A heavy guard of Fuuma ninjas would convey the female Tsutsuga Mirror to Hakone Shrine
. Ujiteru and his vassals climbed aboard the cruiser waiting at the private wharf reserved for the estate’s exclusive use.
“Is this the only boat?” Naoe asked. “I would like to bring the body and give it a burial at sea.”
“Were you not intending to return it to his family?”
“I’ve changed my mind. Returning the body would attract too much attention; society tends to make a fuss over things like this. The police becoming involved would interfere with our plans, which would not be in our best interest.”
“You are heartless.”
“Merely anticipating all possibilities,” Naoe responded expressionlessly, with cold-blooded indifference. “Burials at sea might be stylish, but put plainly, this is no more than the dumping of a corpse—I would prefer something inconspicuous. A small motor boat would be best, I think. Even if I were spotted, I alone would bear the guilt. It would never come back to you, Ujiteru-sama.”
“Hmm… But the fog looks to be coming in.”
Earlier that morning there had been hints of blue in the sky, the air achingly clear, but with the fog rolling in the day had turned dark again.
At that moment Ujiteru could not have grasped Naoe’s full meaning. “In that case, you will join up with us later,” Ujiteru responded as he received confirmation that the cruiser was ready.
Naoe went inside to retrieve the body as Ujiteru and company set off with the Tsutsuga Mirror across the lake.
Naoe came back out with Takaya cradled in his arms, heading for the motor boat prepared for him at the wharf. As he climbed in, one of Ujiteru’s aides approached.
“Ujiteru-sama told me to accompany you,” the man—a possessing spirit, not kanshousha—said. Naoe smiled slightly, though ‘watch’ might be a better description than ‘accompany.’
“I see. I leave myself to your care.”
A thick fog now covered Lake Ashi
, obscuring its center from any observers on the shores. The Houjou vassal, armed with a thorough knowledge of its waters, handled the boat with precision. Near the center, he inquired, “Where do you plan to toss it in?”
“It doesn’t really matter where, with this fog. …Which direction is Hakone Shrine
“Where our bow is pointed. At night you can sometimes see the lights of cars along the road on that ridge there. You can use that as a landmark to guide you in and make landfall atMotohakone
“I see. …Thank you very much.”
“…” The man turned. His eyes widened to see Naoe standing right behind him, expression cold. (Ah!) he thought, an instant before Naoe seized his temples with his right hand. A sound like fireworks exploded in his mind before the world went dark.
Naoe crouched beside the collapsed figure and touched his hand to the man’s forehead.
“On amiritateizei kara un on amiritateizei kara un.”
As he chanted the mantra of Amitābha, his palm began to glow with white light. His fingers sank into the man’s forehead, pulling the possessing spirit out of its vessel without much of a fight. Once wholly extracted, Naoe recognized the spirit as that of an onryou, but one with only a smidgen of power.
Still, even a small, weak spirit could become a mighty onryou depending on how it was used.
“On beishiramandaya sowaka on beishiramandaya sowaka… Namu Tobatsu Bishamonten. Punish and bind this evil spirit. Bestow the demon-subjugating scourge upon me.”
Light glowed from Naoe’s left hand, taking shape as a coiled whip made of spiritual power. Naoe shook it out adroitly and wrapped it around the spirit he held captive.
The whip instantly wound around the spirit, eliciting a terrible, violent howl of anguish from it. Naoe took his lighter out of his pocket and lit the scourge on fire. Both it and the spirit went up in flames, and when the blaze cleared, a blue stone dropped onto the floor.
Naoe picked it up and put it in his pocket.
(…The Tsutsuga Mirror has left the barrier at last.)
Naoe laid Takaya down on the sheet beside him and took the helm. He fixed his gaze on the shore ahead. I must hurry.
The tree-binding ritual was beginning.
Preparations at Hakone Shrine
A barrier kept out all outsiders, and the shrine staff were hypnotized and asleep.
A ceremonial site had been constructed in front of Hakone Shrine
’s sacred ‘Yatate Cedar,’ the Tsutsuga Mirror placed therein.
Ujiteru stared grimly at the sacred tree, a magnificent cedar 1,200 years old. He would be binding his brother to this tree.
