By Kimberly T. (e-mail: kimbertow at yahoo dot com)
Author's first batch of notes to readers: This is the companion/continuation story to "Vinnie's Luck", but it actually begins at the end of the episode Bushido, which is an absolute must-see before reading this story.
The references to multiple gods (also known as kami) and revered ancestors are because the gargoyles of Ishimura, having adopted so many of the customs of their human friends, practice a loose mixture of Shintoism, Taoism and Buddhism along with Bushido, just as most modern Japanese do. (The biggest difference is that they pay just as much or more attention to the dragon-gods of their pantheon as to the human-resembling gods). Read my "Getting Biblical" for an explanation of the hatchling-gakusei-adult social cycle practiced by the Ishimura clan.
Please assume that virtually all the language in this story was translated from the Japanese, including a lot of idioms that are blatantly American-sounding; contrary to popular gaijin belief, Japanese isn't always a formal language, and they have idioms, slang and cuss words just like we do. But there are many Japanese words and phrases that were put in for flavoring, and are usually in italics; those that aren't adequately explained by the surrounding text will be defined/translated at the end of the story. My translations and explanations for names of the Ishimura clan gargoyles will also be given there.
For more thorough physical descriptions of the key gargoyle characters in this story, read my "Picture This: Ishimuran Character Descriptions".
And finally, many thanks to Denis "Malkavien" de Plaen, for his help in choreographing a totally kick-ass martial arts fight scene between fighters with wings and tails!
"This way! Grab a hatchling or watchbeast if you're not holding a wounded comrade; isogi, isogi!" Kai commanded, gesturing urgently at the opening in the dome that Constable Hiroshi and Maza Elisa had told them about less than two minutes ago. His clan stampeded out through the opening with wounded comrades, watchbeasts and their fifteen precious hatchlings in their arms, and Kai once more thanked the gods that his mate and the other rookery keepers had kept the hatchlings safe inside the ersatz rookery Taro had created for them ("With a disguised window built into one wall, for viewing them like monkeys in a zoo! The very nerve of that stinking, piss-swilling hiretsukan," as one rookery keeper had snarled for everyone to hear), when the fighting had started. They had four wounded gargoyles already, from dealing with Taro's weapons; if one of their brave but foolhardy hatchlings had tried to be a warrior as well… Kai repressed a shudder, and gestured all the more urgently towards the exit as he counted heads to make sure all of his clan was accounted for.
The three foreign gargoyles, Goliath, Angela and Bronx, came up to him as the last of the clan was leaving. "Is everyone accounted for?" Goliath asked him anxiously.
"All except for Yama! Go!" as Kai gestured them to follow the others out of the opening. Everyone outside was hurriedly scrambling up the sides of the dome or leaping off the ruined car that Hiroshi and Elisa had smashed into the dome, doing whatever they had to, to gain altitude enough for gliding. Over two dozen of them were burdened with hatchlings, watchbeasts and wounded comrades in their arms, and a few of the clan elders were really too old to go swiftly anymore, but fear of discovery and being caught away from the safety of the temple at sunrise gave everyone extra strength and speed, and by the time Kai went out himself they were all in the air and headed for home. He spotted the unfamiliar silhouettes among them, and knew Goliath and his two gargoyles were among the group as well.
One gargoyle was lingering behind, the light of near-dawn reflecting off his pale orange hide and his massive set of horns; Taiju, his second-in-command. Always a gargoyle of few words, when Kai came out he asked only, "Yama?"
"He said he'll be along, and I'll wait for him. Go with the others! Any who don't reach the temple before dawn must hide in a field; no posing, they must lie as low as mown grass! Go!" as Kai scaled the side of the dome and sprang into the air. Taiju briefly dipped his wings as a gesture of respect, then soared off after the others. Kai circled a few times to gain altitude, then spotted a suitable rooftop, probably a maintenance shed for the dome's water supply or something similar. The forced opening in the dome would be visible from that vantage point, but it would not be seen by the media cars still out in front of the dome. Kai settled onto the roof of the shed, and grimly perched to wait for Yama.
After he'd finished pinning the unconscious Taro into the arms of his own robotic gargoyle statue, Yama scrambled for the same opening that the others had went through. Behind him, Constable Fukuda Hiroshi and the American Maza Elisa were busy deciding on what outlandish lies they would tell the media, to make everything Taro might tell them seem like the words of a madman or utter fool. Yama silently wished them both well, particularly Hiroshi, who was expecting his first grandchild in a few months. Yama had a moment's brief regret that he would never see the child; he dearly loved children…
The way of Bushido, the warrior's code of honor, covers nearly every aspect of life, including death. A human samurai or daimyo or gargoyle warrior who felt his honor had been irredeemably stained could regain it by committing seppuku: the honorable suicide.
A great formal ceremony had evolved for seppuku over the centuries of practicing Bushido; the most well-known version was hara-kiri, practiced by both humans and gargoyles. The warrior, samurai or lord who was to commit seppuku would kneel upon a tatami (if the ceremony was held indoors, as was common for humans) or upon a smoothed bed of gravel (for outdoors, the way it was always done for gargoyles), wearing robes of purest white, and be given an unlacquered wooden tray holding paper, a pen and inkwell, a cup of sake, and a few bites of food. The warrior would quietly compose a short death poem, usually commenting on his current state of mind or why he had chosen this path back to honor, while drinking the sake and eating the food. Once he was finished, that tray would be taken away for burning later, and a second tray was presented , holding only a bare, unhandled blade and a short stack of washi paper. At the same time, the person's kaishaku (ritual assistant, also called the second; usually a close friend of the warrior involved) would silently come up to stand behind and to the left of the one to commit seppuku, with his katana raised and ready. The warrior would wrap one end of the bare blade in the washi paper to make a handle, and then calmly, unflinchingly use it to disembowel himself, slashing deep and spilling his guts out onto the ground. At this point, to make the death swifter and less agonizing, the kaishaku would then take a mighty swing with his katana and cut his friend's head off.
The gargoyles also had a second way of committing honorable suicide; a simpler way, with no kaishaku needed. The gargoyle who felt there was no other way to redeem his honor would don the white robes and take flight shortly before sunrise, and soar to the greatest height he could reach either over the fields that surrounded the village, or over the sea nearby. When the sun rose over the horizon, he would turn to stone in midair, and fall to either an immediate death of being shattered on the hard earth below or to a delayed death, falling into the sea, where he would sink to the bottom and presumably drown upon awakening the next sunset.
When Yama leaped off the side of the dome and saw Kai waiting for him on that rooftop, he quickly but agonizingly reviewed his options in his mind, and knew only one path lay before him. After his betrayal, he doubted he could even find a kaishaku among the clan, for surely it had cost him the affections of all those he held dear. That left the solely gargoyle way… He was not wearing the proper white robes, and he had composed no death poem, but he felt he could not face the rest of the clan long enough to do either. And seppuku did allow the warrior to dispense with much of the ritual when there was a great reason for haste, such as committing it in the heat of battle; death was always preferred to dishonorable capture or surrender. Sunrise was less than twenty minutes away now; he might not make it far enough out to sea in time. He would have to find a clear, unused field, so no human dwellings or crops would be destroyed by his shattering form… He dipped briefly in flight, to acknowledge his clan leader, then began to veer away and upwards, to find the field he would die in.
But Kai, still standing on the rooftop, gestured with great sweeping movements of arms and wings that he could not ignore, giving the clan's signal for Ground Yourself NOW!
The instinct to obey his leader was too strong; he changed course, and landed below Kai on the edge of the roof. He immediately fell to his knees, and bent forward to press his forehead and horns against the rooftop, saying humbly, "Leader, permit this most unworthy one to take the gargoyle way back to honor. There is a fallow field nearby…"
But Kai said harshly, "No! I forbid it!"
Startled, Yama raised his eyes to Kai, unbelieving what he had heard. "I have lost my honor, and endangered the clan and our village with my actions!" he protested, even as a tiny part of him realized the absurdity of arguing with his leader about his own suicide. "There is no other way to atone for such betrayal!"
"Then we will find another way," Kai said grimly. "But gargoyles are far too few in the world now, for me to allow even one to die if there is any way at all to avoid it!"
They returned to the village together, mere moments before dawn, and barely had time enough to settle onto the walls and strike poses before the sun sent them to sleep. Upon awakening at sunset, they learned that Goliath and Angela had chosen to land on their boat instead of the temple walls before turning to stone, and their human companion Elisa had already left with them aboard. Kai nodded curtly at the news, then ordered a gathering of all the clan, inside the temple grounds.
One hour later the full moon shone down upon Yama as he knelt alone in the temple courtyard, with all the clan ringed around him, and all the village's humans as well. Kai stood before him grimly, dressed in his formal kimono and bearing the great no-dachi sword that marked him as the clan's leader. Kai addressed the clan, reiterating in ringing tones for all to hear that even though Yama had requested permission to perform seppuku, he would not permit it. "I will not allow even one dishonored gargoyle to die, if there is any other path to regaining his honor!" Then he addressed Yama directly, saying in slightly more gentle tones, "The path to honor that you must take will be harsh and difficult, Yama-san, with ill winds against you… But you will take it."
Yama prostrated himself before his leader and the clan, saying in a bare whisper, "As you command, Kai-sama."
Kai nodded, and breathed deeply before continuing. "And your path begins… with banishment." Gasps and hisses rose up from the otherwise silent crowd around them as he continued, speaking louder, "For three full moons, you are banished from this clan and this village! During that time, you will speak to no human or gargoyle, avoiding contact with all the village and with all strangers. Further, you are ground-bound! You will not glide in your banishment, but walk the earth everywhere you go. After the third full moon has passed, you will return to this temple to rejoin the clan."
Some of the humans in the crowd around them must have thought his punishment was too easy, judging by a few of the bemused whispers that reached Yama's ears. But several of the gargoyles were absolutely and audibly horrified: banishment from the clan, for three times longer than anyone had ever been banished before, without it being permanent!
Permanent banishment was the harshest punishment a gargoyle could think of, even worse than death. It was well documented in their history that the fragments and death-gravel of the banished were usually found within a few nights of their banishment; even the most hardened criminal gargoyle would choose to die immediately by one means or another rather than spend the rest of a long and miserable life alone and clanless. But no one had been permanently banished in over eight hundred years; temporary banishment, for periods ranging from four nights to a full moon's cycle, was usually done instead. Such banishment would give the clan time to recover from whatever crime had provoked the banishment, while the banished ones learned in the most painful fashion just how much they needed the rest of the clan to survive, and how important it was to obey the rules and keep the peace. But being cut off from all the clan for even one moon's cycle could unhinge the minds of gargoyles; some of those who returned to the clan after such banishment were forever unbalanced, given to babbling incessantly and clinging desperately to others as if afraid they would vanish like ghosts the moment they stopped talking and touching those around them. And a few had not survived even a month of being outcast, dying not just from hunger but from sheer loneliness. A quick and clean death by seppuku was preferable to such a fate! And Yama was being sentenced to three full moons of loneliness, and flightlessness…
A sudden whisper of motion off to Yama's left, and a flash of rose-pink skin in the corner of his eye; still prostrate, he dared to just slightly roll his head to one side, enough to glimpse Sora, his mate, stepping into the clearing to kneel and give obeisance to Kai. "Kai-sama," her voice quavered up from where her face pressed into the gravel, forcing each word out as if speaking them caused her incredible pain, "I beg you to command this mate to the dishonored one to be banished and bound as well."
For a long moment Kai was silent, as Yama's heart convulsed. Sora loved him so much, she was willing to forgo the rest of the clan in order to ease the pain of his banishment! He had never before realized just how deep her love ran in her veins, though he knew well the bond existed, for theirs was not a mere mating of convenience for breeding eggs; otherwise she would not have chosen him, hatched from the rookery generation before her. Most gargoyles chose their mates from the same generation as they had hatched in, but he and Sora were the rare exception. Their mating was not exactly frowned upon, but it had raised plenty of brow ridges, particularly since there were still some unmated gargoyles in her own generation to choose from. Part of Yama wanted to refuse her company, knowing that even with him to talk to and ease loneliness, she would dreadfully miss the joy of gliding for three full moons, and he hated to see her distressed in any way… But the rest of him was too pathetically grateful for the prospect of company during banishment, especially that of the one he loved most in all the world, to speak up.
Then Kai spoke, asking sternly, "Speak in utter honesty now, Sora-san: did you know of what Yama was planning with Taro?"
In the utter silence following his question, the sound of Sora swallowing hard could be heard by all. "…No, my leader. I often saw the two go off alone to speak, but I did not know why, and I did not ask," she admitted painfully. "I… I had thought, I had hoped, that Taro was simply sharing tales of his work and business with Yama, to give him more glimpses of the world outside…"
"If you did not share in his actions then, you will not share in them now. Yama is banished; you are not to follow him." Kai's voice softened as he added, "But take heart, for he will return to the clan… and to you, most loyal, honorable and worthy of mates… in three full moons."
After a moment of silence in which Yama's heart broke nearly in two, Sora whispered with her face still pressed to the gravel, "As you command, Kai-sama." She slowly rose to her feet and backed away, out of Yama's severely limited view and back into the surrounding circle.
Then Kai gave the signal, and his second-in-command stepped forward with a long and wide silken sash as black as tar, slightly longer and wider than the traditional obi that bound a formal kimono. Yama tensed slightly in anticipation, but remained where he was until Kai commanded him to present for binding. He slowly rose to hands and knees, and remained there as the second-in-command draped the obi over his torso and wings, passed the ends under and around him and then tied them together, making the tie in the back where Yama could not easily reach it himself. The obi was of a very durable weave of silk, but still one that he could easily shred with his claws if he chose… But it went without saying that he must present the same obi, still tied in the same fashion, to the entire clan at the end of his banishment, to show his leader that he had honorably obeyed all his commands, and remained ground-bound. Yama winced slightly as the second pulled the obi painfully tight before tying a complicated knot, and wondered if, after three full months of not being able to use or even flex his wings, they would still work when he returned.
When the binding was finished, Taiju stepped back, and Kai nodded once before commanding, "The banishment begins… Now."
He gestured sharply off to Yama's right, and the crowd on that side immediately cleared a path for him. Yama slowly rose to his feet, and without another word, with bowed head and tail dragging in the dirt, walked out of the circle. Even as he felt the dreaded weight of banishment settling firmly on his shoulders, a tiny, bitter part of him whispered resentfully that Kai could have just as easily gestured in the other direction, so Yama would have at least had one last glimpse of his beloved mate as he was banished. But then he would have seen the heartbreak in her eyes, knowing that he was the cause of her pain. Perhaps Kai was being merciful after all.
One week later…
At sunset, Hiroshi stood in the courtyard with the clan's two human students of Bushido, Maseo and Mikiko, and the other caretakers of the clan. The students were cheerful and excited, anticipating their teachers' awakening; they were young enough that to them each awakening was a moment of excitement, with furtive bets between them as to which gargoyle would shed its stone skin the fastest. Hiroshi and the other caretakers, on the other hand, were tense with suppressed outrage over what had been discovered, earlier that day…
When the sun finished its journey below the horizon and the gargoyles awoke (and the gakusei Kenun was first to burst out of his old stone skin, to Mikiko's glee and Maseo's chagrin), many of them noticed the tension immediately, and soon after they had completed the evening greeting ritual Kai leaped down from his perch and landed next to Hiroshi. "Hiroshi-san, what has gone wrong now?" he asked, so blunt as to be almost rude. "Is it Taro again, or Yama?"
Perched next to the spot Kai had just leaped down from, a golden-yellow gargess with glider -style wings and a long plaited black mane, dressed in a leaf-green yukata that accentuated the curves of her slender yet willowy frame, gave a subtle but unhappy frown. Sakaki, Kai's mate for over three decades, was worried about her mate and leader. It wasn't like Kai to be so blunt… But for the last week, Kai had been short-tempered and harsher than normal in his dealings with others. So much so that Sakaki had taken to invoking mate's privilege and roosting next to him instead of keeping to her usual place in the rookery with the hatchlings, now that she was First Rookery Keeper. But while her presence and her eternal calm humor had an ameliorating effect on him, even she had not been able to fully heal the pain in his heart; not while he still refused to open up to her in private.
Of course, they hadn't had much opportunity for privacy recently, not while the clan was still in an uproar over the entire incident. The wounded warriors had recovered in body, laser burns and bullet holes healed by the next sunset, but the clan's spirit was another matter. The dome battle had unsettled everyone badly; the gargoyles realized that they had no training in how to deal with such modern weaponry as lasers, and the thought of being so vulnerable to such an attack on the village, if Taro chose to attack them on their own ground, had everyone running scared.
The warriors and their gakusei apprentices had been clamoring for nights about obtaining lasers and heavy artillery for the clan's armory, or at least learning how to successfully defend against and quickly disable such devices if they were ever turned on them again. Hiroshi had gone to Tokyo for a few days, to learn what he could of Taro's future plans and if they involved further menace to the clan, and while he had been gone his assistants at the constabulary had been less than completely helpful in assisting the warriors in their quest for this new knowledge and weaponry. Their protests of "These things are illegal!" were perfectly valid, but when a gargoyle warrior is seriously concerned about protecting his/her home, concerns about human legality tend to be tossed overboard. (And the hatchlings had added to the uproar; may the gods help them all, they had been clamoring to go back to the dome, to bring back the new toys Taro had put in the ersatz rookery for them to play with…)
Hiroshi had returned the night before, but he had not come to see Kai or the clan then and Kai had been too busy dealing with the clan disputes to seek him out. Or at least, he had appeared to be too busy… But after having been his mate for over three decades, Sakaki knew Kai well enough to know when he was deliberately making himself too busy to deal with a difficult subject. A subject such as Yama…
Sakaki noticed her buttercup-golden talons were running nervously down the long braided queue she kept her mane in, and she forced herself to flip the queue back to between her wings and perch in perfect stillness. That was one of her nervous habits, a sure sign that Kai's behavior was making her seriously worried. It wasn't like her great-hearted mate, the solid rock upon which the clan rested the mantle of leadership in utter confidence, to continue in this fashion, avoiding the subject of Yama with her, avoiding even her… She made an instant decision. Tonight, once Hiroshi had said whatever he wanted to tell them, even if it was to announce that the moon was going to crash to the earth in the next week, Sakaki would find some excuse to drag Kai off to a private trysting place. Then she would rip his clothes off, mate with him until he was utterly exhausted and then pin him down until he talked to her, even if it took till dawn.
She blinked, realizing to her chagrin that while she'd been thinking back over the past week and making her decision, Hiroshi had gestured for Kai to follow him off the temple grounds. Sakaki hurried down to the rookery, but instead of settling in amongst her charges she told her best apprentice Sugi that she would not be in the rookery at all that night. Then she hurried back out without even waiting for a response, climbing a wall and catching the first breeze that offered itself in order to hurry after Kai.
As she had thought, Kai was going with Hiroshi to the constabulary, and as they walked Hiroshi was informing Kai of what he had learned in Tokyo. Just barely shifting her wings and keeping her body as still as possible to glide in near-perfect silence, she soared overhead in time to hear Hiroshi say, "…is already dying down. From what records I could access, his company has been badly crippled by the drop in stock prices, but they are already beginning to rise again."
Kai growled, "After such a public shaming or even after such material losses, any decently honorable human would have chosen seppuku. But that snake-hearted, usotsuki, hentaishinri…" He shook his head in frustration. "How could Taganaka Takeo and Hiromi have raised such a son?"
Hiroshi shook his head as well. "Some things, Kai-sama, never seem to have adequate answers. But I believe I have discovered the answer to at least one question; the question of why Yama was helping Taro plan the making of that dome at all." When Kai stopped dead in his tracks, his back stiff but his tail lashing, Hiroshi merely stopped a pace ahead of him and gestured again towards the constabulary. "I have no way of verifying exactly how old the evidence in my office is, but I have reason to believe it was made between one and two years ago…"
And it had been a little over a year ago, Sakaki knew, that Yama had begun to change in his attitude towards the villagers. Before then, Yama had been quite friendly with them, and always first among the gargoyles to greet any of the humans who returned to the village from trips to the big cities or other faraway places, eager to hear of their exploits in the outer world. But then his attitude had subtly changed, for reasons neither Kai nor Sakaki could determine. It was hard to pinpoint exactly when the change had happened, but by last autumn Sakaki had noticed that Yama associated only with Taro when he'd returned to the village from the city (which he had been doing much more often lately), and that he had even begun making disparaging remarks about the other villagers in front of Kai and the others. It was a bewildering change for the gargoyle who used to love learning more about human cultures and could often be found perched in front of a television in the villagers' homes, but whenever they asked him about it he would find a reason to change the subject. But if Hiroshi had discovered a reason for his behavior…
Kai disappeared with Hiroshi into the constabulary, and Sakaki was incredibly tempted to land on the roof and press her delicate pointed ear to it, to try to listen in on the conversation inside… But such would not be honorable behavior. She restrained herself, and instead perched on the roof across the street where she could see her mate and Hiroshi as soon as they came out again… and they could see her. If Hiroshi acknowledged her with a greeting upon emerging, as he of course would do so since she had been his late wife's oldest friend, then Kai would not dare to ignore her. And then she would shamelessly demand mate's privilege and lead him away, and get him to talk to her tonight or die trying.
Fifteen minutes later, Yama came out with Hiroshi, stiff with such outrage that his wings were half-flared and his tail lashing, and he had to refurl his wings before he could fit through the door. Hiroshi unconsciously avoided the lashing tail with years of practice, as he said to Kai, "What will you do now?"
"I will call a clan council," Kai said with that slight hoarseness in his voice that Sakaki knew meant he'd been growling and snarling quite a bit while inside the constabulary, "and let them know of this, of how Yama was deceived right from the start of this entire disaster. Of how far back in time Taro's perfidy began…"
Hiroshi nodded, then asked softly, "And Yama himself…? Will this end his banishment?"
Kai growled, "Of course it wi---no. It does not change his punishment." In between the first and second sentences, his entire demeanor changed from barely-held-in outrage, to great depression.
Hiroshi was visibly surprised. "It does not? But… You know now that he truly believed his actions were for the good of the clan!"
When Kai sighed heavily before answering, Sakaki decided to interject and lightly scraped her talons for attention. "Kai-sama, leader and beloved mate…" Both Kai and Hiroshi looked up to see her, and Hiroshi smiled in greeting. "And fair evening to you, Hiroshi-san. Pardon my intrusion, but I heard your last words to each other just now. If my leader and mate will permit me to answer in his stead…" Kai nodded. "Hiroshi-san, even if Yama was deceived into performing his actions, that does not change his responsibility for them, for placing the entire clan in danger. And in secretly planning anything with Taro that greatly affected the entire clan, even if it had truly been for our own benefit, he usurped Kai-sama's authority as clan leader… And he broke his own vow to protect all of Ishimura from harm, not merely the clan members. Much as Kai said in the dome, a warrior does not break his oath even if his opponent is an oathbreaker; Bushido demands honorable conduct in all things and at all times."
"Hai," Hiroshi reluctantly agreed. Then he glanced from Sakaki to the still visibly depressed Kai, and said shrewdly, "Kai-sama, since Yama is not to be retrieved from banishment this very night, it is perhaps not necessary to call a clan council this very hour. Tomorrow evening, I will be happy to show the rest of the clan what I have shown you. Until then, konban wa and clear skies to you," as he headed for his home.
Sakaki sent grateful thoughts in his direction, before gesturing for her mate to climb up to her level. Once he did so, she launched off the roof and wordlessly led him down to the boathouse by the docks; the attic there was a favored trysting place. And thankfully, it was as yet unoccupied…
They slipped in through the large window, drew the screen across it for privacy and settled into the straw. Kai started to reach for her yukata ties merely by rote, his mind clearly on other matters, but Sakaki stayed his hands and instead drew her head down so she could press her brow ridges to his, as she commanded softly, "Tell me."
And he did. A short while later, he was lying across her lap as she stroked his mane, staring into space as he said softly, "Why didn't he tell me? This entire disaster could have been avoided, if only he had told me…"
One week later, deep in the forest…
"Is it a good sign, that you don't hurt anymore?" Yama dully asked his left wing, looking over his shoulder to see the tightly furled pinion. "I hope it's a good sign, though I fear it's not. I think maybe the nerves in you have gone dead. I hope you don't just turn to gravel and fall off one of these evenings. Wouldn't that be a horrible thing, Right Wing?" as he turned his head to look at the other one. "But of course, if he did fall off, you would probably be going to gravel right along with him, rather than remain on my back all alone. But then I'd really be alone, really alone, without even pain to keep me company…"
He'd sat down on this large rock in the middle of the forest two nights ago, and hadn't moved from it since. It seemed as good a place as any to perch, and he really didn't feel like doing much of anything else anyway. He supposed he should be hungry by now, but he didn't feel hungry… He didn't feel pain… He didn't feel much of anything anymore.
The first few nights of his punishment had been agonizing, he remembered that. His wings had gone from a soreness and maddening itching where the obi bound them so tightly, to a burning pain spreading up and down from that black band, to a throbbing agony in every strut and membrane that had him moaning and whimpering, and throwing himself backwards against tree trunks in a mindless effort to at least change the pain to a different sort if he couldn't ease it at all. Time after time he'd come so close to shredding the obi and freeing his wings, but each time he remembered Sora's face, remembered Kai calling her the most loyal, honorable and worthy of mates, and knew that he'd never see her again if he did. He had to prove himself an honorable gargoyle again, or he'd never be welcomed back into the clan…
Hunger pangs had also become a problem. That first night, he'd been too overwhelmed by all that had happened to be hungry or have interest in hunting, but his appetite had returned with a vengeance the next night. But the forest didn't have much in the way of food for him to eat, all the larger creatures having vanished centuries ago from overhunting by humans and gargoyles alike. Now all he had were rabbits and rats, and the leaves, roots and berries they fed on. Without his wings he had no hope of catching birds to eat, and without a boat he couldn't cast nets to catch fish in the ocean, his clan's usual fare… not that he had a net either, for that matter.
He had eventually seized on the idea of making fishing poles that could be left in place, bracing them amidst the rocks of the shore at intervals along the shoreline, and checked periodically to see what had been caught. He'd broken off half a dozen long and stout branches from trees to make poles; plucked, unraveled and spun together a series of strong threads from the edges of his yukata for fishing lines; and carved hooks from twigs with his talons. He'd dug for worms to bait the hooks and devised floats and sinkers for them as well, from bark and shards of his own stone skin. But after a week of faithfully checking the fishing poles whenever no one was about, he'd caught only one fish he could eat; one fishing pole had evidently caught a fish too strong, that had broken the thread-line and made off with the bait and hook, but the rest remained empty. He had been able to run down a few rabbits and rats, and a few times had even found birds sleeping on branches that were just low enough he could reach them by jumping. But mostly it seemed like his belly was never full, and many times it had growled loudly at him as if cursing him for its emptiness.
After the seventh night, a different sort of pain had finally overtaken that of the wings and the hunger, a pain that had been building steadily since he'd left the village: loneliness. He'd always thought of himself as something of a dokuritsushin, an independent spirit; as a young gakusei fresh out of the rookery, he'd frequently gone off on his own to explore the edges of the clan's boundaries, testing the limits imposed by generations of leaders and elders. (And had been rookery-bound or sentenced to sweeping gravel as punishment for wandering, so many times that he felt he could tell all the clan's brooms and rakes apart, blindfolded, by merely running a finger down the handle.) But he'd never been gone for more than a few hours, always coming back before sunrise…
That first dawn without the clan, climbing the highest boulder he could find to perch on alone instead of a temple roof or wall with the others, he'd felt so strange and so scared, his wings had been shivering in their bonds and his tail twitching so wildly he could scarcely hold his pose. Where were the humans to guard his sleep and keep him from being shattered during the day? He was going to die in his sleep, never see another sunset or his clan again… Waking up the next evening, now knowing it was possible to survive without humans to guard one's sleep, he had at first been profoundly relieved, even cheerful. He could do this, he could survive three months without the clan easily! He was different, strong-willed where the others were soft and cowardly, like turtles afraid to poke their heads outside their shells. He could do this! He'd even roared to the world in challenge, "I can do this!"…And then he'd realized there was no one around to hear him, no one to agree with him or argue with him or call him a fool; only his own voice, echoing back so faintly it sounded forlorn. He'd shut up again.
After the third night, he'd begun talking to himself whenever he wasn't actively hunting anything, just for something to do. He'd berated himself a thousand times over for being so foolish as to think Taro, who had been one of the poorest students of Bushido that the clan had seen in centuries, could ever mend his greedy ways and want to do right by the clan. He cursed himself just as frequently for being such a dokuritsushin as to want to leave the village and see the world in the first place; here he'd left the village, and he wasn't having fun at all, now was he?
He longed to sneak back to within sight and hearing of the village, if only so he could see other people going about their business, just see them and hear snippets of conversation, and vicariously enjoy interaction with them again. But he knew if he did and was spotted (and he knew well how sharp-eyed and vigilant the village sentries were trained to be, having been one himself,) he would be further dishonored and forbidden to ever return to the clan.
