“From Darkness, a Song” by Yoon Ha Lee

A disclaimer, courtesy of Kakita Yoshiko:

if reading at work
teardrops may fall upon your desk
hide your emotions

dedicated to Daidoji Gisei and the “real”Arioki
with thanks to the RicePaper Society

She was the least of Kakita Migite’s students, and Moto Maratai knew it. Today she stared over her bamboo flute at the labyrinths of bonsai, stone and white sand that formed Migite-sensei’s garden. The other students with their long hair and kimono embroidered in blue, embossed in gold, looked like shapes out of legend when they came here. She had watched the painters capturing, in swift and thoughtless strokes of the brush, that moonlit elegance, evoking the whisper of wind, the texture of sand, with nothing more than ink.

Maratai closed her eyes and began to play. It was a tune from the steppes, which spoke of winds wilder than the ones that touched this garden, endless expanses of tall grass, the falcon’s sure flight. Migite-sensei would not approve; he never did. But he had taken her on for her grandmother’s sake, or more accurately, the sake of the Crane magistrate–Migite’s brother–who had loved Maratai’s grandmother. Maratai came to the garden when the expression in his eyes became unbearable: it was there every time he caught sight of her black, short-cropped hair or he observed her residual awkwardness in a kimono.

She could have faced anything but his disappointment–in her, the daughter of a Crane’s bastard daughter.

Footsteps suggested a counterpoint to the flute’s breathy melody. Maratai lowered the flute and looked up from her perch on a stone. It was Daidoji Nabiken, who stood a head taller than she did and always looked vaguely apologetic about the fact. Irrationally, she had first taken a liking to him because he had a habit of wearing colors other than blue. Today, his kimono was pale grey and pearl-white. “That didn’t sound like one of Migite-sensei’s beloved classics.”

Maratai stiffened slightly, despite herself. That was another thing: she had never learned to lie convincingly with her body. In a garden of Cranes it was a terrible handicap. “It isn’t important, Nabiken-san,” she said, and blew hard across the flute’s mouth-hole; it shrieked overtones in response.

He winced and sat down next to her. “I must have offended you,” said Nabiken, “if you’re going formal on me. The music was unfamiliar, that’s all, and to hear the sensei speak, he composed all the music in the Empire.

She smiled.

“Have you come up with a poem for next week?”

Maratai shook her head, looking at him sidelong. Despite the duellist’s scar along his jaw, he had a splendid profile, set off by white hair with a rebellious dark streak that never bleached well. It made her wish her small skills in music were in painting instead. If my brushwork were good enough, she thought, I could paint that sculptor’s arch of nose and brow. The scar, though–the scar made him look dangerous and not a little fierce, though she had never seen him angry. She rather liked the effect.

“I’ve wasted an unconscionable amount of paper scribbling my thoughts,” said Nabiken, never one to leave anything to chance, “so I came out here and thought I’d write in the sand, and here you were. Migite-sama has invited everyone who could come for the poetry reading, even if it’s just a small provincial affair, and my sister will give me absolute hell if I fail to perform up to standard. Spontaneity, ha. As if he’s done anything spontaneous in his life.”

“Well,” said Maratai judiciously, “there was the time Nete-san fell asleep over the drums and he composed that biting little tanka on the spot…”

“And now I have you throwing in the honorifics again.” He was frowning. “Do we really make you that nervous?”

“Nabiken,” she said, obligingly dropping the honorific, “have you ever been to the Unicorn’s lands at their heart, where horses run free with no boundary but their heartbeats? At night, when the campfires burn bright beneath unfettered skies, a skin of yogurt and another of koumiss pass from hand to hand, and nobody speaks of Shinjo-san, or Utaku-sama, or bows one before another.”

“You should be a poet, Maratai,” said Nabiken, who looked slightly stunned at this atypical outburst of description.

“No,” she said quietly. “I have no such illusions. A Moto, whose hair is cropped short, and who has one passable kimono to her name, trading poetry with the courtiers of the Crane? It’s the stuff of satires, Nabiken, and I’ve given up trying to grow out my hair.” It had been a while since she had roved the sensei’s lands on her horse, too, though in less hectic times she indulged in a ride every morning.

“I’ve never visited the Unicorn lands,” he said. “My sister’s the traveler in the family.”

Maratai smiled ironically. “Not all Unicorn are so ill-at-ease, but my ancestry has Burning Sands Moto in it, and you don’t forget the bones of your heritage so easily.”

