Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Frozen Tears of Heaven
Early Spring had come to Rokugan, a time when festivals and yellow-green growth should have filled the land, rivers released from their icy winter beds, the young stars visible in clear skies. However, in Otosan Uchi, snows still fell thick and wet, muffling the growth and sounds of spring under a glittering blanket.
The snow fell in fat flakes on many ponds and small rivers that filled the capital city, floating like foam on rippling water before succumbing to the pull of the currents. In the gardens behind a pagoda as cheerfully golden as the day was bleakly grey, two figures circled each other slowly, careful steps and bright kimono tracing a spiral in the snow. The smaller of the two figures, garbed in rich blues and whites with flower kanzashi pinning back her flowing hair, struck at the other form. Dressed in the vibrant hues of flames, hair unbound hanging to the curve of hips beneath the silk, the second figure flowed around the strike effortlessly, disarming her opponent’s weapon with a deft twirl of her kimono sleeve and resting the point of her bokken on the younger woman’s obi.
“Ah! You truly make the fool of me, Nat-chan!”, laughed the woman in blue, untangling herself from kimono sleeve and bowing, palms up in surrender.
Bayushi Natsuki, sheathing her sword and smoothing her hair, raised an eyebrow so high that it arched above her mask. “Nat-chan, is it now, Hisahime? Why, just last evening it was most certainly Bayushi-sama, hmm?” A slight quirk of her red-stained lips lent the utmost levity to her words, teasing between women who were best of friends.
Otomo Hisahime straightened with the grace of a dancer and grinned merrily at her friend, slight spots of colour on her cheeks the only sign of discomfort. “Well, of course. What else would I call my most honoured sensei? Surely, the fault must be yours for becoming so familiar with me in just one evening.” She giggled again, golden windchimes in the heart of summer, took her bokken from her friend’s outstretched hand and turned towards the doors of the pagoda. “Come, Nat-chan. It grows too cold; soon I will surely freeze myself to the ground with my slow feet and clumsy steps!”
Natsuki nodded to the woman’s retreating form and followed with gracefully efficient strides. Hisahime was skilled in the fine arts of court; she could dance to captivate and arrange flowers to please, but her skills with the sword and stances were decidedly lacking. No matter; before any harm could come to the young woman, Natsuki had sworn she would be there, swooping in to deflect any blows and usher her to safety. Still, it could do only good to teach her the skills to defend herself.
Someday, Natsuki thought wryly to herself, she may even decide to use them.
Hisahime suddenly rounded on Natsuko as they turned a corner in the hallways of the pagoda. “Really, Nat-chan, always smirking to yourself under that mask!” She tugged on the corners of the red velvet tied onto the other woman’s face, pausing to trace one of the two delicate gold lotuses at the outer corner of each of the mask’s eyes. “Or,” she said softly, wondering, “is your smirking yet another face to hide behind?”
Natsuki sighed, gently plucked Hisahime’s hand away from her face, and brushed past the girl. “I see you are excelling in your study of dramatic poetry, Hisa-kun.” She made the honorific sound playful, despite the unease roiling in her chest. “Do you have any particularly eloquent way to ask someone for tea and supper?” Hisahime grumbled something softly under her breath, but stopped to tell the next passing servant to have hot tea and warm dinner sent to her chambers.
The Scorpion woman continued down the hallway towards a set of narrow steps, lost in thought. The lingering, thick winter was beginning to weigh on her like an ache in a broken bone long healed. She was a woman given to caution; she had, after all, been discreetly assigned to this post for a reason. It was merely an added complication that her year of service here had made a friend of the woman she was instructed to watch over; she had expected to serve devoid of emotion and driven by duty. Her care for the flighty young Otomo girl had changed her mission to a more personal one, and so now the disquiet seeping through the capital, rising to the rooftops like morning mist, combined with the furtive glances and hissed conversations transpiring under the endless snow, made her worried and suspicious. Words made their way to her in dreams, in tiny scrolls hidden in casings no thicker than a dove’s leg, in her meals and her jars of sake, and they all warned of the Prophecy. She closed her eyes for a moment, pausing on the stairs to collect herself. She hardly dared think of it, tried to keep it out of the calm center of her mind, but it gnawed at the edges of thought like a hungry dog. Prophecy. Keep your eyes sharp behind that peak-nosed mask. Anything is suspect, even the purest candle with no seeming shadow.
