, , , , , , , , , ,

Author’s Note:

“History,” Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “is an agreed upon set of lies.” I like that quote because it helps me understand some of the prejudices that modern society, in all its wisdom, keeps holding on to, such as the concept that there never were any women warriors, or, at least, if there were then they were isolated instances during extraordinary times. The period of Japanese history this story takes place in is called the “Warring States Period,” a ten year long civil war between two powerful men, Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sozen, which then escalated into a nationwide war over who would be the next shogun. A lot of samurai movies from the 1960s and 1970s are set in this period; local warlords, daimyos, and their armies, all laying siege to each other’s castles and the like. Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 film “Ran” is set in this period. But that’s not what interests me.

Recently the U.S. War Department has contemplated allowing women serve as front-line soldiers, a level of equality in the armed services we’ve yet to attain. Many conservative groups have tsk-tsked the idea, though most of their objections seem to revolve around being squicked out at the idea of menstrual blood and cooties, in one form or another, and more than one talking-head pundit has made the claim that “the frail sex” simply is not the stuff of warriors. This is, of course, bizarre, since, as long as there have been wars, there have been women who have proved themselves again and again, not just in secondary roles, but as front-line soldiers, as generals and as strategists. In the bloody, feudalistic era of Japan there was a whole upper-class of female warriors called the Onna-bugeisha, trained in bushi (the way of the warrior) and the use of weapons, who fought along side their samurai counterparts. Significant historical figures, such as Empress Jingu and Tomoe Gozen, were, along with other women, all Onna-bugeishas who came to play an important role in Japan’s history. Though the term is only used once as a reference here, the point I wish to make is that Amaya (whose name means “night rain”) has the option of becoming a front-line soldier if she wished, something that today’s female American soldiers don’t have.

* * *

Love fills me completely
But after my first climax
Alas, she is gone.
— Kasannoin (courtesan, written on the eve of the Onin War, 1467–1477)

Snow. There was a moan, running backwards into the falling silence of dark flakes, golden dust motes. All that was simply reflecting upon itself over and over. Dark moments turned into light into dark into — it was afternoon. Warm winter sun slipped through the bamboo curtains. The young woman sat on her sleeping mat, legs akimbo, robes undone, an edge of black hair, a mouth perpendicular, then fell back, stretched out. A nice little warmth in her belly. When she rubbed, first it was nice, then it was good, then she itched in a way that was both curious and weird and — she forced herself to breathe, rubbing deeper, squeezing, warm-wetness between her legs, liquified heat in her belly, rising in pulsating waves. She panted and rubbed and something broke, she thought something broke, a release, an abominable gushing — so much! — gushed out of her, all greenish heat and bluish light and her legs wobbled and she slid, panting, into puddle on the floor.

The bedroom’s sliding door was open. She brought her hand up; peered at it. Something was wet, smeared against her fingers. She could feel her soul pulse, throbbing away out on the tips of her cum-coated fingers.

Yes. The bedroom’s door was open. Curious. There was no light in the room, though swirling snow fell outside. Why was the bedroom door open? From far out in the dark a fox barked. For, there, outlined against the bleak light of the winter dawn, a figure stood at the bedroom door. Silhouetted. The young woman on the floor, flustered, attempted to pull her robes around her naked shoulders. But even as she began to move, suddenly, there were hands reaching down to grab hers, a shock of impossibly white hair like what the dead wear when they visit you in your dreams, and the young woman was on her feet, her kimono billowing while the two of them now ran; away from the bedroom and the dark and the light and now the one in the dark robes, holding her hand, had begun to laugh and suddenly the young woman laughed too and they crossed a field of dust and snow, their bare feet leaving not a single track in the drifts and tumbled against a stone wall with frozen aloe plants all in the nooks and crannies and the stranger kissed the young woman, a brush of sharp lips, whiskers, a quick dip of her tongue against a closed lower lip. Her skin was darker than the young woman’s, her hair larger, her body thicker, her voice richer. She tasted of roses and cinnamon. Tongues explored, coaxed, exhilarated. Fingers laced with the cruelest of claws running between the young woman’s open thighs as she, for the first time, touched the stranger’s kinky hedge of pubic hair, then slipped into wet slick flesh.

