Mariko sat on a low wooden stool next to the deep Teakwood tub filled with hot steaming water. Lotus blossoms floated on the surface, their subtle aroma mingling with the moist air creating an atmosphere of sublime tranquility. Covering her nakedness with her arms she bowed her head as Umeko dipped a large wooden ladle in a bucket of cool, fresh water and slowly poured it over Mariko’s body. Umeko performed this act several more times before setting the ladle down atop the bucket in a precise manner. She then helped Mariko into the hot tub and quietly knelt nearby. After several minutes of relaxed silence Mariko glanced in Umeko’s direction.
“You have familiarized yourself with the music?”
“Hai, Aruji,” Umeko stated, bowing as she spoke.
“It is important that you do not drop a single note during the performance. You understand this?”
“Hai, Aruji,” Umeko repeated. “I have practiced diligently with the Samisen and feel I am ready.”
Mariko nodded. As she sank back in the soothing waters of the bath, she recalled her own time as a young girl of nine serving the first Okiya and its Okasan. How she had hated to practice the Samisen. But, after several years of harsh beatings, she eventually came to appreciate the beauty of such an instrument and, once that door had been opened, she quickly became a master, not only of the Samisen, but of all the other instruments her craft required. Glancing at Umeko, she was thankful the girl was eager to learn, for she did not wish to subject the young girl to the same harsh treatment. Mariko was fond of Umeko and the girl had served the Okiya well and without complaint.
“Tonight is an important night,” Mariko said as she ran her hand along her neck. “I have decided that you may wear one of the plain kimonos, but no Obi. I think a simple uaruobi is suitable. Pick an autumn color of each and try not to get them dirty.”
Umeko’s eyes lit up like a thousand lanterns. She bowed, touching her head to the floor.
“Arigatou Gozaimasu, Aruji,” the girl whispered. “I will be most careful of them.”
The was a moments pause before Umeko ventured a question.
“Forgive, Aruji, but how many of the Empresses’ men will be coming tonight?”
Mariko did not answer but simply stood and waited while Umeko fetched one of the large towels that were warming by the small brass heater. Returning, she held it open as Mariko stepped from the tub and wrapped herself in the warm linen.
“That number is unknown. Perhaps as many as five or as few as one. Regardless of the number, we are well prepared with food, drink and entertainment. I am sure they will leave the Okiya with happy hearts.”
Umeko smiled and nodded. “Hai, Aruji, how could they not? And the pillowing room? Shall I place fresh flowers?”
Questions of such nature were generally asked by the maiko assisting the Geisha. Since no maikos were currently living at the Ichiriki Chaya, Umeko could be excused for asking.
Mariko thought for a moment. It was entirely the Geisha’s decision whether or not to entertain a guest beyond what was normally expected. Money was no guarantee that the guest would be provided more intimate considerations and any refusal by a maiko or Geisha to a guests’ request for such considerations must be honored and accepted without question.
“As I have not met any of our guests before tonight, I do not think the pillowing room will be needed. But, you may place fresh flowers there nonetheless.”
Leaving the bath the pair went to Mariko’s private quarters where her most valuable Autumn Kimono was laid out along with the nagajuban and all its accompanying undergarments, ties, sashes and ribbons. Mariko decided it would be prudent to start early since Umeko was still learning the proper way to dress. Extra time would be required since it was expected that the young girl would make several errors concerning the order of dress and the proper knots. Everything the young girl did was a lesson in both the application of her skills and the abundant patience she would need in the future.
Mariko looked over the arrangement of the garments and made several changes to the order, pointing out to Umeko the reason for each adjustment. The girl listened intently as Mariko went over each item. The ogi-bira kanzashi of silver and gold would be worn in Mariko’s hair just above the right temple. On the left she would wear a bira-bira kanzashiof tiny hand-made silk Chrysanthemum flowers representing the Imperial Family and the month of kannazuki (October). These strings of tiny flowers would dangle to a point below her left temple.
Makeup would be applied first so as not to dirty the kimono. The process of applying the makeup was intricate and involved and to do it quickly took many years of practice. Umeko knelt next to Mariko and watched with rapped attention as she went through each step. Mariko slowed down her application so Umeko could see exactly what brush was used and how much water was needed to mix with the rice-powder so the correct consistency was reached. Holding a hand mirror in one hand, Mariko held it so she could see the back of her neck reflected in the larger mirror before her. Using this method she was able to apply the narrow “W” at the nape of the neck with the other hand. Umeko shook her head and exclaimed that she would never be able to perform such a precise task and still get the “W” perfectly centered at the back of the neck. Mariko smiled as she applied a small amount of vermilion to the corners of her eyes.
“One day, before you are even aware of the time that has passed, you will be sitting where I am now teaching an apprentice of your own how to do these things. On that day the Okiya of the Ichiriki Chaya will have gained a most honorable and beautiful Geisha.”
Umeko blushed and bowed low. “Arigatou Gozaimasu, Aruji.”
“But.” Mariko continued. “Before that day arrives, we must first finish this one. Now, come assist me with dressing, for we have less than two hours before our guests arrive.”
Umeko set the lacquered tray of hot tea and sweet-rolls down next to the disheveled futon and gently shook Mariko.
“Mistress? Wake up mistress. I have brought hot tea and sweet-rolls.”
A muted groan was followed by Mariko rolling over and covering herself with the bed linen. Umeko settled back on her heels and tugged at the edge of the sheet. A moment later a tiny voice spoke from under the covers.
“What time is it?”
“It is past noon, mistress,” Umeko answered.
And it was, indeed, past noon. Outside, the sounds of a busy work day in the capital city of Zento, wafted through the open windows like the call of a harsh Okasan. Mariko rolled onto her back and lifted her head out from beneath her linen shield. Gone were the valuable kanzashis from her hair. Gone too was the elaborate umemodoki hair-style. Her ebony hair was a mess of tangles and frizzes. Umeko sighed. It would take a bit of brushing to tame her mistress’s unruly hair. But, all things being equal, it was a small price to pay after the success of the previous night. Mariko, for her part, managed to sit up after a bout of eye rubbing and scalp massaging, which, to Umeko’s dismay, only compounded the knots and frizzes in her mistress’s hair.
“I have drawn a bath and laid out your day-wear,” Umeko offered as she served the tea.
