TASTE NO EVIL
By Aidan Doyle
“If you spare me, I’ll tell you about the plan to sacrifice the Gold Prince,” the ash-biter demon pleaded.
Akamiko kept her red sword pressed against the demon’s throat. She had caught it raiding a crematorium, its long, delicate fingers scooping ash from a funeral urn, like a bear stealing honey from a beehive.
“They are celebrating the Gold Prince’s birthday tonight at the Palace of the Reflected Moon,” it said. “They’re going to use the prince’s blood to bring back the King of the Sky Demons.”
Akamiko’s heart skipped a beat. She had spent years fighting ghosts and demons, but the King of the Sky Demons was another matter entirely. “Who are they?”
“I don’t know any more than that.”
“How did you learn this?”
“I ate the ashes of one of the palace’s servants.”
Akamiko lowered her sword. She didn’t need to threaten the demon with the consequences of lying.
It glanced at the shelves of urns, then scampered towards the exit. It paused in the doorway and lifted its nose. “Can’t you smell it?”
The overcooked tofu smell of the ash-biter demon filled the air. “Smell what?”
“The hunger of the puppets,” the demon replied. It fled before she could ask more.
Akamiko shivered. Legend said the King of the Sky Demons had tried to shame Green Sister, one of the immortal daughters of heaven. In response Green Sister tore out the demon’s eyes, throwing one into the sky and one into the sea. To complete her retribution she transformed the demon into a puppet and forced it to serve the celestial court.
The ash-biter demon had broken into the crematorium after sunset. Akamiko had hoped for a quiet night just for once. There wasn’t even time to return to the Tower of the Brush to gather her colleagues. She hurried towards the harbor.
Dozens of small boats floated on the bay’s glass-like surface, their lanterns shining in the dark, as if fireflies had gathered to enjoy a picnic at sea. The brightest light of all came from the Palace of the Reflected Moon. The moon viewing platform had been built long ago by a forgotten emperor and floated half a mile out to sea.
Akamiko strode up to the four samurai guarding the stairs leading down to the water.
“Good evening, grandmother,” one of the samurai said. His expression indicated he believed Akamiko was in the wrong place.
“I’m a swordwriter,” Akamiko said. “I need to get to the Palace of the Reflected Moon.”
“I’m sorry, entrance is invitation only,” the guard replied. He didn’t sound sorry. The swordwriters served the Mirror Emperor, but existed outside the hierarchy of the imperial court, which many nobles and samurai found unsettling. When confronted with ghosts or demons, people were happy to call on swordwriters, but in other circumstances ladies of the sword were not viewed as ideal dining companions. Especially ones that stank of ash-biter demon.
Footmen bearing a palanquin decorated with the crest of the Ishikawa clan approached. They set the palanquin down and a footman presented a scroll to one of the guards. Lord Ishikawa rolled out of the palanquin and waddled down the steps to the waiting boat.
A second palanquin arrived, this one bearing the symbol of the Kumamoto clan. It couldn’t be Katsumi. A hand emerged from behind the palanquin’s curtain and beckoned a footman closer.
The footman leaned down to listen, then marched over to Akamiko. “Lady Katsumi Kumamoto would like to speak to you.”
This complicated things. Akamiko undid the straps of the wooden frame she carried on her back. The frame held her palette of swords, each color suited to a particular task or foe. She handed the frame to the footman, pulled aside the curtain and entered the palanquin.
Katsumi sat on a wooden bench covered with soft cushions. She wore a red kimono decorated with gold and white flowers. A sword in its scabbard and a black lacquer box rested on her lap. “Akamiko,” Katsumi inclined her head.
Swordwriters addressed each other by first name, but Akamiko was unsure of the protocol for addressing former swordwriters. Katsumi had been expelled a year ago and now worked for the Master of Silence, the emperor’s chief assassin.
If the ash-biter demon’s story was true, Akamiko needed all the help she could get. She was old enough not to care what most others thought about her, but she treasured the respect of the other swordwriters. What would they think if they knew she was working with Katsumi?
The King of the Sky Demons had to be stopped. Akamiko always tried to do the right thing, but far more often than she liked, the thing she needed to do was shaded in gray. She explained what the ash-biter demon had told her.
