The Kuzuryuu shogun has few enemies. In his tacit trust of the Way and the world around him, he dismisses his pages, and retreats from the cold halls into the privacy of his chambers. Lit only by two hooded lanterns and the stars outside on this night of the new moon, the shogun sighs into the darkness. He is old, but not elderly: he is powerful, but not immortal: he is wise, but has not been granted the divinity of the Emperor in Kyoto: he must rely on earthly means to accomplish his goals.
“Reveal yourself,” he says, and the shadows themselves obey.
The shinobi does not speak. He can, surely, but he knows his place and therefore does not. He kneels before the shogun, even his movements silent as a slow chill, and awaits his orders.
“Furukawa begins to suspect,” the shogun says. “He will not be an easy target, but you are equal to the task, aren’t you?”
In response, the shinobi offers up his latest kill: the owl that, until this evening, stood vigil over Furukawa’s home. Its neck has been snapped, and its lolling eyes are the color of the shinobi’s strange left hand: the pallor of death veined with an unholy blue glow, effulgent enough to cast shadows of its own.
“Excellent,” the shogun says. “See to it--”
“Your Excellency,” the intruding page says, at precisely the same time, opening the fusuma unannounced. “Forgive my impertinence, but I have forgotten my--”
“See to him first,” the shogun corrects, without missing a beat.
A breath later, the unfortunate page falls to the floor, in much the same manner as the owl. His neck was no more difficult to snap.
In the morning, the Kuzuryuu shogun will have even fewer enemies.
He knows he’s not the only man who runs, that he’s far from the only soldier in indolence but not idleness. But still, he’s surprised today, when a voice behind him warns, “On your left!”
Sarou bears right, lets the other runner pass. He thinks that this must be a courier on an urgent errand, but no, this man is far too old and too large to be running a message. What little Sarou sees before the runner passes out of sight is a plain grey happi over shoulders as broad as an ox, borne along on powerful bare legs as thick as saplings. But soon enough the rhythm of running overtakes Sarou again, and he pays the stranger little mind.
But again, this time when he’s running in the shadow of Sensouji: the same voice warns him, “On your left!”
Now, Sarou is no pushover when it comes to running. He marched for eight days without tiring with the sashibagumi. In his paging days, he ran from Odawara to Edo in eight hours. Even today, he still bears the sick and injured on his back miles at a time, without flagging. It would be unseemly to brag, but his commanders have all made much of his speed.
And if this mystery had been in the sashibagumi, Sarou would have been out of the job.
So he races. This time, Sarou doesn’t let the runner out of his sight. He chases him through the merchant roads, past the city garrison, out to the very walls of Edo. But the runner is always ahead of him, and when even Sarou’s endurance runs out, he sinks to his knees, panting, on the shore of the bay.
Moments later, when Sarou has finally caught his breathing, someone extends a jug to him. Unthinking, he takes it and drinks, and the cool water is everything he needs. And sure enough, it’s the runner who is being so kind.
“Didn’t mean to drive you off your path,” he says. His smile is like the sunrise, and once Sarou sees his eyes he knows his mistake. Only one man in the Land of the Rising Sun has eyes like blue fire, now that the Kuzuryuu are in power and all of the Red Oni Shimizu’s men are long dead. And Raijou Shin-Taisho has every right to win any race Sarou runs with him.
Sarou hands him back the jug and bows, as long as he’s down here already. “You didn’t, Taisho. It’s on me for chasing what can’t be caught.”
To Sarou’s surprise, Taisho keeps smiling. He tucks the jug away and offers Sarou a hand up. Sarou takes it, unsure of whether to bow or salute. In the end, because he can’t help staring at those unearthly blue eyes, he does neither.
“Do you often run here?” Taisho asks, as if he’s an ordinary man.
Perhaps he is one. Perhaps he was one, if the rumors hold true. Some men are not blessed by the gods from birth. Some attain greatness through hard work and dedication and strife, like all men strive to do. And sometimes those who attain greatness in war cannot see it as greatness when the war is over, and the blinding sheen of purpose and duty has left their eyes clear to see them as slaughter and loss.
Sarou resolves, in that moment, to let Taisho be ordinary. He’s been extraordinary for so long.
“Every morning,” Sarou says. “And after, I serve at Asakusa.”
“At the new shrine? You’re a priest?”
“No. Perhaps someday,” Sarou admits. “Until then, I’m just another soldier finding peace. Sarou’s the name.” It may be impertinent of him to ask, just it’s just as impertinent not to, “You’re welcome to join us as well.” He can’t speak for the others, just guide them, but to have someone as vaunted as Taisho admit that he, too, is unsure of his place in a world without war, might be all the difference for some of the men who seek his counsel.
“I might take you up on that,” Taisho says, in that way that might be more than politeness, might not, but his consideration is worth its weight in gold.
He nevertheless reports in with the others. Takajyuu is on a longstanding mission to--well, Taisho is not precisely certain, perhaps Korea--but Kumo and Dokuro are here, and Furukawa is waiting.
