14 Nightmares and Night Magics



Naku ya shimo yo no

Samushiro ni

Koromo katashiki

Hitori kamo nen

(Fujiwara no Yoshitsune)

The solstice passed and the days grew longer again, and life became a little less difficult for the warriors patrolling the borders of Enemy-held territory. The moon passed full and began to wane toward the new moon that would begin the new year.

After the First Fruits Festival, people had begun to leave offerings at the gate of the Twilight Prince's estate, just as they would have left them at the city's shrines. When he first learned of it, the Prince had gone very quiet and still, for long enough to worry Kagemitsu. At last, he had sighed, and bowed his head as though in acceptance.

"After all, I am officially a First Rank Manifest Power, and this is officially a shrine," he said. The Prince ordered the edible offerings sent to the kitchen to be reserved for his own use and issued a decree courteously requesting the population of the city not to offer him things that were subject to rationing restrictions. Fortunately, the traditional offerings to Twilight Powers, unlike those to Bright Powers, were mostly not edible, and the people had generally accepted his statement that he was a Twilight rather than a Bright Power, despite his Imperial blood.


The Prince ordered the guards at his gates to find out if the people leaving offerings had any special requests or needs. A few grumbled that they were warriors, not priests, but most were glad to comply, and some of the Prince's time -- and a fair amount of Kagemitsu's -- began to be spent healing sick children or old people, arbitrating neighborhood disputes, or finding ways to help those who had fallen into difficulties not of their own making.


On behalf of the realm, the Twilight Prince spent his days cleansing and reconsecrating shrines in reconquered areas, and training members of the priesthood in Power-shaping to ensure that the renewed shrines would be properly served and supported. The work kept him out of the city for two or three days at a time, but never brought him near the combat zones where Moeri's company was patrolling (and performing wonders, if half the rumors were true: the Prince suspected that the stories he heard were being inflated a bit with praise of his lover's prowess). His closest attendants on these journeys were HorseMaster Aoshiba and Shirokura Motoharu, who had been promoted to Bannerman and now carried the Prince's banner.


On one such trip, while stuck in the middle of nowhere in horrible weather, the Prince sat after dinner, watching the sleet fall outside his tent, passing a sake flask and talking idly with his companions. The conversation turned to what might be happening at home: what harm the weather might do to the garden and how the children would prefer snow to sleet. The Twilight Prince realized that for him the Garden Estate was truly home now: the place he missed, and looked to for safety and comfort. He had not thought of the Shrine of Evening Shadows for days, nor of Amekudare no Miyako except as a place to send reports.


Both at home and in the field, the Prince spent much of each night in seclusion and deep meditation, to the great dismay of his attendants. When he did try to sleep, his rest was often broken by nightmares: whirling, fragmentary images that carried horror but no meaning for him, and left him wakeful and shaking with terror and a chill that affected his spirit as much as his flesh. Awake or asleep, he had yet to regain any clear memories of the events between his argument with Kanehide and the arrival of Moeri's cavalry company on the road that led to freedom after his captivity.


Several days before the start of the new year, the Twilight Prince returned home from one of his journeys and was greeted by the news that Moeri's company had returned from their stint of border patrol the previous day. He immediately sent the young Captain an invitation to join him for the evening meal, and spent the rest of the afternoon driving his valet to distraction as he tried to decide what he should wear for the evening. When Kagemitsu came to ask about his trip, the Prince asked him what he thought would be appropriate dress.


"Most Noble Eminence, I suspect your beautiful Captain will be best satisfied by any garment that opens easily," the courtier replied with a smile, and chuckled at the Prince's blush.

"Perhaps ... " the Prince said. But his tone was weary, rather than elated, and Kagemitsu frowned worriedly after him as he left the bathhouse.

The dinner was served in the room the Twilight Prince used as his study, next to his bedchamber, and the Prince, urging Moeri to sample the delicacies that had been prepared, was himself teased into eating and drinking more than usual. Afterward, as they sat together sharing sake and anticipation, the Prince could almost feel the knots deep in his soul unraveling: he was comfortable and relaxed to a degree beyond any he could remember.


** *


Deep in the night, the Twilight Prince screamed in his sleep. There were no words in the outcry, only such sounds as might be forced from a man by unbearable horror or agony. Moeri, sleeping quietly beside the Prince, awakened with a start. It took him a moment to remember where he was and understand what was happening.


Moeri immediately knelt beside the Prince and shook him gently. The Prince was rigid, and terribly pale, and mage-sight showed the Prince's aura as a mass of spiky, writhing tendrils in colors that were just as unstable. "Most Noble Eminence, please wake up!" the young man begged anxiously, shaking him again. The Prince's screams subsided to deep groans, and his terrible rigidity softened; his aura also quieted somewhat. Moeri gently cradled his lover's head and shoulders and rocked him a little. "Beloved Lord? ... Inabikari? ..." He ended with a gasp as the sliding panels of the bedchamber opened abruptly and rough hands pulled him away from his lord.


"What have you done to our Lord, peasant scum?" a harsh voice demanded.