“You only have the word of a demon,” Katsumi said. “The rest of the imperial family has gone to the summer palace, but the Gold Prince remained in the capital to celebrate his birthday. He wouldn’t want to risk accusations of cowardice by deserting his birthday celebrations without proof of a threat.”
“If the story is true the King of the Sky Demons could destroy the entire city!”
“I’ll take you with me to the Palace of the Reflected Moon on one condition,” Katsumi said. She opened the lacquer box, revealing a shadowflower dagger, a weapon grown in the Gardens of the Dead. The daggers delivered the words of the Master of Silence. “You must not interfere with my mission.”
“You’re not going to kill a child?”
Katsumi arched an eyebrow. “My target is not a child.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t want you giving things away, but if you knew what this person had done, you wouldn’t mourn their passing.”
“I won’t stand in your way.”
Katsumi glanced at Akamiko’s plain kimono. “Unfortunately there’s no time to change. You’re the right age to be my mother, but no one would believe we are blood relatives. You can pose as my aunt.”
“The guards have already seen me.”
“I can be quite persuasive,” Katsumi replied. “They won’t let us take our swords though. You can leave your swords with my footmen.”
“And your weapons?”
Katsumi picked up the shadowflower dagger, wisps of shadow curling around her fingers. The dagger broke apart into swirls of darkness and Katsumi swallowed the shadows. “The words of the Master of Silence will soon be spoken.” She drew her sword from its scabbard. Vanishing red mouse, one of the ancient colors first painted onto the world. The blade was a dark violet, verging on brown. “Please inspect it.”
Katsumi and four other swordwriters had broken into the tomb of the poet shogun. Katsumi recovered the vanishing red mouse blade, but was the only one to escape. She insisted the other swordwriters had been killed by spirits protecting the tomb, but many doubted her story. Akamiko liked to hope Katsumi had done her best to protect the others. “You’re not worried about handing it to me?”
“I am confident of its return.”
Akamiko took the hilt and rested the blade on the sleeve of her kimono. The light wasn’t good enough to examine the sword properly, but even a cursory glance revealed its magnificence. The crystalline pattern marking the boundary between the hard steel of the cutting edge and the more flexible steel sparkled like diamonds trapped in a river of dried blood. She could have spent all night admiring the sword’s craftsmanship, but time was pressing. She handed it back.
Katsumi whispered something and the sword glowed with a pale light. It shrunk and twisted in upon itself until it had transformed into a bracelet, which Katsumi slipped onto her wrist.
“Use this,” Katsumi said and handed her a small glass bottle. “I will speak with the guards.” She stepped out of the palanquin.
The bottle contained essence of sandalwood. Akamiko applied the perfume liberally, hoping to mask the demon stink.
Katsumi was deep in conversation with the guards. Akamiko retrieved her blue sword from the wooden frame and walked over to the edge of the dock. She threw the sword into the sea. It changed into a fish and started swimming towards the palace. Each of her colored swords had their own power, but she didn’t have any choice but to leave the rest of them behind.
Katsumi beckoned for Akamiko to join her. The guards looked away when Akamiko approached.
“What did you tell the guard?” Akamiko whispered.
“That my aunt had joined me at late notice and the Gold Prince would be most offended if you were not present to greet him at dinner.”
“He believed that?”
“He didn’t have a choice.”
They descended the steps leading to the boats.
“I always admired you,” Katsumi said. “The other swordwriters would have spent half the night blathering about how they couldn’t work with someone that had been expelled. You are more pragmatic.”
Was it a good thing to have Katsumi’s respect? “You were an exceptional swordwriter,” Akamiko said. “But you lacked discipline when it came to training.”
“Life is too short to spend every day doing the same thing.”
“Nine times out of ten, determination and hard work will defeat impatient genius.”
Katsumi smiled. “Perhaps. But being a genius is more exciting.”
Everyone on the palace prostrated themselves on the floor when the Gold Prince stepped aboard the platform. He seated himself on a pile of cushions at the far end of the stage and the guests were permitted to raise their eyes again.
The Gold Prince was only seventeen years old. By all accounts he was a thoroughly unpleasant individual, but it was every citizen’s duty to protect the imperial family.
