Come Away With Me

Come away with me— let us ride
far from this withered, cold countryside
upon our fleet-flown phantom steeds
unknown among all earthy breeds
with flowing manes of tidal froth
and hide as soft as pillow cloth
and come away on floating hoofs
over moors and valleys and roofs,
and let us journey on, yonder,
from the mundane to so wander
where the mists of dreams may dawn—
to the isle of lost Avalon.
Away we go, to farthest shore
that borders truth and love and lore;
where a moonlit wave never breaks
except for when a dreamer wakes
to rub the sand from groggy eyes
and dispel dreams with woeful sighs,
but not us, oh not so, not we
as we gallop most silently
over a coast of broken glass
where all the hourglasses amass
and spill in vain their futile sand
on the coast of that timeless land
known and unknown as Never-Not
where still there stands grand Camelot
as a dream within a glass globe
beneath a wizard’s twilit robe,
protected, apart, kept away
from the forces that rust and fray;
a refuge where when we are old
we may yet live in youthful mold
as children in Spring’s fresh ascent
without wondering where youth went;
when spine was not so crooked yet
and mind did not so soon forget,
but kept its joys and loves and sense
like a flower its fresh fragrance,
and eyes could see as keen the hawk
and heart leapt at each other’s talk,
whereas now we wilt, growing frail
with later years that wound and ail,
waking life but nightmare itself
conjured by Time, that witchy elf
who delights in dissolving lives
in her cauldron, which naught survives,
so let us go where Merlin waits:
that Isle of Apples, lest the Fates
destine us for mortal sorrows
that take all our hopeful morrows.

Ukiyo (The Floating World)

Hey Pat, this is the Japanese myth story I told you I would post here.  I had originally published it under the title “Poetic Justice” but have since edited and revised it.  Hope you like it.  It’s a bit long, all in all.

Ukiyo (The Floating World)
I, Toshiyuki Watanabe, renowned poet and famed calligrapher of the Lotus Sutra, whose works assured the succession of many lords, ladies, and even the Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu himself into Heaven, and with whose esteemed accomplishments came recognition in the Far West, within Mystical China itself, and subsequent benedictions by the Buddha with Enlightenment and prosperity—whose very calligraphy brush opened portals to the higher realms of rebirth and serenity—needed to pee. My loins burned with an excess of drink from the festive evening prior, as well as the weight of my Lady Utano’s slender legs as they laid athwart my abdomen. Thus, yawning, I gently pushed aside my lady’s legs and rose from the tatami-spread floor of my Host’s guest room, generously provided by my most recent patron, Lord Gou. Rising unsteadily— for my head swam with sake and my back ached with my Lady’s passions— I walked to the sliding screen door that led out into the courtyard and slid the screen quietly, stumbling onto the veranda. I glanced over my shoulder as I heard Utano stir, then sigh, softly as a paintbrush across a scroll, and then settle again into her dreams. I wondered if she dreamt of me. I had dreamt of her, and I had dreamt of the many women whose embrace I had known.
The courtyard garden was a ghostly affair of mist, moonlight, and chrysanthemums. I shambled out into the garden, toward a weeping willow whose mournful tresses begged at the edge of a moon pond. While I relieved myself I watched the orange carp float lethargic in the water, and my thoughts moved as the carp moved among the lotus blooms. I hoped no one saw me, for the garden was illuminated brightly with the on-looking moon. Most of my Host’s guests were asleep, for sake had gushed generously during yesterday’s celebration. I heard one guest yet awake— an official sent by the Shogun or Emperor, I believed— indulging a maid in Lord Gou’s household. This noise soon ended with a porcine snort and groan so that thereafter only the chirping song of crickets remained. As I shook myself dry I composed a haiku, compulsively, for that significant moment of solitude and peace.

“Carps float silently,
heeding cricket garden song—
legs shiver in mist.”

It was not a truly lovely poem, but my mind still ached from the happy thunder of yesterday evening. My mouth was parched, also, my tongue dry and rough as scroll parchment. I was foggy-headed, you see, from drink and grogginess, and the garden was likewise dreamy with mists. Thus mists without were as mists within.
Lord Gou had been quite fortunate in his karma, for his province had yet to starve as other provinces had. The famine reigned, as did the bleeding disease. Some believed that Oni, released from the hellfire of Mount Asama, had cursed the world. Yet, no such demons claimed Lord Gou’s household or province. To the contrary, the Buddha seemed to have granted his blessings to all that Gou owned, including this lovely chrysanthemum garden. The white petals reminded me of the moon above, and both moon and chrysanthemum seemed to glow as if calling to one another, mother to child. Indeed, all evidence suggested prosperity and good fortunes within Lord Gou’s province. The merchants thrived with their trade, and the Samurai were without war, restless and idle. Though the rest of the world was rife with discord, within this corner dwelled harmony. This I thought good, of course, for the Buddha favored harmony and nonviolence.
I had finished my cleansing and was soon to return to my Lady Utano, but I happened to glance up at the moon bridge that arched over the moon pond. To my chagrin I saw a man upon the bridge, leaning over the railing as if in contemplation of the lotus-dotted water. I could not see his face, for the moon was at his back and the mists rose around him thickly. Thinking I had shamed myself, I hurriedly tucked myself away and attempted to flee, but he called out to me.
“It is a mischief we all do by moonlight,” he said.
Thinking him one of Lord Gou’s men, I surrendered myself to my shame and hoped for mercy.
“We can only ask forgiveness from the Buddha,” I said.
The man remained silent a moment. His face was nothing but shadow and mist.
“And we must strive to be worthy of his forgiveness,” he said.
Having thus engaged me in conversation, he beckoned to me and I— fool that I was— approached him, circling round the pond and coming to the edge of the moon bridge. I did not step upon it, however, for it felt as if I was trespassing. Instead, I lingered at its edge, watching the faceless man as he leaned over the railing. He was attired in what would have been a very modest robe if not the for rich dye of dark redness that colored it. As he spoke he continued staring into the moon pond.
“There are demons about,” he said. “They can be very hospitable, and very mannerly as they devour your soul.”
I did not understand his meaning, but my body seemed to. My skin was as gooseflesh, a clammy coldness stealing over me despite the Summertime heat.
“I have had too much to drink,” I said, “and too little sleep for talk of demons. It is a late hour, and the only reasonable people to linger by moonlight are lovers and diviners.”
“That is true,” the man said. “And I am a lover. You, in your own way, are a diviner. So here we meet and linger, fated so by the will of the Buddha.”
“I am no diviner,” I said. “I am a poet and calligrapher. Toshiyuki Watanabe. You have heard of me, no doubt. They call me Ink-Between-Stars and Rainbow-Within-Black. I paint the truths of this world with ink on parchment.”
“I have not heard of you,” the man said, unassuming and unforceful in his impudence. “I have no need of a poet or calligrapher. But a diviner, such as you, will serve well enough.”
I was now impatient to be done with this man. Lady Utano’s legs awaited me, as did her cherry blossom breath and her milky breasts. Moreover, this misty sojourn upset me, and not only my impatience. I was afraid. His talk of demons, and his facelessness, and the chill silence of the garden frightened me. Even the crickets had ceased their song. Now only this man’s voice broke the silence, and though he was atop the bridge I felt his voice at my ear. My own voice startled me. All was jumpy anticipation.
“Enough from madmen,” I said. “If I am going to postpone sleep, it will be for the lotus lips of my Lady Utano, not the words of a drunkard.”
“Neither drunkard nor madman,” the man said faintly. “Only Ren, lover of Ren, met by moonlight and cold steel to separate destined hearts…”
As I turned away I skimmed the moon pond with my eyes, glimpsing a woman’s face in the undisturbed waters. She appeared mournful as she looked up at the moon bridge. I, too, looked up at the bridge, and saw that the drunkard had vanished. Looking down at the waters, I saw that the woman had vanished also. Yet, the man…Ren…his words haunted me into the depths of deep sleep.

***

The next morning I knelt at the low table in my guest room, my brush in hand as I wrote a poem upon a sheet of parchment. Lady Utano stood behind me, eagerly watching my hand as it dragged the ink-kissed brush here and there.

“How sad the lotus
plucked from its native waters—
withers without love.”

“Lovely,” she remarked. “Your kanji is so lovely.”
I grunted.
“Is it about me?” she said, her tone suddenly sad. “Are you to leave soon?”
I grunted again. I never liked these discussions. She knew, before our night together that we were cranes at the same pond for a brief sojourn; nothing more. I had offered her no deceits to forge her delusions, nor did I cloak my intentions in vague promises.
She knelt down beside me, quietly. Her movements were always graceful and unhurried; silent and smooth as the silk kimono she wore. Her black hair lay laxly about her shoulders. She had not yet done it up with her comb, the tresses hanging over her brow. I preferred her to look this way— this dawn look after a night of passions— as I had preferred it in all of my lovers. Her black hair framed her pale, rounded face perfectly. Lady Utano was doubtlessly beautiful. I only ever courted beautiful women. Yet, her lips were longer than most women’s, and hung down mournfully, even when she smiled. It gave her a uniqueness that summoned her often among my forethoughts, whereas other men valued small, rosebud lips. Her long lips should have been disagreeable and morose in make, but they were not; not unless she used them to speak what should have been left unspoken.
“I will always await your return,” she said. When I did not respond, she rose and went to the sliding door. “We have become as intimate as husband and wife,” she said. “Yet, you behave as if there is still a screen between us.”
“There must always be a screen between us,” I said. “Even when we embrace. And, sooner or later, there will be more than a mere screen between us. There will be many lands between us, for that is my destiny.”
She said no more, but withdrew discreetly into the courtyard garden. I sighed and set aside the brush, taking up the parchment. The ink strokes were smooth and the characters perfect, but the abrupt change in position caused the ink to run, like tears, down the page.
It was at this time that a servant of Lord Gou called from the corridor.
“Our Lord requests your presence,” the servant said.
“I will arrive shortly,” I said.
I was of two minds, however: one, to go attend Lord Gou, and the other, to seek Lady Utano. No good would come of the latter, I decided, so I pursued the former.
The servant led me to the Main Hall with its long, low table. Lord Gou was seated at the head of the table, as were his other guests. I will not recall names here, but there was a famous musician known for his skill with a hichiriki, as well as a famous yin-yang diviner, and a servant of Emperor Kokaku. They had already eaten and were talking politely amongst themselves. My plate of food awaited me and I sat to partake of it, for I was famished. As with all of Lord Gou’s hospitalities, the fish and rice and fruit were all very excellent and generous of portion. From stream to plate, and paddy to bowl, Lord Gou undoubtedly prospered.
“Toshiyuki has quite the appetite this morning,” Lord Gou remarked, grinning through his black beard. His lips were already wet with sake, though the sun had yet to rise above the first tier of the Western Pagoda. “Was it yesterday’s festivities that provoked such a hunger, or was it a hunger born in the night?”
“Hunger can beget hunger,” the diviner said, stealing furtive glances around the room, “or so they say.”
“I dreamt of many sweet things,” I said warily. I began to eat, staring down at my food in the hope that they would abandon this conversation.
“And what form did your dreams take?” the musician said, smirking with mischief at Lord Gou, for the musician was a sycophant if ever there was one.
“Mist and shadow and moonlight,” I said. “Ink and parchment and hard work. Nothing more.”
The four men chuckled knowingly and drank from their sake cups. They had been drinking for the last three days, halting only for sleep and laughter. I, too, had been drinking similarly, though I restrained myself from equal measure for the sake of clarity. After all, I had a purpose here, as did the diviner and the musician. We were guests, and so had functions to serve. I was to copy the Lotus Sutra for Lord Gou, and to write original poetry in honor of his esteemed personage. The musician was to provide music, naturally. As for the diviner, I knew not what his purpose was. Perhaps Lord Gou feared that the Oni of Mount Asami might eventually reach his province, the diviner thereafter employed to march them out of this hitherto untainted region. He was a very renowned diviner, supposedly, and was wrinkled with age and experience. His bald head elicited respect among many, but it merely reminded me of a peeled, rotten egg.
Compulsively, I composed a poem in his honor.

“Hateful blades seek blood
as do crows their charnel nest—
many eggs shall hatch.”

I did not actually understand the poem I had composed. It was a mystery to me, as was the diviner. Yet, as to everyone’s knowing humor, I understood the seed of their mirth. Lord Gou believed I had indulged the concubine he had selected for me during my stay as his guest. She had been a lovely woman, true, but Lady Utano had beguiled my eye with a greater light. Thus, I sent the courtesan away and had, instead, dared the courtship of Lady Utano instead. She was his niece. For him to learn of our tryst would have assured death, like stench in a stubborn wound. He would need only summon the Samurai he had stationed outside of his manor, and thus have my head quickly served to him.
“How go my scrolls?” Lord Gou asked, leaving off the former subject at last. “I expect my Lotus Sutras to be peerless, for my sins have been peerless indeed.” He laughed, and so, too, did the musician. He then stopped laughing, glowering at the musician until the latter’s voice died like a mouse in a fox’s teeth.
“There is nothing funny in it, boy,” he snapped. “You would do well to hold your tongue or else you will never work song upon it again.”
The musician stared at his lap, his head bowed. Lord Gou scowled at him a moment longer, then turned to me again, smiling. His smile was without humor.
“So,” he said, “how have you progressed with my Lotus Sutras?”
“They go well,” I said. “They are some of the best I have ever made.”
“That is good,” he said, “for your sake as well as my own. I am rewarding you handsomely for them, and so I demand that they be of extraordinary beauty.”
“This version of the Namu Myoho Renge Kyo shall be my finest version,” I promised. “When I write it the very sight shall absolve you of whatever negative karma you have collected. Like water carrying away tea leaves, you shall be poured out as a cup and cleansed.”
“That reminds me,” said Lord Gou said, motioning toward his servants. “The Tea Ceremony. We have much entertainment arranged for today, but we must also observe tradition.”
Sweets were brought forth, as were the Lord’s personal porcelain water kettle and his silver ladle. Cups were distributed as well, each filled with water and matcha, stirred to perfection. Lord Gou did not prepare the tea himself, but had his servants do it. This was not true to the ceremony, but none of us dared say so. Having our own cup, too, was not in keeping with the ceremony. In truth, none of it was really in keeping with tradition, but then again neither was I. I was, after all, a man of the Floating World. I wrote the Lotus Sutra for a living and spent many of my days practicing it for my own vanity and pride rather than the call of the Buddha. But there hadto be a balance in all things.
We drank of our tea slowly, to show appreciation of the tea and of our Host. I did not eat the sweets, however, for I had eaten my fill of the food already provided to me. Soon sake was offered, and readily accepted, and we all drank ourselves silly throughout the day and night.

***

The next morning I awoke, alone, in the dimness of a predawn murk. Groggy with sake, I stood unsteadily, walking toward the sliding screen door that led out into the garden. I reached for the door, then halted, gasping in fright. Above the door, hanging by a piece of thread, was a Noh mask. I reached and took it down, looking over it. It was like most Noh masks. It was made of wood, fashioned in the visage of a smiling woman and painted white with red lips. Her eyes were black. Thinking I must have somehow hung it while in my drunken stupor, I laughed at myself and set it on my table, beside my parchment and ink well.
It was a hot, sweltering sort of day. The sun lacquered the world with its hot resin. My Host and all of his guests retreated indoors, to the Main Hall, where his servants fanned us until the cooler evening hours when the sun could set, the moon could rise, and the shadows could steal over the courtyard. We then went to the garden to walk among the Chrysanthemums and the cherry blossoms. Lord Gou spoke to the minister sent by the Emperor while the musician played his hichiriki. The yin-yang diviner performed some rituals and put ofudas here and there, over every screen door on the veranda. I stared into the moon pond, wondering if I would see a woman’s face in among the lotuses and the carp. I saw no woman. And then I did. It was Lady Utano. She said nothing, but stared into the water, much as I did. When I opened my mouth to say something, however, she walked away, leaving me to my reflection in the still water; looking lonely and sad. I turned away from it in disapproval.

***

Rain fell for three days, washing away the ofudas. It cooled Lord Gou’s house, the wet breath of the persistent storm both refreshing and inspiriting. Many poems did I write, and many passages from the Lotus Sutra did I copy; and quite beautifully, I must add.
Yet, it was not altogether pleasant. A melancholy fell upon the others, including Gou and Lady Utano. Gou brooded, listening to the musician’s incessant songs and fingering the tanto he kept in his robe belt. I noticed that his hand went to that tanto often when he was troubled. Lady Utano avoided me whenever she could. But we were trapped indoors by the rain. When we passed in the halls she often paused and gave me a despondent frown that instantly darkened the day more sadly than any storm cloud.
Upon the second day of rain I sat on the veranda and sipped tea, enjoying the sweetness of the rain and the bitterness of the tea leaves. The garden was modestly fragrant with a Chrysanthemum breath. The flowers welcomed the showers as a leper a balm. I saw that drunkard upon the bridge again, seemingly unmindful of the downpour. He brooded worse than Lord Gou, staring as always into the moon pond at his rain-shattered reflection.
A servant to Lord Gou’s household arrived, just then, bringing more tea.
“The fool is at it again,” I said to him.
“Fool?” he said, apparently afraid that an honored guest had spoken ill of Lord Gou.
“On the bridge,” I said, pointing…and nearly spilling my new cup of tea in my lap.
“I see no one,” the old man said.
“That is because you are drunk, too!” I said, scolding him before sending him on his way. As I blew upon the hot cup of tea, I stared at the man on the bridge. He was a puzzle demanding that I solve it, and yet there may have been little mystery to him after all. He seemed such a hopeless soul, and I did not pity him.
“He will catch his death in the rain,” I remarked aloud to myself.
“Tears earn as many deaths.”
I was surprised to find Lady Utano near me, behind a screen. She stood quite stolidly, and at a distance, for the sake of propriety. It was absurd to see her this way, stiffened with formality and manners, for we both knew each other’s bodies and pleasures and neither screen nor pretense should ever hope to undo such strongly established intimacy.
“Your presence is as refreshing as Spring rain,” I said.
“That is too obvious a compliment for a poet of your renown,” she said, rather flatly. “Perhaps you should apply more skill.”
“As I applied skill to you as I had you in my arms,” I said, boldly.
She did not seem taken aback, her husky voice rolling smooth as a water-worn stone. “Do not credit yourself with all of that night’s pleasures,” she said. “What good is a brush without a satisfying well of ink? It will run ragged and dry on the page without a proper dip.”
I could not help but smile. “Indeed,” I said. “You deserve as much credit.” My smile faded, however. “And yet I know that you are not as satisfied by that night as I was. You feel I have abused your heart. For that…I can only say that it was a pleasure between a man and a woman possessed of their own wills. Just as you cannot credit me solely for the pleasure, you can neither credit me solely for the pain. That we must depart was well known to you prior to your having come into my room.”
Lady Utano was quiet for a long time, her silence throbbing with rainfall on the overhanging eaves.
“Things are always more rapturous by moonlight,” she said. “And how often we find the flaws by dawn’s lantern. Yet, I should like to be at your side, despite the flaws that come to light.”
“Perhaps you know that wayward man,” I said, seeking to steer this conversation elsewhere. I pointed to the figure on the bridge. He looked almost as if made of mist, so awash was he in rain. “Perhaps it is you for whom he mopes like a lovelorn boy.”
“I do not know whom you mean,” she said, “unles you speak of yourself.”
I laughed once—a short, hearty guffaw. “I would never mope as he does. Not for love lost. For my life’s work, perhaps, but never a broken heart.”
Lady Utano was quiet, again, for a long time. When she became quiet like this it was as if the world was biding as she gathered her thoughts.
“Perhaps I shall become a demon,” she said, offhandedly. “Then I could gather bones and saikai cups and ash and make a man like yourself to be my husband. Or perhaps I will simply torture him for eternity.” She turned away, her tone as soft as rain on Chrysanthemum petals. “No, that would not be right, or satisfying, for I would always know he was not you.”
She sounded as if she had quietly gone mad, and it struck me keenly. I tried to explain to her, as evenly as possible, the impossibility of a conjoint life.
“Lady Utano,” I said “I am of the Floating World. You do not belong in my world. No respectable woman does.”
“And yet you have invited me in for a moon,” she said.
“What is dared by moonlight may never be dared by daylight,” I said. “You know this. The Shining Lord of Letters must write the Sutras with a hand unencumbered by earthly burdens and obligations.”
“You are no Genji,” she said. “Your luster dims upon repeated viewing, and growing familiarity.”
She abruptly left. I tried to rise to follow her, but spilled my tea on my sleeves. What a shame! It would stain, no doubt.
***

The next morning I woke to another surprise. It was a Noh mask, this one’s smile strained more greatly than the first. The ruts of its cheeks were deep, painful at the edges of the woman’s mouth, and there was a desperation in the brow around the eyes of the mask. It was as if the mask was being tortured while still trying to counterfeit a smile. I had not drank enough the prior evening to forget myself, and I knew that I had not hung the mask in my room. Someone else was taunting me. Perhaps it was that mischief-maker upon the bridge. If I ever caught him out there again I would flog him. I promised myself thus as I set the mask with the one from yesterday, stacking them to one side of the table.
The rains departed, leaving in their wake an effusive envelopment of mist. It made the manor seem a haunted, lonely place upon cloud-wreathed mountaintops. Sometimes it seemed that I walked through the halls without ever coming upon any other person. The mists seeped into the house, and isolated us all. My calligraphy failed me often while the chilly mists clung to my hands and I felt as if there were hands in the mist tickling me, distracting me, fiddling at my ear to ruin all my enterprise.
When the mists finally lifted, Lord Gou had his servants summon all of his guests to the garden. We sat upon the veranda, near the moon pond, and basked in the sun as it finally woke from its long slumber. Lord Gou appeared, then, carrying with him a tea pot and ladle. His servants presented to each of us cup. Lord Gou addressed us.
“The rains now gone,” he said, “and the sun now risen, brightening my home, I should like to properly perform the Tea Ceremony for all of my guests. Ill-humor has not allowed me to be a good Host as of late and this, I hope, will make amends.”
The musician and diviner attempted to explain away Lord Gou’s inattendance, offering excuses and pardons for him in turn.
“No!” he said, nearly stomping. “I will not hear it! I have been disgraceful, and so allow me this small atonement.”
Lord Gou then proceeded to perform the Tea Ceremony— precisely, methodically, almost humbly. It took some time, for he seemed obsessed with observing all of the protocols of the ritual exactly, and the rest of us waited as patiently as possible. However, I could not loosen the irritation I felt at this protracted waste of time. I had the Sutra to write; I did not wish to squander time on tea or pretense.
The sun was at its zenith, blasting the garden with its heat, when Lord Gou had served us all so that we might finally drink. The minister was the first to sip thoughtfully at his tea, for he had been enraptured by Lord Gou’s grand gesture and wished to reciprocate immediately in gratitude to his Host. I was hesitant, being distracted by another poem that wove and unwound itself in my mind, and so was slower in partaking. I never did partake, in truth. Instead, the minister sipped, then spat the tea back into his cup, his grateful eyes suddenly agog with disgust. The musician was less subtle. He gulped at his cup, then sputtered it out all over himself, gagging and coughing and then finally scooping up water from the moon pond to rinse out his mouth.
Lord Gou was outraged. His face sweated with anger, like sesame oil in want of flame.
“What is the meaning of this insolence!” he roared, drawing the tanto he kept ever at his belt. Its blade gleamed, but not so fiercely as the fury in his eyes. “I will have you two gutted like fish and thrown to the dogs!”
The musician and the minister begged mercy. Meanwhile, the yin-yang diviner sipped at his cup, deep appreciation smoothing his wrinkled face.
“I do not understand your complaints,” he said. “This is the best cup of tea I have ever drank.”
I raised my cup of tea to my nose, sniffing. It was much bitterer than matcha ever had right to be. But what was truly wrong with it? I sniffed at it some more and realized that it smelled of iron; of blood.
“Lord Gou,” I said, rising to my feet. “There is something wrong with the water. It smells of…corruption.”
Lord Gou turned upon me, his apoplectic rage not unlike an Oni’s. “Corruption? What nonsense is this?!”
“It tastes of blood!” the musician wailed, prostrating himself on the veranda to beg mercy. “There is a curse upon the tea leaves!”
“Or upon the water,” the diviner said, struggling to stand and rallying to explain. “Wherefrom did you retrieve the water, my lord?”
Lord Gou turned upon one of his servants, grabbing the young man by the collar of his robe and brandishing the tanto. “Where did the water come from, little whelp?”
The hapless servant stuttered and yelped like a dog being throttled. “From the rainwater, your esteemed glory!”
“I see,” said the diviner. “So what I sensed was amiss after all.”
Lord Gou released the young servant— with a violent shove that sent him sprawling upon the veranda— then addressed the diviner. “What did you sense?”
“There is a curse upon your house, my lord,” the diviner said, bowing. “There is a matter unresolved among spirits here. They seek a toll. They seek revenge.”
Lord Gou’s face paled but a moment, then darkened with redoubled rage. “That is ridiculous,” he said, sheathing his tanto. “I have no sins with shadows to fear. This is a house of honor! A house of nobility and pride! Spirits would do well to flee here or else be cast out by the Buddha from all realms but the most infernal.”
“I do not doubt you, my lord,” the diviner said. “But I sense something terribly wrong here. My talismans have all been repelled by an evil force. I cannot even prepare new ones without the paper catching fire in my hands.”
He proceeded to demonstrate, setting a paper talisman upon the table and using a stick of charcoal to write a benediction. No sooner had he finished the characters for blessing did the talisman flare and dissolve into ash and smoke.
All stood and stared, amazed, including myself. Why had my Sutras been spared by this malevolent presence?
“Worry not, my lord,” the diviner said. “I will exorcize these spirits soon enough. Wherever they lurk, they shall be expunged.”
The Emperor’s minster comforted Lord Gou with promises to seek more diviners to help the one already in his employ. Thus, he wrote a letter and had it dispatched to Kyoto. In the meantime, the diviner set about Lord Gou’s household, performing cleansing rituals. The musician stayed with them, and most of the servants attended them, as they attended Lord Gou. As for myself, I retired to the garden, for I felt that I would only intrude.

***

I saw Lady Utano playing a shamisen beneath a red flowering plum tree. She did not see me, for she was turned away, looking out over the moon pond as she played in the purple shadows of the tree. Her profile was lovely and forlorn, her fingers gingerly striking with their pick upon the taut strings of the shamisen. I opened my mouth to say something, but the fluttering of her fingers across the strings startled me to silence. For her fingernails fluttered pink like cherry blossoms upon a wind-struck bough; and it seemed both beautiufl and ominous, like the Lady herself.
The chrysanthemums were by daylight no longer pale white bulbs, but glowed brilliantly in many colors. Yellow, orange, purple, red. How much things can change by daylight! What was black and white and otherworldly was now vibrant and colorful and undeniably real. The only thing that remained the same was the beauty of Lady Utano. In a world of impermanence she seemed an untarnished jewel. To see her was to want her. To watch her was to desire possession of her. To touch her was to lose one’s soul to her.
Or so it seemed to me.
Yet, I would never attain the same status as Matsuo Basho if I took a wife. Rather, I would need to renounce urban life and venture into the countryside, heading wherever poetic inspiration might greet me. Yet, I was too enamored of city life and its easy pleasures. And I was too enamored of women. Especially Lady Utano. I could see, even then, her black hair flowing like ink upon the pale, smooth silk of her body, the latter gleaming and lustrous as the dreaming moon. Her skin was immaculate, with neither an inky droplet of a mole nor the obscene crease of a wrinkle. Her eyes were dark and hot like burning incense. What was her fragrance if not plum petals cloyed with dew? Her voice— which I loved most of all—was husky and heady, lacking the childish squeak of so many other women when in the throes of passion. She had a heavy breath, and her voice was a primal spirit echoing from deep within the cave of her mountainous bosom.

This was her song:

“Lotus, fair, upon the water,
so lonely now, at the midday hour,
my unmarried daughter;
Lotus, fair, in the silken shade,
such a lonely flower
to do as you are bade…”

She saw me, and pretended to ignore me. I did not mind, for she continued her song, and I yearned for nothing half so much as her song.

“Lotus, fair, in the vase,
taken by a giant’s greedy fist,
O you weep in this dry place;
Lotus, fair, in the dust,
saved not when kissed
by the dew of lust…”

Abruptly— almost violently— she shoved aside the shamisen against the trunk of the tree and turned her back to me. Yet, I would not be put off so easily as a musical instrument.
“I think you could play a fine song upon most anything,” I said, “even a blade of grass, if need be.”
She remained with her back to me, yet there was a coquettishness to her posture that seemed to invite me. Perhaps it was the serpentine curves of the spine beneath the robe.
“Yes,” she said, “but crude, lowly things often presume that they make that music alone, and so we must be selective of the instruments we play.”
Doubtlessly, she was speaking thorns at me. It did not matter, though, for they delighted me as much as her petals might. Her mind was a delicious dish, too.
I saw, too, that her hands clenched her flowery robe among her trembling fingers. I thought her fingers restless. Their lissome loveliness provoked much mischief in my heart.
“Should your fingers be restless for further play,” I said, “I should like to volunteer myself as the instrument of your joy.”
“My fingers are taloned,” she warned, fluttering her fingers so that I might see their nails. “They will not stop for blood or bone or scream or plea.” She sighed. “Should you take them as wives to your fingers, however, they would serve as ever it might please you.”
“But I will not sell a false hope for such a delightful service,” I said, “no more than a kappa will sell his water to a thirsty man. I cannot marry you, as I have said before. Should not my honesty attest to some honor in my soul? I have ever been a servant of the truth, even when concerning you.”
“A poet’s truth always implies promises never fulfilled,” she said, “even when speaking of honor.”
I watched her leave, and not solely to look for a fox’s tail hidden beneath her kimono. Her stride beguiled, too, as did so many other aspects of her manifest form. Yet, I knew that wherever she walked, and however graceful, it was a path not my own. I walked a path plotted on paper and shadowed by ink. How else would I rival or surpass that famous poet, Matsuo Basho? His inky shadow obscured me from the fame I deserved. It seemed that I should never even outshine the shade of my namesake, Fujiwara no Toshiyuki. I drowned in the thin shadow of his name, paddling in vain to emerge as my own legend to outlast the ages.

