TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 5

Chapter 5

A green tea meeting

Revelations and reveals

The tears of autumn

 

“When at last the bathing maiden saw Hayaoh on the shore, she did not move. When her eyes met his, he saw in her surprise, confusion, indecision… but not fear. Not a trace of fear.

“For what seemed hours, Hayaoh and the maiden in the lake gazed at one another. Neither moved, neither spoke. The moment between them hung suspended in time, growing more fragile and more priceless with every passing second, and neither could bear to be the first to break it.

“What Hayaoh did next would have horrified any who knew of him. The mighty, merciless samurai, known by all and feared by many, threw himself before her, head upon the ground. It was an old gesture, one of absolute supplication to another. Young students prostrated themselves when begging to learn from those who would be their masters. Unfaithful lovers prostrated before their mates to plead forgiveness. For a samurai such as Hayaoh, a warrior with no equal, the bow of supplication would have been seen as disgraceful to himself…

“The maiden only smiled. Slowly she waded to the shore, and spoke her first words to him: ‘O warrior, bow not your head so low, for you have done no wrong to me or mine.’

‘Milady,’ said Hayaoh, who did not move. ‘Please, absolve me of my shame! I dare not look upon such loveliness! I am not worthy of your company… A spirit you must be, from firmament or realms beyond this vicious mortal world, for I have never seen such radiance.’

‘A touch upon his chin, warm and feather-light, lifting his eyes to her face. ‘O warrior,’ she said, soft laughter in her voice, ‘I come not from beyond. I am as much of flesh and blood as you. Turn not away, for sacred is this night. Our meeting is a sign from Gods above…’”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]

 

This was it, Hanami knew. It was more than the directions that Faun gave her, more than the familiar tang of oiled steel and old leather than hung in the air about the little cabin. There was a feeling in her heart, a warmth apart from that of the plum wine in her belly… A safe warmth, a blessed warmth. She knew, with no doubt at all, that this was where Zero lived.

It was not a particularly well-built cabin, nor was it pleasing to the eye. In fact, most would call it downright ugly. Resting against an ancient oak that served as its back wall, built out of a few dozen old logs cemented together with mud, it was apparent that the whole structure tilted slightly to one side; she noticed that even through her wine-fueled haze. Many of the logs bore deep nicks and divots, the kind that might be made by one chopping them with an old sword without much idea of what they were doing. It had clearly stood here for a while, judging by the thin carpet of moss growing up the walls. The roof was clay mud, clumsily thatched with threadbare straw. A few paces from the front door, there lay a pile of stones in an odd arrangement that she could not identify. It stood about a meter and a half tall, a little like an altar… a closer look confirmed that the stone on the top bore hundreds of scratches on its surface. About two meters away from that, there was something pinned to another tree by a heavy iron nail… now that she recognized. It was a straw doll in a roughly sentient shape, with many stray strands leaking out of its head and chest. A training dummy, and a well-used one. For some reason, she found it charming.

Hanami dithered outside the scarred, nicked door, reaching out to knock it only to pull her hand back, then reaching again. The umeshu had bolstered her courage, but it could only do so much. This was her last stop… once she stepped through this door and said what she had to say, there would be no going back. If it all went wrong…

But why hesitate? said the little voice in her head. Even if it all goes wrong, I will not have to worry about it much longer.

That was true. Sad, but true. She could only hope for the best. Hanami took a breath and reached out again… then paused. After a moment of consideration, she altered her knock a bit: five rapid knocks, a pause, then two more.

Rapid footsteps came from inside, and many things tumbled to the floor as the cabin’s occupant made a mad dash for the door. He threw it open with an exuberant shout, a cry of simultaneous joy, fear, disbelief, and hope: “Naole…!”

He had been crying, Hanami saw. Zero’s cheek fur was wet and matted, his eyes red-rimmed. His exhaustion and worry were written all across his face like the proclamation of a banner. It was a nearly identical look to the one she saw in her mirror that morning, and her heart ached for him… “Zero,” she stammered. “I—”

Zero deflated like a dying balloon. A massive weight seemed to settle on his shoulders as he grasped the door frame for support. “Oh. Hanami,” he said, low and listless. He could not meet her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I just thought… I hoped…”

“You hoped I was Naole. Don’t be sorry.” She tried to smile. “It’s my fault, I should have scrolled ahead and let you know I was coming.”

“Sorry. Thank you.” Zero turned away.

“Do… do you want me to go?”

“No,” he said, trying and failing to hide his bitterness. “You can come in if you want.”

“Please excuse me.” Following the ancient tradition of their kind, she bowed as she stepped across the threshold and stepped out of her sandals, then took her first look at inside of the leaning, ramshackle cabin where Zero lived.

