Nihi tried not to feel the stare on the back of her head.
The ring-dancer couldn’t amuse Kuno, because he was not alone.
Ever since the day at the Markets when her hotheadedness had gotten the better of her, Nihi hadn't been able to traverse the streets of Sado comfortably in the daytime.
The remarks she'd made on that day from the rooftop of a stall had been heard by quite a crowd of locals; now, wherever she went, Nihi was bound to pass by at least one member of her Markets audience (or a friend of one, or a servant of one, and they’d doubtless have been told who she was) while running her daily errands. Though she walked quickly with her head down, and made a habit of choosing circuitous and less-traveled routes, Sado was overcrowded – it had been for generations – so Nihi could never avoid people, and subsequently, attention, altogether.
Today, as she passed a throng of Dashi here, a couple of chattering Datsue there, even a Dasaka walking purposefully in the opposite direction, she drew their gazes. The Dashi immediately began to converse in low tones; the Datsue traded snide remarks and chortles as they carried on; the Dasaka stopped in her tracks and turned to watch Nihi pass.
Nihi tried not to feel the stare on the back of her head. The Dasaka muttered something to her nearby friend; the friend probably nodded. Nihi swallowed her desire to scream something at the rude duo for staring, because it’d do her no good. The deed was already done; with her muttering, the Dasaka had created another starer, another future prompt for Nihi’s shame. Shouting would only enhance Nihi’s notoriety. That kind of outburst was to blame for her current infamy.
By incessantly replaying her day at the Markets, Nihi couldn’t help but keep it fresh in her mind.
After having made her inflammatory remarks on top of the stall, as the Chojo and countless others of great stature had ridiculed Nihi’s position and reminded her of her place – how, she always despaired, had she thought it’d be a good idea to speak at all – she had, immobilized and incapacitated by the verbal assault of those more important than she, hardly heard the ensuing debate. There’d followed a period of indeterminate length when Nihi had been acutely aware of her incapacity to move or speak, and in the timeless paralysis she had at once been transported to the last time she’d been unwillingly, helplessly motionless in the face of catastrophe.
Nihi felt like the level ground she stood on had started to tip forward, so far on the diagonal that it would spill her into a void. She was acutely aware of her own heartbeat, the shrill ring in her ears, and the sound of her own breathing. How different it was from her sister’s erratic rasps.
Eventually, though, the heat of embarrassment had thawed Nihi’s frozen body. Shakily, the debate echoing meaninglessly in her ears, she’d clambered down from the stall rooftop, wanting to disappear. But Nihi had found herself surrounded by a throng of Dasaka that’d just had their eyes and ears fixed on her; disappearing, she’d recognized, would be impossible. Even though the crowd had given her a wide berth as she’d reached the ground, Nihi had felt suddenly claustrophobic surrounded by it. She’d wanted to hit them, wanted to stab her fingers into their stupid, staring eyes, but that hadn’t been an option. Red in the face, Nihi had been forced instead to shove her way through the thick circle, jostling aside Dasaka as she’d held back her muggy tears. Detachedly, Nihi had noted as she departed that the Chojo’s gaze had followed her progress, and that Kuno’s servant had vanished. As she’d passed close to a neighboring stall, Nihi had accidentally knocked over a crate of fruit.
In her memory, Nihi saw the crate fly gently, captured in elongated time, towards her sister. It spun in the air as though one of its corners had been softly tapped. Then the crate splintered against Nachi.
The debate in the Markets had continued in Nihi’s absence, but she hadn’t cared. She’d run away.
The debate in the Markets hadn’t gone well; thus, Kuno’s second scheme had been foiled.
Had the Fursic First Son been alone (that is to say, alone but for me; a stone, even in dimness, cannot be without its shadow), the ring-dance might have distracted him from brooding on his latest defeat. Usually, art could placate Kuno; he had good taste, and the subtleties of the delicacies he had the duty to enjoy were not lost on him. Ring-dance was one such delicacy, an entertainment meant for the powerful.
On a wide wooden stage before Kuno, the ring-dancer – a Dasaka with a form like running water, without any garb to weigh her down save a close-hanging amethyst pendant dangling from her neck – executed her extremely athletic art without visible effort, which was just as it should have been. I’d hired her on recommendation, and she was performing to the expected caliber. The dancer’s strong technique was evident; her face was set in a long-developed mask of elegant slackness, designed by the ancestral masters to belie the fluid tension that flowed through her body.