Mariko nodded and glanced at the girl through bleary eyes. She smiled, but did her best not to let the girl see. Umeko had done well and had earned the respect of their guests but, more importantly, had earned a promotion. She would not yet be maiko but she would rise above her lowly rank of Han’gyoku and become O-shaku; a maiko apprentice. Her duties and responsibilities would not change, but she would be given more freedoms and be permitted to dress in simple kimonos. Her lessons in music and dance would begin in earnest and she would be introduced to the difficult and demanding art of the Tea Ceremony. It had taken Mariko five years to learn how to perform the Tea Ceremony properly and, as she sipped her tea and glanced at the kneeling fourteen-year old, she wondered how long it would take her. But in the world of the Geisha, time was of no importance. Only the art and the precision of each breath, the tilt of the head or the bending of the wrist counted. For them, no amount of praise or letters of affection from former guests could detract from the art itself. This was the world they served. The world they embraced. They inhabited a separate reality know as the karyûkai; “The Flower and Willow World." And, regardless of how they arrived at this place and time; their fate had been determined long before they were born.
“You did well last night,” Mariko offered. Umeko bowed and thanked her. “You are up early,” she added then glanced toward the open window and chuckled. “Ahh, yes … well.”
“Hai, mistress. I was up before the sun and cleaned, washed, scrubbed the floors, and put everything in its place, but I still must polish the …”
Mariko held up her hand stopping the girl mid-sentence. It was clear the girl was still excited about her first real night of service.
“Enough Umeko, you are giving me a headache with your cleaning. But I am appreciative of your efforts. When you are finished with your chores you may have the rest of the day for yourself as there is nothing planned for tonight. You may go.”
Mariko lay back and rested her head against the folded towel at the edge of the tub. The warm bathwater soothed her and permitted her mind to drift back over the events of the night before. Five of the Empresses most trusted men had arrived exactly on time and, after some hesitation on their part, most likely due to the dangerous nature of their work and the constant stress of watching over an empire and an Empress, they managed, with the help of a large amount of sake, to finally relax. Mariko smiled. It was pleasing to see such men, so used to warfare and battle, become their true selves. For, under all that armor and guarded apprehension, they were, if nothing else, human.
Mariko closed her eyes and re-examined each moment of the evening and each movement of hers and Umeko’s. She reviewed the dance going over each step in detail looking for errors. She found none:
*this video of Mariko’s dance is best viewed in full-screen mode*
She was happy her guests had utilized the areas of the Okiya open to them. The roof-top garden for mediation and quiet reflection. The bath where they could sooth away their aches and engage in quiet conversation. The Pillowing Room which, although not utilized, was the subject of intense interest to several of the warriors who lingered after the others had gone. Mariko covered her mouth and laughed. She had entertained warriors before and found it amusing that some men, after years of service to the sword, sometimes forgot the most basic functions of life and had to be guided gently back into the reality of their existence.
“Yesterday is a dream. Tomorrow is an illusion. The only thing that matters; is now.”
These words once spoken, by her, to a warrior of great renown, who had found himself lost in a reality of blood and battle, helped him to regain his humanity and embrace the simple act of touching another human being with affection and love. She had done what was necessary to rid him of the nightmares of war. She had brought life back into a world where only death and suffering had ruled. She had opened the door to the mysteries of the karyûkai and the warrior had entered that world and survived.
Mariko opened her eyes, leaned forward, and stared at the ripples in the bath. She focused on the thin wisps of steam that rose without effort to surround her in soothing heat. She breathed in the aroma of rosemary and lavender and, covering her face with her hands; wept. She wept for the tragedy of war but more importantly, for the first time in more than a year, she wept for the loss of her sisters and friends in the fire that destroyed all they were and all they would ever have.
“After the battle
All that remains
Are red blossoms
On white snow”
Young Umeko hurried along the main avenue of Zento, the Capitol City of the Empire of Tokuno. A worried look creased her brow as she scampered between knots of people and carts. Her arms were ladened with dry goods, sundries and food purchased at the local markets. The air was sweet with the aroma of roasting nuts and baking bread, but Umeko was focused on returning home as quickly as possible. She was approaching the Inn just beyond the bank when she spotted two Samurai strolling towards her. She knew them to be Ronin, but as they drew closer she saw they now wore the colors of the Empress; no longer Ronin they were now in the service of the Empire.
Deftly the young girl moved to the side of the road, set down her packages and, as the two warriors drew abreast, knelt and bowed low pressing her forehead to the ground. The two Samurai made no indication that they even noticed the girl as they strolled past quietly talking between themselves. Umeko glanced up only to assure herself they had passed by before she gathered up her packages and continued on towards the western district of the city.
Arriving at the Okiya, Umeko slipped inside, looked quickly up and down the street before closing and locking the main gates. A strange quiet had settled over the district as if the world was holding its breath. Lazy strings of smoke rose from the chimneys of the nearby houses and somewhere off in the distance a dog was barking. Umeko slipped off her getas and kasa and entered the main house.
Mariko was kneeling on the small stage in the private dinning room changing several worn strings on her samisen when Umeko entered, set down her packages and bowed.
“Ohayougozaimasu, aruji. I have returned with everything that was on the list,” she said somewhat breathlessly.
Mariko nodded and continued with her task. Only when Umeko remained standing did she look to the young girl. A look of worry and concern still creased the girl’s brow. Mariko paused, her delicate fingers still holding one string along the neck of the samisen.
“Umeko,” she said softly, “You are much too young to carry such a worried look on your face. What troubles you? Did the young boys tease you again?”
“No Mistress. The young boys did not tease me. It is … there is talk.”
“Talk?” Mariko smiled and turned back to her chore. “There is always talk, Umeko. Gossip, rumors. We must learn not to pay too much attention to the idle talk of busybodies.”
“No Mistress,” Umeko stepped closer to the stage and bowing again, whispered. “It is war Mistress. The people talk of war.”
Mariko stopped what she was doing and, giving no indication of emotion, laid the samisen down gently, tucked the folds of her kimono under her knees and turned towards the girl.
“War? Are you certain?”
“Hai Mistress. And I saw two Ronin wearing the colors of the Empress. They were fully armed.”
Mariko studied the girl. Umeko was not prone to flights of fancy and had never once told a lie that Mariko was aware of. If indeed it was war then there would be difficult times ahead. She nodded thoughtfully before speaking.
“Please put the goods away and prepare tea. Then you will tell me all that you heard.”
Umeko obeyed and a short while later the two women knelt at one of the low tables in the dinning area drinking tea. Umeko told her mistress everything she had heard. A group of foreigners had come to Zento for a social event at the local tea house. Everything seemed to go well except for a small group of peasants who mounted a half-hearted protest against the Empress’s polices towards the poor. The protesters were quietly led away and the protest ended peacefully. But it was much later that, as people were leaving the event, some harsh words were exchanged between several of the Empress’s men and the foreign guests. Weapons were drawn and men, on both sides, died. Upon returning to their home on the mainland, the foreigners quickly declared war upon the Empire of Tokuno. Mariko listened quietly as Umeko finished then rose and went upstairs to her private quarters.
