12 Days of Christmas #5: Demon Sword 妖釖 Number 2: Kazari 飾り

 

My background is a Cantonese person, but I learned Japanese in New York. So, originally, I transcribed the translation of this serial’s title as “Yotou,” which makes sense to me in a pan-Asiatic sort of way. “Youkai” as in ghost or spirit, and “Tou” as in a blade. This serial story followed the martial monk Oken, who is searching for a way to destroy a cursed demon blade that has whetted its steel in the blood of his family.

Later I learned “yotou” actually means “ruling party,” which is strangely appropriate. Or a lamp… I was never any good at Kanji.

I feel terrible about this piece. Years ago I pitched it to Jukepop, where it is still available to read, free of charge. They run a serial story a la Sherlock or the Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a great idea… if people paid the authors to do it. I always meant to finish the serial but life got in the way. I never got the traction to win any of the prizes, nor did I have time to market the story to get more readers. But, I do love this one. Originally going to post the 1st one, but the second story never got as much traction as the first.

Kazari
 飾り

 

Of the pitiable cursed monk Oken and his travels, there arose many accounts fearsome and infamous, becoming favorites on the kabuki stage and the tongues of bards across the realm of the Hing country.

From the holy reaches of Mudong in the Far East to the roiling seas of Gwan-dun in the south, tales of the mad monk and his bloodthirsty sword, Waraimaru, swept down the emperor’s roads and into the ears of the common folk. There could be found no innkeeper or teashop master not on the lookout for a tall, well-muscled young monk with the long bundle in his left hand, and the ugly scar across his face.

As to how Oken got his scar, some said it was the work of the cursed blade within his bundle. It was the weapon forged from the bones of an oni that remembered the one who slew it. Not unreasonable that it desired to leave some mark on the hero’s descendant. Some say when Oken first gripped Waraimaru, the fiendish weapon cleverly turned back on its owner and took from him his eye, for the sin of foiling the fell blade’s designs. Others say Oken received the scar from the guardian monks of the temple of the Four Sacred Beasts and the One Truth set there by Oken’s grand-master Odai.

This is the story of how Oken’s scar truly came to be.

It was a bright, moonlit morning in the capital of Ging-Sing in the land of the Emperor Rensing’s reign.  The walls of the Emperor’s palaces stood high and gleamed with gilt silver and rich golden roof statues. Rich men’s manors lay at all four corners around it, with the most favored hunkered back-to-back like barnacles on a junk along the eastern watch of the wall. From these four directions sprang the markets and houses, and past them the hovels and lean-tos of the city’s have-nots. Further on, the broad roads marched on to all four corners of the Emperor’s domain.

The weary Oken came to the city from the west on the back of an ox-cart, lying between fired pots full of milk. He disembarked beside one of the ramshackle bamboo hovels and tossed a copper coin to the driver, a farmer who had given him the benefit of the doubt despite his fierce appearance. With two whole, clear eyes, he began the arduous task of finding a room in the city.

Ever since he had laid his hands on the cursed nodachi, Waraimaru, his reputation had preceded him everywhere he went, making it very difficult to find a person who had not heard of him. His only hope was to find innkeepers used to the custom of questionable men, who had a mat not too full of lice, who would not strip too many of the rusted green coins from the coils at his hip.

Oken had, of course, another fell duty in mind, and Waraimaru never let him forget it. Each time he passed a fat, happy man beaming with good fortune or a child frolicking through the street with a reed ball or even a woman glowing with the light of life underneath her silk garments, he would feel the wickedness seeping through. His fell charge, the evil, demonic blade instilled him with a terrible thirst. Were he a weaker man he would have given in long ago, opening the fat man’s cheeks in a garish smile, shortening the child by a head, or laying bare a babe too young for the world. Each time he passed a living person Oken gritted his teeth and held the foul sword so tightly his palm bruised against the hard lacquer of the sheath.

Heaven did not deem it auspicious for Oken that day, for as light dawned in the capitol, more and more of the busy city-folk poured into her streets. On Oken’s right, the merchants were selling fresh persimmons and pomegranates, each man shouting to outdo the next. On Oken’s left, the river men sold their catches of the day, and other men charred river eels, fanning the rich, fatty aroma of the fragrant, smoky sauce into Oken’s face.

