Poet's Sword, Warrior's Pen

by Yoon Ha Lee (Moto Maratai)

lady's silk slipper
waiting in my outstretched hand
butterfly at rest

The first time Hida Tsuji came to serve on the Wall, he had gazed east, then west, along its length and said, to no one in particular, "We'd be in more trouble if more of them flew."

Here, where the Shadowlands haunted every stir of dust and stench of Taint, there was no need to be more specific than them.

The gunso, an oversized Hida named Redan, had heard him and waxed sarcastic: "Pennagolan, wings of fire, and oni no kaze, and you want more trouble, Tsuji? If you want to study philosophy fantasy worlds and what-if's, you can join the Taint-breeding Phoenix in their nests. Or the damn noninterventionist navel-watching Dragons."

"Or the Crane," suggested morose, unshaven Hiruma Hebaragi, who squinted at the horizon as though he expected it to disappear in the dust of an invasion.

"Or the damn pretty-boy soft-handed..." Hida Redan was only too happy to be diverted (as Tsuji later discovered) toward his favourite target of abuse.

Now, some ten years later, Tsuji paused outside the Crane's visitors' quarters on Kaiu Kabe and wondered what Redan would say to him. His smile slipped. He still remembered the white blooms of bones cut crosswise and the wet red sheen spilling around them as the ogre cleaved through armor and flesh to the death within. You wouldn't approve of what I do now, Redan-san. But he lived, and Redan did not. The Fortunes were strange indeed.

As he had hoped, one of the Daidoji was outside. She was slender, with long hair that she had declined to bleach, and she flowed from one kata to the next in a logic of movement that reflected, surely, some inner poetry of balance within her soul. The day's dimming light sheened golden along the edge of her katana, waking the rippling folds of keenly-forged steel like a living crest of water; the blue-and-gold butterflies embroidered on the sleeves of her kimono looked as though they might fly away. She was young and brilliant, trained to the Crane's own excellence, and listening to the even fall of her breath, the precision of her footsteps, Tsuji felt old and worn out.

His one surviving child, a girl who would face her gempukku in a few years and lived with his sister's family, teased him about it sometimes. It did not sting from her, but it stung now, though the Daidoji had spoken no word. He picked absently at the mixture of dried blood, grit, and jade powder that inevitably accumulated under his fingernails. Sweat, blood, dirt: the things that defined a Crab bushi's existence. No brilliance there, only duty.

Oh, there had been that nasty trick with the jade-covered wire, on a Shadowlands expedition where he had brought back 7 men out of 10 against all odds. The Kaiu smith he had bullied into producing the wire had even forgiven him afterward. That had been due to the unrelenting hammer of necessity, though, certainly nothing this slender, poised Crane would recognize as worthy of comment.

She stopped and bowed a private reverence to Yakamo's fading light, then faced him. "My greetings"--she glanced at the mon on his armor--"Hida-san."

"Hida Tsuji," he supplied. "I apologize for the intrusion, Daidoji-san."

Mirror-like, she said, "Daidoji Nabiko." She inclined her head. Her wide, luminous eyes were lit with curiosity. "An intrusion is--an unwanted interruption. The interruption I'll grant you, but how can I know if it is unwanted until I know what you want?"

A courtier's daughter? he wondered, untangling her words. "What became of the poetry contest in old Doji Mineka's honor?"

Nabiko burst into laughter. Her katana's tip jittered, throwing light into his eyes for a moment.

He winced. "I meant no offense, Nabiko-san." After all the years it was still a sore point with him, though the other Crab had grudgingly come to accept his idiosyncrasy. Poetry, indeed.

Her eyes widened.

"I had heard," Tsuji said gravely, "that Doji Maiko's meditations on spring were being rivaled by a young Kakita, but it has been some time since I had any word..." He shrugged deprecatingly.

"You are serious."

For a moment, he thought she would laugh again. You would think I was old enough to know better than to keep putting myself through this.

Instead, she closed her eyes and recited:

his eyes upon mine
blood like blossoms on the blade
death's final mirror

Tsuji savored the words. "Not...so traditional," he ventured.

