"My mind is made up. Go and meditate! I'll tell Kahei. And then I'll speak to the abbot."
It was already past the time when I usually went to him every morning for two hours of swordsmanship. I hurried to find the Miyoshi brothers, and caught up with them on their way downhill to speak to an armorer.
"Lady Shirakawa?" Kahei said. "Is it safe to go near her?"
"Why do you say that?" I demanded.
"No offense, Takeo, but everyone knows about her. She brings death to men."
"Only if they desire her," Gemba added; then, taking a quick look at my face, he went on, "That's what people say!"
"And they also say that she's so beautiful, it's impossible to look at her without desiring her." Kahei looked gloomy. "You're sending us to certain death."
I was in no mood for their clowning, but their words brought home to me even more how essential it was that we should marry. Kaede had said that she was safe only with me, and I understood why: Only marriage to me would save her from the curse she seemed to be under. I knew that she would never be any danger to me. Other men who desired her had died, but I had joined my body to hers and lived.
I was not going to explain all this to the Miyoshi brothers.
"Bring her to the women's guest rooms as soon as possible," I said shortly. "Make sure none of her men come and also that Kondo Ki-ichi and Muto Shizuka leave today. She will bring one woman with her. Treat them with the utmost courtesy. Tell her I will call on her around the hour of the Monkey."
"Takeo is truly fearless," Gemba muttered.
"Lady Shirakawa is going to be my wife."
That startled them. They saw I was serious and kept their mouths closed. They bowed formally to me and walked silently to the guardhouse, where they collected five or six other men. Once they were beyond the gate, they made a few jokes at my expense, not realizing that I could hear them, about the praying mantis that devours her mate. I thought about going after them to teach them a lesson, but I was already late for the abbot.
Listening to their laughter fade away down the slope, I hurried to the hall where our sessions took place. He was already there, dressed in his priest's robes. I was still in the rough garb I wore on my nighttime wanderings; a sort of adaptation of the Tribe's black uniform: knee-length trousers, leggings, and split-toed boots that did as well for sword fighting as for leaping up walls and running over roofs.
Matsuda did not seem to be at all enc.u.mbered by his long skirts and deep sleeves. I usually finished the sessions out of breath and pouring with sweat. He remained as cool and unruffled as if he had spent those same two hours in prayer.
I knelt before him to apologize for my lateness. He looked me up and down, a quizzical expression on his face, but said nothing, indicating the wooden pole with his head.
I took it from the rack. It was dark in color, almost black, longer than Jato and much heavier. Since I had been practicing daily with it, the muscles in my wrists and arms had increased in strength and flexibility, and I finally seemed to be over the injury to my right hand that Akio had caused me in Inuyama. At first the pole had felt like an obstinate horse, slugging against the bit; little by little I had learned to control it until I could manipulate it as deftly as a pair of eating sticks.
In practice that precision was as necessary as in real combat, for a false move could crack a skull or crush a breastbone. We did not have enough men to risk killing or injuring each other in training.
A wave of tiredness swept over me as I raised the pole into the challenge position. I had barely slept the night before and had not eaten since the evening meal. Then I thought of Kaede, saw her form as I'd seen her earlier, kneeling on the veranda. Energy flowed back into me. I realized in that split second how completely necessary she was to me.
Normally I was no match for Matsuda. But something had transformed me, had taken all the elements of training and melded them into a whole: a tough, indestructible spirit that sprang from the core of my being and flowed into my sword arm. For the first time I realized I was forty years younger than Matsuda. I saw his age and his vulnerability. I saw I had him at my mercy.
I checked my attack and let the pole drop. In that instance his staff found the unguarded s.p.a.ce, catching me on the side of the neck with a blow that left me dizzy. Luckily he had not struck with full force.
His normally serene eyes were blazing with genuine anger.
"That's to teach you a lesson," he growled. "First, not to be late and, second, not to let your softness of heart emerge while you're fighting."
I opened my mouth to speak but he cut me off. "Don't argue. You give me the first inkling I'm not wasting my time with you and then you throw it away. Why? Not because you felt pity for me, I hope?"
I shook my head.
He sighed. "You can't fool me. I saw it in your eyes. I saw the boy who came here last year and was moved by Sesshu. Is that what you want to be? An artist? I told you then that you could come back here and study and draw. Is that what you want?"
I was disinclined to answer but he waited until I did. "A part of me might want it, but not yet. First I have to carry out Shigeru's commands."
"Are you sure of that? Will you commit yourself to it with a whole heart?"
I heard the utter seriousness of his tone and answered in the same way. "Yes, I will."