The apartments of the Tate-Ryuu are adjacent the palace grounds, near enough that the Kuzuryuu police’s rounds are easily heard but not easily seen. Furukawa lives above: the receiving chamber is below, and in the courtyard beyond the porch, Furukawa’s retainers train under his ever-watchful eye.
“It is as in war,” Taisho murmurs, thinking aloud.
“We’ve drilled this way in peacetime for years,” Kumo corrects. A paragon among kunoichi, Kumo is silent unless she means not to be, and Taisho never heard her come to his side, but here she is. She is garbed all in black save for the mark of a spider’s bite in red, and her unmasked eyes betray no emotion at all, not even the wry amusement of her tone.
“This stringently?” Taisho asks, eyebrow raised.
Kumo raises her eyebrow in answer, but does not speak.
“He’s coming,” Dokuro warns. It is as eerie as ever to hear him speak without seeing his mouth or his eyes, both hidden behind a bright pearl effigy of a human skull. But when he sinks to one knee and bows his head, Taisho can recall that there is a man beneath the mask, the same as he does with Kumo. Taisho and Kumo kneel as well, and the fusuma parts for Furukawa, then snaps shut behind him.
Something is missing. Not wrong, precisely, but missing, and Taisho scrutinizes for its absence. No, Furukawa is himself, his stance wizened but not weak, command threaded through his entire bearing, Hiruko the pigeon on his shoulder--
--then again, Kou the owl may be out hunting. A great many messages flew this morning, and each one of interest to its interceptor.
“Report,” he says, and Dokuro nods.
“We successfully destroyed the cell of the Shimizu clan’s remnants,” Dokuro says. “No casualties on our side. Four prisoners were turned over to the Kuzuryuu police, fourteen killed in the explosion.”
“Good.” Furukawa crosses his arms. “Any civilians?”
“One servant. I disposed of him.”
Taisho bristles. “That’s news to me.”
“You didn’t have to know,” Dokuro says. “You told me to get into the armory and set the fire, so I did.”
“A civilian, Dokuro.”
“An obstacle to the mission, Taisho. If that holds any importance to you, that is.” Dokuro’s skull mask shows naught, but his tone is haughty, on the verge of impoliteness.
“People are not obstacles,” Taisho says, clenching his fist to quell the strength within. “Soldiers consent to death, and criminals invite it, but no person is an object standing in your way. What was the servant’s name, Dokuro? His family?”
Kumo answers for him, because she would surely know, “Sakichi. I notified his family anonymously and paid them a year of their son’s earnings.”
“You knew too?”
“I took care of it,” Kumo says, evenly.
Taisho shakes his head, grits his teeth. “I will pay my respects later.”
“There is no need--”
“I will pay my respects later,” Taisho repeats, slower.
“No,” Furukawa says. “Don’t draw attention to it. The fewer people who know of our involvement, the better.”
Taisho does not agree. But he does concede, and accepts the next mission. What else would he do? Where else would he go?
He does not even bother lighting a lamp: Taisho’s blue eyes shine in the dark, and like all his other senses, his sight is keen. He finds his futon in the dark and unrolls it, then splashes his face at the basin with water gone cold with the night, removes his armor, and settles in only for sleep to elude him.
Where else would he go? he thinks, as his bright eyes scan the ceiling for a past so clear he need not look at all. The dojo is gone, and Sensei is dead with his secrets: the blue fire within him will keep him hale and strong for decades to come, and Shimizu, who perverted its use, is also many years dead: O-Kata is ill at the Emperor’s court in Kyoto, and while the Tate-Ryuu is her legacy, she serves it no longer. He offered to stay by her side, but she bade him go, live in this world of peace he had a hand in creating. And Baku...
Taisho cannot help but remember that fight, that death which has haunted him every night since, whether he lies asleep or awake, whether the night is temperate or as explosive as his name. Baku. Everyone called Jun that since before he and Taisho even met, before Taisho was Taisho, when they were just Jun and Shin. Baku, an explosion in every duel he fought, from the schoolyard to the battlefield. Baku, who took to the arquebus like no man Taisho has met before or since, and turned even the half-magic Western weapons of the Shimizu against them. Baku, whose life ended in the same red fire as his name, as he fell, burning, from Taisho’s grasp into the dread pits of Osore.
Where would Baku be, in a world without war? Recounting the tales of his exploits in a tavern, perhaps. Or in an honest job. Or at the hand of the Shogun. Perhaps wed, on his pension, advanced out of the street on his might at last. Like Taisho.
Baku would not be so lost as Taisho. And Taisho would not be lost, were they together. But Taisho is alone.
No time for reverie, or even for nightmares: the paper wall of Taisho’s apartment snaps and tears with the body flung through it. Taisho leaps to his feet immediately, grabs his parasol and wields it as a shield. The victim is still alive, groaning, and the silhouette in the damaged wall lunges forward, a monster, a ghost, darkness on darkness.
An enemy ninja. Furukawa, curled on the floor, holds one blood-soaked, blistered hand out as if he could ward off the assassin on his own. Taisho gets between them, blocks the assailant’s kunai with his steel parasol--
--and reels with the force of the blow, like none he has felt since Shimizu.
