Kimyona & Kaiteki – Continued
by Danny Wall
Onēsama and Shiromei rushed past the the simple-robed retainers that stayed in a line in the patio of the Watanabe estate. While surely the people were all aware of the rumor as the Tsukumogami, everyone kept still and quiet in contrast. The servants dared not turn to each other for a whisper, but bowed low to allow the priest and matchmaker inside. The two found Watanabe and his wife holding each other just outside the sleeping room, fighting back their tremors. True to the demands of their station, their faces tried hard not to display the trauma that swirled inside them, which ironically told more about their inner struggle than any overt display of emotion ever could.
With silent permission given, Shiromei and Oh walked softly inside. Everything was untouched from the moment of discovery. Tamiko lay inside, still and unmoving on her back as if she were still asleep; her bedroll thrown aside from others’ attempts to rose her. Just within her reach was a small sachet made of bamboo leaves, a container for some red bean mochi cakes. Two, to be precise, with residue from a missing third.
Shiromei knelt beside the girl’s body and chanted his prayer. Oh lowered her head and tried not to cry. She tried hard not to think about this young life had already touched her heart in the short time she knew her, about the beauty of potential and complexity of life, the horror of life cut short! It didn’t help, and she wiped away a tear that began to fall.
While she mused, Shiromei finished his prayer and took a short moment to sigh. He made his way back to the hallway and to Watanabe and his wife. He shared a consolation, and they all fell silent again. Oh continued to survey the room, listening as Shiromei and Watanabe continued their discussion.
Shiromei continued, “It would be an honor most sincere if you would like me to offer…”
Watanabe cut him off, keeping the embrace of his wife. “This and so many other things are in my thoughts now,” he said. “And what of the Shogun or his envoy? Who will be coming to this estate in the next few days, and what will they find?”
Shiromei was stunned. “It is not my place to say, my lord, although…”
“Or perhaps we should send someone to meet them? To race ahead with horses of our own to tell them thank you but it’s not necessary?”
Oh regained her composure even as Shiromei was losing his. She presented herself to the hallway and bowed in compassion and respect.
“Dearest Watanabe,” she addressed them both, “this is a tragedy most true, and I am deeply moved as you are. And while tragic, it is not exactly unheard of. We can surely provide her proper respect and I will explain to the Shogun on your behalf.”
“Will it be so easy?” Watanabe said, trying to keep in check as much as possible. “Or will she still be taken from us, taken to the pagoda of the Shogun?”
“Yes!” Yanagi Watanabe broke from her husband to confront Onēsama directly. The forcefulness of her approach backed Oh into the wall, Yanagi’s smaller statue nevertheless overpowering the ample matchmaker. “You have given our daughter over to him already! She was lost to us the moment you gave us this ‘blessing!’
“My wife!” Watanabe enfolded her again.
“At least we can truly mourn, as we have a true loss,” Yanagi said, finally gave in to her tears for the first time.
“Yes, well, we should throw the water to cleanse the lands,” Shiromei said, opening his arms wide for embrace as well as guidance away from the scene, “Please.” He looked back at Oh with direction in his eyes which said “we must find out what happened!”
Silence returned to the hallway, and Oh made her way respectfully back into Tamiko’s room. Had her spirit simply flown away? Unlikely, not without purpose. Oh regarded the mochi. The sticky, starchy dessert had been commonly known to have a large risk of choking, but the girl’s body was laid back much too neatly for a choking accident. Perhaps too neatly for any accident at all. Was the girl truly as upset to take her own life? As she said, these moments, however tragic, were not unheard of. Not in her profession. Did she misread the conversation of last night? Tamiko was certainly confused, fearful, but not nihilistic.
There was only one other possibility. She straightened herself, looking around. The bedroom was small and sparse. The objects she talked to earlier belonged in other rooms, but perhaps … the lantern here? No response. The head pillow? Too new to have grown a spirit. The handmirror? As if one could trust a mirror. The golden comb would have been a reliable source, but Tamiko had already given that away. The calligraphy wall-hanging?
“Painting? Can you hear me?” Oh sidled up to it.
“Yes,” it’s voice was very soft indeed, the “ロ” of the word “和” opening like a mouth.
“Can you tell me what transpired here last night?”
The word remained silent.
“Do you understand my question?”
“No,” it whispered.
“Do you know the girl who sleeps?”
“Did she sleep last night?”
“Did any other person come here last night?”
“Did she sleep after she ate?”
“Did she … cry?”
“Should I eat the cake too?”
Oh walked over, then bent down, just to look at the cakes.
“No,” the sign whispered.
Onēsama wandered the silent halls of the estate, made more dark with the stillness of death. There was obvious tension in this town, and this would only darken the future were there should be growing light. That there was poison in the mochi was no doubt, but there was much doubt over everything else.
She stopped in the main room where she had begun her work the day before. “Dear spirits?” she asked, “You have watched over this house and have been good items just as your people have been good to you. I will ask, and if you are open, I will listen.”
The spirit-filled items of the room seemed to open and rise as one, making the whole room feel swollen and fallen with a heavy sigh. The lantern was the first to truly open, its pleats arching to form sad eyebrows and a vague mouth.
“Light?” it asked.
“Soon, Dear Lantern. But first tell me who enjoyed your light during the night yesterday?”
“Watanabe-san!” The lantern brightened, as if self-lit.
“Of course. And Yanagi?” As Oh questioned, the lantern lit more brightly to signal correct answers.
“And Tamiko?” The lantern dimmed.
