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“Yoshimori has been found?” For years Lord Aritomo had both dreaded and longed for this news. Until he saw Yoshimori’s corpse with his own eyes he would never feel secure about Emperor Daigen’s reign. Once Yoshimori was dead, preferably executed in public as the son of a rebel and traitor, no one would be able to question the legitimacy of Daigen. Even Heaven would have to concede.
He noticed Masachika recoil very slightly as he leaned toward him. Aritomo knew his breath smelled of decay and that his men feared he was grievously sick, even dying. He saw it in their sideways glances, their nervous voices. Yet not one of them had the courage to confront him with their fears. They did not understand he would outlive them all, that this passing illness was the price he was paying for immortality. He used white powder to mask his yellowing skin and madder to give color to his cheeks and lips. He drank wine to dull the pain and took many other potions, concocted for him by his physicians. Nothing could alleviate the night sweats and the vomiting, or restore healthy flesh to his gaunt frame, but it would all be worth it in the end.
“It may be just another rumor,” Masachika replied. “Arinori reported it. Messengers came from Aomizu this morning. One of the owners of the pleasure boats, Lady Fuji, hinted that she knew where Yoshimori was.”
“Is it worth investigating? It could be a ploy to ingratiate herself with Arinori. They will do anything to avoid paying their dues, these women.”
“Indeed. And as we know the Aomizu lord is susceptible to such women, and inclined to be fanciful himself.”
Aritomo raised his eyebrows. He did not encourage his men in criticism and backbiting. It corroded their loyalty to one another and eventually to him. But he was always interested in their opinions. He wondered what Arinori would have to say about Masachika in return. He would probably not be so quick to criticize, for Masachika had a reputation for acting swiftly against any perceived rival, wiping out offenses in blood.
Masachika said, “However, the woman died, probably poisoned. The most likely suspect, one of her entertainers, disappeared the next day, fleeing into the Darkwood. What if Fuji really did know something and was silenced?”
Aritomo shifted his jaw from side to side as he did when he was thinking. The dull clicking was the only sound in the room.
“You had better go to take a look,” he said finally. “Wear unmarked clothes and don’t draw attention to yourself.”
He noticed with some satisfaction that Masachika was galled by this. Masachika had acted as a spy for both the Miboshi and the Kakizuki, but Aritomo knew he would have preferred to leave all that in the past and play the part of a great lord and that he liked riding at the head of his retinue, with the pine trees of Kuromori and Matsutani emblazoned on surcoats, robes, and banners. Aritomo made a point of giving him minor errands, as though he were some insignificant underling, to keep him in his place. He saw Masachika hesitate as if he would refuse and continued to stare at him until the younger man submitted, bowed deeply, and took his leave.
He thinks he will bide his time and outlive me. But he will not. None of them will.
Yet he had to admit that he did not feel well. Often he passed sleepless nights, during which he recalled his years as an exile and fugitive, the murders of his young sons as hostages, the breakdown in health of his wife, leading to her early death. He knew he was seen as cold and unfeeling, but he had made himself so out of necessity, vowing he would never allow either love or grief to weaken him again. The last person he had cared for was Takaakira, who had hurt him so cruelly and made him weep for what he swore would be the last time.
Now hundreds served him in the capital and thousands more in the provinces and not one of them meant anything to him other than the means by which to impose his will. His scribes kept meticulous records of men, horses, weapons, and ships as well as all the various means of acquiring, maintaining, and transporting them. The administrative departments he had established kept the city running smoothly, supervised the different markets and guilds, burned refuse, carried out investigations, imposed imprisonment and other punishments. But all the time the Kakizuki loitered in Rakuhara, preventing him from bringing the entire realm under his control. Hearing of Yoshimori’s existence would only embolden them.
Surely I am strong enough to annihilate them, he thought. It is time to put my plan into action before these rumors reach them. For some months he had been preparing ships and men, with the assistance of Arinori. Masachika’s attempt to undermine his rival had had the opposite effect, confirming Aritomo’s high regard for the seaman’s qualities. He dictated a message to one of his scribes, telling Arinori to make the final preparations. If he sent it by boat it would reach Aomizu well before Masachika did.