“Fresh persimmons, pomegranates, and figs! Look at those bright, red skins!”

“Fine Jade, blood-red Rubies, ornate carvings!”

“Foot-long eels, char-broiled, split throat to tail! Juicy and delicious!”

Gasping with the fell blade’s bloodlust, Oken staggered into a back alley, where he collapsed into a shivering heap. There would be no chance of finding a place to sleep, not in the day at least, and less chance of finding the monk he sought. Rumor had it there was a holy sage in residence in the capitol, Gouten, the Grand Master of the Sha-Lin-Zi, who had the emperor’s ear in matters of state and spirit. If anyone knew the secret of undoing Waraimaru’s fell curse, it would be he.

Despairing of finding him, Oken could only grasp the hilt of Waraimaru with both hands, gritting his teeth with the burning need flowing through his body. He would find some vagrant, or rapist, or common cheat somewhere in these filthy alleys, and sheathe the fell blade in his belly. Clinging to this thought, and the terrible fate that had befallen Oken’s revered ancestor by this very sword, Oken managed to stay the madness with his string of bodhi beads. They fairly flew through his fingers in sutra, which calmed his thirst enough to fall into a disturbed doze, slumped against the yellowing whitewash of a disused alleyway.

It was night when Oken awoke, and the cool river breeze gave him peace of mind enough to take on his dire mission. There was hardly anyone out in the evening, and the crescent moon’s gentle light seemed to calm the fell blade’s thirst. But that would not last. Two things hung heavy in Oken’s mind: he needed a place to stay, and a miscreant to stay the foul sword’s appetite.

Bearing these things in mind, he began to walk along the river, where the dirt path overlooked a seedy, dank embankment surely crawling with evildoers. Gingkoes and cherries were flowering in alternating bands along the yellow river, and the green-and-pink striped path reminded Oken of the paper windmill tucked in his tunic. The stone bridge ahead was likely a place where the youth of the city came to romance, to write each other haikus or couplets in seven-character pairs, or to exchange perfumed favors.

I must not mistake a gesture of affection for theft of a lady’s innocence, Oken warned himself. I must not mistake a vial of blossom-water for a sleep-drug, a poem-fan for a dagger, or a jade hairpiece for a pressure-point needle, one touch of which would render prey unconscious. Such were the dark thoughts Oken forced himself to dwell on, for he well knew Waraimaru’s appetite for death.

As if led by these twisted musings, Oken found himself leaving the riverbank and heading deeper into the city, under the eaves of walls and pagodas. His sandals tread not the well-manicured stone gardens of the shrines of his faith, nor the warm flags of the wholesome inns brimful of fragrant sake and stewed lotus root. Instead, Oken’s steps led him to the red eaves of a house of the evening, a pleasure palace, in other words, a brothel.

In truth, Oken had entertained the notion ever since he saw the lantern-dotted windows of the brothels from the back of the ox-cart. It was not a sinful thought; he had mused that the establishments would be of this make, with innkeepers used to unsavory customers like himself. Those same unsavory customers would serve also Waraimaru’s appetite, at least until Oken found the Grand-Master Gouten and had the sword destroyed once and for all. It was only Oken’s monk training that kept him from pursuing this end at once, or asking the farmer to drive him directly to such a place.

Oken wrinkled his nose upon coming to this garish, cheaply lacquered brothel. The incense he was used to was the serene of sandalwood, not this amber and rose that clung to every surface and stirred deep, forgotten things in his belly. Inside, the darkened corridors and thick paper partitions were insufficient to drown out the disturbing sounds. Nor did the brightly painted sea creatures adorning them conceal writhing silhouettes. Oken stifled the altogether unhealthy appetites coursing through his shuddering frame, attempting a presentable appearance.

“I require a room,” he said to the middle-aged, white-painted face that seemed to float in the dark foyer. The woman bowed respectfully to him, but by her bejeweled hairpiece and downplayed robes, she was likely the proprietor, what the girls would call an ‘Auntie’ or a ‘Mother.’

