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Authors: Jessica Amanda Salmonson

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BOOK: The Golden Naginata
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“Explain yourself to me or I'll behead you without reservation. I think you are a danger to an important mission.”

A wind blew from the window and the candle went out in the hall. A cloud passed before the moon. Tomoe's sword was out of the sheath at once, prepared to decapitate this woman of sorcery. But something had crawled into the open window, and it bore a sword. In the darkness, Tomoe was a shadow herself, and one shadow fought another. She sensed that her opponent was far weaker; but whatever the thing was that was fighting her, it could apparently see without light. It's better vision weighted the battle more evenly.

“Stop it,” said the woman who had not moved from the futon. The specter ceased fighting. “Leave at once,” she said; and the specter slunk out the window. Tomoe saw its outline for the shortest moment: a horned oni devil. She remembered seeing it before, across the garden's pond earlier that evening. The sorceress sat very still and said to Tomoe, “Forgive my friend's protectiveness. Despite what you have witnessed, please think well of me and sit down.”

Tomoe sat.

The sorceress reached toward her straw hat, which lay beside her walking staff near the futon mattress. As she donned the hat, she said, “Also pardon my eccentricity.” The veil attached to the front of the hat hid her face before she turned toward the window and faced Tomoe. The cloud parted from the moon, lighting the room and the sorceress.

“Do you know that you are dangerous when you sleep?” asked Tomoe. “Your soul threatened a bonze halfway across the city. Also, everyone I passed in this district was affected by your slumber.”

“I do recall a dream,” said the woman behind the veil. “In it, I went searching for a friend, a woman I knew long ago. I found her with a yamahoshi who had a long beard and wild hair and ticks. He told me that he was adverse to magic, but I knew he was a sorcerer. I rushed forth and killed him with my walking staff! Only, when his corpse had fallen, I saw that somehow I had killed my friend by accident.”

“That is an interesting dream,” said Tomoe. “You went looking for a friend and found me. You wanted to kill a yamahoshi priest, but threatened a novice instead. Fortunately, the part about the killing has no counterpart in the waking world.”

“Perhaps that part of the dream is in the future,” said the fortuneteller.

Tomoe said, “If that is so, then it is good I've come to kill you.”

“If I were killed, the oni would be upset.”

“I don't fear devils. I've fought stronger ones than yours.”

“I did not mean you should be afraid. You should feel sorry for the oni's sadness if I die.” The sorceress took up a flat dish containing leaves from the
tree, a tree associated with magic. She indicated a teapot full of water which was within Tomoe's reach. “If you would grant a final wish before I'm killed,” said the sorceress, “let me tell your fortune. Pour water onto the kaji leaves and I will hold the saucer up so that stars reflect on the water. By the placement of the leaves and the stars, I can see your life tomorrow.”

“I don't believe in destiny,” said Tomoe. “There is only now.”

“That may be so,” said the occultist. “But ‘now' has no beginning and no end. Those of us with vision can see other parts of ‘now.' Unless you are afraid, grant my final wish and pour from the pot.”

Tomoe did so. Then the occultist held the saucer of leaves and water up to reflect starlight. Tomoe sat between the woman and the window. Stars reflected in the fortuneteller's eyes, which were all that showed of her face.

“The stars reflect red in this saucer,” she began. “That is unusual. It means you will fight many kinds of devils, human and not.”

“I like adventure,” Tomoe jibed, then added sardonically, “And will I fight an oni?”

“The stars suggest redder devils than my oni.”

“You, too, are clad in red.”

The occultist refused to be ruffled by Tomoe's failure to take the reading seriously. She concentrated on the dish of reflected stars and continued, “Blood is your nemesis. Red death. There is only one white star in the saucer, and it must be yourself; although you might be a red star, too, and the white one is someone else. A red star and white star stand together. Red stars surround these two, as though to attack. Wait! What was that? A momentary streak! The falling star was blue! I don't know what it means.”

Tomoe found herself unable to make more snide comments. The blue falling star was undoubtedly the tengu, of which the occultist could know nothing by ordinary means.

