Smoke in the Sun Page 2

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.

Tall and Proud and Hapless

This was a scene from a story she’d heard before.

A young woman in her rightful place, ensconced at the Golden Castle. Betrothed to the son of the emperor’s favorite consort. Bestowing honor on the Hattori name.

The scented water in the wooden furo felt the same as it did at home. Like heated silk sliding across her skin. The hands scrubbing at Mariko’s arms and shoulders did so in much the same way they’d done at home—without mercy, until her pale skin shone like that of a newborn child, pink and raw and perfect. A servant with permanent lines of judgment marring her brow yanked a comb inlaid with mother-of-pearl through Mariko’s hair in much the same way her nursemaid had when she was younger.

It all felt so similar.

But if Mariko could be certain of nothing else now, she could be certain her life would never be the same again.

Under her brother’s watchful care, they’d arrived in Inako late last night. To an imperial city cloaked in mourning. To streets teeming with whispers. Today was the funeral of their emperor, who had died suddenly, beneath a veil of suspicion. Upon discovering his body, the empress’s wailing was said to have been heard across all seven maru. Even beyond the castle’s iron-and-gold-plated double gates. She’d screamed murder. Raged at all those nearby, accusing them of treachery. It had taken a flock of maidservants to soothe her and begin ushering her toward her tears.

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