Always Coming Home: A Glimpse of the Soul's Shadow

The road was wide and straight, and it ran its course through the forest for some distance before rounding a turn and disappearing into the greenness. It was part of the network of roads that led from Shiro Daidoji to the southern provinces. The trail that jutted off of it was uneven and twisted, but it also led to the southern provinces. Gisei studied her choices carefully and then chose the trail. The samurai-ko didn't feel up to the demands of polite society, and if she stayed on the road she'd be sure to meet up with someone. Of course, there might be bandits along the trail, but that was acceptable. In her present state of mind, killing someone would be almost soothing.

Gisei had gone to the shrine at Shiro Daidoji to pray for the souls of her lost comrades, and to ask her ancestors—and one ancestor in particular—for guidance. For three days she had knelt before the mementos of the heroes of the Daidoji family
and tried to still her mind enough to catch an echo of timeless wisdom. She had heard nothing.

She didn't know what to think about it. Since the days of her childhood Gisei had been aware of the ancient shiryo who had watched over her. Gisei hadn't known the shiryo's name at first, and so always thought of her as 'Grandmother', even now that she knew that spirit's name and history. Grandmother had been a familiar, if occasionally unsettling, presence, and the sure knowledge that she wasn't alone had been a comfort to the girl in the grief-stricken days that followed her parents' death of plague. But at some point prior to her march to Oblivion's Gate, Gisei had stopped hearing the shiryo, and she didn't know why.

It was possible that Grandmother had fallen victim to the Lying Darkness, and had been destroyed by it. Gisei found it hard to believe that such a thing could happen to such a brave and dangerous warrior, but no doubt everyone felt that way about their ancestors. The sentiment had not stopped the Darkness from ravaging Yomi. It would account for her Grandmother's otherwise inexplicable silence: Given her ancestor's past, Gisei would have expected her to be quick to advise a descendent who had been found, witless and alone, walking deeper into the Shadowlands.

Unless Grandmother had been somehow connected with her condition.

Gisei stopped walking, numb and breathless with the terror that thought had inspired. No, she thought. Despite certain…unwise actions in her youth, her ancestor had lived an honorable life dedicated to her lord and at her death had attained the bliss of Yomi. She had…her ancestor's own testimony on this. Gisei stood for a moment longer, transfixed with awful possibility, and then started walking very fast. It couldn't be true. She wouldn't think of it. It couldn't possibly be true. She walked faster.

Gisei charged around a thicket of trees at high speed, and only battlefield reflex saved her from running into the woman standing in the middle of the path on the other side. "You idiot!" snapped Gisei. "Why don't you watch where you are going?"

The woman was beautiful, or rather, would be beautiful if she were not so distressed. Her hair was long, lustrous and black, but unbound and unruly, and her green almond eyes had tears standing in them. The simple white kimono she wore had no mon, but from the shape of her face Gisei guessed she was a Kakita. She was carrying something in her arms, something wrapped in a fine silken blanket. "Please help me," the woman said. "Oh please, samurai, can you help me?"

Gisei set her jaw and fought a lifetime of habit. She didn't want to help. She didn't want to get involved. She wanted to be left alone to stew in her own misery. Habit won. "What is wrong?" she said, feeling surly and ill-used. "What do you need?" And then she started back in surprise as the woman thrust her bundle at her.

"Hold my baby!" she screamed.

Gisei saw that the blanket did indeed hold a baby, one whose skin had an unnatural waxen cast and with eyes so deep a blue as to border on black. It was also unaccountably heavy, and she was about to ask what was the matter with it when the woman screamed again.

"Hold my baby!"

Gisei frantically tightened her hold as the child suddenly got heavier. She was suddenly reminded of the time her Crab friends had half-bullied, half-coaxed her into trying to pick up a dai tsuchi. "What," she started to say, and was abruptly cut off.

"HOLD MY BABY!"

