There was the scent of the cherry trees.
There was pain, and there was sorrow.
Pain throbbed in the still body like an unsuppressed anger that would not be assuaged. Sorrow tore at the mind, for a friend lay dying.
“Please help,” said the friend’s desperate voice, but of course there was no help. There was only the scent of the cherry trees. “Please help.” It was a gasp, a plea, and no child should die like that. “I helped you.” Now there was an ache of guilt, for this was true. The flash — the friend had helped, of course. “He was calling…” What was being said? “…my father.” That was terrible. The horror conveyed in the voice told it. And the voice was dying too, fading to a soft whisper, the last words of a dear friend. Now there were tears as well, mingling with the scent of the cherry trees.
“You won’t die,” was the new thought, in a wretched gasp that did not correctly convey the feeling. But it was not true… the friend would die; there was no help. But the flash — it was a debt! What would happen if the debt were not paid? No friend should die like that.
“Please help me,” the child whispered. “It hurts…” it trailed off.
“Wait!” was the faint cry that wanted to be a scream, muted by the scent of the cherry trees. “You…” there was the pain, cutting off the words “…helped me.” The flash! It must be repaid!
“I did. Bandis. Did he? My father…” Then there was a moan and a brief glow as the friend, Bandis, died. And there was another cry as well, mingling with the pain, for no child should die like that. No friend.
And the scent of the cherry trees was burned.
A surge of something passed through the still body, giving it new life and wakening the pain to screaming agony. It was power, from the death of the friend child Bandis. No friend should die like that. The child of the flash, who had helped and been dear. Some power remained in the body, no longer still but with a beating heart, and flowing blood, the wounds protesting the scent of the cherry trees, abrasive, that explored them. The body did not want this power, fought it. But that only made the blood flow faster, spill out onto the ground in larger pools, mingling with the scent of the cherry trees until the whole air stank of burned, blossoming blood. Eventually the power sank in, seeping through the fibers of the body like a rain into the desert. There it would stay until the scent was recalled to draw it out, and the body no longer fought. No friend should die like that, but the body did not object. There was pain, there was sorrow. And there was death.
And there was the scent that would not die.
There was awakening, and the sight of — wait. Not there, but she. She awoke, she saw. There was — no, she felt a surge of happiness at this discovery.
She saw another, black-haired with a pretty round face, who smiled. There was — it was hard to escape from that pattern — she felt a strange longing for some knowledge that she did not have and could not remember the name of. There was something she should know, but it was gone and she did not miss it, only slightly.
“Oushi kaharun kawiaatuki,” said the woman. Speech — she remembered that. There had been speech when… Bandis! The debt-flash! She struggled, remembering movement, felt pain, and subsided. The woman spoke again. Had speech always been like this, unintelligible? Yet she had understood Bandis. She closed her eyes, the tears falling warmly.
She tried to answer, but she had forgotten how to speak, though she knew she had once known. Dredging through a mind that seemed shallow and murky, she finally recalled what she wanted. “Where am I?”
“Sasuki,” said the woman sympathetically. Then she turned and called over her shoulder, “Tsukishiro, kuweshu lansi! Tsukishiro!”
A moment later a man entered the room. She remembered men as well, though how she remembered them she knew not. What else did she not know? The woman spoke to the man in the same strange speech, and then the man bent over her. “I am Tsukishiro,” he said. Then, shocked into remembrance by the revelation of identity, she knew what she did not know. Who was she? People had names. Why did she not? Her face mirrored her panic. “Do you understand me?”
She calmed, somehow, under his voice, and looked at him. She remembered clothing — people did not go naked. Did they usually dress like this, though? He had a great loose robe of white. Under it, his shirt was full, with a device (she remembered pictures) on the chest. His waist was wrapped in what looked like bandages. His pant legs were also wide, but the bandages began again mid-calf. Looking at the hand he laid on her shoulder, she saw that the same thin strips of cloth covered it as well. Finally she looked at his face, dark and proud and small-eyed, his skin yellow-brown, exactly like the woman. His straight black hair seemed long and full, but tied back. “Yes.”
“I am called Tsukishiro,” he said again. “You were hurt, but my sister Tekawaya has helped you to heal. You have been here for two sevendays.”
“But who am I?” she said, no longer able to contain herself, frantic with a desire that was not even urgent, frighteningly lackluster. She could not even understand why she cared about who she was. Tsukishiro looked at her silently for a moment, pitying.
“I do not know,” he said. What a beautiful accent! Had she not heard another accent, at one time, that she had also loved? And why did accents exist? It must have something to do with the speech she could not understand.
Then she remembered something else he had said — ‘been here.’ She remembered the concept of places. “Where is this?”
“You are in Hamoroba, my home, in this kingdom Itsumo Kawai,” said Tsukishiro. “Tekawaya found you in my garden.”
