Another example of our flash fiction, this time Jei has written a wonderful short story imagined in the wintery mountains of a far-off land. Please enjoy!
He woke as the sun started to paint the first pale hues of gray pre-dawn light across the sky and lay upon the futon for several minutes, staring at nothing, eyes unfocused as he listened to his family’s servants scurry about the halls in preparation for the coming day. The soft susurrus of their movements reminded him of the wash of the tide on the beach, and he found himself breathing in slow time with the imagined rhythm of the waves while the remains of sleep that clung to him drifted away.
Climbing to his feet, Hiroshi rolled his neck and tossed the heavy braid of his hair back over his shoulder and set about getting ready for the day. The servants came to bring him breakfast and he ate quietly as he watched the sun slowly brighten the sky to reveal the thin layer of gray clouds that promised a cool, if snowy day. After eating, he bathed, combed out and washed his hair, and then dressed. He checked himself in the mirrored surface of polished silver and nodded in satisfaction after making a few adjustments to his attire, tucking the short ceremonial, and entirely functional, blade into the wrapped sash about his waist.
His mask was once again in place.
Squaring his shoulders, he opened the door and set out through the twisting halls of his family’s palatial winter home cradled in the hills outside of Appia toward the courtyard. The estate was a place of beauty during the colder seasons, and the winter had settled in and painted the countryside with a pristine white blanket of snow. The graceful branches of the cherry blossoms, so vibrant during the warmer months, drooped with snow and ice, and the gardens so carefully tended by the servants lay sleeping until the thaw. It was peaceful, and for a moment, Hiroshi could almost let himself forget about the black heart that beat at its center.
Kneeling upon the edge of the wooden deck overlooking the garden, Hiroshi sat back upon his heels, letting his hands rest in his lap one atop the other, the tips of his thumbs touching to form an almost perfect oval with his hands. Watching as the snowflakes lazily drifted down from the heavens, he tried to pick out patterns in them as he let his mind wander in meditation. It was still some hours until Shizu would be arriving with her retinue, and Hiroshi wanted to see her almost as much as he wanted to spend quality time with his father these days, but as their upcoming marriage was an arranged one, he had little say in such things.
“Hmm?” He blinked and turned his attention back to the source of the voice that had pulled his wandering mind back down to earth.
“I was asking if you were going to be attending the Winter Court in Mursa this year?” Shizu smiled vapidly at him across the small table they knelt beside as she toyed with a bit of silk ribbon woven into her glossy black hair.
“I would not miss it, Shizu.” Hiroshi smiled faintly as he lifted tiny cup of hot tea to his lips, hiding the empty gesture by taking a sip from the bitter tea. “I expect you will be there as well? I hear that some of the latest fashions will be on display for all to see, and I have always said you were stunning in the soft colors of Winter.”
The woman blushed politely and hid a pleased smile behind a delicate hand, fluttering her eyelashes as she looked down and away from him. “Hiro,” she murmured. “You are too kind.”
It was true that she was one of the most beautiful women he had laid eyes upon, but Hiroshi had come to despise these little meetings, as Shizu had proven time and again in the past that she had little more than little butterflies of thought that flitted through her mind as she went from one droll subject to the other. In many ways, she would make the perfect wife. She was said to be good with numbers and excellent at running a household, subservient, attractive and demure… and he could not stand her. His own honor and the polite dictates of society were all that kept him speaking.
“Nonsense,” he assured her. “I speak only the truth, and only a blind man would disagree.”
The soft blush that tinted her cheeks deepened as she bowed her head in acceptance of the compliment. “Thank you… Hiro.” She practically whispered his name in the soft tones of the besotted and he actually felt his stomach turn slightly at how she had spoken the word and now looked up at him through her lashes.
He was saved from responding by the loud bellow of anger coming from within the house, and while it startled Shizu, it was simply run of the mill for Hiroshi. Turning toward the door that led into the home from the balcony where they sat that looked out over the frosted garden, he carefully sat the cup down as heavy footsteps thundered down the hall and his bull of a father pushed his way into the room. He stood almost a head shorter than his son, but what he lacked in height he made up for in breadth, his belly long ago having overtaken his belt. Dark, brooding eyes peered out from beneath bushy eyebrows, and his tremendous mustache quivered as he brought himself up short at seeing his son with company.
“Excuse me Lady Koji,” he coughed and looked toward his son. “Might I intrude upon your visit with my son to speak with him for but a moment?”
“Of course, my Lord.” Shizu managed a polite smile, even if she were a bit pale. “I will go check on my retainers.” She rose to her feet fluidly, moving to bow in a delicate gesture to Hiroshi. “We will speak later this evening. Perhaps you would join me for dinner?”
Hiroshi bowed his head to her. “Of course. It would be an honor.”
The two men watched as the young woman slowly made her way out of the room, her tiny stockinged feet making soft shushing noises upon the wooden floor as she disappeared down the hall. Silence reigned for a long moment, and Hiroshi casually took up another of the tiny cups and filled it for his father, moving it to the edge of the table closest to him before filling his own and returning the pot back to its resting place.
“Where were you last night?”
“And a good afternoon to you as well, Father. Would you care to join me? The tea is excellent. The Lady Koji assures me that it was imported from beyond the mountains.” Hiroshi quirked a brow as he lifted his cup to his lips once again to take a small sip.
Growling, his father stepped closer to loom over him. “Answer me. Where were you last night?”
“I was visiting the Tumblehome Inn with Sato and Reiji. Why do you ask?”
“The Tumblehome?” His father seemed to lose a bit of his steam and he stared down at his son as if trying to peer through a thick fog, searching for some hint of falsehood in his words.
“Yes, Father. We were sharing some wine in honor of absent friends.” Hiroshi carefully set the cup down upon the table once again, looking up at his father, his face an impassive mask.
“One of our tax wagons was hit again last night.” His father closed his eyes and rubbed at his face as he sank down to the floor beside the table, slowly taking up the cup offered to him and sniffing at its contents before taking a sip. Grunting a bit at the taste, he set it aside. “That masked bastard subdued four of my best men and left them tied up in an empty wagon without horses to pull it!” Anger was again seeping into his father’s voice. “That is the third one so far this year. Am I just expected to sit back and put the money from my own coffers up to replace that which was lost?”
“Perhaps if you were to use a less public route?” Hiroshi suggested. These conversations were rare enough that he was able to avoid becoming too involved in them, but his father seemed to be nearing a breaking point. Hiroshi hid a small smirk of satisfaction behind the rim of his cup once again.
“And what? Have the men attacked by even more brigands in the wilds? No. One thief is enough to deal with. I won’t make my men targets for every starving peasant who can’t afford to pay his taxes.” His father clenched his hands in frustration. “I can hardly spare men to hunt this man down so close to the election, not when I need them… elsewhere.”
“Then perhaps I could go along with the next one? Surely a single man would prove no match for a na’caeura?”
“And have everyone know that my men cannot deal with a single bandit on their own? No. I cannot show any signs of weakness to them! They would tear me apart behind their fans at the Winter Court.”
“Have you brought this up with the Magistrates?” Hiroshi asked the question, fully knowing what the answer would be before he spoke it.
“They are too busy to hunt one man down,” his father grumbled. “And it is well known that the Magistrates talk more than sailors and whores when the wine is flowing. It would be just as bad as sending you.” He shook his head. “Maybe more so.”
“Then I am at a loss. You cannot allow me to help, and you cannot seek help from the Magistrates, nor spare more men. What then do you propose?”
Those dark eyes of his father slowly rose to meet his son’s gaze, flashing briefly with a curious expression Hiroshi could not catch. “A trap. We will set a trap for him,” his father’s lips slowly parted in an animal grin, all teeth and malice. “And you, my bold and cunning son, will help design it.”
Hiroshi could not help but quirk a brow at that. “What of the Lady Koji?”
His father waved his question away with a sound of disgust. “Women can wait. Let’s talk, you and I.”