War was no one’s friend and Mariko understood what could transpire following such a declaration. Travel outside the Empire would be curtailed. Indeed it might be impossible to even leave the city once the declaration was made official. Curfews would be enacted and strictly enforced. Prices of food and dry goods would quickly double. And there could be shortages. Not many at first, but the longer the war went on the shortages would become acute. The harbors may be blockaded and trade restricted. War was bad for business but even worse for the poor and destitute. War, however, was sometimes necessary. To defend ones homeland from invaders. To defend the honor of the Empress and protect the culture and its people. But more often than not. War was no one’s friend.
Mariko went to her dressing room and unlocked a small lacquered chest containing her ink, quills and parchment. If war was to come to the Empire, then all its citizens must do what they could to aid the Empress, not only for Her glory but for that of the Empire as well. Kneeling at her small writing desk, Mariko penned a letter to Lord Bishimi. When she was finished she sealed it and sent Umeko to deliver it to the headquarters of the Blue Lotus Ninja Clan. She then checked the contents of her strongbox. It might be necessary to hire a guard to watch the front gate, for if war was truly declared; there would be spies everywhere and if the fighting came to the Capitol; there would surely be looting.
“Aruji?” Umeko gently shook Mariko until she stirred awake. “Aruji?”
“What is it Umeko?” Mariko groaned in a sleepy voice as she rolled onto her side facing the other direction.
“Mistress. There is something you must see.” There was an urgency in Umeko’s voice that caused Mariko to turn slightly towards the girl. “What is it Umeko?" She asked again with a hint of exasperation in her voice. “It is very early and you know I like to sleep until noon.”
“Hai, Aruji. But … but there is someone downstairs.”
If anything was going to bring Mariko’s head off the pillow it was that statement. She had not seen or heard form her Danna, Lord Takeamada, for almost a month. He had gone back to his estate in Homare Jima after receiving a report that the Black Mantis Tong was operating in his district again. It was worrisome not to have received any word from him for such a long time. Perhaps it was he who was waiting downstairs. Mariko got up, threw a silk robe over her shoulders and turned to Umeko
“Very well Umeko. As you can see, I am up now so please, who is downstairs?”
Umeko gave several quick bows in succession. “Mistress, please hurry. I do not know if the girl will live or not.”
Mariko frowned. “A girl? At our gate? Not live? What in the world are you talking about?” But Umeko was already headed for the stairs.
Mariko followed, tugging her robe tighter around her as they padded down the stairs and out into the formal entrance garden. A thick, early winter fog had blanketed the city creating an atmosphere of eerie foreboding. The paper lantern Umeko held before her as she led her mistress towards the outer gate did little to dispel the crisp, frost laden fog. The air was very still.
“I was leaving for my lessons and tripped over her.” Umeko explained as she opened one side of the gate. “I thought at first she was dead, but when I looked closer I saw it was not so, but very nearly so. She is Gaijin, Mistress.”
Umeko held the lantern higher so Mariko could examine the bundle that lay with its back pressed against the gate. A ragged filthy blanket covered what appeared to be a young woman. Her long hair was damp with frost and tangled in a mass of thick knots. Her young face was pale as death. Only the bruises from a recent beating showed dark against her skin.
“She has been beaten.” Mariko observed.
“Gaijin” or foreigners were not always welcome in Tokuno and foreign beggars and refugees were, more often than not, severely ill treated or quite often killed by roaming bands of Ronin. Lifting the blanket Mariko examined the young woman closer. She was clothed in a simple dress that was torn and muddy. If she had arrived in Zento with any money or jewelry at all it would have been stolen from her very early on. It appeared she had been living on the streets for several weeks. The girl was gaunt and half-starved and, as Mariko saw when she lifted the blanket further, barefoot. But what caused Mariko to cover her mouth in alarm was what she discovered when Umeko held the lantern closer; the girl was with child.
“Quickly, we must get her inside.”
Together the two woman managed to lift the girl and carry her into the entry hall where they laid her near one of the heating braziers. Mariko sent Umeko to fetch a healer while she examined the girl closer. The girl was definitely gaijin and could not be more than sixteen or seventeen years of age. Mariko gently pushed some of the girl’s dark hair away from her face. Large purple bruises colored her jaw and cheek and her right eye was swollen. The plain dress was wet and stinking with filth from the gutters and mud soaked alleys. Several open sores on the girl’s legs needed tending. Laying her hand gently on the girl’s swollen belly, Mariko closed her eyes and waited for some sign that the baby still lived. A tense moment passed before she felt the slightest kick from within the mother’s womb. Nodding, Mariko removed her robe, covered the girl then went to boil a pot of clean water.
By the time Umeko returned with the healer, Mariko had managed to wash much of the dirt and grime from the girls face and neck and cleaned the sores on her legs, but her pallor was alarming and her skin was cold and clammy to the touch. After the healer examined her, they carried her to the upstairs pillowing room where they left her with the healer who examined her further. When he was finished they removed her clothing, cleaned her further and covered her with fresh blankets. As Umeko sat watch over the girl, Mariko escorted the healer to the gate.
“She is in very bad condition, but with care she might survive although I am not certain of the odds. She should not be moved except to bathe, which should be done soon. Should she wake, feed her only broth for several days. The unborn child is strong but, considering what the mother has been through, it will be a wonder if either of them survives. There was one odd thing though. The girl’s hair appears dark in color but, as I examined her closer, I found her natural color to be red, like wine. Why she changed her hair color raises a number of questions. Perhaps she is a fugitive from mainland law. It is not for me to say, but I would not tell anyone about her until we learn more. I will return tomorrow to check on her again. In the meantime keep her warm, If she wakes, feed her small amounts and bathe her as soon as possible.”
“Domo arigato.” Mariko said as she pressed a coin in the man’s hand and opened the outer gate. The thick fog still clung to the city and swirled around the diminishing form of the healer as he headed home. Mariko watched him go then closed and locked the gate. As she returned to the house a number of thoughts raced through her mind. Taking the gaijin in was a risk. If word got out she was sheltering a fugitive, even one from the mainland, if indeed that was what the girl was, then, according to the laws of Tokuno, Mariko could be punished. If the girl was nothing more than a refugee, then caring for her would not be a crime, but would be looked upon as weak and sympathetic to the mainlanders as a whole. Worse, if it was discovered that the girl was a spy, someone willing to endure such abuse in order to garner sympathy and thus gain entrance into Tokuno society, then both Mariko and Umeko risked death.
