A Hundred Small Lives
Sakura's mother had died a maho-tsukai at Sakura's father's hands.
Sakura's father's lover was a Crane.
The Crane had claimed Yasuki lands.
It had not been an auspicious year for a Crab samurai-ko's gempukku. Then again, Hida Sakura supposed, there was never an auspicious year for a Crab's gempukku.
"The three constants of your existence," her father said to her once, "are duty, death, and the Shadowlands."
"What of life?" she asked. She was very young, then, even if few Crab remained so for long. Her brother's death at her mother's hands, her mother's death at her father's hands, had taken childhood from her. Sometimes she reckoned it a gentler awakening than the Shadowlands would have granted her.
On this day, she was 14 years old and small for her age, smaller than the three cousins she had grown up with after her mother's death.
"Life," said Hida Tsuji to his oldest child--soon to be his only child--"is something for others to contemplate. We are samurai. We live in death's shadow, and die to give life."
When war befell the Crab and Crane, Hida Tsuji went with O-Ushi-sama to defend the Yasuki lands, and Daidoji Nabiko, his lover, went with Kurohito to attack them. Nabiko, to whom Sakura had spoken only five words--"You are not my mother"--in their several years of acquaintance; whom Tsuji never mentioned to his daughter after that first, strained meeting, when the girl-child had walked away from this stranger with her long lashes and flawless kenjutsu, her sky-blue armor and, above all, hands that would never be the gentle, callused hands of Tsuji's dead wife, Sakura's mother.
Neither Tsuji nor Nabiko fell in battle; neither returned to the Wall.
"I will come back," he had promised his daughter.
The days passed and there was no word from him: no scrawled haiku, no whisper on the wind. Through all those long years, he had always written to his daughter from his campaigns, an eccentricity to be expected in a Crab who wrote poetry and skinned Shadowlands spawn to construct message-kites.
Two fears held her heart: that he had followed his Crane lover to fight, and lived; that he had not followed his Crane lover, and died. Abandoning her, either way.
"Life," Sakura whispered to herself now as she stood upon the wall, watching the cherry blossoms fall. "You said you would return; you lied to me this once, Tsuji-san. Never again."
In her hand she held a message; in her heart she held his death.
Sakura dreamed of Crane blood upon her ono, red to stain that sky-bright blue, red to wash her waiting steel. She dreamed of Daidoji Nabiko hiding her white, expressionless face behind a white, expressionless mempo when she departed. Did he matter so little to you, O Crane, that you could leave dry-eyed as midday stone? She dreamed, too, of her father's large, ink-stained hands as he stared at a stillborn haiku two days after Nabiko's departure.
"No," her commander, Kaiu Kyobe, said to her when she asked to take up her ono against the Crane. "You will be a messenger to your father, who has some small skill in tactics. We need him, preferably alive." He added, confoundingly: "I find I even miss his poetry, of late."
"If my father still lives with honor," she said, "why have I heard nothing of him from the battle's front lines?"
"You will be a messenger to your father," Kyobe said again, implacably, "who has seen death in far too many shapes to be dead now. He would at least have given us a dreadful tanka in Nezumi speech before he fell down."
She looked dubiously at him. "Will he understand the message?"
"He wrote a haiku years ago," said Kyobe. "He will remember it, and remember that the Crab remain standing no matter how many small lives are lost."
"Hai, Kyobe-sama," she said, uncomprehending, and surrendered her ono in exchange for the message.
One Crab, to walk alone into the embattled lands with nothing more than her daisho and the message.
It was not lack of courage that made her steps unsteady. It was stillborn fury, it was the death of what filial piety remained to her, it was the memory of her mother's despairing croon as the oni howled outside and the baby's scream became silence. It was her traitor heart, that longed for a mother's hands even now.
Even at the battle's edge, Crab and Crane alike saw the samurai-ko with her unbound hair, the blue-and-red kimono unhidden by armor, and let her pass. Perhaps, marking her lack of height, her slender form, they thought her too young to have passed her gempukku. Perhaps they thought her unarmored silhouette unworthy of arrow or spell.
"Where are you going?" the Crab asked from their encampments, and she held up the message; they read it though it contained no words; they told her where to go and spoke no more.
Perhaps they saw her past written upon her shadow--the unclean shiryo of a woman who was a Kaiu's daughter, a Kuni's granddaughter, and above all maho-tsukai; the last stilled breath of the unnamed baby--and knew another fate walked with her.
It was raining when Hida Sakura found them: Daidoji Nabiko with her dreamfall of dark hair, Hida Tsuji with his fire-scarred hands. They stood facing each other amid crow-pecked corpses as they had stood for the last three days, drinking nothing but rain, tasting nothing but pain, waiting for any of the equally unbearable conclusions to their iaijutsu duel.
No message to his daughter--
Three days amid the slaughter--
She knew full well that news in battle traveled labyrinthine paths, like the heart's red branches or a cherry blossom's descent. Who, after all, would speak of a duel before the exchange of steel settled it?
