Photograph by Sasin Tipchai
The spirit walked behind him wherever he went, on soft feet that made no sound on city streets or on dead leaves. In shape, in face, in every aspect, it seemed precisely like that of his dead wife. He could hear her weeping—hitches of sound interspersed with pauses for the breaths she could no longer take, and yet he’d watched her body, covered in its shroud, moved with careful respect to its funeral pyre months ago. And her soul had been set free to dance on the wind, or so the priests said.
But all Akitate remembered of the ceremony was the intolerable black curl of smoke against a clear blue sky. Like a mourner’s incense. Like the first presage of a volcano’s fury.
It couldn’t be her. It couldn’t be. She was free of pain. Free of a life she had to have despised in the secret recesses of her heart, married to a man of much lower social class than she’d been born into at the directive of her family and his lord. Why, she’d had to teach him how to read, those first few months together. Why would she return, weeping so endlessly? It had to be a deception.
In the privacy of the small house they’d once shared, as he struggled to find sleep on the tatami mat, Akitate’s will broke. He lurched upright and demanded, low and soft, “Spirit, why do you take the shape of my dead wife? Why do you taunt me with the likeness of she who was taken from me?”
In the moonlight streaming in the window, he could see her face, pale as salt, pale as grief. But her lips and eyes dark as ink pooled before a brush could stir it. Her eyes widened and her lips parted. Shaped words.
But unlike her weeping, he couldn’t hear the words. Akitate frowned, shaking his head as she beckoned him closer, imploringly. “No, spirit. If you’ve taken her shape and mean me ill, I won’t come to you willingly. You’ll have to work to take the breath from my lips. Others have tried.” A pause as he reflected on the path of his life since his lord had taken him into his service. Blood. Pain. Public honor and secret murders. “But none have succeeded.”
She raised her hands in an infinitesimal gesture of exasperation—the most she’d ever permitted herself in life, when faced with his intransigence. Women of her class, of her quality, didn’t address their husbands with disrespect.
Even husbands such as he’d been. Who’d only risen through their skill with a sword and a lord’s approval.
Something about her expression seemed too real. It caught at his heart, and he closed his eyes on a wave of pain. “If you are a spirit who’s taken her shape, I will find wherever you keep your heart and cut it into shreds for this,” Akitate threatened between his teeth, turning his face away. “How dare you. How dare you take her face—”
Memories surged through him. He’d been away on a mission for his lord. Duty too often called him away, but in these uncertain, troubled times as the Oda, Imagawa, and Matsudaira struggled for ascendancy, his lord had need for a subtle knife that could stab in the dark. End battles before men could even assemble on the field.
Akitate was that knife in his lord’s hand, but on that day, he’d returned to the little house his lord had granted to him in recognition of his worth. To find his pregnant wife dying on the floor, blood running from her lips. Choking on her words as he’d caught her hands and begged her, no, please, don’t go, don’t leave—just breathe. Be strong, don’t go—
But he’d read it in the strain of her body. The glazed fervor of her eyes as she struggled to speak. “Don’t—” her words cut off on a rasping choke. “Don’t t—”
He’d brought death to too many, not to know what it looked like on that beloved face, though he’d tried to deny it. Wept and held her to his chest, begging her just to take one more breath . . . . “I won’t,” Akitate had promised her still form, not knowing what else to say. “I won’t take another wife. I swear it.” There’s only you for me.
There was only a blur in his memory between that moment, and the next that he could recall clearly. Nothing left to him but the intolerable image of smoke from her pyre circling up like incense to the blue sky.
He opened his eyes in the darkness, hoping—fearing, perhaps—that the spirit had gone. Had been driven away at last by forceful words and rejection.
But she remained. Blood dripping now from the corners of her lips to bracket her chin. “Don’t . . . .” A bare whisper of sound, and then gone, though her lips still worked silently.
Akitate shivered in the darkness. “Emiko?” he whispered uncertainly. “Is it really you?”
Or do I just miss you so much, that I’ve conjured you, as you were in your dying moments, for what cold comfort you can bring?
