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Ikarido: The Way Of Rage

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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.”

Chapter Text

A guard, shaved and painted like a bleached skull just like the rest of the Daimyo's soldiers opened the heavy, metal door for Furiosa. That was lucky because she wasn’t sure she could have done it herself; her joints would have locked, her muscles frozen. The steps inside were the most difficult she’d taken in recent memory. She was glad to leave her shoes outside, as if so long as she left something waiting for her, some solid, physical proof of her existence, this place couldn’t consume her.

Nothing much had changed. Inside the metal door and stone walls was hidden a palace of wood and paper painted with trees and flowers against sweeping mountain vistas in glimmering gold. She remembered when the Daimyo had given them the peacock panel, how he’d praised the detailed strokes of its curling feathers, as if pretty decorations made the place any less of a prison. Pretty things for pretty things...

“Is that you,” cooed a voice from the next room. Furiosa knew it instantly.

“I’m here,” she answered as she bowed to the old woman entering the room.

Gidei-san hadn’t changed either. Sure, she had a few more characters scrawled into her skin, far more squid-dark than the fresh blue-green her name implied. Sure her own natural lines had deepened and darkened as well, and she was bent in ways Furiosa didnt recognize. Still, she was undeniably herself and sharper than ever in the eyes and edges. She reminded Furiosa of a vase cracked in a thousand places but still, by some miracle of craft, intact. Many days Furiosa felt much the same.

“Are you well?” Her voice faded as her gaze landed on Furiosa’s metal hand. She must not have heard.

“I am well.” Her stump itched at the attention. “This…” she set her prosthesis against the hilt of her wakuzashi, “serves me well. And you?”

Gidei-san took Furiosa’s flesh hand between both of hers. “Older than a mountain it certainly feels some days, but still here.”

“Still here…” Furiosa echoed.

“Come, meet the girls.”

Furiosa’s chest tightened as Gidei-san led her further into the Ōoku. She felt each closing door viscerally. The furniture, the paintings, the scrolls of careful calligraphy rolled open on the low tables, everything’s was the same. The five female figures kneeling together might as well have been the same as well. Furiosa, when she was Hitomi, would have been the quiet one furthest from the center, the small one with the furrowed brow... not the one who would say…

“Why are you here?” demanded one of the Daimyo’s concubines.

“Toshiko-chan, don’t be rude,” Gidei-san chided.

The girl huffed as she lowered her dark eyes and dropped her brush into the ink pot.

“It’s a far question,” said another, this one all angles with loose hair and gapped teeth. She twirled her own brush, letting the ink splatter. Then she took it to the lip of the younger girl whose head rested in her lap. She drew a long, thin, mustache on the giggling girl. “Did he cut your breasts off too?”

“Girls!” Gidei-san snapped.

The younger one clamped a hand on her mouth, smearing the fresh ink. “We’re sorry, Gidei-san.”

“Don’t apologize to me, Kido-chan.” Gidei-san shook her head.

“They’re just lashing out where they can,” said the one wife Furiosa knew. “Let them be.”

Hikari was her name, and she was the Daimyo’s favorite. He would have her dressed in fine silks and parades along the walkways. Her name suited her even though Furiosa doubted it had come to this place with her. She bore herself with a regal confidence, warmth in her cheeks, light in her eyes. She was lucky to have such a favored position for she bowed her head only enough to keep herself from being punished. Such arrogance would have been long since beaten out of anyone else.

Rumor had it she was pregnant. She had the glow women always spoke of, skin luminous, mouth and eyes smiling as if holding back a secret. Her belly was concealed behind layers of stiff silk embroidered with the orange feathers of a phoenix. If there was a baby, it would probably come out as twisted as the others, stretched too large or scrunched too small or made too cruel.

“So why are you here?” The last concubine stood as she spoke and held Furiosa’s gaze as she bowed, her hands pressed together under her breast. Two braids hung from the complicated arrangement of her hair.

“To protect you,” Furiosa answered as she awkwardly returned the bow. She should be lower, she thought; she would let her gaze fall to the ground, but the girl grabbed her hands, metal and flesh alike.

