DargonZine 1, Issue 1

Steel Souls

Yule 10, 1013 - Yule 11, 1013


From the seawall I watch as the sun flows down to the ocean, bleeding red into the water. The wind from the sea is cool and vigorous. It blows my hair in a black cloud around my head and whips the heavy fabric of my clothing until it snaps like the sails on the ship that brought me here. I come here whenever I can, and sometimes I work my way down the rocks to the water’s edge to dip my fingers in the sea. It is my friend, the sea. I am stranded on this alien soil, but I can touch the sea. And the sea touches Bichu.

 

The wind turns colder as the evening deepens. The sun has almost completely set now and the dockmen slowly filter away to homes, to taverns, to wherever they go. Some look at me as they walk away, noticing my different clothes, my face. They are peasants, uneducated and of no status, but they belong here, and they can see that I do not. They look at me with distaste as they pass and I try to ignore them and look at the remaining spot of the sun. Sages have told me that when the sun sets on Dargon, it rises over Bichu. If that is true, then my father is waking now, and remembering that I am gone. It has been a year since I left Bichu in disgrace. For a year my family has been shamed, my father without an heir. I fled from honor, and my life becomes more intertwined with this place every day. So my father awakes and begins a second year of sorrow and shame. His shame feeds on my own and feeds it in turn. How can I ever go home?

 

***

 

The tavern is called Grey Talka’s. It is an ugly place, near the warehouses and the docks, noisy and full of smoke, smelling of vomit and cheap ale. I sit alone at a table in the corner, my swords beside me for the people here are not to be trusted. A maid brings me a tankard of ale and I examine it for a moment, then dump the contents on the floor, carefully clean it with my sleeve and return it to her. “Another,” I say, “this mug.” She says nothing but returns with it to the long table where the keeper has set up his barrels. In Bichu a hosteler so insulted would either seek a champion to defend his reputation or close his tavern. Here, so long as I pay for the slop, I may pour it wherever I wish.

 

The barmaid returns with my ale and collects her copper, saying nothing. The ale is bitter and poor. I drink it in large gulps, shaking my head to fight it, and order another. Time passes.

 

“Mo iti do itte!”

 

The barmaid does not come, and the men at the other tables glance at me, their eyes nervous behind their dullness. I realize that I have spoken in Bichanese. “Bring me another!” I lean forward, resting my elbows on the table; my head is heavy so I rest it in my hands. I’m weary of this land, its coarseness and barbarism. Decent men are so rare here that when they discover one they murder him from a place of concealment with crossbows. Their honor is blood in the table linens.

 

The barmaid must be frightened of me, for the keeper himself brings my ale. He doesn’t set it down, but demands three coppers instead of one, hoping I will leave. Several men have gathered in a nervous group near the kegs, waiting. His ale isn’t worth three coppers, but neither is it worth one, and I have no intention of being intimidated by these peasants. I take a Bichanese crown from my pouch and let it glitter on the table.

 

“You’ll bring me as much as I ask for and leave me alone, won’t you?”

 

He looks at the flash of gold for a moment, then snaps it up and sets down the tankard with a muttered “Of course, milord.” He goes back to his kegs and argues quietly with the others.

 

After that word circulates that I’m not the street character they took me for; I have money. A few even consider taking me. I see them sizing me up, trying to appear dangerous. Meeting their gaze is enough to send them slinking back to their tables like rats.

 

Crude beasts in a land of animals! I stand on the seawall to be upwind of them.

 

***

 

When I can stand the tavern smell no longer I flee into the darkness of the streets, but the streets stink as well. The entire filthy city stinks, like the unwashed people, their disgusting rotted meat, their uncivilized habits. Even the ones who attempt to be civil cannot overlook their delusions of superiority. “We’ll teach you to dance in our fashion, Lord Ichiya,” with the slightest nuance of mockery on the honorific. “I’ve learned your language from reading your poets,” he says, speaking like an addled child, disappointed when I do not fall at his feet in gratitude. I hate Dargon.

 

I’ve admitted it and the hatred flows through that crack and washes over me like a flood. Even drunkenness here is low. Instead of freeing the spirit, it drags me down into the filth in the gutters. I walk rapidly through streets unfamiliar in the night, trying to find some clean place but there is none here, not in the street, or in the dishonor of the people. “Bastard dogs!” I shout at the dark, crumbling buildings in Bichanese, then “Zyatai an!” lapsing into Bichoi, the lower class dialect of peasants and beggars. Perhaps they will understand this.

 

“Koshaddan! Tokodoshi esuna ko!” The hoarse cry echoes in the abandoned street and I laugh. I can imagine my mother hearing me, learning that I know such language. I can see the look on her face, as if I had greeted guests by pissing in their teacups.

 

It has been a year since I saw my mother and thieves prowl these streets. I had scarcely left the ship when they began hurling themselves at me clumsily from the dark. With Roissart and Luthias they came and countless other times, as if this land itself feels my alienness and reacts with all the violence it spawns. But I can resist Dargon for there is violence within me as well.

 

Around me, in the darkest corners of the alleys, furtive shapes move when they think I don’t notice. No one moves through these reaches of the city unobserved at night. But these see my swords and move with caution. I realize that I have ceased my shouting and the fire moves in my blood with more than the ale. I sense their brutality, ebbing and flowing like the tides and I find some part of me that needs it.

 

I begin to call to the inky shapes like a lover. I sing old Bichanese drinking songs, anything at all. I weave in my steps as the drunkenness crests within me. For a block they shadow me, and more. “Why are you waiting?” I cry in Bichoi, “I am foolish with drink and my purse is heavy.” Come to me now, now.

