The Writer’s Choice series of fictions continues with this installment from Nancy Sauer, detailing a struggle of honor and loss in the midst of the Crane Clan.
Flowers in Darkness
By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
Even in autumn the gardens at Kyuden Doji were lovely to look upon. To the left of the path, stands of bellflowers clustered beneath maples just beginning to blush red. On the right the banks of the pond were lined with deep banks of jewel-toned chrysanthemums, and the fishing pavilion that it fronted was garlanded in white- and rose-colored morning glories. Kakita Hideshi stood amongst the beauty and saw none of it.
Through the air came the sound of voices: Kakita Idzuki’s loud boom and Asahina Beniha’s more bell-like tones. The fishing pavilion’s privacy and attractive view made it a popular spot for meetings, and the two of them had spent all morning discussing how to pursue Lady Doji’s most recent order. It was also a popular spot for lovers’ trysts and impromptu sadane matches, and so Hideshi had spent the morning making sure they were not interrupted.
“The Empress may do as she wishes with the Spider, Tainted or unTainted,” Idzuki bellowed out. “For a Crane to accept the Taint is to commit treason!” Beniha murmured something in reply. Hideshi flinched slightly. It was true. He remembered with terrifying clarity the moment of the duel when his body had been taken from him and used to satisfy another’s will. His lord, his clan, could no longer rely on his obedience, because he could not be sure his actions were his own. His honor was hollow.
The sun has not reached its zenith when Idzuki emerged from the pavilion, Beniha following behind him. Hideshi bowed silently to the magistrate as he passed, and when he arose Beniha stood before him, smiling a smile he knew well. “Have you been inside the pavilion before?” she asked. “The view is very pleasant.”
Hideshi kept his face blank and his tone cool. “I am sure it is lovely, Beniha-sama.” Her smile changed ever so slightly in response and she stared at him for a moment. “You can enjoy it alone,” she said. “I am going to meditate in the willow garden.”
“Your will, my lady,” Hideshi replied, but she had already turned around and begun walking away. He watched her go, knowing that the time would come when she would realize why he was keeping her at arm’s length.
Until that moment came, he thought, he could at least try to salve her pride. Walking the path around the pavilion and further into the garden he found a tangle of rose bushes with a few brave, late blooms upon their canes. Reaching in to pick one of them he scraped the back of his hand across a thorn. Terrified, he jerked his hand free and stared at the scratch until the blood flowed and it was outlined with a row of tiny garnet drops. Not black, he thought with relief. How far gone did one have to be, before the blood turned black? And how could he find out without drawing attention to himself?
The smell of the blood stirred him, and he raised the hand to his lips. He was about to lap the blood up when he realized what he was doing, and snatched the hand away in revulsion. He hurried over to the pond and washed, praying as he did so.
Grandfather, what do I do? Grandfather, what do I do?
* * * * *
The moonlight threw the wavering shadow of a man against the outside wall, and Beniha paused expectantly in her writing. The shadow moved on and she realized that it was only one of the guards walking his nightly rounds. Not Hideshi.
Putting down the brush she arose and walked to the door that led out to the veranda. Beniha slid it open partway and looked out at the full moon that silvered the bush clover in the garden below. Last autumn she and Hideshi had stayed up all night during such a moon, drinking sake and improvising poems. Where had that time gone? He had been cool towards her since late winter, and the past few weeks his manner had been positively cold.
It was her pride that was hurting, Beniha told herself. Only her pride. She had known when she started the affair that someday it would end, but she had always imagined that she would be the one who ended it. Even now she couldn’t believe it, but–Winter Court would make her feel better. She was unmarried, she was a Crane daimyo, and she was beautiful, and she need never worry about staying alone for long.
Beniha spent a few more minutes listening to the night wind, then she shook herself lightly and went back to her writing table. Love ended, but duty was always with her.
* * * * *
The sake was terrible, but Hideshi hadn’t come for the drink. The Summer Grass was the kind of sake house where the serving girls kept the patron’s bottles filled without comment and everyone studiously ignored what was going on at the tables around them. It suited his mood perfectly.
“Well, clearly I am favored by my lord. I had been hoping to find you in this city, but I didn’t expect to find you here.”
The voice was faintly familiar, but Hideshi stared at the man who knelt down at his table for several long seconds before recognition came. “Arima!” he snarled.
“The same,” the samurai said, turning to signal a serving girl. “Which is less foul here, the sake or the souchu?”