“Protect us?” Hikari scoffed. “A little late for that.” She cantered her hips forward so the knot of her obi tilted up against her back.

“So when ol’ flabby comes tonight…” the gangly one snickered. Furiosa would later learn that she was called Kiki.

The one called Toshiko raised her eyebrows. “We get protection?”

Kiki smirked, letting her gapped teeth peak out from between her lips as she sketched a vulgar shape with her brush. “Gonna duel?” She made a mock drawing motion and then a swipe, letting the ink droplets fly.

Gidei-san folded her arms and sighed. “Let’s move on to literature, shall we?” She gathered up the brushes and the pots of ink. “Genji was…”

“Doing nothing interesting,” Kiki groaned.

“Having another affair,” Hikari snapped.

The young one called Kido giggled, “Oh, but I like him with Lady Fujitsubo.”

“Mm-hmm,” the one with the braids said, “I think he really did love her.”

“He kidnapped Murasaki, Kanōna-chan, just like Jō-san,” Hikari spat the name, “kidnapped us.”

"It's just a story. Story people can't be held to the same standards because they don't make their own choices. We can still enjoy the story..." Kanōna had a warmth to her manner. "And good people can make mistakes."

"The story clearly doesn't see it as a mistake... It's just another thing men do."

“It is the way of things, Hikari-no-himi,” Kido whispered. “It was then just like it is now. Some things can not be changed.”

Geidi-san unrolled a scroll onto the table, “and some things can.” Her fingers traced over the illustrations of women in courtly dress, their sleeves trailing to the ground. “Just ask Furiosa-san.”

Furiosa worked her way through procedures when the Daimyo came that evening. No one had told her the way of things, but they hadn’t changed much since she was on the other side of the screen. She tried not to watch their silhouettes through the rice paper. She tried not to hear.

Eventually she moved to her private room and tried to lose herself in the swish of her blade through the air and the shifting of the tatami beneath her knees. She steadied herself, flattening the pads on her toes against the woven bamboo, as she sliced. But the sounds of breath and effort from the neighboring bedroom were too much. Her breath caught in her throat. She faltered, digging the point of her blade into her scabbard enough to release a scent of green wood. She adjusted her metal grip, driving the scabbard against her side.

She raised her gaze to investigate a presence in the door way. The Daimyo slid open the door, and Furiosa dropped into a kowtow with her fingers crossed over her head. She waited for him to speak or approach or move along… or…. Was he caught in deja vu? Did the planes of her face before these paper walls stir some memory? She kept her eyes down and tried to will herself calm.

“Carry on,” he finally said before departing.

Furiosa waited until she heard the heavy outer door open and close before she shifted out of her seiza and hugged her legs to her chest. She clenched her teeth as she drew long, deliberate breaths, in for five, hold for five, out for five, wait for five. A realization accompanied her next inhale: she could have killed him.

Days continued like that. The first few seemed endless, but then they started piling up, and each one felt smaller >by comparison. Furiosa avoided the girls and Gidei-san as much as she could given their close confinement. She fielded off their questions when she could and just ignored them when she couldn’t. How old are you? What happened to your arm? Where are you from? How did you learn to fight? Manners didn’t seem to be included in Gidei-san's lessons plans.

One question in particular finally cut through her armor: “What even are you?” demanded Kiki in thoroughly uncalled-for frustration.

The word is, “Oona-bugeisha,” said Geidi-san as she pointed out the character written in her skin in blue ink. “There used to be more of them, like Tomoe Gozen. Remember, she was mentioned in The Tale Of Heike.”

“Yes,” Hikari answered with a gleam in her eyes before reciting:

The others ignored her and showered their attentions on Furiosa instead. “So you are like Lady Gozen?” Kido-Chan’s eyes went wide. “Can you ride a horse?”

“Of course she can. We’ve seen her,” Toshiko reminded her. “And she can shoot and cut.”

“Who taught you all these things, senpai?” asked Kanōna earnestly.

“My mentor,” Furiosa said and silently added, “and my mothers.”

“What’s it like to kill a man?” pressed Kiki, “to have his blood on your clothes and his guts on your blade?”

