The Rising Son
Yoshi dodged puddles as he raced toward staccato sounds of drum beats and whistles of flute-like sangen. Dozens of Samurai had already entered the town, each wearing their most fearsome, brightly painted armor. The horns and wings of their kabuto sprang from their brows and towered above the crowd. Drably dressed commoners, fishermen mostly, crowded either side of the road and offered respectful bows as the martial masters passed. The warriors were known for short tempers and swift swords when their lessers failed to show proper deference.
“Hurry up,” Yoshi yelled, looking back over his shoulder. “The others are almost here.”
Kimiko dodged another puddle and hurried after him, her black hair billowing like the sails of her father’s fishing boat.
A vendor selling sponge cakes yelled out, “Yoshi-kun! Come, try my kasutera. Your father loves these.”
Yoshi snatched a cake and waved back at the man, but kept running as he tossed it into his mouth. The thick dumpling exploded, and tangy sauce dribbled down his chin.
The drumbeats grew faster as the jangling of bells added to the cheerful music.
The crowd’s cheers swelled.
Yoshi skidded to a stop just beyond his father’s protective ring of metal and men. Kimiko blundered into him, and they both flew through a gap, flopping like fish tossed onto the dock. A towering Samurai with crossed arms peered down. The scales of the massive man’s armor gleamed in the light of surrounding lamps. On his shoulder pads was painted the symbol of Han Anzu, a red sun broken by three spinning sickles. The crown of his golden kabuto was ornamented with a full moon above an upturned sliver. Yoshi grew up thinking the sliver was a smile rather than fearsome horns, a thought that at once amused his father and annoyed the helmet’s usually affable owner.
The Samurai’s eyes drifted across the teenagers splayed before him, and an amused quirk twisted the corner of his mouth.
“Young prince, you are late.” His voice boomed, turning heads nearby. “And filthy.”
Yoshi looked down to find his white trousers coated in mud and clinging desperately to his legs. Behind him, Kimiko picked a stray blossom off her otherwise spotless kimono. Her hair had somehow fallen perfectly about her shoulders, and she looked ready to attend the evening’s festivities with no evidence of their harrowing race. She scrunched her nose and motioned for him to wipe his face.
“Leave the boy be, Takeo. When you were his age, you showed up late most days—and smelling far worse.” Yoshi’s father cast an amused glance toward his son and sniffed the air with a wrinkled nose. A maroon cape was draped across the broad back of Anzu Hiroki, leader of Han Anzu. Unlike the Samurai surrounding him, the only armor he wore was his shingled breastplate, which he sported more for show than to protect his chest and abdomen. The hilt of the Anzu family’s katana rose from the thick, black sash wrapped around his waist.
Takeo grunted and bowed slightly. “As the mighty Daimyo says.”
“I believe that is the first time since birth you have addressed me properly, brother. After thirty years of your irreverent mouth, I had almost given up hope.”
Takeo rolled his eyes but held his tongue.
A household servant appeared and began fussing over Yoshi’s soiled clothing. For his part, the boy stood, chin high, and allowed the woman to do her best. She stepped back and examined him, shook her head while tsking his foolishness and her inability to remove several dark stains, then vanished to wherever she’d been hiding before magically appearing within the ring of armored men.
Kimiko’s slender, fingers gripped Yoshi’s arm. “Look there. They’re coming,” She pointed toward the main road that led into the town’s square. With a permissive nod from Yoshi’s father, she dragged him to the center of the square where a statue of Amaterasu loomed. The goddess was bathed in golden light, her hands clasped reverently before her. Someone had hung a paper lantern from her praying palms.
Ignoring the goddess, they climbed onto the base of the statue, allowing them to peer above the heads—and horns—of the Samurai. Kimiko practically vibrated with excitement as the music grew louder.
“I didn’t see that takoyaki stand,” Yoshi said. “And look, they’re frying soba over there, and those noodles . . .” He pointed toward vendors frying pancakes stuffed with octopus, and another whose sizzling noodles filled the courtyard with sensuous steam.
Kimiko shoved him playfully, and one of his feet slipped off their perch. “All you ever think about is food.”
“I can’t help that I’m a growing boy. I’m almost a man. You should show me a little more respect.”
She shoved him completely off the statue’s base. “Respect that. When you can beat me with that useless stick you carry around, I might give you a quarter bow.”
“Hey!” he climbed back up beside her. “My bokken isn’t a stick. I’ll earn my katana soon. You’ll have to bow or face my blade.”
“You’d have to be able to hit me first,” she snorted.
Lost for words, he bumped her shoulder to dislodge her as she’d done him. She barely budged. That earned a smirk and a wink.
The clatter of symbols punctuating the music drew their attention back to the road. Musicians shifted from joyful tones to the melody of loss and reflection. The front of the procession came into view as performers rounded the bend and headed toward the square. Two men in black pantaloons and white kimonos danced before a massive palanquin carried by a half dozen priests. Several young boys and girls in bright orange costumes and golden crowns clanged hand symbols as they stomped across the street, heralding divinity’s arrival and seeking his blessing.