***

I could not escape Lady Utano’s song. It was as a small centipede spiraling in my ear, gnawing at my mind. Thus I welcomed the distraction that Lord Gou offered later that evening.
“Come, let us think of other things than pollutant spirits and cleansing rituals,” he said. “We have more entertainment for tonight. Something special! Something enchanting!”
Lord Gou seemed quite pleased and excited. Perhaps the entertainment awaiting us was special, or perhaps he was merely relieved at having his house purified. Perhaps both. I followed his entourage into the Main Hall where his long, low table resided. At the head of the room was something new: a long black curtain drawn about the far wall. It seemed we were to be audience to a Bunraku show. This diversion was at least worthwhile, I thought. It enticed me more than any fussy, stifling Tea Ceremony could.
Lord Gou bid us sit. The musician took up a shamisen, very simliar to that which Lady Utano had played in the courtyard. Evidently he would be providing the dramatic atmosphere for the performance. I hoped his skill with it was superior to his skill with the hichiriki. He had in his hand a bachi with which to strum the strings, as opposed to Lady Utano’s free-finger plucking style.
“Seat yourselves, my friends,” Lord Gou said. “The show begins soon!”
The show began immediately, and without further ado. Two puppets emerged from behind the black curtain. One was a man and one was a woman. The man greeted the woman with a bow, and she bowed to him in turn. He then came forward as the shamisen was struck affectionately. She tried to turn away, but the man bowed to her again and she simply demurred, then invited him to walk beside her. They strolled together as the music was struck placidly, like the falling of easy rain on a lake. The two puppets turned to one another and seemingly kissed. A beautiful note sounded, punctuating their moment with simple grace. It was a quaint conceit, and it pleased me to see puppets so masterfully conducted.
Suddenly, another puppet appeared. He wore a lavish kimono and a dark beard. A harsh note was struck upon the shamisen and several other puppets appeared with swords. There were so many that I marveled that so many puppeteers should not only orchestrate their puppets so adroitly around one another, but that they should do from behind the curtain so perfectly as to render themselves utterly invisible! I fain believed that Thousand-Armed Kannon himself was behind the curtain, arraying the simulacra of life with his divine hands.
The puppet woman was taken to the puppet man with the beard and he pressed himself unwantedly upon her. Her lover attempted to intervene, but was cut down by the warriors amidst discordant twanging of the shamisen. I looked at the musician, wondering if he was suffering a paroxysm of the fingers. But his hands moved not at all, gnarled with terror as the shamisen’s strings trembled and shook of their own accord. I then noticed Lord Gou rising to his feet, livid with confounded rage.
“How dare you mock me in my own home!” he roared. “How dare you question my authority with this…this…damnable willfulness!”
He rushed forward and tore aside the puppet curtain. The puppets collapsed immediately through the air and fell limp upon the floor. The area beyond the curtain was wholly empty, revealing only the far wall behind it. Upon seeing this, Lord Gou fell back with a startled cry. The diviner rushed forward to attend his Host. Lord Gou quivered upon the floor, clutching at the diviner’s robe.
“Deliver me from these foul spirits!” our Host pleaded.
The commotion drew the servants of the household into the Main Hall, followed by the true puppeteers. All were baffled and confused, including myself. Upon seeing the puppeteers, Lord Gou rose to his feet, the wrath in his face blazing and his teeth gnashing within his beard.
“You! You seek to make a fool of me!” He drew his tanto, ready to spill blood. “I will castrate the lot of you and throw your manhoods to the crows!”
The puppeteers ran from the room in a clumsy rush. Lady Utano intervened on their behalf, gliding forward into a low bow. She was like a prayer hushing a violent storm.
“My lord,” she said, “they have been telling me of their journey from Kyoto. They cannot the source of this mischief.”
“I agree with the Lady,” the yin-yang diviner said. “This is the work of spirits. Yokai, possibly. Oni.”
Lord Gou sheathed his blade, turning upon the diviner with a snarl.
“And whose fault is that?” he said. “You were supposed to purify my home!”
“There is a darker stain on this estate than I realized,” he said, seemingly unconcerned with his Host’s fury. “I will resume my rituals immediately.”
Lord Gou merely grunted, then turned upon the musician. “Cease your noise, imbecile or I will have your fingers severed one by one and your tongue…” He did not elaborate on the punishment, for his last word fell from his gawping mouth like a dead bird. He saw that the musician had tossed the shamisen from himself and that the instrument played itself as it lay untouched on the floor. It played a dreadful discord before its noise died abruptly with the snapping of its three strings.
***

I had a terrible dream about puppets. They pirouetted without hands in a great darkness. Men, women, children— all dancing as they floated in the air. Then, gradually, I realized they did have a master that manipulated them all, and that master gradually formed from moonlight within the darkness, the darkness being black wings upon which he flew
But before I could see the evil one’s face I woke. It was late in the night, or perhaps early in the morning, just before the dew could gather upon the grass and leaves and petals. The room seemed crowded with invisible specters, all watching me. I told myself it was a ridiculous sensation born of childish fears, but could not slip from its clammy touch. Rising, I went outdoors, into the garden, to pace a bit and to breathe the calming open air.
The man was on the moon bridge again, staring into the moon pond. He waved to me and I went to him, not really knowing why.
“Unable to sleep,” he said. “We share the same affliction. Doomed without rest and without end.”
His back was to the moonlight, and so his face was black shadow. His robe was richly red. It must have cost him much to have such a colorful robe.
“Perhaps we should drink more,” I suggested, “or perhaps we should drink less.”
“Diviner,” he said, “you are not enjoying your stay in Lord Gou’s hospitality. Most would question why the navel of paradise should chafe so raw a debaucher.”
“I am neither debaucher or diviner,” I said, without much feeling. “There are kami haunting this place. But it is no matter. The diviner— the true diviner—is working to purify these grounds.”
The ghost was silent a while, staring into the moon pond. “Do not trust that diviner,” he said. “He is not what he seems.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
Before the man could answer me I heard a great flapping of wings near the roof of the manor. I turned and glimpsed a shadowy bird passing astride the air. I could not tell what kind of bird it was, nor its size. It plunged out of sight. Returning my attention to the man on the bridge, I found that he had gone. I dropped my eyes to the moon pond, among the moon and carp and lotuses. I saw no one there, either. Feeling more unnerved, I returned to my room and attempted sleep once again. It did not come willingly, but had to be wrestled for obedience. It was a lost battle.

***

I had not slept well. My grogginess clung to me like a goblin. I tried to shake it only to find that it had crawled in behind my eyes. I did not attempt to produce any of the Lotus Sutra that day, knowing such an endeavor was doomed from the start. Instead, I drank tea and sat beneath a red flowering plum tree, away from everyone. Lord Gou’s servants sought to better my health with remedial herbs and honey. I was informed that Lord Gou himself had suffered a bout of ill health also and was now resting in his room, tended by the yin-yang diviner. The musician and the minister seemed of adequate haleness, for the former played his music incessantly near the moon pond and the latter enjoyed the company of many prostitutes within his quarters. I did not know which offended me more — the imbecilically joyful music or the oleaginous laughter of the minister while his whores giggled indulgently. I swooned with fatigue and what grew to become a fever.

***

I did not remember coming to my room, but there I lay, on the floor with a pillow under my head and a kimono draped over me. The silk was soft, but it burned like fire. Someone knelt next to me, my eyes too blurry to see their face clearly. To see was to hurt. To think was to hurt. To exist was to hurt. The Buddha was right: existence is pain and sorrow.
A breath passed across my face, sweet as plums and yet hot as dragonfire.
“The flames of Hell can be felt in this life,” she said, placing a cool hand over my hot forehead. “We must not fan them with sin and vice or Hell will come for us before we can atone.”
“Utano,” I said.
“Rest,” she said. She laid a moist cloth over my brow and then sang a song. Even in my agony her song was beautiful. Her song was restive sleep after a grievous journey.

“The Wishing Jewel you gave to me
was as dew upon the tree
and it shines with a light all its own,
but now I walk alone—alone.

“The Jewel you gave fell with the wind
through leaves at our Summer’s end,
and though I hold it, the winds still moan
while I walk on, alone—alone.

“Foxes laugh among sunshowers,
haunting pagoda towers,
and while my heart becomes as a stone
I walk this night alone— alone.

“The Jewel is hot as a fresh tear,
yet, lover, you come not near.
Willful fox! You refuse to atone,
so I walk forever alone…”

I fell asleep in the lull of her lilting voice.

***

I heard wings—huge wings—thrashing the air. Something heavy landed upon the roof, and then leapt down into the gardens. A large shadow, like a bird, stalked the screen door, pacing restlessly.
“I smell death,” it said with a raspy voice. “So much delicious death in this estate. My brethren will wish to roost here, in time. But they indulge the great feast of the famine. So many starved dead— what good is picking their bones? Better for fat, juicy souls glutted on decadence. No piety. No blessings to choke you.”
The creature laughed, squawking like a crow, and then walked away. I was overcome with fear and fever and fainted beneath my fatigue.

***

Breath wafted over me like charnel smoke over a battlefield. It stank of death and hopelessness. I dared not open my eyes.
“I will attend the poet,” said a voice.
“I am attending him,” Lady Utano said.
“But my lady, it is not proper,” the voice said. “Your uncle objects mightily…”
“He would object more mightily to a death in his home,” Lady Utano said. “And the poet has improved greatly in my care.”
“A sick man must be tended by one who knows the spirit realm and who can defend him from its malicious forces.”
“I am the only malicious force this man needs to fear,” Lady Utano said.
“I…see,” said the diviner.
I succumbed to sleep once again.

***

My fever broke, in time, and a new day was heralded by birdsong. Drenched in sweat, I sat up. Lady Utano’s kimono still remained upon me. The Lady herself sipped tea at my table. She wore only her white undergarments. My hand reached for her, unconsciously, and she offered me a cup of tea instead. I took it tenderly and sipped as if it was her bare breast. My thirst did not abate for many cups.
“You are so false, Toshiyuki,” she said. “I wonder if you also keep a little bottle of tears up your sleeves when encountering wiser women who are warier of a man’s sweet lies.”
“Only a bottle of ink,” I said lightly.
“Then perhaps you should mark your face as becomes you: with whiskers of a dishonest kitsune. Your shadow is vulpine. Either you are possessed by a yako or you are a fox.”
“I have been told that I am a diviner,” I said. I laughed weakly, and it hurt as it rattled out of my chest. “Perhaps my mother was a tenko. I am of a vulpine nature, admittedly.”
“And my uncle is like the ocean,” she said. “Often even when calm there is a legion of sea giants warring below the surface. Imagine what might happen if he were to learn of our love?”
“This is not love,” I said. “It is a delightful dalliance. Nothing more. Nor did I promise more.”

***

Sometimes I felt as a Bunraku puppet in a theater, performing in accordance with the will of other forces. When Lord Gou summoned me to the Main Hall I thought it was to congratulate me on my recovery. Instead, he did not seem to know of my illness, but rather had invited me to witness a troupe of dancers from Kyoto that had come to perform for his patronage.
“Come, Toshiyuki!” he said, hailing me as I entered. “We have been expecting you for some time! A fine entertainment awaits us tonight!”
I took my seat at my Host’s long, low table. There awaited me— as there awaited everyone at the table—a cup which smelled of strange earthly odors. I lifted the cup tenderly, for it was a cup of some fine resplendence. Made of smooth porcelain, it was white and had kanji upon its sides which read “remember”. I believed it was of the saikai type of pottery. Saikai meant “reunion”, but why such exquisite cups were called by such a name I did not know. As for the liquid within it, I knew even less.
“What is this?” I asked. “It is not sake.”
“No, it is not sake,” said the diviner, smiling. His rotten-egg face wrinkled terribly and his voice croaked harshly. No doubt the many prayers and cleansing rituals had strained his throat hoarse. “It is a special drink made from maitake mushrooms. I made it for this occasion. It seemed fitting, for why should we not partake of the ‘dancing’ mushrooms while watching lovely creatures engage in dance?”
“Exactly so!” Lord Gou said, raising his cup and draining it to the dregs. “Let us enjoy in all senses this entertainment I have arranged this night!”
The minister raised his own cup in agreement, though he could not drain his own cup as well as Lord Gou. He choked and coughed halfway through the quaffing of it. The musician drank his intermittently, playing his hichiriki between sips.
Merriment was all well and good, but nobler works required my attention now that I had recovered my health. I was of the Floating World, but decadence chafes without hard work and sweat to lubricate the leisure. I resented the squandering of this time.
Yet, I knew better than to be an ungrateful guest, insomuch as could be perceived. So, I sipped at the maitake drink. It was not so sweet as it was salty. I managed to drink half of the cup before the dancers gathered at the head of the Main Hall, preparing to showcase their talents. They wore yukatas, for to dance in this Summer heat was to invite suffering. The women also held pretty little fans in their hands, masking themselves occasionally with them as they spun and gestured to the piping of flutes and the beating of drums.
And they danced well. As I drank I watched the robed figures perform. It seemed to be a Bon Odori dance. I had seen it performed once during the Obon festival in the Ugo province.
Lord Gou growled suddenly, and slammed his fist upon the table. “I did what was within my right!” he said. “The two of them belonged to me! I am the governor of this region!”
The minister swooned, smiling laxly like a drunkard. “I knew you were a kitsune, my love, but I do not care. I love you as deeply as the cherry blossoms love the winds. I tremble at your merest movement, your gentlest sigh…”
The musician had abandoned playing his hichiriki, and was instead arguing with someone who was not present beside him. “You may have taught me the song, but I brought it to life. What good is a thought of music until you breathe life into it? I breathe life into all of the songs you killed with your ineptness and fumbling fingers…”
It was all so bizarre. They sat at the table, yet seemed to be far away with their souls. Suddenly, the others vanished— as did the Main Hall, the table, and the dancers. I was standing in a hall, slowly walking down its corridor. I saw my father. He looked sad and he shook his head. I tried to ask him what was wrong, why he was ashamed, and he gestured to the hall beyond him. I followed it, coming to a former lover I knew a few years ago. She looked brokenhearted. I tried to explain to her, once again, that I was fated for things greater than being a husband to a courtesan. She stepped aside, her back against the wall as I passed. Many other lovers did I pass, one after the other. They, too, stepped aside, left or right, passing into the walls until only their faces remained, frozen in a single expression. They were a hall of Noh masks— some sad, some demonic. They accused me silently with their eyes. Flames spewed from their mouths and the vision clouded over with suffocating smoke. I thought I would die ere it lifted.
And then it lifted.
I was once again in the Main Hall, and I saw the dancers spinning in harmony with each other like Karakuri machines. The drums continued to beat and the flutes continued to pipe. The old diviner was staring at me with his beady eyes. A faint smile touched his lips and I felt angry, and afraid.
Lord Gou stood, then, and went to the dancers, joining them.
“Let us all dance!” he exclaimed, mimicking the graceful movements of the dancers with his own clumsy, heavy-footed parody. “Dance for your ancestors! Dance with a light soul and a full belly! Dance away the worries of this willful world!”
The minister rose and joined the dance, grinning as if he was dancing with his kitsune bride amidst sun-showers. The musician staggered upright and stumbled into the troupe also, dancing vengefully as if to spite the apparition with which he was formerly arguing. The last to join in the dancing was the yin-yang diviner, cawing with laughter. I watched them all dance, wanting to quit their company and retire to my quiet room. My head was heavy with drink and the vision I had seen. My heart was heavier.
As I stood to leave I noticed that there was something wrong with the shadows of those dancing. The dancers had shadows shaped like small animals spread upon the floor. Badgers and raccoons and monkeys. Lord Gou’s shadow, meanwhile, reeled in the form of a great bull as he twirled and gestured. But I had had too much maitake to drink, and still felt the weakness of the fever. Discreetly I returned to my room while my Host danced a madness among his honored guests.

***

I dreamt that night of Mount Asama erupting into the sky. Its mouth expelled a fire-froth that spilled over all lands, from sea to sea, and the black smoke became a million crows while the liquid-fire marched forth as red-faced Onis. They conquered the world, stamping underfoot all beauty there was to behold. It was an army of land and air come to blight the earth with death and corruption.

***

The next morning the sun rose pale through heavy mists. It inspired me to compose a poem for that phantom dawn.

“The world was aglow
with dreams of white, chilly fire;
hot sun in cold mists.”

There was another Noh mask in my room. Like the others it hung above the screen door leading out into the garden. It was of a madwoman’s smile, her eyes red and her lips increscent overmuch, as if to wring her face of blood and tears. I took it down and added it to the stack hitherto collected. Three I had now. How many more would follow?
I was brought some fruits and rice for breakfast. Lord Gou was holding a meeting between himself, the minister, and the head of a clan to the South. I was granted liberty of the garden, but was to remain outside of the Main Hall. I decided to sit on the veranda and continue copying the Lotus Sutra. It was a productive morning. The hours flowed like my ink— smooth, serene, perfect. The mists remained, however, and I welcomed them. It was not hot. The earth was overcast with the bosom of the sky. Eventually I realized that someone was sitting near me.
“Lady Utano,” I said, my brush still dancing in my hand. “How does the day find you?”
“Willingly,” she said, “unlike yourself.”
Her voice was calm and level, as usual, yet the words themselves smacked faintly of bitterness.
“I have been very busy,” I said. “As you can see, the Lotus Sutra requires much time and concentration. It is a holy enterprise.”
“To balance your decadent lifestyle,” she said. “Are you atoning for my uncle or for yourself?”
“I write the Lotus Sutra to save souls,” I said. “To raise them to a higher realm upon death. What I do between my work is of little consequence to Buddha.”
“Perhaps you should cut your topknot and shave your hair,” she said, “and take residence in a temple as a monk. It would be a better means for you to serve the Buddha than through whoring and drinking.”
“There are not enough women in a monastery to make me stay,” I said, “otherwise I would gladly join.”
It was a jest…mostly…but she did not take it so.
“You should take care in the company you keep,” she said. “I asked only for your topknot. Another may seek to cut off more above your shoulders.”
“Then I would gladly retire to Neko-no-Shima,” I said, “and live among the cats there. They would not judge me. Cats are divine creatures, you know.”
“No,” she said. “Cats would not judge you. So long as you give them food, they are happy. But Woman needs more than food to be happy. She needs warmth and welcome. She needs a constant heart to match her own constancy. And Woman judges often, and judges severely. Izanami will give her verdict, in time, and her demons will follow.”
I looked up from my work, at last, to behold Lady Utano, but she had gone.
“And Woman is as sneaky as a cat when she wishes to be,” I muttered. “Her claws hidden within soft paws.”

***

“And what of the clans to the Southwest?”
“They are at it again like snakes and centipedes,” the minister said.
Lord Gou frowned with displeasure. His meeting had ended and now he was walking the garden with the minister, the diviner, and the hapless musician. I listened to them as I continued my work.
“It is a shame,” he said, “that the Emperor’s subjects should dishonor him with such petty infighting.”
“It is the famine, my lord,” the minister said. “It stokes the flames of discontent. When even the nobles starve, blood will suffice.”
“I would never stoop to such bestial disorder,” Lord Gou vowed. “Order must be maintained. What good is a provincial leader if he cannot rein in his own people? Willfulness should not be tolerated in any measure.”
“My lord,” the minister said, “your home is untouched by the famine that hurts the rest of the Emperor’s lands. I have been to see them, and they could but offer me rice and bits of soy-spiced fish to flavor it. Such small fare cannot pacify for long in such small portions.”
“It is true that we have been fortunate,” Lord Gou admitted with great pride. “Not only are our stores plentiful, but the sea and the gardens yield great offerings to my household. The Buddha is with us, for we have been blessed by all aspects of Order.”
The minister smiled. “Are you sure you have not sacrificed to bloodthirsty monkey gods?”
He laughed, for it was a jest to be taken lightly. Lord Gou, however, was in temperament like a bull. He did not take anything so lightly, even the playful buzzing of a fly.
“Never,” Lord Gou growled. “I would disembowel such gods if they ever demanded my obedience.”
The musician, being more clueless than Lord Gou, laughed lightly. “I would tie the monkey gods by the neck with cords and teach them to dance to my music.”
“Only an idiotic monkey would dance to your music,” Lord Gou retorted.
The musician, downcast, stared at his hichiriki sadly. He pressed it to his lips, as if to play a song absently, but realized what he was ready to do and thought better of it. He fell farther behind the others, like a rejected dog.
Lord Gou called to me. “Toshiyuki!” he said. “Enough work for today! Come walk with us. We need a poet’s wisdom in this conversation.”
Dutifully, I set aside my brush and joined my Host and his flock.
“What is your opinion on the state of things in the Emperor’s lands?” he asked me. “What thoughts does it provoke in you?”
“I cannot speak on behalf of the Emperor’s lands,” I said. “For my mind is not so expansive to encompass them all. What I can say concerns my own little part of the world. And that part is blissful at the moment. My lord, your province is a paradise. Others are indeed not so fortunate.”
“And so you should like to stay here forever, naturally,” Lord Gou said, more pleased than ever with himself.
“I would not impose upon your hospitality forever,” I said. “I must eventually venture to Kyoto and ply myself there, in court. Then…well, who knows? There are times when I wish to settle upon an island and focus solely on writing poetry and Sutras. Perhaps an island to the Southwest of Kyushu.”
“Tora island,” the diviner said with a strange grin. He wore a black eboshi cap atop his rotten egg scalp. It looked like a raven’s crest. “That is a delightful island. I have been there. They have excellent tastes.”
“They?” I said. “I wish to live away from other human beings.”
“And so you would, there,” he said. His lips smiled, but his eyes did not.
“I once heard that there were cannibals upon that island,” the musician said. “Or demons. I forget which.”
“That is because you are an idiot,” Lord Gou said. “Now shut up and play your idiotic monkey music.”
Forthwith, the musician began to play on his hichiriki as we walked. It was a dolorous song of self-pity and reproach.
“Something livelier,” Lord Gou commanded, slamming his fist in his palm, “or I shall have your skin flayed and fitted for a drum!”
The musician’s hichiriki piped like a dawn-crazed bird. I could not tolerate the sound for too long, nor Lord Gou. He ordered the musician to be quiet and then invited all of us inside for an afternoon snack. We had candied yams. They had been gathered from last year’s copious harvest. They were delicious and reminded me that Lord Gou’s province was one of prosperity and plenty. Yet, Lord Gou did not seem so happy as he should have been. When a servant spilled tea upon the table Lord Gou grabbed the young man by the hem of his robe and flogged the back of his head savagely. It was as I watched this horrific display that I noticed the sweat pouring from Lord Gou’s face. It was like sesame oil longing for flame, his face so red that I bethought him soon to transform, a demon emerging from his wrath-wrinkled visage. I felt it incumbent upon me to intervene, yet I dared not. Silence is ofttimes wisdom.
After the young man had been sufficiently beaten, he staggered away. An older servant helped him down the hall and tended to his knot-crowned head. Despite doling out punishment, Lord Gou was not pleased. His breathing had become labored— his bullock neck pulsating as his chest heaved and his eyes flashed fire—and his mood had soured. Instead of drinking sake until nightfall he dismissed all of us and retired to his private chambers. Relieved to be on my own, I gladly returned to my room to work.
And yet, I became restless. The clouds lifted and the sun burned hot upon the manor. No winds allayed the heat, nor could I find a fan to cool myself. My room now stuffy, I walked upon the veranda, beneath the shade of the eaves. It was not cool, but it was not so hot as being baked by unshielded sunlight. The air, too, was fresh and fragrant with flowers. It made me think of Lady Utano and her cool, pale thighs. She was moonlight itself, and I wished to lay my cheek upon her legs, as I had done that night.
I was admiring the Zen rock garden in the inner courtyard when one of the stones surprised me by hopping forward. Startled, I realized it was a fat, round toad. Nothing was as it seemed in Lord Gou’s home. I composed a poem upon the spot.

“A quiet garden
with a toad hidden in stones—
heart leaping likewise!”

The toad hunkered down next to another stone, fidgeting restlessly. It almost seemed to shiver, but why? It was not cold. To the contrary, the dreadful heat of that day caused the air to drink every drop of sweat my body offered.
“Tsunade is not here,” I told the toad. A shadow passed over us, briefly, and was gone. “Is that thunder I hear?” I looked to the sky, but it was clear. No clouds. No birds. Then I felt my stomach rumble. “No, it is my belly,” I said. “I am hungry, fat toad. But I do not eat insects as you do. Nor slugs. Perhaps you are hungry for something more. Fame? Fortune? But toads do not envy other toads. Perhaps you do hunger for your Tsunade, as I do for my mistress of the moontime…”
A voice leapt out of nowhere, like the toad, and my heart leapt again, startled.
“It would be best not to speak to animal spirits.”
Standing beside me was the yin-yang diviner, having manifested, ostensibly, from thin, hot air. I could only gawp at him. A smile of wry amusement carved his cheeks into bright red persimmons.
“Indeed,” he said, “I would advise against it, otherwise they may speak in turn and curse you.”
Irritation found me my tongue at last.
“I do not fear curses,” I said, angry that I had been startled by both a toad and an old man. “I write Sutras for many esteemed patrons. I am untouchable.”
It was as unmerited a boast as it was sincere.
“No heart is untouchable,” he said. “Neither poet’s nor lord’s nor…” He gave me a meaningful look. “…nor Lady’s.”
The old man said no more. He turned and walked away, leaving me, and the toad, in the Zen rock garden, among the water-smoothed stones. I looked to the toad for comfort of company, for I was shaken. Paradise was not as it seemed, and I feared a Samurai’s blade would seek my heart soon, like a crane spearing for fish in a lake.
“Jiraiya,” I said to the toad, “there is more that I do not understand than I do. I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you, little toad, if you watch over me.”

***

I wrote part of the Lotus Sutra to the toad later, but I did not write the poem I composed. I felt disturbed and wished for no memento of that encounter. The shock gradually subsided.
Day’s fever was cooled in the dark robes of night, relinquishing its frets in exchange for star-shored dreams. I walked through the manor, seeking a servant to give me more sesame oil for my late hour work. I came upon a servant fixing a wall in a hallway. The paper had been torn between the bamboo lattice and now lay open, a wound in the adjacent room’s privacy. I marveled, suddenly, at how bold and unthinking I had been in my lust for Lady Utano. I had made love to Lord Gou’s niece with nothing to shield the indiscretion but thin paper veils. How bold! How absurd! Anyone could have heard us and fetched one of Lord Gou’s stone-faced Samurai to execute me for my trespass. Paper walls could not protect Paradise. Blades pierced it easily enough.
Then again, what protection was afforded many of us in karma after death except the paper of the Lotus Sutra dedicated to endearing us to the Buddha? Perchance it was merely a sliver of paper that was all standing between us and the sixteen terrible pits of Jigoku? And what pit would I find myself confined to? I could see myself scrambling up sharp-leaved trees to reach beautiful women beckoning me, gutting myself while demons clamored to devour my entrails. Yes, that would be my fate. Sweat suddenly drenched my brow as if the sun was baring down upon me.
I had not much faith in paper, it seemed.
***

The next morning Lord Gou insisted that he be carried within his palanquin. But being such a large man made it slow-going for the servants, and often as not they nearly fumbled him and his unwieldy weight, their master cursing them meanwhile and tallying the punishments awaiting them upon return to his estate. So, I broke from his entourage and quickly entered the town ahead of the others. It was a busy, crowded town, even with the peasants out in the rice paddies, and there was much to be seen. Merchants of many varieties displayed their wares and foods for the people crowding the streets. It was a drastically different scene from what I had witnessed in other provinces. Lord Gou’s people were truly blessed to be thriving while others could but survive on tree bark and weeds.
But there was a curse in this blessing, too, for survivors from other provinces had come here, seeking salvation and refuge from war and famine. The merchants turned them out, with the flashing teeth of the Samurais’ swords. I passed many of these refugees on the outskirts of the province. Hollow-eyed and haunted, with sunken cheeks and crippled and scarred limbs, they bore their suffering for all to see. Even my heart was moved to see children among them, haggard and hungry. I did not know what to do for them, however, and trusted in Buddha to see them mended in their woes.
I shopped around for a little while. I bought no food, for none of the merchants’ stalls provided fare that could rival what Lord Gou’s household boasted. I did buy a beautiful fan which I knew would serve me well enough during these hot Summer days. It spread easily and provoked thoughts of Lady Utano with the Lotus blossom image upon its spreaded face.
As I was walking along a street I saw a group of men in orange robes. They were bruised, bleeding, and sobbing. When I asked them what was the matter they said they were disciples of a monk and their master had died.
“Master Yuuga was very devout,” said one of the disciples. “He invoked Amida’s name day and night to spirit him away to Paradise.”
I could not help but smile. “And did he spirit him away?”
“Amida came to him a week ago,” the monk said, “and we all saw him, shining in his fiery glory. But Amida was displeased. He said any fool could invoke his name, but only the worthy could invoke him while underwater.”
My smile disappeared. “I see.”
“Amida told Master Yuuga that if he had faith then the river would not drown him. He said Master Yuuga could repel whole oceans with enough faith when speaking Amida’s name. Our Master had great faith and so he went to the river. Many townsfolk and refugees heard word of what he was doing and followed him to the river, wishing to see Amida themselves.”
“And Master did as he was told!” another disciple said. “He walked out into the river until he disappeared in the flow. We saw a few bubbles break upward, flowing downstream, now and then, but the river flowed on as normal and we never saw Yuuga again. Fearing for his well-being, we went in to retrieve him, but he was gone!”
I frowned. “But he was not spirited away,” I said skeptically.
“We thought he was,” another disciple said, “and so did the spectators. We all fell on our hands and knees and prayed to Amida to take us away to Paradise, too, but he did not. Several of the refugees clambered into the water and did as our Master had done. They, too, disappeared. So many disappeared…”
Looks of abject horror beset their bruised, bleeding faces. I felt a chill up my spine.
“What truly happened?” I asked.
“We went home and continued upon the Path. But today we came into town and were ambushed by the townsfolk. They called us murderers and liars and they stoned us and beat us with sticks. The Samurai had to protect us, cutting many of the refugees down with their blades.” He tried to elaborate, but was at a loss for words, gawping in disbelief.
“A fisherman found the bodies of the refugees downstream,” another disciple said through tears. “And among them was Master Yuuga. They were dead and bloated and kappa demons had eaten their souls. The fisherman told the townsfolk, and the refugees were told also, and so we were attacked as charlatans.”
“But we did see Lord Amida!” another disciple said. “We heard his majestic voice and saw his fiery halo!”
“It had to be a tengu!” another disciple said. “Oh, how could we all be so foolish!”
They walked away, weeping and hobbling. I, too, wondered how someone could fall for such tricks. I would have never been fooled so easily. Monks were supposed to be wise, but all I ever heard was that they were fooled time and time again. Ibuki mountain was haunted by many tengu who endlessly tormented monks and their disciples, as was Mount Heini.
It was at that time that Lord Gou’s entourage overtook me. The musician and the diviner walked obediently beside his palanquin. His servants set the palanquin down and Lord Gou— after a few strenuous attempts— got out and stood up.
“What did those monks want?” he demanded. “I give to their temple enough that they should not be begging alms.”
I recounted the monks’ story to Lord Gou and his entourage. When I had finished, the diviner smiled.
“All holy men are marked,” he said. “And tengu aim true if a heart is not shielded with the Buddha’s teachings.”
“But should not the tengu fear holy men above all others?” the musician asked.
“Demons fear little,” the diviner said. “The oldest temple in Uzumasa has been burned down many times. They rebuild it again and again, and the demons seek much mirth in this.” He leaned upon his walking staff, and licked his lips. “So, too, may demons burn a man from within, only for him to be rebuilt again and again. That is how Oni are born.”
“Or perhaps they should just cease lighting fires in the temples,” Lord Gou said. “That might stop the fools from burning their temple down.”
A poem, unbidden, sprang forth in my mind, and thus sprang forth from my lips.

“Mischievous incense
in honor of the Buddha—
burns down his temple.”

The yin-yang diviner grinned, but the musician was too confused to muster a remark. Lord Gou was staring at the refugees clustered around the outskirts of town. He growled irritably. He spoke with a jaw stiffened by intolerance.
“I am of a mind that this squalidly tide of riffraff should and shall be expunged from my glorious province. They bring corruption with them. Disease and filth.” His eyes hardened, like flint, and flared upon the strike. “Perhaps a blood moon may call their flotsam tide out to sea again.”
“My lord,” the diviner said, “Buddha would not smile upon so…uncharitable a measure. No, we must let them remain—on the outskirts, of course—so that a great feast of mercy may be enjoined by all.”
The diviner’s words brooked mercy, yet his smile bled something contrary. It made me uneasy. I felt as a man standing upon a battlefield as many bodies lay strewn about him, peace gained at long last, but at the cost of all warriors thereon gathered, the crows descending for their celebratory feast. Laughing.
“I must return to Kyoto eventually,”I said, nervously, “though part of me aches to see Mount Atago.”
“There are plenty of mountains to adore in Kyoto itself,” Lord Gou said, leering. “Twin peaks around every corner, concealed in shadow, but scaled for the right price.”
We all laughed, as any man would. Lord Gou’s jape inspired a poem in that moment, born fully formed in the forge of my mind.

“Morning mountain peaks
within sleepy robes of mist—
hear the valley drum?”

They laughed, including Lord Gou, for it was a lewd poem at its heart. I did not laugh. I was too divided in mind and heart. Unbidden, the image of Lady Utano’s breasts called to me. I had rested between many bosoms in my life, yet hers beckoned to me still, whereas the others were as unappealing as old, cold rice. I shook my head and attempted to dispel the enchantment she had placed upon me. Was she a fox spirit? But she claimed I was the same. Were we wed, would the sun showers drown the earth in rain and sunshine? The earth would be festooned in rainbows. But what a long expanse of gloomy rain that would follow!
***

Lord Gou returned to his estate early, alongside his throng of guests, servants, and sycophants. I remained in town for a while longer, walking. I looked upon the refugees gathered at the outskirts of town, beneath the tumult of verdure and crimson from the trees, and wondered what they would do in the coming Autumn. More frightening was the thought of the coming Winter. Many would die of cold and hunger here. Many would also riot, and so die of blade and arrow. I had seen such things before, or the aftermath of such things at least. It was a carrion banquet for crows and worms. As I passed a mother with her two children I saw in their mournful glances the sorrows of a world yet unsaved. The boy and the girl were thin, their rounded cheeks sunken with starvation and blackened with grime. Overtaken with my sympathies, I ventured to a merchant and bought rice and fish, then gave these things to the mother and her children. They were grateful, but as they ate I saw envious eyes fixed upon them from among the other refugees. Envious and hateful. I wondered if I had made a mistake of such charity, for surely it appointed them as foremost targets in the minds of that group of wretches. A kindness done exclusively for a few is always begrudged by the many. I hoped I did not doom them with kindness.
And yet while I feared reprisals against the family, I also boasted to myself that the children were quite grateful for my small charity and, afterward, quite talkative. They brimmed with chatter about their father, now gone, and their homeland, now decimated. They also brimmed with darksome fancies, which were, no doubt, birthed from their terrible experiences. They spoke of seeing gigantic skeletons roaming their homeland, devouring the dead and never satisfying their hunger, the bloody meat spilling through their bony ribs. I laughed, nervously, looking to their mother with a dismissive roll of the eyes. She openly wept, which I thought to have been on behalf of the famine that claimed so much, including the easy minds of her children. Tears fell from my cheeks likewise. The poor, delirious creatures!
As I left the disheveled masses, I walked along the outer skirts of Lord Gou’s provincial town, repairing toward his residence. My mind called up again the image of the two children, starved, and their weeping mother, and I glanced over my shoulder, absently. I saw the tree line, of course, with its greenery splashed here and there with pink and crimson and white blotches of color. But I also saw a horrendous skull rise above it, tottering and overtopping the refugees with its empty, black eye sockets. Rubbing my eyes, I looked again. The giant had vanished, as should any whim of madness brought about by excessive emotion. I continued onward and gave it no further thought.

