The Silent Monk
The old boat creaked and groaned as it wound along the sleepy shoreline in the dark. The thick, musky smell of the shore wafted heavily over the railing. The light breeze carried away the clean scent of the ocean. It smelled of cooling sand and verdant vegetation. The full moon pushed the rising surf into the shore, making the decking pop with its surge and ebb. She sat on the empty deck trying to catch a little sleep after a full day of work; her bamboo sugegasa pulled down tight over her head shadowing her features. She could hear a few of the hands talking on the aft deck as they navigated the misty night waters. Others hung overhead in the slackened rigging, keeping a steady eye out for any obstructions that might mar their passage in the dimly lit night. She leaned against a group of barrels lashed to the deck. Her red hakama appeared purple in the uncertain light, though her white haori shown brightly; its faint dragon patterns standing out starkly. Her beads hung loosely in her left hand, her thumb idly rubbing their well-worn surface.
The faint lull of the ship rocking on the water, the smooth susurrus of the deckhands talking as they worked, and the pleasant warm breeze conspired to close her drooping eyes. If they had waited moments longer, she would have already been asleep, but the sharp rasp of boot leather on the deck from her right roused her instantly. She knew who she would see even before she opened her eyes.
The first knife thrust toward her back from the left. She tucked her chin and somersaulted forward, losing her conical, woven hat as she spun upward to her feet to face her attackers. Her thick hair unfurled like a flag behind her.
Raising her bare hands, she prepared to fight for her life once more.
In their last port a week-and-a-half prior, they had off-loaded a few passengers. Since the boat didn’t have enough cargo to fill her hold, they had taken on a couple more to help pay their way onto the next port. Himeko had joined them about two months prior, working to pay for her passage. The ship’s captain was a kind man, and a friend to the priest whose temple where she last trained. He had arranged for her to go on this journey.
Though she was only sixteen, she had lived a hard life. Himeko had been born to a fisherman and his wife in a poor coastal village, though she barely remembered her few short years living there. Pirates had stormed their village in the dark. She recalled awakening to the screams in the night. Houses had been lit aflame, sewing chaos in the small settlement’s peaceful somnolence. The smell of smoke was thick in the air as her alarmed mother had dashed with her outside, cradling her in her arms. Her father had run toward the cacophony to help his neighbors. When the villagers realized what was happening, it was too late. Pirates sprang from the darkness butchering the men who tried to save the quickly burning huts. Himeko remembered her mother’s gasping breath as she saw her husband and relatives brutally slaughtered. Turning, she tried to flee with her daughter into the bordering jungle, but they were quickly caught by the numerous thugs.
Pulled away from her mother and thrown to the ground, she saw her mother dragged kicking and screaming away by four of the ruffians. Crying herself, she had tried to stand and follow, but another scary man had come from behind her and scooped her up painfully by the hair. Holding her up in the light, he had pulled up the loose shirt that had been her bedclothes. In his course language, which she later learned, he had declared to his companions that he had found another girl. Dragging her by her hair, he pulled her mercilessly behind him down the shore. There, she was stuffed into a nasty sack and thrown aboard a low boat. When she had regained consciousness, she was aboard their horrible ship, her home a fading memory in the morning fog that hid the dwindling shoreline.
Being less than five, she wasn’t subject to the same tortures the older girls who had been captured alongside her had to endure. Lack of food and unsanitary conditions were their daily existence, as well as the sadistic pleasures of the mixed crew. Often they would urinate or defecate down into the cramped, leaky, barred hold where they were pinned underneath the main deck. They had no clothes as theirs had been taken. Often, the older girls would be pulled up by one member of the crew or another and disappear for a while. And when they came back, they would be sobbing and battered. Or worse, they would just be silent and scared. Some never came back at all.
Himeko never knew how long they spent on the filthy, horrible ship, but it seemed like years to her small mind. When they at last were removed from the hold, they stood trembling, cold and naked on a busy dock. Chains hooked to cruel collars encircling their filthy necks. A dark man with a large hooked nose who smelled of something foul paced in front of them, as if inspecting livestock. He spoke some barbaric tongue to the ship’s captain who replied in equally harsh tones. The surviving girls all stared at the dock, hoping to avoid bringing attention to themselves. All save Himeko. She stared openly at the dark man. As he continued to haggle for them, he would walk up to some of the girls and grab their heads in his thick, meaty hand and twist them from side-to-side. On some, he’d open their mouth and run his finger along their teeth. When he came to Himeko, he laughed at her glare and said something she couldn’t understand over his shoulder. The captain and what crew who stood with him laughed. He didn’t do anything other than pat her on the head and give her a strange smile before moving on to the next girl, though. His inspection finished, he passed a purse to the captain and called out to a couple of other swarthy looking men nearby. They were dressed roughly and had huge swords belted around their waists. Coming forward, one moved to the rear of the line of naked girls while the other grabbed the chain at the head of the line and began pulling brutally. Struggling, the girls stumbled to keep up through the heavy throng with the iron collars chained about their necks jerked with each unsteady movement. No one seemed to pay much attention to the group of dirty, bare girls as they were whisked through the seaside market, other than the occasional passing glance. Those looks were cold and impersonal. It was as if they were no longer people, just wares to be sold at a market stall.
After what seemed forever to a weak and struggling Himeko, they arrived at the place where the dark men must have been headed. Still gibbering in their awful language, they hit and shoved the girls into a small pen set amidst a huge set of enclosures. Theirs was empty before they arrived, but ones on either side held dozens, if not hundreds, of other people in equally wretched state. The pen was rudely framed, made of cast-off timbers and make-do materials, but in their weakened state from lack of sustenance, it likely was as good as any iron bars. The floor was bare dirt churned to mud with the offal of those held within. Those in the pens surrounding theirs made no interest in their arrival. It was as if hope no longer held any meaning to them.
After they were shoved in, one of the guards came with a key and removed the collars and chains. They hardly seemed necessary.
On their first day there, the girls stood huddled together, trying to keep warm and comfort each other. No one came near them. They were offered no food or water, no clothing or blankets. It was cold in the morning, and they stood shivering together. While they were dirty and ragged, they did their best to stay upright out of the horrid much beneath them, but eventually the most worn and the weakest began to lie down. There was nowhere else to go.
After a period of days or weeks, they no longer knew how long they had been there. Scant food and water was given to them from time to time, but it was so irregular they couldn’t tell when it was to come or when the last arrived. The water was nasty and foul tasting, but it was at least cleaner than the food, which appeared to be scraps scraped from the bottom of feeding troughs. It kept them alive, but just. Several of the girls were sick from the treatment, and the ones who could still stand did their best to just keep them alive.
They would see those in other pens unceremoniously pulled out and taken somewhere. None of them ever came back. Eventually, their turn came, too. Either really late at night or very early in the morning, some of the rough guards came with lit torches in the night and untied their cage door. Grabbing the girls and forcing them to their feet, they yanked them out and shoved them out of the exposed courtyard down a rough corridor. They found themselves thrust into a rude, but fairly clean room where a huge, bald, malformed man stood in a leather apron. He directed the guards with waves of his meaty paws to position the girls along one wall. The floor beneath them was gritty and dirty, though the wall itself seemed barren of the ever present dirt of the prison.
The monstrous lump of a man paced slowly before them, looking them over. Himeko stared back up at him, though the other girls avoided his gaze. He must have been half-again as tall as her father. His skin was a dark olive color, and black blotches mottled his rough skin and bald pate. His eyes looked pig-like to Himeko, not at all human. As she looked into them when he passed, a cold chill ran down her spine, and she couldn’t stop a shiver. He grinned as he saw her discomposure, and she could see sharp fangs among his teeth. Finally, he moved back and barked a harsh order, pointing at the girls. Two of the room’s workers dashed forward and began shoving the girls against the wall, turning them to face it. As weak as they all were, they didn’t resist, but were beaten as if they did. Sharp lashes slapped down on their backs and the backs of their legs. The throngs were wide and didn’t leave welts, but they stung on their bare skin.
After they all faced the wall, more orders were barked. Expecting the worse, Himeko was surprised when a harsh jet of water stung her back and shoved her face-first into the wall. The hard stream played back and forth over the girls, hitting them in the back of the head or up and down their bodies. Caked on grime and filth was blasted from their young forms. The water was cold and abrasive, opening small cuts they didn’t know they possessed, aggravating open sores and old bruises alike. They spun to try to keep the water from pressing too long in any one spot, but it managed to catch them regardless of the angle. Soon all the girls were clean enough for the mis-shapened man and the water stopped. They were shoved once more into motion out of the room and up a set of low stairs into another small room.
This room was dry and piled high with what appeared to Himeko to be rags. As they arrived, an old woman came in through another door opposite. She looked the girls over as she moved toward the huge pile. Wading amidst the scattered cloth along the floor, she began reaching into the pile. Shortly, she stood cradling a bundle of the cloth in her arms. Walking to the line of girls, she began handing each girl one of the rags. When Himeko received hers, she unfurled it and found that it was a crude dress. It had a rough-cut neck hole and two vents where her arms would be thrust through. The girls on either side of her had already begun donning the humble garments, so Himeko pulled hers on as well. Even with as rough and ridiculous as it was, it was somehow comforting to be clothed once more.