“There’s the Shinkō-Retsu,” Kimiko said, pointing with an open palm to the portable shrine. A dozen Shinto priests struggled under the weight of the massive wooden bier. Tiny bells that hung below smiling wooden arches jingled as the structure swayed.
“I wonder if they brought the emperor’s spirit this time,” Kimiko whispered.
“Who cares? He’s been dead for more years than we’ve been alive.”
Her head snapped toward him with wide eyes. “Show respect for the spirits, Yosh, especially that of the emperor.”
Yoshi didn’t believe in gods or spirits, or whatever the latest monk or priest was peddling, but he didn’t want to start that argument up again, not on a festival night.
A sudden change in the music saved him, shifting from the mournful, slow whine of the Shrine’s dirge to an upbeat, playful tune that had Yoshi bouncing on the balls of his feet. Four rows of women with white painted faces and ruby lips danced into view. They wore traditional pink kimonos with tall wicker hats shaped like dumplings and danced in a dazzling unison. They clapped as one, then clomped as one. Their heads reared back, then lunged forward. When their tight triangular formation spread to the edge of the road, every line and step was measured to perfection. Yoshi couldn’t tear his eyes away.
Kimiko cleared her throat.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve seen Samurai practice their kata a thousand times, but they’re never in time like those dancers.”
“Speaking of Samurai—”
Yoshi practically leapt off the statue’s base, craning his neck to see what came next. The crowd bowed in what began as a ripple and grew into a wave. All lowered themselves in respect and awe as a dozen skilled warriors in polished armor advanced with katana flying in one hand, and a shorter blade flashing in the other. Light from torches and lamps danced off each blade, creating a spectacle of swordsmanship and nighttime brilliance.
Kimiko found two women, members of the all-female Onna-bugeisha, among the band. Her smile widened as the women’s crisp cuts cleaved the night with precision and grace. Even those gathered around the Daimyo turned and cheered their martial brothers and sisters.
“One day . . .” Kimiko muttered to herself.
“One day what?” Yoshi asked.
She was startled he’d heard her and waved it off. “Nothing. I was just admiring the Samurai.”
She felt Yoshi’s glare long after she turned back toward the parade.
Buddhist monks, not to be outdone by the portable shrine of their Shinto counterparts, marched in orderly ranks. They wore brown kimonos with flowing red and golden sashes, but few noticed their finery as balls of fire and ice danced above their upturned palms. The martial prowess and kokyu of the Buddhist monks were both a mystery and fascination throughout the empire.
Finally came the political class, leaders and representatives of the various tribes, members of local town councils, and other dignitaries. Yoshi recognized men and women from across the island, but many others he couldn’t name had also traveled from afar. Every one of the seven Han was represented in celebration of his father’s tenth year as Daimyo.
The music shifted abruptly again, transforming into the soothing, majestic undulation of the Emperor’s theme. A lone man in a shimmering golden kimono paraded slowly down the center of the street. His black eboshi headdress was covered in golden script, marking him an officer of the imperial court. The presence of the imperial official was expected, but the scroll bearing the seal of the Emperor in his outstretched hands was not.
The crowd hushed and bowed as he passed. Even the vendors ceased their ministrations to offer respect.
“That can’t be good,” Yoshi muttered.
“Shh. Someone will hear you. Being the Daimyo’s son won’t save you from an angry court official,” Kimiko whispered. Then she thought a moment. “What can’t be good? What are you talking about?”
“The scroll. That’s got to be the Emperor trying to drag us into a war or demanding higher taxes.”
“Well, he is the Emperor. I’ve never understood why we aren’t fighting by his side.”
Yoshi gripped her arm, turning her away from the festival. “Now you keep your voice low. All my father wants is for our people to live in peace. Mainland squabbles have nothing to do with us.”
“Nothing to . . .” She bit her tongue. “Mark my words, we’ll either join that fight on our terms, or someone will drag us into it. Your father can’t hide on this island forever.”
“Hide?” Yoshi’s blood boiled at Kimiko hinting at cowardice, but stilled as the messenger reached his father’s dais.
A thousand eyes snapped toward the man with the scroll.
Hiroki bowed low and everyone followed suit, leaving the Emperor’s man standing alone. When they rose, the representative offered a middling bow in return.
“Anzu Hiroki-sama, Daimyo of Anzu Han, the Son of Heaven sends his warmest greetings. His Heavenly Light congratulates you on reaching your tenth year as Lord of these lands and peoples. In his infinite wisdom, Heaven’s Keeper offers his thanks for your many years of service . . . and loyalty.” The last word was spoken through clenched teeth—but it was spoken.
Hiroki stepped forward and bowed to the representative again. “Anzu Han offers our respect and gratitude to the Emperor, the Hand of Heaven, and wishes him a long and healthy reign.” He stepped back into place without turning away or dropping his eyes. This was a dance as martial as any Samurai might endure, but one played out on a far more treacherous field.
The crowd muttered their approval at the exchange, then hushed as the golden-robed man dropped to both knees and held the scroll aloft, calling out in a clear staccato.
