1 Midnight Reflections and Morning Discussions


Meguri aite

Mishi ya sore tomo

Wakanu ma ni

Kumogakure nishi

Yowa no tsuki kana


(Murasaki Shikibu)

 


With a gasp and a start, the Twilight Prince awakened from a dream of horror into a reality of pain. He moaned in frustration as the dream images dissolved into meaningless fragments and vanished. The mundane authorities had great cause for gratitude for aid the Heavenborn had sent them, he reflected bitterly: a Healer unable to heal himself and a mage unable to remember his own dreams, much less interpret them.


The Prince lay still for a few moments, then began to move under the quilts slowly, carefully, seeking a position that would strain his wounds less, or at least differently. Failing in his quest for greater comfort, he turned his attention inward, trying to gauge the progress of the healing forces that burned within him. The Power responded to his attention with a flare that seemed to explode through the right side of his face and turn his blood to fire and his bones to molten metal.

 

A hoarse scream was forced from him despite his attempts to stifle it, and the Prince felt tears begin to leak from his remaining eye to join the sweat that already soaked him. As the flare of Power receded he lay gasping, listening hopelessly for signs that he had disturbed his attendant's rest: Kagemitsu would be annoyed at not being summoned, but to be observed in his present abject state by anyone, even his oldest companion, would be unbearable. He was relieved to hear no movements through the sliding panels that separated the rooms of his suite.


The Prince wondered, wearily, if the flare effect was a symptom of some sort of demonic pollution remaining from his captivity -- he could recall no precedent for such a phenomenon. But then, this seemed to be a time for unprecedented events: he wondered how many generations it had been since one of the Highborn, a Prince of the Blood no less, had appeared in public disfigured by an injury. At least the minor bruises and cuts were long since repaired, and most of his remaining injuries could be hidden beneath his clothes. If he got enough rest in the meantime, he might make it through the morning strategy council without shaming himself by a show of weakness before the assembled Samurai.


The Prince shaped a tendril of Power, and put himself to sleep.

 

* * *


In his home in the city below the castle, Chancellor Tajima no Masahide finished reciting the memorial prayers for his younger brother Kanehide, recently lost in a skirmish against the invaders. Although it was past midnight, the Chancellor did not yet feel ready for sleep, so he sat quietly before the shrine to the deceased members of the Tajima Clan organizing his ideas for the council meeting the next day.


There was certainly no lack of problems to consider. For over three years the structure and order of the realm of Ashihara had been deteriorating, and neither the Warlord's mundane authorities nor the Imperial officials at the court of the Heavenborn seemed willing to deal with the realities of the situation.


The first blow to strike Ashihara had been a plague that ravaged both the human population and their livestock. Here in the mundane capital almost a tenth of the population had died, and the destruction had even affected the Imperial capital at Amekudare no Miyako.


The second blow, almost simultaneous with the first, was the arrival of the foreign army that had taken advantage of the plague's disruptions. First the sea routes joining the heart of the Ashihara to the smaller islands had been cut. Then the forces of the realm had been driven inward from the more remote parts of the main island toward the Home Provinces, and finally even portions of the Home Provinces had fallen under enemy control. Recently, after more than two years of falling back, the armies of Ashihara had finally begun to regain some of the territories they had lost, and regained contact with some mountainous districts that had been isolated rather than conquered during the enemy advance, but the invaders still controlled the greater portion of the realm.


Ashihara had also been recently afflicted with a mysterious pattern of localized failures of both field and orchard crops. Natural events such as volcanic eruptions, typhoons and winter blizzards had also been more violent than usual.


Even worse than the invasion and other calamities, in the Chancellor's opinion, were the social upheavals that had resulted from them. Many of the landed Clans of his own Samurai class had become extinct through plague and war; the migrations of peasants fleeing the invaders or simply hoping for a better life elsewhere had totally disrupted the agricultural districts; the rapacity of the merchant and artisan classes had caused enormous increases in prices and wages; and even some of the women were refusing to accept their proper status and role in life.


And what did the Warlord and his most trusted advisers focus their efforts on? DEMONS! The Chancellor snorted in disgust. He himself was neither blind, deaf, numb nor lacking a sense of smell, and he had never yet observed any sign of the demons his colleagues and overlord were so obsessed with. He suspected that the Warlord, and some others who had been conscientious officers and administrators before the start of the troubles, had simply cracked under the strain, and others had been swept up in a sort of contagion of nightmare.