Once they had all clothed themselves, the woman nodded and called to the guards. They came and prodded them onward, this time more gently, as though perhaps the scant clothing gave them some dignity they had previously lacked.
A final chamber awaited them. There they received new iron collars, though these weren’t nearly as dirty as the previous ones. They were no longer chained together, but instead the collars had rings to which individual chains were attached. Pulled along by their wretched fate, they were at last dragged onto a stage, one at a time.
Himeko was pulled out near the end of the line of girls. A meaty guard grabbed her chain and led her onstage. As she gazed out across the audience in the gray pre-dawn light, she could see a packed amphitheater full of men and women sitting, eating, talking, laughing, arguing, shouting, or just staring. The guard placed her near a tall man dressed in all white. He spoke quickly in a sing-song voice, gesticulating wildly with his cadenced meter. Hands and accompanied shouts answered his singing voice. As though beseeching the crowd he continued singing, raising his hands and singing even louder. Pausing on occasion, the man in white would reach down and grab her arm, raising it above her head, or he would lift her hair, holding it back from covering her face. Finally some sign was given, and he ended his song. The guard pulled her from the stage, but opposite of the side door through which she had entered.
He chained her to a wall and walked off. Himeko looked around and found herself amidst a mixed group. Young boys and girls of every shape and size surrounded her. Some had skins as dark as the black rock that came up from the ground around her village. Others were as pale as the sand. All of them were bedraggled and worn with the rough treatment each had endured. Also, in common, they were all chained awaiting their fate.
A strange man in a purple, long dress approached Himeko with one of the guards. He looked her over as she did the same to him. He was balding, but had his long, white hair pulled over his head as if to hide it. His nose was long and thin and jutted from his face, like the edge of a hatchet. His eyebrows were thick and puffy, reminding Himeko of some sort of fluffy caterpillars sitting over his sunken, dark eyes. He nodded once and passed a small, red bag to the guard. The guard opened it and poured the contents into his hand. A few coins clinked into his upturned palm. He grunted and put the coins back into the purse. With one well-practiced motion, he loosened her chain from the wall and passed it to the strange man.
Without a backwards glance, the strange man walked off holding onto her chain. She hadn’t understood what was occurring, so when it pulled taught, it nearly bowled her from her feet. Himeko tottered forward. The strange man stopped and turned to look at her with a scowl. His irritation was obvious in spite of the fact that he spoke to her in some lilting, singing tongue. Tugging on her chain again, he pulled her into a stumbling pace behind him as he walked quickly away.
He led her to something she had never seen before. It looked like a little house on wheels, and was pulled by two huge beasts. She shied away afraid of the unfamiliar beasts, but the strange man was stronger and pulled her to the side of the little house on wheels. The door opened and inside sat a pale woman in huge, puffy, shiny robes. Her long, flowing red hair glowed like silk. Her red lips stood out in stark contrast to her pale skin. Her deep green eyes blazed like the ocean after a storm. Himeko stood with her mouth open, stunned. She had never seen such a beautiful person before. Positive that she must be in the presence of a goddess, Himeko dropped to her knees, pressing her head firmly against the ground in a low bow. Words from the goddess and the strange man were exchanged in their singing language, and then the goddess laughed aloud. She signaled and the carriage door was closed.
The strange man reached down and pulled Himeko up from her bow. Tugging on her arm, he led her around the back of the carriage, away from the horses. A step rail ran along the back of the conveyance. Helping her up, the strange man lifted her up to stand on the rail. She grasped a set of handles set into the back of the cab, and a moment later he joined her. Whistling sharply, he signaled their readiness to the driver. With a snap, the driver brought the reins down and the horses jolted into motion.
The trip was terrifying and exhilarating to Himeko who had never seen a horse or carriage before. The ground moved so fast beneath them, and she was sure if she fell that she’d die, so she held onto the slim handles for dear life and missed most the trip to the goddess’ home.
They arrived at a villa on the outskirts of town where the houses were set farther apart. It was close enough to the docks to allow easy access, but far enough away to be out of the bustle and activity. The section of town was considered stylish, and thus supported their lifestyle, though the owner scarcely had time to enjoy his position. The “goddess” was the young wife of a rich merchant captain who owned a small fleet of trading ships. His business kept him away from home months at a time, and when he was home, he had little time for entertaining. His one joy in life had been the single daughter his wife had borne him some years before. As his wife was small of frame and slight, their daughter had taken after her. She had been birthed too soon and was never strong. In her fifth year while the captain was away, she had taken ill and died of a high fever.
When the captain had come home and heard the news, his heart had been broken as he had loved his daughter. No other held as dear a place in his heart. He had grown distant with his beautiful wife since their daughter’s death, and time, distance, and doubt had begun working their way into her heart. She dearly loved her husband, but the death of her daughter had changed her, and not in positive ways.
With the gap ever widening between herself and her husband, the merchant captain’s wife conceived of a plan to bring their marriage back to its former luster. If she could no longer bear children, she would find a substitute daughter. At first, she tried to adopt one, but a suitable candidate never emerged. Months turned into years and the gap in their marriage widened into a chasm, so her desperation grew in equal measure. Though the captain detested slavery and everything associated with the despicable institution, she had her servants began combing the slave auctions for someone she could substitute for their long lost daughter.
Misery and loneliness had begun to change into madness when the woman finally found the pretty little slave Himeko being auctioned. Usually slaves were much older, but somehow the small girl with the unintimidated bright blue-green eyes had been stolen away to be auctioned off. The mistress was excited at having a daughter again, and what that would mean to the master.
The bright morning sun beamed warm heavenly light down upon their arrival at the stately villa. The driver leaped from his perch atop the carriage and folded the gilded steps from underneath. The strange man was equally quick to step down. He left Himeko where she was and rushed to open the goddess’ door. Gathering her beautiful gown, the goddess gave the strange man her hand as he helped her descend to the cobblestone drive upon which the carriage rested. She issued commands in her lilting song, and walked away with the driver to the villa’s entrance.
The strange man returned to Himeko. Prying her hands from the handles, he gently set her down from the carriage. He grasped her upper arm lightly in his thin hand and led her around the side of the building. Himeko gaped openly at the huge structure. She had never seen anything as big which was man-made. It even dwarfed the boats and ships she had seen. She tried to say this to the strange man, but he just looked at her and shook his head with a tight smile.
He led her through a door which may have been small for the mansion, but was humongous to her into a bustling room full of busy people preparing meals and other household chores. At first the scene appeared to be total chaos to her young eyes, but then an old granny lady paused in her chores, came over to her and smiled. She knelt in front of Himeko and held out her arms, smiling and speaking with the same sing-song tongue. Though Himeko couldn’t understand her language, she received her message. Running into her arms, she embraced her new life crying the tired tears of a child who had endured too much.
Himeko was a bright child and the merchant captain’s servants and staff loved her instantly. Though she didn’t speak their language, she was a bright child and learned quickly. Within weeks, she had picked up the rudimentary aspects of the dialect. Soon she was jabbering on quickly like any other healthy child.
The merchant captain’s wife had little Himeko brought before her from time-to-time. Sometimes she wanted to dress her up in fancy clothes, others she wanted to show the child off in front of her friends. But the rest of the time, she left Himeko entirely in the care of the household staff.
Months wiled away as the lazy spring gave way for the hot summer and the captain finally came home. He swept in with many presents for his wife and servants, packages from his voyages of fine cloths, rare trinkets, and exotic spices and ingredients. The household was overjoyed at his arrival as he was a good master and fine man.
The Captain’s name was Daniel Perine. He stood over six feet tall and was a dashing figure. He always wore a red, broadcloth long jacket with gold embellishments and black trim. His face was rugged and tanned with years spent onboard ship. His hair was light and he had a full beard which had started to run gray in the corners of his mouth. It was the first time Himeko had seen a light haired man. At first, she thought he was extremely old, but later learned that it was just the color of his hair.
When he swept into the house, he threw the front doors open with a flourish and announced, “Good wife! The master-of-the-house has returned!”
Himeko was in the pantry with the servants helping clean the room where vegetables and grain had been stored over the long winter months. With the commotion came from the front of the house, the old women looked at each other and smiled. They stood and dashed to clean themselves up before going, like children happy to see their father after a long absence. Himeko was confused, until one of the aunties took her hand and bade her to follow. They rushed to rinse the dirt from their hands and divested themselves of the loose aprons which they wore to clean. They quickly hurried to join the rest.
The Captain still stood in the entryway as his men carried in his bounty. Just as Himeko joined the appreciative staff waiting in the vestibule, the Mistress appeared at the top of the stairs. Today she was wearing a light pink gown that made her pale skin and chestnut hair glow. With an exclamation of joy, she glided down the stairs. The Captain smiled broadly as he swept her into his arms. They kissed each other tenderly.
Pausing a moment, she stopped him and said, “Darling, I have someone to present to you.”
Raising one thick eyebrow, he grinned and said, “Oh? This presentation must indeed be important if it must interrupt our renewed nuptials.”
The Mistress slid partially from his embrace and called for Himeko.
