Disclaimer: L5R isn't mine, but Keneng certainly is. When she allows me to make such a claim, of course.
A/N: Falling a little behind, so I decided to try and catch up with a slightly longer chapter. My thesis comes first, obviously, but I do need a creative distraction every now and then.
It was not a swift journey, a sudden arrival at a town like she'd expected. In fact, it took several days, most of it through empty countryside and quiet roads. The bog pony was left to browse untethered each night while the Sparrow set up camp. The Sparrow laid down a tatami for Keneng to rest on while he collected firewood and made dinner. Keneng found herself somewhat at a loss to know how to help at first, but after having her offered assistance refused a few times, she learned just to let the Sparrow potter around on his own. It was her first taste of idleness, and she found she rather enjoyed it.
On one of the evenings, while the Sparrow was stirring the rice, he asked, "Can you read?"
"Yes, of course. Well, a little. Some. A little bit…"
He looked over, a faint sad kind of smile on his face.
Keneng stared at the ground, embarrassed, and was once again glad her mask was in place so he couldn't see the shame pinking her cheeks. "No. No, I can't read."
The Sparrow stirred the rice again. "Then I will have to teach you."
She couldn't help but snort. "What has reading got to do with being able to dance?"
"All art is one," he said, slight admonishment in his tone due to the fact she seemed to have forgotten his previous explanation. She hadn't, and it rankled that he assumed she had.
"That may be the case," Keneng said evenly, "But I fail to see how reading will help me when I am on stage."
He gave the rice another stir, then sat back to hold her gaze. "There is more to the art of the dance than simply getting up on stage. For a beginner such as yourself, the most important of the processes would be a knowledge of history. History of the different styles and forms of the art of dance."
Behind the mask, she pulled a face. She had thought her own self-imposed training regime in the week leading up to her first attempt was harsh, but given how much of a failure she had been that night - a night she was doing very well forgetting even existed - she was willing to admit that maybe a harsher and more thorough training regime was necessary. Still, learning to read? That could take weeks. Months! Years, maybe! It was time she didn't feel she had.
It was annoying to realise that even though she was one step closer, it would still take time before she could be as perfect as she knew she would someday be.
"More importantly, though," the Sparrow continued, "You will need to learn how to breathe."
She shook her head, puzzled and bemused. "Breathing is a natural process. I would think that merely by being alive, I've been a successful student of 'breathing'."
"Forgive me," The Sparrow said, looking a little abashed at having to speak, "But I cannot hear you."
Keneng frowned behind her mask. "What do you mean? You're sitting right in front of me."
He nodded. "Yes, I can hear you from here. But your voice does not carry far through the gap in the mask." He traced a finger in the air in front of his lips, then folded his finger into a fist and closed his eyes for a second, breathing deep, as Keneng aped the gesture. "It... it would be difficult to hear you from the back of the room, or even at the foot of a stage, were you to speak as such."
"So, I should just SPEAK LOUDER?"
The Sparrow laughed, the laughter relaxing his shoulders. "It is not just a matter of volume," he said, rising to his feet, "It is also a matter of consistency. And of maintaining the true nature of the arts."
He took a stance, one foot in front of the other, half-turning away from her though his face was still in her direction. He raised both arms, slowly, a soft, flowing gesture, his hands rippling like leaves on a pond. He closed his eyes for a moment, and breathed deep through his nose. This time, however, he did not just breathe out slowly and silently. This time, he let the breath out in a sigh, an expulsion of air that seemed to drain everything else from him as well. Though his feet were still firmly on the ground, his whole body went limp, as though something inside him was crushed; his face spoke of pain, but it was a sweet melancholy kind of pain. Only his wrists remained where they had been a moment before, his fingertips now flicking slowly skywards.
Keneng watched, spellbound.
The Sparrow stood in that pose a moment longer, then breathed deep again; another sigh, and from his lips came a murmur that Keneng could hear as clearly as though he were whispering in her own ear, and yet knew that it would have been heard on the other side of the clearing in exactly the same manner.
His stance changed, his spine rolling to bring him to stand more upright, his face turning from her to gaze at the sky; one hand followed the motion, while the other swept in a wide, sweeping arc to come and rest at his side.
"And bring men rest..."
