There was a rumor in Edo Castle, that the ghost of the previous shogun could be seen over the western turrets.
Descriptions of her appearance varied. Some said she was clad in the armor she died in, blood still streaming from her wounds and steadily dripping onto the roof tiles. Others said she wore a resplendent kimono, dyed with gold, indigo, and scarlet, as terrifying and awe-inspiring as the sun-goddess Amaterasu herself. But everyone agreed that it was indeed the yuurei of Shimura Nana that came every twilight.
The castle inhabitants, already on edge from the turmoil to the south, whispered that she had come to watch over the inevitable war between her heir and her grandson. After all, just last week, news had come that Lord Shiragaki had decimated Chisaki's forces in the southern Chugoku province. He had slaughtered the entire clan inside the castle walls. It was said that not even children had been spared.
There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Shiragaki intended to take all of Japan by force.
In his white walled castle, Lord Yagi Toshinori, the heir to the shogunate, had called on his allies in preparation for war. Daimyos from across the island sent representatives. Some longed for war, for the chance to expand their territories and secure power in the next shogunate. Others feared Shiragaki's chaotic violence, his burnt earth tactics that left the countryside and cities in tatters. Still others came to scope out both sides, intending to choose their alliances based on the strength of each successor. Great lords and warriors of renown poured into Edo to come under Lord Yagi's banner. The country was racing towards a boiling point and no one was sure what would remain afterwards.
Midoriya Izuku was neither a great lord or a famed warrior.
He had been born in the waning years of the Shimura Shogunate, to a family of poor samurai. Midoriya spent more of his youth learning to clerk than to wield a sword. Despite his family’s low standing, however, he would scrape up his allowances to attend the local dojo, where the other children of samurai laughed at his lanky form and weak swings.
“You shouldn’t even be called samurai!” Bakugo Katsuki would snarl, before knocking Midoriya black and blue with his bokken. But Midoriya would only grimace and rub away his tears before staggering back onto his feet for his penalty swings.
“One, two, three…”
His sensei would sigh and interrupt. “Start over, Midoriya. You’re sloppy.”
“Yes, sensei. One, two, three-”
When Midoriya had been fifteen, his father had passed away from a summer fever. The visits to the dojo slowed and then stopped. Both he and his mother went to work to put food on the table. Midoriya’s inheritance was whittled down to a single short sword and a set of Portuguese medical books no one wanted to buy.
“I’m sorry, Izuku. I didn’t want this life for you.” His mother had cried to him at night. Midoriya had swallowed his own bitterness and gently assured her he didn’t mind. Even now, at eighteen, he still believed there was something else in the world beyond writing legal notices and stock inventories.
“Crazy Midoriya’s scribbling in his books again.” The samurai whispered amongst themselves. When Midoriya tried to show up to the barracks with a practice sword, they had laughed him right out the gates.
“He’ll help you with anything like a fool.” The servants gossiped. In the middle of winter, Midoriya could be seen drawing water for his neighbors, shivering without an overcoat.
“I like his spirit. Bring him to me.” Lord Yagi had said, when Midoriya had emerged from the river, slathered in mud. In his arms was a quivering, dirty mutt. Blood ran down his arms from where the dog had bitten him in a panic. But Midoriya had smiled, murmuring soft reassurances to the worn out dog.
Lord Yagi’s entire retinue, from his samurai to his servants, had gaped as their lord asked the young man, covered in filth, to accompany him to the castle. Then they had tittered when the young man promptly burst into tears.
Lord Yagi, heir to the Shogunate, had laughed.
That had been three years ago.
Midoriya was late.
He sprinted through the servant corridors of Edo Castle, apologizing whenever a maid or a groomsman had to leap out of his way. His sweaty hair kept falling into his eyes as he cursed under his breath.
It was rare for Lord Yagi to speak to him personally, let alone to set aside time. The fact that Midoriya had no idea what his lord wished to speak with him about only made him nervous.
He had tried to work off some nerves in the barracks, but Bakugo had stormed in and demanded a bout. One duel turned into five and now the only thing more sore than Midoriya’s ass was his ego. Nor did winning seem to curb Bakugo’s ire against Midoriya nowadays, as each match was swiftly followed by another demand for a challenge.
Being both the youngest retainers in Yagi-dono’s retinue after not seeing each other for years had soured things between them. Not that Midoriya particularly understood why, considering Bakugo had long ago outstripped him in birth rank, money, and swordsmanship. The only thing Midoriya definitively knew he was better at was not being an asshole.
