Part 3 of Morgan Wood’s Misty Mountain quartet.
The former palace stands desolate amongst the bustling city. The bell of mourning still rings. Travelling through the country side only to be met with a reminder around every corner that Kotoku was dead, what a cruel joke.
They are not in the palace’s shrine. They are not in any of the shrines.
“They must be in one of the temples but…” I hesitate. Staring down at my clothes I can’t help but sneer. For a princess, lover of the former emperor, to be dressed as a man. I look to Yuko and sigh. She looks like a young boy. She had even cut her hair. “I loved your hair.” I tell her.
“We need to find your brothers as men.” She says, a gentle reminder. After all, few temples allow women to enter lest their impure blood pollute the sacred place. I nod, remembering not to drop my masculine persona.
Temple after temple there is no sign of the two missing men. Yuko spent hours staring at the letter left behind, searching for an answer in the scribbles left behind. There was none but the claim they would go to the place where the gods’ descendants perish. Perhaps they meant that they would meet their own end….
“No, Naka is too ambitious for that.” I whisper to myself, ignoring the pang of panic in my heart.
“What if it’s not a cat?”
“Pardon?” Yuko points to Oama’s drawing.
“It looks like a cat.”
“Yes, but what kind?” Yuko closes the scroll with a flick of the wrist, small smile on her face. She points to the mountain looming over the city. “There’s a temple on the mountain that is known for their lion statue.”
“If that is a lion Oama really needs to work on his craft…Lack of talent aside if it is a lion then we need to go there, like two men.”
She smiles at me, a smile that radiates through her being and I would kiss her if we were not in the public eye.
The road is long and steep, and my heart drops each time my foot slips in the loose dirt. Rain begins to trickle down from the sky as if some cruel god wished for my end. So far, they have only received curses and the image of my legs covered in mud. Yuko looks worse, face flush and breath labored. The rain distorts time, makes the sky darken and the shadows fall all too fast. Reality is slow to catch up.
The temple is like a fever dream, striking red against a gloomy landscape. The building is small, simple, with a towering bronze statue of a lion in the courtyard. The rain cascades over the beast’s shoulders in thin waterfalls and the darkness leaves the face shadowed in an ominous manner.
“Scary…” Yuko whispers. She grasps my hand for but a moment, her skin cold against mine.
“We need to go inside.” I walk on to the simple doors. The wood is rough on my hands and I take a breath to steady myself. I push them open slightly and am met with familiar voices.
“You must be a mad man.” Oama’s voice echoes and I nearly burst through the doors. Instead I stand stock still, listen for more, wait to see if it is real or simply my mind playing tricks.
“Come now there are benefits- “Naka’s smooth voice begins.
“Like drowning.” Oama’s rough response cuts him off however. Laughter crisp and clear rings out, a melody in and of itself.
“So morose! Come now would you really be happy here?”
“Yes, I would.” There is a pause. “I cannot stop you.”
“True. I would rather you join me. Imagine all we could do!” I jump at the gentle touch on my shoulder, whip my head round to see Yuko’s miserable state. The rain is coming harder now and we are running out of time. I brace myself again before pushing the doors open. The hinges groan loudly and all conversation dies at the intrusion. I see them, two fools in priests’ robes and before either can utter a word I rush in. With quick strides, I find myself in Naka’s presence. My palm stings as I smack him, and I watch his face tense in anger. His gaze is piercing but softens upon recognition, smile lazily growing. Oama is not as pleased.
“Get out. You are desecrating this space.” I feel my heart sadden at his words though I know they are true.
“Oama relax, can you not see that he came all this way just to see us.” He winks at me, and I force my voice as low as possible.
“Oama I am not leaving.” I say in the most masculine voice I can manage. Oama rolls his eyes.
“Women are not allowed here.”
“It is good that there are no women then.” Naka manages before a fit of giggles overtakes him.
“I am not leaving without you two.” I manage but Naka’s gaze turns from mirthful to dangerous in an instant.
“No.” He responds, voice cold. Naka forces a laugh. I haven’t felt this terrified since he slaughtered Iruka. His hands move to strike and darkness is swift to follow.