I looked up from the poem I was struggling to write as I heard someone enter, and then I lowered my eyes to keep from staring. A Bichanese man, one of the samurai the Emperor of Bichu had sent to the King by the looks of his weapons, stood in my cubicle, confused. After an awkward moment in which he searched my tiny, dank cell with his eyes and I didn’t dare raise mine, I asked meekly, “May I help you, my lord?”
“Please,” he began courteously, to me of all people, and Bichu and Dargon flavored his words, “I think I am lost. They said I should seek the bastard to translate and transcribe my order, but I do not see him.”
My heart seethed. Oh, I didn’t mind that the masters had sent this Bichanese lord to me–I am, after all, the only translator of Bichanese in the city–but they could have sent him to seek *Fionna*. I kept my face docile, though, as I had long practiced. This samurai hadn’t insulted me, and thus I should not insult him with my anger.
Even if he had been the one to throw my bastard birth in my face, I would not show him my wrath. Oh, they can all tolerate– barely–a meek, gentle, unthreatening bastard, but an angry one who fights for her own justice, never.
At least, that is the way of things in Magnus. My mother should have stayed in Dargon where she belonged, where bastards and unwed mothers are truly tolerated and never shunned. I’ll be very glad when I have enough money to go there myself and leave Magnus behind me.
I beckoned the samurai without looking at him. “Come in, my lord. I am–” I hesitated to name myself bastard, though it is true. There are others enough who so call me. “I am the person you seek.”
The samurai advanced, and when I stole a glance, I saw he was smiling, but his eyes were bewildered. “I do not understand. You are no despicable man.”
“Despicable man? What do you mean, my lord?”
“My–” He paused and pondered. “My liege-lord calls despicable men bastards. He has never used that name for a woman.”
I tried not to laugh. For the first time in my life, I actually wanted to laugh at the word “bastard.” “The word does not mean despicable man, my lord, though no doubt your liege-lord so uses it. Many people do so.”
The Bichanese considered this. “What does the word mean, then?”
Somehow, I courageously looked the samurai in the face. He was a good-looking man, and his slanted, hazel-brown eyes were serious, and gentle. I was able to continue looking directly at him as I answered, “It means an illegitimate child.” He shook his head, still confused. “A child conceived or born while his parents were unmarried, my lord.”
The samurai thought for a moment, then, as I lowered my eyes to avoid offending with my direct gaze, he asked, “This is an insult here, to have unmarried parents?” I nodded glumly and looked away, for my eyes had flooded. I had much better control usually. “Why? Luthias-sama–my liege-lord the Count of Connall- -he says such things often happen in this country, without blame from law or church.”
“Not in Magnus,” I told him bitterly, blinking away tears. He cares about a bastard, I thought. “The new religions competing with the Stevene have made our priests very strict.”
“And people insult you with your birth?”
“In my case, it cannot be considered an insult,” I managed, gulping down my sobs. I am a bastard, I have always been a bastard, and I must survive despite it. Oh, God, I wish people would just accept me despite it! “It is true. My parents were not married, my lord. I don’t even know my father’s name.”
“Do they also taunt your mother?”
My mother. My face warmed with indignation. Only her mistreatment burned me more than mine. “They did, my lord. God rest her, she’s dead of the Red Plague these six years.”
“But they still call you names, although you were not at fault?”
I turned toward the samurai and tried to smile. “Is it not like that in Bichu? I understood that the Bichanese honor code was quite strict.”
The Bichanese returned my smile warmly, and mine drew strength from his. “No, in Bichu, it is enough to know one’s mother.” He began to search my face curiously, and I ducked my head. “What is your name? They did not tell me.”
Of course, they hadn’t. “The bastard” is all they ever call me. “My name is Fionna.”
“I am Ittosai Michiya.” While I wondered why the name was familiar, he seized my hand suddenly and pressed it to his cheek. I, astonished, could not move. He sat on the unsteady stool next to my table, and when he looked at me, his smile collapsed. “Did I not do it rightly? Is that not how a man greets a lady here?”