“Depends on the man.” Furiosa has killed too many and yet not enough.

“It was not uncommon,” Gidei-san reminded them, “for a woman to learn to fight. Someone needed to defend the house when her husband was away.”

“Would you teach us?” asked Toshiko.

“Yes,” Kanōna echoed. “Tomoe Gozen was a wife and a warrior; it would not be improper for us to be both as well...” Hikari shot her a look. “Provided her husband is just and worthy of her service.”

Hikari straightened her back and smoothed her kimono. “Perhaps it is those of us women with unjust husbands who might make best use of such training. Perhaps the cause of justice falls to us.”

Kanōna smiles in agreement, “And to those who have already found their freedom.”

Furiosa swallowed. Had Gidei-san told them? She hardly felt free. Kiki made a slicing sound as she drew her hand across her throat. If Furiosa knew one thing, it was that she wouldn’t be sharing the joy of the Daimyo’s death with anyone else.

“Not to kill, to run,” Hikari spat. “Even the most evil person has a Buddha Nature.”

“Outside the castle?” Kido-chan hugged Kiki’s arm. “I’ve never been past the moat.”

“We have nowhere to go,” Toshiko shot back at Hikari. “Alone with no papers, how long would we last?”

“There’s an entire world out there,” declared Hikari.

“That doesn’t mean it would be kind to us.” Toshiko’s voice darkened with experience.

“It wouldn’t,” Furiosa finally said.

“I believe you girls our getting ahead of yourselves,” Gidei-san cautioned them. “No one will give you training if you insist beforehand that you will use it foolishly.”

Gidei-san was nothing if not cunning, though Furiosa could venture no guess as to her motives. Did she know of the Peach Monastery and the hooded nuns who lived there? Or at least who had lived there twenty years before? The land was full of burned temples, pillaged gardens, and desiccated riverbeds; who was Furiosa to thinks hers may have survived when so many others were lost?

“Is it foolish to want to be more than a womb wrapped in skin and silk?” Hikari pulled a comb from her hair in frustration.

“No,” said Gidei-san with steel patience, “but that doesn’t mean all actions towards that end are equally wise.

Kanōna slipped her arm around Hikari’s shoulder and looked over at Furiosa. “She may not be a walking womb, but she’s his property just the same. She sits by while he rapes us, calls that protecting us.”

Furiosa’s face burned red beneath her stoic demeanor. She clenched her teeth and stared ahead, her eyes boring into the peach tree painted on the panel behind Hikari’s back. It was alone atop a hill, fragile and lonely without the protection of its orchard. She said nothing. She was a samurai; she would serve her lord as was her duty until the exact moment such service no longer benefited her. Then she would end him, herself too if she must. And then what would become of this place and these women?

“What would you have her do?” pressed Toshiko.

“Show a little compassion,” Kanōna muttered.

“Solidarity to her sex,” Hikari added.

No one spoke for a long moment after that. Silence hung in the air like a thick fog until Gidei-san parted it as if she were a mountain. “So perhaps you should go back to your fist question.” turned to Furiosa. “Great warrior, I have taught these girls all I know, but there is much that is beyond me. They have nothing but time and nothing to do with it but learn. Perhaps you might benefit as well, keep your own skills sharp.”

Furiosa raised her eyes and then lowered them again. If she were still the child of the Peach Temple she once was, she would have given them each a bokken and pointed to a target, but much had changed since those days. All the warrior training the nuns had given Furiosa and her mother hadn’t saved them. Furiosa could see no reason these sheltered children would fare any better. Yes, they suffered here, but life was suffering everywhere.

“No,” Furiosa finally said, and though the girls protested, she answered only with silence.

Chapter Text

More days passed. Hikari’s belly grew, as did Furiosa’s hair. Soft bristles sprouted where her scalp had been War Boy smooth. She let them reach to her first knuckles before she hacked them down again. Then she would run her hand over her freshly shorn scalp and be struck by the cruel irony of how far she had drifted from all the ways of her mothers except for this.

She had shorn her head twice already and was about to cut her hair again when a messenger came to see her in the Ōoku.