“Bandis,” moaned the girl. “She’s dead. And I can never help her or repay her.”
“Who is Bandis?” asked Tsukishiro gently.
“A dear friend. A child. She helped me after…” she cried out, for she found that before the brilliant flash she knew had come from Bandis, she could remember nothing, only blackness — terrible, grasping, sucking darkness stretching from a point to engulf her. She calmed. “She helped me, but she died. I could not help her.”
Tsukishiro asked Tekawaya something, and she silently shook her head. “You were alone at the time she found you.”
“Of course. Bandis…” she found she could not think of the right word. Whether it had ever even been in her vocabulary she did not know. “…separated… departed… I don’t know. She went away when she died.”
“I am sorry,” said Tsukishiro, and his sadness for her seemed genuine. “Now you sleep, but when you awaken again you will be well enough to rise. I do not wish you to be overexcited.”
She complied. Sleep came easily when anything of which she could think slipped through her tired mind like sand through her fingers, leaving filmy dust but no substance.
When light met her eyes again, warm sunlight, and the cool scent of cherry trees, somehow despite the memories this smell evoked she was comforted. “That sounds like the most fun a person could have,” she murmured. Now, whence had that thought come?
“Tasshu,” Tekawaya greeted her cheerfully, folding back an entire wall that she now noticed was actually a screen. Were all houses built like this? She did not think so, but searching her nonexistent memory was too much of an effort. So she only sighed.
Tekawaya helped her to sit up, then brought to her bedside a tray bearing dishes: a grey-brown bowl of something steamy and white; a flatter plate-like bowl with chunks of something in a thick brown liquid; and an ornately-painted cup of something else that steamed. As the rising smells of these struck her, she remembered the idea of eating and recognized the feeling in the pit of her stomach as hunger. With a sick sensation she braced herself against the bed as the world turned odd colors around her for a moment. She clutched at the tray, unsure of what to eat first and aware after a second that she did not recall exactly how. Did people usually eat with sticks? She picked them up, looking at them.
Tekawaya laughed and took them from her, demonstrating how to hold them. It looked complicated. The Kawaian woman pinched up a clump of the white stuff, which was in the form of small particles (she vaguely remembered something like this), and the rising surge of fresh steam gave the girl a nauseous kind of churning in her belly. Tekawaya put the sticks in her hand and positioned her fingers around them.
As she attempted to maneuver them they twisted around and fell. Wildly, she looked at her hands. They were horribly dirty, the underside of her fingernails dark. Although Tekawaya was reaching again for the dropped sticks, the girl in the bed made a frustrated noise and plunged her hands into the white stuff.
Tekawaya gave a slightly shocked laugh, withdrawing her own hands and watching her charge eat. After a moment she shook her head and went to find a clean cloth.
The food was hot so that she had to get it out of her hands quickly. Not that this was a problem. The contents of the bowl was rice, she knew as she tasted it, but she did not think it was very familiar to her. The chunks were meat in an excellent sauce, and the drink in the cup was tea. She finished it all rather quickly, for obvious reasons, and wiped her hands on the cloth Tekawaya handed her. The latter then gestured that she should rise, turning back a corner of the thin coverlet.
Standing was difficult: her entire body was sore, but some places hurt more than others, especially when they touched anything. She saw that she was clothed in a gown of some sort, white with a tied sash of red. It then occurred to her that while the sight of many things opened doors in her memory, the apparel of her hosts and, at this point, herself, was totally unfamiliar to her.
Tekawaya led her out of the room into a bright hallway, marveling at her guest who seemed to be marveling in her turn at her own ability to walk. Although this last could not be doubted, she went very slowly, bent slightly as if by age. The poor girl. Though Tekawaya had done her best to heal her, the burns were barely faded, and looked terribly painful. Up until a few days ago, they had been accompanied by an unsteady heart and a weak cough. And that hair! It had been long — down to the girl’s thighs at least — when Tekawaya had found her, but burnt to the point where she had been forced to shear it to ear-length. She had so rarely seen such a color — pale gold like sand — in hair. It had been a shame to ruin it, damaged though it already was. Tekawaya hoped it would grow back while the girl was here.
The girl was lead out the door of the paper house into a high-walled courtyard with a round pool in the center and narrow gutters running around the perimeter. She appreciated the words Tekawaya was speaking, even if she couldn’t understand them, as the Kawaian opened a tall wooden cabinet and gestured to its contents, which seemed to be various items meant for bathing. The girl nodded her comprehension, and Tekawaya bowed herself out.
The girl examined the bottles and sponges and remembered the various parts of washing one’s self. She was surprised at the burns and bruises that covered her body. It was as if something hot had slammed into her. The soap stung as she gently rubbed herself clean, and when she reached back to wash her hair she found that the habitual movement her arms made was designed for more hair than she had on her head. That at least was a recognizable difference from the life she could not remember.
