The Price of Honor
A young man, smooth of cheek and strong of brow. His black hair is pulled away from his face revealing mischievous green eyes. There is a straight aged scar cuts that into his hairline on the right side.
Isawa Takkeji is a young man of about 18, fresh-faced and handsome in an everyday sort of way. His face never shows more than a day of stubble. He is always well-groomed and rarely dirty save for the hem of his robes, which is perpetually dusty from the road.
His robes flash the red and orange of the pheonix over black accents and trim. The cuffs are elongated and wide, allowing him hide his clasped hands in the extra fabric. The robes are slightly shorter on the leg than most; dusty orange pants can be seen under them, covering his lower legs.
A thick and sweeping mass of black hair is pulled back away from the crown of his head and held down with a 9cm circular hair pin of the phoenix clan symbol. The red and black enammeled pin sits high on the back of his head and gathers the hair from his temples in six lockes, to release them as a braid down his back. The wavey black hair reaches down past his shoulder blades and ends with a small knot tied with a crimson ribbon.
If Kitsune Yaheiko was born with eyes the colour of the light filtering through a forest canopy- gold and green- then her son was born with eyes the colour of the forest from above- the rich and vibrant colour of leaves in the early summer. They are constantly searching, staring and questioning his surroundings and the people around him. These eyes will at times become lost in nothing- a thousand miles away- and at times become so focused on the most mundane subjects- a servant, a wagon wheel, the leaves as they blow acorss the road.
A strong brow, shadowing his gaze somewhat, with the crease that comes from difficult meditation, juts from a smooth forehead. His cheeks are slightly hollow under his high, flat cheekbones. Small lips, curved upwards in the corners, sit below a wide nose that is quite flat between the eyes. Halfway between his thin eyebrows and his hairline, a scar runs from his temporal line to just above his ear. It is light, thin, and aged.
All Phoenix children are tested for their magical aptitude at a young age. During their sixth year, generally. Takkeji entered the school a little earlier; his father wanted the questions to end, he wanted peace. Most of all, he wanted his family to earn the respect that a Son of the Void could bring back to his disgraced line.
Isawa Kiyoshi, this little boy’s father, was the son/brother/nephew of some of the most respected and powerful shugenja in the Isawa family. Nothing could mar his glory or honor, except being the only one of his siblings born without the soul of a shugenja. Unsure of his path, he and his parents sought only to hide this disgrace from the rest of the family, from the Masters themselves. A favour, then called, then bound in a scroll and sent on the fastest legs that could be found, made its way to the Crane lands. From there to Kyuden Kakita and into the hands of the Kakita Toro, the sensei of the sculpting school.
So, young Kiyoshi was whisked away to the Kakita Artisans school to follow his passion of sculpture and stonework. A lone Isawa, he was quiet and reserved with his words and emotions. His work spoke volumes of his desires, though. Beautiful women and lifelike animals sprang to life beneath his nimble fingers. Sometimes quite literally. The stone seemed empty somehow, but full of life and warmth, as if it might get up and walk away at any moment. He accepted praise with demure honor and downcast eyes. Every Crane was curious about this flame-robed, black-haired sculptor; their eyes were jealous and searching. It was not until young Kiyoshi, late in his schooling, turned up his gaze to the sound of soft appreciation did he see a pair of eyes worth looking into. Kitsune Yaheiko had heard of Isawa Kiyoshi, but had never seen him with her own eyes.
Kiyoshi watched as her luminous green/yellow orbs danced over the white marble. It seemed to him that those eyes took in every detail.
And it did, indeed. She found herself lost in the strange patterns of the marble. Some parts were bland- certainly- so instead of lingering on the face, she examined the curve of the shoulder blades; instead of blushing at the obscene breasts, she traced the line of the robes; instead of focusing on the flawless skin, she relished the gentle slope of the wrist not yet polished. Looking at this woman still emerging from a shapeless stone, she knew. The face was bland because the artisan had never known a face well enough to understand everything about it. The bosoms obscene because he had never held one just for the sake of being closer and the skin too perfect because he could not imagine touching someone deeper than the surface. The other work she had seen alluded to this, but touching the nape of this lonely woman’s cold neck told her so much more.
