Island of Shadows: Shinamaki, Part 1
Island of Shadows:
The Princess watches from the shade of a balcony bursting with flower boxes. Below her, spread across the fields, dozens of men and women train, strive, and spar with each other. Most of them do not know she is there, but a few of them do. She knows that they know, and she wonders if they know that too. Too many wheels within wheels, she thinks and sighs. Instantly she feels a solicitous gaze upon her, and she stifles a second sigh. She does stir, however, and turn a faint gaze over her shoulder. “I am well, Muizui, have no fear.” The tall man she can just see in the corner of her eye visibly relaxes. “I am thirsty, however. Would you be so good—“
“Of course, highness,” he says, bowing, and hurries away. In the silence following, she can hear a disapproving critique from one of the two people still present, culminating in a pointed cough. She turns further to look a question at the pink-haired woman standing watchfully near the door.
The guard purses her lips. She has never controlled her emotions well enough to be a good courtier, the Princess reflects. “He is only concerned, highness, and rightly so. The poison we found was subtle, and clearly infused with a dark power. We still aren’t sure that we’ve found it all, so his caution is not patronizing or misplaced.”
“You think I treat him unfairly.”
The woman hesitates for only an instant. “I do, highness.”
The Princess contemplates this for a second. The geisha shifts her robes slightly, settling the paired pistols concealed beneath into better positions. The Princess finally nods. “I do, I suppose. I am not brittle, and I dislike people treating me as if I am. He knows both of those things better than most, so his solicitousness rankles all the more. But you are right.” She turns back to watch the training yards. “Any progress on tracing the poison?”
“We have no clear evidence,” the guard replies. “We know where it came from, but we can’t prove it.”
“Do not be so quick to assume,” the other woman present says, adjusting her robes around her fur. “All the court is full of poison right now.” The guard frowns at the councilor, but finally nods after a moment.
“We have always competed and warred amongst ourselves. It is our way,” the Princess says, more to herself, as she searches the fields below. Her gaze falls on a group of huge, red-skinned, horned warriors training with other hulking but more human-looking people. “The tournaments were meant to control that, but clearly they are not enough.”
“Ambition,” she says softly as her eyes settle on a graceful, laughing woman wielding an enormous tetsubo in each hand, “pride, greed, avarice, these are all their own kind of poison.” The woman on the field knocks her partner—a monstrous fighter twice her size—clean off his feet with a masterful blow. Grinning, she sets her weapons on the ground and leans on their upturned handles. Her eyes turn to the Princess’s balcony. “We swim in venom,” the Princess mutters.
She turns, suddenly, and stands. “Fortunately, we have anti-venoms, if they can arrive in time. Mochizuki, I want you to ensure that they do.” The guard straightens up respectfully and bows. “I will be fine while you’re gone. Take a few people with you, just in case.” She steps up to the shorter woman and lifts her chin to look in her eyes. “Remember that distrust is also a poison, one we’ve all drunken deeply. That is why we are in this situation. And there is only one cure.”
Mochizuki nods once, decisively, though the Princess sees the reticence in her eyes. That intransigence, that resistance to change, the Princess thinks as Mochizuki bows again and departs, is the deadliest venom of all.
* * *
Tarlith eyed the masked men across the fire and then shifted to study the young man who had helped them. No one seemed relaxed, though no one seemed hostile either. She could not be sure, of course, since only Uzumaki took no pains to disguise his mounting surprise, but she thought that all sides had found the strange, sometimes tense exchange of questions and answers increasingly astonishing. Benkei, whom Uzumaki had described as a monk, finally leaned forward toward the cheery fire that burned between them all and poked at the fowl roasting there. “I am stunned,” he said.
The riftling agreed, though she said nothing. Ser Luther nodded, and Tarlith could see his nervousness and uncertainty in the stiffness of his movement. Their whole understanding of Cryst—of their world, she corrected herself—had shifted under them. All of them were trying to figure out where they actually stood. “We all are,” she said into the silence. “But we still have to deal with the problems in front of us.” She glanced at the young woman they had rescued, sitting just slightly behind her. Since awakening, she had said little more than her name—Hana—and to thank them. Now she sat, head down, cradling a bowl of rise and meat. “We need to get her home and figure out what happened.”
Benkei nodded firmly. “Hana is the most pressing matter, yes. The Jorogumo we can deal with later. I’m more concerned about its confederates, however.”
“And that is the root of the problem, deeper even than the monster,” Uzumaki said quickly. “The void has seeped into our land, and not just our forests. It has found purchase in the hearts of our people.” He tapped the mask Tarlith had recovered. “The shadows that aided this creature are clearly my countrymen, though I cannot understand why. We delight in tricking or manipulating such creatures. When we can, we drive them off; when we must, we kill them. This, this, cooperation,” he seemed to spit the word, “is unheard of.”
“And yet,” said Benkei pensively.
