In Story

The final installment in the saga of Uesuko, a simple woman trying to make a life in the Second City.



Small Choices

By Yoon Ha Lee

Edited by Fred Wan


Uesuko, who had come to Journey’s EndCity in disgrace not long ago, was realizing there was no such thing as a typical day, even for a seller of charms.  Once she had been embarrassed to call out to passersby, speaking to them of small magics for sleep, courage, beauty.  Now she thought nothing of it.  People around here knew she had once been a shugenja, and while the Phoenix disdained abilities as small as hers, weavers and fruit merchants and farmers regarded her with quiet respect, and sometimes came to consult her on supernatural matters.  Last week an older man had given her some mangoes to thank her for easing his wife out of a fever; the week before that, she had received a charming carved cup because she had gotten a ghost to stop rattling things in the hut at odd hours of the night.

Today the matter wasn’t supernatural.  Kanako, a geisha who sometimes stopped by to gossip about Scorpion musicians (fashionable, apparently) and sandalwood fans (less so), was here to see her.  Although her cosmetics were flawlessly applied, down to the beauty mark, she looked tense as she waited for the latest customer to pay Uesuko for a charm of safe voyaging.

After the customer had gone on her way, Uesuko looked at Kanako.  “Something’s the matter,” she said quietly.

“It’s one of the maiko,” Kanako said, referring to an apprentice geisha.  “She’s grown listless and lies abed all day.  The mistress of the house hasn’t tossed her out yet, but I fear for her.  The common remedies have done no good.  Will you come and see her?”

“I have to pay the enforcers today,” Uesuko said wryly, “but after that, certainly.”  She glanced at the sky.  It was mid-afternoon, but no matter.  Kanako had a way of being generous, and would have been even if Uesuko had turned her down, and while this thought, too, would once have embarrassed her, she knew that survival required pragmatism.

“I’ll come with you,” Kanako said.  “Who knows, perhaps I can smile the price down?”  But her rueful expression told Uesuko that she was joking.  The local enforcers happened to be strict about math.

Kanako helped her put away the charms.  Uesuko had once carried them in a satchel, but when she grew more prosperous, she had paid a tailor to design a carrying case with pockets that rolled up.  Her own attempts at designing one had been disastrous–she had cut up the results to use as rags–but this way the charms didn’t travel is such a state of disarray.

“How is Jun doing?” Kanako asked as they set out.

“The Spider haven’t bothered him in a while,” Uesuko said.  She knew samurai could not be relied upon.  Jun had only been lucky to be dealing with a Spider with an odd sense of fair play, if not precisely compassion.  But his loan was paid off, and with any luck he knew better than to take out another anytime soon.

The day was hot, but Kanako didn’t look as if the weather bothered her.  Uesuko supposed that being raised in the frigid mountains wasn’t doing her any favors; she wished that she, too, looked so effortlessly comfortable.  But then, she didn’t know how much training Kanako had undergone to achieve that state.

The enforcers preferred that payments be brought to a bookshop, albeit a bookshop where games of Winds and Fortunes took place out back.  Still, Uesuko had glanced through some of their offerings once, and discovered that whoever stocked the place had unusually good taste in supernatural plays and poetry.  One of the enforcers, a sturdy young man with scarred hands, recognized Uesuko and raised his eyebrows.  “Does she need protection too?” he asked her.

Uesuko, remembering how good Kanako was with a hammer, suspected the geisha wasn’t nearly as frail as she looked.  But Kanako dimpled at the enforcer and said, “I’m with the House of Floating Petals,” she said.  “Just passing through.  I need a shugenja’s help and our district doesn’t have one as good.”

“Floating Petals,” the enforcer said with a nod.  “No quarrel with you.”

Uesuko took the opportunity to pull out the small bag with the month’s payment.  She waited patiently while the enforcer counted it.  The enforcers were not kind people.  She had once said prayers over the corpse of a man who had crossed them and gotten caught.  But the enforcers here did not use violence gratuitously.  Other districts were not so lucky.

“Good,” the enforcer said.  He started shoving the coins back into the bag.  “Enjoy the afternoon.”

“That could have gone worse,” Kanako remarked once they had gotten out of earshot.

Uesuko’s eyes crinkled.  “You know their reputation,” she said.  “You wouldn’t have come with me right to their door if you had any fear for yourself.”

“Probably not,” Kanako said.  “But you know, Uesuko-san, the samurai that I entertain at parties and in private?  Many of them are dangerous, and some of them have very bad tempers.  Is it really so different?”

She was taken aback.  “I–I suppose not,” she said.

“It’s just as well that I’m as charming as I am,” Kanako said teasingly.  “That and a little common sense keep me out of too much trouble.”

They continued up the road to the House of Floating Petals.  Its architecture was very traditional, very Rokugani, and was probably murderously uncomfortable in the local climate.  Nevertheless, the sight of the cusped gables and reticulated shutters brought a pang of homesickness to Uesuko’s heart.  It wasn’t the only such building in Journey’s EndCity, but most of the time she tried not to dwell on the things she had lost.

Kanako led her around to a side entrance.  There was a small garden, which destroyed the illusion of home: all the plants and flowers were native to the region, although the landscaping had been done so artfully that Uesuko admired it anyway.  From within the building she heard laughter and music and, in snatches, a poetry recital.

The room they went to was dim, and smelled of incense from the brazier in the corner.  The maiko was sitting up drinking tea, but there was no luster in her eyes, and her skin was sallow.  “Aika,” Kanako said in a low voice.  “I’ve brought a visitor for you.”

