Furiosa checked her katana with the guard and traded her shoes for slippers outside the Daimyo’s palace portion of the Citadel. Here the stone exterior of the castle held floors of precious wood and walls of fine rice paper painted with the Daimyo’s crest. She saluted it, making his symbol with her finger both flesh and metal. Then she followed her escort through their lord’s keep. The other guards, members of the Daimyo’s infamous Sensōshōnen 戦争少年 , his War Boys bowed sharply and deeply for her, fingers crossed over their powdered heads.
Then she waited, mouth drawn narrow, eyes stern while the Boy slid open the door to the daimyo’s study. She bowed and then waited to be announced before lowering herself to her knees.
“Furiosa …” Daimyo Fumetsuno Jō murmured as if trying to place where he’d heard her name.
He’d heard it many times in the nearly five thousand days she’d lived under his employ, and every single time he formed its syllables in his mouth, he said it like this. He sounded almost disbelieving, and maybe that’s what it was; Furiosa knew that by all counts she shouldn’t exist. Who had ever heard of a one-armed swordswoman?
She held her forehead to the tatami floor as she awaited her orders. Rice to the south? Water to the north? Fumetsuno Jō‘s territory was vast and still growing. Perhaps the a raid by the Hagetaka clan needed quelling. She remembered days when she was the one doing the raiding, head shaved and painted lead white, her own two feet for her mount, and her own two hands for her swords. How times has changed.
“You will guard my most precious of treasures.”
She raised her face ever so slightly. “Beg pardon, Jō-sama?” She already rode his most cherished of dragons. She had foolishly hoped he had summoned her to tell her that Kiyohime was well enough to resume trade runs.
“My wife and concubines,” Jō Fumetsuno answered as if she should have deduced this easily.
Indignation bubbled within Furiosa; she was no eunuch. She swallowed her pride and held her tongue. No task was to lowly for her. But there was some other feeling nagging in the pit of her belly. Six thousand days before, she’d walked away from the Ōoku of when its metal door was slammed behind her, and she’d promised herself she would never go back.
“Hai,” she responded without raising her eyes.
“You agreed, of course?” asked Eisu, Furiosa’s mentor and now kogashira.
“Of course.” Furiosa probed her rice with her chopstick. “An order is an order.”
“But you aren’t happy about it, are you, Furi-kun?”
She never told him about her time there. When she first met Shiromoto Eisu, she had been a gangly pup serving the Isha. She’d impressed him with her surgical precision, her nerve, and with her bloodlust, mostly her bloodlust. He had come in with a broken leg that was healing badly. Furiosa rebroke it for him with a a memorable zeal, memorable enough that after she sent him back to the battlefield, he returned for her. She was reassigned: Taisho’s orders. She’d always wondered if Isha had recognized her from her days in the Ōoku; he never said, and if he told Eisu anything, Eisu had never passed his words along. Did even the Daimyo remember the concubine he named Hitomi? Even with all the ways Furiosa had changed, her eyes were the same, just as sad, only colder. If he did remember, did he care?
“I miss Kiyohime.” That much was true, and Furiosa had no intention of telling Eisu any more of her past today.
“Word is she’s doing better, but she still needs time.”
“I had thought the Daimyo had summoned me so he could give command of her to me. Now that Kaisen-sama is dead, she will need a new rider. I’ve already ridden her.”
“Which almost got both of you killed.” Eisu met her gaze while her poured her sake.
She returned the favor. “If I hadn’t we both would have been. She connected with me. She accepted me.”
Eisu laughed. “You’ll make Taisho yet. If I were Daimyo, I would promote you.”
The thought of being so close to Fumetsuno Jō, within a wakuzashi’s reach made her heart jump into her throat, but killing him wouldn’t be nearly enough. “With all due respect, senpai, it’s a good thing you aren’t the Daimyo.”
“Kanpai, I’ll drink to that.”
Furiosa sipped her sake and slid her finger around the base of her cup. The flavor was bright, clear, the perfect depiction of spring time. “May your ambitions and your promotions be well matched.”
“Eh, ambition is a young man’s game.” He didn’t stifled a cough with another sip of sake. “I’ll stay where I am. I’ve earned my greasepaint. But you, Furi-kun, you’ll go far.”
Furiosa smiles softly. She hadn’t wanted to make Kumigashira, but the position seemed to suit her. Initially she only wanted a horse to carry her home. Then she thought a dragon would be better. Somewhere along the line she started to enjoy the work, making battle plans, commanding her boys… Home had never seemed further away. Maybe she should set her sights a little closer, like Jō’s flabby neck.
“I’ll be sleeping there, in the Ōoku. I won’t see you as often.”
Eisu was the only good part of this whole damn place. If it weren’t for him, she would have done something reckless, run off on her first horse, turned on arrow in the wrong direction, but something stopped her. She hadn’t seen it at the time, but if she had failed, as she probably would have, everyone would have known it was Eisu’s kohai who had gone mad and betrayed the Daimyo. The girl he’d hand-picked from all the pups, what had he traded for her? He’d stuck his neck out at least and fought to keep her gainfully employed when her utility had been doubtful. Furiosa felt the weight of her metal hand in her lap; he’d always said she was made of steel, and then he made it true. Perhaps she had been waiting for him to die so he wouldn’t need to suffer her betrayal.
The cough Eisu had been stifling all through dinner finally won out and set him hacking.
It was no secret that he was dying. She’d seen the spots of blood show after his coughs. Lung Rot was a slow killer, but it was a killer just the same. It was common among the Sensōshōnen, common enough to make Furiosa question if they were somehow bringing it upon themselves. The peasants saw into too, and they skipped over the wondering when they whispered, “curse,” under their breath. If it was a curse, Furiosa knew no reason why she should be spared, but here she was, lungs clear as ever.