"Not a traditional season," she said, opening her eyes. Their expression was wary. "How did you hear of Kakita Hiroto?"

The corner of his mouth twitched. "Previous Daidoji have been generous enough to share such trivialities with this humble bushi."

"Poetry," Nabiko mused. Her eyes lifted to his. "I thought you had no time for such things on the Wall."

He thought: you never saw the poem in my wife's last smile; you never saw the poem in the sunrise that lit an oni's eyes with fear. "My wife thought so too."

"Thought?"

"She's gone," he said simply.

Her left hand and her lips moved in a gesture of condolence.

"Besides," Tsuji added, irritated, "if a Crane can slay an oni, why can't a Crab appreciate haiku?"

"You do yourself a disservice," Nabiko said unexpectedly. "I haven't yet killed an oni, but there must be a haiku lurking beneath that brutish exterior."

It dawned on Tsuji that she was teasing him. "There will be oni aplenty," he assured her, fighting down the absurd desire to bring one on a string for her to slay. "One question, Nabiko-san."

She lifted an eyebrow.

"What is Kakita Hiroto to you?" You did not long survive the onslaught of ogres, goblins and walking skeletons, not to mention what one of Hida Redan's pretty-boys would have called the unwashed masses of Crab and nezumi, without learning to read every irregularity of breathing and sideways twitch of the shoulder, every brush-stroke of despair.

Nabiko's mouth tautened. "The man he killed, in the poem--he was my brother." She bowed to him whitely, sheathed her katana, and swept away in a dreamfall of dark hair.

The next time he came, though, and the times after that, she was waiting for him. She did not mention his dead wife; he did not mention her dead brother. It was enough.

*

unseen enemies
in a mantle of white clouds
fog will be our death

It had sounded so easy: go in, get the cache of jade that a previous expedition had been forced to leave on a hilltop (this defied all logic, but the survivors had not exactly been coherent), get out. Or if not easy, at least straightforward. Jade was scarcer and scarcer, and not to be squandered. Tsuji sometimes wondered what would happen if all the jade mines closed. Hida Redan would, of course, have called it "another damn philosophical qusetion." (How a Crab gunso could restrict himself to a single pallid curse still eluded Tsuji.)

Naturally, it had made Tsuji suspicious. Suspicion kept you alive. Suspicion also had nothing to do with whether he went, of course. Five Daidoji, five Crab. A walk in a garden, according to O-Ushi-sama. O-Ushi-sama, thought Tsuji in his more cynical moments, overestimated them and underestimated herself.

He fell back between Daidoji Memi and Hiruma Hebaragi, shifting his grip on the dai-tsuchi to ease the strain on his muscles. To be young again, or a berserker, or anywhere but here, really; he grinned blackly. He stank. They all stank of ichor and sweat and duty. Even Nabiko was starting to look unkempt, and her hair hung raggedly from the stroke that had taken her topknot though not her head. It was not reasonable that the far-from-lethal loss of a little hair, and someone else's hair at that, should hurt him so.

"Safe for now?" asked Hebaragi tensely, alert to any signs of another ambush. They had been too careless the first time, with the jade within sight, glowing brightly enough to comfort the bleakest soul.

His arms hurt. His knees hurt. His head hurt. Advanced old age, no doubt. (His daughter would have snickered.) "All that for a bit of jade."

"I don't like it," said Daidoji Memi, carefully wiping the blood from his katana. "It's little surprise that they knew we'd come for the jade, but..." He prodded at the satchels warily. Green light spilled, shifted, reflected in his eyes. "Over a third of it is missing. And it's not yet corrupt. How?"

"Maybe the ratlings carried it off," said Daidoji Kachi. It was not quite a joke.

"The ratlings," Kaiu Kyobe muttered, "would have taken it all."

Tsuji had no answers. None of them did. There was no point in continuing in the gathering darkness, though, so they sank into the comfort of their watch schedule. Tsuji was Crab enough to take sleep whenever (and wherever) offered, but the moon...something about the mist-shrouded moon disturbed him. Not to mention the jade.