The assassin’s eyes are as blue as his, nested in the same red sleeplessness.
“Taisho!” Kumo calls from the hallway. “Is the commander alive?”
Taisho is about to answer, but even that breath is space enough for the assassin to attack again, whipping out his left arm to throw a clay grenade. It smashes instantaneously, coats the room in smoke and oil. Taisho can still see, just barely, and the assassin attempts to make his escape.
“Go,” Furukawa wheezes. “We need to know--who sent him.”
Taisho does not have to be told twice. He waits only long enough to ascertain that Kumo is by Furukawa’s side, and breaks off at a run.
The smoke clears, and the city stretches out before him, little glimmers of firelight in the windows and on the streets drowning out too many stars. There, on the rooftop of the public house--there, the assassin is running, a black blur. Taisho leaps up, one bound, and chases him from roof to roof, heedless of the shingles and stones he displaces. He has not had to run so fast in years. He has not fought to keep up with anyone in years. There can only be one truth of this, that there is another like him, another with his eyes--another who has been tainted by the blue fire and now lives with both its blessings and its curses.
Leap after leap, the assassin eludes him, making for the city walls. A good shinobi, then--Kumo or Takajyuu would do the same. Taisho knows to stop him at all costs, and lances his parasol through the air, aim true and arc strong.
The assassin catches it by the point, in his left hand.
For a moment, he is still. A long moment, in which his eyes meet Taisho’s, and hold them with a strength equal to his own. His left hand glows the same, veins of the fire, gleaming out of skin burned and stretched to a deathly pallor.
He snaps the parasol in his grip, and drops it, broken all through, then disappears in a whorl of shadow.
Kumo greets Taisho with only the commander’s ashes and eyepatch. She, in turn, was told as much by the physicians: that he may have survived the burns, but that the very first bullet was never removed. In the dark, and with all the blood, Taisho could not possibly have known the wound for a gunshot. Kumo removes her mask, dons civilian clothes, and prays beside Taisho when he lights incense at Asakusa.
“Where was he hit?” Taisho asks, as they sit on the stairs of the shrine. The city does not know what it has lost. The people, as far as they know, are still at peace, less only a few shingles from their roofs.
“Above his heart,” Kumo says. “Had I not been there to intervene, he would have died instantly.” There is sorrow in her voice, and since her face is bare, Taisho marks hints of anger in the lines around her eyes.
Taisho, respectful, does not remark on what he’s seen beyond her mask. “Did you know the killer?” Shinobi and kunoichi walk in like circles, no matter which village, which school. They have their legends, their ranks, like any soldiers.
“I do,” she says. “We call him the Fuyukaze.”
The Winter Wind.
Kumo tenses, takes a long stilling breath as if she is about to execute a kata. “I faced him once,” she says. “Not long ago. I was on a mission at Gingakuji, protecting one of our agents who had been found out. We were spotted, and I did my utmost to protect him, but out agent was slow. The guards chased us to the end of the temple grounds, and there he was, waiting, with an arquebus.” She peels back the collar of her kimono, to bare an ugly red scar along her neck, the kind that a courtesan or artist would cover with white paint. “He shot over my shoulder and hit the agent between the eyes. I barely escaped with my life.”
Taisho adjusts her collar for her, to calm her with a friendly touch. She covers his hand with her own: not as if to stall him, but to test him, to ask if he truly seeks to comfort her.
“I still don’t know who employs him, only that we do not,” she says, and the matter is closed. “There are many who fear the Tate-Ryuu and the power we hold.”
The people have always feared power. They have every cause. But, “Do they have cause to fear us?”
Even though her mask is not on her face, Kumo’s expression dissipates entirely.
As they make their way out of the temple, several monks bow, but one initiate rises quickly and smiles. “On your right, Taisho.”
He recognizes Sarou immediately and stops to bow in kind. “Sarou. It’s good to see you.”
“I wish it could be in better circumstances,” Sarou agrees. “I am sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Taisho manages a slight smile: Sarou offers no platitudes about the deceased, and asks no questions. “May I introduce--”
Kumo has disappeared, so Taisho cuts the introduction short.
Sarou shakes his head. “If she doesn’t want to talk, I understand. She will grieve in her own way, on her own time, as we all do.”
Sarou nods, and explains: “In the sashibagumi, I served with so many good men. One in particular took me under his wing. His name was Ritatsu. We weren’t a traditional match, too close in age for him to be truly my senior, but all the same.”
Sarou smiles, fond and wistful, and a pang of longing stings Taisho’s heart for the days of him and Baku, the days of Shin and Jun.
“In the last battle before we were disbanded, Ritatsu and I, who still stood, carried the wounded from the field, and saved all we could. But there were mines yet untapped, and traps yet unsprung. The slaughter had already been terrible, but to break the Rules of Engagement like that, to launch an ambush on men who had already surrendered or given their limbs...” He trails off, glances at the heart of the shrine. “He was blown in half by a mine, right beside me.”
Yes, Taisho is already reliving his failure and Baku’s fall into the ravines of Osore. Yes, he has been there: the fire, the pain, the helplessness, for all his strength the helplessness.
