15 Visions and Memories


Kaze wo itami

Iwa utsu nami no

Onore nomi

Kudakete mono wo

Omou koro kana


(Minamoto no Shigeyuki)

 


Despite the important events of the morning, it was Kiyoie's remarks that stuck in Chancellor Tajima's mind. Later that day, he returned to the Garden Estate and requested an audience. He was granted the privilege of drinking tea with the Most Noble Eminence in an antechamber of the Twilight Prince's quarters, and, after the initial exchange of courtesies, asked abruptly, "Most Noble Eminence, do you own a mirror?"


Startled, the Twilight Prince replied, "Yes, of course. Several."


"May this unworthy servant humbly request the Most Noble Eminence to look into a mirror in this servant's presence."


"Very well," the Eminence agreed, mystified.


When the mirror had been brought out and set on its stand, and the Prince was looking into it, the Chancellor asked quietly, "Does the Most Noble Eminence consider Noble Lord Kagemitsu ugly?"


"No, of course not," the Twilight Prince laughed, "Kagemitsu's parents were both suitably decorative consorts of an Emperor, and Kagemitsu has inherited their beauty in full measure. I sometimes tease him about being the most handsome man in his generation, as Prince Hikagami was considered to be in his ... though of course, Moeri has just as much of his own style of beauty."

 

"Of course," Tajima agreed. "Would the Most Noble Eminence kindly explain to this servant how the image in that mirror differs from what Noble Lord Kagemitsu would see there?"


"Bones showing too sharply," the Prince replied with a sigh, "and the eyepatch, of course, and the color of the remaining eye, though it's dark enough that the difference doesn't really show in the polished bronze, any more than the mirror shows my awful height and clumsiness."


"If the Most Noble Eminence was ever clumsy, that flaw has been outgrown, as it often is once the young stop growing. And the Eminence could decrease the prominence of the bones by eating more," Tajima assured him gently, "As for the eye, does the Eminence think his stallion ugly because his coat is a rare color? Or count his cats ugly that have blue or gold eyes instead of green?"


The Eminence shook his head slightly, more it seemed from bewilderment than agreement.


"Most Noble Eminence, if that woman claimed that the Eminence is considered ugly, she lied: to hurt the Eminence's pride, perhaps, or to convince herself that earning the Eminence's hatred was not a blunder to be mourned. I promise you," Tajima said, deliberately shifting from courtly formalities to a more direct mode of speech, "Most Honored and Revered Lord, I swear to you: no one thinks that you are ugly or undesirable. Different and exotic, yes, and too thin; but there are many who would give much to have the 'style of beauty' possessed by the Most Noble Eminence."


The Twilight Prince said flatly, "Clothing and aura don't make me less of a freak."


"This servant does not refer to the effects of clothing or makeup, but to the Most Noble Eminence's features and movements," the Chancellor insisted. "Will the Most Noble Eminence at least consider the possibility, that he is not a hideous freak, but a beautiful one?"


The Prince smiled slightly at that, and nodded reluctantly, and Tajima took his leave. His own eldest son had been born with a dark red blotch covering part of one cheek, and the Chancellor knew that one conversation would not erase the effects of years of insults, but he hoped that he had at least made a start. Powers! Six and a half years, beginning at the age of fourteen ... the Chancellor hoped that the Judge of the Dead had found an especially unpleasant Hell for the late Jewel Priestess. The Twilight Prince's wealth and power were a disadvantage in this situation, since he would tend to discount such honest compliments as were paid him.


While the Twilight Prince was busy with the Chancellor, Moeri wandered about the mansion gloomily. Being greeted respectfully as Samurai and Priest by men who the day before had snubbed or barely tolerated him did nothing to cheer him up. He eventually found himself back in the great audience hall, where Shirokura Nobuharu, the elderly screen-painter, was working on one of the new paintings: a scene of a famous poetry and archery contest beside a garden stream, replacing a bloody battle.


"Good day, Honorable Captain," the old man said politely, then seeing the young warrior's glum expression, he asked, "Is anything wrong?"


Moeri hesitated, but he felt a great need to talk to someone, and Shirokura Nobuharu had been kind even before the promotions. "I keep thinking about what the Most Noble Eminence said this morning -- about not wanting to bind me," he said unhappily. He swallowed hard, then burst out, "I'm sure the Most Noble Eminence doubts my love for him!"


The old man grinned at him. "Oh, I doubt it. No one with enough mage-sight to read auras doubts that. It's more likely the Most Noble Eminence doubts your desire ... "

 

Moeri was taken aback. He could hardly breathe when in the same room as the Prince, for wanting him so much. And evidence of male desire was hardly invisible, even to those who lacked mage-sight. "How can that be possible?"


"Have you ever asked for any particular ... physical attentions from him?" the painter asked, turning away from his work, "Or do you wait for him to offer his embrace?"


"Should a starving man promised a banquet make demands? When he touches me, I -- " Moeri hesitated, blushing fiercely. "How could I ask for more?"


"Hmm. Have you ever touched him, or asked to touch him, without being invited?"


"No of course not," Moeri said, shocked. "He's an Imperial Prince and a Manifest Power."


The old painter snorted. "Young man, there are places where protocol is appropriate, but your lover's bed isn't one of them. If you never show your desire for him, how do you expect him to believe that you really enjoy his touch? As it is, you've done a good job of convincing him that you bear his embraces only because of your love for him."

 

"What!?"


"I've seen it before in Life Mages whose looks were unconventional: they start believing that only the Life magic keeps their touch from being loathsome to their lovers. I suspect you'll enjoy healing the pain you've caused him, but you must do it soon." Moeri flinched at this new suggestion that he had harmed the Prince, and shook his head in urgent denial, but the old painter continued firmly, "The Most Noble Eminence is quite capable of sending you away, no matter how much it hurts him, if he thinks it would be best for you. He may well do so if you let him believe that he is abusing your love and trust by embracing you."


He leaned a little closer and dropped his voice to a confidential murmur. "You say his embraces are sufficient, young man, but haven't you ever thought what it might be like to embrace him as he embraces you? To explore him with your hands and mouth? Or feel his flesh enfolding yours as his desire responds to your urging?"


Moeri's eyes glazed and he sucked in his breath with a sound that was almost a moan. He managed a polite bow of farewell with some difficulty. The old man looked after him and smiled to himself, remembering a Life Mage Healer he had known years before, then turned back to his work.