There was a pounding in her ears. Blood. A war kettle drum. A fist banging upon a wooden door. The ghost of all this desire pounding against the heart.

The wind, naked and flushed and glowing, found them. Snow curled around them, pressed together, grinding, this new hunger that led from hand to hand to fingers to fingers to lips to lips to …

… Amaya no Sozen sat up in the darkness of her bedroom, roused from her rabid dream by a violent muffled knocking. The house was full of indistinguishable sounds. Her little room was dark, cold. She huddled against the tatami mat again, pulled the coverlet round her shoulders, still listening. She knew that the knocking had been on the outer gate, she could hear horses in the courtyard, the clatter of armed men dismounting.

A quickly-moving glow, a lantern on a pole, flickered across her narrow window. Doors could be heard opening, shutting, footsteps running along the passage.

Unable to endure her curiosity any longer, she sat up again, leaned over her sleeping mat to prod her little brother. They shared the same room, along with their old nurse maid who slept next to her. Chizuru, though, was gone and her brother dreamed on, undisturbed by the sudden clamor which had broken upon her during a long winter night.

“Wake up!” she whispered with impatience. “Wake up! I believe father and elder brother Mori have come home!”

The younger child stirred, sighed.

“Don’t you want to go see?” his sister asked.

“But it is only father!” protested the half-awake boy. “If we get up to go on to the stairs he will probably see us and scold us.”

“How can you sleep, Ki-yo?” Amaya asked, brushing a lock of black hair out of her eyes. “When you know father has just come home?”

“I am not sleeping.” Kiyotaka sat up grumpily, shivered in the February air. “How do you know it is father? It may be Yoshi.”

“Yoshihisa has gone to Nagasaki,” replied the young woman, in wise, eager excitement, “but our father only went to Kyoto. Nagasaki is a much greater distance away.”

Sister and brother listened in dark, fixing their straining eyes on the streaks of light that now showed faintly behind the shoji screens.

“If it is our father, he will want to to see us,” remarked the young woman.

“There is a great deal of noise,” responded Kiyotaka. “They seem to have forgotten all about us. Where is Baa-chan? I want a light, I hate the dark. You get up, Amaya-chan, see what is is all about.”

Eagerly the young woman stood, the sash of her sleeping robes trailing behind her as she fumbled across the cold dark room, then out into the upper gallery, full of flickering lanterns. Flushed with excitement, she stood still and listened. Amaya was just now nineteen, with a small compact face, bright dark hair flowing down below her hips. Seeing no one, not even Chizuru, who usually stood so diligently behind her ward, nor Morioka-sensei, her tutor, who was never generally far away either, she pattered across the dark gallery, looking over the head of the stairs.

She knew what her father wore when he went out: his purple and gold kimono, the emblem of the Shogun, his banner with the design of bamboo leaves and the moon, which, ever since she could remember, had been on the great northern gate of Raikou Castle, where she had been born and lived.

Now there were men in the great hall below, but none of them bore her father’s banner, nor the swallowtail butterfly descending upon a sprig of wild ginger, the coat of arms of the Nakahara clan, their allies. Her younger brother came up behind her, shivering.

“Why have you taken so long? What has happened?” he asked, peevishly.

“I do not know,” whispered Amaya, “there is a crowd of people down there, but they seem to be strangers. I can’t see father, Mori or Yoshi.”

The two of them huddled together, alert, curious, somewhat uneasy.

A few months ago their peaceful life at Raikou Castle had been interrupted by a rebellion. They had been taken, as prisoners, to Yakunan Castle, where they had escaped only by their mother’s vigilance, back to Edo. Then they, along with their little sister, Akki, had been put into the sanctuary of the head monk, Osaka-gûji, at the ancient Maruyama Shrine.

