Kakita Palace’s walls are snow white, covered in ivy and trailing, blossoming vines. For over two hundred years, no siege has approached the fair towers, and no army has threatened her pale stone walls. Yet an army of blue and white stood before her towering gates, and at their side, maidens dressed in silken kimono bowed respectfully as brothers, sisters and uncles, fathers and daimyo marched past.
In Kakita Palace, war was only an eager rumor, passed from courtier to courtier, and depicted in great tapestries or murals on fragile paper. Blood was a magnificent scarlet, made of the crushed berries of spring, and the hooves of the horses trod upon clouds and over fields painted with flowering green. War was for heroes and for poems of tragic love, for stories at the winter court which would scare children with depictions of brave samurai and fearsome Oni.
Death was no more than a children’s tale.
In Doji Teioko’s chambers, a sheet of rice paper lay, half-covered in stunning blues and golds, the calligraphy precise and elegant. The brushes rested upon empty ink-stones, and the horses marching through painted trees had no manes or tails. The bedclothes were carefully folded in the corner, and the cushion, soft and unused, sat alone before the painting-table.
“You cannot come with us,” the Kenshinzen chided, their cold eyes made of steel.
She did not listen, and packed her woven bag with cloth and ink.
“An artist is suited for the soft court life, not battles and blood. Stay home, Teioko,” chuckled the Master of the Academy, Kakita Toshimoko-sama. “And paint a picture of my glorious victory.”
Into her bag went her finest fan, a gift made by her sister, and painted by her cousin in the Imperial Court. Beside it, the letter she had received for Toshimoko.
They would be all she needed.
Behind the great army’s footsteps, she walked. Though the tremendous dust from the passage of the Kakita legions turned her soft pink kimono a dusty brown, Teioko did not seem to notice. When the peasants by the side of the road paused to look at the fine lady marching behind the army, she did not care. Late that evening, a well-dressed man, his face covered with a courtier’s veil, moved toward her from the army’s girth.
From behind the veil, a voice murmured, “My lady, soon there will be bandits out, and the army’s camp is not the place for a lady to rest this night. Won’t you join us?” A second man, his face left bare and the white hair of the Crane moving softly in the wind, stood beside the courtier. He bowed lightly to her, and she returned his motion with a greater bow. She knew both of these men the veil hid the face of Toshimoko’s Kakita son, Ichiro, and the second was Yoshi, daimyo of the Kakita and Advisor to the Emperor. The letter hung heavily in her bag.
Her cousin had said that one was a traitor, the other a spy. Doji Teioko smiled, her coiled black hair shining beneath its white veil. “My lord, Kakita Yoshi-sama, Kakita Ichiro-sama, your offer is most kind.” After all, she could not refuse. Side by side, the three moved through the encampment, the ashigaru looking at them with curious eyes.
“Your bag must be heavy, my Lady,” Ichiro murmured. “Can I aid you with it?” “No” she quickly said. “It contains missives of great importance. I cannot put it aside.”
“Missives?” Yoshi said as they approached the tent. “For whom, my Lady?” Suddenly Teioko knew she had been trapped. “For the Lord Toshimoko-sama,” her faint smile remained on her face, but her heart knew fear. If either of these men read the missive she held in her bag, all would be lost. The tent, large and comforting, was set in a grassy portion of a wide field, and already servants bustled about it, preparing the food for the evening’s meal. Teioko saw Kakita Toshimoko standing amid a group of laughing Crane sword-masters. Around their Master, the Kenshinzen looked weary, glad to rest, but ever vigilant. Her heart leapt.
“Oh,” said Yoshi casually. “There is father, now. Shall we go to him and give him your message, my Lady?”
With only slightly less courtesy, Ichiro replied for her. “Oh, of course, Yoshi-sama. Her bag is heavy, and I can hardly bear to see her so weary. Her beauty is a flower, caught in the roadway, wilting from the heat of the peasant’s passing.” With a steady movement, he steered the three toward the Kenshinzen, bowing slightly as he caught his father’s eye.
Toshimoko’s smile faded as he saw them approach, his condescending look taking in the soft angles of his son’s face, the delicate beauty of Ichiro’s kimono. Teinko knew why. Ichiro had been born of an arrangement, a planned birth at the command of the Champion of the Crane. The young courtesan had been beautiful, yes, and of noble birth, but she had never captured Toshimoko’s heart. He did his duty, and left the next day for the lands of the Crab.
Nine months later, Ichiro had been born.
“Toshimoko-san,” Yoshi said, his voice as smooth as a lake without wind. “We found this young woman on the road, looking for you. Certainly you were not expecting her visit?”
Now, his eyes on her, Teinko felt the aged sensei’s displeasure. “Lady Teioko-san. I had thought you decided to remain home.” Teinko opened her mouth to speak, but Ichiro cut in. “She bears a message for you, my Lord.”