But it was thanks to Bakugo that he was now running late and he skidded to a halt in front of Lord Yagi’s doors, uncomfortably aware of how disheveled he was. He paused to catch his breath when he heard stern voices on the other side of the door.
“-he will never agree to an alliance.”
Midoriya blinked in surprise. He backed away from the door, uncertain. Someone else was already in Yagi-dono’s chambers.
Yagi-dono spoke next, “But with Shiragaki’s recent conquests, does he have a choice? Even Todoroki cannot fight a war on two fronts.”
His curiosity won over his propriety. Midoriya found himself pressing an ear next to a nearby pillar, straining to listen. Everyone in the castle had been talking about Shiragaki for weeks, but he hadn’t heard much from Yagi-dono himself.
"Do you not fear Todoroki and Shiragaki aligning to tear us apart, Yagi-dono? Todoroki's ego would certainly lead him to believe that he is capable to challenge Shiragaki alone.”
Midoriya recognized that voice to be Lord Aizawa of Aizu. Self-possessed and curt, Lord Aizawa had never stood out as a warrior of repute in comparison to his other daimyos. Yet he found himself nodding along to his words.
"Todoroki has two reservations we may exploit. One, he is a traditionalist. Shiragaki's army contains brigands, criminals, pirates, men from all classes. He operates neither on our traditional social structure nor a meritocracy- Todoroki whose family goes back to the time of the gods will not be able to abide that. He barely tolerates my retinue, as it is. As for the second, well..."
Midoriya assumed Yagi-dono made some sort of gesture, because Aizawa let out a snort.
"You think he cares that much for that boy?" Aizawa sounded unconvinced, "From the way he was treated, I doubt father and son will ever be reconciled."
From what he remembered, Lord Todoroki had two sons, both samurai of some repute. His heir had recently won a skirmish in Izumo with only two hundred men against seven hundred, using a clever tactic to burn the enemies’ supply chains. But Midoriya had never heard of there being bad blood in the indomitable Todoroki clan.
"Well, you would know better than I. But Todoroki knows without you, he has no chance of ever reclaiming his son."
Midoriya’s confusion deepened and he leaned forward. What did they mean ‘reclaim’?
Aizawa’s disdain could be heard even in his muffled voice, “He called that boy his greatest creation, but-”
"What do you think you're doing here?"
Startled, Midoriya jerked his head up and hit it on the side of the pillar. Pain shot through his skull and he crashed back down to the floor with a groan. When he managed to crack open an eye, he paled at once.
Lady Shuzenji of Shizuoka looked disapprovingly down at him. Midoriya hastily sank into a bow and he could feel his stomach sink. Although she was small in stature and elderly to the point her hair had gone completely grey, she had lost none of the sharpness in her eyes. The redwood cane clutched in her wrinkled cane was said to have beaten many warrior into submission.
"Back in Shimura's time, eavesdropping could have cost you your ear." She said and Midoriya did not think she was joking.
"I was, um, supposed to be speaking to Yagi-dono, but he was occupied and so I was seeing if he was done-"
Some of the flintiness in her expression faded. She turned around and headed towards the dragon-patterned doors. "Come on then."
Midoriya gaped as he hovered behind her. "Wait, he's with Aizawa-dono..."
"So? And check that your head didn't just split open there. I don't want your brains falling out in front of the future shogun." Then, without any preamble, Lady Shuzenji flung the doors open wide.
"Yagi-dono, I have to speak with you." Lady Shuzenji announced as she strode into the chamber. Scrambling in after her, Midoriya quickly slid the doors shut and tried to make himself unobstructive by ducking into a corner.
He had been in Lord Yagi’s chambers a couple times, but each time it was hard not to stare. Gold glittered from the ceiling as reliefs of phoenixes and dragons twisted around the walls and ceilings. Yagi-dono’s sets of armor and swords stood on a bright red lacquer rack in the corner and Midoriya could name at which battle each set had been donned. Even the seat cushions on the tatami mats had golden thread embroidered into the deep navy cotton. Behind Lord Yagi was an enormous relief of a grinning komainu, a lion-dog, on the cherry wood paneled walls and Midoriya smiled a little at the sight of it.
Lord Yagi of Hojo sat at the front of the room, broad shouldered and handsome in his indigo kimono and golden haori. He was a man reaching the end of his prime, with grey beginning to streak into his golden hair, but he could still command the attention of armies with a single word. What he was known best for, however, was his warmth of character. Even now, when he beamed at Midoriya, Midoriya could feel the guilt of his earlier trespass fade.
Next to him sat Lord Aizawa of Aizu, lanky and pallid in his plain grey and white kimono. He truly did not look his rank, not with his unshaven chin and his ragged topknot. He gave Midoriya an appraising look before losing interest and turning to Lady Shuzenji.
“Certainly.” Lord Yagi recovered gracefully and gave her his famous wide smile. He gestured to some cushions to his side. "And Midoriya, my boy, were you waiting long?"
"N-not at all, Oyakata-sama.” Startled, Midoriya stammered. He stopped rubbing his sore knees when everyone in the room turned to look at him and shrunk into his seat cushion.
Lady Shuzenji took the floor with an impatient tap of her cane. “Yagi-dono, earlier today, an entire neighborhood fell ill due to poisons in the well. Yesterday, we saw an infestation of vermin in the granaries. The signs are clear. We are in a state of disorder with the gods.”
Yagi-dono’s brow furrowed. Midoriya could feel his nerves twist.
“You think the gods are to blame? This looks to be the work of enemy agents. Poisoning the well, releasing vermin, those could all be ways for them to weaken us from the inside.” Aizawa spoke up.
“There is a yuurei of the former shogun haunting the castle. Even if some of this has Shiragaki’s doing, we will surely only see misfortune so long as Shimura Nana’s restless spirit is here.” Shuzenji retorted.
“And is there any proof beyond castle gossip?”
“I’ve seen her.” Yagi-dono said and Aizawa looked at him in alarm. Midoriya stared between the lords, wide-eyed. “Shimura-dono’s ghost is indeed here.”
“Have you…” Aizawa dragged out the question, as if he disliked the taste of his own words, “...done something recently to disturb a woman a year in the grave?”
“I should hope not.” Yagi-dono said heavily.
Shuzenji-dono tutted. “Well, we need purification ceremonies in the town center and an exorcism in the castle. We should try to appease her and send her off as soon as possible. By your leave, we could begin tomorrow morning.”
“...Approved. But let’s approach this both ways. Aizawa-dono, could you take a look with your agents about possibile infiltration by Shiragaki?”
“We’ve already started.” Aizawa drawled.
“Thank you. Let me know your findings. You too, Shuzenji-dono.”
As Shuzenji and Aizawa began to leave, Midoriya also started to get to his feet, when Yagi-dono interrupted.
At the sound of his name, he froze in place. Shuzenji paused, giving Yagi-dono a searching look, before she and Aizawa shut the doors behind them.
“Let’s go for a bit of a walk.” Yagi-dono had declared after a period of awkward silence and so now Midoriya jogged after him down the hallways of the castle. For every one of Yagi-dono’s steps, he had to take two. He didn’t recognize these hallways as well, as Lord Yagi led him deeper into his apartments, a section of the castle reserved just for the shogun and his family.
The observation did not help Midoriya’s growing nerves.
His lord stopped in front of a set of doors inset into a circular archway. As he slid the doors open, sunlight briefly blinded Midoriya. Lord Yagi stepped out onto the balcony and gestured for Midoriya to come stand at the railing by his side.
“It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it?”
Midoriya nodded, awestruck. They stood on the highest balcony of Edo Castle, looking out towards the setting sun arching towards Mount Fuji. The city of Edo sprawled out below them and from this height, the people and the buildings looked like dolls and figurines. The wind whistled around them and Lord Yagi’s haori flapped behind him.
“I like to come here when I don’t want to be overheard. Not even a shinobi could scale the walls up here.” Yagi-dono said, looking knowingly at Midoriya, who dropped his face into his collar in embarrassment.
“Oyakata-sama, I apologize-”
“Leave the eavesdropping to others, Midoriya. But since you now know, what do you think?”
“A-about the alliance with Todoroki-dono?”
Yagi-dono nodded, still looking out at the city below, but Midoriya could recognize a test when he heard one. If his lord was asking for his judgement, he would do his best. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves.
“Aizawa-dono is correct in that Oyakata-sama is too trusting of Todoroki-dono. He has long coveted the position of shogun.” Midoriya began cautiously.
Lord Yagi laughed softly, good-natured. “That is true. Enji never approved of me, not even when Shimura-dono was still with us.”
“But it would not be Todoroki-dono that I would worry about. Nor is it Shiragaki, not as he is now.”