As the ring, large enough for the dancer to stand inside with her arms holding its edge, twirled and rolled around the stage, each maneuver she executed was inseparable from the next. One second, she flipped the flat plane of the narrow, flexible ring in a dizzying series of traveling turns that were hardly audible on the ground; the next, she was spread-eagled and taut inside the ring while it meandered to rest like a dropped coin, getting within a hands-width of the ground on its oscillation before she undulated her body and spun her circle gradually back into verticality. Just a moment later, she held onto the top of the ring with only her legs, and her arms were spread beneath her as she compelled her ring, using Mindarm powers, smoothly off the ground and into an airborne flip; she ended sitting inside the floating ring for just an instant before resuming the dance. It was an impressive display, but Kuno was in no temper to see it.
The ring-dancer couldn’t amuse Kuno, because he was not alone. His mother had arrived at the Imperial Palace earlier that day, and he had no good news for her.
Toroshu Nera, holding herself as far upright as she could in her advanced age, sat in a backless chair next to her son, who was similarly seated. Kuno’s shoulders, hidden under his ruby cloak, were stiff, and his hands were clasped in his lap. The sunlight from the wide window caught in his most elaborate set of crystal armor, decorated with sparse lines of metal. Nera, garbed in an opulent red robe lined by small rubies that clinked together as she moved, watched the ring-dancer attentively; her face, drawn by countless years of Fursic leadership and, consequently, the evasion of countless (and several deserved) allegations, was hawkish even when she judged art. She gestured for me, and I poured juice into her smooth ceramic cup as she spoke to her son. Nera’s voice didn’t match her age; it cut through the air with vigor that did not match her withered appearance.
“She is skillful,” Nera noted, pointing at the ring-dancer, who had just completed a particularly graceful sequence. Even issuing a compliment, Nera’s voice was like a whip. “There are no performers like this on Kozu. The Rora keeps her riches close.”
Kuno met his mother’s eye for a moment, and nodded noncommittally, returning his gaze to the ring-dancer in a semblance of interest. Nera knew her son too well; she moved her eyes to him and kept them there. “It is a shame that I must make the voyage to Sado to enjoy artists like these,” she went on, her tone lacerating the wordless atmosphere. “It is also a shame that I must make the voyage to Sado to see my son, for he never visits me.”
“Mother,” Kuno assured, “Seeing you is my greatest pleasure.”
“Indeed,” Nera replied. “And yet you do not return to Kozu unless I order you back.”
“I am very busy,” Kuno answered diplomatically. “Regrettably, I do not have time to come home. The tasks you assign me occupy me ful—”
“Ah,” Nera interrupted, clearly unconvinced. She sipped her juice, puckered up her face, and held out the cup for me to retrieve. I took it away. “Kuno, you have bad taste. And no, Ikori, I would not prefer something else.” I returned the tray of liquids to its attendant table as Nera’s words lashed her captive son again. “You are occupied, of course… always the obedient son. Tell me, then, Kuno: have you made any progress?”
Kuno raised his own cup to his lips and sipped as slowly as he dared. The ring-dancer continued her sweeping ballet, unaware of the world around her.
Unawareness was a miracle that only came with the nighttime. Nihi could sometimes forget herself during the peace that the night afforded her. It was nice to forget things, she’d decided, but forgetting was difficult, because she couldn’t make a conscious effort to do it; forgetfulness had to kiss her of its own volition, and she only felt its sacred lips in the serenity of the night. If the healing level of the Gardens had been open during the evening, Nihi would have been able to avoid the daytime almost altogether. Since that wasn’t the case, though, she was forced to endure the day.
At last, several condemning recognitions after the Dasaka and her friend, Nihi arrived at her destination, a stone-paved plaza. Above and beyond the square, towering like hovering jewels, the crystalline layers of the Gardens were draped in greenery that caught the Kentoku sun. There wasn’t much movement on those walkways; maybe it was too hot of a day for many nobles to visit their exclusive park. A few birds flitted here and there across the trees, though; Nihi, looking up from the sidewalk as she customarily did before proceeding across the square, caught sight of a gleaming Janu among them. The flash of gorgeous plumage cut through Nihi’s melancholy, and she smiled; they were beautiful birds. She forced herself to lower her gaze to the ground level tier of the gardens, which was vastly more active than the upper ones. There was always a sizable bustle around the healing centers; the injured and sick came for treatment, and their families and friends only added to the traffic. Nihi, one more Dasaka, wouldn’t be noticed among them.