The legend of the ‘Yatate Cedar’ began at the start of the Heian Period. Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, appointed the commander-in-chief of the expeditionary force sent to subjugate the Emishipeople of northern Japan, prayed to the avatar of Hakone for fortune in war when he passed the shrine during his journey. His offering was a bow and arrow. After him came Minamoto no Yoriyoshi on his hunt for a general of the Abe Clan, then brothers Minamoto no Yoritomo and Yoshitsune in the Kamakura Period as they departed for the front, each offering a ‘first arrow’ as an invocation for fate’s favor in battle. Each of their prayers were answered, and so people came to believe that the tree was sacred, and bestowed luck on the battlefield to its supplicants.
It then became the main shaft of Hakone’s ‘United Body’.
(It is a tree befitting Saburou…)
But he realized that the thought brought him no joy.
Once Saburou Kagetora’s tree-binding was complete, the Hakone Shrine
forest, like that of Nikkou, would be set ablaze. The ‘Yatate Cedar’, too, would burn with holy fire. Its sacred power would be fused with the power of the earth to become a massive energy of unparalleled might, and Saburou’s soul would become a part of it.
(And his psyche will be annihilated.)
He would be reduced to a mere weapon.
It should have been simple. Pragmatic.
All of it done for the sake of the clan.
But the ache in his chest refused to abate. His little brother was going to be used again, another heartbreaking fate forced upon him.
Saburou is going to become a god of war.
(To my brother it is simple and clear-cut. It can never be so for me.)
But neither could he disobey their father’s commands.
If it was the command of their father, the great Ujiyasu.
(If this is…Father’s command…)
“Tono!” said an aide approaching him on the shrine path.
“What is it? Is Kotarou not yet returned?”
“Aye. We have searched for him, but…”
“Nevermind. We will proceed without Kotarou. Is the escort in place? Are the Fuuma in their assigned positions?”
“Everything is complete. My lord, Naoe-dono has returned.”
“What? Naoe?” He turned to see the just-arrived Naoe standing nearby. “Is the water burial complete?”
“…Yes,” Naoe nodded expressionlessly.
Ujiteru felt that deep fury welling up within him once more. How dare he treat a master he had followed for four hundred years thus? How dare he be so composed? The nerve of this man!
“He wanted to protect me, all of me, from everything.”
When he closed his eyes, he could see Takaya’s slight smile, the pain hidden behind it.
“Wings. Gigantic bird’s wings. ”
(Is this the man you do not want to lose?) Ujiteru shook with rage. (Was this cold-hearted bastard the reason you were destroyed?)
Naoe returned Ujiteru’s gaze as Ujiteru advanced on him. This man, who did not even have the grace to avert his eyes? It inflamed Ujiteru’s hatred.
“My lord!” The aide exclaimed as Ujiteru suddenly struck Naoe across the cheek. Naoe closed his eyes, face still turned. Ujiteru calmed his shortened breaths.
“Begin the ceremony. Bring out the tsutsuga.” He walked away without another look at Naoe.
Naoe lifted his head, staring at Ujiteru’s back as he walked away.
Watched over by the vassals, Houjou priests began the Shinto ritual in front of of the ‘Yatate Cedar,’ the Tsutsuga Mirror with Kagetora’s sealed soul enshrined before it.
Naoe appeared beside Ujiteru as he stood observing. His composure was certainly befitting that of a hereditary vassal of the Houjou.
The Shinto ritual prayer ended, and a gigantic kettle-like object was carried out from the opposite side. It took three people just to lift the lid, allowing what appeared to be crimson smoke to overflow from it. A hairy animal crawled out.
It was a tsutsuga: the same tsutsuga, in fact, which had attacked Naoe on Iroha Hill
. It was as long as a person was tall, easily two or three times the size of the tsutsuga still wandering Nikkou and Hakone. This was the tsutsuga cub brought forth by the Fuuma four hundred years ago and sealed by Tenkai within the very same Tsutsuga Mirror now sitting in front of the ‘Yatate Cedar.’
(…So this is the original?)
The difference in power between this tsutsuga and the cubs produced en-mass by the Fuuma in the modern age was obvious. The tsutsuga were said to take a century to reach maturity, but thistsutsuga, having remained within its mother in the centuries since its birth, appeared not yet weaned though its body was full-grown.
The tsutsuga gave a low growl followed by a whining bark, as if it were calling to its mother, the female Tsutsuga Mirror, sitting nearby. It appeared upset by its abrupt release.
A mother would give her own prey to her hungry child. This tsutsuga, however, had been shaped by human hands. It was a ‘cormorant-trained’ tsutsuga taught to hunt souls instead of catch fish. Like the cormorant which spits its catch into its master the fisherman’s basket, the tsutsuga used the traits inherited from its father to bind its prey to trees rather than devouring them.