He did not follow her entranced gaze, of course, for he could not take his eyes from her. The tanned skin as it swept over her shoulders, the folding of her kimono beneath her arm, the softness of her wrist as it reached towards the neck of his latest project. In his mind’s eye, a hand reached out to stop her and a voice politely requested privacy while he worked. In reality, neither happened. Only his fingers moved upon orders and the voice- now in full mutiny- only moaned too softly for others to hear.
She touched the marble girl with tender grace, stretching upwards with her entire body; right leg held aloft for balance and sleeves sliding up her arm. The shining black hair tumbled down her back in loose ringlets and when a gentle breeze blew through the courtyard he could smell her body as she touched the other. The breeze lasted only for a moment and took with it the short moment of rapture they were both trapped in. Kitsune Yaheiko gave the young Isawa Kiyoshi the shortest and sweetest smile he has ever seen, met his gaze with her own, then turned and danced away in a swirl of colour.
That night she wrote to her father to detail the strength the Kitsune could gain by marrying into the powerful and influential Isawa family. She told him of the powerful blood of the Phoenix and the beauty in the soul of a certain artisan. She told him many things that she knew would convince him to start the process of betrothal. She did not tell him the reason she so desired this joining. She did not tell him the shape of that polished woman’s neck or that she wanted to see herself in every stone Isawa Kiyoshi touched until the end of his days.
So married, Isawa Kiyoshi and his bride Yaheiko found a corner of the Phoenix lands to be happy in and lived without thought of a disgraced brother or an angry spirit realm. They were not forgotten, however.
The first child, a son. He took after his mother and was named Isawa Monato. Fleet and light of foot. He, too, showed no sign of spiritual aptitude for magic. The son of two accomplished graduates of the Kakita Artisan school was welcomed back to Crane lands when the time had come. There, unlike his father, he met no beautiful Kitsune woman to enthrall him. That came later, when he met the shy Kitsune Akachi for the first time at their wedding. The two wasted no time in starting their own family. Two beautiful twin daughters were born no more than ten moons after the wedding. Isawa Monato, now 21, holds them both close to him as they sleep, wrapped in soft fabric and warm from the sun.
The second child was a son, also. Isawa Takkeji carried with him the ancestors of the Kitsune clan and showed early signs of connection to the Void. Kiyoshi was torn, but decided not to let his second son bare the burdens of his disgrace and so did not tell him of his family’s standing. But Isawa Seong-gi was always watching. He knew the blood would resurface in Kiyoshi’s line. So the young boy Takkeji was taken under wing by a Master of the Void who also happened to be his uncle, but this was not known to him.
The third child was a daughter and was doted on by her mother. Isawa Ayano grew jealous of her brothers’ strength and vowed to make them her own. She fought her mother’s desires and struck out on her own path. The Shiba accepted her. The fierceness in her eyes, the loyalty in her heart and the strength of her conviction bore the weight of the armour of a Samurai with ease. She moves with her naginata as if it were a scarf or fan. The children of Kiyoshi and Yaheiko showing so much promise, now, she was betrothed to another Isawa by imperial decree. The marriage has yet to happen, but Isawa Neji seems pleased with his bride. She is 16, now.
The fourth never took her first step and that is all there is to say.
The fifth child, the third son was born into a household empty of siblings. Isawa Nizomi was always close to his father. Yaheiko was distant with him. She spent many hours staring into the foothills or walking paths through the gardens. Sometimes he would catch her staring right through him with water in her eyes. Nizomi grew up in his father’s work shed and was accepted into the same school his father learned in. After several years, some life came back into Yaheiko’s eyes. She helped him with his work and visited him when he could not come home. They have made a place for each other. It is a comfortable and quiet place- loving, but somewhat hollow. 13 years have passed since Kiyoshi burned the baby’s clothes in anger and grief and 12 years since Nizomi was brought into the empty home for the first time.
“Who are we meeting, Father? Who lives in the pretty houses? Why don’t we live here? Why does everyone look like this place smells bad? I think it smells good. Like flowers.” Takkeji was always asking questions, he always wanted to know.
Isawa Kiyoshi tolerated this endless barrage with the grace, dignity, and silence of a kami. At least Takkeji was whispering here. He had given up attempting to answer his quieries- they inevitabely led to further questions. His wife, however…
“We are meeting Isawa Seong-gi-sama. Many people, that one says ‘Isawa Tonoro’ and that one says `Isawa Kaede.’ We live where we are meant to live; these houses are too busy for artisans to practice in. Maybe they can smell something we cannot, these are very powerful people.”