“You will need neither as soon as I get my sword,” Hideshi said.
“Oh, so sincere,” Arima said. “I’ll take what he is drinking,” he told the girl, pointing at Hideshi’s bottle. When she left he smiled and pointed at the Spider mon over his heart. “I am the member of a Great Clan now, by the Empress’s decree. You have no reason to treat me as an enemy.”
Hideshi had no answer for that, and Arima maintained the silence until his sake arrived. “That was quite the duel,” he said. “They are talking about it from here to the new gateway.” He leaned forward slightly, lowering his tone. “You see what you can do, when you accept the blessing?”
“It is no blessing,” Hideshi said.
Arima shook his head slightly. “So stubborn! Foolishness.”
“No Crane could accept such a gift,” Hideshi said.
“So don’t be a Crane,” Arima said. “No, no,” he said, raising his hands to forestall Hideshi’s response. “I am sure it is a fine clan. I honor it: Kanpeki-sama has many Crane ancestors, I am sure. But if they have no room for someone with the blessing, leave them and swear to the Spider Clan. It is perfectly honorable: We are a Great Clan and we have been given a duty by the Empress to kill in her name. How many Lion samurai would kill themselves for such a chance?”
Hideshi stared down at the table for a moment before abruptly getting to his feet and heading towards the door. He collected his blades without speaking and went out into the night without giving thought to where he was going.
When the madness for motion left him Hideshi found that he was back at the fishing pavilion. He sank down and watched the play of moonlight on the water, trying to find some measure of calm. Arima’s words had made a disturbing amount of sense, and yet there was a wrongness in them. The Taint wasn’t a blessing, it was an enemy that sought to undermine his will and separate him from his family, his school, his ancestors. The Empress might have some use for those who had surrendered to it, but he had no intention of joining their ranks.
The duel had been a warning, Hideshi thought. He might have lived for years without realizing how strong his enemy had become, but the duel had forced it to show its hand. Now Hideshi knew, and delay would only weaken him. He stared at the lake, a plan taking shape in his mind. If it succeeded he would die honorably, as a Crane, and at worst it would offer Beniha her best chance to salvage her reputation. There was nothing more he could do.
As he stood up his hand brushed the Talisman of Gaki-do that Ryoshun had given him. A test of souls, the Kami had called the Talismans, and Hideshi had been slow to recognize the true nature of his test. But now he understood, and he would not fail.
* * * * *
Beniha moved among the crowd in Domotai’s morning court, smiling, gracious, and privately irritated. Hideshi had not been waiting at the door to her rooms this morning. Nor had he been waiting for her here in court. It was one thing to stop showing up in her room at night, but for him to be lax in his duties as her yojimbo was quite another. Not that she needed protecting here, but people would notice. There would be talk.
There was a stir at the doors to the room and Hideshi entered. He did not look around to find her, as she expected, but instead moved steadily to the front of the court and made a full bow in front of the dais Domotai was seated on. Beniha felt uneasy from what she read in his bearing, and her face reflexively assumed a courtier’s bland mask.
“Lady Doji,” Hideshi said, “my lord Kakita Noritoshi is dead and his son has not yet been confirmed in his lordship of the Kakita family. I therefore appeal to you, who was my lord’s lord.”
“And what is the nature of your appeal?” Domotai asked.
“My lady, I request permission to seppuku,” Hideshi said.
At the word the court fell silent. Beniha wracked her memory, trying to imagine anything Hideshi could have done that could remotely require such absolution. Domotai’s face went hard, and she leaned forward slightly to stare at the man kneeling before her. “And why do you request this favor?”
Hideshi looked up to meet her eyes squarely. “My lady,” he said, “I am Tainted.”
The silence vanished as everyone who could took several steps away from Hideshi. Up on the dais Daidoji Kimpira and several guards had appeared with weapons unsheathed, arranging themselves between him and Domotai. The monster, Beniha thought numbly. The monster at Kibi Mura—it had been real all along, but she had been wrong to think it was Hideshi.
“You worthless dog,” Kakita Idzuki said. He pushed his way through the crowd to stand on its margin. “How dare you come into this room? How dare you bring your foulness before the Champion of the Crane?”
“I have given my reasons, Kakita-sama,” Hideshi said quietly.