The slight pain of the bathing process faded gradually when she sat down in the pool’s steaming water and laid her head back, gazing up at a sky that was unfamiliar and more so because she knew not why. Eventually, feeling herself grow a little restless, she rose and put about her the thin robe she’d found in the cabinet. It clung to her wet skin in wrinkles and felt uncomfortable.
As if by magic, Tekawaya appeared the moment she was covered, though doubtless she had seen more of the girl unclothed in the last week than anyone. The girl shuddered at the thought of how her wounds must have looked fresh. Tekawaya escorted the girl back to her room. There, she had laid out on the bed clothing like that which she wore: a simple dress of pale blue, fairly straight and with a high neck and some kind of dark blue sash. She bowed again and departed the room once more.
The girl removed the robe and stood for a while, waiting for her skin to dry. Her hair dripped, but there was too little of it to wring. After a moment she approached the bed. She found there were also undergarments with the unfamiliar dress, and so she clothed herself. She had to be gentle, for the cloth, fine though it was, chafed her burns. Partly to avoid its pressing on her bruises and partly because it was difficult to manage in the first place, she tied the stiff sash rather loosely. When she was dressed, Tekawaya came immediately.
Exiting the paper house by a different door, she found herself in what she assumed must be the garden. Lanes lined with bright-blossoming trees and separated by beds of sweet-smelling flowers stretched back and forth between the paper house with its courtyard and a large wooden house for which they now made.
A huge empty room seemed to take up most of the space in the wooden house, high-beamed and with a platform in the center. The walls seemed heavily padded with straw, and she frowned as she probed lightly at the shadows in her mind, trying to recall if walls were customarily like this.
On the platform stood Tsukishiro, who stepped down as they approached and gave them a small bow. He conversed briefly with Tekawaya, who then bowed to her charge and walked across the room to the opposite door. When she was gone, Tsukishiro smiled at the girl and invited her to join him where two cushions sat upon an area of raised floor that ran along on of the walls. This wall was not padded with straw. She did not understand this place.
“Please pardon the leaving of my sister,” Tsukishiro said. “There is a place where she must be. Now we must solve a puzzle.” He looked her over. “Namely, you. My estate is within the outer wall of the palace grounds of the emperor, therefore is subjected to his guard. The question then arises of how you arrived, a stranger speaking the tongue of the northern mainland, inside these grounds.”
“The flash,” murmured the girl. “Bandis — my friend, who died — she made a flash that brought me here, I think.”
“Your friend must have been a magic user who somehow teleported you here.” At the word magic, the girl remembered that particular concept, and a fear awakened in her, deeper than any she could remember ever having felt. She shuddered slightly, feeling abruptly terribly uncomfortable and unwilling to hear more. But Tsukishiro did not notice. “There is that problem solved. I would still like to know whence and why.”
“Why…” Still struggling to calm her unruly fear, she did not finish her sentence. She looked down at herself, feeling the pain of the bruises on her legs and buttocks where she knelt.
“I surmise,” said he, noting the direction of her gaze, “that you must have been in some danger from which you did not emerge wholly unscathed, though you were transported and saved from death.”
“But Bandis was not!” cried the girl, tears causing the room to go hazy and sorrow overriding her terror. “If she was such a magic user to bring me from far away, why could she not save herself?” She had the sudden thought that it was because Bandis must have used magic that she had died. But that was ridiculous, so she did not give it voice.
He held her eyes with his. “If she was such a friend as you say, perhaps she gave up her life to save yours.”
She bowed her head and cried silently.
They two were not the only ones attempting to solve the mysteries surrounding her.
“Yes, my prince,” Aziza was remarking thoughtfully, discomforting Achim who was still not accustomed to this whole ‘sultan’s son’ business. “I know who she is.” Aziza did not mention that the girl in question had once tried to pick her lock and almost died for it.
“She was involved in the Rasierian Underground, but they lost track of her just as I entered the palace. Nobody’s seen her since.”
“Who should have?” asked Aziza.
“A katta, Sharaf, who helped me escape the dungeon, mentioned yesterday that she’d been with them and that now she was missing. I’m afraid –” a more appropriate term might have been ‘absolutely terror-wracked’ — “that she might have been killed in the battle.”
“Very few were killed in that battle, after you defeated Ad Avis,” said Aziza gently. She guessed from the young man’s tone that he was closer to this girl than he had originally implied. His next words confirmed this.
“Sharaf lost his girlfriend, and it made me paranoid. Is there no spell you can cast to tell me where she is?”
“I can cast a far-seeing spell on Rasier, but it will take some time, as I am working at a very difficult problem wrapped up in the death of Ad Avis. Return the day after tomorrow and I will see what I can do.”