It was as humble on the inside as it was on the outside. He had very little in the way of luxury or comforts: a dusty old bookshelf bearing a few volumes, likely from Rowan’s library. A half-dozen practice swords made of dried bamboo lashed together, standing in a tall, thin wicker basket. In what she assumed was the kitchen area, next to a worn stone wash basin, there was a battered tin kettle bearing at least three large dents, and a chipped set of ceramic teacups and plates. The old Takaishi family sword had a place atop a mantle on the back wall, resting blade side up in the upper half of a two-tiered stand, its scabbard stored just below it. Beside it, Hanami was surprised to see a tiny sanshinto shrine, clearly hand-carved. Inside, rather than the typical painting or etching, there was a shiny black rock… no, more like glass. It was piece of obsidian, its face carved with seven deep vertical lines. In front of the shrine sat a lopsided candle with rivulets of wax running down its side, and a fresh sprig of pine as an offering.

What caught her attention the most was the message scrolls. Tucked into their cylindrical lacquered canisters and stacked together in pyramids reaching almost to the ceiling, there had to be hundreds of them, more than she had ever seen in one place… they occupied almost every available centimeter of space. An open one lay on a small table in the corner, and she recognized a bit of Rowan’s blocky script and Faun’s untidy scrawl. One message scroll per year was typically more than enough for the average person’s daily news and communication with friends, but she could not imagine what need Zero would have for so many…

“They’re mostly from me and Naole.” Zero answered before she could ask. He put a hand behind his head, and his ears turned back in embarrassment. “All our conversations over the years. I, uh… I thought I should keep them. Listen, I apologize for the mess…”

“You don’t have to apologize at all. I think it’s lovely,” Hanami said, and she meant it.

“Th-thanks.” Now his ears lay flat against his skull, but he smiled a tired smile. “Would… would you like some tea? I don’t have much, but—”

“I…” It was her turn to be embarrassed. She fiddled with her tail fur as she answered. “I just had drinks with Faun, but… yes, I’ll have some. Thank you, Zero.”

“You drank with Faun?” The shock cut through Zero’s dour mood like a knife. “Are you all right? Don’t tell me she gave you Firewater!”

“No, no,” she laughed. “Just umeshu. I’m fine. I was a little dizzy, but now I’m just… tingly.”

A strong arm encircled her waist, and she grew still warmer inside. “Damn her,” he said, grimacing as he guided her to the small table. He re-rolled his message scroll and set it atop the others on one of the stacks. “She always says she can’t sleep without at least a bit liquor in her. Which basically means she can sleep anywhere, at any time… are you sure you’re all right?”

“Positive.” Hanami nodded.

“You sure you’re positive?” The beginnings of a quiet little laugh bubbled out of him; the sound cut off sharply as he cringed like someone had struck him in the stomach.

“Zero?”

“It’s a private joke,” said Zero. “Something that always made her laugh when we were kits. I’ll get the tea started.” Again he turned his back, but not before Hanami saw his eyes start to gleam.

“Zero…” She raised a hand, then thought the better of it. What to say to him? “I’m sure she’ll be all right”? “You’ll find her”? It had been three weeks now since his little sister was abducted. Three weeks with no word, no sign of her. It was eating him away bit by bit, and nothing she could say or do would relieve him of his pain.

He stood hunched over the basin as he filled the kettle from a water spellstone. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “Everything reminds me of her… jokes we told each other, food we ate together, everything. I can’t put her out of my mind, and I don’t know what’s worse… holding onto hope that she’s alive, or…” His shoulders shook. “Or letting her go. She’s the only family I have left… the only family that matters, anyway.”

Hanami bit her lip. “Your mother and father?”

“My mother died just after Naole was born, and my father…” On those last two words, a tide of vinegar flooded his tone. “My father’s made it clear how he feels. I doubt he’s even spoken to Naole since she left home three years ago. He didn’t know how to care for her when we were kits, and I’m damn certain he doesn’t know now.” A pause. His anger faded, replaced by regret. “Maybe he should know.”

“I’m so sorry.” It was feeble, but what else was there to say? Hanami had no siblings, and her experiences with her own parents—

A thunderclap of bright red pain flashed through her chest, so intense that she doubled over, almost crying out loud.

No, said the little voice in her mind. Not yet. Wait.

It faded as quickly as it had come. When Hanami regained her senses, she found herself clutching the edge of Zero’s table with both hands, her claws digging into the wood. Silently, she pried her rigid fingers away and folded them in her lap.

There has to be something else. Some way to talk to him, said the little voice. Look around.

Hanami’s gaze landed on the shrine with its piece of scratched obsidian. “I didn’t know you were religious,” she said on an impulse.

“I practice.” Zero’s tone softened as he began to grind the tea leaves with a pestle. “I’m not what you’d call ‘religious’, but I practice. I feel like I should honor them.”

“Oh.” The light dawned. “Your friends in the Daigundan, of course.”

“If there’s anyone who should have the Serpent’s favor to move on, it’s them.” The sound of his pestling stopped as he grew lost in thought. “I suppose I can only hope that when I go to the Beneath, they’ll be there waiting… and that they won’t be too unhappy to see me.”

“Do you think about it often?”

“Think about what?” There was a muted splash from the heating spellstone he dropped into the kettle’s water.

“Dying.” Somehow, inexplicably, saying the word aloud was accompanied by a flood of relief. Perhaps, perhaps, she would make it through this after all.