Her urgent gestures conveyed no meaning that he could comprehend. And then, forced by exhaustion, Akitate fell asleep to the sound of her weeping.
As he had every night since she’d died.
He went to his lord the next morning, walking the green path from his small house to the lord’s great manor. He waited, kneeling patiently, in one of the manor’s many chambers, his eyes on the reed mat that protected the floor. Not on the spirit that knelt beside him like a shadow, weeping.
The sound was driving him mad, his vision hazing gray at the edges with exhaustion. Something had to be done. But what?
When his lord arrived to speak with him, Akitate rose and bowed respectfully. “It is good that you’ve left off your mourning,” his lord began after a few pleasantries have been exchanged. “I have tasks in hand that need to be accomplished.”
Tasks. Such a clean word for the deaths of this lord, that samurai.
Sometimes their sons, instead, were the tasks in hand. He hated those memories. Hated himself for what he’d done in his lord’s service. But his service was owed, his loyalty due. And there was no other choice than to be what he was: a sharp knife in his lord’s hand.
Akitate hesitated, putting those thoughts out of his mind. Lowered his eyes to the mats once more, lest his lord be able to read truth in his gaze. The truth of how, on one of his recent missions, he’d allowed a target’s wife to escape, an infant son in her arms.
His lord didn’t know about that. Couldn’t know.
More pertinently, his period of mourning wouldn’t be complete for at least another half year. “Ah,” he murmured. “While I am yours to command, I have come to you this morning to ask your advice and favor.”
He’d never asked for anything before. His small house, Emiko, the coin that had allowed them to live like members of the minor nobility—all had been given to him without him having said a word, or having raised his eyes from the floor.
A pause suggested the lord’s surprise. “My advice? In what matter?”
“A spirit follows me, my lord. It has taken the form of my wife.” At a louder sob, Akitate winced and amended, “Or it could be my wife’s spirit, in truth, unable to leave this mortal realm.” He loathed the thought. “If it is truly her, my lord . . . I am no priest or sage. I cannot send her to her rest, or her next life, whatever awaits us. And if it is a trickster spirit, again, I can do nothing against it. So I must beg for your aid and counsel.”
The pause became so long that Akitate dared to raise his eyes. Caught expressions of concern, distaste, and fear flickering over his lord’s face. “Has this spirit said anything to you?” he asked.
Akitate returned his eyes to the floor. “No, my lord. I cannot hear anything that she says. But she weeps. I have not slept more than a few hours a night since her death, for the spirit’s weeping. In order to serve you, and serve you well, this spirit must be placated somehow.” He raised his hands slightly. “Yet I do not know how this might be done.”
He could see the spirit gesturing, the sleeves of her kosode robe flying with her vigor, but he dared not look. Not directly. But out of the corner of his eye, he could see her pointing at his lord.
After another pause, his lord’s voice became more kindly. “Of course, you must deal with this spirit. I know of a great sage! Hidemitsu is his name—a noted practitioner of onmyōdō. I will tell you where he lives. Go to him. Free yourself from this spirit. And then return to me. Duty awaits us all.”
“Duty awaits us all,” Akitate echoed. “Thank you, my lord.”
But there was some shadow in his lord’s voice that nagged at his mind as he set out on the journey. Some storm brewing in the spirit’s dark eyes that boded ill for his travels. I am a knife in my lord’s hand, he thought tiredly. I bring death where he wills it. What have I to fear?
The journey to the sage was a long one on foot. Nobles and warriors rode past him on the road, splattering him with mud. The spirit, who now wore a fine red tsubo-shozoku, a travel robe, and a wide, round sedge hat with a filmy travel veil that encircled her like a shroud, gestured at the horsemen. At him. In some disapproval.
“You think I should learn to ride.” His remark revived half of an old dispute between them. He didn’t know why he bothered to speak; he couldn’t hear her voice, no matter how he strained.
