Chapter One from the sequel to “Voice of the Sword”, Book 2 in the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy!
It was the Godless Month. The tenth month of the year, when the Gods of Japan leave their shrines and assemble at Izumo, on the western shore of the Japan Sea, to discuss matters of destiny. It was the month when mortals like ourselves faced devils and dangers with only our wits to protect us, as the leaves withered and turned gold, and the air grew chill and carried the scent of wood smoke.
The twentieth day, of the tenth month, in the tenth year of Bunka.
Still in my sleeping robe, I put away the futon in the closet, and swept the tatami, the simple brushing movement also serving to clear my mind of dreams. I slid open the paper door to the central room. It was the hour of the rabbit; the servants and the other temple maidens sat by the open hearth, the wood fire burning steadily beneath the big iron pot. One servant knelt, setting out the bowls and chopsticks. The smoke left its pungent smell behind as it was absorbed by the straw in the roof.
I knelt in formal position on the tatami, and gratefully accepted a bowl of buckwheat porridge. “Itadakimasu,” I said. I humbly receive this. I took a handful of chopped spring onion and miyoga from the serving tray and sprinkled it into the bowl.
After eating, I prayed to the images of my parents, enshrined in the kamidana – the Shinto family altar. Enshrined within the cypress-wood alcove lay the tablet carrying the posthumous names of my dear, departed mother and father, written in formal Kanji calligraphy. Strung above the altar were the required hempen rope and the O-fuda – white paper amulets, cut into the shape of lightning bolts, upon which were written the charms of peace and blessing.
Other acolytes here had the memories of their parents to comfort them. I had none. I simply had the visions sweeping in to guide and warn me, the chilling visitors from the edge of sleep. I accepted the knowledge, and my destiny; as it was written in the Wen-Tzu, nothing can be done to help the changes of myriad beings, but to grasp the essential, and return to the source.
The servant helped me don my ceremonial kimono, the white uniform of the Star-Tellers. Then I bid farewell, and walked out onto the temple academy courtyard.
To my right, Guard Captain Wakita stepped out of the sentry hut and bowed. “It is a beautiful morning, Mistress Furukawa.”
I smiled. Despite his title of Guard Captain, Shunsuke Wakita was little older than me. He had inherited the position at the Academy of Star-Tellers after the untimely death of his father. That was something else we shared, along with our youth; the loss of our parents. Mine, carried away by plague when I was but three months old, and his, taken in the tragic collapse of Nihonbashi Bridge eleven years before.
He stood beside me, the October sunlight glinting upon the chestplate, the helmet, and the hilts of the long and short swords he wore. His face had a fine, chiseled look, and beneath his helmet I knew he did not yet have the shaved chonmage pate of the adult samurai, but rather thick locks of slightly curly hair.
“You do not have to be here,” Shunsuke said. “There are many other maidens belonging to the Temple.”
“But I have duties to perform, just as you have,”
We stood, looking across the paved courtyard at the wall of ancient oak and elm trees around the complex of temple buildings, the bamboo thicket near the entrance, the sacred well where visitors were required to perform their ablutions.
It was up to Shunsuke to fill in the silence.
“You told me that your own star-readings state that today is a day of ill luck, Reiko,” he said softly. “It may be advisable for you to stay here. I can carry a message to the priest, if you wish, saying that you are sick.”
“I thank you for being prepared to do me such a favor,” I said politely, “but my duties are clear.”
His hazel eyes glanced at me from beneath the steel rim of his helmet. “That’s the trouble with fortune-tellers,” he grumbled. “They always have the last word.”
It was now the hour of the dragon. Asakusa was awakening, preparing for the day’s business. The air was heavy with the smells of incense and grilling fish. Beyond the grounds of Sensoji Temple, I could hear the cries of the vendors and beggars, the rattling of the bamboo omikuji charms in their wooden containers. From the long narrow street of stalls called the Nakamise Street I could hear the chirruping of the caged sparrows; many elderly vendors made a living by selling birds and small fish that the customers would later free, in honor of their chosen Buddhist saint.
