“I do not like the idea of being a messenger boy,” said Hideaki.
“It is more like being a delivery boy,” said Shunsuke.
“You are both incorrect,” said Tomoe. “It is like being caregivers for the elderly.”
“Considering who it is that we are caring for,” I reminded them, “we should think ourselves most honored.”
They fell silent at that chastening remark, and we continued staring around us, at the thick hushed forest in the heart of old Edo.
It was the Hour of the Snake, and an impassive sun glared from almost directly overhead down through a canopy of spring leaves. We were standing on the Yurei-zaka, known to the common inhabitants of Edo as Ghost Hill. When Tokugawa Iemitsu had carried out his rebuilding of Edo Castle, roughly two hundred years previously, a number of temples and shrines were relocated from the castle’s vicinity to the lush wooded land here, in the Mita area. The trees and bushes in their grounds had grown unhindered to create an area so rustic and dark that it was dangerous to traverse it, even in the daytime. The fear of bandits and drunken rogues, and the persistent tales of grisly encounters with Yokai that hid among the trees, kept the common residents of Edo off the overgrown paths.
Which made it a perfect secret meeting place for us, the Adepts of the Star-Teller Academy.
It was toward the end of the third month, and some of the nearby cherry trees were already in blossom. I gazed upon the pink gossamer petals floating in the light breeze, and entered a light meditative state, reciting a sutra in my head on the fleeting beauty of life.
I returned to full alertness upon hearing a rustling in the bushes nearby. All four of us brandished our swords and naginatas, in defensive stance. The leaves parted, and a lean male figure ran into the clearing, his clothes entirely black, a muffler wrapped around his nose and mouth. He stopped in front of us, folding his arms and glaring at us in a most haughty way.
“You can spare us the theatricals, Shichi,” said Hideaki in a weary fashion, sheathing his sword.
“Did you scout any vagabonds or footpads on your patrol?” asked Shunsuke.
Shichi removed the muffler from his face and glared at us. He had sharp features and a small, prudish mouth, set in a tanned complexion.
“May I remind you of the severity of the situation,” he said. “The item about to be returned to us requires the utmost care.”
“He is not an item,” said Tomoe waspishly. “He is an elderly gentleman.”
“And a grumpy one, at that,” added Hideaki. “He will make short work of you if you try to intimidate him, Shichi.”
The agent of the Nine Star Division, that secret branch of the Shogunate charged with dealing with supernatural threats to Edo, scowled and pointed to the sky. “Stay your bantering. Our allies approach.”
“Reiko, do we banter?” Shunsuke whispered to me as Shichi turned away.
“We attempt it,” I whispered back. “Not very successfully.”
Then we ceased talking entirely as we watched the flying disc drop out of the clouds and float down toward its intended landing site – right in front of us.
The flying object was a perfectly round, silvery disc, the air around its edges rippling like summer haze. It descended smoothly and silently until it came to a gentle landing in the center of the clearing. I stared at its smooth, featureless bulk, half the size of a cedar tree, in awe and admiration. The files of our Star-Teller Academy had told of such a conveyance, but this was the first time we had seen it with our own eyes.
A craft such as that could not land anywhere else in Edo. The gloom and the fear-inspiring reputation of the Yurei-zaka kept away all witnesses – except for the foolhardiest poachers, who were dealt with by the NSD agents guarding the woods.
With a trilling sound akin to a cicada, a door opened in the silvery skin of the craft. It unfolded from above and lowered itself into a ramp.
A parade of tall, hooded figures wearing dark cloaks and boots stalked quietly down the ramp. There were three in front, and three behind, and amidst them a hooded figure in a black cape that swaddled his entire body. This man was dwarfed by the others; he was shorter, frailer, and by the way he shuffled his feet along the ground, obviously older.
Shichi gave a warbling birdcall, and a horse-drawn carriage with driver wheeled out of its place of hiding in the trees. The NSD agent gestured, and the new arrivals quickly and silently bundled themselves into the carriage. We joined them inside and with a last, searching look around the clearing, Shichi followed us and closed the door.