“He was one of many,” Sarou says. “One of hundreds. One of a hundred thousand. And you and I are of the hundred thousand survivors, who know not why we are given to survive.”
“I have known Furukawa a long time,” the shogun says, voice heavy with a wistful heartsickness. “Before he was Furukawa, he was Honrin Nissei. His family came to serve the Kuzuryuu when I was but a child. My father’s province conquered the Honrin, but Nissei did not join his parents in honorable suicide. When mine asked him why, he said that there was more to this life than the living of it, and that the learning of it was paramount. Through this great loss he would learn and be reborn. He forsook his name, and took another, and ever since has done all he can to shape this world and guide it toward stability and peace. I will grieve him, and administer the Tate-Ryuu in his honor.”
“Your Excellency is magnanimous,” Taisho says, and bows.
“You are the shield of our nation, Raijou Shin-Taisho,” the shogun adds, a wry smile on his handsome, wise face. “We cannot have the Tate-Ryuu without you, surely.”
“Perhaps,” Taisho says. “Permit me time to mourn him as well, and I will give you my answer.”
“Let it be so,” the shogun says, and inclines in a polite, dismissing bow. Taisho takes his leave of the palace, and emerges onto the streets of Edo.
The day is clear, and the sun is high: before the Kuzuryuu compound, hawkers tout their wares, hoping to catch a discerning eye. The street is crowded, its morning cleanliness ebbed away by constant traffic, rickshaws and pedestrians and horsemen on patrol. It is congested, so much so that Taisho can barely work his way through the crowd, but the city is bustling and happy. Peace. These are the trappings of peace.
No. These are the trappings of a world that knows not what villains still prowl it.
With the eagle’s sense of his blue fire eyes, Taisho knows he is being watched. Watched is perhaps too light for it: the feeling of being ogled, a curiosity for his stature and his mien, is not this feeling, and nor is it the adulation of those who call him a paragon and see a soldier, a hero.
Targeted is the word.
Even if it were not for the crush of civilians surrounding him, Taisho would not run. He keeps his slow pace, aligns with the thrust of traffic. There is no cause to alarm the people, he thinks. They have had enough of war.
But no: if the war yet continues, is it not better for them to know?
Taisho looks at the man beside him, trapped in the same traffic. He has the look of a former soldier as well, the same harried eyes that stare back at Taisho in so many others, the eyes he would share if not for the magic within him. There is familiarity to this man, and a discomfort so sudden and profound that it slows Taisho’s step. If this man was a soldier, is he, like Taisho, still fighting?
“Crowded today, Taisho,” the man says, catching Taisho with a glance and a smile.
The voice gives it away, unmuffled by a mask. “Dokuro. What are you doing here?”
“Keeping watch for you,” he says, just barely loud enough to hear over the crowd. “Shame about the boss.”
Taisho nods, agrees, follows traffic across an intersection. “Where were you?”
Dokuro does not answer, and his face is no mask.
The crowd thickens around them both, somehow: a stalled cart here, a quarrel there, a courier underfoot. Taisho knows an ambush when he sees one.
“You cannot fool a soldier,” he warns, more disappointed than afraid.
“No,” Dokuro admits, his face new and strange without the skull, “but it you’re good you can talk him into laying down his arms.”
In the moment before the fight begins, Taisho remembers the difference between the sword willingly sheathed and the sword confiscated.
He is unarmed and his assailants are not. But he is faster, and not as surprised as they would prefer. Two lunge at him immediately, one to take his legs, another to lasso his right arm with a weighted rope. He dodges the first but not the second, and the noose pulls tight on his forearm, then jerks him out of the street and into a post. Dokuro pounces on him then, clings like a monkey to Taisho’s back, arm tightening on his neck.
Without his right arm, dizzy from the shortage of air, there is only so much Taisho can do, but instinct proves suitable enough: he rolls forward, rams Dokuro into the post hard enough that it snaps. The stand it was supporting topples, and the customers scatter, screaming. But even as they flee, and Dokuro springs to his feet, Taisho is faced with eight elite soldiers at least, in civilian garb but already brandishing weapons. Rope. Sai. A club. A dagger.
Taisho will say, with only the humor it deserves, that his enemy has underestimated him.
From there, the fight is chaos. This is not war: it is a manhunt. his right arm still restrained, his parasol broken since last night, Taisho lashes out with kicks and backhanded strikes, disarming one foe, blocking a hail of shuriken with an improvised straw mat. He twists the mat and throws it aside, barely in time to grab a sake tray and throw it, the way he would his parasol, hard enough to knock out another mancatcher. The rope on his right arm holds taut and true, and now two men are bracing it; if he loses the left, even he is done for. And Dokuro has his sai out, their chains glinting within his sleeves like the savage smile on his face.
“I trusted you more with the mask on,” Taisho says.
“Your fault,” Dokuro laughs, and lunges in.
It is exactly what Taisho needs: with all his immense strength, he yanks the rope, staggers his captors into Dokuro’s path. The sai comes down and tangles in the rope, and the fraying is enough that on the next pull it snaps, and Taisho is unarmed no longer.
