Part 2 of Morgan Wood’s Misty Mountains Quartet.
Misty Mountains Part 2
“Gone?” I hear my voice echo, a ringing word that ripples like the disturbed sand at my feet.
Have Naka and Oama left me as well? I watch as mother’s eyes shifts to Yuko, before flicking back to me. I turn to Yuko. She is already standing, eyes wide with fear. I can’t embrace her, cannot feel her comfort. Not with mother watching.
“You are excused.” Dismissing her is the last thing I want. I try to convey that to her, wordless pleas for understanding. She bows low.
“My apologies.” She rises only to bow again to mother. She is quick to leave and mother is quick to speak once she is gone.
“Are they dead?” I ask. I nearly collapse from relief as mother shakes her head. She strides into the garden, takes the spot where Yuko once sat.
“Your brothers left a letter but I cannot read it.” She procures a scroll from her kimono’s obi, opens it to me. The scribbles are foreign to me, the characters fluid things that swirled on the page. I take it, stare into the thin parchment. On the bottom was Naka’s insignia, and next to that a crude depiction of what seemed to be a cat. Oama’s doing.
“Naka always had a flare for the dramatics.” I whisper. Mother nods, averts her eyes. I cursed myself for my insensitivity. She would still be on the throne had Naka not killed Iruka. “Why would Naka leave? Why would he take Oama?” She sighs and I hush myself. Surely, she had already asked all these questions. I close the scroll, make to leave, search for my own answers. Mother’s words stop me.
“Naka worries I will force him onto the throne.” I pause. It would be natural, for the named heir to rise where the emperor fell.
“Was it my fault?” I whisper. Mother looks at me. “Was it my fault, Kotoku’s death? Had we not…. Had I not left him there…”
“Kotoku was a stubborn man.” I feel the tears hot on my face and the shudder of my breath embarrasses me. “Naka is nearly as stubborn.” She is quiet as I cry, wiping the tears away with my sleeves. “Let us hope Oama keeps him from doing anything rash.”
“You’re not going to stop them?” I snap. I nearly bite my tongue as her gaze becomes heated.
“I am to be empress. I cannot spare time to search for them.” Her cold words constrict me, make it hard to breathe. I watch her rise, watch her leave, and when I am sure she is gone I fall to my knees and weep. I dig my hands into the sand, let the gritty earth keep me grounded to reality. Surely if I were to let go the world would drift away and I would be lost in a sea of sorrow.
“Hashi.” A gentle voice full of worry. I feel a hand on my shoulder, a tender touch.
“They have left me Yuko! My brothers! Kotoku!” I grip her hand with such force I hear her cry out. I lessen my hold but do not release her. “Promise me Yuko! Promise you won’t abandon me!”
“I promise.” She responds without hesitation. I release her hand. “I promise that even in death I shall stay with you.” The suddenness of her embrace shocks me, my tears slow and my breath catches. Her arms wrap tightly around my waist. I look at my hands. Rings litter them, simple bands as bare as the garden. I slowly remove one, a piece of copper, a rustic reminder of our travel through the countryside. I slip it on one of her fingers, feel her tense. Her fingers are so slender the band nearly slips off but she balls her hand into a fist to prevent it.
“A gift for the woman who captured my heart.” I echo her words as I raise the fist to my lips. I place a light kiss on it.
“I cannot accept.” She replies with a wobbling voice. I kiss her fist again, kiss the ring before letting it go.
“Accept it.” She does not argue with me and I lean against her. After a time, she begins to hum that childish tune once more and I nearly forget it all, all the sadness. But Naka and Oama are still alive and I cannot let them leave me without a fight. “We will find them.” I tell her.
“If that is your wish.” Her soft words interrupt the magical tune and the world returns.
“Though I am unsure where to begin.”
“Can you read?” She does not respond. “You won’t be in trouble.”
“Not your letters. But…” I feel her take an intake of air. “The servants, we have letters of our own.” I took the scroll and showed it to her. “Yes, the characters are like these, only these are far prettier than my writings.”
“What does it say, Yuko?” She is silent for a moment.
“We have gone to the place where the gods’ children meet their end. I’m sorry everything else is just characters.”
“But I have an idea. The emperors descend from the gods do they not?” I ponder her words for a moment, gnaw my lips raw.
“Yuko, prepare for travel as soon as possible.”