When word first came from Amekudare no Miyako that a Prince of the Blood was being sent to assist the mundane authorities, Tajima had hoped that it was a sign that the Heavenborn Monarch and the other priestly 'mages' of the imperial court had awakened at long last to the seriousness of the situation in the outer provinces. However, instead of the senior administrator he had anticipated, the imperial authorities had sent the princely High Priest of the Shrine of Evening Shadows: the Imperial family's designated representative to the Twilight Powers of Purification and Death. Worse yet, the Prince had arrived at the Warlord's headquarters after traveling informally with a single male companion instead of with the ceremony and staff appropriate to a mission of importance.

 

There was no problem of the Prince lacking formal rank. The position of Prince and High Priest of the Evening Shadows officially ranked just below that of the Throne Prince, the heir of the Heavenborn Monarch. However, because of that fact, the position had often been given as a sort of consolation prize to deposed or retired emperors or to former Throne Princes who had lost intra-dynastic conflicts. The historic association with failure, added to the position's ritual association with death, tended to limit the political and social effectiveness of any Twilight Prince who had not accumulated supporters before being appointed to the position.

 

Unfortunately, the present Twilight Prince had been named to the post at the age of two, on the death of his father the late Throne Prince. Tajima had nothing against the Prince personally: he seemed a pleasant enough young man, a bit shy and more than a little bewildered at being away from the Imperial Court for the first time in his life. The Twilight Prince showed a commendable devotion to the duties attached to his position. But the Prince had spent his life involved in religion and ritual rather than politics and governments.


Despite his disappointment, Chancellor Tajima could understand why Imperial Princes with less rank than the Twilight Prince should hesitate to leave Amekudare no Miyako. With one emperor dead of the plague leaving no acknowledged heir, and a second more recently dead of mysterious causes that led to whispers about the Powers' judgement of a usurper, no one with any real power could afford to be away from the capital for any length of time: the balance of power in the Court of the Heavenborn Monarch was too unstable.

 

What the mundane capital had needed was a competent governor, an experienced administrator and politician. What it had gotten was an exorcist, a priest with no experience and less authority. The best that could be said about the situation was that the availability of a specialist in dealing with the supernatural freed some of the Warlord's attention for dealing with other, more pressing matters than demons.

 

The Chancellor rather hoped that the Twilight Prince would recover from his injuries quickly, and that the shock of his exposure to the realities of war would not send him fleeing back to the Imperial capital. It seemed clear that any replacement would be even less useful.

 

* * *

 

In the dark time just before dawn, Warlord Isanari no Moritake looked out from the highest room in the castle's tower over the lands he was charged to protect and govern. In the distance he could see patches of the lavender and greenish phosphorescence that marked demonic contamination of the earth, and much of the northeast horizon was lit as if by some poisonous kin of the northern lights. The nearer districts immediately surrounding the mundane capital were quiet and properly dark, however, and even as he watched some of the smaller, nearer patches of infection seemed to shrink and fade.


Isanari took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, tasting the air. Late in the autumn as it was, there was naturally a touch of death and decay in the air, but he could detect none of the mustiness and metallic aftertaste that had oppressed the senses for so long.

 

The Warlord began to pace, considering. The resources of the home provinces were badly strained by refugees from districts that had been overrun by the enemy, but if his forces could protect the currently available crop lands, and avoid losing any more of them, there should be no serious famine. Of course, if more crop land could be healed before the spring planting season the situation would stabilize even more. If more crop land should be lost before spring, the state of the realm would be desperate.


Isanari sighed. If anyone had told him three years ago that he would one day be grateful for the plague that preceded the invasion, he would have had them executed. It was shameful to have to appreciate the deaths of so many, but when he counted mouths and food supplies he had to acknowledge that the realm's current precarious situation would be hideous if so many of the very old, the very young, and the very weak had not been eliminated early on.


As it was, they would be able to manage, thanks largely to the land-healings by the Mage Prince sent to them by the Imperial Court at Amekudare no Miyako. Battlefield victories were of little use if the land they recovered remained poisoned and useless to humans and their crops. In the first month after his arrival at Hinamachi, the mundane capital, His Most Noble Highness the Prince of the Blood of the Shrine of Evening Shadows had done more to turn the tide of the invasion than any other single person the Warlord could think of, including his greatest general or any of the heroes of the resistance.