By the time the pain in his wings had turned to numbness and his stomach had stopped gnawing at his spine and simply shrunken to where he could take food only in small bites (which was usually all he could find anyway), the loneliness had become unbearable, the emptiness seemingly suffocating his soul. The only way to stop feeling it, he thought when he could think at all under the weight of his depression, was to stop breathing…
On the fourteenth night, after he'd finished talking to his numb wings and gone silent again, he'd become gradually aware of a harsh breathing not his own. Another creature was nearby, coming closer… Every sense suddenly quiveringly alert, he perched on the large rock and waited.
Soon, an animal came limping into view: a cat. A half-grown bobtailed cat with many splotches of brown and black in its soiled white fur, so thin he could count the ribs in its sides, and with its head down and breathing harshly, sounds of pain to accompany the misshapen right front paw. It was wounded, starving and probably sick as well; he should give it a mercy blow, kill it, and then he'd have the carcass for food.
The cat lifted its head slightly, not enough to see him on the boulder, and wailed mournfully. A plaintive cry that said to an uncaring world, I'm hurt, and I'm miserable, and nobody cares anymore…
"I know what you mean," he told it with a sigh.
The cat at first froze at the sound of his voice, then looked up and saw him. Instantly, its fur puffed out as it spat in fear and rage at him, before clumsily turning to run away.
He was off the rock with one bound, calling stupidly, "Wait!" He took one step after hitting the ground and stumbled; after two nights of just sitting there, his legs weren't ready for running. But by sheer luck, he stumbled in the same direction the cat was running in, and managed to grab it with one heavy hand around its middle before it could escape, pinning it to the ground as he fell full-length alongside it.
The cart fought wildly, biting his hand everywhere it could reach and trying to twist in his grip enough to bring its claws into play, but he pinned it down against the ground while he said soothingly, "Sshhhh, sshhhh, little cat, I won't hurt you… You're not from my village, are you? You've never seen one of my kind before. Or you'd know I'm a gargoyle, and the gargoyles of my clan don't hurt cats. Why, one of our oldest elders even keeps cats for pets! You'd like old Miya, I'm sure… Sshhhh, sshhhh, I won't hurt you…"
He kept talking soothingly to it, and eventually, the cat quieted. "That's better. You used to have a clan once, didn't you? A home, and a clan of humans to take care of you; you weren't meant to be a wild cat. How did you come to lose your clan? Oh, look at you, you're nearly starved to death. I'd give you some food if I had any, but I don't, because I'm clanless too…" He kept up the flow of words while he slowly, carefully eased the grip that was pinning it to the ground and began stroking its fur. The cat shivered under its unkempt fur, but didn't run; it must have belonged to humans once, to be so entranced by merely the sound of his voice.
He slowly, carefully scooted the cat towards his chest as he rolled onto his side, continually talking about whatever came into his mind. "I can't go back to my clan, because I was stupid and willful and didn't listen to my leader even if he was my best friend once, my closest brother, and I know I hurt him so badly… And I nearly had everyone imprisoned in a dome, to be gawked at like animals in a zoo. I always wanted to see a zoo, to see all the different animals inside them with my own eyes, but now I think I'd probably set them all free so they're not stared at all day. My clan all stared at me when I was being punished, and I hated it… But right now I wouldn't mind being stared at, so long as they talked to me too. Do you think zoo animals like to be talked to? Probably not, because they don't understand the words. I always thought that very frustrating, not knowing the words to a language. We hear English on the radio sometimes in our village, and the television receives a channel in English too, but I hardly ever know what the people are saying; only Constable Hiroshi speaks English well, and he doesn't see the need to teach it to a gargoyle, since we have to stay hidden in the village. But there's so much to see and hear and learn and taste and touch, and I used to hate knowing that I'd never know the rest of the world, except on the television. But now I just want company, someone else to touch and talk to…" as he finally succeeded in cuddling the cat to his chest. He kept talking as he rubbed its fur and scratched behind its ears, and eventually it huddled into the warmth of his chest and began to relax. "That's good, isn't it, having somebody to touch and talk to? Oh yes, that's good, little kitten… good little kitten…"
Eventually, he'd calmed the cat enough to inspect it closer. "It" turned out to be a "her"; he vaguely remembered hearing once that virtually all mi-ke cats were females. She was such a small creature, barely bigger than his outspread hand, probably not even half-grown. But she'd been on her own long enough to collect a number of ticks and fleas, which were already jumping onto his yukata and trying to find purchase in his thick gargoyle hide. He ignored that for the moment while he kept looking her over. The right front paw was swollen because it was abscessed; the cat must have been bitten there, perhaps by a rat it had tried to catch, and the wound had become infected. He remembered what the village's healer had done once, for a similar wound on a young boy who had hooked himself playing with his father's fishing gear, but been too afraid to tell him until the hand had begun to swell grotesquely. "Little one, that paw is going to hurt even more at first when I try to help you. Perhaps I should find you some food first… Shall we go check the fishing lines? It's been two nights since I checked them, but perhaps we'll have some luck now…"
The cat struggled at first, when he got to his feet still holding it; then it relaxed or at least stopped fighting him, and he carried it to the seashore, still talking soothingly. "I'll bet you'll like fish, if we've caught one. Old Miya's cats pounced on every fish we tossed to them, even the still living ones if they were small enough. And sometimes even the larger ones… The hatchlings always think it's terribly funny, to see a cat wrestling with a fish twice its size flopping around in the rookery, so the fishers in our clan often bring one back in a bucket just for the cats…"
He reached the shoreline, and discovered that luck was indeed with them; one of the lines was dancing in the water, indicating a fish was hooked and struggling, even as they approached. He pulled it in to shore with one hand, and discovered they had a nice five-kilo fish for his troubles. "Oh, look at that, kitten! Doesn't that look tasty?"
He quickly killed it against a rock, then carved a chunk of flesh from its side with one hand while still holding the cat with the other, and brought the piece of fish up to the cat's level. She snatched it from his hands, growling with eagerness, and he chuckled. "Easy, kitten; bite the fish, not me! Oh, fresh-killed sashimi is the best, isn't it? …That smells very good!" as his own stomach, reawakened, began also growling with eagerness. He ripped out another chunk for himself, and the two feasted together for a few minutes until he remembered the healer's words about eating too much after a famine. "We have to stop now, kitten. …Don't growl at me; this is for your own health! And mine as well, I suppose. Besides, I'll need some for after we're done with your paw, to convince you we're still friends."
He swished a hand in the seawater to clean it as best as he could before sitting down with the cat on a convenient rock, wrapping one arm around her body while stretching her swollen paw out with the other hand. She yowled a protest, which became a screech of rage and pain when he carefully dug a talon into her paw to open up the abscess. She reached a crescendo of screeches and snarls (undoubtedly cursing him and all his clan and ancestors in the feline tongue) as he squeezed the pus out of the wound, but he ignored her and kept squeezing until no more pus came out. Then he waded into the water with her held to his chest, and reached down with her to carefully soak that paw in seawater; he remembered the healer saying once that saltwater is good for cleaning out wounds in an emergency. "Don't struggle so, kitten; I don't want to drop you!" After a few minutes of swishing that paw around, bringing it up to squeeze out pus once more, then immersing it in seawater again, he brought her back to shore. "There now, all done, and I'm sorry for seeming to treat you so badly. Here's another piece of fish to make amends…"
Eventually, the cat forgave him, particularly after luck struck once again; when inspecting all the lines, he found that a second line had another fish on it, that must have exhausted itself with its struggles and died before they'd arrived. It was still fresh enough to eat, so he shared a bit of that fish with her too, and they both had full bellies at last.
He sacrificed a little more of his yukata hem, to make a bandage for the kitten's paw so dirt wouldn't get in and reinfect it. She growled a little while he was wrapping her paw up past the joint, and worried at the bandage with her teeth when he was done, but it was good strong material, and withstood her teeth well. After a while, she left it alone and just enjoyed his continual petting, and the tidbits of fish he still fed her.
By dawn she was curled up in his lap and purring as if they were old friends, as he sat on the large rock again with her, petting her and saying wistfully, "Kitten, I wish you truly understood my words. If you did, then you'd understand me when I tell you that I'm going to be asleep in stone all day, a statue, but I'll awaken again at nightfall… Please, kitten, will you stay with me? I promise to give you a piece of every kill I make if you'll stay with me…" He thought briefly about taking a firm grip on her just before turning to stone, to keep her with him all day, but knew that without the understanding of what was happening, the cat would go mad with fear at being trapped by rock, and would probably run like all the devils in Hell were after it when he woke again at night. Instead, he carefully took his hands off her, but stayed sitting down instead of standing up to greet the day properly. Perhaps sensing something was about to happen, or perhaps just wondering why he'd stopped petting her, the kitten twisted to look up at him enquiringly; that was the last sight he saw as the sun peeped over the horizon and turned him to stone.
When sunset came, he burst free of his stone covering and roared a greeting to the night, feeling better than he had in several nights. Then as he started to stand up, he remembered just why he felt so much better, and quickly looked around him. "Kitten?" No sign of her. Had she wandered off during the day? Had she stayed nearby but been frightened off by his transformation? If only he had a quiet way to shed his evening skin, he thought despairingly as he stuck his nose to the ground and began casting about for her scent. "Kitten? It's okay, nothing will harm you…"
A terrified mewling came from high in the branches of a nearby tree, and he laughed delightedly once he found her crouched shivering on a branch. "There you are! You were frightened by my awakening, weren't you? Well, I can't do much about the stone skin; it has to come off, so I can breathe and move about again. But I'll try not to roar so loudly anymore… Come on down, kitten; I can't climb up after you, that tree won't support my weight…"
Eventually, she came down for him, and he held her close and enjoyed just being with another creature once more. She enjoyed it, too, from the way she was purring… He carefully undid the bandage to inspect her paw, and noted with relief that it didn't seem to be swelling up again; if he was lucky, he'd gotten all the infection out and now it would heal normally. This time, she didn't even mew a protest as he bandaged her paw back up again; perhaps she could sense now that he meant her no harm.
They hunted together that night, Yama on all fours and silently scanning and scenting for prey with his nose to the ground while the cat trotted curiously alongside. And luck was with them once again; he managed to find and run down two large rabbits before dawn, and the lines he had re-baited the night before produced another fish! "You are truly a Maneki Neko, a luck-bringer," he told her happily as they feasted together. The cat's wriggling stub tail as she reached up with her good paw to accept another haunch of rabbit from him seemed to indicate she thought Yama was lucky for her, instead.
Author's note: a Maneki Neko (literally, Beckoning Cat) is the popular ceramic figurine of a calico-coated Japanese Bobtail cat, sitting with one paw raised in a welcoming or beckoning manner; they are also known as Lucky Cats, as tradition has it that they bring good luck to a home or business.
According to ancient legend, this cat stood in the doorway of the Gotoku-ji temple and raised her paw in the traditional Japanese beckoning gesture to a feudal lord who was passing by. The feudal lord followed the cat into the temple and instantly, a lightning bolt struck the place where the lord had been standing. Thus the cat had saved his life. From then on, the Maneki Neko has been considered an incarnation of the Goddess of Mercy. The Gotoku-ji Temple now houses dozens of statues of this Cat, and owners of lost or sick cats stick up prayer boards with the image of the Beckoning Cat in this temple.
The Maneki Neko is said to bring success in business as well. This is because her raised paw beckons in customers, as well as welcoming in personal happiness and harmony. Traditionally, the kitty with her left paw raised brings in business and the kitty with her right paw raised brings in money.
We now return you to the story in progress…
By the passing of the first full moon, Yama and Manekineko, as he had named her, had developed a comfortable routine; he went to his stone sleep sitting down instead of standing to pose, so she could curl up in his lap and snooze all day if she chose. She would vacate his lap just before sunset, and scurry away a short distance to get out of the way of flying stone shards, but would come back quickly enough once he'd finished yawning and stretching.
They would check the fishing lines first, to see if any fish had been caught during the day; they weren't always lucky there, but nearly every other night they found a fish waiting for them on one of the six lines, and once in a while, two fish or more.
If they found no fish or the fish wasn't large enough to satisfy them both, they went hunting for rabbits and rats. Sometimes Yama would track scents, and sometimes Manekineko would track them; by that time, each knew the other's body language well enough to be able to tell when the other had a promising lead. When they found prey, they would split up for an ambush; usually, Manekineko would flush the prey out and send it running to where Yama was waiting to pounce on it. (Yama wondered a few times about how a cat, who was normally a lone hunter by nature, could learn so quickly to hunt cooperatively, but ultimately decided that he shouldn't question his good luck.) As Yama had promised her, they always shared whatever they hunted down, no matter how large or small; however, she graciously let him eat all the edible berries, roots and leaves he could find.
When their bellies were full enough, Yama would sit with Manekineko in his lap and pet her while telling her all about the clan he wanted to return to, about his mate Sora, about his dearest siblings Kai and Sakaki, and about the other gargoyles and cats that lived in the village. He dredged up stories from his hatchling years, legends from the clan's long history, and told them again to his friend with all the solemnity of a rookery father teaching hatchlings. The cat would graciously listen to his chatter, mostly meaningless to her, and purr to show appreciation for his company.
Just before dawn they would check the fishing lines again, and any fish that had been caught overnight would be quickly devoured before they headed back to the large rock where they had first met, that he now preferred to perch on. He would sit down and she would hop into his lap, and he would pet her until dawn turned him to stone.
Over the last two weeks of tender care, petting and feeding, Manekineko's ribs no longer showed beneath her fur, which had gone from matted, unkempt and dull to sleek, soft and glossy with good health. Yama, by contrast, was looking rather ragged. His yukata was nearly half-gone, after making more fishing lines and bandages for the cuts and scrapes they accumulated while hunting, and what was left was soiled and stained. His mane was in need of a far better combing than he could give with his talons alone. And his yukata fit much looser than it had when he'd first been banished; in always sharing his kills with the cat, he still frequently didn't get enough to eat himself. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for it also meant that the obi, the cloth he dared not unravel or rip to pieces for use in surviving, fit looser than it had. Not loose enough to be able to slip off, not that he would have wanted to do so; obeying the strictures and keeping it on him was the only way to regain his honor. But loose enough that he could move his wings again, even if only a little.
The first time he'd tried, it was as if they were someone else's wings; they were numb, utterly unresponsive. He'd had to twist and reach back to physically tug on his own wings in order to unfurl them a fraction, flex and wiggle them back and forth. For a while he feared the worst had happened, that they were entirely dead flesh; he would return to the clan with honor restored, but at the loss of his wings, forever ground-bound. He shuddered and tried not to wonder if Sora could stay with a mate who could no longer dance across the sky with her, could not breed an egg with her in the traditional way by mating in midair during the Breeding Moon… But he grimly exercised them as much as he could while still wearing the obi, and gradually feeling began to return to the wings. At first in the form of pain, intense and dazzling pain as if ten thousand sharp needles were being driven into his vanes and membranes by a mad acupuncturist; but he welcomed even the pain, as a sign that life still existed in his wings. And where there was life, there was yet hope that he would glide again someday…
The pain was so great that even a short while of exercising them would leave him weak and shaking, covered with sweat. While he worked his wings, Manekineko would sit off to one side, watching him with wide and wary eyes, not understanding why he was hurting himself so but staying with him despite his mad behavior. When he had done all he could stand and collapsed face-down on their rock, moaning and waiting for the worst of the agony to subside, she would come up to crouch beside him and purr anxiously while licking his hide, offering what comfort she could. Once, after a particularly bad session that nearly rendered him unconscious, she disappeared for a short while and came back with a dead field mouse in her jaws, dropping it right in front of his nose in a wordless command to eat and regain his strength. (With shaking hands he did so, eating fur and bones and all, trusting his tough digestive system to make what it could of the desperately needed meal.) Once he had recovered enough, they would go hunting again…
That night, sitting on their rock and looking up at the full moon overhead, Yama sighed and told Manekineko in his lap, "My exile is one-third over now. Never in my life has three full moons taken so long to pass… But I would not have made it even this far without you, my friend." Manekineko purred in agreement.
Back in Ishimura, Kai smiled as he sent the clan's two human pupils of Bushido off to play with the hatchlings for a while. They were earnest students, but all children must balance at least a little play with their work, lest they grow old before their time. And humans aged so rapidly already…
Hiroshi came up to him and bowed respectfully, in the manner that said he was there for more than just to pass the time of night with an old friend. After Kai returned the greeting, Hiroshi said, "Kai-sama… I have news of Yama."
Kai was instantly alert, though he tried not to show his anxiety. "And what is your news?"
"He yet lives in the forest; suffers, but lives. Saburo and Jiro found his sleeping form perched on a rock deep in the forest. They did not come too close, so he would not detect their scent when he awoke tonight, but they came close enough to see that though his clothing is ragged, the obi is still intact." (Hiroshi decided not to bother relating what Jiro had told him about the feral kitten that had been sleeping on the rock near Yama's statue, soaking up the afternoon sunshine, but had sprung up to hiss and snarl at the two young men when they had approached. Doubtless Yama had already discovered and made a meal of it by now, if it was still within tracking distance after sunset; it was silently understood that in great hunger, any meat was acceptable.)
Kai was unable to completely repress his sigh of relief. "So he still obeys the clan. He is well on the way to redeeming his honor."
Hiroshi nodded, then asked, "And when he returns, what will become of him?"
"After a moon or so of returning to his former duties and settling into the clan again, I plan for him to become an instructor of Bushido for the human children. That will show everyone that he is completely forgiven, all honor restored, and at the same time return to him the role he has always treasured, the lack of which may have led to the… unfortunate situation with Taro in the first place."
Hiroshi smiled. "After all this, he will no doubt be as excellent an instructor in Bushido as he has been in other subjects. You are as wise as ever, Kai-sama."
Just then Taiju came to earth beside them, his face serious. "Kai-sama, Miya requests your presence at the shore, to the south of the dock. It concerns Sora."
Kai frowned, but swiftly went with Taiju to the shore where he found an elderly gargoyle waiting for him, the faded tan of her hide and the silver-white of her neatly coiled and pinned mane contrasting with the bright red yukata she always wore; a familiar sight to Kai since the nights of his hatchlinghood, when she had been the clan's primary rookery keeper. What was not quite as familiar was the small but perceptible frown on her face, instead of Miya's normally perpetual smile. This was most definitely not a good sign… "What is it, honored elder?"
For an answer, Miya gestured to the pile of clothing at her feet, then out to the water. Kai followed her gesture, to see Sora standing waist-deep in the cold saltwater of the sea. Sora faced the shore without her yukata, her eyes fixed firmly on the water in front of her instead of on the gargoyles staring at her. She was wielding a large sponge, using it to slowly, solemnly scrub down her arms, torso and wings.
"Bathing in saltwater?" Kai frowned in puzzlement. The village had a perfectly acceptable bathhouse, with fresh water in abundance, which the gargoyles were welcome to use whenever they felt the need for it. Had the temporary loss of her mate begun to affect Sora's sanity? He had thought that the rest of the clan would be company enough to keep her from pining after Yama too severely. He had noticed over the last few weeks that whenever she seemed depressed, one or two of her rookery siblings were always there to comfort her…
"This has not happened in over four hundred years," Miya said darkly. "The scroll that recorded this ritual should have been burned long ago, but it was not, and now…"
"Ritual?" Taiju scratched between his horns in confusion…
…But Kai suddenly remembered the ancient ritual and what it signified, and involuntarily cursed in such foul language that Miya almost started to box his ears, the way she had when he'd been a rowdy hatchling. Then he hastily splashed his way out to Sora.
Hiroshi, who had followed the gargoyles to the water just in time to hear Kai cursing like a sailor after twelve cups of sake, stood there in utter bewilderment as Kai splashed his way out to Sora's side and yanked the sponge out of her hands, shouting, "No! I forbid this!"
Sora stood ramrod-straight and naked as the night she'd hatched, looking straight ahead instead of at Kai as she coolly replied, "With respect, Kai-sama, this can not be forbidden. A clan leader's words may rule over a gargoyle's will, but not over the heart. And a female that is not egg-heavy shall have all the responsibilities and all the rights of a male; this is the way of gargoyles."
Hiroshi had been only a teenager when Kai had assumed leadership of the gargoyle clan, the youngest warrior ever to do so in the clan's long history. And in the thirty-two years since then, he had never seen the great warrior flinch back, looking both rebuked and bewildered, the way he did now at Sora's quiet words. "B-but… Yama isn't here, isn't bathing as well!" Then he seemed to regain confidence as he said, "And I remember what the full ritual entails; you would have to do this every night for an entire moon's cycle for it to be complete!"
"And I will." Sora's voice was flat and cold, and as unyielding as stone.
Now Kai was growing angry again. "You will not, if you value your own honor! Bushido may not cover this, but to do this without Yama's knowledge is still dishonorable! Do you require a period of banishment as well!"
Now Sora turned on him, on her own clan leader, and her eyes were glimmering red. "If you had banished me when you banished Yama, as I begged you to do, this would not be happening now! But I have had much time to think since that night, too much time! When did Taro begin building that dome!"
"He… I…" Kai looked helplessly off towards the shore, where Taiju, Miya and Hiroshi were all standing, and where a few other gargoyles were beginning to gather.
Hiroshi wondered if he was making a mistake in speaking up, but he said loudly enough for them all to hear, "It was begun over a year ago; I saw the foundations being laid when I went by there on my way to Tokyo last spring."
"Yes, over a year ago. Over a year ago, Taro began talking to Yama. And Yama said nothing to me of their plans. Nothing to me, his mate, when I would have shredded my wings for his sake! For over a year he was not honest with me, did not treat me as his mate and equal!" Hot, angry tears spilled out of Sora's eyes as the words spilled out of her mouth. "So, even if he survives the banishment--"
"He is surviving, and will continue to survive," Yama interrupted harshly. "The humans saw his statue before sunset, and he still wears the obi binding his wings! He is regaining his honor, and his place in the clan!"
"But he will not regain me." And with those words, Sora reached out her hand and took the sponge from his grip, and grimly began washing herself again.
Kai made a gesture as if to snatch the sponge back from her again, then dropped his hand and went splashing angrily back to shore where the others were waiting.
By now a dozen more gargoyles had gathered on the shore to witness the spectacle, among them Sora's two unmated rookery brothers: Botan and Anzu. While most of the gargoyles were still wearing bewildered expressions, those two were looking at Sora with something like hunger in their eyes. Kai scowled at them in particular as he said to his clan, "I can not stop Sora from going through this ritual. But I can and will say this, and all the clan will enforce it! No unmated male is to come within two wingspans of Sora, for at least the next three full moons! Even if she approaches you, you will ask her politely to leave you in peace and perch elsewhere, until after Yama returns to the clan! To do otherwise would be considered extremely dishonorable! Is… that… understood!" as his eyes burned white.
Both males caught in his glare immediately dropped to all fours on the rocky shore and gave full obeisance, chorusing, "Yes, leader! As you will, leader!"
"Good! Now, back to the village, all of you!" as he snapped his wings out and used them to shoo everyone away from the shore, like a farmer's wife using her apron to herd chickens along. All the gargoyles hastily turned tail and fled back to the village, except old Miya, who moved at a sedate but determined walk. Kai fell in beside her, growling under his breath.
Hiroshi, who finally got an idea of what was going on when Kai was addressing the younger males, fell in beside them as well. He said hesitantly, "Pardon this one's shameful curiosity, but… Sora's ritual…"
"She is washing the scent of her mate off her skin," Miya said darkly. "It is more than just a symbolic gesture; if she does so for a full moon's cycle, without any contact from her mate for all that time, she will eventually eliminate the scent that marks her as Yama's mate."
"This clan hasn't had a dismating in over four hundred years," Kai growled. "And even back then, it was always done by the two mates bathing on opposite sides of the dock, both agreeing to dissolve their bond! For Sora to do this without Yama's consent is wrong, but I can not forbid it; it was settled over fifteen hundred years ago that no clan leader may direct a mating or dismating, that the heart is separate from the will!" Hiroshi said nothing, knowing that the gargoyles' insistence on treating females as equals, and on letting individuals choose their own mates instead of families deciding for them, had been one of the biggest differences between them and the majority of the human population of Japan; nearly as great a difference as having wings and turning to stone every dawn. That was one reason why Ishimura was so isolated; the men there had been treating their women as equals for centuries longer than the rest of the country, and as a result, women from Ishimura had long been regarded by the rest of the Japanese population as too 'uppity', willful and rebellious to make good dutiful wives. Kai continued, "By clan law, all I can do is direct a female who has chosen no mate for life to accept either a temporary mate or short-term concubinage for the duration of the Breeding Moon, in order to provide an egg for the rookery. And that's not till next year!"
"Either Botan or Anzu talked her into doing this," Miya muttered. "I've seen them in her company of late, and they knew entirely too quickly what she was doing…"
"No doubt you're right, but without proof, I can do no more than I have done already," Kai growled. "They know now that if I catch one of them within a wingspan of her in the next three moons, they'll be banished as well for a period of time. At least Yama will have a little time to try to persuade her to be his mate again, once he returns…"
Hiroshi cleared his throat and said softly, hesitantly, "Perhaps Yama's banishment might be shortened after all…?"
Kai asked the same question of himself later that night, when he was alone with his beloved Sakaki. They had shooed the hatchlings out of the rookery, ostensibly so the other rookery keepers could give them gliding lessons, but really so Kai and Sakaki might have some privacy, and Kai could remove the metaphorical mantle of leadership for a while and just be a confused, upset and worried gargoyle again. He stretched out on the straw and rested his horned head in his mate's lap as she stroked his mane, the way she had three weeks ago; the way she had long ago when the newly bestowed mantle of leadership, intangible though it was, had weighed heavily on Kai's shoulders. Kai had not even been a full adult when the late, great Shourou had chosen him as the new second-in-command, impressed with the mighty gakusei who exhibited not just great strength and fighting prowess but also a thoughtful mind and the beginnings of true wisdom. Less than a year later Shourou had died in a lightning strike, and Kai had suddenly found himself leading the clan before he'd even finished his studies. The first few years had been hard, but he had managed to find his path and tread it with honor, for he had always had his beloved Sakaki's down-to-earth common sense, calm humor and unwavering faith in him… and daredevil Yama, his closest rookery brother, to chide him out of his worries and make him smile…
Once he had poured out his outrage and worries over Sora's behavior, he fell silent for a short while, as she stroked his mane and soothingly rubbed his horns and brow ridges. Then he looked up into her face, asking, "What do you think, Sakaki-chan? Should I end Yama's banishment right now, rather than wait two more moons?"
Rather than answer right away, Sakaki thought for a moment. "Do you think the rest of the clan will concede that one moon's banishment and binding is punishment enough for him? Particularly now that Sora has pointed out for all to hear that, even if he truly thought it would really be for our own benefit, he had been planning with Taro to move the clan to that accursed dome for over a year."
Kai exhaled roughly. "I know. And yet I still partly blame not just Taro but myself for his actions; I should have long since let him take a willing human or two as helpers and leave the village on a quest, to seek out what other clans might still exist and make alliances with them. One or two of those boys who moved to the larger cities would likely have welcomed a chance to go on a quest with Yama, but instead I kept him here, for the sake of secrecy." Then he chuckled bitterly. "Oh, 'secrecy'! Who am I trying to fool anymore? Back then, Yama would gladly have sworn the same oath the human children all swore, to never reveal the secret of Ishimura even under torture; I kept him from going because I didn't want to see my favorite brother leave, perhaps never to return." A clan leader must always put the welfare of the entire clan first in all things, over his own friendships, even over his own mate sometimes; Kai had known that even before he had become second-in-command. And once he had become leader, he had done his best not to favor Yama over the other clan members, even choosing another, more level-headed warrior for his second-in-command. Yama had seemed to understand the change in his behavior and its reasons, publicly addressing him as 'Kai-sama' instead of 'Kai-kun' as he had done while they were growing up, without a trace of sarcasm or resentment. But sometimes he feared his seemingly muted affections had become part of Yama's dissatisfaction with village life... "And each time one of those boys returned home and talked to his family, each time we saw other lands and other peoples on the television, Yama grew more frustrated, and still I kept him here."
Sakaki reminded him, "Yama's love of exploration has always been matched by his love for teaching what he has learned to others, and he found a great measure of contentment in being teacher to our gakuto; if not for Taro, he likely would have happily returned to his duties when the current crop of hatchlings were ready for him. And Koishii, I told you over fifteen years ago that Sora was setting her talons for him. If he'd left before she matured, they would never have become mates. And we both thought back then that his having a mate would solve everything; that a large part of his problem was simply sexual frustration and loneliness, since he alone didn't find a mate among our rookery siblings."
Kai sighed again. "And then it turned out to be only a small part… Oh, it's true, once they became mates I didn't hear a growl or peep about 'the world outside' from him, for nearly two years afterwards."
