Smoke in the Sun – Renee Ahdieh

Somber clouds waited above, like specters. Most of the people had donned funereal grey. Their heads were lowered in respect, their voices hushed. Even the smallest of children knew better than to ask why. This was the honor afforded their recently deceased emperor. The honor of their extreme reverence and their unwavering love. A reverence—a love—the girl did not feel in her heart. Nevertheless, she kept silent. Appeared to follow suit, though her hands were balled at her sides. She watched from the corner of her eye as the funeral procession wound through the muted streets of Inako. As a light rain began to fall from a dreary silver sky. Her woven sandals soon became wet. The fabric of her plain trousers clutched at her calves. Her left fist tightened around the rock in her hand. The drums marching out the processional beat drew closer, their low thunder reverberating in her ears.

The reedy melody of the hichiriki split through the rising din of the rain. When the imperial guards posted along the lane turned their gazes toward the crowd, the people bowed with haste, afraid they might be disciplined for any slight, however small. Those in the girl’s vicinity bowed lower as the spirit tablet leading the procession shifted into view. Tendrils of smoke from the agarwood incense suffused the air with the scent of burning cedar and warm sandalwood. Etched on the tablet’s stone surface were the names of many past emperors—the deceased heavenly sovereigns of the Minamoto clan. The girl did not bow. She kept her eyes lifted. Locked on the spirit tablet. If she was caught, it would be tantamount to a death sentence. It would be the height of disrespect —a stain of dis-honor on her family and all those who followed in their footsteps.

But honor had never held much weight for her. Especially not in the face of injustice. For a final time, the girl clenched her fingers around the rock. Rubbed the sweat from her palm into its roughened surface. Took aim. And launched it at the spirit tablet. It struck the center of the grey stone with a sharp crack. A stunned silence descended upon the crowd as those bearing the tablet swayed for a suspended moment. They watched in horror when the tablet crashed to the dirt in several pieces. A single cry of outrage bled into many.

Though there was no love lost between the fallen emperor and the people of the Iwakura ward, this act was an affront to the gods themselves. The samurai guarding the procession reared their horses and charged into the crowd. A collective stammer arose from the people, much like the drone of a beehive on the cusp of exploding. Trembling fingers pointed in all directions, stabbing accusations anywhere and everywhere. But the girl was already on the move. She lunged into the shadows behind a small apothecary shop. Her hands shook from the energy pulsing beneath her skin as she yanked a mask above the lower portion of her face. Then the girl grabbed the edge of a pine eave and braced her foot against a stained plaster wall. With lightning precision, she vaulted onto the tiled rooftop. The shouts from below grew louder.

“There he is.” “That’s the one who threw the rock.” “That boy over there!” The girl almost smiled to herself. But she did not have time for the luxury of emotion. With fleetfooted steps, she raced toward the ridgeline of the roof, then slid down the sloping tile on the other side. The pounding of hooves to her right drove the girl toward the rooftop at her left. She leapt over the yawning space between the two structures and tucked her body into a roll. Even with these cautionary measures, a painful shudder rippled from her heels up her spine. As she flew across the curved tiles—using the arches of her feet to grip their damp surface—an arrow hissed by her ear. Like a cascade of water, the girl slid to the roof’s edge and dropped into the shadows below.

A quick beat was spent in contemplation. Her chest heaved as she took in one breath. Then two. She needed to get more distance. Blinking back the rain, the girl darted into an alleyway, skirting a discarded cabbage cart in the process. A sudden rush of footfall rose from her left. “There he is.” “Over by the alley next to the forge!” Her heartbeat crashed through her ears as she tore around the corner, the clatter of footsteps drawing closer. There was no place to hide, save for a rain barrel propped against a wall of the dilapidated forge. She would be caught if she lingered for even a moment longer.

Her eyes darting to the four corners of the earth, the girl made a quick decision. As nimble as a cat, she levered her back against a wooden post and kicked upward once, twice. Her body quaking from the effort, she wedged a foot into the crook of a support beam. Then the girl flipped over, pressing her shoulders into the rough straw of the roof’s underbelly. Her sight blurred from fear as a soldier came into view just beneath her. If he looked up, all would be undone. The soldier glanced around before shoving his sandaled foot against the rain barrel. It tumbled aside with a thud, the rain within it joining the mud in a delayed splash. Frustration forced a huff of air past the soldier’s lips. Close by, an unintelligible shout of fury rang out into the sky.

