9 Swords and Sorcery

Sumi no e no

Kishi ni yoru nami

Yoru sae yale can

Yume no kayoi ji

Hito me yoku ran


(Fujiwara no Toshiyuki)


The next day, Commander Kashimori and the Kawachi captains met briefly with the Twilight Prince to report on the arrangements that had been made: which would remain in the city to provide their Lord with any protection he might need, and which companies were going out into the field. The General had assigned most of the Kawachi forces to the western battle zones, so they would be patrolling their own province's lands.


As the meeting ended, Higuchi, the Captain assigned to escort duty, asked respectfully, "Excuse the ignorance of this unworthy servant, Most Noble and Revered Prince. Clearly, in times of emergency both the Most Noble and Revered Prince and Noble Lord Kagemitsu will fight primarily as mages, but do the Most Noble and Revered Prince and the Noble Lord know how to fight without magic using swords if that should be necessary?"


The Prince smiled at him. "A reasonable question. I have some training in swordplay, but I would not wish to face anyone who possessed real skill. As a Twilight Priest and a Life Mage I can't wear a sword in public, anyway, so I would much prefer to face that swordsman while armed with a naginata myself." The Prince's hand sketched a weapon whose length matched his own unusual height, and several of the samurai chuckled. The Twilight Prince continued, "Kagemitsu ... owns a sword. He did not acquire his present rank until the age of eighteen, and so was never officially trained in the use of weapons. Unofficially, I needed someone to practice with besides my instructors, so he learned along with me."


Some of the remaining samurai looked at the decorative young courtier with considerable skepticism, but Commander Kashimori chuckled. HorseMaster Aoshiba remembered that the Commander was Kagemitsu's uncle and would have some idea of the Noble's true skill. It occurred to Aoshiba that the instructors chosen for an Imperial Prince (and his companion) would be the best available, so that by ordinary standards both Nobles' sword skills might be far better than the Prince claimed, or perhaps realized.

The Prince continued cheerfully, "With weapons other than swords, our situation is better. We have some knowledge of firearms, and experience in target shooting with them. And the Highborn have continued to use some of the older mounted techniques such as horse archery and target lancing in competitions while the Samurai turned their attention to firearms and infantry formations: Kagemitsu is very good with a bow, better than I ever was. I used to be the better lancer of the two of us, but may have lost my skill at aiming." He gestured toward his eyepatch with a slight grimace.

"Of course, Most Noble and Revered Prince," a Senior Captain replied tolerantly.

Aoshiba noticed that most of the officers looked skeptical about the Prince's claims to prowess, and Commander Kashimori looked even more amused. The Commander suggested, "If the companies left in the city hold their practice sessions in a convenient location, perhaps the Most Noble and Revered Prince and Noble Lord Kagemitsu could occasionally take part. Would the empty estate east of this one be acceptable?"

"Yes. An excellent idea," the Prince agreed. "I don't suppose the owners will mind, since the estate is a ruin."

"Most Noble and Revered Prince, that ruin was once the Kawachi town house," replied Captain Higuchi, a peculiar expression on his face. "The Most Noble and Revered Prince is the owner."

"Oh," replied the Twilight Prince cheerfully, "well, I suppose that makes it even more convenient ... it will save me the bother of buying or leasing it."

The main body of warriors left for the front later that morning. The escort company spent the afternoon clearing rubble and autumn-killed plants in the ruined estate, preparing it for use the next day as a practice field.


HorseMaster Aoshiba was somewhat surprised when the Most Noble and Revered Prince appeared in the stables early the next morning to begin preparations for his workout ... and he suspected that Lord Kagemitsu, who was still blinking sleepily, was equally surprised, and not very happy about it. Aoshiba himself did not mind the early hour and certainly did not mind the command to help saddle three, not two, of the Prince's blue-gray horses: he had been hoping for a chance to ride one of the magnificent beasts.

Aoshiba was also unsurprised when the Most Noble and Revered Prince saddled his own horse, though the estate's stable-boy gaped at the sight. The Prince's insistence on caring for his own mount had thoroughly annoyed Kanehide and his officers during the expedition to heal the Nakayama Shrine, and the HorseMaster had admired the Noble for it at the time. Now, he was more impressed by the simple, minimal bits used on all three horses' bridles.


But Aoshiba watched worriedly when the Prince paused to steady himself against his mount's side, wondering whether his new overlord was really well enough for the day's proposed exercise. He was relieved when the Prince swung lightly into the saddle and rode once around the stable yard with no sign of trouble.


"Most Noble and Revered Prince?"


"I'm all right, HorseMaster," the Twilight Prince assured him, with a relieved smile. "The dizziness seems less now that I'm mounted ... perhaps being so close to a living thing this large ... ?" He looked from the HorseMaster to Kagemitsu and back. "Well, shall we show the others what can be done while riding real horses rather than ponies?"

The HorseMaster was inclined to resent the slighting reference to other horses until he had mounted the horse he had been assigned. Unlike the Prince, it took him two tries because the beast was so much taller than those he was used to. Once mounted, he found the mare's power and responsiveness so impressive that he began to wonder if she could read his mind, as some magical horses were said to do. Even the simple bit that was part of her bridle seemed redundant.

Once the HorseMaster had made the acquaintance of his mount, the three horsemen rode slowly out of the stable gate of the Twilight Prince's estate and down the road to the empty gap that had once been the north gate of the Kawachi estate. The samurai practicing sword-drills in the grounds stopped to watch as the three horses traveled about through the former gardens and grounds of the estate, keeping a constant distance between them as they jumped some obstacles and dodged around others at a pace that slowly increased from a walk, to a trot, to a canter.


The three finally came to a smooth, sudden halt in front of the officer in charge of the drills, a Captain Iwase, and the Prince commented casually, "I don't think we'll try a full gallop today ... there really isn't enough space here."