"Instead, we heard a lot of growling and yowling from them both, nearly every night," Sakaki teased gently, hoping to distract him from his worries for a little while. "By the way, did you ever ask Yama how he came up with that 'Cat Fighting with Crane' maneuver?"
Kai rolled over and grinned up at her as he confided, "He told me he thought it up after watching a human 'porno movie.' Though how humans could do that without tails is beyond me… Or how they could survive it without stone sleep afterwards! Almost every other time we do it, I throw my back out…"
"But isn't it worth it?" as she brought her golden tail-tip up to tease under his yukata.
That set all serious discussion aside for a while, while they romped in the straw and made the ancient rookery walls echo to their roars and yowls. And afterwards, Kai lay groaning and flat on his stomach, while Sakaki walked carefully on his back to put it back into alignment. "Ohhh… to follow such pleasure with such pain… Every time this happens, I don't know whether to thank Yama for telling me about that maneuver or pound him between his horns for it."
"I'd rather you thanked him," Sakaki said mischievously, as she pressed in just the right spot to pop his vertebrae back into place.
"Ahhh… But the question still remains," as she lightly stepped off his back and he laboriously got to his feet again. "Do I bring him back now, so he can talk to Sora before she can complete the ritual and try to save his relationship with her, or do I wait until the third full moon has come as was originally planned?"
Sakaki knelt beside him, reaching for his hand and tucking herself under the wing he automatically brought over her, and asked quietly, "If this had happened to any other member of our clan, rather than your favorite rookery brother, what would your decision be?"
Kai sighed heavily. "I would let the banishment stand; without everyone seeing plainly for themselves that the offender can still be an obedient clan member, even to the extremity of enduring three full moons of banishment and flightlessness, he would never regain his honor. If I bring Yama back early, there will always be some doubt."
"There is also this," Sakaki said as she snuggled closer under his wing and twined her tail with his. "If Yama came back now, and Sora is truly unforgiving and determined to be dismated from him, then he would have to endure four weeks of seeing her go through the ritual night after night, four weeks of public rejection by his mate. No gargoyle should have to endure that. If he does not know about it until it is over…"
"Better one quick and hard blow than a thousand slaps," Kai agreed. He turned to lightly brush their brow ridges together as he said, "Thank you, beloved; you always see what I have missed."
"You already did the best you could do for Yama," Sakaki assured him, "by declaring Sora off-limits to the unmated males until after Yama returns. And I assure you, I and the elders will see that everyone knows it and enforces the rule; those two will not come near her until at least high summer. When Yama returns, he will still have a chance to persuade her to become his mate again, with his honor restored and hopefully his mind and spirit as strong as ever; those same qualities that drew Sora to become his mate in the first place. And if we are very lucky, when Sora realizes that she may take no other mate until after Yama has returned and spoken with her, then she may decide to quit the ritual rather than complete it, and when he returns, it will be as if this night had never happened."
Kai nodded slowly and sighed again. "We can only hope…"
He hoped, and Sakaki hoped, while Taiju and the clan elders enforced Kai's will with a vengeance. Anzu was kept out either at sea with the fishing fleet or mending nets under watchful eyes nearly every night, and Botan was assigned to sentry duty on the eastern walls, the side away from the sea where Sora bathed every night alone. And when all the gakuto assembled for their nightly lessons, whether it was to learn Bushido, mathematics and science, literature, history or martial arts, Sora was placed on the far side of the assembly from the two unmated ones.
But somehow, little notes written on rice paper kept popping up here and there, rolled up and planted in her bowls of rice or wrapped around her chopsticks or tucked inside her fan or slipped under the sponge she used for bathing. Little anonymous notes written in many different styles of handwriting, that spoke encouraging words for her chosen path, that reminded her that not all the clan disapproved of her actions, that informed her that she was really too good for a lying traitor like Yama anyway… And a few notes that spoke openly of only friendship, as was proper for someone going through such turmoil, but hinted of possibilities of romance once the ritual was complete. Little notes that Sora read every night, before going down to the sea to bathe in salt water again and again…
Four weeks later…
The clan's dojo, the hall and yard set aside for the warriors and gakuto to practice the martial arts in, was always reserved for the clan leader's use for an hour each night, whether he chose to use it then or not. More often than not Kai used his time well, knowing that a warrior must always be ready for combat. Sometimes he allowed spectators to watch him as he exercised and went through the kata for unarmed combat and for various weapons, and on rare occasions he would invite a warrior or promising-looking gakusei to spar with him, but often he preferred to be alone. He used the exertions of his body and the familiar rituals of the kata to center himself, to cast aside for a short time the worries and cares that came from leading a clan and coexisting with the villagers; even in times of peace, there were petty issues that needed to be resolved before they became true problems. With no sound around him except the rasp of his own breath, the rustle of his clothing and sometimes the whistle of weapons through the air, he would find his center and peace within.
Tonight, he practiced with grim diligence, going through Happo-Giri with his no-dachi, handling the great two-handed sword as lightly and easily as another warrior would his katana or bokken. But even though he went through the Kata of the Eight Cuts with perfection--rei, draw, thrust, horizontal-right, vertical-right-up, vertical-right-down, horizontal-left, vertical-right-up, vertical-right-down, vertical strike in kiba dachi, perform chiburi, sheathe, rei again--his mind could not find the center of silence.
Sora had completed the ritual and lost her 'mated' scent marker, that slight trace of Yama's scent that had been part of her for nearly nine years. While Kai had not bothered to take a whiff of confirmation himself, and had not even spoken to her since that first night of the dismating ritual, he had no reason to doubt Taiju's nose or veracity. Even if Yama managed to survive the full term of his banishment, he would return home in another full moon's time to find himself without a mate. And tonight Kai could not find the center of silence, for too many voices intruded, voices from the past…
"I wield this broom so much, I should make up a kata for it."
"Well, it's your own fault. Why do you keep going to explore the boundaries, anyway? Or going to watch that terebijon, that pictures-and-sound box in the Fukuda family's home. I mean, that's a really neat device, but old Setsu's going to rip your ears off one of these nights if you keep wandering off."
"Either rip my ears off, or just swat my head clean off my shoulders, I know. But Kai-kun, there's just so much to see! So much to learn…"
"So, you asked her to a tea ceremony… what did she say?"
"She said yes! Sakaki and I are going to have the tea tomorrow at midnight; I'm going to the teahouse now to get everything ready. Yama-kun, do you think, maybe…"
"Of course she'll agree to be your mate. Gods, Kai-kun, I've known since we all came out of the rookery together that she's had her talons set for you! We've both just been waiting for 'Mister Big, Tough Warrior-in-Training' to get up the nerve to say more than three words to her without tripping over your own tongue… or, more likely, your own feet. Are you ever going to grow into those oars?"
"Oh, just shut up about my feet…"
"So, has Morin talked to you and Sakaki yet?"
"No, what does she want to talk to us about?"
"Oh, just this little matter of the glass in her hand mirror breaking, while you two were gliding overhead last night…"
"You're kidding! Wow… Heh. What can I say; Sakaki likes my moves in midair…"
"So the whole clan has deduced. Shourou-sama even wondered aloud if the breeding season was coming early again… Oh, don't worry, Kai-kun, we're all happy for you. The two of you together glow like the moon rising! So you're a little loud, so what? Just do it out over the forest, and enjoy it while you can."
"Oh, we are! Say, how are you and Yanagi doing?"
"Eh… well, it looks like she's leaning towards Kumo now. She's just invited him to tea."
"Ah. Well, there's still…"
"Soseki and Yuki; I know. But I was really hoping… Yanagi… Well, as you just said, there're still two sisters left!"
"So, what did Shourou-sama want to see you about?"
"H-he… Yama-kun, you're not going to believe this… H-he's naming me as the new second-in-command!"
"Really! Well, that's fantastic! A gakusei as second-in-command! Brother, I'm proud of you! All hail Kai-sama! Here, let me practice my fusu…"
"Oh, knock that off. This is serious! This means that sometime in the future, I'm going to end up leading the clan!"
"Well, what did you think I've got my horns down on the tatami for? Seriously, Kai… everyone in our rookery generation acknowledges you as the gakusei leader, even if we never say it aloud. It's not just your warrior abilities; it's your way of smoothing out troubles before they can turn nasty. While I'll admit I wasn't expecting this, not so soon, it's not all that big a surprise to me either. Maybe Shourou's picked you so early so you can make your second-in-command status as sort of an apprenticeship for clan leader; that way, when he dies many years in the future, you'll be more than ready to take over, and there won't be any big upheaval in the clan like the one we learned about last week, at the start of the Heian dynasty."
"That makes sense… Like you said, this way I've got some time to learn this role before I need to start worrying."
"Hah! You're already worrying; I can tell by your wing-talons, they're clenched tight as fists. Relax, Kai-kun, my favorite worrywart, relax! You've got years left to learn this…"
"Well, I was wrong again."
"…Wrong about what?"
"About what I said last summer, about you having many years left to learn how to be leader… Kai-sama."
"Gods, Yama-kun, I'm not ready for this! What do I do now!"
"Beloved, perhaps first you should call for the remembrance ceremony for Shourou?"
"Sakaki-chan's right, that's a good start."
"Right… But then, after that?"
"After that… the Wheel turns, and Life goes on. Sakaki-chan and I will always be here for you, you know that… But now it's time for those wagon-sized shoulders of your to bear the mantle of leader. And you'll bear it well… Kai-sama."
"Yama-kun is right, beloved… Kai-sama."
"(hic) Kai-sama! (hic) Sorry, just lemme clean up… Whups! Oh, chikoshou…"
"(sigh) Don't fret, Yama-san; it will wash out. But what's happened? Something must have happened, to send you into hiding up here and to get so… unwell."
"Aw, who cares about me? You should oughta be down by the teahouse; Soseki and Hagi are gonna come out of there any minute now an' ask for a mating ceremony…"
"…I see. That means…"
"Yup; no females left. No mate for scrawny, ugly and too-damn-smart-for-his-own-good Yama…"
"Yama-san, I… well… Remember our history lessons, and Hyoushou of the Muromachi Period? He didn't have a mate either, but he's remembered for… (sigh) Oh, shove over and pass me a bottle. Yama-kun, maybe you don't have a mate, but you've still got a brother who's willing to get chinsui with you. Soseki and Hagi can just find me tomorrow."
"(hic) Y'sure about this? I haven't seen you drink more'n a cupful in… in…"
"In far too long, since Shourou-sama's remembrance ceremony. And this clan leader needs a night off, because if I hear one more stupid complaint from either the fishers or the weavers about the damn nets, I swear I'll shred somebody's wings! I tell you, Shourou must have had Buddha whispering in one ear and one of the Great Dragons whispering in the other, and all the lucky gods tucked inside his wings as well, to keep this clan so well satisfied all the time. Now Sakaki knows where I am, and when I don't come back soon she'll figure out what's going on. Now gimme a damn bottle already…"
"Did they really get this big last time, and I just don't remember it? Sakaki is almost shaped like an egg herself…"
"To me, she's even more beautiful than ever."
"(sigh) That, too."
"Oh, don't feel sorry for me! So I don't have a mate; that just means that right now I'm free to do as I please, instead of running to the kitchens for more food every ten minutes… and going almost in a flat spin at all other times, searching in every direction to find something to please an egg-heavy and unhappy female! Speaking of which, since I know she wants it, have you made a poem for tonight?"
"I haven't had time! Between bringing her food, giving her backrubs, massaging her poor feet, and taking care of the rest of the clan's troubles, who has time to write a single haiku, let alone love poetry!"
"I thought so. Here, just rewrite these in your own hand, while I get some tempura matsutake and more chawan-mushi for you to take to her; these will give you at least a week's worth of smiles from her, and enough time to think of new material. And memorize them while you're at it, in case she wants a recital!"
"You… you wrote these?"
"Well, a few of them I actually wrote for Yanagi, back when… Anyway, over half of them I jotted down just recently, and I changed the skin color and such for the ones that had been written before. So just try to avoid reciting this one, that one and that one aloud where Yanagi can overhear them, and you'll have Sakaki smiling again in no time…"
"Konban wa, Kai-sama!"
"Konban wa, gakuto. So, Yama-sensei, how are the gakuto behaving tonight?"
"Reasonably well, Kai-sama. I have only had to throttle three of them to get the rest to settle down."
"Only three? That is a record low for this generation. Perhaps there is some hope for them after all… You gakuto, listen well to what Yama-sensei has to teach you about mathematics and science! Even the mightiest warrior needs to be able to discern the numbers and strength of his foes' forces, and how to use the very laws of nature against them when mere brute strength isn't enough. You there, stand up and let me hear you count past eight without using your toe-talons…"
"Yama-san, your advice is needed. Kumo and the gakuto found this on that man, after he was drugged unconscious…"
"A camera! Do you think he took a picture of Taiju and Taki, before they noticed him?"
"They don't remember any bright flashes, but I'm not taking any chances. You probably know the most about these devices; if we soak the whole thing in sake for a few hours, will it ruin the film inside?"
"It will probably ruin the entire camera. (sigh)"
"Yama-san, I know how you like such devices, but the camera can't just 'disappear' from his possessions; it looks valuable enough that it would surely be missed."
"Your pardon, Kai-sama, but that is not what causes my disquiet. It is just that… this man wasn't like most strangers; he didn't really seem afraid of us…"
"…No exceptions, Yama-san. This one gets the same treatment as the others have for the past two centuries. This is how and why our clan has survived so long… Just be grateful that in these modern times, we let them live past dawn!"
"Kai-kun, koishii… I think you had best find another role for Yama for a while."
"What! Why would I do that? He loves teaching, and I haven't heard so much as a growl of complaint from the gakuto about him; he can make even math and science lessons as interesting as Morin's lessons on our history, and Yasou's lessons in reading, writing and literature! Even one or two of the human children have come to him shortly after sunset, for tutoring in math concepts they find difficult…"
"Hai. All the gakuto are very fond of him… and one in particular is, I believe, coming to see him as more than a sensei."
"…Really? Are you sure?"
"I am not positive, but I have seen the signs of an early interest. Young Sora has been taking exquisite care with her mane before every mathematics lesson, she has exchanged her perch for another gakusei's that is closer to Yama's perch, and Yasou tells me that her writing practices tend towards love poetry… and word-plays on mountains."
"…And if this isn't just a… what do the humans call it? A 'schoolgirl crush', then we might have a mate for Yama at last… But Sakaki-chan, I lead the clan. I'm forbidden to meddle in matters of the heart, not even for Yama!"
"Ah, but my beloved, this concerns more than just Yama and Sora. A clan leader must also ensure the clan avoids scandal if possible. And, of course, it would be most improper for a gakusei to approach her sensei in any other way than as a pupil…"
"Kai-sama, you wished to see me?"
"Hai, Yama-san. I regret to inform you that the gakuto will have to do without your personal attention for a brief while. The sentries on the northern walls are saying that they are beginning to crumble on the outer faces; after all these centuries, the last few years' rainy seasons must have been too much for them. As you are the best suited among us for determining the structural strength of what remains, and calculating what will be needed to restore the walls for another five centuries, I hereby name you the clan's Master Carpenter and Head Stonemason, in charge of this project. Before this night is over, take a look at those walls and give me a rough estimate of how many hours of individual toil it would take to restore them, so we may determine how many others must be assigned to the project and for how long."
"Hai, Kai-sama!" And a few hours later, "Kai-sama, I bear most distressing news; it was not merely centuries of heavy rains that have damaged that wall. In a few areas, I saw signs of… vandalism! Someone has been sneaking out there while we slept, and swinging hammers at various stones in the walls, including some key supporting stones!"
"An outrage! Such an attack on the village… How long do we have before they collapse entirely?"
"Fortunately, the damage is not too severe just yet; the walls would probably not fall for at least another five years, unless another earthquake occurs or a hurricane sweeps through and hits us directly. But we will have to nearly bring those walls down entirely and rebuild them, replace the damaged stones and all the mortar, to make them strong enough to last five more centuries. Even with three gargoyles helping me nearly all night, every night, and twice that number of humans working on them during the day, we are still looking at close to a year's worth of work."
"Are only the northern walls affected?"
"Fortunately, yes. But what are we to do about the vandals?"
"I will alert the human constabulary, and they will undoubtedly send people out to patrol the walls at intervals during the day. Other than that, all we can do is double the guards at their posts on those walls, while they are rebuilt one at a time. And to avoid notice by humans driving down the highway on that side, we are going to have to restrict the work to only the gakusei instruction hours, midnight to 3:00 a.m."
"But that will lengthen the time to rebuild those walls, to nearly triple my first estimate! Forgive my rudeness, Kai-sama, but is that wise? The highway is nearly out of even gargoyles' sight from that wall; passing humans would likely not be able to see a working force, clad in dark colors…"
"But they could possibly hear the stonework, if they paused on the road for any reason. No, Yama-san, those are the hours I appoint for rebuilding. In these peaceful times, I feel we may risk a slower rebuilding of our defenses, rather than risk the true secret of Ishimura becoming known."
"(sigh) As you command, Kai-sama. Although… Kai-sama, may I speak as your brother?"
"We're alone for the moment… What is it, Yama-kun? As if I couldn't guess."
"Kai-kun, I really do think it's time the world realized once more that they share their land and skies with another sentient race. Yes, we used to be known only as demons and monsters; humans thought we were oni with wings or oversized tengu without the feathers; but those times have changed! Remember what I told you about Gojiro on the television? If people can see even one such as him as a protector against aliens, when in every movie he does more damage in three steps than this entire clan could do in three solid nights of mayhem, then they may be ready to see us as protectors and people too, and fellow citizens of Nihon!"
"The Yatsushiro Clan that lived on Kyushu had thought they could safely reveal themselves to human society at large, at the end of the Edo period when Japan was finally united in peace. And we all know what happened to them… Yama-kun, I truly am sorry for you, but I will not risk the safety of the clan. Our very existence must remain secret, in order to ensure that existence continues."
"(sigh) As you command, Kai-sama."
"…Yama-san… I promise you that one night you will be known as Yama-sensei again. In the meantime, I will let you choose the three adults who will help you with the rebuilding of the walls. You may choose any warrior, fisher or crafter except Taki; she will become your proxy as teacher. And before you start in again, yes, I know she used to need her toe-talons for counting past eight… But every night before you begin work on the wall you will go over the night's lessons with her, and if you wish you may have a similar meeting once classes and your work on the walls is over. That way you may ensure the lessons are still being taught properly, while still ensuring the walls are rebuilt in the most sturdy and respectable fashion. So, come to me tomorrow night with three names…"
"Konban wa, Kai-sama!"
"Konban wa, rookery keepers. How fare your precious charges tonight?"
"They are doing wonderfully, Kai-sama; we are detecting movement inside all fifteen of them now! Would you like to listen? This one is quite active at the moment…"
"I would indeed! …Ah, I hear it! Heh-heh, this one seems impatient to see the world…"
"As we are all so very eager to see it and the others break their shells. Our apprentices are most eager to put to good use all the lessons we've been giving them these past few years; indeed, with such eager keepers, we shall have to take care that the hatchlings are not spoiled rotten!"
"I trust to your wisdom in preventing that, Sakaki-san. Now, if we may speak in private…"
"Of course, Kai-sama." (and later, once they were alone) "Beloved, what news do you bring me, that puts such a sparkle in your eyes?"
"Merely the sight of you is enough for that, Sakaki-chan. That, and the new life I sensed within that egg… By chance, is that one…"
"Beloved, we agreed never to speak of that… but yes, it is! I'm sure it will become a great warrior someday… But are you quite sure you have no news for me? No news of any of the other gakuto, and their activities after the classes are over?"
"Why, which one are you referring to? Kawa, perhaps? Kado is quite pleased with his progress…"
"I speak of Sora, beloved, as I'm sure you know well. I spoke at length with her two nights ago…"
"Oh, her mentor is quite pleased with her progress as well."
"Kai-kun… I know a leader has no business meddling in affairs of the heart. I also know that if you do not tell me whether or not she has been to see Yama, I will tickle you until even the fishing fleet will hear your howls for mercy!"
"Agghh, not that! Well, as it so happens, not half an hour ago I just happened to notice her bringing Yama and his work crew some refreshments, after their hard work on the northern walls…"
"Kai-sama…" (after a quick look around to be sure they were alone) "Kai-kun, did I ever thank you for removing me from my teaching duties nearly three years ago?"
"Not that I can recall… So Sora finally hooked her talons in you, did she?"
"How did you guess?"
"Well, that silly grin you wear on your face when you think no one is looking is certainly a clue… When are you inviting her to a tea ceremony?"
"I just did! We'll have it at midnight tomorrow, and I'm going now to get the teahouse ready, and… I know we're different generations, but do you think…"
"Of course she'll say yes. Yama-kun, why do you think I took you out of the classroom during the gakusei hours in the first place? So you and she could become more than sensei and gakusei to each other, without scandal disturbing the rest of the clan. Sakaki saw this coming over three years ago, and we knew that if Sora really was the one for you, then I had to either find you another role to play in the clan, or risk serious impropriety developing once she matured enough to turn her thoughts into actions. So, do you think she's worth hauling stone and measuring mortar for at least three years in a row?"
"She's worth three centuries of such work! What I once felt for Yanagi compares to my love for Sora like… like a summer breeze to a hurricane! Gods, Kai-kun, every time she smiles at me, I feel like I could glide clear up to the moon… Wait a minute. If you… Kai-kun, I've known you since we broke shell together, and I can't believe you would have actually ordered somebody to crack those cornerstones, just to find an honorable task for me outside the classroom!"
"Did I say that I had? No, the walls were already in need of some repairs, so I just asked one or two of our human caretakers to go out during the day and… increase the amount of work needed on those walls, just a little. But as it turned out, they had slightly different ideas on 'just a little damage' than I did. Thank all the gods that they didn't get too enthusiastic about it…"
"Kai-kun, you and Sakaki together can become the sneakiest tengu to ever spread wings."
"Coming from the past master of 'sneaking away from the martial arts lessons', I'll take that as a compliment…"
"Yama-san, I would speak with you alone for a few moments."
"Of course, Kai-sama." And once they had gone to the other room together, "Kai-sama, forgive my presumption, but would this be about the northern walls? I offer my most sincere apologies and utter self-condemnation for having to temporarily halt the work again. Unfortunately, the local quarry--"
"No, this isn't about the walls, and I already know about the quarry situation. Yama-kun, as a rookery brother, you have got to tell me just what in the eight hells you and Sora were doing in the boathouse last night! We could hear you clear up to the temple, and when you came to your perch at dawn you looked like you'd been dragged behind a cart all night, but still grinning from ear to ear!"
"Oh, that! Well… Modesty forbids…"
"Oh, come on; I can tell you're just dying to tell somebody!"
"You know me too well, Kai-kun… But then, I know you too well too! Here, I already sketched it out for you," as he'd pulled a scroll of rice paper out of his yukata.
"…Well, this is different! And here I thought Sakaki and I had tried everything except underwater. …Honestly, Yama-kun, is this physically possible to maintain?"
"Well, you have to be very limber, and have a really strong tail-grip. But if you do…!"
"Kai-sama, the stonework crew is pleased to announce that the northern walls are now completely rebuilt. Would you care to inspect the work?"
"I shall. …Yes, these walls should easily last another five centuries, if not a solid thousand years! Well done, all of you! Now that this project is finished, you may return completely to your former duties. …All except for you, Yama-san. With Sora-san as your mate, it would be most improper to reinstate you as her teacher."
"For the remainder of this breeding cycle, you will join the warriors as a sentry, to proudly stand guard on these walls you have so admirably restored. Once Sora has graduated and become a full adult, and the current hatchlings become gakuto, you will be a sensei again…"
"…Barely enough to last us through to next harvest. We're going to have to send the fishing boats out farther, perhaps more to the north, in hopes of larger catches; we'll need a hefty surplus of fish to sell and trade via our human friends, to ensure we have enough to get through to the next harvest without strain."
"And perhaps ask the crafters to create more works of art to sell via the human market…"
"Always assuming, of course, that we are given fair value for them."
"It is an unfortunate truth that, with no students of Bushido for over ten years now, some of the day-dwelling members of this village are beginning to wander from the paths of honor."
"Yama-san? I can scarcely believe that remark came from your mouth! What has happened to make you say such a thing?"
"Eh, nothing; please forgive my speaking out of turn. If we are to sell artwork to survive, I would suggest asking Yanagi to produce more of her beautiful watercolors…"
The sound of a throat being cleared broke through the memory-voices harping on Kai's thoughts, and he ended his kata only to realize that his appointed hour in the dojo was nearly up, and Taiju was waiting for him to notice his second-in-command. Not that the clan would ever dream of kicking their own leader out of the dojo, but if he was going to stay there, the gakuto would have to either take their practice elsewhere or cancel that night's lessons. He sighed and reached out a hand for the towel that Taiju promptly tossed to him. "All right, I'm finished for tonight. I'll be out in a minute."
Taiju bowed to him, then asked rather delicately, "Has peace found your spirit?"
Kai sighed again as he mopped the sweat off his brow ridges. "Not as much as I'd hoped…"
"Perhaps a true sparring session would help? When I am troubled by some matter, I have often found that a flesh-and-blood opponent will focus my energies even more than a kata would. In sparring I am forced to concentrate on my opponent, not on my troubles, and when my attention returns to them later they sometimes seem not as troubling as they were before."
"I do appreciate the offer, Taiju-san, but…" Kai stopped toweling himself, and cocked a brow ridge in thought. "Actually, you may have something there…"
Four weeks later…
Sunset came to Ishimura accompanied by the roars of awakening gargoyles, just as it had for the last several hundred years. Once he finished shaking off the last few stone shards, Kai focused his eyes on Hiroshi, standing foremost among the humans waiting in the courtyard. He rushed through the usual greeting ritual they exchanged almost every evening, then lightly leaped down from his perch to land next to Hiroshi and asked tensely, "Do we have everything now?"
"Jiro brought in the last few cases of sake this morning," Hiroshi said with a respectful nod. "And the Amabe and Yugebe families have prepared enough sashimi and other fresh delicacies this afternoon to feed everyone in the village; added to what the clan made last night, we have nearly enough for the Midsummer and Midwinter Feasts."
"Good," Kai said as he looked off towards the east, to the forest where Yama had been living since his banishment. Kai had finally given in to his worries and personally done a discreet flyover two nights before, looking for his rookery brother. Staying high above the treetops as he searched, he'd finally spotted Yama running through a clearing on all fours, apparently running down some small game. Once he'd seen his brother without being seen, Kai had dropped a message tube and banked away, soaring back towards the village before it even hit the ground. He was sure that the noise would attract Yama's attention, and when he found the tube and opened it he would read the simple and terse message: Return in two nights, an hour after sunset. And tonight, in one hour, Yama would undoubtedly return…
As the night grew darker and darker, as the last vestiges of sunlight faded and were replaced by cold light of the rising moon, Yama shivered uncontrollably and clung tightly to Manekineko, his anchor and lifeline for most of the last three months. But cats don't like to be held tightly, and the more he clutched her the more she squirmed in his grip, until finally she gave an angry yowl and started kick-scratching, her hind legs pistoning out with claws unsheathed to rake against his stomach. That got his attention at last, and he yelped as he abruptly let her go. She twisted in midair to land on her feet, and bounded away with a parting hiss.
"I'm sorry!" he called futilely after her, and start to pursue before giving up with a sigh; he knew that if he ran after her now she'd just be even more spooked, and fight him even harder when he caught her. No, the best thing to do to mend their friendship would be for him to wait patiently at 'their' rock with hands ready for petting and perhaps some food to share; she'd come back in an hour or two. But in less than an hour, they were expecting him back at the village.
He'd never been such a nervous wreck in his life, not even before his mating ceremony; perhaps because this excited anticipation was flavored heavily with fear. Two nights before, when he'd heard that message tube hit the ground and looked up in time to glimpse Kai's familiar silhouette soaring over the treetops, he knew that the clan leader had seen him with obi intact, and seen that he was honorably obeying his restrictions. He was well on his way to regaining his honor; perhaps the elders of the clan would judge that even just enduring this banishment was enough to restore it, once they saw what was left of his wings after three months of binding. (Though it no longer pained him greatly to give his wings the very slight flexing allowed by the obi, he had no illusions about being able to glide immediately once it was taken off; it would likely take several nights of hard training before he'd be able to glide with ease again. If he ever could… no, don't think that, not yet!) But would he ever be truly forgiven for his crime against the clan? Would they welcome him back with open arms, or would he always be "Yama the Betrayer" in their eyes?
