edible roots. These she tied to the end of a stick and propped the stick over the coals of her fire. Her mood was somewhat gloomy, as it had been for the month since she visited her father in Heida and her troubles began. Now she was pursued by enemies of swordmaker Okio, aside from her falling out with her father. It was one trouble after another! Although her pursuers wanted only her sword, the sword was her soul and she would die before giving it up. It was an annoying situation all around. The nuisance of being on the road, rather than in Shigeno Valley aiding Toshima while her castle was being constructed against tremendous odds, was the main source of Tomoe's irritability. “I will strive to be more patient,” Tomoe said to herself; for a proper samurai tries each day to be a little better than before. “I will strive to be serene.”

Yellow fire lit her features: round face and small, flat nose; high eyebrows and intelligent eyes. Tough as she was, the woman was yet beautiful.

Around her camp, the forest was lost in darkness. The branches of aromatic pine provided loose shelter overhead. Tomoe looked up and saw stars through the limbs.
Ama-no-kawa
the “heavenly river” was a sharp, bright waterway between Naipon and the High Plain of the Gods,
Taka-ma-no-hara
. It was almost the time of year for the Star Festival, when the sky should be especially appreciated. The beautiful sight of the heavenly river helped settle Tomoe's turbulent feelings. She thought that her own route was like
Ama-no-kawa,
with many wonders along the banks.

Against that backdrop of stars, she caught sight of a fluttering shadow. It disappeared near the top of the pine. It might have been an owl, but Tomoe was wary. She watched carefully until she saw another. It, too, landed in the pine beneath which Tomoe camped. She could not see or hear these birds. As she watched with narrow eyes, a falling star streaked the night's sky and vanished: an omen which was sometimes lucky and sometimes not. A third dark shadow moved against
Ama-no-kawa,
like a minor deity swimming down from heaven.

The campfire was dwindling. Tomoe's meal was cooked. She pretended not to notice the three birds watching from the tree as she removed the roots from the cooking-stick. Rather than eating, she stoked the fire with the stick. There was a restless sound above her head, like crows nudging each other on their roost. Tomoe lifted the stick above her head, fire on its end, and three baby tengu squawked and fluttered.

“Why do children come to gawk at Tomoe Gozen?” Tomoe asked.

The three tengu clittered excitedly. At young ages, tengu did not have the long noses which took years to develop. They looked like starving but pretty children crouching on the limbs of the pine, huddling close together and ruffling their wings. One of them, the lankest, answered,

“Old Uncle is furious with you. He says we are to follow you about and haunt you until he grows his flight feathers back and can come to take revenge.”

The other two were giggling frantically. One of them, with a bloated belly but elsewhere as scrawny as the others, piped, “Old Uncle has turned blue!” The two tittered some more. The first one to speak, who was more serious than his brothers, added, “We won't let you sleep! We'll play tricks on you! We'll be awful pests!”

Tomoe lowered the flaming stick, because the tengu children did not like light. Fire was something adult tengu used in casting spells; it was never used carelessly as it was by humans. Tomoe said, “I presume you are sent as part of your training, so that you can become properly mischievous tengus when grown. But such dainty, unlearned goblins as yourselves will surely get yourselves murdered if you tease very many samurai. It might not be wise to bother me.”

The main speaker for the three was indignant, but the others shushed their tittering and were scared by the warning. “We are too clever for that!” boasted the leader. “Tengu trained the skulking
ninja
many generations ago. That's how clever we are!”

Before the boast was completed, Tomoe moved with unpredicted swiftness. She jumped straight up, drawing her sword and slashing the pine's limb. She landed on her feet away from where the limb fell. The surprised tengu children tried to fly away. They beat their wings in panicky awkwardness and smashed into one another. Tomoe's sword was sheathed. She gathered up the tengu by their legs and held them in a bunch, upside down like roosters fetched for slaughter. The three squawked and wept and pleaded and flapped their wings uselessly. Finally, Tomoe let them go.