Disoriented, Moeri blinked in the light of the lamps. "Nothing," he protested frantically, "I was asleep!" He twisted in the men's grasp and got one arm free to reach toward the Prince. "Let me go to my Lord!"


"Shut up, scum!" One guard cuffed Moeri across the face hard enough that his mouth began to bleed, and a second kneed him in the groin while the men holding him resecured his arms. The others aimed blows and kicks at Moeri's undefended body -- he felt at least one rib crack -- as his captors pulled him still further away from the Prince. In the end, they held him pinned against a wall with a blade at his throat.


Moeri could feel a berserk rage kindle in his belly and begin to heat his blood. He did not dare to speak again, or try to move, not even to draw his robe closed to cover his nakedness. The young warrior knew that if they hit him again his control would break and someone would end up dead. Considering the odds, he himself was likely to be one of the resulting corpses, which would not help his Lord. He also knew that his family's enemies among the Domain Lords would take full advantage if he should die accused of treason against the Prince.


Moeri was trembling with the effort of controlling the berserk, and it sickened him to know that they would think the trembling was due to fear. Only a few minutes had passed since the Prince's first scream, and the Prince still groaned and twisted beneath his quilts.


There was a sound of running footsteps outside the bedchamber, and the pure tones of a ghostly voice called, "This way! This way! Hurry!"


Moeri tensed for the arrival of additional enemies, but the group who entered were men and women from the family quarters. The household Healer, Ayame, went immediately to the Prince, while the three ancient Shirokura Samurai forced back the handful of guards. Lady Fujikawa Kakemono and Grandmother Shirokura backed up the warriors with drawn daggers. HorseMaster Aoshiba pulled the guard's blade away from Moeri's throat and gently closed the young Captain's robe. "Damned idiot!" he said to the man holding Moeri against the wall, "Do you know the penalty for assaulting a consort of a Manifest Power? Let the boy go!"


The man gulped, turned pale, and stumbled away, and the HorseMaster steadied Moeri, whose knees had gone weak with reaction. The young man was trembling harder than ever, and the HorseMaster murmured gently, "Easy, Captain. Don't go berserk on me now the danger's past ... easy."


"The Most Noble Eminence ... "


Moeri made a convulsive movement in the Prince's direction, but the HorseMaster held him back, patting his arm soothingly. "Easy, sir. Easy. The Honorable Healer is caring for him. We can help best by staying out of her way."


Moeri made a small noise halfway between a laugh and a cough, and finally began to relax a little. "If I were a horse I'd hit you with my tail ... or else step on your foot."


"No, you wouldn't, sir. They never do."


The Healer had untangled the Twilight Prince from his quilts and taken his face between her hands. Her grasp was gentle, but the rest of her stance showed great strain. After a moment, the Prince's restlessness quieted, and the terrible groaning stopped. Ayame released him and paused, breathing hard.


"Trouble?" asked Kakemono gently.


"Using a Fifth Rank Healer's Power on a First Rank Manifest Power is like moving a mountain with a reed for a lever. His own Power is in mind-healing mode and works to keep him asleep." Ayame sighed and stretched, then bent over the Prince again. This time, she was soon rewarded by a gasp, and the Prince sat bolt upright and opened his eyes.


The Prince bent forward and clutched his arms across his chest and belly, trembling a little. "Divine Powers!" he gasped, scanning the room. He finally spotted Moeri's aura among the dozen crowded into the small sleeping chamber and knew that something was very wrong.


"Moeri!?" The Prince held out his arms and Moeri went to him with a rush. The young officer felt tears of relief on his own cheeks and buried his face against the shoulder of the Prince's robe to hide them from his enemies. He put his arms around the Prince and hugged him tightly.


"Gently, love. I'm all right, but I do need to breathe." The Prince stroked the smaller man's hair and almost automatically began a Healer's scan to reassure himself of his love's well-being. "What's this?" The Prince shifted so that he was holding Moeri as a parent might hold a child: the position worked better for them than it might have for two men more similar in size. "Moeri, you're hurt! Who did this to you, love?"


Moeri just shook his head.


The Twilight Prince caressed Moeri's face and throat and then passed a hand down Moeri's body, healing the younger man's cuts and bruises. Moeri moaned a little and buried his face against the Prince's shoulder again. He wished, intensely, that the room was not full of strangers: the effects of the Prince's Power were embarrassing enough when one was fully clothed, and the usual effects of the Life Mage's Power seemed to be reacting oddly with the berserker fire still smoldering in his belly. He was finding it difficult to breathe, much less find words to answer the Prince's question.


The Prince saw the changes in the younger man's aura and bent his head near Moeri's to whisper, "Forgive me, love. Wait just a little and I'll help you." Then the Prince placed one cool hand on the young Captain's belly between the waist and the navel, just over the core of the blaze, and Moeri found that he could breathe again.


Cradling his lover protectively, the Twilight Prince glared around at the others in the room. Those who were not already on their knees and bowing quickly prostrated themselves. "Who hurt him?" he snapped. He looked at the TroopMaster in charge of the guards on duty that night. "Who are you?"