The young Captain found the Twilight Prince in his quarters, sitting in front of a mirror stand but not looking at it. Moeri's thoughts were in such turmoil that he did not think to wonder at the mirror's presence. Shirokura Nobuharu's advice had left him in an odd state of mingled lust and panic. Despite his earlier gloom, the young Fire Mage had never really considered the possibility of losing the Twilight Prince entirely. Now the old man's warnings, added to his memories of the previous night when he had believed for a while that the Most Noble Eminence might be dying, had terrified him.


Moeri hastily knelt and bowed, to bring his head below the level of the Imperial Prince's, then crept forward until he was close beside the Prince. "If the Most Noble Eminence will graciously grant ... "


The Prince pulled him up to sit beside him. "Do you want something, love?" he prompted.


"Only ... always ... my Beloved Lord's embrace," Moeri answered fervently, as he wrapped one arm around the Prince's waist and thrust the other, daringly, inside the layers of his kimonos.

 

The rebuke Moeri half expected did not materialize. Instead, one of the Prince's great, flowing sleeves draped around him like a cloak as the Twilight Prince put one arm around his shoulders and pulled him close to return the caress and gently loosen the young warrior's clothes. "Of course, Beloved," the deep soft voice said.

 

"Here?!" Moeri's voice squeaked, although it had finished changing a few years before. "What if someone should come in?" It was broad daylight, after all, and this was an antechamber, not the inner room used as a bedchamber, or even the relative privacy of the Prince's study. His apprehension did not stop him from cuddling closer.


"Oh, it might be a little embarrassing if one of the smaller children walked in," the Prince replied with annoying unconcern, "But none of the other servants would dare to be so indiscreet ... Anyway, servants doing their proper tasks don't count as spectators, any more than furniture does." He waved a hand toward the mirror stand. Moeri uttered a disbelieving snort that turned into a moan of pleasure as the Prince's hands wandered, then pulled the small warrior gently down astride his lover's lap.


The Twilight Prince smiled down at him. "Oh, I assure you -- my wife did a thorough job of curing my bashfulness. She used to choose the damnedest times to send for refreshments ... after a while I learned to ignore such distractions." He moved his hips meaningfully, and Moeri moaned again at the hard promise that pressed against his own yielding flesh.

 

The Prince chuckled and looked speculatively toward the door that led to the rest of the house. Moeri gasped desperately, "You wouldn't!" Although the thought of someone seeing them so intimately entwined was almost as exciting as it was embarrassing.


The Twilight Prince chuckled wickedly again and breathed into his ear. "Just let me know if you get hungry or thirsty ... "


In the depths of winter no one who could avoid it undressed completely except in the steamy warmth of the bathhouse, though Moeri the Fire Mage would not have been bothered by the cold. The lovers had gradually shed their hakama and loincloths as they talked, and their outermost robes lay spread upon the tatamis beneath them in the oldest style of lovers' beds. The silken layers of their loosened kimonos made a delicious contrast to the warmth of skin rubbing against skin and enhanced the game of searching hands seeking flesh to caress.


Moeri seemed anxious for more than their sexual union, frantic to grasp and caress every smallest portion of the Prince's person, and the Twilight Prince was elated to be cherished so extravagantly. The feeling of the young warrior's strength was also very welcome compared to the smaller man's former diffidence. The Prince abandoned some of his own caution, and even dared to suggest a few sophisticated variations that he had previously been reluctant to offer the inexperienced young officer.


They ended almost immobilized by a marvelous tangle of robes and hair: the Twilight Prince's long locks had worked themselves into almost unbelievable snarls, and even Moeri's shorter tresses had come loose from their tie and hung loose around his shoulders. They untangled themselves, laughing, and sat together in comfortable silence while Moeri carefully unknotted and smoothed the silken torrent of his lover's hair.


When the last of the knots were out, Moeri carefully parted the hair and moved to press the length of his body against the Prince's much longer spine. His arms reached around the Prince in a low hug that let him caress the Life Mage's groin, and he whispered hesitantly, "If the Most Noble Eminence will permit ... ?"

 


The feeling of silk moving against the young warrior's body, as the Prince pulled the skirts of his kimonos up and aside, out of his lover's way, was maddening and more than a little surprising. "Are you sure this won't be treason, or sacrilege, or something?" Moeri asked, feeling a sudden qualm.


"Only if you don't finish what you've started," the Twilight Prince assured him in a mock-threatening tone, then teased, "It's about time you did more of your share of the work." He moved forward to stretch his length out upon the robes beneath them, lazy as a cat, and contentedly surrendered himself to his lover's attentions.

 

Moeri had known that while he himself carried his reserve Power as a ball of Fire located somewhat above his navel, the Twilight Prince carried his reserve Power much lower, at the very base of his pelvis. And of course everyone knew about the sexual resonance of Life Power. But the young warrior had not anticipated the effect that this could have during lovemaking: it was like plunging into a pool of cool green Living flame, and he was almost stunned by the desire and joy that echoed and re-echoed between them. He hugged the Prince closer, willing to drown in that green flame, if that were possible.

 

The Prince gasped and went rigid. "Ah, Powers! Stop!"

 

Moeri froze. "Forgive me, Beloved Lord," he begged anxiously. "I didn't mean to hurt you." He withdrew gently, sickened by his own selfish clumsiness: the Twilight Prince had never hurt him in their loving -- even the first time had felt strange, but not painful.


The Prince was very pale, and shaking as if chilled to the bone. He shook his head violently and managed to say, "No ... act ... of yours. No fault ... of yours. Hold me, love."


Moeri pulled the trembling Prince into his arms and hugged him fiercely. "Forgive me, love," the Prince whispered shakily, "the very first time you asked anything of me, and I failed you."


"No," Moeri protested vehemently, "The fault lies with this wretched servant for asking more than the Most Noble Eminence could properly grant."


Though he was still shaking and tears were falling from his eye, the Twilight Prince found the strength to force the small Fire Mage to meet his gaze. "Nothing you did passed the bounds of propriety," he insisted firmly, and added, almost to himself, "And neither of us knew that it guarded the gates of memory ... "


Moeri felt a shock of horrified understanding. "Powers! They raped you!" he exclaimed softly, as a knot of nausea began to form in the pit of his stomach, "Those demons raped you while they held you captive."