She pulled her yukata tightly around her chest and returned her wakizashi to her belt. She left her other tools behind in her private room, her bowl of water, her table, her mirror. The haircut could wait. Then she passed through the sliding screens of fragile rice paper painted with a thousand glorious gardens. They gave way to the stone and metal of the boundaries between the Ōoku and the outer palace.

“I am here." Furiosa answered, her voice echoing off the door and walls. She straightened her spine and squared her jaw as she waited.

The door opened, and she knew the Boy who stood behind it. His skin was powdered to clean, white perfection, his black hakama crisply pleated. Mousa, was one of hers and every bit the way she’d left him except for that the dragon craved into his shoulder had acquired a long tail.

“The Kogashira,” he said, and she knew at once.

“I will come with you,” she said, not caring for the moment if her position permitted her to do so. “Wait here.”

He let the door close behind him, and as Furiosa left to find Geidi-san the understanding that she could have left the Ōoku at any time flickered through her mind. She blew the thought out like a candle flame. She gave Geidi-san the news and left the Ōoku. She didn’t feel any different when the door closed behind her. Her shoes still fit her feet with the same gentle snugness. She’d worried that the Ōoku might swallow her again, but the world beyond was exactly as she had left it. The stone walls were just as cold. The Daimyo’s symbols just as ferocious.

She thought to ask Mousa for news. How was the rest of the unit doing? Had they been given any missions? Had his shooting improved? Instead she was silent.

Isha’s study was already full by the time the Furiosa and Mousa arrived. A few Boys were there, some she knew and some she did not, but the majority of the crowd was made up of Isha’s students. They hurried about fetching tools and tonics, chittering and whispering the same as they had when Furiosa had been one of them. Just as in those days, there were more students than tasks so the underemployed stood in front of the skulls painted on Isha’s walls, making the little room seem even more crowded.

They had bound Eisu to a table. His breathing was shallow, and his skin was pale even without his warpaint. He made no signs of recognizing Furiosa’s presence. He cough a little, his eyes barely flickering open and then shut again.

Another man hung from the ceiling, carefully knotted ropes crossing his body. He pulled against them as he torqued himself. His skin flushed red and marred with rope burns. He huffed, eyes darting. Furiosa knew at once this must be Kaiden’s wild man even though she had never seen the creature. She wondered who had finally caught him.

“Your too late Kumigashira,” Isha announced with a wry smile. “You won’t be sending him to the Pure Lands today. But you are just in time to witness one of the great mysteries of the universe.” Isha transferred his attentions to the man suspended from the ceiling. “This one’s wild as they come.” He taunted the man by waving his finger in front of the man’s gagged mouth. “Half-breed by the feel of him…” Isha ran his palm along the man’s stubbled cheek and cackled when the man tried to bite through his gag. “But ki to spare.” He gestured wildly. “Step back and watch your fingers.”

Isha’s hands glided over Eisu’s body, hand to hand and nose to toes, probing and jabbing at various pressure points as he went. Eisu groaned and arched his back, curled his toes and clenched his fists. He drew back his lips and bare his teeth like a dedicated corpse.

A hush fell over Isha’s students, and they formed a circle around the table. They watched in rapt attention, their breaths still, their mouths fixed in small, loose ooohs. They leaned closer as Isha took his staff and raised it towards the wild man suspended above them.

“Get back!” He snapped at a young student, a mere pup who was leaning almost within the wild man’s reach.

Isha jabbed the wild man in a series of precise spots, pressure points Furiosa knew from her time in his service and her training under Eisu. The wild man winced after some touches, scrunched his face after others, and as his ki channels were opened with each progressive touch, his reaxtions become stronger and stranger. His chains and rope strained under the force of his thrashing. He moaned and growled deep, guttural groans as he bucked and writhed. His eyes opened wide beneath his mass of hastily cut hair then rolled back. Then he open his mouth widely and gave a final, primal howl.

Eisu drew a deep, gasping breath as color flooded his face. His eyes opened as if he were waking from a deep sleep filled with strange dreams. He stared up at the wild man whose slackened body now dangled from his bonds.

