It was the second day of the fortnight Waters Dry Up, or so said Rajura’s makeshift Chinese calendar. Naotoki had jeered at the notched wood column and the dulled sickle in Gen Masho’s hand, only to be quieted by a retorted explanation. It was a tired game between them. He did not doubt that the older, wiser man had caught on years ago.
There had never been seasons in the Youjakai. The sky was a perpetual wheel of planets, mere shadows of the Ningenkai. Now they made their own seasons. Now the tides of their armors were on the ebb, their souls like the strand pushing back the sea.
The waters were drying up earlier, weeks before the Autumn Equinox, the same steady regression. One night Anubis painted the top notches white. Naotoki had not ridiculed him from his moonlit perch, nor had Rajura sought out the perpetrator.
Naotoki escaped to the Ningenkai and drove his sandals into the leaves. It would be a slow death this year, the trees barely beginning to bleed color. He had seen where the hills caught fire with turning, and here there were leafy armies of maple, zelkova, plum. He felt most at home in these cool, gradual valleys. The blood-red maples and deep green pines tore the sky ragged, brighter than demon-forged metal.
Do not hate your armor, the girl had said. They had despised her as the demon-emperor’s favorite, but in possession of herself she seemed more a younger sister than a priestess. Your choosing is long past, and to hate it is to hate your own soul.
His armor had fascinated him from the first. Rust and patina patterns of a striking snake, the deeply seated magic in his swords, plates burned to a perpetual sheen by the corrosive venom. He had stood with pride under the unnatural sky and donned the fearsome helmet, faceplate bright-white and fanged with death. Yet even under the demon’s thrall he had preferred the undergear. An unflattering dark brown, it had had tinged his skin and hair with a sickly pallor, and accentuated his slight build. Now he saw why he’d been drawn to it.
The wind rattled the leaves like women husking rice. Naotoki bent down and clawed the dirt, past the reds and greens into the cooling earth. He removed his sandals. His feet slithered into the bare soil and he looked up. As a child he had been forced to do this, to dig his own grave and eat the dust, to atone for his hideous face and his lithe body which could barely draw a sword. He had swiped at their ankles. They had laughed. In time he had laughed over their graves, overcome with the madness of his ancestors.
Now in the shade of Ningenkai trees, he felt the sweet embrace of the earth, the wind meandering through the branches. The children would gather the grasses of forgetfulness for their mothers’ tables. The chrysanthemum would open, brightly, bravely, to the sky. The deadly snake would sleep, the leaves settling over it like scales to be shed. Today was the secret of the seasons. The honor of his ancestors lay only in himself.
The dew drops hung from the maple leaves like venom on copperhead fangs. His own breathing filled his ear. Here was the death of the world. Here was forgiveness.
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