The Prince nodded, looking away. "Some was ... viciousness ... some was ... trying to force me to release the Power I held. I didn't remember until now." His voice was growing a little less shaky.


"Because of me." Moeri's tone was bitter.


"No, love. I think I really began to remember last night: during that nightmare. The Healing Power must have decided that I was well enough -- strong enough -- to bear the memories now. Since then I've been refusing to remember, like a child shutting his eyes against something unpleasant." The Prince shifted to support more of his own weight, and drew Moeri closer. "Stay with me, love. Please," he whispered. "I don't think I could bear to face this alone."

 

** *

 

When Warlord Isanari answered the Prince's second summons that day, he traveled from the castle to the Garden Estate in a palanquin. Archivist Yamashiro and a pair of other Healers had cornered him after the morning's meeting. They had informed him that his heart had been damaged by the plague and all that had followed it, and ordered him to avoid strain and exertion during the month of treatments that would be needed to gradually repair it. Isanari suspected glumly that whatever had caused this new summons from the Twilight Prince would not harmonize well with the Healers' instructions. It seemed fitting, somehow, that it had begun to snow at sunset.

 

The Warlord's apprehension did not decrease when he found Senior Captain Tahata waiting in the Prince's gatehouse. Almost immediately Miyabe no Kagemitsu, robed as a Twilight priest tonight, not as a courtier, arrived to conduct the two officers down the corridors and verandas of the house to the Twilight Prince's study. Isanari would almost have preferred formal court robes: Twilight priests always reminded him of funerals.


The study, dimly lit by a few candles and the early evening twilight, appeared as plain as a teahouse -- or, perhaps, a monk's retreat. Its stark simplicity was ornamented only by a hanging scroll in the alcove, an ink sketch of running horses on the slid
ing doors of the bedchamber, and several cats curled in sheltered corners: some asleep, others alert with eyes gleaming in the candlelight. One of the shoji panels opposite the sketch of the horses had been slid open, along with the outer shutters, to allow a view of the veranda and the garden pines and falling snow beyond.

 


A screen of state of finely split bamboo bound with purple silk, perhaps six feet wide and equally tall, had been set up across the center of the room between the Most Noble Eminence's seat and a group of four zabutons. The Honorable Moeri, robed as a Twilight priest just as Noble Lord Kagemitsu was, already sat on one of them. The Warlord was grateful to see the screen of state: protocol was much less nerve-racking when one was not, quite, in the actual presence of someone of the Twilight Prince's rank and in danger of insolently looking him full in the face without meaning to. But he wondered why the Most Noble Eminence had chosen to adopt such formality now, for the first time since his arrival in the mundane capital.


There was a hibachi full of glowing coals in the center of the group of zabutons, and Warlord Isanari was grateful for this promise of some relief from the cold. He hoped that another hibachi had been set for the Prince's comfort, but could not tell: the
side of the screen where the Twilight Prince sat was dark, while the side where his audience gathered was brightly illuminated, so the Prince was visible as less than a shadow. Isanari had the impression that the Most Noble Eminence was seated so that he
did not face the other men, but looked outward toward the peacefully falling snow.


"Forgive me, Senior Commander," the Prince said when the others had bowed and seated themselves. "I should have asked sooner. Do you need a scribe to help prepare your reports to the Most Noble Heavenborn Monarch?"


"No, Most Noble Eminence," the stocky officer replied quietly. "This humble officer can record the information in phonetic characters, and set it in Chinese characters later with the aid of someone at the castle."


Warlord Isanari was filled with an uncomfortable mixture of hope and apprehension. "Has the Most Noble Eminence's memory returned?" he asked.


"Some," the Twilight Prince replied, "but unfortunately not the most strategically useful parts. I have now recovered the memories of what happened from the time I awakened as a captive until I encountered then Senior Captain Tahata, and I have always remembered what happened after that. I cannot yet remember anything between my argument with Kanehide and waking up as a prisoner: nothing to identify the spells I used that affect the Enemy so strongly and block them so well -- part of that may be gone forever due to the blow on my head when I was captured."

 

"Understood," the Warlord bowed politely.


"I awakened bound upright between two posts that had been set up in the center of a room," the Prince began abruptly, "I was still fully clothed, and my arms and legs were spread wide and held by shackles of metal and Power at the wrists and ankles. My fingers were splayed and fastened to things like paddles or fans, and my mouth was braced wide open and motionless by a gag, to stop me from using spells by word or gesture to shape my Power. It felt as though my tongue had been pierced and fastened to the gag, but I think that was magic, not material fact."


A soft sound made the Warlord glance toward the opening onto the veranda, and he blinked and shivered with more than physical cold. The translucent form of a ghostly child had appeared there, kneeling just inside the room and gazing toward the Most Noble
Eminence with a worshipful and grief-stricken expression.


The Twilight Prince continued, "The room was completely dark to normal vision but filled with a rustling sound of movement, and mage-sight showed that I was surrounded at a distance of about eight feet by some of the least human sorts of the Enemy. Occasionally one was pushed forward into the circle that my aura dominated by the crush of the others behind it, and when that happened the one that trespassed would lose the projecting limb, or completely dissolve if it was very unlucky. The whole place was ringed about with layer upon layer of Power, like the walls and moats of a castle."


"After a while, the Enemy in front of me were replaced by others of different sorts. A few of these entered the circle without being harmed and set up candles: one pair in front of me and a short distance to the left and right, and another pair behind.
The candles had paper screens so that their light would fall on me, and not on my captors, but some of the light from the candles behind me reached the demons in front of me. Most could pass for cloaked and hooded humans in that dim light -- some even wore what looked like Clan crests -- but none had human auras. Of the earlier group of demons, the most normal looking resembled giant, deformed insects ... I was just as glad they remained mostly in shadow.

 

"The auras of the demons showed several resonance patterns: some even showed the familiar patterns of the five elemental classes of human mages, though the bearers did not feel human otherwise. There were also at least two or three other patterns that occurred more than once. One like a sleet storm. One like garbage, only worse, since at least garbage is natural. Some faint traces of other sorts. The apparent lord of the demons -- I heard the others address him only as 'Master' -- had an aura that felt like cruelty ... I regret that I can give no better description, but he is one I will surely recognize if we meet again ... "


The Prince paused for a moment and it seemed to the Warlord that the ghostly child shivered. "This 'Master' stepped close to me and requested, with polite words but a tone that mocked, that I should release some of the Power I bore, so that my 'hosts' should be less uncomfortable. As he spoke the demons of the circle surged forward. I saw some dissolve, while others seemed to drink the resulting sludge." The Prince stopped speaking for a long moment.