“And what does the enlightened one desire?” this Auntie said to Oken now, using her honorifics even though the monk was dusty with travel, and none too richly clothed. Oken breathed a sigh of relief; this was not a place where one was treated roughly based on class.

“I said a room,” Oken began, annoyed, but he soon got the gist when the Auntie opened a scroll of portraits, plain woodblock prints of the favored girls in the brothel. Seeing he would not be allowed a room if he did not choose one, Oken selected a plain-looking young woman, who also cost the fewest coppers. The Auntie merely nodded, and showed him to a modest room where he found  a table set with wine cups, and a bed already warm for him. A waning crescent lit the room through a window. The woman bowed, sliding the door closed, and Oken turned to regard the figure in the bed. 

“You are this Wren girl from the book in the foyer?” Oken asked of the wriggling form beneath the smooth, embroidered sheets. What he saw was not unpleasant. Waraimaru chuckled silently when Oken breathed deeply of the wafting perfume, the sword knowing too well what Oken enjoyed.

“There are wrens embroidered on the covers, Master,” the curving girl on the bed gestured. Her hair was almost blue, it was so dark, and there was powdered pearl shining on her cheeks. “And carved on the bedposts. It is the name of the woman who resides in this room.”

“What I meant to say,” Oken quickly amended, not letting his eyes travel to the slipping duvet. The girl was magnificently formed, despite her price. “Is that I will not require your attentions this night. You may stay on the wooden bed. I will find a place on the floor.”

“I see you are a monk, Master, but do not worry. I am the most discrete of the girls in the Carnation House.” With this, the girl slipped out of the covers and stood up in the moonlight filtering in through the paper windows. She was tall, but not so tall as Oken, and her hair streamed straight down over a Yellow River’s worth of curves and bends. Deftly, she wrapped a peach-colored robe over herself until only two stiff points in the material remained to tempt Oken. He shuddered. It was not lust that came over him, and in the shadow it was easy to mistake.

“I fear you are mistaken. No other inn would take one such as myself; hence, I am forced to come to you or sleep in the street,” Oken explained. He did not trust himself to stay his sword’s bite, but at least a brothel girl would know to defend herself. He hoped that was the case. 

“It is pleasant to hear that one’s company is preferable to the urine-soaked gutter,” Wren jested with him. She smiled. Seeing that he did not smile or laugh, Wren motioned him forward, whereupon all was made clear.

“I see,” she said. Though young, not yet nine-and-ten, Wren was likely well informed through her clients. Seeing Oken’s face, and his beads, and the trembling sword, she seemed to know him at once.

“You understand. It would probably be better if you did not try to tempt me. I will pay you just the same,” Oken began, but Wren was smiling at him now, despite the fear she felt. Had there been worse men? Oken felt like a child. 

“I’m afraid you’re the one who does not understand,” she said. “If I were to allow you to spread word that my services were not given for a fee honestly paid, my reputation would be ruined. There must be some service I can render,” she said, getting up and gliding to Oken’s side. Carefully, fearlessly, she pressed him onto the wooden stool and slipped her hands inside his robes, feeling the hard muscles under his smooth scars. Oken moaned.

She was aware of the mirrors spread around the room that allowed Oken to watch her bend and reach in her movements. Secretly, she tugged one of many threads hidden behind the scrolls on the walls of the room, and some time later led Oken to an adjacent chamber, where a flowered partition had hidden a wooden tub. It was now brimful of steaming water, which Wren had summoned for them. Oken had heard nothing between Wren’s ministrations of his back and his own internal turmoil.

“Come,” Wren said gently, and slipped out of her robe and into the sweet-smelling water. Oken hesitated, but remembering he was covered in dirt, obliged her by stripping down and entering the bath. He did not let go of his cloth-wrapped bundle. Wren gasped as his taut limbs and wide chest came into the dim light.

“My body must be abhorrent to you,” Oken said, lightly touching the various scars. She took him into the bath, allowing him to turn his back on her nudity. His back felt strong, but tight, as if a great weight was upon it.

“It was not that kind of cry,” Wren said huskily. Taking up a cloth, she began to clean him with little, circular motions of her hands. After awhile Oken was relaxed again, though Wren noted he still did not let go of his sword.

