Tanshu’s cool nose touched the side of Sekken’s hand a moment before Ameno’s voice came through the door. “Little brother, the physician is here.”
Surfacing from meditation felt like coming down to earth, like a heavy court robe being draped over Sekken’s shoulders. When he meditated, he could forget his body, with all of its demands and betrayals. He could become just a mind – and then not even that. A self that, for brief moments, forgot its own existence, like the Shinseists encouraged.
Until someone interrupted, dragging him back to physical reality. Back to a world where his mother had found yet another physician to examine him, as if this one would have any more success than the half-dozen who came before.
Sighing, Sekken opened his eyes. Tanshu was at his side, alert and prick-eared, and Sekken scratched the dog’s jaw. “Thank you.” Interruptions were more welcome when they came from his sister, but advance warning made them less jarring.
Tanshu’s tail thumped once against the tatami. Then he shifted out of the way as Sekken levered himself carefully to his feet – but not too far away, as if the dog could do anything should his master prove unsteady. “You’re worse than my childhood nurse,” Sekken grumbled, but Tanshu made no reply.
“Nothing, Ameno. Tell Mother I’ll be there shortly.”
A soft rustle as his sister departed. Sekken rubbed his eyes and considered changing into something better than his current informal kimono. But no, if his mother had brought another physician to poke at him, they would hardly expect formality. And Sekken wasn’t minded to waste energy he might not have, just to look more polished.
He felt solid enough on his feet as he slid the door open and stepped onto the veranda, but the cold air hit like a rebuke. Even with the winter shutters in place, closing away the sight of the gardens and sealing the veranda in dimness, there was a sharp difference between Sekken’s brazier-warmed chamber and the atmosphere beyond his door. Tucking his hands inside the sleeves of his quilted robe, he hurried through his family’s manor to the room where they greeted visitors.
His mother was there already, seated with the physician while a servant poured tea. “Son, this is Sir Makusa Naotsugu. I sent for him after your… difficulties yesterday.”
My collapse, you mean. By now his mother was used to days where Sekken had to take a nap before lunch, then maybe another one after, waking up hardly more refreshed than he’d felt when he lay down. That level of difficulty was frequent enough that it hardly occasioned remark anymore. But yesterday had been one of the bad ones.
“Lord Asako.” Naotsugu bowed to him. “I understand that none of the physicians you’ve seen have been able to offer much assistance, but I may be able to bring a fresh perspective.”
“You can try,” Sekken said as he knelt, “but forgive me if I don’t hold out much hope.”
His mother’s mouth thinned in reproof, and Sekken grimaced. “Forgive me. I’m afraid my manners suffer alongside my health.”
“As is to be expected,” Naotsugu said. “Your lady mother gave me the history of your ailment. From the sound of it, your experience serving as a vessel for your honored ancestor Kaimin-nushi badly damaged your elemental strength. Naturally this will be reflected in your inner capacity as well as the outer. If I might examine you –”
Sekken pulled his wrist away when the physician reached for it. “You may not.”
He scowled at his mother. “I know you mean well – both of you – but I’m tired of this, and it never produces any results. Some days I’m fine. Other days I’m not. There’s no pattern to it, and no predicting whether the day will be a good one or bad. I’ve taken medicines; I’ve prayed to the Fortunes; I’ve practiced sixteen kinds of spiritual technique. None of them make more than a temporary difference. It seems this is the price of what I did in Seibo Mura, and I simply have to live with that.”
The mutinous set of his mother’s shoulders said she was far from ready to accept it. Sekken was her youngest child, and her only son. His whole life he’d been the sheltered one, doted on by his parents, encouraged in his scholarly pursuits. With his sisters’ advantageous marriages and good positions, there had never been any need for Sekken to do more than glide through life, the privileged son of a fortunate family.
Until two years ago, when that serenity suddenly cracked. Back then, his family’s big worry had been hiding the fact that a dog spirit was haunting him. Sekken had left in pursuit of answers… and he came back broken.