“I’m not a lady, my lord,” I sputtered, trying to yank my fingers from his. “I’m a bastard!”
Ittosai Michiya’s hand tightened on my fingers, and he laughed. “I cannot catch it, can I?”
Completely without my guard, I laughed too. “You’d never tell from how the people of Magnus treat me.” I stared at him. This Bichanese, a foreigner, made me forget myself and laugh. I do not remember the last time I laughed. When he let go of my fingers, I held the hand out. “What have you brought me, my lord?”
The samurai gave it to me without looking at it. “My liege- lord needs two copies, one in Baranurian for the King and another in Bichanese for General Kirinagi.”
I unrolled it and stared. After several minutes of concentrated scrutiny, I managed only to make out Connall’s signature. Comparing it to the rest of the document, I surmised the hurried Count had scrawled the words out himself, hastily and impatiently. But then, from what I had heard of the Count of Connall, his hurry might well be expected and excused.
Keeping my eyes on the illegible scratches, I said quietly, “Do you know what it says?”
“Yes, of course. Luthias-sama told me as he was writing it.”
“Please tell me.”
When Ittosai Michiya didn’t answer, I looked at him through my eyelashes. He wore a bewildered expression again. “Can you not read as well as write and translate?”
I have never been bold, but I looked at this samurai and smiled. “Only when the writing is legible, my lord. Your liege the Count Connall is a great warrior and a fine general from all reports, but he’d never make a scribe.”
The Bichanese chuckled. “I am not surprised.”
“What does it say, my lord?”
He took a deep breath. “It is a request to General Kirinagi for my official transfer. I go to war tomorrow with the Count of Connall and the cavalry.”
Ittosai Michiya, I remembered suddenly. No wonder the name had been familiar; last autumn, he had been tried for treason. I had thought, however, that he was Connall’s castellan. Why would he need a transfer? The obvious answer came: protocol.
I drew a paper toward me. “I shall have to make my own wording, but I have done such things before,” I assured him.
“Wait–I am not interrupting other work?” Ittosai Michiya tapped my poem.
“No, my lord. That is…” I wondered how to explain, and looking at the very bad poem, I decided not to. If only I were a great poet, people might accept me, but I was not one.
“It can wait,” I told the samurai, dipping a pen and beginning the Baranurian order. Translating from Baranurian to Bichanese was easier than writing the original order in the foreign characters. “You are part of the cavalry?”
“Yes. My leige-lord is its general, and I am his aide.” His voice held great pride when he spoke of his lord and his position with him. “We ride for Pyridain to held the Knight Captain, Dame Mar…”
“Martis Westbrook,” I supplied. Although the master scribes rarely let me work on recent chronicles and the other scribes scarcely ever spoke with me, I had overheard conversations. There had been a great battle in Pyridain recently, at some village called Oron’s Crossroads. Baranur had lost, and the Beinison army had all but slaughtered Dame Captain Westbrook’s troops. I glanced up at this samurai who treated me not only as a human, but as a lady, and my stomach tightened. Pyridain? He could well die.
“Yes, Dame Martis Westbrook shall be our chief general. Luthias-sama shall be one of her advisors.” His eyes searched mine curiously. “Why do you look at me like that?”
“I–The fighting in Pyridain is dangerous, my lord.”
The samurai bowed in the Bichanese way. “That is the way of the sword, and I am prepared for death as I strive for life.” I shuddered. Ittosai Michiya laughed. “Do not think that I wish to die, Fionna. If I do, I shall…what is the expression here? I shall pay hell, for I promised the Countess that I would see her husband safely home.”
That made me laugh, and I returned to my work. As I wrote my neat letters, the samurai held my incomplete and incompetent poem to the one small candle that tried to light my cell. I graciously offered, though embarrassment squeezed my stomach, “You may read it if you wish.”
“I cannot read your language.” Ittosai Michiya returned the work to my desk and reached for one of the books on my desk. I continued writing, quickly and neatly. “Did you do this?”