Standing in the midst of the servant women, Himeko felt a firm hand push her forward. Looking up into the auntie’s face, she saw the woman smile and nod. Taking a tentative step forward, she moved shyly into the vestibule.
The Captain’s face wore his surprise as the small child stepped from behind the gaggle of servant women gathered in the hallway under the stairs. To his eyes, she was maybe five or six years old. She had a shock of long, straight black hair which ran midway down her back. A cream colored ribbon held the mass of hair at bay. Her skin was a smooth, tanned golden color, which was accentuated by the plain yet well-made brown and cream dress she wore. She stared up at him with her big, blue-green eyes which looked frightened and ready to cry.
His expression softened as he beheld her. He looked at his wife with a wry grin, and still holding her hand in his, dropped to one knee before Himeko.
Knowing her courtesies, Himeko curtsied before the Master, holding the edges of her dress up daintily as she bowed low. Though she understood the language, her accent betrayed that it was not her native tongue. “P-puh-pleased to meet you. I am called Himeko,” she stammered in greeting.
Swallowing heavily, the Captain could not tear his gaze away from the small child who greeted him so properly. Eyes misting, the Captain placed his free hand on his chest and bowed from the waist over his bent knee. “I, too, am very pleased to meet you,” he said softly despite his normally booming voice. Grinning at the girl, he sprang up and pulled his wife close. His face hid in the deep scarlet of her curls, he could be heard to mutter over and over, “Thank you….”
Though Summer was his busy season, the Captain found excuses to stay home which pleased the entire household. When he discovered Himeko’s origin, he was less than pleased with her circumstances. After questioning her, he vowed to make her as happy as he could and raise her as his own. Secretly he made inquiries, but he never found any information concerning her village or family.
The days passed by quickly with Himeko quickly becoming the daughter fate had denied the Captain and his wife. She ate her meals with them, slept in an adjoining room, and went with them about the town when they went shopping. The Captain was particularly lavish in his spending. Anything (within reason) which caught little Himeko’s eye was hers for the taking as far as he was concerned. The Mistress even doted on her, teaching her sewing and needlepoint, instructing the child on the methods of running a household, and teaching her to read and write. On the occasions when the Captain did have to voyage away, the household was quiet but remained busy in his stead.
When the Captain was home, though, Himeko could be found at his side constantly. She tagged along like his constant shadow, whether at the docks for business, or around town, or at home going over the books. It was obvious to anyone looking that he quickly grew to love and cherish her dearly. As she grew, she learned sailing at his knee as they often took out a small skiff he owned. Though she was too small to hold a sword, he taught her how to protect herself with a dagger. When he could, he took her on short voyages where they happily sailed the seas together as father and daughter.
The months rolled into years for the happy family. Himeko rapidly grew into a splendid young lady who adored her adopted mother and father. As she approached her twelfth year, she rapidly began maturing into a young woman, and that’s when their paradise began to erode.
The Mistress had never quite recovered from the heartbreak of losing her child nor the fear of being left alone because of it. Her mind slowly eroded in spite of their familiar bliss. She began to see Himeko not as a daughter, but as a rival for the Captain’s affections. Where before she would spend pleasant days with Himeko, she began avoiding the girl. At first she would find other things that required her attention and have to cancel their trips or lessons, but soon it devolved into simply snapping at finding even the smallest fault in Himeko’s behavior. It was especially bad when the Captain was in port. It didn’t help matters that Himeko sensed the Mistress’ change, but rather than stay under her brooding eye, she elected to spend more pleasant days in the Captain’s company.
For his part, the Captain also noticed his wife’s behavior, but avoided discussing it with her. He loved her passionately, and didn’t want to cause her pain. Instead, he thought that if he kept Himeko with him and busy while he was home, it would alleviate the problems. His good intentions merely compounded them instead.
“Himeko, darling, could you come up to join me in my parlor for a moment?”
Himeko stiffened at the sound of the Mistress’ voice. She had been standing in the vestibule awaiting the Captain’s return from the docks that morning. They had been planning on riding horses when he returned. She was wearing her riding frock over the satin pantaloons she preferred to use. Riding sidesaddle didn’t suit her as she couldn’t actively jump the horse or even go faster than a trot. Sitting down her gloves and hat, she walked slowly up the broad staircase to the second level where the Mistress stood waiting. The Mistress generally only called her these days to denounce her for something she had either forgotten to do or was currently doing incorrectly. Himeko had developed a habitual flinch to the woman’s voice.
Today the brilliant red-head she still half-thought of as a goddess stood patiently at the top landing. Seven years after arriving, she still looked incredibly young, especially in comparison to the Captain who was definitely showing his age due to his never stopping, hard charging life style. The Mistress waited for Himeko to join her, and then taking one of her arms in her own, entwined hands with her and led her into the parlor which was a short distance off the landing.
Once inside, the Mistress bade her to sit while she seated herself opposite at a small table. An ornate, blue and gold serving set rested atop the table, the fragrant tea within steaming from its lid. After they had both been seated, Himeko looked around for the servant who would poor the tea, but was surprised to find that they were alone today. The Mistress poured the tea herself.
“Sweetner, dear?” she asked. Himeko self-consciously nodded. She had a notorious sweet-tooth. Smiling sweetly, the Mistress spooned some of the yellowish, irregular crystals from a bowl into Himeko’s cup. After a dollop of fresh cream was added, Himeko used one of the small spoons to blend the mixture, all the while the Mistress gazed on her fondly.
No sugar or cream was added to the Mistress’ drink. She picked up her cup and blew across its steaming surface before sipping the floral liquid. Smiling, she sat her own cup on the table and cleared her throat. “I hear that the Captain and you were planning on riding today, dear, but I’m afraid that he has sent word that he won’t be able to make it.” She leaned back in her chair, letting her hands rest along the spindly rests encircling the seat. “Such a pity,” she said, letting her mouth pout the words.
Himeko felt disappointment at the pronouncement. Sighing, she lifted her cup and blew across it. The Mistress was being atypically attentive today. Perhaps she wanted to make up with Himeko? Himeko’s eyes darted up to meet the Mistress’ just as she took a sip from her tea. The woman’s face was practically beaming, as though she had just won the fair day’s goose.
Pain lanced through Himeko’s tongue as the liquid scalded its way through her mouth. An invisible hand tightened on her throat, and she dropped the cup and saucer. Her eyes opened wide as she looked in up in shock to the Mistress who was beginning to stand. Himeko toppled out of the chair, her hands clutching for her throat. Fire burned in her face and down her gullet. It now felt as if someone had taken a hot, dull knife to her throat.
The red-head adjusted her gown as she stood. Lacing her hands one over-the-other, she looked beatific and gave a brilliant smile to her adopted daughter as Himeko writhed on the floor in a rapidly cooling pool of poisoned tea. “Such a pity,” she repeated quietly. With a final deep look into Himeko’s eyes, she turned and walked to the door.
A moment of hope rose in Himeko as she struggled to gasp with each breath torn from her chest. The Mistress opened the door, and instead of calling for help, never looked back. She left and closed the door closely behind her.
In the thick rays of the morning sun, Himeko gasped and wheezed, begging to draw even a puff of life into her tortured throat which quickly closed in her horror. As her head fell into the puddle, her fading vision locked on the small motes floating in the warm beams lancing through the sheers hanging in the windows of the pleasant room. They began to expand and glow in her dimming eyes, like little stars wheeling in the heavens.
The last thought before darkness overtook her was that she hoped that maybe she could join those stars in their dance.
Something cool and soothing worked its way down her tortured throat, making her spasm and cough as she struggled to regain consciousness. Heavy hands chafed her wrists and slapped at her cheeks. Himeko felt numb all over and her head pounded. Her throat felt like a gouged out melon, raw and pulpy. She couldn’t sit up, but someone had lifted her head up. More of the cool liquid was forced past her lips. To force her to swallow, her throat was being stroked. She probably coughed up more than she swallowed, but every little bit seemed for force vitality back into her.
“Himeko, speak to me!” the Captain’s familiar voice demanded. Desperately, she fought to pry her eyelids apart, just to see him. If he was here, she knew everything would be fine. Weakly, she forced first one, then the other eye open. Focusing seemed to be beyond her abilities, but the blurry red and gold implied that he was there. A little knot of tension unraveled within her, and she tried to smile.
Other murmured voices surrounded her, and shadows moved haphazardly around her as she sat pillowed in the Captain’s arms. The room seemed to be in a state of agitation with people rushing in and out. The door was repeatedly thrown open and slammed closed as she lay there trying to recover her senses.
Himeko could hear someone place something heavy on the floor nearby. A cold, wet cloth was pressed against her head. It hadn’t been completely wrung out, and slow drops of liquid ice ran down her neck and across her chest.
Her eyes began to clear, and Himeko hesitantly opened them against the bright light still streaming into the room. The Captain had her in his arms as his staff danced feverishly around bringing things as he asked for them. He also called for a healer, and was answered that he was on his way.
Though her throat ached and her head pounded, feeling slowly oozed back into her limpid frame. She could soon drink water unassisted. The Captain refused to leave her side, though. As soon as she was able, he helped her into a sitting position pillowed against a nearby low settee.
