Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
“Kamikakushi’ [Spirited Away] is a verdict of ‘social death’ in this world, and coming back to this world from Kamikakushi meant ‘social resurrection.’
It was a beautiful season to be in the Chisei District of Otosan Uchi. The day had dawned bright and warm, but had not yet reached the unbearable liquid heat of the afternoon. Birds sang in tree branches that dripped with brilliant green leaves yet untouched by insects, and artfully placed fountains gave off a slight cooling spray when brushed by fragrant breezes. Colourful paper lanterns, extinguished since sunrise, festooned every house along the main street, their screens pushed open to welcome the morning air. The city was quiet here in the central courtyard, the buzz of voices from surrounding streets a distant backdrop of white noise, and the scents of peonies, fresh tea, and teakwood permeated the air.
A perfectly idyllic scene, Doji Jun mused to herself as she lightly fanned her face with a white linen fan, if one does not take into account precisely WHY it is so quiet, especially with so many folk assembled.
Indeed, there were no fewer than four hundred samurai gathered here this summer morning, wearing the colours and mon of every great Clan. Most stood in orderly rows ten wide with an aisle cleared in the center, but those of the Seppun, Otomo, and Miya families stood facing their audience on a stone platform usually reserved for the finest performing groups.
“Perhaps they are going to confirm the rumours that their noble faces are carved from the same stone they stand upon,” Jun murmured behind her fan to the woman standing next to her. Daidoji Mukira, Jun’s faithful yojimbo for many years now, gave her charge a small smile. Jun was the niece of the late Hantei XL’s wife, and as such had spent most of her life surrounded by the Imperials. She had taught Mukira quite quickly that correctness and politeness were imperative with those families, but a bit of quiet humour were necessary in private to keep your mind from going as stiff as theirs seemed to be.
Their secret smiles vanished as Doji Hajime made his way into the courtyard from behind the stage, flanked by three score of Daidoji and Kenshinzen guards. He was dressed resplendently, four kimono layered to resemble a hazy summer sky with a touch of clouds, his mantle the blue of the sky’s zenith with pure white Crane mon on each shoulder. His long snowy hair was pulled back at the forehead and temples into elaborate braids that blended in flawlessly with the loose hair that tumbled down his back. Eyes the same colour as his mantle blazed in a sternly handsome face, surveying the crowd before him. Jun realised suddenly that her breath had caught upon seeing him; she released it as quietly as she could, forcing herself to continue fanning herself idly. It had been a long time since she had seen the Champion look so regal. Mukira twitched an eyebrow, and Jun knew that she felt the same way; it was a very expressive reaction from her stoic guard.
After Hajime and his guards had organized themselves among the Imperials, the Crane Champion stepped to the front of the stage and gave a slight bow, which the crowd returned quite deeply. He waited a few more moments, seemingly enjoying the sounds of birdsong and the susurrus of kimono shifting, and then drew breath and spoke in a musical, clear voice.
“My friends,” he began, “you have no doubt heard the news that the Hantei has disappeared from the capitol.” He waited patiently for the chorus of snapped fans and muttered distress to abate. “I must confirm that the Empress was indeed spirited away in a most…curious…fashion. Whereas the long-esteemed Empress Guard was dispatched most honourably to humbly present a few pertinent questions to our most revered Hantei, one among the Scorpion Clan,” he cast his blazing blue gaze upon some unfortunate in the front row of spectators, “one Bayushi Natsuki, seems to have found it more fitting to take our Empress to the high seas. Oh yes,” he said with a nod to the gasps of shock from his audience, “the Mantis Clan seems to think itself worthy enough to involve itself in whatever politics will earn them a profit. Which coffers did the payment come from, I wonder?” he said, tapping his chin with his fan. “Perhaps our most high Champion, Soshi Hige-sama, could enlighten us!”
At his words, followed by utter silence from the stunned crowd, Hige stepped from the front row onto the platform. All in attendance made their deepest bows, welcoming the opportunity to share their shock only with the earth below their feet. “Rise,” Hige said, his voice thick with irritation. “Hajime-san, kindly be plain with your intentions. My mind is heavy with the disappearance of our Empress, and I am sure those before us wish nothing more than to learn of her fate. If you have a winning piece to play, please do so now.”