It was time to find out. He took one last regretful look into the stand of trees that Manekineko had hidden in, and sighed heavily before resolutely turning his back and heading for the village. If he was accepted back into the village, he would come back with food enough to tempt an army of cats, bring Manekineko into the village to live with him, and just spoil her rotten for the rest of her happy life. If he was not…
"He's coming!" A sharp-eyed sentry on the eastern wall called out, and the clan hurriedly got into position with a great rustling of wings and some nervous flexing of talons. Kai leaped to his perch and discreetly but nervously adjusted the heavy kimono and no-dachi he was once again wearing; he disliked wearing such heavy robes, but it was required of the clan leader, to mark such an important occasion. Once all the clan were in their places, Kai nodded to Jiro and Saburo, and the two human assistants swung open the great temple gates while the clan settled in to wait in silence.
Ten minutes later, feet shuffling slowly and tail dragging in the dirt, Yama came through the gates. He kept his head down, unable to see the clan all perched on the temple walls, perhaps not even seeing the humans and watchbeasts who lined those walls at their bases. When he had reached the center of the cleared courtyard, he fell to his knees and pressed his horns against the gravel, giving full obeisance towards the leader's usual perch. After several long seconds of silence, his voice lifted up, almost quavering: "Honored Leader of Ishimura… this most unworthy gargoyle humbly requests to be allowed to return to your clan."
Looking down on Yama from his perch, Kai kept his face impassive as he asked sternly, "Have you obeyed all the strictures of your punishment?"
"Kai-sama, I have."
All who were looking at Yama could see the obi, ragged at the edges but still intact, wrapped wide around his waist and binding his wings. But for the sake of custom and the gathered crowd, Kai nodded to Taiju and said curtly, "Check the knot."
Taiju leaped down to the courtyard, landing lightly beside Yama, and reached down to check the complicated knot he had tied in the obi three months ago. It was covered with bits of debris, but as he brushed to clear it away he could see plainly that the knot had been flattened, but was still tied in the same form. Taiju nodded to his leader in confirmation, then began to untie the knot.
Yama remained in the stance of obeisance as Taiju worked, not daring to raise his head yet. Kai's voice had been so stern, with no trace of the great-hearted friendliness he had always heard in that voice before his betrayal, and no one else had yet to say a word… Then Taiju spoke, just as he succeeded in undoing the knot. Or rather, he gasped in horror as he abruptly backed away from his work, "Ju ban kami!"
"What is it!" Kai demanded from his perch, even as Sakaki, who had developed nearly the sharpest eyes in the clan in her years of minding wily hatchlings, stuffed her fist to her mouth to muffle her own gasp of horror.
"H-his wings!" Taiju moaned as he stared at them, his expression sick. "Oh, gods…" Then he finished peeling the obi away, for all the clan to see what the obi had hidden for three full moons… and gasps of horror and dismay abounded.
Yama's wings were broken. The struts had snapped sometime during the first few agonizing nights of wearing the obi, and had healed crookedly; the formerly straight-as-arrows vanes were visibly as misaligned as a child's first scrawling attempts at a straight line. And the membranes of his wings were visibly thinner from where the obi had bound them on down to their tips, nearly thin as a moth's wing in some parts; Kai could have sworn as he saw Yama try to spread them that he could nearly see right through them. And even as Yama slowly tried to spread his wings, one of the membranes began to split at the thinnest point… Those wings could never hope to support the weight of a gargoyle in the air.
"Eight thousand hells!" ripped from Kai's throat as he forgot all form and propriety and leaped down from his perch, his face a mask of agony and grief for his rookery brother. He helped him to his feet, stammering, "Oh, Yama-kun, I-I'm sorry!"
"This is my fault," Taiju groaned as he slammed to his knees and covered his face with his hands, overcome with grief and guilt at the thought of having cost Yama the use of his wings forever. "I tied it too tight, I didn't know, I tied it too tight…"
"You did what was required," Yama said stoically, even as he leaned heavily on Kai's arm and gritted his teeth as he waited for the first tearing agony of his split membrane to dull somewhat. "Bushido demanded I suffer for my actions."
"One side, one side!" a dark blue gargoyle with many streaks of gray in his mane barked as he leaped into their midst. Kado, the clan's healer, fearlessly used his healer's status and his bat-style wings to shove Kai and Taiju aside, to step in and take a closer look at those wings. He frowned horrendously as he carefully, carefully examined the split membrane and the broken vanes. "The obi was indeed far too tight, and on for far too long! If not for stone sleep healing as much as could be healed every dawn, he would likely have lost his wings entirely! Hrrrmmm…. This will require much work. Many nights of hard and painful work."
"But… you can mend them? Enough that he can glide again?" Kai asked, hoping against hope.
"Possibly." Kado frowned even harder. "I make no guarantees, but… possibly."
Kai sighed. "Then there is hope…" He helped Yama to stand up straighter as he declared louder, for all to hear, "And whatever the outcome, I declare that what you have already endured was sufficient enough to restore your honor! Even in your agonies, you kept to the clan strictures when a lesser being would have shredded the obi, or come running back to have it loosened and re-tied; such obedience is the very essence of Bushido, and is worthy of the highest honor," as he bowed to Yama. Yama shakily returned the bow, then stood straight again as Kai declared in ringing tones, "Welcome back to the clan, Yama-san!"
The entire clan chorused a welcome, as they leaped down from the walls and joined the others in the clearing. Kai gestured for the human families and some of the younger clan members to come out of the temple with long tables heaped high with food, and the celebration began. Yama found himself placed in the seat of honor, on Kai's right side, as tray after tray of his favorite delicacies were brought before him by clan members bowing low and nearly giving obeisance to the one who had suffered so honorably.
For a short while Yama just met all their bows and words of welcome with a foolish grin, unable to believe his good fortune in being so completely forgiven his sins. But his smile began to fade, as he searched the clan thronged around them for the one face he loved most, but did not see… Finally, he turned to Kai and asked quietly but with urgency, "Where is Sora?"
As it happened, his words fell into a momentary lull in the conversation. Instantly, all talk died and all faces went expressionless. His own face a perfectly emotionless mask, Kai said simply, "She awaits you by the dock."
The very fact that Kai's face was so expressionless told Yama that something was seriously wrong. "Then… with your gracious permission, I would temporarily leave this gathering and seek out my mate," Yama said as he got to his feet again and gave a hurried bow. Kai nodded, his face still expressionless, and Yama hurried out of the courtyard filled with silence, heading for the boat dock.
After he'd left, Kai abruptly got to his feet and said tersely, "Continue without us." Then he also hurried out of the courtyard.
Hiroshi and Sakaki shared a grim glance between them, as Sakaki said, "If he returns with Yama in tow…"
Hiroshi gestured towards the table off to one side, on which rested nearly sixty liters of sake, as he said bluntly, "We have enough to get nearly the entire clan too drunk to glide."
Kai went after Yama as silently and as hurriedly as his formal kimono would allow, wishing it allowed him to lope on all fours just as Yama was doing in his hurry to be reunited with his mate. He stopped at the corner of the boathouse by the dock, to stand in a patch of shadow and observe, while Yama went on to the edge of the dock, where Sora stood looking resolutely out to sea. The cold light of the moon shone down upon her gleaming black mane and her shell-pink skin, making her more beautiful than ever from the rear view. Yama stopped a few paces away from her, and got to his feet as he said hesitantly, "Sora-chan? Sweet aisai?"
From the shadows where he was standing, Kai could have overheard their conversation if he'd chosen to, but he instead quietly recited to himself some of the principles of Bushido that had been drilled into him and Yama as gakuto together. He knew that it was not necessary for him to hear their words; he would know the outcome of this meeting by their faces and body language. And so, he saw Sora slowly turn around to face Yama, her face an emotionless mask… He saw their bodies shift and move, as they spoke to each other. Sora's body language was unrelentingly harsh and haughty; Yama's was first questioning, then shocked, then indignant and outraged, then outright pleading… Once he even spun around to show Sora what was left of his wings, what he had already suffered in order to return to her, and as Kai hastily stepped further into the shadows to avoid detection he thought he saw Sora's eyes go wide with horror and sympathy. But when Yama spun around again to confront her, her face went impassive again… Four more exchanges of words that Kai chose not to hear. Then Sora spun around with tail high, and Kai could hear all too plainly the whack-k! as the two tendrils at the tip whipped across Yama's face. He staggered back as Sora dashed away with her wings unfurling, running to the end of the dock. She swan-dove off the edge and caught a breeze, lifting her up into the sky to soar away, while Yama collapsed in a heap on the dock and sobbed broken-heartedly.
"Baita!" Kai hissed at her departing silhouette, digging his toe-talons into the wood underfoot and involuntarily ripping it to splinters. He had hoped against hope that she would change her mind when she actually saw him again, but… He held his ground while Yama curled up into a ball and cried, not wanting to shame his brother further by letting him know he'd seen the whole exchange, and was now watching his rookery brother cry like a little hatchling. But when Yama staggered to his feet and began stumbling towards the dock edge, Kai dashed out of the shadows and intercepted him before he could throw himself off the edge and drown.
"Let me go!" Yama sobbed as he struggled in Kai's iron grip, while Kai slowly dragged him away from the docks. "I have lost all that makes life worth living; why won't you let me die!"
"Because you have regained your honor, the entire clan knows it, and I am too stubborn to let you throw that away for the sake of that silly female," Kai said grimly. "Now come on; there's enough sake to get Gojiro drunk waiting for us at the temple…"
Abruptly, they both heard a hissing screech, and Kai yelped in pained surprise as he felt something pounce on his right wingtip. He shook it and whipped it back and forth to dislodge whatever creature had attacked him, but whatever it was hung on with a tiny but powerful grip, digging either fangs or claws or both into his wing membrane and outermost strut. He let go of Yama with one hand as he curled the wing forward, preparing to pound whatever it was into a bloody pulp before it shredded his wing, and was astonished to see that it was a half-grown mi-ke cat, snarling in fury as she bit into him and raked her tiny claws into his hide.
"Manekineko!" Yama abruptly stopped struggling to break free and swooped down to grab the cat, gently prying her off of Kai's right wing. "Tchaaa, tchaaa, little one… There, there, it's all right, he wasn't hurting me…"
"You… know that animal?" Kai said incredulously as he alternated between distastefully eyeing the cat, which was still growling at him and glaring through slitted eyes, and examining the damage done to his wingtip.
"Manekineko is my friend," Yama said simply as he cuddled her close, crooning as he rubbed behind her ears to soothe her. "She must have followed me back to the village, and when she found us she thought we were fighting… Such a good, loyal kitten, yes you are…"
"I take it you made her acquaintance during your banishment," Kai said dryly as he clamped his hands over the deepest scratches and tiny puncture wounds on his wingtip, to try to stop the bleeding. That half-grown kitten had a wicked set of claws and fangs!
"Without her, I probably would not have survived it," Yama said simply but sincerely. Then he lowered his head and his face crumpled into grief again. "Though now I wish I had not… Oh, Sora-chan…!"
Kai and the kitten eyed each other in skeptical evaluation for a moment, before Manekineko plainly dismissed him for more pressing concerns, and began purring forcefully while rubbing her chin against Yama's biceps. Kai realized abruptly that the kitten had the right idea, and put an arm around Yama's shoulders as he said, "I think your little friend is very glad you survived… and so am I. And we both want you to keep living, Yama-kun."
"For what?" Yama asked bluntly, as tears ran down his cheeks and into the cat's fur. "With no wings to dance across the sky on, no mate to dance with, and no hope of ever siring an egg for the next generation, what is the point of living?"
"Your wings may yet heal, and…" Kai paused, knowing that speculating about Sora's possible return to him would only be cruel. And a pointless lie; that tail-slap across his face had been too final an insult. Whether Sora was truly an unforgiving female, or whether she had been swayed to her course of action by her conniving rookery brothers, she would never go back to Yama after what had been said and done here tonight. And to suggest that Yama might find a mate again among the next generation was ridiculous; mates might choose each other across one rookery generation, but never two. Kai sighed, and finished, "And you have friends who still care about you. Does Constable Hiroshi, who has never flown without our help and whose wife has been three years dead and buried, moan and carry on about the worthlessness of his life? He does not, for he knows honor and friendship are reasons enough to keep living! And… Manekineko obviously thinks so as well, or she would not have followed you here, and even fought me for your sake!" (Some part of Kai reflected that he must really be desperate to convince Yama to keep living, to stoop to assigning noble and sentient traits to a cat… But then, the cat had dared to attack him, a creature easily twenty times its own size, for apparently no other reason than loyalty to Yama. Kai had never been all that fond of cats before, but for this one he just might change his opinion. ) "Would you desert your friend, after she has proven so loyal to you? Would you leave again the clan that has just welcomed you back with honor?" He gently urged Yama back towards the village. "Now come, let's get you cleaned up and into some new clothing while we bandage my wing, and then introduce your friend to the rest of the clan…"
He sneaked Yama into the rookery, where the new clothing Sakaki and her sisters had made for him were waiting. By the time Kai had gotten out of his formal robes and bandaged his wing, then chivvied Yama into donning his new yukata (easing the back slots carefully over his mangled wings) and combed the tangles from three months of living wild out of his mane, Yama had managed to compose himself enough that no trace of his heartbreak showed in his face as the two males reentered the courtyard. No comment was made by anyone on their nearly hour-long absence; looking around at the cheerful chaos that had erupted in that hour, Kai wondered if anyone had even noticed their return.
Always thinking ahead, Kai's ever-wise mate had organized some exceptionally rowdy games for the hatchlings and the village's human children that somehow involved nearly half the adults of both races as well, some in keeping score and order and the rest apparently as living goalposts. The children were having the times of their lives, and the adults that weren't enjoying themselves as well were at least so busy grumbling about the noise and dust being raised that they didn't even notice Kai and Yama returning, with Yama holding his kitten close to his heart. Manekineko, unused to such chaos and noise, was shivering and trying to burrow inside Yama's new clothes as they sat down at their seats of honor again. Sakaki noticed their return, glancing up while refereeing a squabble between two hatchlings, but was too busy to do more than send a brief but brilliant smile in Kai's direction for managing to get Yama so presentable-looking in such short order. Kai smiled back at her before turning back to Yama and quietly daring him to try the new dish waiting by Yama's bowl. "Hisame has been experimenting with the tempura batter again. Go on, I guarantee you'll be surprised…"
Inevitably, one of the hatchlings nearly stumbled into them while chasing after a ball, scaring little Manekineko into giving a warning hiss. That caught the hatchling's attention, and her delighted squeal of "Pretty kitty!" caught the attention of the others as well. Soon the entire clan was gathered around, and Kai put on his best 'Big Tough Leader' face and glowered the hatchlings and children into silence and stillness while Yama gravely introduced Manekineko to them. "She is not used to all of you yet, so you must be very gentle and quiet around her until she comes to know you better," Yama finished as he scratched behind the kitten's ears. The hatchlings all promised to keep very quiet around her (at which half of the adults raised hopeful eyebrows or brow ridges, while the other half subtly snorted in disbelief) before being permitted to gently pet her, one at a time. One or two of them even had the idea of bribing her affections with bits of sashimi, which were sniffed and considered before being devoured as worthy tributes.
Eventually, the human children were taken back to their homes to be put in their beds (protesting all the way that they weren't--yawwwwn!--sleepy….zzzzz), while the hatchlings were herded back to the rookery. Once they were gone and the gakuto and their teachers had departed to begin their nightly lessons, the remaining adults settled down for serious discussion. Earlier, Kai had thought it would also involve heavy drinking, particularly for Yama once faced with Sora's rejection; Kai had worried about him attempting seppuku on his own, and had ordered enough sake on hand to get him too drunk to even count his talons, let alone glide up to greet his last sunrise. But now that it was obvious Yama's wings would not carry him aloft for seppuku, and Yama seemed to be resigned to the idea of living for Manekineko's sake as well as the clan's, Kai quietly had about two-thirds of the sake put back into storage. And he had a quiet word with Taki, Taiju's mate, about taking him away somewhere to sober up. His second-in-command, undoubtedly consumed with guilt over the state of Yama's wings, was getting thoroughly drunk in a corner, and Kai knew that right now, Yama needed hard talk about the future and solutions to his problems more than he needed another sake-soaked blubbering apology.
Kado had dug out all his scrolls of gargoyle anatomy and medicine, over two thousand years' worth of knowledge accumulated by past healers, and after studying the pertinent ones he declared that he had an idea of what it would take to make Yama's wings useable again. "A minimum of three surgical operations on each wing, each one at least ten nights apart and done just before dawn, with strengthening exercises between each surgery session," was his considered opinion. "The first will be the most painful; we will have to re-break your struts, and set them properly so they heal in proper alignment."
Yama paled, but downed his cup of sake in a gulp and said determinedly, "If it is to be done, there is no sense waiting for another night."
"Ah, but there is a very good reason for waiting at least seven nights," as Kado frowned pointedly at Yama's skinny torso, and the yukata that overlapped much further than the clan's clothiers had thought it would when they'd made it. "You have lost too much weight in the last three months; surgery right now would weaken you further, and I can not guarantee that you would survive it. For the next seven nights, you are to eat everything that is set in front of you, and exercise enough to put the food on your bones as muscle instead of fat. Only when you are fit in all except your wings will we begin."
"The healer orders, and the elder concurs," Miya said as she firmly took Yama's sake cup away and set another bowl of chawan-mushi in front of him. "Eat, you scrawny hatchling!" Quiet chuckles arose from around them as Yama meekly set to eating again, while Miya considerately put a little bit of chawan-mushi down for Manekineko to try as well.
A short while later, after most of the adults had left for other pursuits, Yama had begged off from eating another bite and Miya had finally relented and taken the dishes away for cleaning, her aged mate Setsu came over and gruffly commanded, "Stand up, scrawny hatchling." Yama rolled his eyes at the 'scrawny hatchling' comment--coming from Miya that first time, it had been a little funny, but repetition had dulled the humor--but obediently stood up. Setsu looked him up and down, then grunted--and threw a punch at him.
No one had been expecting that, especially not Yama; the blow sent him sprawling. The few adults still gathered all gasped or rose to their feet in outrage, but Setsu waved them back and stood patiently waiting for Yama to get up. His eyes glowing with outrage and anger, Yama got to his feet and demanded, "What was that for!"
Setsu cocked his head to one side and inquired softly, "Why did you not block that?"
"I wasn't expecting it!"
"Why did you not block that punch?" he repeated.
"Have you gone deaf as well as mad!" Yama snarled at him, his tail lashing with rage. "I just said…" His voice trailed away, as memory came back… and he stood silent with eyes downcast, looking thoroughly rebuked.
"Your foe will not often warn you of an attack; you must learn to be always ready," Setsu quoted one of the rules of combat that gargoyles had always drilled into their gakuto.
"Hai, sensei," Yama said softly with his gaze fixed on the dirt.
Setsu nodded approvingly at the honorific, then spoke again. "When you were a gakusei, too often you left your lessons and practice sessions to wander about and explore or watch the television. If you had studied your martial arts lessons under my tutelage as diligently as Kai, your battle with Taro would have been over in less time than it takes to say so. Instead, when our leader was most dishonorably drugged, you came entirely too close to dying in your efforts to subdue one solitary mockery-of-a-samurai. Yes, his weapons were dangerous…"
"But the most dangerous weapon is the mind," Yama finished with a sigh.
"So you remember at least some of your lessons! So… while you are ground-bound, once again you are my pupil. And this time I shall turn you into the great warrior you were always meant to be! Kado has said you must exercise every night, to turn all the food my mate stuffs down your gullet to good muscle instead of fat. You have one hour to digest your meal, and then we will begin."
For the next seven nights, Yama was either sitting down to eat whatever Miya and her helpers were setting before him, or undertaking martial arts lessons with Setsu. At nearly 140 years old, Setsu was not as strong or as quick as he had been in his long-ago youth, and had lost a little of his stamina as well, but he was still one of the deadliest fighters the clan had ever seen. He had taught martial arts to three rookery generations of gargoyles before retiring, and had once been offered the role of clan leader but had politely turned it down, stating he had neither the patience nor the tact for dealing with all a leader's responsibilities. (Setsu's many students would fervently agree while rubbing their heads or ears, remembering past ear-blistering tirades or head-ringing swats received when they had made careless mistakes in practice.)
Yama received plenty of both tirades and swats in the next seven nights, while Setsu repeatedly drilled him in the basics of the six different bujutsu (martial disciplines) practiced by the Ishimura clan: jujutsu (grappling/wrestling), karate (striking/kicking/ tail-lashing), kenjutsu (sword-fighting), bojutsu (staff-fighting), kyuujutsu (archery) and shuriken-jutsu (use of throwing weapons). Yama knew well that he'd never been a great warrior, but he was appalled to realize how much his mediocre skills had slackened in the last two decades, since he and his classmates had been declared adults and graduates… and even more appalled to realize that for his re-training process, Setsu meant to compress the twenty-four years of martial arts lessons that most gargoyle warriors underwent into just a few months!
On the seventh night after his return to the clan, Kado looked him over, prodded his ribs and shook his head, saying, "Still a little too thin for my liking. Another week, perhaps."
"I'm not sure I'll even be alive in another week," Yama groaned, just before Setsu grabbed him by the ear like a disobedient hatchling, to drag him off to another session. "Sensei, please, not by the ear! I'm taller than you now, and if you keep pulling down on it you're going to rip it right off…"
Kai had a few discreet words with Miya at the same time, well out of Yama's range of hearing. "Miya-dono, perhaps you should have a quiet word with your mate. I tasked you both with keeping Yama too busy to even think about Sora for the next few months, but not to work him to the point of constant exhaustion."
"Trust my mate with his pupil, Kai-sama," Miya said with quiet dignity. "What we are doing is what Yama needs right now; all will be made clear in time."
In the meantime, Miya kept an eye on Manekineko for Yama, spoiling her rotten with tidbits of sashimi, chawan-mushi and other delicacies, and carefully introducing her to the other cats of the clan. Manekineko received a few 'combat lessons' as well from the other cats, but gave as good as she got and soon found her place in their subtle hierarchy. She learned to tolerate the clan hatchlings as well, and soon was behaving as if she'd been raised among them all her life. But according to the clan's human caretakers, she still could often be found curled up on Yama's stone lap during the day, as if they were still alone in the woods together. (Yama raised more than a few brow ridges with his new habit of sitting down instead of taking a fighting stance to greet the dawn properly, but Sakaki very discreetly reminded them that banishment frequently unbalanced gargoyle minds in one way or another, and this was far better than constant meaningless babble or other behavioral oddities.)
Once he was judged fit enough, an hour before dawn, Yama was drugged unconscious and laid face-down across a table as Kado and his apprentice carefully and grimly re-broke his wings, each crooked strut and vane, and set them in splints to keep them straight before dawn. They finished just before the sun rose, and as Kado stepped back from the table he muttered scandalously, "There are times when I think the weight of Bushido is too great for even gargoyles to fully bear."
Even though his status as clan leader would have given him the privilege to observe the healer's work, Kai had found himself unable to watch as his old friend's bones were deliberately broken. But when he was told the work was done, he hurried over to them and asked anxiously, with one glance at Yama's pale face as he still slept the sleep of the drugged and the masses of splints applied to his wings, "Will it work? Will he be able to glide again?"
Kado shrugged. "It is too early to tell. Even the next sunset will not tell us; his membranes must be stretched and strengthened again, and that will take many more nights. And two of those breaks involved not just the bones but the joints; I honestly do not know yet whether they will heal properly. Only when he tries to flex those joints will we know…"
Weeks passed, and turned into months. Yama ate like a trio of hatchlings under Miya's watchful eye, exercised and studied combat under Setsu's stern tutelage nearly every minute he wasn't eating, and periodically submitted to the well-meaning tortures of Kado and his apprentice as they worked on his wings. Finally, nearly two months after his return to the clan, Kado grudgingly gave permission for him to try once more to glide.
Kai ordered everybody but himself, Yama, Kado and his apprentice off the temple grounds for the occasion. It was in direct violation of clan tradition, for the first solo flights of hatchlings are traditionally witnessed by all the clan assembled, but Kai argued that this was a different matter entirely, more of the healer's domain, and a healer's work was usually done in private. Kado and Sakaki loudly agreed with him, and so the rest of the clan went on a massive fishing expedition or into the woods for tracking lessons and hatchling games. Just before Sakaki herded her hatchlings into the woods, she brushed her knuckles against Kai's brow ridge as she whispered that she knew the real reason Kai wanted privacy; so Yama wouldn't feel shamed in front of everybody if he found himself unable to glide well after all. "And so you can call him 'Yama-kun' and make a fuss over him as much as you want, without anybody whispering about such un-leader-like behavior," she teased gently.
Kai smiled ruefully before leaning down so they could rub ridges together. "You know me too well, Sakaki-chan."
"As a mate should," she purred smugly, before returning to the hatchlings, who were all excited about their upcoming trip to the forest.
Down in the temple courtyard, Yama held Manekineko and rubbed his cheek against her fur, while she purred at top volume for him and occasionally licked his pointed ears. "Wish me luck, Manekineko-chan," he whispered to her, before finally setting her down and beginning the climb up the nearest wall to the temple roof. Manekineko cocked her head at him enquiringly, then scampered away.
Kai already circled low over the temple, while a third gargoyle with a bright orange hide, a rakish mop of a black mane and a prominent beak circled nearby; Kado's apprentice, Kawa. If Yama began to falter in flight for any reason, they were prepared to swoop in and grab him before he could hit the ground. Kado himself waited on the ground, ready with his emergency kit in case the worst happened. Kai swooped low overhead as Yama reached the rooftop and said softly, "Nervous, Yama-kun?"
"Very," Yama admitted. "I know it's ridiculous, I've been gliding for decades, but this will be the first time in over five full moons…"
Kai grinned at him and spun a tight circle, to whip his spade-tipped tail past not three feet from Yama's face. "Want to catch my tail for a tow-start?" It was a popular way to get nervous hatchlings into the air.
Yama grinned back and took a swipe at it, deliberately missing as he mock-growled, "If I catch your tail, I'll shred it like a cat with a yarn toy!" And they both broke into chuckles.
Then Kai gave a small start of surprise, and pointed. "Speaking of cats…" Yama turned to look where Kai was pointing, and saw Manekineko making the prodigious leap from a low-slung outbuilding roof up to the edge of the main temple roof (the favored climbing route for cats.) "I think Manekineko feels that you should be taking your luck-bringer along for this flight," Kai said amusedly as the cat scampered up to Yama.
" 'Neko-chan, I left you down on the ground for a reason," Yama scolded her gently as he nonetheless picked her up and cuddled her for a few moments, murmuring sweet nonsense as she purred for him. He might have continued to cuddle her there, delaying the inevitable, but Kai pointedly cleared his throat and commented about the winds beginning to shift. Yama gave him a dirty look but still shifted his grip on Manekineko to hold her gently to his chest, as he shifted to face the breeze. Then he took a deep breath and flared his wings, crouched, and sprang into the air.
Swooping low alongside, Kai could see with his sharp eyes how Manekineko's eyes bulged with fright as she dug her claws into Yama's yukata; this cat was not happy at the moment. But she didn't yowl, and the clan's weavers and tailors had thoughtfully reinforced the front and shoulders of Yama's yukata with extra layers of fabric just for bearing Manekineko's claws; Yama was not hurt or distracted by her, as he caught the breeze in his wings and began to glide. He had a bad moment at first, faltering as his wings shifted for the right angle to suit the currents of air, but quickly recovered. First grinning wildly, then bellowing for sheer joy, he soared up into the sky with Kai alongside.
"No fancy stunts tonight; level flight only!" Kado bellowed anxiously up from the ground. The healer was worried that overconfidence and sheer joy would have Yama attempting stunts that his wings weren't ready for yet.
"Listen to the healer, Yama-san," Kai called to him, when it looked like Yama was tempted to do a loop or two anyway. Then he added in a burst of inspiration, "And this is her first time; go easy on your poor passenger…"
"All right, I get the message," Yama said with a rueful grin. He descended down to the courtyard in a gentle spiral, with Kai following just above him. "It's okay, Manekineko-chan, you'll be on the ground soon, and I'll give you all the sashimi you can eat for being so brave…"
Yama's attention was concentrated both on maintaining his glide angle and on his frightened passenger, but Kai alternated between keeping an eye on his friend and on looking around for onlookers. He was sure that despite his orders, at least one or two members of the clan were watching from the trees or from nearby rooftops. And sure enough, his gaze fell upon Setsu and Miya, watching from the roof of Hiroshi's house and beaming at Yama as proudly as rookery keepers at a hatchling's first successful flight. Well, after all they had done for him, Kai could hardly begrudge their interest. But then his eyes caught a flash of bright pink, from a treetop at the edge of the forest…
Sora was watching as well.
After rewarding Manekineko for her bravery and the luck she had brought, the four males went down to the bathhouse to celebrate the successful flight and to give Yama's wings a good soaking in hot water; they were more than a little sore, after their first vigorous use in so long. "But it's a wonderful soreness," Yama sighed happily as he relaxed in the hot bath and blissfully closed his eyes. "I tell you, Kai-kun, I was really… er…" as he realized his inadvertent faux pas at addressing his leader so familiarly in public, and opened his eyes to look uneasily at Kado and Kawa.