With a snap from the driver’s whip the carriage lurched into motion. Inside, the five seated figures reached up with gloved hands and removed their hoods, revealing large heads covered with sleek black feathers, round eyes that glared with manic intensity, and sharp yellow beaks instead of mouths. Karasu-Tengu.
The sixth figure threw back his hood. His face was bright crimson, and an elongated nose poked from above a small, puckish mouth. His eyes were adorned with massive bushy eyebrows and a tiny pillbox-shaped black hat was secured tightly to his bald scalp with a long chinstrap.
“I am General Daranibo of the Second Great and Munificent Tengoku-Kui Empire,” he announced in a high flutelike voice, “and these are my bodyguards.”
Each of us introduced ourselves. Daranibo seemed particularly interested in me.
“You are known to us, Reiko Furukawa,” he told me. “It is said that you and your friends prevented the theft of the Yata no Kagami.”
I bowed in reply. “We were simply performing our duty to serve the Shogunate.”
“We would be interested in talking to your companion,” Shichi interrupted.
“You can do so if he is awake,” said Daranibo scornfully. “This human seems capable of sleeping at a moment’s notice, no matter where he is or what he is doing.”
“You should know that I am not sleeping but only resting my eyes,” came a muffled voice, “and I can hear every word you say, my Yokai friend.”
The short, hunched figure pulled back his hood. A plump face, with coarse features and a long thin beard in the Chinese style, looked at me and grinned. His hair was grey and receding, making the complicated whorls of his earlobes even more prominent; his dark eyebrows curled over his squinting eyes.
I remembered the haunted old man I had first met in Mukoujima. “Welcome back to Edo, master,” I said.
“It is indeed good to see you all once more,” said Katsushika Hokusai.
“Were your studies at Mount Fuji successful?” asked Tomoe. “Did you find the knowledge you seek?”
“Did I …?” He broke off with a laugh. “Young mistress, there are such things I can tell you. Such things.”
“Then we shall wait,” said Hideaki. “You can tell us when our bones are not being shaken by this ramshackle carriage.”
Our destination was not far: a large weathered hut stood on the edge of the forest, partly hidden by paulownia and bamboo, within a short walk to the walled town of Ichigaya to the east and the secondary estate of the Owari clan in the west. We were guaranteed a certain measure of privacy; few citizens of Edo wished to be seen near the premises of a momonjiya store.
The momonjiya were establishments that sat on the rickety fence between legality and prohibition. Meat was a foodstuff strictly controlled by Edo’s military government; poultry was a delicacy reserved for shogun and high-ranking samurai, and not sold to the common people, who dined solely on fish, with vegetables and rice.
In certain quarters, however, wild boar stew was available, if you knew who to speak to. Like deer and horsemeat, it was sold under the guise of ‘medicine’. Wild boar was known colloquially as ‘mountain whale’, and sold in momonjiya, named after another of the Edo Yokai, the legendary shaggy wild man of the forest.
The carriage stopped and Shichi jumped out, opening the doors of the one-story hut with the keys he carried. Our companions hurriedly entered the store and Shichi locked and barred the entrance behind us. The momonjiya was empty of merchants or customers; the NSD had arranged for it to be unused on this day.
A loud grunting and a strong earthy smell came from the shadows in the rear of the shop. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I noted a large cage in the back, holding a dark mass bristling with matted fur and two gleaming tusks. A wild boar, destined for a daimyo’s table. It moved around uneasily, alarmed at our presence.
“What is that disgusting animal doing in here?” said the General.
“Please do not talk about Shunsuke in that fashion,” said Hideaki, who had to turn away to conceal his smirk. Shunsuke and the NSD agent glared at him furiously.
“If you do not mind,” General Daranibo said impatiently, “we would like to begin proceedings. A Tengu’s natural habitat is the sky, and we wish to spend as little time upon the mud as possible.”
We performed the required ceremony of placing all our weapons outside the circle of negotiation, and then when formalities were completed, we knelt in seiza position upon the ageing, damp tatami.
Shichi began by placing both hands on his knees, and punctuating his words by respectful bows of his head.
“General, we are honored to have you and your forces visit Edo, especially at such short notice, and we are gratified that you have kept your word.”