Naoe casually slipped a hand into his pocket.
(I have to stop this before he is swallowed by the tsutsuga…)
The beast suddenly grew restive as if something had startled it. Then it began howling wildly.
“What just happened?!” Ujiteru and his aide leapt to their feet. The anguished tsutsuga began violently swiping and lunging at the people standing closest, driving off the vassals who quickly ran up to it.
“Control it, calm it down!”
Some nearby object emitting an unusually strong, abnormal spirit-energy was driving the tsutsuga mad. Teeth bared in rage, the tsutsuga sprang at the source.
Ujiteru and company dodged aside, leaving Naoe alone in its path.
Naoe threw the blue sphere in his hand at the tsutsuga and clasped his hands together in a ritual gesture. He cried, “Release binding!”
Light flashed from the stone, followed by a torrent of savage hatred as a terrifying onryou appeared.
“Wh…what is that…?!”
The vassals ran about in a panic. The onryou screamed and raged in agony, mowing down everything around it as it writhed within the strangling bindings of the whip of chastisement.
Taking advantage of the chaos, Naoe sprinted for the altar and grabbed the female Tsutsuga Mirror.
“You! Damn you, Naoe!” Naoe’s «nenpa» went off like a bomb in front of the ‘Yatate Cedar.’ Shielding himself from the shockwave, Ujiteru yelled, “Naoe, you bastard!”
“I will not allow you to use him!” Naoe retorted between attacks, “So go to hell!”
“Kill him! Tear him limb from limb!”
Naoe shielded himself with a «protective wall> against the mass of «nenpa» launched simultaneously by several Houjou vassals before counterattacking. Explosions rocked the area around them. His «wall» buckled beneath the ferocity of the concentrated assault aimed at him. A single arrow-like shot of will pierced the wall and struck him.
(Whatever happens, I must not lose this mirror!) Naoe cradled it to his chest as several keen arrows of will grazed him. The onryou cut a swathe through the Houjou vassals, but it did not shake their fierce barrage. Naoe dropped to one knee. (I will not give it up…!)
Naoe gritted his teeth as his clothes were ripped apart, his blood sent splattering to the ground. He clutched hard at the Tsutsuga Mirror even while pain stabbed into his skin, raising his eyes to glare defiantly with all his body and soul.
(I will not give him up to anyone!)
Roaring, he gathered all his strength, concentrating all the «power» he possessed into a single point in his body. There was no longer a human heart within him—no emotion or reason, for he transformed it all into will and energy.
There was an ominous rumble, and Ujiteru and his men involuntarily flinched as the ground around them began to shake. A raging whirlwind born of Naoe’s will scythed through both trees and men, destroying everything in sight.
“Protect yourselves! Attack!” Ujiteru’s shout was swallowed up by the brutal storm.
“Aaaaaah—!” Wrung out of the depths of his soul, the howl tore out of his body and pierced Heaven itself. The storm wavered and Heaven cracked apart. Everyone froze in place, terrified by a presentiment of doom.
Naoe’s body became a sphere of golden light.
The ground shook as if struck by multiple lightning bolts before exploding into a gigantic pillar of fire. He had released every ounce of power he possessed in a single instant.
The energy blast engulfed everyone and everything.
Even after the shock waves faded, none of Ujiteru’s men were capable of a counterattack. All that remained was a scene out of hell itself.
Having used up every iota of power, Naoe dragged himself along the ground with the Tsutsuga Mirror still cradled in his bleeding arms.
He had no energy left to speak the name out loud. Will alone animated his mind and body as he crawled down the stone stairs.
Only one of the crumbled bodies rose. Steeling his will against the agony, Ujiteru desperately dragged his bloodied and broken body toward the lake-shore after Naoe.
“I won’t let you get away, Naoe…”
Naoe turned at the shrine gates at the sound of Ujiteru’s voice.
’“I won’t let you get away, Naoeeeeeee!” Ujiteru cried, a terrifying expression on his face.
Ujiteru collapsed to his knees. But he raised himself again, clinging hard to the trunk of a nearby tree. He gritted, “Give the mirror…back to me…”
Naoe glared at Ujiteru.
“Give Saburou back to me—!”
Naoe clutched the mirror harder to himself and closed his eyes. Ujiteru dragged himself forward with blood-covered, trembling arms.
“I will never give him up…”
“Get away from me!”
In desperation, Naoe formed Bishamonten’s ritual gesture. “ (Bai)!”