Noble Powers witness, it did not require much talent to be more use against the enemy than some of his remaining regular officers! The realm had lost too many competent field commanders in the first rush of the invasion, before they had realized the scope of the problem they faced or begun to learn how to deal with it. Many of the best of the officers and companies still left to the realm were lordless men who had been vassals of Clans now Vacant: magnificent fighters and tacticians, most of them, or else they would not be still alive, sworn to the service of the realm as a whole until they could find new lords or the crisis ended, and fiercely loyal to that oath. Unfortunately, most of the remaining Domain Lords insisted on treating them as common ronin, lordless men unworthy of respect or decent supplies or support, and the officers and men of the Regular Companies of the Domain vassals followed the examples of their lords.


In some ways the true ronin and former peasants and artisans who made up the Irregular companies had a better time of it than the lordless Companies: they seemed less troubled at being shut out of the 'proper' traditional command structure, and less hindered by it. The Warlord carefully avoided knowledge of which merchant houses and craft guilds were sponsoring and supplying the Irregular companies: if he were certain of such flagrantly illegal behavior, the Council of Domains would force him to put a stop to it, which the realm could not afford.


So Isanari did his best to use the skills of his remaining staff to the best advantage of the realm: sometimes successfully, sometimes not ... it was a pity that by all accounts Senior Commander Tajima Kanehide, the idiot who had stranded the Twilight Prince's bodyguard, had been eaten by demons: it was not nearly sufficient punishment for the fool's incompetence.

 

The Warlord suddenly wondered whether there had been deliberate treason involved -- of all his officers he would have expected a traditionalist like Tajima Kanehide to have the clearest grasp of the basic principle that a Samurai does NOT allow a Prince of the Blood to fall into the hands (or claws or tentacles or whatever) of the enemy. But Kanehide had been a greedy man, and there were those in the capital who would not grieve over much at the loss of the last male member of the original Imperial line, now that a member of a collateral line sat on the throne.


Amekudare no Miyako had been notified, of course, both of the Most Noble Prince's capture eight days ago and his 'rescue' three days later, but no reply had arrived yet: only to be expected this late in the year, with the approach of winter slowing travel. Isanari was more relieved by the delay than otherwise. More worrying was the fact that the Most Noble Prince had secluded himself in his quarters and declined all requests for audiences, even by the Healers. Rumors originating with the soldiers that escorted the Most Noble Prince back to Hinamachi indicated that the Imperial mage had been badly injured.

 

Isanari hoped bleakly that the Most Noble Prince would favor him with an audience soon. Considering both this latest catastrophe and his progress (or lack of it) in dealing with the invasion during the past three years, the Warlord would hardly blame either the Most Noble Prince or the Prince's Most Illustrious and Revered Heavenborn Kinsman for demanding both his own head and the heads of most of his senior staff, and the suspense was becoming maddening.

 


The Warlord sighed again and turned toward the stairs to his quarters. He knew that he should try to get some rest before the morning's council meeting. In their current state of uncertainty the various council factions would undoubtedly spend his and their time and energy exchanging accusations of incompetence, but there remained a small chance that something useful might be accomplished.

 

* * *

 

After he had bathed and breakfasted, requiring considerable assistance from Kagemitsu in both activities, the Twilight Prince sat quietly, wrapped in a casual robe, sipping tea and contemplating his clothes' chests. Appropriate dress for council meetings and social gatherings at the mundane court was a problem at the best of times, since he both seriously outranked the Warlord and was serving as one of the man's advisers. It was depressing to find that even such minor questions wearied him.


"Kagemitsu, what do you think I should wear to this morning's council meeting?"


His attendant, busy clearing away the breakfast utensils, came over and knelt beside the Prince, frowning worriedly. "Nothing, Noble Prince, Surely it would be wiser to return to my lord's bed and allow the healing to continue?"


"Perhaps so, but my promise to attend the Warlord's councils included no caveats regarding my own convenience." The Prince smiled wearily, "Besides, the healing has reached the stage where I have enough strength to spare to notice how miserable I am, so the discussions will provide a useful distraction."


Miyabe no Kagemitsu chuckled. "I know that feeling, Noble Prince. Sometimes it's enough to make one wonder whether the Healing Power of the Highborn is really worth the bother." He paused for a moment, then continued more seriously, "May My Noble Prince's servant suggest that attendance at the entire meeting is not necessary? Lord Commander Isanari seems a sensible man and unlikely to be insulted by a plea of weariness ... "


"Very well, I'll consider leaving early if I find my strength failing ... which returns us to my original question: what should I wear?"


"No formal court robes?"


"I have explained my feelings in that respect ... we are here to assist the Warlord, not usurp his authority."


"My Noble Prince's courtesy to the Lord Commander Isanari would be less inconvenient if court robes comprised a smaller fraction of my Noble Prince's wardrobe ... "


"An excellent point. Perhaps you should arrange to have some of the court robes recut to less formal patterns."