Gisei staggered, the infant now so heavy that she was bowed down under its weight. She clung to the blankets with mindless, desperate strength, not knowing why it mattered but convinced to the roots of her soul that she should not drop the child. The infant stared at her with its unblinking eyes for a long, long moment, and then its weight vanished. Caught by surprise, Gisei overbalanced and fell rump-first into the dirt of the road, still clutching her burden. With the advantage of her new perspective, she noticed that the woman had no feet…and was floating several hands off the ground. Fearing what she would find, Gisei looked up.

The spirit gazed down at her, a radiant smile on her face. "My baby," she murmured as a tear slid down her face. "You have saved my baby. What can I give you, samurai, as a token of my thanks?"

Honorable samurai had no desires beyond pleasing their lord. Polite samurai always refused a gift twice. These simple truths had been drilled into Gisei since she was old enough to understand words, and never had she neglected them.

"Sama," she said, the words tumbling out without help of thought, "give me my memories. Give me what happened at the battle where my kinsmen died and I lived."

"You are gracious, child, to ask for something that you already have. But I can give you something better: I can show you what you are." Before Gisei could speak again the woman vanished in a soft golden glow, leaving behind the bundle Gisei held and a paper-wrapped package lying on the ground before her. She stared at it until the thing in her arms moved, and she looked down at a perfectly normal-looking baby. It blinked at her a few times and then yawned, showing a perfectly ordinary set of pink, toothless gums, and then closed its dark blue eyes and went to sleep.

'What did she mean?' was her first thought. 'When the baby wakes up it will be hungry', was her second. Gisei allowed herself a sigh and then gently laying the child down she stuffed the package in her pack, reslung it, picked up the child, and started off. She needed to find an Asahina, or maybe one of the brothers of Shinsei—someone who could tell her what had just happened, and what she should do with the baby. Not to mention someone to give the baby to, as she could not possibly show up at her lord's court with an infant in tow. People would talk.

A mile further on the trail ran out of the woods and Gisei could see the road again. She headed for it as directly as she could without damaging the barley fields that lay in her way, picking her way delicately around irrigation ditches and random patches of soybeans and startling into flight some birds who were hunting their meals. She had scrambled back onto the road and was shaking some straw off of her hakama when she heard a voice. "You! Daidoji! What are you doing?" The voice had the cultured tones of one accustomed to court, and it made 'Daidoji' sound like an insult.

Gisei smoothed her expression into blandness and slowly turned. Not more than ten yards away from her stood a Crane samurai with his left hand resting on his swords. He displayed the Doji mon on his haori, and had the prettiness most Doji possessed. Gisei thought through the angles and distances involved and concluded that he had been able to watch her from the time she left the forest. "Doji-san," she said coolly, "I am putting my clothing back in order. A disheveled appearance, as you know, is a sign of low character."

The man didn't sneer, but the smile he gave was unpleasant even so. "Indeed. You appear to be well versed in such matters." He let the near-insult hang in the air for a moment before going on. "Who are you? And what are you doing on my lord's land?"

"I am Daidoji Gisei, a samurai in service to Lord Daidoji Yoshitaka of Souchong Province," she said with a small bow. I could kill you, she thought savagely. Nothing you could do would stop me. "I am returning home from a visit to the shrine at Shiro Daidoji."

"You have travel papers, I hope." The man walked up to her, giving her the chance to further size him up. He was no taller than Gisei, with beautifully-arranged white hair and the graceful walk of one trained by the Kakita, or one of the lesser dojos that taught Kakita's Sword. Dangerous indeed on the dueling grounds, she thought, but less so on a battlefield.

"You have the authority to demand them, I hope." Gisei kept her tone mild, but she smiled the thin smile that the Daidoji reserved for their enemies.

The man hesitated for a moment, seeing the smile, and then fractionally bowed his head. "Of course, Daidoji-san," he said in a politer tone. "I am Doji Shigeyuki, a magistrate of Lord Doji Taiu, who is controls the villages that lie between the north edge of the woods you just left south to the Golden Willow Road."

"Thank you, Doji-san," Gisei said, shifting the baby to her left arm so that the right hand could dig out the papers. "Lord Taiu is fortunate to have such wise and vigilant magistrates," she added, handing them to him.