Consciousness flooded back into her with the movement. She gasped as she realized what exactly had befallen her. Through the rawness in her throat, she gasped and tried to speak. A rough gargle escaped her lips. She looked at the Captain pleadingly.
Anxiousness and worry showed in his weathered face. Over the years, most of the yellow in his hair had been replaced with silver. His once deeply tanned skin now looked pale and lined. He knelt at her side, stroking her hair continuously as though the motion kept her at his side. His gentle eyes seemed on the verge of tears as his ravaged gaze sought her own. When she tried to speak, he said nothing. He just sat, shaking his head sadly.
Soon, the healer arrived. The man was dressed in thick scarlet and white robes with a high, pointed hat. Kneeling at her side, the man had his holy symbol in one hand as he raised the other before her. The symbol glowed faintly even in the brightly lit surroundings. She could feel something stir within her breast and a warm susurration crept up her throat and down her limbs. Soon, even her ravaged throat and pounding head ceased their protestations. The absence of pain felt as sharp as its engagement, but she sat still throughout his ministrations. Once the priest had completed his ritual, he opened his eyes and looked her over. He asked her to open her mouth, which she did. Tilting her head to best expose her throat to the light, he ducked his head to and fro as he gazed within. He then moved his hand down her neck, probing and feeling her throat. Removing his hand, he then turned to the Captain and tapped him on the shoulder to pull him aside.
The two men rose and walked through the door to stand in the hallway. She could not hear their murmured conversation. One of the uncles she had lived and worked with stayed with her, wiping her brow and patting her arm gently. She looked at his aged face and patted his cheek in gratitude with a soft smile.
Soon the Captain returned without the cleric. His face was dour and suffused with pain. Kneeling once more before her, he took her hand in his and patted it. Even though she had only see him cry once before, she could see that he did his best to hold in the tears which threatened to loose themselves.
Softly, he said, “Don’t worry, my daughter. We will be leaving this place soon.”
She didn’t know it, but that was the last day Himeko would spend in his house.
As soon as she was well enough to be moved, the Captain had her moved to a room where his business offices were. He had a small cot and a few essentials in the room for when he worked late and wanted to catch a few hours sleep or was too tired for the short trip back to his house. Here Himeko received the healer once more the next day.
The old man felt her forehead with the back of his cold hand. Then he moved his spidery fingers up and down her throat. Grunting a bit, he bade her to open her mouth. With a lantern held high in one hand, he peered intently down her throat.
Shaking his head, he signaled that she could close her mouth. Himeko looked at him quizzically. She had been told to not speak until he gave permission. With a sour look he said, “No, child, you shouldn’t talk yet. Your throat hasn’t healed and to talk might make it worse. I know it’s hard, but bear with it a little longer.” He packed up his equipment into his carpeted bag and without a backward glance left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.
The Captain impatiently waited in the next chamber, and as soon as the healer appeared, he all but pounced on the man. “Well? What of her throat? Can it be healed?”
Because this was a business office and not designed to stop sounds, Himeko could hear him as plainly as if he stood before her. She could not see him, but she could clearly hear the distress in his voice, and it scared her. Pulling the bedclothes tight up to her chin, she listened intently.
“I’m sorry, Daniel. Honestly it’s too early to tell, but I hold little hope. The poison didn’t finish its work, but what it did, it did too well. She might as well have drunk acid. The only thing that saved that poor girl’s life was that she likes lots of cream in her tea. If it hadn’t been for that, the poison would likely have killed her instantly. Regardless, she probably won’t be able to speak in anything more than a whisper again.”
Himeko’s hand went to her throat. A slight whimper escaped her lips as tears threatened to spill from her eyes.
The Captain sighed heavily. “What of my wife?”
The healer’s voice was soft but remained firm. “She seems perfectly fine now. She has absolutely no memory of what has transpired. She wonders where her husband and daughter are and the reason for my visit. I told her that you are both away on a voyage, and that she had forgotten about it because she has been ill.”
“She really does not remember?”
“No, Daniel. I will vouchsafe her veracity. She has no memory of the incident whatsoever. Regardless, neither of them should be put back into that situation lest something like this happen again.”
With a soft word of thanks, the Captain led the healer from the outer office and the doors closed behind them. Himeko was left behind with her scary thoughts.
They set sail two days later. Himeko had recovered enough to travel according to the healer, so the Captain had his ship readied as soon as possible.
The warm wind sang through the sails and made the stout lines thrum with purpose as the ship thrust through the blue-green waters, churning them whitely in its wake. They stayed relatively close to shore, hugging the coastline as they wended their way southward.
She stood on the foredeck enjoying the light spray misting in the air and the golden sun warming her skin. She watched the waves, but listened to the happy sounds occurring all around. The crew worked steadily across the bright, polished deck. Those not swinging through the rigging cleaned or worked on other parts of the ship. The Captain walked the deck, stopping to chat with his crew, lending a hand where he could. Even though he was a rich merchant and owned many ships, he knew the crews of each ship by name. He was a man who paid attention to the smallest detail, and his men appreciated him for it.
And though the Captain seemed full of joy and vigor, she could see the pain in his eyes and the set of his jaw. When he approached her, the Captain gave her a bright smile and big hug. But the discerning eyes of a child weren’t fooled. She saw that he was being torn in two.
Though she still couldn’t speak anything above a whisper, she managed to convey her question as to the nature of their destination to him through an odd pantomime.
The Captain’s grin cracked a bit as he watched her attempts to communicate. He put one arm around her thin shoulders and pulled her against his side so that he could talk to her without yelling above the din of the ship.
“We’re headed to see an old friend of mine. It’s not far, just a few days’ voyage.”
She looked up from his side. His eyes were fixed on the horizon. And although she had sailed with him many times, she couldn’t recall him ever mentioning his friend before. Gnawing at her lip, Himeko hugged the Captain tightly, the only father she had ever really known.
From what she gathered from the crew, they made good time with a favorable southern wind. Two days later they left the shore behind at the southern tip of the huge island and continued sailing south. As they continued, they passed many islands, large and small. Some were far off on the horizon, others were within easy distance if they had stopped and used the ship’s tender.
After leaving the main island, they sailed for three further days until they reached their destination. It was a larger island, marked by the spectacular cliffs lining the shoreline. Atop the cliffs, tall palm trees swayed in the breeze. Low foliage crowded the cliff-face, like an army of pygmies with colorful head-dresses and long spears waving angrily in protest of their arrival.
Himeko, the Captain, and a couple of members of the crew took the tender to the shore. The yellow sand scraped against the hull as a crewman jumped out near shore to drag them up on the beach. The grey, rocky cliffs towered up over them, threatening to shroud them in their late-afternoon shadow as they stepped ashore.
“Up you go, lass,” the Captain said as he picked her up under her arms and placed her ashore ahead of the incoming waves. “You boys go ahead back to the ship, we’ll be staying the night,” he said to the crewmen. Stepping out of the surf, he took Himeko by the arm and led her toward the towering cliff hovering above them. “We’ve got a bit of a walk, but I don’t recall you having a problem with heights,” he said as he indicated a rough path hewn out of the rock wall which was invisible unless you approached it directly. As she soon learned, the steep path wound back and forth along itself as it scaled the sheer wall. Most of the path was at most only an arm’s span wide, but some was even narrower, and it was a straight drop off the side if one mis-stepped.
The sun was dropping low in the sky by the time they reached the top. Himeko was thankful that they didn’t have to carry anything as they climbed. The ascent itself was difficult for her, in spite of her youthful vigor and years of working aboard a ship with her Captain. On the other hand, the Captain seemed to have no difficulties.
As they reached the top of the path, Himeko could see the foliage around the path had been meticulously cleared, but in such as way as it didn’t reveal that the path was there from below. As they stepped on the hard worn path, Himeko saw a bald man wearing voluminous white clothes sitting on a large flat rock. His eyes were closed as if he was sleeping, and he wore a serene expression on his youthful visage. He sat crossed legged where his palms rested atop his knees. A long, white-wood pole rested against the rock next to him. She was surprised not only at his appearance, but that he sat near the top of the cliff, seemingly waiting for someone to climb the cliff.
As she and the Captain approached, the young man’s face broke into a grin, yet he still didn’t open his eyes as he said, “Welcome, Captain Perine! The Master has been expecting you.” With this smiling pronouncement, he opened his eyes and simultaneously rose gracefully from his sitting position, picking up the long staff, all in one fluid motion. As Himeko and the Captain approached, the man gave them a rigid low bow with his hands held stiffly at the sides of his legs, the long staff bowing with him held in one. Courtesies concluded, he rose fluidly from the bow and turned his back to them. Soundlessly, he walked down the path, beckoning them to follow.
Himeko clasped the Captain’s left hand tightly in both of hers. He patted the tops of her hands with his right as though to reassure her, then led them down the meandering path after the odd man. The pathway was hard packed and well maintained with the dense foliage skillfully cut back from its well-defined edges. But the effect wasn’t out of place. It had been done in such a way that made the path resemble more of a natural exclusion to the verdant growth, rather than something hacked out of the flora.