At her nod, which sent her veils rippling like sails on the wind, Akitate snorted. Nobles had horses, but he’d never quite been able to consider himself sufficiently ennobled to learn to ride. To do more than rub a horse’s soft nose as a groom held it for his lord. “And would I not look right foolish, perched atop some long-suffering beast like a sack of rice? No, I have no right to ride a horse.” He exhaled as they continued up the next hill, his steps flagging, hers tireless and silent. “I didn’t have a right even to marry you.” If it’s really you. Are you an onryō, a vengeful spirit? If it’s vengeance that you desire . . . why have you not already killed me? For surely, it’s my fault that you died. I was gone from you. I couldn’t save you. .. . Except he knew that wasn’t true. He hadn’t betrayed his wife. He hadn’t killed her. She should have no cause to pursue him out of vengeance.
Which made his thoughts spin all over again, wavering between believing that she was the spirit of his wife, or . . . some other kind of spirit. Some kami that had taken her face, her appearance.
And yet, as he spoke, she came to a halt and her arms flailed. Indignation gave her salt-pale face color. If he could have heard her, he imagined she might actually have harangued him for his words. He waited for her storm to pass, and then smiled faintly and replied, “But it’s true. Don’t you remember how awkward it was between us?”
It felt strangely good, to remember. To treat her as if she were real. Even remembering those first days felt better than listening to her weep. Though awkward was perhaps an understatement. He hadn’t met Emiko until the marriage ceremony. He’d simply been told that as a reward for his service, he’d be married to a noblewoman from a clan that served his lord. He wasn’t quite sure what that clan had done to deserve the dishonor of his connection, but he’d resolved to do right by whoever the woman turned out to be.
That she’d been beautiful had been an amazing stroke of luck. One that had left him so tongue-tied when they’d finally been left alone after the ceremony, that he hadn’t even known how to address her, besides my lady. He’d politely kissed her hand, and had gone back outside to inhale the cool air. To linger under the shelter of the steep, thatched roof and wait for her to go to sleep.
But she’d come to him, on soft feet, though he’d heard her coming. Hadn’t jumped at her touch on his arm. “Am I ugly?” she’d asked, in a voice near to tears.
“Oh, no, no, my lady! You’re beautiful! I just—” He swallowed the words, which sounded coarse in his accent. He sounded like a farmer. As his father had been before him. “I just wanted to give you time. To be comfortable.” A gesture at his home. “I know it’s not what you’re used to.” And neither am I.
Her fingers had curled shyly around his forearm. “Perhaps you could show me the house?”
He had. All five rooms—kitchen, dining room, ceremonial chamber, washroom, and the sleeping area, all tightly packed under the attic and that steep-pitched thatch roof. They hadn’t done more than kiss that first night.
He hadn’t been able to call her by her first name for three weeks. But once he had, it had felt sweet and natural and right. Emiko, Emiko, Emiko . . . . “Are you really her?” he asked at the top of the hill. “If you are, why can’t I hear you?” His throat tightened. “Hearing your voice again is all that I want.”
“Don’t,” she whispered, like the rustle of leaves on the wind. “Don’t trust—”
He waited for her to finish, transfixed by the sound of her voice. Aching for more. But while her lips continued to move, Akitate couldn’t hear any more. “Don’t trust?” he demanded, half-angry, half-despairing. “Don’t trust whom? You? This sage I’ve been sent to seek?”
But Emiko covered her face in frustration, and finally seemed to scream in her silence, mouth wide and face distorted.
The sage Hidemitsu lived in a small hut deep in the Sea of Trees near Fuji. Travelers warned Akitate that the forest was haunted and dangerous. A place of suicides and dark thoughts. But he wasn’t sure what difference it would make—he was already haunted, wasn’t he?
Perhaps, he thought as he entered under the twisting branches, this spirit will be drawn to the trees. Perhaps here, she can find peace?
“For all that this is a spirit-haunted place,” he told her softly, “the trees still bring sweetness to the air. I feel refreshed here. As if I’m bathing in the green.”
A flip of her fingers. A downward curl of her lips, as if he were, once again, missing something important.
