Always Coming Home:
Drawing Out the Darkness

The tree was old and almost dead, but there was still strength left in its branches. Gisei gently touched the white blossoms that clung to the gnarled branches of the plum, marveling at its defiance. Spring was still weeks away, and yet it had taken advantage of a spell of sun and relative warmth to cast its beauty into the teeth of winter. Surely, Gisei thought, among trees the plum was a samurai, and a Crane.

The Daidoji woman smiled and took a deep breath of the chilly air. Winter court was an unending stream of events and obligations, but whenever she had some time Gisei came out to the garden, to a bench that sat invitingly under the plum tree. Yesterday she had participated in a tea ceremony conducted by Asahina Otojiro. Tonight was a poetry reading from a new and promising poet, Kakita Utsusemi. Tomorrow she was to go hawking with Lord Hanoshi and a few of the high-ranking Doji among his guests--an outing that her political rival, Kakita Unako, had not been invited to. But right now she could sit and soak up the peaceful stillness of the garden.

After a few more minutes of admiring how the snow gracefully blanketed the garden Gisei decided that it was time to get back to her rooms and prepare for the evening ahead. She'd made great progress in carrying out her lord's agenda but showing up late, or badly dressed, to Utsusemi's performance could still set her back.

Gisei had taken two steps when something in the garden changed. She didn't know what it was, but she had stopped doubting her instincts after Oblivion's Gate. Her eyes scanned the area around her, her hand automatically going to her obi before she remembered that she had left her daisho in her room. Cursing her luck wouldn't accomplish anything, so she allowed her right hand to drop naturally to her side, letting the fullness of her kimono sleeve hide it. Real courtiers knew how to defend themselves with fans; Gisei had to content herself with the long, wickedly sharp dagger she kept in a sheath strapped to her arm.

A small group of pines stood ahead of her, their feet pooled in shadow--not the normal shade of tree and setting sun, but an unnatural, solid darkness that drank up the light around it. While she stared at it, trying to understand what she was looking at, the darkness became transparent, and something stepped out of it.

It was a man--Crane, to judge by his long white hair--dressed in an elegant style. His steel-blue kimono was patterned with kanji painted in deep black and highlighted with silver thread. His face was painted kabuki-fashion, black on white, in the lurid style of the evil lord in the "Peach-Pit_Boy". Gisei strained to see the features underneath the paint, wondering which of the actors among Hanoshi-sama's guests could effect such a dramatic entrance.

"Excuse me, Gisei-chan," he said, and swept into a deep, graceful bow. "I did not wish to disturb your meditations, but since you are ready to leave, perhaps I could speak with you for a moment?."

"I---" Gisei was offended at the man's familiarity, but she was even more confused by his words. The voice didn't match anyone's at court. "Who are you? How do you know my name?"

"Please forgive my oversight," he said politely. "I am Shimekiri."

Shimekiri. The Black Kabuki. The Demon Blade of the Shadowlands. Kashiwa's Bane. The brilliant student of the Kakita who had murdered his sensei and turned to darkness in a mad quest for excellence and revenge. Gisei stared at the figure before her, her mind picking out details--the bloody sheen that danced in his eyes, the swords thrust into his pure white obi, the inhuman grace of his movements. No, she thought. It couldn't be. The real Shimekiri could have no business with her--she had no connection to the darkness. Something in the abyss of her memory stirred, and she reflexively shoved it back down.

"Kakita Shimekiri never existed," Gisei said, watching for his reaction. "He is a fable, a story invented by the enemies of the Crane to shame the Kakita."

"A legend in my own time," he said, smiling slightly. "Every young samurai's dream." The man strolled towards the plum and gently touched its blossoms.

Of course if this was the real Shimekiri, Gisei thought with detachment, her lack of a sword was irrelevant. A swordmaster could hope to out-draw the Bloody Crane, but her iaijustu has always lagged far behind her yarijutsu. She'd have a better chance of boring him to death with one of her stories.

"As for knowing your name," he continued, "I am acquainted with a kinswoman of yours. She knew I had an errand in the Crane lands, and requested that I relay a message to you. She says, she has recovered two more daisho, and arranged for them to be found by the Crab. They should be on their way to the Crane shortly."