Climbing the stairs, Mariko paused at the doorway of the pillowing room and studied the girl. Her skin was sickly gray and shrouded in a glistening sheen of death. Umeko looked up at her mistress and shook her head. Mariko nodded. Perhaps the girl would die and the issue would be closed, but for now, the best course of action was to say nothing and keep the girl within the walls of the Okiya until more could be learned. The day was not starting out well, then again, it was still very early.
Mariko shifted her blue silk kimono as she knelt next to the Koi pond and held a teapot of boiling water against the surface of the ice. The hole it melted would allow the gasses that accumulated under the ice to escape. This would permit enough oxygen to circulate, keeping the valuable Koi alive. Lifting the pot from the ice she sat on one of the large stones bordering the pond. A light snow began falling. She watched the paper-white flakes land and melt on her hand.
“So like Cherry blossoms,” she thought. “So fragile. So beautiful.”
Above her, several Chickadees flitted back and forth from their shelter in the eves over the Tea Room to the feeder hanging on one of the bridge posts. Winter brought a silence and peacefulness that was unmatched by any other season. The peacefulness of the Okiya was just as precious and just as fragile as any snowflake or Cherry blossom, but that peacefulness had been shattered like a porcelain tea bowl with the arrival of the mainlanders.
Umeko arrived home the day before in a panic. A group of some seven gaijin stopped her on her way home from market. They cornered her near one of the vendors at the edge of the city proper. Thinking they were either members of the Tong or solders of the enemy, she threw herself on their mercy and begged them not to kill her. They spoke to her in their strange guttural tongue. Then, one spoke a few words of Tokunoese, but Umeko still did not understand what they wanted. After a time they let her go. She did her best to take a different route home, but one of them followed her and arrived at the gates of the Okiya just as she was about to enter. She immediately alerted Mariko.
When Mariko went down to see what they wanted she found two foreigners, both women, standing outside the gate. She greeted them respectfully as she would any visitor. One of the women seemed familiar to her and as it turned out, she was. The woman named Jolicia mentioned the name of the man to whom Mariko once owed a life-debt and, at first, she was concerned that Jolicia had been sent by the one called Renthar to remind Mariko of this debt. But that fear was dispelled when they told her they were seeking a girl with fire-red hair; a girl who was with child.
“There is no such girl here.” She told them. “Only Umeko; and she is dark haired like all Tokunoese girls.”
Still they pressed her. The girl, they told her, was their friend and they were looking for her. She had run away and they were worried for her safety. Mariko assured them again that no such girl with fire-red hair was here. But they continued to press her. It was no good standing outside the front gates where any passerby could see and hear what was being said. Foreigners attracted attention and with the Empire at war one might easily misinterpret this meeting as related to some sort of intrigue on the part of the Okiya. As it became more apparent the gaijin would not leave, Mariko was forced to invite them inside. It was extremely rare to have women who were not maiko trainees or servants inside the walls of the Okiya and Mariko did her utmost to maintain her composure and polite attitude, but, like all mainlanders, the women displayed their impatience and rudeness by continuing to press her about the girl. Somehow they understood the girl was here. Mariko suspected the dark skinned woman was some sort of witch who had managed to divine the location of the girl. Witches were not uncommon in Tokuno, but one did not usually have them in their homes for tea.
Finally, with no options left to her, Mariko admitted she did have a girl here who was gaijin but she did not have fire-red hair and that she was, indeed, with child. She assured them the girl was being attended to but it was still unclear if she would survive the beating she had received at the hands of the local Ronin. This did not sit well with the women who insisted on seeing the girl.
The peacefulness of the Okiya was further shattered when a group of foreign men arrived outside the gates. This incident was becoming untenable and could easily result in the arrest of Mariko for harboring foreigners during a time of war or worse consorting with spies. Excusing herself, she went outside to confront the men. To her surprise she found that Judas D’arc, a man with whom she was familiar and who had accompanied her on occasion by playing music for her performances, was among the group of men. Mariko glanced up and down the street and saw no one watching. She maintained her composure and spoke politely to Judas letting him know his friend Jolicia was inside and that they were having a polite conversation and that she would be returning to him shortly. She also made it clear that the men could not enter the grounds of the Okiya as they were not ‘clients’. One of the men made a rude suggestion about Mariko’s occupation, which was typical of the mainlanders’ ignorance of Tokuno customs and society. When Mariko asked him to explain his comment, he wisely retreated.
Returning to the women, Mariko led them upstairs to the pillowing room where the girl was recovering. It was obvious the girl was near death and Mariko informed the women that the girl had been in this state for three days. The healer was doing everything in his power to keep the girl alive. The baby was strong and was, in the words of the healer, “special.” Mariko understood that all babies were special, but he seemed to think, as did the two women who now knelt over the dying girl, that this unborn child was particularly “special.” It was clear the two women were distraught over the girl’s condition and made little effort to control their emotions. Although Mariko had fond memories of Jolicia and respected her for her kindness to her during her stay at Ashencrosse, she could not help but wonder about the lack of self-discipline the mainlanders had over their emotions. But decorum demanded she remain stoic in the face of such upheaval. When they offered to take the girl away with them, Mariko protested. The healer had made it very clear that the girl would certainly die should any attempt be made to move her. She was now a guest of the Okiya and, as such, became Mariko’s responsibility and Mariko accepted that responsibility the moment she brought the injured girl inside. No, the girl would stay until she was well enough to travel.
Then the witch announced she too would stay.
The peacefulness of the Okiya was unraveling as quickly as a ball of string that rolls downhill. Mariko closed her eyes. A witch within the walls of the Okiya was, not necessarily, a bad thing. But a foreign witch? Once more Mariko had no option. She agreed to allow the witch to stay and use her skills to help the girl recover, but with the understanding the witch would remain on the grounds, wear Tokunoese dress during her stay and not interfere with the daily function of the house. Then Jolicia asked permission to visit the girl and the ball of string unraveled further. Like a fire that threatens to spread, Mariko knew this incident must be contained. She granted her permission if Jolicia agreed to come alone and in secret. With everyone in agreement, Mariko escorted Jolicia to the gate, bade farewell to Judas and company, closed and locked the gates and returned to her duties. Umeko was instructed to fetch a list of herbs and other sundry items so the witch could treat the girl. The house settled into an uncomfortable silence.
