“Oni Dinners and Field Rations: a Tale of the Unicorn and the Jade Hand” by Yoon Ha Lee

for Hida Keitko and Hida Okami, who started it all

with thanks to the RicePaper Society

 

It was asking for trouble, riding into Crab lands with a Kakita mon upon her jacket, even if the jacket declared other allegiances with its violet and white–mostly white–and even if the war between Crab and Crane had simmered down.  Moto Maratai supposed it would only be fair if, having come all this way to seek out the Jade Hand, she was cut down by a passing Crab.  Probably a Hida, with her luck.  The kind who had hands bigger than her head, feet to rival an elephant’s, and ate traveling Unicorns for a light snack–*stop that,* she told herself.

 

Her shaggy blue-roan mare, Wing, seemed unperturbed.  Some days Maratai wished she shared her horse’s phlegmatic approach to life.  Nothing fazed Wing, not Burning Sands elephants; not her rider having hysterics about discovering that three of her biwa strings had snapped due to the pegs tightening up with the humidity; not walking into the lands of the Crab, where unlucky horses ended up as oni dinners and unluckier horses ended up as Crab field rations (said the malicious gossip, from a good three generations before Maratai’s time).

 

At least her travel papers were in order, even though she’d never heard of an oni stopping to ask for them.  Her daimyo was used to his people vanishing for years at a time.  “At least, Maratai-chan,” he had remarked, “you tell me you’re vanishing before you do it, and I don’t have to send my falcons after you to fish you out of a mudhole.”  And he stamped her papers, had the magistrate check them over, and added that he would send her a letter if he needed her back, by which they both understood that she was unlikely to return alive.

 

She had a good reason, of course.  She wouldn’t have approached even her exceptionally genial daimyo without a good reason.  After all this time, Maratai had little hope that her younger sister Arioki had survived her encounter with an oni in Crane lands.  The outbreak of war between Crab and Crane had destroyed any possibility of visiting the Wall earlier, and she meant to find out what she could before some hothead started up the conflict again.

 

The checkpoint had come into view.  While Wing was as capable of stealth-on-the-raid as the next Moto steed, Maratai let her know by her posture that stealth was exactly what she didn’t want to convey.

 

Well, no one had fired an arrow at her yet, or lifted a tetsubo in challenge.  Hopes rising, she nudged the mare into a trot.

 

* * *

 

Two days later, Maratai was thoroughly lost.

 

“Shinjo’s gelded mule’s droppings,” Maratai muttered under her breath as she gazed across the rocky landscape, “this is not possible.”  She had navigated through the featureless plains of her home province without trouble.  She had navigated through the more featureless sands to Medinaat al-Salaam and back.  She could even scratch out something resembling a map, and the Imperial cartographers be damned.

 

The last several Crab had given her reasonably straightforward directions, she had followed them halfway, and now she was in a place that didn’t remotely correspond to the description.  “Wing,” Maratai said, “do you think they gave me bad directions because of the Kakita mon?”

 

Wing snorted and lowered her head to lip at some promisingly tender green leaves.

 

“You’re helpful,” she told her horse, and sighed.  Perhaps she could have avoided this if she had worn the other jacket, the plain violet one.  But she had earned that mon.  She also carried her bow as unstrung as it could get, and she didn’t know anyone who would mistake the distinctive silhouette of a biwa slung over her shoulder for anything more dangerous than an incoming out-of-tune ballad.

 

Moreover, Maratai refused to be ashamed of getting her musical training from Kakita Migite.  That would be like being ashamed of–of learning riding from a Unicorn, or wrestling from a Crab.

 

After a moment she realized the Crab might not see it that way.

 

“Wing,” she said, “I’m getting off.”

 

Wing had probably never understood her rider’s inane habit of making strange human sounds at her before doing anything, but it made Maratai feel better anyway.  It helped her forget, just a little, that her sister, with whom she had once shared every song and every smile, was gone. Sometimes it even helped her forget that that man she had loved had died of a duelist’s blade.

 

Maratai released the reins–not that Wing needed them anywayand dismounted.  She wandered around for a while, almost stumbling over loose rocks, before she found a relatively clear patch of dirt.  Then she wandered around even more, this time tripping over an exposed tree root, until she found a broken stick.

 

She spent the better part of the afternoon scratching computations into the dirt–“navigating the hard way,” her mother had called it–even if she had to start over when she realized she had written down two of the intermediate calculation results in reverse.

 

It wasn’t much consolation by then, but at least nothing disturbed their sleep that night.

 

* * *

 

A good fourteen days later, which was three days after her riceballs had run out, Moto Maratai was wondering just what was safe to hunt in this region, she ran across the scouts.  At least, she presumed they were scouts, though they were a little loud for it.  She couldn’t see much of anything through the fog and the drizzle that were probably ruining all her spare biwa strings (the non-spares had already snapped).  Did Yasuki merchants stock biwa strings? she wondered inanely.

 

Maratai reined Wing to a halt, a sign of her nervousness.  Most of the time she preferred to avoid using the reins so she wouldn’t come to depend on them when there was mounted archery to be done.  She didn’t want to move more than necessary when the visibility was this lousy.  Besides, though she’d had plenty to drink, she was starting to get dizzy.  She hated feeling dizzy.

 

In a haze, she heard one of them say, “…horse meat for sure…”

 

“Not my horse!” Maratai cried in a last adrenaline-storm of ferocity, and kicked Wing into a charge.

 

Only three things saved her at that point.

 

First, Wing had been foraging for herself quite adequately, and in this situation, she saw no immediate need for a full-fledged gallop, so she started off with an easy canter, which was rather less threatening.

 

Second, Maratai managed not to faint until after Wing had, in her desultory and phlegmatic way, jumped the boulder that had appeared before them.  Fog was tricky that way, which was why calm, sane Unicorns preferred not to charge in unfamiliar rocky terrain in this sort of weather.

 

Third, while the two Jade Hand scouts were bemused to find themselves under attack by a crazed Unicorn brandishing a biwa as though it were a sake bottle, they had been sent to search from her after a local Crab let slip that he had seen a Unicorn come by searching for the Jade Hand, and had she arrived yet?

 

* * *

 

When Maratai woke, her mouth tasted awful, and her first words were, “Whatever I’ve been eating, it tastes like an oni turned inside out and rolled in raw garlic.”  It took her a good five seconds to realize that the choking sounds were guffaws from the hordes of Crab who were looming  over her.

 

*That’s it,* thought Maratai, *I’ve died and it’s a Hida come to eat me as an appetizer before eating my horse.*  The thought was less appalling than it could have been.  She didn’t realize she had said it out loud until the guffawing doubled in volume.  “…recognizes field rations, all right…”

 

“Little Unicorn,” said the largest of the Crab, “you are safe and your horse is too, and I’m going to have to talk to some people about their use  of ‘horse meat’ as a swear word.”

 

Another Crab said, somewhat sulkily, “It’s been around since Tsuru–oh.”

 

“I’m not dead,” Maratai realized.

 

The largest Crab chuckled.  His hands weren’t quite as large as her head, but they came close.  “Well, little Unicorn, it seems you found the Jade Hand after all, you and your horse.”

 

She squinted; the golden fist was distinctive.  “That’s good to know, Hida-san,” Maratai said, more demurely, though a headache was banging itself around the inside of her skull, and the dizziness had returned.  “I’ ve been searching for you.  Might I say something before I faint again?”

 

“Yes?” he asked with interest, no doubt wondering what new witticism would escape her.

 

She never managed to get the words out, but the rice–not field rations–was waiting for her when she next woke up, even so.

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