Iwase, a short stocky man with a cheerful expression and only one arm, had turned a bit pale. The animals that loomed over him were taller at the shoulder than he was and had approached very quickly before they stopped moving, even if it was not quite a charge. He swallowed hard, but managed to match the Prince's calm tone, "Of course, Most Noble and Revered Prince. As the Most Noble and Revered Prince pleases."

"How did they do that, HorseMaster?" one samurai asked Aoshiba in an awed tone. "Was it magic?"

Aoshiba, who had barely managed to follow the Prince and Kagemitsu through most of their maneuvers, chuckled and answered, "These horses are amazing ... or do you think I'm a wizard, too?" He was very grateful that his mare had been so willing to follow her herd-mates: she'd saved him from looking like too much of a fool.


The Twilight Prince smiled with pleasure at the praise, but said in a rather embarrassed tone, "Well, you see, there are horses that belong to the shrines in the capital that must never be saddled or have a bit in their mouths ... that's exactly how the rule is worded, you understand: no saddles or bits, but it says nothing explicit about riders ... and when we were twelve we decided that some of those horses looked bored ... " Several of the samurai chuckled, and the Prince blushed faintly, but continued, "Learning to ride those horses and teaching the horses to let us ride them taught us a lot, and we used those skills in training my own horses ... it's actually very useful training for horses that will be used by archers or lancers and not just as transportation: since we don't really need the reins, our hands are free for other tasks. Set up some targets and we'll show you!"

While the Twilight Prince waited, he looked around and saw that the group of spectators was no longer limited to his own vassals. Apparently some neighbors and passersby had noticed the noise and activity in the abandoned estate, and stayed to watch. Most were strangers, but he thought he recognized Captain Taka from the council meetings and Ninori Kiyoie from the discussions about Kanehide's property, so he rode over to greet them.


When the Prince began to move toward them, all of the spectators knelt and bowed. He sighed and dismounted as he said, "Good morning," then turned toward his two acquaintances. "Ninori Kiyoie, isn't it? And Captain Taka?"

"Yes, Most Noble and Revered Prince," they replied, almost in unison.


"Are the two of you here together?" asked the Prince curiously.


The young pair both blushed fiercely, and Kiyoie said hastily, "Oh no, Most Noble and Revered Prince, we're not together ... I mean ... we're with each other ... but not ... really together ... "

"I see," the Twilight Prince commented, and Aoshiba, who had approached and dismounted when the Prince did, chuckled quietly at his politely skeptical tone. The connection patterns the Prince could 'see' in the young people's auras suggested that they were very much a pair, but he decided against challenging the disclaimer: no doubt the formal difference in their social status was complicating matters. "Is Captain Taka's brother here somewhere, too?" he asked instead, looking around for the young man.

"No, Most Noble and Revered Prince," Taka answered, grateful for the change of topic, "Moeri is out on patrol. This unworthy officer would also be on duty in the field, but broke an arm rescuing one of her more than usually incompetent followers." She shook her head ruefully. "The Healers say that even with their aid it will be untrustworthy for a month."


"Oh?" the Prince said, considering. "Stand up and let me see it." When she obeyed, he glanced over his shoulder and called sharply, "Kagemitsu!"

"Here, Most Noble and Revered Prince."

"Finish fusing the bone here where it's weak," the Prince directed, and when the Earth Mage had completed his work, he used his own Power to finish the rest of the healing. Releasing the Power needed for such a minor healing was not a problem when he was standing next to a living creature the size of his horse. He turned back to Taka. "That should take care of it, but rest the arm for another two days to let it settle. Be sure to eat as much as you feel hungry for: healing is worse than fasting, and the faster the healing, the more it drains you."


"Yes, Most Noble and Revered Prince. Thank you very much, Most Noble and Revered Prince," Taka replied fervently, rubbing her arm where the ache had been.

The Twilight Prince smiled at the way Ninori Kiyoie helped the young woman remove the strapping the Healers had placed on the arm. The Prince noticed Captain Iwase watching them intently, and shook his head slightly, touching his own eyepatch. The one-armed Captain smiled ruefully and bowed.


"HorseMaster Aoshiba!"

"Most Noble and Revered Prince?"

"Remind me to arrange to visit the hospitals and infirmaries regularly, and also after major battles."

"As the Most Noble and Revered Prince commands."

The Twilight Prince nodded and turned to walk back into the practice field. "Are those targets ready yet?"

One onlooker, an infantry TroopMaster in Kawachi colors, snorted softly. "Hmph. Trick riding and wizardry is all very well," he muttered once the Prince was out of hearing range, "but those Highborn will find it takes real skill and training to use weapons!"

Ninori Kiyoie eyed him thoughtfully. "Would you like to place a small wager on that?" he asked hopefully. He quickly accumulated several wagers on the Nobles' prowess: large bets from the TroopMaster against both the Prince and Kagemitsu, and smaller ones from a few of the other warriors and spectators. The small crowd was willing enough to gamble, but it was clear they had little faith in the weapon-skills of the nobility: other than Kiyoie himself, only HorseMaster Aoshiba and the Shirokura brothers placed bets in favor of Kagemitsu's success, and not even the Shirokuras completely trusted the Prince's ability to compensate for the missing eye. Taka placed no bets, but watched Kiyoie's bookmaking with amusement.


Kagemitsu rode first along the course, which was not the usual straight horse-archery course but a twisting obstacle course with the five targets partly obscured except at the most inconvenient parts of the ride. Though he was offered a full quiver, he took only five arrows into the course with him, and it quickly became clear that his confidence was not misplaced. His arrows hit all of the targets cleanly, and on all but the most difficult target he hit the center spot, though never the exact center of the target. At the same time, he guided his horse through the set course without missing any of the prescribed turns and twists.

The handsome courtier's performance was good enough to win all of the bets that had been placed in his favor. Aoshiba hoped, for Lord Kagemitsu's sake, that it would also be good enough to silence the snide remarks about 'palace ornaments' that had been made by some of the Samurai outside the Nobles' hearing.


