“Wake now, little sister,” she hears Eldest Sister say. She breathes and pearlescent light washes over her eyelids. Outside a woodpecker’s beak thrums against a tree trunk; a goldeneye duck calls on the pond. She smells silk and jasmine… and something more.
She lifts herself onto one elbow and finds Eldest Sister kneeling beside her. Never, outside of the temple, has she witnessed Eldest Sister kneel. But a smile illuminates her wrinkled face, and upon her outstretched palms, redolent of leather and steel, lays Takhara’s sword. The metal gleams like moonstruck water, with an edge sharper than a wild poet’s tongue.
“I … I am alive,” she says. She remembers stepping into the Spirit Garden to begin the trials, her feet bare on the damp cherry blossoms … then nothing more. She touches her breastbone and realizes how quick and shallow her breathing is, how hot she feels within, as if she has swallowed a steaming dumpling whole. There is no pain, though, not quite, and her limbs feel so light and strong that she might run to the First Mountain’s summit without tiring. “But something—what’s happened to me?”
Eldest Sister bows her snow-haired head, and the katana shimmers as she laughs. “Can you not guess, dear child? Your pardon—dear sister, now. Why, that is where the goddess touched your heart.”
* * *
That was only six mornings ago, and now she wonders if her first sanctioned service to the goddess will be her last. On the surface, a simple thing to escort a man —a saint—from one temple to another. But someone very much desires his physical death, even more than her sisters suspected.
Their pursuers, a knot of shadows in the faint moonlight, crest the nearest hill, and behind them, grunting and hefting a war-club almost as large as herself, lurches an oni.
She bites her lip and her fingers tremble on the rail of the forsaken watchtower on which she has chosen to make their stand. Her breathing is quick again, but her heart is heavy as a river stone. The saint remains in the same position, sitting with his legs crossed beneath him, hands open as if to catch the stars gleaming in the blackness above. He is barely older than she and carries no weapon. Why should I need one? he asked her when the pursuit began.
The pursuers ring the tower. Their hounds bark and snap at one another. The oni stomps its taloned feet and roars. Then a man begins speaking in a honeyed voice, asking them to come down, promising them safe passage to another place. The saint stands and goes to the rail.
“You should not lie,” he calls down softly. He grunts as Takhara jerks his robe backward, as the hiss of a thrown knife fades into the sky. In an instant, footsteps pound below them on the warped staircase, and she moves toward the landing.
She assumes the stance of the White Leopard, but her palms are moist on the katana’s hilt. She shakes her head as if waking from a dream. I am a young woman. Why should I die here?
She turns the blade—perhaps to sheathe it, perhaps to hurl it from the roof—and moonlight flashes, pearlescent, from the steel. She breathes the scent of jasmine, and a voice like Eldest Sister’s whispers in her ear.
Did I touch your heart with my finger? No. I marked it with my sword.
The first man bursts from the stairs, and at her command the night air, steel-slashed, begins to sing.
Takhara © Robert Rhodes, 2010. All rights reserved.
art used with permission: “Sword Saint” by Emma Rose Paterson
Author’s note: My favorite musician is Loreena McKennitt, and one of her most beautiful songs is “Full Circle” from the album The Mask & the Mirror. The inspiration for this piece came from the opening lyrics: “Stars were falling, deep in the darkness, as prayers rose softly, petals at dawn. And as I listened, your voice seemed so clear, so calmly you were calling your god.” Sublime fantasy-writing music. RR