The feather lay in my palm. I held it carefully, aware of its age and its fragility. Yet its whiteness was still translucent, the vermilion tips of the pinions still brilliant.
"It came from a sacred bird, the houou," Matsuda Shingen, the abbot of the temple at Terayama, told me. "It appeared to your adopted father, Shigeru, when he was only fifteen, younger than you are now. Did he ever tell you this, Takeo?"
I shook my head. Matsuda and I were standing in his room at one end of the cloister around the main courtyard of the temple. From outside, drowning out the usual sounds of the temple, the chanting, and the bells, came the urgent noise of preparations, of many people coming and going. I could hear Kaede, my wife, beyond the gates, talking to Amano Tenzo about the problems of keeping our army fed on the march. We were preparing to travel to Maruyama, the great domain in the West to which Kaede was the rightful heir, to claim it in her name-to fight for it if necessary. Since the end of winter, warriors had been making their way to Terayama to join me, and I now had close to a thousand men, billeted in the temple and in the surrounding villages, not counting the local farmers who also strongly supported my cause.
Amano was from Shirakawa, my wife's ancestral home, and the most trusted of her retainers, a great horseman and good with all animals. In the days that followed our marriage, Kaede and her woman, Manami, had shown considerable skill in handling and distributing food and equipment. They discussed everything with Amano and had him deliver their decisions to the men. That morning he was enumerating the oxcarts and packhorses we had at our disposal. I tried to stop listening, to concentrate on what Matsuda was telling me, but I was restless, eager to get moving.
"Be patient," Matsuda said mildly. "This will only take a minute. What do you know about the houou?"
I reluctantly pulled my attention back to the feather in my palm and tried to recall what my former teacher, Ichiro, had taught me when I had been living in Lord Shigeru's house in Hagi. "It is the sacred bird of legend that appears in times of justice and peace. And it is written with the same character as the name of my clan, Otori."
"Correct," Matsuda said, smiling. "It does not often appear, justice and peace being something of a rarity in these times. But Shigeru saw it and I believe the vision inspired him in his pursuit of these virtues. I told him then that the feathers were tinged with blood, and indeed his blood, his death, still drive both you and me."
I looked more closely at the feather. It lay across the scar on my right palm where I had burned my hand a long time ago, in Mino, my birthplace, the day Shigeru had saved my life. My hand was also marked with the straight line of the Kikuta, the Tribe family to which I belonged, from which I had run away the previous winter. My inheritance, my past, and my future, all seemed to be there, held in the palm of my hand.
"Why do you show it to me now?"
"You will be leaving here soon. You have been with us all winter, studying and training to prepare yourself to fulfill Shigeru's last commands to you. I wanted you to share in his vision, to remember that his goal was justice, and yours must be too."
"I will never forget it," I promised. I bowed reverently over the feather, holding it gently in both hands, and offered it back to the abbot. He took it, bowed over it, and replaced it in the small lacquered box from which he had taken it. I said nothing, remembering all that Shigeru had done for me, and how much I still needed to accomplish for him.
"Ichiro told me about the houou when he was teaching me to write my name," I said finally. "When I saw him in Hagi last year he advised me to wait for him here, but I cannot wait much longer. We must leave for Maruyama within the week." I had been worrying about my old teacher since the snows had melted, for I knew that the Otori lords, Shigeru's uncles, were trying to take possession of my house and lands in Hagi and that Ichiro continued stubbornly to resist them.
I did not know it, but Ichiro was already dead. I had the news of it the next day. I was talking with Amano in the courtyard when I heard something from far below: shouts of anger, running feet, the trampling of hooves. The sound of horses plunging up the slope was unexpected and shocking. Usually no one came to the temple at Terayama on horseback. They either walked up the steep mountain path or, if unfit or very old, were carried by sturdy porters.
A few seconds later Amano heard it too. By then I was already running to the temple gates, calling to the guards.
Swiftly they set about closing the gates and barring them. Matsuda came hurrying across the courtyard. He was not wearing armor, but his sword was in his belt. Before we could speak to each other, a challenge came from the guardhouse.
"Who dares to ride to the temple gate? Dismount and approach this place of peace with respect!"
It was Kubo Makoto's voice. One of Terayama's young warrior monks, he had become, over the last few months, my closest friend. I ran to the wooden stockade and climbed the ladder to the guardhouse. Makoto gestured toward the spy hole. Through the chinks in the wood I could see four horsemen. They had been galloping up the hill; now they pulled their heaving, snorting mounts to a halt. They were fully armed, but the Otori crest was clearly visible on their helmets. For a moment I thought that they might be messengers from Ichiro. Then my eyes fell on the basket tied to the bow of one of the saddles. My heart turned to stone. I could guess, only too easily, what was inside such a container.
The horses were rearing and cavorting, not only from the exertion of the gallop, but also from alarm. Two of them were already bleeding from wounds to their hindquarters. A mob of angry men poured from the narrow path, armed with staves and sickles. I recognized some of them: they were farmers from the nearest village. The warrior at the rear made a rush at them, sword flailing, and they fell back slightly but did not disperse, maintaining their threatening stance in a tight half circle.