* * *
He was still pondering the details of the attack when later that day he went to Ryusonji, as he often did since the Emperor and his mother had moved there. The halls and courtyards of the temple had been rebuilt, as well as the prison cells, and two spacious residences added, one for the Emperor and one for Lady Natsue. Daigen could have moved into the Imperial Palace, which had finally been finished, but the time never seemed right, and a string of excuses was made until it became obvious to Aritomo that Lady Natsue wanted to keep her son close by and under her control. She entertained Daigen and his court with many artistic pursuits, poetry contests, games of incense guessing and shell matching, and kept them amused with intrigues and gossip. Yet Aritomo knew that there was another side to her life, and it was this that interested him.
He also made time to visit Sesshin, who still sat in the cloister, played his lute, and sang to the dragon child. The old man rambled when he spoke at all and did not seem to know who Aritomo was, yet occasionally his gaze from under his sedge hat turned lucid, and then he let fall some fragment of ancient wisdom. Aritomo thirsted after these, collected them in his heart and brooded on them.
Once Sesshin had spoken of the dragon essence in the water of the well, Aritomo, remembering what Lady Natsue had said, drank it each day, even though his physicians feared it might have traces of poison in it. Another time Sesshin had seized him by his clothes, pulled him forward, and, speaking directly into his face, told him a recipe for lacquer tea, which Aritomo had made up, and swallowed as much as he could stomach every night. He interpreted Sesshin’s utterances like prophecies, seeing in him a man who had no fear of death, since he knew he would live forever. He could not be bullied or coerced but was free in a way no one else was.
I will be like that, but I will not waste my immortality plucking a lute and singing songs. I will use it to impose my will on an entire realm.
* * *
It was a very hot afternoon. The Empress and her ladies sat in a pavilion by the stream. From a distance they made a pleasing picture in their light robes of summer colors of blue-green and mauve, brightly dressed attendants standing around with sunshades, but the stream had dried to a trickle and the moss was reduced to dust. When he looked more closely the women seemed enervated and under the white powder their faces gleamed with sweat.
Aritomo waited in the shade of the cloisters listening to the deafening drone of the cicadas. The Empress caught sight of him and made a sign to her ladies. They rose like a flock of dispirited plovers and prepared to move within. After a few moments one of them appeared at his side and asked him to follow her.
Inside the temple it was even hotter. He felt suddenly dizzy. The mingled scents of incense and lamp oil threatened to bring on nausea. The Empress was not in the reception room where he was usually taken but farther inside, in the very heart of the temple, a place devoted not to pleasure but to meditation and worship.
A few lamps burned on an altar, adding to the stifling heat of the room. Among the statues and images of deities he could make out a depiction of the Prince Abbot, the features shifting as the flames sent flickering shadows over the priest’s face. So she worshipped him here, his sister, the Empress? She was still a beautiful woman but was becoming more like her brother as age melted the flesh from her bones, hollowed her cheeks, and domed her forehead.
She sat with her back to the altar, a carved armrest at her side. She barely acknowledged Aritomo’s greeting before she spoke hurriedly.
“I am glad you came. I was about to send for you. I have something to show you.”
She ordered the attendants to leave the room and then said in a low voice, “There is a text on the altar. Bring it to me.”
He had knelt before her. Now he rose and, bowing again as he passed in front of her, did as she commanded. The text seemed very old, the pages dark indigo, the lettering gold. Dropping to his knees, he held it out to her.
She did not touch it but said, “Can you read it?”
He looked at the page he had opened. In the dark room it was like peering into the sky to read the stars. The characters were in an ancient style that he had trouble deciphering.
A voice spoke out of the darkness, from the ceiling, startling him, for he had thought they were alone—but surely it was no human voice that croaked harshly, “Yoshimori!”
Then the characters resolved themselves and he could read the name.