“It is as you said. Shiragaki has no structure in his army at the moment. His generals come from those that envy his power, not out of loyalty. His soldiers are a lawless bunch. This makes him an effective raider, but an ineffective lord.” Midoriya said. His hands had begun to sweat and he hid them in the folds of his hakama. Lord Yagi’s stare had a certain intensity to it that made him desperate to prove his worth.
“You do not think he has the influence to maintain the territories he has conquered.”
Midoriya shook his head. His words began to overtake his mouth, spilling out in a frantic mumble, “Winter is coming and he has burned half the countryside in his rampage. What will his troops eat? How will he pay them? He will exhaust his army through continuous conquest. Then infighting will begin and Kyoto will be in the center of chaos. Maybe even others will claim false birthrights like him-”
Lord Yagi cut him off. “No. You are perhaps right about the rest. But Shiragaki is indeed Shimura-dono’s grandson.”
Midoriya’s mind stuttered to a stop. “What?”
A great exhaustion seemed to fall over his lord as he sighed. Midoriya watched those broad shoulders slump and worry crease his brow.
“I don’t know what influences he fell prey to. I would blame demonic forces if I knew less about the ways of man. But even though his methods are abhorrent, his claim to succession is legitimate. That alone makes him a greater threat than you realize.”
It was the first time he had ever seen Yagi-dono falter. Fear rose up in his stomach and he exclaimed without thinking,
“Even so, Shiragaki isn’t fit to be shogun. He only cares about conquest for himself. But you care about peace and you care about people. Even someone with nothing, like me...”
Lord Yagi turned to look at Midoriya in surprise. A moment of silence passed as Midoriya stood, chest heaving and determination across his face. Then his mind caught up with his mouth and, turning bright red, he sank into a deep bow.
“I spoke out of line, I apologize-”
A deep, booming laughter startled Midoriya out of his furious apologies.
“That was a good analysis. You are improving, although I worry you are, like many good retainers, a touch blind to my faults.”
Midoriya could feel the back of his neck turn red with embarrassment. He dragged a hand through his thick, curly hair and let out a nervous laugh.
The sun had begun to set and Lord Yagi looked away, distracted. Then he brightened and exclaimed, “Look, Midoriya, my boy, can you see her?”
His voice barely carried over the wind, but Midoriya knew at once what he spoke of. He peered out to the parapets, eyes straining in the darkness. Then his lord gently took his wrist and, using Midoriya’s hand, like a father teaching his son the stars, pointed.
Midoriya blinked and all of a sudden, there she was.
A translucent woman in a white yukata floated above a stone dragon. So that was the former shogun, Shimura Nana. She had her broad back towards them as if she too was taking in the view of the city and the mountains.
“I know Shuzenji-dono thinks she’s a bad omen, but I can’t see her as one.” Yagi-dono confessed and Midoriya could hear a rough edge of emotion to his voice. He dropped his hand from Midoriya’s wrist onto the railing, gripping it so tightly that his knuckles paled. “I was like you, poor family standing and little material resources. She was the one that gave me a chance.”
Midoriya’s anxious heart caught into his throat as his lord turned to face him.
“I see that same greatness in you, Midoriya. In fact, I think you worthy of standing here, one day. So don’t apologize for yourself so often.”
In the face of Yagi-dono’s blinding smile, Midoriya could feel tears prick up in his eyes and he hastily turned to the side to scrub at his face. His lord did him a favor and pretended not to notice.
The sun had started to dip behind Mount Fuji and the light cut bright ribbons of color right through Shimura-dono’s form.
“I want to speak to her. To ask her why she’s here, after all this time.” Yagi-dono mused, melancholy thick in his voice, “But Shuzenji-dono would probably skin me alive.”
“Everyone keeps saying it’s like she’s waiting for something.” Midoriya offered. His lord hummed noncommittally.
Even though everything he had ever read or heard had warned him against entanglement with the supernatural, he couldn’t help but agree with his lord. It was not the yuurei of Shimura-dono that made Midoriya uneasy. Something was coming, something that Midoriya had no way to prepare for.
Night fell and, as the witching hour slipped away, Shimura’s spectral form faded out with the twilight.
That night, Midoriya dreamed of spirits and demons, sweating through his sheets. When he snapped awake, gasping for air, he realized his inability to breathe was not just from his nightmares.
Thick black smog billowed in from the hallway and the heat pressed down on Midoriya, smothering him under his futon. His eyes stung from the smoke and when he kicked off his blanket, disoriented and coughing, he saw orange firelight pouring in from behind the paper sliding doors.
To his dawning horror, he realized that Edo Castle is ablaze.