The leader of the horsemen flung a look of contempt at them and then called toward the gate in a loud voice.
"I am Fuwa Dosan of the Otori clan from Hagi. I bring a message from my lords Shoichi and Masahiro for the upstart who calls himself Otori Takeo."
Makoto called back, "If you are peaceful messengers, dismount and leave your swords. The gates will be opened."
I already knew what their message would be. I could feel blind fury building up behind my eyes.
"There's no need for that," Fuwa replied scornfully. "Our message is short. Tell the so-called Takeo that the Otori do not recognize his claims and that this is how they will deal with him and any who follow him."
The man alongside him dropped the reins on his horse's neck and opened the container. From it he took what I dreaded to see. Holding it by its topknot, he swung his arm and threw Ichiro's head over the wall into the temple grounds.
It fell with a slight thud onto the petaled grass of the garden.
I drew my sword, Jato, from my belt.
"Open the gate!" I shouted. "I am going out to them."
I leaped down the steps, Makoto behind me.
As the gates opened, the Otori warriors turned their horses and drove them at the wall of men around them, swords sweeping. I imagine they thought the farmers would not dare attack them. Even I was astonished at what happened next. Instead of parting to let them through, the men on foot hurled themselves at the horses. Two of the farmers died immediately, cut in half by the warriors' swords, but then the first horse came down, and its rider fell into the pack around him. The others met a similar fate. They had no chance to use their swordsmanship: They were dragged from their horses and beaten to death like dogs.
Makoto and I tried to restrain the farmers and eventually managed to drive them back from the bodies. We restored calm only by severing the warriors' heads and having them displayed on the temple gates. The unruly army threw insults at them for a while and then retired down the hill, promising in loud voices that if any other strangers dared approach the temple and insult Lord Otori Takeo, the Angel of Yamagata, they would be dealt with in the same way.
Makoto was shaking with rage-and some other emotion that he wanted to talk to me about-but I did not have the time then. I went back inside the walls. Kaede had brought white cloths and water in a wooden bowl. She was kneeling on the ground beneath the cherry trees, calmly washing the head. Its skin was blue-gray, the eyes half-closed, the neck not severed cleanly but hacked with several blows. Yet, she handled it gently, with loving care, as if it were a precious and beautiful object.
I knelt beside her, put out my hand, and touched the hair. It was streaked with gray, but the face in death looked younger than when I had last seen it, when Ichiro was alive in the house in Hagi, grieving and haunted by ghosts yet still willing to show me affection and guidance.
"Who is it?" Kaede said in a low voice.
"Ichiro. He was my teacher in Hagi. Shigeru's too."
My heart was too full to say more. I blinked away my tears. The memory of our last meeting rose in my mind. I wished I had said more to him, told him of my gratitude and my respect. I wondered how he had died, if his death had been humiliating and agonizing. I longed for the dead eyes to open, the bloodless lips to speak. How irretrievable the dead are, how completely they go from us! Even when their spirits return, they do not speak of their own deaths.
I was born and raised among the Hidden, who believe that only those who follow the commandments of the Secret God will meet again in the afterlife. Everyone else will be consumed in the fires of hell. I did not know if my adopted father Shigeru had been a believer, but he was familiar with all the teachings of the Hidden and spoke their prayers at the moment of his death, along with the name of the Enlightened One. Ichiro, his adviser and the steward of his household, had never given any such sign-in fact, rather the opposite: Ichiro had suspected from the start that Shigeru had rescued me from the warlord Iida Sadamu's persecution of the Hidden, and had watched me like a cormorant for anything that might give me away.
But I no longer followed the teachings of my childhood, and I could not believe that a man of Ichiro's integrity and loyalty was in hell. Far stronger was my outrage at the injustice of this murder and my realization that I now had another death to avenge.
"They paid for it with their lives," Kaede said. "Why kill an old man and go to all that trouble to bring his head to you?" She washed away the last traces of blood and wrapped a clean white cloth around the head.
"I imagine the Otori lords want to draw me out," I replied. "They would prefer not to attack Terayama; they will run into Arai's soldiers if they do. They must hope to entice me over the border and meet me there." I longed for such a meeting, to punish them once and for all. The warriors' deaths had temporarily assuaged my fury, but I could feel it simmering in my heart. However, I had to be patient; my strategy was first to withdraw to Maruyama and build up my forces there. I would not be dissuaded from that.
I touched my brow to the grass, bidding my teacher good-bye. Manami came from the guest rooms and knelt a little way behind us.
"I've brought the box, lady," she whispered.
"Give it to me," Kaede replied. It was a small container woven from willow twigs and strips of red-dyed leather. She took it and opened it. The smell of aloes rose from it. She put the white wrapped bundle inside and arranged the aloes round it. Then she placed the box on the ground in front of her, and the three of us bowed again before it.
