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Authors: Jessica Amanda Salmonson

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BOOK: The Golden Naginata
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“You are cynical,” said the bonze. “The yamahoshi do not prescribe celibacy for their priests—only for novices.” Shindo laughed at himself. “So there is a saying among my sect: ‘Devils fall when yamahoshi raise their swords. Yamahoshi fall when women raise their eyes.'”

“I'm not certain I like the saying,” said Tomoe.

“The ronin might like it better!” The monk laughed again. “He is obviously very strong. Perhaps he has never been defeated before.”

“He did not fall because of my eyes,” said Tomoe, her voice somewhat strained. “He fell to the skill of my weapon.”

“Only that? I think he loves you besides!”

“It annoys me that you say so. Monks forever give advice! How can you know what a ronin feels?”

“To fight so well, he is more than a mere ronin. He takes the name ‘Number One Mountain,' which is not a name at all, although it is very boastful to call himself that. I listened to the two of you fighting. By the sound of his footwork and strikes, I recognized the style. I'm certain he studied with Mountain Priests, perhaps at my own temple before I became a novice.”

“So? It proves he's from a mountain province and presently travels incognito. Yet he is too dirty to be anything but a well-trained man of bad fortune and worse manners.”

“Even men of bad fortune have hearts, Tomoe.”

“Do you suggest I have no heart?” asked Tomoe, her face turning red. She calmed herself immediately, breathing deeply, looking away from Shindo's moon-face to the moon reflected in the pond. “My mind dwells always on the Way of the Warrior. I am forever prepared for death, not love.”

“I won't mention it again,” said the bonze, seeing her upset.

“I would be grateful.”

The moon's path had taken it away from their vision. It peeped through the trees around Tomoe and Shindo, but no longer reflected on the water. The nightbirds and insects were silent, and that was strange.

“Let's move over there,” said Shindo, “so I can see the moon a while longer.” Tomoe followed the monk to a wooden deck built over a corner of the pond. The moon's reflection was still not visible, but the moon itself shined brightly on their faces. Tomoe changed the topic of conversation:

“I wonder if you know a man named Goro Maki. He shaved his head a long time ago to become a yamahoshi.”

Shindo tried to remember. “If his head were still shaven, I would know him by that name. But once a new man in the monastery has proven his strength, he begins to grow a beard and wild mane of hair. He changes his name as well. The harrier the yamahoshi, the longer he has been a fighting monk; his beard symbolizes his strength. The change of name symbolizes the beginning of a new life, without desire for fame. If I have met your friend, it may have been by his newer name.”

“He is unmistakable,” said Tomoe, anxious for news of the man. “He's extraordinarily severe, yet kind in his heart. He was a samurai destined to be famous, except that he was forced to resign from the world because of circumstances beyond his control.”

“You were part of his troubles?” asked Shindo, encouraging her to continue. “Today's fight reminds you of a past error?”

“It was unavoidable!” said Tomoe. “Goro and I served the same master, the father of Toshima-no-Shigeno. When the warlord died, it was my sword that killed him. I wanted to commit suicide to atone, but Toshima absolved me of guilt. Goro Maki, however, remained bound by samurai rules to fight me, despite our friendship. He was also bound to obey the warlord's heir, Toshima. To prevent the fight, she commanded Goro to leave and become a monk, forsaking all samurai privileges. She then made me her chief vassal. To other people, this is old history. To me, it is sometimes as clear as this morning's events. No one has seen Goro Maki since that terrible situation. I would like to know he bears me no animosity. It's hard to lose friends.”

“There are many stories like that one among the yamahoshi,” said Shindo. “My own instructor might have been a famous samurai, but circumstances drove him to cloister. He will never talk of it. My own history is less extreme, yet I might have been the priest of an important shrine but for family disputes. I volunteered for something with less prestige because I was least proud, and it ended jealousies. It was frightening at first, going to the yamahoshi monastery. I'd been told they were bitter men, for it is true that the Way of the Warrior is complex and arbitrary enough to cause many warriors to choose either
harakiri
or retiremen, through no cause of their own. Since then, I've grown fond of the yamahoshi. They are as honorable as famous men! They obey no government but their own. They practice martial skills by challenging demons such as
oni
and
tengu.
They banish evil with their swords but ask no thanks or fame. Because they understand the importance of attending supernatural events, my instructor quickly said, ‘Go!' when I begged leave to avenge Okio. I'll return to the mountain after this commission and not leave again until I'm a strong warrior-monk.”

