Morning dawned at Lake Ashi
’s shores in Hakone with such calmness that last night’s storm seemed but a dream.
“…I suppose it’s time we started.”
Houjou Ujimasa’s younger brother gazed out the window at Lake Ashi
’s verdant green surface. Naoe stopped still on the sofa at Ujiteru’s muttered words and lifted his eyes from the Houjous’ tactical map.
“…What are your instructions for me?”
“You will act as my aide. From what you have told me, I believe you will make an excellent officer. Be my right hand; advise me as you did earlier.”
“…Of course,” Naoe smiled slightly.
“The other generals will have no choice but to prostrate themselves before the Houjou once the Great Kantou Triangle is complete—there will be no need for trickery then. Indeed, once we have permanently fused the enormous energy gathered in Nikkou, in the sacred precincts of the Supreme Conqueror, with Hakone via the intermediary of the sacred mountain Fuji, they will be brought to their knees by the overwhelming power we will hold.”
Naoe’s eyes fell to the map. A gigantic right triangle was drawn thereon; its sides connected Nikkou
, and Mt. Tate
. He asked, “What will become of this country then? Will you destroy the current administrative and economic systems, take it back to the Edo Period?”
“…You’re quite the cynic, aren’t you?”
“I would not be able to go through with this, if I were not,” Naoe responded, folding the map. “I want this country built up through hardship and overwhelming odds by the spilled blood and sweat of countless billions—countless trillions of people—effortlessly crushed by those who lived four hundred years ago. This so-called great economic power which invaded the world not with military might but business acumen, which has become a world leader with true strength—‘power’ that we could not have imagined four hundred years ago—destroyed by the passions of those already dead. There is no greater thrill, no greater pleasure.”
“…I do not think of what we do as the destruction of the country.”
“It would amount to the same thing. What, after all, is the ‘supreme ruler over all’? The one who wields the most power? That person will soon no longer exist. At best you might become the Prime Minister, become a ‘person in time’—nothing more than a politician within the ruling party who wins the petty game of party rivalry. If that is all you’re looking for, why not try announcing your candidacy for the elections? After all, I’m pretty sure there is no law which says someone who lived four hundred years ago is ineligible.”
Ujiteru went to Naoe and seized his chin, forcing Naoe to look at him. “Leave your cynicism behind; there is something you must do.”
“Send the body of your brother to his death, you mean?” Naoe retorted lowly, disdainfully. “How convenient for me. The flesh is an endless enticement to lust: to touch, to embrace…without it, without the passions it engenders and receives so readily, we would hurt nothing and no one.”
“Besides, if his pet dog forced him into submission, he would probably kill himself rather than live with the blow to his pride. …So you see, better that he dies before such a travesty can occur.” Ujiteru stared at Naoe, his face pale. Naoe hid his eyes behind his hand, his shoulders shaking in self-mocking laughter. “A dog cannot betray his master, can he…?”
Ujiteru lapsed into silence. He could not grasp the true nature of this man who tortured himself so. He appeared to have no reservations about betraying his master—nor about killing Takaya. And yet he could not tell what lay in Naoe’s true heart—not the scheming behind their backs, but Naoe’s true desire, the truth hidden in his heart of hearts.
(He has such talent—I can use a man like him. With his fighting prowess added to ours, we cannot lose. And yet…) Ujiteru thought— (this man is dangerous.)
Naoe stretched himself out on the sofa, lying prone with his face down. A smile like a cold blade rose to his face.
“Naoe, do not deceive yourself that I trust you.”
“I must be certain of you. Will your prove your loyalty to me?”
Naoe lifted his head, face expressionless once more, his disconsolation nowhere to be seen.
Ujiteru left the room with Naoe following behind. He asked the aide beside him, “I have not seen Kotarou. Where is he?”
“My lord. Kotarou-dono left this morning. He has gone ahead to Hakone Shrine
Suspicion crossed Naoe’s face. Left? With Tooyama? Tooyama—of Odawara’s Tooyama Clan? Tooyama Yasumitsu had accompanied Kagetora to Echigo, Naoe recalled.
“I will be leaving for Hakone Shrine
. Prepare a car,” Ujiteru instructed.
“Yes, my lord!”
Ujiteru motioned to Naoe and led the way to Takaya’s room.
He had wiped all emotion from his heart, and yet it shook beneath the weight of the sin he was about to perform. He was a convict being led to the gallows for crimes committed over four hundred years, and this, the ultimate crime, was his punishment: killing the person he loved most in the world.
If those capable of putting on their masks of goodness wish to condemn him for what they call his mistakes, let them do so. How could those who live for mere decades possibly understand? Let them rage if they wish. Let the strong brandish their righteousness against the weak kneeling in prayer at their feet. Let the whitewashed world convict the sinners who can tell no lies.
