“The Daughter” by Seth Mason

Dawn of the Empire, Part Two of Ten

“The Hantei’s Empire grew,” Unmei said. “Each of
the Kami sought their purpose and sought their followers in their
own way. Some were discovered in the most unlikely places.”

The Daughter

by Seth Mason

Takashi landed on the branch next to his brother and perched,
folding his arms under his wings for warmth. The spring thaw was
coming, but not quickly enough for the kenku’s liking. Takashi
absently brushed snow out of his gray feathers with his beak.
“What is so important,” he asked, clearly annoyed,
“that I must leave our warm home?”

“That,” Mukashi said, pointing down from their high perch
towards a human village. The settlement was no more than a dozen
buildings haphazardly scattered around what was most likely a water
source. Men and woman tended to a herd of livestock here and there,
and smoke billowed up from the houses.

“Humans,” the gray kenku said, his mood not improving.
“Yes, very interesting. I am quite sure they all have some
sort of interesting life story, and you could point out some detail
to tell them apart from one another. I have no time for your games,
brother.”

Mukashi gave his brother a meaningful look and motioned again with
his black talons. “Look there, brother. That building with the
two horses outside. That is the headman’s house.”

Though he did not share his younger brother’s fascination with
the humans, Takashi knew that Mukashi was no idiot. If he thought
something was worth special attention, the older kenku would listen
to him. “The headman is the human that the other humans answer
to, yes?” he asked, vaguely remembering one of his
brother’s endless dialogues about human culture. “Or is
that the Emperor? I forget.”

“Never mind, just watch,” the younger kenku replied
absently, not taking his eyes from the house. “Look as they
come out. See how sad they are?”

As if on cue, two middle-aged humans emerged from the house one man
and one woman. Though they were quite a ways off, the kenku had
amazing vision and both could see that the humans were upset. The
woman was in tears, leaning against the man, who echoed the
woman’s sadness with his eyes. The headman shouted something in
the gibbering language of the humans, and two others approached to
respond.

“What are they saying, Mukashi?” the older kenku asked.

“The headman’s daughter was lost in the snow and search
parties were sent out. He wants to know what they found.”

Takashi found himself becoming strangely interested in the humans.
“What did they find?”

“Nothing,” Mukashi said. “The child has been lost
for a week. There is no reason to think they will find
anything.”

“Have you brought me here to learn pity for these creatures,
brother?” Takashi said. The kenku’s black eyes clouded
somewhat as he watched the spectacle. “I must confess that
it’s working. Shall we find the girl, then?” Mukashi shook
his head. “I found her this morning& it is too late for
her.”

“How terrible,” Takashi replied.

“Perhaps not,” Makashi answered. He brought one hand out
from under his wing and opened his palm. Against the kenku’s
black feathers, it was nearly impossible to see the inky substance
that hovered in his hand like smoke.

“What& what is that?” Takashi asked.

“It is a piece of Nothing,” the younger one replied.
“A small piece of the Universe that Lady Sun and Lord Moon did
not name. It is formless, and thus can be shaped by those who have
the power. It came to me because it was afraid.”

Takashi didn’t bother to ask if his brother held such power.
Though they were relatively young among their race, Mukashi was one
of the most gifted kenku mystics in generations. “What will
you do with it, then?”

“Left to its own devices, it could be dangerous,” Mukashi
said. “Yet if we give it what it seeks& a place in the
universe& perhaps we can replace what has been lost, my
brother.” The younger kenku looked back to the grieving
humans. “We promised not to interfere directly with them, but
can we not correct something that has gone wrong? Let me have this
one indulgence, brother, and I promise to leave them alone
forever.”

The gray kenku looked into his brother’s eyes, then back
towards the village, where the human woman had run into her house,
wailing in despair at the messenger’s words.

The next day&

“We have found her, Ito-sama!” one of the peasants cried,
running into the village with the young girl in his arms.

Townsfolk emerged from their buildings at the sound of the
man’s shouts. The peasant ran up to the headman’s door and
nearly collapsed in exhaustion as he gently set the girl down. The
headman’s daughter had dark rings under her eyes, dirt and
leaves were caked on her clothes and hair, and her hands were
scratched and raw.

Ito, the village headman, came out and quickly gathered up his
daughter in his arms, laughing in joy. “Shuro-hime!” he
cried, holding his daughter aloft and nearly dancing about in front
of everyone.