***

It was midday when I returned to Lord Gou’s estate. Approaching the manor I saw his many Samurai standing guard outside the gates. How often I forgot those silent, grim, and dour warriors. They were as tightlipped as their sheathes, yet deadly in a moment like a naked blade. They were always watching, even as I forgot them like some background statue—standing guard on the outside of the manor. Had they been allowed inside their master’s home I would not have wooed Lady Utano. Or perhaps I would have, and would have died days ago.
Lord Gou was well into his sake cups as I approached. He was drunk and chased servants away while brandishing his tanto blade. Lady Utano attempted to coax him into releasing a young servant by the throat. When he saw me, however, the servant boy was forgotten, released, and so fled into the manor. Lord Gou grinned broadly, and sheathed the tanto. His black beard was wet with sake.
“I forget myself sometimes,” he said, swaying with his own sloshing belly. “Toshiyuki, have you been acquainted with my lovely niece, Utano?”
“I have had the pleasure,” I said.
“And how did that come about?” he demanded. His grin hardened into clenched teeth, like an angry monkey’s. “I do not remember introducing you to one another.”
“It was a love that introduced us,” I said, aghast at my own words. I sputtered idiotically. “A love of poetry and calligraphy, my lord. Your niece writes very well.”
To my relief, Lord Gou accepted this explanation.
“Yes, her father had her educated,” he said. “As her aunt had been. I think it a foolish endeavor. A woman can be made willful by a certain type of education. It imparts privileges of pretense which fool her into believing she can think as clearly as a man. She steps beyond her place with strong, errant notions. It is a needless risk.” He shook his head ruefully. “But my brother-in-law was always more foolish than any steward ought to be. That is why he is dead and I have control of his lands. That is why his daughter is in my possession. And I will make certain she is not squandered by her privileges and pretenses.”
Lord Gou frowned as if he smelled something foul. He peered at me closely, and then at his niece.
“You are taken with her beauty, no doubt,” he said. “All men are. But you would do well to remember that I cannot give her to you, however a dear friend you are. She is promised to another. Nothing strengthens alliances like children.” He smiled again, drunkenly, at his niece, but his words were a grim promise. “If she fails in this endeavor, not even the convent will save her from my wrath. Her aunt can attest to that. That willful woman.” He turned away and headed inside his manor. He paused at the door. “Which is to say, she cannot attest to anything.” He glanced over his shoulder at me. “And as for any man inclined to defy my honor, he shall know suffering for his willfulness which not even the Buddha can alleviate.”
He went inside, leaving Lady Utano and I in a stern silence. She looked sad, and beautiful. Beautifully sad. Sadly beautiful. Yet, I could not let her enshrine her influence upon my heart. I turned to leave. She called out to me. I halted, even as I felt the gaze of the Samurai upon me, but at a distance. It was as if Death watched us, but I walked beside her as she bade me. We spoke quietly, at a distance from eavesdropping ears.
“Lord Gou divorced my aunt,” she said. “She had given him one son, Shinji, but he died in battle with another clan. My aunt was unable to provide anymore heirs. She fled to the convent, but died before reaching it. My uncle felt dishonored by her…infertility.”
“I see,” I said. I stepped toward her, involuntarily. I spoke in a whisper. “Why do you stay here, Lady Utano? Why not return home?”
“I have no home,” she said. “My father died in the riots, and my mother died giving birth to me. My uncle controls his estate now and will not allow me to return to it. He does not trust me. He believes I would marry for affection when I should marry for power.”
“He is wise in that, at least,” I said.
“Is he?” she said, her dark eyes bright with fire. “Perhaps. I welcomed a man into my heart once for affection, and it has brought me nothing but grief and heartbreak.”
Sweat broke upon my brow. I thought I saw a Samurai stir, restless in his vigil.
“I did love you for a night,” I said. “But does not the river rush on? It does not return. All is evanescent. Buddha admonishes us to let go of the past. It is a shadow that stretches behind us, insubstantial and distracting only those foolish who heed it as if it was of consequence.”
Yet, even as I said such things I admired the Lady before me. Lady Utano was a refulgent, lissome mistress. As the moon gazing lonely in waters, she shone brightly in such dark times.
I intended to step away from her, but my feet refused. I stepped toward her again, somehow forgetting myself and the dangers of such indiscretions at the doorstep of my Host. My mouth opened as if longing for her own, and spoke quietly of things that should not be said.
“But a shadow such as yours is an enchanting sight,” I said. “I should like to entangle it in my own.”
It seemed my tongue wished to betray me as well as my feet. Perhaps some mischievous kami had asserted its power over my mouth. I would have rather Raijin struck me dead with a lightning bolt from a clear sky than have Lord Gou discover the tryst betwixt myself and his niece. It would have been a far easier death than whatever torture Gou might invent for my indiscretion.
“Our shadows have already joined once in union,” she said. “In the past. Now, so long as you will not take me for a wife we may only join in words. Nothing more.”
“Words are but the music of the tongue,” I said. “So let us join with such instruments as compose these songs.”
She turned away from me, looking at the Samurai lined in front of the main gate.
“You have a tongue promiscuous with many meanings,” she said, “and many hearts.”
She left me to my disappointment, disappearing into her uncle’s manor. What remained of her was her fragrance, and the hastened hammering of my heart at her absence. I was treading the wet rocks of a waterfall, it seemed. How strange that I should wish to plunge headlong with reckless abandon. Yet, if it meant chasing her figure among the violent froth, so be it!

***

The minister returned to Kyoto the next morning. An arrangement had been made between him and Lord Gou. His work done, the minister was to report the success personally to the Emperor himself. I was told very little of the particulars, but Lord Gou was very pleased. I did not see Lady Utano all day, and I feared that she wept in her room, mourning some momentous change soon to sweep her away to a new life.
That night was rife with entertainments in celebration of the arrangement. A troupe of dancers performed for us, and many sweets and fish dishes were served. Sake flowed copiously like flooded rice paddies and we drank ourselves silly into the late hours. When it was time to retire to bed, I instead took a walk about the garden. There I saw the man upon the moon bridge, staring as ever into the moon pond below. Bold as mountains, I addressed the shadow-faced stranger, demanding to know— in my drunkenness— why he refused to attend his Host’s festivities.
“I am most unwelcome here,” he said.
“And yet you are here,” I said.
“An intruder,” he said. “And yet I am not permitted to leave.”
“A prisoner, then!” I said, hiccuping. I then fell to silence, thinking of the implications. “I do not understand. You are an intruder and a prisoner? Are you a thief that was caught and must stay here? But you are not shackled.”
“Shackled by the greatest shackles,” he said. “Love.”
I grew angry. “If you seek the heart of Lady Utano then you should do well to abandon such hopelessness! She is promised to another, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise!” My cheeks were wet and my eyes burned. I wiped them absently on my sleeves, and swayed uneasily on my feet.
“She is not my concern,” the stranger said, unmoved by either my anger or my sorrow. “My love remains here, though she has gone away, as I have myself.”
My head reeled with bafflement. “You are drunker than I am,” I slurred. “You make no sense.”
“Very little does,” he said, “except what is most important. But it becomes clouded by things that are petty and unimportant. Love, for instance, is as solid as Mount Fuji, yet is dissolved by mists of duty and authority. How strong and lasting the mountain. How insubstantial and fleeting the mists.”
I caught myself against the willow tree, almost passing out into the pond. “What?” I said, rousing again.
“It is no matter,” the man said. “But let me ask you this: Have you seen the tanto that your Host wears at his side?”
Recalling Lord Gou, I did remember him wearing a tanto on his belt. He tended to finger it whenever he was annoyed. He tended to brandish it when he was enraged. I told the drunkard that I knew of such a blade.
“I forged that blade for another,” he said, “hoping she might use it against the wolves that haunt this world. But he took it from her, along with something even more precious. Now I must forge something more subtle than any blade. I must forge his guilt. I must mold his madness. For he is the mists that blind this world to the truth, and soon the mountain will erupt with fire.”

***

Being a poet, I have prided myself on clarity of thought and exactness of expression, yet I was shamed to find myself increasingly dispossessed of such virtues as I spent more days as Lord Gou’s guest. Perhaps it was a result of the idle comforts and entertainments of my Host. Perhaps it was the sake. Perhaps it was that bewitching distraction that taunted me in the much-favored figure of Lady Utano. Regardless of origin, the mists remained, thickening as days darkened to nights, and nights burned into days. Yet, it was not that I was altogether impaired beyond writing poetry, but rather the poems which came to me came as foreigners from far shores, mysterious in meaning and custom even to myself, the dutiful laborer who traced their magic in ink. Like dreams, they were, from my own mind and yet deeper in that mind than I had ever consciously delved. Though I was a habitual denizen of the Floating World— wherein the strict chains of society were dissolved in opium clouds and drink and laughter—the mistiness and insubstantiality was more insistent, frightening; as if it meant to dissolve my essence within the prison of society and Order. I felt stifled in the mists and wished to free the agents of Chaos from the shackles of pretense and tradition. The mists were dissolution and stagnation, entrancing and horrifying, like the naked body of Lady Utano: luminous with moonlight and the dew of passionate sweat. It was all a permeating prison.

***

Upon waking the first thing I saw within the late morning light was another Noh mask hanging from my door. It was of a kijo, her face split horizontally along her fanged mouth. She had rudimentary horns and a red face that shimmered like blood. Taking it down, I threw it out into the garden. I threw all of the masks I had amassed out into the garden. Where they went, I did not know, nor did I care. Grumpy, and suffering from the agony of sake-sickness, I dressed myself and went, uninvited, into the Main Hall. Lord Gou and the diviner were already seated. Sitting down, I nearly fell face-first into the table, catching myself with my hands. Lord Gou nodded to a servant and the servant left, returning with a bowl of rice and hot tea. These things I partook of halfheartedly. The long room seemed to sway as a ship on the sea.
“So little sake for so miserable a face,” Lord Gou remarked, laughing. “Toshiyuki, are all poets so weak of stomach as you?”
“Weak of stomach and weak of mind,” I said, “otherwise I would never let my belly brim with what it cannot tolerate.”
The musician arrived shortly after me, swaying to the music of his own sickness. Had I appeared so foolish upon my entrance? No. No one could be so foolish as the musician. He tripped over his own feet and struck his shins against the table, yelping.
“Silence, you fool!” Lord Gou growled. “Your cries are almost as terrible as your singing!”
The musician was too preoccupied with the pain in his bruised shins to be properly ashamed of his clumsiness. When the servant brought the musician his rice and tea, the musician looked at it as if it was a severed head. He rushed out of the Main Hall abruptly, hand clutched over the floodgates of his mouth.
A servant went to check on the musician, but returned shortly afterward with the masks I had discarded into the garden. He presented them to Lord Gou.
“These were found in the garden, my lord,” the servant said.
Lord Gou took the masks and rifled through them, stopping at the last and staring at its grim visage. “How had it come to rest there?” he asked.
I proffered my explanation, alongside my confusion as to why such masks were being hung in my room.
“That is strange,” the diviner said. “And you never heard the miscreant as they entered or exited your room?”
“Never,” I said.
“I can tolerate mischief,” Lord Gou said gruffly, “but mischief of this willful nature I cannot abide. Not in my own household. I will discover this imp and have him flogged for his impudence. Do you suspect anyone in particular? Anyone who might begrudge you some offense?”
I dared not answer with the foremost figure among my thoughts. “Perhaps it is that mischief-maker upon the bridge.”
“Who?” the diviner asked, genuine in his curiosity.
“A drunkard in the middle of the night,” I said. “He speaks all nonsense, exhausting the whorl of my ear. I have spoken to him a few times, but I have never seen him during the day.”
“Describe him to me,” Lord Gou demanded, “so I might know the man that dishonors my guests.”
“I have never seen his face,” I said. “He is always upon the moon bridge, staring into the pond. He hardly makes sense, which is why I believe he is toying with me for the sake of mischief…”
The musician stumbled in, then, his face greenish and his robe fouled with the sake-sickness. Lord Gou rose to his feet in a fury, his hand going to the tanto in his belt.
“Take that idiot away!” he commanded, pointing. “Toss him in the river if you have to! I will not abide a fool fouling my manor!”
Two servants obediently rushed to escort the musician out. Lord Gou then pointed to another servant.
“You! Send messengers out to the local monasteries. I want their best priests sent here for a mass exorcism. We are obviously not free from the specters that haunt this place.”
“But, my lord…” the diviner said.
“Silence!” Lord Gou erupted. “You have had your chance. The evil spirits still remain. Can you not see? They will not let me or my guests be, and so I must expunge them in full force.”
“I do not understand,” I said. “The evil spirits made the musician sick?”
“No, you idiot!” Lord Gou said. “Your mischief-maker on the bridge! He is the wicked spirit that corrupts my home!”

***

A woman’s love warms, like sake, but if given too much it aches in the head and makes a man’s mind sluggish, foolish, weak. All becomes cloudy. Poetic insight is sacrificed. Despite this knowledge, I hungered for a woman. Normally any willing maid or prostitute would suffice when charm or money was abundant, yet I was astonished to find myself fixated singularly upon the Lady Utano. Thus thought, thus sought. I went to her— while Lord Gou’s household was bustling with preparations for the many diviners to arrive in the coming days—and I found her amidst the sakaki trees. Sakaki trees. The trunks twined like the slender, strong flanks of serpents and dragons. They were the trees of the gods, after all, and their white flowers were in full bloom. Lady Utano sat in the cool purple shade of their leaves and blossoms.
“My lady,” I said, bowing to her. “I languish away from your presence.”
Her tone was flat and unwelcoming, yet her husky voice still enchanted. “One wonders how you will survive in Kyoto, then, when you will be so far from me.”
“It is not a desire I yearn for,” I said, “but a necessity. Fate commands me upon my path. Matsuo Basho knew the same heartache, I do not doubt.”
“Then your poetry shall keep you company,” she said. “Kiss it each night. Make love to it. It will suffice.”
“Never so much as your touch,” I said. I knew her mockery was born of bitterness, and her bitterness born of love. “I find myself cold by night. If you would only join me then I would need neither poetry nor sake to keep me company in those lonely hours.”
“To join me by moonlight,” she said, “you must first join me by daylight. As husband and wife.”
“Do not be cold and distant, my moon,” I said. “Do not leave me in the abject darkness of night.”
She turned away from me. Her black hair was tied up tightly above her brow, restrained with a severe comb. My heart ached to see her tresses free, like black ink strokes upon scroll whiteness, as they were in the morning silence of our night spent together. Birdsong celebrated all around us, and I wished them silent. The only music I wished to hear was her rapid breath. Her husky moans.
“You think of me only in dark hours,” she said, “but who should wish to commit oneself to someone who thinks of you as a pillow for his dreams? Am I so easily set aside and taken up as it conveniences you? Like the moon with its tides? Love, for me, is not such an easy need, but compels through day and night.”
“But my destiny is beyond my making, my moon,” I said. “The stars cannot be rewritten in the sky.”
“Then join your destiny, unchanged, to me in the proper way,” she said. “Where you go, I will follow. But if you would divide our lives together, then you would slay it, certain as an ax upon the tree. I will not live divided, for I would not live at all. It would be a death for both of us.”
“Cranes go their separate ways,” I said, “yet return always to the single nest of their hearts. How can it not be the same for man and woman? Steadfast hearts may fly far apart, but share the same flapping song.”
“The wingstroke falters where winds grow fiercer,” she said. “A crane shelters wherever he may as weather changes rhythm. The other song is forgotten beneath the roar of the thunderstorm, and the song of another heart.”
I reached out and touched her shoulder. Her pink kimono was soft and slick, but never so satisfying as her bare shoulder was that night of our moonlit union.
“I knew a painter once,” I said. “He was a man named Yoshihide and he was as devout in painting as he was in serving Buddha. Happily for him he painted Buddhas, and so knew his two devotions in one practice. He did quite well. Indeed, he painted Fudo, for Fudo was Yoshihide’s favorite Buddha figure. But his passion and skill seemed to fail him when rendering Fudo’s halo. The flames never looked quite right and undermined his otherwise flawless efforts. Then one day his home caught fire, devouring his wife and his children. Yoshihide looked upon the flames and wept. ‘He weeps for his family,’ someone said. But I knew the truth. He wept because he saw flames as they should be, realizing his life’s works were but amateurish failures in comparison.”
Lady Utano was no fool. I did not doubt that she could understand the meaning in my story. Even so, I felt compelled to articulate more clearly my meaning.
“What I mean to say is that I have only one wife in my life, and that is my brush, and my children are my poems and Sutras. This is the only conceivable arrangement for my happiness. Anything otherwise would be misery for myself and for the people who shared in such misery.”
She looked at me for a long time, her ever-frown stonily silent.
“I am already in a burning house,” she said.
She stood, then, and walked away, her sandaled feet not making the least whisper at the tread. She joined the company of her uncle where she knew I would not dare press my affections. Yet, that she did not inform him upon me was, I believed, evidence of her continued affection toward me. The crane was carried with the same wingstroke yet.
***

I feared, as most artisans do, the mind-deadening drudgery of the lower classes. One of my greatest fears— the one which drove me to become a renowned poet—was to be thrown in shame to the rice paddies to spend the rest of my earthly days toiling for the ungrateful bellies of lords and ladies. Perhaps I had spent a lifetime doing so, in a previous life.
I was up all night composing original poems for Lord Gou. Lady Utano did not visit me. I had jilted her, and no entreaties restored her favor. Yet, I had not the time or focus for such worries. I burned away thoughts, and sesame oil, in pursuit of midnight poems. As I worked I felt a presence in the room; perhaps more than one presence. Several times did I look up from the parchment and ink, expecting someone to be looming over me— Lady Utano, or so I wished—only to be greeted by flickering shadows that fluttered about like crow demons. Though I never saw my visitors, I knew they were there, near me. Perhaps they were whispers upon that windless night, ensorcelling the whorls of my ears with poetic inspiration. Perhaps they were demons haranguing me with a litany of my sins, which only spurred me on in my task.

***

He spoke the fog of war. This was the thought that came to my mind as the diviner spoke to me in the garden. He had invited himself upon my section of the veranda, standing by as I wrote more of the Lotus Sutra for Lord Gou. He loomed over me like a carrion bird.
“Punishment is needful rehabilitation of the soul,” the diviner said. “It is what the seven hells were invented to do: to reform the soul anew, as do punishments in this world.” A mock-smile crinkled his lips, and I wondered if such words pleased his mouth.
“True criminals cannot be reformed,” I said, working the ink slowly upon the parchment. “I have seen many such men. Not even death could reform them. They would only be reborn as thieving monkeys or murderous tigers.”
“And what form will you take upon your death?” he said, obviously expecting to be humored by my answer.
“Perhaps a tanuki,” I said, flippantly. “Many women would agree with me.”
“Perhaps,” the diviner said, smiling. “Perhaps worse. But I am supposed to grant hope to even the most hopeless, which is why I will relate to you a true story about a true criminal. You see, there was a man, once, whose crimes were innumerable. Murder, theft, rape, blasphemy. In all things wicked and corrupt he delighted. The more sorrow he sowed upon his victims the more joy he reaped from such atrocities. But at last he was captured and an ingenious torture was devised for him. Rather than execute the criminal they locked him away in an old temple. A guard was posted to be always at the door, changing at intervals so as to not drive his keepers mad, and the criminal was fed once a day a ration of rice and water and nothing more. The torture was one of silence and isolation. The guards that were posted were not to say anything to him, nor to heed his words. And thus many seasons passed as the criminal neither saw nor heard nor spoke to anyone except the shadowy silence of the old temple. Ten years passed and the criminal stopped eating his rice and drinking his water. The governor of the province, curious to know what had become of the criminal, ordered the doors opened. Much to his dismay, and the dismay of the guards, the criminal was no longer in the temple. He had been spirited away by the Buddha, having achieved Enlightenment in the silent solitude of the old temple.”
“Or someone bribed the guard to release him,” I said unimpressed.
The diviner’s smile bore teeth— yellow teeth mottled with brown stains.
“But he was found years later, friend, leading a monastery in the mountains. He had become a quiet legend known to only the most devout disciples. Monks traveled from all provinces to learn the wisdom he had discovered in his solitude and rehabilitation.”
“A lucrative venture, certainly,” I quipped.
The old man’s smile widened, and I felt a cold claw upon the nape of my neck. “As is the writing of Lotus Sutras,” he said. “Are you so sanctimonious as to disagree?”
I found my tongue after only a moment of annoyance. “Do you claim that you are not benefiting from your own holy work? You drink as much sake as I do, if not more.”
“That is true,” the diviner said, his smile never faltering. “But I would never take advantage of my Host’s hospitality beyond his liking. How can you hope to raise Lord Gou above his sins if you are sinning against him?”
I stuttered, but only in outrage. “My work consists of the signposts whereby they may, themselves, find their way to higher realms.”
“And have you sought higher realms? You seem preoccupied by sensual decadence to me.”
“Amidst so much sensual decadence I am charged with saving Lord Gou’s soul with the Lotus Sutra. Yet, the Lotus Sutra can only serve those for whom it becomes a mantra. Words can only lift you so far. Actions must help the ascent as well. We all take ultimate responsibility for our fate, as I will when the time comes.”
He grinned, then, and my blood was as cold as icemelt. “The time comes sooner than you would like, little poet.”
Swift as a raven, the diviner turned and left.

***
The mists took me once again, and the shadows and their whispers. I wrote poems intended to honor Lord Gou and his household, yet I was baffled by their meaning. Even as my hand hovered and circled above the scroll— dragging my brush to reveal their mysteries— it was a thing detached from my control; a bird circling from afar and in its own manner. I dreamt awake, or so it seemed, and watched the poems birth themselves in ink, a baffled bystander wondering if he ever had true possession of the poems, or if the poems merely possessed him for a time. Perhaps I was a prideful imbecile deluded by a conceit I willfully welcomed, thinking myself a master while overmastered by an Art beyond my true measure. Perhaps it was that a nine-tail kitsune exerted its powers over my hand, granting my hopes and desires like a Wishing Jewel without true, meted merit. I did not know. All seemed insubstantial and dreamlike. All seemed surreal in the drifting mists and the waxing moon.
I must have drifted with the mists. When I roused it was still dark— the night only half over— and I nodded at the table. The brush in my hand had long gone dry. Setting it aside, I laid myself back upon the floor, preparing to sleep more properly. It was then that I heard them, and wondered how I had not heard them before. It was a rowdy procession upon the veranda, bustling with many among their multitude. They laughed and sang and danced to the shrill notes of hichiriki flutes played wildly, as if by the winds themselves. I marveled that they should not wake the entire manor. Then again, perhaps they were the servants of the manor, all taken away in the frenzy of sake and moonlight and music. The procession passed by my screen door and I saw their silhouettes through the paper and the slats. They were a motley of shadows of various sizes and figures and movements, and their voices seemed to slur and shriek and caterwaul, and so I suddenly found myself afraid. There was something unnatural about their figures and movements. Whereas a moment before I thought them merely servants drunk on stolen sake, now they seemed something more ominous. From their inchoate voices there rose a song, as there is a rhythm among a storm and its crackling lightning and drumming thunder. They sang thus:

“Wild nights, wild days!
Blood and sake,
mist and haze!
Rekka, taki!
The earth is all afire,
famine, flesh,
sword and pyre!
Pile the corpses, sweet and fresh.
The way of things,
the way of Springs,
blossoms fade,
all things unmade!
Petals die,
branches splinter,
avert the eye
but feel the Winter!
Grow cold!
Grow old!
Bought and sold—
go on down the road!
The only way
to escape the shame
is to pray
or welcome the flame!”

This song continued for some time, and I found myself listening at the door, crouching like some beggar at the threshold of a temple. I peered through the slats, but the moon was at the procession’s backs. Fearful, and yet compelled, I took hold of the door and, with fateful surrender, flung it open to witness whatever grotesqueries awaited me in that misty, moonlit world.
Nothing. No one cavorted there. The veranda was empty and I stood alone. Shivering with fright and exhaustion, I returned indoors and laid myself down, clutching myself to still the trembling of my limbs. When I finally fell asleep it was with a rattling sigh that loosened, at last, the icicles of my bones.

***

I dreamt of Lady Utano. She stood amongst the mists. She wore a pale kimono from which a white snakeskin belt was strapped. Hanging from her belt was a netsuke, and strung from it was an inro. She undid the netsuke and the inro and held them out to me. I accepted them curiously. She said nothing, nor did I speak, and the world of mist was silent all around us. I looked first at the netsuke. It was carved from ivory in perfect imitation of Utano’s maidenhead. I had forgotten most portals of pleasure belonging to the women I have enjoyed, but not Utano’s. It was pure white except for an inlay around her lips, which bled red as rubies. I handled this ornament carefully, tenderly, for I wished no harm to come to it. I tried to return it to her, but she shook her head in silence and pointed to the inro box. It was lacquered wood and displayed a red flowering plum tree. I did not know what was in that foreboding box, but I dreaded opening it.
“No,” I said, though the word was no more than a whisper.
Lady Utano shrugged off her kimono, and was ivory nakedness within the chilly mists. She pointed to the box again. Again I refused. She hissed and fell upon the ground, melting into a great white serpent. I ran and she followed me, undulating as quickly and violently as whitewater. Tripping in my haste, I fell and the inro box spilled open. Within came without. I saw my manhood upon the ground, splayed open, daikon and turnips together. I screamed, knowing I had to either leave them behind and escape or retrieve them and be encoiled. Unable to let go, I stooped and gathered them up to make myself whole once more. As I turned to flee, her white, sinuous body encoiled me and held me forever in her embrace.

***

“Every woman is a jorogumo,” Lord Gou said, “given time. They cocoon you into marriage and feed from your essence.”
We walked about his garden— Lord Gou, the musician, myself, and a retinue of household servants.
“My wife was much the same,” he continued to say. “Lady Utano’s aunt. She provided me a son, strong and handsome. But the war claimed him— a great honor, truly, in service of the Emperor against his enemies— and my wife betrayed me to the last, an heir not forthcoming. Yet, I am a man of faithfulness, even unto the treachery of his willful wife, and so I have not remarried, but pursue the Buddha’s salvation in the meantime.”
“There was no other woman to strike your fancy, my lord?” I asked.
The servants glanced amongst themselves, and worriedly to their lord, but Lord Gou did not seem to begrudge the question.
“A few here and there, to be sure,” he said, “but none worthy of the honor of serving me as the soil for my dynasty.”
Lord Gou suddenly stared at the moon bridge, and there seemed some great displeasure in his fiery eyes.
“The diviners have not arrived,” he remarked. “And so the corruption remains.”
“We have sent for them, my lord,” an elder servant said in an obsequious tone. “I cannot explain their absences. They vowed to come at once.”
“I am their patron,” Lord Gou said, the bones of his jaw creaking with anger. “And yet they cannot condescend to assist me in my time of need. It is a shame. I am of a mind to turn them out of their temples and replace them with the riffraff polluting the edges of my province. The riffraff might repay me with some gratitude, at least.”
I thought this an excellent idea, but did not say so.
“And now the diviner that I have on my grounds is absent,” he continued to say. “Where is Karasu? Is he feeling better?”
“His stomach illness still plagues him, my lord,” the servant said.
His master snorted. “Who do you have tend to your healer when your healer is ill?”
“I do not know, my lord.”
“Of course not!” he barked. “It was a rhetorical question, you imbecile.”
The musician blew a few notes on his hichiriki. It reminded me of the evening prior, with its shadowy visitors and their mad dance, and so I spoke to distract myself from the dread such memories inspired.
“To think that a holy man can become sick,” I said. “It stokes fear for your own well-being against evil spirits. What can mortals do against such forces if they are so inclined to make sport of us?”
“You doubt Karasu’s abilities,” Lord Gou said. His tone was not one of displeasure. “I admit doubts, also. A holy man with a sick stomach is a blasphemous thing. Yet, he is the only diviner in my employ. All others have failed to manifest. I grow impatient. An unnatural cloud besmirches my household and I wish to be rid of it.” He halted by the willow tree, its head hanging dolorously over the moon pond. He gazed at it for a very long time, his eyebrows knitted hatefully. “As for what mortals might do, we might trust in the Buddha. We might beseech his mercy. That is all he is good for, after all. This world is a willful place, and so willfulness prevails. But Order must prevail, too, and be obeyed. Where willfulness arises, it must be contained. It must be stamped out, like embers at the doorstep.” He turned away from the willow, and the pond and the bridge. “And if a foot catches fire, so be it!”

***

The diviners never arrived, and Karasu eventually returned to the company of Lord Gou. He sat in the Main Hall with the rest of us and complained of an upset stomach, belching as loudly as anyone, and never touching any of the food served to us all.
“I am afraid I ate a little too well last night,” he said. “It was too great a feast in such a short time for proper digestion.”
“You ate no more than usual,” the musician observed.
“Have a care to respect your elders, little pup,” Lord Gou said. “Or you will never live long enough to become an elder yourself.”
The musician threw his eyes to his lap, whereas I surveyed the diviner for signs of sickness. He did not look pallid or sickly. Rather, he appeared well-fed and hale. While the cords of his thin, ancient neck were etched sharply as ever, the stomach beneath his white robe seemed bloated unto bursting. He had not eaten nearly so much the day before to justify such a drastic change in his belly and bowels. I wondered where he had engorged so much fare. It was a mystery. He did not even touch his herbal tea, though his Host had commanded his servants prepare the tea especially for the diviner to allay his digestive discontent.
Lord Gou stood, suddenly, and addressed the Main Hall.
“I am the ruler of this province,” he said, “in the name of the Emperor, and soon even the Emperor shall esteem me above all other stewards. It will be known that I am a powerful man of means and blessings. A auspicious marriage ensues, my friends, and with it the greatest blooming of a garden ever known in this or any other kingdom!”
We voiced our support, naturally, and let our Host continue.
“To mark this occasion,” he said, “I ask a boon from each of you. From you, Toshiyuki, I should require some additional poems written in honor of my province. I know I have burdened you with much already, but the Sutras can wait. I am of a heart inclined to poetry now, for it is a heart raised with expectation.”
“I will gladly compose in your honor,” I said.
“Excellent,” he said. He then rolled his eyes upon the musician, his gaze a thing of sardonic resignation. “And you, reed-spitter, I demand an original song. It need not be grand or complex. A simple song will suffice.”
The musician looked up from his lap, his face beaming with hope and joy.
“And if you fumble this with terrible crowing then I will cut you up like a chicken and feed you to the riffraff!” Lord Gou said.
The musician looked again at his lap, dejected as ever.
“And for you, Karasu-san, I require another cleansing of my home.”
“At once,” the diviner said. With great effort the diviner stood. The contents of his bulging belly sloshed about as he teetered. “I am readied as ever, my personage now ten times the holy man I once was.” He tottered toward the door, leering surreptitiously at some mirth only he was purview to.

***

So forceful was my inspiration that night that I could only think of myself as a puppet whose words were being chosen by someone else. I wrote for several hours without ceasing, the words seemingly born of my brush rather than my brain. Wherefrom this mutiny of imagery and compulsion? Perhaps my hands were frenzied with foreplay better served on Lady Utano. Lacking that bettered medium, I exorcized this carnal madness on brush and ink and scroll.

“How leaves scatter far
over the bridge of heaven;
yellow, wet, and red.”

“Cherry blossoms felled
by a burrowing beetle
will unite beneath.”

“Lips of the lotus
part to kiss the mirrored moon,
only to then drown.”

“The prideful carp swims
where the lotuses entwine,
tearing them apart.”

“A Summer’s warm love
cut short by Autumn’s cold winds;
too soon Winter comes.”