“We should practice while we can then,” Eisu said once he’d regained his composure.
“Yes,” Furiosa agreed, “while we can.”
Before sunrise the next morning, Furiosa packed her meager possessions into a bag, painted her face to match her rank, and slipped out of Eisu’s house in the barracks. The morning air moved with a brisk chill, the kind that reminded her that even though it was technically springtime, winter had yet to ease its grip. She pulled her cloak around her more tightly and tried to ease some stiffness from her shoulders.
She stopped at the base of the war tower, and greater the stable master before slipping past the horses to the back where the dragons were kept. Giga, the Daimyo’s own mount roared his disapproval at her presence, but she shushed him with a single gesture and slipped him a bit of fish for his obedience. There was Yukio next, as eager and warm as ever despite his massive size. He took his treat with a gleeful obedience. Jōki paid her little mind, but he got a treat just the same.
All the while, Kiyohime watched her from the shadows. The dragon’s great, black bulk blended into the darkness, but her eyes glimmered knowingly. Her whiskers swayed with her sighs. This was a creature whose goodwill could not be bought with any amount of fish.
“O-Kiyohime-Sama,” Furiosa whispered as she bowed, “Great god of the western river…” She paused before adding. “I’m from the west too.”
The dragon let out a puff of air that ruffled her beard, and Furiosa wondered if that was a gesture of commiseration. The west? What could possibly be left there since Daimyo Jō diverted the river for his moat and stole its guardian Kami for his army?
“Further west,” Furiosa added, “past the Daimyo’s territory, almost to the coast.” As soon as those words were out, her belly aches from their lack. She had never spoken them to anyone, not even to Eisu-San.
Kiyohime flicked her tail. She seemed fine, all finely bound muscles and coiled tension, power waiting for the right moment. Isha had never said what exactly was wrong with her, and there was a heat in her eyes Furiosa found vaguely familiar; perhaps Kiyohime was sick in her heart from all her rage she had not yet learned to harness. Furiosa had seen fire pour from the dragon’s mouth, felt the heat of it growing in the dragon’s chest as she clung to her scaly back. A year’s time had given Furiosa a strong new hand and an equally strong will to use it. The dragon who took it from her should have healed as well. Perhaps the Kiyohime was simply thought to be too unreliable to take into battle.
She wasn’t exactly reliable when Furiosa rode her. It had been an ordinary trade run to Mori no Machi when the Daimyo’s son Kaisen had diverted from his mission and led his troops on a chase for a Yajin. Furiosa had been with the Taisho’s company, on their way to Hagane no Noen when the distress call went out. By the time the two companies intercepted, Kaisen was dead, and Kiyohime was running rampage against the Daimyo’s forces and the opportunistic Hagetaka raiders alike. Taisho cut off her path while on Jōki, and Kiyohime blew a cloud of flame and smoke at them, but she changed her course and ran for a ledge instead. Did she mean to flee or fall? Could she see any difference.
Furiosa’s mind was wild with battle, her blood hot, her ki strong; she thought nothing for her own safety when she kept from her horse. Kiyohime’s back was already a nest of arrows, and she showed no signs of slowing, but Furiosa thought to aim somewhere else. Of course she didn’t intend to kill the dragon, rather to pierce her flesh and pin her in place.
So Furiosa drew her bow and clenched her teeth as she aimed for Kiyohime’s tail. She let her arrow fly. No sooner had it left found it’s target than flames engulfed both Furiosa’s bow and the arm the held it. She collapsed as she howled, searing pain consuming her, the smell of her own burnt flesh filling her nose.
Some of her warriors rushed forward to defend her. Others stood back in awe, fear, and practicality. Furiosa thought she heard Eisu call to her, but his voice got lost in the chaos. She was alone before the dragon.
She was somewhere between vomiting and fainting, her left arm clutched to her body, her whole vein hot and cold, numb and excruciating when she looked up. Some how through all of that she felt Kiyohime’s gaze on her. Surely the dragon would burn the rest of her as well, and in that moment, Furiosa could see no worse end for herself than to perish in battle against another of the Daimyo’s prisoners. Where others may have begged, her last ounce of strength became pure wrath.
Kiyohime opened her mouth, but instead of fire, she brought cool, clean water from her belly. Furiosa shook as it washed over her and cooled her wounds. Then Kiyohime lowered her head helped Furiosa onto her back.
Somehow Furiosa found in herself the strength to hold on. Her left hand was useless, but her thighs were strong, and more importantly, Kiyohime wanted her there. So Furiosa drew her sword, and together she and Kiyohime slew the Hagetaka raiders. Then her injuries got the better of her, and she passed out where she was, still atop the dragon.
She hardly remembered anything after that. Truth be told, much of her memory of the entire event was borrowed, coaxed from Eisu with probing questions. But of some moments she was certain; she knew the heat of fire on her skin, the stench of it finding her bones, and the brilliance of it at her core when she was exactly where she was meant to be.
Kiyohime let out a low rumble, summoning Furiosa back to the present. The dragon’s black eyes glittered, shining the the distinctive polish of charred flesh. Furiosa clenched her metal fist reflexively. Eisu had asked her once if she blamed the dragon for taking her hand.
Furiosa only shook her said that beasts had neither shame nor blame. She clenched her teeth as he tightened the new prosthetic to her mostly healed stump. The truth was that rage flowed hot behind her eyes like lava behind a mountain’s stone.
Even now Kiyohime’s eyes were like a mirror. “Where are you going, Furiosa-san?” they seemed to ask.
“To the Ōoku, Kiyohime-sama, back to the Ōoku where it all began.”