A number of senior court members arrived with the prince. Katsumi scowled when she saw a lord in a blue kimono followed by a girl of about ten years old. “What kind of fool brings their daughter here?”
Katsumi’s reaction troubled Akamiko, but she didn’t have time to follow up, as one of the lords started making a speech praising the Gold Prince’s uncountable virtues.
There were now around one hundred guests seated on cushions. Katsumi sat to her left and a pale-faced lord sat to her right. The Palace of the Reflected Moon was a palace in name only, a platform consisting of a wooden stage more than three hundred feet in length, and warded against waves and storms. A flotilla of kitchen boats surrounded the platform, dozens of staff working frantically to prepare the night’s food.
Did the threat come from the guests or from the kitchen staff? The prince had a food-taster and poisoning didn’t fit with the elaborate rituals required for a properly performed sacrifice.
A samurai whose armor bore the symbol of the fireflower stood behind the prince.
The fireflower samurai were the creations of the Lady of Flowers, the court official responsible for the corporeal defense of the imperial family. Fireflowers always blossomed in pairs. The samurai named after the flower were able to see what their fellow samurai saw, allowing the imperial family to communicate even when they were apart.
Courtiers took turns composing poetry about the beauty of the moon and the general melancholy of life. The prince awarded a bottle of chrysanthemum petal sake to the lord whose poem he dubbed the finest.
“Nothing but a third-rate imitation of a poem from Night’s Dreaming,” Katsumi whispered.
Dozens of waiters carrying trays of food clambered from the kitchen boats and onto the platform. A stocky middle-aged man dressed in white strode into the center of the platform. The hochonin was a cook trained in the art of cutting and one of the few people permitted to carry a weapon in the presence of an imperial prince. Akamiko’s blue sword swam in the water near the edge of the platform. She readied herself to leap to her feet.
“I am honored to host such a great personage as his imperial highness,” the hochonin said. The prince’s expression indicated he cared little for the opinion of a cook.
“The first course includes two soups,” the hochonin said. “Swift Tiger River has the softest and purest water, allowing our soups to keep the flavor of their ingredients. The miso soup stock is made from dried kelp harvested by the warrior monks of the Temple Under the Sea mixed with deep mountain mushrooms and shavings of tuna caught on the night of a full moon. Our second soup contains lentils grown by the Master of Gardens mixed with a secret combination of herbs known only to masters of the Saruhashi school.”
He continued to go into great detail about the remaining dishes as servants scurried around. A servant placed a tray in front of Akamiko containing a dozen lacquer bowls. A spiny lobster lay on its back on a mound of rice dyed blue, its feelers raised to represent a ship’s masts.
“At the Palace of the Reflected Moon we eat in shadows,” the hochonin pronounced. “Ceramic bowls lay bare the color of a soup in the plainest way possible. Lacquer bowls do not so easily give up their secrets. We rely on our mouth and nose to guide us, not our eyes.”
Seven sets of chopsticks of different lengths and color lay on the tray in front of Akamiko. She was used to dining in countryside inns before she exorcised abandoned temples. Ghosts and demons didn’t mock your lack of table manners.
The pale-faced lord to her right was using the gold-lacquered chopsticks to eat his rice. Akamiko went to do likewise, but Katsumi placed a restraining hand on her arm.
“Women use silver-lacquered chopsticks for their rice,” Katsumi explained.
Akamiko sighed and picked up the silver chopsticks. The surety of a sword in hand was preferable to the court’s rules of etiquette.
Once she started eating however, she forgot her complaints. The sauce accompanying the shrunken sea eel was so good that she wanted to drink a bowl of it. She forced herself to eat the jewel moon rice cake slowly, savoring every mouthful of deliciousness.
The hochonin laid out a dead white crane and gave a demonstration of performance cutting, his knife moving in highly ritualized strokes, transforming the crane into pieces of flesh in the shape of characters spelling out gold prince.
The servants cleared the trays, replacing them with more trays laden with lacquer bowls. A servant handed a wooden box to the hochonin. “We have created a special curry to commemorate the seventeenth birthday of his imperial highness.” The hochonin opened the box, revealing compartments lined with chili peppers. “Our curry is made from chili peppers grown in the fires of Mount Kiyama.”
Akamiko saw the looks of resignation on the faces of many of the lords.