Achim sighed. “Thank you, my lady,” he said, rising. “Farewell until that day.”
“Farewell, my prince,” said Aziza, and with a wave of her hand the Hero stood in the street outside her door.
And thus everyone concerned continued in ignorance.
“We know not who you are, and only can guess you are from the northern mainland,” Tsukishiro was summarizing. “So — what will we make of you?”
“I don’t know,” said the girl sadly.
“You are welcome here for as long as you desire to stay, for I have no longer any resident students.”
“Students?” inquired the girl, raising her head. “This is a school?”
“I teach Maruroharyuu,” said Tsukishiro, looking around at the great room. “My only trainee now is Prince Torihiko, but he comes rarely and lives, of course, in the palace.”
“What is Maruroharyuu?” asked the girl, strangely intrigued by the foreign word. It lodged in her mind somehow, like something that belonged there.
“It is an ancient mode of combat,” said Tsukishiro. His face suddenly took on a brighter look. “I have remembered me something that may help you. My friend Chihaya has some skill in magic, and perhaps can answer some of our questions. Would you feel able to go on a very small journey?”
The fear gripped her once again, hot and sharp. “Magic?” she asked, her voice breaking.
Tsukishiro looked at her, a bit startled by her tone. “Not true magic — she deals in potions and pills, and has one very important magical skill that should not bother you if magic is a problem.”
She shook her head, eyes closed, and said, “I think I might be up to it. Where to?”
“To a neighboring island — Onoko, the Isle of the Dragon.”
“Is it far?” asked the girl, most undesirous to go.
“It would take us the better part of the day to cross Itsumo Kawai and go by boat to Onoko. We would stay the night with Chihaya and return tomorrow.”
“If it would help in this mystery, let us go by all means,” sighed the girl.
The streets were wide, lined with cherry trees and low, broad bushes of pale bluish green. There were stretches of grass and flower beds, and the houses were large and quaint, until they drew farther away from the palace, at which point they were small and quaint. The girl wasn’t sure why she thought them ‘quaint.’ Quaintness was a relative sort of concept, she thought… but apparently that was how her brain, confused as it was, chose to classify these buildings.
The girl looked back once to see the palace, which had been behind them when they exited Hamoroba, and had seen a tall, layered edifice with balconies and flat roofs beyond the outer wall that encircled it as well as Tsukishiro’s school.
People bowed their heads deferentially to Tsukishiro and then walked on as they had been, eyes lowered. The two of them entered a great, noisy part of the village which seemed to be a bazaar of sorts. The smell of fish pervaded all, and the sounds of merchants advertising their wares competed with the noise of caged animals and the chatter of busy people. Folk passed by in two-wheeled carts drawn by running men, who smiled brazenly at Tsukishiro as they passed, white-toothed under their dark hats. The air was warm, but not hot, and a cool breeze blew the smell of cherry trees into their faces. The girl closed her eyes and breathed the scent in, trying to reconcile her thoughts about Bandis and the recent events that were all she could remember. It was almost overwhelming.
She started as a cart scraped to a halt not a foot in front of them. “Kitsa, orikinawa geowa kuwigami?” said the man pulling it, bobbing his head to Tsukishiro and looking sidelong at the girl.
Tsukishiro responded in the same language, and the girl once caught the word Onoko. The man shook his head, but after Tsukishiro said something more nodded and smiled. The Maruroha instructor dropped some coins from inside his robe into the man’s hand. The man moved to the side, holding now only one of the long posts he used to pull the cart. “We will ride to the edge of Ieo-Shen and find a horse cart to take us to Ingaoku, where I have a private boat.” He gestured for the girl to seat herself in the cart, which she did. Tsukishiro sat beside her, and the puller wheeled the cart around and began jogging down the street.
“What is your friend’s ability?” asked the girl as they went. She was still a bit anxious about the idea of magic.
“She is called Dragon Speaker, and that is her skill,” said Tsukishiro. “Onoko is the Isle of the Dragon for obvious reasons. The dragon of Onoko lives by the lake in the center of the island, and few people seek her out. None, indeed, has the gift of dragon speech save Chihaya any more, and the dragon bestows few gifts where she cannot understand the desire.”
“But — does she not terrorize the people there?” asked the girl, horrified. She was remembering the concept of dragons, and the ideas Tsukishiro was presenting did not at all agree with it.
Tsukishiro laughed. “You must be from the north. No, in Itsumo Kawai, what few dragons we have are good luck for us. The dragon of Onoko is the largest and most generous. Occasionally she will fly away and return, and such flights are seen as bringers of good fortune — mulatusoko, dragon-luck — but normally one must seek her out to find her.”
“And people do that willingly? Are they not afraid?”
“No dragon of Itsumo Kawai has ever killed a man who was not attacking it.”