"TroopMaster Kusano, Most Noble Eminence ... " The man's voice failed him.


"Oh," the Prince said coldly. "I remember you. You tried to use the excuse of concern for my safety to betray the Irregulars to their deaths." The unfortunate Kusano cringed at the Prince's tone and choice of words, and did his best to shrink in on himself.


The Prince sighed wearily and looked around the room again. "HorseMaster Aoshiba! Report!"


"Most Noble Eminence, my Lord! This servant was asleep in the fourth room of the family quarters when the Most Noble Eminence screamed. This servant immediately approached the sleeping chamber of the Most Noble Eminence, my lord, in company with the Lady Kakemono, the Healer Ayame, and various members of the Shirokura clan. The Most Noble Eminence was found to be in great distress, and the guards assigned to night duty around the Most Noble Eminence's suite were apparently engaged in misusing Captain of Mounted Irregulars Moeri. My lord."


The Prince twitched his head irritably and rubbed a thumb along his right eyebrow, easing the cord of his eyepatch. "Where is everybody, anyway? Did everyone not on patrol or night duty go to that party in the licensed quarter with Kagemitsu and his cousins?"


"If the Most Noble Eminence refers to those samurai who usually sleep in the estate's samurai quarters, and includes castle duty as part of patrol and night duty: yes, Most Noble Eminence ... the estate is unusually empty tonight. Does the Most Noble Eminence desire that additional samurai should be summoned from their homes or ... uh ... wherever?"


The Prince smiled slightly. "No, don't disturb anyone else. Just take their weapons away from these idiots and lock them away someplace where I won't need to worry about them until morning."


"As the Most Noble Eminence commands." Aoshiba paused. "It is understandable if the Most Reverend Lord presently considers guards more trouble than they are worth, however ... "


The Prince waved a hand to shoo him away. "Ask one or two of these Shirokura gentlemen to man the guard-post with you. Just get these people out of my bedchamber. Now."


"At once, Most Noble Eminence."


As the crowd hurriedly left, the Prince called after them. "And someone summon the civil and military authorities to a meeting at midmorning. Make sure that Senior Commander Tahata is included!"

"As the Most Noble Eminence commands."

Steward Shirokura gently closed the sliding panels behind them, leaving the Prince and Moeri alone together in the darkness.

"Are you all right, Moeri?" asked the Prince.

The younger man gasped. "Yes, my lord," he managed to reply after a moment.

"Have you ever used Power before, other than for mage-sight or the battle-rage?"

"Used Power, my lord?" Moeri asked hesitantly. "I don't think so."

"That may be a problem ... hmm. I think this will be safest."

The Twilight Prince moved them both off the quilts and futon and onto the bare tatami mats hat covered the floor of the room, carefully keeping his hand on Moeri's belly as he did so. He did not dare use his own Power again at this point, so he had to stretch to reach the unlit lamp and place it in front of them. He carefully removed his night robe, and Moeri's, still keeping one hand always on the young man's belly. He tossed both robes back among the bedding, then knelt behind Moeri and gently pulled the smaller man back until Moeri was again cradled in his lap.


Moeri moaned softly, intensely aware of his lover's readiness, and his own, and began to shift to accommodate the Prince, but the Imperial Mage stopped him.


"No, love, first we must deal with this." The Prince moved his hand away from Moeri's belly for the first time, and the young man cried out in shock as the smoldering fire seemed to explode within him. The Prince immediately replaced his hand.


When he caught his breath, gasping, Moeri said, "Eminence, I don't understand. This never happened before."


"You are Manifesting Power," the Prince explained. "You have always had the potential, and contact with my Power has brought it out."

"Does this mean I'm Highborn?"

"Not yet. If you survive this you'll be accounted a Fifth Rank Manifest Power, like a shrine priest or Healer Ayame, with the potential for future promotions ... Fourth Rank and above count as Highborn."

"If I survive!?"

"Don't worry. I have more than enough Power of my own to handle things. Though a fourth level Manifestation by someone completely untrained would be tricky -- uncontrolled Fire Mages can do a lot of damage. If necessary, rather than let you die, I'll lock your Power: it's not a pleasant thing to do, and Power is far harder to unlock than to lock, but doing so will buy us the time to train you properly."

"Whatever the Most Noble Eminence thinks is best," Moeri said weakly.

"Lean against me in a position that is as comfortable and ... undistracting ... as possible." Moeri snickered a little, but obeyed.


"Now face the lamp, but close your eyes and examine it with mage-sight. Try to sense the seed of potential fire deep within the wick."


"I ... I think I've got it ... it's not exactly mage-sight, is it?"


"The difference is that now you can change things, not merely sense them ... Now, keep watching the lamp, but turn part of your attention inward and feel the Fire smoldering within yourself. Try to get it to clump together: wind it into a ball like thread or string or pack it down like a very hard snowball. Find an image that works for you ... Brace yourself, I'm going to loosen my control a little."


Moeri moaned softly, far back in his throat, as the burning flared within him, but after a few false starts he found that the trick he had used to block the berserk could be adapted for use in this new mode. "I've got it."