I smiled warmly at the awe in his voice and glanced from my current work to see what he held. I recognized the bright gold and blue illumination of a Fretheod work I had finished translating yesterday for the University. “Yes, my lord. I did that.”
“You do beautiful work.”
I actually blushed. I don’t believe I had ever blushed before. “I–thank you, my lord.”
“Despite their insults, they allow you beautiful things to work with.”
“Not usually,” I muttered, not meaning for him to hear.
“What do you mean?”
I blushed more deeply, this time with shame at my words. “I am the only scribe here who knows the Fretheod tongue, my lord, and that, and the money from the University, are why they allowed me those beautiful things to work with. Usually, I receive the last, plainest work.”
“They are fools.”
I said nothing, for I agreed. I continued my work diligently. The samurai kept patiently silent.
“You are not married?” he suddenly inquired.
I laughed again, but my merriment was bitter. My tongue wished to tell him that no Magnus man would lower himself to marry a bastard or even to come near her and speak with her. For this, I dared not speak at all.
The samurai had sharp wits. “They think they can catch your bastardness? They will not have you?”
His tone demanded an honest answer. “That is the case, my lord.”
“They, too, are fools, and below you.”
Astonished, I squeaked, “Below *me?* Below a bastard?”
“Any man who cannot appreciate beauty and talent is certainly unworthy of a woman such as you.”
I actually stared at him in acute shock. He could not be serious. He smiled at me gently and chuckled at what must have been my completely horrified expression. Since there was nothing I could say to his comment, I continued working as the samurai flipped through the book, pausing occasionally. When I finished the order in Baranurian and pushed it aside, Ittosai Michiya again pulled my poem toward himself. “Why are there no drawings?”
“It is only the first draft of a poem, my lord.” I had heard that great poets’ words flowed from them; mine were forced, and they were far from good.
The samurai studied them as I searched my little box for a brush with which to write the Bichanese characters. A pen would never render them correctly. “What does it say?” he interrupted me.
“I–it is a very bad poem, my lord,” I stumbled.
Ittosai Michiya passed the paper to me. “Please read it to me.”
I took the paper and set it aside. “It is not a good poem, my lord,” I repeated. “I–I would be ashamed to have you hear it.”
“Why?” he demanded, and I turned away. For all that I wished I were a great poet, I knew that my words were hardly worthy for a member of the nobility. I am no great poet. Perhaps someday I shall be, but not yet. “Why, Fionna?”
“It is very bad,” I repeated, and I found it harder to ignore this foreigner’s gentleness than all my countrymen’s scorn. “I would not have you think badly of me.”
“Of you? You have written poetry?” Because he sounded pleased, I looked at him, and Ittosai Michiya was smiling. “Please, read it to me. I too write poetry. I would like you hear your poem.”
“But it is so bad!” I protested. I knew how horrid, forced, and mismetered the words on that page were.
“Please,” the samurai said again, covering my hand gently with his.
So I read the incomplete verse softly before I turned anxiously away to dip the brush and translate Luthias Connall’s order into Bichanese characters. Ittosai Michiya did not speak, and I knew why. That poem was so bad.
“I do not know the Baranurian forms of poetry,” the samurai ventured as I began the second vertical line of Bichanese. “Is that in keeping with them?”
“It isn’t,” I admitted. “I am working very hard, but I can’t make the words fit.”
“It is not the words,” he told me. “It is the poem itself. How can something as ignoble and horrible as this jail they give to you be made into a beautiful poem?”
Shocked, I stared at him. “You may be right,” I mused softly, and then I returned to my work. “Don’t the Bichanese write of very common things?”
“Yes, but of things of nature and of beauty–a frog, a tree. They do not write of squalor and oppression,” he concluded scornfully, glaring at his surroundings. “How can this place be worthy of poetry?”
“But I wish to be a great poet someday, and I will never be a great poet if I do not write.”
“That is true.”
I handed the samurai the brush. “Please, my lord, write your name in Bichanese.” He scrawled the fanciful characters only slightly more neatly than his liege lord had scribbled my alphabet, but Ittosai Michiya’s writing was at least readable. I copied his name onto the order and continued.