Naotsugu cleared his throat. “By your leave, Lord Asako, Lady Asako, I shall answer your bluntness with my own. I understand that all your previous physicians have looked at your ailment from the perspective of your elemental weakness. I am more concerned with the spirit your lady mother says has attached itself to you.”
That startled Sekken out of the familiar rut of his thoughts. “Tanshu?”
At his side, the dog sat up. Unlike Sekken, he’d recovered well from his nadir in Seibo Mura, when the dwindling of the ancient ward he helped maintain had all but drained the life from him. When he chose to exert himself, he could become visible and tangible to other people. But right now, only Sekken could see him.
“The inugami, yes,” Naotsugu said. “I know something of how such creatures are made. Through the greatest cruelty, starving a dog until it reaches the point of abject desperation, then cutting off its head –”
Sekken slammed one hand against the floor. “Stop. I’ve read the same scrolls you have, Sir Naotsugu – but unlike you, I’ve read a great deal more than that. I have no doubt that some heartless individuals have trapped the spirit of a dog in such fashion, forcing it to serve them. But that is not the only way. Like other animals, a dog can become an inugami through attaining great age, and such creatures can agree to serve a human witch. And after that witch, their descendants.
“A moment ago, you referred to my honored ancestor Kaimin-nushi. Now you turn around and suggest she was a horrible woman who tortured a dog. Which is it? Make up your mind!”
He fought to get his temper under control. This was, unfortunately, a side effect of being a witch; such people were notoriously unstable in their behavior. He hadn’t felt any instability in Kaimin-nushi, on the two occasions when his body served as her vessel… but then, she’d been so great in life that in death, her soul transcended the underworld and became a minor deity. Sekken was just a layabout courtier who’d inherited her dog.
Naotsugu’s face had gone rigid, and he bowed low. “Please forgive me, Lord Asako. I meant no slander to your ancestor. Only to suggest that your tie with this creature may be contributing to your recurrent weakness. However it was bound – with whatever good intentions the bond was formed – it may be harming you now.”
All the air went out of Sekken. Tanshu, harming me?
The dog whined when Sekken looked at him. Certainly he was the picture of canine health, his cream-and-brown fur thick, his eyes bright. Could he possibly be feeding on Sekken’s own energy?
No. You know what price you paid, and why. You just assumed you’d be able to recoup your losses afterward… but it doesn’t work like that.
He could tell these physicians the full story, all the details he held back. Maybe then he wouldn’t have to suffer through their visits anymore.
But that would mean telling his mother the truth.
He’d meant to. When he wrote up his initial report, though, to be carried from where he was recuperating at Ryōdō Temple back to Phoenix Clan lands, it had felt arrogant to put the focus on himself, on his own noble sacrifice. And scholar Sekken might be, but he was courtier enough to know how the tale would be spun. Instead of Agasha no Isao Ryōtora protecting Rokugan from the chaos and terror of the Night Parade, it would be all about how a valiant scholar of the Asako family saved Rokugan and Ryōtora alike, at terrible cost to himself.
Ryōtora had saved the Empire. Sekken had only saved Ryōtora.
But he’d told his superiors that Kaimin-nushi had rescued the other man, when Ryōtora attempted to give his life to end the Night Parade. That Sekken himself had merely served as her vessel.
It wasn’t entirely false. Like Ryōtora – and unlike Sekken – Kaimin-nushi had been capable of speaking with elemental spirits. Without her assistance, Sekken never could have fed half his strength to Ryōtora, replacing what the other man had sacrificed. And for a time afterward, when the two of them rested at Ryōdō Temple, he’d thought he would recover. He had recovered, a little bit; back then he didn’t even have good days. Neither of them did.
Except that every day was good, when Ryōtora was at his side.
His mother leaned forward. “Son? Do you need to lie down again?”