“I would like to see you then,” said Tomoe, “with your whiskers and long hair.”

“It will hide my ugly face!” said Shindo happily.

“Not so ugly,” said Tomoe. She was at ease for the first time that day. “It's a face of large character.”

Shindo looked pleased.

The brown duck sleeping in the reeds was disturbed. She made frightened noises and burst from cover, flapping into the sky. Shindo stood up immediately and took a stout posture.

“Evil spirit!” cried Shindo. He struck the ground with the bottom of his staff, and the three rings at the top jangled. “Back to the mountains with you!”

Tomoe stood and looked in the direction of the reeds. She did not see anything, but realized something was amiss since it had been quiet for so long. Shindo struck the ground again. The sound of the rings was meant to frighten devils and ghosts away.

“How do you know what it is?” asked Tomoe.

“A yamahoshi knows!” he said. “Even a novice like me. Look!” He pointed with his staff. For a split second, the moon shone on the face of a hideously ugly, brilliant red oni.

“Oni devil!” said Tomoe; but the specter slunk out of sight too fast for her to be certain.

“You know them, too,” said Shindo.

“I have fought them in the past,” said Tomoe. “They are fierce with weapons, but cannot speak.”

Shindo struck the ground again. Something besides an oni devil appeared on the pond's opposite bank. It was a woman dressed in red and wearing a large hat with veil and bells attached. The woman spoke, and her voice carried across the water in an eerie way:

“You are mistaken, bonze. If I were an oni, how could I speak to you so easily?”

The bonze struck the ground with his staff once more. The woman did not quail, reaffirming that she was not a devil disguised. She nodded her head to make the bells of her hat jingle, returning the bonze's insult. She said,

“You are a novice after all, unable to tell a sorceress from a devil. But you must be sensitive to recognize my occult aura.” The woman raised her walking staff above her head as she added, “I would like to match my staff to yours. We will see whose understanding of occult matters is better.”

Shindo looked serious. He said, “The yamahoshi banish evil magic! We do not fight with spells, but with martial skill!”

The woman laughed, and the laugh was devilish indeed. She set foot on the surface of the pond and did not sink. She began to walk toward Tomoe and the bonze. Her gait was broken and surreal, for one of her legs had once been broken and healed crookedly. Tomoe reached for her sword, but the bonze said, “Leave it to me!” He waded into the pond to meet the sorceress, but the waves from his legs made the woman vanish from the pond. Tomoe gasped. She said,

“How is it possible!”

“The sorceress was not really here,” said Shindo, wading back to the flat dock and climbing out of the water. The hem of his robe dripped around his bare feet. “That was her soul wandering from the body. Most people's souls wander now and then, while dreaming. When the dreamer wakes, there is rarely memory of the events. The sorceress probably won't recall having visited you and me. But it worries me. When someone of occult learning has so little control over her soul, it usually means trouble for everyone.”

“Then I must do something tonight!” said Tomoe. “Or she might interfere with our vengeance tomorrow.”

“What can you do?”

“I saw her earlier today. She's a fortuneteller in one of the low districts. I'll find her and wake her up!” Tomoe started toward the garden gates. If Shindo wanted to dissuade her, he disuaded himself from saying so. He said,

“Be careful, Tomoe.”

The nearly deserted street appeared somehow askew, as though hinged from the stars at a slight angle. A few candles were still lit inside paper lanterns hanging outside the doors of late-night establishments. A fat woman came out of a sake house, a dirty towel tucked in her obi. She looked up and down the street, her eyes narrow and expectant. Then she took down the lantern, collapsed it, and blew out the flame. Tomoe stepped out of the night and said, “The fortuneteller who wears red. Where does she live?”