“You are Rokugani, though. And I’ll fight anyone who doubts it.” He pulled a leaf from its stem and blew it toward her playfully.

He was missign the point, but Maratai had given up trying to explain her sense of dislocation to anyone but other Unicorn. Instead, she lifted the flute again and played a playful leitmotif from one of the few new plays that met with Migite-sensei’s approval: an invitation to a duet. Nabiken produced his own flute with a bow from the waist, and they ran through the tudes they had been assigned.

Only later did Maratai remember that the play–which she had never seen–ended with lovers dead and families sundered.

*

Kakita Migite watched his only Unicorn student’s fingers dance through the complexities of a biwa solo. Not for the first time, he wondered how the girl could keep the fingerings straight when she could hardly cross a tatami without tripping over her feet. Oh, she was competent with the bow, as those lighthearted archery contests between some of his students had shown, but nothing to write a poem about. She was an earnest student, though initially less grounded in the Empire’s musical traditions than he would have liked.

“Child,” he said when she had finished, noticing her slight flinch–all this time and she still had not schooled her face to a smiling mask–“I heard you playing in the garden yesterday.”

“I am sorry, sensei,” she said in a low voice. “It will not happen again.”

He still remembered the letters his brother had written him, so many years ago, about the crippled, outcast Unicorn woman he had met far from her lands, during the terrible war between past and present, spirit and mortal. She can hardly speak our language without that barbaric accent, Kakita Kenzan had written in his nuanced, graceful calligraphy, yet I cannot keep her eyes from my thoughts. Those eyes hold secrets, the honey fruits and sweet oases of foreign lands that I will only taste through her touch; and she never cries out or sheds tears, even when it would bring a veteran bushi no dishonor in doing so. Young in face, old in suffering. What am I to do, O my brother?

All Kakita Migite remembered of his earnest advice to Kenzan was that it had gone unheeded, resulting in the birth of a girl who was almost certainly Kenzan’s daughter, and a generation later, the student whom Migite had taken on for the sake of the letter that Kenzan, dying, had troubled to write on the Moto’s behalf after her parents died. Maratai’s younger sister, Moto Arioki, had obtained tutelage in the courtly arts and iaijutsu under one of his cousins in much the same way, and had reportedly adjusted far more easily to life among the Crane.

What am I to do, O my brother? Migite thought back at his brother’s departed spirit, keenly aware of the irony. “Child,” he said again, more gently, and this time Maratai did not flinch: an improvement. “It is difficult for you, and rightly so. No one questions your loyalty to your family, but…if you cling to the stranger of the Unicorn ways, it will remain difficult.”

“Hai,” she said, with a little more spirit.

“Remember,” Migite said, “you and your fellow-students are nearing the end of your apprenticeship here. You may find yourself at a court surrounded by Scorpions with their sly tongues or Imperial courtiers with decades of experience in managing the tapestry of innuendo and barbed exchanges. You must show them a face beyond reproach, Maratai.”

“I should only be too honored,” Maratai said with a straight face, “to attempt in my small way to educate others as to the courtesies that the Crane take for granted.”

He did not smile. “Indeed. You may go now, Maratai, and perhaps you would consider practicing the flute duet from Asahina Ueba’s latest composition, which we read through two nights ago. I believe a slightly more modern approach will do it the most credit, and you are uniquely suited to attempt it.” Migite also didn’t mention that he had asked his old friend Ueba to undertake the composition as a challenge; Ueba, who had lately grown impatient with the traditional forms, had been intrigued enough to accept. It was, he suspected, the last favor he would be able to do Maratai before she was obliged to find a patron.

Her eyes widened for a moment before she bowed deeply over her biwa. “I would be honored, sensei.”

“Go, then,” he said, and pondered the turnings of the karmic wheel that had entangled Doji and her beloved sister Shinjo, Kenzan and crippled Mingako, Migite himself and Maratai.

*

Later that day, when her fingers had started to cramp from practicing both parts in the duet, Maratai knelt to write a letter to her sister. Over the years she had delighted in sending Arioki the most scandalously execrable poetry she could devise. It was also a good excuse to practice her calligraphy in something approaching privacy.

She shared a room in Kakita Migite’s house with two other female students, Doji Hana and Kakita Yamazakura. Black-haired Hana had a placid temperament and a voice sweeter than birdsong, and she kept offering to loan Maratai her cloisonn hairpins in a not-so-subtle attempt to get Maratai to grow her hair beyond shoulder-length. Yamazakura, on the other hand, did her best to ignore the presence of the barbarian in their midst. With her white hair and pale skin, the floral splendor of her embroidered and hand-painted kimono, Yamazakura was quintessentially Crane. Maratai rather thought that, if she herself had come from any other Clan, she would have enjoyed getting to know Yamazakura, who had a gift for calligraphy, a deft touch on the biwa, and most importantly, told splendid stories.