Their father, though, had defeated the rebels, pacified the district, then brought them here to Koga’s estate, the heart of Raikou Castle, on the banks of the river Sumida. The family felt secure once again when their mother had told them that the poor witless Emperor made their father Shogun. But that pleasant security had lasted only a short while before Hosokawa Katsumoto, their uncle, refused to be bound by the divine will of the Emperor. He had raised a new rebellion, shortly before the eve of Shogatsu, the Shinto New Year’s Festival, that the Shogun and his two older sons had gone out beyond the city gates to put down. Amaya had wanted to go, too; but her father had laughed, though his son, Yoshihisa, the Daimyo of Qijue, the one who had gone north to put down a rising of the Omura clans in the province of Nagasaki, had said he would like to take Amaya with him, for she was both serious and well-trained, then to teach her how to be an Onna-bugeisha, a female warrior.

“A Sozen lady riding out to do battle?” her father had joked. “You have been spending far too much time with your romantic poetry and fairy tales, my son.”

Now the entire household appeared to be gathered in the great hall: Jito, the steward of the castle; several high ranking Shinto priests; the captain of the samurai; even the low-ranking servants from the kitchen. As for Amaya and Kiyotaka, their anxious eyes soon discovered their mother and, with her, Ki-yo’s nanny. Both were still in their sleeping gowns, their hair undone. Their mother sat by the great hearth on which a few embers of the day’s logs glowed. The old woman, Chizuru, and Amaya thought this odd, was kneeling beside her lady, holding her hand. Standing before the women was the one man that Amaya knew instantly from all the other warriors present: old Nobuhide Oda. He was bareheaded; his white hair was matted together with blood. There was blood, too, on his hands. Amaya saw this with shock, blood on his hands as he moved them — up, down, up — fleshing out with simple gestures what he was relating as he spoke in a low, exhausted voice. Amaya noticed, as well, that his battle armor was torn and beaten and that the butterfly and the ginger on his banner had been ripped into shreds.

The two siblings crept down the stairs. No one looked up, no one heard their hesitant bare feet on the oak wood. As Amaya drew nearer, she observed her younger sister, Akki, bright-eyed, silent, sat on the other side of their mother, clinging to her neck. Amaya’s heart beat quicker at the strangeness of the scene. She set her earnest face decisively as she went slowly forward. Kiyotaka had not so much self-control, though. He began to half-sob, half-whimper, holding onto his older sister’s hand, staring at the little group standing close to their mother.

At this sound a shudder ran through the lady sitting by the fire. She got to her feet at once.

“They are marching straight to Edo, you say?” she asked, then came to the foot of the stairs. “We will be besieged.”

Amaya wanted to embrace her, but was too shy to do so because of the strangers, neither did she dare ask about her father or her brothers. Her mother’s face was terrible, she could hardly recognize her, yet she spoke as if she had complete command of herself.

“Amaya and Kiyotaka; return, hurry into your clothes. You, Chizuru-chan, go up, assist them. Quick! No talking, not a word! Tell them nothing.”

The nanny had hurried back to the room. She led the little boy by his hand, urged Amaya on and the young woman could judge from Chizuru’s expression that something atrocious had just happened to the House of Sozen. By the flare of a solitary candle the two were dressed in their travel kimonos, gowns and caps. The nanny said nothing to either. When they returned to the great hall, fresh logs had been placed on the fire, the flame were billowing upward, casting weird shadows. A grave Shinto priest was standing by their mother. Akki, still bright-eyed, resolute, was seated in the chimney-corner, warming her bare feet near the fire. Their mother drew her children into the warmth.

“You are going away tonight,” she said. She spoke so calmly that Amaya’s heart leaped with relief. If she could talk like that, nothing so dreadful could have occurred. “I am going to send you abroad with Chizuru-san and Morioka-sensei, your tutor. You must do as they say, so you can come back very soon.”

Amaya blinked.

“What do you mean? Send us abroad? Where?”

“The King of Ryukyu, Sho Shin, has been a friend to your father. You will be safe there.”

Kiyotaka protested.

“I don’t want to go on a boat. I want to stay in Edo.”

“It is not safe in Edo, young lord,” spoke the Shinto priest, kindly. “Not even in this fortified castle.”

“Is Akki-chan coming with us?” asked Amaya.

“It were better if she went,” said the priest, “and you, too, my lady.”

Their mother shook her head.

“I must be here to meet my son,” she answered.

At this Amaya shuddered again, why didn’t her mother mention her father? Why “my son,” and not “my sons”?