Gisei felt the world shift slightly, as if she stood on an ice-covered lake during spring's thaw. "I don't know what you are talking about," she said faintly. Gisei could smell the Taint on him now, a sweetness that cut like steel, and the rich, salty scent of blood. Taint and blood...No, she thought, I won't. The world around her shifted again.

"No need for sincerity between us, Gisei-chan," Shimekiri said. He stepped closer to her, and she found herself looking him straight in the eye. "I don't--" he stopped then, paused. "Ah. I see. You really don't remember."

Shimekiri's eyes promised blood and pain to whoever opposed him, and Gisei knew a dozen different stories that painted him a remorseless dealer of death--and yet, she felt no fear at his presence. Her skin prickled at the thought and she stepped back, away from him, her hand feeling the comforting roughness of the dagger's hilt. "No, I don't. And I won't believe anything *you* tell me, so save your breath."

Shimekiri followed her. "It must be terribly uncomfortable to have part of one's life missing. Perhaps you could go to the Asahina for help? I have heard they have great skill in healing--"

The world moved again, cracks growing in the places where memory lurked in shadow. Gisei pulled her dagger out and swung, desperate to stop the words that were eroding the wall between her and the past. Halfway through the arc her hand was stopped by a grip like iron around her wrist.

"Really, Gisei-chan," Shimekiri said disapprovingly. He was holding her fast with his left hand, and with his right he pried the dagger out of her grip, dropping it into the snow. "Daidoji aren't supposed to be predictable. I'm disappointed in you." He released her.

Gisei staggered away from him and felt herself come up against a tree. Her wrist burned with remembered pain as around her the world started to fragment. Blood and Taint. A dagger's fall. All I'm asking is for you to think about it.... No, Gisei thought desperately, I won't! And then the world came apart, and dropped her into memory.

* * *

The first thing Gisei became aware of afterwards, as she fought her way clear of herself, was the cold that numbed her feet. The second was the sensation of someone standing close to her. She opened her eyes to find Shimekiri, a look of concern on his painted face. "Are you all right, Gisei-chan? You look...pale."

"Get away from me!" she gasped and shoved him. He politely moved aside and Gisei tried to run. After two steps she discovered that memory was too heavy a burden to bear as her legs folded beneath her and she started to pitch head-first into a snow bank. A pair of strong hands seized her from behind and held her up, steering her towards the bench beneath the plum tree and setting her gently down on it. Gisei felt her face burn with embarrassment. The etiquette of the situation was unclear to her--did she thank him for his help, or did Shimekiri's status as a servant of Jigoku trump normal conventions?

The Tainted duelist sat down on the other end of the bench. The level rays of the setting sun touched his white hair with fiery glory and lent the illusion of warmth to his painted face. "Now, perhaps we can discuss matters as civilized people?"

"I have nothing to say to you," Gisei said shakily. "I have been warned about the lies and deceptions of the Shadowlands."

"Have you? And why do you assume that those who warned you were telling the truth?" Shimekiri leaned forward suddenly and caught her eyes with his. Gisei sat frozen, unable to look away from what she saw reflected there. "Since you have been old enough to remember you have been told stories about the Shadowlands, been told that it was wasted, chaotic, ugly. What did you see, when you finally went there yourself?" Gisei didn't answer, her mind consumed by memories of mountains that swept majestically up towards the sky like a plea to heaven and then fell back into plains subtly shaded in myriad tones of bone, sepia and black. "They lied to you about beauty," Shimekiri said softly, "and you believed them. What other lies have you taken for truth?"

The sun had sunk below the horizon and left them both in darkness before Gisei found an answer. "The lord of the Daidoji has declared your kind an enemy," she finally whispered. "That is truth."

"Truth indeed," Shimekiri agreed. "More truth than one usually hears on this side of the Wall. And since you seem to have made up your mind on this issue, there's no further need for talk." He rose smoothly, one hand moving towards the hilt of his katana.

Gisei closed her eyes and willed herself into stillness, resolved to meet her death like a samurai. There was the soft shush of a blade leaving its saya, and then nothing. After a long moment Gisei opened her eyes to find herself alive and Shimekiri gone.

On the ground in front of her lay a single plum blossom, its white petals touched with blood.