“The World’s Chalice” by Yoon Ha Lee / Moto Maratai

A samurai is required by circumstances to rely on his sworn enemy in order to survive.

 

 

in the world’s chalice

she dips a finger, and the

ripples swallow all

 

 

“Drink,” she bid him on the day all honor died. “Drink, and you will live.”

 

 

Hiruma Tantai could feel the pressure of the waomn’s fingers, her slender arms, holding him steady against the earth’s convulsions. He could also feel soft silk over his eyes, lighter than gauze–and he heard her voice, the susurrus of her laughter, from a distance, echoing, echoing. Two women, perhaps But the uncanny responsiveness of those fingers, that laughter, worked in tandem. One woman, then.

 

 

He had hung suspended in sleep or injury until now; he suspected injury. Then awareness surged through him. He was Crab, after all, heir to unnumbered generations who had stood against shadows. He did not know the name of this shadow. He had no need to know.

 

 

“Woman,” he said, and was alarmed to feel that gauze-softness recede from his face. He still saw nothing but–not even darkness, just a perfect absence of variation.

 

 

“Yes,” she said, still echoing, after a pause. “I suppose you might call me that, if you wished.”

 

 

“I can’t expect mercy from you,” Tantai said. “Or honor. And I don’t know what poison you’re trying to feed me. But I will die first.” With Rokugan. His heart contracted and held there a moment, thinking of the Unicorn Thunder with his face slashed open, hanging from the Shadowlands Standard; silver and titanium tarnished by Taint, gyro-buses and sky-shuttles rupturing to spill broken bodies; the seat of the Son of All Heavens, scarred, charred, changed.

 

 

He was Crab. He had fought, even knowing the ways they had been betrayed by some of the Thunders–by their failure, if nothing else. And he had fought, jade hammer crystal gun fist, in the hope that those forbidden orbital lasers would sear the land so nothing would move over it ever again, so the Shadowlands would not, at least, leave the land that had nurtured it despite the millennia-old fight.

 

 

He was alive. With this woman-thing. Whose silence unnerved him, now. He would not ask about his eyes. He would not struggle until he was assured he could give her the weapon of his death.

 

 

“Drink,” she said again, sadly. “If I tell you why, will you drink”

 

 

“I am not,” Tantai said, in a voice increasingly ragged, “in the habit of dealing with shadows.”

 

 

“Oh, but your ancestors did.” The sadness, too, receded.

 

 

Tantai gritted his teeth, tasted blood. Among other things. “I know the stories; do you think I’ve forgotten my ancestors, from the first one The founding of the clans, the Storm Dragon’s son. Yakamo–” Involuntarily, he tipped his head back, seeking sunlight, but if he were in a place where the Sun’s light penetrated, Yakamo had turned his face away in fury. “Lord Sun. Hida O-Ushi-sama. Hida Yasu-sama.”

 

 

The touch upon his face curled, tickling. Not fingers, he realized dimly, not fingers, but what–and then she spoke. “Are those the only stories they tell you What of Lady Moon and the dark rites she once turned to, the Obsidian Hand What of the poison-woman, the betrayed seducer, truest daughter of the Scorpion What of Daigotsu and Shahai”

 

 

“Kuon and Kuroda–”

 

 

“Kyofu.”

 

 

“Hida-kami,” Tantai said, swallowing, for he had no children of his own, “and his lost son.”

 

 

“Shinjo-kami,” the woman said, sterner now, “and the love she bore for our fallen lord, the lost kami.”

 

 

He spat. “Love.”

 

 

And now her touch withdrew entirely; for a moment, all he knew was agony, flesh reaching toward convulsion, that point of complete collapse. “Drink,” she said again, “and you will not die. Do you think even shadows know nothing of love”

 

 

“You ask me to betray all my ancestors, and you speak to me of love.” He was in a cave, he guessed, by the rough rocks, the chill; his leg seemed to be lying in water that had never kissed light, it was that cold.

 

 

“You weren’t listening to the other stories, Crab. Or shall I call you a Unicorn”

 

 

Tantai was beyond wondering how she knew about his ancestry. “I am a Hiruma.”

 

 

“You give me that, but not your name. Of course.”

 

 

He closed his eyes, or thought he did. There was no sensation at all left in his face, and he wondered if he could still shape words. “So bitter.” Apparently he could, though they sounded distorted. “Why the cup”

 

 

A chalice was placed to his lips. He closed his mouth; it remained there, warm and promising. “Crab, Unicorn, Hiruma,” said the woman, “I will tell you once more, and never again. We are in a history for which our ancestors, yours and mine, would have had no name. You are among the stars, you who serve under Hantei’s restored line. Is it so much that we keep Home, this planet of our birth, of Lord Moon and Lady Sun’s devising, in trust for a future together Is it so much”

 

 

“I saw the Unicorn Thunder,” Hiruma Tantai said. “I saw him die after a hundred days of torment. You made a man your banner. As you did with Sukune-sama–”

 

 

“The Great Bear’s son was ours. And the Unicorn fought, and fell bravely, and he was ours from that moment. And he is beyond our reach, or yours. You are not listening, Hiruma.

 

 

“Shinjo-kami returned once,” the woman said, “for love of her brother. Shinjo returned again for love of another brother, and of her clan. Shinjo will return a third time, among the stars, for love of her brothers and sisters, and of her clan, and of her Home. For Home is ours, but the stars are your empire now, Hiruma–”

 

 

The earth shook. Something fell. After a long, long time, Tantai realized it was he.

 

 

“Accept this if you accept nothing else, Hiruma.” Her voice was lower, ever-lower, and urgent. “Drink. If you do not live, Shinjo’s return will be delayed, perhaps for centuries. Accept it. This is the one thing, in all my existence, that has nothing of Taint in it. You may trust me in this.”

 

 

Tantai was weak after all, and unworthy of his ancestors. He drank. It tasted like nothing so much as sunlight, scalding. And even after he could speak again, he would not say the fallen kami’s name: “Did he–did he love Shinjo-kami in return, then.”

 

 

It was not a question. She answered it with her silence.

 

 

“So this–debt is paid,” he said, “for the sake of a nobody. For the sake of a Hiruma who is part Unicorn, and not enough Crab. So this is how the Shadowlands understands debts, and vengeance. And love.” Tantai hated the woman-thing, then, for knowing him weak enough to drink. Her petal-fingers, her voice. He knew her name now. “Dark Oracle.”

 

 

“Leave now,” she said, ever more distantly, “stepping forward, always forward. Do not look back.”

 

 

Forward, always forward. “If I ask you a question now, you will answer it.”

 

 

More silence. Then the sounds of water trickling into the earth’s depths, the movements of beetles and centipedes. Roots twining, tearing, unbraiding the structure of rock. The earth’s acquiescence.

 

 

“Will we ever return”

 

 

“This will always be Home. But in the time of your daughters and grand-daughters, they will not know what it was, and you will not recognize what it has become.”

 

 

He was almost into the sunlight; he felt it, severe and scantly warm, even if he could not see it. His eyes, too, were a price.

 

 

Forward, always forward, to one of the last starports, to one of the last evacuation ships, to an orbital colony far from Home, and yet he never, even in his dreams, left her behind.

 

 

in this place with no

seasons, still I see summer

in her petal eyes

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