Kagemitsu sighed. That was not quite the response he had hoped for. "As my Noble Prince desires ... for this morning, however, perhaps the 'Autumn Garden' robes would be adequate?"

 

"No, you know perfectly well those robes are too showy. Something quieter, less likely to attract stares." The Prince plucked fretfully at the bandage covering his empty right eye-socket. "It's bad enough that I'll be wearing this in public."


Kagemitsu gently moved his Lord's hand away from the bandage and scanned the injury with mage-sight. "Softly, Noble Prince. No need to aggravate the damage." He paused for a moment. "It appears that the healing has progressed far enough that the bandage could be replaced by a simple patch like those worn by some warriors ... if my Noble Prince prefers ... ?"


The Prince bowed his head. "Yes, that will be ... acceptable," he said quietly. Somehow the idea of the patch implied a degree of permanence that the bandages had not.

 

Kagemitsu made himself very busy preparing the patch and removing the bandage, carefully not noticing the slow tears that fell from his Lord's remaining eye.

 

When the change was complete and the Prince seemed to have regained his composure, the young courtier asked, "Most Noble Prince ... ? About the robes for the meeting ... the maple-leaf red robe is appropriate for the season, and goes well with the 'Evening Clouds' overrobe ... "


"Which is suitably unobtrusive. An excellent choice, Kagemitsu." The Prince sighed. "I suppose I should begin dressing soon. It will be a long walk to the council chamber."


"Not necessarily, my Lord Prince. If my Noble Prince would care to lie down and rest awhile, transport to the council chamber can easily be provided later to make up the time."


"Yes, that seems advisable ... "


Kagemitsu helped his lord to lie down, then turned his attention to preparing the robes for the council meeting. Unobtrusive! He smiled to himself. Apparently his shy Prince had not yet realized how his taste for muted colors set him apart in the brightly clad mundane court. Not that it would matter much today -- the courtier had been besieged by questions about his Lord's state of mind and health ever since the Prince's return to the castle. He knew that the Prince would be the focus of attention whether he appeared in rags or in the emperor's regalia. The Prince was probably wise to make his reappearance in public as soon as possible: postponing it would simply make matters worse, especially for a man of the Prince's retiring nature.

 

* * *


Chancellor Tajima had arranged to meet the other counselors who shared his concern for order and tradition before the main council meeting. At the end of their last meeting, the General of the Regional Armies had advised that all of the Domain Lords should place the armed forces of their various provinces under his control, and some coherent response to the request was necessary.

 

Early as it was, the Chancellor found that he had been preceded to the council chamber by Senior Commander Mikawa Yoshihisa, who led the Army of the Home Provinces, Minister of Weights and Measures Yoshiatsu no Masahiro, and Minister Suewari no Tadamochi, who served as the Chief Magistrate of Hinamachi. They were quickly joined by the Senior Commanders of two of the other Regional Armies, Uefusa no Sakahito and Koshinaka no Matsunae, and by six other Clan representatives who were simply administrators of their Domains, or Commanders of their Domain forces, and needed no greater dignity.


Not the most impressive sight, the Chancellor admitted to himself. Some of the Lords whose lands were largely occupied by the enemy were looking more than a little shabby, even in the dimness of the large and shadowy council hall. And the group rattled about in the council chamber like seeds in a dried gourd. The Chancellor sighed. The realm of Ashihara had reached a sorry state, if a voting block of twelve could hold a clear majority in the Domains' Council.

 

"Well, how shall we answer the latest assault on the prerogatives of the landed Clans?" demanded Yoshiatsu as the last of the lesser lords bowed to the group and took his seat. The minister's voice had a shrill edge that grated on the Chancellors nerves.


"Well, actually, unifying the command structure sounded like a good idea to me," said Lord Dekumo no Michisato, one of the younger Commanders. He rubbed at a half-healed scar on his cheek. "Surely anything that might reduce the confusion on the battlefield would be helpful."


"Officially link proper Domain vassals with that rabble of ronin that make up the so-called Regional Armies? My men wouldn't hear of it. They have too much self-respect." This was Katafuse no Asakira, an elderly lord who had never been on a battlefield in his life. He complacently stroked his frayed- looking white mustache.


The Magistrate waited a moment for the Regional Commanders to defend their men. When the moment passed and they did nothing, he protested, "But my lord, four years ago most of those 'rabble of ronin' were perfectly respectable vassals themselves. It isn't their fault that the Clans they once served have become Vacant. And the vassals of Mikawa Domain do not seem to be harmed by contact with the ronin units that Lord Mikawa also commands." He decided not to mention that his own vassals had been ordered to cooperate with the Armies as fully as possible soon after the Armies were formed and proven effective. The more extreme members of the conservative faction might listen to a moderate member of their own faction, but not to an admitted 'liberal'.


