Read The Tengu's Game of Go Online
Authors: Lian Hearn
“I've no objections,” he said, “but give her time to settle in before you mention the idea.”
“They may not have much time,” Kiku said. “We don't know how long their lives will be. Look how quickly we have grown and how fast we are aging.”
Mu looked at his brother and saw the image of himself: the fine lines appearing on the skin, the gray hair at the temples. They had matured as fast as insects and now frailty was coming on them as swiftly. How brief a lifetime was!
Kiku was studying him. “How about you? Did you ever take another woman? There are plenty here if you feel inclined.”
Mu made no response, but Kiku's words and the talk of marriage had awakened something within him. Here, among families and children, he realized how lonely he had been, and how much lonelier he would be if Kinpoge left him. Since he would rather die than let Kiku find him a wife, he would have to find one himself. He had not considered such things for years, but now the idea did not seem displeasing. However, he changed the subject. “What do you propose to show me?”
Kiku shook his head slightly and grinned, as though he knew all that Mu had been thinking, but he did not comment. He said, “There is a merchant who has tried to compete with me for some time. His name is Unagi. Chika was employed by him, but Unagi became suspicious of him after a death in Aomizu. A pleasure woman, who was obstructing my wishes in several ways, died. One of the girls was suspected of murdering her and ran away. Unagi fancied she was special to him and wants to find her, prove her innocence, and marry her. He insulted Chika, accused him of lying, and dismissed him.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Stop his meddling, once and for all,” Kiku said, smiling even more widely. “In fact, I will be dealing with several problems at once. I will rid myself of a rival, Chika will have some very pleasant moments of revenge, and our sister will be spared becoming the wife of a merchant.”
“Our sister?” Mu said, not understanding.
“The woman who fled, who everyone knew as Yayoi, is Lord Kiyoyori's daughter, Hina. She has gone into the Darkwood to find Shikanoko. You are aware Kiyoyori was one of our fathers? Chika was acquainted with the lady when they were children. To tell you a secret, I believe he has feelings for her. Doesn't he deserve to have her? He will marry no one else and I don't like to see him lonely.”
Mu stared at Kiku without saying anything. He had not expected to be going out to commit an assassination. It seemed like an unnecessary distraction from his more important mission. Despite the tengu's training and the sword he had been given he was yet to kill anyone. He was puzzled by his brother's words and felt there was much Kiku was keeping from him. He calmed his breath and emptied his mind in order to perceive the truth of the situation. Was Hina the woman who loved Shikanoko and would be able to remove the mask? Did both Kiku and Chika know this?
He had thought Kiku was going to show him the skull and demonstrate its power. He wondered where Kiku kept the sacred object that had been taken at such great cost and made powerful at a greater one to him, death, pain, betrayal, and loss all bound into it, along with ecstasy and lust. He realized he was longing to set eyes on it and dared to say, “Will you show me Gessho's skull?”
Kiku stared at him. “If you like. I thought you might not want to see it, that it might arouse painful memories, even though we have put all that behind us. Come, follow me. I'll prove to you that I have no secrets from you, that everything I have is yours.”
He pulled aside the wall hangings, nodded to the two warriors who were on guard behind them, and pressed a carved boss that opened a sliding door. Stairs led down the outside of the fortress, fastened into the rock face on which it was built.
“Be careful,” Kiku said. “The spray makes the steps slippery.”
Below them the sea surged, gray, green, and white. The wind was numbingly cold even though it was not yet winter.
At the bottom of the steps a wooden grille, reinforced with iron, covered the entrance to a cellar. In the shelter of the rock Mu heard Kiku whistling through his teeth, and as if at a signal the grille was lifted aside by two more of the crippled warriors. He followed his brother inside.
Once they had moved away from the entrance it became very dark, but Kiku like Mu had the vision of a cat, and went forward without hesitating.
Following him, Mu became aware of some force that was pulling him toward itself. He stopped for a moment, to see if he could resist it. He felt he could, but he did not want to. It was both a physical attraction and a seductive, emotional one, offering everything he had ever wanted, unlimited power to exercise his will.