Hisahime’s hurried scuffle along the hall behind her warned her to straighten up and look sly mere moments before the woman arrived, all smiles and breathless cheer. “Ahh, sending for a hot meal this far along in the Spring! Why, soon we’ll be celebrating the festival of Kono-no-Hama and her Thousand Flowers, and the only blossoms anywhere in Rokugan are wilting even in the hothouses!” Hisahime did not look truly disturbed by the unnatural weather, however; as usual, she took things as she saw them, analyzed quickly and filed away for later. Perhaps later, if trouble surfaced, she would look back to the cold spring and see how it was a true omen, but by then it would be too little, too late. Natsuki shivered.
“Come, Nat-chan. After dinner we’ll draw up a hot bath; you look as though you’re catching a chill.” Hisahime guided the woman, ten years her senior, gently by the elbow into their shared room as if a chill made her an invalid. Natsuki rolled her eyes, but indulgently allowed herself to be set down on a dry pallet in front of the table, outer kimono removed and replaced with a warm blanket, and tucked into her place at the kotatsu just like an old, addled monk. When the food arrived and Hisahime kneeled to feed her the miso, spoonful by spoonful, Natsuki put her foot down. “I can bat your sword away like a moth, Hisa-kun. I believe I can lift my own broth to my lips, thank you.”
The younger girl had the grace to look flustered, but only for a moment. “Why, of course. Forgive me…the cold must be getting to me, too.” She smiled sweetly and settled herself under the kotatsu, eating her meal quickly and with obvious relish, but somehow retaining delicacy and neatness. Natsuki ate her own supper a little more slowly, chewing each bite thoughtfully and staring into the middle distance. In the next chamber, soft music rose from a Satsuma biwa, and the clever series of copper pipes that brought in water from the hot springs outside began creaking as they were cranked open, water bubbling as it splashed into a bronze tub.
After finishing her meal, Natsuki stood with a contented sigh, Hisahime rising just a moment after her. “Shall we wash this long day off ourselves, Hisahime?” Natsuki said, dropping the blanket off her shoulders and unfastening her under kimono as she sauntered to the baths. Seeing that the baths were drawn, an herb-infused chunk of soap laid neatly upon fresh towels, and lanterns lit, Natsuki dismissed the servants and the biwa player as the last of her clothing dropped to the floor. They looked to Hisahime quickly, who nodded assent, before bowing their way out of the room.
The Scorpion woman untied her mask finally, placing it with care on top of her kimono, and then faced the Otomo, motioning for her to turn around. “Here, let me help you with your obi. I want to make sure we get in the bath while the water is still nice and hot.”
Hisahime nodded, seeming a little distracted, and began letting her hair down as Natsuki undid the complicated folds that made up Hisahime’s musubi. “Nat-chan…”, she mumbled, placing her kanzashi on the small table that held the towels and soap, “you spoil me. This is something the servants should do…you need not waste your time with it.”
Natsuki paused a moment, choosing her answer carefully. “And what am I but a servant to the Empire, my dear? There are certain tasks I find I prefer to complete with my own hands.”
Hisahime laughed softly. “Careful, or you will begin to sound like a clever old lech. Unless that’s what you want, of course?” Dropping her loosened obi to the ground, kimono following quickly, she tapped Natsuki on the nose with a smile and stepped into the bath. “If you insist upon attending to my person, then, will you kindly wash my back? I promise to return the favour.”
Picking up the soap, Natsuki slipped into the bath behind her friend and poured ladles of water over her hair and shoulders, then began to gently massage soap into her hair and scrub her back. “Relax, dear. It’s not in every city that one gets to have a hot bath in the snow; enjoy it.”