The longer he’d traveled with her, the more he’d come to accept that this was Emiko. That it wasn’t some trickster spirit that had taken her form. The mannerisms were all too perfectly her. With too many puzzles and mysteries. A trickster, Akitate thought, like charlatans everywhere, would try to answer every question. Would leave nothing to be picked at.
Of course, charlatans were usually easy to root out.
Hidemitsu wasn’t an impressive man, for a practitioner of onmyōdō. He was supposed to know all the secrets of alchemy and immortality. To be able to read secret writings imported from China and other distant places. To be able to command and bind spirits. The pure fact that he lived deep in the Sea of Trees, along the flank of a sacred mountain, gave him a certain aura.
But his hut was small and packed with debris—old bones clattered in the place of chimes at his windows. Dirt tracked in over his floor. The smell of old meals and not enough cleaning. And yet . . . costly incense burned in a jade burner, atop a well-tended shrine in the corner. Scrolls decorated with flowing script and elaborate drawings hung, unfurled, over this table or that.
Hidemitsu, for all that he was small, wizened, and smelled like a monkey, clearly had wealth. Wealth beyond what hermits might usually possess. And no one had come to this house, alone as it stood in the wilderness, to steal jade or incense, scrolls or life.
Akitate didn’t know what to believe. His instincts shouted that the sage was a fraud. A charlatan. One of those usually so easily rooted out. And yet . . . .
“A ghost follows you?” the sage wheezed, looking around, his eyes never actually alighting on where the spirit stood. “And you are a servant of—”
Akitate raised a hand to forestall his lord’s name, and offered the scroll his lord had sent with him. He hadn’t read the letter. To do so would be a terrible offense.
The hermit read the careful calligraphy, his brushy eyebrows working over the words. Akitate silently envied the man the ease with which he read.
“Well!” A piercing glance, a cackle under his breath. “I certainly can send this ghost on to the afterlife for you. No problem at all. After you have done a task for me, of course. That’s only fair, yes?”
Tasks. There were always tasks in hand for one such as him.
Akitate exhaled. This onmyoji sounded like a merchant. Nobles were supposed to give gifts, and those who served them were supposed to reciprocate freely with service and loyalty. Bartering was demeaning. But . . . he was, in the end, the son of a farmer. “What task?” he asked heavily, as his wife’s hands fluttered like moths, and she shook her head vigorously. “I would do anything to hear her voice again, but failing that, I would like to see the pain leave her eyes.” He looked directly at her. “I want you to have peace.”
He could have said, no matter the cost, but the words felt wrong in his mouth. What they’d had wasn’t a matter of coin or bartering. He’d felt bound to her, as loyal to her as to his lord.
Perhaps more so.
Hidemitsu bared teeth stained faintly green. “You must kill someone for me,” he replied with brutal frankness. “There is a tea-master who dwells near Minami-dake. Kahoru. She dares to call herself a sage. Has insulted me many times. I would have her life for her disrespect.”
Blood. Always blood. Blood running from a dying woman’s lips. Blood running from the edge of my knife. Akitate glanced at the spirit, dressed still in her red traveling robes, and replied mildly, “As you wish. But before I go . . . what color does my wife’s spirit wear?”
“White, of course.” Dismissive tone. “The color of death and mourning. Much as you wear yourself, young sir. Now go. Find Kahoru and slay her. Return, and I shall free this spirit.”
He flapped the scroll at Akitate in dismissal. As a farmer’s son and a lord’s chosen assassin, he hadn’t learned to read until Emiko had taught him. She’d started the lessons during those first shining three weeks, during the days before he’d dared to speak her name out loud.
So the calligraphy on the scroll blurred before his eyes, but he did catch one word, neat in its black brushwork: murder.
“On the one hand, he doesn’t see you,” he told his wife’s ghost as they emerged from under the canopy of Aokigahara’s trees. “So I’m not sure he knows what he’s talking about.”
She folded her arms across her chest, a flush of anger turning the salt-white of her cheeks to palest pink.
“On the other hand, you might not exist. I might be quite mad. You could be the manifestation of my guilt at your death, nothing more, and he could be getting good service out of me while humoring the lunatic.”