The sun was pale in the clouded sky, with a sliver of moon still barely visible. The strong sense of order and routine calmed me and made me feel at peace inside. I loved the serene brutality of Asakusa, my home. I loved the electric power of humanity I felt with each breath of dry, smoky air. The mercy of Amaterasu the Shining One had granted us another day in this world.
The Star-Tellers Academy was situated on the Hill of Kinryu, the Golden Dragon, in the grounds of Sensoji Temple. Iyeyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, had set up the Academies in the early years of his rule. One was located at Fushimi, near Kyoto; and one was here, in the heart of Edo, the capital of Japan. The two faiths of the Academy were the same two faiths that had co-existed peacefully in Japan for over a thousand years; Shinto, the indigenous Japanese religion of nature and ancestor-worship, and Buddhism, brought to Japan from China.
Two sentries guarded the huge oaken door that served as the entrance to the Academy halls. They bowed, opened the door, and admitted me into a narrow, lantern-lit corridor. Above the doorway stood the Zodiac Clock, a gift from the Tokugawa administration, beautifully constructed by the Shogun’s elite clockmakers. Each of the day’s twelve periods was depicted by lovingly rendered images of the twelve animals of the Zodiac. I shuffled through the doorway beneath it and into the interior of the Star-Reader Academy.
Whispering voices came from behind the latticed wood and paper walls, and steam hung in the air from the round wooden tubs in the nearby bathrooms. I walked past gilt murals showing ancient warriors slaying demons and dragons. In the gleaming cypress floor, I could see my own blurred and darkened face, reflected by the highly polished wood. I passed the central hall, with its dozens of chrysanthemum branches hung in front of the altar, from the Kikumode Ceremony two days before.
Tomoe was already casting the oracle bones into the hot charcoal of the brazier when I reached her room. She knelt in formal position beneath the scroll bearing the names of her household Kami, and looked up at me with dark eyes as I entered. She pushed back her glossy, waist-length black hair and smiled wistfully.
“Did you see the moon last night?” she asked.
I nodded. “A full moon, entering the final phase, according to the calendar.”
Tomoe smiled. “More than that. It was so huge, and bright. I could not take my eyes from it; I could feel it … eating. Yes, eating through me.”
“They say staring at the moon for too long can drive you insane, Tomoe.”
“I think it may be too late for that.” She got to her feet, looking up at me shyly, as if about to tell a secret.
“We are nearing the winter solstice,” she said quietly, “and I can feel something approaching.”
“Something?” I asked. Tomoe’s abilities were, in some ways, greater than mine; her premonitions were never to be ignored. “Did you dream last night?”
“Yes. Today we shall be summoned; and tomorrow we shall leave the capital to begin our journey.”
“Where shall we go?”
“Over the sea.”
“I dreamed the same thing.”
“Others shall lie in wait and seek to kill us.”
“I dreamed that, also.”
“I feel that, and more. There is something within myself,” she said. “As if my powers are getting … stronger.”
“Then we are in the Kami’s favor. A stronger Star-Teller means a stronger Academy, a stronger Edo.”
“Then why do I feel so afraid?” she asked urgently, her eyes flashing.
The walls of Tomoe’s room were packed – even more than mine – with the tools of our magical art, Onmyodo, the natural science based on the ancient philosophies of Wu-Xing and Yin-Yang. Calendars and charts showing the movements of the stars hung next to scrolls bearing names of the Kami. On her shelves lay half-finished wooden votive tablets propped up against bottles of murky liquid with dead shima-hebi snakes coiled inside. Upon the altar at the end of the room stood arrangements of candles, flowers, fresh sasaki twigs, and at the altar’s heart, a mirror. There were no images allowed of the Kami, the gods and goddesses of the Shinto pantheon; in every shrine or academy, the Kami were represented by a mi-tama-shiro, a spirit substitute. These could be beads, stones, arrows, paper amulets, small bells – or in some cases, such as Tomoe’s personal shrine, a mirror.