She wove her way through the pillars, potted ferns, and moving bodies with practiced skill, until she reached a certain doorway. Outside the doorway was a plump Dashi behind a desk, writing something on a piece of paper. As Nihi approached, the Dashi looked up. Blessedly, she didn’t yet associate Nihi with the debate at the Markets; Nihi was sure that sooner or later, though, the kind Dashi would hear about it and stare at Nihi with the rest of the Imperial Palace. As Nihi approached, the Dashi put aside her paper and stylus and, bowing politely, smiled at her.
“Hello, Nihi,” the Dashi said. “Good to see you as always. How can I help you today?”
“Good afternoon, Gysha,” Nihi said, returning the bow. “I’m here to see my sister.”
“Even my sister, inefficient as she is, would have done something,” Nera scowled to herself, absently picking up and examining one of several round-polished crystal orbs in the bowl on the table between her and the oblivious ring-dancer. “My son, however, tells me he has done nothing.”
Kuno had stood when his mother had risen from her seat; but even with his feet habitually planted and his posture habitually perfect he looked diminutive beside his Datsue mother. Long years of power were traceable in the shapes of Nera’s small being. The furrow in her brow, the increased creases about her mouth, and her retreat into showy introspection were all telltale signs of Nera’s understated contempt. Kuno read these signs as easily as words carved on stone, and I read Kuno with similar effortlessness. As Nera toyed with the decorative balls, he clasped and unclasped his hands before him, shifted his weight from foot to foot, frowned slightly. The penitence and apprehension he may have felt before were forgotten in the face of his mother’s insults. She was excellent at making him angry.
“Ikori,” Nera summoned, not looking away from the sphere that she now clutched before her face like the skull of an enemy.
“Yes, ma’am?” I asked, bowing even though she did not see me.
“Dismiss the ring-dancer,” Nera commanded. “I wish to speak to my son alone.”
“Of course, ma’am,” I replied.
I approached the wooden stage, and knocked on it twice. The ring-dancer, so concentrated in her choreography, was only receptive to signs like these; she was trained to let go of most outside sights and noises, as they could disrupt her rhythm. The knocking was an exception; the wooden rap summoned the dancer and her ring back to the ground. She stopped its rotation, and held the ring upright as she bowed to the two nobles; then, shouldering it, she made her way towards the door. The sudden halt of the dance, though, had left the ring-dancer dizzy; as she walked towards the exit, her faltering feet had none of the grace that they’d possessed during the performance. She had already been paid, but I followed her, prepared to leave my master and his mother alone. I was about to shut the door behind me when Kuno’s voice stopped me short.
“Ikori,” Kuno ordered. “Stay here.”
“Ikori,” Nera said, pinning Kuno with my name as I stood motionless in the doorway. “You may leave my son and I alone.”
“I would like for Ikori to stay here,” Kuno countered, his voice slow and firm.
“And I would like for her to go,” his mother snapped back, swiveling to him.
“Your great pardon, ma’am,” I interjected as diplomatically as I could, bowing once more. “I deeply respect your request, but I am bound by mortal oath to obey my master’s orders and fulfill his wishes. If he would like me to stay, I must stay. I apologize. ”
“Ah,” Nera repeated, only this time she’d bared her teeth in the semblance of a lupine smile. She deliberately set down the crystal ball, and continued to address her son across the table. “Yes, quite so… Here, Kuno, is a servant who knows her place. Here is a servant who is unafraid to follow her orders, even when tackling adversity. Here is a servant who does not settle for failure. Ikori honors her family and her oaths by her actions.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I responded courteously. I took a step back into the room, and made again to shut the door. Kuno nodded at me; this was his highest praise.
“Wait just a moment, Ikori,” Nera said, holding up a finger. She took a long exhale, as if to collect herself. To Kuno, this could have just as easily been the gathering of storm clouds. Nera’s next sentences were precise. “Kuno, I am your Toroshu, your superior, and your mother. You are my son, and therefore you are my servant. You must learn to obey me. Dismiss Ikori.”
Kuno’s visage was as artfully blank as the ring-dancer’s had been. His resentment only made itself evident in the temperature of his reply. “Ikori, you may leave me alone with Toroshu Nera.”
I bowed to Kuno and departed the room, closing the door at last behind me. However, I pressed my ear against it. Kuno would not be deprived his shadow.