The morning brought a crisp, cloudy day and light snow. Mariko watched the Chickadees a moment longer and was about to enter the main house when the bell at the front gate chimed. She paused. It was unusual for the bell to ring so early. Perhaps the healer wished to check on the girl before he began his day. Mariko set the teapot down, unlocked, and opened the gate. Instantly her heart froze. Standing at the gate was an Imperial official, accompanied by two Samurai guards wearing the colors of the Imperial House. Struggling to maintain her composure, Mariko swallowed hard, then bowed deeply.
“Ohayo Gozaimasu,” she said softly. “How may I be of service?”
The man said nothing but handed her a parchment bearing the seal of the Empress. Mariko thanked him and bowed low. The man grunted, nodded once and left with his escort. Mariko held her bow blinking at the frosted ground. When she was sure he was gone she closed and locked the gates and, with shaking hands, broke the seal and read the parchment.
Mariko wore one of her best yellow kimonos for her appearance before the Empress. The red Obi was tied in the fashion of the Crane, a symbol of long life and prosperity and the color red was for luck. It was customary to be kept waiting for an hour or more before being escorted into the Divine One’s presence. During this time many thoughts ran through Mariko’s mind. Perhaps someone, a nosey neighbor, told an official about the mainlanders who had come to the Okiya over the past several nights. If this was so, then Mariko must prepare herself for the possibility she could be imprisoned, tortured and perhaps executed. She resolved that she would tell the truth should the Empress demand it. She may even tell the truth about the girl and her friends regardless, for honor demanded the Empress always be told the truth.
Finally, she was admitted. Entering the Empress’s presence, Mariko knelt, tucked her kimono neatly under her knees, placed her hands flat on the floor with the tips of her forefingers and thumbs touching and bowed from the waist until her forehead was only a few inches from her hands. Without raising her head she spoke clearly;
“Kamino, watashiha anata no maeni shoukantoshite hyoujsa re masu. Anata no saabisu woteikiyoukanouseiga ari mashuka?
“Divine one. I appear before you as summoned. How may I serve thee?
Himeko Kukiko, Empress of Tokuno looked down at the young Geisha kneeling before her with a mixture of pride and bewilderment. Here was a girl, a young woman, sworn to obey her Empress and dedicated to the greater understanding and beauty of Tokunoese culture. She was truly a gem. A rarity in an age when the young questioned authority or rebelled against it. She wondered how it was that the world had come to such a state.
Mariko bowed her head lower. “Hai, Heika.”
The Empress continued. “We wish you to entertain our guest, Myrddin ab'Arawn, Wolf King of Stonegate, who will be arriving here within the week on an official diplomatic visit. You will entertain him at the Okiya and provide for him any service he requires. Do you understand?”
“Hai. Watashiha rikaishite.”
Himeko allowed herself a slight smile. If only all her subjects were as loyal and obedient. How much easier it would be to rule. She found herself growing fond of the girl.
“Rise young Mariko and accompany us so we may speak further of more mundane things.”
Mariko rose from her bow and, sliding her right foot forward, stood in one fluid motion giving the appearance of floating up from the floor rather than merely standing. She followed the Empress to a side room where servants had prepared tea. Kneeling at a low table the two women talked of things related to everyday life. Mariko told the Empress everything. How the girl was found near death at her front gate. How the foreigners had come looking for her. She assured the Empress nothing related to this incident in any way compromised the security of the Empire as several of the foreigners were familiar to her and were trustworthy. For her part, the Empress listened intently and asked several questions regarding the injured girl. Mariko assured her the girl was being looked after and that hope for her recovery was high. She refused an offer from the Empress for a guard and said everything within the Okiya was secure. After this Mariko was dismissed and an escort was provided for her return home.
A sense of relief buoyed Mariko as she entered the western district of Zento. She dismissed the escort and walked the rest of the way alone. As she drew near the Okiya she saw another foreigner standing outside the main gate. She paused and glanced at the ground. How many more ‘visitors’ will the injured girl draw? She steadied herself and approached the well-dressed man.
“Good evening.” He said as she drew near. “You are Mariko?”
“Konnichiwa.” She said bowing politely. “I am Mariko. How can I be of service?”
The man went on to explain how he was an agent of a Baron Emanekaf who wished to engage Mariko for an evenings entertainment and that it was his duty to look over the Okiya and discuss dates and costs. Mariko agreed and invited him inside the gates. The man showed an understanding of Tokuno customs and removed his boots. His manner was respectful and polite and he asked many questions during the tour. Mariko showed him all the rooms including the Ceremonial Tea Room. She showed him all the rooms save one.
“I cannot permit entry into this room as one of our servants is very ill.” She explained and, at first, the man was satisfied. It was only when they were returning from the roof garden that the man began insisting he be permitted entry into the room where the sick girl was being kept. Mariko politely refused. He continued to insist, becoming belligerent and rude. Mariko continued to refuse asking for him to show honor and respect for a dying girl. When he continued to insist to the point of making threats, she asked him to leave and informed him that she was no longer interested in taking his money or entertaining his master. The man became irate and violently shoved Mariko to the floor. He then proceeded to break down the door. As it turned out, he was known to the Witch who was in the room tending to the injured girl. Mariko heard the Witch call him by name; Nythrax. And, he was friends to the girl herself.
Mariko had been deceived. But beyond that; she had been assaulted in her own home.
Had she been a man and had she been a warrior she would have killed the man called Nythrax, cut off his head and placed it atop the main gate as a warning to any Gaijin pig who might force themselves on the Okiya, but, she was not a man nor was she a warrior and so, she retreated to her quarters to wait out the
invasion. An hour, perhaps longer before she heard the Witch leave followed shortly thereafter by the man. Her anger at having her house and her person dishonored in such a violent and rude manner was more than apparent as she followed Nytrax out the main gates swearing all manner of curses in her native language at him as he stood there mocking her. Finally, she spit on the ground, then closed, and locked the gates. Never before has she experienced such disgraceful and deceiving treatment at the hands of a stranger. Surely not all mainlanders could be as godless and honorless as this man called Nythrax.
As evening descended into night and Umeko walked the grounds lighting the paper lanterns, Mariko sat in her quarters wondering if it would have been wiser to have let the girl die outside the front gates rather than have the peace of the Okiya shattered like a broken dream. There was, however, one thing she was quite certain of; the gates of the Okiya would remain locked to all outsiders not known to her and the man called Nythrax, one way or another, would die for his offense.
