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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

Golden Gate/Glorannon
(formerly San Francisco Bay)
Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July/Fumizuki/Cerweth 14th
Change Year 46/Fifth Age 46/Shōhei 1/2044 A.D.

 

The Tennōheika—Heavenly Sovereign Majesty—of Japan stood by the stern-chaser catapult of the Tarshish Queen and composed herself against the memories that flooded in as the ship approached the Golden Gate. Her left hand rested on the scabbard of the katana thrust through her sash with the thumb against the guard in a gesture as automatic as the movements of walking.

Her title was Empress in English, though in Nihongo the word for a ruler as opposed to that for a consort had no gender. Ruling empresses were nonetheless very rare. Her grandmother had been the first in more than two hundred years, for all her brief life—the last survivor of the dynasty, brought by the Seventy Loyal Men across the firestorm chaos of Change-stricken Honshū to the offshore refuge of Sado-ga-shima, that the line of Amaterasu-ōmikami be preserved. It had been, in the son she had born too young and died of bearing, and through him to her and her sisters.

The cool damp sea-wind cuffed at her tightly braided hair as she stood and remembered the last time she had passed here, on the Red Dragon. Brief months ago, with her father alive and the enemy close behind, that final battle on the shore only hours ahead. It had been...

A blur. I remember glimpses. Blood running from under someone’s fingernails as they heaved at the pumps and the water jetted overboard. Atsuko sharpening a nick out of her naginata with the shaft braced across her knee. Captain Ishikawa showing his teeth as he took the wheel in his own hands and called out to his ship as if it were a lover. Father holding a dying man’s hand for a moment.

Thirst, hunger, fear, weariness worse than all. The consciousness of hideous death or worse close at hand, close as the shriek of catapult bolts overhead, the sluggish heaving movement of the leaking waterlogged ship, the crackle of gathering flame in the rigging. Playing out what she must do at the last to avoid capture in her mind over and over, to settle her spirit to it: the dagger in her hand, point towards her throat, and...

She shook herself mentally, coming back to the moment, to the present, to loss and to hope and to giri. Her given name was Reiko, which had a number of meanings of which Courteous Lady was the most common nowadays. Members of the Imperial House of the Yamato Dynasty had no family name in the usual sense, and with them the use of the personal name was still more restricted than with most of her folk. Even as a small child few but her siblings and parents had ever called her Reiko, and now that her father was dead she would seldom hear it again at home unless from her mother and sisters in strict privacy. For the rest of her life to others she would be Tennōheika, or in informal circumstances simply Heika, Majesty. When she died, she would be known as Shōhei Tennō after the era-name she had chosen on the day of her father’s cremation: Empress of Victorious Peace.

Perhaps that is why it is so... comforting... to be on... what do they call it here... first-name terms with Órlaith and her brother. They are my peers in a way nobody in Dai-Nippon can be. And are also outside our system altogether, neh? Nobody at home will know as yet what has happened. We were the first ship to reach this continent from the homeland since the Change. They do not expect us back for many months, at the very least. To them, Father is still alive, still our Tennōheika and I his heir. I will have to take the news to Mother and Setsuko and Toshi and Yōko, and present the urn.

Her younger sisters had called her Stork Girl sometimes when they played together. She was five foot six inches: or five shaku five sen, in the terms her people now used once again, carrying herself with easy grace on the swaying deck. That made her a very tall young woman for a Nihonjin of her generation, the first born to those themselves born after the Change; as tall as most samurai men and taller than all but a few commoners. The Imperial family of course fed as well as anyone did, but in modern Nihon even the wealthy and powerful ate a spare lean diet of rice and soy and vegetables supplemented by fish and a little chicken, with red meat—the odd tonkatsu, sliced batter-crusted pork cutlet, or the like—as a treat on special occasions. To rise from a meal ever so slightly hungry was good manners.

In years that were very bad many peasants thought rice a treat, and had porridge of boiled millet stretched with wild greens for their staple.