“And your friend has the power to speak to the dragon of Onoko. Does she have much occasion to use this power?”
“You will pardon my ignorance, I hope, when I say I am not familiar with that phrase. Much occasion?”
“Does she use her power often?”
“She will take appeals to the dragon in return for money. But over the last few years the dragon sleeps more and more, since she grows old. So Chihaya has taken to the business of an apothecary to support herself.”
During the rest of the ride through Ieo-Shen, which she learned was the capital city of Itsumo Kawai, they spoke of many things: the culture, the history of the Empire, the dragons, and Tsukishiro himself. She learned that his father, as a boy, had been a favorite of the current Emperor’s father, and thus the latter had given Hamoroba to Tsukishiro for his school and home. Tsukishiro had trained students as Maruroha warriors for ten years, but during the last two there had been only five students left. Now only Torihiko studied, and he erratically, since the duties of a prince were demanding.
“And Tekawaya refuses to influence him,” sighed Tsukishiro.
“Influence him?” asked the girl, very much surprised.
“Yes,” said the man, his eyes twinkling. “Though Torihiko has little time to spare, he is increasingly with my sister. I fear,” he said with mockingly worried resignation, “that he will eventually marry her.”
“Your sister will marry the prince?” said the girl, smiling. How romantic! She remembered that concept now, wondering idly if she had ever been attached to anyone.
“I hope so,” said Tsukishiro, “though she is above him.”
“Why do you say that?”
“What brother could say less?”
“Well, you must have some reason for it.”
“Tekawaya has made honor her life study. She is truly the best of women, with every virtue honed. Torihiko, though certainly a good man, is not worthy of perfection.”
The girl felt again that aching desire for something — probably, she realized, for someone close enough to her that she could give or receive such praise. “You love your sister a great deal,” she remarked.
Tsukishiro nodded, his eyes soft.
As they bumped along the dirt roads outside of Ieo-Shen, through low hills and a strange orchard-forest, they did not speak, the girl too wrapped up in looking about her to pay heed to a conversation. They passed what looked to be vast, reed-filled lakes, knee-deep, in which men and women waded. Tsukishiro told her that this was where the rice was grown.
They were forced to walk for a stretch as the wagon-thing did not go all the length to Ingaoku; Tsukishiro told her of the distance, converting it into a northern measurement, but both words were unfamiliar to the girl, so she tried not to care. As they came into the outskirts of the port town, she was feeling exhausted and sore, and very much looking forward to riding the rest of the way. Tsukishiro hired another cart, and they moved on through the city.
New smells and sounds met her senses, things she had never before experienced. A rushing as of wind, a constant murmur of birds, and a totally indescribable scent filled her ears and nose. She looked around, realizing at last that it must be the sea. She must never have seen it before, or these would have gradually become familiar, which they did not. The noises grew louder, and the smell became mixed with that of a bazaar similar to the one in Ieo-Shen, though with a more fishy tone to it here. She remembered fishy smells.
Nearly an hour saw them through the city. As they came up a hill and paused for a moment at the top, their cart-puller wiping his brow, she saw the sea, and her eyes went wide at its grey-green magnificence. As they went forward the buildings to the right and left grew smaller, and the ocean seemed to expand until it was the horizon in all directions she could see. She closed her mouth with a painful snap, not wishing to gape and look like a fool. Boats that must have been larger than houses were tied to long piers, rocking on the bosom of this great power that, she just knew, could crush them with no effort. How could there be so much water in the world?
As Tsukishiro handed her out of the cart, she stared and stared at the ship by which they were disembarking. It was long, flat in the middle, with the ends tapering to carved shapes of red and gold. It was not a quarter as large as many of the other ships there, yet it looked splendid. Tsukishiro thanked the puller and lead her down some steps to the low pier and the magnificent boat. The seats on the flat bottom were soft cushions, and the girl shook her head as she looked intently at them. Why did she notice such details in their composition? Every stitch seemed to jump out at her as if familiar. They were well-made and of expensive material, but how did she know that?
The three men in the boat greeted her politely in their language and she nodded to them. Two were seated on cushions near the middle and held oars, and the third worked a wooden thing that was part of the boat, sitting behind what looked like a built-in chest or crate. Tsukishiro helped her to sit, between the two rowers, and took his place beside her. Already she felt slightly nervous at this rocking and uncomfortable with the idea of there being so little between her and unknown reaches of something she had never experienced before.
She looked out onto the water, not daring to move and lean over the raised side of the boat, seeing how bright it looked, shining gold where the dusk was broken into shards that seemed to float on the uneasy blanket of grey — or was it green? She imagined that water darkening as it deepened, sinking to a terrifying blackness in which there were bottomless crevices where there was no air nor glimmer of light, only cold water and fear.