“In my experience,” she said, when he was as relaxed as she could manage, “Men can either fight, or bed. They cannot do both.” Then she slipped her hand down his rock-solid abdomen and grasped him. That night, Oken slept peacefully, in the softness of a woman’s bed. Waraimaru leaned in one corner, chittering in frustration.

In the morning, Oken was repentant, shying away from the light and bustling street noise. Wren touched him gently as he sat at his morning mantras, his fingers blistering through the rough bodhi as if being cleansed. Waraimaru sat in his left hand once more, shuddering.

“What I did was shameful,” Oken said. “It did not befit a monk, and it sullies my mission.”

“I do not know you,” Wren said, “but I do know that was the only time your burden left your hand.” The troubled monk looked to her now, confused and unsure. “We all require rest, some of the time. Now you are more ready to do what you need to do. Perhaps you will want to rest between my legs tonight,” she let her right leg slip out of her robe, a tower of ivory smoothness. “But until you do, your vows remain unbroken.”

Oken spent the morning in contemplation, but when breakfast was brought, he bowed to Wren, to a woman who cost the least in one of the many brothels in the city, and thanked her. Wren simply smiled again, and bid him good fortune that day.

The Four Sacred Beasts did not smile on Oken that day, since upon coming to the Emperor’s palace, he was told that the great sage Gouten was involved in a nine-day sutra of the emperor’s request, and would not exit his sanctum until the end of that period.

“I must wait until the holy sage finishes his important business. Then I will have a chance,” Oken told himself. Exiting via a wide thoroughfare, he observed a cloth merchant being robbed of his wares down a dark alley. 

“At least one of us will have satisfaction this day,” he said, and sure enough Waraimaru was four souls fuller when twilight fell. Oken’s string of coins grew fat from the robbers’ pockets.

“Changed your mind, monk?” Wren asked when Oken stepped into her apartments that night.

“My work will not be complete for some days yet,” he said. “And I require a place to sleep and bathe. It seems, also, that I have come upon a windfall. For the next few nights, I’m afraid it will not be monk, but Master.”

“My deepest apologies, Master. May I rub your feet?”

Oken spent some nights at Wren’s apartments, leaving only to procure more food for Waraimaru. Ging-Sing experienced a period of safety on the streets, and Oken took in the soothing influence of Wren’s touch. After the second night, he was able to tell her of the burden plaguing him.

“I may be able to assist you, Master,” Wren hinted wryly, but said no more, merely hiding behind her silk curtain of hair.

At no time did Oken break his monkish vows, but he was not lax in Wren’s services either. He had been a young man before he was a monk. Wren had her wiles, and plied him with fan dances, oiled body rubs and handcrafted sweets until she was sure he would break. Oken did not.

“Master Oken,” Wren called to him on the sixth morning, “It seems I can not tempt you to your fall, no matter how much my pride feels the sting.”  

“It is not your lack of charm,” Oken answered. “I took this vow on a quest of vengeance, and of justice. Until I fulfill it, I must remain steadfast.”

“Then I have a gift for you,” Wren said, sitting up. “I may not be able to assist in your vengeance, but perhaps a mission of mercy will appeal to you. It will atone for your wicked ways in my bed,” she jested.

“Please do not toy with me, Wren,” Oken said, and Wren was touched he used her name.

“I have heard some men have gone missing in a brothel in the northern sector of the city, the Jade Dragon in the Flowering Hibiscus Quarter. They have been slain in the most brutal of ways,” Wren began.

“If you mean to feed Waraimaru a band of scoundrels, there is no shortage. Do not stain your beautiful hands in such a cruel fashion.”

“It is a point of pride that we courtesans ply our trade with wiles and beauty, not with blades in our sashes. The incidents should interest you in other ways; one of the men was found with his throat cut, but before his life gave out he wrote one character in his own blood.” Wren came up to Oken and traced the character on his naked back.

Oni,” Oken shuddered with the word. “Demons. I wish to see the body.”

Oken and Wren set out for the Flowering Hibiscus Quarter, in the light of the new day. Wreathed in the bright Ging-Sing streets, they were wholly unprepared for the dark, clammy cold of the undertaker’s rooms. Blocks of ice had been carted in from the highlands, but the smell was omnipresent. Beyond the holy barrier, the monk found the body and shuddered. The undertaker’s apprentices were burning incense and paper money for the wandering spirits. Wren gave them some oranges, and a small donation.