The tengus flew to a higher limb this time, quivering. Tomoe calmly broke the severed pine branch and placed it on the fire, lighting the area better. The talkative, lankiest tengu gathered his wits the fastest. He asked,

“Why did you let us go when you had us so quickly?”

“I took an oath with myself to be more patient,” said Tomoe. “Earlier today I killed a masterless samurai so down on his luck that he accepted a foolish commission to attack me. Afterward I killed a stupid peasant who thought a little skill in stick-fighting qualified him as an assassin. I'm not tickled with the notion of killing baby goblins simply because their uncle is an idiot.”

The samurai picked up the long pieces of cooked roots and broke them into handy lengths. “Come down to my camp and eat with me,” she invited, holding the roots up for the tengus to see. They chattered among themselves for a few moments, then decided to trust her since she could have killed them already had she wished. The roots were tasty but tough; their young teeth gnawed and gnawed on the pieces. After a while, they were all comfortable with each other, and Tomoe plied them carefully, “Tell me, my young friends: Why does your uncle serve Uchida Ieoshi?”

Their eyes grew large at the mention of the name. “The giant!” said the round-bellied tengu, who was eating two pieces of root at once. The littlest one, who had not yet spoken, covered his eyes with his palms and patted his forehead with his fingers. Their lank leader replied, “Old Uncle owes a favor to Uchida's swordsmithing clan. A long time ago they gave our tribe of tengus some good iron from another island of the archipelago. No one really likes Uchida.”

“Do you know what Uchida wants your Old Uncle to do in order to redeem the old favor?”

They didn't.

“Your Old Uncle is supposed to see that my longsword is broken. That means his mission is to kill Tomoe Gozen.”

“Kill you?” said the littlest one who hadn't talked before. A piece of root was hanging out of his mouth. The samurai nodded.

“I gather that your uncle raised you,” said Tomoe, “or he wouldn't risk your lives so blithely. When you fly home to your mountain, tell him that I would hate to make his nephews orphans. Tell him that a blue tengu shines in the dark and cannot hide so well.”

The children quailed at the thought of sassing Old Uncle. “He would beat us up!” the leader said.

“Not until he regains his flight feathers,” said Tomoe. “You can drop rocks on his head or anything you like. He can't get you.”

Their eyes lit up. Tomoe continued,

“I think it will be a safer first lesson in mischief.”

The tengus tittered and clapped their bony little hands in front of their faces. Their wings shook excitedly; they could hardly wait to begin teasing Old Uncle. But they couldn't leave Tomoe's camp without permission, because it would be impolite after accepting the meal. Tomoe laughed with them and said, “You may go home now if you want,” and the Tengu children were off into the night, trailing happy noises across
Ama-no-kawa
and toward a nearby mountain.

Tomoe tried not to feel too well-pleased with her actions, since egoism and self-satisfaction detracted from any deed. Still, she knew that a less considerate individual would have killed the demon brats without hesitation, believing supernatural creatures to be obscene. Allowing them to go safely on their way soothed Tomoe's weeks-old edginess. It demonstrated that she had successfully bettered herself despite recent misfortunes. Because of this she was able to sleep through the night with her dreams more restful than usual.

The permanently borrowed hakama trousers were neatly folded and placed inside the large, plain straw hat at her side. She slumbered sitting up against the big pine, her legs and arms drawn inside her kimono for warmth, her sword laying across her lap. Before dawn, she opened her eyes. In spite of the peaceful night, it was a sense of danger that awoke her so early.

She sat forward abruptly, lifting the sword and scabbard off her knees. Dew chilled the recent sleeper. Amaterasu had not yet risen; it was difficult to see in the dark. For light and warmth, Tomoe took an unburnt end of firewood and stirred the ashes of the firepit, uncovering a few coals exactly where she'd buried them. Hours earlier she had placed some brown leaves in her kimono so that they'd stay dry against her body; now she brought them forth and piled them on the exposed coals. When she blew on the coals, the leaves flared. However, before she could get anything more substantial burning, a momentary wind, cold as death, issued from the surrounding pines and put the fire out.

BOOK: The Golden Naginata
2.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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