"The Most Noble Eminence did not comply with this request?" Tahata asked softly.


"I ignored him," the Twilight Prince replied, almost cheerfully. "When in the grasp of enemies, it is foolish to promise yourself: I will never do such-and-such, or, I will never submit to this other thing, because the day may come when you have no choice, and even the escape of death is not an option. Once you have broken your promise to yourself, you yourself are then broken entirely, but if you make them work for every tiniest concession they get from you, each bit of defiance remains a victory for you."

 

Warlord Isanari shivered, thinking that the realm was truly in a sad state, when an Imperial Prince had learned such grim lore at the inner Court of the Heavenborn. He noticed that tears were flowing down Noble Lord Kagemitsu's face, and the ghostly child's as well. Moeri looked both furious and agonized, and Tahata was concentrating very hard on what he was writing. The Warlord was grateful that the Most Noble Eminence continued without a pause.


"The Master was the height of an average man," the Twilight Prince continued, "and when he made his first request, I continued looking straight forward, over his head. That seemed to annoy him, for he spoke a command in an unfamiliar language: not the tongue of the Middle Kingdom, or the commoner sorts of Southern Barbarians -- I think I would have recognized those."


"Which is more than the most could claim," Tahata encouraged, when the narrative paused again, and the Prince made a sound that was almost a laugh.


"Some of the other cloaked figures, with auras like sleet storms, came forward and adjusted the chains that bound me. I was almost forced to my knees, but managed to remain upright until they struck me hard enough that some of my ribs broke -- I could feel the bones grating as I breathed, although the Power flowing through me was so great that the damage began to heal itself immediately ...

 

"One of the watching figures, a powerful Earth Mage whose cloak was covered with the pattern of triangles known as 'fish scales', protested vigorously when they injured me. He and the Master had a long argument about it, too softly for me to hear their words. After it was ended, the Master spoke to me again using even more formal terms than previously, but in the same mocking tone. He asked me to release the Power I bore so that additional regrettable measures would not be necessary, and said that he would give me time to consider the matter. Yet I could see in his aura that he greatly desired the opportunity to take those 'regrettable measures'. Then he left, accompanied by most of the other cloaked ones."

 

The Prince paused, then continued in a startled tone, as though he himself was only just realizing the meaning of what he remembered, "Ah. This is important: when they had gone, the space in front of me was left empty, all the way to the curtains that surround the heart of the Inner Shrine ... Lord Commander, the heart of the Great Shrine remains undefiled! I'm sure of it! Those layers of Power were not castle walls, but siege-works: the Mirror of Heaven is besieged by the Enemy, but not captured ... There might be a living mage besieged with it also, protecting it, but I'm less sure of that."


Warlord Isanari bowed, sick with shame: the Great Shrine was located in his province, so he was doubly the guardian of the Mirror of Heaven, as Domain Lord and as Warlord, and doubly shown to be unworthy of his responsibilities by allowing the Shrine's capture a few months earlier. "Most Noble Eminence ... " he began weakly.


"Don't offer to remove yourself from the lands of the living," the Twilight Prince said in an annoyed tone. "Start making plans to end the siege while it still is a siege."


"But is it?" asked Tahata worriedly.


It was Kagemitsu who answered. "Have there been any great Enemy victories since my Noble Eminence's escape, to suggest they had newly acquired a talisman of such Power?"


"No," the Senior Commander answered thoughtfully, "quite the contrary." Tahata had taken advantage of the discussion to grind some more ink. Now he prompted, "Most Noble Eminence?"


The demoralized Warlord Isanari remembered the injuries the Imperial Prince had suffered during his captivity, and tried to brace himself for the rest of the Prince's tale.


"The Master returned with a smaller group of attendants," the Twilight Prince said softly, "this time including several with patches of scale pattern on their cloaks, besides the Earth Mage whose cloak was all scale patterned. He ordered me stripped, using words that I could understand, and when the ones with sleet auras moved to obey, there was another argument between the Master and the scale-cloaked Earth Mage ... It was the Earth Mage himself who finally cut my clothes off me, very gently and respectfully, without looking directly at me. His aura, seen close up, showed some evidence of human kinship. He argued again when ordered to remove my loincloth with the rest of my clothes, and seemed sincere when he apologized, addressing me as 'Heavenborn Prince'. I ... shielded him from the most distracting effects of the Life Power while he worked: I could see no harm in a bit of courtesy to one who seemed benevolently disposed, and no sense in inciting rape more than was unavoidable."


Warlord Isanari flinched at that reminder of the common fate of captured Life Mages, but the Prince continued his tale inexorably.


"The Master gave another order using that other language, which began yet another argument. It concluded with a loud announcement from the scale-cloaked one that he and his folk would henceforth be neutral in the war against the Throne. Then all the ones with scale patterns on their cloaks knelt and bowed politely to me, pointedly ignoring the Master, before they transformed themselves into snakes and slithered away. The leader of a group of three small cloaked ones moved to follow the snakes but was stopped by something the Master said."

 

"Strange," the Warlord commented. "Why would invaders of the Realm show reverence for the Imperial Blood?"


Tahata looked up from his writing and commented, "Dealings between humans and nonhumans in the realm have grown ever more tense in these past few centuries. Since the beginning of the reign of the Late Air Emperor, the Most Noble Eminence's Honored Grandfather, most disputes between humans and nonhumans have been met by human violence rather than the negotiation and ritual called for by ancient treaties. With the plague's disruption of the Imperial succession and court rituals, many nonhumans may count the old treaties with the Throne as dissolved, so they are willing to heed a call for alliance with the invaders against the government and Throne. Oaths of loyalty to the true line are another matter, as long as the line exists."


"You seem to know a lot about this matter," the Warlord commented, for Tahata had sounded as though he spoke from knowledge, not guesswork.


"I listen to a lot of gossip," the Senior Commander replied blandly. Isanari knew from past experience that was the clearest answer he would be given, but he thought that the shape of Tahata's shadow had shifted, just for a moment.