“Don't worry,” Kiku said. “I won't let it absorb you.”
It was a strange choice of words, but aptly described his misgivings.
“You feel its power?” Kiku asked. “You will be able to see it soon, for it shines, day and night.”
No sooner had he spoken than Mu saw the glow in front of them, and then he saw the shape of the skull, the gem eyes, the mother-of-pearl teeth. For a moment he was transported back in time to when he had last seen it, and he felt again in his limbs the excruciating pain, and in his heart the immense sorrow. Then he recalled the tengu's teaching and made his will firm against the skull's power and felt it surrender and recede.
“It is beautiful, isn't it?” Kiku murmured. “That is why it needed the beauty of a woman in its making, as did Shikanoko's mask.”
Mu looked at it and saw its beauty, dispassionately, and remembered he had loved Shida.
The skull floated upward as Kiku lifted it.
“How is it used?” Mu said.
“It is not used. It just
. Its power flows through me and into everything I do. Gessho must have been an extraordinary man. Only the mask comes close to this in power.” Kiku's voice was reverent. “I have often wondered which would be the stronger.”
He placed his lips on the cinnabar lips of the skull and stayed without moving or speaking for several minutes. The skull's glow pulsed slowly, lighting Kiku's rapt face.
“It nourishes me,” he said, as he lowered it. “Every day it makes me stronger.”
When they returned to the steps the wind had increased to a howl and they did not speak until they were inside again.
“You can tell Shika about the skull,” Kiku said then, pouring a bowl of wine and handing it to Mu.
“You think he will be impressed?” Mu said, with a trace of sarcasm.
Kiku flushed slightly. “I want him to be with us. Maybe I want him to be free.”
Mu was thinking about the tengu's words. The mask would be removed by a woman who truly loved Shikanoko. But if that woman was Hina, why did Kiku speak as if she was his to bestow on Chika?
He knew where Hina wasâin the Darkwood not far from where the brothers had been born. Kinpoge had taken his message about Take to her. But should he tell Chika and his brother this? Kiku might have any number of motives for bringing Shikanoko back from the Darkwoodâwanting to impress him, wanting to free him, wanting him at the head of his armyâbut to Mu the most obvious one was that he wanted to get his hands on the mask and its power.
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“It's been a long time since I've done this myself,” Kiku confessed, as they prepared for the night attack. “I've missed it. I usually dispatch Kuro, who has become a supreme assassin. He doesn't have many feelings, which is a help. Follow my lead. Whatever I do, do it, too.”
They dressed in leggings and close-fitting tops of tightly woven hemp, dyed dark indigo, wrapped cloths of the same color around their faces so only their eyes were exposed, and took up various tools and weapons, leather garrottes, flasks of poison, thin sharp knives. Mu carried the sword the tengu had given him, and Chika also brought his sword.
“Unagi's sons are sword fighters,” he said. “They like to think of themselves as warriors.”
“We hope to kill their father without rousing the household,” Kiku remarked mildly.
“Better to clean out the whole barrel and not let the young eels escape,” Chika replied. “There's an old man, too. I'll take care of him. You do your thing and I'll do mine. I see no reason why you should have all the fun.”
“I suppose you have earned it,” Kiku said, with the strange tenderness he often displayed for Chika.
It was a dark night with no moon, the middle of the ninth month. Again Mu's eyes dilated like a cat's. Kiku's did the same. Chika kept close to them, stepping carefully in their footprints. Even the stars were dim, obscured by a low-hanging haze. Mist rose from the river as the air chilled in the hours before dawn. From the harbor came the sounds of water lapping against hulls and the creaking of boats as they shifted with the tide.
Unagi's house lay on the opposite bank. There was no bridge across the Kasumigawa; during the day narrow flatboats sculled across and back, but at this hour they were all moored on the bank, their owners and sailors asleep in the flimsy huts or in the boats themselves.