The man didn’t speak again as they followed him. Hesitantly, Himeko watched him. The man was thin and lithe, yet moved with a surety of grace and strength that she had not seen in anyone before. He was smaller and skinnier than the Captain or most of the men on the boat, but he gave off an impression that he was somehow taller and stronger. It was almost upsetting to the eyes to watch him and his seeming contradictions.
Thick fronds of giant palms cast spurious shadows as the sun sank into the western ocean, darkening the pathway. Previously silent insects began buzzing in the waning light. The distant sounds of strange bird calls with which Himeko was unfamiliar rang out across the dense jungle of brush beyond the pathway. Before she could adjust herself to the odd environment, the pathway emerged into a clearing.
A low compound wall surrounded a few short buildings, each with a red tiled roof. The white walls of the wall were echoed in the single story buildings, but these only surrounded a large, central structure. Rising five stories high, a wood building rose from the center of the gaggle of low structures surrounding it, like the stamen of a tropical flower encircled by the petals. The central building would easily have encompassed all the other, lesser structures she could see. It was fabricated from some ancient looking, yet obviously well-cared-for polished wood. Immense beams seemed to grow from the ground and rise through the walls, supporting a massive red-tiled roof. The corners of the roof rose in graceful peaks, each layer smaller than the one before, yet building on its predecessor, reminding her of beautiful red snapdragon flowers. Brilliant white paper and wood panels encapsulated the walls, and though there were no windows, these sat on runners and looked like they could be opened to provide access to the outside.
The young man led them directly to a wide set of stone stairs rising to the porch surrounding the beautiful building. Though she would have sworn there was no one standing on the porch, when she looked up as she placed her first foot on the stair, a short, wizened old man stood atop the stairway. He wore red and orange robes. Long wisps of white hair were tied into a queue at the back of his neck, bound by tinkling rings. An almost equally long wispy white beard encircled his mouth and rode down his chest. Well worn wood and bone beads trailed from around his neck, ending in a golden tassel with and tiny, old brass bell. His old skin was lined, but seemed healthy and had a tanned, serene glow from his obvious good health. Startled at his sudden appearance, Himeko looked up into his face. Fine wrinkles like well won laugh lines radiated from the corners of his eyes and mouth. His forehead was slightly creased, but he didn’t give the impression that the creases came from worry. His left eye was a deep brown color, almost black, and it gave a startling contrast to the right. That eye was a milky white. The old man’s smile radiated good humor and welcome, and he said, “Welcome, my old friend, and welcome to you, Himeko. I hope you will be my new friend.”
The Captain laughed loudly at her elbow as they ascended the stairs to stand next to him on the wide porch. “Benkei, you old goat! Still trying to scare visitors with that old ‘ghost’ act, I see.”
The old man laughed gently. He patted the Captain on the shoulder with obvious affection, but then offered Himeko an arm. “Do you think you could help walk an old man back to his rooms?”
Himeko nodded and took his arms, but was unsure of where to go. She looked around, and was unable to find the young bald man who had led them here. Not knowing what to do, she was biting her lower lip as she turned back to the venerable Benkei. He looked at her patiently as if waiting for her to say something, and when she remained silent, he began shuffling slowly along the porch to the east. She moved quickly to support him. Her right hand moved under his left arm, while she clasped his hand in her left. Though she didn’t speak, she offered him her support, lest he fall.
They soon rounded the corner of the building and turned to the left. Himeko guessed that the building must be easily 300 feet on a side. It was an immense building, easily the biggest she had ever seen. As they walked, she had time to look around the outer compound. The place was well maintained. The outer, low wall and walls of the other buildings looked like they had been freshly whitewashed. The sparse grass that broke through the golden sand was neat and looked uniformly kept. No odd weeds or unsightly bushes sprang up from any cracks. Worn rock-lined paths were free of leaves or other detritus. Everything looked as though an army cared for it immaculately. But beside Benkei and the young, bald man, she had seen no one else.
As though sensing her curiosity, Benkei spoke an answer unbidden. “They are all at evening prayers. As soon as they finish with that and their meals, you’ll see everyone else.”
Surprised, she turned her head to look at him. He did not return her regard, but merely patted her held hand with his right. He said over his shoulder to the Captain, “You were right. She is sharp.”
The sun had long set, but the compound was lit by paper lanterns strung on long poles throughout or hung from hooks off the main building, which Himeko had learned was called Gujunoto. The entire complex was called the Sensoji Temple, and the people who lived and worked here were all monks of Shizuru. Shizuru was the Tian-Min creation goddess, and she was the goddess of the sun, honor, and swords. Her descendants sat on the throne of Tian-Min even today. The men and women of this temple were devoted to following her example, leading good lives, helping others, and attempting to perfect themselves through her example.
After a meal with Benkei and the Captain, Himeko had been shown to one of the low buildings where rooms had been prepared for her and the Captain for the night. A pair of female monks had led her there and laid out a futon and bedclothes for her. A robe had also been laid out for her to use for her bath, and one of the women waited while she stripped out of her well worn travel attire. The robe was plain white, but felt luxuriously soft on her skin. It was smooth and light, yet very warm when she closed it with the wide sash provided. Slipping on a set of wooden sandals they had given her, she slid the light wooden door aside to join the woman waiting outside.
Together they crossed the large courtyard and headed south to the rear of the compound. The woman held a paper lantern by a long bamboo pole to light their way as they left the walled complex behind and headed down a wide path into the jungle. Earlier, she had introduced herself as Ayameko. Now she chatted lightly about the island and the lives of the monks as they walked to the baths.
The monastery was self-sufficient. They grew all their own food on the island. Though there were only about 50 monks living there, they were able to supply their own needs from the local bounty. Some fished or hunted for what little meat they required as their diet consisted mostly of rice and vegetables they grew. As the monastery rested near the base of the mountain, which was named Senjo-sama, ample fresh water was available. Another reason for the location of the monastery was the hot springs, Ayameko explained. Hot pools of water gushed from the ground, providing a wonderful place for the monks and their infrequent visitors to bathe.
Himeko had never experienced a hot spring before. The Captain’s household was a western style one, where one took baths in huge copper tubs with water warmed over the hearth. She had thought everyone lived like the Captain’s household, so it was a bit of culture-shock to discover that the Captain and his house were actually all foreigners to Tian-Min. Originally, the Captain had been on early trading missions from the west to Tian-Min, and had elected to move there. It explained his blond hair and the Mistress’ red locks. Now Himeko was learning how little she knew about her own country and its customs.
She could smell the hot springs before she saw them. Rounding a long bend in the path, she saw a squat building made from bamboo and more of the ubiquitous red roof tiles spring out of the dense undergrowth, sitting like a toad squatting among huge boulders at the end path. It had two doors, each covered by draping curtains. The one on the left was red with a geometric white pattern, and the left was a dark blue with a white flowing, floral pattern. Ayameko explained that the baths were segregated. Women would enter through the blue curtains.
Inside the small room Himeko could see that one wall was entirely covered with shelves. Upon each sat rows of small baskets. Ayameko hung the lantern on a wall hook and began removing her clothing. Seeing this, Himeko undressed as well. They each placed their clothes into one of the baskets. Taking towels from another shelf near the door, they left the room through another draped door along the back wall.
Though unlit, Himeko could see the bathing area clearly under the bright moon and plentiful starlight provided by the heavens. The foyer area where they stepped out onto was made from mortared flat paving stones which ran up to a high bamboo wall. Upon it, several small stools were placed near a wall with a well pump. Underneath the pump nozzle was a large, squat open barrel. Next to this were several small, wide buckets. Ayameko turned to Himeko if she wanted her to help her wash her back. Himeko shied a bit, but nodded.
Ayameko led her to one of the stools and seated Himeko upon it. Himeko watched as the older woman went to the pump and poured water into the large barrel. Taking one of the smaller buckets from the floor, Ayameko filled it and brought it over to Himeko. Pouring a little upon the girl to wet her, she then picked up some soap from a nearby shelf. With this, Himeko was thoroughly washed, including her hair. The soap stung her eyes a bit, but she bit the inside of her cheek and stayed silent. Finally satisfied with Himeko’s hygiene, Ayameko concluded by dousing her with the rest of the water in the bucket, rinsing off the suds.
Himeko waited patiently on the stool while Ayameko performed her own absolutions. Though it was nighttime, the warm island air felt good on her wet skin. Ayameko soon finished and returned the soap and bucket back to their places. She returned to Himeko and beckoned her to accompany her. Himeko was confused as to why they weren’t going back into the little hut to retrieve their clothes, but she followed.
There was a gap in the bamboo wall at the rear of the foyer that Himeko had missed. Stepping through it, Ayameko led her by the hand into what she called the onsen. Himeko paused at the entrance, stunned by what she saw.
A large pool of steaming water sparkled beautifully under the starry sky, surrounded by large, smooth rocks and a high bamboo wall. Ayameko laid their towels on a nearby rock and walked carefully into the pool. She turned when Himeko stopped. Amused at the girl, she returned to her and took her by the hand and led Himeko carefully into the steaming water. The rich, mineral aroma of the water burst upon her senses as she broke its mirrored surface. The water was hot, but not to the point of burning. Its heat instead prompted Himeko to relax, coaxed her into lowering her defenses and just be still.