Aika began to rise, but Kanako shook her head.  She sat, and Uesuko sat next to her.

“It’s kind of you,” Aika said, “but I’m fine.”

Kanako made an indelicate sound.  “You’re clearly not fine, Aika.  If you were fine, you’d be out there singing to that young Crab you fancied so.”

“Samurai come and samurai go,” Aika said indifferently.

Uesuko was beginning to guess that this malady was more of the spirit than of the body.  “I’m Uesuko,” she said.  “How long have you been ill?”

Aika glanced at Kanako, whose frown, while pretty, suggested that she had better answer.  “Only two weeks or so,” Aika said.  “Nothing interests me anymore.  How can an entertainer delight others when there is no delight in her own soul?”

“What happened two weeks ago?” Uesuko asked.  Lovesickness?

But Aika’s answer suggested that it was something else.  “I see the same sights over and over,” she said.  “I was born in this city.  But in my dreams I travel.  Sometimes into caves, sometimes through the jungle, sometimes across barren land where nothing grows.  Two weeks ago we entertained one of the explorers, a Mantis.  I listened to her stories and for a little while I could pretend I traveled with her.  But what’s the use?  This is the life I was sold into, so that there would be food for my brothers and sisters.”  Her face grew soft for a moment.  “It’s not all bad.  I see them sometimes, even if we don’t talk.  But I know they’re well and that matters, too.”  She looked away, then, and sighed.

Just as Uesuko was about to speak, there were footsteps, just loud enough to alert them that someone was approaching, but soft enough to be discreet.  Kanako rose with alacrity.

It was another geisha, quite tall, in a gray kimono stitched with white flowers.  There was a man behind her, also tall.  “My apologies,” the geisha said to Kanako, “but the honorable samurai was quite insistent.”

Aika had gone pale, but Uesuko looked at the man’s face, then at her, and shook her head.  “It’s not you,” she said in a low voice.  It seemed forever ago, but she knew the man.  Shiba Tamotsu, one of her father’s retainers.

“I am here for the ronin known as Uesuko,” Tamotsu said.

Uesuko got up and bowed very deeply.  “Shiba-sama,” she said.  “What do you require of me?”  She was bitten by the fear that something had happened to her father.  All this time she had carefully avoided thinking about what would happen when age took him and she would be unable to say farewell to him.

What Tamotsu had to tell her was almost worse, although she wouldn’t have thought it at first.  “Your father sent me,” he said.  “Let me ease the worry I see in your eyes, which does you credit as a filial daughter: he is in good health.  But lately he hears of strange things in the Colonies, and indeed in the world at large.  The rise of this Fudo nonsense, the highhandedness of the Crab Champion’s brother, the chaotic conditions.  In light of recent conditions, he considers the original exile too harsh.”  Tamotsu’s expression softened infinitesimally.  “Your lord wishes you to return to your home in the Phoenix.”

Uesuko stared at him.  All this time, and now to go home; the very thing she had tried not to dream of for so long.  “Shiba-sama,” she said, eyes stinging, “I am moved beyond words.  But I cannot go.”

Tamotsu mistook her meaning.  “It’s understood, of course, that your disgrace has left you with few resources,” he said.  As a point of fact, Uesuko had more money now than she had arrived with.  “I would escort you back to your father.  You need not worry.  Indeed, I have made some inquiries, and it seems evident that your potential as a shugenja was merely slow to mature.  Unfortunate, but not unheard of.  You could resume your studies.  The very best tutors will be available to you as they were in your childhood.”

Uesuko was keenly aware of Kanako and Aika listening intently, even if Tamotsu took no more notice of them than he would have of furniture.  After all, geisha were non-people; he only need notice them when he wanted to.

Uesuko wondered, too, what Tamotsu–or, more to the point, her father–would think if either discovered that her “improvement” as a shugenja was not due to any talent on her end, but the charity of the Unicorn meishodoist Iuchi Furade, who came by every two weeks to buy a single charm and commune with the rest, thus assuring their magical virtue.  After the first two visits, Uesuko had finally gotten up the courage to ask the woman why she did this.  Furade had fidgeted, then said, in a soft voice, “Because in your hands the charms can help people I can’t reach.”

Besides, even with Furade’s help, the plain truth was that the charms did not do very much–not much more than what any sympathetic soul could do with patience and a willingness to listen.  Tamotsu was probably repeating the face-saving excuse her father had furnished him with so as to get her safely out of the Colonies.

“I am sorry to have spoken so unclearly, Shiba-sama,” Uesuko said.  “What I meant to say is that I wish to stay here.”

Tamotsu frowned.  “Did I hear you correctly?”

“You did, Shiba-sama.”

“What holds you here?  Is it a debt?  A difficulty, to be sure, but one that could be taken care of–”

Not the kind of debt you’re thinking of, Uesuko thought.  The apprentice geisha who wanted to explore.  People who wanted charms to reassure them of the elements’ blessing in matters of fortune, or of money, or of health.  She was never going to be the powerful shugenja her father had dreamed of, but she had found something else.

“What holds me here,” Uesuko said, “is my heart.  This is my home now.”

Tamotsu’s frown deepened.  Then he said, finally, “You are no samurai.  Your father was right the first time.”

“Perhaps that is so,” Uesuko said, “but I have found my place in the Celestial Order, and it is here.”

Tamotsu shook his head, then left without another word.  Uesuko sat down, shaken. But Aika poured her tea, and Kanako stroked her hand, and Uesuko knew she was among friends.


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