For the first time in years he dreamt of his wife, who had been a Kaiu's daughter, a Kuni's granddaughter. Absurdly, he had loved her hands: thick with callus, surprisingly delicate upon his face or a tanto's hilt. The dream turned bitter, inevitably: the blood, always the blood. He had never forgiven her about the blood, even when she died in his arms, smiling.

He woke to a scream, almost mistaking it for his own. He had his dai-tsuchi in hand before he even creaked to his feet.

"Trap," said tall, taciturn Daidoji Kuru, quite unnecessarily.

They were surrounded. For once, Tsuji would have been happy to cede higher ground to his enemy. It was far less depressing when you couldn't see how badly you were outnumbered. The slitted dark eyes, thick lank fur--these were no Shadowlands spawn that he recognized, and it terrified him.

"But we're not even that far from the wall," said Kachi in a thin voice. "Why attack so close--"

"No," said Nabiko suddenly. The remnants of her hair swirled like a banner's last defiance. Words hissed from between her teeth, punctuated by sword-strokes. "The wind." A spray of blood. "And fog." The clash of steel on steel. "The watchers on the Wall won't see"--stroke --"anything"--sidestep--"and we're too far away"--the unmistakable grating of a blade meeting armor--"to be heard."

Fog--yes. A common occurrence along Kaiu Kabe, with the nearby Shadowlands marshes. Wind to rip away their cries.

Wind. If more of them flew...

He felt the familiar sudden jar as his dai-tsuchi smashed into a creature's chest cavity, and the wrench as he pulled it free. Even with blood bubbling from its mouth, it looked at him with eyes whose malice, Tsuji swore, evaluated him as coolly as a fine katana evaluated its target's worth.

Words rose around them, from inhuman throats: "The jade--the jade--always the jade--come for the jade--die with the jade--the jade--the jade--"

Words, and laughter, a language deeper than words.

Too many of them. They had time and numbers, an arithmetic of slaughter.

Wind. And flight. "Cover me," Tsuji demanded. Another of the creatures died on his dai-tsuchi; this time, though, he dragged it with him, shoulders and lungs heaving with the sheer mass of the thing. "I said, cover me!"

The Fortunes bless her, Nabiko did so without even looking back to see what mad inspiration had claimed him this time.

"This better be worth it, Tsuji," Hebaragi growled.

Daidoji Memi, once the most verbose, said nothing. Daidoji Memi's corpse had been smashed so badly that only the cracked blue armor suggested it had once belonged to a human being.

Tsuji fumbled desperately for the things he always brought on Shadowlands forays: rope, string--he had to snatch the spindle before the wind flung it away--metal rods and wire. (The Kaiu had long ago stopped asking why he requisitioned what he did.) Tanto. That was what he needed first.

I can be eta, too, he thought as he made the first incision into the creature's corpse. A Crab has to be everything. The first rule of battle is to win. His sensei, possibly the grouchiest Crab ever to play go, had repeated it to him until he woke in the morning with the words on his lips. And hadn't his daimyo spared the eta who wielded a katana to spare her life, a story whispered down through the years?

Daidoji Kuru's eyes were shocked, furious, and his mouth moved, forming the word: "Maho--" Hastily, he brought up his katana to strike off a reaching hand-not-hand.

The others, thank Yakamo, had their minds on the important matter of staying alive. Kyobe wielded the jade they had come for, with a Kaiu's eminent good sense, but even the firebrand fury of its reaction to the Taint would not stay the creatures for long.