The great door was opened, someone said the horses were ready. Morioka was there with his parcels in one hand, while lanterns were being lit in the courtyard, their flames wavering, fluttering in the rising wind.

The Shinto priest blessed the sister and brother, commending them to the care of Buddha and the Seven Lucky Gods. Their mother embraced the boy, but could not bring herself to look at Amaya. Then, quickly, she took a cruel knife from off the wall, put it in the young woman’s hands, telling her to make a good companion of it during the voyage. Then she turned away from all of them, crouched down by the fire, clutching her youngest daughter in her arms.

Old Morioka put heavy cloaks around his wards’ shoulders, hurried them out of the Koga’s estate. Snow was in the courtyard. Two horses stood nearby, as well as samurai guards. Morioka mounted one horse, pulling Kiyotaka up behind him. Chizuru and Amaya were to ride in a lacquered palanquin. The litter carriers set out briskly, through the gate and into the dark. The wind was becoming stronger, blowing up from the river. It felt as if it were filled with tiny splinters of ice.

Time passed silently in the dark. Despite her anxiety, Amaya began to feel sleepy. Lulled by the clop-clop of the wooden sandals, the the winter air on her face, all the disturbing sights of the ride, the dread of what the night must hold, all began to blur together, then blend into a dream. A smell, vulpini-like, musk-like, came to her, the scent of a wild beast in heat, a hand stealing inward, over her rounded hips and tummy, heading relentlessly towards her lush, pouty cunt lips. Down over her bedewed folds, queer fingers dancing. Amaya’s body shivered in response as her pussy trembled under the touch. But she woke with a start and followed the old woman up a gangway and onto a ship with sails set that rose above them all, monstrously huge. Once up top, dazed by the dream and journey, she saw that the deck was piled with bales of merchandise. Sailors from Korea and China were moving about, talking in tongues she did not understand.

She saw her sensei arguing with the captain, Morioka’s thin, slow fingers plucking out of a leather bag, putting it into the sailor’s hand. Kiyotaka was protesting with his nanny, crying out in disgust about the ship, the smells, the looks of the crew, the wind in the rigging, the noise of ropes creaking. Looking across the water, Amaya saw a cluster of dim lights either side of the riverbank — the ancient city of Edo — as they passed by; and then, further down the river, the lights of Yokohama itself. Over everything hung a faint sprinkle of stars, loose dark clouds moving swiftly toward the sea.

When the ship began to move into deeper water Amaya thought of her mother left behind in chaos and of her little sister, Akki. Then she thought about her father and her brothers and all those who would never return. She did not know what terror had overtaken them, but in a fit of hopelessness that shook her, the young woman fell to her knees on the deck, despite all her efforts to remain in control and began to cry.

Chizuru helped her up, the tears streaming down her face as well. She pulled the younger woman into the cabin which the captain had told them they might occupy. It was on the deck, furnished with rough mats for a bed, piled round and round with bales of products: Tokachi rice to make Obihiro wine.

Amaya refused to speak, she would not say what dread she felt. She clutched the knife her mother had given her. When the nanny was not looking, kissed it. Soon, so that the old woman could have a little peace of mind, Amaya pretended to be asleep.

Chizuru finally left her, then, peering over the edge of the nearest bale, she saw, by the light of the great ship’s lantern which penetrated the cabin doorway, that Ki-yo was asleep as well.

Quite still, very much wide awake, Amaya thought over what had happened. Had her father been defeated by the rebels or, perhaps, was he their prisoner? That would mean her brother, Morikuni, would be a prisoner, too. Staring into the gloom she could make out the coast that now lay far off, a few scattered lights showing, like so many low stars, pinpoints fading away, then Nippon was lost in darkness.

The nanny, followed by the tutor, crept to the cabin door, sitting huddled in their robes, sheltered from the wind. They began to talk to each other, consoling themselves and Amaya, whom they supposed asleep, listened.

She heard the nanny whisper, “they cut off their heads, stuck them on the Sanjo Ohashi Bridge at Kyoto.”

“Where was the fighting, do you know?” whispered the tutor. “I heard it was near the grounds of the Sendai Tanabata Festival.”

“I do not know,” answered the nanny. “I heard they fought down by the river. Who can tell the truth?”