Only the male diners had received the curry. “There has been a mistake,” Katsumi said in a loud, clear voice. “I am missing my curry.”
The hochonin didn’t look pleased at the interruption. “I suspect the curry would not suit someone as delicate as the Lady Kumamoto.”
“I’m not nearly half as delicate as I look,” Katsumi replied.
The other diners stared at her in disapproval. Akamiko suspected Katsumi was enjoying herself.
A fake smile crept its way onto the hochonin’s face. He motioned and a servant rushed to fetch a bowl of curry.
“My aunt would like some curry as well,” Katsumi added. “She likes her food extra spicy.”
Akamiko felt the gaze of the other diners upon her. She was aware of the plainness of her kimono and the fact her hair was tied in a simple knot, rather than elaborately entangled in the style of the ladies of court. She had always been glad to avoid the perfumed prison of court life and took consolation in her belief that she could almost certainly kill any of the lords in a sword fight.
“My niece can eat food hot enough that it makes sky demons flee in terror,” Akamiko said. If the hochonin hadn’t been standing so close, she wouldn’t have noticed the flicker of doubt that passed across his face. The hochonin knew something about the sky demons. The ash-biter demon must have been telling the truth, but she needed to convince the prince. “Oh, I meant fire demons,” Akamiko said. “I get fire demons and sky demons confused.”
The hochonin scowled, then turned his back on her and retreated to the center of the platform. He placed a carp on his board and started slicing the fish into pieces. A servant added bowls of curry to Katsumi and Akamiko’s trays.
Akamiko studied the guests seated near the gold prince, but couldn’t see anything unusual. What if the fuss the hochonin had made about the curry was meant to be a distraction? She removed the lids from the bowls in front of her, releasing scents that made her mouth water. The darkness of the lacquer bowls made it hard to accurately judge the colors. She stared at the bowls, until it finally hit her.
Black dried sea cucumber represented fingers. White mushrooms were ears and a red strawberry a nose. A green chili pepper represented a mouth. Yellow jasmine rice cakes for eyes. The dishes in the center of the tray were arranged to represent the colors of the five sense organs of the King of the Sky Demons.
Akamiko swept the dishes from her tray. Katsumi did likewise. The rest of the diners stared at them in astonishment.
The hochonin had carved the carp into the shape of the character for eternity. Light spilled from the trays of food around them.
“Close your eyes,” Akamiko hissed and shut her eyes.
Thunder boomed in the distance and the smell of blood filled the air.
Akamiko opened her eyes. The prince and the fireflower samurai, along with the other diners and most of the servants stared blankly ahead, trapped in a waking dream. Katsumi opened her eyes and leaped to her feet.
The hochonin pointed his knife at Akamiko and Katsumi. “Kill them.”
Six of the servants shed their human forms, revealing mouths filled with enormous fangs. The needletooth demons bounded towards them.
Katsumi flicked her bracelet into the air and it changed back into her sword. She cut down a surprised demon with a single strike. Three of the other demons circled warily around Katsumi; the remaining two charged at Akamiko, forcing her to retreat to the edge of the platform.
The demons lunged at her, mouths open wide. Akamiko raised her arm and her blue sword leaped from the sea. She mistimed the transformation and the sword hadn’t finished changing by the time she grabbed the hilt. She smacked the demon in the face with a fish head.
The sword completed its transformation. The demon recovered from the shock of the fish head assault and tried to bite her. She brought up the sword’s hilt just in time, striking the demon in the jaw. She followed up with a quick strike, severing the demon’s head.
She started to raise her sword, but the second demon grabbed her wrist with both its hands, holding her sword in check. The demon lunged forward, its long, pointed teeth aimed at her neck.
With her free hand, she caught the demon by the neck, its snapping teeth only inches away from her face. Its breath stank even worse than the ash-biter demon.
She tried to free her wrist, but the demon was stronger and she couldn’t bring her sword around. Instead she loosened her grip on the demon’s neck.
The demon surged forward. She pivoted to the side, using the demon’s strength against it. The demon tumbled forward, its jaws narrowly missing her shoulder. It relinquished its grasp on her wrist and she plunged her sword into its side. The demon snapped its teeth in anger, but Akamiko pulled her sword out. The demon staggered backwards, clutching at the gaping wound in its side. Her sword sailed out in an arc, separating the demon’s toothy head from its body.