Ujiteru’s paralyzed body shivered—but his force of will was not to be underestimated. He fought against Naoe’s binding with all his might and continued to crawl forward.
Naoe had reached the end of his power. He could no longer perform a proper «choubuku». But he strained for the last drops of energy, his hands clasped together in the ritual symbol by sheer will.
“Give him back,” Ujiteru pleaded desperately, his voice hoarse. Dying. “Give…Saburou back.”
Naoe stared at Ujiteru, eyes wide.
Ujiteru’s eyes were filled with tears. He was no longer a general, and his pleas had nothing to do with war or tactics. He was just an older brother now.
“Give back…my brother…”
Naoe turned his face away. His chanting faded. Hands still clasped tightly in Bishamonten’s mudra, he closed his eyes.
A «nenpa» exploded at Ujiteru’s feet. He slammed into a fallen tree and crumbled to the ground, where he lay unmoving.
Panting and gasping, Naoe stared at Ujiteru for a second before turning and staggering toward the motor boat anchored at the lake-shore once more. His entire right side ran with jagged spasms of pain from his shoulder wound, and he stumbled and almost fell several times. Even so, his only thought was to protect the mirror.
He dragged himself into the boat and raised Takaya’s body from the seat into his arms, gasping with pain.
He clutched tightly to both Takaya and the Tsutsuga Mirror even as his vision blurred. His mind felt a great distance away. He mustered himself somehow to take hold of the helm, starting the engine and pointing the little boat toward the fog-covered lake.
Everything was about to end…
This, here and now, would be the end of everything.
Soon… Very soon now he would be released from all the foolishness, from the crushing weight of four hundred years. He would be free from all the world’s problems and all the world’s anguish.
No inner voice told him, ‘You can still go back.’ And even if it did, he would not be able to ear it with ears deafened by self-loathing.
!If he turned aside now, the doors to Utopia would never again open for him—
I will not lose you.
I will never love another.
In that world apart we will never again be touched by the pain, anguish, and grief of living.
I will hold you and all that you are in my arms, within a time and space that transcends both life and death.
All my wishes are coming true.
All I ever desired will be mine.
You will never again tremble in loneliness, never again be left behind. We can escape from everything: the disquiet of separation; the deprivation of urgency; the jealousy that burns us to ashes; the frantic, luscious hatred. Our release is at hand.
I have been given the key to that perfect paradise. How can Heaven have bestowed such supreme happiness on me?
His every wish was being granted, here and now. Was this his recompense for four hundred years of anguish? Was it Heaven’s will that he accept this terrifying happiness?
He held the cage called Paradise in his arms.
In his arms…
The center of the lake was shrouded by an even thicker mist.
Naoe cut the engine, allowing the boat to drift into that utter stillness.
They stopped at the exact center. The undulating surface turned flat as a mirror. Fog hid the lush green Hakone mountains surrounding him on all four sides.
He could see no sign of any other living thing.
This, the deepest part of Lake Ashi
, was more than 40 meters 1 in depth. It swallowed all sound, leaving behind an almost forlorn, lonely and unworldly silence.
Holding the silk-covered Tsutsuga Mirror, Naoe peered at the lake surface. Its beautiful deep indigo-blue waters stretched into the mist and seemed to spread outward forever.
A chilly, humid wind wrapped around him.
Naoe gazed out with deep emotion at the last scene his eyes would ever see, Takaya’s cold body in his arms.
Legend said that this place was sacred, that these waters were home to a god. At this moment, surrounded by its hallowed air, Naoe believed it. It was a suitable adobe for a god, this lake of mysterious and subtle grace ringed by mountains.
At the bottom of these fathomless waters, surely, he would find the Pure Lands.
Let us sleep embraced by the god’s lake. Let my soul be imprisoned in this demon mirror with you, and let us sink into these watery deeps.
There are no chains around me now.
Naoe gazed at Takaya’s face where it lay slumped against his shoulder. His blood stained one white cheek. With his left hand, Naoe turned it toward him and wiped away the red smear.
Why did he have to long so for the eyes that hid such loneliness in their depths? His weary heart trembled in his breast for the voice that he would never hear again.
His mind played back his time with Takaya incessantly against his closed eyelids. Those uneasy eyes and awkward laugh, that tranquil smile and angry tears… His chest ached unbearably. Your voice calling my name…it sears me and refuses to let me go.