“Nobuhide-dono,” said the tutor, “thought it was a hunting party. A counselor of the second rank said that our Lord came out from Sendai Castle to help them, but I could hear little of it for the confusion.”

“What does it matter,” moaned the nanny, “since they are all dead with their heads decorating the Sanjo Ohashi Bridge!”

“Nobuhide-dono said he saw our Lord’s son overtaken a little before the grove, beyond the bridge, on Jozenji Street, the one leading up to the market-place. He was killed within half an hour of leaving the castle!”

“Yes, it is young Morikuni who is our worst loss,” sobbed the nanny. “He was not even twenty and would have ruled for years and years. It seems but yesterday that I had him at my knee!”

“Where would the rebels be now? Their headquarters are in Kyoto, I’ve heard.”

“They are marching on Edo right now.”

The tutor and the nanny spoke disjointedly, expressing, little by little, their thoughts, their grief, in short sentences which fell with dreadful clearness on the ears of the young woman laying in the dark of the cabin.

“And there was no news of Yoshi? No news of Lord Yoshihisa?”

“No. He will still be at Nagasaki, facing the Omura clan. He might not even know what happened.”

“Nobuhide-dono said the slaughter was hideous, blood everywhere, two thousand slain, the prisoners killed. There are heads nailed to every bridge in Kyoto. Seiji Nakimura is slain, as well as the Lord of Funai. Did you hear what that poor priest reported he saw? Fifteen miles on either side of the road the country has been ransacked. That devilish usurper’s troops are even setting the shrines ablaze.”

Amaya lay rigid, tearing at the coverlet with her strong teeth, as a horrid malady seemed to overtake her will; sapping her of strength, courage, a will to go on.

The night slipped by. The ship, at length, gained the open sea and began to sway. The lanterns swung back and forth, casting rhythmic patterns of light across the floor of the cabin, shadows reflecting upon themselves, over and over. Dark turning into light into dark into — the young woman began to shake feverishly.

Whose heads were they talking about? the ones on the bridges at Kyoto? Who had been killed?

The two whispering, hunched shapes in the doorway mentioned her father, Yoshimi no Sozen, as well as her brother Morikuni, then about Seiji Nakimura, her dear good friend. Then about Funai, her uncle. Had all these people been killed? Was it their heads on the bridges?

The young woman turned on her knees in the dark, began to pray, clutching the cruel knife her mother had given her to her naked skin. The metal chilled her, but she pressed it closer, until the edges left marks, curious designs, in-between her breasts.

The ship was now lurching from side to side, the wind growing much stronger, there was a whining, a whistling from up in the rigging and the waves rose higher.

How could Kiyotaka sleep?

Amaya, lonely, frightened, crept across to her brother, touched his warm forehead.

Kiyotaka was beginning to groan in his sleep. She curled up on the floor next to him, hoping that she could warm him. But in his delirium he rolled this way and that, so that soon, feeling feverish herself, Amaya crept away. The tutor entered the cabin, holding a small lamp in his unsteady hand, then peered about from the boy to the young woman, sighing deeply, thinking of their sudden fall from grace and the dark future that lay before them. For, faithful as he was to the House of Sozen, he did not doubt that that the family was destroyed and scattered to the wind. Few that had been exiled to the Okinawa kingdom of Ryukyu ever came back.

Who was left of the clan now but a handful of women, these two and young Yoshihisa, who, for all Morioka knew, had been killed by the victorious followers of the House of Omura?

As he stood there — a weary, sick, spiritless old man — he observed Amaya’s bright eyes gleaming from the floor.

The young woman sat up, shaking.

“Morioka-sensei, where is my father? Where are my brothers?”

“Dead,” whispered her tutor. “May Lord Buddha have mercy on their souls. May Buddha look after you, too, my Lady Ama-kyou.”

“So it is their heads–” Amaya began, then could get no further. “–that are on the Sanjo Ohashi Bridge?”

“How much have you heard?” asked the old man. “Why were you not asleep just now?”

“Where is my uncle Funai?” demanded Amaya, ignoring his question. “And Lord Nakimura?”

Her cheeks were shining, her lips parted.