“I know this bloodlust. The throat has been torn with a five-bladed weapon. If what I believe is true, this wraith will be very difficult to stop, perhaps as hard to eradicate as Waraimaru.”

“You will require help. The Jade Dragon services the merchant rich and the daimyo, and will not likely grant you an audience.”

“How do you propose I proceed?”

“With me,” Wren smiled that wry smile again.

That night, Oken found himself in the cumbersome garb of a eunuch, beside the radiant Wren in a tight, glimmering robe the color of sapphires. Her sash, tied at the back, was enormous, as was her hair caught in her namesake feather dress. A painted face and ceremonial fan completed the evening’s costume.

“Why must I be ensnared in this linen horror?” Oken complained as he struggled with an oversized sleeve.

“It is the uniform of a servant, and you are mine. Think of it as a game; we shall play the roles until the climax of the evening. It is not a game you are unfamiliar with.”

Oken had naught to say. The two of them clambered through the richly varnished gates of the Jade Dragon, which had no other distinctive features. Not even a name graced the front of the establishment; if not for Wren, Oken would have circled these labyrinths until dawn, trying to find it amongst the equally sumptuous mansions nearby.

Inside, Oken followed Wren as they passed through a gantlet of richly appointed rooms in the latest mode. Each room was identical, six mats, rice paper doors, and a vase or statue or piece of calligraphy as the only decoration. Each room also held an attendant, who took their traveling cloaks, oiled umbrella, and other cumbersome items until they were shown into a dining room, a long thirty-mat space with flat cushions for seating.

“Now you must wait on me,” Wren whispered to Oken. “No servant must touch me, other than yourself.”

“It seems you play the Mistress tonight,” Oken said.

“And your Mistress pities your ignorance of these matters. This is a choosing,” Wren explained, now that other guests were filing into the room and masking their conversation. “The courtesans will come on that side of the room, and be seated there, just so. They will choose their companion for the evening, there, from those seats. We shall be observers, and I as a colleague of the art.”

“And how are we to know which is the demon responsible for the murders you spoke of?”

“I expect it will be the best performer of the evening. The dead men were the richest in the city.”

Even as Wren finished, a hush fell over the room. Oken could see the prospective candidates, some twenty well-dressed fellows of varying ages, but all clutching jade pendants or gilt fans. Some had the pointed shoulders of modish suits, but others wore more comfortable, floor-length garments with cloth buttons.

As soon as silence fell in the room, attendants appeared behind the guests with platters of food. Oken took the other servants’ examples and placed the raised platters before the kneeling Wren, one after the other as they came. There was fresh, raw sea-tiger, sliced thin with spicy horseradish. There was roast boar, and palm-sized fowl, and enormous crabs drowned in rice wine. Everything was cut and prepared so the guests only had to pick up the pieces. They sipped fragrant liquor from small cups that were bothersome to refill. 

Meanwhile, in the center of the room, beautiful women were filing in one by one. Each had a rich tapestry of garments draped around her, silk shawls and lace shawls and robes tailored to reveal only the barest inch of skin whenever the woman wished. Each woman glided to the center of the room and performed one act, from elegant, graceful fan dances to long, mournful arias. Each woman touched the hearts of those gathered, and not one man interrupted with drunken bravado as the nymphs took their places. Their art and beauty faded into incoherence, however, when the last courtesan arrived.

She was clad in scarlet, a pattern of tsubakis in bloom, and her hair was a deep maroon, tinted with rare powders from the west. Her face was flawless, the cheekbones and nose lining up in a memorable fox-like glance. When she danced, her legs moved like a predator’s, all softness and grace, and when her shimmering fan lashed out, she blinded all with the mirage of its passing.  Oken had eyes for none of that, however, for sitting in the woman’s headdress of red maple leaf was the gleam of steel.

“It is her,” he whispered to Wren.

“Good eye. That is Maple, the Pearl of the Dragon. She is the most profitable courtesan here, and the most skilled.”

“She is also a killer.” Oken felt it in his bones. 