Now the whole court was murmuring, and Beniha realized that her status was in peril: everyone knew about her affair, and though it was ignorable under ordinary circumstances it could doom her now. “Send him to the Spider,” she heard from someone in the crowd, and “ronin” and “execute him.” For a moment she wished he could have found some more private way of destroying himself, and then in a flash of insight she realized what he was doing. By revealing himself here Hideshi had give her the opportunity to publically distance herself from him. If she joined her voice to Idzuki’s in calling for expulsion she would make clear to all that she had only contempt for him, and begin the process of salvaging her power in the courts. It would doom Hideshi to a ronin’s life, or worse still force him to embrace his corruption as a member of the Spider Clan, but it couldn’t be helped. One could not be Tainted and a Crane. It was unthinkable.
Domotai had not moved, but she was looking at Hideshi with tight-lipped disapproval. Idzuki was launching into another speech, this one somehow involving the Empress. Beniha closed her eyes and took a deep cleansing breath. Then she opened her eyes and walked out of the crowd to stand in the open, a few feet from where Hideshi still kneeled.
“Domotai-sama,” Beniha said quietly, “I would ask you a question.”
“Speak,” Domotai said.
“Domotai-sama, if a samurai of the Crane had come to you with a report that he had discovered that an enemy had infiltrated your house, you would reward that man, yes?”
“I—yes, I suppose,” Domotai said. Her expression had settled into guarded neutrality, and Beniha surmised that the other woman had figured out what she was leading to and was not at all happy about it.
“This man,” Beniha indicated Hideshi with a flick of her fan, “has come to you with news of such an enemy. How should you reward him? Would it not be proper to allow him the honor of killing that enemy?”
There was a long pause and then Domotai spoke. “So be it. Kakita-san, I grant you permission to seppuku. Go and start your preparations. Kimpira-san, assign him an escort so that no one interferes.” She looked around the room. “There will be no more business here today. Court is dismissed.”
* * * * *
The summons had come after lunch, as Beniha expected it would. As she made her way to Domotai’s study she prepared herself for what was likely to be a very difficult conversation.
She was admitted to the room at once. Beniha gave Domotai a full formal bow and waited for permission to rise up. And waited. And waited. “You may rise,” Domotai said finally, and Beniha sat up and looked into the thunderous face of her Champion.
“What were you thinking of?” Domotai said. “This is a disaster that even a Hida could understand how to exploit. The scandal will be immense!”
“There will be no scandal,” Beniha said. “I will retire to Shinden Asahina and spend the rest of my life there.”
“Depriving me of my finest courtier. Do you think so little of your clan, that you would sacrifice it for your lover?”
“I did not act to save my lover,” Beniha said.
This brought Domotai up short. “What then?”
“I am a priestess and an Asahina,” Beniha said. “I will not stand by to see any soul condemned to darkness when I have the power to save it.”
Domotai paused. “It is easy to forget that about you,” she said finally. “I suppose I cannot punish you for acting as your ancestors would wish.” Another long pause, and in a very different tone she said, “Would you…would you like to speak with him? I can have Kimpira escort you.”
Beniha felt her throat tighten suddenly and tears pricked at her eyes. “Thank you, Domotai-sama, but no. We have already said all that needs to be said.”
* * * * *
The sun was not yet risen, but its light was awash in the sky, when Hideshi entered the garden. His steps were firm, mirroring the resolution in his heart. In the early part of the night he had been tormented by thoughts of escape and what death was about to take away from him, but as the ritual of preparation unfolded Hideshi had surrendered to it, using its ancient words and forms to build a wall against the corruption within him.
As he walked further Hideshi took note of the small group gathered at the clearing. Kakita Idzuki was there, scowling and tapping the hilt of his katana. Hideshi felt a surge of gratitude towards the man: without him, there would be no one from his family at all to witness his death. Some distance away stood Beniha, looking pale but composed. All things are impermanent, the Tao said, strive diligently. Her life would be filled with hardship from this point on, but that was a matter for her strength, not his.
Hideshi knelt down on the white cloth next to the stand which held his wakizashi. He looked around for a moment, taking in the muted beauty of the garden. Its creators had intended it to be lovely in all lights, and in the predawn glow the form of branch and texture of leaf and petal held sway. Hideshi frowned slightly—he had composed a death poem during the night, but now he realized it was wholly inadequate. Picking up the brush he quickly wrote out the words that arose in his mind. He smiled as he laid down the brush, and then he picked up his wakizashi.
Flowers in darkness—
We can embrace their fragrance
even without light
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