Late Spring, 1237 – The Ivory Palace
“Wake up, Daughter of Doji.”
The voice was deep. Powerful. Serene. Arahime opened her eyes.
It was still dark. A few stars twinkled through the small gap in the cracked dome of painted sky. On the ground before her, the fire glowed as a handful of rosy embers.
Across the fire, she could see the cloak that had covered the old woman, but she was not there. Arahime sat up, laying her hand on her saya.
Standing over her was a tall shadow barely visible in the dim light. The shadow walked to the small pile from the broken cabinets, picked up an armload of wood, and returned, setting the biggest piece on the low coals. The dry wood crackled into life with a burst of flame and a small shower of sparks.
In the brighter glow, Arahime could see that the shadow was really Shiba Tsukimi. But not as she had left her. This woman was old, true, but strong. She stood straight, like a trained soldier, and carried the wood like a bushi half her age. Her daisho rode easily at her hip. Arahime rubbed her tired eyes with the back of a hand and climbed to her feet. “Tsukimi-sama…has something happened?”
The deep voice answered, the Phoenix reaching out a hand to rest it on Arahime’s shoulder. “Tsukimi-san has finally decided that the time has come for her to lay down her burden and rest. She at last realizes that it is time to let me go.”
Arahime looked up into the taller woman’s face with eyes still hidden behind the blindfold. Confusion occluded hers. “I don’t understand. I am sorry.”
Tsukimi-not-Tsukimi gave her a sad smile, filled with compassion, and lowered her hand. “You may be Doji’s Daughter, Arahime-chan, but your grandmother, Nejin, was one of mine, and you have her smile. I have never forgotten even one of my children. None of us have. Perhaps that is why it has been so hard for us to leave you. There is duty and honor and glory in Tengoku. But the virtues of Ningen-do are love and death, and Ningen-do is a jealous realm. To touch Ningen-do is to know love. It is a hard thing to let go. ”
To say it aloud seemed like utter foolishness. But here, in the quiet darkness so far from everything she had ever known...she could accept that. She thought she understood. “Shiba-no-kami?” Arahime fell to her knees and pressed her head to the floor.
“Yes. Rise, little one. I do not want to fail to do what I must any longer than necessary, for your sakes. Tengoku is closest to Ningen-do at dawn. You must listen now, and do as I say.”
Arahime straightened, still kneeling before the Champion. “Hai!”
“You will go to Second City on the first day of Summer Court and present yourself to the Warlord. Powerful representatives of all the clans will be there, as will representatives of the Emerald Champion and of the Brotherhood of Shinsei.” Tsukimi Shiba paced with a calm energy as she spoke.
“You will need proof.” She stripped the blindfold from her eyes. They were a mass of hideous scars, destroyed by the poison of a Scorpion’s blade. She carefully folded the red strip of cloth and handed it to Arahime. “That will serve.” Arahime reverently accepted the blindfold, still not entirely certain she was not dreaming.
The Phoenix turned and went to the place where Arahime first saw the old woman wrapped in ivy. She bent and pried a stone from the floor, itself hidden under the vines that had concealed Tsukimi. She pulled a wood and cloth prayer satchel from under the stone. Then she strode back towards the kneeling Crane.
“Within this satchel are letters. They are not for you. They regard the future governance of the Phoenix clan and the Shiba family. Much sorrow has come because the Phoenix look outside themselves to find the wisdom to stay their hand. They have always relied on me. I have loved them and not abandoned them. Even when my mother called me home, I heard their cries and returned to guide them, as we always have.” She gave Arahime the satchel. “The heavens groan with the lessons they failed to learn, for we were always there. We withdrew to see if they would find their way without us. The pain of such testing may have torn the Phoenix apart, but they are rising again, without us.”
Arahime, gray eyes wide, accepted the satchel also, carefully setting the blindfold on top of it.
“I do not want to leave,” Tsukimi-not-Tsukimi said aloud, still pacing. “But the influence of Tengoku must decrease if the influence of Jigoku is to decrease. We disrupt the balance. Hantei understood this. All of us followed in our turn, even Shinjo, but love keeps calling us back. The touch of Ningen-do is strong. Tell them I do not abandon them...I hear their prayers even now, and I will when I stand with the Fortunes. Tell them...”
She looked down at the young woman with wide, innocent eyes who clearly understood very little, and gave a crooked smile. “The letters say what must be said. I consign my clan to the Brotherhood of Shinsei. Shinsei will help them make their new way.”
“Yes, Shiba-no-kami,” Arahime accepted the burden, numb in her confusion but humbly accepting the task she was given.
The Phoenix Champion looked satisfied.
“There is one last thing you must carry. Ofushikai,” She gestured at her obi and the pearl-encrusted sword that hung there, “and I are bound. It must come with me. But return this gift of the Heavens to my clan and it shall stand in Ofushikai’s stead, so the Phoenix know that they have been forgiven.”
The Champion held out her hand. A radiant light began to form under her fingers. The light grew brighter and brighter until Arahime had to hide her eyes from the silver glare. When she lowered her arm, the Champion held in her hand a katana, simple in appearance, with a copper saya and wrapped with orange silks. An orange tassle hung at the end. “This is Keitaku. I removed it from Midoru’s shrine when the Masters bound the Fire Dragon. It is time for it to be returned. I will pay any remaining price for my people to appease the heavens. And then we shall let a new balance be formed.” The sword lost its brilliant silver glow as Shiba passed it into Arahime’s trembling hands.
Arahime just nodded, dazzled and overwhelmed with the responsibility.
The Champion looked around the room, but could see no task remaining that had not been completed. The sky that peeked through the cracks in the dome above was beginning to brighten, though the sun had not yet risen. They sky was growing pale. “One last task for you, Little One. When these things have been returned, you must go to my sister. She has been dreaming for many years, but it is time to awaken. It is time to go home. Tell her I will wait for her there. Will you tell her this?”
“Yes, Shiba-no-kami, I will tell her.” Arahime answered, before her mind could really comprehend what she had been asked to do. She had no idea what Shiba was asking of her, knowing only that she would try her best to do it, even if it cost her life.
Shiba Tsukimi smiled, gazing down at the young woman. “You will understand. Be wary of that gift you wear. Even Doji’s daughters can lose their way gazing at foreign stars. But I do not think it would displease her. Farewell, Little One.”
The Phoenix Champion turned away, slowly ascending the steps of the dais to the place where the shattered throne once stood. She drew Ofushikai from its saya and held it up to the growing light. As the first rays of the rising sun streaked through the cool, jungle-claimed ruined palace, its light caught on the shining steel and flashed brilliantly.
Arahime blinked. When she opened her eyes, Shiba Tsukimi was not there. A tumbling cascade of peach blossoms fell from the dais, blowing and spilling all around her and filling the tropical air with the smell of springtime...and the sea.
She was alone.