In one of her first letters to Arioki, Maratai had written, I think Hana would bore you, but you would get along famously with Yamazakura, something I seem incapable of doing. Anything she says to me goes through Hana first. It makes for some convoluted conversations.

Arioki had written back, You should send messages to each other by courier pigeon, too, just to complicate things further. That gives me an idea for a play…

Maratai began the letter with the usual salutations, then recounted her conversations with Nabiken and with the sensei. She tried to come up with a poem to close the letter with, and failed. No surprise there. Nobody was thinking straight about poetry this week.

She folded the letter shut, drawing upon the little origami she had picked up from Hana. She should be able to find someone willing to convey the letter to her sister’s iaijutsu master at the poetry reading. Assuming she dared show her face without a passable poem.

At least, Maratai thought, Arioki won’t be attending. Her sister’s last, hurried letter had been four-fifths apology and one-fifth explanation of a visit to a local daimyo’s court with her sensei. MAratai wasn’t sure whether her sister’s absence or presence would have made her happier, actually. It seemed like an eternity since she and Arioki had raced each other across the plains, glorying in the surge of horse and the scream of wind.

At the same time, she couldn’t bear the thought of never having come to study under Migite-sensei, no matter how homesick she became. Indecisive, that’s what you are, Maratai told herself, and picked up her flute to begin practicing anew.

*

“Surely a new kimono would be fitting for this occasion?” Kakita Yamazakura inquired of Doji Hana, a week later. She had already dressed in stiff raw silk, of subdued and proper hues, that bore her Clan and family mon in a tasteful scattering across the fabric, like foam.

Maratai fingered her kimono, of white, blue and violet faded to a wistful lavender, gold embroidery unraveling with age. It had been her mother’s kimono, and her grandmother’s before that. She wore it in their honor, but she had to admit that Yamazakura was right. The problem was, the other kimono she owned were even plainer than this one.

The obi, on the other hand–the obi was the one truly fine thing she owned. After her parents’ deaths, she had traveled to Kakita Kenzan’s residence to petition him for letters of introduction for herself and her younger sister. She had expected scorn, perhaps, or polite indifference. After all, her grandmother Mingako had ended up marrying another Moto, not her Crane lover. Instead, Maratai found herself welcomed by Kenzan as a beloved granddaughter, and even though the grip of illness was too evident upon that thin, handsome face, she understood how a crippled Burning Sands Moto had dared to love a Crane. The obi he had pressed upon her was red and blue upon black, maple-leaf and wave-crest vying for brilliance against a starry sky. She resisted wearing it casually because it made her kimono look even shabbier by comparison.

Doji Hana said to Maratai, “I have some kimono that would complement your dark hair, if you would honor me by wearing one…” Even Hana, however, could not keep her gaze from lingering a moment on Maratai’s sandalwood chest, a treasure from beyond the Burning Sands.

In the years she had spent as Kakita Migite’s apprentice, MAratai had been secretive about the chest’s contents. Beneath the calligraphy paraphernalia, extra plectrums and biwa strings, and folded kimono rested the pari of sai her father had bequeathed her. Thrice-damned, Maratai thought: Unicorn, bastard’s daughter on her mother’s side, ashigaru descent on her father’s side. Among the Unicorn it had never been much of an issue, as her father’s family had acquitted themselves honorably during the Spirit Wars, but the sai–it had been so long since she had picked them up, she wasn’t sure she remembered the kata her father had taught her.

If you cling to the stranger of the Unicorn ways, it will remain difficult, the sensei had counseled her.

Hana and Yamazakura’s genteel discussion of the latest trends in kimono motifs was interrupted by footsteps, then the whisper of a sheet of paper being passed beneath the paper screen that blocked the doorway. It was tied into a scroll by a blue cord at one end, a violet cord at the other, and a white cord in the middle. In no hurry at all, Hana knelt to pick up the paper and handed it wordlessly to Maratai.

Maratai stared at the paper afor a second before taking it. All the students exchanged messages and pranks, of course, but this–this was paper lighter than petals, the color of dew upon petals. No one wasted such paper on a prank the day of a poetry reading.