With an unexpectedly delicate courtesy the family of nobles where the Nihonjin party had been quartered near Portland, at Montinore on the Barony of Ath, had tried to supply them with familiar provisions, and had found cooks who could turn out dishes often fairly similar to what she’d grown up with. But it had been like one elaborate feast after another rather than the sort of food you actually ate day to day even in the Palace. They’d had to gently hint that plain noodles and pickled vegetables and a bit of fish would be a relief. One of the shocking things about Montival had been the sheer, almost gross, abundance of food. They’d had only the pre-Change books about ancient America to prepare them for what they found here, and that was just about the only thing in them that was still true.

Her five-foot-six height was lean whipcord, and she stood with a stillness that was always ready to explode into deadly movement. Everyone in Japan these days trained to arms to some extent, the upper classes more so, and since her brother Yoshihito’s ship had been lost six years ago...

Grief made you more vulnerable to grief; for a moment the pain she’d felt during the long months of waiting and growing despair returned. She banished it with an effort of will, and instead thought of his last smile when he’d promised to bring her a saru monkey home from his expedition to Kyushu.

Since then she’d received a prince’s education herself. Some had accounted that at least a little scandalous. Some had even whispered that her father was driven to distraction by the loss of his only son and eldest child. But he had insisted, which settled the matter.

Settled it in these times, at least, Reiko thought.

She knew that for much of her nation’s history Emperors had been cloistered symbols rather than rulers, recluses whose role was mainly to exist as a link between the world and the spirits. Revered, godlike, theoretically omnipotent but practically powerless, seldom glimpsed by ordinary folk. And very separate from the aristocracy of the sword, the bushi whose warlord masters had held the powers of State in their iron fists. Sometimes peacefully for a while, sometimes rending each other in civil wars that passed over the land like burning tsunamis of destruction.

This was not such a time; her father had ruled the much-diminished realm that called itself Dai-Nippon Teikoku—the Empire of Great Japan—as a matter of aspiration. Egawa Katashi, leader of the Seventy Loyal Men, had been utterly honorable about that, despite his enormous prestige and years of exercising near-absolute power in the name of the child-Empress and then the young Tennō: his slogan had been Revere the Emperor, Reclaim the Homeland, and he’d punctiliously stepped aside to become an advisor and elder statesman as soon as her father had come to what the modern era considered an adult’s years. She remembered that grim cold-eyed old man slightly, though he’d died when she was only six; he’d also been the sort who could utterly dominate a room without moving or speaking a word, though his—rare—angers had also been legendary.

And I too will rule, and we will restore our country. We will make that hope of greatness real. But what we in truth govern from the Imperial Palace on Sado-ga-shima now is merely...

When the Change flashed around the world in the spring of Heisei 10 and the machines went still there had been a hundred and twenty-five million human beings in Japan, numbers vast beyond all comprehension—the Montivallans thought that probably the whole planet didn’t have more than four times that now. A year later somewhere around one in a thousand of those hundred and twenty-five million was still among the living, give or take. As far as the officials had been able to reconstruct; nobody had been keeping precise accounts just then. In the forty-five years since the number had grown, just a little. Only a little, to less than a third of a million at the last count, despite enough food in most years, if only just, and four or five or six children now being a normal family once more.

The war accounted for that.

Less than a decade after the Change the jinnikukaburi raids from across the Sea of Japan had begun, sometimes a single ship, sometimes small fleets, leaving nothing but burnt bone split for the marrow behind when they caught the dwellers unaware or won the fight that followed. Reiko had been born into the second generation of that merciless grinding conflict, had grown to adulthood with its inexorable demands.

Her battle garb of hitatare jacket and hakama were covered by a Môgami Dô armor, red-lacquered steel lames laced together with blue silk cord, save for the leg protection; her head bore a white headband with a single scarlet circle over the brows. The broad-tailed twelve-plate kabuto helmet under one arm had the stylized chrysanthemum kamon of her House on its brow. Two samurai of the Imperial Guard stood behind her, motionless but alert as tigers, their right hands on the hilts of their swords and their eyes never still. One had her bow over his back, a seven-foot higoyumi, ready to hand it to her on command, and the other her naginata.

“So little time since we were here last, and so much has happened,” she said softly in her own language.