"How distressing, I find that I have gone selectively deaf," Kado said easily from his corner of the giant tub, without even opening his eyes. "And it must be a communicable disease, for my apprentice has caught it too." Kawa hastily agreed.
"I recommend lots of sake for treatment," Kai said with a grin as he passed around a bottle and cups.
"Physician, heal thyself," Kado quoted with a smile before he downed his cup of sake. "Nope, didn't work. Better try another dose…"
"For the love of all the gods, Yama-kun, while we're in here you can call me whatever you like," Kai said as he poured himself another cupful before passing the bottle to Kado again. "There are times when I need to hear 'Kai-kun' from somebody; I'm a gargoyle, not a god-emperor."
"True enough," Yama admitted as he held his cup out for a refill. "A gargoyle who still has feet bigger than his wings..."
"They are not!" Kai protested, even as he grinned from ear to ear at the familiar teasing.
"True enough, since you have no membranes between your toes," Yama admitted. "But if the clan ever strapped kites to your feet, Kai-kun, you could keep your wings furled and go gliding upside-down!"
Kawa had been basically silent in his corner of the tub at first; he was of Sora's generation, and didn't dare to be so familiar with the gargoyle who had been his leader for nearly as long as he could remember. But at Yama's retort he almost choked on his sake as he burst into laughter, the image that brought to mind being just too ridiculous.
Kai pretended to pout, even as he brought one of his gigantic feet out of the water for viewing; he had to admit, they were huge even for a gargoyle of his height. Only Goliath, the gaijin gargoyle that had visited them five months ago, had bigger feet than he did; Kai had been tempted to ask him if he had also endured a lot of teasing over them as a hatchling, but had never really gotten familiar enough with him to ask. "At least Sakaki likes my feet…" Then he grinned wickedly. "And she really likes the 'maleroot' that comes with feet this big."
"Or so the noise you two made on your mating flight would have us all believe," Yama said dryly. "I think old Morin still blames you both for the glass in her hand mirror breaking that night…"
"It's very possible," Kai admitted with a grin. Then he noticed that Yama had gone silent, and knew that the talk of mates and mating flights had turned his thoughts to Sora. He mentally gave himself a tail-slap, then cast about for another topic.
Before he could think of a distraction, Yama said abruptly, "I dearly wish I could blame all my losses on Taro, but I can't. All that happened was of my own doing."
"Pigeon droppings," Kado snorted, again without opening his eyes. "Taro tricked you like a tengu with a farmer, from start to finish. Though I will admit that his schemes wouldn't have gone as far as they had if you hadn't been willing to be duped, and been so eager to see more of the world outside that you bought his sack-of-droppings about bringing the outside world safely to you…"
"Kado's right, Yama," Kai said seriously as he settled back into the water. "While you were in the forest, Hiroshi did a lot of investigating, into what Taro had been up to for the past year… And he found the tape recordings Taro had made, of the villagers 'grumbling' about our living here. That's what Taro played for you, to first convince you that the villagers would be glad to see the tail ends of us all, am I right? Hiroshi went to each villager whose voice he recognized, and discovered that those tapes were--what was the phrase?--'spliced together' from fragments of different conversations, everything from grumbling about their own children's misbehavior to worrying about how lean the harvest was two years ago. For instance, Yoshida Shiro swore an oath on his ancestors that his recorded voice saying 'I wish to be rid of those gargoyles' was the combining of two other sentences: 'I wish to be rid of those rats in my barn,' when he bought that ultrasonic vermin-scaring system from Taro, and his later telling him 'I can't use this, because it affects the gargoyles' when he found out how much that accursed device was irritating us when we flew overhead, even though we couldn't quite hear it either."
Yama looked at him wide-eyed, then at Kado and Kawa as they nodded in confirmation, then groaned and sank below the water's surface. After a second or two Kai reached down to pull him back up by his mane, and Yama surfaced cursing himself. "Bakawomiru me! I am an utter idiot! A scramble-brained hatchling with bits of shell still behind my ears!"
"Entirely possible," Kado said dryly.
"The whole mess could have been avoided, if you had just asked Taro for those tapes so you could play them for me," Kai said seriously. "If I'd heard them, I would have called for a joint council to clear the air between the races, and we would have found out then that the tapes were false."
"I did ask for them," Yama groaned as he sank back again, "but Taro said he was ashamed of having made those secret recordings even though it was for our benefit, and worried that the villagers would commit violence against either him or us once those tapes and their 'dishonorable conduct' were discovered. And I believed him!"
Kai playfully pulled him over by a horn, and pretended to look behind his ears. "Yes, there's still a few bits of shell left there. Let's rinse them out," as he dunked Yama beneath the water again.
"Hatchlings, both of you," Kado said with a sorrowful shake of his head, but his eyes sparkled with secret approval. Kai knew Kado had unashamedly used his healer's status more than once to tell Kai he really needed to relax more, that even the Emperor granted himself a private garden to play in.
Grinning, Kai pulled Yama back up by his mane, and when he came up sputtering Kai asked solicitously, "Are all the shell bits rinsed out yet?"
Yama splashed him in reply, and that started a water-fight that they even managed to get Kawa involved in, while Kado held onto the sake (strictly for safekeeping, of course.) They finished it by ganging up on Kawa together, and in short order were holding him upside-down over the water, threatening to dunk him unless he recited his healer's oath, word-perfect but backwards. He rapidly recited it and Kado grudgingly admitted he'd gotten it right, so they let him go. Kado seriously explained to Kawa while he was recovering his breath, "You are in the process of learning one of the fundamental truths of healing, that the spirit must be healed as well as the body. Playful antics and laughter have their place in healing, just as ginseng and other medicines."
"Hai, Sensei," Kawa gasped as he eyed Kai and Yama warily, just in case they were in the mood for more.
Instead of committing more mischief on him, Kai and Yama retreated to their side of the great tub as they chuckled together, both remembering their happy hatchling years. But after a short while Yama grew somber again. "I still should have been honest with you about what Taro and I were planning, or about what I thought we were planning… and I should have been honest with Sora. We'd been eight years mated already by the time Taro first came to me; I should have trusted her!"
"And we've been close since we broke shell together," Kai said seriously. "It was like a katana through my heart, when I found out how much you had been withholding from me, not just from your leader but from your brother…" When Yama ducked his head in shame, Kai pulled him back up by a horn to say, "but I know you felt as though I was smothering you, by continuing to keep you with us when you were nearly desperate to see more of the world than just this village holds. So… I have forgiven you, but can you forgive me?"
Yama clasped forearms with him as he said with a voice rough with emotion, "Kai-kun, need you even ask?"
"So that's settled between us. And the villagers forgave you for your part in the incident, once they heard that tape and realized how Taro had tricked you. And the clan has likewise been satisfied that your honor is restored…" Kai took a deep breath, and continued, "And I've been talking with Hiroshi. It will be a little tricky to arrange, but we think there's a way for you to accompany him on his next annual trip to Tokyo. You'll have to pretend to be a garden statue by day, and move in stealth at night, but you'll be able to explore much of the city if you're very careful. Are you interested?"
But to Kai's vast surprise, Yama smiled ruefully and shook his head. "After having been so easily tricked once already, and by one whom I should have known better than to trust? I no longer trust myself not to make a foolish mistake once I'm away from the village. If I should accidentally reveal myself to a stranger, or worse yet, a stranger with intentions like Taro… Thank you, Kai-kun, for your gesture is truly thoughtful, but… perhaps another year," as he leaned back and closed his eyes.
"Well…" Kai floundered for another subject for a moment, still a little shocked and more than a little dismayed by his brother's change of heart. He knew the banishment would change him to some degree, but not that much… Well, it would make for a more peaceful clan in the future, and the welfare of the clan must always be a leader's first thought. Then he shoved such leader-like thoughts aside for the moment; soon enough he'd have to go back outside, and have to hear 'Kai-sama' and say 'Yama-san' again. In the meantime… "I think you might be interested to know that your flight was observed by a few clan members after all. I saw Miya and Setsu watching you from Hiroshi's roof, and grinning like they'd been the ones to first teach you what your wings are for."
"That's nice to know," Yama said with a fond smile, eyes still closed. The smiled turned wry as he added, "Though Setsu was probably just happy to know that now he can start drilling me in aerial combat too…"
"Quite possibly," Kai allowed. Then he added casually, "And by the way, Sora was watching too."
Yama's eyes shot open as he sat bolt upright again, to stare at Kai hopefully. "She was? Really?"
"Really. She was perched in a tree at the forest's edge, too far away for me to make out her expression, but it was definitely her."
Yama's wings were shivering with emotion. "She… she and I have avoided each other's company since… since the night of my return; contact between us is still too painful. But… do you think this means she still cares about me? That there's hope that she might change her mind, forgive me and accept me again?"
"It's a possibility… I would not give you false hope, Yama-kun, but she was definitely watching you."
On the other side of the tub, Kawa hesitantly cleared his throat. When both Yama and Kai turned his way, he blushed and dipped his beak nearly to the water, but spoke up. "Ah, pardon my interruption, but… speaking as Sora's rookery sibling…"
"Please do," Kai nodded encouragingly.
"Sora has always been the most stubborn of my rookery sisters. Once set in her course, she is hard to sway."
"Too true," Yama admitted with a sigh. "Though during our courtship I was so very glad of that, for I could scarcely believe that a beautiful young female like her could be truly interested in my admittedly scrawny and homely self... If she had not persisted in her attentions, and had instead waited meekly for me to begin properly courting her, then we might never have become mates in the first place."
"With that stubbornness has always come great pride, and a fierce temper, though she usually hides both behind her fan," Kawa went on. When Yama nodded again in agreement, Kawa continued, "Though she has not confided directly in me, and I do not claim to have read her mind… Her pride was wounded as well as her heart when she discovered how easily you had hidden your intentions from her, and I feel that wounded pride, as well as Botan and Anzu, may have played a part in her decision to do the dismating ritual. And once she had begun it, even once she saw most of the clan disapproved, her sheer stubbornness ensured it would continue… With, I believe, even more words of encouragement from Botan and Anzu. Although they did not go near her as per your orders, Kai-sama, my brother Kenun told me that he once saw Botan wrap a message on rice paper around Sora's chopsticks… Anyway, I believe that she does still have some feeling for you, though she buries it deep in her stubbornness, her determination to stay firm to her decision. And although Botan and Anzu both have been swarming about her like sharks circling a wounded swimmer for the past month, she has yet to even tip her fan to either of them."
At mention of the behavior of Botan and Anzu, who had indeed begun openly courting Sora once the three-month ban imposed by Kai had passed, Yama's eyes began to glow white with rage, but the glow faded when Kawa spoke of Sora's reaction. Now he said slowly, "She has not? No interest or encouragement to them at all?"
"Not that I have seen. While she is apparently determined not to simply take you back as her mate of long standing once more, perhaps… Well, perhaps she might not be adverse to your, uh, starting over? Courting her again?"
"That's a good idea, Yama-kun," Kai said with interest. "Remind her of all the qualities that brought her to love you in the first place!" Then a thought struck him, and he cocked a brow ridge inquiringly at Kawa. "Though your words of encouragement surprise me, Kawa-san; one normally would expect you to favor your rookery brothers over mine."
Kawa dipped his beak down to the water again in an embarrassed manner. "I know. But my own mate, Mizuumi, feels that our sister would be happier with Yama again than she would be with either Botan or Anzu. Though Mizuumi's opinion may have been influenced by their past treatment of her, the way they used to tease her cruelly for her misshapen horn when we were all hatchlings together. And… forgive my indiscretion, Yama-san, but when we drugged you for operating on your wings, Kado-sensei and I both heard how you cried out for Sora in your drugged confusion, begging her forgiveness…"
Yama blushed and looked at the water for a few moments himself, before looking up and smiling wryly. "Well, that probably comes as no surprise."
"Not to me," Kai said gently. "So… I know well how skilled you are at poetry, Yama-kun; you could have taught reading, writing and literature for the gakuto as well as math and science, if that were not already Yasou's duty. Perhaps you might 'soften her up first' with a few poems for her; if she reads them and does not publicly shred or burn them, I would take that as a hopeful sign…"
Yama surged out of the water like a dolphin leaping for a treat from the fishers, and grabbed for his towels and his clothing as his feet hit the floor next to the tub. "Kai-kun, if anyone comes looking for me for the rest of the night, I'll be in the classroom with ink and paper…"
When the clan assembled again just before dawn, Kai was secretly pleased to see a folded note left weighted down by a shard of stone on Sora's normal perch, now that she perched with the other gakuto instead of near Yama. But of course, since a clan leader has no jurisdiction over matters of the heart, he pretended not to notice it and simply waited for the rest of the clan to take their places.
Sora arrived at her perch less than a minute before dawn, flanked by Botan and Anzu as if she were the Empress of Heaven and they were her bodyguards. Her face was perfectly expressionless as she alighted, which Kai knew could mean anything from being secretly pleased to highly annoyed by the close attentions of her rookery brothers. Then her eyes lit upon the note pinned down by the shard, and even from his perch across the courtyard Kai could see the surprise and interest in her eyes.
Kai slid his glance sideways, to where Yama was perched. He had taken what had become his usual seating position, to pet Manekineko for a while before going to stone sleep for the day, but his hand was barely brushing her fur and his gaze was riveted on Sora's face. Kai could almost hear Yama's thoughts, as she saw the bold brush strokes of her name done in Yama's style; please, Sora-chan, read it! Read it, and remember what we once had…
Sora was not the only one to notice that note. Botan and Anzu saw it as well, and while slow-witted Anzu's face registered only confusion, it was obvious by Botan's expression that he instantly recognized Yama's bold style of kanji, distinctive and no doubt easily recognizable to his former pupils. Recognized the writing, and what the note signified; Botan's eyes slitted and his fangs silently bared as he all but snarled with jealous rage and hatred for a brief instant, before smoothing to perfect composure again. Kai saw the expression, though, and knew in an instant that Botan was Yama's main competition for Sora's heart. Kai wondered how many such notes Botan had left, to persuade Sora to continue with the dismating; no doubt there had been far more than the one Kenun had observed.
Before Sora could reach down and pick up the note, Botan gave a quick glance to the sky, then gave an example of the craftiness that Kusa had once commented on, when relating how the gakuto were doing in their martial arts and Bushido classes. He said with some urgency, "Sora-chan, what is that thing in your mane?"
"My mane?" Sora automatically reached her hand up and backwards, instead of down for the note.
"It looks like a moth's wing; please, permit me to assist you," as Botan reached his hands familiarly into her mane before she could protest. "It would not do to have an innocent moth trapped in your lustrous black strands before going to stone sleep… Ah, almost got it out… Oh, my mistake, Sora-chan, it is only a bit of a leaf, blown in by the breeze that wished to caress those silken strands."
His perch was closer to Yama's than their perches; Kai could hear plainly the low growl that Yama was trying mightily--but failing--to suppress at the sight of another male stroking his beloved's mane like that.
"Botan-san, your… concern is… appreciated, but unnecessary," Sora said as she jerked her head away from his hand. While her verbal response was polite enough, she pointedly spent a few seconds combing through her mane with her talons; that could be interpreted as trying to rid herself of something that Botan had left in her mane, such as the very memory of his talons having been there. And Kai had noticed, as he hoped Yama had, that Sora had said Botan-san, not Botan-chan.
Botan's eyes flashed with anger at the implied insult Sora had just given, but Kai could also have sworn that he had an air of satisfaction about him. But why? He didn't dare pick up that paper himself and try to get rid of it before she could read it, not with the entire clan assembled around them both. All he'd done was delay the inevitable for the span of a day, which was really no time at all to gargoyles, Kai thought as he hastily gave the traditional "Until sunset, my friends!" to Hiroshi and the others gathered below, then struck a fierce pose for the day. Then he heard the rumble of thunder coming in from off the ocean, and understood with a jolt of dismay, his last thoughts before they were silenced by stone…
It was going to rain.
By sunset, the note at Sora's feet was largely a ruin of sodden pulp and ink.
Sora's face registered a moment's pure dismay and disappointment when she finished shedding her stone skin and saw the ruin of the note, before it went utterly impassive again. Anzu actually said, "Aw, too bad," but Botan immediately distracted both of them with an idea of checking out what work the humans had done during the day on one of the fishing boats. And as they all turned and left their perches, Botan's tail 'accidentally' swept out and knocked the remains of the note down to the courtyard, to mix with the gravel there and be forgotten. Kai had to recite to himself the clan leader's principle of non-involvement in matters of the heart, three times, to keep himself from hauling Botan back by his mane and beating the gravel out of him for such dishonorable behavior.
Kai never learned of Yama's initial reaction to Botan's actions or what he might have done next, because by the time he had finished cooling off from his own surge of anger and felt ready to be a clan leader again, Setsu had hopped over to Yama's perch and was informing him in no uncertain terms that while the sensei had given his pupil one night off in celebration of his regained ability to glide, his course of instruction was by no means over. "I will see you in our usual clearing in less than five minutes, or I will see you dragged there by your tail!"
Yama protested, "But, Sensei…! Look, I'm sure you can't wait to improve my skills in aerial combat now that I can glide again, but I have something important to-"
"Four minutes and counting!"
"Setsu-san… make that fifteen minutes," Kai's voice rang out in no uncertain terms. "I wish to speak to you first."
Setsu glanced at him, then said to Yama, "Fifteen minutes!" Then he went over to Kai's perch and bowed respectfully.
Kai inclined his head, indicating he wanted to talk to Setsu somewhere more private. They retreated to a room inside the temple, and once they were there Kai said to Setsu, "Setsu-san, I have noticed what great progress you have made in Yama's re-training as a warrior; his kata flows as smooth as the finest silk. But since I still intend for Yama to become a teacher again once the current crop of hatchlings become gakuto, perhaps what he has already learned will suffice to keep him in training as a reserve warrior, if ever the clan is called to battle again."
Setsu bowed deeply. "If you so command, Kai-sama, I will cease my work with Yama this very night. However, pardon my presumptiveness, if I do so he may not win the greatest battle of his life; the battle for his beloved Sora's heart."
Kai blinked at him. "How so? Surely you can not mean he is to actually engage in combat for her, as if she were a graduation trophy…" Even the Yankee humans weren't that barbaric anymore.
"Not quite," Setsu said with a slight shake of his head. "But may I assume that you witnessed Botan's behavior at dawn, and upon awakening?"
Kai said with a hint of growl to his voice, "You may."
"Such behavior is, I regret to say, not entirely atypical of him. While I retired from teaching martial arts when you and your siblings became full adults, I have assisted Kusa in her teaching from time to time, and have simply observed many times more. Botan regards the concepts of Bushido as rules to be used or discarded at a whim, not as the true way of the warrior. But he is very skilled in combat… and he is crafty enough that even I, watching from a different angle than Kusa, have not always been successful in determining exactly when he is using disallowed and dishonorable moves on his siblings in order to win a match. And with his silver tongue he is often able to side-step the righteous wrath of those he has wronged, and on more than one occasion has persuaded them that their injuries were from their own moves being performed improperly."
Kai's eyes burned white as he rumbled, "He dares to… Why has no one told me before now that we have another Taro standing on our very perches!"
Setsu coughed once and looked off to the side. "Kai-sama, to suggest dishonorable behavior of a gakusei when there is no hard evidence, and when frequently the one who was wronged has been persuaded otherwise… Would you have accepted Kusa's word for it?"
Kai looked off to one side as well for a moment, then reluctantly admitted, "Not easily. But after what I saw at dawn, and just now…"
"Yes; he showed his true nature most blatantly for once. But doubtless that was deliberate; I am sure that Botan intended for Yama to witness all, as a deliberate insult. Those two have never been fond of each other, since the first year of his instruction when Botan was caught cheating on a simple math test."
"I remember that," Kai said thoughtfully. "Botan was sentenced to sweeping duties for an entire moon's cycle…"
"Yes. I have little doubt that Botan thinks in this manner: by persuading Sora to dismate Yama, he has not only regained a chance to claim a mate for himself but also gravely wounded the spirit of the one gargoyle who publicly shamed him, by catching him in dishonorable behavior."
Kai sighed and rubbed his face with his hand. "I really should have done it… I should have had Sora banished with Yama, at her own request. Then Botan would never have had the opportunity for this…"
Setsu shook his head. "It is said that self-inspection is wise, but self-derision and self-doubt are foolish. Kai-sama, at the time of Yama's punishment, you made the right decision based on the facts presented to you. Even I would never have dreamed that Botan would stoop so low as this… But this is why Yama must continue his training."
Kai blinked a few times, then shook his head. "Perhaps part of my brain is still stone tonight, for I fail to see the connection."
Setsu explained the connection, and the plan he had concocted with the help of Constable Hiroshi and two other gakuto, and Kai finally nodded. "That may work. However, you must allow Yama one hour each night free from all lessons, that he may begin to court Sora again; we know from last night that she has at least some feelings for him still, since she disobeyed my orders just to watch him glide again. Give him a little time to at least write poetry for her…"
Setsu bowed low. "As you command, Kai-sama." Then he went out to drill Yama in combat maneuvers once more, until the gray gargoyle nearly dropped in his tracks.
Setsu was as good as his word, giving Yama a little time every night to write letters and poetry for Sora. But when the gray gargoyle did not actually have paper and ink in front of him, he was practicing the martial arts instead. Setsu now drilled him in aerial combat techniques as well as ground maneuvers, and now instead of merely battling Setsu or doing kata against imaginary opponents, he was battling other members of the clan; Taiju had taken it upon himself, doubtless seeing it as some form of reparation for his part in damaging Yama's wings, to provide Yama with worthy opponents. When he could not persuade one of his own rookery siblings to step into the arena with Yama and be trounced (for Yama's skills really had improved greatly under Setsu's intense tutelage), he would enter the arena himself. Setsu admonished them to fight with all their hearts and skills, for to deliberately let Yama win would not help him at all. "Honored elder, I assure you, I most certainly did not intend to end up in this position," Taiju groaned once, from his position upside-down against the far wall of the dojo, having just been thrown there by Yama. "Would someone be so kind as to fetch Kado? I believe my left wing has just been dislocated…" Yama apologized profusely as he ran to fetch the healer, to set the wing-joint back in place.
Despite the intense level of practice, Yama found time and inspiration enough to write more poetry for Sora, as well as rewrite the one that had been ruined before reading. But several of the notes and letters he left for her at her perch or in her favorite haunts somehow disappeared before she had a chance to read them, though no one ever actually saw Botan intercepting them and destroying them. (Kai even found himself wondering if the old legends about having a few tengus in the clan's ancestry were true, and Botan was using a bit of magic to aid him in countering Yama's efforts at courtship.)
Some of Yama's poems and letters were indeed received by Sora, especially after Setsu had a word with Jari, Botan's warrior mentor, about his apprentice's poor showing at archery. Old Jari would never have heard a word about Botan's scheming and treachery; whether it was deliberate self-delusion or a tribute to Botan's silver tongue, he almost seemed to believe that the moon rose and set in his apprentice's eyes. But he could not deny that Botan was a poor archer, and so when Setsu mused that Botan really had shown promise in his earlier years, and could do so much better at it if he only practiced more… Botan found himself being dragged off to the archery range by Jari virtually every night, to shoot at woven straw and painted wooden targets for hours instead of shooting down all of Yama's efforts at courtship.
But Yama's letters were not the only ones Sora received. Just as she'd been the recipient of many short notes during and after her dismating ritual, now she found herself inundated by short, anonymous notes in multiple styles of handwriting again. Notes that reminded her of how Yama had once kept secrets from her, and so could not be trusted again; notes that reminded her that he was of a different generation and it really was improper of her to have mated with him in the first place; notes that said that, having so decisively dismated him, she would be seen as a weak-willed silly female if she took him back again. And now she also received poetry from Botan, which, instead of merely leaving on her perch, he would boldly hand to her with worshipful expressions. Beautiful poetry, much like the poems Yama had written for her…
And while all this was going on, Hiroshi and the constabulary were occasionally visited by Kawa, and much more frequently by his rookery brother Kenun. The latter behavior was no surprise to anyone, as Kenun was as fascinated by human technology and television shows as Yama had been in his gakusei years, and moreover was intrigued by human criminal proceedings; he'd always been first to sit at the feet of the rookery keepers and the clan's Storytellers when they told tales of Judge Ooka.
((Ooka Echizen no-Kami Tadasuke was widely regarded by humans and gargoyles alike as the wisest and cleverest man in Japan's long history, and he had also been a friend to the gargoyles, back when they had assisted the Shogun in keeping the peace by patrolling the streets of Edo at night. Indeed, he'd been so highly respected and cherished for his friendship, that when the clan chose to retire to Ishimura during Ooka's time as magistrate of Edo, they'd left a mated pair of watchbeasts behind to watch over Ooka's family by night, and pose as komainu by day. Komainuhad originally guarded only the Shinto shrines, but they had become so much of a status symbol that no important person's home was considered complete without a pair to guard the front door. Of course, most of them had to make do with simple statues, not true watchbeasts…))
Six nights before the full moon, Kai finally invited Yama to join him in the dojo for a workout session. Yama bowed low after entering, with Setsu following behind him. "I am most honored by your personal attention, Kai-sama."
Kai gave the usual polite response, then said, "I understand from my second-in-command that your skills in the martial arts have improved remarkably in the last three months, under the tutelage of our honored elder Setsu-sensei, so much so that Taiju now feels you are a match for nearly any warrior in the clan."
Yama bowed again. "I am unworthy of such praise from the clan's second-in-command," he said humbly. Of course, they both knew that Taiju had said that only after having had his horns planted in the mats four times in a row, but proper form must be followed, after all.
Kai gestured towards the wooden bokken that were kept in racks on one wall of the dojo. "Shall we begin with a kenjutsu session?"
Yama acquiesced, and within a few moments they were facing each other under Setsu's watchful eye. After the ritual rei of respect for one's opponent, they drew the bokken from their sashes and began to circle each other, looking for an opening. Kai thought he saw one, and made a quick slash, only to find it countered by Yama in a lightning-fast parry that Kai wouldn't have believed him capable of, only a few months ago. He almost grinned with delight at both his rookery brother's improved skills and at the prospect of a real challenge, but caught himself, and instead began to battle in earnest.
For nearly eight minutes, far longer than most true sword battles would have lasted, they took each other's measure as they slashed and thrust and feinted and parried, the dojo resounding to the clash of wood on wood and their own grunts and pants of exertion. Kai was stronger, and the bokken was as light as a feather in his hands after decades of handling the great no-dachi sword, but Yama had developed a lightning quickness, perhaps honed as much by his months of living wild and hunting his own food as by Setsu's intense tutelage, and was able to dart in and out of Kai's reach before he could counterstrike. Finally, Kai struck a mighty blow that would have sliced Yama in half if it had been done with a true katana, and Yama made a valiant thrust to counter it. Bokken met bokken with one last clash--and shattered into shards and splinters.
For a few seconds they both stared dumfounded at the splintered stumps in their grasps. Bokken were made of well-seasoned hardwoods, the strongest the gargoyles could find or barter through humans for, and it had been several decades since even one had been shattered in practice, let alone both simultaneously! Then Yama grinned and said in a hatchling sing-song, "You broke them! I'm telling Sensei on you…" Kai burst out laughing, even as Yama turned to Setsu and whined as he pointed at Kai, "He broke our bokken!" Even Setsu's shoulders were shaking with suppressed laughter, as he sternly admonished them both to be more careful with their toys.
After letting a day of stone sleep heal their strained muscles and collections of bruises, the next night they met again, for a session of unarmed combat. When Kai and Yama had been gakuto barely out of the rookery together, and Kai was still clumsy with his oversized-for-such-a-small-hatchling feet and wings, Yama had been able to best him easily in their first martial arts lessons. But Yama's general preference for intellectual matters had him sneaking away from those lessons while Kai determinedly persevered in them, and by their second year out of the rookery Kai had been the better of the two. Once he'd grown more into his feet and wings, Kai had rapidly become not only the largest of his generation but also the best of them at the martial arts, while Yama had become the best at dodging out of them. Thus, it had been nearly five decades since Kai had found himself in the position he now found himself in, four minutes after the start of their match: pinned face-down on the mats, with Yama's voice in his ears saying cheerfully, "Do you concede? I offer mercy…"
"I must regretfully decline your offer," Kai retorted, while straining to reach with his tail. He knew exactly what would break Yama's hold, if he could get to just the right spot… There!
"What do you--iie!" Yama jumped, as his grip loosened. "Iie! Iie-hee-hee, Kai, this is not fair!" as he rolled away, convulsed with laughter. Only his closest rookery brother knew where he was most vulnerable… Kai grinned from ear to ear as he heaved himself up off his belly, then dove after Yama. He attacked without mercy, even as Yama howled, "Ju-jutsu does not allow tickling!"
Setsu put a stop to their fun by reaching in and grabbing each of them by an ear, like they were unruly hatchlings again--though he hurriedly lost his grip and fell into a full obeisance when Kai's glare abruptly reminded him of just who he was grabbing now. "Ten thousand apologies, Kai-sama!"