They sat in silence, each lost in her own reverie as insects and night birds serenaded them. The luxurious warmth sapped Himeko’s consciousness, prompting her to just let go and sleep. Soon she was nodding her head, fighting to stay awake. Too soon, a grinning Ayameko tapped her on the shoulder and prompted her to get out. “It wouldn’t be good if you fell asleep in here. You’d get too hot and pass out. I will take you back to your room.”
Grateful to move lest she succumb to the water’s warm soporific effect, Himeko followed Ayameko out of the onsen’s waters. Before she moved beyond the bamboo wall, she stopped and cast one last regretful look back at the steaming surface. The bath had been too short!
Once dressed, the women headed back to the main compound. Ayameko escorted Himeko to her room. After helping Himeko into the futon, she blew out the lantern and bade her good night.
Though she had been lulled to somnolence by the onsen’s warm waters, Himeko was no longer sleepy once she lay down for the night. She tossed and turned, unable to sleep in the strange place. Getting up, she moved to the sliding panels separating her room from the Captains. She tapped a few times on the wood, and after getting no response, slid it aside carefully.
The Captain’s futon had been laid out carefully on the floor, but was still untouched and empty. Closing the panel regretfully, Himeko returned to her own bed. She tried to sleep once more, but rest still eluded her. Worrying at her lip with her teeth, she made up her mind. Rising, she moved to the entry panel and carefully slid it open. Her sandals were still at the entryway. She put them on and headed back to Gujunoto.
The pathways were still brightly lit by the lanterns, but she saw no one on her way to the main temple. Benkei’s rooms were on the same side as the residence provided to her and the Captain, so she hoped he was still talking to the old monk.
As she approached the temple, she could see the sliding panels to Benkei’s rooms were still thrown wide open. Light from multiple lanterns brightly lit the low table around which Benkei and the Captain sat on thick pillowed cushions. Each had an array of small white bottles before them, some lying empty on their sides. She could see that the Captain was laughing and gesticulating wildly with his hands as he did when telling stories. The old monk sat across from him laughing and grinning. Each continuously poured something from the little bottles into small cups from which they drank between pauses in the story.
Himeko stopped at the edge of one of the buildings to watch. She really didn’t want to disturb the Captain while he was having fun with his friend. This was the happiest she had seen him in what felt like a long, long time. She started to turn and go back to her room when she heard the Captain ask, “What am I going to do, Benkei? I can’t take her home!”
Pausing, Himeko stood with her back to the scene, one hand resting on the white-washed wall. She didn’t think she should be listening to this, but her heart dreaded to not hear.
“I mean,” the Captain continued, “I don’t think she’s safe there anymore. Claire doesn’t remember anything, but what in the world possessed her to do it in the first place?!”
Himeko turned back to the scene. She crouched low on the wall to peak around where they wouldn’t notice her. The Captain was now standing, pacing with his hands clasped behind his back between gestures to illustrate his frustration.
Benkei nodded. “Two women, both in pain, neither really knowing why. It is a very sad tale, Daniel-san.”
The Captain stopped pacing to flop back down on his cushion. He hastily poured another cup full and drank it. “But what am I going to do? Obviously Himeko can’t live there anymore. Who knows when Claire might have another episode! I love my daughter and I love my wife. I don’t want to be without either of them!”
“Daniel-san, you must quit this selfishness,” Benkei admonished the Captain. “You must now do what is best for both of them.”
The Captain nodded his head in agreement.”But what is best for them?”
She didn’t wait around for the reply. Himeko turned and quickly fled back to her room. Though it was breaking her heart, she knew what she needed to do. She finally found sleep in the release of her tears.
The next morning, she arose early and went to see Benkei. She was taken to a meditation garden on the western end of the compound where the old monk sat on a stone bench overlooking an artful arrangement of rocks and flowers surrounding a shallow pool through in which some large, golden fish swam. The monk who had led her excused himself and she was left alone with the Master.
He didn’t look around to see who had joined him, but merely patted a spot on the bench next to him, indicating that she should sit and join him. Hesitating for a moment, she steeled her nerve and quickly moved to do as she was bid.
They sat in silence for some minutes. Himeko desperately wanted to speak about last night and gain the monk’s approval for her plan before the Captain awoke, but she was hesitant to begin. The Master sat in silence, seeming to be patient enough to wait until the end of the world for her to begin in contrast.
Finally she opened her mouth and started to speak with her whispering, raspy voice. He stopped her at once by raising his hand. He still did not look at her, but gazed over the pond. She drew back inside herself, afraid to try again.
More anxious minutes passed for Himeko when at last Benkei spoke. “You were there last night. You heard Daniel-san.” It was not a question.
Unable to look up past the ground beneath her sandals, Himeko mutely nodded. She sat with her back straight and her hands folded in her lap.
The old monk cleared his throat and continued. “You love your father and do not wish to see him in pain.”
Again, she nodded, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
He nodded as well. “I, too, lost a daughter. Of course, I lost sons as well, but she was the most precious of my children.” He laughed to himself. “You may think it strange that I say this. Parents shouldn’t have favorites, but…well, we all do. Whether or not we admit it is another story.” He paused and turned to look at her from the corner of his eye. “I do not wish to see Daniel-san in such pain again, but he has an obligation to his wife as well as you, don’t you think?” Not waiting for a response, he continued. “Of course you do. That is why you are here. You are a good girl who thinks and feels for those around you. That is well.” He pushed his hands into the small of his back and stretched while slowly standing. With a big sigh, he said, “Very well. You may stay with us. I will inform Daniel-san.”
Patting her gently on the head, the old monk walked quietly down the path back toward the main temple, leaving her sitting in the early morning light crying silently to herself.
Himeko did not see the Captain again. Benkei considered it kinder to both if he left without saying goodbye. She did not see him off when he left the compound, nor from the beach at the base of the cliff. But she ran to catch the last sight of his ship before the distant horizon took him away. She stood atop the cliff watching the distant white spec of its sails until she could no longer see it over the vast distance.
She had heard him rage when Benkei had told him about her decision. The Captain had demanded to see her. But the old man had denied him entirely, knowing that even the strongest resolutions can crumble in the face of desperate love.
The Captain had left in anger and sadness. Himeko thought that perhaps it would be better this way for him. His immediate pain might enable him to forget about her.
She did not take into account her own pain. As hours strung into days, she could find no appetite. Taking no sustenance other than water, she sat in the little rock garden alone for hours on end. She only moved when prompted by the monks to bathe or to sleep. When no one tended her directly, she inevitably returned to the quiet spot.
After over a week of this behavior, Master Benkei brought her back to herself. One morning as she entered the garden early before sunrise, she found the old master sitting on the bench. Though he didn’t physically react to her approach, he said softly as she neared, “It is time to end your mourning, Himeko.”
She was surprised at his appearance. No one had really bothered her, so she had felt that she was essentially on her own. In the self-centered nature of all children, she thought that no one really cared what happened to her.
Patting the bench next to him, he indicated that she should sit.
Defiantly, she walked over next to the bench, but purposefully chose to remain standing. She crossed her arms over her chest, waiting for him to decide the next move.
Benkei looked up at her and quirked his mouth. “At least some spirit remains within you.” Rising, he walked away from the bench toward the path and said over his shoulder, “Come, it is also time for you to earn your keep.”
Dread and curiosity mingled in her breast as she followed the Master back to Gujunoto.
The next few weeks went by in a blur for Himeko as she learned to do chores assigned to her by the monks. First, they had her help in pulling weeds from the yard and gardens. Next, she helped carry the laundry. After, she helped gather the ingredients for their food.
Each task they assigned built upon the previous. After she learned to weed the lawn to the monks’ satisfaction, they taught her to prune the paths in a way that looked natural. Carrying the laundry taught her to who the clothes belonged and exposed her to washing and drying. Soon, she was helping with those as well. Gathering the ingredients for the meals taught her what ingredients were used in the dishes. Soon, they had her chopping those ingredients, and soon after that, cooking them. Each member of the temple was expected to help whenever and however they could. She was no exception.
Her only exemption was the daily prayers. As she was not a member of the religious order, they did not expect her to conform to their beliefs. But her curiosity soon emerged as she was essentially immersed in their religion. Himeko had never really been exposed to religion before; the Captain was a merchant prince and didn’t avow a single religion. As a result, his household was basically barren of religious practices or philosophy. As she learned about the monastery’s religious purpose, she became more and more interested. They were happy to instruct her or allow her to read their texts.
Communication was more of an issue for Himeko. Her ravaged throat left it difficult for her to talk and for others to understand her when she did. To solve the issue, she was given a slate and some chalk. When she needed to say something, she would simply write what she meant on the slate. As a result, she quickly became the fastest and most accurate writer in the compound.
Besides spiritual training, the monks kept a regular program of physical training. As Shizuru was a martial goddess, it was a given that her followers would respect her example and learn the arts of war as well. When they were not performing chores or doing religious rituals or prayers, they would spend hours honing their bodies and abilities with weapons or with fighting with their bare hands.