Kagemitsu was amused -- anyone with mage-sight and real training in how to use it could see by his aura that Tahata was not exactly human. But if he had been willing to accept the abuse that came with status as a peasant instead of the Noble rank accorded supernatural beings, there must be a good reason. Perhaps the stocky fighter's nonhuman kin had disapproved of his decision to fight for the Throne, for exactly the reasons he had so recently listed? Best to change the subject.


"At least it is useful to know that the Enemy's councils are divided," the courtier pointed out. "If they are a collection of factions rather than a unified force with a single purpose, it may be possible to divide them by bargaining about areas where their various goals conflict."


"Only if some of them are willing to bargain," Warlord Isanari answered. "Since the beginning of the invasion they have shown no evidence of such willingness."

 

"And only if we are willing to bargain with murderous demons," Moeri added with fierce indignation.


"Nonetheless, it is a possibility that should be kept in mind," the Warlord concluded, "if we could somehow contact one of their more reasonable factions." He was careful not to look at Tahata as he spoke.


"Most Noble Eminence?" Tahata prompted softly.


The Twilight Prince spoke very softly and reluctantly. "I began a chant of the names and attributes of the gods in my mind, and held to it as well as I could while the sleet demons beat me. One used a bamboo rod whose force made the broken pieces of my ribs grate, the other used a rope lash armed with thorny talons to tear flesh and shed blood. I was screaming very quickly, I fear, even through the gag, and when it ended the Master gloated that my own blood was further defiling the shrine, and with the passage of time my body's wastes would also, speeding their task of reshaping the land and its Power to their use and convenience."


"The Most Noble Eminence showed great stamina in avoiding such defilement for that long," Tahata assured him gently.


"It wasn't a matter of stamina, so much as being a Life Mage channeling Power," the Twilight Prince replied dryly, adding bluntly, "Have you ever tried to take a leak when you were very hard? That became another torment in itself." He sighed. "After the beating, all of the cloaked ones left again. I summoned more Power from the world around me, to begin healing my injuries and stop the bleeding, especially inside around the broken ribs. The inflow of Power seemed to strengthen and expand the circle of my aura's armor. The uncloaked demons -- the insects and such -- had to retreat slowly as the Power I held increased. Time passed and the candles died. I could sense the torments of my poor ronin in the near distance, and, very faintly, the tumult at the battle lines far away, but the heart of the Inner Sanctuary remained blocked to my senses and Power."


"Well armored, whoever it is," Kagemitsu murmured approvingly.


"Yes," the Prince agreed. "When the Master and his attendants returned with fresh candles, he seemed angry that the Power I held had increased, not decreased, and angrily demanded that I reduce it at once. Even most of the cloaked ones seemed reluctant to enter the armored zone around me, now, so I summoned even more Power as my answer ... The Master entered the armored zone and made a show of walking around me in a leisurely examination, but he could not quite keep himself from moving as though he trod barefoot on sharp rocks. He used a closed fan to tilt my chin up so I faced him, then brushed it down the length of my body and stroked my genitals. He said that he was glad I was enjoying their hospitality, then added that since they had such a fine 'Entertainer' as a guest it would be foolish to let the effects of my aura go to waste."

 

Moeri made a gagging sound, and the Prince added parenthetically, "You know, I've never understood why people try to use that ploy against a Life mage who is defending against magical attack. They know it's just the armor and Life magic, and the Life mage knows that it's just the armor and Life magic, so all they're doing is admitting that they are vulnerable to the Life mage's Power. My wife used almost the same words as the Master at dozens of her parties during our marriage, and it wasn't even embarrassing after the first couple of times ... "


Kagemitsu was clearly horrified. He made a startled gesture, but subsided without speaking when the Twilight Prince continued, quietly, "The Master grasped the small cloaked person who had tried to follow the snakes, and pulled him down beside him as he and his retinue settled themselves on the floor, then commanded the other two to 'entertain' me ... At a distance, with their cloaks cast aside, they looked like a human man and woman, but their auras were the auras of cats: feline Fire Mages stretched into human form by Power. When they came closer I could see that they retained the eyes of cats and their fingers and toes were misshapen by human standards. They also had four pairs of nipples spaced down their bodies: the top pair on the female were mounted on breasts like those of a human woman. Clothed, they might have passed for human if their eyes were hidden or disguised by magic, but under the cloaks they wore only the jeweled bracelets and anklets and collars that mark Captive Mages enslaved after losing wizards' duels."

 

The Prince added disdainfully, "The jewelry was very tasteless: not the fine chains bearing amulets that most Mages find sufficient, but heavy solid bands like shackles, almost as though this Master had some doubts of his mastery."


He paused, for so long that the Warlord finally prompted, "Most Noble Eminence ... ?"


"They raped me, of course," the Prince said patiently.


Tahata shifted uncomfortably and began to grind more ink. Kagemitsu flinched at bluntness and calmness of the Prince's statement, though remembering the nature of the Prince's injuries he knew there would be worse to come. Moeri was silent, and rigidly motionless, but his fists were clenched so tight that there was blood on his palms where his nails had cut deep.


Warlord Isanari exclaimed softly, "Horrible!"


"Yes," the Prince agreed. "They were not truly malicious enemies, so the armor of my aura did not drive them away. They were unwilling slaves, Captives lacking control even over their own bodies, whose auras showed honest concern for me and grief at what they were forced to do. And tormented by unappeasable desire as long as they were near me and my Power held steady."


That was not quite what the Warlord had meant. His shock that the Twilight Prince should feel compassion toward his tormenters was mirrored by Moeri's expression.


But the Prince said, "They tried to be gentle, even though my Power held them locked in a state just short of release, which is unnatural for the body to maintain for very long, and soon grows painful ... After a time, I managed to shape my Power so that the two cats were granted release, while the others who had opened themselves to my Power were granted no such comfort ... The cats fled out of the circle of my armor. Then the Master invited the rest of his retinue to amuse themselves with my person."

 

The Warlord groaned, sickened. "Powers! Could they think of nothing but rape?"


"So close to a Life Mage shaping so much Power, probably not," Kagemitsu replied wearily. "Everything becomes colored by the effects of the Power, so violence is expressed as rape and other impulses are also transmuted. The other kinds of Power carry their own vulnerabilities, of course, but interact less easily with flesh and blood."