A young woman turns out of her gate, as if in a hurry, and watches the little boy as he passes. Her face gives nothing away, it is as if she is asleep standing up. Takkeji’s mother sees the young woman watching impassively and picks up the pace a little, “Come now, we don’t want to be late.”
The three make quite a sight strolling down Kyuden Isawa’s main thoroughfare; a little boy dancing in circles, a stiff-backed man, and a pregnant dancer waddling with all the grace she can manage.
As they get closer and closer to their destination, Takkeji begins to experience a sense of foreboding, his questions cease and he no longer dances ahead, but walks in the shadow of his mother. Yaheiko in afraid of why her son must be hiding, now, and wants to cry at the thought. She reaches for his tiny hand, “Tak-kun, do you remember the first snow this passed winter? How much fun we had?”
“Tak-kun, do you remember when we slipped and rolled down the hill?”
A little smile this time, “I slip. You never slip, okāsan.”
Isawa Kiyoshi turns his head so he can eye them momentarily.
“Tak-kun, then how did I get all covered in snow and grass like you did?”
A small hop, and a frown that hides a smile, “You jumped, okāsan.”
Feigned surprise is always so beautiful on Yaheiko’s face, “Tak-kun, how could you say that? A lady like me would never choose to get as dirty as a little boy.”
“You were more dirtier than me, okāsan.”
A sudden and inexplicable bout of coughing brings Yaheiko’s eyes up to the back of Kiyoshi’s head, “Darling, do you have something to say?”
“Of course not, my wife. My son has said it already.”
“That’s fine. We’ll discuss it over dinner tonight, my husband.”
Takkeji giggles, for knew this meant that father would find one very spicy pepper in his dinner tonight. He always finds it too late, despite the fact that his children begin giggling the moment he picks up the fateful bite with his chopsticks.
“I will need to stop at the grocery on the way home, my husband.”
“It is out of our way, my wife.”
“Then I guess we should buy what we’ll need for a couple days, my husband.”
Kiyoshi sighs humorously, “I guess we should, my wife.”
Yaheiko pulls her tiny son forward so he can hold both his parent’s hands as they walk. Soon, with a little more teasing and frivolity, the small party stop outside a normal, if somewhat boring, house. Kiyoshi steps forward and hands the doorman a mon, “Isawa Seong-gi-sama should be expecting us.”
“Indeed, Isawa Kiyoshi-sama.” He bows to each of the three guests in turn, “Isawa Yaheiko-sama. Isawa Takkeji-san. Right this way.” The short, simply dressed man steps to the side and gestures them towards the house. Takkeji is the last to move, finally spurred into action by the firm and gentle grasps of his parent’s hands. He has seen this place before. He has seen it sitting on the surface of a vast and glassy sea. He has seen the still water disturbed by the footsteps of a man as he walks across the water. Stunned into acquiescence, the little boy does not remember to resist until the threshold is looming before him. Once he steps through that doorway, the waves will never let him go.
“…no… no… nonononono..” he whispers, pulling away from the shiny surface.
Yaheiko’s voice is weak; she is trying to hide the tears behind her eyes, “Come now, Tak-kun. We cannot be rude to Isawa Seong-gi-sama.”
His mother’s hand pulls him forward by the bend of his wrist while his father places a hand on the boys shoulder and nudges him into the genkan. Takkeji, Yaheiko and Kiyoshi all take off their shoes in silence. Yaheiko produces a new set of tabi for each of them and they are all ushered into the tea room once appropriately clothed for the occasion; clean socks, dusted hems and frowns for each of them.
As soon as the servant closes the door behind them, The Man enters through the other. He takes his time walking to and sitting at the head of the table- watching Takkeji all the way. Takkeji watches him carefully and whispers, “nonononono..”
The Man invites them to sit and introduces himself, “I am Isawa Seong-gi. It is nice to finally meet you, Isawa Yaheiko-san, and it is nice to see you again Isawa Kiyoshi-san.”
“Nice to meet you, Isawa Seong-gi-sama. You have a lovely home,” an agitated and red-eyed Yaheiko manages to say.