“These are the divine words of Akira Takashi Tennō. Receive them and heed his wisdom.”
Hiroki stepped forward again and gripped the scroll in two hands, bowing lower than he had before. He tried to step back, but the messenger clung to the missive. The tingle of kokyu pimpled Hiroki’s arms, and all sound around them was extinguished. The messenger whispered, his voice strained, “Hiroki, the Emperor calls on your kinship. He begs. His dragon may not be enough this time—and you know what would happen should the Emperor’s line fail.”
As the man released the scroll, the spell vanished, leaving those witnessing the display none the wiser.
The moment Hiroki stepped back, the snaps and booms of fireworks filled the air. Cries of surprise and squeals of delight could be heard from children throughout. Eyes turned toward the heavens—everyone’s except Hiroki’s and the gilded messenger’s. They were locked as if bound by some mystical force. Hiroki tried to turn away, but remained transfixed.
“You must hear me, old friend. The Emperor’s need is great.” A smooth voice slid into the Daimyo’s mind. “Hiroki, if your heart still holds affection for Takashi-sama, I beg you to join us. The armies of Yumi, Chinami, and Toshi will not be enough to turn back the tide of the north should they invade. There are even rumors the wakō—”
Hiroki was suddenly freed from the magical grip.
He looked down to find red blooming across the man’s golden tunic. He raced forward as the emissary crumpled to the cobbles, an arrow fletched in white protruding from his back. With the sounds of the festival, the missile’s flight had gone unheard.
As Hiroki cradled the dying man, his guard finally stirred. Their eyes flew from the fireworks and widened in horror as their Lord’s head bowed. A heartbeat later, a ring of steel surrounded him and katana sang with readiness. Cries of alarm spread throughout the crowd as more saw messenger’s death before them.
Yoshi and Kimiko had been transfixed by the lights in the sky but were now unmoving as they watched the scene unfold near the dais. When Hiroki rose with the injured man cradled in his arms, Yoshi leapt down and raced after him. Kimiko, knowing she would not be allowed to follow, raised her eyes to the heaves and prayed to the goddess whose statue she now clutched.
Yoshi pressed himself into the corner and watched as his mother and the Shinto priest attend to the messenger.
“Out, all of you, let the priest do work,” Kita commanded, shooing broad-shouldered Samurai as if they were children. The men would normally bristle at such disrespect, but Kita was the Daimyo’s wife and was a surrogate mother to many of the warriors. They revered her nearly as much as they might their master’s blade.
The Emperor’s messenger lay on a pallet in the center of the room. White paper walls framed with black painted wood shielded him from view, but did little to dampen the clamor beyond.
Before the last of the men who’d carried the messenger had vanished, the priest was already on his knees beside the man, peeling back his blood-soaked kimono. He turned to Kita, brows furrowed. “I need hot water, fresh linen, and as many of my brother-priests as you can find—and bring me some sake, for the gods’ sake!”
Yoshi slid the paper door open just in time for his mother to fly through without so much as a sideways glance. He slid it closed as one of the more impatient Samurai craned his neck for a better view. When the boy turned back, the priest was glaring at the gash in the man’s chest and muttering to himself. He was stunned to hear the names of ancient gods cross his lips.
“Mother Amaterasu, Lady of Light, hear my prayer. Guide my hand and strengthen my spirit. Kannon, goddess of mercy, show compassion this day. Stay the hand of Shinigami—”
Yoshi gasped at the invocation of the god of death.
The lanterns in the room began to flicker, and a black mist, darker than the deepest night, swirled above the messenger. It wasn’t the dimming of a flame; rather, the absence of light that swam through the room. A face framed in wild, wind-strewn hair resolved within the mist, and its glistening, silver eyes glared at the priest.
Death himself had come.
“How dare you stand between Death and his due,” the spirit’s voice boomed, and the paper walls of the chamber rattled as wind whipped about.
The priest raised his palms above his head, and they began to glow. His chanting grew louder as he brought them before his chest. The glow brightened. As his hands touched, the priest strained, as if fighting to contain the light between his palms. So brilliant grew his power that Yoshi had to turn away, only peeking back through shielded eyes.
The priest opened his hands and pressed them to either side of the messenger’s wound, light poured into him, but so, too, did darkness. Angered by the healing kokyu and the priest’s insipid prayers, the spirit of death entwined himself around every tendril of light, dampening its presence, silencing its power.
The messenger’s body shuddered and heaved.
The priest wailed and thrust more of himself into his spell, yet his light merely pulsed dully before stilling to nothing.
A shroud of blackness enveloped the messenger as the spirit clutched his prize, then a tendril of the angry god’s blackness stabbed out and seared the priest’s eyes. The helpless man was tossed across the room onto his back. Yoshi gaped in horror as the messenger’s spirit rose from his body and black mist devoured it, leaving no trace of man’s ethereal essence. With one last flare of emptiness, Shinigami, Kami of Death, cackled and vanished, leaving behind a dead messenger, a blinded priest, and a stunned boy.