"Unclean, yes," Tsuji snapped, "but not maho. Trust for once, dammit." His hands were as steady as his wife's had been, cutting a large, grisly rectangle of hide from the fallen creature's back. "Oni once came for my wife and two children." He had not spoken of this in years. "I was on the Wall. As always." Carefully, he trimmed away the subcutaneous fat, grimacing as it oozed between his fingers. "Came back too late. She was safe." No wonder eta did this work. "Our older daughter was safe." Should he spend precious time cutting away the fur, too? "Our baby was dead." He decided to chance it. "In a pool of blood." Cut, trim, free the wet, glistening membrane from fat and fur. Yes. "Maho to bend the oni to her will. One child's life for another's and her own." The rods, and wire to attach them to the sagging rectangle of skin. "Our children. I killed her. Killed her." Tough hide, at that; he had to puncture the skin with the tanto so the wires could go through. "Don't speak to me of maho, Daidoji. I broke her neck. Maho-tsukai. My own wife."

Kuru looked white around the mouth, and finally had his eyes where they belonged, on the enemy. His kenjutsu, Tsuji noted with distant envy, was impeccable.

Thread. No, jade. Jade first. Though his fingers were unspeakably slippery, he managed to hold onto the packet of jade powder in the howling wind--what unholy confluence of dark magic made the fog linger smotheringly over them even in this wind?--and mixed it with the creature's fat. Even O-Ushi-sama might turn her back on me now, Tsuji thought. The jade ignited green; clenching his teeth, he painted it onto the rectangle on both sides. HELP in thick letter-strokes no better than a child's, learning the art of the calligraphy brush for the first time. The mixture burned hellishly. "Estimate of numbers?"

"What?!"

"Numbers, man!" he repeated as the other Hida, sharp-eyed Aigan, said, "Over a hundred, and that's just the ones I can see."

He added on both sides:

over one hundred
in a sea of death and blood
stand against the waves

Now for the thread. He hoped it would hold. "Clear me some space--"

They did. His hellish kite lofted immediately, almost tugging loose from his hands. Swearing, Tsuji wound the thread's end around the hilt of his tanto and jammed it into the ground.

The kite soared high as the thread unwound to its limit, graceful despite its ghastly origins, and even though he could scarcely tell who else was left standing in the fog, the brilliant green glow illuminated his hands, the remnants of fat, the burns.

Now all they had to do was survive until someone saw the message and came with reinforcements.

The dai-tsuchi was in his hands again, he didn't remember how. Duty, brilliance...it seemed so long ago that he had been concerned with such trivialities.

*

will she wait for me?
beneath the kites and blossoms
dreamfall of dark hair

He was a long time recovering afterward, bedridden and raving, vision streaked with red afterimages even outside of dreams. Once, he surfaced into awareness and stared uncomprehendingly at his blistered hands. "The Daidoji," he croaked to the narrow-faced Kuni shugenja who was changing the bandages. "Who else survived?"

"The Daidoji have returned to Crane lands," said the Kuni. "You only lost Daidoji Memi and Hiruma Hebaragi."

Only. Tsuji closed his eyes. We watch the Wall. We know the price. "Arigatou," he murmured, and drifted back into dreams of pain, kites flying free, and long dark hair.

When he woke for good, the first thing he did was open the window with shaking, uncertain hands. He stared. Seven kites flew, dipping and swerving uncertainly, and one of them bore a butterfly painted in blue and gold. His gaze moved along the kite lines down to the Crab children: six of them, and the seventh--the seventh was no Crab, even with that ragged cut of long hair.

Tsuji limped outside to stand under the open sky and the sun's light. Time enough later for the cleansing rites, though he suspected he had paid the price of fire and atonement already for handling the Shadowlands corpse.

"I killed each one my katana could reach," she said as he approached, handling her kite no more expertly than the children, though her eyes smiled. "For you."

She did not mention the unclean flesh. He did not mention her absent clansmen.

Now and always, it was enough.

*

Author's Notes

Dedicated to my favourite Crab and my favourite Crane. You know who you are.

Nabi is Korean for "butterfly," maemi is "cicada," haebaragi is "sunflower," and kkach'i is "magpie" (using McCune-Reischauer transcription). I was hard-up for names, what can I say?

This tale was inspired by a little spot research on the uses of kites in ancient warfare (for reasons that initially had nothing to do with Legend of the Five Rings), notably Chinese.

--Moto "I'm terrible with kites" Maratai