"Each kind of Power carries its vulnerabilities," the Twilight Prince countered, "but also its own weapons. The demons that chose to attack me and opened themselves to the Life magic's effects instead of continuing to block them were trapped: unable to sate their desires or to reestablish their defenses while they remained within the range of my mage-sight. Unless I chose to grant them release, as I did the cats. Or until I allowed my Power to dissipate, or the lust that the Life magic kindled in me was sated, which is the same thing, since lust from that source can't be sated until the Power stops flowing, despite all tales that it works the other way."


The Prince almost sounded amused as he continued, "They tried to shake my grasp on the Power by mixing pleasure and pain unpredictably, but I was already in too much pain from my previous injuries to allow a useful contrast. By that time my hold on the Power was growing stronger than my hold on my flesh: too strong to be endangered by startlement. My wife's friends used to be much more inventive in such matters ... though I will admit that my being gagged decreased the demons' options, to my great relief, since I choke easily. Most of them could not bear to stay within the armored circle of my aura for very long. Their efforts only increased the Power in my grasp."

 

Kagemitsu and Warlord were both thoroughly nauseated and even the usually imperturbable Tahata was pale, though he had nodded thoughtfully when the Prince described the trap the demons had found themselves in. The ghost child moved closer to the screen of state and sat in a huddled ball of misery, and the Warlord recognized the Fujikawa crest on his clothing.

 

Moeri was quietly frantic: the idea of anyone hurting the Twilight Prince in any way was unbearable, and sexual attack seemed a desecration. He was torn between wanting to hold the Prince and somehow erase the memory of pain, and a horrible fear that the Prince would never again accept his touch without feeling revulsion -- the hints that the Prince was well acquainted with such abuse made revulsion seem all the more likely. Moeri's anger against the ones that hurt the Prince was fueled by the Fire Power within him, and he longed for the chance to destroy all those who had hurt his beloved Lord.


No one prompted the Twilight Prince to end this pause in his narrative. He finally continued, "Eventually the Master grew bored with their lack of success, and called them off. Or perhaps he was sated after toying with the third cat mage, who was a Life Mage and thus able to shield him from the effects of my Power. He approached me, as though walking on hot, sharp rocks, and praised my strength of will in a very annoyed tone. He ran one hand down my body from shoulder to groin, and even that light touch produced such pain of flesh and spirit that it overshadowed all that I had felt until then. His hand left a welt behind as though it was clawed, or hot as molten metal, but all the damage was done by Power. I screamed, even through the gag, and my body twisted in convulsions from the pain, but somehow I summoned Power to combat the harm and saw the circle of demons fall back half a pace. The Master laughed and said that they had a use for me, once they had broken me, but they did not need me intact."


The Prince's voice began to shake and sank almost to a whisper. "Then he ... he gouged out my eye, using the same hand that had just caused such pain by merely touching me ... I would not have believed any greater pain was possible, or that a man could experience it and remain sane. At first, I did not understand what he had done -- all I knew was the pain. He waited until my convulsions and screaming had quieted to trembling and raw-throated whimpering, then showed me the eye and made sure I knew what it was before he ate it, slowly, as one savors some great delicacy. His face, which had been hidden by his cloak's hood until then, was oddly stiff -- like a mask that moved in sections -- and his own eyes were huge, with a sheen like oil on water, and seemed to be all pupil. As he turned to leave he wondered aloud what effect gelding might have on the Power of a Life Mage, and laughed when I whimpered and strained away from him as far as the chains would allow. But despite my pain and fear I managed to keep my hold on the Power through it all. Most of his retinue followed him out."


All four men listening to the Prince flinched at the threat of castration. Even the ghostly Fujikawa seemed to start, then vanished momentarily. When he returned, the ghost set tea and utensils next to the hibachi.


Moeri's anguished desire to protect and avenge his lover had merged into fire-filled fantasies in which the Prince's tormenters were dramatically and painfully destroyed. He recognized with a start that he was drifting toward one of his berserk spells and began to shape his Power to damp the effect.

 

Warlord Isanari wondered how he could ever atone for what the Twilight Prince had suffered while supposedly under his protection. Even while ignorant of the details, he had only recently been able to face the eyepatch in council with any calm. The thought of seeing it now, in full knowledge of his own dereliction, was horrifying.

 

Kagemitsu, weeping again, managed to make tea for his Lord and for the rest of them, and Tahata looked grim as he drank his. Isanari's face was also wet with tears, and he suspected that the Twilight Prince was weeping as well, behind his screen of state, and did not blame him in the least. He considered suggesting that the Most Noble Eminence should end his story some other time, but decided that if the Eminence felt disposed the finish his tale that night, it was not an incompetent Warlord's place to complain.

 

When the Prince finally spoke again, he sounded very tired. "I continued to summon more Power, almost without choosing to," he said, "I floated on it, filled to the bursting point with the energy and elation it brought, even though another part of me was equally filled with pain and the exhaustion that weighted my body. Time passed and the candles guttered out again, while the gradual expansion of my aura's circle forced some of the lesser demons -- the insects and such -- out the door and left others trapped in the room's corners. A few risked dissolution unsuccessfully trying to escape. As my armored circle brushed against the armor of the inner sanctuary for the first time, I began to drift, and my awareness of the physical reality around me grew dim."


The Twilight Prince's voice became stronger, and took on a very faint sense of the cadence of a shrine chant. "I journeyed in spirit until I walked in the eightfold crossroads of the worlds, and setting my hand to the Bridge of Heaven, I found myself at the gate of the Courts of Heaven. I stood hesitating before the gate, not really daring to knock, and a small golden bird sitting on the gate cried out in a thunderous voice, 'All here give greetings to the Most Noble and Revered Eminence, the Master of the Garden in Heaven's Shadow, the Most Glorious Kinsman and Ally of the Court of Heaven! Welcome him! Welcome him!' ... The gate opened and I was greeted by resplendent beings in the most ornate and spotless of garments. I was ashamed to go in, naked as I was and defiled by blood and filth, but they said that there was no garment in the Plains of Heaven worthy to cover the signs of the debt that was owed to me. I thought I saw the Late Fire Emperor, my great-grandfather, among the lesser Powers gathered in the great hall, but had no time to look, for my guides escorted me to a place of highest honor near to the Queen of Heaven and the Exalted Primordial Lord. And the Highest of the Divine Powers greeted me kindly and thanked me for the effort I was making on their behalf and apologized for the mistreatment I had suffered. I was fed with the food and drink of the Highest Powers, and then asked to choose one of five weapons to aid me in my task of setting Ashihara to rights. They were a rod named 'Measure of Severity', a bow and quiver named 'Vengeance Claw', a sword named 'Sharp Conquest', a wizard's jewel named 'Dominion Star', and a naginata named 'Truth Defender', and as I reached out to grasp the naginata, I found myself back in my own body."