“Why would she do such things? She would profit more from those men if they continued to vie for her favor.”

“Why do I stalk the alleys of Ging-Sing? She is a woman possessed. That is the reason for her magnificence.”

“I shall seek a private audience,” Wren announced.

At the end of the meal, each courtesan left the dining chamber the same way they entered it, quietly and by turns.

“Each man chosen is given a token by his servant,” Wren explained. “The courtesan chooses the client by his display of wealth and appreciation of art. You see the man on my right is hiding a quill tucked in his fan. He will bed Peacock tonight.”

“That man there is holding a maple leaf.”

“He is the one we should follow,” Wren said. The man was simply dressed in brown, and did not look particularly significant in any way. His garb was positively drab compared to the others. Oken surmised this might be one of the royal family, perhaps a cousin of the emperor’s.

“What do you mean ‘we’?” Oken said. “I will confront this Maple. You remain here.”

“You’ll go nowhere without me. There are dozens of guards all around the manor, and shinobi in the rafters. I will seek an audience. Give that servant there my note.”

“We give this woman ample warning,” Oken complained.

The two were shown into the rear of the manor, where another room identical to the others held a jade statuette of a pig. It opened onto a patio walkway, before a sumptuous rear garden full of hydrangeas and tea roses, and a covered well. After some time, about half a stick of incense worth, the woman in red arrived, waited on by an attendant.

“I am not in the habit of entertaining guests when I have an important associate in the next room,” Maple said as she settled herself with a whirl of maroon silks onto a cushion. “Please, what is your business?”

“Lady Maple, I am Wren of the Carnation House.”

“I know of it, but not of you.”

“Forgive my directness. We call on you tonight to inquire of the missing men connected with the Jade Dragon. This incident is a blot on all of us courtesans, you understand.”

“I am not free to discuss the matter,” Maple began to say, but Oken stood up.

“Your associate, that man with the leaf, he’s in the next room?” Oken said gruffly.

“What is this insolence?” Maple protested. “A simple eunuch has no place in his mistress’s business!”

“I’m afraid I do. If that man is in the next room, he’s lost so much blood I can smell it in this one.” Oken said, and kicked down the paper partition.

Wren gasped. The next room was luxuriously decorated in the same reds of Maple’s dress, only the red was much darker near the floor, and outlined the head and torso of a man dressed in brown. His throat had been cut, and the life came gurgling out of him onto the soft matting. With a start, Oken recognized the man, for the false hair had fallen from his head in death, and the holy markings of the Sha-Lin-Zi were visible tattooed on him. This was Gouten, the holy sage, killed while becoming a patron at a brothel.

“He would not wait on your audience,” Maple’s voice came sweet and high behind Wren and Oken. “He had to have me. He told me I was more beautiful than the girls of his youth, more radiant than an autumn sunrise. I should have dealt with him later.” There was a gleam in her eye now.

Suddenly, from seemingly nowhere, black-clad figures were flying at Oken with straight swords and metal stars grasped in fists- the shinobi!

“Wren, you must get down!” Oken cried, and suddenly Waraimaru was in his hand. In truth, the fell sword had never left, for the entire length of steel had been concealed in Oken’s bulky servant garments, inside a cloth scabbard sewn into the sleeve. He simply let the blade cut through his sleeve and into the nearest shinobi’s neck, sending up a gout of dark heart’s blood.The blade was eager for it, its edge keen as it cleaved through the man’s collarbone. 

Wren cast herself to the floor, her sapphire robes already dotted with rubies of blood. She crawled on her knees to the wooden walkway, where she watched Oken slaughter the shinobi with a madness she knew she had been keeping at bay. The demon sword flashed through the air like an ill wind, felling one nimble warrior after the other, until ten bodies lay at Oken’s feet. These warriors had been hired or trained by the Jade Dragon to protect their star courtesan, despite her nasty habit, Oken realized.  

Then Wren screamed, for something had a hold of her hair and was dragging her bodily across the smooth garden walkway.

“You!” Maple was screaming, for she had her long red nails curled in Wren’s black locks. The beautiful murderess had an ornate dagger pressed to Wren’s smooth neck. “Stay your sword!”

