The road to Seibo Mura was steep, and barely deserved the name. Every half-mile or so, Ryōtora’s pony heaved a great sigh, as if to remind her rider that she was working extremely hard and surely deserved a rest. After he patted her on the neck, she would saunter inconspicuously in the direction of the nearest edible greenery, until he clicked his tongue and tugged at the reins, nudging her back on course.
At least she was more talkative than the two ashigaru escorting him. One trudged along in front, the other behind, and even after five days on the road, Ryōtora had difficulty telling them apart. One was named Ishi and the other Tarō, but they had the same square jaws, the same thinning hair, the same look of being weathered by sun and wind and snow until they were as hard as the stone around them. He’d made one attempt to engage them in conversation the first morning they set out, but the sheer stiff awkwardness of his own pleasantries made him want to crawl into the nearest gully and hide. Before long, he gave up.
He never found it easy to talk to peasants. Not on a normal day, and even less so now, on his way to Seibo Mura.
His way back to Seibo Mura.
The pony’s sighs abated as she devoted all her attention to picking her way down a rocky decline that looked more like a runoff than a road. Ishi – unless it was Tarō – leapt from one footing to the next as nimbly as a goat, keeping clear in case the pony should suddenly fall. That image made Ryōtora shudder, and at the next opportunity he reined her in and dismounted. Tarō – unless it was Ishi – took the reins, and Ryōtora followed the pony and two peasants on foot, swallowing an undignified curse when a stone turned under his foot and wrenched his ankle.
At the bottom of the slope, one ashigaru held the reins while Ryōtora remounted. The other said, “Would my lord like to press onward, or find a campsite for the night?”
Ryōtora was no delicate lowland flower. His duties took him through the hinterlands of the Dragon Clan’s provinces, from one peasant village to the next. But for the last two days there had been no villages at all, and so they’d had to sleep rough. Even at the height of summer, that wasn’t a comfortable option – especially when the clouds above the higher peaks told Ryōtora a storm was building there.
“Press on,” he said at last, hoping he wouldn’t regret it. “We should be able to make Seibo Mura by nightfall.”
If the road had been in anything like good repair, they would have. But it was poorly enough maintained that Ryōtora mistook a level stretch of ground for the real path, and didn’t realize his error until they’d spent precious daylight traveling in the wrong direction. And as they retraced their steps, the storm caught them.
He hunched his shoulders beneath his straw cloak, trying not to read an omen into this ill luck. But everything about this journey felt cursed, and had from the start. If only I hadn’t been in Heibeisu when the message came…
He wiped water from the tip of his nose and tried to banish such thoughts. This was his duty, and Regret was one of the Three Sins. If it was the will of the Fortunes that he return to Seibo Mura, then so be it.
The clouds and the high wall of the mountains meant the light faded fast, and the moon was too close to new to be in the sky. Ryōtora would have given up on reaching the village and just made camp, but no suitable location offered itself. He dismounted again to lead the pony, letting her set the pace as she carefully chose her footing in the increasing gloom, and tried to be grateful that at least the chill of the rain was easing the throb in his twisted ankle. If they didn’t find shelter soon, they would have no choice but to stop where they were, and at least wait for the rain to pass.
At last the ground leveled out. And not too far away, Ryōtora thought he saw lights glimmering.
Spirit lights? he wondered. Such things liked to lead travelers astray – or over cliffs. But he felt like they had reached a valley floor, and these had the warm glow of true flame.
Without warning, one of his ashigaru shucked his pack and readied his spear with a speed that made the pony sidle. A moment later a voice came from the trees: “Stop! Name yourself!”
Ryōtora swallowed the rapid beating of his pulse. With his thoughts on spirits, and the tale he’d heard in Heibeisu… but the voice was young, and heavily laden with the thick accent of the north. Though it did its best, it didn’t quite succeed at sounding fierce. A sentry, he realized. And a determined one, to be out in this weather.
He raised his chin, showing his face as best as he could in the murk.”I am Agasha no Isao Ryōtora, sent from Heibeisu in response to your message. These two ashigaru accompanying me are Ishi and Tarō.” He silently promised the Fortunes that he would learn to tell them apart.
His words produced a brief silence. Then a rustling, followed by a thump as the sentry dropped out of a nearby hemlock. Ryōtora couldn’t see much, but now that the voice wasn’t raised in strident challenge, it sounded female. “Just you?”
“And two ashigaru,” Ryōtora said – though how much use they would be, he couldn’t guess. It depended on what was happening in Seibo Mura.
She stood quietly for a moment. When she spoke again, she sounded discouraged. “I’ll take you to Ogano’s house.”
“You don’t need to stay here and keep watch?”
“No,” she said, her tone going flatter still. “I was looking out for you, not the monsters.”
Even in the dark and the rain, Ryōtora could see the damage.