At the edge of the village, behind a bush, a small girl who looked
remarkably like Shuro watched from her hiding place. A great black
bird had placed her at the forest’s edge not far from the
village and told her to hurry home to her father, the headman of
the nearby village. Though her memories were not quite clear, she
felt as if this was where she was supposed to be. The man they
called Ito seemed like her father, but obviously she was not the
girl that had gone missing.

I’m lost, she thought to herself. And this is not my home. The
small nameless girl thought about going into the village and
seeking shelter there, but something seemed wrong. She did not
belong here. A moment ago, she had felt complete and safe once
again, but that feeling had vanished at the sight of the man
holding the dirty little girl.

“I’ll find my father,” she said to herself, gathering
all the courage she could find in her little soul, “and when I
do, he will welcome me with just as much happiness.”

Ten years later&

“I thought she was a stable boy,” Bayushi said,
continuing with his story as he poured his brother another cup of
sake. The First Scorpion’s smile was broad as he recounted the
tale, and the woman sitting next to him mirrored her master’s
expression. “I thought I had seen everything these humans
could do, Shiba, but I tell you& perhaps you and Togashi are
right. They are quite remarkable.” The chamber was well lit,
though the long table and countless lamps were host only to the
three of them: Bayushi, Shiba, and Bayushi’s first vassal,
Shosuro.

Shosuro had long ago grown accustomed to the game Bayushi played
with his kin. In front of the other Kami, she was an amusement to
be discussed as if she were not in the room. After all, what were
mortals when sitting between two of the children of Sun and Moon?
Away from his siblings, he was a different man. Honest. Open.
Troubled. Though Shiba and Bayushi were twins, Shosuro saw what the
First Scorpion’s brother did not her lord was turning over some
problem in his mind.

“Imagine my surprise when she was holding a knife to my throat
in the geisha house later that same evening,” Bayushi chuckled
before he took another drink. His trademark mask lay on the table
between him and his brother. He had taken to removing it in
Shiba’s presence, in deference to the brother who had defeated
him in the Kami’s tournament.

“Indeed,” was all Shiba replied as his dark eyes once
again bored into Shosuro. The young woman may have understood the
Phoenix Kami’s brother better than he, but Shiba almost
immediately seemed aware that something was different about her. He
did not give Shosuro the same longing or lustful looks she had
grown used to from men instead he looked at her like a scholar
would stare at a particularly interesting scroll, as if pondering a
deeper meaning. “How clever must she be to fool even you,
brother. I remember when Doji thought to outsmart you during
Hantei’s coronation, but not even her agile mind could
outmaneuver you.”

“She is a rarity,” Bayushi agreed, his tone losing some
of its amusement. He looked back to her, and for the first time, he
gazed upon her with open admiration in front of one of his
siblings. “A unique treasure, Shiba. I don’t believe we
will ever see her like again among her kind.” The First
Scorpion gave his brother a meaningful stare before reassuming his
ever-present smirk and taking another sip of his drink.

After a long silence, Shiba finally looked away from Shosuro.
“I believe you are right, brother,” he answered.
“She is a wonder among her people.”

Shosuro tensed as she felt Bayushi’s heart sink. Though the
Scorpion Kami’s eyes nor face betrayed his feelings, the bond
between them was deep enough that not even Bayushi could conceal
from Shosuro his reaction to Shiba’s words. Something had
passed between the twins that she could not see. Bayushi knew some
truth about her now, something that Shiba had seen and she herself
perhaps did not know. It was an uncomfortable thought. Prying
secrets from Bayushi was a difficult task, even for her.

The night wore on, and the brothers exchanged stories of the humans
and of their home far from the mortal world. Shosuro could not help
but feel more and more alone with each passing breath.

“We will find an answer,” Bayushi promised as they rode
away from Shiba’s home. “I swear it.”

Shosuro only nodded in silence. Bayushi had made the same vow a
year ago, some time after they had met. She had showed her lord how
she could shift her appearance, allowing her to appear older,
younger, taller, shorter, or even like a stable boy. She had hoped
the wise and powerful Kami would know why she had never met another
human that could do such a thing, but he did not. She had long
hidden her gift for fear that it was a sign that she was touched by
some demon. Now she was beginning to wonder if she was right.

The Kami sensed his companion’s dark mood. “I recall when
you met Hantei,” Bayushi began, attempting to lift her
spirits. “He remarked how much you reminded him of our sister,
Doji.”

