WHAT SHIGEKO SAID
Shigeko rose from the ground at the sight of the old man, her face instinctively breaking into a beaming smile.
It had been many months since Kenji had visited Hagi, his worsening health making it tougher for him to travel.
For Shigeko, the harsh truth that her dear old grandfather was reaching the end of his days was one she could not accept. The book she had been reading cascaded to the grass with a soft thud, it's wisdom forgotten for now. Shigeko broke into a run,
Kenji's arms barely with the time to open before she'd locked him into a tight embrace.
"Grandpa!" she squealed, heart filled with joy.
"Hello, dear 'Geko, why you look wonderful child."
Shigeko glowed as she stood straight, sweeping into an elegant curtsey, eyes wide, awaiting approval.
"Oh... thank you," stuttered Kenji, rather taken aback.
"I've been practising! A lady in the city showed me how. It's good manners!"
Kenji couldn't help but marvel. It had not yet been a year since he'd last seen his favourite girl and in that time she barely seemed to be much of a girl at all any more. Were it not for her child-like energy and lack of grace, from a distance, she would easily pass as a young woman.
"My dear, you need curtsey to no-one, least of all me!"
"Are you here to see father?"
"I'm here to see you!"
"Liar! You're always here to see father."
"No, I'm genuinely here to see you. I've brought you something."
For as long as Shigeko could remember, Kenji had had the amazing ability to produce things out of seemingly mid-air. Many times she'd asked him how he did it, to which he always used to whisper "Magick." He was lying of course, he always lied but this didn't deter Shigeko. She'd made a promise as a young girl that she would find out how he did it one day. She'd never been able to and Kenji always used to laugh and tell her to keep trying. A few years back, Kenji had produced, out of nothing, a wonderment of gift to her: a magnificent wooden carving of a white stallion, which Shigeko had had next to her bed ever since. Some nights she would swear she could hear the carving grunt as she fell asleep but could never remember the following morning.
This first time he'd brought her a carving, her father had also been present in the room and had chucked at her amazement as he did it. Some months ago, Shigeko had challenged her father about how grandpa always managed to do his tricks but father had said he didn't know. She didn't believe him any more than she did Kenji.
All this crossed her mind now as
Kenji suddenly held out a beautiful brown chestnut in his hand
causing the second automatic yelp of glee in as many minutes. Shigeko grabbed the mare, kissing her grandpa and caressing the carving in her fingers. It wouldn't be until some time later that Shigeko would remark upon the fact that this was the first time she'd had to lower herself down to reach his cheek.
"You made me a brown one!"
"Well that was the only one you were missing, I believe, so I took special time with this one."
"It's beautiful, thank you."
Kenji nodded, again a little taken aback by her new-found elegance.
It is, perhaps, the most trying and yet wonderful time, in a child's upbringing, the period when they begin to enter adolescence, for both them and their loved ones.
For Shigeko, here she stood, a girl, but three weeks into her twelfth year, her body leagues ahead of her mind maturing. For Takeo and Kaede, watching their 1st living child take the first steps of development into the individual she will become will be a heart-warming, proud time, as they see her take on the name of the lady who will, one-day, command it all.
However, no amount of pride held in between the blades of the earth could replace the feeling of loss they will experience when it dawns on them their baby girl doesn't need Mama and Papa to live any more. The conflict of a parent: the selfish need to be everything for your child, against the selfless wish to watch her as she stands alone, hair billowing out behind her, in the wind.
The emotional trials of her parents that lay ahead were, of course, oblivious to Shigeko as she absorbed all the details of her new mare.
"The fourth horse to mark the fourth year before the coming of age," mused Kenji, casting a thoughtful eye down upon the transitional girl, "the day of spring break next year, you must begin to study the arts and crafts that will make you into your father's heir- the heir to the throne of the three countries."
A small smile attempts to break through but is held by the anxious fear of a girl not ready to grow up. Shigeko says nothing, rather, again, loses herself in the deep eyes and wavy tail of her latest prize.
"Kiyo," she suddenly blurts aloud, "her name is Kiyo."
Kenji smiles, "of course it is 'Geko."
Shigeko lowers herself back to the ground, placing Kiyo next to her, "mama's inside, if you wish to see her."
"I will. It was lovely to see you kid, I'll make sure I say goodbye."
Shigeko nods and picks up her book
as Kenji headed towards the veranda he couldn't help but feel as if he'd shattered something inside her
lost as she was, hair now dappled around her eyes.
She was on page fifty-three.
Kenji swept inside the majestic house, soaking in the Nightingale's tune. Some odd times ago, he had tried to will the floor remain silent with his toes but had long since given up trying to silence her swirling tones. He'd even once asked Takeo for the secret on how to do it. Takeo had said he didn't know.
A few best wishes and customary greetings to the staff later, Kenji glanced upon a touching scene. Preparing to knock upon a partially open door, Kenji spied, inside, Lady Kaede, knelt on the ground next to a cot, a soundly sleeping twin girl laid inside of it, the other, very much awake, draped over her shoulder. It was she, the waken twin, who spotted him first. Still fairly unsure of who he was, the girl, rather than smile or greet him, meekly tapped his mother on the shoulder, before pointing a chubby finger straight at his face.
Kaede turned, lifting the girl into her arms from the ground, her divine gown flowing around with her as she saw him. Eyebrows rose, lips parted as she saw who it was, a slightly too delayed reaction before she broke into a smile most remarkably like Shigeko's. She placed the girl on the ground.
"Miki, why don't you go find your father? And see if he wants some tea."