The Twilight Prince's chosen weapon was not the bow but the naginata, a weapon like a spear with a curved sword blade mounted where the spearhead should have been, or a sword with a spear shaft in place of its hilt. Captain Iwase eyed the long weapon with misgivings. "Forgive me, Most Noble and Revered Prince, but isn't that an awkward weapon to use on horseback?"

"Yes, I suppose it is," the Prince answered cheerfully. "And horses tend to get a bit testy if they think you're about to chop their ears off ... makes things even trickier." He removed the sheath from the naginata's blade and handed it to the officer, then turned his horse and trotted to the start of the target course.


The Twilight Prince rode the course faster than Kagemitsu had, and split his first four targets cleanly. But the blow that cut the final target was an awkward chop, and immediately after it the Prince dropped his reins. The horse promptly stopped moving, and the spectators could see that the Prince had one hand pressed to his eyepatch while he clutched the pommel of the saddle with the other.

As they hurried toward the Prince, HorseMaster Aoshiba decided that he approved of whoever had given the Most Noble and Revered Prince his weapons training: the Prince had not dropped the naginata, but held it loosely in the crook of one elbow with the butt braced in a stirrup.


"It's just another of my stupid dizzy spells," the Prince assured them ruefully, as Iwase and Aoshiba helped him dismount. "I'll be fine once I've stopped moving for a few minutes. Please convey my apologies to those who lost money in the betting."

Taka turned pale, and Aoshiba and Kiyoie knelt and bowed very low. "Forgive these unworthy servants, Most Noble and Revered Prince," Kiyoie said quietly, "No offense or insult was intended."

"Don't be silly!" the Prince laughed, "People always make bets about this sort of thing: that's half the fun of watching. It would have been more insulting if everyone pretended they thought I could do it, despite my missing eye. I'm just grateful that there was anyone at all willing to bet that I would succeed."

The skeptical TroopMaster, whose name was Kusano, had bet on whether the Prince would hit his targets, not on whether he would complete the course, and so had lost his second bet as well as the one against Kagemitsu. He paid up with poor grace, and when Taka began to congratulate Kiyoie on his winnings, Kusano grabbed one of her sleeves, and said in a loud, carrying, voice, "Hey, chickie! Wouldn't you rather spend your time with a real Samurai instead of a soft, cowardly pen-pusher too useless for battle?"

Taka flushed at the implication that the two were lovers, but replied calmly, "To be honest, I spend most of my time around the sword-wielding clods in the company I command ... " She twitched her sleeve out of the grasp of the TroopMaster, who had gone pale at the knowledge that he had accosted an officer. Taka continued in a sweetly acid tone she had learned from the Dragon's Wife, "When I'm off duty, I prefer the company of courteous gentlemen who possess at least a smidgen of intelligence, and a few talents other than combat." She nodded what might have been a bow if it had been a full movement rather than a twitch, and turned away. Kusano glared after her.

When the TroopMaster turned to glare at him, Ninori Kiyoie met his gaze calmly. "Well, TroopMaster," he offered cheerfully, "if you're certain that I'm no use in a fight, I'm sure you won't hesitate to face me in a bout with practice blades ... shall we say ... mm ... double or nothing?"

Kusano glared at Kiyoie suspiciously, while his men immediately set about betting in favor of their squad leader. Finally, the TroopMaster snarled, "All right!" and set about preparing for the match. He glanced toward Taka as he strutted to his starting position.

She smiled viciously. "TroopMaster, I recommend that you follow the practice rules very carefully during this match. For if Lord Ninori should suffer any harm that the rules would have prevented, you will face me next ... and I don't fight by any rules." Something gleaming metallic and deadly looking appeared in her hand for a moment, then vanished.


Kusano could not repress a shiver. "Cursed ninja," he muttered, much too soft for her to hear.


The two samurai paused, facing each other, waiting for the match to begin. The men were evenly matched for height and reach, which emphasized the other differences between them. Kusano, in his thirties, was clearly a field warrior, gaunt and fierce as a winter-starved predator, while his younger opponent, less battle-worn, looked sleek and a bit soft by comparison.

Aoshiba and the Prince placed a few bets in favor of Kiyoie: they both preferred his air of quiet confidence to the older man's posturing. "In any case," the Twilight Prince commented, "it's hard to believe that anyone that rude is a master swordsman."

Once the match began, it became apparent that Kiyoie had cause for his confidence, as he calmly withstood his opponent's initial ferocious attack. He did not use his sword as reflexively as most of the field warriors did, but that worked both for and against him: if Kiyoie did not react quite as fast as he might have, he also had less tendency to repeat himself. His fencing style was cautious rather than inspired, but it became clear that the Minister's son had received better training than his opponent. Kiyoie also had a fraction more speed when it was needed most.


"I think we made the right choice in backing Ninori Kiyoie," the Prince commented to Aoshiba, who was standing next to him.


Aoshiba glanced aside to make sure Taka was in hearing range, then replied cheerfully, "Indeed, Most Noble and Revered Prince, it would be interesting to see the Minister's son face a really good swordsman. I knew a man once with a very similar careful style of swordplay, and it was very deceptive. He never looked very much better than his opponents, but would always just barely manage to beat anyone he faced, no matter how good or bad."


Taka was pleased by Aoshiba's comment. She was also relieved that Kiyoie finished the duel undamaged as well as victorious. The scout captain had not been concerned that he would lose badly: Kiyoie had seen the TroopMaster working in the sword drills earlier, after all, and she had seen enough of the young finance officer to know he had more sense than to challenge if he was badly outclassed. Taka kept a careful eye on TroopMaster Kusano, especially in the moments just after the match officially ended. Kusano had already shown that he was a poor loser, and she did not trust him not to try something vicious in revenge for his loss.