But he does not stay and fight. Not here, not now.
He runs. Turns tail into a tactical retreat and bolts through the streets, to the nearest rooftop. By day, the red and grey slate shingles are just as unyielding as they were last night, and just as many peel and scatter. Dokuro and his men tail him, of course, but not even Dokuro can match him for speed, and he clears the palace completely, bolts for the south gate. If Edo itself is no longer safe, he will go to Odawara, or even further south, to Raijin’s shrine in Osaka, to Tetsuya’s workshop in Shikoku--
--but what if they, too, have betrayed him? What if the Gods themselves conduct this secret war?
And now, as then, Sarou suspects that the grief in her eyes is not only for one soul.
He comes to sit beside her, and she does not flinch: with him in the robes of an Initiate, and in full view of any who come to the shrine, he would not be considered impolite or solicitous. “Forgive me, miss. Are you waiting for someone?”
She catches his eyes, and he knows, in that moment, that this woman has seen horrors. You cannot fool a soldier. “Perhaps,” she says. “I think he will come to you.”
A wry little smile ghosts over her lips. “No.”
And Sarou remembers, yesterday: she was with Taisho. The woman who disappeared before she could be introduced. From there, the leaps of logic are short and simple. She is a comrade of his, an onna-bugeisha or a kunoichi. She grieves the same man as he, their benefactor. And she awaits Taisho, which means--
“Are you in danger?” Sarou asks in a whisper, his face betraying little.
“We are always in danger,” she answers in the same low tone.
He shakes his head. “Not always.”
Forsaking the crowds, Taisho hides in a half-rotten house, burned in the great fires of the battles for control of the city, months ago. In the shadows here, he may be able to catch his breath and count his allies, what few seem to remain. But just as before, those he can count, he cannot contact, and those he can contact, he cannot count upon.
And worse, the charnel smell of the house, thicker for the onset of a cold and heavy rain, takes his mind straight back to other fires and other wars, and other losses, just as painful as this.
At least the rain will cover his tracks, he thinks, and settles in with his back to a firm, fixed wall. Here, he can see out the sliver of the burnt fusuma, but none will see him unless they look, and his fire eyes give him every advantage in that regard.
Taisho remembers the assassin’s eyes, so like his own. The Winter Wind, Kumo called him. A ghost, a monster. He caught Taisho’s parasol and broke it like a strand of straw. He is as strong as Taisho at least, a product of the same divine arts.
He springs out of the shadows to garotte Taisho’s neck, on the heels of a thunderclap.
Taisho springs into action, grips the garotte in his hands and throws with all his might. The Winter Wind soars overhead and lands near-silent, then bounds like a tiger for Taisho’s throat. Shuriken glitter in his hands and Taisho dodges all he can, blocks with anything he can grab. This house is all mold-caked boards and tattered cloth, and Taisho rips the remains of shoji off its runner, spins it to function as a shield. More shuriken fly, embed themselves in the wood. Taisho backs out of the room into the next, darker, and the Winter Wind’s eyes glow just like his in the dark. And that is all Taisho can see of him, this living weapon, all blades and darkness and the blue fire within.
It is like looking into a river, and seeing his reflection warped by the current.
Lightning flashes, and the Winter Wind attacks again, lunges at him with a kunai in each hand. It is all Taisho can do to block, and the kunai slice clean through the splintering wood, tear the paper to shreds. But Taisho can counter now, disarm him where he can and level fight. He grabs for the Winter Wind’s right arm, wrings it and jabs the pressure point with his thumb until the kunai drops to the floor--and the other closes in, but Taisho can grab that too, Baku taught him that move when Taisho was half this size, half this age. It works, and they grapple in the center of this abandoned room, the Winter Wind’s kunai still bearing down toward Taisho’s head but stalled with matched strength. The left arm is stronger but cold to the touch, as dense as a corpse’s with settled blood.
When the next flash comes, Taisho rears back, and rams his forehead into the Winter Wind’s. It sends him reeling, but he kicks Taisho’s legs out from under him on the way down. The floor caves beneath them, rotten to the earth, and shards of wood trap them in place, Taisho pinning the Winter Wind to the ground, held by both wrists, their faces a breath apart.
Taisho remembers this. He has been here before, in sparring and training when he was but a sickly child, when Baku used to let him win.
If it weren’t for the fire, he could not see the Winter Wind’s face in the darkness of this house, this storm. But this close, and this still, the truth is fatally clear, and one more blast of lightning confirms it.
“Baku,” Taisho breathes, incredulous.
Shock rolls down the Winter Wind’s face like sweat. “Who the hell is Baku?”
He prepares tea and a futon--even Taisho must need to sleep--and Kumo sinks into the shadows to keep vigil. When Taisho removes his torn clothes, there is proof of the fight, the faint glimmer of blue beneath sealing scars and the brightness of lightening bruises. In the lamplight, there is more still to see; the rawness of Taisho’s palms, the swelling on his brow. They lessen, even now, but Sarou knows well that even that which heals leaves deep scars.