“And Goshoku?” The lantern brightened considerably.
“Yes. (The man does make an impression on a room.) And he was apologizing?” Brightness. “With a gift?” Bright. “Of mochi?” Flicker. Oh rephrased her question. “With a package wrapped?” Bright. “Were there thanks given?” Dim. “Anger?”
The lantern folded its pleats as if to demure. It almost giggled to report some inappropriate gossip. Its glow was bright, as if to blush. “Uh-HUH!”
Oh left to find the kitchen and food pantry. The house remained empty even of attendants, no doubt from Watanabe’s orders, but still Oh tiptoed as best she could, feeling like an interloper.
Soon, sure enough, she found what must have been Goshoku’s scarf for wrapping the gift, and a small box that still carried the smell of steamed bamboo leaves. The dramatic display during dinner was not the only theatrics of last night, it seemed. “Well!” Throwing her hands to her hips, Oh announced to any object that would listen that it was time talk to Goshoku.
When Onēsama finally returned at the inn, it was even more bustling than she had left it. Attendants and retainers were scurrying about, unloading things from horses and palanquins.
The samurai Bushi stood tall as he oversaw the men. He held his helmet in one crooked arm, his other hand on the hilt of his sword, despite wearing a day yukata. Onēsama expressed surprise; it seemed he was arriving as if for the first time.
“Hmm,” Bushi continued to look at his servants. “We were ready to leave when word reached us, and thus already we return. We will not leave at this unfortunate time, and will honor Watanabe as needed.”
“A truly noble man!” Oh bowed, and while low she noticed a tassel knotted to the tip of his sword’s pommel, complete with an elaborate but tiny charm illustrated with a lotus flower. The center of the flower formed a face, closing its eyes to return the bow. “And a truly noble mark of blessing!”
Bushi barely acknowledged it but his voice was proud. “A legacy from my father. It shows the beauty of struggle, the triumph of prosperity. Did you know the lotus begins life submerged in water, and must struggle upwards from the bottom of the swamp, until it can unfold to the light of day?”
The center of the lotus mark showed Oh its pride by transforming into a picture of the sun.
“Forgive my rudeness,” Oh did not wish to appear indelicate, but the subject must be broached. “Will Goshoku-san…?”
Bushi looked at her with a sudden flash from his eyes. “Our noble neighbor professes to make good on his claim and readies his return to his father.”
“Perhaps he will deliver the news to Gokenin, who will return with condolences personally?”
“Or with condescension,” Bushi caught himself and shrugged to regain composure. “Perhaps he will, if common courtesy becomes more common.”
Oh noticed the lotus center had turned into a ball of fire. After a breath, she played a hunch. “Yes, surely. I was just remarking what a shame it was that I wasn’t given the courtesy of some basic information before I began my work. It seems Tamiko may have already been pursued by Gokenin, the governor himself. Perhaps for his son…”
“I do not know if such information is truly a courtesy,” Bushi sighed. “Onēsama, you must realize these lands are not what they once were. The Shogun may be searching far and wide for a match to his son, but not all the governors are keen to find such favor. Some may be looking to each other, forging alliances over power that should be left to the Shogun and his samurai. The beauty of Tamiko was hoped for by … many.”
“For old Gokenin himself?” Oh realized, but the lotus center became a face looking plaintively at her. It cast its eyes upward to its owner. “And… you?” She laid an understanding hand on the man’s powerful shoulder, noticing his attention was not on his servants but back towards the Watanabe estate.
“Courtesy, indeed,” Bushi flinched the hand away.
Onēsama bowed low. “Ah! Sincere apologies! And, ah, as a token of my apology, and sympathy, let me take your charm to my friend the priest and return it to you with a blessing. He would very much appreciate your story as we continue to find our way out of the swamp and into the open air.”
The lotus appeared happy at its potential blessing, making soft cooing sounds and burbles as the matchmaker and the samurai regarded one another, and he agreed.
Oh did not pass too far inside when she turned the corner and nearly bumped into Toribo, the innkeepers’ son. Despite his strapping young stature, he looked nearly eye-to-eye to her, and without speaking, he bowed appropriately and took his leave.
“Ah, Toribo-san, I pray my situation has not made any undue demands upon you all. However, if I may put some questions to you? I am looking for Goshoku-san…”
“He is in the main hall for morning meal.”
“I hear that he was out late last night, meeting with Watanabe?”
Toribo regarded the plump and forward matchmaker.
“I cannot say,” he said, which Oh took as confirmation.
“Of course, of course. I just wondered if there were others who must have also come home late. Perhaps his retinue…?”
“As far as I know, ma’am, everyone was accounted for as appropriate.”
“Ah, and this must truly be unforgivable to ask, but if it’s something easy to repeat, I would very much appreciate drinking from the same teacup that you served me last night.”
“Everything will be in order, ma’am,” he said and continued walking.
“Yes,” Oh said, more to herself this time time, “Something Yanagi Watanabe would say, I’m sure.”
At her name, Toribo paused, just so slightly, bristling ever so subtlety. Oh also continued on her way, but considered. Young Toribo would be the closest in age to Tamiko of all her potential matches. Could it be there was another who hoped for her, albeit far outside his station? Still, there was something about this young man that failed to make him a perfect match, according to her intuition. Not that this would preclude anyone from pining for someone. Poor Tamiko! To be able to touch so many lives simply by being herself! It was something she must have seen as a responsibility, if not a duty, with the added tragedy that, in hoping to please everyone, she was destined to disappoint all.