Miki simply nodded, turning on heel and bolting from the room.
but she was gone.
"-run?" suggested Kenji.
Kaede sighed, "it's Takeo's fault. He seems to feel they should be allowed to run unchecked around the house."
"I'm not so sure he has the wrong idea." Kenji allowed himself a chuckle.
"I presume you're here to see him?"
"I am. Although I fibbed a bit to Shigeko about that. I brought her the brown mare."
"You shouldn't have," Kaede scolded, "it's time she grew out of such things."
"I'm afraid she's scared to. I believe she knows all too well the real meanings of my visits," Kenji paused, "the life she has yet to come."
"How could she?" Kaede demanded, eyes suddenly concerned, "we have made sure she's been away from such... discussions."
"Don't underestimate her Kaede, she's every bit the woman you grew up to be inside; resourceful and as bright as they come."
Kaede considered this
it was in fact the first moment Kaede would find herself truly divided with regards to her daughter.
"What is this about, Kenji? It would be nice if you would bring some good news for once only."
"I understand why my visits are not warmly received. I'm afraid it's not the best news. Akio is moving in the west."
The slightest colour drained from Kaede's face. "Moving where?"
Kaede said nothing.
She didn't need to either, as rapidly approaching footsteps were heard coming up the stairs. A moment later, Miki came bounding back in.
Kaede didn't even have the strength to scold her.
"Father is up at the castle mama, he was called a bit ago."
"Thank you Miki, now go and rest."
Miki, understanding the command, dutifully trotted off.
"I must head up to see him now," Kenji began, hesitantly, "will you be joining us?"
"No." Kaede's declaration was sudden and definitive. "Discuss with him what you must, I will talk with him later."
Kenji nodded, eyes downcast. "Apologies, my lady." Kenji placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder as he paced out of the room.
Kaede breathed in deeply before lowering herself back down next to Maya's cot on the floor.
Takeo's chin rested on his thumbs, fingers inter-locked as he considered Kenji's words.
Kenji sat across from him on the floor, observing the micro-signals that crossed the brow of the Three Countries reigning ruler. Kenji saw anger, concern, due consideration, a depth of focus unlike most ever seen across the eyes of Otori Takeo. Most prominently though, Kenji saw regret.
"The timing of this can't be co-incidental. It's no mistake they're mobilising on the verge of Shigeko's coming of age."
"I thought we covered that by bringing it forward," Takeo's following groan was quite the aberration, "how do they know Kenji? This kind of leak can only have come from the Muto."
"I fear you are right. There have always been those who resented my decision to side with you."
"Deal with it Kenji. It is your responsibility to quash any such insurrection, if you had acted sooner in what I asked you to do this wouldn't be a problem!"
"You asked murder of me, Takeo. I have done a lot for you I didn't want to-"
"You have done a lot to me as well."
"-but I will not execute members of my own clan," Kenji halted, "not any more."
Takeo's eyes hardened. "You're too soft Kenji. The approach of your own death has strayed your hand, not to mention your mind."
"It was you who vowed to end such brutality Lord Otori," Kenji chided, "lest you not forget that it wasn't me who walked alone into a Kikuta village with the sole intention of murdering Kikuta Akio."
Takeo's eyes turned down.
"It wasn't me who had him at the tip of my sword, only to walk away," Kenji saw guilt.
"Jato... rejected him," Takeo's protest was weak, and he knew it.
"Jato cannot reject anyone," Kenji paused, making a choice, "tell me, Lord Otori, was there anyone in that village aside from Akio who made it out alive?"
Takeo said nothing.
"That inferno's flames spread farther than even you know," a moment, "they burn still."
"Yes, I made a mistake, you did too, the moment you refused to do what had to be done," Takeo's voice broke, "if they target Shigeko..."
"They will target Shigeko. Their grudge no longer dies with you. They know she's the reason you went to the village that night."
Takeo listened. His hearing was beginning to falter, he could no longer reach the bridge, yet still, loud and clear against the chatter, he could hear the turning of the pages of the book she held.
She was on page sixty-one.
"If Shigeko falls-"
"She will not fall!" Takeo hissed, venom infused in every word.
Kenji held up his hand, "apologies Takeo but it needs to be said. If she falls, the line will be broken. With Akio in possession of your son we cannot be sure how much time you have left. Shigeko needed the time to learn. When you fall, she will need to able to galvanise the support of the Emperor. If she falls before you do, all that you have built here will be lost."
Takeo snarled, "she must begin her studies now."
"I'm afraid it's too soon. Exposing her to the crafts of diplomacy, law, not to mention the Kikuta... you run the risk of her being swayed towards the need to protect you," Kenji considered his words, "her heart still lies with the heron."
Takeo stood abruptly. "I've brought enough misery upon her. I will not allow her to suffer by my hands any more." Takeo began to move away, towards the ante-chamber.
Kenji's brow was furrowed as he watched Takeo go, "Kaede will resent you for a long time. She may never forgive you."
Takeo stopped, staring at the wall with eyes that saw not one stone, "She was never going to forgive me either way."
Takeo knelt the floor, his thoughts already amongst the prayer he was saying to the Enlightened One.
Shigeko's eyes blurred without warning, dark spots suddenly dropping onto the book in her hands, the ink becoming immediately loose, words smudged.
Those words would soon be lost for ever.
Shigeko's hand instinctively clutched the brown chestnut in her hand.
This brown chestnut would be the only one who would never grunt to her in that infinite moment between sleep and wake.
Shigeko shook her head, slamming the book closed, before running off into the house.
She would never open that book again.
She had been on page 67.