"It seems you can match the common Samurai at their own games, not just do things they can't," Taka said to Kiyoie approvingly, when the match had ended and Kusano had walked away.

"I agree," the Twilight Prince added, "here, Ninori-san, please accept this money I won betting on you, with my congratulations. It should make up for the losses you sustained betting on me earlier, I think."

Ninori Kiyoie bowed deeply and said, "The Most Noble and Revered Prince is too kind. But this gracious gift is deeply appreciated." He added conspiratorially, "It will give me an excuse to buy Taka a nice present."


"What do you buy a female warrior that's expensive but not too personal?" the Prince asked curiously.

"A fancy scabbard, hilt and blade furnishings to put on her best dagger for formal occasions," Kiyoie replied very softly, so that Taka would not hear. "I've had my eye on them for days. I think I can get her to accept them if I buy something even more expensive for myself at the same shop and make the gift seem like an afterthought."


The Prince looked after the young couple rather wistfully for a moment, then turned to HorseMaster Aoshiba. "Speaking of presents reminds me ... if you like that mare you rode this morning, she's yours," he said with a smile. "And you should probably select a couple of remounts from my stables as well. If you're going to command my bodyguards in the field, you'll need horses able to keep up with mine."

Aoshiba fell to his knees and bowed deeply. For a warrior of his comparatively low rank to be given animals from the Prince's stable was not only an enormous honor, it greatly increased his wealth. Aoshiba knew that the Prince, who kept no geldings, only breeding stock, had been offered prices for individual mares that would have paid two or three years of his own stipend, even though the Prince was paying him at a rate more suitable to a Captain than to a mere HorseMaster. "Surely, the Most Noble and Revered Prince is being far too generous to this most unworthy of servants," he managed to stammer, hoping he had gotten the honorifics right.

"How can it be excessively generous to give horses I care about to a man I know will treat them well?" the Twilight Prince asked with another smile. "Especially when the recipient may need them to save my life someday ... get up, HorseMaster. Let's go see whether Kagemitsu can avoid making a fool of himself, even though he loathes sword drills and takes advantage of every possible excuse to avoid them ... "


"Most Noble and Revered Prince."


While the Twilight Prince was busy giving gifts to people, the elder Shirokura brother, Tadaharu, had offered to work with Kagemitsu with swords, and the courtier had accepted. This was a much more structured bout than Ninori Kiyoie's clash with Kusano had been: classroom fencing, rather than a rough and tumble duel and fought with bamboo weapons rather than steel. Shirokura Tadaharu was clearly the better swordsman of the two, but the courtier managed to hold his own during a brief exchange. Kagemitsu even managed to touch his opponent first, to his obvious elation.


"I'm glad I didn't bet on that bout," the younger Shirokura brother, Motoharu, commented ruefully.


"So am I," the Twilight Prince agreed dryly. "It would be embarrassing to win money betting on such sloppy form. And even more embarrassing to lose money betting against it."

Kagemitsu's gleeful expression changed to one of such dismay that Aoshiba had to stifle a chuckle. "May this servant inquire what error the Most Noble and Revered Prince observed?" the handsome courtier asked unhappily.

Shirokura Tadaharu added, "If the Most Noble and Revered Prince will permit, this Samurai noticed no serious errors by the Noble Lord."

"Mmm. I suspect you've grown too used to facing armored opponents," the Prince replied cheerfully. "May I borrow your shinai for a moment?"


The young samurai immediately bowed respectfully and handed over the bamboo practice blade.


The bout between the Prince and Kagemitsu impressed the watching samurai more than their earlier target games had, or Kagemitsu's bout with Tadaharu either. This was not because they were particularly good. The two young Nobles had been well taught, but no one would have mistaken either of them for a master swordsman or a seasoned warrior. However, Aoshiba was quite certain that the Prince had not shirked his own sword drills as he had accused Kagemitsu of doing.

What impressed the samurai was the fact that the two young men treated their conflict seriously, not as a game. Despite their fine clothes and flowing hair, they treated the shinai as carefully as if the weapons were edged steel instead of split bamboo, and they fought without concern for elegance or rank. The only evidence Noble Lord Kagemitsu gave of consideration for the Prince's injury was by repeated attempts to catch him on his blind side, while the Twilight Prince took full advantage of his greater height and reach.

The pair sparred energetically for a few minutes. The contest ended when Kagemitsu moved his blade momentarily into a high position from which he could neither attack easily toward his own left side, nor defend quickly on a low line. The Prince quickly moved a half step forward and to his right and looped his own blade in a crosscut stroke that ended against Kagemitsu's ribs with a loud thwack, then immediately stepped back into a guard position.

"If this had been a real blade you'd be dead," the Twilight Prince pointed out severely. "And if this had been a naginata or a field sword, you'd not only be dead, but your corpse would need two coffins."


Kagemitsu was thoroughly chagrined, "The Most Noble and Revered Prince is correct," he admitted. "And if our teacher saw me leave myself open like that, he would have me doing basic drills every day for the rest of my life."

"If not longer," the Prince commented dryly. Most of the samurai looked confused, but Kagemitsu sighed wearily in agreement: since the two Nobles had received much of their weapons training from the ghosts at the Shrine of Evening Shadows, a little thing like a student being dead would not be considered an excuse for not practicing.

The Prince started to walk away, but swayed slightly and put his hand to his face. "Damn!" he said softly. "I was all right while I was focused on the bout, but now the dizziness is back again."


Aoshiba hurried to offer the Prince an arm to lean on. "It's just as well that the Most Noble and Revered Prince normally fights with a staff or naginata instead of a sword," the HorseMaster suggested cheerfully. "Using a pole arm will provide something to lean on when the Most Noble and Revered Prince gets dizzy between bouts."