Trapped and furious, Teioko had no choice but to take the letter from her bag and hand it to Kakita Toshimoko. With eager eyes, the two courtiers watched as he opened the seal, scanning the precise calligraphy before setting it in his bag. “The rice reports from the Imperial Capital, and nothing more.” He stared at her. “Hardly necessary for you to risk your life so close to the enemy’s fields. Return home tomorrow, Teioko, and finish your paintings.”
Blushing, Teioko bowed respectfully. The letter, tucked into a flap of Toshimoko’s obi, would have to wait. She retired to the tent of the courtiers that night, and slept on a pillowed futon against the hard stone ground. The night passed restlessly, and Teioko awoke more than once to the rustle of others entering and leaving. The wind was still.
Then, a whisper near the tent wall broke the stillness, opening Teioko’s eyes. “That was all?” Ichiro’s voice.
Another man, his voice muffled but bearing the dialect of the southern regions, replied. “All. Here is the letter. It is of no value.”
Suddenly, she realized that her bag was missing. Rising, she moved to the front of her tent, her face white with fear.
“My lady?” A voice startled her. A guard. “Are you well? Can I aid you?” Two figures shifted through the shadows across the yard, and Teioko felt her heart fall.
From behind, she heard a soft whisper. “Are you looking for this?” The voice was Yoshi’s, and he carried her missing bag.
Alone by the charcoal in the tent, Yoshi watched as she tried not to search through her bag, a smile on his exquisite features. “I took nothing my lady, but others may not have been as kind. Tell me, why are you truly here?”
“To to deliver the message” she felt her face turn red, and knew her lie was obvious. The beads of her obi fumbled beneath her fingers as she twisted them nervously.
“My Lady?” He poured a cup of warm cha.
Suddenly, without meaning to, her voice found words. “I cannot tell you.” Her throat choked with anguish, and a tear stained her pink kimono. “You are a spy” Her eyes grew wide, and her heart stopped. Drawing a shuddering breath, she looked for any way to run, any exit from the tent that she might not have seen, any weapon nearby.
And instead, she heard him laugh.
Not the polite laugh of someone who has been insulted, nor the gentle mocking of a dangerous man, but instead, a kind expression of surprise and amusement. “You are right, my dear Teioko. I am.”
Pouring her a cup of tea, he continued. “Though I am the daimyo of the Kakita, a duty I assumed when my brother would not have it, I serve the Empire in this, not the Crane. Every movement the army makes, I immediately report to the Emperor. So, in a way, I am a spy but a well-known one. Lord Satsume-sama knew this, and his son approves. I am surprised you have heard of it, as we chose to keep the negotiations secret. It is better for the Empire if the Lion do not know that the Emperor is on the side of the Crane.”
“Oh, but he’s not…”
“What?” Now the voice turned steely.
“The Emperor is on the side of the Lion. I know it. My cousin…”
“A member of the Emperor’s court, if I remember him correctly.”
Teioko nodded, biting her tongue against the lie. “There will be Imperial Legions on the field at Sakara Village, my Lord. But they will not be ours.”
“You can prove this?”
“I could but the letter has been stolen.”
Teioko felt tears welling up in her eyes. “The one sent to me by my cousin. He wanted me to give it to Kakita Toshimoko.” Seeing his eyebrow raise in question, she hurried on. “Not grain reports, my lord, but the size of armies. It was not movement of crops, but of troops, and now Ichiro has it.”
Slowly, the whole story came out. At the end, Kakita Yoshi nodded. “We must tell Toshimoko.”
An hour later, they stood in Toshimoko’s command tent. “The letter is gone,” he said gruffly, hand on his sword in its stand. “Stolen. And I will not believe my son has done this, Yoshi, so you can save your words.” Yoshi looked at Teioko.
Toshimoko looked at her carefully. “You are certain that my son is involved?”
Sadly, Teioko looked at Yoshi, and then nodded.
“Very well, then. Bring Ichiro to me.” The guard by the door bowed curtly, spinning to race out into the night.
Seconds seemed like hours, and minutes like days. Teioko was more frightened that she had ever been, but her heart stood strong. After minutes or long years of silence, the tent flap moved again, and the guard stood beside the son of the Kakita lord.
“Who dares accuse me of theft?” raged Ichiro, barely containing himself for his ritual bow at the door. “Who speaks out against my name the name I inherited from my noble father?”
The air wafted past the kneeling Kakita with the rich smell of sake. Yoshi, a shocked look on his face, murmured, “Ichiro have you been drinking?” Continuing his rant, Ichiro knelt at the feet of his venerable father. “Father, I have tried to live as you would wish. I have struggled to be your son, and I have failed. I am useless.” Tears welled in the Crane’s eyes, and Teioko looked at Yoshi, appalled.
