The terms of agreement were these: Tsukishiro would teach her the fundamentals, which usually took three or four intensely rigorous months, and she would enter the palace guard at the end of that time, for two months longer than the basic training had taken, in order to pay him for his services. She would continue learning the more advanced techniques, which Tsukishiro said was the study of a lifetime, as long as she was in Ieo-Shen.
And so it began. She was given an oron, the soft, dark red-brown jumpsuit, tight at the waist and loose over the upper arm, torso, and legs that was the main part of the Maruroha gear. It had no device, for this could only be earned at a certain level beyond basic training. She had mansukos to go over this–the soft, light bands that were to be wrapped about the waist, lower legs (shoes, light but sturdy, were included in this), arms from mid-bicep to the hands, neck and head. Tsukishiro told her that Maruroha only covered the head for tournaments.
She was taught to be flexible (this hurt a great deal at first) and impervious to pain (this hurt a great deal more than the other); she lifted weighted blocks to increase her strength (this also hurt); and of course she was taught the Maruroharyuu, which mostly involved avoiding opponent’s blows and then kicking them. The true nature of the fighting style actually involved swords, but the fundamentals that she was to learn in these three or four months were primarily physical.
She learned how to cram an hour’s rest into ten minutes by blanketing her being and calming her body. She was taught about her sanoko, an almost limitless source of energy inside her; if she tapped into this, she could push herself beyond her limits until the energy ran out. Then she would be exhausted, but each time a little less.
She learned to rise at dawn, to eat with chopsticks, to make the most of a short night’s sleep when she was weary and in pain. For the next three months she drove at her training, growing stronger and more skilled every day. She threw herself wholly into her schooling, concentrating her every fiber on absorbing what she was taught. Through some strange virtue she possessed, dragon blood or whatever it might be, she went through the basic training more thoroughly and skillfully than anyone Tsukishiro had ever seen.
During this time she became close friends with Tekawaya, who had completed what she was learning years ago and occasionally joined her in practice. Tsukishiro was always distant and fairly stoic, but the girl came to respect his quiet humor and ironic wisdom. She picked up the language to a certain extent, and even at times flirted with one of the guards. Her life was once again her own.
The one rough spot in this agreeable arrangement was Orono. Three times the girl heard the dragon’s taciturn call, bidding her ‘come home’ but not giving any details or even hints as to what she meant, why she was concerned with a human, or where home was. Two of these came during her meditation, the third in sleep.
She had started from her trance abruptly after the first message, and Tekawaya had asked her what was wrong. Upon relating the dragon’s message to the Kawaian, the girl had been advised to take the matter to Tsukishiro. Perhaps, Tekawaya had reasoned, the answer to her lost identity lay with Orono and another trip to Onoko should be made. The girl had begged her then not to mention it, saying she would rather stay as she was than ever enter a boat again.
One night, turning discontentedly in her bed, she forced her eyes to remain closed and tried to keep her breathing deep and regular. But of course it was to no purpose. Tsukishiro’s announcement had left her much too excited for sleep.
“My friend,” he had said after she had completed her test, “you have progressed more swiftly than any but two students I have ever taught. By the end of the week your basic training will be complete.”
Pulling off her nightgown she vacated the bed. She had, at Tekawaya’s suggestion, begun to use mansukos as underclothes. Wrapped so they resembled a strapless leotard, they were comfortable and convenient, and as always felt like they were not there. She sat on the floor and stretched, leisurely as she reflected on the joy of finally adding a device to her oron. She stood and began to practice mid-level kicks.
She worked at it until she was sweating. She focused on her sanoko and opened herself until she tingled with energy, realizing at the same time that this was probably not wise when she was trying to get to sleep. However, she was too much involved in her workout to bother.
After jogging from the empty board-house, she stood in a wide garden lane. The sky was clouded, so she did not worry about the higher windows of the palace, which looked like fireflies in the darkness, giving any view of her. She practiced more elaborate moves involving jumps, twists, and more kicks. She traversed the garden paths, fighting invisible foes. She planned on returning to bed once her tapped energy was all expended, but for now she was alive and loving the things she could do. Months ago she had been nothing, with no past, wounded, weak, and uncertain. Now she was at home, strong, self-assured, and deadly. She was a warrior; she was Maruroha. She grinned in the darkness, sending her nonexistent enemy onto his back with a double hand-balance kick from the left.