Shigeyuki looked as if he sensed some insult in her words, but he kept silent and looked over the papers for a moment. "There are no problems with these," he said, passing the papers back, "except", he looked a trifle nervous, "they do not mention your child."

"Ah." Gisei considered this for a split second and made a decision. Shigeyuki might not really be as stupid as he first appeared, and if he was not then he could be useful to her. "I am so glad you have brought this up, Doji-san. You see, this child isn't mine, and I am in need of a magistrate's aid in determining what I am to do with it."

"Not yours?" Shigeyuki repeated. "What do you mean?"

"Here is the way of it," Gisei said, and briefly summed up her encounter with the weeping woman. When she finished, the magistrate was looking at her with an unconcealed mixture of wonder and unease.

"How can you be so calm after such an experience?" he asked.

Gisei blinked at him. "Why should I not be calm? It's not as if she tried to eat me, or flay and steal my skin, or suck my soul out of my eyeballs, or …" Gisei trailed off as Shigeyuki blanched and took a step back from her. The Crab were right, she reflected: No one came back from the Shadowlands unchanged. Most Cranes would say that the change was for the worse.

"I am so sorry, Doji-san," she said gently. "I was one of the samurai who fought to defend our ancestors at Oblivion's Gate. I have seen…many things."

"Such devotion to our ancestors is a sign of a noble spirit," Shigeyuki replied, after first getting his face back under control. "No doubt that is why the ubume appealed to you for aid."

"Ubume?" Gisei said.

"The ghost of a woman who died with her child unborn," Shigeyuki explained. "By holding the child you freed her spirit to continue on to its destiny, and rescued the child from death."

Slowly a memory surfaced in Gisei's mind, a memory of a warm summer night and a happy child who hung on every tale her mother told. An ubume. She had met an ubume…You have a story, she thought wonderingly, looking down at the sleeping infant, and I am in it with you. Then something dark and bitter welled up in her heart. It would end badly, it whispered. Everything connected with her did. For a moment she let herself be pulled down by the blackness, then she rallied and pushed it away from her. Good or bad, the ubume had left the child with her, and it was her responsibility to find a home for it.

"Since the baby is human," Gisei said slowly, "it must have family somewhere. But how to find them?"

"Even if you cannot find them, it should not be difficult to find a family willing to adopt it. Last year's plague took the lives of many children. My lord…" Shigeyuki's voice trailed off for a moment, and he looked thoughtful. "Can you describe the woman?"

"She was somewhat shorter than me, slender, classically beautiful features, green eyes, hair was black, waist length when unbound, and very thick and full."

The magistrate smiled. "The trained eye of a yojimbo," he said smoothly. "My lord's hatamoto keeps excellent records. I am sure that with your description we can find the baby's family."

Gisei smiled back at him. She didn't know if Shigeyuki's sudden helpfulness sprang from a genuine desire to aid the child or fear of retribution from the child's ghostly mother, but either would serve her purpose. She only had to be polite to him long enough to find a home for the baby. "I am most grateful for your assistance, Doji-san."

Shigeyuki bowed slightly. "I am pleased to assist. Shall we continue on towards town? When the baby awakes it will be hungry, and then neither of us will be able to offer it assistance."

Gisei grinned at this, surprised and delighted by the joke. "Indeed, Doji-san," she agreed with mock-solemnity. Perhaps dealing with him wouldn't be so difficult after all.

They had walked for several minutes in polite silence before Shigeyuki spoke again. "Daidoji-san, you have said that you fought at Oblivion's Gate. I would be most honored to hear of your battles in the lands of the Fallen Brother."

"I could certainly tell of my battles," Gisei said diplomatically, "but I am sure you would find Doji Kuwanan-sama's deeds far more interesting than my own."

"Kuwanan-sama? You know stories of our Champion?" The magistrate's eyes glowed with interest.

"Absolutely," Gisei replied. "The great lord of the Crane was the honor and strength of our army, his name the battle cry that struck fear in the hearts of our enemies," she said, falling into the familiar language of storytelling. Shigeyuki proved to be an excellent listener, and as they made their way through the countryside and into a small town Gisei told him one story after another. She had not gotten to Volturnum when the Doji led her up to the walls of a large manor and ushered her past the guards at the gate.

