My hand shakes with each stroke of the brush. The sloppy painting is a disgrace truly but what else is there to do? I set the brush down gently, holding back the tears as I stare at the poor depiction of the garden.
Kotoku is dead and I’m painting. I should have painted a portrait of him while he was still here. Now he has either been reincarnated, some small infant in a land far away, or reached nirvana. Sweet blissful nothingness.
“Hashihito.” A gentle voice, timid but familiar. I turn to find my assistant, my friend, standing in the door way. How had I not heard her enter? “Let us go to the garden.”
“It is late Yuko.” The girl smiled.
“Let us go to the garden.” She repeated, as gentle as ever. Reluctantly I stand and follow her. She reaches for my hand but I yank it away.
“I am sorry but…”
“I understand. Come.” The halls of the castle are empty, and darkness fills every corner. The wails of the mourning echo even now for our lost emperor. For Kotoku. The sight of the garden is a sweet relief, the sandy landscape illuminated by the moon, a shining crescent rising above the mountain range. The large stones scattered about serve as a seat for Yuko and I.
“Hashi.” She whispers.
“What will happen now Hashi?”
“Mother will ascend to the throne once more I am sure.”
“You do not wish to?”
“The heavens have not chosen me.”
“I see.” From her kimono, she procures a small item. The moon reflects its bright light on the small shard. “This was my mother’s.”
“You are not allowed to keep personal possessions.” I reminded her gently. She placed the small shard in my hand.
“It was a mirror once. Or part of one any way.” She looked at me and I was struck by the emotion in her face. It was not sympathy as I have grown accustomed to from the masses but something rawer, more personal. A face only for me. “A gift for the woman who captured my heart.”
“Accept it.” I hesitate. I inspect the shard, see my reflection. My cheeks are hallowed and my eyes are but dark pools swallowing my soul. I slip the shard into my kimono. “Thank you Hashi.” I place my hand on hers, feel her hesitation before she laces our fingers together. With quiet breathes she sings to me, a song from our childhood.
“Cherry blossoms floating in the wind. Misty mountains on the horizon. Clouds so heavy fill the skies. Gentlewoman walk on by. Let us sing of times to come. When the sun shines down from above. Cherry blossoms falling from the trees. Such beauty and grace all around me. Let us sing together friend. Let us sing until the end.”
She repeats the lyrics over and over, gentle whispers in the dead of night. I dig my feet into the sand, let the sound of her voice drown out the world. Her words turn to quiet hums, the tune so sweet it aches.
“Yuko, stay by me.”
“No matter what comes.” She affirms without hesitation. The sound of hurried footsteps shatters the calm.
“Hashihito! Hashihito!” A voice calls. Mother’s voice. Yuko releases my hand and I stand just in time. Mother runs from the castle, hair disheveled and panic radiating from her. She seems relieved for a split moment before the panic returns. “Hashihito, your brothers, they are gone!”