Guard commander Egawa Noboru ducked his head wordlessly at her side. His face showed little expression at the best of times. At the reminder that his Emperor had died while he lived it became more a thing of stone and silence than ever.

Since then I have put the Water of the Last Moment on my father’s lips and filled his funeral urn.

She let the raw pain of loss flow through her without holding on to it with the fingers of attention. Pain hurt, grief perhaps worst of all, but it wasn’t important. Her father had told her and shown her by example that the key to sanity in their position was to keep in mind that the role and the human being, the mask and the face beneath, were both real, but not to confuse the two. Her role was important, critically so; that was giri, duty and obligation. The person inside it and the emotions that person felt, the yearnings and desires and sufferings, theninjō, not so very much. Not compared to persistence and doing what was necessary. You went on as long as you could and then a little more, that was all.

Instead of tears, she continued steadily: “The world has Changed yet again. Or perhaps that started when my father first saw the Grass-Cutting Sword in his dreams.”

“Majesty, many apologies, I am ashamed to admit that I did not truly grasp Saisei Tennō’s great visions,” the commander of the Imperial Guard said. “I beg the Heavenly Sovereign Majesty’s pardon for my stupidity, my inexcusable blindness.”

The general bowed as he spoke, his full set of armor creaking and clattering a little, and he used her father’s posthumous era-name: Emperor of Rebirth. He was in his forties, more than two decades older than she. Older than her father had been as well, a short thick man built like something carved out of seasoned kuri wood, his weathered face and hands seamed with scars. The one that pierced his left hand from palm to back was the freshest, where he’d moved with desperate speed to put his own flesh between her and one of a pair of throwing-knives a bakachon prisoner had hidden just long enough. The other blade had been aimed at Princess Órlaith, and killed her father when he thrust her behind him.

“Yet you followed, and you were the key to putting aside those who opposed or obeyed unwillingly,” she said gently. “Without your service, we would not be here now.”

And I would be dead, she thought but did not say.

That was something that only had to be brought up once.

Egawa Noboru fulfilled his duty, and nobody who knows him would be surprised.

“I followed because he was our Tennō. I knew that without discipline and unity we would be truly and utterly lost, Majesty. And—so sorry—because Saisei Tennō had been right so often before. And because nothing more... more ordinary... had any real prospect of long-term success, only of slower defeat. Now...”

“None of us truly grasped his vision, General,” she said, making a gesture of pardon with her folded steel tessen war-fan.

Nor do you now, she thought. Though you are my most loyal retainer.

All of them were loyal in an abstract sense, to the concept of the Chrysanthemum Throne, to the dynasty and the nation it embodied and symbolized. But Egawa was loyal to her. He’d overseen the martial part of her education, administering painful and stressful parts of it personally. And he respected her as an individual in a way that the peculiar distant closeness of teacher and disciple made possible, for in the dojo you learned another to the core, without many words being necessary. That was why he was here, and why Grand Steward Koyama Akira had been left behind at Montinore Manor, with only a letter to tell him what she had chosen when he awoke that morning.

Koyama had been born a little before the Change, and he had a tendency to think of her as still a wayward, headstrong child to be guided and restrained... albeit a clever, promising child to be restrained with exquisite deferential courtesy. The quiet but real rivalry between the two men hadn’t hurt in bringing Egawa into the plot, either, of course.

And your father led the Seventy Loyal Men who saved my grandmother’s life at the cost of so many of their own. Loyalty beyond all powers of human endurance, beyond all mere human reason, runs in your blood. No, you do not grasp, my bushi, but now you truly believe, at least. As your father and his men did not flinch from the wrath of the Great Kami in a world become fire and death, so you will not turn back from this.

She glanced forward. Órlaith and her hatamoto Heuradys d’Ath were walking back towards the quarterdeck as the crew prepared; she suppressed an impulse to smile and wave. The occasion was too public and too grave. There were many differences of detail, but the essential form was still quite like that of an Imperial Navy ship preparing for battle. Not that they expected a fight, not yet, but...

“Good to be prepared for the unexpected, Majesty,” Egawa said.