"I am so sorry, Daidoji-san," Shigeyuki said, "but I must interrupt you here, as we have arrived at my lord's home. After you have refreshed yourself, we can begin the search for the child's family."

Gisei ran a professional eye over the house and its gardens. It was breathtakingly lovely, clearly arranged to maximize the pleasure and harmony of its inhabitants with no thought whatsoever for security or fortifications. Such a place would be a nightmare to defend, she knew, but the bathwater would be hot and probably pleasantly scented as well. It was enough to make her skin tingle in anticipation. "No need for apologies, Doji-san," she said politely. "The needs of the child are clearly more important than my tale-telling."

"I hope that when child is settled in its home you will favor me with the end of your story," the magistrate said with a small bow. "To further that moment along, I will take the baby and find a nursemaid while you are composing yourself."

Gisei felt her arms tighten protectively around the sleeping child and forced herself to relax. There was no way she could deny the magistrate such a request, and no rational reason why she would want to. But still, the idea didn't please her at all. "Please forgive me, Doji-san, for my hesitation," she said with a self-depreciating laugh. "But my heart foolishly feels that the baby has been left in my charge, and does not want to be found lacking in carrying out its responsibilities."

"No foolishness of the heart, but the noble tradition of the Daidoji," Shigeyuki replied with a smile. "Your ancestors must be filled with pride at your dedication to those in your care. But see, if you briefly allow me to share in your duty your obligations will be fulfilled all the more quickly. After all, the child will need nourishment soon, and I know that you would not want to appear in my lord's court in a disheveled state."

Gisei looked at him evenly and reflected that the dueling ground was not the only place men like Shigeyuki were dangerous. "Doji-san, your logic is unanswerable. And since you understand the traditions of my family I know that you will take great care for the child's well-being." She spoke the words quietly, politely, relying on Shigeyuki to understand the threat she was making.

"You will not find me lacking, Daidoji-san," Shigeyuki said with utter sincerity. "I will care for the baby as if it were my own lord's child."

There was nothing she could say to answer that, so Gisei handed the child over to him and allowed herself to be led off by the servants. The room she was shown to was elegantly decorated and the bathroom it connected to was redolent of sandalwood and steam. Gisei waited with diminishing patience for the servant to soap and scrub the dirt off of her, and then climbed into the tub as quickly as dignity would allow.

By the time her sense of duty had prodded her out of the bathtub her fingers and toes had wrinkled up like dried fruit. Gisei wrapped herself in the yukata provided and padded back into her room. Ibara, the old woman in charge of the servants that she had been allotted, bowed as she entered and presented her with a note. Gisei took it with a murmured thanks and scanned it quickly. It was from Shigeyuki, and it informed her in flowery phrases that the baby had been examined by Lord Taiu's personal shugenja and found to be a normal, healthy infant boy, who had been given to the wife of one of Taiu-sama's retainers to nurse. It was kind of Shigeyuki to keep her informed of the baby's status, she thought. Now her only problem was what to wear now that she had bathed.

The only clothing she currently possessed was her hakama and kimono, and they were travel-worn, dusty, and completely unsuitable for wandering around the home of a Doji lord. Admitting that she was without a decent change of clothes would be embarrassing, but there didn't seem to be any help for it. "Ibara, it would not do, I think, for me to wear my traveling clothes in Taui-sama's home."

The old woman smiled and bowed. "Indeed, sama. While you were bathing I had the maids remove the kimonos and obi from your pack and had the wrinkles taken out of them."

Gisei stared blankly at her. "The kimonos in my pack," she repeated.

"Yes, sama, the ones wrapped in paper." Seeing the look on Gisei's face caused a small frown to appear on Ibara's. "I am so sorry if I have caused trouble, sama, I assumed…"

Gisei stopped hearing the old woman, remembering the paper-wrapped package the ubume had left behind. It held clothing? Convenient, but what then did her words mean? 'I will show you what you are.' Not important at the moment, she decided, and summoned a smile on to her face. "No trouble at all," she said gently. "But do you think it is appropriate to wear at this time? I have spent so much time in the Crab lands I have lost all sense of fashion."