(…Surely you, whom I kill, will be the one to judge me.)
Ujiteru walked steadily ahead. What was he thinking? Here stood the one who would enact his punishment, and in a few minutes he would see it for himself.
Naoe slowly lifted the tiny pearl in his hand to his mouth.
(Please protect him—) Naoe murmured in his heart—one final prayer, though he knew it was beyond his power; though he had already resigned himself. Was anyone listening? Was it nothing more than the final hypocrisy of a long-forsaken criminal? Who was he to plead so shamelessly for salvation, when he was standing in such a place?
Oh, please protect him.
Though I have no hope left, please protect him.
He cast the silent prayer to the Buddhas.
Ujiteru stopped in front of the room and turned to Naoe.
“I will watch from here. This is the rite through which you will become a vassal of the Houjou. …I trust you understand.”
Naoe stepped within. Light flowed in through the windows, illuminating Takaya in his white kimono with its gentle brightness. He sank to his knees beside the still figure. Though the ‘life-preserving spell’ alone sustained Takaya’s life, the peace on his face made him appear merely asleep. He looked so terribly pure in the morning light. So long as the power of that purity protected him, Naoe thought, he could live for years—decades—in this state.
(I want you to live…)
Takaya-san… he whispered the name, just once. And almost believed that he would open his eyes and awaken.
Killing him would be such a simple thing. Even the slightest touch of his filthy hand to that pure nimbus would be enough to disrupt the spell and allow the blaze of life to slip naturally away from this soulless body.
It would be a painless death. An easy death—perhaps the easiest of all.
He wanted to do it, wanted desperately to touch Takaya’s clean flesh with his black hand stained by sin and lust. But Takaya in his pride would probably choose death over being sullied. So in the end, it would be Naoe’s obscene desire, his blood-smeared lust, that would kill him.
One touch from a single finger—that was all it would take to end everything. What irony Heaven had bestowed upon him.
If this is destiny, you have no choice but to accept it: you who, in your noble isolation, your spotless ‘whiteness,’ reject all things unclean. Would you not rather perish than live bearing the black stains of disgrace? In death you will be eternal.
(You are my only ‘sanctuary.’)
Naoe placed his hands on Takaya’s pillow and leaned over him, looking down at his face. When he closed his eyes, he could hear Takaya’s heart. He would be the one to stop that steady pulsating beat…
Naoe’s brow creased, and his hands clenched into fists.
Are you capable of that?
You should never have trusted me as you did. If only you had never emerged from your lonely solitude, trusted no one. I have wiped all hesitation from my mind—yet at the last moment your smile still shakes me.
You should never have opened your fragile heart to a man like me. How you must regret that now.
“Would you be happier if I didn’t exist…?”
What did you feel as you said those words to me?—to a man so self-centered that he pretends not to recognize your caring? A man who took pleasure even in Ougi Takaya’s anguish over me, who looked coldly upon your suffering and accepted it as my ‘just recompense?’
(You should have recognized that in me…)
Naoe gazed upon the sleeping Takaya’s quiet face for a moment before finally closing his eyes, etching Takaya’s smile into his heart.
He didn’t want to be asked ‘why?’ He held no answers.
I don’t care if you never forgive me. Here and now you cannot resist me. Therefore hate me, scorn me, pity me—let your beauty turn to ugliness.
Let it be etched into your soul.
You cannot bring peace to a lunatic like me.
Because I no longer have any concept of sin.
(That is why, O Heaven—)
I beg you to protect him. He is pure, and I am a madman and a criminal. Protect him from the sins I now commit against him.
He stretched trembling fingers and slipped his hand beneath Takaya’s collar, shutting his eyes tightly and praying with all his heart as he brushed gently against Takaya’s chest.
He could feel Takaya’s body temperature dropping steeply against his fingertips as the pure spiritual energy surrounding Takaya dissipated with a whisper of sound.
Takaya was dying. Naoe moved his hand up to seize Takaya’s chin, pressing his mouth open before sealing his own lips against Takaya’s.
He thrust his tongue into Takaya’s mouth, pushing the pearl across. His hand slid back down as if to chase Takaya’s declining heartbeat to the last palpitation, stopping directly over his heart.
The beat was fading.
Little by little…little by little…dying…
Until finally it stopped.
From Takaya’s soulless body, from beneath his closed eyelids—
Slid a single tiny, faintly gleaming tear—trailing down, down until it fell from his white cheek…
How long had it taken?
Ujiteru approached as Naoe finally tore himself away from Takaya. Staring steadily at Naoe’s face, he touched Takaya’s neck over his carotid artery before taking his left wrist to ascertain that he no longer had a pulse—that his body was ‘dead.’
Naoe sat motionless as a statue.
Ujiteru returned his gaze to Takaya—Takaya’s corpse, now. The corners of his lips tightened with heartbreak.