At last, my hand ceased. The brush was abandoned and the scrolls left on table and floor to dry. My legs ached with restlessness and want of exercise. Thus, I left for a walk through the garden, having completely forgotten about the disturbing entourage from the night before.
The moon was high and pale as a pearl. It illuminated the garden well, despite the mists that dissolved the harsher edges of the world. I found myself quite at peace. True, I still longed for Lady Utano’s embrace, but I was placidly resigned to my lonely stroll through the earthbound clouds. It was not long before I came upon the moon bridge, manifested like a dream from the chilly whiteness. The figure leaned upon the railing, as was his custom, and stared into the pond below.
“Are you the source of the curse here?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “I am merely another victim of its evil.”
“You told me that I was a diviner,” I said. “How do I rid Lord Gou of his curse?”
I could not see the man’s eyes, veiled in shadow, but I knew he was now staring at me, and into my soul.
“Lord Gou is the curse here,” he said.
All was dreaminess, but perplexity had its place. “In what way?” I said.
“All living are cursed in some way. You are cursed with lust and pride. He is cursed much the same, but with another vice alongside the others.”
“Rage,” I said, knowing the answer. “I suppose you are correct. We are defined by our curses as much as by our gifts.”
“And yet Buddha expects you to empty your vessel of the self to find peace.” The man did not sigh— he did not even seem to breathe— but there was an exhalation of some kind that was unearthly. It made me sad. “Some of us never find peace. Some of us do not wish to. We cling to our curse and our corruption, for they are what we are. We are afraid to disappear.”
I thought on this and wondered if I truly would ever wish to abandon my lecherous ways, or the pride in my poetry. They defined me as much as any virtue I possessed.
“It reminds me of a man,” he said, “of a sinner named Gendayu. He was a thief, a blasphemer, and a murderer. Any of these such crimes would see him tortured in the realms of Jigoku. Yet, he repented and sought the Buddha’s path—selfishly, of course—and died with a Lotus of Amida blossoming from his mouth.”
I would have shaken my head at such nonsense, but the mists made me drowsy and weighed heavy upon me, as did sleepiness. “I feel as if such stories are told to convince monsters yet living to behave themselves until they properly die and are taken off to the depths.”
“There is no cure for a man set in his ways,” the man agreed. “The self consumes them, imprisoning them with their own karma. We are all imprisoned by the self and its karma. Some reluctantly. Some gleefully. Oni embrace their flaws openly and without remorse. They are freed by their cages.”
This all seemed very true, but it provoked more questions. The mists without bled within, and I felt dizzy. I saw the man’s robe, then, and knew it was brown, yet it glistened red as if the mists that surrounded him and the bridge and pond had bedewed the modest fabric.
“Who are you?” I asked. “How do you know so much about such things? Are you a diviner, also?”
“I am a simple blacksmith,” he said. “But my eyes have been opened to the ways of the world. Sharply opened.”
A pain beset my eyes and I closed them, massaging them with my fingers. When the pain subsided and I opened them again, the man on the bridge was gone. Only the mists remained.

***

“I have sent for more diviners,” Lord Gou said. “From Kyoto, and beyond.”
We sat in the Main Hall, Lord Gou at the head of his table. To my surprise, Lady Utano sat to his left side, whereas the diviner, Karasu, sat to his right.
“That is an excellent idea, my lord,” the diviner said.
Lord Gou turned toward the old man with eyes agape. “You approve? I thought your pride would be wounded.”
“If it benefits you, my lord, it benefits all.”
His stomach was not so pronounced as the day before. To the contrary, he drank his tea readily and with motions swifter than most men his age.
Lord Gou nodded, then gestured to the musician with a hand. “I will have your song now,” he said. “And I may have your tongue ere the song is over.”
The musician swallowed hard, then sat up straight, hardening his spine with whatever courage remained to him. He did not use his hichiriki, but instead had in his hands a biwa and its triangular pick. He angled the biwa’s neck toward the ceiling, its paddle-like bottom in his lap. He then strummed the strings with the pick, his other hand strangling the fretted neck with his frenetic fingers. He sang a song as he strummed and slapped the strings like a madman. His singing was of a madman, too, his eyes closed and the sweat dripping down his forehead. The words were original, insofar as my limited knowledge proved, and he likely spent all night warring with the instrument to create the song. Black bags circled his young eyes.
“The nightengale shrieks,” the musician sang, “and the heron coos. It is a tumbling night when floor is clouds and sky is stone. Upside-down waters full of stars. The carp mouths words without meaning. I cannot breathe when you kiss my mouth. Rice falls like rain in my heart.”
He strummed the biwa in a flourish, then let it fade to silence. He dared not open his eyes. His words made no sense and his strumming failed to harmonize with the lilt of his voice, punctuating at the wrong moments. Yet, it was not unpleasant. It was entertaining, at least, as it is to see a graceful crane fly into a tree and get tangled in its branches.
Lord Gou stood, his face grave. The Main Hall was deathly silent.
“That…was interesting,” he said. “It was neither good nor bad, but…uniquely incompetent. And you have used a biwa, which is so rare a thing that I cannot fault your inability to play it. It was idiotic to use it, which was to be expected from you, but also bold, and for that I can respect you, even if you fumble at it like a virgin maiden at a swollen cock.” He flung a gold piece at the musician, striking him at the chest. “Here. Your music is like a wanton. It is cheap, but it has its delights.”
The musician took the gold, stood, and bowed very low to his Host. Joining the sweat on his face were tears of gratitude, or perhaps tears of relief.
Lord Gou gestured that the musician be seated— peevishly—and then his dark eyes fell upon me.
“Toshiyuki,” he said. “I expect more things from you than middling music.”
I nodded. My scrolls were stacked beside me, upon the floor, and I took them up in my hands. One by one I read them, then held them out so all could see my perfected calligraphy. All seemed pleased by my work…all except Lord Gou. His face grew livid, reddening a darker shade with each scroll revealed. His expression changed from amusement to confusion, and finally fury. I continued to read, even as I felt the heat of his wrath from across the table. Confused, I stuttered on.

“How hard the hammer
of the blacksmith on the bridge—
two heartbeats as one.”

“A fish big of tail
as he circles the moon pond
is small in the sea.”

Lord Gou suddenly shouted, slamming his fist upon the table.
“Enough!” he said. “All of you, leave! I am tired. I have no patience for silly words and silly men!”
Lady Utano attempted to inquire after her uncle’s well-being, but he turned upon her with a vengeance.
“Know your place, niece!” he shouted. “Silence is your sex’s virtue. Return to your room unless you provoke my anger beyond my tempering!”
Confounded, we all left the Main Hall. I retired to my room, taking my scrolls with me. I did not understand them myself. They had written themselves, and in some way I felt as if I had presented someone else’s work as my own. Nor could I understand Lord Gou’s anger. I read over the poems again and again, yet the mist-muddled obliquity remained.

***

Of the yin-yang diviners expected, only a handful arrived. They set to work immediately, undertaking many esoteric rituals that I did not understand. Gou was neither pleased nor displeased at their number. Regardless of their number, he was of a mind that the matter would be resolved soon.
Karasu could not aid them. The old monk was once again as bloated as before, somehow ingesting more of his meal the evening prior than we had in our equal portions. It was a mystery to me how he came to eat to surfeit. The servants were to bring us all as much food as we desired, yet it appeared that the diviner ate no more than myself. Be that as it may, he had excused himself long before the other diviners had arrived, retreating to his guestroom to sleep off his inexplicable excesses.
The newly arrived diviners performed rituals all day upon the house. It seemed to me that the man upon the bridge was either a demon wanting mischief by leading me astray in my comprehension of the matter or he was something else.
In one thing he spoke truly: Lord Gou was polluted with his own natural excesses. He often enjoyed his courtesans, and when he bored of their flesh he sought younger women from his own province, sending his Samurai to collect them and bring them to his manor. It was not uncommon for the Samurai to return with blood-slaked blades. Some parents, and spouses, were foolish enough to resist the seizure of their loved ones.
Lord Gou was also often overtaken by his temper. I had not observed the servants very closely until recently, but I noticed that many of them were missing fingers. When I queried a young servant about the whereabouts of the smallest digit on his left hand he reluctantly informed me that Lord Gou had exacted a punishment in the forfeiture of that finger, for the young servant had spilled tea in the hall. I pressed him for further information and he said that Lord Gou kept a necklace of fingers in his room which he showed to every servant at least once a month to remind them of his impatience.
Among these vices there was also Lord Gou’s pleasure in smoking tobacco. Smoking tobacco was forbidden by royal decree, but that did not stop many among my people from luxuriating in that barbaric vice. Occasionally he drank wine sold surreptitiously by the barbarian trade ships. The Portuguese had been expelled from our lands, but many secretly traded without the Emperor’s or the Shogun’s consent. For all of these reasons, and more, Lord Gou employed me: write the Lotus Sutra. My work was premised on his behalf so as to elevate him heavenward in the next life. I could not fail him or the karmic toll on both of us would be devastating to our rebirth cycle.
As to my well-being, my calligraphy brush still slid smoothly as ever across parchment, the ink strokes as fluid and perfected as ever before. However, the poems and the Lotus Sutra were, in meaning and theme, twisted and disfigured by some inexplicable malice not of my own volition. My art had thus become as a Ronin with peerless skills at hilt and blade, yet serving no master as he slashed and bled a chaotic meaning upon the battlefield. It shamed me, but the ink still poured from me without stoppage. When Lord Gou’s servants failed to provide me further parchment I found myself compelled to write upon the floors and the walls of my room. When they removed my ink and brushes my hands took up a blade and carved into the finely lacquered wood in the veranda. The poems bubbled up from my mind like demons from Mount Asama.
It was during a welcome moment of respite that Lady Utano visited me. She looked upon my room with concern, her eyes rimmed with their whites.
“You are unwell,” she said. “This whole house is unwell, though. There is something terrible at work here. A malevolence.”
“It will pass,” I said, counterfeiting confidence. “All storms do.”
“And what of the storm between us?” she asked. “It must tax you as it taxes me.”
“As I said, all storms pass.”
She gazed at me a long time, her face illegible as a mask. When she spoke, her words were as the quiet in the eye of a storm.
“Do you not fear that I will become a demon?” she said.
“No,” I said. “I fear that matrimony may lead me to become a demon, for I am, like your uncle, a jaded soul bored with being served the same cup of tea everyday.”
I spoke in bitterness, for I did desperately want her. But destiny determined my path elsewhere. Why could she not understand? The suffering in both our hearts was of her making. She fingered the wound and disallowed it to heal.
“The storm remains,” she said.
“So be it,” I said, losing my patience as she walked around my room and read the poetry scrawled all across the floor and ceiling and paper walls. Did she not understand how she taunted me with temptation? “But remember that I prayed only for rain. You brought the lightning and the thunder.”
She opened my door and stepped out onto the veranda. She began to walk away, but then paused beneath the parasol shade of a plum tree. She glanced back at me, and diamonds sparkled on her cheeks.
“When you pray for rain at a dragon’s cave do not be surprised when blood spills. It is your prayer granted.”

***

A messenger came to Lord Gou as he and his guests sat in the Main Hall. The refugees were rioting in town, taking whatever food they desired from the stores and the merchants. Lord Gou was furious. His face burned bright red and the sweat of his wrath wet his black beard like sesame oil. He was a candle ripe for flame. Clutching his tanto in his hand, he brandished it at the messenger, telling him to seek all of his Samurai and inform them to leave, immediately. No mercy was to be granted to anyone—man, woman, or child— until the mob was expelled and sent fleeing into the wilderness.
“And have the leaders and the instigators brought to me!” he said. “Alive, if possible. There are a myriad of ways I wish to inflict upon them punishment for their willfulness.”
The messenger went at once to inform the Samurai beyond the manor. All of the Samurai already stationed within Lord Gou’s household emptied, walking with grim purpose into town. Seeing the aquiline look in their eyes, I hoped the mother and her two children had not engaged in the riot. I hoped they were well away from such carnage as what was soon to ensue.
“It is good that you have so many Samurai in your service,” the musician observed.
Lord Gou snorted, sitting down again and sheathing his tanto. “It is good for them, you mean. They do little to earn their food and land. This is, if anything, the opportunity to prove their worth to their Master.”
“But what if the malcontent overwhelm the Samurai?” one of the newly arrived diviners asked.
“My Samurai will not hesitate and are not fools,” Lord Gou said. “They will be as cats among the mice, and they will feast to surfeit.”
“But the karmic toll!” remarked another diviner. “It may well be high, my lord.”
Once again, Lord Gou snorted like a bull. He took a swig of sake— for we had been drinking well that evening— and then slammed the cup on the table “So long as they quell the riot and bring me the petulant leaders, I will be satisfied.” He smiled mirthlessly. “Perhaps I should employ my Samurai in ridding my house of these accursed spirits. They would do as well as you charlatans have done thus far.”
The old diviner, Karasu, smirked like a crow with a beak rimmed with viscera. “Samurai against spirits?” He laughed— a cackling laugh that silenced the Main Hall. “Those molting cherry blossoms. What good is there in any of them but a mess to trample along the way? Spirits do not fear blades, nor demons that melt sword hilts with a fiery word.”
After a long moment of silence, Lord Gou cleared his throat. “You are right, of course,” he said. “To each agent of Order his expertise. Samurai for Man. Diviners for spirits.” Lord Gou’s fury subsided, strangely, into an uncharacteristic deference and humility. “I am just…so tired of these trespasses, Karasu. Sleep comes so uneasy now to me. I…I see her face. And I see his face. I see so much that I wish to expunge from my mind. These pollutants…they cling to me and…”
Lord Gou shook his head and fell to silence. The diviners nodded sympathetically— all except the crow-capped Karasu. He observed that I was observing him, and he grinned at me in a most unsettling way.
As for Lord Gou’s fondness for Order, I understood it well. What was poetry but the ordering of the world into words? What was calligraphy but an art of discipline and control as ink and paper exerted their own wills against your own? I could not abide drips. I could not abide wrinkles in the paper. And yet I was of the Floating World, seeking salve from the rigors of everyday society and its endless rules that imprisoned willfulness. And I could not but remember that great poet Batsuo Masho who traveled the wilds, away from society, to appreciate Chaos and Disorder, finding in them the harmony whereby his masterful poems were extracted. But I was yet too afraid of Disorder. I was too cowardly to go roaming as he had. One day I would need to surrender myself to the wilderness beyond cities if I ever hoped to master the Disorder of the cosmos.
The door slid open and Lady Utano appeared in the Main Hall, standing at the threshold uneasily at first, but then mustering her courage and addressing her uncle openly in front of all of his guests.
“Uncle, I have heard that you have sent Samurai into the town to kill hungry children,” she said. “Is this true?”
“You will not address me in this manner!” her uncle roared.
“And you will not have children slaughtered on the streets!” she said, as equal a dragon as him. “I do not care if you damn your own soul, but to inflict such…barbarism upon starving people is to offend the Buddha and all of his teachings of passivity!”
Lord Gou’s face quivered and frothed with fury. Before he could say anything, however, the diviner, Karasu, surprised us all by rising to his feet and addressing Lady Utano directly.
“That is very true, my lady,” he said. “Buddha frowns terribly upon such needless suffering and sorrow. But there is a famine upon the whole of the earth now, and so, it seems to me, that the Buddha has not granted a reprieve for these refugees; not as has this wondrous province been so blessed by his love and mercy.” He began to pace up and down the Main Hall, his fingers clamped together behind his back, his back bent slightly forward, his neck hooked upward and his head bobbing as he walked. His posture reminded me of a bird.
“The Buddha works in mysterious ways,” he said, “but his blessings and his curses are apparent to all willing to see them. The refugees were welcomed into this province, and invited to fish the rivers for food, if they so desired. But they spat upon your uncle’s hospitality. They would rather be pampered and served and fed as any lord in his household than sweat honestly for their food. But they transgress your uncle’s charity. They overstep themselves. Ungrateful, they demand more and more, and now they take, their perfidious natures revealed at last. It reminds me of someone else,” he said, abruptly wheeling about and staring at Lady Utano. “It reminds me of someone for whom hospitality is repaid in ingratitude, and disobedience, and contumely.” He affixed his dark eyes upon her, his back still bent forward and his neck raise in that avian stance. He smirked with the confidence of Death itself.
Lady Utano appeared shocked, unable to counter his smugness with feigned ignorance. The rotten-scalped diviner continued, turning about and pacing again.
“And, what’s more, my lord,” he said to Lord Gou, “this seems an excellent opportunity for the reckoning of accounts on all sides. Indeed, there is much profligacy to be atoned for, and penance to be had. Like a battlefield beneath the rising sun, truths must be revealed, however ugly.”
The diviner stood solemnly, head bowed and his sharp fingers clasped before him, as if in prayer.
“My lord,” he said, “it will give you no pleasure in the revelations I now present, for while you certainly have apparitions unwanted in your home, another sin impugns your honor, and, I must say, more brazenly than mere specters.”
All expressions were quizzical, from Host to guest to servant to niece. Even the diviners appeared confused by Karasu’s words. He paid them no mind. In fact, I had observed a certain contempt in his manner toward the other diviners; contempt and amusement.
“Indeed, my lord,” the corvine diviner said, “all is not as it seems. While you have unrest in your town, there is, unfortunately, a greater unrest brewing in your household— an unrest that may well upset the Emperor and the Shogun. It is one of betrayal and lust and sin. It is a sin of willfulness. And that sin begins in your most wanton niece!”
All eyes flew at once to Lady Utano— all eyes save for my own. No, my eyes knew no rest or refuge, like fireflies in chaotic winds, searching for sanctuary from the storm. Dawn’s dew was not half so profuse as was the sweat that drenched me in that moment, and I feared the light of the lanterns would betray the dew of my indiscretions, for I could not withdraw the flow, nor feign a calmer visage.
Lord Gou rose like a monsoon— loud, spraying showers of spittle and flinging his sake in the gale of his fury.
“What is the meaning of this?!” he roared. “You insolent old man! You dare question the honor of my household?!”
“I do not question your household, my lord,” Karasu said with a bow, “only those blessed by your hospitality.”
Lord Gou’s blazing eyes went from the diviner to his niece. “Niece, do you deny it?!”
Lady Utano stepped forward, bowing low. “No, uncle,” she said. “I do not deny it.”
Lord Gou’s mouth gnarled and gnashed. “I will have his blood! Tell me his name so I may flay him and use his skin for the Lotus Sutra!”
My robe was of flame, it seemed. I could not breathe, and I dared not look at Lady Utano for too long, nor her uncle.
“Lady Utano is with child,” Karasu said, shocking me furthermore. “I can sense the growing seed of her bastard even now.”
“Who is he, you willful harlot?!” Lord Gou demanded, more apoplectic than before. He struck the table and everyone’s cup leapt and spilled.
“He is only a coward,” she said, her eyes fallen to her feet. “A shadow through a screen, soon gone and unmourned.”
“Gone, indeed!” Lord Gou vowed. “Gone and unmourned, for soon death comes to him, as it comes for you, you vile whore!!!”
He drew his tanto and rushed forward, to avenge himself upon his niece. She welcomed the blade without struggle. To my great surprise, I found myself kicking the table. Its long body slid and struck Lord Gou’s foot. A great tumult followed with Lord Gou tumbling over the table and falling upon the floor. The blade kissed his cheek and blood spilled. Lady Utano, seeing the blood, woke to her instinct for self-preservation, fleeing from the room while several servants gathered around Lord Gou to see to his wound. Yet, he shoved them aside and rose again, his face red as much from rage as from blood. Still grasping the tanto in his hand, he screamed an unearthly, terrible scream and readied to hunt down his niece.
It was at that moment that the lanterns extinguished, leaving the Main Hall drenched in a darkness that dowsed Lord Gou’s rage. When the lanterns flared again they glowed crimson and shadows appeared upon the walls, recreating in silhouette a scene now familiar to the guests of Lord Gou’s home. It was the same scene played out with the Bunraku puppets: two lovers meeting, walking together in sweet serenity, and then a portly lord taking her, abusing her, and her lover being struck down by swordsmen.
Lord Gou screamed in horror and rage.
“It was my right! She had rebuffed me, her master, and then that whelp attempted violence against me! It was not a sin!”
Shrieking, he attacked the shadows upon the walls, slicing the paper apart and leaving it in tattered shreds and broken bamboo.

***

The household was all frenzy and disarray. People clambered over each other to flee. Even the diviners were panicked unto a stampede. I slipped away, unnoticed, to the garden, seeking silence and solace from the madness of the evening.
It was a clear night, scintillating with stars, and the moon was high. As I approached the pond I saw shooting stars streaking across the heavens. A heron, hitherto unseen next to the weeping willow, shrieked and flew away. Watching it, I composed a poem. Oftentimes I wondered if I composed poems to cope with life’s disappointments and tragedies.

“The gray heron shrieks
as a star flies and burns out,
knowing its life now.”

The figure on the bridge leaned upon the railing, gazing ever into the pond below.
“It is time,” he said. “Justice will be served. As below so above. As above so below.”
A woman smiled up at him from the pond, sadly and beautifully, among the Lotuses. When I looked upon her directly, however, she vanished beneath still waters, as did the faceless man upon the bridge. Things at last became clear in the fog and moonlight. The man upon the bridge had been cut down and his lover had drowned herself in the moon pond. It would have made for a beautiful poem had I not wearied of such rigors of emotions already.
Tired of spirits and of people, I walked toward my room, intent on sleeping until the world reemerged from the dissolving mists. I hoped that Lady Utano had escaped her uncle’s wrath. Perhaps I would be awakened later, with his tanto in my throat. Perhaps we were all ghosts already and did not yet know it.
Suddenly I heard growling, and shouting, and pleading. Lord Gou came stomping into the garden, flanked by his servants and his consorts. They tried to soothe him, but he would accept no solace or appeasement. He scattered them with an upraised tanto.
“Out, you sycophants! You whores! Harlots! Snake women! Or my rage will burn all of you, too!”
He carried a torch and his eyes flared within its angry light. The diviners attempted to persuade him from his fury, but were quickly silenced. The old diviner, Karasu, stood by, smirking with strange anticipation. Lord Gou paid him no mind at all, seemingly unaware of the rotten-headed man’s eager countenance.
I stepped aside—for the angry bull of a man nearly trammeled me in his wrathful path— and glanced about, wondering if Lady Utano was nearby. I found that the manor’s screen doors had been opened and all of the household’s many occupants stood now upon the veranda, facing the courtyard garden. They stared in disbelief and fear as Lord Gou approached the moon bridge. His shadow was a wild, flailing demon as the torch flame flickered and writhed with hunger.
“I will abide this taint upon my house no longer!” Lord Gou roared. “His stain will be lifted, even if it means I have to burn down this damned bridge!”
One of Lord Gou’s eldest servants attempted to intervene, and was struck to the ground for his efforts. Other servants helped the incautious man to his feet, all while cowering from their vengeful master.
“I will do what these worthless diviners could not!” Lord Gou continued, sneering at the diviners. His beard shimmered wetly with sake and blood from the cut across his cheek. “I will purge my house, and my soul, of this corruption!”
Forthwith, Lord Gou set light to the beautiful moon bridge. The torch’s flame was hungry and unhesitating, enveloping the bridge quickly. Yet, the flames were not satisfied. As we all looked on in horror, the flames caught upon Lord Gou’s beard, setting it alight. He roared in agony, yet did not try to extinguish the flames. Rather, his roars heightened to exultant laughter— devilish laughter. The shadow became the man and he transformed amidst flame and fury. Where Lord Gou once stood there now stood a large, flame-haired Oni with a bull’s horns and a fiery beard. Teeth as sharp and as long as tanto blades flashed within his grin, yet his grin was all mirthless wrath. Those servants near at hand fled, screaming.
“I did not dismiss you!” he proclaimed, snatching at a nearby servant attempting to flee. “I will teach you for your presumptuousness!” He raised the hapless servant until they were face to face, and then he breathed upon him, melting the man’s face. Lord Gou then cast the corpse down, its skull blackened and smoking like a used incense stick.
“The flames!” Lord Gou roared triumphantly. “The flames! Do you not see that the purge me of my corruption?! I shall purge all of vile corruption!”
The demon that was once Lord Gou stomped about the garden, setting fire to the chrysanthemums and the plum trees and the cherry blossoms. The willow tree was as a bowing widow immolating herself above her husband’s grave. The courtyard became a fiery pit of Jigoku, and all who witnessed it screamed in horror.
Only the lotuses in the moon pond remained untouched. Soon the flames greedily pounced upon the veranda, and then everyone fled, myself included. Panic was as contagious as the flames. I went inside to gather up my scrolls. My heart ached to think of the Lotus Sutras I had already given to Lord Gou, wanting to retrieve them before they could burn, but I knew not where he had kept them in the meantime. They were my finest works!
How fast the fire worked its masterful destruction! What was once dreaming midnight mist was now wakeful smoke and flame. I fled through the manor as the flames rapaciously ate the paper walls and the wooden beams and floors. The ofudas which the diviners had hung all over the interor halls were quickly eaten up with contemptuous fire. It was as I emerged from the front of the manor that I saw him standing upon the street leading into town. The yin-yang diviner grinned—a devilish grin that sent chills cascading through my body like an icy waterfall. He had such a long nose now, and wore a black-crested cap atop his bald, rotten egg head. Black wings spread from behind his back, flapping up great gusts of air that fanned the flames and spread their frenzy ever the more wildly.
The diviner rose on his black wings. He croaked a laugh of glee, like a crow.
“I sensed innocent blood had been spilled here and was not disappointed!” Karasu exclaimed. “Rot and ruin make for wonderful meals. All the demons of the pits shall feast well tonight!”
He rose and rose up into the air, soaring so high as to surmount the Western Pagoda, flying toward the horizon with a caterwauling chorus of attendant crows. At his cry the demons sprouted upward from every impure heart. A legion of demons reared their heads through the town and beyond. Crow demons took flight and followed their master through the nocturnal air.
Lord Gou rampaged through his household, exploding through a wall and out onto the street. He snorted and fumed within the flames, his body grotesquely large and his beard flaring wisps of fire. His head was crowned with the long horns of a bull and where he stomped and clawed there erupted flames riotously. He smashed into his household again, charging through the corridors and walls and rooms, destroying all in his wake. Nothing and no one was spared his fury.
I called for Lady Utano. I truly did. Do not doubt me in this. I went searching for her amongst the consumed household and the flames. I found only servants fleeing in terror, or screaming as they burned alive. The flames of Jigoku had come for Lord Gou and all of his household. They were inescapable.

***
I walked the long road leading to Kyoto. All behind me was flaming fear and smoky confusion, but I floated along easily through the mists. Giants walked the outskirts of the province, their skulls gleaming in the luminous moon. Tengu flew through the air near them, or perched upon their collar bones, cawing with laughter and proclaiming blasphemies upon the land. Lord Gou’s bellows resounded throughout, deafening the screams of his dying servants and subjects. It was a grand feast of death and destruction. I wondered what happened to that mother and her two children that were among the refugees. I wondered what happened to Lady Utano.
I did not look back, but walked forward with my heart and mind upon Kyoto. Everything was clearer out here, in the country, even as the mists rose along the nocturnal border between the living and the dead. It was quieter. No raging infernos. No demons to terrorize the earth. Not even a breeze shivered the trees. All was silent. All was still.
I recalled seeing the Chrysanthemums burning, and was not in the least sorrowful for them. Why should they not burn? All else had. Part of me wished that the flames would march to complacent Kyoto and roost all Winter long. It only seemed right and just, for there was a harmony in Chaos. I had realized it while the flames gathered around me. They were beautiful, in their own way.
The musician— of all people— suddenly appeared upon the road. He ran past me, gasping and weeping in turns. He was pale and his robe was coming undone with the rigors of his frantic motions. He did not seem to care, however, until the belt loosened and his pants slipped down, tripping him and dropping him into a roll. He sprawled out in the dirt, tears on his cheeks and his eyes wide to the whites. Calmly standing over him, I offered my hand to help him stand. He did not see me at first. Rather, he glanced around the mists with fright, trembling. His chest rose and fell as if to shed the upper swaths of his robe. Suddenly, he looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time. His face contorted with great horror. Scrambling like a beast, and screaming wildly, he fled farther down the moonlit road, never looking back. His pants remained behind, trodden in the dirt.
Lord Gou had been correct. The musician was an idiot.
I walked on for some time before coming upon anyone else. When I turned a bend in the road I saw two figures ahead of me: a man and woman walking, arm-in-arm beneath the moonlight. I called out to them and they paused, looking back at me. I could see their faces clearly, and they appeared contented: a beautiful young woman and a handsome young man. I realized they shared a name, though I did not understand how I knew this. They were Ren and Ren. They walked toward a lake lovely with lotuses. They soon disappeared. I wished them well.
I continued upon my path, coming to a large field. Fireflies were as stars above the wild grasses. A figure waited there, playing a song among the moonlight. I knew who she was, and I nearly walked away, thinking I might escape as if having not seen her. But the despondency in her song gave me pause, and soon I found myself compelled toward her.
She played until I was within arm’s reach of her, then she ceased. She wore a kijo’s face, its snarling grin full of wooden fangs.
“You tried to leave without saying goodbye,” she said.
“I have many roads to walk,” I said, “and many Sutras to write.”
“And many women to woo?” she said, the notes of her scorn like a snapping shamisen string.
I held my tongue, for I had never heard her so angry before. It was…beautiful, in its own way. It had an appealing novelty and music akin to passion within the moonlight. I wished to embrace her, if only to absolve myself of her fury, or transform her fury into ardor once again.
“The spirits are on their way, then,” she said, gesturing toward the lake where Ren and Ren had disappeared. “That is good. They shall find peace together.”
“You know of them?” I said, surprised.
“I have known of them for a long time,” she said. “I have commiserated with them in lonely hours. It was I who asked them to seek their revenge through you, and the others. It was a selfish suggestion. I knew what kind of man you are, and wished them to influence you with their truer love.”
I only grunted, baffled by the revelations.
“You do not seem to realize it,” she said, “but you are as the blacksmith, and you are as my uncle. You condemn yourself to die by condemning the love you harbor for me. You will condemn both of us to terrible fates if you abandon me. As for myself, I am like that girl, drowning in the love of you.”
I attempted a laugh, but the stillness and the silence behind her Noh mask disquieted me quickly.
“Only a fool laughs where hearts are concerned,” she said. “Whereas the spirits of the lovers have been reconciled, you and I will be as Izanagi and Izanami. And I will relish tormenting you for eternity.”
“You have a dragon’s tongue,” I said. “But you breathe more smoke than fire.”
“I will have more fire to quell than that if you leave me,” she said. “I will return to you as a demon if you forsake me. I will haunt you for the rest of eternity, and beyond. My uncle is not the only heart that knows terrible flames.”
She doffed the demon mask, yet there still seemed a demoness in her visage. There was darkness in her eyes, and a twinkling flame. She was in earnest, as is a monsoon against the unwary shore. It was a novel passion, and I cherished it. Her hair had been undone with grief and framed her pale face with its black ink. Smoke wafted from her kimono, as it wafted from me.
“You haunt me even now,” I said. I thought of the ghosts, then, and of Lord Gou, and I realized that to allow another greedy man to separate two lovers again would only lead to more tragedy. I went to her. “Come,” I said. “Haunt me forever, if you must.”
I entwined her with my arm. The moon was underlined by the single stroke of a cloud— a diaphanous mark as if to underline the meaning of the moon. We began to walk together, following the firefly field. A terrible scream rose in the distance, and we paused.
“They are Oni,” I said.
“Of course,” she said.
“You must be a diviner, too, I said, “to behold them.”
“Like can spot like,” she said, black smoke rising from her black hair.
I patted the flames off of my robe, and waved away the smoke from before my eyes. Just then, from down the road, came a procession extraordinary in its size and assortment. Seeing it should have frightened me, yet I felt a keen need to join them as they proceeded along the road toward Kyoto. Foremost among them was a mother and her boy and girl, and they struck me as familiar, only happier now, and more colorful than they had ever been in life. They danced and chanted together, making motley merriment along the road.
“What a bustling group!” I remarked.
“Indeed,” Lady Utano said.
“Should we join them?” I said.
“I will follow wherever you go,” she said.
Lady Utano and I joined the procession, she and I walking together, hand in hand, surrounded by hundreds of creatures in wildly colorful robes and kimonos; singing willful songs. And why would we not? We were of the Floating World! We chanted and danced all the way to Kyoto, and then all the way to the Emperor’s palace, for we would be heard, and not even the Buddha would know rest in the meantime. Eternity stretched before us, lit with flames, and the past was but a long shadow of mingling ashes. Thus I lived poetry, for my Lady Utano and I were as poetry together, forever wed like ink and parchment.

“Free as hot embers
we were, dancing on wild winds
to burn paper walls.”