"You will be leading many men, some to their death. Are you sure enough of yourself to do that? If you have any weakness, Takeo, it is this: You feel too much pity. A warrior needs more than a dash of ruthlessness, of black blood. Many will die following you, and you will kill many yourself. Once you launch yourself on this path, you must pursue it to the end. You cannot check your attack or drop your guard because you feel pity for your opponent."
I could feel the color mounting to my face. "I will not do it again. I did not mean to insult you. Forgive me."
"I'll forgive you if you can achieve that move again and follow it through!"
He took up the challenge position, his eyes fixed on mine. I had no qualms about meeting his gaze: He had never succ.u.mbed to the Kikuta sleep, and I had never tried to impose it on him. Nor did I ever intentionally use invisibility or the second self with him, though sometimes, in the heat of combat, I felt my image begin to slide away.
His staff moved like lightning through the air. I stopped thinking then about anything except the opponent in front of me and the thrust of the pole, the floor beneath our feet, the s.p.a.ce around us that we filled almost like a dance. And twice more I came to the same point where I saw my dominance over him, and neither time did I fail to follow the move through.
When we had finished, even Matsuda was glowing slightly, perhaps due to the spring weather. As we were wiping the sweat from our faces with towels Norio brought, he said, "I did not think you would ever make a swordsman, but you have done better than I expected. When you concentrate you are not bad, not bad at all."
I was speechless at such high praise. He laughed. "Don't let it go to your head. I'll meet you again later this afternoon. I hope you have prepared your study on strategy."
"Yes, sir. But there is something else I need to talk to you about."
"Something to do with Lady Shirakawa?"
"How did you know?"
"I'd already heard that she was on her way to visit the temple. Arrangements have been made for her to stay in the women's guest house. It is a great honor for us. I will go and see her later today."
It all sounded like casual chat about an ordinary guest, but I knew Matsuda well enough by now: He did nothing casually. I was afraid he would have the same misgivings about my marriage to Kaede that Makoto had voiced, but I had to tell him my intentions sooner or later. All this flashed through my head in an instant, and then it occurred to me that if I should seek anyone's permission, it should be his.
I fell to my knees and said, "I wish to marry Lady Shirakawa. May I have your permission and may the ceremony be held here?"
"Is that the reason she came here? Does she come with the permission of her family and clan?"
"No, she came for a different purpose: to give thanks for recovering from an illness. But it was one of Lord Shigeru's last commands to me that I should marry her, and now fate seems to have brought her here to me..." I heard a note of pleading in my voice.
The abbot heard it too. Smiling, he said, "The problem is not going to be on your side, Takeo. For you it is the right thing to do. But for her to marry without approval from her clan, from Lord Arai... Be patient, seek his permission. He was in favor of the marriage last year. There's every reason to think he still will be."
"I may be murdered at any moment!" I exclaimed. "I have no time to be patient! And there is someone else who wishes to marry her."
"Are they betrothed?"
"There is nothing official. But apparently he has expectations of the marriage taking place. He is a n.o.bleman; his estate lies alongside hers."
"Fujiwara," Matsuda said.
"You know him?"
"I know who he is. Everyone does, apart from half-literates like you. It's a very suitable alliance. The estates will be joined, Fujiwara's son will inherit them both, and more important, since Fujiwara will almost certainly return to the capital soon, Arai will have a friend at court."
"Arai will not, because she will not marry Fujiwara. She will marry me, and before the end of the week!"
"Between them they will crush you." His eyes were fixed on my face.
"Not if Arai thinks I can help him destroy the Tribe. And when we marry we will move at once to Maruyama. Lady Shirakawa is the legal heir to that domain as well as to her father's. It will give me the resources I need to challenge the Otori."
"As a strategy, it's not bad," he said. "But there are grave risks: You could completely antagonize Arai. I'd thought it better for you to serve under him for a while and learn the art of war. And you do not want to make an enemy of a man like Fujiwara. This move, for all its boldness, could destroy your hopes utterly. I don't want to see that happen. I want to see all of Shigeru's desires fulfilled. Is it worth the gamble?"
"Nothing will prevent me from marrying her," I said in a low voice.
"You are infatuated with her. Don't let that affect your judgment."
"It's more than infatuation: She is my life and I am hers."
He sighed. "We all think that at some age about some woman or other. Believe me, it doesn't last."
"Lord Shigeru and Lady Maruyama loved each other deeply for years," I dared to say.
"Yes, well, it must be some madness in the Otori blood," he retorted, but his expression had softened and his eyes took on a musing look.
"It's true," he said finally. "Their love did last. And it illuminated all their plans and hopes. If they had married, and brought about the alliance they dreamed of between the Middle Country and the West, who knows what they might not have achieved?" He reached down and patted me on the shoulder. "It's as if their spirits have brought about a second chance in you and Lady Shirakawa. And I can't deny it: To make Maruyama your base makes a great deal of sense. For that reason, as much as for the sake of the dead, I will agree to this marriage. You may start making the necessary preparations."