On her feet once again, she flexed for another move and paused. Had she seen movement by the wall there? She could hardly make anything out more than a small distance away. Staring, she concentrated on seeing, on discovering what lay beyond her range — something making stealthily-hidden noises. Very suddenly she found that she was able to see. This was disconcerting, for the night had abruptly turned to day in her eyes and she could see everything just as if the sun were out.
The man who had jumped down from the inner perimeter wall, and made some little sounds in the brush at its foot, was now moving through the garden, dagger gleaming dully in his hand. The girl, with her inexplicably enhanced vision, could make out every detail on his black outfit, the mask on his face, his golden hair, all as if seen in perfect light. He headed for the school.
You can’t attack a Maruroharyuu school alone, she thought, or at least not just with a dagger. She flipped over the flower bed separating her lane from his and began to follow him. As she did so, she was realizing that the man had awakened memories of her previous life, for an unfamiliar thought pattern was emerging. It knew that she could see in the dark, and she walked somehow more quietly because of it. You’re thinking like a fighter, it told her, and she replied, I am a fighter. How else should I think? And she answered herself, like a thief! Now it made sense, the night-vision and the silence of her movements. A completely new set of instincts began to surface from the darkness in her mind, sapping her confidence and leaving only giddiness. She followed the thief.
It was strange, this new mind-set. It was almost an entirely different part of her thoughts from how she’d been since she awakened here, and the two almost held conversation. Sneak up and attack him, said the thief.
And then go rob the palace myself? retorted the warrior sarcastically.
Take him down, urged the thief.
Can I? wondered the warrior. He’s a lot bigger than I am.
Now you’re not even thinking like a fighter. He’s a thief! You’re Maruroha! He won’t stand a chance!
And you’re deadly. Stop him! They drew near the building.
Her confidence was returning, and as her two frames of mind reached a consensus she began to run. The thief must have heard her, for he ducked into a grove of cherry trees, trying to get out of sight. But the girl was now a superior in his profession and saw him clearly. She dove in after him.
The point of his knife drew a line across her face and blood began filling her mouth. At the same time he turned to fly once more. But the girl was not about to let him go. The sharp, biting sensation that stung into her, the sound of her voice crying in pain, the taste of blood, the image of his flashing weapon — these were key and password to a hitherto-unopened door that now flung wide to disclose a chamber of rage.
The emotions she had known since her awakening — pain, sorrow, fear, confusion, even panic — they had been nothing to this wild fury that poured from her small wound faster than the blood. She would kill him for that. She leaped forward with a shout, hands flying out for a stunning blow. He dodged her at first, but she shifted instantly to her palms on the damp grove floor, twigs prickling her skin, and brought her legs around to ground him. He was half on his feet once more when she slammed her hands into his neck and sent him flying once again. With a high kick to his chin she heard something snap, and he toppled and lay still.
In that moment she laughed, feeling a rush of adrenaline and a sensation of ultimate power from the death she had caused. She was Maruroha, and she had slain in protection.
“Tsukishiro’s girl?” asked the guard who now knelt at the dead man’s side.
“Yes,” she said with a lilt in her tone. “I go to bed.”
“You did well,” the guard said simply, unable to praise her further because of her deficiencies in the language. “Him we long sought; most brash trying the palace tonight.”
Black, grey, and a glow of maroon in the sand. The sand was not happy, for the sea had defied and defiled it with blood. Vermilion crests on a million tides. But the sand was invisible beneath the waves, far down in the black depths of the cold, cold sea, and in the sea was fear. Fear ran still and silent, threading through the dark places and covering the sand with slime. It would never be known what lay in that forgotten desert, slick with fear and pounding under miles of blood-fouled water. And, up until now, the desert had lain quietly, content never again to feel the wind so long as the water contained no more than salt, restful as an ocean floor. But now it heaved and reared, irate at the tainting blood that washed through to stain its sands. It could never break forth upon the surface, never make itself visible in its ragings, but with mighty shrugs and quakings it could turn the sea into a mad froth, boiling and darker than the depths, the waves crashing each upon the other for lack of a shore, the foam rising to the sky in sprays that flew from their pounding.
She awoke with a scream and wept in her bed.
What was she now, she wondered: a champion of justice, or a murderer?
The man’s face was ever in her mind, his slit-eyed expression of pain frozen in time and death always before her. The way his hair, blonde and wispy, framed that face she would never forget. She had looked on him once, and never again, yet something about him would not reconcile. A memory, perhaps, but not one that brought other images back to her. She almost could not bear the thought of him.