Shallow

Everything seemed out of season.  The leaves of the Maple tree glowed like the flaring flecks of a somber fire on the street corner, its crown traced in the orange light of a lamppost. The brickwork of the nearby townhouse was half lit by that same light, or else lost in shadow, only a single window on the second floor etched apart by a candle’s glow. All other houses down either street were drowned in black night, neither porchlight or inner light refuting the tenebrous uniformity of the late hour.
It was said the Wizard put a spell on his neighbors, one and all, to urge them to bed early—even on weekends—so that he would never be disturbed during his midnight lucubrations. There was no traffic on the road, nor even foot traffic. Occasionally some local drunks would go wandering away from the local bars, but never would they wander this way, and all sober people shunned this road at night. The single rear light of her father’s old pickup truck had disappeared from sight a few moments before, heading home where her mother waited, weeping at the kitchen table.
The Wizard was a mysterious celebrity within the county. Everyone knew of him and spoke of him, but no one really knew him or spoke to him. His house sat at the corner of two streets and two worlds, seen by many and yet frequented by none. They said he was a kingmaker, and a king breaker. Between light and darkness, he existed. People hoped for, and dreaded, the call to his house.
Her mother had curled her red hair, and selected the green summer dress for her to wear— a slight slip of a dress that left her freckled shoulders bare, and was sheer down the flat of her chest, and hitched high with a hem at her freckled thighs, showcasing knobby knees that popped sometimes as she walked with that awkwardly bouncing stride of a fawn bounding dubiously through its first summery field. Her father had insisted on the makeup she wore—the red lipstick that made her slight buck-teeth more pronounced and the mascara that only ran down her freckled cheeks because of the tears she had shed during the drive over here. Why the Wizard wanted her, she did not know. Her eyes were too large, her cheeks too shallow, her chin too slight and her overbite too disastrous to be cute. She was not pretty, or even plain. As a child she was pretty, perhaps, but not now, fresh upon her fifteenth year.
She stared up at the townhouse looming over her. She stepped up on the first concrete step. The house intimidated her, as did everything that belonged to the wealthy and powerful. The strange L-shaped stairs led up to the front door aslant, and a lion statue lounged on the brickwork, at its crook. Its slumbrous brow was bathed in scant light from the lamppost. Its eyes were sleepy, and its mouth closed. The gleam of the light on its bronze mane fascinated her, briefly, as she passed it. It lionized the ascent with its presence.
She idolized Reba McEntire. As she took another step up she heard “Fancy” playing in her head. She was not wholly ignorant concerning men—homeschooled, but not ignorant. A boy at her church had grabbed her shallow breasts when she first began to blossom, and shortly ended blossoming, barely larger than he was. And her strange cousin, Mikey— whom her parents referred to as “slow” and “not right”—showed her his penis when she was eleven. He was seventeen at the time, but weighed twice as much as her father. The small, ugly thing between his legs was barely visible beneath his ponderous gut; like a mushroom poking out from under a white boulder covered in hairy black moss.
She took another step up, and the second run of steps angled perpendicular from the first, leading up to the black metal door with its lion-headed knocker. The glass was blackened by shadows. The opal moon shone at the back of the house. The front facade was shrouded with a veil of darkness where the lamppost’s sullen glow did not touch it.
The door opened silently. It did not creak or screech on its hinges, unlike the doors at her family’s old farmhouse. Yet, this house seemed older than her home; older than times her great-grandfather knew nothing of.
The door opened, but no one stood there at its dark threshold. She hesitated, naturally, and shivered in the warm, summery breeze. The inner vestibule was palled, but there was a soft light deeper within the house, radiating gently down a staircase and its elaborate rails. All else was darkness and obfuscated suggestion.
Knowing she had no choice, she entered the house and headed slowly toward the soft-lit staircase. The door closed behind her, silently and of its own accord. At the bottom of the inner stairs, on the lacquered wood of the landing, sat a cat. It was a large cat with a creamy white-and-brown patched coat and a black masked face. It had clear blue eyes which were oddly shaped like almonds, and, when paired with the strange down-curve of its lips and a face as flat as a wall, gave it the permanent expression of irritability and grumpiness. It waited until she stood before it, then turned about and walked up the stairs at a leisurely pace. She followed the cat, coming to the landing upstairs. The light down the stairs extinguished at once, and only a single light glowed on the second floor, down the hallway from an open door. All other doors were closed and dark. She walked down the hallway and came to the dimly illuminated room, its door open and waiting to admit her.
The Wizard sat at a table, reading a book scrawled with no human language upon it. He squinted down at the book, aglow in candlelight, and when she entered the cat leapt upon the table, sitting patiently beside the book while its face remained in a perpetual flat-faced frown. The Wizard did not glance up, but pointed to a long mirror standing in a corner of the murky room. The tall mirror was lit by a five-stick candelabrum.
“Undress,” he said. He said no more, but continued to read the mad spirals and cross-strokes nonsensically arrayed upon the splayed book.
She hesitated, then went to the mirror, thinking of her mother and father and siblings; of the farm and the letters from the county, and the bank notes, and the massive debt.
She hesitated again in front of the mirror. She stared at herself in the mirror; amidst the gloomy murk blurred by tears. Her curly red hair, her knobby knees and freckled shoulders; her mascara running down her cheeks. She was a child, really, and she was only old enough to realize that she was still a child. Taking a deep breath, and hating herself, she pulled the green summer dress up and off of her.
She did not take off her bra or her underwear. She had to look away from the shame in the mirror, drying her eyes and happening upon the jars that gleamed on the shelves lining the room, half-concealed in the burning candle dusk. There were skeletons both familiar and bizarre in those jars. Here a cat; there, a rat with a human skull. A bird’s skeleton with a long, reticulated neck and a dog’s head at the end of it. Eyeballs that stared at her, and a human heart that continued to beat, disembodied. In other jars were more innocuous things: flowers, grasses, liquids of various colors. Ash, flint, pebbles, roots. Yet, however banal, they all excited in her young heart a fear that made her tremble violently in the Wizard’s study.
The Wizard continued to read. She did not know if this was supposed to be part of a means of exciting torture upon her or if he had simply forgotten about her. He did not seem interested in her at all. Nor was he what she had expected. He was of no specific age— that is to say, he could have been in his thirties or his fifties. He had no beard, nor a robe, but wore khakis and a simple blue collar shirt. Brown loafers were upon his feet and his face was free of spectacles. His hair was black, frosted white at the temples. He resembled a doctor more than a fairytale Wizard.
She gazed again into the mirror. She was not a pretty girl; not even cute. She had callused hands from milking cows and pitching hay. She was bony from too much work and too little food. Whatever idle fat was supposed to hang on the breast and buttock had been burned away irreparably by daily chores on the farm. Her forearms were too boyish with muscle, as was her whole body. She knew no other life other than from hearsay from the other kids at her church. They went to public schools, and rarely talked to her because they lived very different lives. They lived on their phones, and the internet. Her parents could not afford a cellphone or the internet, nor satellite tv. They watched three channels on broadcast, and that was rarely more than an hour a day. Chores consumed everything, and a farm could not earn anyone a living anymore. It could feed a family, but lose itself on its own mortgage. Only corporate farms and hobby farms remained strong. And they were not real farmers. They were pretenders. Nowadays fake lives could earn more money than a genuine life ever could.
“We’re underwater on the mortgage,” her father had told her on the way here. “And he promised to help with all that. You just got to…got to put yourself out there.”
Like a cow, she thought bitterly. Put out to market.
Startling her, the Wizard shut the book suddenly, sighing irritably. He pushed his chair back and stood, turning around. Instinctively, she shrank from him, huddling in a corner where three stacks of books towered. Bumping into them, she fell them like dominoes, sprawling them out across the strange Persian rug on the floor.
“Sorry,” she said automatically.
“I said undress,” he said firmly.
She gawped, and then the tears came anew, flooding her face. Her heart hammered horribly between her shallow breasts, threatening to burst her lithe, boyish frame. She felt faint, and swooned, a heat in her head like a matchstick soon to ignite into an immolation of shame. He came forward and took her bra off impatiently, and her underwear while she wobbled on one leg and then the other. She did not fight him, swaying with the movement like a scarecrow being shaken by the seasonal winds. She closed her eyes, the tears burning along her sockets.
After he had taken her remaining raiments, he stepped away. She had anticipated fondling hands and hot breath and a great pain within and without. Instead, he turned about in seeming indifference. When she dared to open her eyes, she saw him laying a large elliptical bowl on the table, next to his book and his cat. It was very much the same shape as the standing mirror. Into this bowl he poured a silvery liquid from a strange jug that looked like a coiled conch. He waited a minute or so after pouring the syrupy liquid, then he closed his eyes and whispered a few words she could not understand. He passed his hands over the bowl several times. He had an Apple watch on his wrist. She glanced at the elliptical bowl where the silver liquid resided. It was as thin as a Judas coin.
So shallow, she thought.
“It may seem shallow,” the wizard said, as if reading her mind. “But it can still drown you.”
“We’re already drowning,” she whispered.
If he heard her, he did not seem to care.
“Stand in front of the mirror,” he commanded her. He stared intently into the bowl. “And uncross your arms. Stand completely still and do not move. It could be catastrophic if you disrupt your image within the Constancy.”
She did as she was told, dropping her arms to her sides and standing still in front of the mirror. She was skin and bones and freckles and buck-teeth and overbite. Only her red hair was truly pretty about her, and it burned like fire in the light from the candelabrum; burned like Maple leaves in Autumn. A willowy skeleton of a girl, her ribs etched softly beneath breasts that would have been nonexistent except for the small nipples dotting where breasts should have been swelling. Narrow hips and slender thighs.
“What do you want?” he asked her.
She blinked in disbelief at the question, and turned her head to look at him.
“I told you not to move,” he chastised her absently. He was holding a white twig above the water, from which a chrysalis hung. “What do you want?”
“What does it cost?” she asked.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“What will you give me?” she asked, also knowing the thirst of want.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“Then I want everything,” she said without hesitation.
He nodded, almost with clinical disinterest, and dipped the chrysalis into the silver liquid, swirling it around slowly while the image in the mirror distorted and swirled, growing her breasts, widening her hips, and swelling her flat butt. She grew curvaceous in the flesh. The pain was excruciating, but she knew it was worth it. She stared at her new body in the mirror where such changes had been wrought, and she was transfixed. She had a new nose, fuller cheeks, pouty lips, and her chin was extended out so that her overbite disappeared. She still had her freckles, and her red hair, but the two complimented her new body. She was beautiful.
He warned her of various things she should not do, like reaping bad karma, or finding religion, or following a cult.
“You are your own goddess now,” he said. “And others will follow you. You will be your own religion and will trend for as long as you live in beauty.”
The cat rubbed against her ankle, looking up at her with its perpetual frown. She realized she had seen it somewhere before. She thought she could hear the clapping of hands at a distance, and fought the urge to take a bow.
The Wizard became disinterested in her once again, sitting down at his table and opening his large book again. Looking over his shoulder, she was surprised to realize she could understand the strange symbols on the pages. The @’s and the #’s were like symbols in a language for stargazing, and she could read them now. Her horoscope was written in their strange code, and she saw that it assured her ascendancy.

***

They nicknamed her the “Ginger Kardashian”. She was an Instagram model, social media influencer, and a makeup and fashion Youtuber. She built an empire out of her lips, breasts, and hips. She never worked at a farm again and moved out to LA where she bought a McMansion that dwarfed every house in her hometown, including the Wizard’s townhouse. She became a millionaire many times over and trended every week on every platform. Her fake life earned more money than a real one ever could, and though she was never happy, she pretended like she was, and often looked at her own posts online with a sense of awe. Her image had become a goddess. Her image had become a religion and had gained many followers around the world. But she also became a follower herself, envying the same goddess others envied and knowing she would never feel so happy as her shallow image on the other side of the looking-glass.

Salamandrine Measure

Ambition beyond his small size,
the salamander dreamt of a hoard
whose vast spillage would fill his eyes
as he scurried beneath grate and board.
Ofttimes his fire-coiled tail fell free
as he flitted fleet-footed therefrom
fierce fireplace and hot-breathed chimney,
wishing to think such his fate to come:
a wish to breathe fire and puff smoke,
to be cobbled thick with scales like stones,
to tower taller than an oak
and to be strong with hard timber bones;
as chimney and cottage so that
wizards and warriors would all fear
to hear him, as he feared the cat
when that sly huntress came stalking near.
And so he thought gold the measure
whereby he would grow to dragon size;
gold wherein he’d lounge in leisure,
knowing himself grown monstrous likewise.
For a mountain of gleaming gold
had a magic to transform all things;
as if magic cauldrons of old
that could transpose paupers into kings.
One day such were his golden dreams
to find mountains of coin to covet
when a man split his pocket seams
and a landslide of coins rained from it.
The salamander gathered fast
the coins to the fireplace, just below
the grate—a mountain thus amassed
where fire and gold could both gleam and glow.
A hoard of gold! A dragon’s den!
He lounged among his golden tender
as if changed by a magician
to a dragon in all his splendor.
And though he was as yet so small
as to be crushed by a careless heel
he felt he towered over all:
he felt how a real dragon must feel.

Black Blake And The Bottled Imp

“Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.”— Henry Wadsworth Longsfellow

The winds fussed and fought over the fallen leaves, sweeping their clutter into piles and then scattering them anew like old maids quarreling with their broomsticks over the same dust in the same dirty kitchen. It was Autumn in the village of Kilne and cool winds blew often through its valley. Yet, Kilne was warm, as it always was as it sat in the tall, smoky shadow of the Mumbling Mountain. The lava floes beneath the earth kept it warm. They also kept the grass burnt brown at the mountain’s base and the trees coated in gray soot moss that coated all bark old enough to have a beard. The crooked crowns of the trees were bereft of their Summer coats. The shortened day slowly surrendered to night.
The blacksmith Blake— known to the people of Kilne as Black Blake— walked out of the furnace heat of the caves with a hankering for a mug of beer to drink and a leg of lamb to chew. He looked down the rolling field leading away to the thatch-capped, vale-village of Kilne. There he saw his small cottage where his wife Joanna awaited his return. He thought of his gap-toothed wife and frowned, then looked to the opposite end of the village where Marlowe’s Tavern awaited him. There, Olga, the tavern wench, had more than likely already filled his usual mug with the bar’s thickest, darkest brew—and had pushed her large bust up and out for his eager appraisal.
Blake’s eyes flitted between the two ends of the village, briefly, then settled on the Tavern, whereupon his long legs began their lecherously cheery gait in that direction, heedless of winds or of wife or of anything else that might have been agitated in this small part of the world. He ran a hand unmindfully through his black mane. A cloud of soot lifted from it and his bright red hair shown through like a flame to match the dusk. Hands black, he wiped them on his britches and ruminated, unsure whether he wanted to touch the wet mug first or Olga’s gold-freckled rump.
“Why not both?” he said, then laughed at his own knavish wisdom and whistled a roguish song as made his way down into the darkening valley.

Joanna held the iron frying pan over the little log stove, keeping Blake’s potatoes and beans warm as she waited in the little cottage. Every now and again she would look at the door, expecting it to burst open with a bang— for Blake never did anything unless dramatically— and to see her tall, handsome husband come sauntering in like a lord over his many-splendid lands. She hoped he would come sauntering in and not staggering in, which had often been his drunken manner of entrance lately, if he had the habit of coming home at all.
No! She told herself that Blake would not do that again, not after she pleaded with him yesterday with her eyes blurred by the rains of her heart. He would come home any moment, and he would want a hot meal after a long day forging in the Mumbling Mountain.
As she held the heavy pan above the stove with one hand she used her other hand to poke and prod the log in that iron-belly. Nearly everything in her home was made from iron, most of it fashioned and furnished by her father. He had built the cottage itself, too, and the tables and the chairs. Joanna missed her father— the diligent old man dead but last winter— and she regretted not having listened to his warnings about Blake. The only thing in the cottage that her father did not have a hand, or both hands, in the making of was the frying pan atop the stove. Blake had made that heavy, crudely dented instrument himself. And the only reason he had made it was to satisfy Kilne marriage custom.
And the only reason he had married Joanna was because she would not be wooed and won any other way.

Olga was brimming out of her top as her big lips puckered and popped on Blake’s bristly cheeks. Blake liked how her corset made her gold-flecked cleavage swell as if to explode from her bodice. He leaned back to take the third swig of his fourth beer, then leaned Olga back and kissed her so long and so hard that she herself became half-drunk from his liquor-heavy breath. He gave her ample rump a pinch as she sat in his ruttish lap. He was perched precariously atop a stool. She giggled and wrapped her arms around his head, pulling his face to her bulging bosom.
“Of’ Black Blake, I do love you furiously!” she said
“Aye,” he rejoined, muffled between her breasts. “And I love yer girlies here.”
There were few men in the tavern. Most of the men of Kilne were blacksmiths, and because they were blacksmiths they had hard work to do during the day. Having little more energy than to stop by for a hasty beer at Marlowe’s, they drank it quickly and then set off for home to collapse on their beds and drink from that dark, deep mug that is called Sleep.
But such habits were for men of diligent habit within the Mumbling Mountain, and Blake did not hammer metal with the same speed or dedication as the other men. He had energy in ample stock, having not squandered it in the daily pursuit of a living. He spent it how he saw fit. As a consequence, the wares he made were few and often needed reworking, which meant he made but little in recompense. Even now he was down to his last coin, a copper he had palmed from the old and senile widower, Boyle, who had worse sight sober than when drunk.

The heavy pan hurt Joanna’s hands, and her wrist and her arm and her shoulder. Not only heavy, the pan possessed a handle neither smooth nor grooved correctly for a hand to hold without cramping. A good grip could never be got on the ugly iron. Joanna’s father had looked upon the instrument and averted his eyes, shaking his head to rue all the things his naive daughter had not seen in the character and reputation of her husband. Such flaws and vices were evident in the pan, wrought as it was from indolence, incompetence, and unconcern.
Kilne marriage custom was founded on pragmatism, as were the Kilneesians themselves. The father of the intended bride gave the intended husband a core of iron ore to forge whatever thing he best thought befitted his betrothed and her standing in the household. Many men of Kilne forged practical items for the household, such as utensils and candle pans and lamp stalks, and these practical men were of a heart that such practical gifts did not demean or belittle their wives; rather, these utensils were forged with the utmost earnestness of skill and talent with which the blacksmiths’ years of forging had endowed to them, knowing the efforts well placed for the sake of their beloved wives.
Blake was not like any of those men. He had tasted the skin of too many women by the merits of his own charms. When the time came for his binding to Joanna he did not bother to forge something beautiful or practical, but forged a wretched pan to fulfill the ritual. And in the depths of his indolence he had fashioned a pan fit for neither the hardened hands of a troll or a giantess, let alone a young maiden like Joanna.
Upon their wedding night Joanna learned firsthand that Blake would treat her as he treated the creation of that pan; an afterthought, roughly handled, and only as a means to an ends that he himself was never sure he wanted, but attained out of impulse rather than pause and reflection.
“My lil’ rabbit,” he called her, and she was cut to the quick by that dubious title of endearment. For Joanna’s front two teeth were spaced apart like a rabbit’s and her cheeks were rounded as if full of chewing greens at all times.
And yet she bore all of these hardships in servile silence.
“You will rue fancying his face so much,” her father had said to her before his death.
“All I ever wanted was something pretty for myself,” she said to the empty cottage.

Marlowe stood behind his bar with a cloth in his hand, polishing the mugs and glasses he had gathered from around the tavern. His patrons were evanescent, buying a drink, drinking that drink, and then leaving with little more than a grunt goodbye. He surveyed his tavern’s interior now with a shrewd eye, seeing more shadows than drinkers. With the exception of a few men finishing their beers in the far corner, Blake and Olga were the only people animated the moody tavern with any life.
The ruttish couple made enough noise for a dozen people, though, and probably would have scared off a few potential patrons had there been more in the drinking den. Marlowe watched them warily. He always ignored Blake’s liberties with Olga so long as they were reciprocated— that is, if Blake paid his tab on time and in honest coin. Everyone in the village knew Olga, and they all knew how she fancied Black Blake. What they also knew— and what Blake himself did not know— was that Olga fancied just about any man with a wife waiting for him at home. It was her way. It was also Marlowe’s way, for the promiscuous barmaid fetched him more patrons for his pocket than his bitter beers ever could.
When Blake stepped out to use the moon-door, and Jon Rubburn came in through the sun-door, Marlowe expected trouble. Blake and Jon were men of the same mind, and the same appetites. Marlowe put down his mugs and rag. He fetched a quill, ink well, and parchment from under the bar. He was ready to tally damage. Dipping the quill, he waited for Blake to return.
And then Blake returned, greeted with the sight of Olga sitting in the lap of Jon Rubburn while Jon pawed her like a mountain cat besetting a sumptuous fish.
“What’s this here now?!” Blake demanded.
“We were just getting acquainted,” Jon said calmly, ignoring Blake’s wrathful expression.
“We were just acquainted last night,” Olga said, rather innocently for someone so experienced in the world.
“And we will acquaint ourselves again tonight, my dear,” Jon remarked with a laugh.
Blake’s face was ruddy as blood, and he blustered for a livid moment before he could force the words out of his beer-baffled mouth.
“Get yer’ smooth-hands off ‘er!” he roared.
As for Jon, he did not enjoy his hands being insulted. In a village like Kilne, where nearly everyone blacksmithed,“smooth-hands” was a pejorative paramount to having one’s own parentage questioned.
Marlowe braced himself behind his counter, the quill dripping black ink already. He was adamant about listing the damages and accrediting them meticulously to each individual responsible. He was a professional businessman, after all.
“Say yer sorry,” Jon said, “and make yer way home and I’ll let them words slip me mind.”
Jon pushed Olga up and off of him, then stood himself up from his stool to his full height. Much like Olga, the swells of his chest seemed ready to burst out from his shirt. He was sculpted of an agile granite that flexed, expanded, contracted, then expanded again. A bear might grapple with him and regret that boulder-bodied embrace.
Marlowe looked from Jon Rubburn to Blake Blackholme, and found a disproportion of size on one side. Now Blake was a tall man, like Jon, and had a nimble grace when sober. But Blake was not honed and toned and boned like Jon from work in the forge. If Blake was a Saddlebred showhorse, then Jon was a Clysdale workhorse.
And warhorse.
So it was no surprise to Marlowe when Jon stood to face Blake that Blake did the only reasonable thing to remove himself from a situation where his doom was preordained while simultaneously not retreating home with his tail between his legs. He took the nearest mug of muddy beer he could find, swigged it to its dregs, and then proceeded to pass out onto the Tavern floor.
Jon, for his part, was very flabbergasted— he was not a smart man, truly— but soon he lost interest in Blake as Olga took him by his waist and ushered him upstairs to her bedroom.
Marlowe sighed in relief, put away his ink well and quill and parchment and then walked around the counter and dragged Black Blake outside. He would have thrown Blake outside, if only because it was traditional of tavern owners to do so, but his old back was in no shape for the effort. Much to his relief, there was no one to witness his shame in failing to fulfill his vocational expectations.

Often during the day—and in the eveningtime, or indeed anytime when her husband was gone while hour usurped hour in quiet solitude— Joanna would find herself overcome by the frets and the melancholies of her life. This was not good for her, and she knew it was not good for her, and so she exorcized these persistent demons by her only available means: cleaning the cottage. She cleaned and she wiped and she swept and she dusted, often the same area many times a day. She swept the wooden floor until her broom’s bristles were rough and frayed as a witch’s nose hairs. She polished the utensils and the iron stove until she could see her reflection in each inch of dull, dark iron. She dusted the white walls so much that their plaster finish thinned, revealing the ash-and-mud bricks just beneath the crinkly stucco veneer.
Joanna, herself, was nearly as worn to the bone as the walls by her wring-handed worrying and work.
Unlike Olga, Joanna was not buxom. Standing side to side to the big-busted barmaid, Joanna would have pleaded pity for her modest deficiencies. She was willowy and wan, winnowed each day by an ascetic diet and the pumice soap she made to wash her husband’s effects. She was dedicated to saving whatever was left of their diminishing stores for him, and consequently denied herself much in the Autumn months, and much more in the Winter months. She justified this lopsided allocation by telling herself that Blake worked in the mountain forges, and so earned what little money they had (meanwhile neglecting the fact that he also wasted what little money they had). Though she saw to their garden herself, and the emaciated livestock in their possession, she was very traditional in her view of the world— very religious in the Matharist manner— and was obedient and selfless toward her feckless husband, no matter how much he squandered of his meager earnings on mug and gamble and scheme.

When Blake awoke some minutes later, he found himself sprawled out on the grassy lawn beside the water trough for Marlowe’s horses. A long-faced mare stared at him curiously with dark eyes while a stallion high-stepped about in a strut that seemed to challenge the newcomer to a shin-kicking contest. Any other day Blake might have, in his pride, taken up the stallion’s challenge. As it were, he was not so sure he could stand long enough to take a kick to the shins, let alone stand on one leg to dole out what would be his due.
Cursing, Blake pulled himself up to his tottering height and, in a staggering daze, walked home. As he walked his inebriation wore away, bit by bit, foot by foot, and as it gave way to the stark cruelty of sobriety— with its encumbering thoughts of shame and vengeance—he grew angrier and angrier as he approached the cottage.
He hated that cottage. It was a baleful sight. He hated that his father-in-law built it. He hated it now as it sat calmly, awash in moonlight, silent as his father-in-law’s contempt. He hated how sturdy it was and how well-kept by his wife. He hated that he did not build it himself and he hated that it was, by rights of marriage, his cottage. It would be better belonging to some other man, just as he thought he would be better belonging to a grandstanding castle.
He kicked the door open and stomped inside, dropping himself down in a chair at the table. Joanna hurried to him with the pan of food, still steaming after having spent hours simmering atop the iron-belly stove. It had cooked to mush.
“This is what ya’ greet me with?!” he roared, standing to his full height. “Mushy beans and blanched spuds? It ain’t fit enough for the hog! Where’s the meat at, ye’ ungrateful woman?! Where’s the gravy and the sausage?!”
“We haven’t the coin for such things,” Joanna stammered. “You know we haven’t.”
“Do I not provide enough for ye’?” He swung his body around, almost as if in a violent pirouette, to gesture to the whole cottage. “Are ye’ sayin’ I ain’t workin’ hard enough? Well, ye’ royal highness, why don’t ye’ just walk yerself up to that Mountain and you beat on anvils all day and pull glowin’ metal from the flamin’ floes! Why’don’ya’ blacken yer face with soot and smoke and let yer’ cheeks get kissed by the sparking embers that burn like a wyrm’s fire! I’d bet ye’d want to have a nice meal waitin’ for yer return from that oven! I promise ye’, ye’ would!”
Joanna looked away, out the window and in the direction of the Tavern. The window was made of frosted glass— distorted as if by ice and fog— and she wondered if Winter would see them starving in their bones. She wondered, too, if that blurry view of that frost glass was how her drunkard husband saw the world when in his bottle.
She whimpered a plea. “Perhaps…perhaps if you did not drink so much…”
Blake grinned vengefully at her as he fell to lounging lazily upon the chair. He leaned back, legs spread expansively with his bad posture, and pierced her with a mercilessly appraising eye.
“Why does any man of the world drink so much?” He suddenly sat up, rigid with anger as he raised a fist. “Work and wife!” He slammed his fist down on the table, rattling the plate of beans and potatoes. “Hard work and a homely wife!”
Suddenly he shot up from the chair, grabbed her about the shoulders and ushered her roughly toward the drab bed in the corner. She went unresisting, but also unhappily, and fell upon the stiff mattress with her grandmother’s quilt beneath her. Blake swooped in atop her like a hawk upon a rabbit, slavering kisses on her face and neck and chest. Many of these wet maulings did he give, lost to his slapdash passions, until he abruptly stopped and looked at her. She lay rigid beneath him, yet trembling, nor in anticipation or passion, but for dread of him, her eyes clenched shut in horrid resignation and the tears letting out on her cheeks.
“What is the matter with ye’?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” she whispered, meek as a mouse.
“Nothin’? And yet ye’ have about ye’ the look of a ghost. I’ll not have it, ye’ hear? Do ya’ want me or no?”
“I am…I feel…” She struggled for an excuse, but could not lie— she had not the art nor the acting for it in her soul— nor could she speak the truth: that her husband, even pretty, filled her with dread. As it so happened, she did not need to speak any, for her pale face spoke all.
Sickened, Blake stood up and, letting go a frustrated sigh, walked out of the cottage, slamming the door behind him.

Joanna wiped her cheeks dry with her callused hands, then went to look out the door. Her husband was gone, disappeared into the moonlit night. After dumping his mushy beans and spuds to the hog, she ventured out, too, into that starry gloom. She sought the small temple of Mathara that sat in the center of the village of Kilne.
She hurried past the many cottages of her neighbors, their warm-windowed eyes judging her as she went. She wished her cottage knew only the trivial griefs these cottages knew, for they might then judge her much less harshly. Though it shamed her to admit it, she was of half a mind that she would have rather been a widow than married to the notorious ne’er-do-well, Black Blake.
To a stone temple she came, its golden steepled dome shimmering in this dark hour. To the sliding barn-like door she came, and she pounded on its heavy oak with her small knotted fists. There followed a rattling within, and the door sliding open to reveal a huge hearth-fire— known as a “Heart-Fire” among Matharists— distantly inside. A voice called out to her.
“Joanna Blackholm, is it your hour of need?”
Joanna glanced behind herself, in the direction of her cottage, expecting to see Blake stomping and stumbling out between the cottages.
“My husband…Blake…” she said.
“A dark hour indeed, my child,” said the man within the temple. “Please, come in. All are welcomed within Mathara’s warm embrace.”
Blake did stomp and stumble his way between the cottages, and up toward the Mumbling Mountain. It was hard to say what was on his mind except, perhaps, a vague sense of impugned honor. He had a hopeful notion of forging a double-headed ax and returning to Marlowe’s to threaten Jon Rubburn with it, scaring him out of Kilne forever, and then reclaiming Olga’s bedroom favor for his own. He had another notion to simply lay down with his head cradled in the roots of a tree and fall asleep until some better day would come, with either wishing or wanting or dumb blind luck.
The truth was that Blake did not care for Olga very much herself; he had had her several times already in his wild youth, before her breasts had begun to sag and before his marriage to Joanna had begun; and the truth was that once Blake had slept in a woman’s bed it would quickly lose all its rakish comforts and pleasures, impoverishing any further visits afforded to him.
Black Blake’s problem, so far as he could acknowledge to himself, was that he did not know what he wanted in life. He knew only what he did not want in life, which was the life that he had. He looked up at the Mumbling Mountain and saw its dark shadow veined in orange forges.
“That, too, is something I do not want.”

The mountain range behind the Mumbling Mountain were known, collectively, as the Grumbles. Deep within their black rock bones were magma floes and natural smithy fires which the men of Kilne exploited for their forging. The Grumbles were also rich in ore deposits, so a blacksmith needed only dig a few yards from a smithy fire for his material when he required it. The blacksmiths had to be careful, however, for digging without proper forethought might lead to tunnel collapses. Preventing such collapses was the job of the Overseers, though those three men could have cared less if all of Kilne was buried beneath the Grumbles.
“What’s this ‘ere now?” remarked Daryld, the shortest and most senior Overseer. He saw Blake approaching the entrance to the Grumbles, and grinned a black chewmoss grin. “Has Black Blake returned to earn ‘is beer for the evenin’?”
“More like earn his drops of beer,” said Ganth, the second tallest Overseer. “He ain’t gonna’ get hisself more ‘n that for ‘is bent pieces of meh’al.”
The third Overseer, whom everyone called Onx, muttered something unintelligible, then laughed in a gravelly coughing sort of way. Onx was the only one to laugh, being the only one who could make out what he had said, and Onx could have not cared less. All three Overseers were of a troll’s rough and piggish features, but only Onx was an actual troll. His tusks were fat and broad as they jutted out of the corners of his lips, as if he had just eaten a cow and the only part not swallowed were the poor animal’s hooves. Speaking with such tusks was a fruitless endeavor, for the tusks stretched his mouth to utter uselessness, and yet he mumbled all the same. His broad and burly body had muscles stacked atop each other like rocks and were covered in hair that was like moss on stone, leaving only his hands and a small portion of his face— lips to eyes—bare. When he walked his huge feet left prints with every step, regardless of whether he was walking on dirt or rock. And Onx was considered a runt within the troll race.
“Just forgot mah gloves,” Blake lied. “Gonna’ go get ‘im ‘fore they disappear on me.”
“Why’d they go and disappear on one such as you?” Daryld said, spitting black chewmoss from his mouth. “Leastways with you they got themselves a long life ahead of ‘em. Ye’ ain’ never used them for much, have ye’?”
“I’d bed they’re softer ‘an the skin o’ that wife o’ yers girly rump,” said Ganth. “Though nothin’s so soft as yer hands.”
Onx grumbled something unintelligible again, and then laughed, and it sounded as if the rocks of the Grumbles were slip-sliding across each other.
Blake cursed Daryld and Ganth and even Onx (beneath his breath) and passed into the elaborate tunnels spiraling up and down the burning insides of the Mumbling Mountain.