Morioka sat down by Amaya. He took the stricken young woman in his arms to comfort her, but although Amaya was usually affectionate, now refused all comfort, pulling away, shaking, feverishness, asking in a high, strained, excited voice for her father, demanding to know whose heads they were on the bridges at Kyoto?

The winter wind blew the ship, plunging, dipping across the dark waves of the Eastern Sea, the lanterns sent rummy shadows streaming across the deck and the voice of the wind, talking in its deep, throaty alien language, silenced the regular cries of the waves. Kiyotaka moaned in his sleep. Amaya was awake, hot, delirious.

She thought that the swinging lanterns were like dead heads, severed at the neck, lit from within, then the sound of the waves was changed into the clangor of battle in which all her friends and family fell, hacked down and cut in one crimson howling rainfall.

The tutor, sick, dismayed as much as the young woman herself was, tried to fight such phantasies with words of hope, but, instead, he found himself overwhelmed by Amaya’s nightmares.

Amaya struggled, finally slipped into restless sleep. Morioka covered up his charge, laid himself down, groaning softly, on the tatami mat between the two, so that the fugitives passed into the endless night, but their dreams would not let them forget.

As the merchant ship plunged through the billowing waves that broke both equally upon their bow and the far away islands of Okinawa, Amaya woke suddenly. Though it was winter, sick-sweat ran down her back. She glanced about her in terror. She recalled the events of the night which brought them out into the middle of a storm on the high seas. Looking about she saw that her three companions were still asleep. The cabin’s sliding door was open. She brought her hand up; peered at it. Something was wet, smeared against her fingers. She could feel her soul pulse, throbbing away on the tips of her blood-coated fingers.

Blood? She brought her fingers to her lips.

Yes, that coppery-metallic taste. What was more, the cabin’s door was open. Curious. There was no light in the room, though heavy rain fell outside. Why was the cabin’s door open? From far out on the sea thunder boomed, a bark of some fox god. For, there, outlined against the bleak light of the winter dawn, a figure stood at the cabin door. Silhouetted, a shock of impossibly white hair. She wore a dark kimono, smiled at the ill young woman jubilantly. Her face was narrow with close-set eyes, thin eyebrows, high cheekbones.

Amaya searched for the knife her mother had given her. As her sticky fingers closed round the leather-bound grip she felt a thrill of courage, then mustered the boldness to whisper into the dark, “Who are you?”

She wanted to say more, but at that moment a coughing fit caught her and bent her double in pain.

The woman replied in the dark, “I am your humble servant, m’lady, Mizukume.”

Coughing deliriously, Amaya couldn’t even get a single word out. Suddenly the stranger was on top of her, a blur of silk and fur, holding her down, peering into her eyes, smiling. Amaya’s coughing slowly died, to be replaced by Mizukume kissing her. The pressure of her vulpini lips on Amaya’s shocked, then thrilled, her. When the woman finally released Amaya, pulling open her kimono, pinching her naked breasts as she sat back and gazed at the mortal who, finding her strength returned, pulled the stranger down upon her. The cabin disappeared into shadow. The ship stopped. The waves, the storm, the breathing of her companions, all faded away. Amaya buried her face in fox-spirit’s neck and let a tear escape. It fell on Mizukume’s out stretched tongue and Amaya quickly sucked her tongue into her mouth in order to taste what Mizukume was experiencing. Amaya’s right hand traveled up the other’s robe to explore her ample breasts. She pressed one erect brown nipple between her thumb and forefinger and was thrilled when Mizukume let out a soft moan, a low dog-like yip. Amaya pulled her robes open letting the heavy breasts hang inches away from the young woman’s open mouth.

Amaya took one of her rigid nipples into her mouth and Mizukume gasped. The young woman pulled her face in-between Mizukume’s breasts and breathed in her musk. Rolling her over, Amaya’s lips left a trail of wetness from between her breasts down to the top of her pubes. Mizukume was sopping in anticipation.

Her pubic hairs were drenched, her vulva completely engorged. Amaya could see her large clit peeking out of it’s hood. Everything was soft and brown. She ran her index finger from the bottom of Mizukume’s cunt up to the top of her clit, then back again. Mizukume shuddered with the sensation. Amaya sucked her finger into her mouth provocatively, to get her first taste of a spirit’s cum. She had never tasted anything sweeter.