“Kumo told me that you are still pursued.” Sarou brings by a kettle of tea and hands a bowl to Taisho, who does not drink but does accept. “Have you found out who’s behind it?”
“No,” Taisho admits. “I can’t confirm that it is the shogun’s doing, for all my suspicions. But--” He chokes on a word, and Sarou raises a hand to tell him, no, there is no need to speak before he is ready, but he continues. “But I know who they sent.”
Sarou sips his tea, and waits.
“Even when I had no one else, Baku was with me,” Taisho says, staring down into the tea as if he could read the leaves before they settle. “We were together from childhood. He was my friend--my protector, before I could truly protect myself. He inspired me. We trained together, lived together, served together until he caught notice and I did not. Even then, he wrote to me as I fought to catch up. And when I found him again, in Shimizu’s prison, it was as if I’d returned to myself. As if the part of me that was burned away by Sensei’s fire somehow came back to me and made me whole. And when he died at Osore, I lost it again.”
“And now?” Sarou asks, when Taisho’s past dissipates on the air like the steam from their bowls.
“And now, he is the Winter Wind.” Taisho doubles forward, a tremor in his breath and a flicker of shame in his eye. “He looked at me and saw only a target. A thing to be destroyed. I called him by name. He didn’t know it. Something was done to him, something to change him. His touch is like death, and his eyes are like mine.”
“No,” Kumo corrects from the rafters. “Like Shimizu’s.”
“Report,” the shogun says, even though the Winter Wind is not bowing.
“I knew him,” the Winter Wind rasps, staring at his hands in the dark. One glows like his eyes; the other does not.
The shogun blinks. “Report. Is it done?”
The Winter Wind looks up, steam curling out of his eyes where the fire will not permit tears to fall. “I know him,” the Winter Wind corrects, piteously.
“Ah,” the shogun hums, “so it is not done,” and he smiles as he approaches a censer in the corner. A quick flicker of flint in his palms and he lights a stick of incense, lets the heady smell waft through the room. “Perhaps you would do well to meditate tonight and clear your mind.”
“Your Excellency,” the Winter Wind pants, “I cannot--”
“Hush,” the shogun says. “Still your heart. Breathe, and invite emptiness. Invite simplicity.” He crosses to a stove, removes some crystals from is sleeve. In the scant light, they flicker like pale sapphires, and he casts them onto the stove. The scent they give off is sweet and cloying, like plum wine left out too long. “Breathe,” the shogun repeats, and this time the Winter Wind closes his eyes and obeys.
And obeys, until his chest no longer rises or falls. But the bright veins in his dead left arm pulse, blue as a clear sky, in time with breaths he gives no sign of taking.
It is a solid plan. The archives at Sensouji and Asakusa require as thorough an account as possible, and Sarou has something of a gift for coaxing out the truth. And while he is here, there is much he can learn that only an outsider can perceive.
But he does not expect the shogun himself to receive him. And yet here he is, awaiting his Excellency in the audience chamber, with a guard outside the shoji who makes it quite clear that Sarou is not to leave.
Even if he believed the Land of the Rising Sun were truly at peace, Sarou would entertain suspicions here.
The shogun enters, flanked by another guard--no, not a policeman, a shinobi, if the way he moves and the sai on his hips are any indication. Sarou bows, and the shogun inclines, then kneels at his desk while Sarou keeps his face to the floor.
“I understand you have come from Asakusa Shrine.”
“Yes, your Excellency. The High Priest sends greetings and his wish for a long and peaceful reign under the auspices of your clan.”
“Convey my regards to him and wishes for his continued health. And you have come to peruse our records of the war against the Red Oni Shimizu?”
“Yes, your Excellency. I regret to say that the Asakusa archives, which as you know were damaged in the fires of battle several months ago, have only just been restored. Many accounts were lost, and while we have many former soldiers who would retell the tale, their accounts are limited. And it would make sense for us to have a version of the war that aligns with yours,” he says, calculatedly if true.
The shogun nods his approval, and signals his shinobi. “Dokuro, take this priest to our personal archives. He may have whatever he requires, for as long as he requires.”
“Your Excellency is magnanimous,” Sarou says, deepening his bow. That done, he rises, and the shinobi escorts him through the palace halls to a room on the highest floor.
He is shown in--and promptly shut in.
And locked in.
If Sarou had not expected this, perhaps he would panic. As it stands, he merely goes about his task, searching through the papers for any information that proves where he is and what they have done. He finds it in the form of a weathered seal bearing the Kuzuryuu emblem, a dragon nine-headed, as the centerpiece of the gaping skull of the Shimizu. This and Dokuro’s presence is proof enough that the shogun himself is behind this purge, and all Sarou needs to do is convey it to Taisho and Kumo for them to act.
He stands at an arrow-slat in the wall, and whistles to the birds outside. There are few, given the season, but not none, and a falcon comes wheeling to him, answering his cry. Kumo has taken her late master’s bird for her own, and there she is, wheeling and watching just like her new mistress.
Sarou affixes the seal to the falcon’s talon, and bids her fly.
With what weapons can one combat the silent chill of dread, of falsehood, of disease?