 

They come, two figures, weaving toward me, running from behind me, one at each quarter. They hold their swords reversed, their bodies curled around them. From that grip they will slash upward from their left then thrust down. I step, step, one more then one leg wavers under my weight and I stagger. Then, as my katana feels the fire as well and leaps into my hand with a metallic singing, time expands into the montage of battle. There is the sharp cry of the duellist and the right foot planted behind for the spin. The tip of a sword nicks my clothing as I spin away from it and I can feel my blade moving like a part of myself. The clatter of a parry and I continue my spin. Even drunk I can take these fools apart.

 

I luxuriate in the force of my body’s motion, the kinesthetics of the sword. A dark form before me as I complete the turn and my left hand completes its following arc and slaps against the lower menuki, fingers wrapping around the base of the hilt. The hand shifts the balance of the sword and I hold my breath, feeling the descent. And then the bite of the steel. The ecstasy of it! The bite, oh, the bite.

 

***

 

Dim light brings the morning and the wind is chilling. I am on the floor of my rooms, drenched in sweat. I have committed murder. The watchmen who came soon after, drawn by the commotion, saw dead thieves and an acquaintance of Lord Dargon, and did not hold me. But I know the truth. There is no honor in inviting attack from an inferior fighter to justify a killing. There is only shame, cowardice, weakness.

 

It’s strange how little a moment of shame leaves of life. Once there was family, honor. Now there are only disjoint snippings from time, not unlike the way of a battle. The trunk with my belongings, opened less frequently every day. The remaining length of unused rice paper tucked under one arm, flashes of street life around me as I walk toward the harbor. Fishsellers, marketwomen, apprenticed boys running on the errands of their masters as if nothing has happened. Near the docks I discover a bowl of fish stew in my hand, the stewmonger expecting payment. I give him my purse.

 

Then there is only myself, the sun rising behind me, the wind, the seawall and the nervous tossing of the sea. There is only one way to remove a stain such as this. I wonder if my parents across the ocean will feel the sting of the blade.

 

I kneel on the seawall, the end of the ricepaper beneath my knees to keep it from blowing away in the wind. My katana weights the other end. I watch my hands wrap a length of cloth cut from my sleeve around the blade of the shorter wakizashi, once, twice, three and then four times. Then I hold the blade, one hand ginger on the cloth wrapping, the other butted against the hilt. When I was born my father expected only that I would carry the name of our family a step or two forward and not do it dishonor. I have done nothing else. I have fled from a challenge to the family name to this forsaken place, and I cannot even uphold the basic tenets of honor here, in a place without honor. Oh father, how I have shamed you, how I’ve shamed myself!

 

There is only one way to undo the violence I have done to the reputation of clan Ichiya. Enough stalling, enough wallowing in the magnitude of my shame. A flash of courage to cleanse it. A stillness comes over me. Honor welcomes the intention to restore it and helps quiet the fear. The sounds of the town around me fade away and I breathe shallowly, in time with the rhythmic beat of the surf against the seawall. With the next wave, the surge of strength through my arms, and then peace. It comes. The water climbs, foaming white, the pitch of it rising, and then it crashes with a tremendous booming sound against the seawall. The muscles of my arms tense and move.

 

And in the next instant I fall sideways, knocked over by some impact. There is pain, and grating of flesh against stone. For the briefest moment I am confused, like one just waking from a vivid dream. Then I see a body, on hands and knees over my legs, having dived into me from the right. Rage floods through me instantly, as if it has always been there. The ignorant brutes can’t even keep from interfering in my most private moments! I kick his chest with both legs, knocking him away so that he rolls back until he is a pace away from me and seated in a clumsy sprawl. As quickly I roll forward to my knees and move after him. The wakizashi’s wrapping begins to unwind and trail behind the blade like the tail of a comet as I raise it sideways, holding it over my head for the quick slash downward. As I loom over the man he moves forward, pride and ferocity in his bearing. He snaps his head back to expose the vital areas of the throat and barks “Ko choro an!”

 

“Do what you must.”

 

The ritual words stop me as if paralyzed, frozen in attack posture, the wakizashi still held overhead. The cloth still hanging from the blade waves in the wind. I recognize the face of the stewmonger, eyes locked into my own. He is frightened, but he does not move. There is an instant to wonder how he comes to know our customs so well. Then he says the words again, softly this time and, unlike that damned fool of a chronicler perfectly, with no trace of accent. “Do what you must.”

 

He is right. I have murdered; I cannot expunge their blood with my own. In death there is escape, but the situation remains behind. It is only an escape, the apotheosis of self-pity. There is no honor in death to avoid responsibility. The realization is painful. Something I have been taught since childhood is a lie, but the stewseller is right! Honor requires the facing of responsibility, living with it, dealing with it. I will do what I must. I will go on.

 

There is a clatter as the wakizashi falls from limp fingers to the stone. I fall forward, sobbing like a child and he draws me in and holds me silently. It’s a hard thing; nothing has seemed to take on such scope before. Life had always seemed so brief a thing.

When we rise to our feet there is blood, soaking my clothing, dripping into the crumpled length of rice paper. The blade of my wakizashi has slashed my side during the aborted thrust and my fall. Working quickly and efficiently the stew seller bandages it with the cloth from the blade. He is a man of many talents, my rescuer. I wonder why he contents himself selling fish stew on the docks.

 

From a pocket he takes my coin pouch and returns it to me. “If my stew is so bad, I shouldn’t charge so much for it.” A light comment, denying the seriousness of the incident. He is telling me that the matter is closed. I bow deeply and he returns the bow, then turns and walks back toward his cart.

 

I retrieve my swords and return them to their place. Suddenly freed, the bloody length of rice paper whips away in the wind. It is carried over the harbor for perhaps the length of a ship before fluttering down to float on the surface of the water. My blood soaks into the water, and the outgoing tide carries it toward distant Bichu.

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