Her head snapped towards him, anger flickering across her features. Akitate spread his hands placatingly. “Well, what of it if he does?” he asked his wife’s ghost. “Tasks such as these are how I serve my lord.”
Tasks. Always tasks. Doing murder so that your lord’s hands won’t be fouled with the deed. Though you’ve always thought of it as better that you take the risk, than risk the lives of a whole army. That only one man dies at the end of a night’s work, rather than whole villages . . . .
He ducked his head. Breathed deeply. Doubts were something he couldn’t afford more of.
When he raised his head, she was staring at him, her expression brooding. “If he’s genuine,” if, mocked the back of his mind, “carrying out this task for him could free you,” he reasoned, though his doubts continued to curl through him like smoke. “I’d be willing to pay any price for you to be free. Don’t . . . don’t you want this?” A knot of guilt rose in his throat and he continued, ignoring the travelers passing in the road who stared at him for speaking to empty air. “Is it my fault? Because I begged you to stay? Did I tie you here to the mortal world with my words somehow?”
Words had power. He knew that. That’s why the written word had such magic. A spell inked in black brushwork on a scroll. A proclamation declaring a man a traitor. A writ of execution. “You can go if you want to. I’ll. . . be all right. Don’t stay for me. I don’t deserve it.”
This time as the spirit turned towards him, she raised her arms in the air, spreading her veil like wings. A silent scream marred her face, and tears rolled down her cheeks.
Akitate dropped to his knees in the dirt of the road. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I don’t know what to say or do that will help you.” Murder, whispered the back of his mind. The letter spoke of murder.Did your lord tell Hidemitsu that you were his knife, and would do his bidding? Or did the letter hold something else?
When he looked up, she’d fallen still, her head bowed, her hair loose and cascading over her face. “I hope you can forgive me, my lady,” he finally said, rising. “I can only go where the path in front of me leads.”
He wished he could hear her. He wished she would say, But the path leads back, too, my husband. If he strained, he thought he almost could make out the words.
But that could just have been his memories of her, chanting in his tired mind.
So they walked on through the night in silence. And the next. And the next.
The tea-master’s estate’s rose in terraces groomed like a maze all along the steep volcanic hillsides. He could smell the rich scent of young leaves all around him, laced with an acrid tinge of smoke—brimstone from Minami-dake’s peak. The volcano’s smoke hung in the night sky, blotting out some of the stars. Every time Akitate looked up at it, he saw smoke of another sort coiling through his mind—the curling wisps rising from Emiko’s pyre.
And yet Emiko glided beside him, her lips pursed with disapproval, even as fresh tears streaked down her face. “I don’t have to kill her,” he finally whispered, crouching behind one stand of tea bushes. “I could ask her questions. If Hidemitsu finds her a rival . . . she might know more about spirits than he does.”
A sad smile. A gesture that encompassed his stealthy approach.
Akitate sighed. “And on the other hand, if I don’t kill her . . . Hidemitsu is a sage. Perhaps he didn’t see you . . . but he wouldn’t have jade and scrolls and wealth in that little hut if he didn’t have knowledge and power. He has the ear of my lord. Perhaps other lords, too. If I don’t kill this tea-master, this Kahoru . . . Hidemitsu will take it as a betrayal, won’t he? And he will call for my death, in turn.”
She frowned, crossing her arms over her chest and turning away, her chin lifted almost haughtily. Like a masked actor on stage, every gesture writ large to show her disdain. “I have not yet decided how to act,” Akitate whispered, his voice pleading. “I won’t . . . .” I won’t even know what I’m going to do, until I see her face.
Uncertainty gnawed at him, the closer he crept to the long, low house in which his quarry dwelled. Here, bronze futaku bells hung from the branches of every tree and window, chiming and ringing, giving voice to the night wind. With such a constant susurration, his steps should have been shrouded from any ear. He should have been able to duck through the doorway, sword in hand, and take the head of the tea-master from her shoulders, and have been gone again within moments. Even his doubts wouldn’t have slowed him, if he’d been able to come to a decision: Slay her. Or stay his hand.