The Twilight Prince chuckled. "Perhaps. But I think daily workouts would be advisable, nonetheless, to help me adjust to my new vision." He paused and chuckled again. "And Kagemitsu clearly needs to work on his sword work." The courtier groaned theatrically, but the laughter of the Samurai around them was far less condescending than it would have been a few hours earlier.


** *

A few days later, the Nobles' remade armor was ready to be tried on.

The Prince's armor was white enamel with lacing in the five holy colors: purple, red, white, yellow, and blue-green. The mask that framed his face was gilded, and the five projections that extended back from it to provide added protection were forked like helmet horns.


The Prince and the armorers were all well pleased with the fit of the armor, but when he had taken it off again and it was arranged on its rack again, the Prince looked at it and shook his head ruefully. "In that parade armor I'm going to show up on the battlefield like a crow on a snowdrift."

"That's just as well, isn't it, Most Noble and Revered Prince?" HorseMaster Aoshiba asked. "Those charged with the safety of the Most Noble and Revered Prince will have less excuse for losing track of him in the confusion of battle. But the armor will make little real difference: between the unique height and brilliant aura of the Most Noble and Revered Prince, and his magnificent horses, there is no mistaking the Most Noble and Revered Prince for a common Samurai."

"I suppose you're right." The Prince smiled slightly.

Kagemitsu's armor was dark enameled plates laced with dark green silk, the Kawachi color. His helmet had silvered plates in front and back, and carried a disk depicting a pair of stylized ferns, the mon of Kawachi, between its helmet horns.

The armor was ready just in time: the next day Warlord Isanari, General Hanenori and two of the Senior Commanders urgently requested an audience to consult with the Prince and his officers.


The military forces were having serious problems near the Shimonaga shrine, which was located at a hot-spring in the mountains some distance north-northeast of city. No matter how much success they seemed to have in fighting individuals and groups of the Enemy, they could not seem to establish defensible lines: more Enemy troops kept turning up behind them. They had also encountered far too many Enemy troops to fit in the known Enemy encampments in the area.

The General asked worriedly whether the Enemy could be using Power to transport their reserves. He looked even more worried when the Prince agreed, and informed him that the Enemy were probably using the Power of the shrine itself to do it. "Powers! How are we going to deal with something like that?"

"There are ways to make the Power flow useless to the Enemy," the Prince assured him, "even before the shrine is cleansed and reconsecrated. I wouldn't need to be on the site of the shrine itself: just someplace where I can see it and concentrate on the patterns of Power flow for a little while without interruption."


Warlord Isanari noticed that the Prince looked uncertain and asked worriedly, "Has the Most Noble and Revered Prince recovered enough to make such a journey?"

"Yes, Lord Commander," HorseMaster Aoshiba assured him. "The Most Noble and Revered Prince spent half this morning on horseback in the practice field before becoming dizzy, and was able to mount again after a very brief rest. Traveling across country at an ordinary pace, instead of rapidly in circles, should be less bothersome. In fact, it is likely that the Most Noble and Revered Prince and his mount can travel with less rest than ordinary horses or men, should that be necessary."

"However," the Prince put in, "it will be useless for me to travel anywhere to perform major rituals until I have performed a Greater Purification Rite."

General Hanenori was dismayed. "Most Noble and Revered Prince, we are very short of time. Surely a Manifest Power of the First Rank can have no need for such a lengthy and elaborate purification."

The Prince shook his head, "Please, General, forgive me," he pleaded rather desperately, "I do understand the urgency of the matter, and the shortness of time, but this is something I MUST do. I can begin the rite at dawn, and be ready to leave the city six days from now. But I cannot leave until I am properly prepared for the rituals that will be needed at the shrine."

The Warlord winced. As the Heavenborn Monarch's representative, the Prince should not be required to justify his decisions to his subordinates. The last time he had heard the Most Noble and Revered Prince speak in such desperate tones was just before the Prince had collapsed in agony in the middle of the Domains' Council. He said hastily, "Of course, Most Noble and Revered Prince. Whatever is necessary."

"As the Most Noble and Revered Prince commands," the General agreed reluctantly.


Because the Prince was busy meditating and making other spiritual preparations for the ritual, it was Kagemitsu who organized the more practical aspects of the preparations. When some of the more condescending Samurai expressed surprise at the calm efficiency the young courtier brought to the task, Kagemitsu sighed, and reminded them, "All court Nobles count as priests and receive at least some training in the major rituals. I myself was raised and trained at the Shrine of Evening Shadows, along with the Most Noble and Revered Prince, and received more training than most." Kagemitsu was growing quite tired of the Samurai's assumption that his good looks and formal court attire meant that he was some sort of useless idiot.


The Chancellor found Kagemitsu's pragmatic attitude toward the ritual reassuring. When he first heard about the Prince's plans, Tajima had been struck by a horrible suspicion that the Twilight Prince might be choosing to torment himself simply to delay the time when he would leave the comparative safety of the city and face the possibility of recapture, but it seemed that the Prince really was intent on doing things properly.


The purification rite began with five days and nights of austerity, fasting and prayer, performed in a special hut built on the beach south of the city. Several of the highest ranked Samurai lords, including the Warlord, the Chancellor, and Magistrate Suewari, along with the High Priests and Priestesses of the city's shrines, watched from a respectful distance as the Twilight Prince began the rites.

As the sun rose on the first morning, the Prince took off his robes and walked to a handful of large buckets of sea water standing a little way from the hut. As he lifted each bucket above his head and poured the cold water over himself, the officials watching could see the Prince's lips move, but they were too far away to hear the words of consecration. Once the last of the buckets was empty the Prince dressed himself, in a simple robe woven of rough hemp fibers despite the late autumn cold, then entered the hut and began the prayers of the main ritual in a slightly louder voice, so that the names of the Powers and spirits invoked were occasionally audible to those outside the hut.


The Warlord and Chancellor and most of the other officials returned to the city once the Prince had entered the hut. Magistrate Suewari remained on the beach because the city guards who were guarding the ritual site were officially counted as his servants and vassals, and he wanted to make sure that nothing went wrong.