“The placement of the leaves is more interesting,” she said, her voice suddenly oily and sweet. “I see romance. I see marriage. I see a round-faced child …”

Tomoe slapped the dish from the woman's hand. It was the sort of fortune sold cheaply to romantic girls at Star Festival every year. To have her attention gained only for an insult enraged Tomoe! She had died to her family and would never have a family of her own; of this, she was certain. Painful anger caused her to draw her sword and cut toward the woman's face. The veil was clipped off. The fortuneteller turned halfway around so that Tomoe could not see her … but Tomoe saw the face clearly in the moon's silver light.

The fortuneteller was beautiful.

the nun!” said Tomoe. She scooted closer, all anger cast away, looking intense and concerned. “You're Tsuki Izutsu! Once you tried to convert me to Zen. I thought you'd been killed long ago!”

The woman's profile was turned down, frowning. She said, “You have unveiled my face, but not my identity. I don't remember the name Tsuki Izutsu. If you must have a name for me, call me Naruka.”

Naruka was a kind of monster that lived near the bottom of the Land of Gloom and was never seen in the living world. It was not a good name for a woman, not even if she worshipped Oh-kuni-nushi, God of sorcery. Tomoe would not consider the name appropriate. Tsuki Izutsu had been only kind! Tomoe said,

“You must recall!” She scooted nearer. “We fought side by side! You were good at
, fighting with your staff! We battled seven oni devils of various colors! When you were injured, I thought you died; but one of the oni carried off your corpse. It was the red oni! Why did it save your life? Why does it stay close to you now?”

“I remember nothing of the sort!” The occultist was insistent, almost hysterically so.

“They were mountain oni although we fought them in the lowland swamps. The one who saved you must have carried your broken body to the mountain priests to be healed.”

“I despise the yamahoshi!” said Tsuki-
-Naruka. She turned her face toward Tomoe. Hate filled the woman's eyes. Tomoe gasped; for, lit plainly by the moon, she saw that half the woman's face was scarred and ugly. The cheekbone was caved in. One nostril had been torn larger. The corner of her mouth was drawn down. She spoke venomously: “You recoil from my visage? Good! Yes, I remember the yamahoshi ‘saving' my life! They had me brought back from Emma's hell, sending that foul, devoted oni after my soul! I would rather have been left dead. Of Tsuki Izutsu, there is nothing left, if that was ever my name.”

The occultist snatched up her staff and began to stand. “You think I am some friend from your past?” she asked in exclamation. “I am your worst possible enemy! Did you not wonder how the young warrior Azo Hono-o found you in Isso, where you had come in secret? It was my sorcery which planted the idea of coming here, though she herself thought it intuition. You believe you could defeat her easily, but I do not think you can. She is like a younger, more impetuous Tomoe. To kill her would be
; it would be killing yourself. I think you will let her win!”

Tomoe whispered, “Why have you this grudge?”

Tsuki-cum-Naruka looked confused by the quiet question, then replied hotly, “I need no grudge! I am the evil Naruka and desire to do mischief only!”

“Someone makes you,” said Tomoe. “Someone who is a greater magician than you. I would suspect the giant who was the enemy of the swordsmith Okio, but Uchida Ieoshi is no sorcerer. Therefore my enemy is unknown to me. Will you tell me?”

The occultist looked still more confused, the ugly side of her face contorting madly. She exclaimed, “I am your enemy! Your only one! You need suspect no other!”

For the first time Tomoe spoke loudly, “That is not your voice!”

“If you fail to kill me now,” said the occultist, “then I will kill you later!” Saying this, she moved toward the samurai. Tomoe started for her sword, but could not move her hand against Tsuki Izutsu, no matter how cruel the woman had become. Despite the crooked leg, the woman leapt over Tomoe's head and out the window. Tomoe whirled around and saw her one-time friend hobbling across the lower roof. Then she jumped onto the street. She ran brokenly into the night. Behind her, the red oni followed like a faithful dog.

In the morning, Tomoe awoke, momentarily wondering where she was. She had spent the night in the fortune teller's abandoned room. The innkeeper came up the stairs and looked into the room, for the door had been open all night. Tomoe said,

“The occultist has run away. I doubt that she or her oni will return.”

