Serpent of Time

Chapter 9

The Windswept Shore

With the New Year came an abrupt change in the weather. The Mongolian winds left the last of their precipitation high in the Hida Mountains and barreled across the Kansai Plain. The gusts stung Ryô’s cheeks and cut through her kimono jacket like icy needles. Drafts stole into her room at night like water through a sieve.

However Ryô prided herself in her martial abilities—she’d taken to the sword and lance with a seriousness other daughters of privilege reserved for flower arranging and embroidery—there were limits to her stoicism. She needed a more rugged wardrobe.

She was keenly aware of Sen’s injunction to “not spend money like she had it.” She’d spared a copper for the temple donation box less out of religious devotion than honest appreciation. The problem was, she wasn’t entirely sure what buying things—practical, inexpensive things—involved, beyond the exchange of variously valued coins for the desired goods.

Haru finished wiping down the stairs, sat up, and wrung out the cleaning rag. “You could probably use another pair of leggings,” she said, grinning up at her.

“Huh?” Ryô said. Only then did she notice that she’d pulled her hands into her sleeves and was doing a little dance to keep warm. “Do you know where I could buy some?” she asked plaintively.

“Sure!” Haru answered with genuine enthusiasm. “I’ll show you when I’m done.”

Ryô nodded and retreated to the warmer kitchen, even though that meant she might run into the landlady. According to the landlady, being a paying border still meant she had to “pull her own weight.” Ryô didn’t enjoy being reminded of what that involved.

Thankfully, Haru came to fetch her twenty minutes later.

They stopped at a sturdy little shop near the town square. The dusty, bustling, clattering interior contained the whole manufacturing process, from dressing and scutching the retted hemp to spinning and weaving it.

The pair Haru picked out—she didn’t even look at the higher-priced items—were like wearing a pair of rugs. With a bit of tugging to keep them from bunching up, Ryô managed to pull them over her silk leggings.

One of the weavers sat down next to her, rubbing her hands together. Her joints were stiff and swollen from a lifetime of throwing the shuttle back and forth. “That’s some mighty fine fabric,” she murmured, her eyes as bright as diamonds. She wasn’t only referring to the silk leggings.

Ryô’s heart thumped in her chest. After a moment of nervous silence, she said, “They’re, um, the last good ones I own.”

The old lady nodded. It occurred to Ryô that the best story she could tell about herself was the one people naturally assumed—that she was the daughter of a low-ranked official whose family had fallen on hard times. She had to work off the debt or be sold as an indentured servant—Haru was about her age; was that her story?—or become some old fart’s mistress.

In the humiliating descent from the high city to the low city, the clothes were the last to go. As above the superficial as Ryô pretended to be, it still hurt remembering all those fine kimonos she’d left behind.

Haru bartered the price of the leggings down to a few mon. Ryô hadn’t touched a one-mon coin before. Now she had a pocket full of them, and besides the buying of leggings, no real concept of their purchasing power. She left the shop in a daze. The abrupt blast of cold brought her to her senses.

She said, “Oh, let’s check the bulletins,” and set off before Haru could object.

The town clerk had just finished tacking up the latest circulars. When Ryô entered the square, a small crowd of her regulars gathered around her and quickly grew in size. Something was up. Ryô cleared her voice, silently rehearsed her accent, and began.

“As had Huang Gai at the Battle of Red Cliffs, the shogun’s forces wisely used the wind as a weapon.”

Ryô almost rolled her eyes like Sen. The shogun’s chronicler must be bucking for a job as a court historian. Nobody here would get such an arcane reference to Chinese history as Huang Gai. Except that such a reference could only mean one thing—

Steeling the quaver in her voice, she continued: “On the eighteenth of January, the shogun’s archers mounted the barricades east of the city and filled the sky with fire arrows. With the fierce gale carrying the bonfire before them, the army flooded down the streets. They pushed back the defenders, overran the armories, surrounded the keep and set it ablaze. Lord Ôuchi Yoshihiro committed seppuku before the sun set.”

The final words left her mouth in a gasp, like she’d been punched in the stomach.

“Well, it’s about time.”

“All that commotion for nothing.”

“What a waste.”

Haru said, “I’ve got to get back.”

Ryô answered with a mute nod. The crowds dispersed. Given the punishing weather, no one had any desire to loiter and talk. Ryô wandered the few blocks to the shore in a daze. The fishermen had grounded the boats and retreated to their shacks to mend nets. She had the sand and the sea to herself.

She climbed the dunes, shaking like a slender reed. “You fool!” she screamed. The howling wind carried her voice out to sea, where it was lost among the waves.

Ryô knew this was coming but was still shocked at how grossly she’d miscalculated when she left Hikone to “help” Yoshihiro. She curled up in the pocket of a dune and wished with all her heart to go back to the past and undo everything she’d done wrong. She would learn from her mistakes and come to love a life as a caged but comfortable bird.

Princess Ryô—

The swirling air called to her. She heard the words so clearly she jumped to her feet and looked around.

Your past has been written. Nothing can call it back again. But the future awaits. And I hold the pen.

No, it was only a gust of her imagination. She shook her head and brushed off the sand and walked back to town. At least her legs stayed warm. She was going to buy a hemp undershirt next.

That night in her room, Ryô tore the exit permit bearing Yoshihiro’s seal into tiny pieces. Not even the Izumi border guards would accept it now. She fed the scraps into the candle flame. They vanished with little flares of orange light and puffs of acrid smoke. Such was the effervescence of life.

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