When icy rain came pouring down out of the sky on the fourth day the Chancellor returned to the ritual site to see how the Prince was faring. He found that the Magistrate, well bundled up, had taken refuge under a tarp. The Chancellor joined him, and the two men huddled over a glowing hibachi that provided at least an illusion of warmth.

"Well, I don't think anyone needs to worry about the stamina of the Most Noble and Revered Prince," the Magistrate told him. "He's been chanting those prayers continually, with no sign of stopping for sleep. No sign of stopping for much of anything, except at dawn and dusk: the Most Noble and Revered Prince drinks a little spring water then, before he repeats that rite with the buckets of sea water." Suewari shuddered. "I feel cold just watching! Or even thinking about it ... but men whose mage- sight is better than mine report that each time he comes out of the hut the aura of the Most Noble and Revered Prince is brighter and shows clearer patterns."


Chancellor Tajima nodded politely at the mention of auras. Though he did not believe in the practical usefulness of the reconsecrations the Twilight Prince was to perform, Tajima did agree with the Noble priest's insistence that the rituals should be done properly or not at all. He was not surprised that an Imperial Prince who had suffered the profanation of capture and abuse by enemies should have an urgent desire for some extravagant form of cleansing. The Chancellor, who did not entirely trust the efficacy of the rapid healing provided by the Healers, simply hoped that the Prince would not reinjure himself in some excess of ascetic rigor.


Before beginning the purification rite, the Twilight Prince had perceived himself as isolated: disconnected from patterns of Power that permeated the world around him. He had felt his aura as a tangled mess, a state of affairs that made the surges of Power that had answered his summons even more shocking. The goal and effect of the rite was to restore the harmony of the Prince's being and aura, and to reestablish his connections to the structure of the cosmos and most especially to the worlds within the world. The various chants and hardships were tools to force his mind and body into a state where the Empowered connections could be manipulated even before they fully existed.


The Prince spent the first few days of the rite with his attention mostly turned inward, settling his mind and emotions to the task at hand and reordering his aura, a task that felt like an odd compromise between combing snarls out of his knee-length hair and trying to tune a musical instrument equipped with a vast number of strings. Later, as the structure of his own Power approached a more useful configuration, he turned to the task of weaving his awareness back into the greater patterns of Power around him, gathering Power within himself as he did so.


During the final night of prayer, as his connections to the structure of the world strengthened, the Prince found himself dissolving into the structure of the world, as mere physical reality faded out from around him. After an interval of chaos, the Twilight Prince found himself standing in a place he recognized from previous spirit journeys: a circular plaza in an empty land under a featureless pearl gray sky. It contained four identical torii gates surrounding a well at its center, and eight roads led a
way from it toward the eight points of the compass, though the Prince had no idea which direction was which.


The Twilight Prince was surprised to find that he was still clothed in the simple robe of the purification ritual. Usually during spirit journeys he found himself dressed in his formal robes as High Priest of the Shrine of Evening Shadows, no matter how his body was dressed. He was even more surprised to find that even though his body had been left behind, his weariness had not: he felt a bone-deep exhaustion that was a distant echo of Ashihara's plight and felt the smothering burden of all the things that he must do for the realm because there was no other able to do them.

With a sigh, wondering where he would be taken this time, the Twilight Prince took a single step away from the center of the crossroads and found himself elsewhere, walking along an immensely long beach. After a timeless time, the Prince encountered a turtle tangled in a fishnet: it just appeared a few steps in front of him, although that same patch of beach had been perfectly visible and perfectly empty only a moment before.


The Prince stopped walking and set the turtle free, and when it spoke its thanks and told him to get on its back and hold tight, he complied. He was unsurprised to find that he had no difficulty in breathing when they immediately plunged deep into a part of the sea which the Prince somehow recognized as the bay south of Hinamachi, even though the beach he had walked on did not at all resemble the one where he was performing his ritual. Spirit journeys, like dreams, obeyed their own rules, not the rules of the physical world.

The turtle brought him to the gate of a magnificent palace decorated with the insignia of dragons and guarded by warriors that were sharks and killer whales, who bowed down before the Prince and cried out in unison, "Greetings to the Compassionate Master, the Most Noble and Revered Eminence of the Garden that Rests between Dawn and Darkness. Let all creatures here bow down before the Most Noble Eminence with respect."

The Twilight Prince was not surprised by the words the sea creatures used in greeting him: the titles seemed oddly correct - - familiar -- although he could not remember being addressed by any of them before. He was more bothered by the fact that his spirit form still wore the simple robe of the purification ritual, which was hardly an appropriate garment for a formal visit to a great Power. He pulled some of his hair forward on the right side to try to mask his disfigurement.


The palace gate slowly opened, and elegant servants respectfully ushered the Twilight Prince into the presence of the master of the castle, Isaminato no Nagasachi: a long, elegant Dragon with eyes of dark moss green and scales like pale green pearls, who rapidly condensed into the form of a tall man with long, light green hair. His hair was even longer than that of the Prince himself, and the Prince noted with some surprise that the two of them were nearly the same height: at home in the human world he was a head taller than almost everyone he met.


The Prince was even more surprised when the Sea-lord knelt and bowed very respectfully and said with quiet, dignity, "Please enter, Most Noble and Revered Eminence. May this unworthy personage be permitted to know whether the Most Noble Eminence should be greeted as a conqueror?" The Dragon's voice was quite unlike that of an ordinary man. It did not have the inhuman purity of ghostly voices either, but instead carried a peculiar emphasis or repetition. It was not quite an echo: the effect was more like that of two voices speaking together in perfect unison.


"I would rather be greeted as a friend, my lord," the Prince replied, as he also knelt and bowed.