Naoe remained frozen in place. He stared at Takaya without blinking.
“The male Tsutsuga Mirror must be taken to Ujiyasu-sama…”
“I will accompany you,” Tooyama said, walking behind Fuuma Kotarou on the path along the lake-shore as the horizon brightened with dawn. Kotarou had not told him their destination. To say that Tooyama was ill at ease was a laughable understatement—yet Kotarou betrayed not a hint of suspicion.
(Where is it hidden?)
The head of the Fuuma, apparently unaware that he had been duped, had undertaken to personally guide him to the male Tsutsuga Mirror. Though neither Ujimasa nor Ujiteru could easily move him to their command, Kotarou regarded Ujiyasu’s will as absolute. The ninja never took a second master, and the sons of his master were no exception. He had but one life, and he would stake it on one person.
(For all our effort, no one yet knows of Ujiyasu-sama’s location.)
In Tooyama’s opinion, Ujiyasu had already moved on to the next world.
Searching for him was an exercise in futility.
The tiny mirror hidden in Tooyama’s hand reflected the passing scenery with unassuming simplicity.
The mirror showed Kagetora his current location. With Kagetora acting as intermediary, the images were transmitted onward to Odawara, where Kakizaki Haruie waited on standby. Hakone was the territory of the Fuuma. Exalted as the ‘Eternal Mountain and the Bottomless Ravine’ as well as the ‘Peerless Steeps,’ the mountains of Hakone were the Fuuma’s backyard. They knew everything about this land, and moreover, had covered it with traps; anyone looking to cause trouble without taking due care would find escape a difficult proposition.
(I must extract both the Tsutsuga Mirror and Kotarou.)
Once Kotarou left his own territory, they would hold the advantage. If Haruie could defeat him in an ambush, the male Tsutsuga Mirror would be theirs.
Tense and alert, Tooyama glared at Kotarou’s back. The ninja’s current body was not tempered and honed as it had been in his previous life; perhaps it would not adapt so readily to the ninja arts.
(If it came down to it…)
Tooyama touched the pistol concealed in his bosom, given to him by Ujimasa for self-protection. It had come from the mafia group led by the protégé of Ujimasa’s vessel.
“Tooyama-dono,” Kotarou suddenly addressed him, making Tooyama’s heart practically leap out of his chest. Had he been discovered?
Kotarou had stopped, long hair brushing across his broad back, and was looking over his shoulder at Tooyama.
“Do you know the legend of Lake Ashi
“Yes. A very long time ago, a nine-headed dragon lived in this lake.” Kotarou looked beyond the cedar trees at its glittering surface. “A poisonous dragon, feral and wild, which sometimes called wind and storm to bring flood and suffering down on the village people here. In order to appease it, the villagers would offer it a yearly sacrifice. One day, Holy Priest Mangan, who had come to this land to practice asceticism, heard the story of the poisonous dragon. He undertook to subdue it to save the villagers.
“The Holy Priest built a stone altar and prayed to the gods and buddhas. It is said that in due time he exorcised the poisonous dragon with the borrowed heavenly might of the great God of Hakone. Thereafter the dragon repented and became the guardian deity of this lake.
This dragon god was enshrined at the Nine-Headed Dragon Shrine
, which is subordinate to Hakone Shrine
. It appears the famous lake festival of Hakone Shrine
was a ritual following the traditions of this legend, and that the red rice offered to the dragon god during the festival stands in for the ‘sacrifice’ of old.
You know, of course, that Holy Priest Mangan was responsible for the revival of Hakone Shrine
. But he was also,“ Kotarou smiled at Tooyama, ”the founder of the Fuuma.”
“Wh…what did you say?!” Tooyama exclaimed. “Holy Priest Mangan was your founder?! That great and holy man… I don’t believe it…”
“Yes. We are much despised. But that great and holy man’s blood flows our veins, Tooyama-dono.”
“Do not look down on us because we are mere ninjas.” With those words, he started walking again. Tooyama stood frozen there for a moment longer before managing to take hold of his nerves once more. He hurried to catch up.
The two men resumed their trek along the eastern shore towards the lake-end. The morning mist began to dissipate as they reached Hakone -en
at the foot of Mt. Komagatake
, and Mt. Fuji
appeared beyond the cerulean lake.
“It’s just ahead.”
They took the path through the forest past Hakone-en. A little ways onward, near the part of the lake called Miyakojima-no-hana
, more scattered cottages appeared.
Their destination was the Nine-Headed Dragon Shrine from Kotarou’s legend.
The shrine was not large, and had been built up bit by bit. Its small, humble vermilion peace gates stood within the lake. Dark green foliage covered the area, and the atmosphere was filled with an air of purity. There was no sound but the chirping of birds. From here, Lake Ashi
looked so beautiful and serene that one would not have been surprised to see a dragon rising from it.