“If you cannot trust a Tengu,” I said, “there is truly no hope for the world.”
Daranibo laughed gently and gestured to Hokusai. “It was not easy to take care of this man. We do not wish to be rude, but we think … he will be happier with the companionship of other humans.”
“Well, old man,” said Shichi a lot more bluntly. “What have you learned? What have you brought back to us?”
“We apologize for our agent’s rudeness,” said Shunsuke hastily. “He merely wishes to know if the time and resources of the Nine Star Division have been invested widely.”
“Has it benefited you, Master?” asked Tomoe gently. “Have you come to terms with your demons?”
Hokusai looked up and smiled broadly at Tomoe. “Thank you for your kind enquiry. I still find it difficult to draw faces, to tell you the truth. Straining backs, muscled thighs, dancing torsos – I have no difficulties with them. With faces, I can manage a few short, sharp lines but very often I need my daughter to help me out and finish the sketching.”
He hesitated, turning to gaze at General Daranibo with wonderment upon his face. “But the Tengoku-Kui … mere words cannot express it! I had no idea how advanced they are in their secret arts, their natural philosophy! They have changed the way I see the world, and how I shall attempt to paint everything in it!”
Shichi coughed emphatically. “If you could be a bit more specific about the world,” he said, “particularly with regard to our current problem …”
“Yes, young man.” Hokusai leaned forward and shook a bony finger at Shichi. “Our current problem. It is all about light. The sun, the candles, the lamps, the red paper lanterns that guide our way in the night. My friends – what is the nature of light, exactly?”
“It is the emanation of the infinite compassion of the sun-goddess Amaterasu,” said Tomoe without hesitation.
“I believe light is made of particles,” said Hideaki, “projected from the eyes of a living creature, illuminating the physical objects that they strike.”
Hokusai gripped the edges of his cloak and beamed at us proudly. “The secret that the Tengu discovered, many years ago, is that light can exist as both of these. Sometimes it takes the form of a wave, sometimes a particle.”
While we frowned at him in puzzlement, he continued expounding. “I sat on the shores of the Tengu encampment at Lake Yamanaka, in the shadow of Mount Fuji. I watched the waves, and studied how they ebb and flow. If what the Tengu have discovered is true, then the natural form of light is as a vibration in a universal ether – and this subtle medium contains all possibilities, all futures that we see, furled within it. When the wave reaches us, then by the very act of observing it, one future is chosen from an infinity of futures.”
I frowned, trying to imagine the vision he conjured. In my young life under the roof of the Academy, it seemed I was constantly being asked to accept the impossible.
“Master, before you left Edo,” said Tomoe softly, “You told us of a wave …”
“Yes, that is what I saw in my visions!” Hokusai became more animated, his eyes gleaming with his arcane discoveries. “There is a wave coming, carried not by water, not by air, but by light. It carries all potentials of all worlds within itself, but it is frozen; it does not move. There is only the illusion of movement. It travels, but it does not travel; it is captured between one moment and the next. These futures do not become, they are never realized, they are trapped between life and death. This is the danger, my young friends. This is the the message I must send to them.”
“To who?” Hideaki asked.
“Your other selves,” Hokusai announced as if it were blindingly obvious. “Reiko Furukawa Bergman and her compatriots, from the Mirror-world.”
“And with what kind of magic will you cast a message into the abyss of time and space?” asked Shichi scornfully.
“I will show you,” Hokusai said, equally scornfully. “When you get me back to my studio.”
We took a moment to reflect upon the strangeness of what he had said. Waves within waves; puzzles within puzzles. A Zen Koan that would not be unraveled by rational thought
“We can ensure you safe passage back to your home,” said Shichi at length, “and we once more give thanks to General Daranibo and his forces, for sharing such information with us.” He began to get to his feet, signaling that the meeting had finished. “Your payment awaits you in the carriage, General.”
“Wait.” Daranibo extended a hand, a gaily-decorated fan appearing between his fingers. “We did not come only for the weapons. We seek information.”
Shichi raised his eyebrows, registering confusion and surprise. “The agenda of this meeting was quite clear, General. What more information could you possibly need from us?”