Umeko busied herself changing the flowers in the room where the girl was kept. She also emptied and refreshed the coals in the heating brazier. The Witch had been chanting for days until the gaijin man came and violated the house. Umeko was thankful the Witch had left because her chanting was making her nervous. Witches in someone’s house always brought bad luck. But she guessed the Witch would return before too long. If Umeko was anything. she was a realist.
Removing the sweaty, soiled bedclothes, Umeko slipped through the newly repaired doorway of wood and rice-paper and carried the bundle down to the wash-room where she laid them in a tub of warm water to soak. She would return later to scrub them and hang them to dry. Going back upstairs she took fresh linen from the storage and carried them back to the room. Sliding open the door she slipped inside and replaced the bedclothes. The girl’s body was still as gray as the winter sky. Umeko was a realist. She had seen this before when her own mother died. This color of flesh always preceded death. A day or two at most she guessed. She covered the girl with fresh linen and gathered up the plate of food that had been left for the Witch the night before. Hardly anything had been eaten. Umeko stared at the half-eaten plate of food and wondered about death. No one had ever died within the walls of the Okiya before. Would the girl’s ghost wander these halls? Would her ghost hold the hand of her child?
Umeko closed her eyes and whispered a prayer that she would not see the ghost of this girl and her child ever in these halls. The Okiya was a place of life not death. A place where people came to celebrate the living and find peace away from the hardships that often haunted them in the world outside. The wounded of spirit came to be healed. The troubled came to forget. The honored came to be honored more and the humble came to be raised up like royalty. This was not a place to die, but to live.
Umeko wiped a single tear from her eye and turned to go. As she did, her gaze fell upon the girl and her breath caught in her chest.
The girl was awake and was looking at Umeko with her one green and one gray eye. Umeko dropped the plate of food and scampered from the room. Rushing downstairs she searched the house for her mistress and found her in the Tea Room practicing her calligraphy.
“Aijin,” she stammered, pointing to the upstairs room. “No onnanokoha … onnanokoha oki tei masu.”
“Mistress. The girl … the girl. She is awake.”
Mariko set the brush and ink aside and followed Umeko up to the pillowing room where the girl was kept. Entering the room Mariko saw that, indeed the girl was awake, returned from her visit to the underworld. Mariko slid across the mats and gently lifted the girls head then set it on her own lap. She brushed hair from the girl’s forehead and felt her face. Still her flesh was cool but not as cold as before. She smiled when the girl tried to speak.
“Do not try to talk. You are safe here. Nothing will harm you.” Turning to Umeko she instructed her to fetch a bowl of warm broth. Umeko bowed and left the room.
Cradling the girls head in her lap, Mariko began to hum a traditional song. A song of love and healing. A song of peace and comfort. A song of life. A song that told of a great warrior returned from war, to find his family safe and still alive.
Mariko tended to the girl and saw to it she finished the bowl of rich broth. The girl, however, was not yet out of danger. The wounds on her legs were deep as if cut by a tanto or a spike of some sort. And, as she brushed the girl’s hair back, she felt several hard lumps on her head. The bruises on her face and neck would fade and from her examination she felt none of the bones in the girl’s face was broken. The Ronin had beaten her savagely, but had been very careful not to harm the baby. Mariko found this strange. When Ronin gave their attention to beating a gaijin they usually did not hold much back. The great majority of gaijin who fell under the Ronin’s assaults usually died. Why, Mariko wondered, did they spare the child? This was a question best asked of the Ronin themselves, but that question, Mariko knew, would never be asked.
Then there was the question of the disturbance heard outside the Okiya yesterday evening. Mariko swore she heard a wolf howl then yelp as if injured. She knew there were thick forests several leagues to the north of the city and that sometimes, though not often, a wolf would wander into the western district looking for food, but that was growing rarer as the city expanded. This attack, however, was quite close to the house. Mariko shook her head and prayed that no more disturbances would interrupt the peacefulness of the Okiya. A guest of the Empress was due to arrive in a few days and everything must be in proper order. There was much to do and much to practice and the girl … Mariko glance down at the sleeping girl and wrinkled her brow. The girl would have to be moved to a smaller room in the far wing of the house. The main house must be cleaned and prepared should the Empress’s guest desire to stay beyond a single evening. To move the girl would require the help of the Witch who was still away. When she left she said she would return in a day or two. Mariko hoped it would be today. There was much to do.
She sent Umeko off to run several errands, instructing her to go straight there and back again and not dilly-dally about. With so many gaijin lurking around, not to mention the possibility of a wolf loose somewhere in the city she did not want another injured girl to care for. With Umeko gone, Mariko knelt next to the sleeping girl and studied her. It was clear the girl had many friends who were very concerned for her. So much so that one of them felt compelled to physically force his way in to see her. Why then, did the girl run away? Why did she obviously change her appearance in an effort not to be found? This begged more questions. Were they really her friends or did the girl possess some secret they needed to extract or protect? And why did the gods see fit to throw this girl into Mariko’s path? What did they want of her? These were mainlanders. Their problems were not Tokuno’s, so why now and why here?
Mariko pondered these unanswerable questions for several minutes. Finally she quit looking for answers that were not there and decided that when Umeko returned she would walk to the temple, make an offering to her ancestors and pray for some resolution to this dilemma. Leaning forward, Mariko smoothed the thin wool blanket covering the girl and whispered:
“Chiisanaichi kixyuukei shimasu. Anata ha koko deanzendesu.”
Her Divine Empress, Himeko Kukiko arrived precisely on time accompanied by her guest Myrddin and several of her House Retainers. Her retainers would remain outside the walls of the Okiya. Chancing a glance at Myrddin, Mariko found him to be a picturesque man of grand stature with handsome features and a proud bearing. Mariko bowed formally.
“Welcome to our house. It is our great honor to serve you this evening.” She said, in near perfect common while keeping her eyes downcast.
After her greeting she offered to show Myrddin around the grounds and the house. To her surprise, he agreed. The short tour brought praise from the King but no questions. Mariko was used to the occasional mainlander, who had arranged entry to the Okiya, asking many questions, but the King, although impressed, exhibited little curiosity about the Okiya. He impressed her as a man of discipline much like Lord Takeamada. The tour ended, Mariko brought them to the dinning area where they sat in full view of the small stage. Mariko served them both Sake and made sure they were comfortable before she went to the stage. Judas, sitting on a low stool to the right of the stage, picked up a flute and indicated he was ready. Mariko knelt at the rear of the stage with her back to the audience. After taking a deep breath to calm herself, she picked up two closed yellow fans. Turning her head ever so slightly she nodded for Judas to begin. As he began to play, Mariko, her face stoic and tranquil brought her right foot forward and stood. Turning at the same time to face the audience, she began “The Dance of the Autumn Winds.”