And yet she had proven herself. Beyond a doubt. The killing certainly was beyond the bounds of mercy, but not of reason. The man had been coming to rob her home, or at least the home of him she now called majesty. Few alternatives there had been but to do as she had done, and her anger had allowed nothing to hold her back. Despite the strange almost ill feeling that the event had brought on and was not yet departed, she took a pride in the incident.
“It was well done,” had been Tsukishiro’s quiet words.
Tekawaya had left the room without remark.
And now she walked towards the training hall thinking of fireflies for no apparent reason. She opened the door and immediately bowed. Torihiko stood within, idly examining the grey cloth draped over a table near Tsukishiro’s platform. Beside this the latter man and his sister stood talking quietly. “Daughter,” said the emperor’s son (she despised it when he called her that — so patronizing!), “your triumph has reached the ears of myself and my father.” He spoke quickly, and she made out the Kawaian words with difficulty. Annoyed, she smiled. “I have insisted that Tsukishiro act upon this immediately and declare you a warrior of the Maruroharyuu.”
What was this? What right had Torihiko, prince or not, to meddle in the training affairs of her teacher? This irked her instead of producing the excitement and gratitude it normally would have. “I thank you, sire,” she said.
“I do you no great favor,” he laughed. “You would have, I hear, been thus promoted within the sevenday at any rate.”
“It is true,” said Tsukishiro, standing at the prince’s side. “A few days early will not make a difference.” Tekawaya stepped forward then, holding ceremonially in her outstretched hands something long and thin, so obscured by the aforementioned grey cloth that the other girl could not at first tell what it was. “This is a gift to you from the palace for your actions two nights ago. It is appropriate for one of my most promising students.” Tsukishiro had a glint in his eye as he said this, and the girl fancied he felt somewhat ashamed to be presenting her with this whatever-it-was.
Tekawaya stood before her, the smile on her face not quite speaking the emotions of her heart (this made the new Maruroha uneasy — what was bothering her?), and held out the sword, as the girl could now see that it was. She took it gently from Tekawaya’s hands and held it on her own palms. The scabbard merely leather with twisting designs of steel running over it, she turned her attention to the blade. Drawing it a few inches out, she lowered her brows in surprise as she found it was not one sword but two. Exact mates, they were thin enough both to fit together in the sheath as if one. Indeed, the pommel of each bore half a green gem in order to indicate in which direction they were to be replaced so that it would form a circle.
“Maruroharyuu weapons are strange,” she said softly, and wondered the next moment why she had not commented on the beauty of the swords as she usually would have done.
“There are years’ worth of training more, to learn the skill of those,” replied Tsukishiro. “A fitting gift upon the completion of your basic training.”
“They belonged once to my great uncle,” said Torihiko. “He was a good Maruroha.”
Two thoughts sprang into the girl’s mind from this statement: Implying that I am not, no doubt, and Then why give them to me? I’m no royalty — why not keep them in the family? She could not imagine why she was in such a vindictive mood today.
“I congratulate you,” said Tsukishiro. Was the ceremony over, then, and that was all? She put the thought away when Tekawaya hugged her. Then she bowed to Torihiko again and drew the swords. Walking a few feet away from the others, she took one blade in each hand and made tentative swipes with them through the air. They were unexpectedly short, she found, but made the most gratifying swish she’d ever heard; she began to swing them more widely. “We will begin on your lessons today, if you wish,” said her teacher.
“I do,” she replied; she could not see the strange gleam that had come into her eyes upon practicing with the new weapons.
She learned quickly that Maruroha swords were never used to swing except to inflict superficial wounds. The primary moves, Tsukishiro told her, were drives and stabs. Drives involved using the swords in place of her feet through simple alterations of moves she already knew, and stabs of course were stabs. That first day, however, she learned very little beyond that, for Tsukishiro seemed annoyingly more taciturn than ever, and she was for some reason in a foul mood.
Her dreams were so colorful.
The brilliant white jasmine, huge and lovely, was the feature of the garden, proud and tall and old. It would never wilt. Its strength, and even its complacency, was unchallenged by the marlberry bush that rose up around and grew until the jasmine was no longer even visible. It was content to remain so, for it drew nourishment from the larger plant. And then the marlberry defiled the jasmine. It was too rude! The ripe red fruits rotted and fell to the ground where they poisoned all the other little plants. So the Jasmine sucked as many of the marlberry’s nutrients as it could, sickening the shrub though it could never threaten its existence. The garden was dark.
“If you are one of us you must have a name,” said the owalitsuka impatiently.
“I am nameless,” she insisted, frustrated at the stupid man. “A name is but a…” she wanted ‘label’ but did not know the Kawaian term, “…word. Call me Nameless, if you will.” She wanted to hit him, and probably could have with a more-than-fair chance of winning the ensuing fight.