"Very good," said the Prince, releasing his control even further. "What image are you using?"




"Excellent! That image provides plenty of control, and Fire Mages need control if they're to be fit for civilized company."


Moeri chuckled. His confidence was beginning to return. "What should I do next, Most Noble Eminence?"

"Keep winding the thread as tightly as you can until you completely, absolutely run out. Then tell me when that happens. Don't be surprised if you find you have more from time to time: I will continue to release my control. If I give you too much, or you run out of space for the ball before you run out of thread, tell me at once."


"Yes, my Lord." Moeri snuggled trustingly into the Prince's lap, and the Prince caught his breath: he had never quite learned to be undistracted by the effects of his own Power. He waited patiently, watching carefully with mage-sight as the new mage slowly gathered his Power.


"Ready, my Lord," Moeri said, a few minutes after the Prince had finally removed his hand from the younger man's belly.


"All right. Hmm, I'm going to have to mix images here: I don't know how to explain the next part using string."


"May one ask what images the Most Noble Eminence uses?" Moeri asked respectfully.


"One may, but I'm afraid it won't help much. I use whatever seems likely to be useful at the time. That's why we can't figure out what I did at the shrine that made the Enemy melt. So until I remember, or the trick is rediscovered, we're out of luck."

"Oh. Well, my Lord, what should I do next?"

The Prince gently grasped Moeri's hands and pulled them away from their sides and back behind him. "Do you feel full, or could you make the ball of string bigger?"

"I'm not full yet, Most Noble Eminence."


"I'm going to give you more Power, and I want you to tell me if it is coming too fast or if you can take it faster. And I also want you to tell me if you need to rest, or begin to feel full. Do NOT endanger us both by trying to push yourself beyond your strength, just do what seems comfortable."


"I understand, my Lord."


The Twilight Prince began feeding the Power in a tiny trickle, increasing it rapidly as Moeri requested him to do so, until the Power was flowing in a strong stream between them. Moeri squirmed a bit and the Prince tightened his grasp on the smaller man's
wrists to hold him still. "Getting full?"


"No, Eminence. Does Power always feel like this, My Lord?"

"No. Power is Power," the Twilight Prince replied, "but like the wind, it tends to carry a scent of where it's been. If you were fed Power by another Fire Mage it would carry an impression of heat. Power from a Water Mage feels ... soggy ... in a way that's hard to describe but easily recognizable when you feel it. Power from an Earth Mage feels sort of heavy. Power from an Air Mage feels ... mobile, I guess, and sharp: again, it's the sort of feeling that's hard to describe but easy to recognize ... "


"And Power from a Life Mage is ... entertaining?" Moeri could feel the Prince blushing behind him.


"You'll pay for that, little one," the Prince chuckled. "But for now, keep your mind on what you are doing. Are you feeling 'full' yet?"


"Uh, just a little, Most Noble Eminence. Is that bad?"


"It probably means you will eventually be at least a Third Rank Mage. But let's finish your Manifestation as a Fifth Rank Mage before we worry about the future, hmm? I'm going to slow the flow of Power. I want you keep drawing it in until you are completely filled, like a cup of water that will begin to overflow if a single drop is added, or a breath of air disturbs its surface. Tell me when to stop the flow."


After a few minutes of the reduced flow, Moeri gasped. "Stop. Stop NOW."


"Are you all right?"


"Yes, Eminence. Um ... I may have stopped you a little too soon."


"That's all right, it feels different when the Power is just sitting there instead of flowing. You're full enough for the next step. Is all of the Power wound into your ball of thread?"


"Yes, Eminence."


"How big is it?"




"How big does your ball of Power feel to you? The size of a hen's egg? The size of your head?"

Moeri was surprised to discover that the question really did make sense. Once he thought about it, he knew exactly how big the ball was. "I could just barely hold it in a cage made of my two hands with the fingertips touching."


"Good. Can you still feel the seed of fire in the lamp wick?"


"Um. Yes. Got it."


"Now find the free end of your ball of thread."

There was a moment's pause, then Moeri exclaimed, "My Lord, the lamp wick is sucking up the Power thread as if it was a noodle!"

"I know. Can you hold your awareness of the wick and thread with your eyes open?"

"I think so, Eminence." Moeri opened his eyes and found that the lamp in front of them was now burning brightly. "Did I do that?"


"Yes, you certainly did," the Prince replied. "Can you control the speed of the flow? Let the thread out faster or slower?"

Moeri watched in awe as the lamp flame dimmed and brightened as he played with the flow of the Power. He stopped the flow completely, and was startled when the flame did not die. "It's still there?"

"Draw the thread back toward you." Moeri did so and gasped as the lamp flame brightened rather than dimming. "A flame is a flame," the Prince said quietly. "Its nature is movement, and it doesn't really care about the direction. A Fire Mage can burn anything, using Power, but once a true flame begins in something that can burn naturally, it will no longer need your Power to burn. In fact it can return more Power to you than was used in starting it. You can also draw Power from flames you didn't start, of course ... or even from things that are hot but not actually burning. Now, let your ball of Power thread unreel itself into the flame as fast as it wants until it has reached the size of a hen's egg."