“All the time,” said Zero with a horrifying calm. “I thought about it on that night after the battle, as I lay there in the infirmary. I thought about slitting open my stomach with my own sword… I thought that was the only way I could regain my honor.”

Hanami sucked in a sharp breath. She knew offhand of that ancient, grisly samurai ritual. All squirrels did. To hear someone she cherished speak of it so casually sent icy chills up and down her spine.

“In the end, I was too afraid to do it,” he continued. “The Daigundan elders would have preferred it if I had. It would have been less shameful than running away. A samurai afraid of death? That goes against everything they stand for.”

She noted the use of the word “they” there, and cringed. “It goes against the Edicts.”

Zero nodded. The tide of vinegar flowed back in. “And they can’t have that.”

“What…” The moment of truth. “What about the other Edicts?”

“The others?” Only now did Zero meet her eyes again. “I, er…  I confess, I never actually read them all, there’s just so many.” He turned back a sheepish ear. “I know the gist of most of the important ones, I think. Why?”

“Do you believe what the elders say? That the Gods punish those who break the Edicts?” Her tone rose, hopeful, desperate.

Zero had to stop and think about that one. “I don’t know,” he admitted after a long time. “I’ve broken more than a few of the big ones, but I’m not sure if it’s the Gods that are punishing me, or if that’s just… life,” he said as he brought two steaming cups to the table. The bittersweet aroma of green tea filled the space between them. “I pray on occasion, and I give offerings to my friends from my squad, but I’m not at all sure that the Shogun and Lady Terra and the Serpent are really watching us. It seems to me like if they were out there somewhere, they’d be there more often when we need them.”

“Maybe they’re watching out for Naole right now?”

His bitterness came back with a vengeance. “If that’s how they watch, maybe they just don’t care.”

“I think they do.” Hanami’s eyes began to brim with tears as she took her first sip. The tea was hot and nourishing, well-made but not perfect. Fragrant steam wreathed her face. “I think the Gods care a lot about you, Zero.”

Again, Zero paused for thought. He was not quite sure what to make of that. It took a few seconds to notice the expression on her face. “Hanami? Are you all right?”

She leaned forward through the cloud of steam, and her lips met his in a kiss that tasted of bittersweet green tea and umeshu, seasoned by the taste of mingled tears. For a few blessed moments, there was no pain, no worry, no anguish, only the two of them. The rest of the world fell away like a dream… Hanami felt Zero’s body tense with surprise at first, but it was not long before his tension faded. He surrendered himself to her, and she to him.

They parted after a second, after a thousand eternities. Hanami smiled through her tears, speaking soft and fluttery like the wings of a baby bird. “I care about you too,” she said. Her voice hitched with a sob of joy and sadness in equal measure. “I’m sorry I haven’t said it before now, but… I think I love you, Zero.”

Zero sat stunned, totally unable to speak.

While he sat there, Hanami finished her tea. “Thank you,” she said, tilting her head to him. “It was delicious. Come by Haven Grove later, and I’ll explain everything, I promise.”

The words took an age to reach him. “Uh-huh,” he said, nodding absently.

Hanami rose, smoothed out her skirt, and bowed. A great peace settled over her like a warm blanket, and she smiled warmly, though her eyes were still wet. She slipped through the pockmarked door in silence, leaving her sandals behind.

Good, said the little voice in her mind. Only three things left to do now.


Zero did not know how long he sat there, staring at the dregs in Hanami’s empty cup without seeing them. His own tea sat forgotten before him, stone cold.

Some part of him, a small part, was not surprised. After all, Faun’s Big Lie had been built on the feelings they both had for each other. He could not deny that a bond had formed between them as they talked together on the rising dais about the Seven Days of Blood. Had it not been for the more pressing issue of rescuing Faun from the immortal Titan, had it not been for Rowan’s presence while they did so, surely they would have connected like this sooner…

Hanami loved him, or thought she did.

And, he suspected, he loved Hanami too.

But what did that mean? Where could they go from here?

Come by Haven Grove later, she said. I’ll explain everything, I promise. What did that mean? Why was she crying?

Another nagging thought intruded upon those questions, interrupting the chaos swirling inside him. It was something he should have noticed, but in the rush of emotions and soul-baring of Hanami’s visit, it was forgotten until now.

The thought was this: how did Hanami know his knock, the knock he always used with Naole?

It took an even longer time for him to notice that his scroll was chiming. Dazed, he rolled it open to find a message written in familiar blocky script, notably less neat than usual:

 

From Rowan. Urgent.

Zero. Do you know where Hanami is?

 

Zero blinked. After a few moments spent searching for his pen, he scratched out a quick reply.

 

She was just here, acting strange. She said to come to Haven Grove later. Why?

 

The response flew across the parchment. Now the script was even more disordered. As the words formed, Zero’s stomach dropped like a lead weight, and his blood ran cold as midwinter.

 

We must find her immediately. I believe Hanami intends to commit suicide.

 

END OF CHAPTER 5

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 4 | Tasakeru
  2. Trackback: BHS Blogress Report: 2018, Week 45 – Staying Angry | Tasakeru

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