He swivelled, raising both hands to chest level. The hand closest to his chest moved outwards, while the other swept itself inwards, rising towards his face.
He half-bowed, and both hands swept down and around behind his head.
"At the moon."
The Sparrow halted, swaying slightly, then took another deep breath. Again, his body shook, trembling like a bamboo stalk in a soft breeze, and his hands and body hung limp. He closed his eyes, and another single shudder coursed through him.
"This technique is called the Breath of Benten."
Keneng realised she herself had not been breathing, and dipped her head to begin to do so again. She wondered why she felt so warm across the back of her neck.
Sparrow broke his pose as he bowed towards her. "If one can master the Breath of Benten, one can be on the way to mastering all the arts. All of them. In a single breath, one can capture the moon, the stars, the sea and the mountain; in a single breath, poetry becomes action, action becomes rhythm, rhythm becomes song."
"All art is one," Keneng murmured, clasping her hands together.
This time, the Sparrow seemed to hear her. "All art is one." He smiled, holding a hand out to her, to help her to his feet. "We will begin your training with the basics. Tonight, I will teach you how to breathe."
Keneng was in awe. She had thought the hub of her village, with its multiple stores and tea-houses and places of rest for pilgrims, was a big town. But it was a child-made model in comparison to Ryoko Owari. This was a city. A bustling city. They were still an hour's ride away and she could already imagine the crowds of people that would call that place home.
The Sparrow looked up at her, and must've been the insecurity and awe in her posture, because he smiled up at her in reassurance. He had, not that long before the city came into view, dismounted from the bog-pony, leaving Keneng to sit in the saddle by herself. She hadn't understood the gesture, but she appreciated not having to walk.
As they neared the city, the Sparrow cleared his throat. "When we reach the gate, I will need to speak to the magistrates. You will need papers to enter the city. But don't worry, I will take care of it, and it shouldn't take too long."
Keneng tilted her head, slightly concerned. "Papers? What kind of papers?"
The Sparrow looked amused, but had the good grace and manners not to tease. "Identification papers. A passport, of sorts, explaining who you are and why you are travelling with me."
"And... they'll just give you these papers?"
"Of course." His smile widened slightly. "No-one ever says no to a Sparrow."
"And why is that?"
He laughed softly. "Because we do have a tendency to wax poetic."
"You mean, you talk a lot."
"Actually, I would argue that our clan's reputation for loquaciousness and tenacity in conversation and debate is well-deserved."
She would have kept the banter going, or even rolled her eyes behind the mask, but already they were near the outskirts. A long line of peasants and outcastes snaked up the road, waiting for the single guard to let them pass. At the rate they were shuffling forward, it would be hours, perhaps even until the end of the day, before anyone of them got even close to being admitted.
The Sparrow ignored the line, walking Takumashii past the queue. Keneng tightened her grip on the bog-pony's saddle, doing her best not to stare at those they passed, and, at the same time, doing her best not to acknowledge the stares she received in return.
The city guard was looking over a slat of wood as the Sparrow approached, but handed it back to the merchant it belonged to. The merchant gave a small resigned sigh, but stepped back to prevent blocking the Sparrow's path. Takumashii bit the air, his teeth making a very noticeable and intimidating 'chomp', and the merchant's mule took an extra step back, just to be safe.
"Good day, Suzume-sama," the guard made a small bow.
The Sparrow bowed in return, and Keneng had to bite her tongue in impatience as he started small talk: the weather, local happenings, questions after different people's whereabouts... Didn't he realise how imperative it was to get into the city and get started on her training? The sooner that she got this learning-to-read business out of the way, the sooner she could become a dancer, one that would be famous throughout Rokugan.
It seemed a blessing when the conversation finally turned to the Sparrow's entrance into the city. "It is a perfect day for you to have come to Ryoko Owari, Suzume-sama."
"Yes, for myself, and this young woman."
"I'm his student," Keneng said.
The guard ignored her completely, as though she hadn't spoken at all. He stamped a single piece of paper with a red-inked chop and held it out. "Then I welcome you, and wish you a pleasant stay." The guard bowed respectfully, the Sparrow matched the bow as he accepted the paper, and Takumashii lead the way through the city gates.