The light cast from a few houses picked out the silhouette of a burned building, jagged timbers still pointing accusations at the sky. Ryōtora’s guide, muttering a brief warning, led him around the edge of a pit torn into the ground. Rough-hewn beams propped up the roof of another house whose side wall had been ripped away.
She brought him to what he suspected was the largest house in the village. It spilled light from the edges of the shuttered windows along the raised veranda, as if the owner didn’t care about saving lamp oil for the winter. As if he didn’t expect to still be here when that season came.
When Ryōtora’s guide knocked at the door, no one opened it. Through the steady patter of the rain, though, he thought he could make out a sudden flutter of voices inside. His guide knocked again, and after a moment a nervous-sounding man shouted, “Who is it?”
“Rin,” the girl said. “With a samurai from down south.”
The voice got closer, but the door still didn’t open. “How do I know it’s really you?”
“Because the moon ain’t full,” the girl said, in a tone that barely avoided appending you idiot to the answer.
That seemed to be persuasion enough to unbar the door, but it only opened a crack. Although the figure that appeared in it was an unreadable silhouette, Ryōtora felt a suspicious gaze weighing him. “What’s your name? And who sent you?”
Ryōtora repeated his introduction, adding, “I was sent by the governor of Heibeisu.”
“You could be lying,” the man said. “I know the stories. Women asking to come in from the snow. Babies crying in the fields. All tricks, to make us let our guard down.”
Yōkai. Many people went their whole lives without ever meeting such a creature outside of the tales told around the hearth at night. But if the reports out of Seibo Mura were to be believed, this man’s caution was justified.
“I am going to pray to the kami,” Ryōtora said. “If they answer me, it will take the form of –” What should he choose? What would this man not interpret as a sign that he was a yōkai?
Casting his gaze around, Ryōtora made out a broken pick lying on the ground, the sort of thing a miner would use in his work – or in his defense. “The haft of this pick will be made whole.”
He knelt and linked his hands into the sacred shape of a mudra, murmuring a prayer in a low voice. That done, he laid his palms on the broken pieces and brought them into alignment, then plucked a few strands of hair from his head and wound them around the haft. The earth kami within the wood remembered being a whole stick, and remembered growing from the tree; it wasn’t difficult to convince it to grow together once more.
When he lifted the heavy pick, the girl made a muffled sound of surprise. While Ryōtora had introduced himself as an Agasha, not all who bore that name were shugenja, especially not in the vassal families. Plus, it was entirely possible these people had never seen even so minor a wonder before.
But the man, when he spoke, didn’t sound impressed. “I suppose you’d better come in.”
A rural house like this one didn’t have a finer entrance for honored guests. Ryōtora murmured a formulaic apology for intruding as he stepped across into the earthen-floored working area. To his left rose a stretch of wooden planks, with a cheery fire burning in the sunken firepit – that was the source of most of the light. But the sliding panels that gave access to the rest of the house were closed, and Ryōtora saw no one else.
That seemed unlikely. The headman of the village – which this certainly must be – would have at least a few servants working for him, not to mention family.
As Ryōtora wiped rain from his eyes, he saw that his guide was a girl of no more than fourteen, her hair braided behind one ear, with a short sling coiled in her hand. The man could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty, and possibly cousin to Ishi and Tarō. “Just one of you?” the man said. Ogano, according to Rin and the records in Heibeisu. The headman of Seibo Mura. The records had said nothing about him being so rude.
“And two ashigaru,” Ryōtora said, nodding at Ishi and Tarō.
“Ashigaru are like a quarter of a bushi. A half at best. And a bushi was no use to us last time.”
The disturbances in Seibo Mura had begun over a month before. A panicked messenger had come to Heibeisu, babbling of monsters and spirits tearing the village apart, and the governor sent a magistrate to look into it – a bushi, Mirumoto Norifusa. But the chaos lasted only three nights; by the time Norifusa arrived, it was all over. He’d searched the area and found no sign of anything untoward. So he’d returned to Heibeisu, writing it up as a tragic incident. Random, and unexplained.
A month later, it happened again.
Ryōtora said, “I assure you, headman, that I will do my best to –”
“To what? To bring our dead back to life? To restore the houses the monsters have destroyed, the mine shaft they collapsed? If you can work miracles on that scale, shugenja, I’ll be the first to bow my head to your feet.”
Nothing about Ogano hinted at the possibility of bowing. Elsewhere in the Empire, his hostile insolence toward his social superior might well have earned him a beating. He should have immediately offered to hang up the samurai’s cloak, brought him a towel to wipe himself dry with, escorted him to a seat by the fire. Not accused Ryōtora of uselessness while he dripped onto the packed earth of the working area.
Even in the dark, though, Ryōtora had seen enough to understand that the peasants of Seibo Mura had suffered horrors. They were used to long winters, harsh snows, avalanches and rockfalls and the hazards of a life based around mining… but these “monsters,” whether they were yōkai or something else, were a different matter.