"I've never been to this sort of wedding," I confessed after I had bowed to the ground in grat.i.tude. "What needs to be done?"
"The woman that came with her will know. Ask her. I hope I haven't reached my dotage," he added before dismissing me.
It was nearly time for the midday meal. I went to wash and change my clothes. I dressed with care, putting on another of the silk robes with the Otori crest on the back that had been given to me when I arrived at Terayama after my journey through the snow. I ate distractedly, hardly tasting the food, listening all the time for her arrival.
Finally I heard Kahei's voice outside the eating hall. I called to him and he came in to join me.
"Lady Shirakawa is at the women's guest rooms," he said. "Fifty more men have come from Hagi. We'll billet them in the village. Gemba is arranging it."
"I'll see them tonight," I said, my heart lifting from both pieces of news. I left him eating and went back to my room, where I knelt at the writing table and took out the scrolls the abbot had told me to read.
I thought I would die of impatience before I saw Kaede again, but gradually I became absorbed in the art of war: the accounts of battles won and lost, strategy and tactics, the roles played by heaven and earth. The problem he had set me was how to take the town of Yam-agata. It had been a theoretical problem, no more; Yamagata was still under the control of Arai through his interim governor, though there had been reports that the Otori planned to retake their former city and were a.s.sembling an army on their southern border nearTsuwano. Matsuda had intended to approach Arai on my behalf and make peace between us, whereupon I would serve Arai while pursuing the Otori inheritance. However, I was now acutely aware that if I risked inciting Arai's enmity anew by marrying Kaede I might very well need to take Yamagata at once. It added a certain sense of reality to my studies of strategy.
I knew the town so well: I'd explored every street; I'd climbed into the castle. And I knew the terrain around it, its mountains, valleys, hills, and rivers. My main difficulty was having so few men at my command, a thousand at most. Yamagata was a prosperous town, but the winter had been hard on everyone. If I attacked in early spring, could the castle withstand a long siege? Would diplomacy bring about a surrender where force would not? What advantages did I have over the defenders?
While I was brooding over these problems, my thoughts turned to the outcast, Jo-An. I had said I would send for him in the spring, but I was still not sure I wanted to. I could never forget the hungry, pa.s.sionate look in his eyes, in the eyes of the boatman and the other outcasts. "He's your man now," Jo-An had said of the boatman. "We all are." Could I add outcasts to my army, or the farmers who came daily to pray and make offerings at Shigeru's grave? I had no doubt that I could count on these men if I wanted them. But was this what the warrior cla.s.s did? I had never read of battles where farmers fought. Usually they stayed well clear of the combat, hating both sides equally and afterward stripping the dead impartially.
As it often did, the face of the farmer I had murdered in his secret field in the hills behind Matsue floated before my mind's eye. I heard his voice call again, "Lord Shigeru!" As much as anything else, I wanted to lay his ghost to rest. But he also brought into my mind the courage and determination of his fellows, resources that at the moment were wasted. If I used them, would he stop haunting me?
The farmers in the Otori lands, both in the existing ones around Hagi and those that had been ceded to the Tohan-Yamagata included-had loved Shigeru. They had already risen in fury after his death. I believed they would also support me, but I feared using them would weaken the loyalty of my warriors.
Back to the theoretical problem of Yamagata: If I could get rid of the interim lieutenant Arai had placed in the castle, there was a much greater chance of the city surrendering without a long siege. What I needed was an a.s.sa.s.sin I could trust. The Tribe had admitted I was the only person who could have climbed alone into Yamagata Castle, but it did not seem like a good scheme for the commander-in-chief to undertake. My thoughts began to drift a little, reminding me I'd hardly slept the night before. I wondered if I could train young boys and girls in the way the Tribe trained them. They might not have innate skills, but there was much that was simply a matter of teaching. I could see all the advantages of a network of spies. Might there not be some disaffected Tribe members who could be persuaded to serve me? I put the thought away for the time being, but it was to return to me later. As the day warmed up, time slowed even more. Flies, having woken from their winter sleep, were buzzing against the screens. I heard the first bush warbler calling from the forest, the glide of the swallows' wings and the snap of their beaks as they took insects. The sounds of the temple murmured around me: the tread of feet, the swish of robes, the rise and fall of chanting, the sudden clear note of a bell.
A light breeze was blowing from the south, full of the fragrance of spring. Within a week Kaede and I would be married. Life seemed to rise around me, embracing me with its vigor and energy. Yet, I was kneeling here, rapt in the study of war.