The worry in her eyes cut to the bone. She hated seeing him like this, intermittently weak in body and mind. Even though her son had come home a hero, she would trade all his unexpected glory in a heartbeat if it would restore his health. Sekken couldn’t stand the thought of her reaction if she knew the truth. She would hate Ryōtora. She wouldn’t mean to, but she would.
“I’m fine,” he said, and managed a smile. “Truly, I don’t think it’s Tanshu – but Sir Naotsugu, if you wish to examine him, I’ll allow it. Just… not today. Please.”
“Not today,” his mother echoed firmly. “My son needs his rest.”
Sekken remained where he was as his mother escorted the physician out. He wasn’t as tired as he had been yesterday; meditation was one of the few activities that seemed to revitalize him at all. Sekken had practiced it dutifully in the past – a samurai child could hardly grow up in Phoenix lands without absorbing the habit – but now he meditated daily, sometimes more than once a day. Still, he wasn’t in a hurry to get up.
It meant he was still sitting there when his mother returned. “My apologies,” he sighed. “I can’t even blame that on weakness, not truly. I’ve just gotten very tired of trying, and getting nowhere.”
“I know. But we can’t give up.” His mother knelt at his side and covered his hand with her own.
He gave her a rueful smile, more honest than the one he’d mustered before. “You’ve done an admirable job of finding physicians with discretion… but keep summoning new ones to poke at me, and sooner or later, the truth will get out.”
Her jaw hardened. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
People already wondered, he knew. Anyone else who came back from Dragon territory with such deeds in hand ought to be everywhere at court, toasted and feted and enjoying his newfound prestige. Instead Sekken had spent much of the last year as half a recluse, trying to conceal his weakness. Samurai, even soft-handed courtiers, were not in the habit of admiring men who never knew when they would need to spend all day abed, too exhausted even to read.
He felt his mother’s weight shift, preparatory to rising, but then hitching short. Sekken frowned. “What is it?”
Her reluctance was visible. “I don’t want to tire you.”
“Let me judge what I’m capable of. Tell me.”
She let out a slow breath. “The Dragon Clan visitors arrived in town last night. Agasha no Isao Ryōtora is here.”
As much as Sekken wanted to bolt straight out the door, he knew better than to try.
For one thing, his quilted kimono was a disgrace, not fit to be seen in public. Sekken wasn’t fit to be seen in public, not when he hadn’t bathed in several days. His manservant Jun helped him with that, then brought cosmetics to disguise the stamp left by yesterday’s bout of fatigue. Rice powder helped with the bruised skin beneath his eyes, and a charcoal stick, darkening his eyelashes, drew attention away from the shadows below. Rouge for his lips completed the illusion of health.
And if he was going out, he needed to fortify himself. One of the previous physicians had left instructions, on a scroll longer than Sekken’s arm. Nearly everything he ate and drank was dictated by that scroll: ginger when his Fire became weak, vinegar when it was Water that lagged, a prescription for every condition. Since his Earth had failed him the previous day, it was a meal of roasted yams, before he could be permitted to go anywhere.
Once upon a time, Sekken had liked roasted yams. But even his favorites palled when he had to eat them.
Nor was it only a matter of food. There was a five-herb medicinal tea for him to drink, washing down a rolled-up pellet of delicate paper on which a prayer had been inked. More prayers to recite at the family altars, first to his ancestors – including Kaimin-nushi – then to the Eight Great Fortunes. Meanwhile the servants scurried about, readying enclosed litters for himself and his mother.
At least that last part wasn’t a concession to Sekken’s ill health. His family had too much wealth and influence to walk through the streets for a political visit, especially when those streets were knee-deep in snow. They would be carried in proper style.
Especially since, by the time Sekken was ready to leave, it was too late to catch Ryōtora at the Dragon Clan embassy. The servant dispatched to notify the ambassador of their coming returned with the news that she’d already gone with her guest to the governor’s palace.
“Then that’s where we’ll go,” Sekken said, before his mother could suggest they wait.