Uzumaki leaned forward, and Tarlith wondered that he didn’t singe his fur in the fire. “You’ve seen it, surely,” the young man said. “The dark looks and sharp whispers. Something has infected all our people.” Benkei frowned and crossed his arms but said nothing. “How long has it been since we’ve quarreled so viciously?”
“The clans have always competed,” Benkei said evenly.
“Not like this,” Uzumaki continued, relentless. “Everywhere we see greater strife, greater conflict; arguments without resolution and fights over things we wouldn’t have considered insulting five years ago.” Benkei frowned and poked the fire. “You spend more time out in the world than most monks, I wager. You can feel it.” He waved toward Hana. “This tragic mess is just one more example. She vanished almost a week ago, and her village has been up in arms about it. They blame my people, and I almost think that was the point. We need to find and expose the corruption here and punish the wrongdoers. We must end this before it spreads”
“If you believe what you’ve said,” Benkei said slowly, “then you know it’s already too late for that. You are correct, of course. The shadows around us are deep, and they grow deeper every year. But the problem is bigger even than you realize. This incident is a symptom, but even the evil you see here is not the root. If we are going to face and defeat this threat, we must understand its scope, expose it, and identify those who pursue it among the highest of our people. We cannot show our intent too soon, or we will apprehend small villains at the cost of allowing the greater villains to escape.”
“We cannot do nothing here. The illness here will fester. Infection will set it. We must stop it now!” Uzumaki protested.
Tarlith rolled her eyes as their arguments increased in force and volume. She saw Ser Luther turn his head, as if coughing, and heard him swear under his breath. She caught his eye, nodded, and turned to Hana. She sat, stiff and still, curled almost defensively over her bowl, with her mass of black hair hanging across her face like a curtain. As she looked closer, however, Tarlith saw that Hana was not still. The riftling reached out tentatively to provide comfort or reassurance or support, she could not say what, but stopped a few inches away from the young woman. She shook. The emotion rolling off of Hana almost rippled in the air. Tarlith saw the simple wooden spoon vibrating in Hana’s white-knuckled grip. She was, Tarlith realized, furious.
“We need to act on this,” Uzumaki said.
“I think what we need to do,” Tarlith cut in, “is ask Hana what she wants.”
Everyone fell silent. Uzumaki, to his credit, looked chagrined. Tarlith turned to the Hana, who took two deep breaths before setting aside her untouched food and slowly standing. As she walked, Tarlith noticed that the young woman had put herself in the best order that she could. She had cleaned the tangles of leaves and twigs and spiderweb from her hair. She had wiped her face and tried to straighten up her tattered clothing. She had her head up when she stepped next to the fire, and her eyes positively blazed as she cast her gaze over all of them.
“I want...” Hana began in a thin voice, and then paused. “I was not waylaid in the forest. I was taken, kidnapped, from my home.”
The surprise from both Benkei and Uzumaki confused Tarlith until Uzumaki managed to sputter, “But— but that’s unheard of. Creatures like that don’t—“ He stopped abruptly, wilting under the force of Hana’s stare. “Sorry.”
“This one did, and she had help.” She turned that iron-hard gaze on Benkei. “I want to go to Shinamaki Village.”
Benkei frowned, and Uzumaki seemed startled. “But why?” He turned to the confused Heroes, spreading his hands apologetically. “Shinamaki is my clan’s nearest village and not her home.”
“Nevertheless,” Hana continued, her voice gaining strength. “I will go there. And then,” she said, turning to Benkei, “I will go with you to the Court and tell the Princess what I have seen.” The monk stared at her, considering, for a few heartbeats. Then he nodded.
Ser Luther cleared his throat. “And what of us?”
Tarlith tensed as Benkei turned to regard them coolly. “You are strangers in a land that does not welcome strangers or even deal with them especially well,” he said matter-of-factly. “For now, I think it best if you stay with us while we take Hana to Shinamaki.”
“That was always going to happen,” Valkor rumbled. Benkei frowned.
“We’re a helpful group,” Amari said as Ser Luther made calming gestures at the dwarf. “Once we start something like this, we prefer to see it through.”
“And you have been most helpful thus far,” Benkei said, inclining his head. “But as I said, you are strangers, and we are slow to trust. I need to keep my eye on you. We’ll decide what happens to you after we resolve this mess.”
“And if we continue to prove helpful?” Ser Luther pressed. “Would that get us passage to your Court to see your Princess? It seems to me that she’s the one who will ultimately decide what happens to us, so we might as well present our case in person.”
Benkei’s eyebrows rose, though he showed no other signs of surprise. Even Uzumaki looked dubious at the suggestion, but Benkei considered for a moment. “Perhaps,” he allowed. “We shall see. For now, though, we should go. Shinamaki Village is relatively close but still some hours away through these trees. We will arrive after nightfall.”
“This should be their new moon festival night,” Uzumaki said, sounding hopeful. “That means there will be lanterns and the whole village turned out. Plenty of light and everyone around.”
“Good,” Hana muttered, though Tarlith thought that only she had heard it.
To be continued...
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