Swear to me…
He held Takaya close and pressed his lips to the back of Takaya’s neck. His left hand cradling Takaya’s head to his chest, he pushed Takaya’s kimono softly from his shoulder with the other and branded kiss after kiss into the cool skin.
I want to be at your side for all of eternity.
At your side.
I will…never leave you.
Closing his eyes, Naoe clasped Takaya tightly and moved to the boat’s stern, the mirror which would become their souls’ eternal resting place in his hand…
He could now say a farewell to the unendurable anguish of four hundred years.
(Now…) he thought, lifting his eyes. At that moment—
A small row boat emerged from the deep mist, and Naoe stilled. In it was a man. The boat approached slowly, stopping only when it lay next to the vessel containing Naoe and Takaya. The broad-shouldered man within set down his oars and stood quietly.
It was Fuuma Kotarou.
No one had seen him since he had left for his meeting with Tooyama—but he must have either chased after him or had somehow known to find Naoe here.
He stared in disbelief, speechless.
Kotarou said deliberately, “You don’t have to look so shocked. I am here by my lord’s command.”
“…‘Your lord?’—Houjou Ujiteru, you mean?”
“Ujiteru-dono is not my master. Neither, needless to say, is Ujimasa-dono…”
“I have no master but Lord Ujiyasu.”
“!” Naoe stared. “Ujiyasu? Houjou Ujiyasu? He’s here? He’s the one pulling the strings? He’s entered the «Yami-Sengoku» hasn’t he?!”
“…Lord Ujiyasu has nothing to do with the actions of his sons.”
“But no matter where I am, I will always execute Lord Ujiyasu’s commands.”
“Ujiyasu commanded you to come here?”
Kotarou slowly crossed his arms, ignoring the question. “Is it not your intention to allow that object in your hand to devour your soul?” Kotarou asked in a monotone. “I am not here to stop you from sinking with that mirror to the bottom of the lake. If that’s what you want to do, proceed.”
“Aren’t you a vassal of the Houjou?”
“The Houjou are the masters of the Fuuma—that is why we lend our aid when it is asked. But my master is Lord Ujiyasu alone. What happens to Ujiteru-dono and Ujimasa-dono do not move me.”
“Then you are under orders from Lord Ujiyasu?”
Again ignoring the question, Kotarou returned expressionlessly, “What has compelled you to this point? You wish to abandon everything. Why? Where does that feeling come from?”
Naoe’s eyebrows rose.
“You surrender your mission and your life and kill your master: sin piling on sin. …What power allows you to let your ego run free, to desert your mission in order to pursue your own desires, battered as you are? How is it possible to become so self-centered? How is it possible for egotism to consume you so completely that you are willing to murder the master you have served loyally for so many years?”
Naoe’s eyes flashed, and he snarled, “Of course you could never understand. You are, after all, the perfect servant. Perfectly without ego.”
“An emotionless machine is the happiest being on earth,” Naoe sneered. “You can’t even aspire to the hypocrisy of lamentation over the baseness of desire. You might as well become a god…”
For the first time, Kotarou’s eyes widened.
Naoe’s smile vanished. He pressed the body in his arms tightly to his chest and buried his face in Takaya’s hair, eyes fixed on a single point on the lake’s surface as he pushed back against pain.
“I see,” Kotarou responded shortly, and his expression turned cold once more. “My lord Ujiyasu holds the male Tsutsuga Mirror.”
For an instant Naoe’s eyes sharpened. Then his brows drew together, and calm returned to his expression. “…Ah.”
That knowledge was useless to him now. He was too weary to steal it back, too spent to throw down the gauntlet once more. And knowing that, he…
The surface of the lake swelled upward, causing huge waves to suddenly descend on the boat. Naoe braced himself in surprise as the craft rocked wildly. The lake erupted, and something rose from its depths, up and up until it towered over them, a gigantic shadow in the mist.
The mist cleared away. Knuckles turning white from his grip on the side of the rolling boat, Naoe looked up at the long shadow stretched over the heaving lake.
He gasped, speechless and frozen in place, unable to believe his eyes.
It had risen out of the lake behind Kotarou. Two glowing eyes looked down at them from a height of about 30 meters 2.
—Eyes belonging to a dragon! A shimmering, shining dragon, its colossal torso undulating in midair.
“It can’t be…” he shook his head repeatedly, convinced that it was an illusion. But no: there really was a dragon in the lake facing him.
Kotarou, still with his back to the dragon, told him quietly: “Look well…Naoe.”
The dragon held a plate-like object in one of its foreclaws. No, not a plate. It was round, red—shining with reflected light: a mirror?