After getting up and straightening his clothing, Kai said quite seriously to Yama, "Actually, I had a very good reason to break the rules just then, Yama-san. That was to remind you that not all opponents will fight fairly; there is a vast difference between the training Setsu-sensei has been giving you and true combat. In true combat, if I had tipped my tail with a poison-dart, you would be dead now."
"That is true enough," Yama allowed with a sigh, as he tried to comb his disarrayed mane back into place with his talons.
"And since your fated opponent is reported to be extremely gifted at cheating…"
Yama paused in his combing, and looked confusedly at them both. "My fated opponent?"
Kai looked at Setsu. "Setsu-sensei, it is time he learned the true purpose behind all his training."
Setsu bowed to Kai, then addressed Yama, and told him the true purpose for his rigorous training. "Although becoming a true warrior is a worthy goal in its own right, you have been honed for combat for another purpose as well. The time has come to avenge the wrong done to you, and to expose a truly treacherous one in our midst…"
Five nights later, the moon was full, and the time had come for the clan to begin the ceremonies that would promote their gakuto to full adults, with all the rights and privileges thereof.
On the first night, the students all presented their graduating essays and masterworks of poetry, which were judged by their teachers Yasou and Morin together. Some essays concerned past exploits of the clan before they had retired to Ishimura, and their importance to the governing humans of those periods of history; some expounded upon the beauty and delicacy of the partnership between the humans and gargoyles of Ishimura. Some of the poetry concerned that balance and partnership, as well; other poems were about the beauties and wonders of nature, from witnessing a mighty storm and the destruction it wreaked on the countryside to the sparkle of pre-dawn dew upon the petals of a single flower. Kai and the elders listened approvingly, well satisfied that these gakuto knew well how to read and write, and knew enough of their history to be a source of satisfaction to their ancestors.
The next night they held the math and science finals which, according to their human friends, apparently were judged much less harshly than human students of math and science were judged. Each gakusei had only to prove to the satisfaction of the judges that he or she understood the basic laws of physics such as leverage, gravity and centrifugal force and could solve problems in algebra, geometry and basic trigonometry. They proved their skills by solving, before midnight, problems that had been handed to them at sunset; simulations of real-life situations such as calculating the materials needed to build a wall of certain shape and size, the budget needed for the materials or the force to bring it all crashing down again. Again, everyone passed, even admittedly slow-witted Anzu, though Kai wondered briefly if their teacher Taki hadn't deliberately chosen the easiest problems for him to solve. He chose not to inquire, out of sympathy for the teacher; Taki herself had barely passed this exam in her last gakusei year, and had been bravely struggling for the last fourteen years (with Yama's covert help, up until his banishment) to keep ahead of her brighter students in their lessons.
After midnight, the deadline for the math and science exams, came the tests of gliding abilities. For the rest of that night and all of the next, the gakuto were set to gliding along courses chosen for them by the elders of the clan, and accomplishing various tasks in midair. They had to glide through an obstacle course of hoops set on poles, twisting and turning and folding their wings to dive through the narrow rings, while avoiding the forest of kites dancing in the air above and around them. The kites were tricky, their strings swaying and tugging this way and that in the air as the gakuto glided past them, and more than one gakusei ended up being nicked or even slashed by the taut strings in passing, but thankfully none of them tumbled from the air.
Once passing that portion of the test, each gakusei had to capture in flight a wild night-heron, one of the nocturnal birds that lived along the coast and in the nearby forest, and return it to the village unharmed, while maintaining a steady course through the turbulence of hot air rising from a raging bonfire set in the village center. (After seeing one poor night-heron, distinguished by the unusual white feathers on either side of its narrow bill, brought back to the village by a proudly beaming gakusei no less than three times in one night, Kai decided it would be better to cage that one for a while. Usually the elders would ceremoniously thank the bird for its help in their ritual, praise its valiant struggles while it had sought to avoid capture and let it go at the forest's edge, but Kai thought wryly that even if this one had actually flown well each time before it had been captured, at this rate the creature would soon just perch on a tree limb and wait to be captured whenever a gargoyle flew overhead.)
The last portion of the test was a low-level glide out over the ocean, the final task being to snag a pennant from off of a tiny raft floating 500 meters offshore, and return with it to the temple. For the very last task, the villagers had two boats of fishermen floating nearby, ready to dive in and rescue a gargoyle that misjudged the grab or caught an unlucky wind and ended up in the water; gargoyles were notoriously poor swimmers due to their dense body structure, though if they managed to make it to the surface and spread their wings out, they could float on their backs well enough. But this year, every gakusei made it safely back to the temple with a pennant of victory clutched in his or her talons.
On the fourth night, everyone assembled in the open-air dojo for the first of the martial arts final exams. Everyone knew what was expected of them; the gakuto would pair off tonight for sessions of unarmed combat, each gakusei participating in three matches against his/her siblings. Combatants were allowed to use either karate or ju-jutsu against their opponents, or a mixture of both; the judges had long since worked out a method of scoring that covered all the allowed moves. (Gargoyle warriors knew that in true combat, effectiveness and overcoming your opponent mattered more than having perfected a particular form.) Tomorrow night they would first meet at the target range for competitions in archery and throwing weapons, then reconvene in the dojo after midnight for combat armed with either bo staff or bokken.
After the martial arts final exams were over, only one exam would remain, and this would be judged most harshly, by Kai and a few appointed elders; the tests of Bushido. Each gakusei would be summoned one by one to stand alone in front of examiners, and would be grilled in the principles of Bushido and how they applied both to battle and to everynight life in the clan. It usually took two nights to properly question every gakusei, making their graduation testing last seven full nights. At midnight on the eighth night, upon successful completion of the last exam, Kai would summon the entire clan together and proclaim the gakuto were now full adults in the eyes of the clan, ready to take on full-time duties. Each gakusei's mentor would then give his or her apprentice the traditional parting gift to symbolize the apprenticeship's completion, which was also a welcoming gift for admitting him or her into the ranks of warrior, fisher, healer, rookery keeper, etc. And in the last hour before sunrise, the new adults would claim new perches for themselves, leaving the gakuto section on the walls empty until the current hatchlings came out of the rookery in the spring.
The current generation of gakuto numbered thirteen in all, which might have made for an uneven number of matches, but the clan had long since found a solution for that little problem, as it happened at least every other generation. The clan's martial arts teacher would simply ask one of the adult warriors to join in the sessions, to make an even number, and ensure that if that warrior had an apprentice, they were not scheduled to spar with each other, to avoid possible accusations of favoritism. Sitting in the clan leader's usual spot as they began the matches, Kai reflected that, since everyone in the clan knew that Yama had been under Setsu's tutelage for the last three months, there should have been hardly any reaction at all when Kusa bowed to Yama and asked him if he would be their fourteenth combatant that night. But the whispers still rose all around them like surf on the sand as Yama returned the bow and said he would be honored… "Kusa-sensei, I have no apprentice," Yama continued quietly after accepting. "However, there is one request I would make, regarding the matches…"
Kusa bowed again as she said loudly enough for all to hear, "I quite understand, Yama-san. And I assure you, you will not be forced to spar with Sora-san tonight." (Instantly, many pairs of eyes flickered over to where Sora was sitting with her rookery siblings, waiting for the matches to begin, but she kept her face perfectly expressionless.) Yama bowed to her again in gratitude, before presenting the talons on his hands and feet for blunting with cloth wrappings, as was done to all combatants to avoid actually spilling blood during the matches. But Kai reflected grimly that Kusa's restriction still left a dozen other gakuto that Yama could be set against, and he already knew who at least one opponent would be…
The first round of sparring sessions went smoothly. Yama was set against Kenun, while Sora sparred with Kawa, Botan with Mizuumi, Anzu with Sugi, and so on. Each session was over swiftly and painlessly--or almost painlessly. Kai winced when Botan managed to toss poor Mizuumi at such an abrupt angle that, even though she twisted to fall properly and rolled with the impact, she still ended up whacking her head against the mat, right on her misshapen horn. Having just finished his own match with Sora and returned to his seat, Kawa leaped up again to help his stunned mate to her feet and off the mat, and glared daggers at Botan as the male made a rather perfunctory apology. And even in that, he managed to imply that the 'accident' was somehow partly Mizuumi's fault… Kai thinned his lips, and reminded himself that time would tell all.
Mizuumi stubbornly insisted that she was fine, and Kado cautiously concurred after checking her over himself for signs of concussion, so they let her continue with the others. The second round of matches began with Kawa and Kenun facing off against each other. The match went well enough, with the smaller but wiry Kenun slipping out of Kawa's grip a few times and getting in a few licks of his own, but ultimately being pinned down for the full 25 seconds required for a successful ju-jutsu pin. But just as Kusa raised her right arm high and said "Ippon!", Kenun gave one last desperate wriggle and yelped loudly, "Aiiee, my wing!"
Kawa flipped off him in a hurry, and started examining the struts of the wing that Kenun was now holding out at an awkward angle while wincing with pain. "Oh, a thousand pardons, Kenun-san! The joint is dislocated…" Kawa stood up again and tried to bow in three directions at once as he said, "Kai-sama, Kusa-sensei, Kado-sensei, I beg you to give me leave to attend to my brother's injury with my own skills…"
Kado nodded and said aloud, "I am sure you know what to do and which compounds will work best to soothe." Kai and Kusa agreed as they gave the pair permission to leave and see to Kenun's wing. With that wing still hanging awkwardly, the two left the mats just before Sora and Sugi were called onto them to begin their match.
Sora pinned Sugi in less than a minute, which came as absolutely no surprise because Sora was a fine warrior, while Sugi had known nearly since hatchlinghood that she wanted to be a rookery keeper. But the light blue female quietly teased her shell-pink sister as they stepped off the mats that if ear-grabbing were allowed in the mat rules, it would have been a different story! (Kai overheard that, and worked to suppress an amused smile; Sakaki had already told him that when it came to separating two fighting hatchlings, nobody was quicker with hands to ears than Sugi, or had a deadlier grip. Sora might indeed have had a problem there.)
Two matches later, Kusa returned the bows of the two gakuto leaving the mat, then announced in a calm, clear voice, "I now call to the mat… Botan-san and Yama-san."
Where earlier there had been a rising tide of whispers, now a sea of utter silence flooded the dojo as Botan and Yama stepped onto the mats, bowed to both Kusa and Kai at the proper angle, then bowed to each other at an angle so slight that it was barely decent. Kusa said clearly and sharply into that tense silence, "Hajime!"
Neither Botan nor Yama began by immediately rushing at each other, like most gakusei did for their first few matches. Instead, they slowly circled each other, going around once… twice… always eyeing each other, watching for weaknesses and any sign of impending attack.
Then Botan flared his wings slightly, the usual precursor to a leaping forward to attack. Yama caught the movement and leaped straight for Botan first, intending to intercept that attack before it could gain power and momentum, but Botan's move had actually been a feint; instead of leaping, he whipped his leg out and around in a powerful Mawashi geri kick, which caught Yama in the flanks and sent him crashing to the ground.
Yama had managed to roll with the blow somewhat, so it didn't entirely knock him breathless, but he still had a half-point scored against him as well as, Kai was willing to bet, a massive bruise forming along his left flank and possibly cracked ribs as well. Botan gave a savage grin of satisfaction, which scarcely wavered as Yama came back at him with a very low Uramawashi kick, trying to knock Botan's legs out from under him.
Botan leaped over the attack, his wings whipping out, forward and down as he did so, to give himself more lift for the leap. And possibly, Kai thought, to mask a cheating move from his audience, in the split-second that the wings concealed much of his body; there was no other reason he could think of for Yama to give a sudden hiss and jerk back like that, though when the two separated, no obvious damage appeared to have been done. Whatever the move had been, Yama had apparently been able to dodge it.
The two foes separated, then began circling each other again, Yama now (very slightly, but still perceptibly) favoring his left side. Then once again they engaged; Botan aimed a blow for the head, which Yama was able to block, but doing so left the older warrior open for a swift and violent Maegiri front kick to his midsection. Yama automatically bent forward, gasping for air as all his breath was driven from him, and Botan followed through with a Jodan Zuki, a direct punch, as he sidestepped on the right, and finally a Uraken downward on Yama's cheekbone, sending him to the ground again.
Kai winced in pain for his rookery brother, who had now endured more punishment than any one person in the bouts so far. But Kusa didn't call a finish to the match; Kai had given her strict instructions before the night had started that for this one bout, the clock was stopped and only an opponent's surrender or unconsciousness would finish it. And indeed, Yama grunted and started getting back to his feet only a moment after going down; he'd been the one to insist on those terms of battle, after learning of Setsu's plans.
Botan chose the moment Yama staggered back to his feet to attack again, but this time, Yama was ready for him, and nailed him instead with a very efficient Jodan Empi, which any gaijin would call an uppercut. As Botan staggered back, Yama smiled and assumed a Neko Achi Dashi position, his legs slightly bent, his left arm protecting his bruised ribs, and the right hand protecting his torso and head. If coarse taunting were allowed during these final matches, he would probably have been saying, "Weren't expecting a real challenge, were you, punk?" Instead, he just made a beckoning gesture at Botan, saying without words, come on, is that all you've got?
Botan snarled in response, and came at him with a flurry of kicks and punches. The two warriors exchanged blow after blow, so fast even Kai could scarcely keep track of them, but it became clear that Yama, already injured, was getting the worst of the damage. After over a minute of nonstop punching and kicking, Yama went down to the tatami again. Caught up in the heat of the battle (or so he would probably say later), Botan instantly went in for a Fumikomi kick, aiming for Yama's throat, which would have crushed his windpipe if it had landed. But before even Kusa could scream a halt to the fight--these matches were never to the death!--Yama desperately whipped an arm up and blocked the kick, and snarled aloud, "Owari dessen yo, bakayaro!"
Then while still on the mat, he whipped his tail around Botan's ankle, and thrust his own feet up into Botan's midsection as he yanked at his feet. Botan was launched backwards by the force of the combined assault, spinning in midair, and crashed heavily several feet away with a grunting whoosh of air being driven from his body. Yama got back up, twisting his legs and tail around to nearly roll to his feet, landing once again in the Neko Achi Dashi guard.
Botan got back to his feet an instant later, growling murderously, his eyes now blazing white with rage. He rushed Yama again, and this time after another exchange of blows he got past Yama's guard with both fists at once, impacting at full speed in both chest and midsection. The sheer force of the blow knocked Yama off his feet and even a few feet away, landing heavily on the mat.
An instant later he was back on his feet, then going higher, going for an aerial assault; leaping into the air and furiously flapping his wings to give himself just enough lift to stay in midair for a few seconds while he sent kick after kick into Botan's chest. But Botan was able to block most of them, so very little harm was done, and Yama couldn't keep it up forever; gargoyles were simply too heavy to hover like hummingbirds. But he was able to use the momentum of the last kick to propel himself into a backflip, out of Botan's reach, and was on the ground and back in his guard stance before his opponent came into range again.
Instead of launching into an immediate attack, they both paused again; not circling this time, but just catching their breaths while warily eyeing each other, as best as they could considering that each now had an eye swelling shut from previous blows. Already the fight had lasted longer than any bout so far that night, and they were both in pain and bleeding in various places as well as tired. But the entire clan was aware now that this fight was far from over.
Then Botan made his move, going in for another gut punch, but Yama managed to block that and disengage again. Then as he was still within range, he brought his right foot up and sideways, in a powerful yet controlled Yuko Geri kick. But he'd telegraphed his move, and Botan gave another savage grin as he brought his tail up to wrap around Yama's leg and yank him off balance--
But at the last instant, Yama changed the forward YukoGeri into a downward Fumikomi kick, pinning Botan's tail on the ground like a snake's head. And even from his seat, Kai could hear the audible snap as Botan's tail was broken close to its tri-clawed tip.
Botan squealed in shock and pain, but Yama gave him no time to recover, thrusting his left leg out till he was almost spread-eagle in a powerful kick nearly straight up. With his concentration broken by the pain, Botan couldn't even begin to make an Age Uke, a head-high block, and Yama's kick nailed him on the side of the head, jerking his head to the right.
Then amazingly, Yama found the strength to leap into the air again, launching from his right foot, while using his arms and left wing to propel himself into a tight spin in midair. Not even a split-second after his left foot impacted solidly with the side of Botan's head, his right foot nailed him on the very same spot, followed quickly by the whipping tail. Botan spun around to crash heavily to the mat, and stayed there in a tangled heap of arms, leg, wings and broken tail. And just as there had been no doubt in everyone's mind thirty seconds ago, there was no doubt again… the fight was now over.
Yama swayed on his feet with exhaustion, but managed to slowly turn around and make a perfectly correct bow to Kusa at her announcement that he had won the match. Then he turned to limp off the mat… to the left, the side at which Sora was seated.
While Kusa had been speaking, Mizuumi had grabbed a towel from the stack, then thrust it into Sora's hands as she hissed, "Yama will need this!" She could hardly have been more blatant about her true intentions, but Sora hadn't objected to it. And now, as Yama staggered towards her, she got to her feet even before Mizuumi could tweak her tail to make her jump up. She held out the towel to Yama as he came towards her, her tail twitching nervously.
In the center of the mat, Botan groaned and slowly rolled to his side, to watch with eyes slitted and glowing white with hatred as Yama staggered away from him. He was in too much pain to get up and continue the battle, but he still had one weapon left…
Yama stopped a few feet away from Sora to stare at her out of the eye that wasn't already swollen shut, and said hoarsely in a voice choked with emotion, "Sora…"
Every eye in the room automatically turned, in shock, at where Botan was still lying on the mat. He continued in a painful croak as he glared at Yama, "Savage brute, to think that beating a suitor in combat gives you the right to claim a mate! Sora is far too wonderful a female to be treated as a barbarian's prize!" He got painfully to his knees and elbows, obviously struggling to reach his feet again as he gasped, "And if I must, I will sacrifice more than my honor, even my very life, to prevent you from treating her that way!"
The room erupted in a clamor of voices, with some of Botan's rookery brothers shouting that Botan was right and Yama was a barbarian who must be driven from the clan for good. Their voices were louder than the few clan members who were joining Yama in protesting that Botan had it all wrong, that Yama had no such intentions, and far too many of the gazes that had been resting on Yama with awe and pride were now directed at him again, full of doubt or censure. Kai just lowered his horned head into his hands and groaned. Ten thousand curses, but Setsu's plan had backfired horribly! There was no way for Yama to protest believably that he'd had no such intentions, not when he'd turned to Sora after the battle. Even if it had been because she'd been the only one standing up and holding out a towel…
Which she now very pointedly dropped into Yama's hands instead of handing to him, as she hissed, "I will make my own choice! And you will never reclaim me!" Then she turned her back and stalked away, her back stiff and tail lashing.
Yama stared at her retreating back, then at the towel in his hands, then at her again. Finally, he just dropped the towel on the floor without using it, and limped away, towards the exit. Kado had been heading for Botan with his healer's kit, loudly saying that the gakusei was obviously delirious from great pain and his ravings should be ignored, but now he turned around to try to stop Yama from leaving. Yama stopped him with a curt gesture, a glare from his good eye and a contemptuous snarl, "Go tend to the noble Botan, and let this 'barbarian' go in peace." No one else got up to stop him, and from the opposite side of the room, Kai watched helplessly as Yama limped out the door alone.
No, not alone; Sakaki had been hurriedly whispering in little Happa's ear, and now Happa piped up amid the chaos, "I have to go pee!" Instantly, Sakai was on her feet and dragging Happa towards the door, while telling her apprentices to keep an eye on the rest of the hatchlings. Since Happa was more than old enough to attend to such matters himself, it was a fairly transparent excuse to go after Yama, but an acceptable one nonetheless. Kai silently blessed both his quick-thinking mate and their cooperative hatchling as they left the room together.
Barely a second after Sakaki and Happa had left the dojo by one of the two doors, Kawa and Kenun came in through the other, pushing between them a cart laden with electronic equipment, with Hiroshi following them in carrying a massive spool of electrical cord. The wing that had been hanging awkwardly when Kenun had left was now held high without a sign of strain, Kai noted with satisfaction; they had prearranged for Kenun's 'injury' to give the two gakuto a good reason to leave the dojo together.
The murmurs that had begun to die down arose again, in confusion at this interruption. Hiroshi had been invited to the matches, but he had given the clan his regrets for being unable to attend that night, in order to attend to his daughter's family. (His infant granddaughter was currently suffering terribly from colic, and as a result both mother and father were exhausted from lack of sleep. The gargoyles were normally happy to send over a rookery keeper to help out in such instances, but currently all the rookery keepers and their hatchling charges were attending the adulthood rites with the rest of the clan.) What he had not told them, though Kai had known, was that his attendant shift didn't start till after midnight, giving him time to help Kawa and Kenun with their plans. And they wouldn't be coming in so urgently just now if those plans hadn't come to full fruition…
Kai ignored the murmurs of the rest of the clan as he directed Kawa and Kenun to set up their equipment at one end of the hall, using the long extension cord Hiroshi was unspooling behind him to power a television and videocassette recorder. Once all was ready, Kawa and Kenun bowed low to the clan leader and to the rest of the assembly. "Kai-sama, elders, rookery kin… We have made a discovery during tonight's adulthood rites, and humbly request permission to share our discovery with you, if in an untraditional manner."
Kai nodded for them to proceed, and the pair bowed again before stepping back to the equipment. Kenun explained as he held up a videocassette, "This tape was made from one of three videocameras that were mounted into the walls and ceiling of this dojo before tonight's ceremonies commenced." Kai knew that Hiroshi and his assistants in the constabulary had done most of that work during the day while the clan had slept, though Setsu and Kenun had advised them on the most advantageous placement for each camera. "Tonight, they recorded the matches that have been fought so far, to preserve the memories of our most sacred traditions for future generations to reflect upon." (Kai silently reflected that it was a pretty good excuse, and enough to preserve honor and deflect outrage over what was really essentially spying; Kawa must have given Kenun that line, rather than trusting his rather impulsive rookery brother to not verbally cram his own toe-talons down his throat yet again.) "But less than fifteen minutes ago, we recorded a most inappropriate occurrence…" as he plugged in the tape, turned on the TV monitor and set the tape to playing.
The screen showed an overhead view of the match Botan had just fought with Yama. Kenun fast-forwarded through the first few seconds of the match, when the two opponents had just been circling each other, then slowed it to normal speed after the first blow was struck. A few seconds later, the entire clan now saw clearly what they had missed before: as Botan had leaped over Yama's Uramawashi kick, he had used his wings not only to give himself extra lift, but to conceal his illegal countering move: driving his knee, that deadly-sharp knee-spike pointing straight out, straight towards Yama's face. If Yama had not been able to dodge the blow by millimeters, it would likely have done ruinous damage to his features. Several clan members gasped in outrage, while Kai thought cynically that if Yama hadn't been able to dodge, Botan would have had a very hard time explaining that the blow had been 'just an accident…'
After pausing the tape on that image for a few seconds to let the full import sink in, Kenun fast-forwarded the tape to another moment in the fight, the one that all the clan had seen, when Botan had attempted to crush Yama's windpipe with that Fumikomi kick but had been blocked at the last instant. Where before Botan might have tried to defend himself by saying he had simply been, in that instant, consumed by the heat of battle, any hope he might have had of getting the clan to believe him had been lost after they had witnessed his earlier disallowed move. It was clear that Botan had gone into the match with intention of not merely winning, but of crippling or killing Yama if he could, and now Kai wasn't the only one looking at him with narrowed eyes.
After pausing the tape for a few seconds on that second image, Kenun hit the remote to stop the tape. Kawa bowed respectfully and said, "Kai-sama, elders, rookery kin… There is more yet to see. With your permission…" as Kenun popped out that tape, and stood poised to put in another one.
Kai gestured for them to continue, and Kenun inserted and started the second tape while explaining, "Some time ago, with the help of Ame," as he nodded to the clan's eldest watchbeast, lying at the forefront of the watchbeasts' corner, "I tracked Botan to a small room above the granary. He had been going to this room fairly often, but very quietly, over the last few months, and I was curious as to why. This is what I first discovered," as he gestured at the screen, which now showed a small desk with ink, parchment and brushes lying about in abundance. "It seemed innocuous enough, but I was curious as to why he needed so many different brushes, and three different mixtures of ink, for practicing his poetry."
Now Botan rose to his feet, apparently in righteous anger at being spied upon, and demanded, "And why did you not simply ask me what I was doing, instead of acting like a shinobi and dishonorably skulking about and spying! What principle of Bushido covers such behavior?"
Kenun flushed at the reminder that such behavior was indeed considered dishonorable, but Kai said sternly, "Botan-san, sit down. Kenun-san, explain why you feel this matter is so important that it must be brought to our attention in this manner."
"Gladly," Kenun said with another bow. "With the help of Hiroshi-san, Kawa and I mounted two of his small cameras in two corners of that room, and focused them on the desk. Over the next few weeks, Botan-san visited the room quite often, and we captured many of those visits on film; Hiroshi-san graciously retrieved the tapes for us during the day, and supplied new ones. We will now show you a brief selection of what transpired in those visits," as he started playing the tape again.
The screen now showed Botan seated at the desk, working by candlelight, writing on paper… on several different small sheets of paper, during the same session. And one of the cameras was focused sharply enough that they could make out the writing on a few of those sheets. It was sharp-eyed Kaze who quietly observed, "Each one is addressed to Sora… But the kanji on some of those sheets are done differently… as if they were being written by different people!"
Yasou, who taught the gakuto reading, writing and literature, scowled ferociously as she growled, "I recognize three of those styles of kanji! Botan has been forging the styles of his rookery siblings!"
Eyes began glowing red and white throughout the gakuto section, and the glares of his rookery siblings focused on Botan as they demanded an explanation for his behavior. Sora stared aghast at Botan, as she demanded aloud in her shock and dismay, "You wrote all those notes I found! You alone! Then you were the only one who thought I was right to…" But Botan was struck speechless, staring at the screen with dismay, his deep red skin gone an even deeper shade from blushing.
Kenun cleared his throat as he continued, "There is even more. This next scene has happened at least three times that we know of, though we will show you only one instance of it." And the screen now showed Botan scrutinizing a sheet of paper, and copying the writing on it onto another sheet of paper. And the original paper's bold script was recognizable to many…
Mizuumi leaped to her feet, too outraged to sit still any longer as she shouted, "That is Yama's writing! Botan has not just been stealing Yama's notes and poetry to Sora before she could read them, but presenting them to her as his own work!" She snarled with fangs bared and eyes glowing red-hot at Botan, who flinched away from her wrath in an ironic mirror to all the times when, in their hatchling years, Mizuumi had flinched away from his cruel teasing about her misshapen horn. "You usotsuki, you hiretsukan! You… you Taro-with-wings!"
"Mizuumi-san, sit down," Kai said firmly, as Kawa hurriedly went to calm down his outraged mate, and Kenun shut off the video equipment. "I believe we have all seen enough now… and since nearly all the clan is present, I call for a council and trial, right here and now."
Amidst the hubbub of voices, everything from elders murmuring about the unseemly haste (including poor Jari, who protested that there must be some sort of mistake, Botan would never behave so dishonorably) to hatchlings babbling with excitement (This was almost as exciting as the television! Couldn't they stay and watch, dozo?), Botan was shoved by his rookery siblings back onto the mats, the central clearing for the impromptu trial. Once there, he automatically fell into the fusu proscribed for all who face the clan leader and elders under such conditions. After the room had settled down again, Kai said sternly, "Botan-san, we have all witnessed the evidence gathered against you. What have you to say in your defense?"
Botan said softly with his forehead pressed to the mat, "I say nothing in my defense, Kai-sama…" Then he raised his head by a tiny fraction as he said louder, "For no defense is needed."
Gasps of outrage arose all around for his temerity in speaking back to the clan leader, as Botan continued, "It has been the law of this clan for over fifteen hundred years, that the clan leader can not dictate over matters of the heart. And all that was done, every note written in that room and every move performed on these mats tonight, was done in the course of my courtship of Sora. She is such an extraordinary female, as intelligent as she is beautiful, that I knew from the start that truly extraordinary efforts would be necessary to win her attention, and persuade her heart to look upon me with favor… Therefore, what has passed between Sora and myself can not be judged, even by your most worthy and honorable self, lest the traditions of our honored ancestors be scorned and cast aside." And although Kai couldn't see it from his angle, he would have sworn an oath on those same ancestors that Botan wasn't trying very hard to conceal a smirk of triumph.