She slipped the cords off and unrolled the paper. Even Yamazakura leaned closer to read the words:

while the ladies rouse
behind their screens of paper
a messenger waits

“Nabiken’s calligraphy,” Yamazakura said. The footsteps outside had stilled. “And while we dress, no less.” More loudly, with a hint of laughter: “Dreadfully uncreative, I must say. Perhaps he is waiting to impress at the event later today?”

“The only proper response,” said Maratai, aware that Nabiken–or his “messenger”–would be listening avidly, “is another poem, of course.” Hana passed her a jar of water. Maratai wetted the ink stick, dipped her brush, and weighted down the paper’s curling ends with two horse-figurines she kept for that purpose. On the other side of the paper, she wrote:

does the butterfly
await the invitation
of the dawn blossom?

It was hardly her best effort–mornings did that to her–but Hana’s eyes danced at the reference to Nabiken’s name, “butterfly blade.” Maratai blotted the ink dry, rerolled the paper with the three cords, and passed it to Hana, who whispered in her ear, “Scandalous!” at the connotations and silpped it under the screen. Maratai resolved to ask to borrow a little of Hana’s exquisite plum-blossom perfume. Yamazakura had set her tortoise-shell comb aside and was smiling openly now, though not in Maratai’s direction.

They waited breathlessly for the haiku to be read. A laugh escaped, and Maratai relaxed: it was Nabiken after all. Hana pushed the screen aside, and he entered.

Today he was wearing the traditional sky-blue and white, tied with an obi whose pastel oranges and pinks were just this side of bold, but suggested an interesting sunset effect. It took Maratai a moment before her bedazzled eyes registered the things that Nabiken bore: a folded kimono, and atop the kimono, a katana. Yamazakura’s eyes went from wide to thoughtful–not disapproving, yet, just thoughtful.

If Maratai had watched Yamazakura a second longer, she would have seen a darker emotion surfacing in those blue eyes.

Nabiken’s eyes were alight as he bowed with perfect balance.

“It would please me well
if the blossom’s new raiment
included these things,”

he said, blithely abusing the poetic form. Then again, he shared Maratai’s subterranean delight in bad poetry.

Must refuse three times, Maratai reminded herself. No, two. Two. What am I thinking? She rallied enough to reply,

“Only the sweetest
blossom would dare to appear
in honey splendor.”

As the words left her mouth she realized what a mistake it had been to mention food in a haiku exchange with Nabiken.

He was grinning openly now:

“Surely the blossom’s
beauty is but a prelude
to sweeter nectar?”

I hope Migite-sensei isn’t listening to this, Maratai thought, blood racing, all too aware of the indecorous connotations.

Before Maratai could think of another response, Yamazakura said coolly,

“Heedless of honor,
the frivolous butterfly
sups with common blooms.”

Nabiken’s face cleared of all expression, like the sheen of newest dew. His answering haiku, directed at the pale-haired Kakita–whose name meant “mountain cherry”–was flawless:

“The cherry blossom,
wandering like stray secrets,
falls far from the tree.”

Without missing a beat, he said earnestly to Maratai,

“No splendor compares
to the blossom’s smile, but the
butterfly dares hope.”

She was no more able to refuse his third offer than she was able to deny the heartbeat of horse and hawk that lived within her, the pulsebeat of flute and drum. In scarcely a whisper, she said,

“From honey smile to
words that fly true as arrows,
this blossom lays pierced.”

He placed the katana first into her hands, though Maratai felt as though all her bones had turned to water. The saya was carved of wood lacquered an unrelieved black, exquisite in its restraint; the lightly-gilded tsuba showed a crane and ki-rin chasing each other in a dance unending. Questioning, she met Nabiken’s eyes; he nodded.

Maratai’s training in kenjutsu barely covered enough to assure that she would never give offense while handling another’s sword. Mine now, she thought, but the proprieties still applied. She loosed the katana from its saya a scant two fingertips, surprised despite herself by how smoothly it glided free; she had gotten too used to the unremarkable wakizashi she wore on formal occasions. The steel gleamed, and the rippling patterns upon the surface suggested waves, suggested wind-swept plains, suggested flight.

Hands shaking, Maratai resheathed the katana and knelt, placing it upon her knees. It was lighter than she had expected. “Daidoji-san,” she said, and stopped.

“I don’t expect you to wear it,” he assured her. “I’d hate for you to get caught in some senseless duel. But I thought–I thought you should have one.” Recognizing Maratai’s current lack of coordination, Nabiken held the kimono out to Hana, who flushed with pleasure as though the gift were for her.