Keneng said nothing, but there was a bitter lump caught in her throat. The Sparrow glanced up at her, and saw her expression through her clenched fists and tensed shoulders.
"The theatre of the Golden Pheasant is wonderful," he spoke calmly, soothingly. "I have performed there myself many times. The owner himself is a friend of mine, and would be more than happy to allow us to train there."
"He ignored me!" Keneng hissed through the slit in her mask, the sound giving the words more vehemence and anger than she'd anticipated. "I spoke, and that guard pretended he didn't even hear me! That I didn't exist!"
The Sparrow lifted a hand towards her, as though to console her with a brief touch, but the jostling of the crowd prevented him. "And I apologise. The height of the bamboo may increase with each day, but the flowers of the cherry blossom are seen for only a season."
Keneng shook her head, confused as well as unappeased by his words. "It's because I'm an eta, isn't it?"
"Do not refer to yourself like that," the Sparrow said firmly. "He was mistaken. He couldn't have known who you are, or who you will soon become. Forget about him."
But she couldn't forget. The shame of her first time on stage was nearly identical with this, the shame of being ignored, overlooked, dismissed. The indignity and hurt burned into her, a small fire-seed right at her very core.
I am not an eta, she told herself, clenching her jaw. I am not.
The theatre was beautiful, bigger than how she'd imagined. But it was the smell of the building that really gave proof that this was no dream. It smelled of torches and incense, silk and makeup and perfume, and something else she couldn't identify, something that seemed to whisper 'look at me, let me be seen'. And she loved it. There was a performance on when they finally arrived, and the Sparrow was more than happy to view the show with her, leaving Takumashii with a nervous stablehand.
The performance was impeccable. It was a familiar story, of a samurai hero and the way he was torn between his duty and his love for a poor but virtuous woman. Keneng drank everything in; not just the story, but the costumes, the speeches, the poses, the dances, the props, the backdrops, the way the actors held themselves, and how everything fit together in utter perfection. It seemed to end all too soon, and yet everything lived on in vivid colour and sound in her memory.
Her dreams expanded, taking a new scope, and she saw herself in the spotlight, dressed in the many-layered regal kimono of the princess, the elegant yet simple robe of the priestess, the simple garb of the virtuous woman, and the glamour and otherworldly attire of the Fortune. All around her wove the clouds of that incense: the addictive scent of fame. It was then that Keneng knew she wasn't just going to be a dancer. No, she was going to be an actress.
The Sparrow gave her an amused look, after she'd expressed this desire to him, when the audience was leaving. "An actress?"
She nodded emphatically. "Dui."
He smiled again. "But there are no women in the theatre, Keneng. Only onnagata."
"Then I will be not only the first female actor, but also the greatest."
He chuckled, and would have replied, but a voice called his name, and he excused himself to go over and speak to a man whom Keneng assumed was an old friend. She remained seated on the cushion, staring at the empty stage, filling the sight of it with her fantasies.
How many people in the city would come and see these shows? Hundreds; thousands. Among them, perhaps a Crane in disguise, seeking quietude and simplicity. And here, he would sit and watch, and be in awe as this young and beautiful masked woman crossed the stage. He would fall instantly, charmed by both her exotic air of mystery and her rustic humility, and thus would begin a whirlwind of passion, a romance which would be written about for years to come, and performed and sung about for generations afterwards as a story in its own right...
Keneng was jolted out of her reverie by the sound of a woodwind. Her eyes flicked from the stage, and saw the musicians who had been performing during the play. The shakuhachi player was practicing, a small part of the song he had played during the performance, and his eyes met hers over the distance.
She had found while working in the tavern of her hometown that a simple smile or a bold wink across a crowded room could cause even the most dignified of bushi to lose their composure. But this was the first time anyone had ever practiced such a gesture on her.
Keneng felt a soft giggle build in her throat, and ducked her head to try and hide the blush that bloomed behind the mask, forgetting that it wasn't necessary to do so. The shakuhachi player grinned, and made a small bow in her direction, before resuming his practice.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that the musician wasn't taking his eyes off her. Even as Keneng followed the Sparrow out of the room, the shakuhachi player still found a way to keep his gaze on her, and give one last wink before the door slid shut between them.