“Every man has within him a demon that is part of him,” the priest told Joanna. “Some men have one and some men have many. To destroy such demons is to destroy the man, for these agents of evil are as much part of what makes a man himself as his flesh and his blood and his name.”
Joanna sat across from the priest of Mathara, a garish candle on the table between them. The candlelight made the priest’s hooded face a thing wizened by deep-wrinkled shadows.
“And a man may be ashamed of his demon,” the priest said, “but being ashamed is not enough to purge himself of his demon. He may only ever aspire to overmaster his demon’s mischief, with the proper guidance, until the demon is nothing more than a distant voice quickly silenced upon its urgent utterance.”
“I don’t think Blake is ashamed enough to do anything to silence his demon,” Joanna said sadly. “He doesn’t even seem to realize he does anything wrong.”
Within the shadows of the priest’s humble hood the golden scales of the dead dragon Gildread— set as a coronet across his clay-baked forehead— gleamed and flashed like a grin. Joanna did not like how the golden scales flashed at her.
“Purer souls may guide the wayward ones into the grace of Mathara,” he said. “A wife can only do so much for her husband, no matter how pure she may be. To exorcize a man’s demon’s requires the purity of a priest.” His eyes hardened upon her. “This is what arises from a life without Mass, child. He does not attend my sermons, and that is the root of the weed in his heart.”
“He will not listen to me,” Joanna said, staring at the dragonscale coronet. “I cannot force him to the temple every week, and I cannot persuade him. I haven’t the strength of arm or voice.”
“You do not attend my sermons, either,” the priest remarked. “Perhaps it is some demon of yours that prompts this visit tonight. Jealousy, perhaps? Womanly vanity?”
“I only want my husband to treat me well,” Joanna says, her eyes welling up.
The priest appraised her with unimpressed eyes. “The fires of Mathara shall cleanse all, sinners and innocent alike, until we are all as flighty ash to swirl upward into the upper spheres of Mathara’s kingdom. Keep this in mind come next Ash-Mourning. If you are not here, then I will know that you are not sincere in the salvation of your husband.”
The priest gestured toward the door, and so Joanna took her leave. She was eager to go, for she did not think she had received useful counsel and, moreover, she was weary of being chastised by men. As she walked toward the sliding door the priest walked after her, closing the door behind her.
In the sigh of air that escaped from that temple, and into the starry night, she caught the whiff of the priest’s Gildread gold coronet. It stank of putrefaction and ash, said to be the most singular stench in all the world. It reminded her of the legends of the Grumbles and of the Gildread family that lorded here:
Once upon a time a golden dragon lived among the Grumbles. Its name was Gildread and it was one of the largest dragons in the world. Most legends state that there were many an aspiring lord that took his army to their doom in the vain hope of killing the dragon and harvesting its golden scales. Only one lord succeeded in the dragon’s extermination. He was a petty lord, with but a weak claim to a stretch of wastes on the Northern side of the mountains. To the astonishment of many, he triumphed in slaying the dragon with nothing more than an army of ill-equipped peasants and a handful of mercenary wizards. Thereafter he took the title “Gildread” from the beast, becoming Lord Gildread, ancestor to the Lord Gildread presently indenturing the blacksmiths of Kilne in his mountains.
Since then the gold harvested from the dragon’s body has been known as “Gildread gold” and has been prized by the aristocracies and the priesthood, despite its enduring stench. It was said, among the peasantry, that Gildread gold was cursed and corrupted anyone it touched. Joanna’s father believed this true, but Joanna was not so sure. Sometimes she thought it merely attracted people who were already corrupted.

As Blake walked toward his forge he saw several blacksmiths sitting in a circle, a lamp between them as they shuffled and flipped and fanned cards. There was a small pile of dark copper coins next to the lamp, each coin dark as dragon droppings with soot.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Blake said, squatting down in the midst of them and eyeing the coins while thinking of all of the beer he might buy with them. “Is it a card game open to anyone?”
“Open to anyone with an open pocket, Blake,” replied Trenton, a man well-acquainted with Blake. “And so not to one such as you.”
There was a general grumble of agreement from the cardplayers, which Blake naturally took umbrage to.
“What’s this now?” he demanded with a sneer. “Me money not good enough for the likes of ye mighty lords?”
“No money’s good enough that is made of more promise than copper,” said Milden, who had been swindled by Blake before. “Show us yer coin and we’ll let ya’ wager it, otherwise be off with ye’.”
They all eyed him, then, waiting for him to produce the coins they knew he did not possess.
“What’s the matter, Black Blake?” the old man Gansel asked. “Lost yer coins between Olga’s tits again?”
Blake gave them all his most curdled snarl, then stood up to his gangly height and spat. “One o’ these days you’ll all wished you’d treated me with more respect.”
The other blacksmiths chuckled as they hunkered around their cards.
“Oh?” said Trenton. “What day is that, Black Blake?”
“The day I become a lord o’ these lands,” Blake snapped.
The cardplayers burst out into laughter, rattling so hard that soot fell from them in clouds. Blake’s ashen complexion reddened nearly as crimson as his hair, yet he could only stand there, stiff with anger and humiliation.
Trenton was the first man to regain his composure enough to speak.
“I donna’…I donna’ care if ye’ find another golden dragon like Lord Gildread did…and I donna’ care if the poor lizard is sufferin’ from the gout and a case of the shaky-bones! I donna’ care if ye’ find a whole army of fools and fool-wizards to help ye’ slay the beast! Ye’ ain’t gettin’ rich off nothin’ short of a miracle!”
“Ye’ just wait and witness,” Blake retorted. “I’mma’ be as rich as Lord Gildread someday, and when I am ye’ll be beggin’ to lick me boots clean for one o’ me gold coins and a curt How-do-ya-do?”
Milden just grinned ear to ear and shook his soot-skinned head. “Even if ye’ managed to get as rich as Gildread ye’d drink yourself to rags again within a week. Ye’ know it!”

Joanna walked home like a woman having just lost her newborn. She wrung her rough hands as if she held in it her own quickening heart. As she wept in the stelliferous gloom, a voice like dry leaves suddenly called to her.
“What troubles ye, child?”
She looked up from her frets and saw the widow, Brigid Emberson, sitting in a wicker chair, knitting a scarf. Her gnarled hands were like two large spiders wrangling each other with the needle and thread.
“My husband is truer to his vices than his virtues,” Joanna said.
“And what are his virtues?” the widow asked. It was too murky to know whether she was smirking or not.
“He is…” Joanna began to say, then fell silent. “He is a bonny man,” she said at last, miserably.
“And is he still a bonny man?”
Joanna began to cry. “Yes.”
“Then he is still true to his virtues,” the widow concluded, cackling.
“Must you be so cruel to me?”
The widow stopped knitting. She raised her good eye at Joanna, and its gaze was sharp and sparkling, like a polished needle piercing the dark. Her bad eye— milk-white and wandering— was looking toward the Grumbles. “Ye’ get what ye’ bargained for, me poor bunny.”
Tears streaming down her face, Joanna turned away and started toward her cottage.
“I didn’t give you leave, child!” the widow called after her. “It seems to me your problems is a disproportion in your husband’s making!”
“There is no good in talking,” Joanna sobbed.
“But there may be good in remembering.”
Joanna stopped walking and graced the old woman with a backward glance through her veil of tears.
“Come sit by an old woman,” the widow said, “and fetch her out of her wooling when the time’s right.”
What Joanna really wanted was her father. But since he was joined to the floes in the mountain— as all Kilne’s blacksmiths are when they have passed away— she came and sat down in the grass next to Brigid Emberson.
“Everyone in this village knows each other’s secrets,” the widow said. “It’s expected. Naturally they’d all know of me doing me husband in, even that idiot priest bundled up in his idiot robe. Naturally you’d know of it, despite your greenness. I don’t excuse it. I killed my husband with a bit of root and a lot of beans, and I’d make no claim otherwise in a trial by man or by gods. He was a mean bastard, he was. The only thing I regret was the mess he made when his idiot noggin fell into his bowl. And if anybody were to speak truer of it, they’d say he deserved a worse death. I still ain’ got sight back in my one eye, so hard did he knock it.”
She pointed with a taloned finger to her lazy, wandering eye with its empty gaze.
“Now, I’d also be lying if I said I never missed the cruel bastard. I do miss him at times. But do you know what I do at the times I miss him?”
Joanna gave a sheepish shake of her head.
“I strike me’self in the back of the head and then ask me’self, ‘Well now, my bunny, are you missing that?’” The old woman shrugged her shrunken shoulders, smiling toothlessly. “And of course I don’t miss it at all!”
“But I don’t want to…do away with my husband,” Joanna protested. “I love him.”
“You ain’t listening to the words between the words,” the widow chastised her. She shook her head and her white, thinning hair flitted briefly in the air, before settling down like ash flown from flames. “My husband would never of changed. The violence was in him, and always would be. Now I have my husband where I like him, trapped in me head where he can’t a hurt me…unless I let him.”
Brigid Emberson smiled to herself, then resumed her knitting with her gnarled hands.
Joanna felt sorry for the widow, and because she felt sorry for the widow she thanked her for her company and her “thoughtful words”. Then she left toward her cottage, feeling more disturbed than ever before.
“There has to be another way over this mountain,” she said to herself, wiping away her tears. “I just don’t have the map.”

The Mumbling Mountain’s fires never died, day or night, and so a group of blacksmiths were always working into the Witching Hour in the vain attempt to outstrip their debt to Lord Gildread. Blake walked by these desperate men with a supercilious sneer on his face.
“What good is it, boys?” he muttered. “Chains on two fronts. And none of ye’ can magic ‘em away, I’ll wager.”
At night the tunnels in Mumbling Mountain were as bright as they were during the day, which was like the soot that they spewed: pitch black. The only light breaching that vast labyrinthine interior was the orange glow of the natural forges and whatever lamps or candles the smiths brought about with them in their labors. This was why many of the blacksmiths waited until dusk to leave the caves, otherwise sunlight blinded them with its glaring stare. They also never left before dusk due to Lord Gildread’s stone-knuckled Overseers. The Overseers could be quite confrontational when a worker had the audacity to see to his family more than to his fire.
The tunnels were always dark and whatever light was afforded to them by the fires was diabolically orange and murky, transforming shadows and forms into otherworldly creatures.
Blake did not have a mind clear enough for smithing that night. Instead, he took up a pickax and found a cleft in a rock wall where iron ore glimmered through. Seeing it as a fortuitous opportunity to claim someone else’s ore for his own, Blake struck away at that jagged rent with half-spirited swings.
He picked at the rent for a while, cursing many a people he knew— Jon Rubburn for his big muscles, Olga for her big bosoms, Lord Gildread for his wealth and power over his life, and his wife, Joanna…for being gap-toothed and existing. One and all he considered part of a conspiracy to undermine him and his lofty dreams of being rich and having a harem of women to call his own. He even cursed himself, which was rare for Blake. He was naturally inclined to be so steeped in his own pigheaded pridefulness that he hardly ever reflected upon himself and his choices enough to rue their outcomes, or to learn a lesson. A mood most foul overcame him and it invited thoughts of mischief to his mind.
And thoughts of mischief always had a way of attracting others given to similar urges.

Joanna walked home with her head full of frets. She hated being overburdened with such thoughts. They pressed a weight upon her that left her enervated and inert. Arms hanging heavy by her sides, and head hanging more heavily, she distracted herself by opening an ear to the voices scuffling about inside the cottages surrounding her.
Joanna had lived in Kilne her whole life. She knew to whom each of these many voices belonged, having heard them since she was pushed and pulled bodily, and bloodily, into this world. From a nearby cottage she heard the voices of Kyle Burnes and his young wife arguing over the name of their impending child. Millia insisted that if the baby was a girl then she should be named after Millia’s mother, Margot. Kyle, being the Burnes heir, and so having the obstinance inherent in such a heritage, insisted that the baby be named after his grandfather, regardless of whether the baby be boy or girl.
Joanna felt sorry for any girl whose named was fated to be Hagar.
In Kilne, however, surnames mattered more than forenames. All of the ancestors of the men and women of Kilne came here uprooted from other places, where foreign names pervaded, and these fresh settlers wanted a new start by choosing new names in keeping with the fires of Mumbling Mountain and the tall peaks of the Grumbles, hoping to brand themselves with good future fortune for their families. There were Anvilles and Hammers and Blazewells and Firesides, Irons and Orrs and Craggs and Stones. Many were named Smiths, as was expected, and yet the families that claimed Smith as their own were as diverse in bloodlines as the blade of an executioner’s axe.
Joanna thought of her maiden name, Weldmoore, and wished she could reclaim it. Blake’s surname, Blackholme, was such an ominously prophetic name. It was as if Fate had warned her, as did her father, that Blake was not a man to marry.

Blake toiled in the infernal cave, picking away at the ore-embedded wall. As he worked, he cursed his life, never knowing nor caring how his life had cursed others.
Due to drink and carelessness and general ineptitude, Blake’s smithing abilities were meager at best, and atrocious at worst. Consequently, his home was the poorest in the village of Kilne because his debts to Lord Gildread were so high. The more ore he wasted with his absentminded tinkering, and the more such works were rejected, the higher his debts became. Blake’s own father had mocked him in his apprenticeship, saying that the ore looked better unclaimed in the cavern walls than it did after Blake had set upon it with hammer and anvil and fire. Nor did he squash that opinion in the years after his apprenticeship. This opinion prevailed, prospered, and multiplied, like termites in the heart of a tree, and Blake hated everyone but himself for it.
Blake could have been forgiven had he simply been incompetent. But he was also disreputable. He was not to be trusted. To the contrary, the people of Kilne knew well Blake’s drunkardly nature and eyed him as if a shadowy hand followed him, snatching goodness wherever he passed. Many were also jealous of him, for Black Blake was considered a very fair-looking man who had been lionized by the girls of Kilne when in the worshipful shamelessness of their teenaged youth. Many resented him for this, too, as he was well acquainted with many of the women in Kilne from those frothy years.
Yet, being what he was at that time, many of the wives belonging to those jealous and resentful husbands were also themselves resentful of Blake, having been wooed and won and discarded by him at one point or another. Many a buxom bosom in Kilne was a desk whereon Blake might nod off into Nostalgia, remembering his masterworks.
The only reason Blake had married Joanna— who was by all accounts a plain—was because she would not be swayed to bed without first being wed. Her chastity was as insurmountable as the Grumbles, and thus flavored her with a temptation that ensorcelled the young blackguard’s mind better than her looks ever could. Moreover, she was the only maiden in the village of Kilne that had never surrendered to Blake’s lascivious charms, and so he, ever brash and desperate of the futile conquest, surrendered himself to her for what was a pyrrhic victory on both sides of that wooing war.
“What a fool hunter ah was!” Blake growled as he chipped black rock from a nugget of ore. “That lil’ rabbit snared me and now ah’m stuck with her!”
Blake was wed and trapped by that compact, witnessed by the village and insured by the priest of Mathara and the laws established in the village by Lord Gildread. Worse, Joanna was wed and trapped, too, and so the naive girl was resigned to her gullible misjudgment. The difference was that Blake married her out of defered lust, whereas Joanna married him because she— a daughter of a very practical man and a simple life— fancied having something pretty for herself.
And Blake Blackholm was a pretty man. Whatever vices marred his character, every woman in Kilne agreed he was fair to look on when he kept his mouth shut.

Arriving home to her cottage, Joanna collapsed onto the hard-backed bed and covered her grief with her grandmother’s quilt. Crying beneath that quilt was like crying into her grandmother’s bosom. The quilt dwarfed Joanna. It was large, much like her grandmother was when Joanna was still a child. The old matriarch was a voluminous woman, accorded many pillowy curves in her happy, well-fed bulk. She would have been aghast to see her granddaughter now, a woman of skin and bones who often had to stitch her dress tighter lest it slip off her dwindling waist. Joanna could hear the gentle woman’s voice as she wept:
“How are ye’ goin’ to beget hale, bonny children with no baby fat of yer own?”
These thoughts, and more, were a tumult in her heart. Eventually— after much crying and regretting— Joanna was subdued by the warmth of the quilt and slipped into a dreamless sleep.

A flashing gleam caught Blake’s eye. He glanced over his shoulder and saw, in the firelight of the tunnels, what appeared to be smoothed glass entombed in ore. He blinked and looked again, and surely it was there. For the next hour Blake was as careful as he had ever been when handling a pickax. Slowly he chipped away at the rough rock until, at last, with callused hands and busted knuckles, he dislodged the glass anomaly among the iron ore.
It was a glass bottle.
Moreover, it was a glass battle filled to its cork with a golden amber liquid.
“Really good moonwater here,” he announced to himself. Then, suspicious that someone might see his find, he slipped the bottle behind his leather frock, securing it between his belt and his trousers. He then went to find a forge far enough away from the rest of the workers so that he might look at his find and determine what it was.
Crouching down in a corner of a cavern, he took out the bottle and stared at it in wonder. An orange flame gleamed on the bottle, like a shooting star sliding across the glass. It reminded Blake of Olga’s coquettish grin—and the grin of every woman he had ever bedded—and suddenly the only thought in his head was how warm a draught of that golden moonwater would be in the pit of his empty belly.
“Ah can take it,” he whispered. “Whatever the poison, ah ain’t no jelly-belly. Ah got me an iron gut.”
With one hand he grabbed the bottle by its long neck. The body of the bottle he pinned between his bony knees. With his free hand, he wrestled and twisted and pried the cork out. It was hard doing, and eventually he tired of it and so dared using both hands on the cork. It popped with such a sudden force that the bottle shot out between his knees and fell with a skittering clatter on the rocky ground. Fearing he had lost half the moonwater, he hurriedly scooped the bottle up with his frantic hands. He peered into the bottle’s mouth and saw the liquid sloshing around inside, grinning as he thought himself lucky for not having spilled any. When he upturned the bottle, however, and pressed its lips to his, he tasted nothing except a faint cold air coming from the dry lips of the bottle.
“What devilsomeness is this?” he cursed.
Raising the bottle to the other eye, he gazed into its amber depths again. The golden liquid sloshed about upside-down freely, but refusedto spill out of the unobstructed neck.
“Fool’s gold if ever I’ve seen it!” he cursed.
He brandished the bottle as if to throw it into the nearest flame, but was given pause when a glint on the lips of the bottle caught his eye. He looked at the lips of the bottle instead of looking through the lips. The glass lips were rimmed with an iron ring, both thin and shiny. Bringing it closer to the glow of some nearby flames he saw that it was inscribed with several tiny runes that he could not discern.
Fetching a pair of tongs, Blake gradually pried the sealing rim away from the bottle’s virgin lips. The ring fell away, and with it a thin lens of glass so clear and immaculate that it was invisible. He pinched the seal between two fingers and then pocketed it.
“A gift for me lil’ rabbit!” he said, grinning harshly. “Will be a great thing to see her tryin’ to put it on her ungrateful finger and failin’ at it.”
Then up came the bottle in Blake’s impatient hands. He kissed it with a lusty mouth and a quickened pulse. It burned like sunwater more than moonwater, gushing down his gullet and running like wildfire through the dim passages of his brain, setting it aglow with wonders unknown to the neglected ruins of his imagination.
“Well now,” he said, breathless. “That’s a fine fire in me head and belly!” He stoppered the bottle, doffed his apron, and rolled it around his newfound treasure. He suddenly looked around at the ore and the forge and the anvil and the hammer. Then he looked at his hands. “And what’s this? A fire in me hands, too! They’re itchin’ for somethin’ naughty of a different nature! Aw’right, boys. Be not idle!”

Daryld was standing with the other overseers at the mouth to the Mumbling Mountain. He was trying to be courteous to Onx while the troll explained to him the finer subtleties of troll courtship rituals and the joys of family life beneath the earth’s surface. Unfortunately, everything Onx said sounded like stones grinding in Daryld’s ears. He nodded. He smiled, as much as a man like Daryld could smile, and he rarely spat his chewmoss out, so as to be polite. But, at the end of it all, it was still just stones and rocks and tusk-on-tooth scraping.
It was no wonder, then, that when Daryld heard the shouts coming from inside the Mumbling Mountain he mistook them for the cries of men crushed beneath a rockslide or cave-collapse. A troll’s voice had that effect on people. But then Ganth went running into the forges, which Ganth would never have done had it been an actual cave-collapse, and so Daryld concluded that it must be a matter of interest rather than a matter of peril. Onx went thundering into the cave, too, and so Daryld knew he simply had to go in now or else be left standing outside alone, looking foolish. It was a matter of pride. He was, after all, the superior rank of the three.
“Does nobody round ‘ere have respect for rank?” he growled, spitting black chewmoss juice out.
Picking up his club— which he had carelessly laid leaning against a rock— he went running into the cave also, though he kept his distance from the excited troll. No one ever knew what a troll might do when excited, even a troll of inferior rank.

Blake wore neither his leather frock nor leather gloves, nor did he fear spark or flame or red-hot ore as he worked. The flames and the ore did as he desired, as did his hands, and he worked while the late-night blacksmiths remarked in astonishment at his miraculous skill.
“Magic,” Trenton gasped.
“Witchery,” Milden hissed.
“Devilry,” Gansel growled.
Yet, they all watched Blake work the ore, and all were full of awe and wonder and resentment as his uncannily deft hands moved the iron with his tongs and hammer in a perfect creative concert that molded and formed the ore as if it were as soft and malleable as clay.
“No good can come of this!” Trenton said.
“There’s a bargaining he’s made, to be sure!” Gansel said. “With dragon or warlock, I don’t know which.”
They could scarcely believe what they saw, even as they saw it. They called to others to bear witness to it: Black Blake, who in years past shirked forge and fire for fear of his own sweat’s salt, was now undoubtedly the greatest blacksmith among the whole of Kilne.
“Watch yer’selves, boys!” Blake said, pouring liquid metal into the icemelt. It hissed and sighed and he did not retreat from its dangerous steam. “Don’t go throwin’ yerselves into the floes for envy’s sake!”
“Envious of ye’, Black Blake?” Trenton said. He opened his mouth to laugh, but found there was no mirth or mockery in his soul to call upon.
“Ye’ should be envious ‘cause ah lay this ore down right,” Blake said, “just as ah laid down yer wives right and smoothed them all over with me hands and me big tool!”
Normally, Kilneesian men would not abide such flippant speech about their wives— especially since it was ribald and it was true— but there was something about Blake’s eyes, and his laughter, and the work he was doing, that stayed their injured honor.

The Overseers arrived at the large crowd gathered at Blake’s busy forge. Irritated by the lollygagging, they shouldered their way into the crowd of blacksmiths, gesturing brusquely for their departure; pushing and shoving and cussing.
“What’s the matter with ya’ ore-pourers?” Ganth demanded. “Get te yer forges ‘afore we snap out the whips!”
Daryld, feeling as if Ganth was presuming too much authority in the matter, yelled even louder. “This funny business about yellin’ has got to stop! Yer gonna’ bring the whole moun’ain down…”
His cry of outrage quickly puttered out into slack-jacked dismay.
“Where’d ye get that handsome bowl there?”
“Blake made it!” one of the lingering blacksmiths said, gawping afterwards as he heard his own words echo in the cave and could not, even himself, believe them.
“Ain’ possible!” Daryld snapped. “Not for Blake. He ain’t ever made a bowl that was round or a plate that was flat in ‘is life. Nor nothing less dented than me mother-in-law’s warthog forehead.”
Onx—his beady troll eyes squinting even tighter with the pain of hard-earned thought— rumbled in agreement. “Argh.”
But the three Overseers watched Blake work the iron; watched him beck the flame and bathe the cast in water to cool its molded shapes and solidify the figure sitting aside the rim of the bowl’s mouth, and soon their naysaying was stayed by the evidence of their eyes. So astounded were the Overseers that they did not protest as the other blacksmiths of Kilne gathered again around Blake to watch him ply his genius. The whole lot of them were as wide-eyed as bunnies mesmerized by a basilisk’s hypnotic stare.
“Black Blake’s got himself a black magic gift,” they all agreed. Nonetheless, they could not stop watching him work.

It was near to sunrise when Blake finished and bathed the piece one final time. He had spent just over a few hours on the matchless treasure. The other blacksmiths would later claim—their eyes agog with disbelief—that it was a ludicrously short period of time to create such a masterful piece of craftsmanship.
And a masterful piece it was. It was a small bowl, modestly proportioned for a single morning melon, but it was immaculately smoothed both inside and out of its gaping belly. This silvery smoothness was, in and of itself, enough to separate it in quality from all other bowls made in the history of Kilne, but what truly distinguished it to such respectful reverence was the figure that sprawled in the center of the bowl, her legs spread and nude as a piglet after a heavy rain. The female figure bore a remarkable semblance to Olga, only younger, and prettier, and with an expression more overcome, in her innocent manner, than Olga ever had been since surrendering her maidenhead many years ago.
Blake gave the bowl to the Overseers, and they, for their part, were so fixated on the finely-wrought piece of worksmanship that they neglected to inspect him on his way out of the Mountain. Unimpeded, Blake started his descent toward his cottage. Coiled safely in his apron, the bottle’s sunwater elixir sloshed about within the glass as if alive.

Joanna was awoken by a light. When she sat up and rubbed her eyes, the light was gone and the cottage was plunged in darkness. She stared into the impenetrable shadows for a few moments before she realized someone else was in the cottage.
“Who’s there?” she said, alarmed.
“Yer much-maligned husband,” Black Blake sneered.
Joanna was no less relieved than had it been a stranger. She opened her mouth to say something, but refrained. She listened to her husband stumble through the cottage, banging against the table as he went and cussing. Yet he did not cuss as severely as he normally might. He seemed…reserved.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Aye,” he said as he finally found the bed. He sat down, and Joanna squeezed against the wall, away from him. “What’s wrong is me life,” he said. “But I’ve an idea that things will be changin’ soon.”
He stood up and reached toward her. She flinched away, then realized he was not trying to touch her, but was grabbing the bed and pulling it away from the wall. He then reached over her and laid a bundle down in the widened space.
“Ne’er touch it,” he told her, “and donna’ ask me of it. Are ye’ goin’ to mind me in this?”
“Yes,” Joanna whimpered.
“Mind ye’ do, or ah’ll give ye’ even more gaps between yer teeth, my lil’ rabbit.”
These words uttered, Blake left the cottage.

Blake went to Marlowe’s Tavern…or attempted to. Halfway there he was suddenly overcome with the fatigue of his first miraculous day. With little concern for where he was, or who should mind, he fell to his knees next to a cottage and then slumped forward, fallen into a deathly sleep before his head hit the ground.
The sleep that took him was not so restful as the one that took his wife the night before, nor was it because all of Kilne busied itself around him throughout the daylight hours.
Blake dreamed. This was not unusual. Blake dreamed a lot, especially when in his drunken stupors. But this dream was different. There was no harem of women worshiping him bodily. In this strange dream he saw a fire. It was burning upon a hillside; tiny as a tick upon a dog’s head. Like a tick it soon swelled, gorging itself on the hill’s wildgrasses. It soon spread, scurrying quick as rodents across the land. There was no life where it went, and there were faces in the blazing ocean of it; leering, laughing faces with slit eyes and jagged teeth of flames. They ate whatever they touched, and when they met each other there was an explosion of lust, and thereafter they multiplied. Each face had a crown on its head, and each crown was a flame whose decree was destruction.
And then Blake saw this scorched land from afar, and farther still, as if viewing the inferno from the clouds, and then from the moon, and then the sun. The orb shrank smaller, even as it was consumed wholly by the flames and reduced to a burning shell.
When Blake thought he knew what was what, he then saw that the orb afire was encased in bone and muscle and skin and that blood ran through it, like rivers set alight with moonwater; and he saw then that it was his heart that the flames devoured so greedily. The flames enveloped it utterly, subsuming it inside outward. When he cried out, the flames ascended, rupturing forth from his throat and spewing upon the earth like dragon’s breath.
And when the flames had finished, the earth was just like his heart: burned to embers and blowing in the gulfs of space, lacking life and love and substance, floating aimlessly in the cosmic void whose yawning maw swallowed all unto insignificance.
Blake woke later to find himself in the Mumbling Mountain. He was preparing his kiln for the day’s work, and his mind was full of creative mischief.

Upon waking, Joanna found herself alone in her cottage. She glanced about the small interior, lit with sunlight through the frosted glass windows, and saw that it was orderly and clean. There were not even any motes dancing in the morning light. The air itself was clean, or as clean as it could be beneath the ash-flurrying Grumbles.
Not having any excuse not to, Joanna stood up, dressed herself appropriately— which, for a Kilneesian woman was drab and modest— and then joined the streams of Kilneesians flowing toward the Matharist Temple in the center of the village. It was time for Mass.
Joanna followed them as if in surrender to the eddies of their flow. Her mind was all awhirl as she was taken away. She knew she had become as gossip made flesh for her fellow citizens: Mrs. Blackholme attending Mass, with her blackguard husband beneath either the legs of a barstool or the legs of a barmaid. It did not matter, though—or so she told herself. The eyes of the crowd wryly watched her as she went with them to the temple, but her eyes were set on rescuing her husband from his own vices. She entered the temple and sat down at the wooden benches with the rest of the Kilneesians. The dark gloom of the temple, splashed waveringly with the orange glow of the Heart-Fire, distressed her. Shadows and fire— neither were to be trusted, she thought. Shadows were deceits made from truth, and fire was truth that burned and consumed. Neither were pleasant in overdue amount.
The priest stood before his flock and spoke at them— not to them, but at them. His sermon was a flavorless soup of moral lecture with chunks of historical lessons plopped in for solidity. As Joanna listened to the lecture she found herself dreading the priest. He was standing afore the Heart-Fire like an ominous figure, doubly robed in shadow and flame. His Gildread coronet flashed like a golden blade that was shifting hands beneath an assassin’s cloak. The words that dripped from his mouth scared her.
“Lord Gildread is good in all he has done,” the priest said, “as was his father before him, and his father’s father. The slaying of the golden dragon tamed this part of the world and made it a haven for all of those willing to prove their goodness and righteousness by the salt of their brows, the leather of their fingertips. Heed me: the sweat of thy brow is the testament to thy better nature. Do not succumb to idleness and sloth, for they are the damned things of perdition.”
Joanna looked away from the priest, her eyes wandering over the flock. Each face was familiar to her, yet alien now, transformed by shadow and by firelight.
“And be warned,” the priest continued, “that your actions in this life will affect your ascendency into the next life. For the flames of Mathara burn away what is profligate and sinful, leaving only what is good in one’s own heart. How much good is in your heart? This is what must be asked every day when you seek to serve Lord Gildread in his benevolent rule. If there is naught good in you, naught of you will persist into the next world…”
Joanna attempted to nanny her attention, but her thoughts strayed like naughty children in a dark forest. The priest’s sermon did nothing for her. Whatever flicker of faith she might have had in her youth had died with the last glowing embers on her father’s pyre.
Her father was a good man; a much better man than the one she chose for a husband. He had tried to convince her to recant her mistake, to divorce her husband and find herself a new, more deserving man. He reasoned that many women had done it, that it was very normal and common now, and that there was neither shame nor guilt in the dissolution of a loveless marriage. Hope, he told her, and joy and endless possibilities could be thereby suddenly reclaimed.
But Joanna was, like most Kilneesians, stubborn. She was also, in her own way, vindictive. It was a passive vindictiveness, but it prevailed alongside her stubbornness. However small and wormlike, it would never grant Blake what he most coveted from her: marital separation and the freedoms therein entailed. Moreover, she refused to separate from Blake because in such an arrangement Blake would have received the cottage her father built for them.
And that was an injustice she could not bear, even if it meant enduring a lifetime of injustices.