The lamp flame flared, then stabilized. It remained brighter than a natural flame for a short while longer, then dimmed to a more natural level.


"I'm done already, Eminence. That went very quickly."

"Releasing Power to your own element should always be quick and cause no discomfort. If it is ever slow or uncomfortable, it means that something is very wrong, and you should seek help immediately. Now, break the thread where it joins you to the flame, and tuck the free end back into the ball."

Moeri tensed for a moment, then relaxed. The Prince also relaxed: Moeri was startled to realize how tense the Life Mage had been. "Most Noble Eminence, how dangerous was what we did just now?"


"Ask Kagemitsu tomorrow, and watch him have a fit."

"That bad?"


"If the new mage is truly Manifest, and able to establish control, there is no great danger. If not ... well ... Fire is the most dangerous element, both to its own mages and to others. You have the basics, now."

"You haven't taught me any spells," Moeri complained wistfully.

The Twilight Prince laughed. "I've been teaching you which end of the sword is sharp, love. Learning what to do with it once you've grasped it can wait for another, more convenient time ... but your mention of spells reminds me of one more thing I should show you tonight. Sit quietly for a little while and watch the shape of your self and your Power within the world."

The young Captain obeyed, and discovered, startled, that his skin was no longer the outermost edge of himself. His reach and boundaries were now those of his aura and Power, which were far more flexible and extensible than mere solid flesh ... though he also had an odd intuition that his flesh was no longer as stable as it had once been. He knew, unquestionably, that anything within reach of his mage-sight, which had sharpened so that he was sensing almost a hundred feet in every direction, was also within reach of his Fire ... it all felt like part of him, at least the flammable things did.


As he sat there, gradually becoming accustomed to feeling so large and attenuated, Moeri noticed a change in the feel of the contact between his aura and the Prince's. Instead of pouring out Power to him like a bucket filling a cup, or passively overlapping with no interaction but the mage-sight itself, the Eminence's aura and Power began to actively probe his own. It extended gentle, almost caressing tendrils into the network of energy patterns that surrounded and inter-penetrated Moeri's flesh. The sensation was not uncomfortable, but as the probes approached the most complex nodes of the patterns, deep within Moeri's body, his Power suddenly blazed up and forced the tendrils away.


"Sorry, my Lord," the warrior apologized hastily.


"No, that was the correct response," the Prince assured him. "Not surprising really: if you didn't have a fair amount of natural armor, you wouldn't have survived this long fighting demons."


"The difference between a Manifest Mage and a person with mage-sight but no active Power is that the Mage has enough Power and ... leverage? to directly affect the patterns that make up the world. But that lever has two ends, and mages are also more vulnerable to having their own patterns meddled with. Not that other folk are immune, mind you, just a bit more stable and generally considered not worth the bother of such subtlety. If another, stronger mage can gain control of the nexus points within the patterns that make up your being -- five of the eight major nodes is enough -- that mage can completely drain your Power, and thus your life. Or bind both your Power and your flesh to do the mage's will, not your own. A mage who is both very Powerful and very skillful can even reweave the patterns of your will and thoughts and memories so you don't even know they've been meddled with."


"Like cursed or spell-bound people, or the Captive mages in old tales?" Moeri asked.


"Exactly. Captivity can be a more merciful fate than death, or a far worse one, since by tradition nothing but the Captor's will and skill limits what happens to the Captive," the Prince warned. "There is a rule -- it's a part of the shape of the world, like time or weight -- that guarantees that there is a way to unravel any Captivity or spell-binding, but there is nothing that guarantees that the condition for freedom needs to be achievable through any reasonable amount of effort or time. Other than that, death ends Captivity. Or a spell-binding can be broken by a stronger mage, very occasionally even by the mage inside the spell, if he was taken by trickery rather than by strength, or has grown since the binding."


Moeri, who was never cold, shivered. "I'll be careful, Lord," he promised fervently. "Is there anything else I need to know or do tonight?"


"Come back to bed and help me Release my own Power ... among other things, if you are willing." This time the Prince's hands on Moeri's body had everything to do with magic, and nothing to do with any Power, except perhaps, the side effects of Life magic.


The young warrior twisted around to hug his lover, leaning into the Prince's skillful caress. "Of course, Beloved Lord."

The Prince bent and blew out the light.


** *


Chancellor Tajima, arriving early in response to the Twilight Prince's curt summons, was thoroughly impressed by the changes that had been made in the estate's formal audience chamber. To begin with, parts of the woodwork that had been crimson or bright blue were now covered by gleaming black lacquer, while the purple trim had been deepened to the true Imperial hue, and the room had been brightened by replacing half the solid panels of the outer wall with lattices covered with translucent shoji paper. The ugly paintings on the remaining walls had been covered with gold leaf, which would serve as the background for new paintings: the large panel at the back of the Prince's dais and the sliding doors to the parlor were already completed. Other panels showed preliminary sketches of the images that would eventually ornament them. The general effect was one of both restraint and magnificence.