The plant cast dappled shadows in its corner of the room; the shade of its stems wove an elegant network of looping silhouettes on the wall. No longer as cleanly groomed as it’d been on the day Nihi had bought it – for she didn’t trust herself to do anything more than water it with every visit – the shrub’s green leaves looked brown by the amber light of the falling afternoon. On its table in the corner, the plant looked no different than it had during her last visit. Safe in its little pot in its bed of Ikian artisanal pebbles, the plant was much easier for Nihi to focus on than the flower in the other bed in the room.
Tucked beneath her sheets unnervingly cleanly from the waist down, Nachi sat up in her cot. She didn’t really sit, though, because she didn’t support herself. None of her uprightness had been Nachi’s own doing; the Healers had propped her up with cushions and a bamboo backrest, and secured her lower half with the covers, so that she’d be easier to feed. Nihi knew this because she’d seen it happen several times; every instance, when the Healers altered her sister’s positioning with practiced deftness, and subsequently gave Nachi mashed foods spoonful by spoonful, Nihi felt like she just was in their way. But she was disappointed to have missed arriving in time for Nachi’s meal, today; Nihi could sometimes imagine a little spark returned to her sister’s eyes at the taste of the mush.
Nachi’s hands were limp at her sides as they lay atop the covers, and her blue fingers were soft and flaccid as dead slugs. Her head lolled against the pillow, back and a little to the side facing the window, so that as Nihi entered the room, Nachi’s face wasn’t directed at her. The sound of Nihi’s entrance drew no reaction from Nachi, but Nihi hadn’t expected one. Nihi closed the door behind her, and then looked at the plant. She held the back of her neck in her hands and bounced a little in her knees as she gave its untamed foliage more of her attention than it deserved. At last, Nihi tore her eyes away from the pattern of shades on the wall, and looked at her sister. Nachi didn’t look back, of course. Nihi spoke, and was able to summon a smile.
“Hey, Nachi,” she beamed. “It’s good to see you. I hope your meal was nice today. I would have come sooner, but there were some people who slowed me down. They were rude, and I can hate them, but I can’t blame them for staring. I already told you what happened, and I know we would have stared, if it’d been someone else. Gysha told me you ate well today, that you swallowed everything perfectly. I’m proud of you.”
Nachi’s head slumped a little; she’d slipped a bit on her pillow. Nihi rubbed the back of her neck more, and her smile dropped. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I was inconsiderate—let me help you.” She approached the bed, and hesitated for just a moment before she reached it. She’d looked at how the sun gleamed off her sister’s forearm; it was so much slimmer than it’d been before Nachi’s incident. Even though Nihi had become acquainted to her sister’s new shape, sometimes under stark light its transformation could still affect her. Nevertheless, Nihi soldiered on. “Let’s free you up a little, hm?” she proposed.
Nihi tugged a bit on either side of the covers, giving Nachi ease enough to slide down into a deeper recline. As she did so, Nihi removed cushion by cushion, and finally took the bamboo support from behind her sister. However, she removed it too quickly, and Nachi’s head thumped lightly against the bed, still faced towards the window. Nihi, in her startled shame, almost fell next to her sister, but regained her balance as she waved the bamboo support out behind her. Nihi carefully set this down after a flailing moment and started at once to rub her sister’s head. It moved unresistingly at the neck under her strokes.
“I’m so sorry,” Nihi grimaced to herself as she continued petting Nachi. “Still not good at this, am I? Sorry.” She bent down with her free hand and plucked a pillow from the discarded pile on the floor. Nihi sat perpendicularly to the line of Nachi’s body and, turning to her sister with the pillow on her lap, gently lifted and repositioned Nachi’s head so that she could slide the pillow beneath it. As Nihi held Nachi’s head, she glanced at its uncomprehending eyes. As always, they stared at unseen patterns in the air.
Nachi’s eyes were open again, facing the right way, now. They stared dolefully past Nihi. Nihi turned her sister’s limp head towards herself, but Nachi still looked past her, as though she wasn’t there. The firelight danced in her eyes beside a new companion: ambivalent madness.
Nihi forced herself not to try and riddle reason from Nachi’s senseless gaze. She lowered Nachi’s head onto the pillow, and let its aimless vision take in the ceiling. Nachi looked back at the plant, but she covered Nachi’s hand with her own as she went on speaking.