A grudging approval was in his hoarse gravelly voice, and a bit of surprise that a mere gaijin merchant captain had earned it.

“Our men are ready to come on deck at a moment’s notice,” he added in the clipped impersonal tones of a report. “Their state of readiness is high and morale is excellent. And the Montivallans seem reasonably alert as well,” Egawa added.

The rest of the Imperial Guard samurai were below with Órlaith’s men-at-arms. Though communication was very limited, mostly by written message, both groups had achieved a certain wary mutual respect since the High King’s party rescued the Nihonjin from the overwhelmingly superior force of bakachon marines and Haida pirates. It helped very much that they had a common enemy, and that of all Montivallans the member-realm called the Portland Protective Association seemed paradoxically closest to her own Empire in its approach to life. And...

She looked at the Sword of the Lady by Órlaith’s side. Much of the time it seemed only a sword, recognizably of superlative quality despite being of the alien Western form, straight and double-edged with a curved bar guard and moonstone-crystal pommel clutched in antlers.

Reiko’s fingers stroked the black lacquered scabbard of the weapon thrust through her own sash, an ancient masterwork of the legendary swordsmith Masamune, a shoshu kitai of seven laminations. It even had a name of its own: Kotegiri, steel-cutter, from a famous incident of battle in the Genkō War more than seven centuries ago. Great warriors, daimyo and rulers had borne this sword, and handed it down through the generations by inheritance or as spoils of war or as a treasured gift meant to bestow great honor, until it passed into the collection of her five-times-grandfather Meiji Tennō in the twelfth year of his reign.

The leader of the Seventy Loyal Men had taken it from its display-case to carve a path to survival for her grandmother and rally the tattered remnants of the nation. Then he had presented it to her father when he came of age. It had been the sword of the Saisei Tennō —Emperor of Rebirth—in a dozen desperate fights against the jinnikukaburi enemy, until he fell three months ago with this very katana in his hands and an arrow in his breast...

And now to me.

When you drew this creation of jewel steel and subtle human art and deep time... felt its balance in your grasp as sweetly sure and true as the flight of a hawk down the slope of Ōjisan... then all the long, long history of her people became a living presence. A tale written in beauty and blood, glory and tears.

The tranquility of rice bowing before the sickle, she thought. And deeds like skies full of storm.

The Sword of the Lady was something else entirely. No mortal smith had ever smelted its metal from the bones of earth or laid it across his anvil beneath the hammer. Órlaith had said she thought it might not be matter at all, as humans defined the term, but instead a thought in the mind of her Goddess embodied in the world of human kind without being wholly of it. Certainly it had taken no hurt from resting on the High King’s breast when he was on his funeral pyre... and she had seen it standing hilt-upright when the towering flames subsided, enclosed for a moment in sparks like moving coils of golden light.

When you came closer the eye was drawn, inward and inward, into depths beyond depths until you had to wrench your gaze away. Despite her burning curiosity she had never felt the slightest impulse to touch it, though. Something prevented her; not hostility, but a feeling of friendly apartness like a cat looking at you and then glancing away, or a glimpse into another’s home in the evening dusk as a sliding door was opened and shut and spilled lamplight for an instant. There was a welcome there, but not for you.

Which is entirely fitting. As Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi is ours, so this is theirs. To each land and people their own spirits and the mysteries woven into the fabric of their being. To be sure that blade is a very young mystery, but every story must have a beginning... and Father once said that the Change did more than end the era of the machines. It reopened a doorway in the world. One that had slowly closed over many thousands of years, a passage to the time of legends, so that they walk among us once more. And there is no doubting that it is a powerful mystery, a true shintai, the dwelling-place of kami.

When it was unsheathed, even for practice, the world flexed, as if the very underlying fabric of reality was like the skin of a great ō-daiko drum struck by the player’s club.

Once you have seen an actual magic sword, searching for one of your own becomes more credible! Even if you have not seen what Father saw. What I have now seen myself. And more.

“General...” she said quietly. “You know that I have seen what my father saw in my own dreams; the desert, the castle, the eight heads; but his vision was... abstract. He saw these things. I see myself amid these things, as does our ally.”