Looking closer at the completed paintings, Tajima was impressed by the skill of the artist, and certain that he recognized the Prince's sense of humor in the subject matter. In Kanehide's time, the wall behind the dais had shown a meadow scene of wild falcons catching and devouring rabbits and songbirds. Now it showed a mighty mountain pine -- or part of one: off center within the panel so that it would visually frame the seat of honor, the tree's top and many of its branches extended beyond the wall's boundaries. An image of solidity and strength ... but in the pine's branches there were songbirds perched, and rabbits sheltered among its gnarled roots. Similarly, the scenes of lions and their prey on the doors of the parlor had been replaced by a garden of the peonies that were conventionally associated with lions. On the right panel ornamental koi circled peacefully in a rocky pool, while on the left panel a kitten teetered precariously on its hind legs, swiping at a pair of butterflies that flew safely
out of reach, in a reminder of the traditional dance of lions and butterflies. Danger had been transformed into shelter, and violence into play; and Kanehide's cruelties were not ignored, but mocked.


The Chancellor watched his colleagues reactions' to the chamber's redecoration with considerable amusement. Most were impressed as he had been, but a few seemed stunned by such open evidence of the Eminence's wealth. Painting on gold-leaf was common enough on scrolls and folding screens and such, but no one outside the Imperial capital had done a whole room in that style before. Especially not a room the size of the audience hall, which needed forty-eight tatami mats to cover its floor.

Warlord Isanari looked nervous and preoccupied when he entered, which was not surprising given the unexpected and peremptory nature of the summons they had all received. Isanari clearly did not find the magnificence of the hall soothing. When a handful of prisoners were brought in, down at the very foot of the room, the Warlord relaxed a bit and met the Chancellor's gaze questioningly. Tajima discreetly signaled his own ignorance.


The prisoners were naked but for loincloths and the ropes that bound their arms behind their backs. They were guarded by spear-men, like common criminals, though they had the muscular, comparatively well-fed look of the Samurai class. Kneeling as they were, with their faces bent close to the floor, the Chancellor could not be sure whether he recognized any of them, but thought that at least two resembled men he had seen among the Kawachi forces.

When the Twilight Prince appeared, he was dressed as formally as if he was setting out to attend upon the Heavenborn Monarch, in the black and gold and purple that were proper for one who was both a Prince of the Imperial Blood and a Twilight Power in his own right. The magnificent audience chamber suddenly seemed to dwindle into a mere frame, an extension and reflection of its master. Noble Lord Kagemitsu and Captain Moeri, who followed him in and quickly took their places, passed almost unnoticed.


The hakama, cut long in the formal court style so that they completely enclosed the Prince's feet and trailed behind him as he walked, were black on black brocade, dark as the ebony baton of office that he carried, with fine traceries of gold thread highlighting the shadowy pattern. The under-kimono also showed black at neckline and wrists, but the main kimono reversed the colors of the hakama: gold brocade was highlighted by traceries as black and fine as the Twilight priest's loose-flowing, knee- length hair. The outer robe was of smooth, dull silk and a flawless triumph of graduated dying: the color deepened smoothly from a pale bluish-lavender at the end of the enormously long train to the true Imperial hue at collar and sleeve openings. The Eminence's eyepatch was also dyed the true Imperial shade, a silent, humiliating reproach to the Samurai lords whose duty and care should have prevented any such injury to a personage of such exalted rank.


Instead of taking his place upon the dais, the Twilight Prince slowly walked down the aisle formed by the two center- facing rows of Samurai, moving with the slow, gliding step that was required by the court hakama. He stopped in front of Senior Commander Tahata and knelt with elegant grace, then placed his hands beside his knees and lowered himself in a graceful bow that ended with his forehead touching the mats and the long dark hair pooling elegantly around him.


Chancellor Tajima matched the bow, of course -- so did everyone else in the room -- trying to keep his own head below the level of the Imperial Prince's. Part of his mind yammered that it was wrong for someone like the Eminence to abase himself before anyone, much less a former peasant.


"Senior Commander Tahata," the Twilight Prince said, and Chancellor Tajima started. The Most Noble Eminence was not speaking in his usual quiet tones, but rather in the clear, musical, carrying voice he had used for chanting the shrine rituals. The Eminence continued in the humblest mode of speech, "This wretched person must humbly beg the Honored Senior Commander's forgiveness and indulgence."


Chancellor Tajima suspected suddenly that the deliberate extravagance of this public apology was meant, in part, as a rebuke to the Domain Lords. Like the Imperial purple eyepatch. He wondered desperately what had produced this quiet fury in the Most Noble Eminence.


The Twilight Prince said earnestly, "At the time the offer of protection was made to the honored Senior Commander's most estimable son, it was believed that the public announcement of First Rank status brought with it enough authority to shelter those to whom protection was granted." Tajima was enormously grateful for the more neutral mode of speech. "Please grant the favor of believing that it was not known then that the offer of protection was ... fraudulent."