Tahata said judiciously, "All things considered, it seems unlikely that anyone will come forward to claim the weapon that came to the Most Noble Eminence's hand at Shimonaga ... "


"Just as well ... none of us have a place suitable to play host if Their Divine Eminences should arrive," the Prince agreed with a shaky laugh, "especially with the Great Shrine besieged."


Warlord Isanari groaned. "Efforts to break the siege will begin immediately, Most Noble Eminence," he promised fervently.


The Prince asked for another cup of tea, which Kagemitsu hastily prepared for him. Then he continued his story wearily. "I returned to my body to find myself clasped by a demon who might have been some kin to the insectile ones that were pressed back into the corners of the room for fear of dissolving. He was all hard plates and angles -- it was like being ... used ... by a suit of armor of viciously obscene design. To be honest, I was in so much pain from my previous injuries that I might not have noticed a less exotic attack. Contact with his aura was worse than any physical pain: this was a demon whose aura carried an overwhelming stench of pollution, corruption and decay. For a moment I feared that I might drown in my own vomit due to the gag that blocked my mouth. I summoned Power -- what had strained my limits a short time before was still available, but suddenly far less than I could hold -- and the demon screamed and vanished in a burst of flame that left burns everywhere he had touched my body. The other remaining demons began to dissolve as well, as my aura expanded to fill even the corners of the room."


"Powers!" Tahata's voice, barely more than a whisper, sounded sick. "Coming back to safe territory, we rode horseback ... "


"Material reality faded again," the Prince's voice resumed that hint of chanting cadence, "and I stepped from the eightfold crossroads to a road in a place with neither sun nor stars, which ended at the gateway of another Court. It was guarded by fierce beings with glaring eyes -- with inhuman heads that were horned like bulls or tusked like boars -- but the gate was open to admit a stream of beings of all imaginable sorts, though the road had seemed empty when I walked it."


The Prince's tone grew softer, hesitant and wondering. "When the guards saw me they knelt and bowed as samurai do to their Lord's overlord and called out hastily, 'The Eminence has come! The Lord of the Garden at the Gate of Light has arrived! Make ready! Make ready!' When I entered I was not given the place of an honored guest, but the seat of the lord of the palace, and the Judge of the Dead moved down to the lesser position, and again I was offered the finest food and drink.


"Before I had quite finished my meal, there came before the judgement seat and the Mirror of Fate the spirit of the demon I had just slain trying to rape me: somehow I had journeyed even faster than the dead. The Judge asked me whether this spirit should be judged with vengeance, pure justice, or forgiveness. I answered: 'Compassion' and the Judge said, 'That was not on the list' but he smiled, and the whole exchange felt like an old and familiar joke between us ...

 

"There were three rear gates on that palace: the one on the left, through which the spirits pass easily and rejoicing, was always open, as was that on the right, through which the spirits passed reluctantly and weeping. But for me they unlocked the center gate, which was painted and gilded and had grass growing in front of it from lack of use. Before they opened it they gave me a smaller mirror like the Mirror of Judgment with a pattern of eight lightening bolts on its back -- not as a gift but as though it was some possession of mine that had been left behind on a previous visit. I stepped through the gate and was once more in my body."

 

Warlord Isanari swallowed hard at these hints of the Twilight Prince's nature and authority. He was not at all sure that he wanted to know who or what had chosen to become incarnate as a member of the line of the Heavenborn. Especially not while there were still invaders to be expelled from the realm and a usurper's son sat on the Throne.

 

The Twilight Eminence continued, "I found that the Master had returned, accompanied only by his sleet demons and the cats, and new candles had been lit. The Master announced that he had reached the end of his patience, because I had destroyed one of his favored kinsmen, but he seemed very reluctant to approach me. I could decipher more fine details in the aura patterns around me than ever before, and saw that by devouring part of my living flesh he had given me a gate into his own defenses. He turned away and pulled two of the cats down beside him near the outer wall, drawing a dagger as he did so. Then he commanded 'Mayonaka' to drain my Power."

 

Kagemitsu caught his breath and leaned forward intently.

 

"The third cat, the Life Mage, looked at the Master and the other cats, shook his head sadly and dropped his cloak. He was completely nude beneath it: unburdened by the talismans of Captivity that the other cats wore. He bowed to me politely, ignoring the Master completely except for a flick of one pointed ear, then dwindled into the form of a very large, black, green- eyed cat with a crescent of white on his chest. Judging by the patterns and brightness of his aura, he was a very strong mage, mostly likely Second Rank: a Manifest Prince, but I found myself oddly unconcerned."


"The Most Noble Eminence was Manifest First Rank by then," Moeri said confidently.

 

"No doubt," the Twilight Prince acknowledged. "The wizards' duel began very simply, without outward violence. The cat simply sat down beside me and placed his paws on my leg, then rested his chin on his paws. Our auras had been resting peacefully in each other's interstices, but the bodily contact brought them into contact as well, and we began to wrestle to see which would overthrow and repattern the other's essence. At first, I poured Power into the Cat Prince, to the glee of the Master who seemed not to realize that I did it deliberately, or that the surge, a greater flow than the cat could encompass, had given me mastery of two great Power nodes that should have bound my opponent's limbs to his will. The cat, now motionless by my choice not his own, tried to probe with his Power toward the core of pleasure and desire within me -- from Life Mage to Life Mage that linkage is almost impossible to evade, but I was well braced, after what had gone before, and he could not match the weight of my Power. It was not my desire that answered to his summons, but his that woke to mine. The node of his Power, so closely adjoining, fell to my dominance as well, which left him helpless to defend the innermost cores of his mind and being against me, and so I gained the victory."