“Very well,” he replied, and sounded somewhat sarcastic, which galled her. “Nameless you shall be. You will enter Aniora’s rank.” He gestured to the man a little way behind him, who came forward and looked at her with a half-smile.
“I am proud to have you in my rank,” he said, and she smiled back as she recognized him as the guard who had commended her action of several nights ago. Then the image of the dead man’s face came again into her mind, and she thought uncomfortably of dark hallways and looked away from Aniora.
“I will serve under you gladly,” she said, imagining a warmly-clad woman.
“Let me show you through our ways,” he said, and she followed him from the room. “My rank is konogi, and the owalitsukai enjoy giving me all those new. I mind not with you, for I have seen you fight, but often those who enter newly are quickly expelled.” Did he really feel it necessary to speak so rapidly? She clenched her fists and shifted her shoulders, feeling the sheath hung on her back. She had the idea of slicing up the paper walls of her guest house with her swords; that would be so much fun. She would also like to eat white cheese.
“Shall I be in the palace or out of it?” she asked, trying to ignore the musical notes that she imagined floating along beside her. They made her angry, as she did not properly know how to read them. Tekawaya had once shown her a few parchments of music, but she knew nothing of it.
“I know not just yet,” he said; “It rests on what places are open.” He thought for a moment, and she imagined she saw in his place a man-like shape of fire that was somehow familiar. “Outside, I deem,” he finally said.
A sudden thought struck her: she had killed once, and she could again. She laughed softly, and shuddered. What was wrong with her? She could not think clearly: killing — was that bad or good?
“This is the armory,” he said as they entered a large hall. Along the walls were cabinets and chests, and similar containers created lanes across the floor. “You have your own weapons, I know, but should you ever need aught else, here you will find it.”
“Ah,” she said, for she pictured ghosts floating across the floor of this long hall, ghosts of murder victims.
“These stairs,” referring to the ones at the back of the room, which they now climbed, “lead to the battlements, and there are other ways up as well, which you will learn quickly enough.” He did go on and on, when all the girl wanted to do was to return to her room and slice patterns in the walls. They walked high above the gardens and around to the side of the palace, silently for some time. “This will be your this-month’s post,” he said at last. “You will walk from that tower there,” gesturing, “to this corner, and back, all day. It does become dull, but there is much time for thought.” Thought, she reflected, was not something of which she needed an increase. “You will report here at dawn to relieve the night-guard. Another man will relieve you at dusk. This is not a tiring occupation, for we have few emergencies; you will be well able to practice your Maruroharyuu.”
“Thanks,” she said, more than a little impatient to be gone.
He smiled slightly. “You may go.”
Hardly taking time to return his smile she went back to her house.
There had always been a mouse, a happy little mouse who danced and ate grain spilled behind the rough wooden door. And one day a cat, equally happy, had ambled in and swallowed the mouse. Not to say that she hurt him, but now he was in her belly unseen. However, the mouse had no objections, and rested very quietly and peacefully there. But now the cat had scratched too far, had gone to evil; she dug in the dirt and soiled her paws and did not wash. The mouse, revolted by this lack of manners and hygiene, created quite the stir in the cat’s belly; and though he could never make his presence known to any outsider, he made the cat quite sick.
The next morning, she was in place at dawn. The former guard nodded to her in a friendly manner and departed, leaving her alone with herself. She walked along the right side of the battlement, looking down into the courtyard. She thought of a cart-puller. He would be Kawaian, with the yellow-brown skin, slit eyes, handsome lips, and dark hair. With his flat hat he would dress himself, and in his peasant clothing, and come to his work in the city. He would draw his cart about and folk would pay him for a ride. Then, at the end of the day, he would take his savings home. Sometimes he would buy food with them, to feed his wife and children. He would have a beautiful Kawaian wife, also with black hair, and lovely dark-headed children.
She hummed to herself.
She passed into a shadow cast by a tower in the rising sun.
She remembered Tekawaya’s face, and thought of the inexplicable sadness in the Kawaian’s eyes when she’d been told about the girl’s triumph in the garden.
How much time had she left? Of course, all day.
The thought of fire made her grin widely as she turned and walked the other way, now looking down into the slight forest on her right, to the west of the palace.
She laughed suddenly, leaning over to gaze at the doe that bounded through the trees, its sleek back rippling and shadowed in the lee of the unlit wall.
