On the field of battle.
He was young. His face was lean. Hawkish. With a pointed jaw and eyes blacker than pitch. His topknot was perfect, every strand aligned in elegant submission. As he inspected the ruins, another armored samurai moved to his side, carrying a fistful of burned boro and silk—two singed banners, one bearing the same hexagonal crest and another bearing the crest of the emperor.
The second samurai passed along his confirmation. “I am sorry, Kenshin-wakasama.” Though his words were apologetic, he did not speak with remorse. He spoke with an understood promise.
One of bloody retribution.
Instead of meeting the samurai’s promise with one of his own, the young man with the dragon helmet did not even glance his way. Expressionless in the face of the horrors perpetrated on his own men—on his own family—he gripped a blackened piece of wood and yanked it aside with vicious precision. It splintered, its ends crumbling to dust in his grasp.
The young samurai peered inside.
The scorched body of a girl lay within. What remained of her skin was crackled black by the fire. When he studied the carnage further, Hattori Kenshin noticed the glint of several arrowheads buried beneath the girl’s remains, a suspicious stain darkening the norimono’s floor. Tarry. Thick.
She had not died by fire.
Then continued in his search, his eyes unceasingly roving.
Wedged into one of the only remaining corners of the richly appointed norimono was a small triangle of burned fabric. The same sort of boro fabric his family used to fashion their pennants. The same boro the peasants and maidservants wore.
He looked harder, scouring the embers for further glimpses of truth.
Mariko’s kimono. Not even a hint of the distinct tatsumura silk could be seen anywhere.
Kenshin’s eyes moved to the bare earth at his feet. Drifted to the left, then slowly to the right.
A zori sandal—all but hidden from his eyes—lay on its side a few steps away from the norimono. It shone, even in the dim reaches of the early-morning sun. A lacquered finish unmarred by flames. Kenshin stepped toward his sister’s shoe, kneeling to retrieve it.
“My lord,” the samurai at his back began in a hesitant tone, “I know—”
Kenshin silenced him with a glance, then returned to his work, his eyes still searching. Ever hunting.
Soon he found what he was looking for.
Two sets. One made in pursuit of the other, the second set of far less interest to Kenshin than the first.
The first set were the tracks of a woman’s split-toed tabi socks. Tracks like those of a wounded deer, staggering away from its inevitable demise. It was clear an attempt had been made to cover them. But few who traversed these woods possessed the dogged determination and unfailing skill of Hattori Kenshin. He knew these tracks. The shapes pressed into the earth were too small to be those of a man. Too delicate.
Though his twin sister was anything but delicate, Kenshin knew they belonged to her with the same sort of certainty he felt in his heart. In his every breath. She’d been alive three days ago.
And these tracks led to the left.
Away from the massacre.
Without a word, Hattori Kenshin returned to his wild-eyed warhorse. Born to the motions of a warrior—to the movements of a hunt—he replaced his dragon helmet and chin guard, then swung onto his oiled saddle.
“My lord,” the samurai protested again, “though it may be difficult to accept, I am afraid it is clear Lady Hattori—”
Kenshin raised his left hand. Curled his fingers into a fist. Then he signaled his men onward.
Following the tracks into the forest.
From his perch at the head of the convoy, the Dragon of Kai grinned slowly. Darkly.
His sister was not dead.
She was much too smart for that.
THE GOLDEN CASTLE
His Imperial Majesty Minamoto Masaru—direct descendant of the sun goddess, heavenly sovereign of the Empire of Wa—was lost.
In his own gardens, no less.
But there was no need for him to worry. It was not the kind of lost to cause alarm. Today he’d intentionally wandered too far. Wandered away from those who hovered around him like flies to a carcass.
He often became intentionally lost on afternoons such as this.
The season was beginning its slow shift from spring to summer. Everything around him was in bloom, the air stirred by a soft breeze. An ocher sunset gilded the waters of the pond to his left. Its gently lapping shore rippled like molten amber. Fallen cherry blossoms littered its surface, pale pink petals strewn across slate-grey waters.
The flowers were beginning to die. To fall under the weight of the sun.
It was his favorite time of year. Warm enough to wander the royal gardens of Heian Castle without feeling the threat of a chill, yet cool enough to forgo the nuisance of an oiled-paper umbrella.
Perhaps he would venture to the moon-viewing pavilion tonight. The sky had been unusually clear today. The stars, too, should be unusually bright.
He took his time across the squared stepping-stones encircling a miniature pagoda. Its tiered eaves were sprinkled with birdseed. A heron strutted near the shore, blasting a warning to the black swan gliding by: Keep clear of my domain.
The emperor smiled to himself.
Was he the heron, or was he the swan?
His smile fell as quickly as it rose.
A familiar warble cut through the silence at his right shoulder. A swallow soared toward him, landing on a corner of the miniature pagoda, its wings an unearthly shade of iridescent blue. The diminutive bird puffed out its stomach and shook out its feathers, tilting its head to one side.
Waiting for the emperor.
The emperor took two steps toward the swallow. Leaned in close, his left ear angled near the swallow’s bright orange beak. The small bird tilted closer, unafraid. Unnatural. Its familiar warble faded to a hushed whisper. A melodic sigh.
The emperor nodded. The swallow preened. Once more the bird took flight on a wisp of wind.
Vanishing into the clouds above.
Without even a moment’s pause, Minamoto Masaru turned from the shore, back in the direction of his castle. After wending down a few misguided paths, he finally saw the topmost gable of the imperial palace rising above the trees.
In honeyed moments like these, the emperor understood why Heian Castle was often called the Golden Castle. A sea of gilded roof tiles spilled from tier to tier, catching the light in slowly descending waves. Along each hipped eave were carved figurines of cranes, fish, and tigers. Cherry trees lined the eastern foot trails; orange trees bordered the west. The covered walkways leading from building to building were constructed of citrus-scented cypress wood, their paths formed of neatly raked white gravel.
He stopped to watch his castle become awash in the colors of a setting sun.
If he didn’t take time to enjoy such sights, they would soon be lost to him.
Like tears in rain.
The emperor proceeded to walk by a granite monument resting on a hillock to his right. His eye caught on the flapping pennants adorning its four corners.
A trio of gentian flowers above a spray of bamboo leaves.
The Minamoto clan’s royal crest.
His frown deepened as he continued onward.
In a few months it would be time for the festival of Obon. The time each year when all the empire’s citizens returned to their ancestral homes to honor their deceased. Soon the emperor would be making the journey to Yedo for this very reason. To clear his ancestors’ graves of weeds and pay homage to them with food and drink.
But would his forefathers feel pride at his return?
Or would they feel disdain?
The emperor could not answer these questions. Not yet. For he had not yet accomplished all he meant to accomplish. All his greatest aspirations had yet to be realized. Yes, it was true he’d maintained power over the Empire of Wa for the entirety of his reign. But it was a muddled sort of power—much like a loosely tied ribbon, its ends trailing the ground. He had not achieved half of what his father had achieved before passing on the crown; he had not made the Empire of Wa bigger or stronger.
He had not managed to build a greater legacy for his sons.
Indeed, it could even be suggested that he’d left his empire in worse condition. One far weaker than before. One that would rely on the strengths of both his sons.
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