“The should be enough of a spark to get you to the battlefield,” Isha laughed as he slapped Eisu’s shoulder.

Eisu nodded grimly, his eyes still fixed on the wild man. “And this one?”

“Eh-“ Isha probed the wild man with his staff until a feeble groan slipped from his slack lips.. “It’s got a few more doses, but better save them for the other Boys. The Pure Land sure won’t come to you. Ride out and take it.”

“Witness,” the students echoed with reverence as they performed the Daimyo’s salute.

Furiosa saluted as well, moving slowly and cautiously, trying to avoid her anger as if it were a pebble in her shoe. She wondered how long until this place made her sick like Eisu and Mousa and so many others, how long until it made her lungs rot. And then what? Would she be sent as well to give her last breath in the Daimyo’s service? She felt his mark on the back of her neck burn as if it were new.

“Are your blades ready, Kogashira?” asked a young, calvaryman who had joined the group. He bowed deeply, the dirty, black, jacket he wore slipping from one shoulder. “It would be an honor to sharpen them for you.”

“Always sharp, always ready.” Eisu bowed in return. “May our deathless lord grant me occasion.”

Furiosa knew her teacher was following the script. She knew he was wise and sound of mine and that he needed to hide both those qualities to have survived so long in this place, but that didn’t make the knots in her belly any easier to bear.

“And you, Kumigashira? For the honor of your master and the glory of your lord?” Isha probed.

“Hai.” For her own freedom as well, she thought, for with Eisu would go all the loyalty she held for the entire world.

“You are awaited in the Pure Land!” Shouted the young calvaryman as he clapped Eisu on the back.

Eisu nodded and looked up at the man still dangling above him. “If our lord sees fit to use this one to revive me, I must be.”

“Is the Pure Land real?” Furiosa asked Eisu once when she first came to live with him. She’d heard the stories many times from Isha and his patients.

“It might be. It might not,” was his answer. “But would you rather earn the Daimyo’s approval and have it be false than or not try and have it be real?”

“But why can only he send us there?” Furiosa did not know if she believed the Buddha Amida was real, but she knew the Daimyo was not anointed. She knew it the same way she knew that her mother would have still lived has the Daimyo not come to their valley.

Eisu grew quiet then, perhaps thinking of all the Boys who died quietly on their futons. “Perhaps he is not the only one. Perhaps Amida himself will bear witness and lead us the Pure Land so we may learn Enlightenment.”

Furiosa sat in silence making no comment regarding the heresy he had just spoken. Amida was in the Pure Land of Sukhavati, or so the story went, and those trapped in the wasteland of Mappō were beyond his help with no hope of his redemption. Daimyo Jō, however, was the exception. Having won Amida’s favor through his glorious conquering of the Citadel, Jō was offered a place in Sukhavati. Thinking only of his loyal troops, the Daimyo declined Amida’s offer unless he could bring others with him. So Amida gave the Daimyo the title Fumetsuno and promised to admit to the Pure Land anyone the Daimyo thought worthy. Sukhavati awaited anyone who attained glorious, battlefield death in service to Daimyo Jō Fumetsuno. These his chosen warriors would be as deathless as the Daimyo himself, having no more lives to suffer.

“Patience my Furi-kun, your questions are difficult, and I am in no hurry to find their answers.”

That is how she knew her senpai was wise enough to doubt, and so living under his care would not be the torture she had feared. Her beliefs could be her own as his were his own. Her actions were what mattered. So she immersed herself in the ways of the Sensōshōnen. At first, she only wanted to be permitted to stay, the world outside being ever cruel to a lone woman, but as her survival became more and more secure, Furiosa started wanting something more. Her swords felt right in her hands, and her scabbards felt right against her side. She didn’t care one bit for the Daimyo’s favor, but as Eisu taught her the skills of battle, the possibility that a mere discarded concubine might one day become the best of all the Sensōshōnen made her smile.

Furiosa took every opportunity to visit her troops, the stables, and of course, her mentor. The time passed too quickly, and every doubt she had choked down long ago nagged at her throat. Things were different between them even if she couldn't exactly place the cause.