Her look said, I hope you aren’t making a mistake. But they’d had that conversation before, and there was no point in repeating it. She merely nodded and called for servants to carry their litters.
Sekken was glad of the shelter as they headed through the gates of his family’s mansion and into the city. The first real snowstorm of the winter had struck the previous day, and although the snow had stopped falling, the air was bitter and sharp. The swaying of the litter unsettled his stomach, but the pan of heated sand on the floorboards kept him warm. Hopefully that would stave off a relapse.
Because above all, Sekken could not allow Ryōtora to discover how bad his health still was.
Ryōtora knew perfectly well what Sekken had done, that night in Seibo Mura. And neither of them had been fully recovered yet when Sekken went back to Phoenix lands, late the previous autumn. Parting had been a sweet ache; during their time at the temple, it had been easy to pretend that neither of them had any obligation to family or clan, that they could simply bask in each other’s company and share the little details of their lives that the supernatural chaos of Seibo Mura had given them no time to discuss. When Sekken left, before winter’s snows could trap him there, he’d had every confidence of seeing Ryōtora again – though hopefully sooner than this.
But from that autumn until now, over a year later, their only contact had been through intermittent letters. And Sekken had taken great care to omit all mention of his problems from those letters. He remembered all too well how easily the peasant-born Ryōtora could fall into a pit of insecurity, questioning his right to the status of a samurai, much less whether he deserved to have his life saved at such cost… and that was when he thought the cost had been a one-time payment.
Under no circumstances can I collapse in front of him, Sekken thought as the litter stopped and was lowered to the ground. Eventually they’d have to talk about it; he was under no illusions that he could hide this from Ryōtora all winter. But the way to introduce the subject was not by toppling over at their first meeting in more than a year. And that went double when the meeting was at the governor’s palace.
The journey there was a short one – hardly any chance for Sekken to risk a chill. When they exited their litters, he found the governor’s steward had ordered great braziers to be lit in the front courtyard. The flagstones were already shoveled clean of snow, and between the sunlight and the fires, not even traces of wet remained.
Tucking his hands into his sleeves, Sekken followed his mother to the walkway outside the formal entrance. In the summertime, one could gauge how many people were waiting to speak with the governor by how many pairs of sandals sat in patient ranks. In the winter, however, servants whisked the shoes away to a nearby chamber, where another brazier kept them warm.
In the receiving room he found nearly a dozen samurai, two monks, and one well-connected merchant sitting or conversing in quiet tones. The official start of winter court lay only a few days off, and while the domain of a provincial governor could hardly match the glories of Imperial Winter Court, or even that of the Phoenix Clan Champion – which Sekken had suffered through twice – it was still an occasion for a great deal of political business.
To his great disappointment, though, none of those waiting there were Ryōtora.
Sekken’s mother bowed politely to the room, then glided across the tatami to where a familiar woman sat. Kyūkai Province lay close enough to the border with Dragon lands to merit its own permanent envoy, a position Mirumoto Kinmoku had held for as long as Sekken could remember. A swordswoman born male, she was as resilient as good steel; in all that time, the only change he’d seen in her was a little more grey threading through her hair with each passing year. Sekken pitied whoever would eventually be assigned the task of suggesting to her that she might retire.
Normally Sekken liked talking to Kinmoku. The provincial governor, Asako Katahiro, was one of the strictest and most straight-laced men Sekken had ever had the misfortune of dealing with; Kinmoku, prone to earthy bluntness, tended to knock him off his stride. She often apologized for it, blaming her warrior training, but Sekken suspected that was as much performance as truth. Either way, it was entertaining to watch.
And sometimes she wielded it for the benefit of others. No sooner had Sekken and his mother made their greetings than Kinmoku nodded at him. “I hardly imagine you’ve come here to see me, nor the lord governor. You’ll find Isao in the garden.”
“Thank you,” Sekken said, barely pausing long enough to punctuate his gratitude with a bow before he bolted out the door.