“Face of Flowers, Face of Flesh” by Yon Ha Lee / Moto Maratai

Dedicated to Tamori Shosei, with thanks to Daidoji Gisei, Ikoma Uitukake, and the RicePaper Society for their help.

Feel free to repost wherever. ๐Ÿ™‚

 

At the border of the Changing Lands, in the shadow of the Wall, the peasants talk about one family of Crab retainers, minor samurai, who walk into battle wearing nothing on their heads helmet, no mempo, nothing but their hair and their eyes and their fierce smiles. They are not berserkers, and there is little enough history of madness, for a Crab family. They die young, too, but that is true of many Crab. Their daimyo makes allowances for their refusal of helmets.

 

Sometimes the peasant grandmothers and grandfathers tell a story, when the new moon beats black against the sky, about why this is so.

 

*

 

At the border of the Changing Lands, in the hidden heart of night, a mallet tapped endlessly, relentlessly. Silver-bright it was in a pale, strong hand. “Tell me if you know this story, O my heart,” said a woman-thing, uncannily tall even for a thing of the Changing Lands, between her strokes.

 

One hand held the mallet. One hand held fast a mempo of stark steel; one hand more, a mempo of red leather. The fourth and last hand stroked the cropped black hair of a girl, her face narrow and thoughtful as she watched the woman-smith, the woman-thing.

 

“Once in the clan of the Crab, you who are Rokugan’s living wall, there were two men. One was high-born, the other common-born, sons of the same father. Even that blood was not sufficient to keep them together, those faces of stone and storm.”

 

The woman-thing’s voice grew softer, punctuated by ever-gentler taps: One for the mask of metal, one for the mask of skin. One here, and one there. Balance, balance, in all things, even here. The woman-smith did not love sunlight, or fire, or sovereign jade. The heat of blood and the quenching of decay, the bright mallet–these were the tools of her forge.

 

“Face of stone,” said the woman-thing, “face of storm, the masks of clan and duty and family, of betrayal.”

 

“Osano-wo’s sons,” said the girl, no longer dreaming. The girl had two hands and two eyes, and was yet untouched by Taint. In her hands she carried a dai-tsuchi, ponderous next to the woman-smith’s mallet. The eye of jade in dai-tsuchi’s haft shone with a bright, desperate light. It did not waver; neither did the girl’s hands. Yet the girl stayed her strike.

 

“Then there is no need for me to retell it for you.” The mallet-strokes gradually became more rapid. The woman-thing’s voice acquired the hiss of quenched steel, the whisper of twilight winds. “Do you know the other story, the twin to the one we are not telling”

 

“I know it,” said the girl.

 

The woman-smith spoke on, even so. “Once in the clan of the Crab, you who are Rokugan’s living wall, there were two girls. One was high-born, the other common-born, children of the same father. One was born to a samurai’s wife, a shugenja of the Crane, amid silk and incense and chanted blessings. The other was born to a common woman, a villager, amid straw and smoke and children’s cries.”

 

One stroke. Another. The mallet winked, silver-bright, wicked.

 

The girl’s knuckles upon the dai-tsuchi grew white with strain. Her face remained still, like stone beneath rain. “The common woman is of no importance,” she said. There were no traces of dreams in her voice. They had been washed out of her years ago. “Tell me of the samurai’s wife, the shugenja of the Crane.”

 

“Once of the Crane,” the woman-thing amended. Her mouth curved in pleasure. “Oh, the shugenja could not help but love her Crab husband, that stranger to whom she had been for some pittance of clan alliances. Despite his coarse hair and his rough hands, he was kind to her, after his fashion, and he cherished her beauty.

 

“But she saw what the Crab’s unending battle did to him, oh, she did, and she despaired that her small magics were of small use to him. He had his tetsubo and his dai-tsuchi with its eye of jade; he smiled to see her baubles of carven pine and tasseled silk, but he did not take these with him to the battlefield. As her belly swelled with their first and only child, that high-born daughter, her husband took solace elsewhere.”

 

The girl’s breath huffed out. She did not interrupt.

 

“After the girl was safely born, but before the birthing-blood sloughed from her entirely, the woman walked into the Changing Lands. For in her husband’s face, she saw that he considered her a frail thing, a pretty thing, to be protected but not trusted with the work of his clan, and her heart turned hard within her. And there–” One stroke. Another. “–there, she learned smithing. She knew she could not return, for her husband would revile her. Yet she could, if the world and its wheel smiled upon her one final time, bestow a gift upon her husband’s daughter, a gift of dark warding against the things that walk the Changing Lands. And for this purpose, she watched from afar, and waited for her husband’s daughters, both of them, to become women.”

 

One stroke. Another.

 

“And the gift” asked the girl, her face impassive. Her gaze moved to the mempo of steel and the mempo of leather, which shimmered with uncanny heat. The shadows where eyes and mouth would smile from behind the mempo were deep, dark, endless.

 

The woman-smith had embossed patterns into each mempo. Upon the mempo of steel, flowers bloomed lushly from curling vines, an oddly festive motif. Upon the mempo of leather, the vines produced only thorns, sharp and curved like the moon’s dying phase. She withdrew her fourth hand from the girl’s hair. “A face of flowers for you, O my heart,” said the woman-thing, “to wear into battle. A face of flesh for your half-sister, which you must nail into her skull with this mallet. Whatever fate, whatever monstrosity comes out of the Changing Lands to claim you, it will taste her instead of you.

 

“And now, my daughter–”

 

That narrow, impassive face cracked: a smile. “I am not your daughter,” said the girl. “They say we do not look much alike. But you left when she was so young, how would you know”

 

“But his dai-tsuchi, the eye of jade–”

 

“I am my mother’s daughter,” said the girl. She lifted the dai-tsuchi higher. “So I stole it. But I am my father’s daughter. So I came here.”

 

“His eyes, his dark eyes,” said the woman-smith blankly, staring at the girl’s face. All four of her arms were motionless, that moment.

 

The girl–half-peasant, entirely Crab–swung the dai-tsuchi. Her stroke was true, and there came none to answer it. “I lied,” she whispered. “Not for my father, oh no. Nor for you.” Oh, her sister, her sister: They had grown up in the same household, shared the same room–on opposite sides of those painted paper screens, to be sure, but the same room nonetheless. She had not wanted to subject her sister to this meeting.

 

The jade was softening. Her heart had not.

 

*

 

At the border of the Changing Lands, in the shadow of the Wall, the peasants talk about one family of Crab retainers, minor samurai, who walk into battle wearing nothing on their heads helmet, no mempo, nothing but their hair and their eyes and their fierce smiles. They are not berserkers, and there is little enough history of madness, for a Crab family. They die young, too, but that is true of many Crab. Their daimyo makes allowances for their refusal of helmets.

 

Sometimes the peasant grandmothers and grandfathers tell a story, when the new moon beats black against the sky, about why this is so.

 

The samurai tell the tale, its heroine, the other way around. Then again, samurai always do.

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