When the dance had ended, Judas continued to play while Mariko, kneeling between the Empress and Myrddin, served them Sake and otherwise remained silent as the two leaders talked of politics sprinkled with bits of history and philosophy. At one point, when the Empress excused herself to go speak to her retainers, Myrddin engaged Mariko in polite conversation. She found his views fascinating but knew little of the politics or history of his people. However, she showed a genuine interest to learn about these things. The mainland was as much a mystery to her as Tokuno was to most mainlanders. Her brief stay at the town of Ashencrosse left her with a sense of pride that she was Tokunoese and would remain so forever, but, there were many places on the mainland she had never seen. Her time in Magincia, she thought, did not count as it too was an island nation. Magincia, however, had a certain attraction for her both in its clean, neatly arranged streets and in its admirable and generous Lords. There was Britain, which she heard was large and filled with grand history, but crawling with thieves and cut-throats. She had heard of a city called Luna and also learned the name meant “Moon.” She wondered if the mainlanders worshiped the moon as did the Tokunoese who worship Marisha-Ten, The Tokunoese queen of heaven, goddess of light, of sun and moon. She wanted to ask Myrddin of such things, but could not speak out of place. Perhaps, one day, she will be permitted to travel to these cities and see for herself if the stories are true. For now, however, her place was here seeing to the comfort of her guests.
The Empress returned and the conversation between the two leaders continued for some time. Markio knelt quietly and was attentive to their needs. Finally, Myrddin appeared ready to leave. Mariko glanced to the Empress who gave her no indication that her many other talents would be needed. The Empress stood and was quickly followed by Mariko. Before long both Myrddin and the Empress were gone. Mariko stood just inside the gate listening to the quiet of the Zento night. She concluded that Myrddin was a man of honor. He did not appear solely interested in the Okiya’s secrets or Mariko’s other talents; unlike most mainlanders she had encountered. Perhaps, one day, such a man would visit the Okiya and Mariko could continue the conversation about the people of the mainland and learn more of their ways.
Locking the gates she returned to the house and offered Judas a handsome payment for his help, per her instructions from the Empress. Judas, however, declined to accept the gold and instead stated he wished for a different type of payment. At first Mariko was unsure what he meant. Although the King had not availed himself of her other talents, everything was prepared and it would be a simple task to pay Judas with such currency. Unusual, but possible. Her misunderstanding of his desires was quickly made clear as he simply wanted to ask her permission for him and his friend Jolicia to come visit the injured girl they called Alisiea. Mariko, unfazed by her misunderstanding, agreed to open her house to them whenever they wished. The girl was no trouble and since Mariko now trusted Judas and Jolicia and considered them honorable people, his request was granted.
Mariko saw Judas to the main gates, expressed her thanks once more then retreated inside. For several long moments she stood in the garden and stared up at the night sky. A bright swath of gleaming stars burned a path across the winter sky. Mariko smiled. It had been a most interesting evening.
Mariko stood looking down at the two kneeling girls who had been engrossed in a game of Ma-Jong. Alisiea had learned, over the past several months, to kneel and rise in the traditional Tokunoese manner which put less pressure on her belly and legs and made it easer for her to stand without help. The young mainland girl looked up at Mariko with an open mouth.
Mariko held up one hand and the girl fell silent. Umeko merely bowed her head. Obedience was part of her nature as she was born of Tokuno and was immune to the sassiness of mainland girls. Mariko spoke directly to Alisiea.
“It is important that you learn to read and write. I have decided it is time for Umeko to learn to speak the common tongue as she will soon be engaged in polite conversation with many mainlanders. Thus it is my intent to slay two birds with one stone as the saying goes. Besides, you can no longer flee in terror from such teachings as you will soon give birth and being that it is winter and you still refuse to wear shoes or sandals, you would not get far even if you choose to leave. You will learn to read and write so your child will not be ashamed of you when she grows. I have sent word that I wish to hire a teacher and when a suitable one is found, we shall begin.”
Alisiea glanced at Umeko who was now pressing her forehead to the goza mats, but was peeking up at her from the side; a look of encouragement in her eyes. Alisiea slowly closed her mouth and turning back to Mariko, bowed her head. Mariko had gotten it wrong that Ali had run away out of fear of leaning. She truly enjoyed her lessons and wanted for all the world to continue, but … circumstances had forced her down another path.
“Okay.” She said softly trying to appear compliant. These were strange people and had very odd customs but they were also overly kind and generous to those under their care and Ali actually found living here rather peaceful.
Mariko nodded and started to leave the room, but paused and without looking back, added;
“After today, you will be given chores. You have been far to idle.”
“Chores?” Ali asked in shocked surprise. But Mariko had already gone and Umeko was giggling into her hands.
A very cold, dry snow had fallen overnight leaving a thin white blanket over the grounds of the Okiya. Umeko rose well before dawn and set about quietly stoking the brass heaters in the rooms most used during the morning. Her mistress, Mariko, would not rise before noon, but it was necessary to start now to heat the bath water. She paused in her chores remembering that today the girl, who was no longer a guest, but an unofficial member of the family, was to begin helping Umeko with her duties. Glancing towards the small room where the girl… whose name was “Alisiea,” a name Umeko had practiced over and over to pronounce, but only ever managed to get “Ali” to a recognizable state… was sleeping. The wood and rice-paper door slid open with a soft hissss and Umeko slipped inside. The room was still comfortably warm and dark and the soft glow of the brazier illuminated the sleeping form of the girl in question. Umeko slid across the floor on her knees and gently shook the girl. She did not rouse immediately and it took several more shakes before a muffled groan rose from the blanketed bundle.
“Wha…? Go away. What time is it?” The bundled form protested.
“Shhhh …” Umeko cautioned. “Ali must come.” She whispered and began tugging the covers off the girl. This action was met with a stronger tug in the opposite direction and a more vocal protest.
“Go away. I was dreaming of cookies.”
“No.” Umeko responded firmly as she tugged the blanket off the girl’s shoulders. “Ali must come. Now.”
Ali rolled over onto her back and lifting herself up on her elbows, blinked at Umeko. A look that said “I will kill you if you do that once more,” crossed her face and Umeko paused. Were mainland girls truly this difficult? Had Umeko protested as strongly as this when she first arrived at the Okiya she would have been beaten with a thin bamboo rod and thrown into a ice cold bath. Umeko remembered what Mariko had told her;
“We must be patient with her. She is not used to our ways.”