Senior Commander Uefusa of the Sekihigashi Regional Army grunted. "He's right you know, and it is a lot easier to get things done when all the officers commanding in a region attend the same planning sessions."


"Convenience isn't the point," Yoshiatsu snapped. His small tuft of beard jutted forward. Somehow it emphasized his receding chin rather than hiding it. "The government of the realm has no business telling Clan Lords how they should manage their forces. The precedent would be too dangerous. And that's all there is to it."


There was a murmur of agreement from the other civilians present, joined by a few of the officers who were most sensitive to threats to their authority. Uefusa looked worried, and Commander Dekumo looked crushed.


The Magistrate had a sudden inspiration. "Very true, my Lord, but since this Council is the government of the realm, the matter is thus out of its control and must be left to the private decisions of each individual Clan. The Council as a whole can make no recommendation either way."


The Chancellor decided it was time to speak. "I agree with Yoshiatsu and Suewari: this is clearly a matter for individual decision not to be influenced by the council."


Yoshiatsu glared at the Magistrate. "I still say the whole proposal was outrageous, we should show these radicals who they're dealing with!"


Mikawa spoke for the first time, "Don't get too cocky, brother-in-law," he recommended gruffly. "What if they find some more Clan Lords to side with them?"


"They couldn't!" the Minister sputtered.

 

"Why not?" asked the Magistrate with an innocent expression. "There are seventy-two domains, sixty-seven even if you leave out the Lost Clans ... and only twenty-one have representatives here in this city. Even with twenty-one Clans known to be Vacant, do you really believe that all twenty-five of the other Clans have been wiped out completely? With the enemy controlling most of the straits and passes, it's more likely that many of them are not Vacant, but simply cut off from us."

 

"There's at least one other surviving Clan, anyway," Uefusa added. "The 'Mountain Wolf' is still passing refugees through the mountains. A detachment of my scouts brought some in just last night. If the Wolf of Tobida thinks to come to council, or even sends a proxy, the radicals will have another vote on their side."


"Are you sure?" asked Katafuse worriedly.

 

Senior Commander Uefusa laughed. "You've never met Tobida no kami, have you? He almost makes those peasant-born bandits look civilized. He'd vote against the traditional privileges of the landed Clans just to be obnoxious."

 

A flurry of nervousness passed through the group.

 

"But he still has only one vote," the Chancellor soothed, "the same as you or me or the Warlord.... Even if the Wolf comes to council, the vote will be twelve to ten as long as we all hold firm."


"And hope that any Clan survivors that do arrive, whether among the refugees or on a ship from one of the other islands, will side with us," Mikawa added.

 

"In that case, it might be prudent for us to supply the refugees and ronin from the questionable Clans a bit better ... " the Magistrate suggested, "if a lost heir does turn up, letting his people suffer is likely to turn him against us."


"Not with MY revenues you don't!" Yoshiatsu exclaimed. "It's bad enough supporting my own samurai in the field ... and knowing that the taxes I send to the realm are supporting those outrageous collections of ronin! 'Regional Armies' indeed!"


"I don't think we need to spend any of our own resources," Suewari answered. "The realm is still receiving its share of the revenues from Vacant domains that are not occupied by the enemy, but the Clan revenues from those lands are accumulating untouched ... Why don't we allow the Warlord to finance the Armies and support refugees out of those funds?"


The Chancellor nodded, "An excellent idea. It might make him a little less eager to assign new Lords to the vacant Domains ... " When Yoshiatsu and old Katafuse started to protest, he added "Do you really want those bandits to speak in council in their own right?"

 

"Powers, no!" The old man replied with a shudder, "It's bad enough that some Clan Lords have forgotten themselves so far as to give their council proxies to the scum!"


"I still say that the Vacant domains should be assigned to members of the existing Clans, as the Lost domains were," commented a lord who possessed many surviving male relatives and several Vacant or missing neighbors.


The doors of the council chamber opened, and the realm's archivist and historian, Yamashiro no Matsuyama entered and sat down.

 

"Hmph. That old dodderer!" snorted Yoshiatsu, "You'd think a man that old would place some value on the proper ways of doing things!"


"Too obsessed by trivia to have any sense of the big picture, I suppose," said Mikawa loftily, "either that or he's going senile."