The young woman’s features were finely wrought upon the goblet’s stem as she flashed her coquettish smile. So, too, were her high breasts and cherry-nipples finely wrought. In fact, the whole piece was so finely wrought that any blacksmith worth his weight in ore would have thought it should break ere Blake had bathed it cold. But he bathed that bonny lass in the icemelt waters, and he beat the bowl and the foot with his hammer upon the anvil, and the figure hardened to form without hardening of feature, every soft detail preserved in uncanny relief.
“Impossible,” Daryld said as Black Blake handed the goblet to him. “It’s a deception of me mind on me eyes! It can be nothin’ else.”
Despite his disbelief, Daryld handled the goblet as a real thing and not a figment of his imagination. He carried it carefully out of the cave as if the air itself might somehow ruin it.
“Black Blake’s busy at it again,” grumbled Trenton. “Makin’ fools of us with his demonic powers.”
“I’ve half a mind to make ‘im mind,” said Milden, darkly. “Mind him with my mindin’, mind ye’.”
“Bold as brass, twice the ass,” said Gansel, puffing pensively on a cigar of soot moss. “Ye’ll never get at ‘im without gettin’ ye’self the more. He’s a golden gander now. No good will come to ye’ for it.”
“It’s golden goose,” Milden argued. “An’ the Overseers don’ like ‘im neither. What would it matter if he slipped into one of the floes?”
“Ye’d be slippin’ in, too,” Trenton warned, “if Blake had an accident. Gansel’s right. That’s Gildread’s golden gander. Or goose. Whatever. Might as well march ye’self to Gildread’s castle an’ take a squat on ‘is dinner table.”
“I overheard Daryld say Lord Gildread was mighty impressed,” Ganth said, smoking away at his cigar. “Gildread’s thinkin’ of invitin’ ‘im to the castle. Maybe he’ll get fool-drunk an’ squat on the table ‘imself…”
“Oh, that flares it!” Milden said. “I’mma’ gonna’ kill the bastard!”
“Let it go as it will,” Trenton said. “I am. I wouldn’t be doin’ nothin’ untoward…”
“What ye’ mean to say is ye’ ain’ got the piss in ye’…” Milden began.
“I got the piss in me,” Trenton snapped, “but I also got the sense to know when to step back and let a buck bleed himself good before I get near ‘is antlers. The arrow’s already in Blake’s heart. He just don’ know it.”
“Golden arrow,” Gansel agreed.
“That’s right,” Trenton said, “and if ye’ try to gut him right now yer gonna’ get ye’self gutted! Let ‘im earn the favor of our Lord and he’ll overstay ‘is welcome. That’s Blake’s way, sure enough.”

Joanna had never known her mother, except, perhaps, in knowing herself. Her mother had died bringing Joanna into the world. This guilt hung heavy upon her. Often Joanna wondered if she was destined to an unhappy life because of her deadly birth. Her father, contrarily, had said there was only one evil that had sealed her fate.
And that was in marrying Blake Blackholme.
Feeling that evil keenly, Joanna tried to find Blake. She thought to find him in town after Mass. This search, however, was soon abandoned when it proved as fruitless and futile as separating soil from cow pies. There were just too many beds, sheds, and steads where he could have spent the night. She never thought to find him working in the Mumbling Mountain; not that early in the morning. She knew him too well for that. Only a miracle, she would have said, could have propelled him toward the forges so early in the morning.
Thus, never finding him, Joanna was an upheaval of clashing thoughts and helpless desperation. Unable to bear it, she turned to the domestic chores to once again distract her head and busy her hands.
Arriving home, she found there was but little to do, having done it all the day before. But then she realized it was a perfect day for washing the laundry. So, she gathered up the dirty clothes and rags and linen and she put it all in her bucket and carried it out to the Ashen River. She was simply happy to have something to distract herself from her own unhappiness.
Kilneesian women all washed their soot-blackened clothes in the Ashen River. Its pumice-mingled water stripped stains. But neither man nor animal could drink from its gray-silt depths. A single gulp could “soil a child dead”, depending on the day and the weather. That was why the people of Kilne bought fresh water from elsewhere, trading for it at a high value. Most water near the Mumbling Mountains was not safe to drink. Even the rain, at times, burned hot as wax on uncovered skin. Even the icemelt was good for nothing but bathing iron and steel.
As Joanna walked to the Ashen River she found that she had not been alone in her chores today. There were other women there, washing their dirty laundry after Mourning-Mass while they traded dirty secrets. As they churned their clothes in the Ashen River— using long tongs so as to not damage their hands—Joanna listened nearby, astounded by their chatter.
“Sure as the sun in the sky and the mole on my thigh,” Janie Diggins said, “my Roderry was there to witness it. And ye’ know he never would indulge a fancy, ‘specially any buffing that wicked name, Black Blake.”
“Aye,” concurred Farah Coles. “I heard wind of it from me husband who came in with his underpants all twisted this mornin’. Sayin’ Blake had sold heart, home, or soul to some devil for powers beyond his merit. I would’na’ believed it if Sammy next door did’na’ swear the same.”
Maggie Spooner, the only unmarried maiden among them, scoffed. “Are they sure he didn’t steal the bowl?”
“Half the men in Kilne watched him make it,” replied Janie. “Unless it is a joke on the other half, and us women. It must be true.”
“I’d believe it a joke,” remarked Farah, flogging a wet apron with a spatula, “if my husband hadn’t the humor of an owlbear with its head on backwards.”
“And was it really an…an indecent woman?” asked disbelieving Maggie in a hushed tone.
“That part of the tale is the most steadfast with his character,” Janie said, ruefully. “If some god were to give Black Blake such powers to form ore as smooth as skin he’d never touch hammer to metal if not to have yet another girl in the bare air for his eyes and hands to pass over for a night.”
“Perhaps it was just a rare flare,” said Maggie. “One and done, they say about them.”
“I suppose we’ll come to hear of it,” Janie said. “They say the first ironwork hadn’t even cooled when he started on a second. Some sort of sister cup to the bowl. If I know me Black Blake, it’ll have another maiden in the bare air, but this time she’ll be encumbered with a bigger bust than she any right to.”
“It is a shame that Fortune should smile on him,” said Janie. “All our husbands return from the forges covered in soot, head to toe, and yet Blake is the only one black inside and out.”
“Ash-hearted is he,” agreed Farah. “Any flames he carries burns out ere long.”
Hitherto, none of the women working their tongs and tongues by the pumice-bedded water had noticed Joanna Blackholme standing, thunderstruck, but a few feet away. Shocked as she was, Joanna had the presence of mind, and the prudishness of character, to not be caught listening, uninvited, to a private conversation, regardless of its bearing on her own life and future. So she slowly stepped away, mindful of every fallen leaf, and made her way home to unburden herself of her unwashed laundry.

Blake had been working hard that morning, and had not eaten anything since the day before. His stomach attempted to match the Grumbles in its loud rumbling. He decided to take a break and go home for an hour to eat something. The Overseers made no protest.
“Let the bedeviled man have ‘is fill of food,” Daryld said. “Lord Gildread would have our skins if he died of an empty stomach.”
Walking downhill from the Mumbling Mountain, Blake kept his hand over his eyes to block out the baleful midday sun. His stomach was hungry and his head hurt. His chest burned a little, too, but it was somehow a reassuring burn.
“Need a bit of a bite,” he said to himself. “That’s all I’m hankerin’ for.”
But in his head he saw the bottle of amber liquid sloshing about as tantalizingly as a Southerlander woman half-clothed in silk and swaying her hourglass hips to a dance. If his brain could salivate like his tongue, it would have drowned itself in his skull.
“And maybe a drop of drink,” he added. “Jus to cool the natural fires of me heart.”
He hurried to the cottage with an eager, almost ghoulish gait.

“Look here, lil’ rabbit,” Blake said, holding the rune-rimmed ring to Joanna. “A present for my feckless, faithful filly.”
Much to his disappointment she took the ring and set it down on the table without a second glance, and nary a first.
“Blake, I’ve heard you are having luck in your ore-pouring. Is it true? Are you making your means with your mettle?”
He furrowed his brow as if a snake burrowed there. “What of it? Do ye’ doubt me? Then yer the same as the rest of the jealous fools hereabouts. Aye, they mocked me, didn’t they? Blackened my name, did me wrongs, and now look at ‘em! Jawing about me like the newly come wizard with a griffon on ‘is shoulder. They canna’ believe it, and yet here I stand, towerin’ above ‘em all and their pitiful pettiness and smallness and envy.”
“I meant nothing but joy,” Joanna said. “Astonishment, yes, but joy. You swell my prideful heart beyond temperance.”
His anger abated but briefly, until he glanced about the room for his lunch. “What ingratitude is this?” he said, dangerously quiet of voice. “What is this?”
“I could not find you,” Joanna said, her smile quickly fading.
“I sweat miracles in the hot, dark mountains,” he growled, “and ye’ laze about in shade of house with cool winds as yer handmaidens, and haven’t the decency of mind or of heart to spare a moment and cook me fill?”
“You wouldn’t have had it,” she argued, “as you never did yesterday. Beans or spuds, you’d have had none!”
“It seems I’ve work at home to do as well,” he said, ominously, “for the idleness of a woman is a mischievous thing not to be abided.”
Blake grasped Joanna by the wrist and raised his other hand, ready to let fall a thunderclap slap that would have laid her on the floor.
But there came a knock at the door.
The intrusion surprised Blake, taking him aback like the cracking of a branch in an otherwise silent woods. When his anger returned, it returned vengefully. Roaring, he sprinted toward the door as though to ram it down upon the oblivious visitor. Swinging it wide with a wrathful yank, he suddenly paused, eyes agog and his mouth chewing the air like a goat in a field of forget-me-lots abloom.
Standing in front of their house, in golden cape and cowl and vest, was the tall, looming coachman to the Lord and Master of the village of Kilne and the Mumbling Mountain and the Grumbles themselves: Lord Gildread of the Norland Kingdoms. Gildread’s own coach awaited beyond him, drawn by two thunderhooves as white as Joanna’s pale face.
“Blake Blackholme,” the coachman said, “your presence is demanded at Lord Gildread’s castle.” A gloved fist shot out from beneath the cape. Blake flinched, his hands raised feebly for mercy. The massive fist stopped within a flea’s hop of Blake’s face and parted open like a flower. Within the hand was a scroll bound in gold thread.
Blinking dumbfoundedly, Blake took the extended scroll and unfurled it. He read it once. Then he read it twice. Three times he read it before he turned about to face his wife with an expression of hateful joy.
“See ye’ here!” he exclaimed, brandishing the scroll above his wife’s head. “This is my summons to my fortune. Lord Gildread has already heard well of me and requests me to esteem him with me presence.”
“It is a demand, not a request,” said the coachman tersely.
“Just the same, just the same,” Blake said, feverishly gleeful. “Genius recognizes genius, and so I am called away for me Lord’s pleasure.”
In equal measure to Blake’s glee was Joanna’s terror. Nothing good came of a summons from Lord Gildread. It was a well known truth in Kilne.
“Naturally, Lord Gildread expects a gift to recompense his courteous invitation,” the coachman continued. “It would do you well to do well by him, Blake Blackholme.”
“Lord Gildread is of a mind mirroring me own,” Blake said, “and since the two of us mirror so well, I know just such the gift to appease his tastes. Let us stop by the forges along the way…”
Blake followed the coachman, closing the cottage door behind him with a victorious bang.

Alone now, Joanna listened with dread as the wheels of the coach clatter-clacked away and up the Mountain. It was all too overwhelming for her: the revelations of Blake’s newfound talents, his sudden violence, the interest of Lord Gildread, and the sudden departure of her husband before she had shelved these things neatly in her head.
So rattled was she that she fell to cleaning the cottage again in the attempt to return her mind to normalcy. She swept up dirt that was not there, and wiped off dust that only her eyes could see. She then rearranged the cottage’s table and chair; once, twice, three times. She polished the stones on the hearth and washed the pan that Blake had given her, cleaning it with the water they used for drinking.
Afterwards, Joanna sat down on the bed and wept. Loving memories came to her, embraced her and choked her. She remembered when Blake laid in the grass beneath the old oak tree; how he stared up at her with his daring green eyes.
“Lil’ rabbit, ye’ are all a’tremble…” he had said, his red hair flaring in the shade.
She loved nothing more than staring into his green eyes— when they were kindly, of course, or at worst, teasing— and playing in his hair. She would still love playing in his hair were he to let her. Why, she brooded, could he not simply lay still and be pretty? He would be a better man were he chiseled from marble and given emeralds for eyes, like a silent and staring statue in an orchard of appledews.
“Come and lay a while, love,” he had said, holding his long arms out to her.
Laying back, now, she stretched out upon the hard bed, letting her hands dangle in surrender down the sides. Moments bled and fled and a fly landed upon her forehead. Raising a hand to swat it away, her wrist struck something tucked between the corner of the bed and the corner of the cottage. It rang like a bell.
The fly departed and Joanna sat up to satisfy her curiosity. She found the swathed bundle that Blake had hidden there. She picked it up and unwound its blackened leather. Within the apron she discovered a bottle with a strange liquid inside. At first she mistook it for moonwater, and cursed her husband’s vices. But then she realized how much stronger was its glow than the pallor of moonwater, and so she thought it sunwater, which scared her ever the more. As the old Norland adage said, “Moonwater to sleep tight, sunwater to fight all night.”
Determined to confront Blake about it, Joanna took the bottle and set it on her spice rack on the wall. As she stepped away she was startled by a sudden brilliance within the bottle, like a fairy torch being lit above swamp waters.
And within that glow, with form and expression by shadow and bubble and light, was a fanged face grinning back at her.

Black Blake was taken in comfort, and in awe, to Lord Gildread’s castle in the boulder-dotted flatlands of Fidecia. Here, grass shoots were wispy and clumped in patches like the shedding hair of a mangy cat. Yet, the grass here was not withered and ever-brown or dead as it was near the Grumbles. Trees, too, stood here and there, starkly apart from one another and growing to healthy heights, their foliage full and fruitful.
Nearby, the stone-toothed river, Fangflow, glittered in the afternoon sun. Fangflow was like the drowned skeleton of the dragon Gildread with his hot blood all about him, for the waters would ofttimes steam and boil as if flames were ready to awaken from its long, rock-ridged gullet. Unlike the Ashen River, Fangflow ran clear and crystalline, the hot bubbles roiling up like clean glass beads before bursting upon the steam-breathing surface. The glittering water reminded Blake of how parched he was, and how hungry. He opened the coach’s door and leaned out, addressing the coachman as the coach swayed.
“Me good man!” he called. “Will Lord Gildread be feedin’ me this day?”
The coachman did not turn around, but kept his eyes ahead of the coach. “Lord Gildread will be feeding you and a legion of guests tonight.”
“That a fact?” Blake said, surprised. “And who be the gent’men that he’s feedin’?”
“Various lords of Gran Stone, the Southerlands, and other kingdoms.”
Goggle-eyed and gobsmacked, Blake simply said, “Oh,” and withdrew into the luxuriant confines of the coach. He closed the door and stared out the window at the passing scenery. For a moment he found that he had lost his severe appetite.

Joanna eyed the bottle with great horror. The face had gone, and with it Joanna’s wits.
“Tinder, then cinder, and none will hinder,” she said, blinking to the Matharist Prayer Refrain. Unable to endure the face in the liquid, she threw a cloth of linen atop it and then fled from the cottage. Her wits gone from her, she did not come to herself until she arrived at the Matharist Temple and was banging desperately upon the door.
The door slid open and the priest answered her gruffly.
“I am currently preoccupied, Mrs. Blackholme,” he said.
“My husband!” she exclaimed. “His demon in the bottle!”
The priest shook his head. He was not wearing his coronet, nor his priestly hood, and his bald head was wrinkled like a buzzard’s. “Oh, I’ve no doubt that Blake’s demon is the bottle. Everyone in town knows he is overly fond of beer and moonwater.”
“No, it is something worse!”
“My dear child,” the old man said, wearying. “I know not what your problem is. From what I have been hearing from the other men in the village, Blake has reformed. He is on a better path. One of hard work and grace. Mathara has answered your prayers.”
He tried to close the door, but Joanna defied him with a hand.
“But, Father…”
“Mrs. Blackholme!” he shouted. He took a deep breath, then, and tried to speak more levelly. “You will be happy to know, Mrs. Blackholme, that our good and gracious Lord Gildread has taken note of your husband and wishes to commend him.”
“Yes, his coachman came to our home, but the bottle…”
“His uncanny blessings,” the priest said, raising his voice over Joanna’s, “are not to be squandered, for that would be a greater sin than sheer idleness or a fondness of drink.”
“But…”
“And if he drinks more than most, what of it? Do not be a nagging nanny goat, dear. It smacks of ingratitude.”
“Father, I…”
“I am currently engaged in a serious matter of another,” the priest continued, tersely. “Come back at another time and we will beseech Mathara to help Blake with his drinking problems.”
“But, Father, I…”
Joanna saw the woman standing next to the Heart-Fire, her voluptuous body more clothed in shadow than in clothes. Atop her forehead glistened the Matharist coronet. The freckles on her body were like flecks of fool’s gold in a stone.
“Thank you for time, Father,” she said, instinctively drawing back from the door. The priest closed the door shut. Joanna could hear him fumbling with chains and a lock and then heard him call out to the woman inside, with much more elation than she had ever heard in his voice during his sermon.
Finding no aid in dogma or its ambassadors, Joanna headed in the other direction, toward the home of that wily widow, Brigid Emberson.

Gildread Castle was relatively young, formed of newly hewn stone quarried from the defanged headspring of the Fangflow. A moat ringed it, and a small army kept it. Mercenary soldiers stood apace of each other by three spaces at every other stone of the castle. Each militant brow was helmeted with a row of golden scales to legitimize their grim function, and each was armed with sharp lances and solid shields to pursue that function. A single banner flew above the castle, and upon that banner was the castle’s crest: a Gildread coin.
The castle itself had been designed by a man whom some alleged was a wizard. It was a small castle, and yet yielded impossible space within its unimpressive exterior. Those who had visited it knew of its uncanny expansiveness, though few had ever seen its innermost sanctum. Therein, it was rumored, half a dragon’s worth of golden scales resided under lock and key…and trap and spear and spell and covetous eye.
Thus, despite being young, Gildread Castle was as grand a castle as those ten times its years in age.
The drawbridge was lowered—with an ogre’s groan, growl, and roar—and the coach rattled athwart the moat and into the castle. Within, Black Blake was disgorged from the coach and led by a servant to the inner fortress. He was then seated on an ornately scrolled bench in a wainscoted vestibule. He was told to wait.
As he waited Blake admired all of the refinery surrounding him: the golden trim decorating the mold casting of each adjoining wall, and the smooth wooden floors warmed with intricate rugs from the Southerlands; the golden candelabrum flickering their fiery halos upon every mahogany stand and table and drape, the tapestries on the wall, each depicting the rise of the Gildread lineage from nameless by-blow to the richest lords in the land. Blake also admired the buxom maids dusting and sweeping and tidying these luxurious furnishings. It seemed, in his estimation, that the mysterious Lord Gildread was a man of his own tastes, only with better means.
“I am home,” he said, overawed. His eyes could not rest, but flitted hither and thither between the curves of gold and the curves of the busy maids. His pupils, madly alight, were as black flies in a hot field newly trodden by cows. They could not rest on any one corner of decadence without immediately sweeping wayward to another, and then another.
Before Blake’s eyes could burst from his head, a manservant in rich attire befitting a lower lord fetched Blake and brought him from the vestibule to the main hall. From there they entered an open-roofed courtyard in the center of the castle, replete with a dragon fountain scaled in Gildread gold, and then reentered the castle again on the opposite side. By the time they came to the dining hall Blake’s jaw hung so loose and limp that he might as well have recently drank himself stupid and been kicked by a mule. The most neglected corner of the castle contained more wealth in its cobwebbed crannies than the whole village of Kilne.
Gildread gold was everywhere glinting and stinking. When a strong wind wound its way through that many-windowed edifice there rose with it the reek of rot from the dank, dark depths. Yet, strong though the odor be, Blake was more envious, for the stench meant wealth, and that was why, as they say, the wealthy always held their noses so high in the air: so as to not become overpowered by the odors of their pockets and purses.
Everywhere there were soldiers, thick as rats in a monk’s cheese cellar. Some were humans, and some were trolls. There may have been one or two that were something more exotic. Resurrected thralls, perhaps. Gremlins. Dwarves. An occasional ogre. Blake looked upon all of these dangerous creatures with his muscles stiffer and his spine straighter than usual.
And then came Lord Gildread himself.
Gildread was as self-possessed and proud as a cat with a mouse writhing in its mouth. He did not speak. His servants announced him as he stood across from Blake, statuesque in his own tall reputation, and toppled by his own short stature. Yet, his eyes challenged any and everyone as he stood in his orange vest laced in gold; purple pantaloons trimmed in gold.
A manservant held up the newest of Blake’s creations for his master to inspect and appraise. Lord Gildread took the goblet into his small hands and turned it over several times, passing his jaded eyes over the lips of the goblet, the sides, the naked woman swooning against the stem.
“It is a fine piece,” he remarked, returning it to his manservant and gesturing him to have it taken away. “Especially for having been made with the crudest of metals.”
Blake’s pride swelled, and with it his bravado. “If ye’ are in need of something made right, I’m your man!”
Lord Gildread regarded Blake with a slow, impassive eye. At length, he uttered “Indeed” and gestured to the long table that stretched the full length of the dining hall.
Before Blake could say anything else, he was ushered by a manservant to the table and seated. He might have complained of being seated so far afield of the head of the table, where Lord Gildread sat, but he might have also complained of a throbbing mouth ache if one of the soldiers cut out his tongue for speaking out of turn. So he sat quietly, awaiting whatever would be. Soon enough, his intrigue was piqued, satisfied, piqued again, and so on and so forth by competing degrees as the dining hall became peopled and that chatter rose to a waterfall’s rumble.
Silver plates came in on graceful girly fingertips, nor did the food conveyed thereon disappoint: venison steaks, pheasant breasts, simmery stews, and fresh fruit split like Blake’s aching heart. To live like Lord Gildread would be to preside over paradise itself. Surveying the splendor, Blake chastised himself for his prior standards in regard to paradise and their naive limits. He shunned those specters of fancy and joy previously private in his daydream-dizzy yesterdays. Now he could truly dream, the template adequately presented all around him in tangible plentitude.
If the make of the dream was spectacular, the man that made that dream was disappointing and misplaced among its lavish trappings.
Lord Gildread was a man of small stature, with a balding head and delicate hands. To think that such a small man came from the legendary lord that had slain the most fearsome beast of any earthly age filled Blake’s mind with resentful wonder. Mutinous thoughts screamed their outrage at Fortune’s favoritism. But he dared not speak them. So talk was sparse for Blake, as sparse as the food was plentiful, and Blake awaited Gildread’s words like a dog unknowing whether his master would reply in kind or in kicks.
Through the course of the meal, Blake was witness to his own speculation. Lord Gildread’s friends sat in helm of the table’s conversation, eating and talking and laughing and regarding Blake as some two-horned unicorn.
“Maybe he’s like one of those fire-weavers in the Southerlands,” said Lord Rimnel, a man who owned many of the Norlands mines. “The fire wizards.”
“The term is ‘pyromancer’,” said Lord Gildread, “and, no, I do not believe he is one of those charlatans. I have never witnessed a pyromancer doing such miraculous things with their flames. They just force flames to power their turnwheel vessels and, sometimes, make flowery explosions in the air for the entertainment of the Merchant Lords and their many ladies. This man is possessed of a genius.”
Lord Gildread paused and stared down at the plate that Blake had made, whereon a loaf of bread sat like a slug in buttery slime.
“I want to test the man’s capacities,” he said. He raised a hand and a servant arrived forthwith at his chair. “Make sure the coach is packed with silver blocks for his return trip. Should he prove himself possessed of a consistent genius in that medium, I shall graduate him to gold.”
Blake was pleased, and also terrified. “What do want me to make, milord?”
Lord Gildread ran his fingers over the finely wrought breasts of the ironwork woman.
“Whatever his inclination directs him to,” he said. “I believe he and I are men of similar tastes, so he is sure to please me regardless, so long as it is wrought this well.”
Lord Gildread spoke of Blake, but not to Blake, regarding his presence as a farmer does a cow grazing near to feet, unable to understand with its bovine intelligence. Nonetheless, Blake received the attention as esteem, however dubious, and kept the serving girls busy fetching wine for his bottomless glass.
The men continued to talk, of Valoria and its conquests, of Gran Stone and its princess being captured and taken away by a mysterious Black Knight.
“He had cried, ‘No more whimsy!’” remarked a Gran Stone nobleman. “And then hoisted her up onto his saddle and galloped away so quickly that none of the knights in the tourney could impede him!”
Much of the conversations were beyond Blake’s knowledge or understanding, and so washed over him like a foreign language.
The chatter ceased abruptly when Lord Gildread stood up with his arms held behind his back. His friends, his fellow lords, and his sycophants all watched him expectantly as children would a father in an illegible temper.
“Gold is merely one of many means to an end,” he announced. “Force is another. Religion is the third, and deception and promise are the twinned last. They overlap, of course, as do any trades worth their practice, and all four combined within the cauldron of a capable mind can harness spells to subjugate the very cosmos to the most petty whim and wile. What power have those presumptuous wizards of the world compared to me, a primary arbiter? The peasantry serve me. Wizards serve me. Knights, for all of their vows and pretensions, serve me also. Even kings serve me, however begrudgingly. A dragon of gold flew defiant of Man, once upon a time, casting his shadow over our superior race with wide wings: where were these knights and kings and wizards but cowering in that shadow? My grandfather saw that beast for what he was: a braggart to be brought low. Well, gentleman, the universe is a braggart, too, and I shall bring it low, in time.”
There were many polite applause and cheers and Blake, simple though he was in the practice of power, was of a possession of mind sufficient to know that he would very much prefer to be part of Gildread’s lofty dreams than be left in the shadow when such dreams took flight.
“And why shouldn’t I?” Lord Gildread continued. “It is feasible. Moreover, it is fate.” He raised an upturned hand in Blake’s direction. “Look here, upon this man. He is miraculous, isn’t he? Yet no more miraculous than the common miracle that frequents the world. Even a goat may be touched by genius and chew a hedgerow in likeness of the gods.”
Polite laughter rose like a flock of soft-winged birds from the throats of Gildread’s guests. So gentle was the laughter that even ill-tempered Blake did not feel offended by it. Rather, he felt jollier than before.
“And so, with so meager a mold and make, he has managed to become a lord of his trade as well. Could it not be that, in proportion, I, being his superior, should aspire toward that lofty goal and exult in its fruitioin?”
Lord Gildread suddenly glared at Blake, as if he took umbrage at Blake’s wine-induced smile of idiocy.
“Let me inform this blacksmith of something essential in this world. It matters little whether you are of a mediocre mind or middling talents or nameless, claimless, or shameless so long as you have but one skill. And that skill is in being able to manipulate the masses against their own good. Men with that particular knack need nothing else.”
“Like…like a shepherd culling a flock of sheep,” Blake said meekly in a moment of insight. “They do as he says, even as he steals their lambs.”
“Very much so,” concurred Lord Gildread, suddenly smiling. That smile frightened Blake more than the glare. “I am a shepherd of the stubborn imbeciles, and so I am a sheerer and a butcher and a salesman. But all of those roles depend on their following me willingly into slavery.”
“And if they try to escape your pastures?”
“Then that is what the wolves are for,” Lord Gildread laughed, gesturing to the mercenary soldiers lining the walls of the dining hall. “And they, of course, follow me as obediently as the sheep. So long as I throw a pound of mutton to them when their hungers bite at them. Every appetite I can provide for, if the chain is minded.”

“Why come to me, child?” the widow asked. “The priest is always willing to…counsel young women.”
“I saw a face in the bottle,” Joanna said. “A face of flame amid the sunwater. It appeared to me with a horrible grin that struck me to my soul with its wickedness.”
Brigid Emberson tilted her head to the side. It was almost as if she was trying to look at Joanna with her bad eye as it wandered this way and that, finally nestling up in the inner corner, near her nose. “A face of flame in a bottle?”
“I don’t know if it is a devil or a spirit or some forgotten god. I know only that it means to do great evils upon my husband. I went to the priest, but he would not listen to me.”
“Entertaining Olga again, is he?”
Joanna gawked. “I…I do not know who she was. Her habit of dress was not appropriate to devotions.”
The old widow cackled. “Oh, I am sure the priest was well-pleased by her dress and her ‘devotions’.”
Brigid Emberson looked away from Joanna and stared into the pot that hung in her hearth above the crackling fire. There were frog legs sticking out of its broth, and bird heads, and countless other things that Joanna would not have liked to see.
“Child, humor a batty woman and tell me what is it those rogues-in-robes have told you about the creation of the world. It’s history. It’s stories.”
Joanna frowned, trying to recall what the priest had said at Mass. “Mathara, the mother-goddess, flew through the All Ways and found it lonely and barren. Craving company, she birthed an egg and incubated it in her flaming Word. When it hatched, the world was born.”
The widow nodded, took a spoon and ladled a mouthful of hot broth between her lips. She smacked her lips, noisily, and then grabbed a jar of herbs sitting on the hearth’s ledge. Pinching the chopped grasses between finger and thumb, she sprinkled into the soup and then stirred the soup some more.
“Yes, that’s the gist of the thing. But it’s important to note other things of importance, too. With the flaming Word came light, and so sprites. All that Mathara did in the beginning created life, including her breath of destruction. Demons, genie, and imps were created from the fiery Word of Mathara, and so they were the manifestations of wild destruction.
“After the egg cooled, its burnt shell turned to stone, wherefrom trolls and ogres were born. This stone cracked and the whites of that cosmic egg became soft soil, so that trees grew from it, creating dryads and goblins and other things of the fertile earth. The fiery yolk of the egg contained Mathara’s truest children, dragons, many of which still sleep there, in the molten yolk of the earth.
“And then Man came, in time, though no one knows from what. Matharists like to believe Mathara fashioned us separately, specially, and so made us as her favorite children. I do not know. What I do know is that the egg cooled, and when it cooled the imps and demons sought salvation wherever they could.. Sometimes those fiery creatures breathed their flames into a man, and that man became Inspired, and did great deeds. More often was it, though, that such creatures were directly sought and harnessed. Such as how the lords of the Southerland Seas harness imps for the betterment of their cities.”
“Turnwheels,” Joanna said.
“Yes, my bunny. The turnwheel fleet of the Southerland lords. A fleet of ships independent of sails, cutting the waters with their wheel-rudders faster than any wind-blown sailboat. The pyromancers imprisoned imps in the iron bellies of those ships and fed the impfire through the ships. Yet, while they use such destructive creatures for trade and defense, they rightly fear their imps. Tell me, child, have you ever heard the story of the great Imp Pyre?”

In an impetuous moment of chummy daring, brought about by Blake’s copious guzzling of wine, he went up to Lord Gildread after dinner and shook his hands. As shocked as Lord Gildread was, and the rest of his guests, Blake was even more shocked. Lord Gildread’s hands were small and soft, like the hands of nobleborn girls. They were also quick and furtive as they withdrew from Blake’s.
It was a mistake to shake Gildread’s hands. Blake was quickly ushered out of the dining hall and taken to the coach. He was then driven home as the sun descended. Seeing the dusk’s flames on the Fangflow, he was reminded of that liquid fire that awaited him at home in his bottle. He was drunk already, but the thought of that amber sunwater spilling down his throat made him thirsty anew. Such a single-minded obsession had he with the thought of that fiery liquid that he forgot about his presumptuousness with Lord Gildread, and paid no mind to the bars of silver stacked in the seat across from him in the coach. The taproot of his attention dwelled singularly on the bottle awaiting him at home. Nothing else mattered.

“It happened countless centuries ago,” Brigid Emberson said. “The world as we know it was young, for Mathara’s breath had cooled upon the egg and Mathara herself had cocooned herself in flame, becoming our sun. The earth had grown new things. Plants. Animals. New primordial entities propagated upon the earth, prospering as winds blew, rains fell, and the oceans settled in their vast expanses.
“But the primordial creatures grew restless and hungered for mischief. There came a great wildfire invasion caused by imps who loved nothing so much as chaos and destruction. This was called the Imp Pyre.”
As Joanna listened she gazed into the flames of the widow’s hearth. She thought she saw figures dancing in that crackling glow.
“Eventually the Imp Pyre was quelled and conquered by Sylphs and Undines and the other air and water elementals. Defeated, the imps were forced into the mountains; into magma floes and into the dark recesses underground. They dared not go too deep, for fear of being eaten by the dragons still nestled within the fiery yolk of the earth. For dragons love to eat nothing so much as imps. Except, perhaps, virgin maidens.”
She stirred her soup some more, and slurped at it with her ladle. Her wandering eye stared at the contents of the soup while her good eye returned to Joanna.
“Later, after the rise of Man, Pyromancers sought the imps’ power for their spells and their machines. Imps are elementals, like all primordial spirits. Their power is limitless within certain circumstances and can be channeled if a wizard is willing to risk the perils of invoking the unpredictable creatures. It is said that imps were somehow used by the original Lord Gildread to destroy the golden dragon that dwelled in these mountains. It is also said that imps might still be found in the Grumbles, just as the skeletons and the weapons of Gildread’s army might still be found here. Of course, you will never find a golden scale belonging to that dragon, for Lord Gildread was quite adamant that a thorough search and accounting be made for that inventory.”
The old widow laughed, and it was like a murder of crows were taking flight.
Joanna realized she had not been breathing. With a sigh, she began again, her heart beating like a dwarf’s warhammer in her chest. “So you believe the face I saw in the bottle to be an imp?”
“It is possible,” the widow said. “The eldest among us remember that Lord Gildread baulked at no method to slay the golden dragon. And he had many pyromancers among his enlisted men. I would not be surprised if his great victory that claimed him so many blessings was achieved by cursed means.”
“Can I destroy it?” Joanna asked. “Pour it out? Throw it in the hearth-fire?”
“That is exactly what it wants, my bunny,” the widow warned. “To be freed. Were you to pour it out, it would catch fire and burn as it did of old. Grow. Breed. Consume the world again. All you may hope to do is keep it sealed. Or else find a pyromancer to bind it to him. Only they can control them.”
“But what could Blake be doing with it? Has he made a pact with it? Is that how he has bettered his blacksmithing?”
“I think you already know that answer, my bunny. But I should warn you A fire may warm you in winter,”— she gestured to the hearth— “and a fire can devour you to your bones. There is scarce compromise in a fire. It does as it wills. Imps are the same. All elementals are the same.”
“I do not know how to summon Undines,” Joanna said, sadly. “And I doubt any in the Ashen River would be on kindly terms with me or anyone else in our village. And I know of no pyromancer or hydromancer, and even if I did I would have nothing to induce such a man to help me. Shadows are in every direction, and the only light I can see is the flame of the imp to whom I am married…”

When Blake returned home, he stumbled out of the coach and staggered into the cottage like a man beaten senseless. The coach left and Blake found himself alone in his father-in-law’s home, staring into the dim emptiness of the interior like a man trying to remember his name. He walked to the dark hearth and kneeled down. He tried to start a fire with some flint.
“From luxury to squalor in the turn of an evenin’,” he growled. “Ain’ no doin’ with it.”
A flame caught among the kindling and he grinned at the flickering tongues. As he stood again, there came accompanying the blood rush to Blake’s head a thousand blinking images which so wholly overwhelmed his drunken mind that he swayed as if swirling in a whirlpool. That whirlpool promptly pulled him down to the floor with its undertow.