Hana unfurled the kimono for them: white silk, with a crane-and-unicorn motif on the back to echo the katana’s tsuba, a crane stepping amid reeds upon one sleeve and a rearing unicorn upon the other, and a diagonal scatterfall of fans and blossoms. White trimmed with blue and violet, and far more beautiful than anything Maratai had touched, let alone worn.

“She will honor you by wearing it today,” Hana had the presence of mind to tell Nabiken.

Rather than appearing offended by Maratai’s tongue-tied state, he only appeared more gratified, and bowed deeply to the three women. Yamazakura, not Maratai, hurried after him as he left.

*

“Say what you have to say, Kakita-san,” Nabiken said to Yamazakura with a calm he hardly felt. Makoto, he thought. Our saving.

Migite’s household was already deep in last-minute preparations for the guests, a few of whom had already arrived. At any other time, Nabiken would have found the smell of fruit-laden confections pleasantly distracting. At least no one would disturb two of Migite’s obviously agitated students conversing privately in a corner of the garden.

“I will be blunt,” Yamazakura said, “since you ask it of me. She’s not suitable, Nabiken. I much doubt your sister will be hardhearted enough to say it to your face, and your dear mother can’t say it, so that burden falls to me.

“Her skills in music–”

“Her skills in music are not the point,” she shot back. “Even her gaijin blood is not the point, though it would scandalize your father and grandfather, or have you forgotten? Such things can be overcome, with diligence and careful maneuvering. But she will be of no help to you in that matter.”

He thought of Maratai’s words, the struggles she had alluded to, and said, “Have you ever been to Unicorn lands, ‘Zakura?”

“No,” she said, and only a slight narrowing of her eyes betrayed her irritation at the non sequitur. “Kenzan, I’ve lived with her, don’t you think I know? I will not pretend any great liking for the Unicorn. But she crumples too easily in the face of slights. That is what matters. I tell you again, she is not suitable. In several years, perhaps, tempered by experiences at court–if she survives. But that is in several years, hardly now.”

“What do you know,” he said cuttingly, “of how a Daidoji courts?”

She reached out and traced the scar on his face; he held himself still under her smooth fingertips. Maratai’s touch, he imagined, would be as callused as his own, from years of archery as well as biwa exercises. “What do I know,” she echoed mockingly, “of how a Daidoji fights? I remember how you got that scar. Do you?”

“I should hope,” he said with less heat, “that I would remember such an important event in my life.” Cool-eyed Kakita Hiroto, who was beginning to earn renown for his talents in iaijutsu, had taken offense at the colors on Nabiken’s kimono–red or orange, he couldn’t remember which. Nabiken had realized seventeen syllables too late that Hiroto was not the type to react well to a satiric response. They had traded scars before a magistrate intervened and ordered them to stay satisfied with first blood.

“Keep remembering it, then,” Yamazakura said, and abandoned him to his thoughts.

To Maratai’s great relief, she recognized one the courtiers who had come at her sensei’s bequest. “Asahina-sama,” she said, bowing deeply before Asahina Zengen, “I have a favor to beg of you.”

Zengen was a stooped woman whose smiles were less inhibited than those of most Cranes she had met. Her eyes lit momentarily, and she complimented Maratai on the new kimono, to which Maratai made the expected demurrals. The corners of her mouth drooped, though. “Maratai-chan,” she said, “if it’s another letter you wish me to convey, I would gladly do so–but I cannot.”

She started to apologize–after all, courtiers had other things to do than indulge the epistolary fancies of two sisters–but Zengen cut her off with a shake of the head.

“I regret to bring such terrible news,” said Zengen, “but both Doji Moro-sama and Moto Arioki-san have been missing since the unexpected and shocking appearance of an oni that they offered to help hunt down. The oni itself remained at large, the last I heard.”

Maratai pressed her hands together to stop their trembling. My sister. “I thank you, Asahina-sama, for informing me of these unfortunate events during a happy occasion.” Blindly, she stumbled away, and the aged courtier had the kindness not to stop her. Arioki. An oni. Arioki’s sensei. Arioki.

The letter she had written several days ago remained tucked into her obi, forgotten.

It was the first time in her life that the polite, smiling mask of all good Crane came easily to Maratai. But I’m hardly a good Crane, am I? she thought in the off-kilter tempo that had overtaken her heart since she heard Zengen’s news, even as she murmured the right assurances to the right people, but not the wrong ones to the wrong people. Would I rather hear of my sister’s survival, Tainted, or of her death to an oni’s murderous rage?