When all one has is the hammer of martial prowess, does not even pernicious subtlety look like a nail? Perhaps. But Taisho has already been attacked in the streets during peacetime, and Furukawa murdered in his own home, and the people have heard naught of it, or else they would not permit it. In open war, infiltration and assassination are still tactics that clothe themselves in armor to conceal that they are crimes. Do they nevertheless, when carefully applied, spare civilian lives? Yes. It is war, and it is complicated, and Taisho knows this better than any man in the Land of the Rising Sun, and Kumo still better than he.
But the city of Edo has already burned, too recently, and they will not fight fire with fire.
Taisho approaches the Kuzuryuu palace openly. He walks in the center of the street, armed and armored as he was in the days of war. His crest, his star, is emblazoned three times on his chest, and the blue of his eyes glows open and free. He conceals none of himself, and the people in the street murmur as their hero walks among them, like the gods and lords who are his comrades: but here Taisho has no captaincy, no comrades, no army. He is a man alone, but not a man plain, and he faces the Kuzuryuu as he once faced the Shimizu’s advancing armies.
He is a soldier, and the world is at war.
Dozens of Kuzuryuu police pour out of the compound, called to arms by their leaders. Taisho is a renegade, they say, he has gone mad with power. Taisho lets them say it and lets them surround him: perhaps he is mad, if he thinks that freedom and truth are not the price of peace. The police brandish their arms, but do not advance, and Taisho’s swords remain sheathed, his new parasol furled.
“People of Edo,” he proclaims, addressing all who hear, civilians and enemy alike, “you have been deceived. The war is not over. The Kuzuryuu yet fight it, and so do I.”
His voice echoes through the streets, and the whispers of awe and dissent cannot stifle him.
“The Tate-Ryuu watched over you all, and I was complicit. The Red Oni Shimizu may be gone, and the Emperor secure in Kyoto, but victory was not the end of war. It was not the end of murder: in this very city, assassins prowl the streets in a deadly purge. It was not the end of seizure: my friend, a priest, is imprisoned by the Kuzuryuu on no charge, at this very moment. It was not the end of fear, and you know this well, for you are afraid, and so am I. So am I,” he shouts, “so am I, to see this false peace, where the Kuzuryuu eliminate all who stand in the way of their demesne, and where the true peace and freedom I fight for is used against me.
“I know you are tired of war. So am I. We have all lost family, lost friends, and sacrificed parts of our selves to this ravenous fire. But what does that matter, when the war is not over? Every time we turn a blind eye to its continuation, we permit it to continue. We say that our sacrifices do not matter to us anymore. We say that devils like Shimizu can be permitted to reign, so long as they come not for us. We say that warmongers like Suteishi can continue to profit off of the blood and toil of their tenants, so long as they come not for us. And we say that his Excellency, Kuzuryuu Ando, can steal lives in the night, until he comes for mine. He has come for mine. He has already taken part of me from myself, and I will not permit him to take the rest.”
He opens his arms, and the new parasol flares into its circle, its shield. “Do not permit him to take any more of yours.”
For a moment, all is silent, save for the gently falling snow alighting on the rooftops and mingling with the dust in the street.
Then a sergeant calls, and the flint of an arquebus sparkles on the air. A shot rings out; a bullet thuds against the spun steel of Taisho’s parasol, now scraped and dented, and falls to the dust of the street.
The riot begins.
The shogun looks up from his calligraphy. “Of his own will?”
“We’ve engaged him at the palace gates, sir. The city is rioting.”
Adjusting his sleeves, the shogun sets his brush down, and steels himself with a deep, rattling breath. “Take your men and contain the riot. Put up the gates and post a guard at every shrine. No one leaves the district who might spread word to the rest of the city. Kill any couriers you have to and shoot down any birds you see.”
Dokuro bows and pulls down his mask to conceal his grin, then takes his leave.
But the shogun is not done. “Reveal yourself,” he says to the shadows in the corner. The Winter Wind appears, placid and empty, eyes closed in reverence. “Your target, Taisho, is causing a disturbance at the gates. Eliminate him immediately, and any witnesses who are not our own forces.”
Silently, the Winter Wind nods and departs.
The shogun can spin this, he thinks, into silk with a pattern the rest of the country can accept. He picks up his brush again, and new parchment, to write the additions to his history. Driven mad by the death of his master, Raijou Shin-Taisho led a revolt against the shogunate and incited the people to riot. With utmost regret, We put him down. He was a relic of the age of war, and could not abide Our peace, but his past heroism cannot be discounted. Let him stand as a symbol of loyalty and piety, however misplaced, who upheld the Tate-Ryuu and the past ideals of this nation. Venerate him for that which he was, but that which he was does not belong in this nation as We now govern it.
As the sounds of slaughter in the street grow near enough to hear through the palace walls, the shogun signs his name to the parchment, and reaches for his seal.
“Use this one instead,” Kumo says, holding out the companionate Kuzuryuu and Shimizu seal that Sarou spirited from the tower. “It’s what you mean, isn’t it?”