"That is true," Kai said slowly. "I can not judge how you have chosen to court Sora; only she herself may do so. But I am able to judge, and I will judge, on your other actions… regarding Yama." Botan suddenly went tense and still again as Kai continued, "By copying his poetry before destroying it, then presenting his work to Sora as your own, you have not merely cheated in your courtship; you have stolen from Yama. And thieves are not welcome in this clan! Moreover, your bout with Yama in this dojo contained no less than two blatantly disallowed moves, as the cameras have shown us all. And I do not accept your excuse, that you did so because you were desperate to keep Yama from claiming Sora as a barbarian's prize; all know that Sora has every right to refuse such treatment, and make her own choice for a mate. By so claiming, you imply that Sora would have had no choice in the matter, and that implies that you yourself see her as nothing more than a prize to be won!" More gasps of outrage, as more of the clan saw the truth behind Botan's lies. Kai went on, "Once before, Botan, you were punished for cheating, but obviously that punishment was insufficient to teach you better behavior. Therefore, my sentence for your crimes is… banishment, for two full moons! Once Kado has finished treating your injuries, you are to leave the clan and village, and not return for another fifty-six nights. Perhaps by then, you will have learned respect for your elders, and your rookery siblings."
As the clan erupted in voices again, Botan prostrated himself even further on the ground, and now there was no mistaking the true dismay, horror and pleading in his voice. "Mercy, Kai-sama, this most unworthy one begs for mercy!"
"Mercy has been granted already," Kai said coldly. "Be grateful your punishment is not longer, and that you will still have the use of your wings during banishment." He gave a cold smile as he added, "After all, Yama has endured far worse than you will endure, and survived to regain his honor in full. Or do you acknowledge before all the clan that, in all ways, Yama is your better?"
In the silence that followed Kai's question, Botan slowly rose from the mat. Without ever answering Kai's question or looking him in the face, he slunk backwards out of the room.
Kado rose to his feet and bowed to Kai before leaving to follow after Botan, promising that he would treat the worst of Botan's injuries before he left, as his healer's oath demanded. Kai nodded curtly in acknowledgement, but his eyes were focused on Sora. During Botan's impromptu trial, she had been sitting with the other gakuto, but with her head bowed and her eyes focused on the clenched talons trembling in her lap. As Botan left, her head sunk even further, and she hunched in on herself as if trying to disappear inside her clothes. Kai had the feeling that she was struggling with great shame, at having been so thoroughly deceived by Botan. But did she also feel great remorse, at having cast Yama aside?
After a few moments, Kai decided aloud that the gakuto martial arts finals would continue, and gestured for Kusa to call the next two students onto the mat. But as soon as Kai could unobtrusively leave the dojo, he did so, hurrying silently across the temple grounds. Sakaki met him outside the rookery, her face sorrowfully resigned. "I tried, but Yama would not listen to me; he just grabbed a sponge and two bottles of sake from the kitchen, and headed for the docks…"
Kai nodded, then grabbed another bottle and a pair of cups on his way to the shore. As he'd half-expected, he found Yama standing naked and waist-deep in the sea next to the dock, with a floating wooden tray in front of him that held two open bottles of sake lying empty on their sides. He was sponging himself off with salt-water, which must have burned like fire in his various cuts and scrapes, but perhaps the sake he'd already drunk had dulled the pain a little. It certainly hadn't improved his singing skills; he was singing the bawdy 'Ballad of the Gargoyle and the Mermaid' off-key, and at the top of his lungs.
Kai suppressed a wince at a particularly horrible cracked note—Yama had never had a good singing voice, and when he was drunk he sounded like two cats fighting in a sack—then sighed, and waded into the surf with his bottle and cups. Yama saw him, and stopped singing long enough to drunkenly wave the sponge at him and say, "Hi! I'm holding a funeral. Only there's no gravel or incense or anything, because she's only dead to me. Got more sake? Good. I spilled some of my second bottle; the sea said it wanted to get drunk, too. The sea's my friend, not the sky. Oh, she swished her fins like a fine pair of wings…"
"And her eel's tail moved so prettily," Kai joined in resignedly as he set the cups on the tray and poured them each a cupful. "And her webbed hand, just like a built-in fan, waved before her face…"
"Showing eyes as deep as the sea!" Yama finished the verse with a screech that would have driven off seagulls, drained the cup Kai had just poured, then thrust his arm under Kai's nose. "Has my scent changed yet?"
Kai sighed. "Yama-kun, Miya told me it changed about a week before your first flight on your new-healed wings." At the time, no one had told him because they all knew how much even the mention of her name hurt him. And afterwards, when it looked like Sora might still have feelings towards him, no one mentioned it because they didn't want him to think it was a bad omen against his hopes of reunion. But perhaps they should have…
"Just wanted to make sure. Gimme that bottle," as he grabbed for the sake and poured himself another cupful. "Maybe I'll find me a real mermaid for a mate, or maybe I'll just find a human female that's willing. It's happened before, you know."
"Not for the last three centuries," Kai said with a raised brow ridge.
"Happened sooner than that," Yama corrected him before draining his cup again. "At least, it did in Manhattan; didn't you catch the scents?"
"The scents… of Goliath and Angela?" Kai asked confusedly. "I wasn't really paying attention to their scents… Well, I did notice Botan and Anzu flocking around Angela whenever she stepped more than a wingspan away from Goliath, so I guess she didn't have a 'mated' scent-marker after all."
"Hah! You thought Goliath and Angela were mates, huh?" Yama crowed as he poured himself another cupful. Then he pointed a talon at him and chanted like a taunting hatchling, "Dull-nose Kai, Dull-nose Kai! And dull eyes, too, brother, not to see the way he acted towards her. Goliath is mated to Elisa!"
"He is too! I got a noseful of his scent while we were all showing them around the village and temple, and he had the weirdest 'mated' marker I've ever smelled! Ask Kusa if you don't believe me; you know females always pick up on male scents faster than we do. It took me hours to figure out why his marker was so strange, but I did after Elisa rejoined them wearing that kimono the villagers gave her, and I saw the look in his eyes."
Kai peered into his cup, really looking into his memories of those two nights they'd had gaijin gargoyles among them. "He was very fond of her… And I know he was upset that she wasn't with us in the dome…"
"It's 'cause they're mates, I'm telling you! That's why I couldn't figure out why he wasn't agreeing with me about meeting more humans. He must like 'em even more than I do, to be screwing one on a reg'lar basis!"
"Well, if they were mates, then why didn't they perch together?" Kai argued. "The 'Odd Pairing' back in the Edo period always did; the clan's history chronicle says that if Matsu the Weird didn't pose by the door of his mate Masako's home, then she pitched a tent right next to his perch on the western temple wall!"
"Probably because they thought we wouldn't accept them. I mean, think about it; it's been three centuries since Matsu and his mate breathed their last breaths, and everyone knows he was the most deadly warrior of his time, but we still call him 'Matsu the Weird'!" Yama poked a drunken talon at his rookery brother's broad chest. "Be honest, Kai-kun; if they had started calling each other 'koishii' and 'saiai' and rubbing brow ridges right in front of us, what would you have done?"
Kai sighed and admitted, "Probably found an urgent reason to be elsewhere, at least at first."
"Yup; just like you did when our rookery brothers Shoufuu and Kyuuka first started getting all lovey-dovey."
"Now you're being unfair! I don't mind at all that they're happy with each other, I'm even happy for them. It's when Kyuuka started coming on to me at first that I didn't like it!"
"Hah! You flew away so fast you almost started a hurricane."
"Oh, really? So tell me, brother, do you recall what you did, that one time he reached for your backside?"
Yama nodded drunkenly as he admitted, "Spun around so fast my tail had to catch up to me, and kept my back to the wall for the next three nights in a row. But anyway, I… uh… What were we talking about?"
"We were deciding whether or not your ritual's finished now, and it is," Kai said firmly as he picked up the floating tray with the empty sake bottles and cups, and balanced it on one hand as he reached for Yama with the other. "Come on, let's get you to the boathouse and get you bandaged and splinted; it looked like you broke a toe-talon, among other things, and it's apt to heal crooked if we don't set it properly."
"Good idea! Let's get Kado to do it; he'll bring more sake," Yama said as he lurched into Kai's arm, and the two of them staggered out of the surf together.
Another Author's Note: No, Goliath and Elisa weren't truly mates before or during their World Tour, but they were already in love with each other, even if they weren't ready to admit it out loud yet. And Goliath, lonely after being so violently dismated from Demona and keenly feeling the lack of female companionship, had already subconsciously bonded to Elisa; in my story "Trick or Treat", he revealed to her that it must have happened just before the events in the episode "High Noon", because her fertility cycle began to affect him afterwards. It's highly unusual for gargoyle couples to bond before actually mating, but then, Goliath and Elisa are an unusual couple.
We now return you to the story in progress…
After that night, as far as Kai and the rest of the clan could tell, Sora simply did not exist in Yama's worldview any longer. It was as if his mockery of the dismating ritual really had been a funeral for her and for the love they had once shared, and now both were naught but scattered gravel to him. Not only did he cease writing notes to her and leaving other tokens of affection, but he completely and utterly ignored her. Not just avoided her, as he had been doing for the first two months after his return and first rejection; back then, whenever they had happened to cross paths, Yama's prompt retreats had been accompanied by backwards glances full of pain and longing. Now, he ignored her as if she had no more substance and meaning than a leaf on a breeze. If they crossed paths, he did not immediately find an excuse to leave, but he also did not speak to her, did not even look at her, and if he happened to be facing in that direction anyway his face was utterly expressionless.
Yin and Yang, male and female, equal and opposite… For now that Yama no longer acknowledged her, it was Sora who would eventually find excuses to leave the room or the perch, and occasionally look back over her shoulder at him with saddened eyes. Word had quietly spread through the clan, as it always does, about Yama's symbolic dismating ritual, at virtually the same time that Kawa and Kenun together had shown Sora and the clan just how deceitful and dishonorable Botan had been for the past six months. "It is actually quite ironic, like something from a poorly written gaijin love story," Sakaki sighed as she lay in Kai's arms in the attic of the boathouse, their second-favorite trysting place, ten nights after the battle, trial and ritual, and six nights after the gakuto—with the notable exception of Botan—passed their exams and were declared full adults. "Now that Sora knows how wrong she has been about him…"
"Now, the bridge is burned to cinders, and the boat sunk in deep waters," Kai sighed in agreement. "After what she has done to him, she would have to throw herself at his feet, beg his forgiveness for the way she so unfairly rejected him and probably offer to commit seppuku on the spot if he does not choose her for a mate again, before he'd even consider it… And I can not picture prideful, stubborn Sora ever doing that."
"I really do feel sorry for them both. Not just for Yama, certainly the most wronged, but for Sora as well. Now her sole remaining choice for a mate is Anzu." That deep green male had been as publicly outraged as the rest of the clan at the exposure of Botan's deceptions, and had sworn severe oaths that even when Botan returned, Anzu would have nothing to do with him ever again. And in just the last ten nights, now that he had to think for himself instead of letting Botan do the thinking for both of them, the change in his behavior towards the others was slightly but noticeably different; both a little more assertive and a little more respectful. More than one clan member had noticed the change, and murmured that Botan really should have been banished long ago… But Sakaki continued, "While Anzu now seems decent enough in spirit, now that he is no longer being influenced by Botan, the two are just not well suited for each other."
"Hrmm… Perhaps that will change in time. You must admit, our own sister Taki is not the brightest of lanterns, and at first I honestly thought Taiju was courting her over our other sisters just because he felt sorry for her. But they have been mated for nearly as long as we have, and are still quite happy with each other. Even the arranged marriages that the humans used to practice sometimes resulted in true love, as well as continuing lineages."
"That is true. Perhaps those two will also find contentment together, eventually." Though Sakaki's voice indicated she didn't hold much hope for it. "But Yama…"
"(sigh) I know. Well… maybe he'll find a human to ease the loneliness eventually. Would that bother you?"
"Not at all, though right at this moment I can't think of a single human female in the village who would suit him. But perhaps… Remember the foreign gargoyles that visited us last spring? The female with them, Angela, was unmated…"
Kai snorted. "If you are about to suggest that Yama start courting her… Not only do we not know how to contact the Manhattan clan, even if we dare assume that the questing gargoyles have returned there by now and that she has not found a mate for herself in the last six months, and not only do we not even speak the same language as they do--"
"What! But when they visited the rookery on their tour of the clan grounds, Goliath praised our hatchlings in perfect Nihongo!"
"That was the result of the magic spell that had brought them to our land; from what he told me, they figured out early on that their magical boat was somehow providing them with the language for each place they went to, as well as basic sustenance along the way. Without the aid of another magic spell, even if Angela and Yama somehow came together again they wouldn't understand each other's speech… And they probably wouldn't have any desire to learn, either. You were in the rookery for nearly the whole time they were here; you didn't see how those two ended up snarling at each other like strange cats over a fish. It was almost as if their dislike of each other grew every time they saw each other... The night Yama and Angela become mates will be the night we see a second moon in the sky!"
Six nights later, the gargoyles awoke on their perches to driving rain, and to find their students Maseo and Mikiko down in the courtyard, looking near-frantically worried as they absurdly made shushing noises and gestures at them. As if they could silence their skin-shatterings and sheddings, Kai thought ruefully as he nevertheless hissed "Silence!" to the assembled clan. The clan's centuries of training for secrecy served them well; every yawn or roar still in progress cut off as abruptly as a hand slapped down across a shamisen's strings. Other than the sounds of the rain and of stone shards and gravel pattering down to the ground, silence reigned as they waited to find out why it was needed.
"A strange gaijin has come to the village, in a shiny new car!" Maseo reported breathlessly. "He is at the gas station with Asuhara Bunjiro; Constable Fukuda Hiroshi is going there now to find out why he is here."
It might mean nothing, Kai knew; it could mean simply that the gaijin had been on a trip that happened to pass the village and he was merely taking the opportunity to refill his car's gas tank. But as the village's protectors, they needed to make sure. Just as he had done seven months ago, he picked a pair of warriors to accompany him on reconnaissance, this time choosing Kaze and Kenun, while the regular sentries were dispatched to their posts to keep watch for more strangers approaching. They flew low over the village, skimming the rooftops and staying to shadows, circled from behind the gas station and alit silently on the best vantage points, even as Hiroshi was still trotting up to the gas station, hurriedly straightening his official constable's outfit along the way.
Ears perked to catch every nuance of sound coming through the door left open, they observed in silence as the gaijin conversed with old Bunjiro, in horribly accented Nihongo that he was reading off of cards, and Bunjiro tried to give his replies in single words and gestures that even a gaijin should be able to understand. When Hiroshi entered and began speaking in English, they both turned to him in palpable relief. Hiroshi cheerfully offered his services as a translator, and made sure to give his translations in Nihongo loudly enough that the gargoyles could clearly hear every word.
The gaijin gave his name as Bini Garegarino, and told Hiroshi he had been going to Ishinomaki from Tokyo, but had gotten lost. Oh, really? Kai thought skeptically. Ishinomaki was hundreds of kilometers away from their village, in a totally different prefecture; nobody with brains enough to leave their home and drive a car should get that lost. But then, this was a gaijin they were dealing with, so anything was possible.
They kept watch as the stranger was given clear directions on how to reach Ishinomaki, then was reluctantly referred to Izumi's restaurant, the only one in the village, for his dinner before leaving. They silently shadowed him to the restaurant, and watched as he went inside (and had to be reminded by the waitress to take his shoes off. And then, in a clear fit of petulance, he nearly kicked his shoes into the basin and towels kept there for the gargoyles to use to clean their feet, when they were invited inside… Gaijin!) They kept silent watch through the windows as he ate his dinner (he had horrible table manners, too. Didn't say 'Itadakimasu' before eating, didn't slurp his soup properly, handled his chopsticks most disgracefully, and instead of saying 'Gochiso samadeshita' he actually burped after his meal! Gaijin!)
The rain finally stopped and the skies began to clear while the gaijin was still dining. Finally, the meal was done, the bill was paid and the stranger prepared to leave town, to the relief of all concerned. He got into his car, whistling some unknown tune, and drove off…
On the wrong side of the road.
And a mere moment later at the other end of the street, Deguchi Hyotaru, who had been deaf as a stone for the last ten years and nearly blind for the last two, stepped out of his doorway and into the street for his evening walk. Everyone knew old Hyotaru, the village's sole remaining veteran of the Dainijitaisen and determined to soldier on to the end of his days, took his slow but determined walk around the village every evening; if they happened to be on the road when he was out and about, they would courteously stop their cars to let him pass. But this gaijin didn't know that, didn't know Hyotaru was basically deaf and nearly blind as well, and was currently looking at his written directions on getting to Ishinomaki instead of the road in front of him…
"Shimatta!" Kai cursed, as he leaped off the roof and headed for Hyotaru, who had paused to prudently peer down the road before crossing, but not in the right direction to see the danger approaching on the wrong side. Faster, faster, that baka gaijin was speeding up! "HYOTARUUUU!" he bellowed as loud as he could, praying that it was loud enough. And Hyotaru seemed to hear him, for he was turning, but he wasn't reacting fast enough to see the danger and save himself…
Kai put on a last desperate burst of speed, and reached Hyotaru a bare second before the gaijin would have hit him. He swooped down and grabbed the old man under the arms, just as he heard the unmistakable HRUNCH! of talons being jammed into metal. He glanced behind him as he carried Hyotaru to safety, and saw the gaijin's car slewing crazily to a stop. Praise all the gods, Kaze and Kenun had followed his desperate flight down the street, and slammed down together onto the car's trunk to slow it down and change its course; if they had not, Kai and his precious burden might not have gotten away in time.
He set Hyotaru down safely in front of the Ebisawa family's home around the corner, hoping against hope that he hadn't broken any of those brittle old bones in his rescue. "Honored elder, are you all right?" The loud and vigorous burst of profanity he got in return seemed to indicate the aged soldier was fine, so Kai left him to the care of the Ebisawa family, who had been attracted by the noise, while he ran back to the scene of the barely-averted accident. Kaze and Kenun had done the right thing in stopping that car, but now the clan's fat was in the fire again…
He arrived back on the scene just as Hiroshi did, and just as the gaijin got out of his car. Kai expected the sort of reactions that the clan usually got when strangers to the village encountered them; shock, fear, hatred, and the typical fight-or-flight reaction. Instead, the gaijin was… ignoring Kaze and Kenun, even though they were still in plain sight, Kaze helping Kenun limp away as fast as he could. It looked like Kenun had been tossed off the still-moving car as it slewed to a stop, and had suffered injuries when hitting either the pavement or the wall of the village bank. Shimatta! Kai prayed that Kado and Kawa could handle it, that Kenun had no serious internal injuries in addition to his obviously broken wing, and multiple bruises and scrapes. But the gaijin was just standing there by the car, leaning weakly against it while grabbing his chest and looking dazed, babbling to himself in English. Was he having a heart attack? That would be too much to hope for.
Hiroshi and Kai exchanged grim glances as they met next to the car. There was no mistaking the damage wrought by talons to the rear of the vehicle; this was not going to be a simple 'drug, dazzle and dump' cover-up. Not when this gaijin now had physical evidence to back up what he'd seen. But as they approached, the gaijin came out of his daze, and turned to face Kai with obvious dismay in his expression. Dismay, but not shock or fear or hatred, and he started babbling away in English again… "Nani..?" Kai said as he turned to Hiroshi with eyes wide with confusion.
Hiroshi was staring just as wide-eyed, as he hesitantly translated, "He's complaining about… how he just can't get away from 'you guys'…" Now the gaijin was looking at the damage done to his car, and they heard the increased dismay and anger in his voice as he babbled louder. "And he wants to know, did you really have to wreck his 'wheels' again!"
Staring at each other as the implications set in, Kai abruptly turned and headed for the temple. "Calm him down and bring him to the inner courtyard, while I assemble the clan!"
And yet another Author's note: The Ishimura clan has lived in secrecy for over four centuries, and at first had to maintain that secrecy with draconian measures, but over the last couple of centuries, they have become both more gentle and more creative about it. Strangers to Ishimura who have inadvertently seen the gargoyles are no longer merely offered the choice of (1) staying in Ishimura forever or (2) dying on the spot. Instead, they are courteously invited into a caretaker's home (or tossed into the village's jail cell, as in the case of the two burglars who came to town the same night the Manhattan clan members arrived), and served a very tasty meal that just happens to have mildly hallucinogenic drugs in it.
Once their 'guests' are beginning to feel the drugs' effects, the villagers don fright masks and outrageous costumes, assisted by gargoyles in equally silly costumes, and do bizarre things in front of the guests: wear food on their heads, dance with farm animals, juggle dead fish, romance the furniture, walk across the ceiling (lightweight gargoyles, with very strong toe-talons, can do this if they are careful enough), and anything else they can think of that would make an ordinary person sure he was having the great-grandfather of all sake dreams. Then they drug the strangers completely unconscious, and either drag them off to another village or just leave them to wake up in the gutter outside the village tavern the next morning, utterly stinking of sake or the strongest beer they have handy. Generally, this is enough to convince the strangers that they had somehow gotten disgracefully drunk the night before, and that the gargoyles are mere figments of their alcohol-soaked imaginations.
In this way the village's secret is kept, no one is seriously hurt, and the more mischievous young adults in the village and gakuto in the clan get a chance to act like lunatics and play tengu tricks on people and get away with it. (In fact, the village and clan together have to really impress upon their youngsters the seriousness of the situation and the risks if their secret were ever discovered by the world at large, lest they expose strangers to the gargoyles just so they can have some fun.)
We now return you to the story in progress…
Twenty minutes later, nearly the entire clan was gathered inside the temple and looking wide-eyed at the stranger in their midst. Their few exceptions were all accounted for; Kado had looked Kenun over and was fairly sure that the warrior's wing was his worst injury, and let his assistant Kawa set and splint the wing himself while Kado attended the meeting. Sakaki's assistant Sugi was minding the hatchlings in the rookery by herself rather than bring them out to see the stranger--no sense taking too many chances--while Sakaki and the other rookery keepers attended. Kai spent a brief moment hoping that the 'emergency rations' of sweets and toys that Sakaki had broken out before leaving would keep the hatchlings occupied enough that they wouldn't disobey Sugi and come stampeding out to see for themselves the gaijin, this American named Bini Garegarino who not only was not afraid of gargoyles, but who had evidently encountered their kind before. Hiroshi had calmed the man down and given him a mug of very weak beer to drink, and reassured him that the elderly gentleman he'd almost hit was just fine and that the village would repair his car somehow, before bringing him to the temple for questioning. Now Bini stood there by Hiroshi and looked around him in wonder, but still no fear…
They made formal introductions with Hiroshi's help, then got down to business. "Hiroshi-san, ask Bini-san where he has met gargoyles before," Kai said tensely. When he had visited, Goliath had told them of the clans living in London, England, and in the wilds of Guatemala; now the possibility of yet another clan out there, after centuries of fearing they were the last of their kind, had everyone's tails twitching with excitement.
Hiroshi questioned the American, who gabbled something back with a look of almost-disdain on his face for their having to ask. Hiroshi translated, "He says he encountered them in his 'home town' of New York."
"New York!" the words ran through the assembled clan like wildfire. "Isn't that a prefecture in the northeastern corner of America?" one gakusei asked with a confused look
"They call such a region a 'state', not a prefecture, and its capital city is called the same name," Yama corrected, with that slightly unfocused look to his eyes that meant he was dredging up memories of past television shows he'd seen, that had been dubbed or subtitled in Nihongo. "And as I recall, that city is so large it is divided into five areas… and one of them is Manhattan, where dwells the clan that Goliath leads. It must be Goliath's clan that he has encountered before."
There was some veiled disappointment at that; news of yet another clan still in existence would have been wonderful. But still, more news of the only other clan they'd ever met members of would be more than welcome… Hiroshi obligingly asked Bini to tell them about his past encounters with the Manhattan clan.
Gradually, with many pauses for translation and questions for clarification, a bizarre tale unfolded: Bini blamed that clan's gargoyles for the loss of his motorcycle, his driver's license, and two jobs in less than two years. And he had taken revenge on the clan by attacking their leader, whose description matched that of Goliath, with… a cream pie!
"He's mad as a badger," Taiju said with a shake of his head. "His whole story is too insane to be anything more than a sake dream." Several other clan members concurred.
"I would agree with you… but he has described Goliath too well," Kai said as he rubbed between his horns in perplexity. "At the very least, this human must have encountered him! This… attacking with food… must be a uniquely American way of avenging one's honor."
"Hai," Yama said as he petted Manekineko. "It is considered a humorous form of vengeance, like a tengu trick."
"Perhaps this Yankee has aspirations of being a court fool," Setsu mused as he stroked his beard. "He certainly looks silly enough…"
"Perhaps, but that is of no consequence now," as Kai waved such speculations aside. "Hiroshi-san, ask him if that was the last time he encountered that clan, or if he has more to tell…"
Bini had more to tell, indeed. It seemed that just before he had left America to come to Nihon, he had been asked to join an organization of humans called 'Kawarimen'…
"Kawarimen?" More perplexed glances were exchanged. "Why would a group of humans want to refer to themselves as 'replacement noodles'?"
"American musical bands often have peculiar names, such as 'rolling stones' and 'smashing pumpkins'," Yama threw in again.
"True," Kai nodded, before addressing Hiroshi again. "Ask him how this musical band involved gargoyles…"
Hiroshi asked him, and Bini replied… and Hiroshi went as pale as white jade. Then he asked more questions with such urgency that the entire clan felt the tension, and their tails began twitching again. Bini answered back with a short speech, with repeated gestures that resembled a baseball player swinging a bat for a 'home run'. Finally, Hiroshi turned back to the clan, his face as grim as death as he said, "The kawarimen are not musicians… They are gargoyle slayers."
Wings flared, tails lashed and eyes lit up like red and white beacons throughout the clan, and Kai had to bellow for silence twice before they all settled down. Bini had been so terrified by their displays of outrage that he had hidden behind Hiroshi, and was babbling a thousand words a minute as he clung to the constable for protection. "Hiroshi-san, what is he saying now?"
"He's going too fast to understand! Give me a few moments…" Finally, Hiroshi got the American to slow down enough to be understood. "He says that instead of killing anyone, he saved Goliath from being slain by these men! And the human female with Goliath, who was also in danger… From the description, I think she was Maza Elisa!"
Much more back-and-forth questioning, until they had the details of that story as well. It seemed so incredible… "So, first he takes a tengu's revenge on Goliath, and then he saves him and Maza Elisa from death at the hands of others," Kai summed it up with a sigh. He was really tempted to sniff the human again for signs of sake or some illegal drug use, but refrained. Hiroshi was positive from his descriptions that this American had indeed encountered Goliath and the human who had traveled with him… and even if some other parts of his story were distorted or exaggerated, the kawarimen sounded so terrible that he dared not take the chance that they were not real. "We must take action. Hiroshi-san, ask him when he intends to return to his own country."
Hiroshi nodded grimly, and Kai knew from his eyes that Hiroshi had already guessed what Kai had in mind. He and the American babbled back and forth for a while, and looked over some papers the man carried in his pockets, before Hiroshi reported, "He wishes to return as soon as possible, and his temporary visa will expire in two weeks."
"Then we have only that much time to prepare." Kai looked over at Yama, his expression painfully wry. "Yama-san… You are finally going to get your heart's desire, though now it is your desire no longer."
Yama looked bewildered… and a little afraid, as if he half-suspected and feared what Kai was about to say. "Kai-sama…?"
"For the next two weeks, you are going to spend every hour of every night with Hiroshi-san, learning all the English you can cram between your ears," Kai said bluntly. "Because when this American returns to his homeland, you are going with him."
Gasps of surprise, amazement and scandalized outrage erupted spontaneously from most of the clan, but Kai overrode all their voices with a stern, "Your past desire to learn more of the world outside has made you the best suited for this task: to be our ambassador to the Manhattan clan! And to bring back with you whomever they wish to evacuate, to escape these gargoyle-slaying humans. Not knowing the language and customs over there, without an armed force of native human allies to guard our sleep during the day, any battle force we sent over would be at such a disadvantage that we might as well ask them to commit seppuku upon arrival. But one lone warrior, at least partly familiar with their language and customs, with a guide to help him slip into their country and back out again… One lone warrior might have a chance to reach them, talk to them and bring back as many as wish to come live with us instead of face extinction in their homeland. If you can persuade them all to come live among us, all the better, though I suspect their warriors may wish to fight to the last breath to defend their home. But Goliath said that only a few members of their clan remain after they were betrayed by one of their human allies; these slayers might wipe their clan out entirely, if we do not move quickly!"
Yama had gone a paler shade of gray at his words, but he set Manekineko aside and stood up to bow deeply to Kai. "As you command, Kai-sama."
Kai returned the bow, then said with a proud smile, "I have every confidence in your ability to do this, the most difficult task any warrior has had in centuries." And the most honorable, to guide refugees from another clan to their home; if he succeeded in saving any foreign gargoyles and adding their numbers to the Ishimura clan, even just one crippled elder too old to breed again, Sora would undoubtedly consider that as excuse enough to forgo her stubborn pride, at least long enough to apologize to Yama and beg him to become her mate again. At least, he hoped so…
Hiroshi bowed low to both Kai and Yama, saying, "It shall be my honor to teach you English, Yama-san. And Kai-sama, Yama-san, if I may request a further honor?"