“Kotarou-dono. This place…is this…?”
“Is the male Tsutsuga Mirror here?”
Kotarou nodded. “I will retrieve it now. Wait here.”
Tooyama looked after Kotarou anxiously as he headed toward the shrine.
(So this is where it was hidden…?) He had guessed that it would be in Hakone, but the Nine-Headed Dragon Shrine? (A-at least now I can face Lord Saburou.)
Tooyama swept the mirror in his hand around to give it a view of the area. Now he could be forgiven. He just needed to get his hands on the Mirror itself.
Kotarou made his obeisance to the god before unlocking and opening the shrine’s latticed door. It gave way with a heavy creak. Kotarou went into the dim hall.
Kotarou stepped out of the shrine.
“Ko-Kota…!” Tooyama gasped.
A large, vaguely dog-shaped creature had followed Kotarou out of the shrine. Seen more clearly in the sunlight, the figure resolved itself into…a lion-like beast with red curling fur—
Tooyama let out a scream before he could stop himself. He glared at Kotarou, snarling furiously, “Ko-Kotarou-dono! What…what is the meaning of this…?!”
“That is the question I wish to ask you, traitor.”
“Wh…what did you say?”
“It’s too bad, isn’t it? The Tsutsuga Mirror was almost within your reach. Did you really think I, Fuuma Kotarou, would be taken in by your lies?”
“Lies…? What are you talking about? We don’t have time for your jokes! We are under the command of Ujiyasu-sama himself…!”
“Be silent. The more you say, the more you incriminate yourself.”
Tooyama gulped back his exclamations. Kotarou crossed his arms and stared down at Tooyama from the top of the stairs.
“How much were you bribed? Whose commands are you following? Takeda’s? Oda’s?”
“Tooyama-dono. If I recall correctly, you went with Kagetora-dono to Echigo. As I heard it, you abandoned your master during the battle for succession, leaving him to face his death alone while you ran.
“I would never do such a thing! Are you mocking me?” Tooyama blustered.
Kotarou only sneered. “You were born in the wrong era. To die for your lord was virtuous; to not do so brought dishonor upon your name.”
“Yet you are loyal even now. You deserve all the praise in the world.”
Kotarou knew everything! Tooyama thought, inhaling. He gritted his teeth.
“The punishment for traitors, however, is death.”
“Why?! How did you know…?!” The words “I was trying to deceive you” never made it out of his throat.
Kotarou knelt and caressed the tsutsuga’s fur.
“It appears you do not even know what kind of lie it would take to delude me.”
“If you had tried ‘Ujimasa-dono’s secret command,’ you could at least have deceived me for a little longer.”
Tooyama flinched back sharply as Kotarou rose to his feet and descended the stairs, the tsutsuga beside him.
“I knew you were lying before I even met with you.”
“As soon as the words ‘Ujiyasu-sama’s secret command’ left your mouth.”
The tsutsuga pawed at the ground before leaping straight for Tooyama. He screamed and pulled out his pistol, shooting wildly at the beast. The bullets passed through harmlessly. Thetsutsuga slammed Tooyama to the ground, his pistol flying out of his hand and into the shrubs. Tooyama writhed as the beast’s claws violently rent his chest apart.
Kotarou watched the scene dispassionately.
In agony, Tooyama tore the tsutsuga off and began crawling toward the water. The tsutsuga advanced on his prey again, and the man and the spirit-beast grappled on the beach. The tsutsugasank its fangs into Tooyama’s neck.
Tooyama’s horrifying screams echoed around the quiet lake-shore. Crippled with terror, he met the tsutsuga’s golden eyes—and the tsutsuga suddenly jerked its head up as if something had startled it.
The voice echoed inside Tooyama’s head. With blind reflex he turned the mirror in his hand and held it up.
“Gyaaah….aaaaaah!” The tsutsuga shrieked as it met its own reflection’s eyes, the sound metallic and grating. A second later, it was sucked into the mirror.
“What…!” Kotarou exclaimed at this unexpected turn of events.
“Aaaah…!” In his shock and panic, Tooyama flung the mirror away and ran. An utterly composed Kotarou nimbly plucked Tooyama’s pistol from the undergrowth and fired it twice, thrice at the other man’s fleeing back.
Tooyama fell soundlessly, dead before he hit the ground.
His spirit extracted itself from its vessel. Kotarou whistled through his fingers, summoning three more tsutsuga from the forest. At his command they streaked after Tooyama’s unmoored spirit.
“Coward.” Kotarou crushed the small hand mirror underfoot in disgust.
He looked towards the lake. The bright air had dimmed without his realizing it, and mist hung over the lake once more. The birds had stopped their chirping. It was, in fact, eerily silent. There was a feeling of expectation—and fear.
In the exact center of the lake, gigantic ripples appeared on its still surface.