Sea-lord Nagasachi bowed again, even deeper, and smiled with relief, and insisted nonetheless that the Prince should take the lord's own seat in the place of honor. When the Prince politely tried to refuse, his host seemed very distressed, and insisted, courteously, on repeating the invitation until the Prince finally accepted the honor that he had been offered.


To be honored in this way by one of the great Powers of the Seas was quite disturbing. To be acknowledged as a Manifest Power of the First Rank by the Imperial Court meant nothing except that most the Imperial council had considered such acknowledgment to be expedient, and the Twilight Prince had tended to discount his new rank despite Kagemitsu's assurances. To be deferred to in this manner by a Dragon, a being of First Rank himself, suggested that the Prince really was rightfully placed among the First Rank Powers, and by no means least among them.


In response to the Sea-lord's summons, servants in gorgeous robes offered the Prince food and drink, but he refused politely, citing the requirements of his ritual fast to excuse his reluctance. The Dragon just as politely accepted the excuse, but the Prince thought his host seemed worried by the refusal.

The Sea-lord summoned other servants who were even more wonderfully dressed and the Twilight Prince was offered glorious robes that made their own garments seem drab. The Prince was sorely tempted to accept them, as he was embarrassed to be wearing such a rough garment in such a place, and painfully conscious of the way his sunken right eyelid drooped over the empty socket. But he found the strength to refuse them, once more using the excuse of the purification rite to try to soften the insult to the Dragon's hospitality.


The Dragon looked even more worried and unhappy, but offered the Prince a tour of the palace. They were joined by the Sea- lord's niece, Aoe, a breathtakingly beautiful young woman with floor-length hair of a deep blue-green with a sheen like peacock feathers, and the Prince was reminded, to his intense mortification, that he was a Life Mage, and male, and wearing only a single thin robe. He turned the right side of his face away so that she need not confront his disfigurement, but the Dragon Princess met the Prince's gaze for only a moment as she greeted him, then kept her eyes modestly lowered, to his great relief.

Lord Nagasachi and his niece proudly displayed the many beauties and comforts of their home, treating the Twilight Prince as a friend and honored guest who only slightly outranked them. He found their friendly courtesy a relaxing change from the elaborate protocol that distanced him from his subordinates and the hostility he had faced from most of the higher Nobility at the Imperial Court, but it still did not seem proper for such beings to treat him so respectfully.

As the tour concluded, the Dragons invited the Prince to stay there for awhile instead of returning to the hardships and burdens of life on the land. After a long pause the Prince refused the Dragons' hospitality once again. However much he longed for it, he could not enjoy comfort and luxury and safety while knowing he had abandoned those who depended upon him.

The Sea-lord's niece, looking very troubled, raised her iridescent blue-green eyes to meet the Prince's gaze. "Please, Eminence, at least stay with us and rest awhile," she pleaded with gentle urgency in a voice as remarkable as her uncle's.

The Prince swallowed hard before he could speak, and turned his face away. "I can't," he finally managed to reply. "I can't stay here, not even for a little while. Please ... please, don't ask me again ... I don't think I could bear it."

"I'm sorry," Aoe answered, with tears in her eyes and voice. "Please forgive us. We are not trying to make things harder for you. I just ... " she stopped abruptly, then turned and hurried away.

The Prince sighed regretfully. It was too bad that women like the dragon princess -- who seemed as kind as she was beautiful -- were so seldom met outside dreams.

The Prince and his host returned to the Sea-lord's audience chamber, where the Prince was again seated in the lord's own place. Nagasachi asked, very sadly and wistfully, whether the Prince would not at least take a small gift with him when he returned to his home, as a sign that they had parted in friendship.

The Prince was ashamed of his own rudeness in refusing the Dragon's previous generosity. He had not ignored the fact that with each of his refusals the Sea-lord looked more worried and unhappy. This time he agreed to accept the gift, and was pleased to see his host's pleasure. When he asked the Dragon to promise that he would someday return his visit and be the Prince's guest in the surface world the Sea-lord's obvious relief was quite surprising.

An exquisite tray lacquered in black and gold in an intricate pattern of seaweed fronds was brought before the Prince. On it were five objects: a lump of gold, a white shark's tooth, a subtly shaped piece of red coral, a cup that seemed to be fashioned from the black scale of some giant fish, and a large baroque pearl in an unusual shade of blue-green that reminded the Prince of the Dragon-maiden's hair. The Prince was urged to make a selection from among them of whichever one he liked best.

The Twilight Prince selected the pearl, and the Dragon picked it up to formally present it to him. Nagasachi said softly, "You will not be alone, My Lord, nor carry your burden unaided. I swear this by all the Powers, including my own ... "

As their hands met, the first time that anyone in this world since the turtle had touched the Prince's spirit form, he found himself back his body in the ritual hut on the beach.


Despite the darkness in the windowless room, the Twilight Prince knew that it was just before the final sunrise of his ritual. As the sky lightened, the Prince stood up carefully. Being so deeply connected to the Power in the world produced feelings of immense vitality and well-being, but he was more than little lightheaded after such a long fast, and his dizziness had returned with full force. He untied the sash of his robe and let both sash and robe drop to the ground. Then opened the door of the prayer hut and walked slowly outside just as the rim of the sun touched the horizon.


Still naked, the Twilight Prince mounted his blue-gray stallion, Kagetsuchi, and rode him into the sea as the meditation hut and clothing he had used for the ritual were set on fire behind him. As the man and horse submerged completely for a moment, the entire bay seemed lit from within to those watchers who possessed mage-sight, just as the first light of dawn shown upon its surface.


The Prince and his stallion rode back out of the sea and paused to let some of the water drip off. The officials who had come to watch the end of the rite shivered at the sight: a dusting of snow had fallen a few hours earlier, the first of the season here by the sea. People in the city would no doubt be arguing about whether it was a good or bad sign to have snow on the ground fourteen days before the winter solstice.