Tomoe and I had studied and practiced together at the Academy for as long we could both remember. In fact, in terms of power, we were the Academy – no other shrine maidens had shown the abilities we had, and our lives were dominated by a constant stream of visitors asking for our services. Thankfully, the Academy had ordered a squad of samurai, led by Captain Wakita, to protect our privacy.
We were born in the year of the Snake, under the element of Fire. According to the Wu Xing, such a collaboration was taboo. To be avoided at all costs. It did not stop us becoming firm friends, who had protected each other’s lives more times than we could count.
Or so we were told. We would be proud, if it were not for our curious … affliction.
Tomoe scooped another handful of oracle bones from a lacquered dish and tossed them into the brazier.
‘Have you breakfasted?”
“No, I shall eat now. Recently I enjoy preparing my own food. Chopping the leeks, grating the daikon. This kind of humble task is valuable. Some would say this is pointless, and omit it all together.” The oracle bones in the brazier made a sharp, cracking noise, and she raked them out with a clawed metal rod. She cast them into the metal dish at the side, studying the fissures on their blackened surface.
“What do you see?”
She paused. “Something I cannot name.”
A muffled call from outside and the sliding open of a wooden door interrupted us. We both left Tomoe’s room, to find Shunsuke waiting in the outer corridor. “We have a visitor,” he said. “From the magistrate’s office.”
I glanced at Tomoe. She was smiling.
“At your convenience,” he added, looking at the breakfast bowl in Tomoe’s hands.
It was forbidden for visitors to the Academy to look upon the sanctum interior, so meetings were always conducted from behind a bamboo curtain. We knew without looking, however, the face of the young samurai who came shuffling in with his guards to kneel upon the tatami. In recent weeks, messages from the magistrate had come via Hideaki Sakamoto, whose boyish face always wore a look of nervous determination. He walked self-consciously, shoulders hunched, putting one foot in front of the other with exaggerated care. As if afraid to make noise or occupy space.
Hideaki Sakamoto’s father had been a doshin, one of Edo’s low-ranking police patrol officers in the office in charge of investigating fire, theft and gambling. He had inherited the position at age fifteen, maintaining order in the city streets until becoming Magistrate Kotani’s chief retainer a year ago.
“Greetings, my lord,” said Tomoe. “Please forgive us, once more, for applying the Academy rules, and asking you to remain on the other side of the curtain. Let us know what is required of us.”
There was hesitation before Hideaki replied. “There is sadness in your voice today, Miss Kanzaki,” he said.
“There is sadness,” I said quickly, and rather defensively, “but there is meaning to her sadness. What is required of us?”
“The magistrate has asked that you come at once. There is a delicate matter involving the Shogunate’s security, and he will explain.”
“I shall accompany you,” said Shunsuke, from the side.
“That is not necessary,” Hideaki replied rather waspishly. “We have sufficient guards. And it is, as I say, a delicate matter.”
“Then I shall be as delicate as I can while I fulfill my duties to the members of the Academy,” insisted Shunsuke.
“Come sirs, are you fighting over us?” I could clearly hear the coquettish turn in Tomoe’s voice. I frowned at her as I got to my feet.
“We shall prepare to leave immediately,” I said.
Walking back to our rooms, I was silent, mentally going through the steps of what I would need to take with me to our appointment. There was no mistake what the summons signified; there was trouble in the capital. This was the summoning that Tomoe and I had dreamed of. Whatever it signified, it had begun.
In this pensive mood, I immediately became aware of something unfamiliar as I entered the inner gateway. I stopped, looking at Tomoe, as she returned my look of alarm. There was a hushed, tense atmosphere in the chamber, pregnant with meaning.
We both looked up. The great Zodiac Clock above the doorway had stopped.
No! Your eyes are not deceiving you! The above character is indeed Reiko Bergman, from the 21st Century Chiyoda High School! She is not a clone, an android, or an alien shape-shifter! This is not a dream or an alternative reality! How is it possible that the same person – and her friends – are alive in two different historical periods?
For the answers, pre-order your copy of “Voice of the Mirror” now! If you haven’t read “Voice of the Sword” yet – get it here!