One of the prisoners moaned, loudly enough to be heard at the upper end of the chamber where Tajima sat, and he had seen corpses with better color than the Warlord. The Chancellor himself felt sick to his stomach, and decided that he really did not want to know the details of the previous night's events. It was a great relief when the Most Noble Eminence rose and went to his proper place on the dais.


After a short pause, still using what Tajima thought of as his 'priestly' voice, the Twilight Prince announced, "It pleases me to report that Captain of Irregulars Moeri has Manifested as a Mage of the Fifth Rank, and is henceforth to be counted as an associate priest of the Garden that Rests between Dawn and Darkness. The Most Honorable Captain Moeri is to be treated with the deference appropriate to his newly Manifest Rank."


As Tajima joined the other Domain Lords in bowing politely to the newly elevated Mage and Priest, he wondered why the Twilight Prince had not made this move sooner. A grant of priestly rank by the head of a shrine could not be challenged except by a Noble of higher rank still -- in the Most Noble Eminence's case, even the Heavenborn Monarch might not qualify -- so it was a good way to give the young Captain some formal status. Nor was the position implausible, since the Honorable Moeri had first attracted the Most Noble Eminence's attention by assisting at the reconsecration rite at Shimonaga.


The Eminence was continuing, still in that wonderful voice that seemed to resonate in the Chancellor's bones and brought an odd tightness to his chest and groin. "Given his new rank and shrine office, I considered offering the Honorable Captain Moeri a more formal position within my personal household, as well, but I have concluded that to do so would serve no useful purpose at present. To be honest, since it has been demonstrated that the Honorable Captain is not safe even in my own bed, it would be insulting to invite him to dwell under my roof."


Tajima swallowed hard, aching for the young Prince's humiliation and pain. The Eminence must have been reminded only too clearly of his helplessness within his late wife's household. The Chancellor saw his own sick horror reflected in the eyes of Warlord Isanari, facing him across the aisle as the Prince concluded sadly, "Besides, a more formal bond would complicate the question of Moeri eventually providing heirs for his father's house. And it would be a sad thing for such a beautiful young person to be bound to a hideous, mutilated freak like myself."


"Most Noble and Revered Eminence ... " One of the kneeling prisoners had dared to speak out of turn. Tajima thought he recognized him as a TroopMaster -- now undoubtedly a former TroopMaster. A guard rapped him in the ribs with a spear butt and two others used the crossed shafts of their weapons at the back of his neck to force him into a bow so abject that his face ground into the floor.


"Speak," the Eminence commanded curtly, and the guards let up the pressure very slightly.


"Graciously permit these worthless vermin to remove themselves from the lands of the living," the man begged desperately, and flinched when the Eminence replied calmly, "No."


"At the moment you are guilty only of disobedience and incompetence," the Twilight Prince pointed out coldly. "Your kin remain Samurai and vassals of Kawachi. To waste bodies and lives that might yet do some harm to the enemies of the realm would be treason. For your relatives' sakes, I advise you to turn what little strength and skill and wit you can muster to the tasks of extending your lives and the damage that you do to the Enemy, and avoiding my presence and property. General Hanenori ... " The General bowed almost as deeply as the prisoners when the Eminence's attention turned to him. "I regret that I cannot recommend these men for work near anything of value: the idiots obviously have neither the capacity to follow any but the simplest, most explicit of orders nor pretensions to any sense of taste or propriety. But I expect that you will be able to find something unpleasant and dangerous for them to do. Guards -- give each of the prisoners a single garment: loincloth or kimono, whichever they choose. And a single long sword: as fighters, not Samurai, they have no need of honor blades. Then escort them past the edge of my property."


Tajima shivered, impressed. Remembering his own offer to perform seppuku, he had half expected the Eminence to find a way to keep the men alive. He had not expected such ruthless 'mercy' from the sensitive Noble.


When the bustle of removing the prisoners -- now less than ronin, or even peasants -- had died down, Captain Yokobashi, who had been captured along with the Prince, was kneeling humbly in the center aisle, awaiting the attention of the Most Noble Eminence. When the Twilight Prince invited him to speak, the man asked painfully, "Is it the pleasure of the Most Noble Eminence that this wretch should also be cast out?"


The Twilight Prince was obviously surprised, "To be absent while off duty is hardly a crime, Captain."

Yokobashi bowed lower, "Most Noble Eminence, this wretch was present in the officers' quarters last night ... drunk into insensibility," he confessed.


"Bodily absence is not the only variety ... " the Eminence touched the great baroque pearl he wore as an earring and smiled slightly. "And if I myself had been drunk beyond the ability to have screaming nightmares, a great deal of trouble would have been avoided. Return to your duties, Captain, and give yourself time to heal."

The Prince's eye was sympathetic when it rested on the Captain, but his gaze hardened when he looked around at the other Samurai. Chancellor Tajima tensed and bowed politely when the purple eyepatch and cold indigo eye turned toward him, and hoped fervently that the Most Noble Eminence's justice and compassion would continue to outweigh the Imperial Prince's anger.