Though Shosuro appreciated what her lord was trying to do, she was
not in the mood for another of his games. “That was because I
chose to look much like Doji, if you recall. You told me how much
the new Emperor favored her, and I thought it would serve us both
well to do such a thing.”

“I knew then you had not come to me as some accident,”
Bayushi said. “We are different, you and I.” He motioned
vaguely to the south, towards the rest of the Empire.
“Historians will some day write great tales of Akodo’s
bravery and Doji’s charm, while we, who lurk in shadows, will
be the villains in their stories. Tricksters and liars: those will
be our roles.” The mirth in his words was reflected in his
eyes. “Is that not exciting?”

“Are you so certain your deeds will even be worth mentioning
besides such legendary figures as your siblings, dear
Bayushi?” Shosuro asked as innocently as she could.

Bayushi smiled under his mask and shrugged. “I’ll never be
stronger than Hida, nor smarter than Shiba, I think. So why
bother?” He sighed dramatically. “They can do what I
cannot do. All that is left is for me to do what they would not
do.”

“Ah,” Shosuro replied, not yet convinced. “You paint
such an enticing future, Bayushi. I wonder if it’s not too late
to cast my lot with Shinjo and get lost on a horse somewhere.”

“I think you make a much better villain than a horseman,”
the First Scorpion said, his tone slightly more serious. “Do
you not?”

After a moment, Shosuro could not help but grin. No one knew her as
well as Bayushi did, and being reminded of that always made her
smile. Her nature might remain a mystery, but so long as she was
beside him, she would never truly be alone.

Bayushi opened his mouth to say something again, but stopped as he
felt a familiar presence in the area. He stopped his horse, and
Shosuro gave him a questioning look. “It’s nothing,”
he said, waving her on. “Keep going.” She did not appear
convinced, but knew when Bayushi expected obedience.

After Shosuro had moved a small distance away, she dropped off her
horse and skulked back through the shadows toward him, watching and
listening. Bayushi looked over his shoulder and grumbled,
“What do you want?”

Behind him, in the tall grass of the plains, the strong figure of
Togashi stood with his arms folded. He said nothing, though Bayushi
seemed to hear something.

“Do you have to do that, brother?” Bayushi asked, sighing
as he dismounted. “Why do you not speak like normal people?
I’m sure Shosuro is spying on us anyway. Why be so rude as to
exclude her from the conversation?” He gave his brother a
withering glare. Of all his siblings, Shosuro liked Togashi the
least. Even Hida and Akodo were not as irritating as the First
Dragon.

Togashi only replied by inclining his head toward Shosuro.

Bayushi turned back around to see that she crouched among the
shadows. She rose, looking embarrassed. “Is this
necessary?” Bayushi asked his brother, regarding him once
again.

You must leave her to her own path. Now she could hear him as well.

“She needs me,” Bayushi hissed in response, discarding
all semblance of etiquette. “What do you know of it, brother?
What would you know of a bond two people can share? You know
nothing.” His voice rose in anger, and he nearly began
shouting. “You know nothing. Do you think I don’t know
you, Togashi? You watch from a distance, thinking you see
everything from your lofty view, but you see only shapes, not
details. You know nothing. You feel nothing.”

I will show you what I have seen, brother, Togashi said. This time
Shosuro did not share in Togashi’s communication. After a long
moment, Bayushi closed his eyes. Now do you see? No matter what you
do, Bayushi, she will always be alone.

“No,” Bayushi whispered. He opened his eyes to look at
Togashi. “I deny this destiny.” The Kami laughed
bitterly. “You see only the future that might be, Togashi.
This is not set in stone. So long as I remain beside her, this will
not occur.”

Then see that you do so, or I will be forced to take a hand.

The First Scorpion snorted. “I do not need your threats nor
your permission, brother,” he said, glancing back to Shosuro.
She looked up at him with a faint smile, then looked back at
Togashi. He was already gone.

“Something is wrong,” Shosuro said quietly. “Tell me
the problem.”

“Nothing is the problem,” Bayushi replied reflexively,
and she sensed that he was telling the truth. “Togashi is
merely paranoid. It is as I said: we are destined to be villains,
and my honourable brother has concerns regarding our future. But we
shall be fine, so long as we always remain together.”

The young woman smiled and nodded. “Of course, my lord. And I
will always be there.”

“Always?”

“Always.”

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