 

Kagemitsu nodded appreciatively, and both Tahata and Moeri seemed to comprehend the details of the duel. Warlord Isanari, however, was completely lost. He cautiously turned on his mage- sight for a moment and sighed regretfully. To his feeble spark of Power, auras showed only as fuzzy patches of multicolored light, not as the marvelously intricate structures of tendrils and spiny frameworks described by the Mages and Healers.

 

"When the duel was finished," the Prince continued, "the Master called out loudly, 'Mayonaka! Take your reward, rebel!' Then he gutted the two Captive cats, held motionless and ready by his Power and will, and cast them aside to die in slow agony, their own healing Power bound and useless. The humanoid bodies dwindled swiftly into small feline forms that were barely noticeable among the folds of their cloaks, but the pain showed clearly in their auras for far too long, and I felt the Cat Prince's grief for the hostages before I forced him to sleep."

 

The Prince hesitated long enough for his audience to grow worried, and when he began again his voice was not triumphant, but so quiet and uneven that the Warlord's stomach knotted with apprehension. "The Master, sounding angry, gave a command to the sleet demons, and they used the chains to pull me down, so that instead of kneeling I was lying on my back in my own blood and dirt, arms and legs forced wide by the chains until the joints ached. The arm of one of the sleet demons brushed mine as they worked, and he curled around himself as though a blow to the groin had landed hard. The demon lord stepped forward to stand between my splayed legs and I heard myself whimper."

 

The Twilight Prince's voice became even softer and more shaky. "He hesitated, stroking himself, and assured me that further desecrating the shrine by sacrificing me would be as useful to his cause as forcing my aid to break the sanctuary and the realm, since I am without heirs and the last of the direct line, but he had the sound and aura of someone rehearsing excuses for his superiors. He gloated that when he was done with me he would eat my liver and drape the shrine with my guts as if they were the straw ropes that cordon off sanctuaries ... His hands at my groin brought pain so intense it took me beyond the ability to scream, almost beyond the ability to breathe, and I had no time to brace my body and my Power before he mounted, not bothering with any of my body's natural openings. His ... organ ... plowed a furrow up my belly from crotch to breastbone, and I think his intent was to impale my heart. But my Power Healed the furrow shut as quickly as it was made, and I somehow managed to grasp some of the nodes of his aura despite my pain, and twist. He jerked away to avoid the spell-binding, but I think I set some lasting bindings on him, regardless, since he needed the aid of the sleet demons to leave."


The listeners were avoiding each other's eyes.


"Oh, Powers!" the Warlord exclaimed softly. "How much more ... ?"


The Prince heard and answered him, to his intense embarrassment. "Only my escape remains ... When the sleet demons carried their Master out, I was left completely alone and awake for the first time since my capture, and I could sense the auras of friends not far away: Tahata and his men, as it turned out. And I now had the floor to brace myself against. I managed to pull my right arm free from its shackle, though I broke the smaller bone in the forearm doing so. The restraints on my fingers were a nuisance, but I managed to deal with them as well, then removed the gag. It hurt to close my jaws at last and my mouth felt as dry as dust, but despite that and the broken arm, with one hand and my voice free it was easy to shape Power to break the other shackles. I'm afraid they exploded and set the sanctuary on fire. I waited a moment to make sure the ambiguous presence in the sanctuary's heart was able to defend it from the flames, and tossed the sleeping Cat Prince in there too, so he would not be burned alive. I could see the auras of my surviving ronin nearby, so I went to find them. The rest, you know." The Prince stopped, then added, "If Tahata and his men had not been nearby, I would surely be dead now: with my hands and mouth free I was able to shape the Power to hold off the Enemy who would have slain or recaptured me ... for a while ... but my body was too exhausted and damaged to reach the safety of our battle lines unaided, and the Enemy would have overwhelmed me despite my Power as I weakened."

 

Five men and a ghost sat in silence for a moment that stretched to unbearable length. At last Moeri, sitting huddled in a tight, miserable ball lifted a tear-streaked face toward the Twilight Prince's voice and pleaded, "Beloved Lord ... ?"


"Come to me, love," the Prince replied gratefully, and the young warrior hurried to join him behind the screen of state.


The Fujikawa ghost quenched most of the lamps, then vanished, taking the tea utensils with him.

 

As the other three men crossed the bridge-corridor that connected the Prince's quarters to the rest of the mansion, Noble Lord Kagemitsu stumbled. Tahata caught him firmly by the arm to keep him from tumbling into the garden stream. "Powers, how did he bear it for so long?" the courtier exclaimed softly, and the other men saw that he was blinded by tears.

 

"For three days? You heard," Tahata said just as softly, but the Noble Lord waved a negation.

 

"Not three days," Kagemitsu said, choking on the words, "Six and a half years. What he said about that woman and her friends ... I never knew! Even after the incident that caused my own Manifestation of Power, I never thought even she would abuse a ranking consort ... My lord never told me ... "


"Could you have done anything for him but grieve, if you had known?" Warlord Isanari asked, and the courtier shook his head miserably. The Warlord and Tahata left him outside the family quarters, staring back toward the Prince's apartments. One of the guards escorted them to the gate.


"I wonder how the Noble Lord did come to Manifest?" Senior Commander Tahata said when they reached the street. "Perhaps I should invite him to a drinking party someday ... "


The Warlord shook his head, too worried and depressed to be amused by the stocky officer's insatiable curiosity. "Let's deal with this matter of the Great Shrine first, eh?" he suggested wearily. "And the report to the Throne ... "


Tahata bowed agreement, though his eyes widened at the lack of honorifics attached to the mention of Imperial authority. "How much of all that do you think should be included in the final report?"


Isanari thought for a moment. "All of the details of the Most Noble Eminence's sufferings," he said firmly. "And those comments that so distressed the Noble Lord. However ... "


"No need to waste the Throne's time with details of the Most Noble Eminence's 'hallucinations'?" Tahata suggested.


"Exactly," Warlord Isanari agreed, relieved at being offered this plausible excuse for omitting some aspects of the Most Noble Eminence's spirit journeys. There was such a thing as political common sense ... and if the Queen of Heaven and the Judge of the Dead both acknowledged the Eminence of the Garden between Dark and Dawn as the legitimate Power in Ashihara (if not of even higher rank) it would be both traitorous and sinful to willfully invite action against him by the present holder of the Throne. Until the time was right, of course.

 

 

Copyright 1991 Elyse M. Grasso