“I will do my best,” Ryōtora repeated. “If the pattern so far holds, you have nothing to fear until the next full moon – but I won’t trust that it will. Beginning tomorrow, I would like to speak to every inhabitant of this village in turn, however old or young, to learn what I can of what’s been happening. And I will see about creating defenses, so that if the problem does recur, you will be more prepared for it.”
Ogano scowled. “Defenses. Well, that’s more than the other one offered.”
From behind one of the screens came a new voice. “I assume you mean that bushi from before.”
It slid aside to reveal another man, this one far too well-dressed to be any resident of Seibo Mura, in a kimono embroidered around its hem with a motif of climbing vines. Behind him crouched all the people Ryōtora would have expected to see in a household like this one: a woman who was probably Ogano’s wife, four children, and an older man and woman he guessed were servants. The man who’d spoken made a reassuring gesture at them and then slid the door shut behind himself, as if thin paper and wood could grant any protection if trouble should arise.
“Asako Sekken,” the man said, bowing. “From Michita Yasumi – my mother is the steward of the Kanjiro Library there. And you are?”
He would have heard Ryōtora introduce himself outside, but to bypass the formalities would be rude. And the elegance of his bow . . . his manners were as courtly as if they stood in the home of a daimyō rather than a village headman. What was a member of the Phoenix Clan doing here?
Ryōtora gave his name for the third time, almost stumbling over it. Everything about Asako Sekken might have been purposefully crafted to throw him off-balance. A samurai from an influential family, rather than a mere vassal; a refined scion of the court, rather than an itinerant shugenja; an outsider in a village suffering from troubles no outsider should know about.
And with his pointed chin, his arched eyebrows, his bony hands and wrists that made a graceful dance of every gesture… he reminded Ryōtora far too much of Hokumei.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Sir Ryōtora,” the Asako said with another bow. “I’m afraid I arrived last night and took the room that should be yours. But four and a half mats should be enough for us both – I promise, I don’t sprawl. Or we could lay our futons in that room instead.” He gestured at the larger chamber behind him, where Ogano’s family and servants still hid.
Ryōtora gathered his scattered wits. “Forgive me, Lord Asako, but what brings you to this village?”
“Why, the same as you, I imagine. Whatever has been going on in this place.”
“So the Phoenix know about these events?”
It came out too sharp. But Sekken merely smiled and said, “One of us does, at least.”
His words weren’t very reassuring. The Dragon and the Phoenix were on cordial enough terms, and often found common ground in their shared interest in spiritual matters. Like any close neighbors, though, they sometimes squabbled over those same points of shared interest – particularly when the Dragon granted free rein to something the Phoenix deemed heretical. Or when the Isawa decided that, as the greatest shugenja family in the Empire, they were the only ones who could be be trusted to handle some issue properly.
He’s not an Isawa. Which meant Sekken was not, in fact, quite the worst possible Phoenix to have shown up in Seibo Mura.
Before Ryōtora could say anything else, Sekken turned to Ogano. “I think we’ve established that he’s not some kind of malevolent shapechanger, yes? In which case, we should let your family out of hiding. Come on!” That last was directed to the people in the room behind him – Sekken had opened the door again without waiting for Ogano to reply.
That’s more than the other one offered. Ogano hadn’t been talking about Mirumoto Norifusa, but his unexpected and unwanted Phoenix guest.
The women and children crawled out onto the wooden floor of the main living area and bowed low, touching their heads to the polished boards. Given Seibo Mura’s isolated location, it was entirely possible they’d never seen two samurai at once before.
For a while the situation took on something more like the bustle of a normal household. The elderly woman went outside to see to Ryōtora’s pony, while the wife brought Ryōtora a towel and then hastily prodded up the hearth in the earthen-floored workspace to cook something for her new guest. The oldest son helped her; the youngest child, fat-cheeked and of indeterminate gender, sat near the firepit and stared unblinking at Ryōtora.
The older man turned out to be Sekken’s own servant Jun, a wiry man with a receding hairline. The Phoenix put him to work moving some of his baggage out of the other room to make space for Ryōtora, while Ogano crossed his arms and glowered – a spectator in his own household.
Ryōtora felt like he should do something about that, but he couldn’t figure out what. It took all his will not to stare at Ogano’s square face, at Rin’s stubborn chin, and wonder: Could that man be my father? Could that girl be my younger sister?
The governor hadn’t realized, when he assigned Ryōtora to handle matters in Seibo Mura, that he was sending him back to the village he’d been born in.
Because no one spoke of such matters. Ryōtora prayed that no one here would recognize him – or if they did, that they would have the sense to keep it to themselves. The last thing he wanted was for Asako Sekken to catch wind of that history. Ryōtora was already going to have enough to do, finding out the cause of the disturbances here and putting an end to them, without adding an overly-curious Phoenix to the mix.
Better if I get him out of here, Ryōtora thought. Then deal with the problem and leave as soon as possible.
But he doubted it would be as simple as that.