The little man looked doubtful, then hopeful, then gleeful. He jumped in the air and whooped happily. “A reward!” he exclaimed. “Let me show my gratitude by making you a meal and pouring you saké!”

Tomoe nodded. “Don't bring it to this room. I will eat on the main floor with your other guests.” The innkeeper scurried away, singing a gay folk song as he went. Tomoe closed the door for privacy. She squatted on the
to relieve herself. She found a bowl and poured water into it so she could splash her face. She cleansed her ears and teeth. She groomed her hair with a comb kept in a small kit in her sleeve. The most difficult undertaking was to remove the wrinkles from her hakama, for she had unfortunately fallen asleep before taking them off. She removed the baggy trousers and laid them flat on the floor to press the pleats with her fingers; then she put her legs back into the garment and retied the straps around her waist, making a fine bow in front.

In all these morning practices, she took her time and tried to be relaxed. Thoughts of Tsuki Izutsu the gentle nun changing her name and occupation to something more devilish interfered with Tomoe's sense of calm.

Other tenants were already gathering on the main floor of the inn. Tomoe joined them, descending the stairwell with her sheathed shortsword through her hakama straps and obi, and her longsword and straw hat carried in one hand. There were a few flat pillows for kneeling, but not enough to go around. Tomoe chose not to use one. She knelt upon the polished floor, aloof from the motley group around her.

The fleet-footed innkeeper brought individual trays of food for everyone, and a special gold-leafed tray for Tomoe in particular. Her presence dampened the group, for her neatness caused the others to try to be as mannerly about eating. She was not the only samurai in the room, however: there was a young samurai sitting apart from everyone else, with an even younger girl in his company. The girl was too shy to be a geisha or even a geisha's attendant. Her hair was covered with a peasant's towel; Tomoe suspected the girl was hiding the fact that there was very little hair under that towel. Most likely she served a nearby temple, which was why her hair was short, but she had run away for wont of romance. It was a common story. And the fate of such girls was generally sad. The young samurai was dressed for travel and, though he might have been sincere in meeting her during Star Festival, he obviously could not legitimize any relationship. A month later, the girl would almost certainly be a geisha's attendant, learning a more harrowing trade than temple chores.

Tomoe noted these things without attempting to judge.

When the samurai raised his face in her direction, Tomoe's muscles tensed. She recognized him, though they'd never met previously. His name was Ryoichi Nomoto. His name and his face were one of the ten burnt into her memory by the ghost of the Imperial Swordsmith.

For the barest moment, the two samurai met eye to eye. The youth looked away first, disturbed.

The innkeeper hurried back into the room with a bottle of freshly warmed saké. “A present!” he said. “It is the best I have, and not too bad—the least I can offer you for seeing an end to my poor inn's troubles!”

The young samurai and his girlfriend were moving toward the end of the elevated floor to get their shoes. Tomoe had only tasted her meal which the innkeeper had made special. She pushed the tray aside and let the innkeeper pour her a tiny cup of saké, which she drank. She held the cup out to be refilled. As he poured the second cup, Tomoe whispered, “Because I appreciate your hospitality, I must leave quickly before blood is spilled on this clean floor.”

The little man frowned and quaked. He looked around his shoulder and spied the young couple moving slyly toward the exit. He scooted out of Tomoe's way while she drank the second cup of saké. After she shook out the empty cup and set it aside, she nodded a brisk appreciation to the innkeeper then stood up. He rushed ahead of her so that he could place her sandals on the step.

As she went out after the departing pair, Tomoe pulled the longsword and scabbard into place in her obi, and tied her hat so that it hung on her back. The street was damp from a brief rain during the night, but already the sky was clear and the morning pleasantly warm. Most of the people of the district were not yet out, since so many had been up late with celebrations.

The young samurai looked back with eyes large. He pulled the girl after him, hurrying toward a small, enclosed shrine where it would be a sin for Tomoe to shed his blood. The youth's fondness for the girl hindered his speed; her kimono was tight-fitting and she could not move with long strides. Tomoe overtook the couple without having to hurry.

BOOK: The Golden Naginata
5.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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