Then the time came for her to return to her post, and as the heavy door closed behind her, she felt almost hollow. She thought she might feel trapped, that the latching of the door behind her would echo off the stone with a marked finality. Instead it bounced off her own insides, worn down for so long by doubt and want and fear. She was numb and filled with static like her arm after it had been lost.

She was supposed to cultivate emptiness. That is what Eisu said, and that is what her Mothers had said. A full mind left no room for learning. A full heart left no room for growth.

But what about when there is truly nothing? she wondered as she returned to her room. She was so lost in thought that she almost didn't notice the sliding of the screen or the soft footsteps of Kanōna entering. She gritted her as she mentally noted how this precisely proved her point.

“Come,” Furiosa ordered without rising from the tatami floor. Kanōna started to kneel beside her. “Stand.” Furiosa places her hands, palms downward on her thighs. “Grab me by my wrists.”

The girl leaned forward to clasp Furiosa’s right wrist but then hesitated. “This one as well?”

“Yes. And hold on.”

Furiosa closed her eyes and waited to feel her metal shift from contact with a body not her own. The shift was subtle at first, as if the cap at the end of her prosthesis were merely chafing against her scarred stump, but then Kanōna squeezed together the two lengths of steel that approximated Furiosa’s radius and ulna. They in turn dug into her flesh. Furiosa breathed out as she lifted her fingers. The connection between her body and Kanōna’s was weak, but if she moved quickly and smoothly, it would be enough.

Furiosa rose slightly as she planted her right foot and pivoted while she held her hands in place. She flared her right fingers so Kanōna’s palm stretched open, wrist and elbow straining. Kanōna whined at the pressure on her left hand.

“Strike me with your left when if the pain is too much,” Furiosa said. She wanted to ensure her own skills were still sharp, but she had not intention of breaking the girl’s arm. Kanōna whined and wriggled, but Furiosa felt no strike. “Or clap your thigh so I can hear it.” Still nothing, but then Furiosa understood. Foolish Furiosa thought, but impressive. “You want to learn?” Furiosa gradually increased the hyperextension of Kanōna’s wrist. “This is your first lesson: pain. Everything hurts, sometimes you, sometimes me, but always someone or something. Everything has cost.”

Kanōna said nothing, only sucked breath through her gritted teeth. Furiosa continued the technique, shifting to a different wrist lock, this one a twist. Her hands fumbled for a fraction of a second, but it was enough. Furiosa sighed; she’d lost her connection with Kanōna, and now her hold consisted entirely of strength and torque. She held on for the sake of the lesson, twisting Kanōna’s wrist by the palm.

“How do I make it stop?” Kanōna squeaked.

“Relax,” Furiosa said knowing full well how impossible that sounded, “and turn towards the pain.”

“What?”

“It’s counterintuitive, I know.”

Kanōna squirmed again, this time finally freeing herself. As she worked her hand out, one of Furiosa’s metal fingers caught her skin and left a long scratch.

“Why did you do that?” Kanōna asked as dabbed at the blood.

“It happens sometimes.” Furiosa flexed her prosthesis as she checked it’s steel for blood; she didn’t see any, but she knew the smallest drop could turn to rust. “I’m not very gentle.” She folded the cloth of here hakama around each of the fingers.

“That’s not it,” Kanōna licked away the blood from the tip of her finger. “I mean why did you try to teach me? You said you wouldn’t.”

Furiosa didn’t have an answer. “Do you still wish to learn?”

“Only if you teach the others as well. It’s all of us or none.” She tucked her legs beneath her as she sat across from Furiosa.

Furiosa nodded. “If they wish, and if they will work. It won’t be easy.”

Kanōna grabbed Furiosa’s wrists again. “Why did you change your mind?”

“You were right.” Furiosa flared her fingers so their lines of energy reached up Kanōna‘s arms and through the sockets so the shoulders lifted in place. This time Furiosa didn’t proceed immediately for the lock. Instead she tried to hold the connection as long as she could and to sense the exact moment when she lost it. “What else am I to do in this place?”