Kicking at a bit of dust before her foot, she became grave as she thought of pears on trees. She imagined the husbandmen going from tree to tree with ladders, climbing to the upper branches and pulling pears into their baskets. When their baskets became too heavy to hold in their arms as they stood on the ladders, they would put them on the ground and only pick lower pears until the baskets were full. Then people would eat the pears. Where did pears grow? She’d had some while she’d been here, and now she ached to know where they grew.
What about a red pear? Would that taste better than a green one? She looked down into the courtyard and happened to see a servant hurrying through the shadows towards a doorway. “Hello!” she called down, leaning on her knee with her foot propped on the wall.
“Hi there!” responded the woman, looking up at the girl.
“Where do pears grow?”
The servant looked confused, and flapped her apron. “I know not!” she responded at last. “I’ve no idea.”
“Ahr!” growled the girl, stamping her feet in frustration. “How can you not know?” Had she been on the ground with the woman, she would have hit her.
The servant’s eyes were wide as she stared up at this strange guard. “Begging you pardon,” she said with a bob of her head, darting off through the doorway.
She began walking back and forth again, going sideways at first because it was fun. Her head hurt. She kicked her feet as she went. How dull this was! She tried to come up with a song, but she could not think of any words. She wanted to practice her Maruroharyuu, yes she did! Pulling her swishy swords out, she swung them around as she walked.
She thought of bears on parade, dancing through the streets on their back legs. They would jump and flip and do things that she could do, only they would do them better. How dare they? She was the Maruroha; what right had they to excel at her craft? But wait — they did not want to hurt people, so they were weak. Was that weak? Perhaps. But what was strong in killing? She did not know; she could not think; the thoughts running through her head were too thick. The bears were big and small, and all the people cheered them. She cheered with them.
A trio of passing men below looked up at her and shook their heads.
She imagined a jewelry-maker who first wove strings together to create a many-colored twisting thread. Then he would push beads onto it, clear but colored, so that the colors shone through but tainted. That was not nice. She breathed loudly with annoyance.
She imagined a whittler carving away at a soft piece of wood. Oh, there! He’d cut his finger. There was blood. She shrieked with laughter.
She imagined a horse galloping up and down a path of wind in a starry sky.
She imagined a long string of black and white squares.
She imagined tables.
It was a long day.
“Good evening,” said the voice from beside her at last. She turned her wide eyes on her replacement, his face green as the burned spots from the sunset went over it. She took a deep breath and pushed past him, running down the stairs and away. The guard shook his head, wondering what her problem was, then shrugged his shoulders and took his place on the wall.
The girl raced to the school where Tsukishiro waited. Laughing she flung the door open and entered, red-faced and hot. The look her teacher gave her reminded her of a dome strewn with wood shavings. “I must learn more of these swords,” she said.
He smiled wanly. “Very well,” he said. What was the matter with him? Was it something about her that he didn’t like? She snorted in annoyance.
This training session lasted but an hour, but after Tsukishiro left she was not tired enough for sleep. Thinking of paint, she began to practice, jumping and kicking and whipping her swords about as if cutting down an army. For some time she continued, ferocious and unchecked. Then the shadow at the door, and Tsukishiro’s admonition. “You should sleep.”
“I’m practicing,” she hissed at him, angry, thinking of herself as a snake and he a rat taunting her.
He smiled, and she saw his imaginary whiskers twitch. “You will have plenty of time to do thus tomorrow.”
Wrath boiled up in her at this man who dared to give her orders — to command the great nameless Maruroha warrior! Fireflies and squares were all good during times of peace, but now she was at war, though she did not know with whom.
“No!” she screamed, and leaped forward. Tsukishiro dodged her as she drove her swords at his chest.
“Stop,” he ordered her; she was too far gone. She stabbed at his back but missed as he stepped away. He spun and kicked her in the face, reopening the cut across her mouth. As she stumbled backwards he said, “I can hurt you. Stop this now.” But now she had blood in her mouth and rage in her heart, and the man before her was a shadow.
She flew at him, swords ringing as she crossed them. He jumped lithely to the side and slammed his fists into her back. She gasped, and as her hands fell violently aside her sword slashed into his leg by pure accident. He faltered and she was on him, breaking his other leg and putting one of her swords into each of his arms. Suddenly she felt the same rush of adrenaline that she had when she’d first killed. She kicked his right temple and he stopped struggling against her.
Oh, it was delicious — the pounding of energy in her blood, the hand of death to direct with her own. She laughed, giddy with emotion.
But she did not kill him.
She looked once more on his still, pained face, and ran away.