As the soldier’s ire grew, the girl squeezed her body tight, the effort straining her core. She was lucky the training she undertook daily had honed her limbs into such lithe lines. Had made her aware of every muscle, every gesture. She held her breath, locking her fingers and feet into place. The soldier kicked the barrel a final time before racing back into the streets. After several moments had passed, the girl finally allowed herself to relax. Permitted her body to seek a more comfortable position. She stayed hovering in the shadows until the sounds of tumult melted into the pounding rain. Then—with deliberate care—she reached for the wooden post and let her feet sink into the muck with a muffled thud. The girl straightened, removing the mask from her face.

As she turned to leave, the door leading to the enclosed portion of the forge slid open. Startled by the sound, the girl let the mask fall from her hand into the mud. Before her stood a woman with greying temples and an unforgiving stare. Though the girl’s features remained expressionless, her heartbeat faltered in her chest. The woman would be near her mother’s age, if the girl had to guess. If she shouted a single word, the girl would be caught. Fear keeping her immobile, the girl stayed silent as the woman inhaled slowly, her eyes narrowing in understanding. Then she jerked her chin to the left, directing the girl to flee. Bowing with gratitude, the girl vanished into the rain. She doubled back countless times as she wove through the rain-slicked streets of the Iwakura ward, ensuring no one could follow her footsteps.

When she neared an arched stone bridge—crossing into a grove of snow-white dogwood and pale pink cherry trees—her gait took on a different cadence. Her shoulders dropped, and her neck lengthened. It was automatic, the moment the scent of night-blooming jasmine curled into her nostrils. Still she did not use any of the main thoroughfares, save for the bridge itself. Concealed beneath a shower of dying petals, she hailed a jinrikisha and settled under its worn canvas canopy. Her eyes shuddered closed, and her lips parted as they silently counted each of her breaths. Ichi. Ni. San. Shi.

Then the girl lifted her chin. With deft motions, she restored her disheveled clothing until nothing appeared amiss. Reformed the topknot at the crown of her head into an elegant coif. Like the gifted quick-change artist she’d been trained to be, the girl transformed from a daring boy into a demure mystery. When she finally arrived at the teahouse gate, she knocked twice, pausing for a beat before rapping her fist five more times in quick succession. A shuffle of feet and a series of whispers emanated from beyond the gate door before it swung open. Though these servants knew to unlatch the door at this series of knocks, no one was there to meet the girl, as she’d expressly requested. So none of them would ever be forced to lie about having seen her. The girl’s misfortunes were not worth the lives of all the young women here, and the cost of asking them to harbor her secrets was far too great. She made her way across the polished stones of the garden, past the burbling brook and its three miniature waterfalls, into a music of tinkling laughter and lilting shamisen.

Then she floated by the elegant bonsai garden to walk behind the teahouse itself, toward a smaller structure nearby. Outside an intricately carved sliding door, her trusted maidservant, Kirin, stood waiting, a carafe of clean water in her hands. Kirin bowed. The girl returned the gesture. As the girl removed her sandals, the freckled maid–servant pushed open the silk-screened sliding door leading into a chamber flanked by two large tansu chests crafted of red cedar and black iron. The girl stepped over the raised threshold and took a seat before a polished silver surface positioned behind rows of dainty cosmetics and glass vials. She stared at her reflection. At the elegant lines of her face. The ones that concealed her so well within these walls. “Would you care to have a bath drawn?” Kirin asked.

“Yes, please,” the girl replied without looking away. The maidservant bowed once more. Turned to leave. “Kirin?” The girl swiveled in place. “Has anything been delivered to the okiya in my absence?” “I’m sorry.” Kirin shook her head. “But no messages have come for you today, Yumi-sama.” Asano Yumi nodded. Returned her gaze to her mirror. Her brother, Tsuneoki.

would seek her out soon. She was certain of it. Following Ōkami’s surrender in the forest three days ago, she and Tsuneoki could no longer afford to remain idle, darting between shadows, leaving whispers in their wake. Nor could they continue to allow their painful past to direct the course of their future. It was true Yumi’s elder brother had hurt her. Deeply. With his lies about who he was. With his blind insistence that he alone possessed the answers. That he alone made the choices. Though his choices left Yumi alone and apart, always.