The shogun springs to his feet and grabs for his sidearm, but Kumo is far too fast for him: she flashes through the shadows and lassos his neck with a glistening silver wire. His face turns red and his hands come up to try and pry it aside, and he drops the knife, smearing the fresh ink.
Kumo advances, picks up the knife, and readies it over the shogun’s stomach. “Taisho would rather you not die in the shadows,” she says, low and deadly, “but I would rather you not live at all.”
She eviscerates him with all the efficiency of her position. It will not look like an accident, but she arranges the body afterward to mimic a suicide. She even places the knife in his dead hand, so that the illusion of honor may persist.
She then sets off to deal with Dokuro before he razes Edo.
At least, he clears the gate, and while the police in the palace are better-armed, they are soldiers, and have consented to fight. With his parasol in one hand, Taisho draws his short sword and cuts down the first gunner he sees. He knows that Sarou is in the topmost tower, with more proof of the shogun’s duplicity, but he need not take the stairs, so he bounds for the roof of the gatehouse, then the granary, then the armory, dodging arrows and bullets as he goes. Let him be the target. Let him be the target, as long as they are honest.
He cannot slow down to climb, but with his tiger’s strength he leaps, swings himself up to the fourth pagoda of the inner palace. The shingle slips beneath his left hand, weakened in the snowfall, but he hangs on with his right. Something pierces his back, an arrow or a shuriken, but only skin-deep, and he fights through the pain to pull himself up.
“Taisho!” Sarou calls from the arrow slat. “On your right!”
Taisho looks over his shoulder, into the burning blue eyes of death.
More shuriken fly, and the Winter Wind lends them his speed to go for Taisho’s throat. Some hit, some do not, but what matters is his hands, wrapped inexorably around Taisho’s neck, as strong as his own. Even if he could breathe, the sight of Baku, empty but for his killing instinct, would knock the breath out of Taisho and shatter his heart. The Winter Wind bears him down to the rooftop, bashes him into it and strangles him, but Taisho does not fight back.
He lets the parasol go, lets his sword slide down into the storm drain. His hands, bare, empty, come up to frame the Winter Wind’s face and draw him down.
“Baku,” Taisho chokes. “It’s me. Shin.”
A black cloud of smoke passes overhead, and the flame in the Winter Wind’s eyes gutters for only a moment.
His grip loosens, just enough for Taisho to gasp in much-needed air, but he still does not fight back. “Your name is Sakakibara Jun. Everyone calls you Baku. We were born in Kanazawa, just one year apart.”
“No,” the Winter Wind says, his voice like gravel, like shrapnel after the shot is fired.
Taisho keeps his hands on the Winter Wind’s face, his touch light but certain. “You hate the smell of sandalwood. You once shot a cat out of a tree and it landed on its feet. You threw my cousin in the river for insulting me.”
“No.” The blue fire in the Winter Wind’s eyes wavers again, but this time his bruising grip tightens, and the cold that swarms through Taisho’s body cannot all be from the touch of the Winter Wind’s dead left arm.
“We trained together,” Taisho gasps. “We served together. We were together. It is--what we are,” he barely manages before the Winter Wind’s fingers dig in to his windpipe. “You are--Baku, I can’t lose you again!”
All at once, as if he’s been stung or shot, the Winter Wind breaks away, slips a foot down the roof. An inkstone clatters down to the drain, and the Winter Wind clutches his shoulder and glowers at the arrow slat, and Sarou, who’s ready to throw another. “Taisho, go!”
Taisho stands, but does not charge. His throat is red and bruised, but his voice is clear. “Not without him.”
Before Sarou can protest, the palace armory explodes, and all the world is smoke and fire. The already precarious shingles shudder and slip, and Taisho falls into the black cloud, arms empty and open.
In the Palace, the death of the shogun Kuzuryuu Ando is taken as his admission of guilt and defeat. He is burned with due ceremony, the ashes scattered over the bay, and his surviving family is sent to Kyoto to atone in service to the Emperor.
Sarou takes his vows, and commits himself to preserving the history of this war, this city, and those who protected it. Without the Kuzuryuu, lawlessness reigns for a while, but soon enough the Emperor sends a consul, and much talk is had. Sarou, as scribe, is present for it all, and speaks for the soldiers so that all their fears are addressed when reforms are made. It is slow work, and constant work, but it is worth it to him.
Perhaps Kumo remains, perhaps she does not. Perhaps she, like Taisho, questions whether the world needs her, but they do not travel together. But those who are rumored to oppress and delude the people occasionally turn up dead, of poison or suicide, and their karma is not questioned.
In cities and towns all over the Land of the Rising Sun, one sometimes catches a glimpse of a strange man, tall and hale, carrying a parasol no matter the weather. Children who look up into the shadow mark his eyes, blue as the sunlit sky, but sad and haunted. He works the earth, assists tenants with their rice or their horsemanship or the city watch, and is gone as swiftly as he appeared. He prays at every shrine he passes, for guidance, for the friends he has lost and still seeks, but he never lights incense, only leaves his token: the seal of a silver star.
And at one such shrine, just outside Kanazawa, a vagrant kneels, and traces the points of the star with the fingertips of his cold, blue-veined hand.