Instead, as he stepped across the threshold, the bells began to ring in tumult, though the wind blew no harder at his back. And the old woman at the table, her skin gilded by firelight, raised eyes as white as any cloud, murmuring, “Akitate.”
She knew his name. No one could have warned her. No letters had been sent in advance of his arrival, no heralds.
That single word halted him in his steps. “Tea-master,” he replied, and found himself lowering his head in reflexive courtesy. He kept his hand far from his sword, in token of that same courtesy.
“You’re here to kill me.” A pause. “Might I ask the reason why?”
He swallowed. “I have killed many before you.”
“That’s hardly a reason to sneak into my house and slay me. Young people these days. No manners, no respect.” A faint curl of her lips, a ghost of a smile.
“I don’t want to,” he blurted. “You are . . . rich in years.” He lowered his eyes, ashamed. “But the sage Hidemitsu . . . he told me that in killing you. . . .” He glanced over his shoulder, knowing that his words would make no sense to anyone but himself, “lay her freedom.”
Behind him, Emiko raised her dark eyes, no longer weeping.
And behind her?
Half a dozen strangers. Some wearing old-fashioned, rich garments covered in embroidery. Some in rags. One wore a shroud, tight-sewn around him. Akitate gasped, his hand falling to his sword. Useless gesture though it might be.
“And you believed him when he said he could send the ghost away.”
“How did you know—” He couldn’t look away from the apparitions behind Emiko, though his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. Gods. Are there any faces here that I might remember? Are any of them people that I have slain in my lord’s service?
“Oh, I see her. I see all of them. Most people cannot. I find it interesting that you can.” The tea-master inclined her head. “Sit, young man.”
He felt his legs fold up under him, as if his own grandmother had just given him that order.
“Hidemitsu has hated me for decades. He has misled you. Killing me, assuming I permitted you to do so, would do nothing more than set another ghost to dog your steps—this time, my own.” A mirthless smile.
She’d been preparing tea before he even entered, he realized dully as she placed a steaming cup before him on the table. “The ghosts . . . they told you I was coming?”
“Of course they did. Some of them come to me of their own accord. Seeking solace. Wishing to be heard. Others . . . were bad men. I buried them under the roots of my tea plants. And their energies perfume the air here. Turned to something better.” A pause. “Perhaps you belong under the earth with them. The ghost who follows you—was she one of your many victims, of whom you spoke so boastfully, moments ago?”
Akitate felt his life balancing on a knife’s point in that moment, in a way in which it never had before. Not even in straight, clean, honorable combat. Not on any of the nights in which he’d snuck into this manor or that, to take the life of this or that lord.
“No,” he replied, his mouth dry. “She was my wife. She took ill while I traveled in service to my lord. Doing his bidding. Slaying those who threatened his power.” He closed his eyes, feeling the steam wreathe his face. “When I returned home, she was dying.”
“A familiar tale, I’m afraid.” When he opened his eyes again, her cloud-white gaze stared through him, as if the tea-master were dead, herself. Yet her head cocked to the side, as if she were listening. And as she did so, Emiko flitted forward. Threw herself at the tea-master’s feet, and her lips moved, black against her pale features in the dim light. “She says that you haven’t been listening,” Kahoru announced, sounding bored. “Husbands often don’t.”
“I’ve listened!” That was a shout. “I’ve listened, but I can’t hear her—I want to hear her. That, a whisper, as he rocked at the table. “I want to . . . .”
Kahoru lifted a hand. “You can’t hear her, because if you did, you would know. You would have no excuses. You would be required to take action.”
Bewilderment, pure and simple. “How have I not already taken action? Have I not consulted with sages and lords to try to free her from this unending unlife?”
“You miss the point, young man.” The tea-master lifted her cup. Sipped from it meditatively. “If you had come here demanding to expel her from this world, I would have fed you poisoned tea and planted your body in my garden. Harvested your ghost in their leaves, and drunk your spirit, well-muddled, in the fullness of time.”
Her words passed through him like smoke on a cold day, and Akitate shuddered.