“Ah… do not do this,” Oken cried. “For though I would stay my sword, the sword itself cares not for Wren of Carnation House. No art of yours can stay Waraimaru.” He began to approach, one sticky foot by one sticky step, shedding the cumbersome eunuch outfit as he went. Soon he stood in his loose trousers, bare to the waist and dripping red. His shaved head caught the moonlight, making the blood look black.

“I know that gleam. You speak of the same devilry that grips me… ever since this came into my possession!” Now Maple tore the comb from her hair, the long powdered locks falling like shed blood from their arrangement. The comb was steel, and molded beautifully with a strange five-ribbed device on it.

“I was not mistaken. It is the Grip of the Demon Beast, the Majyu-no-Te. It is a comb forged from the left-hand fingers of the oni that birthed Waraimaru itself,” said Oken.

“Is that where it comes from?” said Maple. “No matter. All I know is the heights it takes me when I kill. Better than any man… yet by its power all men are my slaves.” She laughed, a high, proud sound. 

“Throw away the comb, and the dagger, Maple! Do not be a slave to it!”

“A slave? I am the most skilled, the most desired courtesan in all of Ging-Sing! I would be slave indeed to follow the words of a disgraced monk like you, Oken. Didn’t you slay your own master to get that beautiful weapon you hold? I would sooner slay all the men of the capitol than give up this wondrous bauble!”

“How did you know that?!” cried Oken. The comb in Maple’s hand seemed to smile, its teeth like the grin of a jackal.

Hair flailing, Maple of Jade Dragon dragged the helpless Wren into the garden, with Oken following. Fresh from ten kills with the prospect of one more delectable morsel to come, Waraimaru sat firm in Oken’s right hand, in a kasumi stance. As if testing his visibility in this stance, a shinobi attempted to ambush Oken, only to find himself clutching at his own insides. Maple flinched, and a drop of blood dripped down Wren’s neck.

“The Majyu-no-Te gives you no power. It holds no sway over men,” said Oken.

“You lie,” hissed Maple.

“It seeks only death, and the taste of human life. Look upon it! It seeks only to use you. You are the most beautiful woman in the city, but now look! Look in the well, in your own reflection. You’ll see you’ve become hideous with its murder-lust!” 

Maple cried out, and being close to the well, cast the cover aside in a fit of vanity. She leaned over almost into it to see herself. At this moment, Oken darted forward, swinging his fell sword to decapitate the possessed woman.

“NO!” Oken cried, for though his strike was true, the blade and the comb conspired together to foul his plans. The comb in Maple’s hand jerked once, shoving Wren of Carnation House into Oken’s path. Waraimaru twisted, the gleam of moonlight on the stained blade a cruel sneer in the dark.It cut through the beautiful Wren’s ribs as if through a roast of boar. The sharp teeth also took Maple’s hand at the wrist, and the Majyu-no-Te flipped through the air into the deep well.

Oken screamed, a cry of frustration and darkness and mourning.

“Why? Why! Why, you accursed thing, why must you destroy everything I hold dear?” Oken cried. Seeing Wren gasp, he flew to her, the sated blade dropped point-first in the ground.He barely registered the demonic courtesan Maple as she fled from the garden, her robes stained a deep scarlet. 

“I am sorry,” Oken cried, tears coming now as Wren struggled to cough blood from lungs that had ceased to function. Her heart was struck, Oken saw from the color, and she would not have long.

“I go now,” Wren said, each word a struggle. “I rest. I’m afraid… I cannot offer you… my…”

Oken clutched her to him now, and between their eyes they understood each other. Wren smiled, one last time, wryly, and the luster faded from her hair.

Oken screamed, again, trying in vain to release the rage and sorrow from his breast. Clasping the dagger he liberated from the twitching, screaming Maple’s remaining hand, he clenched the blade, aiming for his own stomach in seppuku.

“No… Curse you, Laughing One, I cannot end my life. I must still live to destroy you!” he shouted to Waraimaru. “Then let this be my offering to you, Wren. Wherever your spirit lies, let this be forever yours!”

By his own hand, Oken cut the light from his left eye. Now all that was left was to fight his way out of the Jade Dragon, and out of the capitol.

 

 

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