A moment later, Minister of Finance Ninori no Kinomori arrived, looking plump, worried, and rather frazzled, as usual. He was chatting with a shabby young archer dressed in the colors of Hanemae: apparently the lord had sent a proxy today. A minor lord who was not much better dressed than the archer sniffed, "Look at that traitor to his class! Ninori has wealth and a pedigree to match any here, but he has no more pride than to associate with that. Do you think the boy is even Samurai-born?"


The Chancellor reflected that in his experience, Ninori treated everyone from the overlord to the privy-cleaner with equal courtesy. The man simply did not know how to be rude. He considered squelching some of his associates' comments, but decided that the council meeting would go more smoothly if some of the extremists had the opportunity to vent their feelings before the Warlord arrived.


General Hanenori no Yoshinaga, who arrived next, was the last of the radical party whose credentials were even remotely acceptable to the members of the Chancellor's clique. Hanenori had been a minor aristocrat, son of a junior branch of his Clan and already growing famous as a swordsman, when their far northern province had been first devastated by the invaders. Placed in command of the Regional Army, Hanenori had proven to have field command skills that almost matched his skill with a sword and was rapidly promoted to General and field commander of all the armies. The snide comments about him were comparatively muted: since he had both lost his wife and inherited the Clan Lordship, members of the conservative party who had eligible daughters tended to moderate their opinions of his politics.

 

The remaining four members of the council were the group that the Samurai-born aristocrats tended to refer to as 'those peasant-born bandits'.

 

Yanagi Izumi, the Senior Commander of the Nakakuni Regional Army, stalked in and sat down in a clatter of armor. She had been high priestess of an obscure river cult until her shrine was destroyed by the invaders. The Reverend Lady referred to herself as 'The wife of the Lord of the Eno River' and sometimes mentioned a daughter, which tended to disconcert people, since the 'Lord of the Eno River' was well known to be a dragon. Her habit of wearing male clothing and armor to council meetings and sharpening her daggers as an aid to thought was even more disconcerting to the 'refined' tastes of some of the civilian conservatives, though they were careful to do their complaining out of her hearing. The lady had a tongue like a sharkskin file when discussing proposals or behavior that she considered foolish.


Senior Captain Tahata dressed and acted like what he had been before the invasion: a prosperous peasant. He was short and very solidly built, with thick, muscular arms, legs, and shoulders and a big round solid belly like the images of the god of plenty. The Chancellor thought that in his proper place the man would be almost likable: Tahata was a cheerful pragmatist with a taste for food and the good things in life. Despite his thoroughly deplorable penchant for gossip and speaking his mind, the little man might make a good tenant. He listened with half an ear as Minister Yoshiatsu, whose troops were notoriously ill- equipped, sputtered about the fact that Tahata spent much too much time, attention and resources on the common soldiers, even those in troops not his own. Some others chimed in, and the Chancellor was not really inclined to blame them. Tahata might be tolerable in his proper place, but not, as seemed more and more likely, as Lord of one of the Vacant Clans.

 

Captains Taka and Moeri, who arrived a little after Tahata, were his second daughter and elder surviving son, teen-aged twins. Taka, a pretty girl but very intense, was dressed as usual in a boy's short battle tunic. Her brother, who was very beautiful and had much more feminine features, wore kimono and hakama.


"Look at that! Just look at them," hissed old Lord Katafuse. He tweaked at his mustache excitedly -- no wonder it always looked frayed. "Disgraceful! How can a man show his face in public with children like those? Look at that little slut showing her legs like that in a room full of men! And as for that so-called son of Tahata's, I've seen silk scarves with more backbone."

 

"He's quite a good fighter, actually," Uefusa said quietly.


"More than good," added the Commander from Dekumo, "He does wonders with a field sword as long as he is tall, and that's when he hasn't yet gone berserk. When he IS berserk, he's more like a force of nature than a man."


"Well, you know how that kind are ... " said Mikawa, "vicious as weasels once they happen to lose their tempers."


One of the minor lords licked his lips. "Do you know, I've heard that neither of the twins has ever turned down a sexual proposition?"


"I imagine the father pimps for them," Yoshiatsu said with a leer, "How much do you think he asks for his dear son and heir?"


Dekumo leaned over and murmured to Magistrate Suewari, "Odd isn't it ... 'the twins never turn down a proposition', but somehow you never meet anyone who claims to have bedded them."


Suewari chuckled. "Actually," he said aloud, "I hear that the General has prior claim on the attentions of both the twins." He stifled another laugh as the fathers with such high hopes for their daughters hurried to deny his manufactured rumor.