A mighty shudder ran through her, snapping her gaze back into the boat. Still images filled her mind of falling, sinking into an enveloping tide of brutal, crushing water. Her heart was racing and her breathing began to come more and more raggedly.
“Ukonea-ko riman,” murmured Tsukishiro, taking her hand. “Let me teach you something.” He placed his fingertips on her forehead lightly, which helped to bring her back to the true situation. “There is a courage hard inside you,” he said, and it was almost a chant. “If you find it, whenever you are confronted with fear you may hold to it and thus be able to face the thing you fear. Close your eyes and ignore your physical self.”
With a deep breath the girl obeyed, forcing herself to loosen her grip on his hand. She tried to breathe normally and did not move. She felt her hands fade away, and her arms, parts of her legs, until finally the only things of which she was conscious were Tsukishiro’s hand on her brow and various places on her lower half where she rested them on the cushion. She felt a strange kind of bubbly joy that she had been able to do as he said so quickly. She raised her hand and was immediately aware of it once again.
“Don’t move,” came Tukishiro’s voice as if from far off. She could not be sure, but he seemed impressed. She let her hand and forearm disappear again, and waited for further instruction. “Picture yourself facing your fear,” he directed, “but with only half your mind. While you do, feel where it hits you least.”
While she did not completely understand this, she trusted him and immediately pictured herself in the ocean. She could not swim, and began at once to sink. Below her was a hole where banks of sand on the ocean floor went sloping down into darkness. The fear swept through her like a bright light through her shadowy consciousness, and stabbed into her complacent mind like so many knives. Then she suddenly understood what Tsukishiro had said when she saw — rather, imagined or felt a certain place tighten, resisting the piercing bolts and remaining as dark as it should be. Somehow, as her teacher had suggested, she held this. And though the fear remained as bright as before, the panic vanished and she had control of herself.
She opened her eyes. The world felt substantially different from when she had closed them. The ocean was still as horrific as before, but she saw now the beauty in it that her terror had hidden. She looked at Tsukishiro and smiled. “You did very well,” he said, and she could tell now that he was impressed. “Perhaps it has something to do with your having such a clear mind. I would be delighted to teach you more, if you are willing, for never have I found someone who could do that on the first attempt.”
“I don’t know,” she said, still a bit giddy with the thrill of what she had done. Looking around into the shadows of early evening, she realized she had entirely missed the sun’s setting. Before them was another island, looking much like Nagokama that they had left, only wilder. The boat drew up to another pier, and Tsukishiro at once climbed out to help the girl onto Onoko, Isle of the Dragon.
Chihaya’s house was small and low, with a sloppy, sweet-smelling herb garden on the side. The girl shivered in the cold evening as Tsukishiro knocked on the wooden door.
“Tsukishiro!” cried the tall woman who opened it, then began chattering in pleased-sounding Kawaian. She was thin and angular with a face friendly if not pretty. She smiled at the girl, after Tsukishiro somehow introduced them, and gestured her guests enter.
Inside was but one room, as far as the girl could tell; little enough of it was visible under masses of papers, scattered books, potted plants, empty flasks, and other various things appropriate to an apothecary. Chihaya was still speaking rapidly, and the girl listened in wonder as Tsukishiro actually laughed at something she said. The girl had never heard this sound from him before.
Finally, as she stood nervously aside and looked around her, their conversation turned to her dilemma. “Come here,” said Tsukishiro in her language. She stood beside him while the Dragon Speaker gazed over her and he, she assumed, explained the situation. The grave expression that crossed Chihaya’s face was not at all to the girl’s liking any more than the grave tone in the woman’s voice as she shook her head and spoke a moment later. “She will try a test,” said Tsukishiro, “and if it does not work she will try in her books to see what else she may do. She has not much hope.” The apothecary had turned and crossed the small room.
“What test?” asked the girl, fidgeting. When told it was a potion, she shuddered, but immediately resolved to try whatever might help. Yet she also put into practice Tsukishiro’s lesson of the boat ride.
“Uingo ki,” said Chihaya, handing to the girl a vial of something clear.
“What exactly is this?” the latter asked apprehensively. Tsukishiro relayed the question to his friend and told the girl,
“It is a draft for clearing the mind, making ease to set the thoughts in order. It will do you no harm.”
She had at first some trouble with the overly-ornate stopper, but after pulling this apart in two pieces and grimacing apologetically, she held the bottle up open. The unpleasant smell from it then made her pause. She noticed the other two were looking at her fixedly, so she focused on the vial, held her courage, and drank. The taste was sour and filmy, and she exchanged the bottle for a cup of water but did not immediately drink it. The strange sweeping feeling of light-headedness that for a moment overcame her gave a rush of sudden hope that the draught might actually work.