She made it through the duet and her poetry recital–flawlessly, Hana told her, though Maratai would never remember what it was she said. She would never remember the recitals of the other poems, either, which she counted a greater loss, though she assured Hana that her poem had been splendid, and was believed.

Maratai tried to make her way to Nabiken’s side, seeking his presence as flowers seek the Sun’s blessing. He was speaking with a black-haired woman whose kimono was adorned with golden butterflies: Daidoji Nabiko, she realized with a start. Nabiken’s older sister. Though Nabiken himself was distracted, the woman caught Maratai’s eye and smiled wryly, as if to say, Don’t you wish all this socialization were over?

Someone else started up a conversation with Nabiken: a broad-shouldered Crane with a distinctly cool expression, who walked with a limp. His kimono displayed the Kakita mon prominently. By then, Maratai was just close enough to hear him say laconically, “…where she came up with the temerity to wear such a thing, I wonder?”

In the scant half-second before Nabiken responded, Maratai thought, Don’t say it, don’t say it, it’s not worth the trouble, don’t make it worse–

If she had been able to find one thing to say, one witticism to divert the listeners’ attention and break the rhythm of the conflict she saw approaching–

In the interstices between thought and speech, Nabiken said calmly, “I gave it to her, of course.”

Her face was ice, unmoving, unmelting.

“Of course, a Unicorn would have no honorable recourse but to accept,” said the broad-shouldered man indulgently, “but a Crane really should know better.”

“In some ways,” Nabiken said lightly, “she is more Crane than you are.”

“Really,” said the man, dropping all pretense of good humor. “It is your fitness for the Clan that I would question, Daidoji-san.” His faint emphasis on “Daidoji” suggested all the things that polite Crane might think about the family that had rebelled against them once, but never say outright.

After that, the duel was virtually assured.

*

They were closely matched. Both katana were drawn too quickly for Maratai’s eyes to follow, and Kakita and Daidoji stumbled as one.

It was Nabiken who coughed blood, rackingly, and said to the other man, “You’ve finally gotten what you wanted, Hiroto-san. Does it please you?”

The other man made no reply, but he met the burning gaze of Nabiken’s sister, which promised a revenge as slow and relentless as the seasons’ turning. As the cold calm of an iaijutsu challenge departed from him, his eyes widened. Red seeped into the fabric of his kimono.

Daidoji Nabiko and Moto Maratai knelt on either side of the fallen man. “Brother,” whispered Nabiko.

“Hush,” he said, and lifted a sleeve to hide the bubbles of blood, well-mannered as ever. “I can think…worse ways…than having the two women…love best…”

Ever after, Maratai thought that one last poem–even an execrable poem, in front of the sensei’s guests–would have comforted Nabiken in his last seconds. Naturally, nothing came to mind. “Nabiken,” was all she could think to say.

“Nectar…” he said with the faintest of smiles, and died.

In the silence that followed, Kakita Yamazakura wept, while Nabiko and Maratai rose, dry-eyed.

*

“You were only the excuse he needed, you know,” Daidoji Nabiko said to Maratai as they stood together, watching the following day’s rain from a tree’s scant shelter. “If not you, then something else: the angle of his bow, the style of his hair, the nuances of his poetry. I am grieved, Moto-san, that I should meet you in such terrible circumstances.”

“I am grieved,” Maratai said, scarcely audible over the rain’s soft patter, “that I could do nothing to stop it.”

“He died as he lived,” Nabiko said, “guarding the things he loved with his laughter and his blade.” She reached out and drew Maratai into an embrace; Maratai buried her face against the older woman’s shoulder, and the sky wept in their stead.

*

The morning before Moto Maratai departed her sensei’s house, a student no longer but a musician in her own right, she spent an hour calligraphing a haiku to leave in Daidoji Nabiken’s honor. There had been no word of her sister, but nothing held her here, either.

even amid storms
heart breaks, wave crashes, flute mourns
from darkness, a song

The slip of paper was tied shut by silken cords: blue on one end, violet on the other, and white in the middle–most especially white.

*

Author’s Notes

This might be considered, in a loose sense, a prequel to Poet’s Sword, Warrior’s Pen, as it touches on the fate of Daidoji Nabiko’s brother, Nabiken. Nabi is Kokrean for “butterfly.” Maratai doesn’t, to my knowledge, mean anything, and I’m not even sure it would pass as a Mongolian name, but them’s the breaks. I leave you to decipher the derivation of Arioki for yourself.

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