 

* * *


Clad in a haori patterned in scarlet, yellow and green over a blue kimono and hakama, the Warlord Isanari no Moritake entered the council chamber shortly before the council meeting was scheduled to begin, stalked to his place, and sat down. He was in an advanced state of ill humor: just before entering the council room he had received word of more combat losses, and lookouts had reported seeing dust in the distance along the road to Amekudare no Miyako. The Warlord's mood was not improved by finding his colleagues already divided into their factions before his entrance. He surveyed them as he waited for the proper time to start the discussion, wondering if anything useful could be accomplished by the meeting.


Seated to Isanari's left were a group of a dozen officers and ministers who represented the strongest traditions of custom, seniority, pedigree and wealth. The Warlord sometimes suspected that some of these lords would rather lose the war than win it using nontraditional tactics. Isanari would have refused to tolerate most of them if they had not controlled so much of the realm's remaining wealth and territory. He hoped the few moderates in the group would eventually gain some sense or some spine and begin to vote independently once in a while.

 

As usual, the center of the group of conservatives was Chancellor Tajima, whose younger brother had so 'unfortunately' been eaten by the demons. Tajima was dressed decorously in the drab charcoal gray of deep mourning, but somehow managed to look elegantly handsome even so. In his present foul mood, Isanari found this an additional irritant, since he was convinced that his own dark skin and heavy bones made him look like a thug in disguise even in his best clothes.

 

Minister Yoshiatsu and Senior Commander Mikawa were the most annoying of the reactionary group, due to their high ranks and great wealth. It seemed as though they could find a dozen historical precedents forbidding any innovative plan that had any hope of working against the enemy. They also made a point of actively snubbing anyone whose apparent pedigree did not suit their lofty standards. Isanari had nothing but sympathy for the peasant-born captains who had nicknamed the pair "Ferretface" and "Storklegs". He was waiting with some anticipation for the day when the Twilight Prince's 'servant' Miyabe Kagemitsu got annoyed enough to inform them of the fact that he was a Noble Lord of the Fourth Rank, outranking even the loftiest members of the mundane court.

 

On the Warlord's right were clustered most of the people who had actually made useful contributions to dealing with the invasion.


Nearest the Warlord sat the archivist and historian, Yamashiro no Matsuyama. The old man no longer had the stamina for magic under combat conditions, but otherwise was as skilled a sorcerer and Healer as one was likely to find outside the Imperial Court. The flexibility and innovation he brought to his duties put many far younger men to shame, at least in Isanari's opinion.

 

Next was Minister of Finance Ninori, who never claimed to seek perfection in dealing with the logistical nightmare posed by the invasion and resulting war and refugees, just an attempt to prevent things from falling apart completely. Isanari judged it was his honesty that put him into the progressive party ... that and his kindness: the Minister's manners were rather formal, but it would never occur to him to ignore information or advice he received based on the rank of its source.


Beyond Ninori was the Warlord's best field commander, General Hanenori. After his home was destroyed and his family were massacred, the young man had been instrumental in organizing both the bandit-style harassment that had slowed the enemy's advance and the 'long retreat' that had removed both the local populations and everything of value that wasn't nailed down from the invaders' path (at least in areas where local lords had been willing, or forced, to cooperate). Given control of the realm's armies, Hanenori had proven to have field command skills that almost matched his skill with a sword.


The remaining four members of the council were a group that the Warlord often thought of collectively as 'the heroes of the resistance'. It was really a pity, Isanari thought, that none of them had the wealth or lineage to be really influential ... though if they possessed wealth and rank, they would probably lack their present skill. He was not very well acquainted with them. One problem with being Warlord was the lack of direct contact with people who were actually doing things, and unlike the general, none of the heroes had council votes in their own right. On the whole, Isanari was glad the crisis of the Prince's capture had induced some minor lords of the progressive faction to give the four their voting proxies.

 

Warlord Isanari suspected that most of the men Senior Commander Yanagi antagonized would have been outraged by any woman, however polite, who countered them in council. The Warlord also preferred to keep an open mind regarding the matter of the Reverend Lady's husband. Dragon's wife or not, Lady Yanagi had a remarkable talent for aquatic tactics and strategy: give her a body of water larger than a puddle to work with and she would make the enemy's lives hellish, and short. After her shrine was destroyed by the invaders, she had organized the local fisher-folk for resistance before eventually connecting with Hanenori's skirmishers, and later with the regular forces.

