Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
The Dragon Forgets what More it Had to Say
“…and the monk fell DOWN, the Mirumoto ran ‘round, and the Agasha GIRL ran screee-eeaming!” Togashi Umeko sang loudly as she wobbled closer to the river’s banks. “Hmm…or was it…the Agasha girl was dreaming? Found meaning? Maybe the monk was the one who found meaning…ugh, Dragon drinking songs are really awful! I’ve got to learn some better ones, maybe Crab, or Lion…” she giggled to herself as she hopped nimbly onto a large river rock breaking through the surface of the current. “Ha! That was pretty good! Maybe drinking isn’t as bad as they say it is.” She closed her left eye and stuck her tongue out in concentration, trying to step to a much smaller rock with her right foot. Losing her balance momentarily, she regained it as she twisted her foot out on the smaller rock, her left foot resting on her right knee, her muscled arms stretched high above her head. “Tree pose!” she announced triumphantly to the grove around her. The warm summer winds gently rustled the leaves of the trees, and birds called lazily to one another in the heat. Umeko sighed dramatically. “You guys are such a tough audience. Ah well, now for my next act!”
Umeko continued to make slow progress across the river rocks, tilting dangerously and giggling uproariously with every step. Her journey to the Scorpion lands had not proven fruitful in the way she had hoped it would, but since learning that she could drink liquor so long as she was not the one that purchased it, she had sought out the famous wines in every decent village from the high passes near Shiro Soshi to the great pleasure dens of Ryoko Owari. It seemed to her that the rest of the Empire made too much of the Scorpion being such a mysterious foe: they were just as willing to buy a drink in exchange for an ise zumi’s tales or blessings as anyone else. She dutifully blessed children, cleaned what temples she could, and told stories of her travels in exchange for rice seasoned with curry or jasmine powders and cold flagons of delicious drinks.
The Scorpion had been throwing many lavish parties lately — in celebration of summer and Hige-sama’s glorious works, they said — and she was welcomed in to every single one she came across. It had been a good summer: decadent by any monk’s standards, but here, so far from the lofty reaches of the Mountain, she finally felt as though she was learning the ways of her fellow samurai, and balancing them with her own sense of rightness. The idle curiosity that had found purchase in her wandering feet — the half-cooked desire to find her father — seemed to her something the wisest of monks would frown on before they would scold her for a drink or two.
“…or three, or four…” she added out loud to her reminiscing. “Maybe…six…seven…ahhhh…”
Maybe they would scold her no matter what. It didn’t matter; she was here now, and since she could remember nothing more than her father was a Bayushi and her mother an Utaku, she felt foolish asking these worldly folk if they could help her with such a task. Besides, she was supposed to be listening for anything that might give some guidance on the Tablet; her own inner voice had been conspicuously silent on the matter, even when she wasn’t drinking.
“But…there’s no real way to go about THAT, either!” she burst out in frustration, landing in a tight crouch after a flying leap from the last rock to the river’s western bank. Even in the bustling city of Ryoko Owari, she had not been able to find any indication of how to find more knowledge on the subject. The sole library in town was almost TOO devoid of any unscrupulous knowledge, and the gambling dens and other houses — that, even in her newfound state of personal freedom, held no temptation for her — kept more whispers than they founded. It was indeed a city of secrets and lies, but none of the sort she was seeking. Halfway through her visit there, while watching a very clever street play about the monks of Osano-wo, she realised she had no reason to stay in these lands any longer.
After a final night of sampling wines brewed with plums and tea (complete with a jug of her very own to take with her on her travels), she had set out that morning to head back north to the path winding its way through the mountains of the Soshi. She knew she would have no trouble getting back that way, she thought with a smile as she stretched out on the riverbank to loosen her muscles: on the way in, one guard had thought to tell her that the mountain passes were difficult to traverse, and she had said nothing, only turned her head so her Dragon tattoo was visible. The man had blushed deeply behind his mask and bowed, making comments about how he realised these mountain passes must mean nothing to one who has climbed the Mountain, and sent her on her way. She thought Yuuko would be happy to hear of that success; Umeko supposed it was something like the subtle games played at court.
“Because subtle, Umeko, you are REALLY NOT!” she barked, bounding to her feet and rolling her neck. Suddenly, she became aware of the sounds of many footsteps moving swiftly through the grove. She planted her feet and prepared to turn to face them, dropping into kamae dachi and willing her blood to infuse her body with the power of the dragon tattoo. Just then, the riverbank gave way under her foot, and with a little yelp, she splashed unceremoniously into its currents. Surfacing, she looked around wild eyed, only to see a large troop of Scorpion moving in an orderly manner across a large bridge that was mere yards downstream from where she had started leaping on the rocks. They eyed her mildly; thinking as quickly as her wine-soaked mind would allow, she began singing to herself and doing a lazy backstroke down the river. The Scorpion exchanged flat-eyed glances and kept moving at a brisk pace, never uttering a word.
The sun was setting when the last of them finally crossed the bridge, and Umeko swam to the banks and climbed out, squeezing as much water out of her meager garments as she could. Her travelling pack had come open in the river, and upon inspection, she found that the half-empty jug of plum and tea wine had fallen into the river, along with her spare set of undergarments and her travelling papers. She groaned, thanking the Kami that she’d had the mon of an Imperial Magistrate sewn to her garments before leaving Hige’s castle. Moving as quickly as her flapping hakama would allow, she made her way to the next village and performed her duties in exchange for a room, meal, hot tea, and even a new-ish set of undergarments. She fell asleep promptly, her head still spinning from the day of wine-drinking and an unexpected swim.
Upon waking the next morning, Umeko groaned angrily at the sunlight stabbing at her eyes from the window, seeming to stick prying fingers into the throbbing inside her skull. She threw the blanket over her head, cursing herself for her excess. “There HAS to be a tattoo to prevent this,” she muttered angrily. “I have no idea how all those courtiers do this all the time.” After a leisurely bath, breakfast, all the water and tea she could drink, and blessing a child that was born the night before, she began strolling leisurely up the road towards the mountain passes.
Suddenly she stopped, mouth open wide. “Ah! UMEKO! You fool! The Scorpion force…why are they moving so fast…where are they going?! You are a TERRIBLE magistrate! Now you’ve got to hurry back to Hige-sama’s castle and tell him what you saw…oh, I’m just awful at all this! I wonder if Sensei will give me a centipede tattoo…” She settled into a steady jog, cursing herself with every step for losing her Way. It seemed the Scorpion could be an insidious enemy, after all; they simply turned one against oneself and left things at that.
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