"As for the rest of you," the Twilight Prince said finally, after a pause that had lasted much too long for the welfare of Tajima's nerves, "I have had more than enough of the squabbling that has been going on due to the silly caste system that appears to operate among you commoners. I assure you that no Noble cares to know which servant performs a task, provided the task is performed with a minimum of inconvenience: the Most Noble and Revered Heavenborn Monarch least of all. Samurai bickering over status has now become more of a nuisance than the Nobility can reasonably be expected to overlook. Something WILL change. Immediately."

Warlord Isanari looked truly ill. So ill that the Chancellor decided to suggest that he at least let one of the Healers do a scan. Not that he blamed Isanari for his reaction: the fact that any of the Domain Lords retained his position -- or his life -- since the Eminence's capture by the Enemy was purely due to the Most Noble Eminence's forbearance. And they had just seen a handful of men destroyed for annoying the Twilight Prince.


"It is undeniably true," the Most Noble Eminence continued, "that most Nobles pay more attention to who someone's ancestors were than to the skills of the person in question, but the rules of Manifestation and Power Challenge mitigate the ill effects of this preoccupation. As does the fact that Manifest ranks by custom have seniority over rank that is merely Presumptive and based on the achievements of ancestors. It seems clear to me that just as there are Manifest Highborn, there properly ought to be Manifest Samurai as well as hereditary ones ... and Manifest members of the other classes as well: I believe that many master artisans already recognize something similar. The basic rule for Manifestation as a Samurai will be quite simple: a man, or woman, who kills three of the Enemy invaders, or one Enemy when acting under orders during a formal offensive battle, is Manifest Samurai ... "


As the Domain Lords stared at one another aghast, certain that the Prince could not mean what he seemed to be implying, he added dryly, "That old lady from Mikawa who is said to have killed a demon by bashing it with her cook pot will need to slay two more to qualify. Some others, whose activities have noticeably affected the progress of the war, may also be considered Manifest Samurai, on the testimony of their commander - - a scout who provides vital information, for example ... "


As the Eminence spoke there was a positive blizzard of surreptitious glances swirling among the Domain Lords as they tried to judge the effect the new seniority rules would have upon them. A few of the wealthier lords whose districts were still comfortably accessible looked thoroughly chagrined as they realized that their less fortunate colleagues, veterans of the Long Retreat, were undoubtedly all Manifest. More than a few calculating glances were cast toward Warlord Isanari.

The Twilight Prince said calmly, "As delegate of the Heavenborn Monarch, I acknowledge that the present Warlord, Chancellor, Archivist, and Magistrate are Manifest Samurai ... as well as Finance Minister Ninori and Ninori Kiyoie, for their achievements in logistics and provisioning for the armies. On the other hand, the absence of former Minister Yoshiatsu does not seem to be an inconvenience to anyone, and administering a Domain, especially one that is presently occupied by the Enemy, in itself provides little opportunity for demonstrating military talent."


Old Archivist Yamashiro looked pleased, and poor Warlord Isanari, trapped among his administrative duties, looked pathetically grateful for the Twilight Prince's favor. Tajima himself qualified under the basic rule, and remembered that Magistrate Suewari and the Ninoris did as well: after three years of war there were few Samurai males of fighting age who had not faced the Enemy in at least one battle, except for some of the Healers, who counted more as Priests in any case, and some officials who had been ... very devoted to their administrative duties.


"These wretched servants shall pay diligent heed to the gracious instructions of the Most Noble and Revered Eminence," Warlord Isanari said, bowing deeply.

The Twilight Prince nodded a gracious acknowledgment. "I also wish to make it clear," he added firmly, "that I do not approve of the harassment of the so-called 'ronin' who serve the Heavenborn directly under the command of General Hanenori by those who have pledged their primary loyalty to lesser lords."


The Domain Lords bowed again, but some of them looked very unhappy.

The Most Noble Eminence nodded again. "You have leave to return to your other duties."

There was much quiet talk on a number of topics once the Samurai were out of the Most Noble Eminence's presence. A few of the Domain Lords were still stunned by the sudden change in the rules surrounding their lives, but most were just grateful they still had their lives.


As Chancellor Tajima walked with his neighbors the Ninoris toward their homes, young Kiyoie suddenly asked, "Father, do you think we should arrange an audience with the Most Noble Eminence for Yonsen Dorubaru?"


"Yonsen Dorubaru?" inquired the Chancellor.

"Our Captain of Artillery," the Finance Minister replied absently. He was obviously giving the suggestion serious consideration.

"Why in the world would an Imperial Prince want to meet an Artillery Captain?" Tajima asked startled.

"I was thinking about what the Most Noble Eminence said: calling himself a freak," Kiyoie explained. "Captain Yonsen is a Southern Barbarian: a merchant from Europe who was stranded here when the invasion cut off the seaways ... His real personal name is 'Thorvardr'," he added, stumbling over the alien sounds. "Yonsen may be the only purely human man in Ashihara taller than the Most Noble Eminence. He has blue eyes, too: bright blue, like the sky, rather than indigo that can nearly pass for black. Perhaps if the Most Noble Eminence met Yonsen Dorubaru, he would feel less ... different."




Copyright 1991 Elyse M. Grasso