The headless corpses of four needletooth demons surrounded Katsumi. She arched an eyebrow as though questioning what had taken Akamiko long to deal with her two demons.
The hochonin had dragged the comatose prince to the center of the platform. He cut the air with his knife and the platform shook violently, its corners breaking away, reducing the platform to a circle. A hatch appeared next to the hochonin. He lifted the hatch, shoved the prince into a dark hole and leaped in.
Akamiko looked at the platform beneath her feet. The Palace had supposedly been built by an emperor, but what if it was older than that? Green Sister had plucked out the eyes of the King of the Sky Demons and thrown one in the sky and one in the sea. Akamiko glanced up at the night sky. The moon winked at her.
When she hunted demons at night, she was always grateful for the moon’s light. But the moon itself was demon-born. If the King of the Sky Demons returned, what would happen to the moon?
She grabbed the fireflower samurai and shook him as hard as she could, but he didn’t respond. There would be no help coming.
Katsumi summoned flames to her sword, and they peered down the hole. The bottom was about six feet below and led into a dark tunnel.
Akamiko jumped into the hole. She had taken off her sandals when she stepped onto the platform and her bare feet landed on the tunnel’s tatami mat floor. She hadn’t expected to find tatami mat inside a demon king’s eyeball.
The air was stale and smelled of old bones. Katsumi stood above her, her face clouded by doubt. “I’ve been assigned another task.”
“Your other task won’t matter if the King of the Sky Demons returns.”
Katsumi hesitated and then jumped into the tunnel, landing beside Akamiko. She raised her flaming sword, illuminating the tunnel’s wooden walls. They marched down the tunnel till they reached a wide chamber lit by candles.
A dozen foot-high puppets dressed in court robes were gathered around a low table. The glass-eyed marionettes were armed with knives. The prince had been stripped of his clothes and lay naked on a mound of ice heaped on the table. One of the puppets was brushing the prince’s fingers with foul-smelling oil.
The hochonin stood next to a puppet with empty eye sockets. The puppet raised a hand and the hochonin echoed its movements.
“How adorable,” Katsumi said. “They think they’re people.”
Green Sister had transformed the King of the Sky Demons into a puppet and forced it to serve in heaven but it had somehow made its way to the Palace of the Reflected Moon. While it was bound in puppet form its power was limited but it was still a dangerous opponent. If it regained its natural form, it would unleash untold damage.
Katsumi leaped forward and beheaded two of the puppets with a single strike. The puppets picked up their heads and tucked them under their arms. They raised their knives and leaped into the air, slashing at Katsumi and Akamiko with their knives. Akamiko dived to the floor, and two puppets whistled past overhead. She rolled onto her feet and chopped off the head of a nearby puppet. The puppet reached down to pick up its head, but Akamiko kicked it across the room. The puppet skittered away in pursuit of its head.
Another puppet struck at her with its knife, forcing her backwards. She slashed at the puppet in return, but it vaulted out of the way. Their size made them difficult moving targets.
Katsumi struck again and a flaming puppet head flew across the room.
The hochonin leaped across the room and tried to stab Akamiko. She dodged out of the way just in time. The length of her sword compared to his knife gave her an advantage, but the hochonin moved with supernatural speed.
Akamiko maneuvered herself so she could see the eyeless puppet controlling him. By watching its movements she gained a fraction of time to avoid the hochonin’s attacks. She dodged, then struck the hochonin in the chest. He staggered backwards and collapsed on the floor, knife falling from his hand.
The demon puppet hissed in anger and leaped on top of the table. It scooped up the hochonin’s knife with one hand and grabbed the naked prince by the heel with the other.
Two other puppets attacked Akamiko, forcing her back to avoid their strikes. A knife cut her thigh. She kicked the puppet with her other leg, propelling it across the room with such force that it broke apart when it struck the wall.
The demon puppet dragged the prince across the room with apparent ease. It rapped on the base of the wall and a small hidden door opened. It scurried inside, dragging the naked prince with it.