Although people with mage-sight claimed later that they had seen witch-light tracing the marks of the Prince's scars and a blue glow in the empty eye socket, Chancellor Tajima noticed nothing odd. He ascribed the others' reports of glowing scars to some effect of cold sea water and phosphorescence. He himself considered the Twilight Prince impressive, but too thin.


The Twilight Prince dismounted and took a ceremonial sip of sake and bite of rice cake before the remainder was offered to elements, Powers and spirits. Then Kagemitsu, formally dressed as a senior priest in the sacred colors of red, yellow, blue, white, and black, helped the Prince to dress in the robes of a high priest of Imperial blood, which were similar to his own in design, but had the black items replaced with the deep purple whose use was reserved to the Imperial line. They bowed to each other formally; then the Prince recited the final blessing of the purification rite, drawing on his newly repaired connections to the world around him to give it force.

The Prince sighed and stretched, and began to walk toward the assembled samurai, saying to Kagemitsu casually, "I hope you brought me plenty to eat."

"Of course, Most Noble and Revered Prince," the courtier replied. "If the Most Noble and Revered Prince will allow ... " he added, and reached out to remove a small object tangled in the Prince's long hair. Once he had it free Kagemitsu saw that it was a large baroque pearl, mounted as an earring and colored an unearthly blue-green. Now that its aura was no longer masked by that of the Prince it shone brighter to mage-sight than any object Kagemitsu had seen outside a shrine sanctuary. "Most Noble and Revered Prince ... ?" the courtier said in awe, offering the talisman to his lord with a respectful bow.


The Twilight Prince took the earring and weighed it in his hand for a moment, remembering the Dragons' friendly and respectful treatment and the Sea-lord's final promise. Then he calmly hung it in his left earlobe, using a tendril of Power to rearrange the flesh to accept the wire. The Prince met Kagemitsu's questioning gaze with a very slight shake of his head and a glance in the direction of the watching samurai.


"Kagemitsu," the Prince asked quietly, as he finished his quick meal and prepared to return to the city, "Why did you dress me in the colors of a priest of the Bright Powers instead of the darker tones of Twilight?"


The Warlord and Chancellor, who were standing nearby, became very still. Kagemitsu hesitated, but the Prince seemed to be in a good mood after his ritual, and this was news that really could not wait. "An Air Mage priest presides now at the Shrine of Evening Shadows in Amekudare no Miyako, Most Noble and Revered Prince," the courtier replied formally. "The news arrived from the capital while the Most Noble and Revered Prince prayed in solitude."

"Oh ... " the Twilight Prince sighed. "Well, the Most Noble and Revered Heavenborn Monarch warned me that this would be done." Kagemitsu was relieved and somewhat surprised to see that his lord seemed thoughtful rather than upset by the news. The Prince continued calmly, "What is my new title?"


When the courtier hesitated, Warlord Isanari answered nervously, "No new title has been announced yet, Most Noble and Revered Prince." He knew that it was a serious insult for the Court to grant rank to a Powerful mage without granting a formal title and position. Isanari only hoped that the Prince would not blame the mundane authorities for the omission ... after all, if the Prince had not left the Imperial capital to come to their assistance, he would not have lost his old position.

"Oh." The Prince became very still for a moment, then, remembering his respectful reception at the Dragons' palace, he smiled slightly and touched his new earring. "Send the following message to the Imperial Court," he directed, "To the Most Noble and Revered Monarch, greetings from the Eminence of the Garden that Rests between Dawn and Darkness. Kindly extend Our congratulations to the new Priest of the Shrine of Evening Shadows along with a reminder that the post includes no tax revenues in its own right. Now that they may no longer be delivered to the Shrine of Evening Shadows, the Treasury may transmit the funds that are due a Prince of the Blood and Master of Power to Our new abode at the Twilight Garden Shrine in Hinamachi along with the income of Our
attendant. The regrettable delay in sending these felicitations was due to the ritual requirements of the errand that We are engaged in on behalf of the Most Noble and Revered Monarch. The attention of the Most Noble and Revered Monarch is also respectfully directed to the continuing need for additional priests and mages able to face the foes of the realm." He turned away and mounted the stallion for the ride back to his home in the city.

The Samurai and city priests exchanged startled glances. Once the Nobles were out of hearing range, the Magistrate commented, impressed, "I've never heard the title Eminence used for a human being other than the Monarch before, only for enshrined Powers."

"It is quite appropriate for a First Rank Power," a priest assured him. "But it does seem very odd that a Twilight Power should choose to Manifest in a body of Heavenborn lineage. The bright unchanging Powers of Heaven usually have little to do with the shadowy Powers of Transformation and Judgment."


The Warlord said quietly to the Chancellor, "The Most Noble and Revered Prince ... or I should say: the Most Noble Eminence obviously came to terms with his new rank during his recent meditations."

Tajima nodded agreement. "It's good to see him finally begin to assert some of his rights and authority."

"I just hope the Heavenborn Monarch and his counselors don't decide the Eminence's use of the Imperial and divine 'we' is treason." Warlord Isanari remarked wearily. "An open breach between the reigning Monarch and the last heir of the direct Imperial line is likely to shatter the realm completely, in its present state. We can't afford a civil war until we've gotten rid of the invaders ... Do you think we dare moderate the wording of the Most Noble Eminence's message?"


"Disobeying a direct order might be more dangerous, now that the Most Noble Eminence has given one. After all, the Most Revered Eminence is an enshrined Power -- divine -- by Imperial decree," Chancellor Tajima pointed out. "Omitting the title 'Heavenborn' from his salutation to the Heavenborn Monarch is technically correct, since the Eminence himself is born of a more direct line. And as the message points out, he is richer than any of them, and the Heavenborn Monarch's delegate besides, and here, not there. I don't think they will act against him."

"I hope not," the Warlord said fervently, "At least not yet."



Copyright 1991 Elyse M. Grasso