Amaya tongued her clit and put one finger inside Mizukume, pressed upward. Mizukume’s soft canine whimpers turned into full fledged cries and the young woman had to cover her lover’s mouth with her own because she didn’t want to wake the whole ship.

By now Amaya’s other hand was busy on her own clit and she brought herself to orgasm with her head still buried in Mizukume’s crotch, setting off little sea-quakes, her thighs quivering and the young woman was suddenly engulfed in a stream of her girl-juice. Ghost cum. Amaya lapped up as much as she could and felt the fox-girl’s quivering legs wrap around her head.

There was a noise in her head, a pounding in her ears. Blood. A war kettle drum. A fist banging upon a wooden door, the waves breaking over the bow and Amaya’s head fell back upon the tatami mat. The shadows came crashing back down on her and when she opened her blood-shot eyes she saw Mizukume’s naked form slipping away across the ship’s deck, waving her wild tail, gleaming with spray.

Half-naked, Amaya crawled her way up from the floor, reaching for the nearest sleeper, finding her tutor, shook him.

“Who was that?” she asked. “Who is Mizukume? Why is she with us?”

Morioka blinked himself back into wakefulness.

“Mizukume?” he murmured, vaguely. “I do not know. I’ve never heard the name. Did you just say ‘why is she with us’?”

“I thought she had a tail,” sobbed Amaya, “I thought she was going to stay with me,” the delirious young woman mumbled, and then, at the end of her strength, she fell backwards and kept falling, for miles it felt like, until darkness swallowed her.

The buffeted ship labored down the Amami island chain, dropped anchor off Yogochi harbor. The captain had serious matters for the ears of the King of Ryukyu’s servant who had come aboard to collect some of his master’s letters and goods.

“There is trouble again in Kyoto, as I hear. The Shogun, along with his eldest son, were slain on the outskirts of the city. Now his brother is marching on Edo. There are two of his children among my passengers. I was asked to take them on board, this by favor of the late Yoshimi no Sozen, to whom I am in debt. The boy seems lively enough, but the older girl is likely not to make it through another night.”

“Ask them to come forward, I should be interested to hear what they have to say,” said the King’s man, curiously surveying the sick and bedraggled forms huddled forlornly in the cabin.

Blue-lipped, shuddering, with the unconscious Amaya draped over his shoulder, the tutor came forward to tell their story, which amounted to nothing more than a desperate appeal from the widowed wife of the Shogun to Lord Sho Shin, King of Ryukyu, for asylum, protection for her two children.

“A lost cause,” mused the King’s servant, stroking his chin. He knew the temper of Hosokawa Katsumoto, of his fierce followers. Lord Sho Shin of Ryukyu was kind, but politic. He would, his man knew, be anxious not to embroil himself with the triumphant factions in Kyoto but old Morioka, the tutor, patiently, humbly, reminded him that the young Daimyo of Qijue, Yoshihisa, he was sure, still survived. He was even now, perhaps, pressing on Nagasaki with a large army. He might then, possibly, defeat not only the Omura clan but the Fujiwarans as well, their allies.

“His Highness is at Shuri Castle,” said the Ryukyuan, still doubtful, but not unsympathetic, “I can take you there. I will find a wagon for the young lady, she seems stricken low,” he added, with a glance at the deathly figure, lying limply in the tutor’s arms.

They landed. The mountainous island seemed one with the low gray clouds, a few orange tiled houses glistened with the wet. The scanty fishing fleet had come in from out of the storm, rocked at anchor with furled sails. The King’s man found them a wagon, into which they were glad to creep, then gave them bread, meat, a bottle of sake. They all ate, except Amaya, who was still half-delirious. The wagon took them through mist, along a road that hugged the coast. On the nearest peak there stood an immense tower.

“Shuri Castle,” said their guide, nodding, pointing.

Houses began to close in on either side of the road as the tower grew nearer. Finally they stopped at a gatehouse at the base of the castle. The King’s man hurried off to talk to the sentry, as the four fugitives sat shivering in the cold morning light, while the soldiers who rode along with them stared at them curiously.