Ichiro’s outburst was unthinkable.
“Son,” Toshimoko said wearily, “Do you have the letter?”
“I do,” Ichiro spat, the sake on his breath bitter. He pulled the creased rice-paper from the folds of his haori and pointed it at Taioko. “She is the one who has poisoned you against me, father. Let me kill her with your sword, as the duty of your only son!”
As if struck, Toshimoko’s face turned grey. “No, Ichiro. That you cannot do.”
“Why did you take the letter, my student?” Yoshi whispered, turning his face delicately to avoid looking at the drunken samurai.
“There is a thief among us, one who would dishonor us both, father,” Ichiro hung his head, the letter falling upon the floor. “I saw him approach your tent when you were out practicing kata, and I saw him reach for the letter. He ran when he saw me, and so I took the letter and hid it in my haori. I only thought to protect you.”
“It is all right, my son.” Toshimoko’s voice came from a great distance, thickened by age and regret. “I understand. Go now, and leave me the letter. Retire to your tent, and let us speak no more of this.”
Suddenly, Teioko understood. If Ichiro had been drunk, his actions must be forgiven they were outside the bounds of propriety, and all actions of a drunk man were considered to be meaningless. There would be no questions, no reason to suspect Ichiro of anything but a drunkard’s temperament and that, most likely inherited from his venerable father.
Yet, as Ichiro rose to leave, his steps leaden and slow, his eyes locked with Teioko.
Not a drop of alcohol hid the bitter anger there, or the hatred. Teioko stood, silenced by the young man’s all-consuming rage, as he passed by. He whispered into her ear, “You will die for this. If that useless old man does not kill you, be certain that I will.” He brushed by her, nearly touching her porcelain skin, and threw open the flap of the tent.
With a bow, Yoshi stood and followed in Ichiro’s path.
Toshimoko stood, picking up the rumpled letter. “This this scrap of rice paper is the reason I have shamed my only son?”
“Please, my lord” Teioko began.
“Ichiro is all that fate has given me. He is a good son,” his face betrayed nothing of the lie, “And I trust him.”
“Ichiro has betrayed you, sensei.” Teioko’s voice shook as she tried to keep her composure. “Time and again, he has spoken against you, refused your teachings, and given his support to others instead of you. How can you trust him?”
“Ichiro is a son of the Kakita house!”
“Ichiro is the child of Toshimoko’s courtesan, nothing more.” Teioko could not imagine what drove her to this bravery. “There are those who can prove that he may be Toshimoko’s son, or the son of that Scorpion, Goishu. You know these things, sensei. I am not the first to tell you.”
A silence hung in the air, so thick it could have been stone. At last, Toshimoko moved, his usually precise step now slow and ragged.
“Yes.” Wearily, Toshimoko continued. “He is the son of a courtesan, a woman I hardly knew. I am not even certain.” His voice trailed, unwilling to complete the sentence. Toshimoko looked at the letter in his hand. “But that does not mean I will betray my family. No.” Toshimoko crumpled the paper and began to fling it into the fire.
Rigid, Teioko felt her heart pound as he withdrew his hand, the crumbled rice paper still within his iron grasp.
“Read it, girl. Read it and learn its meaning.” Turning, his voice soft from a sudden age upon his shoulders, Toshimoko pressed it into Teioko’s pale white grasp. “You are right. My son is not a good man. He is arrogant, weak, and he despises all that the Crane stand for. But he is, he must be, my son. And with this wrinkled piece of trash, we betray our family. With the whisper of Imperial lips, we turn upon our most trusted brothers.” The sensei’s voice was bitter. “The movement of armies”
“My lord to my own shame, I must admit that I have dishonored myself.” Teinko bowed once more, the letter in her grasp and hot tears stinging her eyes. “I told Yoshi-sama that the letter contained information which was of crucial importance, and that was correct. However, it is not the movement of the Emperor’s men that should concern you.”
“No it is the birth of a child.”
Toshimoko looked up, his voice confused. “A child? The Emperor has at last” “No, Toshimoko-sama.” Teioko smoothed the rumpled paper and laid it upon the low table. “The child is yours.”
The letter was brief, a few comments here, and many numbers, detailing the grain movements across Crane lands. Teioko removed her fan from her obi and held it over the paper. Bringing a lantern beneath the letter, she read through the thin rice paper of her fan, ignoring the words hidden by the painted pattern. As she did, Toshimoko’s eyes began to glow with pride. “My lord Toshimoko-sama,” Teioko read, “Your well-regarded lady, Seppun Jifuhime, has, on this day, given birth to a son”
When she was finished, Teioko looked up at the sensei’s eyes.
“A son,” he whispered, his eyes gleaming with pride. “A true son.”
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