At the top of the dune a searing yellow light flared from all points without warning; he put out an arm to shield his eyes and beyond the glare glimpsed a multitude of faces, brandishing their fierce conical lanterns to maintain their bewildering effect. Neither his Mandarin nor far more partial Gangwon dialect placated them; weary, he offered no resistance, going down onto his knees and permitting them to bind his long arms to a cane and drive him before them while a portion of their number struggled with his trunk upon their shoulders.
He watched the ground change, the night-sky sand gaining a mantle of needles fallen from the black pines as they followed the bank of a meandering, sea-bound river, frogs chirping amid the water hyacinth. The party made its way into a village full of the whispered sounds of dusk, where simple thatch and cedar domiciles awaited them; the yoke was cut from his shoulders and he was ushered inside the most consequential building, a bare room walled by white paper laid over lattice, pale grass matting scuffing softly beneath his bare feet. The men around him resembled the tribesmen of his own homeland with their short stature and tea-skinned faces. He could make nothing of the admonition dealt to his captors by their master nor the address directed at himself, its clipped syllables aligned by percussive delivery into a demand, but he felt the man’s stare and in his apathy waited too long to lower his own toward the floor. The daimyo rose and commanded his retainers to seize the prisoner’s head, standing between them to peer down into Kala'amātya's eyes, moving to one side to admit more light from the lantern that was brought to bear.
It seemed he was not to be disposed of that night, shut up instead inside a grain store and placed under a heavy guard in the charge of a barefoot monk. The small man chanted in his robes of crocus gold outside the barricaded door, Kala'amātya sitting in the darkness of the empty granary and listening to its soporific cadence until the mist-draped dawn soaked through the cracks in the boards.
Having amassed his fierce, ornate company, the daimyo was assisted into his palanquin, his prisoner compelled to march, shoeless and shirtless, behind the swaying chair. Kala'amātya recalled little of that day, save for stares from peasants toiling over the rice harvest, the basket placed upon his head lest some impulsive ronin rob the daimyo of his chance to present the curious monster to his own master, and the impression of elegance and order that blended indistinguishably with his general memory of Edo. The spacious ways of beaten grey earth, like powdery repoussé under his naked feet, the hypnotic geomancy of its fitted timbers, storefronts mouthed with sliding panels, white script swooping across their inky noren under flaring roofs that seemed to relish their freedom from the ground; every novel element absorbed him. The lack of mounted wayfarers made for unbroken streams of human traffic though the procession that contained him commanded precedence, rendering the final leg of their journey a particularly conspicuous affair. Through the weave of his makeshift hood he glimpsed portions of the sprawling fortress into which they were admitted, via a paranoid array of gates and guarded stations, its turrets standing aloof on sloping, moated footings of titan bluestone. Its towering stories wore temple eaves over walls of eggshell white from which windows stared like small blind eyes, dolphin figures cast in gold squirming atop the gables in the midday sun like fettered chimera. Another storage chamber awaited him while the daimyo made the declarations of fealty that were the object of his journey; rats squabbled about his feet as he waited in the darkness, the nature of his fate, for once, as mysterious to himself as to those that partook of courtly ritual overhead.
Lamplight, and a startlingly occidental face greeted him upon his emancipation. The latter introduced himself, after some prompting from his unsmiling escorts, as a Dutchman, and made an uncertain offer of his services as a translator, switching to French when it became apparent that he was not understood. Kala'amātya said little in reply as they were led up narrow flights of stairs, along a corridor lined in precious woods stained oxblood red and into a hall of audience where fire-plumed jungle fowl, ivory-faced women and the twisted forms of forest trees stood in lacquered relief upon the walls. Like characters from tales suggested by the images, men sat in robes of sober blue and black and white, hair bound in knots upon their heads. They murmured their concern at the creature pushed onto his knees before their overlord, the figure occupying the midst of the scene to which all other forms were ornament.
The blonde Dutchman cleared his throat and whispered to Kala'amātya, though no one else could have understood his conclusions.
“The great man you see before you... he is Ieyasu Tokogawa... shogun, their sovereign... though he is but a warlord... little better than a pirate. Remain as you are, hold your tongue, save when addressed by Tokogawa. Nothing but the direst grief will come of disobedience.” His voice was hoarse and broken, befitting his balding velvet and filthy, partial linen and a person seemingly purveyed from some distant shipwreck, the stink of unfamiliar liquor soaking his skin and lank tow hair. Kala'amātya kept his head low as he replied.
“Why do they summon you to speak for me?”