Ibara smiled back, relieved. "Oh, yes, sama. It is an elegant ensemble, quite elegant."

"Then I think it's time I dressed," Gisei said.

The under kimono was a soft gray at a distance, but when looked at closely the fabric resolved, impossibly, into individual threads of blood-red and pure white. Over it went a second kimono, this one colored in stormy blues and grays. On it a lone crane struggled against the wind as it rose into the sky, a single bare and twisted tree in the background. Over it all, an obi of textured silk the color of folded and beaten steel. Gisei stared critically at herself while Ibara and two maids fussed over her hair. I am prone to moments of drama, she finally decided, but am nevertheless fit to be seen in public. She wasn't positive that this was the correct interpretation of the ubume's gift, but it comforted her anyway.

"Daidoji-sama," Ibara finally said, "if you approve of your hair, I can take you to the audience room."

Gisei was willing to approve almost anything if it got her back to Shigeyuki and the baby. Soon she was following Ibara down the halls of the manor, admiring the gardens she glimpsed through windows and doors and wondering if the magistrate had already secured permission for her to examine Lord Taiu's records, or if she would have to convince the hatamoto herself. She would have to appeal to his sense of compassion, she thought. Who could be unmoved by the story of a desperate mother and a child with no family to love and protect it?

The old woman stopped in front of a door guarded by two Doji samurai in gorgeously ornate armor. She bowed to the guards and murmured something to them, then bowed to Gisei and left. One of the guards slid open the door while the other stepped through and spoke with a strong, clear voice. "Lord Taiu, I present Daidoji Gisei, a noble bushi of the Daidoji family who fought beneath the banner of the Crane in the battle to defend our blessed ancestors in the unholy wastes of the South."

Gisei froze for the space of a heartbeat at the sight of the number of people in the room beyond and then her training took over and she bowed deeply. As she straightened up she scanned the crowd discreetly, looking for clues to what was going on. She spotted Shigeyuki near the front of the room, sitting to the left of the dais. To the right was a slightly plump woman holding something wrapped in an embroidered blanket. The retainer’s wife, Gisei surmised, studying her carefully. She looked kind enough, she decided with relief, to care for a child left alone in the world.

Having drawn out her bow as much as she could Gisei slowly made her way towards the dais itself. The man who sat on it could only be Lord Taiu himself. Once, she thought, he must have been as pretty as Shigeyuki, but time and care had worn the prettiness away and given him true beauty in its place. His white hair was pulled back in a simple top-knot that set off the fine bones of his face, and the dark blue of his kimono matched his eyes perfectly.

Gisei knelt down before the dais and touched her head to the floor. "Good day, Doji-sama. I hope that Lord Sun finds you well."

"Very well," the lord replied in a melodious baritone. "I trust that my servants took good care of your needs."

"Excellent care, Doji-sama. I am eternally in your debt for the kindness you have shown me." Gisei wondered how long the exchange of pleasantries would last. As far as she could tell, every last member of Taiu's court was in the room and looking at her, and it unnerved her. Don't they have anything better to do? she wondered, and then chided herself. It wasn't as if the appearance of an ubume was an everyday happening.

Taiu smiled at her. "It is I who am in your debt, Gisei-san, for what you have done today."

"My lord is far, far too kind. I have not even begun the work of finding a home for the child."

There was a moment of dead silence, and then something like a breeze moved through the watching courtiers. Gisei kept her face bland and frantically wondered what she had said wrong. Taiu looked at her for a long moment and then spoke. "Shigeyuki-san," he said. Gisei recognized the tone in his voice: it was the same one her lord used when giving one of his samurai a chance to explain themselves. Quickly.

The magistrate bowed slightly. "My lord. The joy my suspicions brought me was so great I feared that I was being a fool, and so I did not speak of them to Gisei-san. Thus, she does not know."

"I see," the Doji lord said reflectively. "Do you think perhaps now would be a good time to tell her?"