“It is the Book of the Future,” Lady Natsue said. “With great difficulty, my brother inscribed my son’s name there. Now Yoshimori’s name has appeared and Daigen’s has been erased.”
Aritomo stared at the text in his hands. “Who has done this? Who has been allowed in here?”
“There is no need to come physically into this room to control the Book of the Future,” she replied. “Or to write with the hands. It is with the power of the mind that the book is rewritten.”
“Can it be changed? Can your son’s name be reinstated?”
“Believe me, Lord Aritomo, I have been trying. But I have not succeeded yet.”
Aritomo pondered this for a few moments and then said, “Some creature spoke just now. I heard Yoshimori’s name.”
“It was a werehawk. Two hatched out ten days ago. The eggs must have been lying beneath the altar for years. One day one of my priests noticed they were giving out heat. Soon after, cracks appeared in the shells. The birds came out fully fledged and within days were able to talk. They are insolent and aggressive, and too cunning to catch and kill. It is hard to bend werehawks to your will. My brother could do it, but I don’t suppose anyone else is able to now.”
There was a fluttering of wings and he felt the air move against his face.
“How do you train them?” He longed to have them at his command.
“I do not know. There is nothing written down. My priests have been searching, but so many records were lost in the fire.”
“Maybe the old man knows,” Aritomo said. “I will ask him.”
“He must be made to leave.” Natsue’s voice was an angry hiss. “He may pretend to be witless, but every day I feel his powers increase and clash against mine. As fast as I learn, he learns faster. I am sure it is he who has rewritten the Book of the Future. You must get rid of him.”
“It is hard to get rid of a man who cannot die.”
“Then cut off his hands so he cannot write! Gag his mouth, tear out his tongue so he cannot speak. Tie him up and throw him in a well!”
“I will have him confined somewhere else,” Aritomo promised, thinking it would be to his own advantage to have Sesshin close by.
“Why have the werehawks hatched now?” Lady Natsue whispered. “Why has Yoshimori’s name replaced Daigen’s? What has changed? Can it be that Yoshimori has appeared? That he is alive?”
Above their heads the birds cackled as if they were laughing.
“There have been rumors,” he said. “Masachika has gone to investigate. Yoshimori will be found, captured, and executed.”
“Masachika, Kiyoyori’s brother?”
“He delivered the Autumn Princess to us. If anyone can bring us Yoshimori, it will be him.”
“Yet you neither trust nor like him,” she said. “You have made that clear many times in our conversations.”
“He has served me faithfully for many years. If he finds Yoshimori he will win my everlasting affection.”
She was silent for a few moments. He wondered what was passing through her mind.
“You have no children, Lord Aritomo?”
The change of subject surprised him. “I had two sons, but they both died many years ago.”
“You must know there are concerns about your health. What will happen to the realm after…”
“I can assure Your Majesty, I have no intention of dying!”
He could see his bluntness angered her, but all she said was “I look forward to hearing the news of Yoshimori’s capture. I trust you will inform me immediately.”
He promised he would. As he left, the werehawks swooped clumsily from the rafters and flew after him. On his way back through the many halls and courtyards he had been half-listening for the sound of the lute, and now he heard it, coming from the cloister that overlooked the lake.
Sesshin sat plucking the strings idly. He did not seem to play consciously and yet a tune emerged. The werehawks landed in front of him and opened their beaks, singing as if in harmony.
“Good day, my friends,” Sesshin said, his fingers still. “What have you come to tell me?”
He turned his head toward Aritomo, and even though Aritomo knew the old man could not see him, his sightless attention unnerved him.
The birds warbled. Sesshin cocked his head, listening.
“The leaves are turning red,” he said. “Yes, autumn is coming and all will be red.”
Red was the color of the Kakizuki. It seemed hotter than ever in the cloister as the sun sank in the west. Aritomo’s mouth was parched. He swallowed hard and said, “I could have you confined and tortured. It is by my grace that you are free.”
“You could, you could,” the old man agreed amiably. “But it will make no difference. The leaves will still turn red.”
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