“It’s funny,” Nihi continued, trying to rediscover her smile; if she could smile, she could be happy. “My mind keeps going back to Kuno. Before you say anything—” She stuttered, but picked up her thread right away. “I know you’ll think that’s because he’s a male, and yes, I’ll concede that he’s one of just two I’ve ever talked to… and you were there the first time, remember how we giggled?” There the grin was. Nihi’s mouth pulled up of its own accord at the memory, and as she recalled the story, she squeezed on the unmoving digits beneath her own; they didn’t respond, but they were warm.
“We made such cool dudes of ourselves, that time,” Nihi chuckled, half-turning to Nachi before going on. “But no, I don’t mean I keep going back to Kuno like that. Even though he… well, I already told you about that, too, and I know if you get me started on talking about it, I won’t actually get to what I wanted to say! What did I want to say…? Ugh, you’re terrible!” Nihi threw her sister a mock-frustrated glance, and then her eyebrows puckered. “Hm. Okay. Right. I said keep going back to Kuno, but I mean that I keep going back to what he said to me. He told me exactly what I wanted to hear, and he’s a Fursic. No need to connect the dots, I know I was manipulated; I just don’t know why.”
Nachi kept staring at the ceiling. Nihi loved when her sister listened to her.
“Listen to me, Kuno,” Nera said, her voice carrying through the wooden door. “You have failed again, and I grow very tired of your failures.”
“Mothe—” Kuno started.
“You will address me as ‘Toroshu’ until you learn respect,” Nera condemned.
“I respect you,” Kuno assured.
“I disagree,” Nera sniped. “You do not follow my orders. You do not execute the tasks I assign you. And you do not address me respectfully even immediately after I instruct you to.” There was the sound of something heavy falling to earth, and the crack of crystal-on-crystal.
“The tasks you assign me are difficult!” Kuno shouted, raising his voice for the first time, hoarse angst coloring his words.
“The-tasks-you-assign-me-are-difficult, Toroshu!” Nera dominated. There was a second hefty noise, and a restrained, male grunt. “Difficulty, pah,” she continued icily. “No game is difficult if you understand its rules and its pieces. That’s how you cheat, how you win.”
“The Rora’s court is not a simple game,” Kuno said, before hastily tacking on a “Toroshu.”
“Of course it is, Kuno,” Nera instructed. “Power is power. Those that wish to remain isolated simply do so because they feel assured in their power here. The alliances and counter-alliances that cloud your vision are trifles that are forgotten in the face of the right opportunities.”
“I have tried to present them with opportunities, Toroshu. None have taken my bait.”
“Of course they have not: the bait comes from you. These politicians are stupid, but they can see the wires on simple lures. You are heavy-handed; you’ve always been heavy-handed. Your ineffective attempt in the Markets was, characteristically, heavy-handed. Enlighten me: how did you imagine one low-level Menti could change the popular opinion of the Rora’s city with her tirades of guileless hatred?”
“She had no affiliations to our family, Toroshu; there were no strings to be seen. I decided that she was a safe choice, but beyond that, the Menti I used was passionate and physically striking. I thought her a suitable candidate for stirring something in the populace.”
“’Passionate…’ ‘Physically striking…’ ‘Stirring,’” Nera listed languorously, her voice still bladed. “I wish that I didn’t know better than to believe that you found this Menti attractive. Don’t make that face at me, Kuno, I’m not naïve.”
“I am arranged to be united with the Chojo,” Kuno cited flatly.
“At my command,” Nera qualified. “And at the Chojo’s dismay, I hear. I would be dismayed as well, knowing the sort of male you are.”
My attention was drawn by a noise from my side of the door: footsteps, approaching around the corner. I immediately withdrew my ear from the doorway, and stood straight beside it as one of the Rora’s couriers approached. In her hand, plucked from a clinking bag she wore over her shoulder, was a little stick of crystal. She handed it to me, and we exchanged bows. As she left the way she’d come, I read the inscription on the tablet.
I knocked twice on the wooden door, and the heated conversation inside halted. “Master Kuno,” I called. “A message for you, from the Chojo.”
A few seconds later, the door opened. It was Nera, not Kuno, who took the crystal-engraved message from me. She read its inscription at arm’s length, and then turned back inside, passing it to her son as he made his way towards me.
“A party, Kuno,” she announced grandly, a wan smile stretching her wrinkled face. “Use it to your advantage; make me proud of you for once.”