It was not uncommon that they would practice even while doing chores, which was how Himeko was inducted into their play. She would be busy weeding or doing laundry when one monk would launch a surprise attack against another. The two would exchange a few swift blows, bow, and go back to what they were doing. Even Master Benkei would appear from nowhere and level a deadly looking blow with his staff against the more senior monks, trying to catch them off-guard. While deadly serious, the monks treated the exchanges as more play than practice. It looked like so much fun; at the evening meal one evening, Himeko asked Benkei if she could learn, too.
The old master eyed her carefully after she asked, stroking his long beard with one hand thoughtfully. Nodding sharply, he called over one of the junior monks to his side. Instantly the monk sprang to his master’s side. Benkei told him to begin instructing Himeko in their martial training.
Himeko was so overjoyed that she barely slept that night.
That joy didn’t last through the following evening when she was so tired and sore that she could barely crawl into her bed. Though what the monks did daily didn’t look that rough, she soon learned that it was far more strenuous than how it appeared. Her lesson had only been after the days chores and the evening meal was completed, and it had only lasted a couple of hours. But it felt like she had been run up and down the cliff face a hundred times during those two hours.
The next day was worse. Again, her special lessons didn’t start until after the evening meal, and they only last a couple of hours, but it was enough to wear her out completely. This time, the monk took her to a spot on the beach where the sand was soft. He had first shown her how to fall and to practice it by herself. He explained that if she didn’t learn how to fall correctly, she could be hurt by the simplest strikes or throws. Falling correctly was the basis for all defenses. At first she was allowed to roll and tumble by herself, but when he felt she was doing those correctly, he started to throw her himself. Two hours later, she could barely trudge up the long cliff face back to her room.
This routine alternated for days. One day, jogging and physical training to get her body into shape. The next was for fundamentals practice. Each night she went to bed exhausted. Each morning she woke sore and bruised.
But the strange part, at least in her mind, was that she was really enjoying the extra activities. It was physically and mentally demanding, but it was fun!
As days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months, she progressed and learned more and more. Soon, the young monk had no more to teach her and she progressed to an older, more experienced monk. She learned strikes with her bare hands and feet. She learned to use her body like a weapon. They taught her how to run lightly, leaving no trace. They taught her to read the world around her to see, really see, what was going on and not to take her environment at face value. As she progressed from teacher to teacher, she learned different weapons.
Physical training wasn’t all she endured. Himeko began spiritual training and started joining in the daily prayers. She debated philosophy and morality with the other monks. Her young, agile mind and body quickly accelerated her into an accepted member of the order.
One morning Himeko was summoned to Master Benkei in the meditation garden. As she approached, he patted the bench next to him once more indicating that she should sit.
After a few minutes contemplating the beautiful garden in silence, Master Benkei turned to her. “You have progressed far, and far faster than any student I have ever seen, Himeko. I believe the time has arrived for me to train you personally.”
Himeko was surprised. Only the top, most promising students trained with Master Benkei, and from what she had been told, usually only after a period of years. She had only been here a few months. Trying to keep her surprise and excitement from her face, she bowed her head and nodded meekly.
The Master clapped her on the shoulder. “I enjoy talking with you, Himeko. You express more in your face with one look than most do all day in their speech. Come to the dojo first thing in the morning. I’ll tell the others that you are excused from morning chores.” He rose with a smile. She rose with him, giving him a full bow from the waist. He returned it with a slight head bow and left her to her fantasies and expectations for the morning class.
Himeko arrived before first light, but after morning prayers, in the main dojo which was near the Master’s rooms in the big house. The room was called a dojo which meant “a place for learning the Way.” It was expansively empty, bare except for a rack of wooden poles and weapons on one wall. On the other side, the space of a second doorway was walled up with planks and remodeled into a small alcove shelf with a miniature, steep-roofed house perched upon it.
Master Benkei paused in front of the shelf to bow slowly from the waist. He straightened, stood silently, then turned to Himeko.
“Seiza,” he said, gesturing to the floor in front of where she stood.
“Seiza,” he repeated briefly. “You understand? Seiza is sitting down bow.”
She understood. The seiza, or formal, seated bow was done by kneeling down, first on the left knee, then on both and sitting back to rest the buttocks on one’s heels. Most martial arts classes are customarily started and concluded this way.
Master Benkei waited for her to begin. When she did, dropping onto her left knee, she caught the smallest movement from the corner of her eye. She thought perhaps Master Benkei has twitched his shoulders. WHAM! The kihon yo, a wooden training naginata, smashed into her side with such force that she was pitched over, sprawling to the floor.
“What is going on?” Himeko wondered while she stumbled back to her feet. One of her elbows took the impact of the fall and she worked it back and forth gingerly, trying also to suck air back into lungs that were emptied by the force of the sword’s strike. The throbbing in her side reached from hip to armpit. Master Benkie’s command allowed no more than a couple of seconds for her to wonder what manner of sin she had committed to deserve the initial assault.
A lot more stiffly, still hurting, she tried again, getting no further than before when the kihon yo came at her in the same unseen way, whacking against her arm, knocking her down again. And again and again. That first afternoon as Master Benkei’s student, Himeko learned that pain concentrated on a specific spot can only be centralized for so long before it will become more general and so, more bearable. In fact, Master Benkei wasn’t really hitting her all that hard. It was the terrifying speed of the kihon yo and the helplessness she felt against it that made her flinch so much with anticipation. On the fourth or fifth try, she finally glimpsed from where the Master’s sword was coming and, jumping to the side, she succeeded in ducking out of its path. After she managed to bob out of the way when he swung it at her a few more times, he nodded, indicating for her to go on. Hand at her sides, she knelt on both knees and, as she expected, Master Benkei struck hard with the kihon yo, thrusting it this time so the end of the weapon punched into her chest like a sharp fist. Once more it took repeated tries and several jolting shocks before she could twist away from the blunt point of the sword when it stabbed out at her. Master Benkei’s gaze remained obdurate, expressionless. Still there was no explanation from him and she didn’t have a chance to wonder much about it now that her senses were taking over, tuning themselves for self-preservation.
On both knees, she went ahead with the final posture of seiza, easing back to sit on her heels. Since she was facing Master Benkei fully and wary for the slightest movement, she figured she would be able to dodge any thrust or swing of the kihon yo, yet just as she pressed her bottom to her heels, her teacher reversed his grip on the sword, striking with it upward at her chin. She jerked her head aside spastically. Even though the kihon yo wasn’t sharp, it was as dangerous as any club and with the speed and force he used, she was certain her jaw would be crushed if hit. The other blows she had begun to anticipate, but the angle of the last attack was completely unexpected. The blood in her temples pumped. Panting, every muscle strained, she waited for Master Benkei to bring the oak blade down. Instead, he stepped back.
“Good. Now try again.”
She stood shakily to begin the whole process again. Kneeling, she pivoted away from the sword’s lateral strokes. On her knees, she twisted to let the thrusts go past. Sitting back, her head cocked away in time for the upper cuts to whistle by.
“Now, not so much movement,” Master Benkei commanded. “No need to jump a foot—“ he mimed her wide, frantic dodges, “—when sword is only an inch wide.” She tried to follow his advice, shifting herself as little as possible to avoid the strikes, and by the end of an hour she could often escape from the kihon yo without losing her balance or posture. Finally, when she made it all the way to the floor and bowed without being hit once, Master Benkei returned the bow and slipped into the position of seiza beside and at a right angle to her.
It is customary for a Tian Min of higher status to be seated at such an angle to an inferior, allowing the former to observe without being watched too carefully himself. In a culture where attitudes are measured by discerning the slightest reactions, that arrangement gives the more respected individual a considerable advantage in conversation.
Master Benkei sighed. “For the bugeisha,” he said, “it is not enough to be alert just when holding a weapon. You must be ready for the unexpected every moment, always ready. Sitting down, getting up, eating, sleeping—all the same. The bugeisha has to be aware all the time. We call this zanshin.”
Himeko’s daily practice remained centered around the kihon yo. She attacked invisible enemies, splitting them in half with the vertical stroke that began with the sword raised above her head. When she could execute that cut with some accuracy, she moved on to the diagonal strokes and the more powerful horizontal slashed of the style that started at waist level and were driven home with the force of the hips. Through thousands of repetitions, she progressed slowly in the basics of naginatajutsu: foot work, rhythm, and timing. Cut, step forward, cut. Turn, cut, cut. Turn, cut, turn. Whatever Master Benkei’s directions, she could move, her arms and legs starting and stopping at the same instant as her kihon yo. She grew more efficient at clenching her abdominal muscles to let them do the work. According to Master Benkei, the arms would make a sword hit, while the mass of the hips and abdominal muscles would cut, all the way through the target. In every lesson, the emphasis was on delivering a clean blow capable of killing instantly. For her, like all bugeisha, the demanding basics of her craft were taught by the exercises of kata.
The Tian Min character for kata means “shape” or “form.” A vertical stroke with the sword, a horizontal slash, or a lunging thrust are all kinds of waza, or techniques, but when they are combined in a special way as a series of predetermined blocks, attacks, and counterattacks, they become a kata. To the observer, kata might look like a form of dance, choreographed movement with a stiff ritualism far removed from the spontaneity of real combat. The dazzling speed and apparently instinctive displays of prowess she had seen from practitioners training she had watched were a far cry from the step, cut, drop to one knee, and block routine that Master Benkei taught her. She thought the action contrived, even when he assumed the role of her opponent. She imagined a dozen places where she might alter the kata and make a successful attack against him.