Years ago, Tsuneoki’s negligence had driven Yumi to scale the walls of her perfumed prison and take flight across the curved tiles. Her brother’s stubborn conceit had given her wings. And with them, she would fly, anywhere and everywhere. Absentmindedly, Yumi toyed with the alabaster lid of a jar filled with beeswax and crushed rose petals. Her brother wore his smiles like she wore these paints. A grinning mask, concealing fury and heartbreak. Their mother used to say they should be careful of the masks they chose to wear. For one day, those masks could become their faces. At this warning, Tsuneoki would often cross his eyes and slide his tongue between his bared teeth, like a snake. Yumi would double over with laughter at the sight.

When they were young, her brother had always made her laugh. Always made her believe. Before the day it all ended, like a flame being doused in the wind. The lid clattered off the top of the cosmetics jar, startling Yumi from her thoughts. She met her gaze in the mirror. Blinked back the suggestion of tears. Set her jaw. It was time for the Asano clan to mete out their justice. A justice ten years in the making. Yumi thought again of the rock she’d held in her hand.

Though the incident had occurred only this morning, it felt like a world away. She recalled the cries of outrage emanating from the crowd. They saw her actions as foolish. But they were afraid, and they’d built their lives upon this fear. It was time to dismantle it from within. Strike it down at its very foundation. So Yumi had begun with a rock. The sound it had made as it struck the emperor’s spirit tablet reverberated through her ears. The first of many battle cries to come. She could still feel the grit on her palm.

It was time for the Asano clan to restore justice to the Empire of Wa. Or die trying. A Mask of Mercy Outside a ramshackle forge in the Iwakura ward, a patrolling foot soldier came across a black mask half buried in the mud. Rage clouded his vision. A rage quickly consumed by fear. He’d searched here earlier. The evidence of his efforts—an overturned rain barrel—mocked him as it sank deeper into the mud with each passing moment. If anyone discovered that he’d allowed the boy wearing the mask to escape, the soldier would be punished. Swiftly and surely. He moved to tuck the mask into his sleeve just as signs of motion caught his eye.

A lantern blinked to life behind a dirty rice-paper screen near the back of the forge. The soldier’s gaze narrowed. In four steps, he smashed his foot through the fragile wood-and-paper door. A woman with a small child sat at a table, poring over a scroll of wrinkled parchment. Teaching her son to read. She appeared careworn and overtired, and the young boy kneeling before the low table had eyes that shone like oiled pewter. Without hesitation, the woman stepped before her son, positioning her body as a shield. She glanced at the muddy mask in the soldier’s hand, her downturned eyes widening briefly, but distinctly. It was not an expression of surprise. But rather one of understanding.

One of recognition. That moment of clarity made the soldier’s next decision for him. It would not do for anyone to discover he had allowed the boy wearing the mask—the traitor who had dared to throw a stone at the emperor’s funeral procession—to escape. With a slash of his sword, the soldier eliminated the cause of his concern. Silenced the woman’s voice in a single stroke. As the boy watched his mother crumple lifeless to the packed earth floor, he began to tremble, his pewter eyes pooling with tears. Uncertainty gripped the soldier for the space of a breath. No. It would not do for him to take this young life as well. A young life that could one day serve the cause of their divine emperor perhaps even better than he.

So the soldier lifted a finger to his lips. Smiled with benevolence. A mercy that melted away the last remaining traces of guilt. Then he ruffled the boy’s hair and flicked the blood from his blade before leaving the way he came. As he crossed into the deepening darkness beyond the old forge, the soldier raised his chin. The clouds churned above, causing his stomach to knot as if he were in battle. Perhaps it would be wise for him to send someone to check in on the boy at the forge later. Another woman, perhaps. Someone … A frown settled on his face. No.

The boy was not his responsibility. When the soldier had been the boy’s age, he had been able to care for himself and his two younger sisters. The boy undoubtedly had family of his own. After all, that forge was not manned by his mother. Imagine! A woman working an anvil. Stoking a bellows. Shaping a sword! The soldier laughed under his breath. The soft rasp grew louder as the knot in his stomach pulled tight. As a low hum began droning through his eardrums. His laughter became a cough.

A cough that stole his breath. The soldier bent at the waist, bracing his palms on his knees. He began to shake as he struggled to take in air. A trembling seized his body until it gripped him at his core. The hum rose through the space around him, keening in his ears. Forcing him to the ground. The last thing he remembered was a mask caked in dark mud. Beside an overturned rain barrel, a fox with yellow eyes watched a foot soldier collapse in the streets of the Iwakura ward and writhe through the mud with a soundless scream. It grinned slowly. Knowingly.

Its sinister task complete. Its dark magic weaving above the earth. Then it vanished in a twist of smoke.


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