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     Takasa Shozhu was the last clan member of his generation, save Arusuke, his brother. The man’s ungraciously long life was not at all a blessing, but a curse. He still got urges to spit at his brother’s feet when he showed deference. 

     The unblessed of his siblings had fought for the title of heir barely out of their teen years, when their father was on the cusp of passing. Arusuke, perhaps the most cut-throat of any of them, had triumphed naturally. The two other Ginju of his generation had now perished nearly fifteen years ago. Naturally. One had to accept that the increased strain they put on their bodies would lead to declining health. Particularly the health of the heart, though he supposed that none of them had stabbed each other through the heart while growing up together could be considered a miracle. 

      The castle room in which he waited patiently was barren and lit by a single candle, its shadowy silhouette prancing across the floor. In the air, there was incense freshly burned, bringing him back to his days as a youth. The world had been a better place back then, simpler. The youth had been stronger. More resilient. Any youth he knew today would not have survived in his era. Least of all Aru’s brat, Kitani.

     None of the youth back then had been complacent. One had to be hungry. That hunger he carried with him for decades still ate at him from the inside. There was an appetite in him that could never be satiated, and most days it hurt. 

     The sliding screen across from where he sat rattled. They’d arrived.

     “You may enter,” Shozhu said. 

     The two young rodents he called his students stepped in and bowed. Aiya held a beige sack, dropping it to the ground, eyes forward. “For his lordship, an enemy delivered, for the Takasa clan, and for the River.”

     “Well done,” Shozhu said, stroking at his long beard. “I trust your own eyesight to be better than mine.” 

      He grabbed the sack and began to unwrap it. Not as wet as he expected it to be. They’d taken time to let the blood deplete after chopping away his neck. He removed the head. That disgusting face, cold, pale and dead. Owa had finally gotten his turn of chaos, silenced. Satisfied, Shozhu pushed it back into the sack. “Survivors?”

     Aiya kept her eyes forward. “None.”

     There was darkened cloth around her arm.

     Shozhu nodded. Aiya and Koji released themselves from their position, sitting on their heels a few feet away from him. There was something to be said of the smell of death, of spilled blood, so strong it seeped into his nostrils through the smoky incense.

     “Well done. Your father will be pleased when he wakes in the morning. That cleared, his lordship had an unexpected surprise for us this morning. An hour past noon, there will be a public meeting held in the square. We’re to attend as the Takasa clan on the grounds of diplomatic relations with Forgery. I wish I’d foreseen the short notice, but I myself was just told this morning. Apparently Lord Arusuke and Forgery have been engaged in secret discussions until now.”

     Surprise marked their faces, which quickly morphed into suspicion. Aiya spoke up. “Master, if I recall, Forgery has been involved in civil conflict for the past two years now.”

     “You’d be right to suspect the meeting will cover terms of agreement for requested aid,” Shozhu replied. He set the sack to the side. “But we shall see soon enough. Owa’s demise is likely to send more shockwaves through the nobility than previous assassinations. Like always, other families, especially second-class clans, will be wary of us. Act as if nothing has changed. We want a healthy fear for our name, not the impression of merciless tyrants.”

     “Understood,” Koji replied, “we’ll go get Ira ready.”


     Koji stepped in front of the screen to Irashida’s room, Aiya standing behind him. The two were freshly bathed standing on the cool floor, rectangular mats of tightly woven fibers fitted into an interlocking pattern. The walls were white rice paper. The large main living space ceiling stretched ten feet high, with translucent folding screens leading into another room across from them. Simple artwork graced many of the screens, from paintings of sunsets to cool colored meadows. A staircase at the floor’s end led down to the castle’s first story, ceramic flower vases placed at its base.

      This entire house, surrounded by lavish gardens was home for just one family who ruled the River. Past the gardens surrounding the estate were the streets of  Kawanura, capital of River province. A hub of economic activity, full of merchants and artisans. Firetaming and puppet shows were popular attractions, drawing in thousands of nobility and commoners alike from the surrounding countryside each month. The Takasa Household was situated at its center, a reminder to the common Erru of noble wealth and prestige. More importantly, it reminded the lower nobility who really held power.

     The sun had begun to rise, warming the house with its rays. Koji adjusted his robe’s billowed sleeves then refastened the silk belt around his waist. The light blue silk, sown with inconspicuous wavy patterns, was soft enough that it was barely felt throughout the day.

     He slid open the door. “Oversleeping again? I thought we ordered this sloth out weeks ago.” 

     Irashida sat up from his bed, his mouth curving into a smirk. He had a beaming, affectionate smile, one that complimented the soft curvature of his narrow face. It was that same honest smile that pulled all the way to his eyes and touched his dark hairs. Ira was strong like the elk, affable like a deer, and passionate like the doe. 

     “It would seem his infliction of laziness has spread,” Aiya said, briskly walking over to him.

     “Don’t go on acting like you’re my mother again,” Ira said as she placed a hand over his forehead. “Glad to see you two unharmed. How was…last night?”

     “Well enough, for us. Not so well for the Hebi.” Koji answered.

     Only two servants currently occupied the austere room, burning incense. Koji observed them, so peaceful as they contemplated the smoke rise and billow, restoring the house with its aromas. He noticed from time to time how their lives were so nice, so unfairly easy, in contrast to the lives of nobility. Only having to carry out servant’s duties to earn food and a roof to eat it under. Safe from the political strain placed on higher noble backs, and the constant social warfare between the lower noble houses vying for prestige. They knew their place in the world.

     Their privilege to work into securing positions of personal servitude for their children, the peace of mind they must have, never considered a mere weapon from birth to house the power of a deity, these things likely never crossed their minds.

     “You’ve returned. Thank the Empress,” a voice from behind them called out. Kisane appeared outside the room and bowed. 

     “You look beautiful, Kisane,” Aiya said. They embraced each other, the house servant bowing again as a show of thanks, then embracing Koji.  Kisane was short and thin, a middle-aged woman whose hair always smelled sweet like roses and rausta leaf. She’d been more of a mother to them than their real mother ever was. Yet the characteristic cheery expression was absent from her face.

     “Everything alright?”

     “Asaya missed you two when I told her you were going on a trip. I just put her back to sleep. She said she dreamt the three of you being attacked by a hound on the road, protecting our family.”

Aiya looked concerned. Kisane’s adopted child of seven had finally hit the age where one understood that the worst fear was not knowing what tomorrow would bring about. “Empress’ soul, she’s growing fast.”

     “She sleeps now, my lady.” She looked to Ira. “Ira has been in my care, and he’s fast coming back up.”

     “Even the sun comes out to sing its praises,” Ira said, throwing off his blanket and sliding on his feet. 

     Koji eyed Ira, a certain longing in him. His sickness kept him bedridden usually two weeks out of a month. He’d randomly become dizzy, weak and confused, forced to be cared for while he recovered. The physicians knew nothing of his condition nor its origin. “Well,” Koji said, “Just in time, because it looks like you won’t have to miss out this time. We’ve all been summoned by father. An urgent meeting with an heir of Forgery province.” 

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