Kai lifted a brow ridge to him, though he had already guessed what he would say, and had indeed been hoping he'd say it. "And that honor would be…?"
"May I have the great honor of accompanying your chosen warrior and the American on this quest?" Hiroshi cleared his throat. "Though Bini-san has evidently proven himself as an ally to the Manhattan clan, I do strongly feel that Yama-san should be accompanied by someone from this village, rather than left to the companionship of one who is unfamiliar with our ways."
Kai's lips quirked in a wry smile, hearing plainly what Hiroshi could not say in public without loss of face for someone. Besides guarding Yama's sleep rather than trusting his care to a gaijin stranger, Hiroshi was also offering his services as an interpreter; even if Yama could study all day as well as all night, there was no way he could become fluent in English in just two weeks. Not to mention, Yama hadn't made a favorable impression with those members of the Manhattan clan who had visited Ishimura, and it was probable that they would be more ready to accept Hiroshi's words at face value than his own. "We are honored by your request and offered sacrifice, Hiroshi-san."
While they had been talking amongst themselves, Bini had been watching them with his gaze comically bouncing back and forth from face to face, evidently trying to follow their conversation by sheer force of will. Finally, he made a complaint to Hiroshi, who switched back to English to explain the situation. Bini's face reflected dismay, and he evidently made a few protests, but Hiroshi said a few stern sentences back to him and he subsided into a sulk. Kai and Yama noticed his behavior with some disquiet, and Kai said bluntly to the point of rudeness, "Is he going to cause problems, rather than help us?"
"I do not believe so," Hiroshi mused. "He was concerned about keeping Yama-san from being discovered or causing disruptions while traveling to his country. I told him we would deal with all transportation problems, and he should merely concern himself with helping us contact the clan in Manhattan once we have arrived there." Then he turned to Yama as he continued, "But he is right, in that transporting you to Manhattan might involve some… inconvenience."
Yama smiled wryly. "I am sure that somewhere in New York they have a Shinto shrine, or at least a properly decorative garden. Surely it would not raise too many eyebrows for a unique and expensive stone statue to be shipped to such a place by air freight."
Even a clan leader is allowed to occasionally, just occasionally, stoop to teasing his rookery brothers. Kai looked at Yama and said dryly, "One would almost think you had considered such a course before."
Yama flushed and lowered his head, mumbling, "Once or twice." But he'd never been able to discreetly gather enough yen to have himself shipped anywhere.
"Well, now I am sincerely glad of it," Kai said with a smile. "Before the week is over, I expect you both and Bini-san to have come up with a plan for traveling to New York, for contacting the clan there and for transporting up to a dozen gargoyles safely back here to us." His smile turned grim. "And I pray to all the luck gods that two weeks of preparation and transport are allowed to us, before these kawarimen can destroy the Manhattan Clan…"
They put the American up in Hiroshi's own home, and Yama all but moved in with them in order to practice his English as much as possible. For the next two weeks, Yama was almost constantly in the presence of either Hiroshi or the American, whose personal name turned out to be Bini instead of Garegarino (these gaijin always put their names backwards.) But the first consonant was pronounced with a difference that Yama's ears finally picked up on, and his lips were finally able to copy, the second night of his hurried English lessons. "Vin-nee Garegarino," Yama finally said carefully, then cocked his head at the American to see if he'd gotten it right.
Garegarino allowed that it was close enough, then set Yama to reciting English words and phrases that had a mixture of that odd first consonant with ones he was more familiar with, as well as differentiated between the 'r' and the 'l' sounds that, according to Garegarino, he was also having some trouble with. The problem was, Yama still didn't know the meaning of half the words he was saying… "Veh-ree fain. Rait-and-left. Meh-ree Karis-mas. Vah-lee-ball. Fuk Kalinton. Fuk kongaress tuu. Why are you smirking? …Hiroshi-san, please tell this gaijin that if he's got me practicing profanity, I'll be very unhappy with him…"
The television in Hiroshi's home was tuned to the English-speaking channels from sunset to sunrise, with Hiroshi providing on-the-fly translations for the actors on those shows that Garegarino assured them were most like real life in America, and Garegarino providing commentary on the customs that both gargoyle and human found utterly bizarre. "But Hiroshi-san, look at the way they're jumping up and down, working themselves into a frenzy… they look to be just one step away from engaging in combat themselves! Are you sure these… 'football fans' are merely spectators?"
And when the English-speaking station went off the air for the night, and the humans were simply too tired to stay awake any longer and staggered off to bed, Yama sketched furiously on paper and strewed bits of rubber, cloth and metal about either Hiroshi's attic, the gargoyles' classroom or the ancient village forge, as the clan's science teacher-turned-warrior worked to develop weapons and defenses against the Kawarimen's electrically-charged hammers that Garegarino had described.
In the meantime, the clan and the village set out to raise enough money to send Yama and Hiroshi to America by air. No one in the village could be called rich by any stretch of the imagination, and the fish harvests in the last few years had been leaner than everyone would have liked; while no one had starved or been rendered destitute, they had very little profits to spare.
Finally, Kai and the elders dug into the clan's armory and pulled out a few of their ancient but well-preserved weapons that fit human hands as well as gargoyle hands. "See how much money these will bring us," Kai sighed mournfully as he placed into the village mayor's respectful hands a 4-centuries-old naginata, a yari that was at least twice as old as that, and a tessen that Kai knew had been given to the clan leader of Ishimura personally by the daimyo of what is now Mashiko, just before the clan had retired to Ishimura. (He had spent over an hour on hands and knees in the temple, praying on behalf of the clan that their ancestors and the daimyo's spirit would not be too offended by the sale of these heirlooms. He'd begged them to understand that this was being done for the benefit of another clan in dire straits and, ultimately, for the good of the entire gargoyle race.)
Mayor Masamune swore he would wring the highest price possible out of the ancient weapons collectors in Kyoto, and was sure that they would bring more than enough for their purposes. Kai paused and considered after the mayor said that, then turned back to him. "If that proves to be the case, then there are a few purchases I would like you to make while you are away…"
Finally, it was the night before the oddly-matched trio was to leave for Tokyo, and their flight to the United States of America. The clan assembled in the temple courtyard again, just as they had seven months ago, when Yama had been temporarily banished from the clan in disgrace. Once more Kai was wearing the formal kimono and bearing the great two-handed no-dachi sword that marked him as clan leader. And once more, Yama was in the center of the courtyard and the center of the clan's attention… but this time, standing proudly, in the hour before dawn.
Kai had to work hard to restrain a proud smile at the figure his closest friend cut in his new clothing. The clan's seamstresses had worked for nearly a week to outfit Yama as befitted his specialized mission; to slip unseen through the streets and skies of Manhattan, find the clan living there, and, if necessary, aid them in their battles against the kawarimen long enough for Hiroshi and the American to arrange transport for as many as were willing to come to Ishimura. Yama's new yukata was of a charcoal gray much darker than his own skin, for blending into the shadows and the night sky even more than he normally would. The kanji characters for luck, success and the seven guiding principles of Bushido were embroidered in black along the edges; they would show of his honorable mission to the other gargoyles while not giving his position away to night-blind human city-dwellers, as the more customary bright gold embroidery might have done. The shin-guards and tail-wrap he wore, as well as the sash draped diagonally over his chest, were all as dark gray as his yukata. The tail-wrap was simply a tube of black nylon cloth that sheathed his tail from the base to near the tip, allowing full range of motion while still fitting snugly and making the tail even harder to see in shadow; Sakaki's inspiration. The shin-guards and sash, on the other hand, had several small pockets cunningly sewn into them, to hold not only the weapons Yama had devised against the Kawarimen's hammers but over a dozen shuriken without letting them touch and clank together; that had been Setsu's inspiration, after observing how deadly accurate Yama's aim had become with the throwing blades. Shuriken were more suited as weapons for a ninja than a samurai, but since Yama's mission was one of stealth where most humans were concerned, the weapons were deemed appropriate.
For the sake of ceremony, Kai stood tall and said with his sternest possible face, "Are you ready for your mission, Yama-san?"
Yama bowed deeply. "Kai-sama, I am ready."
Kai cocked his head and studied him for a moment, deliberately looking skeptical. "You think you are… but I see you are not." Startled, Yama raised his head to stare at him in honest confusion and dismay, while the rest of the clan murmured in startled but very discreet whispers. Only Hiroshi, Mayor Masamune, Sakaki and Taiju, who knew what Kai had been planning, were masking smiles as Kai pointed to Yama's waist and said sternly, "You are lacking your daisho."
Yama's confused look lasted for another split-second--of course he didn't have daisho, the pair of swords that were a samurai's most honored possessions; only six members of the clan possessed them, their most honored warriors--before he understood, and had to work hard to suppress a grin of sheer astonished delight. Kai continued smoothly, "Fortunately, the clan has made up for that lack." Then he gestured off to his right, and Taiju whisked off the cloth covering the items on a lacquered tray, and brought them forward to offer to Kai: a katana and a wakizashi, both in their lacquered wooden sheaths.
Kai lifted up the swords and nodded for Yama to come forward. Yama bowed so low his horns almost scraped gravel before accepting the swords, then bowed again and was about to retreat when Kai forestalled him with a casual, "And of course, the tsuba for your daisho." Now Sakaki came forward, bearing a small flat case; Kai accepted it and opened it, to reveal the iron sword guards that would be mounted on the katana and wakizashi, to add balance to the swords and prevent the hand from inadvertently sliding down onto the blade. These tsuba were not as ornately designed as some sword guards had been in the past, when tsuba art had become a status symbol among the samurai, but they were made in exactly the design Kai had requested, when ordering them through the villagers. One side of the matching ovals was a simple cherry blossom design in openwork, the iron pierced through to render the tsuba lighter without negating its protection of the hand. On the other side was a much more unusual design: the openwork silhouette of a feline pawprint. Yama stared at the designs in silence for a moment, then gave Kai a look of sheer gratitude, brother to brother, before bowing again to accept them from the clan leader. Kai knew the message had come through; though Manekineko would be staying behind in Ishimura, the strength and luck of her spirit would accompany Yama to America, symbolized in his swords of honor.
Yama solemnly installed the tsuba on the katana and the wakizashi with the entire clan observing the ritual, then offered the swords and his life in service to the clan and to Kai. Kai gave the customary acceptance with all due solemnity, but was unable to completely keep the proud smile from his face as Yama then properly secured the sheathed swords to his obi as if he had done it a thousand times before, and stood before the clan as a samurai from horns to tail. Then he brought an early end to the ceremony, so more informal farewells could be said by the other clan members. (Besides, such a formal farewell ceremony normally ended with the gargoyle gliding off to meet his destiny, not climbing into a large and specially-made crate for shipping there.)
Almost immediately, Yama was surrounded by the clan's hatchlings begging to see his pretty new swords (with a few of the adults lingering on the edges of the crowd, also wanting a better look but ashamed to beg for it.) With a wordless glance to Kai for permission to draw steel within the temple grounds--normally, Bushido forbid it, but the clan's hatchlings were always near-shamefully indulged by the adults--Yama drew the katana, holding it carefully away from their grasping hands and cautioning them not to actually touch the blade. "This is a weapon, not a toy! It is very, very sharp, far sharper than your talons, though your talons are tougher so you can claw through stone. See this hair?" as he plucked a hair from his own mane, then slowly brought it against the katana. Sharp indeed, the katana split the hair right down the middle, while the hatchlings all made oohs and ahhs of delighted awe. Kai smiled before slipping away to get out of the heavy formal kimono and back into his normal clothes.
The rookery keepers herded the hatchlings off to the rookery soon after, while Yama spent a little time petting Manekineko and feeding his cat choice bits of sashimi he'd saved from supper for her, knowing it would be the last time for a long while… perhaps the last time ever. "Manekineko-chan, I know you can sense something is different now," he murmured as he finished feeding her the last bits of fish, and scratched behind her ears while she purred for him. "Perhaps you even know I will be going away, and wish to go with me. I wish it too, my precious little cat, my luck-bringer… But this mission is risky, and I could not bear it if you came to harm while accompanying me. So you stay here with Miya and the other cats, and you can keep Kai and Sakaki company in my stead, all right? Try to make Kai laugh once in a while; he needs that…"
Kai had discreetly asked Hiroshi to bring Yama to the boathouse just before dawn, where he and Sakaki would be waiting inside. Hiroshi brought Yama there at the appointed time and went back alone to the truck that the shipping crate had already been loaded onto, waiting for Yama to climb in and make himself reasonably comfortable and padded into place before turning to stone. Now Kai and Yama could say their goodbyes as brother to brother, clasping forearms before mutually deciding that wasn't enough and indulging in great bear-hugs. "Gods, Yama-kun, I'm going to miss you!" Kai said roughly.
"I'll miss you too, Kai-kun," Yama said hoarsely. "And you, Sakaki-chan," as he reached to draw her into the hug, for a three-way huddle of arms and wings and tails intertwined. "I promise I'll call you the moment I find the Manhattan clan… Oh, Sakaki-chan, no tears, please! Remember, I've gone off alone before and survived…"
"Yes, but at least then we knew we could reach you in less than an hour if we needed to! Now you're going farther away than any clan member has ever gone before, far beyond our reach if things go wrong!" Kai protested, unashamed of the tear glistening in the corner of his own eye.
"But I'll have Hiroshi with me, and our American guide; we'll all do fine." He swallowed hard. "Promise me you'll pay attention to Manekineko, pet her as often as she needs it? Miya said she'd continue caring for her, but Miya gives equal time to all the other cats…"
Sakaki and Kai both promised that they would. Then they left the boathouse to rejoin the rest of the clan, Kai and Sakaki to strike fierce poses for sunrise as usual on the temple roof and Yama to situate himself within his reinforced shipping crate. Yama paused just before opening the door to say to them, "Ittekimasu," with that same daredevil smile he'd often had as a young gakuto, sneaking off to explore the boundaries or on some other 'grand adventure'.
"Itterasshai," Kai said back to him automatically, trying to smile in return. Sakaki was more honest in her reply, saying "Kiwotsukete!" with emphasis. Yama nodded as he opened the door, started to step outside… then stopped dead in his tracks in surprise. Because standing in front of them, facing outwards to sea as she had four months ago, Sora was waiting.
Sakaki peered over his shoulder to see why he'd stopped, saw Sora's back as she stared out to sea, and acted with lightning quickness. She shoved Yama out the door to where Sora was waiting and slammed it behind him, then quickly scampered on all fours up to the attic of the boathouse, with Kai following fast once he got the idea. The two of them crept up to the window that faced the docks, and unashamedly eavesdropped on the once-mated pair.
Yama swallowed hard, taking one step towards her but not another. "Sora-ch… Sora-san?"
Sora slowly turned around, and it could plainly be seen by the stiff way she held herself that she was fighting hard for composure, to keep her wings and tail from shivering with great emotion. "I… I came to wish you a good journey, and success in your mission."
Yama stood in silence for a moment, then bowed formally. "Thank you."
The silence between them was painful. After being so completely rejected by her upon his return, and being spurned again after defeating Botan in the graduating combat session, it was plain that Yama had decided he'd taken enough rejection from her; if they were ever to reconcile, he expected her to make the next move. At least, it was plain enough to Kai's eyes… But didn't Yama realize that just her showing up here alone, in the same spot where once she had rejected him, indicated that Sora was seriously reconsidering her rejection? That she considered just standing there in that spot to wish him well to be her next move, and now was waiting for him to take the next step? The two gargoyles continued standing there in painful silence, while Kai and Sakaki, watching from above, had to restrain themselves from screaming down at them, Talk to each other, you poor idiots!
Long minutes passed, while the sky grew lighter and lighter; Kai glanced toward the East, and knew if he and Sakaki didn't get their tails in the air in the next few minutes, they might not make it to the temple in time to perch with the others. He was about to draw her away from that window so they could slip out the window on the opposite side, when Yama said abruptly, "Pardon my rudeness, but I must get to the truck before sunrise." Then he leaped up the side of the boathouse to hook his claws in halfway up, and quickly scaled it the rest of the way to the roof while Kai and Sakaki hastily drew back, to avoid being spotted. He prepared to launch, then half-turned and said over his shoulder to Sora, "If this proves to be our last parting… know that I never stopped loving you. Sayonara." Then he launched and worked his wings to glide as fast as possible away from her, like one that is in a hurry… perhaps in a hurry to die honorably.
In such a hurry that he was already out of earshot by the time Sora's voice reached out after him, in a tearful, "Yama-chan, wait…!"
"Shimatta! He didn't hear!" Kai spat as he launched out the far window after Yama's departing silhouette, the noise of his launch and his curse both covered by Sora's suddenly bursting into tears.
"Go after him, I'll stay here with Sora!" Sakaki hissed to her mate, as she turned towards the stairs. Kai nodded curtly, knowing her absence from the walls at sunrise would raise fewer brow ridges than his own absence, since she spent most of her dawns in the rookery with the hatchlings.
He sped through the air after Yama, but finally had to reluctantly change course and head for the temple, while Yama headed for the truck in the center of the village. Sunrise was too soon, and if he bellowed for Yama to slow down so they could talk, neither of them would make it to where they needed to be. He took one last glance at his rookery brother as he glided out to meet his destiny, and prayed to every god the clan had ever prayed to that Yama would return from his mission to America soon and safely. But even with Hiroshi along to safeguard his sleep, and interpret for him when he could, Yama's path would be far from easy…
FYI: JAPANESE DEFINITIONS & TRANSLATIONS
I confess, it's been many years since my trip to Japan, and while I was there I never really learned more than how to say 'yes', 'no', 'please' and 'thank you'. (But it's amazing how far you can get in that country with just those four words…) Fortunately, I have books in my library and search engines out on the Internet that can show me the world, in tiny fragments. The following are fragments I've compiled for you, words that were used in the story that might need explaining beyond the text immediately around the words. (I'm not bothering to define samurai, ninja, or katana; if you don't know what those are, you are severely deficient in your Oriental action movies.)
Aisai: beloved wife
Arigato: (idiomatic) Thank you.
Baita: (idiomatic, vulgar) Bitch!
Baka: fool, idiot; often used as an all-purpose insult.
Bakawomiru to feel like an idiotto make a fool of yourself
Bakayaro: a more rude, nasty version of baka.
Bokken: a wooden sword about the size and shape of a katana. Bokken are essentially practice weapons, and potentially safer than a metal sword. (Of course, if you are hit by a fast-moving three-foot-long piece of solid wood - it will hurt you!)
Chawan-mushi: 'steamed eggpot', a steamed egg custard with various fillings and toppings, sort of like a filled soufflé.
Chiburi: 'shaking the blood off', an action done to one's weapons after battle and as a symbolic gesture in just about every sword practice (kata); either this or chinugui is done whether the blade actually drew blood or not. One never, ever sheathes a sword still bloody; it's apt to stick to the scabbard next time, when you may really need it.
Chikoshou: (idiomatic) Shit! Dammit!
Chinsui: very, very drunk.
Chinugui: 'wiping the blood off'. See chiburi.
Daimyo: a Japanese feudal lord, roughly equivalent to a baron in medieval Europe.
Dainijitaisen: Japanese slang phrase for the Second World War;WWII
Daisho: literally 'big-little', it's a term for the paired swords of katana (big sword) and wakizashi (little sword) that were a samurai's most prized possessions.
Dokuritsushin: an independent spirit; strong-willed and contrary individual
Dozo: (idiomatic) Please?
Fusu: to give full obeisance; to prostrate oneself. Usually done to show complete loyalty, devotion and obedience to one's lord, when just a bow of respect isn't enough.
Gaijin: foreigner. Used for people from any non-oriental country, not just the USA.
Gakusei: literally 'student'. For the Ishimura gargoyles, this term is applied to any gargoyle that's out of the rookery but not yet a breeding-age adult.
Gakuto: plural of gakusei.
Gochiso samadeshita: phrase meaning roughly 'Thank you for the feast'; said after every meal that has been served to you.
Gojiro: known to all the Western world as … GODZILLA! (dum-dada-dum…)
Haiku: a form of Japanese poetry that consists of exactly seventeen syllables, arranged exactly in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. Rhyming lines are not required, and in fact the haiku rarely rhymes at all. It's generally considered a minimalist form of poetry, where one tries to express a great deal and suggest even more, in the fewest possible words.
Hajime: Begin! Heard at the start of martial arts matches.
Hentaishinri: abnormal mentality; 'sick in the head'
Hiretsukan: mean bastard, despicable person
Ippon: a judo term, called out by the judge to indicate a full point has been scored and the match has been won. (For the curious reader: The first player to score just one point in judo wins, ending the match much like a knockout in boxing or tae kwon do, or a full-count pin in wrestling. Getting that one point can be difficult, though. As we humans practice judo, techniques that score one full point include a clean throw, holding the opponent down for 25 seconds, or causing the opponent to submit by "tapping out", or tapping the mat twice. Generally, tap-outs are only seen when players are caught in a tight choke or armlock, and have to choose between surrendering or getting choked unconscious, or having their arms broken. (Tough choice!) Techniques score partial points if the player didn't throw the opponent cleanly onto his or her back, or if the opponent was able to escape the pin before 25 seconds (but was pinned for at least 10). If an ippon is awarded, the referee's arm will be held straight up as it's announced; if it's less, it'll be at shoulder level (for half-points, or waza-ari) or 45 degrees from the side (yuko). If no player scores an ippon, the player with the most points when match time runs out wins.
Itadakimasu: phrase meaning roughly 'I receive with gratitude', which is said before eating any meal served to you.
Ittekimasu: Good-bye; the informal version, used by close friends and family.
Itterasshai: the usual response to 'Ittekimasu'. English equivalent for the two phrases in a conversation: " 'Bye!" "See ya!"
Ju ban kami: an exclamation, roughly translated to 'hundred thousand gods'; the equivalent to "Oh my God!" in English.
Kaishaku: the ritual assistant, armed with a sword for cutting off the head, in a formal hara-kiri ceremony.
Kana: the characters of the Japanese alphabet/syllabary.
Kanji: the characters of the Chinese alphabet/syllabary, also frequently used by the Japanese.
Kanojo: girlfriend; sweetheart
Kanzashi: the two long stick-pins, often ornately decorated, that were traditionally used to pin the hair up on Japanese ladies.
Kata: Practice steps/maneuvers. In Japanese Martial Arts, the kata comprises a series of pre-determined movements to be used against an imaginary opponent.
Kawarimen: kawari replacement or substitute, men noodles. Replacement noodles! (I just couldn't resist…)
Kimono: traditional Japanese formal dress, a heavy robe usually made of fine silk, and sometimes heavily embroidered as well. The kimono is secured in the back by an obi, and the entire outfit sometimes had several layers of under-kimonos as well as the outer robe. The higher in rank the wearer is or the more formal the occasion, the heavier the kimono and the more movement-restrictive it becomes, rather like the formal court dress back in Tudor England.
Kiwotsukete: (idiomatic) Be careful!
Komainu: a stone statue of a 'lion-dog', a guardian beast, most often seen in pairs at the gates of a Shinto shrine or the home of an important government official.
Konban wa: (idiomatic, greeting) Good evening
Kutabare: (idiomatic, vulgar) Fk you!
Mi-ke: literally 'three-fur'; a calico coat for a cat.
Naginata: A weapon used in feudal Japan, consisting of an ovate wooden shaft measuring approximately 6-8 feet in length with a curved blade on the end of it. The blade measured between 1 and 3 feet, and was sharpened on one side (the convex side). Traditionally a woman's weapon, for defending the home or castle from bandits or raiding parties while the menfolk were away at war.
Nani: What? (--is he saying?) (--is going on?)
Nihon, or Nippon: Japan.
Nihongo: the Japanese word for their own language.
No-Dachi: a massive two-handed sword, curved like the more familiar katana but up to twice its size, usually over five feet in length. In the hands of a strong and skilled samurai, this could cut a man in half with one clean blow.
Obi: the belt-sash for either a kimono or yukata. The obi for a kimono is much wider and longer than for a yukata, and the knot will be much fancier and tied in the back instead of the front, to show the wearer can also afford servants to aid in his/her dressing.
Oni: a Japanese ogre/demon. Descriptions vary, but basically an oni is a Big, Mean, Ugly Sucker, in spades.
Owari dessen yo: I'm not finished yet!
Rei: the formal bow of respect to an opponent or to one's sensei. (To your sensei, the bow angle is thirty degrees, with eyes downcast. To an opponent, the bow angle is only fifteen degrees, and you maintain eye contact… just in case your opponent isn't so honorable after all.)
Saiai beloved one
Sake (pronounced sah-ke): a potent rice wine. Can be served hot or cold.
Sashimi: raw fish. Often served in bite-sized bits atop equally small bits of vinegar-flavored rice, which makes it sushi.
Sayonara: Goodbye. The formal word, used more for saying goodbye to strangers or acquaintances. One doesn't use it with close friends and family… Unless there's a strong chance that the one leaving may not return.
Sensei: teacher or mentor.
Shamisen: a Japanese traditional three-stringed musical instrument
Shimatta: (idiomatic) Damn it!
Shuriken: the name roughly translates into 'a dagger hidden in a palm', and so it can be applied to virtually any small blade. There are many varieties of shuriken, but the most common is the 'throwing star,' made famous by hundreds of cheesy ninja movies.
Tatami: a mat woven of straw, a common floor covering in traditional Japanese homes.
Tempura matsutake: batter-fried mushrooms.
Tengu: mythological tricksters, bird-spirits, renowned for playing tricks on people, and for their skills in martial arts. Shrink Griff the gargoyle down to about 2/3-size, bob his tail and tie feathers on it, then give him Puck's personality and you've got a rough approximation of what a tengu is supposed to be like. Some versions of tengu don't have beaks, but instead have human-like faces with really long noses (think 'Cyrano', but three times worse.) Ishimuran beaked gargoyles have occasionally been mistaken for tengu at first sight.
Tessen literally "iron fan," a folding fan with metal ribs. An everyday, seemingly ordinary object, but in the hands of a skilled samurai, it could be a highly effective offensive or defensive weapon as needed.
Usotsuki: a liar
Wakizashi: the companion sword to the katana, shorter in length (about 2 feet long) but just as deadly for fighting in close quarters.
Waza-ari: see ippon.
Yabanjin: barbarian, savage brute
Yari: the Japanese spear. Pretty close to the standard European spear.
Yukata: a lightweight and usually one-layer robe, which happens to be styled somewhat along the lines of what Yama, Sora and many other Ishimuran gargoyles all wore in the episode "Bushido" (though longer in length; the gargoyles' clothes were as short as Happi coats, but those are usually worn over other clothing.) It is the traditional but everyday, informal version of the more famous kimono, which is usually worn only for weddings, funerals and other formal ceremonies.
Yuko: see ippon.
NAME-SUFFIXES: these are used in one form or another almost every time you address a person directly or indirectly. To address a person without one of these suffixes is considered rude, crude and possibly highly insulting. (However, you never use a suffix when referring to yourself.)
-chan: used for addressing a close female friend, or wife, or lover of either gender; also used for addressing small children of either sex.
-dono: a very polite honorific, used for addressing a man or woman of higher status, say, a clan elder.
-kun: used for addressing a close male friend; also sometimes used for a male lover or husband.
-sama: the honorific for addressing the Big Boss, whether a daimyo, a head of state or a clan leader.
-san: the all-purpose honorific, equivalent to a 'mister' or 'miss'.
-sensei: the honorific for addressing a teacher or mentor. This is an example of using a person's title as the addressing suffix; it's the equivalent of calling someone "Professor Smith/Jones."MORE FYI: ISHIMURAN GARGOYLE NAMES
The only names given for Ishimuran gargoyles in the episode Bushido all equated to objects of nature; i.e., Yama mountain, Sora sky, Kai sea sort of; that syllable can be written almost a dozen different ways and has a dozen different meanings, but one common use of it is in words like seashell (kaikaku), fish (kairin), ocean (enkai) icy waters (hyoukai) sea bird (kaichou), etc. That being the case, I figured the rest of the clan should be named similarly, for other objects of nature or for ancient manmade structures around the clan's home (the temple and objects on temple grounds). Hence:
Anzu apricot tree
Botan peony flower (believe it or not, this is a common name for real Japanese men)
Hisame really cold rain
Jari pebbles, gravel
Kawa river or stream
Kenun cirrus cloud
Kyuuka pine cone
Matsu pine tree
Sakaki a tree/shrubbery sacred to the Shinto religion; Cleyera japonica
Shoufuu: maple tree
Shourou bell tower
Soseki foundation stone, cornerstone
Sugi cedar tree
Taiju really big tree
Yanagi willow tree
Yasou grassy field
Last Author's Note: For those of you who've managed to read all the way through this novella-length story (I tried to keep it short, but scenes just kept popping up and demanding to be written!) I hope you all enjoyed my depiction of Ishimura and the people living there. Rest assured, you'll see them—especially Yama—again soon! Kimberly T.