But instead of heightening, the sensation subsided and she found that though her brain-impulses seemed more in sequence, the darkness beyond her Kawaian memories was not a shade lighter. She sighed and drank the water, tears pricking in her eyes, and returned the cup to Chihaya. Staring out the open back door into a dark blue-green wood, she shook her head.
The older woman said something, and the girl felt Tsukishiro’s hand on her shoulder in a vain attempt at comfort. She could not let them think this had ruined her, so she turned with a half-hearted smile, brushing away her tears, and said, “So I have no life. I’ll get over it.”
Tsukishiro returned the smile and spoke to the apothecary. She replied. “Chihaya will prepare a meal for us,” the instructor told her. He swept clear a cushion at the low table and gestured for her to sit. Beside her he made and took a place for himself. Then he moved the clutter from the table itself and smiled at the girl. “We will find another way, I am sure,” he said.
She shook her head. “I cannot spend forever chasing my past. I’ll just have to learn something to do with myself and start a new life.” Tsukishiro nodded, looking thoughtful, and the next moment was again conversing with Chihaya in their language.
“She will try to find something for you tonight; she has many lore-books that may contain a recipe that will help.”
Supper was sweet-hot rice in cold milk with noodles, a dish called waiingo. Then Chihaya laid out bedrolls for her guests after making bare sufficient room on the floor and increasing the bulk of all the heaps in the corners. She threw herself onto her own bed with a candle on the floor beside her and a book in her hand.
This light, or more likely a different one, still flickered in the dim room when the girl awoke again, pulled from sleep by a sound she thought she must never forget. Without pausing to reflect on whether or not this might be accurate, she sprang up.
It was a voice, so mighty as to be nearly too great for human hearing, she thought. Its strength defied all guesses as to its volume or distance, and the overwhelming yet suppressed power in its tone engrossed her. Something about that voice was familiar, comforting even. It took her a moment to realize that it was already gone. “My apologies for the recent disturbances,” was all it had said.
She heard Tsukishiro sigh, and turned to see him upright in bed and rubbing his temples. Chihaya, sitting under her coverlet with a book open on her lap, had her eyes closed. “My thanks to thee, Orono,” she said politely. “I hope thy distress hath been well-resolved.”
She was not speaking Kawaian; rather, her almost motionless lips somehow formed words that the girl could understand, in the same tongue as the great voice. The dragon’s voice. “How is that possible?” she asked out loud.
“That was the voice of the dragon Orono,” Tsukishiro explained from behind her, his voice sounding strained. The girl nodded absently, while Chihaya said something in an apologetic tone.
“Is she always so concise?” asked the girl.
There came no answer, and she turned to see that Tsukishiro was staring at her, eyes narrowed in confusion and awe. “You… understood her.”
“She said, ‘My apologies for the recent disturbances,’ and Chihaya thanked her and said, ‘I hope thy distress is resolved.'”
“I know not whether to take this new wonder as such, or as partial explanation for the other mysteries surrounding you.” He turned and talked to Chihaya, whose eyes went wide at his words. She looked at the girl in shock, and finally spoke.
“An thou hast understood Orono wilt thou now my words know.” It was the dragon tongue, of course, but while from Orono it had been roaring and heavy, from Chihaya it only made her ears tingle. The girl nodded, a whole new list of questions awakening in her mind. But she was tired, and did not desire to attempt the finding of answers tonight. “Please,” she said, wishing she could speak the impossible dracon language, “let’s talk over this tomorrow.”
Tsukishiro agreed, and relayed her wish to the apothecary who reluctantly returned to her work and allowed the others to return to their beds. And to the dragon’s voice in her dreams.
“Whatsoe’er thou hast done, child, hast aroused me from my slumber,” Orono told her. And the girl protested that she hadn’t done anything. The dragon did not seem to hear her. “I like not that thou spendest so great a time amongst thy father’s people, for all his virtues. Thy speech becometh uncouth. I wish for thy speedy return.”
“I don’t understand you!” the girl replied desperately, but the dragon was, to all appearances, gone. The girl started awake into the full light of mid-morning. Sitting up, she yawned and stretched against the soreness of her muscles and her raw skin.
“Yet another proof that thou art not Kawaian,” remarked Chihaya, “for we rise early to appreciate the dawn. Thy morning meal is long prepared; come and break thy fast.”
“My ears hurt when she talks thus,” complained Tsukishiro from the table. The girl rose, feeling stiffness all through her, and went to his side. “You talked in your sleep,” he said quietly, as Chihaya gave her a cup of tea and a bowl of fruit-covered rice. “You spoke a language I did not recognize.”
“I had a very strange dream,” she agreed. “The dragon gave me a message, I think.”
“How can you…”
“I don’t know. Did Chihaya find anything more?”
The apothecary, hearing her name and guessing the question, told her, “I found nothing in my reading for thy aid.”