And when Kaede and I met that evening, we did not talk of love but of strategy. We had no need to talk of love; we were to be married, we were to become husband and wife. But if we were to live long enough to have children, we needed to act swiftly to consolidate our power.
I had been right in my instinct, when Makoto first told me that she was raising an army, that Kaede would make a formidable ally. She agreed with me that we should go straight to Maruyama; she told me of her meeting with Sugita Haruki in the autumn. He was waiting to hear from her, and she suggested sending some of her men to the domain to let him know of our intentions. I agreed, and thought the younger of the Miyoshi brothers, Gemba, might go with them. We sent no messages to Inuyama: The less Arai knew of our plans, the better.
"Shizuka said our marriage will enrage him," Kaede said.
I knew it probably would. We should have known better. We should have been patient. Perhaps if we had approached Arai through the proper channels, through Gemba and Kahei's aunt or through Matsuda or Sugita, he would have decided in our favor. But we were both seized by a desperate sense of urgency, knowing how short our lives might be. And so we were married a few days later, before the shrine, in the shadow of the trees that surrounded Shigeru's grave, in accordance with his will but in defiance of all the rules of our cla.s.s. I suppose I might say in our defense that neither of us had had a typical upbringing. We had both escaped, for different reasons, the rigid training in obedience of most warriors' children. It gave us freedom to act as we pleased, but the elders of our cla.s.s were to make us pay for it.
The weather continued warm under the south wind. On our wedding day the cherry blossoms were fully open, a ma.s.s of pink and white. Kaede's men had now been allowed to join mine and the highest-ranking warrior among them, AmanoTenzo, spoke for her and on behalf of the Shirakawa clan. When Kaede was led forward by the shrine maiden, in the red and white robes Manami had somehow managed to find for her, she looked beautiful in a timeless way, as if she were a sacred being. I spoke my name as Otori Takeo and named Shigeru and the Otori clan as my ancestors. We exchanged the ritual cups of wine, three times thrice, and as the sacred branches were offered, a sudden gust of wind sent a snowstorm of petals down on us.
It might have seemed a chilly omen, but that night after the feasting and the celebrations, when we were finally alone together, we had no thoughts of omens. In Inuyama we had made love in a sort of wild desperation, expecting to die before morning. But now, in the safety of Terayama, we had time to explore each other's bodies, to give and take pleasure slowly. And besides, since then Yuki had taught me something of the art of love.
We talked about our lives since we had been separated, especially about the child. We thought about its soul, launched again into the cycle of birth and death, and prayed for it. I told Kaede about my visit to Hagi and my flight through the snow. I did not tell her about Yuki, and she kept secrets from me, for though she told me a little about Lord Fujiwara, she did not go into details as to the pact they had made. I knew he had given her large amounts of money and food, and it worried me, for it made me think his views on the marriage were more fixed than hers. I felt a slight chill in my spine that may have been a premonition, but I put the thought away, for I wanted nothing to spoil my joy.
I woke toward dawn to find her sleeping in my arms. Her skin was white, silky to my touch, both warm and cool at the same time. Her hair, so long and thick it covered us both like a shawl, smelled of jasmine. I had thought her like the flower on the high mountain, completely beyond my reach, but she was here, she was mine. The world stood still in the silent night as the realization sank in. The backs of my eyes stung as tears came. Heaven was benign. The G.o.ds loved me. They had given me Kaede.
For a few days heaven continued to smile on us, giving us gentle spring weather, every day sunny. Everyone at the temple seemed happy for us-from Manami, who beamed with delight when she brought us tea the first morning, to the abbot, who resumed my lessons, teasing me unmercifully if he caught me yawning. Scores of people made the climb up the mountain to bring gifts and wish us well, just as the village people would have done in Mino.
Only Makoto sounded a different note. "Make the most of your happiness," he said to me. "I am happy for you, believe me, but I fear it will not last."
I already knew this: I had learned it from Shigeru. "Death comes suddenly and life is fragile and brief," he had told me the day after he had saved my life in Mino. "No one can alter this either by prayers or spells." It was the fragility of life that made it so precious. Our happiness was all the more intense for our awareness of how fleeting it might be.
The cherry blossoms were already falling, the days lengthening as the season turned. The winter of preparation was over: Spring was giving way to summer, and summer was the season of war. Five battles lay ahead of us, four to win and one to lose.
I would like to thank the Asialink Foundation and all my friends in j.a.pan and Australia who have helped me in researching and writing Tales of the Otori.
In Gra.s.s for His Pillow Gra.s.s for His Pillow I particular want to thank Ms. Sugiyama Kazuko for her calligraphy and Simon Higgins for his advice on martial arts. I particular want to thank Ms. Sugiyama Kazuko for her calligraphy and Simon Higgins for his advice on martial arts.
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