Katsumi’s flaming sword had reduced the remaining puppets to smoldering piles of ash. She knelt down and held out her flaming sword to illuminate the hatchway. The tunnel was only three feet high. They would have to crawl.
“It’s a death-trap,” Katsumi pronounced. She cut a strip of cloth from the prince’s discarded trousers and used it to bandage a wound on her arm.
The cut on Akamiko’s leg was not deep, but she used some cloth to stem the bleeding. “You have the light, so you lead.”
Katsumi shook her head. “The demon won’t be able to complete the ceremony by itself.”
Akamiko’s heart sank. Katsumi was going to abandon her when she needed her most. “We have to save the prince!”
“The emperor has other children.”
“It’s your duty to protect the imperial family.”
“My sword remains unbroken. My sword remains my own,” Katsumi replied. “I have other matters to deal with.”
“At least lend me your sword.”
Katsumi looked away, unable to meet Akamiko’s gaze. “I’m not confident of its return.”
“Did you abandon your fellow swordwriters in the tomb of the poet shogun?”
“I did my best to save them, but you still expelled me,” Katsumi said. She turned her back and walked down the tunnel leading back to the platform.
Akamiko had defeated ghosts and demons by herself. She would prevail without Katsumi’s help. She grabbed a candle and crawled into the tunnel. It was made of cold, polished wood and continued as far as she could see. She moved forward slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible. A corner lay ahead, an ideal place for an ambush. She crept forward then dived around the corner, sword in front.
There was no sign of the demon.
A sudden gust of wind howled down the tunnel, extinguishing her candle and leaving her in total darkness. Laughter sounded from ahead. No one her age should have to hunt puppets in the dark.
She readied her sword and waited, but the tunnel was silent, save for the sound of her breathing. Now that she was still, she noticed the pain in her leg where the puppet had cut her. Maybe Katsumi had been right. Crawling through the dark was not the most effective way to deal with the demon. Akamiko crawled backwards, keeping her sword in front of her.
She finally reached the end and stepped out of the tunnel. Perhaps she could find a way to reverse the flow of control the demon had on the hochonin’s body. Her blue sword was not the most suitable blade, but it was all she had. She melted some ice with a candle, dipped her sword in the water and cut the character for reverse into the hochonin’s robes.
Akamiko cut some of the chopsticks on the table, arranging the pieces so they formed the character for sword. She placed her sword on the ground and splashed water over it. Then she splashed water over the chopstick pieces and dragged the hochonin’s body till it lay over the pieces.
A howl of anger echoed from the small tunnel, followed by a rush of air. The eyeless puppet flew out of the tunnel and landed on the flat of her sword.
Akamiko grabbed her sword and impaled the demon. She dashed down the tunnel towards the exit to the platform, the cursing puppet thrashing on her sword. The prince would have to wait.
She hauled herself onto the platform, ignoring the demon’s threats of retribution. The demon king was immortal and beyond Akamiko’s ability to slay, but she could keep it out of harm’s way. Losing a sword was never easy, but it was a small price to pay for stopping the sky demon. She threw the sword into the sea. The demon gave one last scream of rage before sinking beneath the waves. Akamiko commanded the sword to keep descending until it pinned the demon puppet to the sea floor.
Katsumi stood next to the lord in the blue kimono who sat beside his young daughter. The guests were still caught in the web of dreams. Katsumi shook the lord, but he didn’t awaken. “My instructions were to make sure Lord Mori knew who had ordered his death but that’s proving difficult,” Katsumi said. “Hear the words of the Master of Silence.”
“Wait!” Akamiko shouted.
Shadows leaked from Katsumi’s mouth and swirled around Lord Mori. They formed into a shadowflower dagger, piercing Lord Mori in the heart. He collapsed to the ground, the dagger turning to nothingness. Katsumi turned to face the girl by Lord Mori’s side.
“You said you weren’t going to kill a child,” Akamiko protested.
“I was ordered to kill Lord Mori and anyone that accompanied him.”
Akamiko stepped between Katsumi and the girl. “She’s only a child.”
“We both know girls can grow up to be more than dangerous.”
“There’s already been enough death tonight.”
“Death is the only certainty in life,” Katsumi said. “Stand aside.”
Akamiko was unarmed, but she wasn’t going to let an innocent child die. “No.”