“It is true that you will not be a great poet if you never write,” the samurai was saying as I translated, “but it is also true that you will never be a great poet as you are now. A great poet writes of great things. Nothing great shall happen to you here.”
“I have nowhere else to go,” I protested, turning toward him. “I am an orphan, my lord, and alone. I have no money. If I had money, I would go to Dargon and seek my mother’s kin, and even if I did not find them, I would be accepted, for in Dargon, they follow the Stevene’s teachings more closely. But as it is–”
“Please, Fionna,” Ittosai Michiya soothed, taking my hands despite the fact that I painted his palm black, “I do not mean to upset you. You will be a great poet, but you must leave. You are too fine for this place.”
I yanked my hands from him and quickly finished the order while trying hard to forget Ittosai Michiya’s presence. Forbidding my own tears, I handed the samurai the order in the two languages. “They are finished, my lord.”
“You are angry with me?”
The pain in his voice required me to look him in the face. “No, my lord,” I admitted as my heart melted before the anguish in his eyes. I tried to smile, and the tears oozed into my eyes. How could he think me angry with him? How could I be angry with the one person who showed me kindness, who treated me as a human instead of a leper?
I offered him my hand in friendship, for I had nothing else to give. “I will not forget you.”
Ittosai Michiya smiled then and took my hand. I should not have been surprised when he placed my hand on his cheek once more. Still holding my hand, he gazed at me with such a look on his face, as if I were a princess in a tower, a beautiful lady worthy of a legend. “If only you and I had met earlier,” he said, and his voice was thick.
Ittosai Michiya was a man worthy of a legend; of that, I was certain. I stepped closer.
He kissed me quickly, and before I could recover from my shock, the samurai released both my hands. “Forgive me. I must go.”
I can speak only a few words in the Bichanese tongue, but I managed, “Sionara, Michiya.”
He smiled at me bravely, a smile that gave hope as well as absorbed it, and then Ittosai Michiya was gone.
I faced my lonely, dark desk and sighed. Once, only once, a man looked at me with kindness and caring, and he went to war. I felt as if I would never see him again. When the tears threatened, my body weakened, and I put a hand on the desk for support. A paper in a place where I kept none moved beneath my hand.
I lifted it and gasped when I realized that it was sprinkled with Bichanese characters. For a moment, I thought that perhaps Ittosai Michiya had forgotten the orders he had come to get. My stomach wrenched at the thought of going to the Royal Quarter to deliver them; if the common people were such snobs to me, what would the ‘nobility’ be like?
Then again, Ittosai Michiya was a noble man, and the characters on the paper were in his hand. “I will return for you,” the pretty lines promised. Following them was a short haiku poem, from which all beauty would be lost if the tiny lines were translated, but they spoke of my eyes.
Resolved, I folded the paper gently and put it in my little box with my pens. I gathered my one bottle of ink. “I will return for you,” Ittosai Michiya had written, but he would not find me in this place. I had no doubt he would be pleased.
“Greats poets write of great things,” the samurai had said, and I knew he was right. There were great things happening, great men living, and I would go and see the war and watch Sir Luthias of Connall and Sir Edward Sothos–and perhaps Ittosai Michiya–become great heroes. And I would write great epics and songs. Nothing so wonderful would ever happen here.
I lifted my pen box and the one, lonely bottle of ink and paused. One great thing had happened to me here. Hurried, I sat one last time at the unbalanced table, and for once, the words flowed easily, and from my heart.
Thou saids’t, “Had thou and I met earlier–”
And finished not, nor needed to; thy look
So sad, profound, thy meaning did confer
Far better than the words in any book.
Thou saids’t thou knews’t regret; now I too know
Thy prophet’s vision, wondrous to the eye
As roses risen from the Deber snow,
But wrongly timed, were choked by cold to die.
But still the roots beneath the snow await
The spring and summer, time enough to bloom
When winter’s done; do not regret the fate
Which might delay, but not forever doom.
And I rejoice, that I have lived to see
A living man who looked that way at me.