She moved her eyes towards Órlaith for an instant. Egawa nodded, a little grudgingly. He would have very much preferred that they handle this business altogether by themselves. But he was pragmatist enough to see that they had no choice, and Órlaith’s dogged, courteous insistence that she was merely helping the Nihonjin party on its mission soothed his honor.

She continued: “And on the voyage south, I saw something else. I saw the Grass-Cutting Sword itself.”

He nodded stolidly; if they were to follow visions seen in dreams, he would use them as he would a scout’s report.

“In the place we seek it, Majesty? That is good to hear. Intelligence is always helpful.”

She shook her head, very slightly, and made a small curve through the air with her fan. “No. Nothing so... reassuring. I saw it in the hands of Yamato Takeru himself, as he fought his battle in the sea of grass. Wielding it like a whip of fire and air.”

Egawa blinked. Even by Japanese standards that was extremely long ago. The Brave of Yamato had lived in the reign of his father the twelfth Tennō, according to records indistinguishable from legend, first written down in times much later but themselves very ancient. She was the one hundred and twenty-eighth ruler of the same dynasty.

“And no. I did not merely dream, even a true dream. I was... I was there. And he saw me also. Saw me as the Sun Goddess Herself. For a light shone through me like none other than Hers, and it filled him with fire, made him certain of victory. I saw a myth being born from the womb of time, General: and I was part of it, for a moment a kamigakari, the vessel of She who is my ancestress and his. The years coiled on themselves like a serpent, from today to our beginnings and back.”

His face changed slightly. It was an expression she’d never seen on it, not even when they made their last stand in the ruins on the north of this bay expecting utter and final defeat. It took a moment to recognize fear. Or perhaps an awe deep enough to daunt even his rock-strong spirit.
She smiled with a small quirk of the lips. “This is very disturbing, my faithful bushi. To me, particularly! But it is in no way misfortune. We know that wicked akuma fight for the enemy, neh?”

“Yes, Majesty,” he replied.

Of that there was no doubt whatsoever. The bakachon were led and ruled, or more accurately tormented and driven, by the descendants of the man who had ruled part of Korea before the Change. In its aftermath he had claimed to be a kangshinmu, a sorcerer-prophet empowered by superior beings to make cattle of all who were not pure followers of his doctrine. And more than claimed; he and his elite votaries could do things no normal man could. The one who had tried to kill her and the Montivallan princess had, surviving wounds that should have left him instantly dead. Surviving just long enough, and his eyes like pools of tar, windows into a nonexistence very far indeed from the mu of the Buddha.

Some thing had burrowed through the soul of the man that had once been, like a wasp larva inside a grub, leaving a gateway into a nothingness that hated, negation as an active principle.

Active. And hungry. Hungry for all that is.

Firmly but calmly she went on: “Should we not then be glad that the kami fight for us? Is ours not the Land of the Gods, and we their descendants?”

She saw his face settle again, into the familiar grim mask that might have served for an image of a kami itself: if there was a spirit that embodied ganbaru, the quality of absolute determination to overcome and accomplish whether it was possible or not, it would look much like that. It felt a little odd to hearten him, since he did that for her every time she looked at him.

“What then, Majesty?” he asked.

Her smile grew a little broader, and she touched the war-fan to his armored shoulder for an instant.

“Why, then we will go forward, General, I the foremost and you at my right hand. If men oppose us, we will cut them down; if evil spirits assail us, we will call on our guardian kami and defy them; if deserts and mountains and hardship lie in our path we will endure and overcome them. I will take up the sword my divine Ancestress gave us and the Brave of Yamato wielded, and with that and our allies and our own good steel and warrior hearts we will free our people of the terror from the sea and reclaim our homeland. We will have... victorious peace.”

Egawa’s face worked slightly, and for a moment she thought he would drop to his knees and bend his forehead to the deck. Instead he saved them both embarrassment by going to one knee only and bowing at a slight incline with his sword-hand fist to the ground—the warrior’s gesture to his lord on the field of battle.

No words were necessary.

 

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