“The other swordwriters used to say that only a fool stands between Akamiko and her goal.” Katsumi raised her sword and pointed it at Akamiko. “I’ve never been good at following advice.”
Akamiko glanced over at the fireflower samurai. He was still frozen, but he had a sword.
Katsumi lunged forward, aiming her sword at Akamiko’s chest. Akamiko dived backwards, and the blade whistled past her. She leaped to her feet and sprinted across the platform towards the fireflower samurai. If it had been much farther, Katsumi would have caught her, but Akamiko reached the samurai and plucked the sword from his scabbard.
Katsumi stabbed at her, forcing Akamiko to dodge to the side, narrowly avoiding tripping over a couple of court ladies staring blankly at their food.
Katsumi followed up with a rapid series of strikes, but Akamiko parried and launched a counterstrike. For all of Katsumi’s brilliance, she lacked the depth of Akamiko’s training and experience. If Akamiko had been younger and wielding her red sword, she would have been confident of victory, but she couldn’t match Katsumi’s speed or the power of the vanishing red mouse blade.
Akamiko parried and dodged as best she could, but Katsumi’s strikes were getting harder to stop. She dived to the side and rolled away, knocking over a bowl of rice in the process. If she could wake the fireflower samurai, he would contact his counterpart guarding the rest of the imperial family. The spell’s potency should have been diminished after the hochonin’s death and the demon king’s capture, but Katsumi had failed to wake Lord Mori. The spell’s focal point had been the carp carved into the character for eternity. Akamiko sprinted to the platform’s center, Katsumi running after her.
Akamiko kicked the board holding the carp, scattering the pieces of fish.
The diners immediately woke from their dream state. Some started screaming when they saw the corpses of the needletooth demons and Lord Mori.
“Where’s the prince?” the fireflower samurai bellowed.
Katsumi lowered her sword. The Master of Silence was a favored servant of the emperor, but the imperial family preferred his missions to be discreet. “The prince has been attacked by foul magic.”
Akamiko dropped the fireflower samurai’s sword. “I’m a swordwriter,” she shouted. “Demons have attacked the restaurant.” She pointed to the hatch. “The prince is recovering in there.” The prince wouldn’t be happy about waking up naked in a dark tunnel, but it was better than being eaten by puppets.
She dashed across the platform to the girl, who stared uncomprehendingly at her father’s body. “We must get out of here,” Akamiko commanded. She dragged the girl onto one of the rowboats tied to the platform.
“Wait!” the samurai shouted.
Akamiko grabbed the oars and started rowing. “My niece will explain everything,” she shouted.
Akamiko did her best to console the girl, but she had been rendered mute with shock. The main dock was already a hive of activity as city guards swarmed onto boats. In the dark, Akamiko reached one of the smaller docks without being detected. She paid a carriage driver to take the girl to the Tower of the Brush and then went and retrieved her swords from Katsumi’s footmen. She took her scabbard with its red sword and sat in Katsumi’s palanquin.
Katsumi didn’t return until dawn. “Even for one so gifted in matters of court protocol as myself, there was much explaining required. Fortunately the Master of Silence verified my reason for being there.”
“What did Lord Mori do to deserve death?”
“His wife took an influential member of court as a lover. When Mori found out, he killed her in a particularly cruel manner.”
“And his daughter?”
“I will not pursue her.”
Akamiko was inclined to believe her. Besides, even Katsumi would think twice about attacking someone protected by the swordwriters. “And the prince?”
“He will remember his seventeenth birthday for a long time.”
“How much does he know of our involvement?” Akamiko asked.
“It was simpler not to go into all the details of how he ended up in the tunnel.”
Akamiko couldn’t help smiling. Maybe the experience would change the prince for the better, but she doubted it.
“Your talents are wasted with the swordwriters,” Katsumi said. “I could introduce you to the Master of Silence.”
Life at court would provide her with fine clothes and sumptuous meals, but Akamiko was happy with her swords. “Court intrigue is not for me,” she replied.
“When a meal containing new dishes is set in front of you, it is a shame not to sample them,” Katsumi said.
Akamiko shook her head. “There is some food that I know is not to my taste.” She stood up and strapped her scabbard to her waist. “My sword remains unbroken. My sword remains my own.”