(The Tsutsuga Mirror?!)
The male Tsutsuga Mirror, transfigured by Holy Priest Shoudou from the male tsutsuga—the father of the tsutsuga cub, and the only object in the world capable of releasing a soul trapped within the female Tsutsuga Mirror…!
“Why…!” Naoe blurted out unthinkingly. “Why? Why would you…what are you trying to do?! That’s…!”
“This being says that he will lend the mirror to you, without conditions. If you wish it.”
It stunned him yet again. He could neither breathe nor find words for a response. He could only stare at Kotarou with disbelief, motionless.
“What…do you mean…?”
“What in the world is that creature…?”
The dragon’s eyes glinted gold as it looked down upon the two men. Oh! Naoe gasped and looked up at the dragon. “Is that…! Is the dragon Houjou…”
“Indeed, it is as you surmised,” Kotarou interrupted dispassionately before he could finish speaking the name. “You may use the male Tsutsuga Mirror to release Saburou-dono. Or not. You are free to choose either path. To do exactly what you want.”
“Naoe. Everything depends on your next words.”
Naoe felt paralyzed.
The dead-end road he had chosen, had thought would be his final destination, had suddenly opened up before him.
He could release Kagetora from the Mirror. The one object capable of doing so was being offered to him freely. He had only to say the word, and he would be able to take it in his hands. He could set Kagetora free. Free to live again.
(He can come back to life.)
And perhaps even restored to this body. If the power of the pearl had been enough, if truly the Buddhas protected him… Naoe had wagered everything on that possibility.
(Takaya-san can be returned to himself.)
Naoe looked down at Takaya’s body in his arms. Those cheeks could be graced once more by his lonely, gentle smile, and the voice he had missed so much could call his name. Speak to him. Those haunted eyes could return his gaze.
He could return this beloved being, this person he loved more than any other, to life!
And yet, in doing so…
Their eternal utopia would be lost.
His impossible wish had been granted in full. He could have Kagetora entirely to himself. They could be together for the rest of eternity. There was no other way: no other method but this one, final and irreversible.
I can never have you in this world. But in the mirror you would be mine and mine alone. No one would be able to touch you, to come between us or steal you away from me… The flow of time would pass us by, and we need never fear the heart’s fickle nature. Neither grief nor hatred could exist in that peaceful paradise.
We could escape all pain.
I would never lose you again.
I have watched you for four hundred years, and this deranged longing…
Is this not the answer to all my prayers?
His chest was being torn apart by two overwhelming desires.
I want to save you…
Their perfect happy ending was close enough to touch.
What agony we’ve endured to get to this moment, both of us consumed by it until we know its every nuance, know it so well that it has driven us mad…!
He could bear it no longer. How many times had he thought: ‘I can no longer live with such pain?’ For an unimaginably long time he had wandered in the darkness of despair, his heart crushed by it, capable only of dreaming of such tranquility and happiness.
He wanted to escape.
To have it all be over.
For as long as I have loved you I have thought this: I never want my love for you to change. Agony though it may be, and sin and lunacy and punishment, I am incapable of stopping myself from loving you over and over again…
I crawl through the mud, struggling forward and falling back, again and again. Let me leave this labyrinth.
In this endless despair and madness, I want only to find one moment of truth.
(Am I allowed to end this…?) he asked the silent, lonely dictator in his arms. (Am I allowed happiness?)
Oh my beloved.
Surely you wish it too.
I must reach for happiness for both of us. Grasp it with these hands.
I have loved you longer and deeper than anyone else ever could.
I am the only one who can give you happiness.
No else is capable of it.
(Is this not enough, Kagetora-sama…?) Naoe gazed pleadingly down at Takaya. (Can we not end it now…?)
Please answer me.
Naoe’s eyes widened as Takaya seemed to smile slightly.
He felt as if he had heard Takaya’s voice saying that it was all right…
He saw forgiveness and acceptance in the peace on Takaya’s face.
“…” Naoe stopped breathing, frozen still with his eyes wide.
“What is your answer, Naoe-dono?” Naoe slowly turned at the sound of Kotarou’s voice. “Will you take the male Tsutsuga Mirror, or will you sink into this lake?”
“Would you tell me your decision?”
Naoe quietly bit his lip. Coming to a resolution.
Still holding Takaya with his left arm, he quietly turned his head…
And reached for the female Tsutsuga Mirror lying on the floor of the boat.
TO BE CONTINUED
~131 feet ~98 feet