Hajime arched a perfect white eyebrow, looking for all the world like a wise sensei confronted with an unruly student. “My winning piece, Hige…sama? Why, I could not name just one.” His perfect, coral-coloured lips arced in a small smile. “Where should I start? Perhaps with the fact that the Empress Guard was seeking to ask our Empress a few…overdue…questions, such as taking her before the Seppun to establish her true parentage. Now, now,” he said, his smile baring a hint of teeth in response to the murmurs among the crowd, “one does not request this without just cause. My cause was simply that a man verified as Hantei Hisahime’s mother’s brother came before me some weeks ago and told me a FASCINATING tale. You see,” he said, turning a conspiratorial glance to those gathered before him, “it seems that his esteemed sister had somewhat of a mishap, oh, say, twenty-four years past. She had the misfortune to fall in love with a Scorpion — truly an unenviable situation — ” he shuddered dramatically, “and was allegedly stricken with his child. This woman was due to be wed to an Otomo, the brother of our revered departed Hantei XL. Her brother, who has since repented for his actions by taking his own life with my own person as his second, arranged for the marriage to be completed quickly. Hisahime-sama was born, and no one was the wiser. Imagine then,” he said, stepping down from the stage, “my dilemma at learning this testimony. Summon up, if you will, what your honour would have demanded when confronted with such a circumstance.” He furrowed his brow at the rich earth beneath his feet, looking for all the world like a man conquered by ill happenstance. “Mine own could demand no less than a simple verification from the honoured Seppun that her lineage was as all had claimed — a descendant of the Most Holy who founded our great Empire.” He looked at those around him, his eyes endless, pooled with desperation. “What else could I have done? I could not sit on such an infraction, could not properly serve a Daughter of Heaven who turned out to be a Daughter of…Bayushi.” He bared his teeth in a snarl of a smile, and Doji Jun noticed Hige-sama’s eyes narrowing above his mempo. “I sought to have her detained by the Empress Guard, an elite force serving the Crane’s sense of rightness since the dawning of the Empire, and here I am thwarted by ANOTHER daughter of Bayushi.” He turned on his heel, facing Soshi Hige. “Champion-sama, surely you must have some insight into Bayushi’s motives. Please, enlighten this one as to the correct path out of this labyrinth of conspiracy.”
Hige stepped forward, the Imperials around him granting him perfect bows born from instinct. He regarded Hajime for a long while; cicadas cried their unearthly cry, fountains gurgled and made rainbows with the sun, the day grew warmer around them. Finally, Hige turned his piercing eyes to Hajime, and said, “You have not come here to ask questions, Hajime-san. You have come here with a solution in mind, and I mean to hear it.”
Hajime laughed, a rich, infectious sound that sang in the boughs of the trees. “Our esteemed Champion is wise. I do,” he said, turning back to his audience, “have an answer to our predicament, assuming all here are in agreement that my words are truth. My solution is to put one who is veritably of Hantei blood upon our ancient throne…none other than the niece of Hantei Fujiwara, one Doji Jun!”
He held out his arm with his hand open and palm up towards the sun, meeting Jun’s eyes flawlessly through the masses. She felt her mouth drop open, her fan fall from her nerveless fingers; he could have warned me!, her mind shouted furiously. Mukira was pushing on her upper arm, guiding her towards the implied summons of her Champion. She responded, trampling her beautiful fan under her muddy sandals, holding her head high above the wide eyes and fluttering fans of the courtiers around her. It is merely court, she could hear her mother saying. Act as though you were herding chickens, and then account for more panic than mindless beasts would show.
As she approached the stage with as much dignity as she could gather, she averted her eyes from Hige-sama’s furious gaze. “This is madness! This is, this is…HERESY!” he spat, his hand upon his blade as he faced Hajime.
“Is it?” Hajime responded coolly, waving his yojimbo forward. “Or is it greater heresy for a Clan who specializes in deception to put one on the throne that serves their needs? Why, Hige…sama….I believe you hail from that very same Clan!” He bared his teeth in a feline smile at the Champion. “Is there something you’re not telling us? Come, now, the Scorpion tell such colourful tapestries of tales once the first thread is pulled!”
Hige moved as if to draw his steel further, then abruptly faced away. “Say what you will of the Scorpion,” he growled. “They have never counted me among their worthy, and I have proven by my own arm that I am the servant of this Empire.”
“By your own arm?” the Crane replied, humour tinging his tone. “Hmmm, I would be rather more inclined to say it was the staying of Akodo Hizashi’s arm and the death of Hida Ban’s that won you your place…Hige.”
At the lack of any honorific, Hige turned again to face the Doji. “If you are proposing another Empress, I will consider it. I would wait until Hisahime-sama’s credentials are investigated. I will serve the one who sits the Throne. But I will never…NEVER…serve one so presumptuous as YOU.” He drew his sword and assumed his stance.
Hajime laughed again, this time covering his mouth with his fan. “Please, Hige-sama. Do not take words beyond their true meaning. I would find it difficult to serve one who reacted to question as a farmwife reacts to a mouse in her hay shed.” He chuckled along with the titters of agreement from the crowd. “Or are we simply establishing who has a sensible head in this Empire?” He gave an exaggerated bow to Hige before stepping back up on the stage, moving in front of the Emerald Champion ever so slightly. “Unless any can put forth a better claim, I, Doji Hajime, do set forth my support for Doji Jun, Daughter of Heaven, True-Blooded Heir of the Hantei Line, as our TRUE Empress and ruler. Do any contest this?”
The sun rose to its full height, bearing its judgement on those in the courtyard. None spoke, allowing their rustling bows and lowered eyes to do so for them. The only sound was Soshi Hige’s boots scraping and marching from the stage, his fists clenched, his sword sheathed. None followed him.