Strange how she drowned in memory as she stood at the tableau's edge, unheeded and ungreeted, rain soaking the woven silk of her kimono and running through the tangled silk of her hair. Her mother had smiled to the very last as her father's hands, dirt- and sweat-streaked from battle with the enthralled oni, closed around that pale slender throat. She had been a child crouching beside the blood-drained baby, unable to scream, unable to shut her eyes, unable to forget that pale slender tanto clattering from her mother's grip.
She no longer remembered her mother's face, only that terrible smile.
More memories: Her father's endless haiku, pouring from his brush like tears, like blood, like the last light of evening. Vanished days: Daidoji and Hida saluting each other with bokken like children as her father gamely attempted the dance of focus and strike, which came to him no more naturally than flight to a stone, stillness to a kite. Those duels, though, had always ended amicably, as this one could not.
No honor remained to Sakura, it seemed, daughter of a woman who had slain one child to save the other--Sakura herself--from an oni, daughter of a man who had nearly seared his hands into blackened bone while smearing jade powder onto an unclean kite.
I have no mother. I have no father. I have no brother. I am Crab, and I have only a message.
Her message as much as her commander's.
Sakura flung her message into the rain and the wind, wondering at Kaiu Kyobe's sense of humor: cherry blossom petals, as bitter as their withered beauty, paler than bone as they scattered. They swirled away from her hands, and she thought of the things they represented: a spring that would never return, lives that would never heal, rebirth denied.
"She's mine!" cried Sakura to the duellists.
For a moment, motion touched both Crab and Crane, making them other than statues awaiting the sculptor's killing hand.
Hida Tsuji's voice was hoarse. It belonged not to her father, but to a veteran soldier reprimanding a stripling: "Better the swift end/ than the slow death through duty--/ We sought this duel."
Some of the petals had caught in the Daidoji's topknot. Her mouth moved, but only silence escaped, like a jewel of Void. Her hands, though, remained steady upon the katana's hilt.
Sakura spoke then to her father, knowing that each word that cut him would cut Nabiko as well: "My mother has been gone all these years. My brother has been gone all these years. And now you throw your life at a Crane the way you threw your heart at her, with nothing left for me but the offal from your duel. She is mine."
Sakura did not say: No line in my life has ever gone straight since the oni came for us and you did your duty as a Crab by killing my mother.
Sakura did not say: What is there left for me if she slays you, or steals your heart by dying?
Sakura did not say: I will not let you kill this woman who could have been a mother to me if I had let her.
Unspoken words, but perhaps in the gaps between thought and motion, her father heard them anyway.
Nabiko closed her eyes for a heartbeat.
"You are a samurai, as I am," Tsuji said hoarsely. "I neglected you all these years so I could soothe my own guilt at your mother's death by throwing myself at the Shadowlands. I will not deny you this one thing I can give you: the right to stand in my place as you choose." He lowered his hands and stood aside.
Now that it was too late, Sakura would have given all the world's spring blossoms to remove the expression in his eyes as he looked upon his daughter and his lover.
It was rain upon his face, not tears. Not tears.
Sakura took her place across from the Daidoji: a daughter's last duty.
"I am Hida Sakura," she said in all the voice left to her. "For my gempukku I tracked an ogre to its lair so it could taste my ono, and at Kaiu Hyobe-sama's command I brought the message no one else could bring."
"I am Daidoji Nabiko," said the Crane gravely, "and I avenged my brother's death at the sword of Kakita Hiroto. I killed an oni on my fifth day on the Wall, and under Hida Tsuji-san's command I slew spawn beyond numbering beneath the light of a jade kite."
All the world's spring blossoms, and all the summer's rain, she learned,
could be found in the eyes of this woman who was not her mother.
Sakura's father had written the haiku years ago to his wife the Kaiu's daughter, the Kuni's granddaughter, unknowing of the glimmer of destiny within its strokes.
a hundred small lives
in the shadow of the wall
cherry blossoms fall
It seemed in that last moment, as the Crane's blade outraced her own, that the rain fell as softly and slowly upon Sakura as petals.
Three hearts, two swords, one strike.
Thanks to Bob Yager, to whom I dashed off the little haiku that flowered into this tale. Also many thanks to the RicePaper Society, especially Daidoji Gisei, Kakita Kaori, Kakita Koshin, and Doji Hiro.
The situation in which I left Hida Tsuji and Daidoji Nabiko nagged at me, but I didn't want to simply continue their tale. I did realize, though, that I had left a significant hanging thread: Tsuji's daughter, who is mentioned a few times in Poet's Sword, Warrior's Pen but never introduced in any depth. As her gempukku approached, I wondered how she would confront the past that lay between her, her father, and the ghost of her mother; and I wondered, too, how her father's romance with a Daidoji would affect her when the Yasuki estates came into contention between the Crab and Crane.
--Moto "my parents are divorced" Maratai