Umeko bowed her head and in her best, yet struggling common tongue, voiced her apology.
“Please … to forgive. But … kaji …” She struggled for a moment looking for the word. “Chores.” Smiling she bowed again adding; “Chores to be leaned. Please come.”
Ali blinked at the girl and softened her tone. She was a guest … well had been a guest, but now it was time to repay their kindness for saving her life and keeping her safe. Jolicia would have expected no less from her either. Nodding she whispered; “okay … I mean… hai.”
Umeko led Ali through the house showing her where to find the items needed to complete the day’s chores. The brass heaters must be stoked and the bath water changed and heated. The floors must be swept then polished by hand with a soft cloth moistened with Tung-oil. This required both girls to kneel while pushing the cloth before them across the floors following the grain of the wood. After a few minutes of this Umeko saw that Ali was struggling with the weight of her belly and she excused her from this work. Instead, Ali was set to polishing the numerous decorative items and picking yellowed and dried leaves off the indoor plants. The candles in the paper lanterns must be changed. The ice over the pond must have a hole melted into it with a hot tea pot so the Koi would not die. The bird feeders must be refilled. The laundry tub filled with clean water and set to boiling. The pantry inventoried and a list drawn up for shopping. The drawers where Mariko’s most valuable kimonos were kept must be polished and the dressing room put in order. Then came time to sweep the snow off the pathways both inside and outside the gates. Umeko handed Alisiea a wide straw broom and set her to sweeping the pathway to the formal Tea Room while she opened the gates and swept the front walkway and stairs. While she was outside she checked the mailbox and found an envelope. Unable to read what was written on it she brought it inside and placed it neatly on Mariko’s dressing table then went back downstairs to start preparing the morning meal. She and Alisiea ate a light meal of rice, boiled eggs and tea. When they were finished, Ali was permitted to return to her room where she immediately went back to sleep. Umeko started the laundry then set up the pens and inks for her calligraphy practice, arranged Mariko’s instruments on the small stage and went upstairs to Mariko’s private quarters where she knelt just outside the door to wait for her mistress to rise. Smiling to herself she opens a thin book of Tokunoese poetry and begins to read. Overall, the morning has gone well.
Mariko roused herself before noon, slipped into a black silk robe decorated with large red Hibiscus flowers, called for Umeko who slid open the door and bowed low.
“Yoi asano, aijin. Yoku nemuttei ta negate masu.”
Smiling, Mariko nodded. “I slept very well thank you. Is the house in order?”
“And the girl?”
“Hai, Mistress, she was very helpful and learns quickly but had difficulty polishing the floors.”
Mariko nodded. “That is to be expected. She may be excused from that chore if she wishes, but I sense she has a streak of pride that may cause her to try regardless. Let us see what path she takes.”
“Hai, Mistress. Oh … there was a letter in the mailbox. There was much mainland writing on the outside. I placed it on your dressing table.”
Mariko paused. “A letter? Very well. Fetch it and bring it to the bath. I will read it there.”
Mariko lingered in the hot, scented bath water and read the letter several times. The parchment was expensive and the handwriting elegant. The gentleman had a practiced hand and used the language of a Lord and well educated person. It was apparent that he was proud of his skills as an artisan and craftsman of varied mediums. Music and dance as well? Mariko studied the signature carefully. Dante Darkheart. In Tokunoese society, names had meaning; usually denoting some aspect of a person’s skill or station in life. For example “Mariko” means “child of true reason and passion”; “Umeko”, “Plum blossom child” since she came to the Okiya when the Plum blossom’s were at their most aromatic. She was uncertain if the mainlanders honored the same custom when naming their children or if they took a new name after adulthood, but the last name of the gentleman offered her a slight sense of foreboding. “Darkheart.” Perhaps it was her ignorance of such things that lent itself to this feeling, but with the intrigue surrounding the girl who now resided here and the incident with the gaijin named Nythrax, Mariko felt the need to be cautious.
Setting the letter aside she held her breath, closed her eyes and slipped beneath the surface of the bath. The warmth soothed her eyes and the liquid buoyancy lifted her ebony hair to float like river grass on the smooth surface. There was a silence here that spoke of a world without conflict, without worry or doubt.
Sitting up, she rung the water from her hair and nodded to Umeko who fetched a large towel. Perhaps Judas knew of this gentleman named Dante Darkheart. A few days would not matter if she waited before replying to his inquiry and if Judas vouched for him, then she would be agreeable to meet him.
Stepping from the bath she wrapped herself in the clean towel and sent Umeko to fetch paper and quill. She would write Judas regarding this gentleman and await his reply. In the meantime, she must prepare, for she had been summoned to the Imperial Palace to attend the Empress this very evening.
A cry of anguish rose from the city of Zento to break against the darkened sky above. Her Divine Majesty, Himeko Kukiko, physical embodiment of the Goddess on Earth, Empress of all Tokuno, has been stolen from us.
The city square runs red with the blood of Samurai and Ronin alike who have committed Seppuku before the eyes of the people. The fishing fleet has taken to sea fearful the gods will send angry seas to reclaim the islands that were gifts bestowed upon the Tokunoese. The islands of Homare-Jima and Isamu-Jima tremble in fear. Farmers clutch their children close and pray the earth will not open and swallow them up. Umeko, brave Umeko, asked permission to commit Jigaki; I refused her. Why should the innocent suffer?
Questions are being asked; where were the Empresses personal guards, the Clan of the Blue Lotus. Ninjas sworn to protect her to their very deaths? Were they complicit in this act? And Lord Takeamada, Daimyo of Sukuri Province on the island of Homare-Jima, surely he would have been named Shogun and thus rule in Her Divine Majesties absence, but Lord Takeamada has not been seen or heard from for many, many months. Was his disappearance a prelude to this act?
What sin have the people of Tokuno committed that would anger the gods in such a way? What trials must the people face now? Will there be drought to kill the crops? Will the rivers dry up or will there be floods to sweep away the memory of Tokuno? The throne lies empty. The Imperial Palace runs with the blood of lords and ladies who have sacrificed themselves out of shame. Many say this is the end of the world. That the gods are preparing to fight the final battle. Fear now rules this empire and the people are lost and confused. There is only one thing I can do. I must go to the Temple and pray to the ancestors for guidance. Pray that the empire is saved and pray the mainlanders do not come with their wars and pestilences.
The Okiya has been locked and barred. Umeko has been ordered not to leave and not to answer the gate-bell for anyone other than myself. Today is one of fear, confusion and disbelief. Tomorrow is but an illusion.
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