 

There was a sudden flare from one of the candles that supplemented the weak, late autumn daylight, and Isanari rubbed his eyes. For a moment, he had thought that Senior Captain Tahata's shadow had shown the pointed ears and snout of an animal instead of a rounded human shape, but surely that was an illusion bred of wishful thinking and his own weariness. Why would a magical being masquerade as a peasant, of all things?

 

Like Yanagi and Hanenori, Tahata had been a resistance organizer from the early days of the invasion. (Isanari rather suspected that he had been one of Hanenori's tenants, but tried to avoid even thinking about THAT possibility around the old- school aristocrats.) Much as he was disliked by Yoshiatsu and Katafuse and their ilk due to his background and manner, most of the other field officers (of whatever pedigree) liked him because they could trust him to show up when and where he was needed. The common soldiers loved him because he looked out for their needs -- if the Warlord had not been so desperately short of competent field officers, he would have officially named Tahata quartermaster general. As it was, Tahata provided Finance Minister Ninori with some valuable assistance in organizing logistics for the military, besides his regular duties as a field commander.

 

Captains Taka and Moeri, Tahata's children, were very young to be officers, but they had been part of the resistance from its beginnings, and presently led companies that specialized in dangerous scouting missions and the bandit-style raids typical of the resistance forces. Moeri's group favored cavalry tactics and open country work, while Taka's preferred crowded environments like forests and towns.

 

Despite being different sexes, the twins resembled each other to a degree that was almost eerie. They were the same height, and had the same reddish highlights in the dark hair that they wore tied back in much the same fashion, and both had heart- shaped faces that were a little too angular and assertive to be really feminine and a bit too soft and fine-boned to be properly masculine. The Warlord privately suspected that those who muttered loudest about the twins' promiscuity were those who would most like to bed one or both of the young people, and had been least successful trying to arrange it.


At the end of the row was a ragged, hungry-looking young archer wearing the crest of Hanemae, sitting proxy for his Lord, who preferred patrolling for demons to sitting through council debates. Isanari was inclined to agree and rather wished that he could do the same.

 

* * *

 

Kagemitsu finished helping his Prince into the overrobe, and stood back to measure the effect. The Twilight Prince had never quite fit ordinary standards of male beauty: he was a bit too pale, and rather thin and sharp featured at the best of times, as well as a bit too tall (More than a bit, to be honest: the Prince's six feet four inches put him more than eight inches above the average height for Highborn, and a full foot taller than the average for Samurai and other commoners. But in Kagemitsu's opinion the extra height simply added to the dignity of the fluid movements and elegant postures which were appropriate to a Prince of the Blood). Because of his injuries and illness, the Prince was thinner and paler than ever, so Kagemitsu had suggested garments that would accent his Lord's unusual features, making him look impressive rather than sickly. The elegantly pale makeup worn in public by all Highborn of both sexes would also help mask the Prince's exhaustion.


The hakama and kimono, which were unpatterned silk dyed the dull red-orange of late season maple leaves, provided an elegant contrast both with his pallor, and with the colors and pattern of the overrobe. The overrobe itself was embroidered with a swirl of clouds in shades of gray on a background that was somewhere between charcoal gray and indigo blue: a color chosen to accent the Prince's eyes, which were a similar deep blue color and quite startling to people who assumed human eyes should be brown.

 

A sliver of crescent moon, embroidered in silver-gray high on the center back of the overrobe, provided an additional subtle touch. It was usually hidden by the Prince's dark hair, which was knee-length and worn loose as required for priests of the Twilight Powers, but the crescent could be glimpsed occasionally as he moved, as though on an evening of wind-driven clouds.

 

Pleased as Kagemitsu was by the prince's appearance, there remained one detail that seemed naggingly inappropriate. When he finally decided what was wrong, the courtier wondered for a moment whether he should mention it. He decided regretfully that as a breach of protocol it had to be dealt with.

 

"Most Noble Prince," he said gently, "Do you think that the rule against pure colors in your clothing applies to something like an eyepatch?"

 

The Prince sighed. "Noble Powers, yes. I'm glad you thought of that ... It would be embarrassing to appear before the council in clothes that don't meet the requirements of my position. Please change it."

 

Kagemitsu reached toward his Lord, and used a flick of the Power to change the color of the eyepatch to match his lord's kimono. He stood back and surveyed the Prince again, suppressing a grin -- he would dearly love to witness the Samurai's reaction to his Lord's appearance. Then he stepped forward again and embraced the Prince, loosely so as not to fret the Prince's injuries or wrinkle the robes, and an instant later they were standing outside the door to the council chamber.

 

Copyright 1991 Elyse M. Grasso