“It is nice to meet you, Isawa Takkeji-kun,” the Man says, smiling down at the little boy.
The three adults at the table stare at him for a moment before all taking a sip of tea.
“Isawa Seong-gi-sama, is it what we thought?” Isawa Kiyoshi says, displaying nothing of his feelings.
“I am not sure, yet. Sometimes it is not worth training, but should be taken from him for protection. I have never seen a prospective student acting like this before.”
They look at Takkeji again, “nonononono..nononoNo…No..no. No. No, you can’t take me. Okāsan,” the little boy, barely five years old, looks at his mother’s face. “Okāsan won’t let….” you.
But he can see what she will let him. He looks at her face and knows that the next time he will see it, there will be scars from wounds that haven’t happened yet. The wrinkles she will develop wink at him from years away. He is angry now. Tears of rage spill down his cheeks as he stares at her, willing her to change her mind. She stares back, unable to lift her eyes from the blackness stretching for the corners of his eyes.
“Take me home,” he says. “Take me home, Okāsan.”
“It looks like the boy will have to stay with me, we have much to do.”
The boy looks at the Man with his heart so full of rage and hurt. The Man’s eyes are dark, too, and they hold the boy. He cannot look away.
“It is time for you two to go.”
“Tak-kun, my little boy. I love you,” she kisses the side of his head, squeezes his hand, and waits for her husband to help her up.
“Bring honor to you family, my son.” Kiyoshi rises, bows to the Man and steps over to help his wife off the mat.
Takkeji wants to cry out or run from the room or hide in his mother’s shadow, but he cannot. The eyes hold him and it makes him even angrier. The water bubbles up from inside him, but is trapped by those eyes.
As Yaheiko rises, her kimono catches a tiny boy’s foot and pulls him over. The eyes cannot find him beneath the table.
“TAKKEJI!” The Man yells, his voice stilling some of the bubbling water inside him, but it is too late. Takkeji’s eyes turn to the right, looking for his mother behind Kiyoshi. He knows she is there, but the ripples flow out of him to blacken Kiyoshi’s eyes and for a moment, Kiyoshi can see the Void as if he was born with the sight. They travel through him, but never find Yaheiko; something else was in the way.
Then, stillness. The water of that vast and empty sea flows into Takkeji’s mind and still the rage and hurt inside him. As Kiyoshi, dazed from the sight, and Yaheiko stumble from the room they hear Isawa Seong-gi-sensei muttering to their son and a whisper as if said years and years ago.
Father’s shed was always closed. Moreover, it always felt so, closed off from the rest of the world and his children. Takkeji had never even seen the inside of it. It was a mystery to someone who could see more than anyone he knew- save the Masters. So, when there was a sudden break in his studies during Takkeji’s 12th year and he found the door open; it took only a moment for the young man to decide.
At first, the light hurt his eyes. The large windows and white marble made the late spring sunlight bright and painful. Squinting, he padded softly into the small room. A simple toolbench, a milking stool and a covered statue were the only things in the room. A breeze came through the door, making the sheet flutter and startling him for a moment. He reached for the edge of the sheet and revealed an unfinished piece of white marble. The feet were delicate and curved. They led to soft calves and the smooth thigh of a woman in a dancer’s practice clothes. Up and up his eyes followed the caress of silk against the shoulder blades and the graceful bend of the wrist, the lines of the suit as they folded against her stomach. The face had not yet been started, but he thought he might know this person. She was familiar, somehow, even with a bulbous, square head.
His fingers found the hem of her pants just above the ankles, they found the delicate wrinkles of her fingers and it found the swell of her breasts. Eyes and fingers alike caressed her breasts, wanted to Know them, devoured them. He was so lost in the moment that he thought, just for a second, that the unyielding stone… yielded to his touch. For just a second, the lifeless marble was warm and pliant. The wind sounded like quiet moan to him. Seconds later, soiled and ashamed, Takkeji slinked out of the work shed and into the empty main house.
Crossing into the kitchen to wash his hands, he saw his mother, Yaheiko stretching for a wok sitting on the top shelf. The sun through the window highlighted the smooth line of her shoulder blades, the flawless bend of her wrist and the swell of her very familiar breasts. She belied no notice of her son as he fled from the house, face nearly purple from the realization.