A bush warbler called its spring song and a cuckoo responded from deep in the forest, the first I had heard that year.
We held the funeral rites the following day and buried the head next to Shigeru's grave. I made arrangements for another stone to be erected for Ichiro. I longed to know what had happened to the old woman, Chiyo, and the rest of the household at Hagi. I was tormented by the thought that the house no longer existed, that it would have been burned: the tea room, the upper room where we had so often sat looking out onto the garden, the nightingale floor, all destroyed, their song silenced forever. I wanted to rush to Hagi to claim my inheritance before it was taken from me. But I knew this was exactly what the Otori hoped I would do
Five farmers died outright and two died later from their wounds. We buried them in the temple graveyard. Two of the horses were badly hurt, and Amano had them killed mercifully, but the other two were unharmed; one I liked in particular, a handsome black stallion that reminded me of Shigeru's horse, Kyu, and could have been its half brother. At Makoto's insistence we buried the Otori warriors with full rites, too, praying that their ghosts, outraged at their ignoble deaths, would not linger to haunt us.
That evening the abbot came to the guest room and we talked until late into the night. Makoto and Miyoshi Kahei, one of my allies and friends from Hagi, were also with us; Kahei's younger brother Gemba had been sent to Maruyama to tell the domain's senior retainer, Sugita Haruki, of our imminent departure. Sugita had assured Kaede the previous winter of his support for her claim. Kaede did not stay with us-for various reasons, she and Makoto were not at ease in each other's presence and she avoided him as much as possible-but I told her beforehand to sit behind the screen so she could hear what was said. I wanted to know her opinion afterward. In the short time since our marriage I had come to talk to her as I had never talked to anyone in my life. I had been silent for so long, it seemed now I could not get enough of sharing my thoughts with her. I relied on her judgment and her wisdom.
"So now you are at war," the abbot said, "and your army has had its first skirmish."
"Hardly an army," Makoto said. "A rabble of farmers! How are you going to punish them?"
"What do you mean?" I replied.
"Farmers are not supposed to kill warriors," he said. "Anyone else in your situation would punish them with the utmost cruelty. They would be crucified, boiled in oil, flayed alive."
"They will be if the Otori get hold of them," Kahei muttered.
"They were fighting on my behalf," I said. Privately, I thought the warriors had deserved their shameful end, though I was sorry I had not killed them all myself. "I'm not going to punish them. I'm more concerned with how to protect them."
"You have let an ogre out," Makoto said. "Let's hope you can contain it."
The abbot smiled into his wine cup. Quite apart from his earlier comments on justice, he had been teaching me strategy all winter and, having heard my theories on the capture of Yamagata and other campaigns, knew how I felt about my farmers.
"The Otori seek to draw me out," I said to him, as I had said earlier to Kaede.
"Yes, you must resist the temptation," he replied. "Naturally your first instinct is for revenge, but even if you defeated their army in a confrontation, they would simply retreat to Hagi. A long siege would be a disaster. The city is virtually impregnable, and sooner or later you would have to deal with Arai's forces at your rear."
Arai Daiichi was the warlord from Kumamoto who had taken advantage of the overthrow of the Tohan to seize control of the Three Countries. I had enraged him by disappearing with the Tribe the previous year, and now my marriage to Kaede would certainly enrage him further. He had a huge army, and I did not want to be confronted by it before I had strengthened my own.
"Then we must go first to Maruyama, as planned. But if I leave the temple unprotected, you and the people of the district may be punished by the Otori."
"We can bring many people within the walls," the abbot said. "I think we have enough arms and supplies to hold the Otori off if they do attack. Personally, I don't think they will. Arai and his allies will not relinquish Yamagata without a long struggle, and many among the Otori would be reluctant to destroy this place, which is sacred to the clan. Anyway they will be more concerned with pursuing you." He paused and then went on: "You can't fight a war without being prepared for sacrifice. Men will die in the battles you fight, and if you lose, many of them, including you yourself, may be put to death very painfully. The Otori do not recognize your adoption: They do not know your ancestry; as far as they are concerned you are an upstart, not one of their class. You cannot hold back from action because people will die as a result. Even your farmers know that. Seven of them died today, but those who survived are not sad. They are celebrating their victory over those who insulted you."
"I know that," I said, glancing at Makoto. His lips were pressed together tightly, and though his face showed no other expression, I felt his disapproval. I was aware yet again of my weaknesses as a commander. I was afraid both Makoto and Kahei, brought up in the warrior tradition, would come to despise me.
"We joined you by our own choice, Takeo," the abbot went on, "because of our loyalty to Shigeru and because we believe your cause is just."
I bowed my head, accepting the rebuke and vowing he would never have to speak to me in that vein again. "We will leave for Maruyama the day after tomorrow."
"Makoto will go with you," the abbot said. "As you know, he has made your cause his own."
Makoto's lips curved slightly as he nodded in agreement.
from Tales of the Otori Book Three: Brilliance of the Moon by Lian Hearn, copyright © 2004 Lian Hearn, published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.