“Can you tell her it’s all right?” asked the girl, clumsily dropping her chopsticks onto the table. Her eating skills were improving, but she had not yet mastered this technique.
Tsukishiro gave her message to Chihaya. “I sorrow for thee yet,” said the woman. “Thou hast dragon blood in thee, else though couldst not understand the tongue.”
The girl nodded, not wanting to give an answer through the man. But then she had a thought. “What do you hear when she talks like that?” She finished her breakfast and employed the soft grey napkin at its side.
“I hear growling,” he began, then stopped as if unsure of how to describe it. “It almost seems a whine of sorts. And with it I feel a pressure against my skull. When the dragon speaks it, it hurts and echoes for an hour. The power in that speech is great.”
“I felt it last night, and in my dream, from Orono, but I do not hear it in Chihaya.”
“You must needs ask Chihaya why that is,” said Tsukishiro, then after a moment smiled at himself and turned to the woman.
She listened to his wordy question and spoke to the girl. “Rarely is a human born bodily capable of making those sounds that are needed to speak the dragon tongue, and few of those choose to learn it. The study, if not the practice, is painful. I have learned it of my lady Orono; dragons, by nature, understand the tongue of their people, and learn to speak early in life. Thus I know that thou hast dragon blood in thy veins, though thou doubtless possessest not the mechanisms to speak the inborn language.”
The girl smiled her thanks for this information; though it did not answer her question, she felt she could now guess what she wanted to know. Coming from the human voice and fueled by a human’s weak lungs the speech would not carry the same power as when spoken by a dragon. So the only question left was what connection she had with dragons. She stored it away in a corner of her mind where the other things she would never know were beginning to pile up.
“I must give a Maruroharyuu demonstration in Oingo-Sai,” said Tsukishiro, then repeated it in Kawaian, “so we must be going.”
“One more thing I want to know,” said the girl as she stood with him. “What was Orono talking about last night?”
Chihaya’s answer was, “Sixteen days ago, Orono hath awakened from a sleep that had lasted some months. Her sleep had caused a great lull in the weather of the island, and her sudden awakening, from some disturbance to herself, hath given us torrents of rain and much lightening. Lately it hath subsided.”
The girl was quiet, and knew that there must be some link between the dragon’s words to her in sleep and the fact that she was Orono’s disturbance, but what it was she did not want to think. She thanked the woman and moved towards the door as Tsukishiro and Chihaya spoke in a haggling tone. She heard the jingle of coins and the man joined her. They left the house.
“What is your demonstration?” she asked as they moved slowly up the road towards the town through which they’d passed the previous night.
“I show some of the most advanced moves I know to arouse interest in the Maruroharyuu. I grow weary of idleness and wish for more students, but no one comes.”
They reached the village and were met before they passed between the first paper houses. The wide-eyed man greeted them cheerfully, if a bit withdrawn, and continued to talk in recognizably dialect-clouded Kawaian. He took a place beside the Maruroha and they conversed as the group moved towards the center of town. Once again the girl sighed, feeling lost. She was picking up a bit of the language, but not enough.
Several people gave up friendly cries when they caught sight of Tsukishiro, and a few children ran off shouting. The crowd was assembled around a large platform of wood, and onto this the Maruroha walked after instructing her to stand and watch. By his popularity she guessed that his demonstrations here were frequent and well-received, if not very effective. So she waited eagerly to see what exactly he was going to do, to find out what Maruroharyuu really was.
Tsukishiro draped his robe over a large drum that stood on one corner of the platform and stretched almost lazily, answering questions. Then he began. He went from his feet to his hands, flipped into the air, and came down in a crouch. From this position he swept his legs around with his weight on his hands again. Then, with his right leg out straight before him and his left tucked under he threw himself over backwards.
The girl then observed that this had been a warm-up. For the moment his feet hit the tight planks beneath him he was off them again, ducking sideways and kicking out above his head. Then he fell to his hands again and hit the same spot in the air with both his feet, one after the other.
All his movements were so elaborate, so graceful, with no apparent break between them! His fluidity and energy amazed her, and she watched each new move with a pounding heart as he beat back the air with kicks and knee-slams as well as a few swift hand-attacks. The power he displayed shocked and enticed her, and seemed both contrast to and explanation for his usual placid calm.
When he finished several minutes later, the people all silently bowed their heads. As this was apparently a mark of approval and she knew nothing else to do, the girl followed suit. She then listened to Tsukishiro’s small oration and tried to pick out words she knew, heard him answer a few more questions, and watched as he finally stepped down after reclaiming his robe. He exchanged a few bows with some friends before coming back to her side.
“Now we leave,” he said, “lest they invite us to dinner and we spend another night on this island.”
She could not help but stare at him as they headed from Oingo-Sai, her eyes wild and bright. “Can you teach me to do that?” she asked at last.
“Of course,” he replied.