In the beginning, there were two suns and two moons.
The boy’s sight blurred before him, seeing past the truth. Past the shame. He focused on the story his uba had told him the night before. A story of good and evil, light and dark. A story where the triumphant sun rose high above its enemies.
On instinct, his fingers reached for the calloused warmth of his uba’s hand. The nursemaid from Kisun had been with him since before he could remember, but now—like everything else—she was gone.
Now there was no one left.
Against his will, the boy’s vision cleared, locking on the clear blue of the noon sky above. His fingers curled around the stiff linen of his shirtsleeves.
Don’t look away. If they see you looking away, they will say you are weak.
Once more, his uba’s words echoed in his ears.
He lowered his gaze.
The courtyard before him was draped in fluttering white, surrounded on three sides by rice-paper screens. Pennants flying the golden crest of the emperor danced in a passing breeze. To the left and right stood grim-faced onlookers—samurai dressed in the dark silks of their formal hakama.
In the center of the courtyard was the boy’s father, kneeling on a small tatami mat covered in bleached canvas. He, too, was draped in white, his features etched in stone. Before him sat a low table with a short blade. At his side stood the man who had once been his best friend.
The boy sought his father’s eyes. For a moment, he thought his father looked his way, but it could have been a trick of the wind. A trick of the perfumed smoke curling above the squat brass braziers.
His father would not want to look into his son’s eyes. The boy knew this. The shame was too great. And his father would die before passing the shame of tears along to his son.
The drums began to pound out a slow beat. A dirge.
In the distance beyond the gates, the boy caught the muffled sound of small children laughing and playing. They were soon silenced by a terse shout.
Without hesitation, his father loosened the knot from around his waist and pushed open his white robe, exposing the skin of his stomach and chest. Then he tucked his sleeves beneath his knees to prevent himself from falling backward.
For even a disgraced samurai should die well.
The boy watched his father reach for the short tantō blade on the small table before him. He wanted to cry for him to stop. Cry for a moment more. A single look more.
But the boy remained silent, his fingers turning bloodless in his fists. He swallowed.
Don’t look away.
His father took hold of the blade, wrapping his hands around the skein of white silk near its base. He plunged the sword into his stomach, cutting slowly to the left, then up to the right. His features remained passive. No hint of suffering could be detected, though the boy searched for it—felt it—despite his father’s best efforts.
Never look away.
Finally, when his father stretched his neck forward, the boy saw it. A small flicker, a grimace. In the same instant, the boy’s heart shuddered in his chest. A hot burst of pain glimmered beneath it.
The man who had been his father’s best friend took two long strides, then swung a gleaming katana in a perfect arc toward his father’s exposed neck. The thud of his father’s head hitting the tatami mat silenced the drumbeats in a hollow start.
Still the boy did not look away. He watched the crimson spurt from his father’s folded body, past the edge of the mat and onto the grey stones beyond. The tang of the fresh blood caught in his nose—warm metal and sea salt. He waited until his father’s body was carried in one direction, his head in another, to be displayed as a warning.
No hint of treason would be tolerated. Not even a whisper.
All the while, no one came to the boy’s side. No one dared to look him in the eye.
The burden of shame took shape in the boy’s chest, heavier than any weight he could ever bear.
When the boy finally turned to leave the empty courtyard, his eyes fell upon the creaking door nearby. A nursemaid met his unflinching stare, one hand sliding off the latch, the other clenched around two toy swords. Her skin flushed pink for an instant.
Never look away.
The nursemaid dropped her eyes in discomfort. The boy watched as she quickly ushered a boy and a girl through the wooden gate. They were a few years younger than he and obviously from a wealthy family. Perhaps the children of one of the samurai in attendance today. The younger boy straightened the fine silk of his kimono collar and darted past his nursemaid, never once pausing to acknowledge the presence of a traitor’s son.
The girl, however, stopped. She looked straight at him, her pert features in constant motion. Rubbing her nose with the heel of one hand, she blinked, letting her eyes run the length of him before pausing on his face.
He held her gaze.
“Mariko-sama!” the nursemaid scolded. She whispered in the girl’s ear, then tugged her away by the elbow.
Still the girl’s eyes did not waver. Even when she passed the pool of blood darkening the stones. Even when her eyes narrowed in understanding.
The boy was grateful he saw no sympathy in her expression. Instead the girl continued studying him until her nursemaid urged her around the corner.
His gaze returned to the sky, his chin in high disregard of his tears.
In the beginning, there were two suns and two moons.
One day, the victorious son would rise—
And set fire to all his father’s enemies.
ILLUSIONS AND EXPECTATIONS
TEN YEARS LATER
On the surface everything seemed right.
An elegant litter. A dutiful daughter. An honor bestowed.
Then, as if to taunt her, Mariko’s litter lurched, jouncing her shoulder into the norimono’s side. Its raised mother-of-pearl inlays would undoubtedly leave a bruise. Mariko took a deep breath, stifling the urge to grumble in the shadows like an angry crone. The smell of the norimono’s varnish filled her head, bringing to mind the Dragon’s Beard candy she favored as a child.
Her dark, sickly sweet coffin, bearing her to her final resting place.
Mariko sank farther into the cushions. Nothing about the journey to the imperial city of Inako had gone well. Her convoy had left later than intended and stopped all too often. At least now—by the way the norimono listed forward—Mariko could tell they were traveling down an incline. Which meant they’d moved past the hills around the valley, more than halfway to Inako. She leaned back, hoping her weight would help balance the burden.
Just as she settled in, the litter halted suddenly.
Mariko raised the silk screen covering the small window to her right. Dusk was starting to descend. The forest before them was shrouded in mist, its trees a jagged silhouette across a silver sky.
As Mariko turned to address the nearby soldier, a young maidservant came stumbling into view. “My lady!” the girl gasped, righting herself against the norimono’s side. “You must be famished. I’ve been remiss. Please forgive me for neglecting to—”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Chiyo-chan.” Mariko smiled kindly, but the girl’s eyes remained wide with worry. “It was not I who halted the convoy.”
Chiyo bowed low, the flowers of her makeshift hairpiece falling askew. When she stood once more, the maidservant passed along a neatly wrapped bundle of food to Mariko. Then Chiyo moved back to her post beside the litter, pausing only to return Mariko’s warm smile.
“Why have we stopped?” Mariko asked the nearby member of the ashigaru.
The foot soldier wiped the perspiration from his brow, then switched the long pole of his naginata to his other hand. Traces of sunlight glinted off its sharp blade. “The forest.”
Mariko waited, certain that could not be the extent of his explanation.
Beads of sweat gathered above the soldier’s lips. He opened his mouth to speak, but the clatter of approaching hooves stole his attention.
“Lady Hattori . . .” Nobutada, one of her father’s confidants and his most trusted samurai, reined in his charger beside Mariko’s norimono. “I apologize for the delay, but several of the soldiers have voiced concerns about traveling through Jukai forest.”
Mariko blinked twice, her features thoughtful. “Is there a particular reason?”
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