The fat woman glared at Tomoe with a blank expression: no fear, no surprise, no concern. Smoke trailed up from the extinguished candle in her collapsed lantern. Slowly, as though dreaming, the woman raised a large hand and pointed with pudgy fingers. Tomoe said, “Thank you,” and strode on down the street.

She stopped outside the door of an inn which the fat woman had indicated. Its light was already taken inside; the door was bolted from within. Tomoe slapped the door with the flat of her hand. After a while, a sleepy voice called, “It's all sold out!” which meant his inn was closed.

Tomoe said, “Think well of me,” a formal phrase, “and slide your door aside.”

She heard grumbling, but the door was unbolted. The innkeeper was a small man who hunched down even smaller. He looked out from his establishment cautiously, but he wasn't measuring Tomoe; he was looking elsewhere on the street, as though afraid a horde of monsters might take advantage and come running in behind her. Dim candlelight shone from inside, behind the little man's back.

“There are no ghosts with me,” said Tomoe, hoping to discourage his apparent fears. He let her enter. She left her
zori
sandals on the ground inside the door, then climbed onto the polished, elevated wooden floor. Tomoe said, “I need to see the woman who hides her face.”

The innkeeper stepped back from Tomoe, looking as though he regretted opening the door for her. He said, “What fortunes she tells bode ill! You do not want to see that one. There are better fortunetellers in Isso—famous ones.”

“I don't seek my fortune told,” said Tomoe. “I come to tell her hers.”

The innkeeper slapped himself on the cheek and looked even more upset. “No trouble in my inn tonight, please!” he pleaded. “It's always trouble where that one's concerned. I'd evict her but for my fright.”

Tomoe moved closer to the fellow. He cowered as she neared. “What kind of trouble does she cause?” the samurai asked.

“She talks to devils!” he said, whispering as to a confidante. “When you slapped the door, I was afraid it was her pet, a red colored oni who follows her around.”

There was a strange look in the man's eyes. It caused Tomoe to say, “You're too dream-sotted to answer doors. You're too free with information about your tenants.”

The little man was insulted, then suspicious. He said, “Perhaps you're the oni after all, disguised as a samurai.”

“Perhaps I am,” said Tomoe. The innkeeper squeaked like a mouse and hopped away. Tomoe raised her chin and looked up the staircase. She asked, “Which is her room?” He told her at once, then ducked backward into a side room and bolted himself in.

Tomoe removed an “S” shaped candlestick holder from the top of a doorframe and carried the light with her up the steps. Strangely, the candle barely penetrated the darkness of the stairwell. Tomoe felt momentarily disoriented, but caught her balance before slipping down. At the top of the stairs, she lurched forward as though forcing herself through something invisible but strong. When she tried to slide the occultist's door aside, she discovered it would move only a finger's width. The door was tied shut with red yarn. She stuck the sharp, upper part of the “S” candlestick holder into the lintel and peered into the room through the door's narrow crack.

Shadows seemed to dance within; but when Tomoe blinked and cleared her vision, there was only the shape of a woman lying on a futon rolled out on the floor. Without the slightest sound, Tomoe drew her shortsword, cut the string, sheathed the weapon, and slid the door aside. She stepped into the room.

The sense of disorientation which she had experienced on the seemingly tilted street and again while coming up the staircase was far stronger in the room. Everything felt slightly awry, although a quick glance revealed nothing overtly amiss. The trouble was as subtle as a dream's reality; everything seemed proper although nothing really was.

The woman lying on the floor jerked awake and sat up abruptly. The dreaminess of the room was instantly dispelled. Tomoe, too, felt suddenly wakened. The fortuneteller, sitting cross-legged on the futon, faced the other direction. She did not turn around, but said, “Have you come to see your future after all, samurai?”

Tomoe had left the sliding door open and the candle at the top of the doorframe. The candle's light cast appalling dark shapes up the wall and out the window. Moonlight shone into the room and cast opposing shadows. The fortuneteller, therefore, had two shadows: one from the moon, faint and long; the other from the candle, sharp and hunched down. Although the double-shadow was explicable, Tomoe was unsettled by it. She said,

BOOK: The Golden Naginata
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