Princess Ryô traveled by palanquin to Hikone Castle on Lake Biwa. She was accompanied by Sen, her lady-in-waiting, a handful of attendants, and a company of mounted samurai.
The soldiers were not there to protect her. They were there to remind her that she was the last child of the last emperor of the defeated Southern Court. She could go nowhere and do nothing without the permission of the Ashikaga shogun.
In the past, her escorts were only annoying. This year she felt like she’d flitted from one luxurious prison cell to another. She came to Lake Biwa to escape the stifling Kyôto summer nights. There was no escaping the stifling presence of Hatakeyama Koreya, the captain of her guard.
He shadowed her every move like a surly babysitter, telling her where she could go, what she could do, and when she could do it—in a manner suggesting that she should be grateful for his firm and guiding hand. Even shackled with bells and bewits, a falcon could fly free for a spell. Ryô sought every opportunity to do the same.
One day in the early afternoon, her retinue having retreated to the cool of the castle keep and the soldiers sleeping off the boredom, Ryô snuck down to the dock. The main pier was reserved for the castle lord’s junk. The elegant craft was finely trimmed and finished with polished paulownia wood that shimmered in the noonday sun.
A single skiff was moored to the adjacent pier. She’d never piloted a one-man skiff before, but, really, how hard could it be?
Ryô untied the bow line and climbed down from the dock. After an unsteady moment balancing herself against the thwarts, she sat in the stern seat and pushed off with the paddle.
“Ah,” she said aloud, more than a little pleased with her getaway.
The skiff glided across the water. The pine forests blanketing the mountains painted a landscape mural across the far horizon. A true Zen moment. She was at one with the world and the world was totally leaving her alone.
To the north she could make out the green knob of Chikubu Island. The island was home to Hôgon-ji temple, devoted to the worship of Benzaiten, the goddess of good luck. Ryô could use a bit of good luck these days. Perhaps she could importune the castle lord to ferry her and Sen there on a day trip.
It soon became clear that keeping the skiff going straight required oaring skills she wasn’t going to master anytime soon. Rather than fight her incompetence, it was easier to let the boat turn a wide arc through the bay and back to the dock.
A dark shadow swept across the lake, chasing a cool breeze. Ryô pulled the paddle out of the water and stared at the towering cumulonimbus rising above her. The crests of the billowing spires were snowy white. The flat base of the anvil cloud was almost black.
She watched with wide eyes as it narrowed into a funnel. “Look!” she said, forgetting that Sen wasn’t sitting there behind her.
A flash of lightning. Thunder shook the air. Ryô clapped her hands over her ears. The paddle plopped into the water. Without thinking, she reached for it. The skiff tilted far over. Water sloshed over the gunwales. She rose to a shaky half-crouch, grabbed the sides of the skiff, and leaned hard the other way.
Despite her bobbing, precarious perch, she looked up. Her scream vanished in a gasp of wonder. A pair of waterspouts swirled down on top of her. One was muddy gray and cruelly inanimate. The other corkscrewed gracefully around it. This one had red eyes. And fangs. And shimmering silver scales.
Transfixed, Ryô forgot to counter the sway of the skiff. It flipped back hard. With a helpless shriek, she pitched over the side. The dragon caught her in mid-air by the back of her kimono—a cat grabbing a kitten by the scruff of its neck—and plunged into the lake.
A muffled thud and crack resonated in her ears as the waterspout smashed the skiff to splinters. Her kimono tore away. She was sure she heard the dragon equivalent of “blech” as it spit it out.
Ryô floated in the liquid blue ice. Shadows stirred in the depths. The dragon rose up in front of her, ruby eyes gleaming, steam hissing from its nostrils. It slowly coiled around her and stared into her eyes.
“Princess Ryô,” the dragon said again, its voice reverberating like a Buddhist temple bell. “The time has come for us to conclude our covenant.”
“What covenant?” She should be frightened but thought it odder she could see and hear everything as if they were standing on dry ground.
The dragon brought its snout up to the end of her nose. “The great diviner Abe no Seimei impressed me into the service of your family. His disciples sealed me within these shores. The authority to remove me courses through your veins. To do so was your vow.”
“I didn’t promise anything. Besides, what authority? My father is cloistered. The Southern Court neither rules nor reigns.”
“For centuries your ancestors have bargained with me for what they felt fate denied them, and when I refused, used the compass circle to force my will. Confined though I may be, I am a creature of the law. Every favor exacts its price. Your mother understood that much when she pled for your life in exchange for her own.”
Now Ryô bridled. “I never knew.” She didn’t doubt that the dragon spoke the truth about a covenant with her family—she felt it in her heart and bones—but was no more prepared to trust a dragon than the shogun or his lackeys.
The serpent’s torso tightened its hold even as it wavered and began to grow indistinct. “Twice I have brought you back from the grave—at your birth and today. The debt has been repaid. Your third life is mine. When the time comes, you will deed it back to me.”
“What would I gain from the exchange? My father restored to the throne?”
The serpent glowered at her. “Do not bore me with your trivial wars and your piddling politics. I am Kala Sarpa, the Serpent of Time. I am eternal. My patience is not. But if persuasion is what you desire then persuasion you shall have.”
With that, the creature dissolved into a billion bubbles of turquoise light. The iridescent column shot upwards, catapulting Ryô out of the water like a spinner dolphin breaching the surface. She tumbled through the air and splashed down on her back.
Ryô floated there, stunned but conscious, gazing up at the dark blue and coal-gray sky. Bright rays of sunlight burned through the clouds and flashed across the water.
Sen’s cry was follow by a louder commotion from the shore. Koreya’s scarred face glared down at her. The water came up to his waist. The dragon had thrown her halfway across the bay.
Koreya seized her by the front of her under-kimono. Ryô grabbed hold of his wrist to keep from choking as he dragged her to the dock and tossed her onto the deck. The impact drew from her an excruciating groan. Her back was on fire.
Sen ran down the dock. “Damn you!” she shouted, hitting him hard enough to knock him on his heels.
He rocked forward and sent her sprawling. He was barely taller than the lanky Sen but weighed half as much more. “The little bitch is your responsibility! Much worse things are bound to happen if you don’t bring her to heel. I will not spare the rod when she resides under my roof!”
Sen sprang to her feet. Before she could throw herself at him again, Ryô gasped, “Sen, what’s a compass circle?”
The incongruity of the question stopped them both in their tracks. The tension broken, deprived of the fight he was itching for, Koreya cursed under his breath and stomped down the dock.