Gisei had turned her head just enough to glare at Shigeyuki out of the corner of one eye, and so was able to enjoy the slight blush that graced his cheeks. "Absolutely, my lord."

"Gisei-san," Taiu said, "you described the woman you met as being as beautiful as an almond tree in bloom, with eyes as green as the sea at Kyuden Doji and hair as black as midnight in the depths of winter."

"My very words," Gisei said dryly. Then inspiration bloomed. "You recognize her? She was a member of your court?"

"Indeed. She was my beloved wife, Hanako, who died in last year's plagues."

"But …but…" Gisei couldn't find a thought that could be said out loud. The notion that the child's story had a happy ending staggered her.

"Yes," Taiu said, rescuing her. "I am the child's father." He pulled a fan out of his obi and opened it to reveal its design: a pair of mandarin ducks floating on a lotus-filled pond. "Hanako painted this for me when we were betrothed. I give it to you, as a small token of my thanks for your part in bringing my son to me."

Gisei's thoughts snapped back into focus. She was *not* going to bungle this twice in one day. "Lord, it is far too fine a gift for a bushi as lowly as I. I could not possibly accept it."

"A lowly bushi? Rather, one who had compassion on a distressed stranger and who possessed the strength needed to aid her. My gift is too little for such an honorable heart, but I ask that you accept it anyway."

"Lord, the fan is certainly a cherished keepsake of your wife. How could I take such a thing away from you? Please, you must keep it."

"It was once my most treasured reminder of her," Taiu agreed. "But you have brought me a finer way to remember Hanako," he said, indicating the child. He folded the fan and held it out to her. "Please, accept this."

Gisei bowed and took the fan with reverent care. The twitters from the watching court all seemed to be approving, so she guessed that she hadn't embarrassed herself, her lord or her family.

"Now," Taiu said, "there is one small matter remaining: the celebration of my son's homecoming."

* * *

Gisei leaned against the windowsill of her room and yawned. Taiu-sama's 'small matter' had turned out to be four days of feasting and entertainment, and she could still feel the effects of the sake moving through her blood. In the distance she could see the road that led to the southern provinces. She no longer had a choice about taking the road: the Doji lord had taken it upon himself to provide her with the documents necessary to get post-horses from here all the way home. She was to have an escort for the first part of the journey as well, led by Taiu's most esteemed magistrate: Shigeyuki.

The samurai-ko found that she didn't mind. Sometime during the celebration, in the midst of the dancing and the poetry and the storytelling, something had changed in Gisei. She felt…*rinsed*, somehow, and she had actually begun to enjoy the people around her. Even Shigeyuki had benefited from the change.

Gisei took out Hanako's fan and studied it. She had wanted help from her ancestors, and had gotten someone else's ancestor, in need of help. She hoped it was a coincidence, but she didn't plan to bet any koku on it. And as for Grandmother…Gisei tapped the fan against her lips thoughtfully. As a girl she had spent every free moment crawling through the library of the Daidoji school, looking for some clue to a nameless shiryo's past. No one would find it remarkable if she started crawling through temple and monastery libraries. Somewhere there had to be some way to deduce Grandmother's fate.

There was a discreet scratching at the door behind her. "Gisei-san?"

"I'm ready," she called out, and tucked the fan into her sleeve as she turned away from the window. Before she could she could get to the door Shigeyuki had entered and walked across to her. "Gisei-san," he said, bowing, "before we depart I wish to apologize for my behavior at our first meeting."

Gisei had given the matter some thought over the past few days, and so she shook her head. "No apologies are needed, Shigeyuki-san. You saw a strange bushi prowling your lord's woods, and it was your duty to be suspicious."

"You are extremely gracious, Gisei-san. But still, I could have told you something of what I knew, or guessed, about the child."

"I would have told me even less," Gisei said, "and I would have gotten the child away from me sooner."

Shigeyuki was quiet for a moment, studying her carefully. "It kept your hands occupied, and out where I could watch them."

Gisei burst into laughter. The magistrate joined her after a moment. When they finished they bowed to each other and departed together, grinning.