The first kata required her to step forward four times, delivering an overhead strike, then a sideways slash from left to right, followed by a reverse cut from right to left, and finishing with a twirling stab to the chest. The defender in this kata moves steadily backward in response to the assaults, blocking and redirecting the assailant, countering the final thrust with a slicing cut that would sever the arms of the attacker if the weapons were not of wood. As she repeated the sequence to memorize it, Master Benkei simply met her oaken blade, assuming the role of the defender and putting nothing of the tremendous strength of his hips and shoulders into the blocks. When they had covered the length of the dojo floor, they would switch roles and slowly waltz back again, this time with the Master attacking, again without force, and Himeko defending.
As she began to learn them, the kata of naginatajutsu of Benkei’s particular style of swordsmanship had none of the speed and force of the individual techniques she performed daily. But patiently, Master Benkei increased the tempo of the two man exercises. His blocks came a little bit faster, with more focus. In attacking, his speed was even greater. She hardly finished making one parry before the second cut was upon her, forcing her back steadily. The difference between cutting and defending against an imaginary opponent and entering a session with another body that moved and struck back was enormous. Himeko would find herself skipping in an effort to keep up with her teacher as he retreated ever more quickly from the reach of her kihon yo. When she did catch up, she would be out of place for the following strike and Benkei’s kihon yo would come down like a lash on her hands or wrists. The return trip up the dojo floor was just as swift, with Master Benkei’s hacking cuts constantly threatening. Where once she had been able to make a strong stance and creditable block, she found herself battling with her kihon yo and scrambling to avoid getting hit.
Under the pressure of the kata, attention was narrowed. Her mind was filled with the sounds of the dojo, the slap, shuffle, slap of their feet as they slid across the smooth wood planks; the shark bark of the kihon yo meeting; the rustling of hakama; her labored pants—and the steady, overwhelming hiss as Master Benkei exhaled, always exhaled, like a tiger approaching from the forest.
Master Benkei was at the dining room table, writing a letter one day. Normally when he wrote letters, he would use the small, less formal characters which could fill the whole page, but because this correspondence was more formal, the Master wrote in the much older characters of Tian Min script with ink and a soft bristled brush. There is a maxim in the bujutsu, “ken, shu, ichi.” A reminder that the sword and the brush are one and the same in practice and that the warrior must wield his blade with exactly the same accuracy and artistry with which he employs a brush to render the intricate characters of calligraphy. Master Benkei’s characters, like his swordsmanship, were adroit and flowing, unconsciously expert. Himeko sat on the chair beside him, watching, and when he had finished the letter, he handed her his brush and told her to show him what I had learned from the calligraphy books she had been looking through.
“Satsujinken,” she brushed on a sheet of clean parchment, her strokes drawn too carefully, without the ease of her teacher’s and showing it in their slightly off-balanced structure and clumsy spacing.
“What does this mean?” Master Benkei stretched back, propping his chair on its rear legs, folding his arms across his chest.
Himeko whispered, “Satsujinken, the sword that takes life, the sword that kills.”
Master Benkei pursed his lips. “Important for the bugeisha to have this kind of sword?” he asked.
Benkei leaned forward and brought the chair back down on all its legs. He took the brush from Himeko, swirled it in the wet ink that was pooled at the end of his little square of inkstone and beside her characters wrote “katsujinken,” or “the sword that gives life.”
“This is even more important, I think,” he said.
Himeko knelt at the far end of the room, wearing a light, white kimono-like blouse called a monsuki and a hakama of the same color. She was in the process of knotting a cord around both her shoulders so that it crossed over in the middle of her back. The silk cord pulled up the flaring sleeves of the monsuki, giving her arms more freedom. When she finished tying it, she picked up the kihon yo beside her and moved to the center of the floor where Master Benkei waited with a bokken, or wooden sword, in hand.
They bowed and began their complicated kata. Himeko glided with a feline sort of grace, a commanding though perfectly feminine strength that had developed in her during her years at the monastery, through the forms of the naginata. Master Benkei, as her opponent, matched her tempo, beginning slowly and then stepping up the action.
As they progressed, the kata getting longer and more complex, Himeko appeared to be in the eye of some ever more furiously brewing storm. The kihon yo spun in circles and arcs, flicking up in a cut against her master’s inner thigh and then reversing itself to hack down at his shoulder. Master Benkei was not exerting all of his mastery, but he was twisting and turning, dodging the halberd’s mock blade and jumping into the air to make attacks of his own—attacks which Himeko nimbly evaded, her hakama swishing, her monsuki crackling as she countered. It was a violent ballet in which a mistake, even though they were using practice weapons, would result in a serious injury at the least.
Himeko stomped her foot, using the momentum to whip the kihon yo overhead and down in a chop meant to bisect her partner vertically. It struck Master Benkei’s bokken so hard that onlookers winced. Himeko immediately withdrew as if to retreat a step, but she was actually pivoting around and once again the sword’s edge came slicing, horizontally now at her Master’s knee. She hissed with the effort of the blow. Master Benkei kicked up his endangered leg so that the kihon yo passed under and then, balanced on the other, he hopped to close the distance and struck, the bokken flashing in a blur toward his student’s head.
Both stopped, moved apart, and bowed, and then went on to the next kata. Her face flushed and her shoulders heaved, but through the whole performance, Himeko’s eyes never changed. They were more intense than ever, deep and expressionless, a haughty, self-confident contemplation polished to a cold luster by a hundred generations of warrior training.
Her final morning on the island began like any other. After morning prayers she went to the dojo to train with Master Benkei. As usual, he was already standing before the small shrine before she entered. As he stood, she noticed he picked up the antique naginata that lay on the smooth wood before him. It was an elegant weapon, beautifully decorated. It stood as tall as Himeko. The staff was wooden but contained within a thin metal skin of silky silver that reinforced the entire shaft, instead of the traditional method of only using metal rings to reinforce sections. The shaft ended in a heavy, pointed ishizuki, or metal end cap. The tsuba, or guard of the blade, was not a traditional one. Instead it was a highly decorative golden dragon’s head. Supposedly the metal was harder than the blade itself, yet was lighter than a standard style tsuba. The blade itself was also non-traditional. Usual naginata blades were long, slender and curved like a sword, usually of a similar length. This one was heavy with a hooked section on the back designed to catch blades or clothing. Today the blade was sheathed in its saya. The beautiful naginata was made by a master, generations ago, and was considered his finest work. Its name was the Blue Dragon Crescent Blade. It was an heirloom of Master Benkei’s family and had been carried by his deceased daughter.
It was exceptionally odd that he had it out for their morning training. She had seen the Blue Dragon Crescent Blade only once before, a time when the Master had shown it to her and explained its rich heritage and precision design and exquisite manufacturing.
After Himeko completed seiza, her Master sat down next to her at a ninety degree angle to her right, the Blue Dragon Crescent Blade resting on the floor at his right hand and directly in front of her.
She sat composedly as she waited for him to speak first. He studied her for some minutes before speaking.
“Himeko, I will say with some pride, you are the finest student I have ever taught, better even than my own daughter.” He paused for some seconds. “I never thought to utter those words.” He paused again. “You have learned with an amazing speed. Nonetheless, your training has been as thorough and complete as any I have taught. It is time.”
Keeping her head facing forward with the same expression, she waited for him to continue, but when it was obvious that he was waiting for her to speak, she whispered, “Time for what, Master?”
“Time for you to leave the nest where you were reborn, Himeko.”
Startled, she turned to face him, her surprise etched on her face. She tried to recover poise, but failed.
He excused her broken composure with a wave of his hand. “You’ve learned your lessons well, Himeko. I can teach you no more. I have seen it; you must leave us and journey to your Captain’s homeland. The journey now before you is your final test, and this journey you must face alone.” He paused and then added, “Well, not completely alone. The Blue Dragon Crescent Blade will accompany you, my daughter,” he patted the naginata as he said this.
“Master…,” she rasped out loudly.
“No child, this is your destiny. And I call you daughter because you have become as precious to me as if you were my own blood. Therefore, you will carry the heirloom of my house, which is now yours as well.” He moved close and embraced her.
Himeko had thought her tears all shed long ago. She learned that day that she was wrong.
|Miss %||Damage Red.||Spell Res.|
|CMB||Base Att.||Str Mod||Size|
|Total||Base Attack Bonus||Abil. Mod||Size||Misc|
|Name||Attack Bonus||Damage||Critical||Range||Type||Special Qualities|
|Name||Type||Bonus||Max Dex||Check Penalty||Spell Failure||Max Speed||Special Qualities|
|Name||Type||Bonus||Check Penalty||Spell Failure||Special Qualities|
Ring / Amulet / Etc.
|Name||Type||Bonus||Special Qualities||Name||Type||Bonus||Special Qualities|
|Sleight of Hand||Dex|
|Use Magic Device||Cha|
Special Abilities+ Add
|Light Load||Medium Load||Heavy Load||Lift Over Head||Push/Drag|