“But I will do better for you than any sage. I will do better for her. I will ask you to think, young assassin. You’ve done many services for your master, slaying his enemies. Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why it is that your wife died, in the fullness and blossom of her youth? The child within her was only three moons along, yes? So it was not childbirth that took her life. Nor disease.”
Struck, Akitate turned back to stare at Emiko, who closed her eyes in mute suffering. “Poison,” he concluded, his lips numb. Sudden realization. “My lord’s enemies discovered my name. And poisoned her because they could not get to me.”
The tea-master inclined her head. “It is a theory. Certainly plausible.” A pause. “Or perhaps your lord was displeased with your service.”
His mind froze. “No,” he muttered. “It cannot be. I served—I did everything he asked, no matter how terrible—” Lords. And sometimes the sons of lords . . . . such young faces. But not the child in the cradle. I couldn’t, not with Emiko at home, carrying our child. Swirling, terrible thoughts. Did he know? Did he know that I sent one child away with its mother, bade them flee? A knife is not a knife, if it will not cut . . . .
Kahoru turned her milk-white eyes towards Emiko, whose lips moved. And this time, Akitate could hear her voice, soft and sweet, yet full of despair, even as Kahoru spoke the words with her, her voice aged and cracked, “. . . you had suggested to him that you might like to spend more time at home. With me. With our child.”
“But . . . he arranged our marriage,” Akitate’s head whirled. “He must have expected—”
. . . that a knife would stay a knife forever, sharp and keen and ready in the hand, ever prepared for another task, and another, and another . . . .
Inside his mind, black smoke rose, curling up through a blue sky. Not like incense. But like the black tendrils he’d seen rising from Sakurajima’s peak this morning. Like the sudden rage in his heart, boiling, rising to the surface, seeking a way out of the earth’s heart to lay waste to the countryside.
Emiko’s voice, almost drowned out by his fury, his guilt, still somehow reached him, soft, quiet, and inexorable. “He told me after I’d drunk the tea he’d poured with his own hands, that it was regrettable. But that I’d become an obstacle. That I’d dulled your edge by teaching you to read and filling your head with thoughts of peace and home . . . .”
“No,” Akitate whispered, putting his face in his hands, guilt and shame seething up to cover the rage. Cooling it, just for a moment. “Oh, no . . . .”
“You could not hear her, because if you did, you would be forced to avenge her. To avenge her, you would have to slay your lord. And you are a loyal man.” Distant sympathy in Kahoru’s voice. “What will you do, young one? Will you avenge your wife?”
Akitate raised his eyes, caught. Looked at Emiko, at her eyes so full of suffering. “What do you want me to do, my lady?” he whispered, as he had when they’d first married, so long ago. “If you wish it, my lord is a dead man. My loyalty . .. is to you.”
The words tasted like ashes, and he knew that in the instant he took his lord’s life, his own life would be at an end. He’d become a task for other knives to accomplish.
Some might have called it a small price to pay. But it wasn’t even that for him. It was a duty. His bond. His obligation. And if he did this, perhaps once his own life was ended, he could find her again, and they’d pass together as shades on the wind.
But Emiko shook her head. “Live,” she whispered, the words stirring something in him. “Live! Serve him no more. But live.”
“A good choice,” Kahoru remarked. “What would you do with this new life of yours, young man?”
He stared around him blindly. “I don’t know. I came here to kill you,” he muttered, tears falling from his eyes. “And you’ve granted me wisdom, instead.”
The tea-master flicked a finger against his ear sharply. “Then stay here and learn more, young one. There is far more to you than a knife, if you can see and hear spirits. I would teach you to serve life. Serve the dead. Farm the land here, as your father did—yes, I can see the roots in you, reaching into the ground. I would teach you to question everything. What your lord has told you. What Hidemitsu has told you. What I will tell you.” She nodded towards the ghosts. “Even question what they tell you.”
Akitate nodded, asking hesitantly, “Is the tea before me safe?”
Kahoru laughed. “An excellent beginning. There is, however, only one way to find out. Drink it, and see if you become another ghost in my collection.”
Akitate bowed his head. Drank.