“It has very recently come to our attention that one of our lieutenants has lost his assigned tactical weapon – a cloak of invisibility. He took part in an illegal trade with a human for a bamboo sight-scope, which he later found to be defective.”
“I see.” Shichi pretended to give the matter a moment of reflection and then said, “What does this have to do with us?”
“The human was found to be an agent of the Gotaro.” Daranibo used his native language word for the Kappa, the reptilian race that inhabited Japan’s rivers and lakes. They were mortal enemies of the Tengu, and both races had been at war for at least a hundred years. “He planned to sell the cloak to the Gotaro, but our sources inform us he was killed and the cloak acquired by the Nine Star Division, who are now studying it to discover how it works.”
Daranibo paused, looking hard at Shichi, waiting for him to reply.
“I am not confirming what you said is true,” Shichi said eventually. “But if it is, shouldn’t you be grateful that the cloak didn’t end up in the armory of the Kappa?”
“Nevertheless, the cloak is our property, and we need it returned to us.”
Shichi smiled, much too warmly. “Discretion, General. I am only a servant of the Nine Star Division. Surely you can understand our position in this war -”
“Which is what? Neutral? Or just pretending to be?”
“I have no authority in this matter, General. I am simply doing the honorable thing.”
“We all know how difficult that can be, for a human.”
Shichi dropped his smile. He and the Tengu stared angrily at each other.
I glanced at Shunsuke and Hideaki, who were watching the exchange tensely. Hokusai seemed crestfallen that he was no longer the center of attention, and sat with his arms folded.
The tension was broken by Tomoe’s quiet, but urgent voice. “Danger! I sense danger. The Gotaro are here!”
Shichi and Daranibo jumped to their feet, both ready to accuse the other of treachery, but Tomoe yelled, “No! No! Get down! Stay close to the floor!”
We humans and all of the Tengu dropped to the tatami, lying flat. Hokusai was dithering in shock so I pushed him over, covering his body with mine and pressing my hands down on his head.
I heard a loud explosion of ripping, tearing wood and something roared through the air above me. It shot through the hut, the whooshing sound of its passage followed by the crack of more smashed and splintered planks.
I lifted my head. A harpoon was embedded in the front wall of the hut, near the place Hokusai had been seated. I looked over my shoulder. The missile had shattered the back door when it was fired, and a Kappa stood framed in the entrance, the bulky harpoon gun across its chest, its huge limpid eyes staring at us.
“Keeeeaaai!” Shunsuke raised a hand towards the boar cage, and I heard rusted metal locks snapping as he mentally commanded them to open. The boar must have been driven mad by the reptilian smell, for it leaped out of the cage at incredible speed, and launched itself at the throat of the Kappa in the doorway. With a loud grunt the two of them sprawled backward into the yard.
I averted my gaze. The Kappa had tried to kill us, but I had no wish to see it disemboweled by a starving animal.
“Remain on the floor,” I whispered in Hokusai’s ear.
“Could you stay where you are, as well?” he croaked in reply. “Don’t hurry to get up on my account …”
I slapped him lightly on the shoulder and got to my feet. Daranibo was gesturing to the roof. The Karasu-Tengu threw off their cloaks and extended their glorious sable wings. With a flapping commotion, they left the ground and placed their claws and feet on the ceiling, punching holes with their mailed gloves to let them out into the open. The General spread his arms and wings, and led his bodyguards out into the forest air.
The five other humans and I crept toward the window and peered out. Roughly a dozen Kappa had emerged from the forest and were advancing upon our hiding place, harpoon and gas-guns in their claws. Two Karasu-Tengu swooped down, air-fans in their hands, and released a ferocious wind-blast that swept half of the Kappa off their feet, sending them hurtling back into the forest with the force of a mighty whirlwind, their bodies crashing into trees and exploding gruesomely into ribbons of green gore.
Hideaki turned to Shichi. “Give the Tengu their cloak back,” he said angrily.
Shichi was visibly sweating, and trying to retain his composure.
“You owe the Tengu your life,” I told him. “Again.”
TO BE CONTINUED
IN VOICE OF THE JEWEL …
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