“The weapons in your chest... some of them are alike to those of my countrymen...” He trailed off, lifting an eye as a question was directed to him by their lofty host. “Tokogawa asks what manner of beast you may be... it is thought you may be nio, on account of your golden eyes. This is fortunate..."
“Nio are the guardians of their heathen tabernacles... look to me, and show your assent...”
A ripple of controversy played over the courtiers’ faces. The shogun scowled, and put another query to the translator, keenly intent upon an answer. The Dutchman winced, and raised a hand to the side of his face.
“A misstep, perhaps... Tokogawa asks how it is that you are nio when it is obvious to all that you know nothing of your mother tongue.”
“What else might I be?” Kala'amātya hissed.
“I... I cannot think... perhaps, perhaps you are...” The shogun reiterated his demand. Beside them the samurai began to mutter in disgust as the interpreter trembled uncontrollably, performing gestures of appeasement and grinning like a frightened dog as he began a halting dissertation. Men fumbled beneath their pleated robes as he spoke, seeking amulets and protective talismans.
“What have you told them?” Kala'amātya demanded.
“All I can say is that you are some form of demon... I have done you a kindness... when they put you to death, they will not dare torment you.”
The shogun rose. He was a small, stout man in the latter portion of his years; deeply-scored creases marked a countenance remarkable only for the ineffable cynicism they conferred, a startling counterpoint to its broad, stolid planes and relating closely to the figures on the walls. One hand lay concealed in the breast of his robe while the Dutchman summoned enough composure to relate his observations.
“Though it seems we can learn little of your... your nature... it is apparent that you are a warrior... thus I will grant you the choice of hara kiri, in preference to the axe. If you are a demon, the evil luck that you have brought upon my house will be extinguished as your remains are... are burnt and... burnt and scattered. If you are some blameless spirit, you may... reclaim your honour, in death. Accept this weapon...” The samurai beside Kala'amātya climbed from his knees and handed him a short, curving sword in a plain sheath of sharkskin, stepping back to mark the prisoner he had armed. “This man... He will be your second. He will take your head, when you have made the necessary wound.” The Dutchman made a short sign with his trembling hands, grasping an imagined blade and directing it into his own stomach. Kala'amātya looked down at the weapon he had been allocated, momentarily contemplative.
Though it took him but a second to draw it from its housing, the samurai anticipated the gesture and his katana flashed as it sliced down over their heads; Kala'amātya caught the blade, its razor edge slicing his palm and skidding sideways over the glassy bone beneath. He tightened his grip and prised his opponent’s arm toward the ceiling before plunging his own weapon into the startled warrior’s chest, forcing his body into the wall behind him as he cut down through his ribcage. The blade in his fist pared flesh like nothing he had ever held. As he released its victim, he flipped the knife in his sound hand and stared down at its fluent silver arc, enthralled by its perfection and heedless of the furore he had inspired. The gutted man slid slowly to the floor with one leg folded beneath him, the other pushing up the matting with its heel, his blood as black and oily as the gleaming wood in the darkness of the chamber, spattering over his lips with the heaving of his lungs.
The shogun seemed to conclude his study of the stranger, disregarding his outraged retainers. In the far corner of the room the Dutchman crouched, sobbing in a fit of alcoholic incontinence; the regent looked to him and began to speak once more, attenuating his statement in recognition of the interpreter’s disintegrating faculties.
“Though... though I am shogun...” the man began, halting and tremulous. “The moon... it, the moon does not ask my leave to rise at night. Your blood does not run red, and thus you are... not a man, but who are we to judge that which the Kami place before us? You, you kill this man... that is regrettable... but if something is lost while the exceptional reveal their worth... we should not mourn their passing... overmuch.”
Kala'amātya placed the blade on the tatami at the shogun’s feet, and stood back, admiring his logic. He glanced sideways at his intermediary.
“You may tell this clever gnome that it would please me to serve him. Inform him that I am temperate, frugal, discreet, resourceful and expensive. Tell him that, as a man of experience, he will understand that my price is set not by my own hand, but by the others who will seek my services, should he decline my offer.”
The body of the dead samurai shivered fitfully against the foot of the wall. The Dutchman punctuated his translation with numerous apologies. The shogun nodded, indicating with a single syllable that the interview was over, and Kala'amātya accepted a robe from the bushi appointed to accompany him outside. The same moon that had painted the hateful ocean waves shone down upon the pebbled paths that led to his new quarters. He barely recognized his own shadow as it fell across them.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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