The men moved without a sound. As Chika went to untie one of the boats, a figure rose from a pile of ropes and sailcloth on it. Fuddled by sleep, he did not have time to call out before Chika leaped into the boat and had him by the throat, turning his face toward Kiku. His desperate eyes, wide open, bulging, searched for help and found Kiku's gaze. They seemed to register something, a mixture of surprise and relief, and then rolled back in the head, as the man went limp, just as Ku had in the forest all those years ago.
I must remember never to look Kiku in the eyes
, Mu thought.
Chika slid the sleeping body over the side of the boat, letting it go with barely a splash. Mu watched it drift away, rolling in the current, the face showing pale in the darkness.
“Live or die, there will not be a mark on him,” Chika whispered in satisfaction. “He's known to drink too much.”
Everything had been planned meticulously, Mu realized, from the drunkard's boat to the exact time of the tide, which carried them across the river without their having to use the oars. The boat nudged gently against the opposite bank. They stepped out and waded through the water, carrying their swords above their heads. Chika knew Unagi's house intimately. There was a dock where boats were berthed. Two men lay slumped on the boards.
Kiku breathed in Mu's ear, “Kuro was here earlier.”
A little way up, a bamboo grid covered an arch through which water flowed into the garden of the residence. As Chika lifted the grid aside so they could pass through, Mu felt something brush against his legs. Fish, or maybe eels: the household must keep them here, alive and fresh.
The water lapped at a series of shallow steps, leading up to a kitchen. Ashes smoldered in a stone oven and he could smell soy and sesame oil. A small girl crouched on the highest step, her head on her knees. Mu feared she had been poisoned, too, but she stirred as they went past, muttering something in a dream, not waking.
Silently they entered the main rooms of the house. The smell changed to sandalwood, mixed with the odor of people. Mu could hear the soft rise and fall of their breath. From beyond the gate a dog barked. They froze for a few moments, but no one in the house wakened. If there were any more guards they were at the outer gate.
Here and there lamps flickered, giving Mu glimpses of the rooms as they went through them, each opening into the next. The wooden floors gleamed, wall hangings shone with patches of red. Along the southern side ran a wide veranda, but most of the shutters were closed.
From the middle of the house came the sound of snoring. Chika's teeth showed white as he grinned and mouthed
to Mu. He slid open the final door and let Kiku go in first.
Kiku took on invisibility immediately and Mu copied him, as he had been told. He could just perceive his brother's faint outline approaching the sleeping man.
Unagi lay on his back, his head on a wooden headrest. Kiku's movements were so swift, Mu hardly followed them. For a moment he wondered why the merchant began to twist and kick, why he was making that strange muffled grunting. Then he saw the garrotte in his brother's hands. Unagi was a big man and it seemed impossible that Kiku should be able to hold him down, but Kiku's invisible hands were like iron and relentless.
There was a trickle of water, a foul smell, and Unagi's struggles ceased.
In the silence that followed came a rustling and an intake of breath as the old man, Unagi's father, stirred. Mu saw the gleam of Chika's knife, heard the soft sigh as it entered flesh and the gurgle of blood.
Kiku slowly became visible again. Mu could see his expression as the lamps flared. It was both stern and gentle, as if he had undergone a spiritual transformation. He smiled at Chika with that unfathomable emotion.
“That was for you.”
Chika smiled back, pulled one of the hangings from the wall, and placed a corner of it against the flame. As it began to smoulder he lifted the shutter open; the breeze fanned the sparks into fire.
Jumping from the veranda, they ran across the garden to the main gate. A woman screamed from the house behind them. Shouts followed, pounding feet, the crashing of doors and shutters as they were flung open, the ever fiercer crackling of flames.
Kiku leaped for the top of the wall, scaling it easily, and Mu, still invisible, was right behind him, but Chika had turned back and drawn his sword. Running figures came from the guardhouse at the gate, their own swords glinting through the mist.
Two young men, barely into their twenties, came at Chika, attacking without hesitation. In the dark it was impossible to see their faces clearly, but their build and movements were so similar they had to be brothers. They possessed both courage and skill and Chika was forced back to the foot of the wall.
“Go and help him,” Kiku ordered.