Hisahime closed her eyes and rolled her neck. She was still not accustomed to fighting, and it left her stiff and exhausted, but she was determined not to show that. Instead, she finally gave voice to the curiosity that had been bubbling under her thoughts for weeks, pulling at the corners of her focus. “Nat…Natsuki. I love and appreciate your friendship, and am honoured daily by your presence and patience with me. However, I am not so foolish a girl as I may seem. I am just another Otomo here in Otosan Uchi, and yet for the past year, you have firmly made yourself a part of my life. For a long time I was simply grateful to have a friend, teacher, and…well, yes…ah! Don’t pinch!…but I cannot help but notice that since you have been with me, the shining world of the capital has begun to tarnish itself.”
“Hisahime, I don’t think—-” Natsuki cut in, nearly dropping the soap, but the younger woman continued.
“Please, Natsuki. I know what the name Bayushi means, and what your oaths are. I do not accuse you of anything untoward. Still, though, I think you know somewhat more of the tension hidden under these late snows than I.” She stopped talking, quietly rinsing the soap out of her hair and wringing water out of its dark lengths.
Natsuki closed her eyes, and slowly leaned forward until her forehead rested between Hisahime’s shoulderblades. The Otomo did not move, but her breath hitched a moment before continuing, and Natsuki could almost see her pulse under her skin. “Please,” Natsuki breathed, barely audible. “Know only that I am here to keep you in my care, and continue to watch the movements of others. I cannot see—-I cannot know the workings of the stars, my dear, and if I did, I would not trust myself to divulge them correctly. I can only beg of you to keep your eyes sharp, and your blade sharper.”
Hisahime nodded almost imperceptibly, then turned swiftly to face the Bayushi, embracing her and kissing her with a ferocity that was quickly returned. Steaming water spilled over the sides of the bath and crept along the ground, dripping between slats of bamboo and eventually soaking into the discarded kimono on the floor. Natsuki’s red velvet upper-face mask began to take on water, the cloth over the left eye darkening, the golden lotus reflecting the lantern light in the room. Unsurprisingly, neither woman noticed.
“What if I’m married off to some old gunso, Nat-chan?” Hisahime drawled sleepily from her futon. The two women had always slept with their beds pushed together, although now it served a purpose more delightful than easy security. “I’m not naïve enough to believe that we’ll be allowed to continue as we are.”
Coiling her hair up into a swift bun and pinning into place, Natsuki held her wakizashi ready as she did a quick patrol of the room. “Then you will be married, and I will either follow you or move on, as my lord commands. Don’t look so startled,” she reprimanded the girl, who indeed looked like a fish on land. “Surely you could not think I would say anything less. These times do not lend themselves to the matters of the heart, unfortunately.” She said this last more gently, feeling a pang of sadness. Kneeling by Hisahime’s feet, she tugged the woman’s tabi socks off and folded them together. “Please, dear, I cannot abide sleeping with someone who leaves their socks on.”
“Well—-it’s COLD! Or hadn’t you noticed? Do not be surprised if you find these feet nestled next to the golden lotus that has nothing to do with your mask, Nat-chan.”
Chuckling to herself, Natsuki went to the door of the room to find a servant to bring an extra blanket. However, when she slid the door aside, no guards were in sight, and no servants walked the halls. Only one lamp was lit, and it guttered in its sconce, casting fitful shadows that flung themselves about like leaves in a storm. The silence was eerie and oppressive, and Natsuki found herself wishing that she had her mask on. Guards had been sporadically moving about lately, so it was not entirely abnormal to not see any, but on top of her recent sense of misgiving, it was almost enough to make her dress quickly and carry Hisahime out of the capital over her shoulder if she had to.
Instead, she composed her face, which Hisahime had correctly identified as the Scorpion’s true mask, and slid the door closed. Climbing onto the soft futon next to Hisahime, her charge, her friend, and lover, she kissed the already-sleeping Otomo on her neck, and dropped into a warrior’s sleep with her left arm holding the woman close, her wakizashi in her right hand nestled between their backs.
Outside, the snow swirled in a moaning fury, and figures moved and met in the night, dispersing quickly before they could be seen together. The moon occasionally shone through patches in the swiftly-moving clouds, illuminating the frozen earth beneath it. In the distance, a wild fox keened over and over, sounding for all the world like a woman whose heart had been torn from her living chest, and the night sped on towards whatever the morning would bring.
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