“Why did you travel to Honshu?” she demanded unexpectedly.
“It lies furthest distant from the kingdoms beyond Persia.” he admitted.
“Tokogawa tells the bushi that you were sent to serve him by the gods.”
“Tokogawa may be shogun, but in Edo, I bow only to sword smiths and oiran.”
The woman scoffed, then continued her interrogation over the shoulder of her ward.
“What great evil have you committed that you may not stay where you were made?”
“Many, countless evils. But I shun my brother and his wife... she is lost, he wanders with her, and I can not abide it.” he said, unable to think of any reason to conceal the nature of his misfortune.
“You abandon your brother? Where is your loyalty?”
He shook his head.
“I no longer ask this of myself. You speak of duty, and that is fear of sanction, and my elders in their wisdom ensured I could honour nothing of that nature.”
The crone murmured again at his apostasy.
"In asking nothing of yourself you will be answered in kind, and please them well who wish no more for you. What a wretched thing you are... even the mountain would not take you, and I do not wonder at it."
Nightfall found them at the winged gates of a temple. The low buildings beyond, of dark wood on a darker stone, lay deserted, their yard inundated by the rain, nodding stands of arrow bamboo hemming water in which their reflection was shattered by the horse's hooves. Beneath their eaves the dormitory halls held a deep rubiginous hue, the colour thickening the gloom. Lightning flashed against their backs, gleaming white along the polished walls as Kala'amātya followed them into shelter, his cold skin crawling in the still, charged air. He guessed that flood and landslides had kept the temple’s order from returning to their home and the rendezvous they had contracted with the shogun.
Peering fruitlessly into the darkness, the old woman flinched at the clapping of iron-shod hooves against the floorboards; ignoring her complaints, Kala'amātya removed his kit and saddle from the personable equine’s back and directed the animal toward the corner furthest from the door, where it nodded to sleep on three hooves. Heat from its damp flanks soon warmed the chamber and the matron quit her grumbling dissent, sitting with the girl, who had slumped against the wall beside the door. He arranged his blades and naginata on the boards and began to unlace his armour.
“I did not know who I brought to this place.” he confessed to the girl as she watched him.
“What does it matter now?” she murmured.
“Thus speaks the great favourite of a great man.” declared the matron. “Nor did you think of right and wrong before you were undone.”
“Tokogawa required that I take this chair into Cataya and leave it at this temple. This I have done.” The matron made no reply, kneeling by the wall, her white hair fraying from the side of her chignon and falling, unheeded, before her milky eyes. “It is my thought that he has charged you with further instruction, honourable mother.” Kala'amātya added. She maintained her obmutescence and he looked around at the sound of the girl’s breathing, her smooth face creasing with the effort of concealing the unwelcome rhythm that had obviously begun some time before. Wind slammed the unfastened door against its frame; the horse squealed, and the girl turned toward him when he knelt beside her.
“You will leave now!” the old woman exclaimed on perceiving her condition.
“You are blind.” he reminded her.
“You are a demon!” she retorted, stiffening as she raised her voice above the wind. The girl reached down through her robe, withdrawing a hand that brought with it the sharp, dusty smell of amniotic fluid, stained a deep tea-brown. She looked up at him.
“I know you can bring children forth..." she gasped. "You aided Umi, and Fumiko’s sister... this child does not fare well...” Again he lay his hand against her body, the infant's distress beating through its mother's flesh, a desperate petition.
“It does not.” he conceded.
Despite the dire interdicts of his own people, long association had drawn him into intimate familiarity with feminine ordeals, compelling him to deliver the diverse issue of bandit girls and seige-bound chatelaines into their uncertain tenures. The cascade of signs and processes and the timbre of the girl’s exhausted screams were by no means unfamiliar, though he rued their implications along with her aunt’s unrelenting pessimism. The infant would not emerge though the girl had striven on her haunches until her brown eyes rolled into her head and her sweat-slick arms slid through his hands as she slumped back in agony and despair. He eased her legs from beneath her through the thickening pool of blood into which she had collapsed, bundling her discarded robe under her head and draping her with his own. Her stomach was tight and coldly slippery beneath his hands, devoid of movement; the matron shuffled closer on her knees, repeated the inquiring gesture and sat back.
“Better that they both should perish. Misfortune will follow them always.” she assured him, her dry voice weighted with puissant finality. "Leave her to her fate." She pressed a narrow scroll on him; the cylinder was still faintly warm, drawn from somewhere in her robe, and inscribed with the shogun’s seal. He set the missive aside and returned to the half-insensate girl.
"Suki, if you do not labour now, I must use my knife to bring it forth, and that fails more often than it succeeds.” he advised, kneeling by her shoulder and ensuring that she understood. At her word he drew her back onto her haunches, taking her weight with both arms and legs as she set her back against him and closed her hands upon his wrists, her chaperone expressing in vehement terms the abdication of her familial commitments.
Thin, slip-textured silt welled between his fingers as he smoothed the surface of a small clay mound, kneeling in the mud alongside the temple gates. Birds performed a stilted aubade from the cover of the ginko boughs, as though they were yet to be convinced of the morning’s worth. Dawn pervaded the mist with the pallid ghosts of brighter colours and brought back rain to cloak the mountainside; it had soaked the torn silk of the little corpse’s shroud as it had lain beside the grave that he had fashioned for it. Kala'amātya knew only one rite germane to the inhumation of a stillborn and spoke the words of the forgotten language slowly. Summoning the impetus to return to the flooded courtyard, he stood waiting beneath the eaves while the water drained from his clothing and pooled around his feet.
The white silk mon of her grandsire’s house glowed against the black sleeve of the hitatare he had given the girl to wear. She lay awake beneath the saddle cloth, the older woman still sleeping with her back to them.
“I am happy she did not live.” she told him without looking up. “A girl is never welcome.”
“My mother would have given her two sons twice over for a daughter.” he replied. Kala'amātya sat against the wall beside her and brushed the yellow dust from his hands. “I have read the scroll. Tokogawa says that you are to be left in this place to serve the monks. Your aunt was to have returned to Honshu with your bearers, but it seems that she is destined to remain here with you. Your grandfather has abdicated in favour of your uncle... Hidetada has decreed that no foreigner may enter Honshu, so I am no more welcome than you.” Though she did not reply, the slow, pained sound of her breathing underscored sentiments born in loss, and prospects as colourless and unremitting as the day outside.
“You are the cause of this.” she murmured. "You are salted ground... a desolator, and I was warned of you."
He gazed at her unheeding form without replying, then left her side to take up his belongings before returning to the girl once more, sliding the odachi from his shoulders and laying them on the boards beside her. If her gaze perceived the curving weapons, their scabbards lavished with glowing, semiprecious colour in the cloisson feathers of fighting birds, hilts bound with dark shagreen, they did not move her.
“Stay here until you are well.” he told her, bending low so that his advice could remain confidential. “But do not live your life in this place. Go south, to court... the odachi will make a dowery, should you wish to find a husband, or go to the north, buy slaves and horses, and a good bow.” She withdrew beneath the striped cover, tears sliding over her pale face.
"Do not counsel me, yōkai." Suki replied, wiping at her eyes beneath the blanket.
The rain slowed as he rode out under the temple gates alone, starting along the narrow trail that led toward the dark heart of the mountains.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce