This official L5R fiction was originally published on the Imperial Assembly on October 31st 2015, at imperialassembly.comL5R Halloween Fiction - 2015Why He Wrote
By Robert Denton
Special thanks to Joe Simurdiak
and the other L5R fans on Facebook
who suggested topics for this fiction. “It is the fate of every lord to betray his vassals.
It is the fate of every vassal to be betrayed.”
- The Prophecies of Uikku
In all of Rokugan, there is no playwright quite like Hirohashi. He was not the greatest, nor the most acclaimed. His works lack the technical skill of Kakita Morushijin, the exquisite detail of Miya Hatori, or the vision of the esteemed Miya Mai. But Hirohashi had a way of telling a story that built a world around the viewer and made them feel as though they lived within it. He once told me that the audience could sense when the playwright was dishonest, portraying something of which he had no knowledge or experience. If the author had never held a sword, released an arrow, or fought for his life, then he could not convincingly portray these things. Even with the greatest actors and stagehands, the lies would show through. For this reason, he tried to relate to everything he wrote so that it would seem genuine. He approached his work as personally as possible. He wrote from the heart.
Such an emphasis on honesty won him few allies in our family. But I think this is because they misunderstand him. What is a play if not an elaborate lie in which all are willing to participate? What is a story if not a fiction the listener wants to believe, if only for its duration? The honesty is meant only to suck the viewer in. The author folds his truths into his greater lies. Only the skilled can tell them apart.
This is why the honesty of Hirohashi’s works did not betray our lords. Like every other Susumu, he served two masters: the Spider and the Empire. In fact, I have never before met anyone so dedicated to this principle. Our family has worked for over twenty years to overcome the prejudices against our clan. Every morning the Susumu rededicate themselves to breaking the barriers between us and the rest of Rokugan. We sacrificed and endured much to accomplish this, and although there was much left to do, the Susumu had many successes to claim. Slowly, the other clans saw us less as enemies and more as another part of the Empire. In return, the Susumu felt less like opponents of the great clans and more like fellow Rokugani. Their ways were becoming ours. Hirohashi was proud to be a part of this. But to him, Susumu’s purpose was more than bridging this gap. He looked past what we’d accomplished and saw only what was left to do.
I first met Hirohashi two years ago during one of his projects. I was fresh from gempukku
and unfamiliar with him. He was only a minor playwright of some note, having few works to his name. I knew only that I was to be his assistant and that he would be my sensei. I went to live with him at Kyuden Shizuka, the only significant palace of our family. The evening sun was crimson when I arrived and was hastily directed to his study. I heard him arguing with someone as I approached, a heated discussion that was rapidly escalating to a duel. Fearing both that my new master had a short temper and that I would be rid of him prematurely, I rapped on the door. He beckoned me to enter, and when I did, there was no one else there.
Hirohashi was a man always preoccupied. Thoughts came to him suddenly and he would pause mid-sentence to write them down. Even so he was genuinely friendly. He was an older man than I expected, snowy-haired and soft-eyed, fingers visibly calloused where they cradled a brush. I flattered him as I was trained to do, speaking well of his works. The truth was that I did not know them from any other. I believe he saw through me, but drew no attention to this. Instead, he asked me what the most important thing was to playwriting.
“Dedication,” I replied. “Love of the art. From this, all other things will eventually come.”
It was the answer every prior sensei had ever expected. I was trained to offer it unhesitatingly. But Hirohashi deflated at this answer. He simply nodded and said I would assist him in his work, starting tomorrow. Then he said, “We’re done for today.” He turned his back to me, facing his open balcony and the waters of Golden Sun Bay beyond. I let myself out.
My work began by transcribing all of his plays. A collection of his work was ordered by Susumu Kuroko no Daimyo
, and Hirohashi considered himself too busy to attend to it personally. There were no woodblocks of his plays, so I copied them each by hand. Most of his plays were short Noh pieces of which there was little direction and dialog, although there were also several three-act Kabuki plays which took more time. Some were merely disorganized collections of notes that I reconstructed using various methods. It felt like busywork, but I did not complain. It was a chance to familiarize myself with his plays.
I gradually came to realize the full extent of my master’s work. His greatest accomplishments were not under his name. They were instead attributed to others. Susumu Noriyabe. Kakita Hiro. Or often a simple pseudonym: Bukimina
. Once I knew his writing I began to recognize it in many works commissioned by our daimyo. There were his unique annotations, instructions to the actors, and the vague connections that united his works, fragile silk threads that formed into one world and somehow made it real. These accomplishments were not groundbreaking. Indeed, they were beginner’s works, not that of a master. But I saw fleeting moments of greatness in his writing. I was stunned when I read them. They became real
to me as I read. I recalled them easily as they replayed in my thoughts. But I realized that Hirohashi’s works were inherently unfinished. Something seemed to hold him back and I suspected it was himself. I began to think that if I could tap into his mind somehow, if I could replicate his technique, I could add it to my own meager talents and become greater than my sensei. Thus I resolved to become more than just his student. I would become his friend and ally.
To do this, I would need to know him. Fortunately, I had his work. I knew that he would reveal glimpses of himself through his writing. All authors do. It was how I came to befriend my prior sensei, who revealed his life philosophy through his sumi-e
paintings. It was how I began my pre-gempukku romance with the lead of an acting troupe, reading the poetry she hid in her nightstand and deducing her hidden desires. If I paid attention and studied his plays I could eventually come to understand him. I procured a small notebook and recorded my observations. I noted recurring themes, attitudes, and philosophical positions. Whenever we conversed, I revised my notes based on what I had learned. As a tapestry is woven thread by thread, I would soon comprehend the larger picture.
I studied his process. He spoke dialog aloud as he wrote. He researched every aspect he could, going as far as to attempt many of the things required of each character. There were times when he came to me frustrated and began a strange discussion, only to abandon it partway when something I said would cause his eyes to widen, his mouth to make a grin, and his brush to write.
He entrusted me with more tasks once my transcription was finished. Minor jobs, little ghost-writing assignments from our lords. Whenever one came he would become excited, but the guidelines often disappointed him. Amendments also arrived as he worked, requiring creative concessions, often changing the meaning of the play. I had the notion he was dissatisfied, like a man living on thin broth when he craved rice. Although he was grateful for the assignments, he could never truly write as he pleased. But nothing could be done about it. He wasn’t about to displease his lords.
He effortlessly created stories within their guidelines, capturing them on scattered notes, sometimes vague and sometimes detailed. These he gave to me to “finish.” I would polish his rough work, he would revise my edits, and the finished copy would be delivered to a servant. Never once did I see him sign a work. I began to do so myself, writing “Bukimina” on the bottom of each scroll.
“Why use a pseudonym?” I once asked. “Your works will not be attributed to you.”
He seemed amused by my question. “If they knew the author was a Susumu, they would not read the work.” I watched him deliberate over a selection of masks, finally selecting that of a grinning demon. “We are associated with the Daigotsu, so they do not trust us. This is problematic; trust is required for the story to work. The audience must trust what they are seeing and hearing, even knowing full well that it is a lie. They must trust that the play will not hurt them, or else the playwright must convince them that they want to be hurt.”
I did not understand. “Why would they knowingly believe in a lie?”
He slid the mask over his face. His eyes twinkled behind the demon’s grin. “Because they want to. They want it to be real.”
One day a messenger came that I did not recognize. She had come from the imperial capital where our lords perpetually dwelled in the Spider embassy at “the center of the web.” I was one year older and beginning to experimentally write my own works when I saw her come into my master’s study. The scroll she held bore not only the seal of Lady Susumu, but also that of Daigotsu Kanpeki, our clan champion. Hirohashi’s hands shook as he broke the seal and consumed the words. The Empress’ three heirs were appearing on Nakodo lists, and it was time to prepare for their eventual marriage. The Spider were going to give the new Emperor, whoever it would be, a play as their wedding gift. Daigotsu Kanpeki wanted Hirohashi to write that play.
It is upon honors such as these that playwrights are forever remembered. No one knew Miya Mai until The Emperor’s Blessing.
Kakita Morushijin’s works were not notable until No Man’s Bride
. Even a ronin’s low existence becomes noteworthy to history, as it was with the playwright Sosuke when he wrote The Secrets Beneath Lord Hiragawa’s Calligraphy
. Such chances are rare. The full implications of this order did not elude Hirohashi. This play could be a doorway to greater things. So he resolved that this play, the Emperor’s play, would be his greatest work.
The undertaking would not be easy. The play had to be fit for an Emperor! Most playwrights would seek to know the tastes of the Imperial Heir so as to cater to them. But the Iweko Empress was unshackled by convention and mysterious, so none knew whether Seiken or Shibatsu would take the throne. The mechanizations of the Susumu, at the behest of Kanpeki himself, started the rumor that the Empress might elevate the younger Shibatsu over his brother, and as predicted the Imperials now considered it a possibility. Even so, we could not be certain of the Empress’ whims. For this reason, the play had to be written such that it suited either heir. This fact, coupled with the conventions of which imperial plays had to conform, presented the greatest challenge of Hirohashi’s life. Yet he was not worried. A fire was lit within him on that day. He knew exactly what to present to the future Emperor.
“We shall portray a united Empire,” he decided. “There is still unrest. Seiken’s followers clash with Shibatsu’s, in the courts and elsewhere. Some even whisper support for Miaka in spite of her youth. These three lines divide an Empire, all beneath a facade of cooperation. And still the clans squabble among themselves. The Emperor’s greatest task will be uniting his people beneath his banner. It will be proving that he is a leader they can rally behind.”
“I understand.” I poured his sake and followed his line of thinking. “We will assist him. His play will present an Empire they want to live in.”
His inner fire danced in his determined eyes. “I will make that world real.”
Progress was swift at first. He was always writing. He would sequester himself away from the study that had become our shared work space, dwelling instead in the auditorium beneath us. I would hear him walking around down there as I transcribed or finished his other assignments. Or I would look out over the balcony and see him walking the beach of Golden Sun Bay, talking to himself. Once I delivered his lunch while he was in the auditorium. He’d set up these mannequins and dressed them, painted their faces like dolls, and placed them around the stage in various positions. He strode around them, speaking for them, improvising lines, marking their positions. He did not stop even when he saw me in the audience. Indeed, my presence encouraged him, and his voice grew louder. I learned then he had some talent for acting. Perhaps that was his first passion, as it was mine. He improvised himself as the Avatar of the Unicorn Clan, his language growing metaphorical and poetic as he spoke. He did this until a line fell from his lips that caused his eyes to widen. “That is the line of the play!” he declared, and I dutifully copied it down.
I felt that I’d integrated myself into his process. We discussed his play many times over dinner or in-between my own work. He stayed over in the evenings and cultivated ideas instead of sleep. He came to rely on me, not for my approval or feedback, but as someone to listen to his ideas. I was willing soil for his planting. Importantly, I was finally coming to understand who he was. In his play, I saw his thoughts and feelings, his doubts and aspirations. He craved the freedom that this assignment would ultimately afford him. He created for the sake of creation, taking sheer delight in the act of writing. He obsessed over word choice and pacing. I once remarked that he would be happier with bunraku
. One could better control puppets than actors. He found this to be endlessly amusing and quoted it himself on many occasions. I earned more than his trust. I was seeing his true face. And I was learning.
Commissions continued to flow in. I became the ghostwriter for those works. Hirohashi was too busy with the play to write them himself. I was good at mimicking his style; I finished the assignments and signed them “Bukimina.” I was a little dissatisfied with this task, but was my job to assist him after all. I just thought of how much he relied on my help and how we would both see greater things once the Emperor’s play was completed.
After the first few months, the messenger returned. I recognized her sharp features, her intense eyes, her jet hair. She spoke little until Hirohashi arrived, giving him a scroll as before and departing to return to the capital. As he read, I noticed the dark rings around his sockets, the way his face seemed to sag. It occurred to me that I had not seen Hirohashi sleep in a long time. He spent even more hours within the auditorium. Sunlight touched his flesh less and less.
The scroll had new orders. Things to be included in his play. The Susumu leadership wanted it to make specific political implications. They were hedging their bets, thinking that Shibatsu would ultimately be chosen as heir. They wanted the play to subtly remind the younger Iweko brother of how much he owed to the Spider. Shibatsu as heir would have certainly benefitted us, and I felt encouraged to know the leadership was anticipating this outcome. Irritation flickered across Hirohashi’s features.
“I will make it work,” he mumbled.
I brought him lunch in the auditorium later that day. He’d strung the room with bright colored lanterns. The number of mannequins had doubled. Their costumes were more elaborate than before. I recognized the fashion work of Seppun Kyosuta; Hirohashi had spent his own stipend on expert costumes. He was on the edge of the stage, his notes scattered in front of him, the new scroll unfurled and hanging from the far wall. He rubbed his forehead and paid me no notice, not even when I laid the rice and soup in front of him.
“You’re obsessing,” I noted.
He grunted. “The motivations of the villain escapes me. Every aspect of him must say what I mean for it to say. He must represent only what I intend for him to represent.”
“You should move on,” I suggested. “Work on something else for a while. Clear your head and come back to it.”
He made a weak smile. “Then the problem will taint my other work,” he remarked. After a long moment of silence, he stood. I watched him don the costume nearest to him, stripping the mannequin and cloaking himself.
“The ego is a spider,” he said, “and so the mind is full of webs. Sometimes a thing gets caught in there. Entangled by the web, it can be difficult to free. This is why artists express the same thing over and over. Writers tell the same stories. Poets obsess over the same feeling. Painters make a series, focusing on the same subject. They become fixated. Frustrated. Whatever the thought is, it is caught in the web. Any other thought that comes, the first will infect it.” He offered his smile as he straightened the kimono sleeves. “If one is hasty, a captured thought can tear the web.”
I remember how he closed his eyes. It was so methodical. His eyes rolled back as his lids came together. His posture changed, his shoulders straightening with his uncurling back, his fingers flexing as if to free themselves from his palm. I watched his shadow change behind him, dancing in the light of his lanterns, intertwined with those of this dolls. His still body tethered his writhing shadow like a flag against the wind. Like a web against the struggle of a fly.
“We are done for today,” he whispered. I left him as he recited lines in a voice that was not his own.
I saw him progressively less as days passed by. Our meetings dwindled to less than occasional. It was a long winter; he spent days on end within that auditorium. I could hear him beneath my feet, walking the stage, speaking to himself. Speaking to others. At times I leaned against the door and listened, but whenever I did I could hear nothing. His lunches went uneaten. I slept in the study, laying on his overstuffed zaifun
, inhaling the sandalwood and vanilla that was his fading scent. I could hear him beneath me at night. Dragging things across the auditorium. Whispering. Writing.
I told no one of his troubles. I could not compromise his face. It would be shameful to imply he could not handle his own problems. It was a secret I kept for him. Only I understood my master’s struggles. Only I knew how he suffered. Even when the messenger returned four more times with more additions to his play, I made excuses for him. She paid no mind, leaving the scroll each time and leaving at the earliest opportunity.
I hated the sight of her. Every time she crossed the threshold I wanted to pelt her with my inkstone. She had no appreciation for his vision. None of them did. People like her think any playwright is interchangeable. They think anyone could have written No Man’s Bride
, or The Dangerous Popinjay
. They fancy themselves creative-minded, believe that they know better how to do what they assigned to my master. They don’t care about the work itself. They only care if they can use it for their own purposes. They cannot see the art in things. They see only gifts. Product. Every time she came for my master my hatred for her grew a little more.
Yet even now, I could not tell you her name.
Spring came with little change. I expected to see Hirohashi resume his bayside walks, but this did not happen. The servants began referring to the auditorium as “The Playwright’s Chambers,” arranging their own schedules to accommodate his eccentricity. The others within the palace treated him as an oddity, but otherwise tolerated him for the sake of face. The lords of the Susumu never came to Kyuden Shizuka, and no one ever inquired on the progress of the Emperor’s play.
Until one day at the end of spring. The letter stood out from the others; requests for Hirohashi’s services that had gone unanswered. These were patrons that would not accept the work of an apprentice. My sensei was too busy with the Emperor’s play to pay them much mind. They would only detract his attention. But this letter came in a black envelope tied with golden string, the Mon of the Daigotsu stamped onto the surface. It was a request from the Daigotsu family to know the progress of the play.
I listened to my master at his work downstairs. Dragging things. Shouting.
My knowledge of the play itself was limited, but I knew his passion and vision well enough to write a short synopsis. All those nights of conversation, all that I had gleaned from his process, from his work… I knew I could accurately convey the meaning of his play. The plot and details eluded me, but the essence
of the work I understood. I transcribed this and sent it back.
This I did without mention to my master. I did not wish to disturb his work. What was I for if not for this?
The first cherry blossoms had only just bloomed when word came to Kyuden Shizuka from the imperial capital. The Empress had chosen her heir. Iweko Seiken would ascend to become Son of Heaven. To honor him, she declared twenty days of festivals.
Throughout the castle, Susumu were disheartened to hear this news. The Spider were counting on Shibatsu’s movement to pick up, for the mechanizations to influence the Empress’ decision. But they carried on with dignity, knowing that the seeds they’d sown would one day bare fruit regardless. It was a defeat, yes, but still one from which the Susumu, and the Spider, could recover.
I alone was joyful in hearing the news. It meant Hirohashi needn’t guess at his intended audience any longer. He could compose his play with the knowledge that Seiken, the eldest Iweko, would receive the gift on his wedding day. I rushed to tell him the news, throwing aside the massive doors of the audience chamber.
A bizarre lantern-lit statuary met my eyes. Two mannequins on stage froze mid-draw in an iaijutsu strike. Their costumes virtually glowed in the light of the stage, their Kabuki masks painted with vibrant and contrasting colors. Pieces of manuscripts were scattered around them, littering the floor, hanging from the walls. They were surrounded by two dozen faceless figures in full costume. The screen behind the stage itself depicted a painted landscape. The dim light gave an eerie life to the dolls on stage. I felt the deep belly guilt that comes from interruption.
Hirohashi appeared within moments, blinking at where I stood. His clothing was loose around his shoulders, his hair bound without much care, his skin loose and pallid. I was stunned to see how he’d withered like a fruit in the first frost. As I told him the news, he smiled and nodded his head. Knowing who would receive the play was a great comfort to him. He was two-thirds finished, and now that this final piece had come into place, he could complete the rest rapidly. I felt relief for the first time in several seasons. I wanted him to be done with this work. Standing on the stage, it seemed to me that the mannequins were staring. That I was an invader in their world.
I eventually convinced my master that this news required celebration. Twenty festivals were declared, after all. He agreed to meet me at the sake house in nearby Houritsu Mura. By sunset we were halfway through a bottle of Maneki Neko, hanabi painting the sky outside above dragon dancers. The streets were not as busy as I expected, but the village was small, so I gave this little thought. What mattered to me was the demeanor of my master. Away from his chamber, Hirohashi seemed his old self again. He laughed easily and spoke cryptic riddles that became tales partway through. Halfway through a sentence, he got an idea for his next play, and I dutifully recorded it. Together we mused on the art of theatre until the bottle was empty and the fireflies replaced the lights in the sky.
“Something troubles you,” he said in the latest hour, just before the house began to close.
“I must confess something.” My words were encouraged by the sake in my belly. “I have great respect for you, and I did not wish to interrupt your work. So as other requests came in, I wrote them myself.”
He grinned. “So you’ve had good practice, then?”
“I have,” I admitted. “Yet I fear that I have betrayed the art.” When he bade me to continue, I explained: “All my life I have enjoyed the act of writing. I found writing to be rewarding in-and-of-itself, and I cared not what it was for. Plays, stories, poetry… anything was good enough. But for the last year, I have written only assignments, and I have not found this to be nearly as satisfying. I confess, I do not enjoy writing as much as I once did.”
My face burned. I would not have spoken those words to any other. It was not fair to have burdened my master with my own problems, and yet to my shame, I spoke them freely. “I have meditated on this for some time,” I continued. “And I have come to a conclusion. I am no longer writing just for the love of the art. I am no longer writing without concern to how the work will be received. I have betrayed the very teachings of the art. I no longer speak honestly from my heart.”
Hirohashi was unconcerned. His smile was gentle as ever. “Why, then, do you still write?”
I kept my eyes on my cup. “I write for you, master. I write only to please you.”
After a long while, Hirohashi nodded. “I understand,” he said. “I also write to please my masters.”
The world stopped. I raised my head. He was staring out of the window at the void beyond. In his eyes, the fireflies danced. “I would never have written anything were it not for my patrons,” he confessed. “Writing is not always easy. I do not always enjoy it. We are told that we can never admit this. We have to say, ‘I always enjoy writing.’ That the act alone satisfies us. We must write only for the sake of the art and no other reason. But this is delusional. It is the greatest lie any artist in any medium has ever told.”
He met my eyes. “Man creates not just for his own joy. He is in denial if he believes this is so. He speaks because he has something to say. He writes because he needs others to feel the same as he does. The proper thing is to say you write only because you love to do it. But had I no audience, I would not write anything at all.”
The question bubbled up from my lips. I tried to bite it down, but I could not stop it. “Sensei, if everyone universally loved your work, and your plays knew only praise, and every man and woman in every household in every province knew your name… would it be enough to satisfy you?”
Hirohashi stared into my eyes for a long while. Then, he turned again to face the window. He seemed loose and deflated as an empty kimono. “We are done for today,” he said.
My sleep that night was restless. I made troubled dreams. I woke often to the glowing moon outside my window and the cloudy fog rising from my parted lips. I curled, unwilling to leave my warm cocoon of blankets to light the coals again. My thoughts dwelled on my master. A man who longed for recognition, who craved the approval of others. This did not match my notes. It did not match anything revealed in his plays. It did not make sense. My vision snagged against the demon mask hanging on the wall and I wondered if I’d ever truly met my master.
That morning I rose before the sun. I began my morning ritual on the balcony overlooking the bay. From this vantage, I saw a messenger riding hard against the east wind. From the Spider banner on her back, I knew at once who she was. I wrapped myself in kimono layers and sat by the door. The place where I usually felt hot anger in her presence was instead empty and silent.
But she never came to the upper chambers. I waited until I felt the doors open below me, heard the muted voice of my master. She’d gone straight to him in the auditorium. My stomach churned then, and my heart threw itself against the cage in my chest, as if desperate to break free. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, she had left the auditorium and was preparing to disembark again. I asked her what had happened. She looked at me with what might have been compassion on that grim face, but she only shook her head. She was gone within moments. Behind the doors of the auditorium, I heard something fragile smash brightly against the wall.
Believing that Seiken would never hold the Spider as equals, Daigotsu Kanpeki had renounced his position as Clan Champion and declared war on the Empire. Throughout the lands, assassin squads executed orders, striking against the Great Clans. There was a rumor that the lands of the Sparrow had been invaded. Kanpeki himself embraced the darkness long locked within him. They would not tell me what he had done, but their faces grew pale whenever someone asked. Kanpeki’s demands echoed throughout the Empire. As the son of the last Hantei, he claimed the throne.
Twenty years. For twenty years the Susumu sacrificed. Twenty years and the Susumu suffered to advance the station of the Spider Clan. Shamed for actions taken before they were even a named family. Broken to save the face of the Daigotsu. Slain in duels for past slights. Humiliated in recompense for the Spider’s past deeds. Mistrusted. Slandered. Paying for sins inherited. Living in the shadow of another clan’s past. Torn between two masters. For twenty long years the Susumu fought and worked and bled so that the Spider might be considered equal to the rest of the clans. They arranged marriages, conceded resources, and smiled at their foils. All the while believing with unwavering faith that one day… one day their work would be rewarded, and the Spider might stand alongside the other clans as true Rokugani. As part of the Empire and not its enemies.
Twenty years of work. Gone. Immolated in less than a moment.
For what had I fought all of my life? What purpose did the Susumu serve now?
It made no sense to me. Kanpeki surely would not throw all of this work away. He would not betray an entire family sworn to his allegiance. Reality was slow to sink into the oceans of my mind. There would be no purpose for the Susumu in Kanpeki’s plans.
Just as there would be no use for my master’s play.
Hirohashi never left the auditorium. Not a single sound emanated from that place. I dared not enter those chambers for fear of what I might find within. His wakizashi was long missing from his study. For all I knew, he might have left this world in protest of his master’s decision. I would not have blamed him. I considered much the same. But in the end, I am too empty to take this action. I cling too heavily to this world. I know the mouth of hell is waiting for me. I am not eager to feed it.
The palace lords spoke many assurances. Of course there would be need for the Susumu in the new Spider Clan. They urged us to continue our works. Yet I could see in their eyes that they knew no more than the rest of us. The optimistic looked for word from the imperial city, word from the Susumu daimyo. But the rest of us knew word would not come from there; if Kanpeki had turned against the Empire, then there would be no more Spider embassy.
By sunset of the following day, hearing and feeling nothing beneath my seat in my master’s study, having seen no one enter or exit in twenty-four hours, I resolved to enter the auditorium and see for myself the fate of Hirohashi. It was then that the servant came to me. All Susumu were summoned to the court of Kyuden Shizuka.
On the dais was Susumu Kuroko herself, daimyo of our family. Wrapped in silk layers, face inscrutable, she sat flawless on a stuffed cushion. Beside her stood Gyushi, head of his own family, blacksmith arms crossed before a tight frown. They were accompanied by the highest-ranked members of the family. They’d escaped the Imperial city and reached their only holding of note.
Among them was the messenger I recognized. Our eyes met briefly and she looked away.
A lord upon the dais spoke. “By now, you have all heard. We are at war with the Empire.”
“What will become of us!?” someone blurted. “Lion and Crane provinces are just over a day’s ride from here! The Palace of the Emerald Champion lies to the north! A Tsuruchi village is but a stone’s throw away!”
“Show some dignity,” our daimyo spoke. When it was silent, she continued in the lord’s place. “We were escorted here by a force of Daigotsu samurai. They will soon assist us in the evacuation of the palace. In the meantime, we’ve something more pressing to discuss.”
She pulled a letter from her sleeve and slapped it on the dais. I recognized it instantly; it was the letter I wrote regarding my master’s play.
In that cold moment, I felt as though a pit had opened before me. I wanted to fall in.
Kuroko looked into my face. “Who is Bukimina?”
Another answered before I could, identifying that as the pen-name of Hirohashi. Kuroko frowned. “This tone of this letter suggests that the true allegiance of the Susumu lies with the Empire and not with the Spider. Kanpeki-sama was considerably troubled.” She rose and swept the room in her ice glare. “Who here feels this way?”
My chest was too tight for me to speak. The room was silent.
“Perhaps our work will be discarded,” she said. “But that is our lord’s right to do. We have no say in the works of our master. If there was any doubt, I shall banish it: you are vassals of the Daigotsu
. We will endure and carry on. The Susumu served two masters… but now we must choose.” She centered herself on the dais and raised her voice. “You may either stay as vassals of the Daigotsu family, or you can-“
Outside, the town bell was ringing. Kuroko’s brow pinched. There was smoke beyond the window.
Then came the screams from below us. Servants cried out. There was a fire in the palace.
Kuroko’s guard formed a circle around her. As one, the leaders of the Susumu made to leave. “If you follow the Spider, then evacuate with us,” he announced. “Otherwise, fend for yourselves.”
Many of us exchanged looks. It was no choice. We followed her in a large mass, taking the back exit from the court and making our way to the bottom level of the kyuden.
We found the main hallway cut off by flames. The thin paper walls glowed orange with the light of fire. Black curtains rolled along the ceiling. A similar sight met us as we made for another exit. I could not comprehend how a fire could spread so quickly. Everywhere we turned, flames trapped us in. I heard the screams of the burning, their begging and pleading, as the world immolated around us. Our leaders kept calm, walking slowly with great control as we followed, but with each failed path out I could see in their eyes growing wider, their faces paling ever more gradually. We passed crushed and trampled bodies in the hallways but found no passage out. Every breath became like fire in my lungs.
Until someone saw the auditorium doors. There was a passage outside through the main theater. I thought instantly of my master alone in this chamber, but said nothing.
We poured into the room. It was dark. No lanterns were lit, and the high windows, impossible to reach, showed only a slit of the night sky. There was smoke in here, but it was better than the deteriorating hallway outside. We crossed as one entity for the far door that would open into the courtyard. Gyushi himself reached it first and pushed the iron doors to fling them aside.
They didn’t budge. He looked back. “Locked.”
“Break them down,” Kuroko ordered.
They began pounding on the doors, slamming them with their shoulders. The booming echoed through the chamber. In the hall, I heard the chewing of the flames as they consumed everything, just now crossing the threshold into the auditorium.
Then the lanterns came alive. The room flooded with light. As one we turned. Standing on the stage was Susumu Hirohashi. Donned in elaborate costume, his face painted in kabuki colors, he was surrounded by dressed mannequins. Samurai, courtiers, jesters, and monks. They stood around Hirohashi as he looked out into the audience, his audience, with plain madness on his face. I watched a tear fall from his eye. I could nearly hear the pounding of taiko
drums as she struck the pose iconic of an Emperor.
“Where one man sees death,” he shouted, “another sees birth!”
The guards exchanged looks. They did not know what to make of this.
“Ignore him!” ordered Kuroko. “The doors! Hurry!”
The pounding resumed. But I could not watch. I was transfixed to the stage. My master danced, his costume flaring and furling around him, the silks catching the light in elaborate displays. I watched as the flames creeped around him, growing brighter and hotter. A black cloud formed, thick hot smoke. Behind, the desperate slamming against the door, growing frenzied, less organized.
Master Hirohashi changed his voice. “Sister Shinjo! I cannot apologize for fulfilling the duty of my clan, even as it has offended your honor. But if it will satisfy, I freely offer my life!”
A voice came from elsewhere. Fortunes’ mercy, I swore it came from the lips of a mannequin. “I would not take your life, Brother Shiba. That you offer it is enough. Compassion is what we hold in common!”
“Let us out!” cried one courtier. From the corner of my eye, I saw him cut down by one of the guards. They began to throw themselves at the door as the walls began to crackle into open flame.
“Honor is satisfied! I spare you, brother!” Hirohashi bowed to a mannequin dressed as a crab. The flames had reached the stage; those figures in the back were lit aflame.
In all my life, I’d never seen a performance like this. I was enthralled. Every detail, every movement, I believed. The mannequins tethered their shadows in flailing light. In the fragments of time where the darkness raked my vision, I could swear they were moving. Posing as kabuki actors. Dancing. Laughing! Crying out their lines. The shadows cast from the flames danced along the walls, becoming mountains, rivers, castles, even dragons! I knew this was not real, and yet I wanted to believe it. I wanted the lie to be true! It was true! He weaved a new world!
I looked back at my master’s audience. I saw them trampling each-other, clawing one-another, slamming fruitlessly against the doors. I saw my daimyo Susumu Kuroko cut down two men who dared to approach her, their blood sizzling on her hot blade. I saw one man bite down into the face of another, hot blood splashing into his eyes. The flames were above them now. They coughed. They vomited. They pleaded. They slammed their fists against the unyielding doors. Red, glistening handprints steamed on the hot surface. They were wild-eyed animals. It never occurred to them to escape into the world my master was creating.
I sobbed open tears. I was not worthy to enter that world. I was not worthy of my own life!
Hirohashi pulled down his face. He became the Iweko Emperor. I saw him hold a banner high as the wooden actors on stage fell into prostrations before the glorious son of heaven. A chorus of screams broke the sky before the flaming maw of hell. “Let us be united!” he declared. “One glorious Empire! In the embrace of universal brotherly love, united beneath heaven!”
The Susumu snapped their limbs on the iron gate holding them in. Screaming. Tearing. Burning.
The slamming on the doors were taiko
drums. The anguished cries of the dying were thunderous applause! The actors stood as the sun rose on a new Empire behind them! A new world, a burning horizon! “I serve two masters!” the Emperor declared. He froze in a pose of triumph. “My two masters are one!”
I fell to my knees, shouting his name. “Hirohashi!”
Behind me, the doors broke. Bodies crashed into the courtyard like a tsunami. I felt myself pulled by a great current. I could not tell if I was grabbed and torn from my seat, or pushed away by my master’s will. Or perhaps my fear had finally won, and I simply ran for my life. I was gasping on the stone earth in the courtyard, my temple laid against the ground, my flesh tainted by licking flames and the blood of others. A mountain fell behind me, and I looked up to the massive pyre that was once Kyuden Shizuka. The auditorium fell in, collapsing with the force of an earthquake. There was no sign of any life behind. The endless fire ruled over all.
I know not how long I laid coughing blackness on the irregular stones of the courtyard. The other survivors scattered as they could. My daimyo, the injured Gyushi, the messenger, and their entourage vanished beyond my scope of vision. I imagine they fled, but I know not where. When I was aware of my surroundings again, I saw a ring of armed and armored men had formed around me. They hid their faces behind mempos
of war. They extended their swords and asked for my surrender. On their chests, I saw the mon of the Spider.
It was then I learned that the Daigotsu were responsible for the flames. Uncertain of the loyalty of the Susumu dwelling within Kyuden Shizuka, our champion elected to burn all inside.
I sit now in a quiet room. It is peaceful here. There is only the quiet trill of the cicadas outside my locked window and the rustle of the pines and maples. I cannot say for certain where this room exists. I only know that I am in the custody of the Daigotsu family. My lords. I am afforded all of the luxuries due to one of their honored vassals, but I cannot leave this room. My only glimpses of my captors come when they leave rice or soup. No one will speak to me, not even the guards stationed right outside the sliding door. Weeks have passed and I am no wiser as to if they will let me live or if they are content to let me die. I still do not know what will become of me. Someday, maybe word will come. Lord Daigotsu will decide. I wait.
It is a strange thing to be held hostage by one’s own lords. Even while alone and sequestered in the quarters they created, even with the barriers between yourself and the outside world, the way their treatment changes, you still feel as though you are serving them. Days pass, weeks slip by, and you wait. They say nothing. I dwell in this waiting place and write my thoughts on this paper. The barred door to my chambers remains closed, just as it has for many weeks. Sometimes I think they have forgotten me. I am not sure what to hope for.
Perhaps they will find value in my simple work. Perhaps there is a role for me in whatever constitutes their plans and this new world they are constructing will have some small place for me. But with every passing day of oppressive silence I feel ever more certain that they see no use in what I have made. That my years of service, my unique voice lent to theirs, my loyalty, will ultimately mean nothing. I used to beg the Fortunes that my time as their vassal and a student of the brush was not in vain. Now I simply pray to know what will become of me. These last four years replay in the theatre of my mind, a four-act Kabuki of transient and faceless actors, where beginnings and endings blur together and I know not my own role in them. Villain? Hero? Bystander? I cannot say what part was mine in my own life. My sleep is restless. My appetite fades quickly. I can no longer keep the passage of days. All life now is simply waiting.
Waiting for their decision. Waiting to die.
I think of the fire often. I never before knew how deafening a fire could be. The thunderous snapping of support beams as their strength burned away, the resounding boom of the kyuden buckling in, the roar of the flames, the town-cryer’s bell, and the panicked screams. Yet nothing will ever be so loud in my mind as the insane laughter of the playwright Susumu Hirohashi. I heard it long after he died in the flames, long after his world collapsed beneath the weight of reality. When I close my eyes, I can hear it still. Rather than live in an unforgiving world he could not abide, he died in one he created for himself. A world of shadow, light, and flame.
I write uncertain if this will ever reach your eyes, and yet I feel I have no choice. I write because there is nothing else. Nothing but to knowingly believe in a lie. I want only for the lie to be true.
I always enjoy writing.
It is always easy.
I write for the sake of the art and no other reason.
I always write the truth.