When Joanna arrived home she found her husband limp on the floor and mumbling as if in a dream. She hurried to him, bending over and helping him to a chair. Something stank like death in the cottage and it alarmed her.
“Blake, what is the matter?”
“I’m all overjoyed,” he said, his red head lolling. “Lord Gildread ‘as shown me favor, which was always me due. Here, a gift from ‘is lordship.”
He pressed something hot and smelly into Joanna’s hand. Opening her hand she found a ring made from small Gildread dragon scales. Shocked, she dropped it to the floor as if it was a spider ready to bite.
“Have ah care, woman,” he snapped. “Don’ abuse things given to ye’ so freely.”
“I do not want it,” she said. “It stinks of decay and death.”
Upon her refusal, Blake’s face darkened as if in the shadow of the Mumbling Mountain. “If ye’ donna’ take it, I’ll give it to another lassie with a lil’ more grat’tude in ‘er bosom.”
“Give it where it pleases you,” Joanna said, trembling, “but do not let it remain here. All Gildread gold is cursed. T’was since the day it was pulled from the carcass of that evil dragon.”
Blake simply grinned and then tottered upright, staggering to the bed and groping through his apron. Suddenly, he bolted straight up and turned around, his face twisted into a snarl.
“Where is it?!” he demanded.
Joanna flinched from him, throwing her hands up as he rushed at her with a fist raised.
“Where is me bottle?! I’ll not ask ye’ eh‘gin!”
Joanna pointed to the spice rack.
“Why’d she go an’ put it there where any ol’ thief could snatch it?” he slurred, his livid face relaxing into a lurid grin. “I warned ye’ not to be goin’ an’ touchin’ nothin’ that weren’t yers. An’ it’s not a spice, ya’ silly filly, ye’.”
Chuckling strangely to himself, Blake fumbled with the spice rack, trying to take the bottle down. His coordination was poor due to drink and so the spice rack fell with his clumsy efforts, crashing to the floor. Jars shattered and spices flew free in scattering heaps. The bottle was unharmed.
Blake nearly fell over trying to pick it up. When he swung himself upright again, he laughed triumphantly. Popping the cork out, he tipped his head back, upended the bottle, and drank so large a gulp that when he had finished swallowing there was but less than half of the bottle left. Corking the bottle again, he returned it to its place beneath the bed, swathed in his leather apron.
“Ye’ idiot woman!” he exclaimed. “Mind ye’ to never touch me things!”
Trembling, Joanna could only nod.
“Leave be,” he said, “or there’ll be tears to shed, I promise ye’.”
He then stooped and picked up the gold ring she had refused, then headed to the door.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
He paused at the door and swung himself around as if to fall, his face twisted with a queer leer. “To find me some gratitude. Bound to be ‘ereabouts somewhere.”

A week came and went like a crow; at times flying quickly here and there in search of carrion, and at times perching and pruning itself stubbornly for long durations, unmindful of the dread it inspired by lingering near a window.
The bottle was more than half emptied of its golden amber now. Blake spent much of his time either at the forge, shaping silver, or flaunting his Gildread coins where all might see and envy him. On the rare occasion that Blake visited home—between the intervals of manic creation and debauchery with any willing woman worthy of a second glance— he did so only so he might drink from the bottle that inspired him; nothing more. He treated Joanna as the guardian of the bottle and expected her to hold vigil over it. Simultaneously, he was suspicious that she might betray him, too. More than once he walloped her pitilessly, sending her sprawling on the floor.
The things that Blake forged were as obscene as they were beautiful. Sober minds they repulsed, even as they inspired awe with the skill needed in their creation. For decadent minds, such as those of Lord Gildread and his aristocratic acquaintances and sycophants, his perversities quickened their hearts and became as the embodiments of the truths that their lives celebrated. Nymphs and satyrs were combined in grotesque union; gods ravished virgin girls only recently blossomed to womanhood; beasts mounted in congress with women in horrible surrender. Certain figures upon an ash urn bore resemblance to several women in the village of Kilne, turning wives red with embarrassment and husbands red with rage.
Yet, Blake was untouchable, so highly held was he in Gildread’s esteem. It would have been less perilous to brave a dragon-guarded tower seeking a princess than to lay one unwanted finger on Gildread’s new curiosity.

Joanna’s was an unhappy situation. She could not destroy the bottle, nor could she hide it from Blake. When she attempted to hide it in the pig’s pin, he did not even ask where it went, but simply walked into that ramshackle perimeter and retrieved it, backhanding Joanna as he took it inside the cottage. He was drawn to the bottle, never needing to see its glow to find its succor. Joanna’s face was always swollen and dark, the bruises always overlapping and never disappearing before she was dealt another bruise to take the place of a fading lump on her face.
A week passed and Joanna went to Mourning-Mass, waiting until the sermon was over to the see the priest one more time. As she waited for him to wish the other Kilneesians a blessed day, her eyes went wandering in the flame-embattled darkness of that windowless temple. They alighted on a statue that Blake had wrought for the priest— a nubile priestess denuded of all except her Matharist coronet. Seeing that terrible statue was worse than seeing Olga standing promiscuously in the shadows. Disheartened, she nonetheless spoke to the priest of her husband’s behavior. She did not speak of the imp in the bottle, for she knew he would think her mad.
“Lord Gildread approves of his work,” the priest said, “so there is no harm in it. Indeed, rather there is great promise in his work. His is a miraculous transformation. If Mathara might only inspire your husband towards religious works then my temple would be the best adorned temple in the whole world.”
“But it is destroying his soul,” Joanna said. “He is killing himself, and he is killing me…”
“Your womanly resentment shames you,” he chastised her while his coronet flashed like a golden grin. “Envy. Pettiness. Jealousy. These vices are clearly written on your face.”
Her face still ached from the recent blows Blake had given her, and so it hurt ever the more as her face trembled with frustrated tears.
“If your husband hits you, then I say it is for the best. If he strikes you, it is his right and it is justified. He has reformed his life. He has become dedicated to Lord Gildread and to Matharist work principles. He is an outstanding example of Kilneesian work ethic and grace. Perhaps you should worry about your shortcomings and misdeeds as a wife. Perhaps you are the reason it has taken so long for your husband to find the Matharist light.”
The scolding stung sorely and Joanna left the temple in tears, weeping at her own powerlessness. Shuffling home with her head down, she knew not what to do. It seemed the world had gone mad, like a wasp-stung centaur, and the horse was now atop the man.

Daryld did not like the look of the caravan traveling up the foothills toward the Mumbling Mountain. There were too many bright colors in its procession; far too many for any Kilneesian who had grown up under dark gray skies, dark gray mountains, and dark gray moods.
Onx said something in the stone-grinder of his throat, and Daryld actually understood him.
“Pretty?” Daryld said. “They’re too garish even fer peacocks.”
“Lots of wealth there, though,” Ganth said. “Them be Southerlanders. Ye’ can smell the beaches on ‘em from here.”
“Damn salt-skins,” Daryld cursed. “What do they want?”
The caravan stopped and several men stepped forward, all scarfed in silk and carrying long spears with crescent blades. There were a few beautiful women staring from the tent on one wagon, their eyes dark and alluring. Even Daryld had to admit, salt-skin or not, there were a thousand undreamt delights in such eyes.
The most colorful man among the troupe stood forward and unwrapped his orange scarf. Beneath it, he was a handsome man with the same dark complexion and eyes of the women in his tent-wagon. He gestured to another man who was holding a decanter which Daryld knew, upon first sight, was of Black Blake’s make.
“The man is possessed of a genius who made this,” remarked the man in silks.
“A genius and a devil, too,” Daryld said. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“My name is not important. Just know that I am a War Merchant from the Southerlands. I have traveled North to see for myself the metallurgist who created this wonder. I should like to purchase his services for a specific object, if Lord Gildread is willing to allow it.”
“Ye’ll have to speak to Lord Gildread ‘imself,” said Daryld as he and his two fellow Overseers stood stonelike at the mouth of the Mumbling Mountain. “But for now Black Blake’s not to be disturbed. Lord Gildread ‘as him workin’ ‘is silver bars, and that’s mindful work, mark you.”
“Indeed,” said the War Merchant, gesturing to another man among his caravan. This man brought the War Merchant a colorful silken pouch. The clinking of its contents told Daryld exactly what it was: silver coins. “Is there not a way I can seek his attentions, though? A means of compensating for time lost and time favored?”
He held the pouch of silver out to Daryld and Ganth and Onx, yet none of them stepped forward to claim it. They knew where their bread and stead came from, and that was Lord Gildread. No need to lose a bit of your height for silver.
“I’d advise ye’ to go see Lord Gildread about breachin’ the matter,” Daryld said. “That’s the only way yer goin’ to get what ye want.”
The War Merchant’s eyes darkened, but he relented. Coiling his scarf about his face again, he mounted his horse and gestured to his caravan of men with their bright orange and blue banners. They descended from the foothills and headed into Kilne.
“Damn sand-toed salt-skins,” Daryld cussed. “Can’t stand the look of ‘em.”
“All those bright colors,” Ganth growled. “Gives me a hea’ache.”
Onx grumbled something sadly; possibly about wanting colorful scarfs to bring home to his troll-wife.
“Ain’t no doin’ with them,” Daryld snapped. “Pretty pastels ain’t to be trusted. Never trust a man who don’ wear leather or wool or fur.”
“Silver was mighty temptin’, though,” Ganth said.
“True,” returned Daryld, “if ye’ can enjoy it without yer head.”
“But ye’ could just take it and run,” Ganth reasoned. “Maybe go live on the beach in the Southerlands for the rest of yer days. No winter down there, leastways. And all the gold you’d want, if ye’ were thinking of golden shores, I mean.”
“Don’t be daft,” the shorter man growled. “Do ye’ know the cost to live there? And I’m not talkin’ about havin’ to be ‘round ‘em salt-skins all the time, neither. Buyin’ a steak down there costs as much as a cow up ‘ere. You’d be robbed out of yer silver before the first day. Mark me.”
Onx again spoke, like he had stones grinding in his blocky mandibles.
“No, I don’ know what ‘em scarfs cost,” Daryld growled. “Get yer wife a wolf pellet. It’ll last longer.”
Again Onx spoke.
“Then get her a fox pellet!” Daryld said, wishing he had not grown to understand Onx over the course of the last week. “They’re pretty enough! Orange enough! Red enough, too, ‘specially if ye’ leave the blood on ‘em to stain.”
Onx sighed sadly again and absently scratched at his backside.
Ganth glanced down the forge-lit tunnel. “Should we go…you know…mind the smiths?”
The habitual scowl on Daryld’s face broke into a troubled grimace. “I think they ought to be gettin’ along just fine. No need to push ‘em too much. Ev’rything’s smooth as unicorn milk down there, I believe.”
“Right,” said Ganth.
Onx rumbled in agreement.
The Overseers stood outside the mouth of the cave and watched the sun go down. They did little else nowadays. Lately, they had been doing less and less patrols through the forges. The truth was that Blake was the only blacksmith about whom Lord Gildread was concerned, and Blake worked like a dwarf in a mine made of nothing but jewels: toiling endlessly with a strange gleam in his eyes. If the other blacksmiths did nothing, it did not matter. All that mattered was that Black Blake transformed Gildread’s stacks of silver bricks into exquisite, unparalleled treasures. Black Blake kept to this task without their admonishments, and so they felt redundant and had little else to do.
Yet, the Overseers were not at ease in their easy employment. They could not watch Black Blake work anymore. Even Onx shuddered at the sight. For as Black Blake smelted and poured and hammered his works, like a man possessed, his shadow loomed large and black on the cave walls all around him like some hellbent beast of mischief and malice. His red mane grew into greater disarray, flaring wildly atop his head. It glowed, too, with an orange luster, and so too did his pale skin. His temperament was volatile and to be in his presence was as to be in the presence of a wildfire, always fearful of which way the winds might blow.

Joanna’s anxiety was as a harpy perched upon her narrow shoulders, talons sinking deeply, beak at her ear, its worrisome voice shrieking wildly. She tried to shake it off, which distressed the raptor ever the more. Nor was it receptive to soothing caresses and feel-good little lies, but only shrieked more loudly as Joanna’s innate naivete provoked it.
So overcome with this harpy was Joanna that she stumbled to the cottage of the old widow, sobbing beneath the harpy’s weight and fell down in front of the old woman.
Brigid Emberson was sitting outside of her cottage, seemingly asleep in her wicker chair. Joanna begged the widow for wisdom in her trying times.
“You needn’t wisdom,” the old woman said, her eyes remaining closed. “Just a little will and wile.”
“The priest will not listen to me,” she whimpered.
“Is that so, my bunny?” the widow said, a wry smile at the corner of her lips.
“He does not care about Blake’s soul. He cares only of what he makes for Lord Gildread.”
“Naturally.”
Joanna clutched at her own bosom. “Is that all you have to say?”
“The Mathara priest is paid by Lord Gildread. All priests are paid by their lords, and so owe them fealty of purpose. You cannot trust them to say anything honest or useful. They are paid to keep peasants meek and obedient and diligent, with their heads down and their ears closed to those of us who know the truth.” The old woman chuckled quietly to herself. Her long, gnarled fingers were entwined over her belly. Her eyes remained closed. “Don’t you think it strange that the Matharist temples have doors like barns? Doors like those used to keep cows and horses and sheep within? It is their own little joke. The dragons of the new age have a sense of humor, my bunny.”
Joanna, being a simple person, did not wish to hear matters concerning politics, especially those that hinted at heresies.
“None of the other townspeople will talk to me,” she said. “They shun me. If I told them the danger that threatens Blake they would not believe me, or they would laugh and eagerly await it.”
“Seeing the marks of affection your husband has been so generous to give you,” the widow said, her eyes still closed, “I should tell you to eagerly await his comeuppance as well. But I know that foolish look in your eye. Indeed, I know it well. It was a look I had in me own eye for years and years until I caught a glimpse of it in a mirror, and saw how very like a ninny I appeared. You will continue to try to save him, and he will continue to beat you, and abuse you, until either he knocks your eye silly, like me dear old husband did mine, or you harden that look of yours; harden that look and that heart and that will to do that hard thing that needs doing.”
“I cannot…”
“You don’t know what you can do until you do it.” The old woman opened her eyes now, the one eye lolling aimlessly. “As you get older you’ll find that the biggest surprises are those you give yourself. Take my wandering eye, for instance. My husband knocked it useless in my head and so I killed him. And do you know what happened?”
“What?” Joanna asked through her tears.
“I got the Sight in it. And all because of me husband’s abuse of it and my killing him. That is a rich irony for you, isn’t it?” She shrugged. “Not that I can control its aim, mind you, which is a shame. Still, it’s better than a dead eye. Better than an abusive husband, too. I can see the Future and the Past. I can see what Is and what Isn’t and what Maybe Is, which is a crucial magic that many uppity wizards never grasp.”
Joanna was shocked out of her tears. “So you are a witch!”
The old woman gave her a slow, toothless grin. “My bunny, any woman with any sense is.”

Marlowe was cleaning the dirty mugs as fast as his old, callused hands could go. He knew something conspiratorial was afoot the moment the War Merchant came into his tavern and asked him if he knew Blake and when he might perchance visit for a drink. Marlowe was no fool. He did not doubt that the Overseers had told the swaggering silk-scarfed Southerlander to see Lord Gildread for an audience with Blake— as if Blake was not a prideful goat enough as it was—and so the War Merchant had come to Marlowe to bypass such etiquette for the sake of time. Overstepping his place a bit, Marlowe informed the Merchant that Blake would eventually arrive here to drink the ash out of his throat. The War Merchant needed only wait for him to arrive, which is what he and his silk-scarfed men did. When Blake had arrived, the War Merchant conducted business with him outside so that no one could hear of their transactions. But everyone heard it anyway, for Blake loudly proclaimed his fortune upon his entrance.
Black Blake was in the tavern now, and he was entertaining two Southerlander women who had come with the War Merchant’s caravan. They were gifts, Blake said; a gesture of good will in anticipation of a jewelry chest the War Merchant desired to be made. Marlowe was a simple man, but even his imagination went wild with conjecture as to what Blake would forge for such a request that warranted the lavish rewards that were given: two lovely dark-skinned concubines, two hundred silver pieces, a ruby the size of Blake’s throat bulge— which he playfully dropped into the cleavage of one of the bustiest of the two girls— and the promise of greater riches if Blake traveled South with the caravan and took up residence in the War Merchant’s seashore palace.
Marlowe knew that most of Kilne was unhappy about Blake’s miraculous turn of fortune, but none more so than the buxom barmaid, Olga. She was absolutely miserable. When she had seen Blake explode into the tavern—flanked by his two maple-skinned floozies as he boasted of his newly acquired wealth—Olga had taken one distraught look at the trio and then fled for shame. She had nowhere the beauty or bustline to compete with such exotic temptresses.
On the other hand, Marlowe was quite pleased, even if he had to deliver the beers himself in the absence of his barmaid. Black Blake was in such a divine mood that he bought the whole tavern two rounds of beer, and easily drank an equal round all by himself. Atop that, he ordered three legs of lamb, a large mutton loaf, five spicy sausages, and a grilled pork loin with mushrooms. Marlowe’s wife, Hilda, rushed in the kitchen all night to slaughter and butcher and cook food for Black Blake’s ravenous appetite.
It was strange, Marlowe reflected. Blake had always had a bit of an appetite, especially for such a layabout, but now that he was busy forging masterpieces and brokering deals with men from every corner of the world, the lecherous scoundrel ate as if he were pregnant with a farrow of piglets. Indeed, Marlowe had yet to meet another man with such a troll-like stomach. The only thing Blake hungered more for than food was the taste of the salt-skinned Southerlander women. He groped and fondled and licked and nibbled at their exposed skin like a starving dog toothlessly gumming a bone. Not that Marlowe did not feel his own mouth salivate for the curvaceous flesh exposed by those sheer-cut robes. Any man would have, and some women too.
“Gods above and below,” he said, “thank you that Hilda is slaving away single-minded in the kitchen.”

Walking in the starlit murk, Joanna did what she had never dared to do in the entirety of her life: she went to Marlowe’s Tarvern. Her father had always shunned that place, and Joanna herself had in turn shunned it, and in turn cursed it as she lost her husband to it. Of course, even she had to acknowledge that she had lost her husband long before his nightly visits to that den of devil’s drink. She had lost her husband, truly, before she had ever even met him.
She paused in front of the door, and glanced back at the village quietly drowsing in moonlight. She had expected to hear carousing and laughter and mirth coming from the tavern. Instead, it was morosely quiet. She opened the door and stepped inside. Looking around the poorly lit interior, Joanna instantly felt as misplaced as a lamb in a cave full of disgruntled bears. Never having been in a tavern before, she did not know what was the custom when looking for someone, nor if there was a custom. The faces that turned toward her were familiar and full of either disdain or pity. Everyone in Kilne knew everyone else, and so everyone knew the wife of Black Blake. She braved a few steps into the candle-dotted murk and stubbed her toe on a bench.
“Careful, Blackholme,” someone said.
“Forgive me,” she said, stepping around as gingerly as possible.
“Best be headin’ out,” the man said, curtly. “The show’s done and over with anyway’.”
Despite the warning, Joanna walked to the brightest part of the tavern: the bar. Once there, she stood in front of Marlowe as he cleaned his mugs. She asked him if he had seen her husband.
The big man looked at the young woman, seeing the bruises and knots on her face. He dropped his eyes down again at the mug he was cleaning. His flaring eyebrows had more hair on them than his balding pate.
“He left not too long ago,” he said, his tone glum as a plum in rum. “But I don’t think it best you be chasing after him this night. He is…preoccupied.”
“But it is a matter of his everlasting soul,” she said, her lips trembling and her eyes welling up.
Marlowe became uncomfortable. He had never been good at dealing with the crying of women. Hilda was not a crier. She was a smasher. So, Marlowe mumbled a few words and then fell to silence.
“Was he alone?” she asked.
Once again, Marlowe became uncomfortable. “No,” he said.
Joanna shook her head bitterly. She then dropped down on a stool at the bar, propping her elbows on the counter and resting her face in the palms of her hands.
“Father said I should have been practical,” she said, trying not to cry, “but all I wanted was something pretty for myself. My whole life I just wanted something pretty…”
Marlowe resumed wiping his mugs. He thought she was going to remain quiet, sobbing to herself for a while, but then she surprised him by suddenly sitting straight up with a sober look on her face.
“What makes a man settle down?” she asked. “What makes him contented in life?”
“Now that is something I can answer,” Marlowe said, “but only for myself. You see, I was a traveler in my younger days. Went everywhere, I did. From Gran Stone to the Southerlands, and as far out to the Wildfields as I dared. I was a man in want of road, come what may, and I wore my fair share of road down, let me tell you.”
“Why did you settle here, then?”
“Oh, several reasons,” Marlowe said, rubbing his sweaty pate absently with his mug cloth. “Mostly, though, I think I scattered my wild grasses all over the world and, after a while, it became tiresome to keep up with them. Wore myself ragged with play, so to speak, and then decided I needed to settle somewhere that didn’t have any of my shoots growing, so to speak. So here I am.”
“By shoots you mean…?”
“Sons,” he said, “and a couple of daughters. But mostly boys. I may not look like it now, but once upon a time I was a handsome wayfarer that earned himself lodgings with little more than a smile. Well…perhaps not half so handsome as Blake, but a willing worker with a strong back and a kind word. For a season, at least. And then I would set foot to the road again. I used to say, ‘If the child is talking it is time to be walking.’”
Joanna eye’s boggled and her face reddened with anger. “You are telling me to let Blake do as he pleases until he…until he…tires of it?”
Now outrage was an emotion Marlowe could deal with in a woman. He was used to it. It was an accustomed element. It was the air he breathed and the bedrock of his marriage.
“A man’s got to work out his demons on his own. Sometimes it takes a levee breaking before the river subsides. He’s got to deprive himself with his own indulgence. Surrender to gluttony to kill the appetite once and for all. A man’s wayward heart must be chained the same way. Let the beast run wild and hang himself a bit on his chain, then he gets more and more tamed.”
“But it could kill him,” she said.
“I doubt a bit of wine and women could kill Blake,” Marlowe said. “Sorry,” he added, when he saw Joanna’s heartbroken face.
“I am truly and utterly powerless, then,” she said. She stood up to go, eyes watering again as if to wash the counter with their excess.
“Now wait a moment, Mrs. Blackholme,” Marlowe said. “Let me tell you another secret that I sometimes forget to tell myself.” He set a mug down, and the cloth. He scratched the lobe of one ear, grinning like a beaten dog. “Yes, I wearied myself with my travelings. But that wasn’t the only rut that tripped me and brought me low along the wandering road. The biggest snare was that woman back there cleaning up her kitchen. Let me tell you something, and you best keep this at heart: I sometimes yearn to go a’roving— every other day, if I must be honest— but whenever I do I remind myself that Hilda would be shadowing me every step, and counting the steps so she could reckon them with equal knocks later. I am scared to death of that woman.”
His grin widened with true mirth— not in jest, but for the truth of what he had said.
“In fact, I’d rather face Death than face Hilda in her worst moods. She lets me have it, let me tell you. And the worst part of it is she doesn’t kill me when I’ve done wrong, though I sometimes wish she would! At least the animals she butchers are dead when she’s cutting them apart. Me, she just wacks off here and there with a word and a fist and tells me to quit my whining. And, well, I suppose you could say a beat dog will always love its master, and I love that fearsome little ogress of a woman.”

Blake was enjoying a night of exotic debauchery the likes of which he had never enjoyed, either in his youth or in his dreams. It tempted him with thoughts of going South and never returning. The War Merchant promised him an honored place among the Southerland lords. He also promised him more such earthly temptations that had been offered him this night. It was a dream come true; perhaps a greater dream come true than living in Gildread’s castle with all of his luxuries resplendent around him.
Yet, part of him insisted that the Southerlanders were untrustworthy. They were strange and foreign and they smelled funny. They enslaved imps in their turnwheels ships. They enslaved men and women and children. They would do the same to him, this raspy voice reasoned. They were deceivers. They were slavers. They would own him, body and soul.
No, Blake thought: he never would go South. He told himself he could not go South, even as the two Southerlander women spread their treasures for his goatish leisure. The Grumbles were his home. He would live here always, basking in the hot soot-shadows until the day he would be joined with its molten blood and awaken his brethren beneath the earth to run riot over the lands once more.
His appetite for flesh was redoubled with that wild thought, and Black Blake took each of the two concubines in turn, one until she had her fill, and then the other, and then returning to the first and subsequently the second. They were women trained in carnal pleasures, but even they found Blake’s endless appetite a trial between them. At length, they quivered and shook beneath the silken sheets and fell asleep, fatigued to bodily collapse.
Blake was unsatisfied. His appetite was beyond mortal measure, and thus bottomless. Discontented, he left the tent-wagon and headed home with a hurried step, his hankering now a flame that needed quelling, or perhaps stoking.

Joanna left the tavern and shuffled homeward, her mind a tumult. On the outskirts of Kilne, in the pale moonlight, she saw a caravan on the ridge of a foothill. It was strange to see a caravan this far North, and one so large, and one so near to her cottage. She paused, watching a figure climb out from a tent-wagon and descend the foothills. She recognized the goatish gait from the distance. It was her husband, Black Blake.

Blake had not bothered putting on his clothes. Heat raced through his blood like wildfire. Unashamed, he walked naked in the moonlight, pale body gleaming with sweat and lust and carnal indulgences.
Upon seeing the small figure accosting him, he grinned like a satyr.
“Why, my lil’ rabbit,” he said, “fancy a stroll in the moonlight?”
“Where is your decency, Blake?!” Joanna exclaimed. “Where is your shame?!”
“Ah left ‘em back in that tent,” he laughed, “alongside two of the most beautiful fillies I e’er rode in me life.”
“It is no good,” Joanna warned. “You making your wealth this way. What good is gold gotten from bedeviled hands? Everyone knows what horrible lords and ladies they are in the Southerlands. How they abuse their people…how they enslave them…”
“Mind your realm, woman,” he snapped. “The cookery and the food. You worry about what your hands make and I’ll worry about what my hands make.”
“But what of your soul, Blake? What good is gold compared to your everlasting soul?”
To this question Blake gave a frightening grin that made Joanna back away. “I’ll just buy me a new one, lil rabbit. Everything has a price, and right now I have the means.”
Joanna quivered, but stood defiant as Blake came toward her. She clenched her fists and tried to speak.
“You will not take my husband,” she said. “Let go of him or I will…”
Blake ignored her, stepping past her. He then paused for a moment, turning around. He slapped her rump playfully, then reached up and swatted her nose with a flick of his fingers that left her face smarting. With a laugh, he went to the cottage, leaving Joanna outside with blood trickling down a nostril.
Determined despite the blood, Joanna followed him inside the cottage where she found him drinking from his nearly-empty bottle. In his haste he spilled a few drops on the floor. He corked the bottle and returned it to the mantel of the hearth. He then crouched down, animal-like, and licked the fallen drops from the wood. Joanna watched him in horror, and he watched her horror in glee. There was an orange glow in his eyes, not unlike candle fire. He then stood up, blew a foul-smelling kiss to her, and loped like a ghoul from the cottage, heading up the slope toward the Mumbling Mountain, dressed in nothing but the feverish sweat that dewed his body.
Thence forward, Joanna never cried again.

When Daryld, Ganth, and Onx saw the pale phantom swaggering up the hillside with his purplish manhood jutting ahead of him like a dowsing rod, they laughed.
When they saw the orange flames in Blake’s eyes they fell silent and stepped aside.
After a few moments of disturbed silence, Onx spoke. His voice sounded like the most timorous tremor beneath river slate.
Daryld listened to the shaken troll and nodded. “Yer right at that, Onx,” he said. “Maybe changin’ our post would do us all some good.”

The next day the sun smouldered dimly behind a smothering fleece of clouds, like a molten glob of gold cooling cold. Bitter winds were beginning to blow down from the mountaintops. Winter would come soon. It intensified Joanna’s nervousness and dread. No good ever came of Winter this far North. It was as a mad king without mercy.
Lord Gildread’s coachman arrived at the cottage, seeking Blake. Joanna informed him that her husband had been gone since the night before. When the coachman inquired to his whereabouts, she pleaded ignorance, but supposed he was at the forges. The coachman left for the forges and Joanna cleaned the cottage, trying to exorcize her demons of anxiety. She was absentmindedly sweeping the floor when her broom brushed against something and sent it sliding and clattering against the wall. Joanna bent down and picked the curious object up. It was the ring that Blake had tried to give to her the first day he arrived home with the bottle.
Running a finger along the crude iron ring, she felt a certain chill emanating from its small circle. When she tried to put it on her finger she discovered that its hole was obstructed by a layer of frigid glass so thin it was invisible. She recalled that Blake had tried to give the ring to her the day of his transformation.
“Is this the key to it all?” she wondered.
There was only one person she knew of that could tell her. Her heart pounding with hope, Joanna took the ring forthwith to the widow witch, Brigid Emberson.

Blake’s most recent accomplishment was now being conveyed to Lord Gildread by his coach, held within Blake’s own sweaty hands. Lord Gildread had learned of the War Merchant’s presence in Kilne and had deduced the reason behind it. He wanted to see Blake straightaway, to secure Blake in his singular employment lest he be stolen away from him, and to offer Blake the hospitality of his castle.
Of course, Blake had to be bathed, first, and dressed properly. The gold-cowled coachman saw to these things, for he was a devoted fellow and did not flinch in fear of Blake’s orange gaze. Blake agreed to wear clothes, but only the minimal of attire: a breezy white tunic and black britches. By the time he had arrived at Castle Gildread, Blake’s tunic was soaked through with profuse sweat. The glow in his eyes was almost as red as the hair on his head.
When Lord Gildread beheld Blake he actually smiled. He did not seem surprised by Blake’s demonic countenance. Rather, it pleased him and he displayed his pleasure by ushering Blake in with his personal attentions. This was a welcome change and Blake felt a comradery with his Lord more than he had before. He felt safe with the man and the legend; he felt like this man could protect him from dragons if need be. Why Blake suddenly feared dragons, he did not know. He was simply grateful that he had a dragon of his own, so to speak.
Blake had presented his newest achievement to Lord Gildread proudly. It was a silver circle plate crowded with an array of dancing nubiles, none of whom were yet blossomed in their years, and at the center of their innocent dance was a ruttish satyr with a lecherous grin on his goatish face. It pleased Lord Gildread, who said as much, after which he invited Blake inside to feast and make merry with his rarest wines. As the day gave way to night, Lord Gildread led Blake into a lavish room of silk sheets and fluffy cushions filled with halcyon feathers. There, awaiting Blake, were three ladies Lord Gildread had acquired from a collector in the distant reaches of the Eosterlands. The three girls were pale eyed and green-skinned. They smelled of rainwater and mountain lakes.
“They do not know the ways of Men,” Lord Gildread said.
And, without another word, he stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him as Blake approached the wide-eyed nymphs, his britches slipping down his legs like shed snake-skin while his eyes flamed with volcanic desires.

The widow rolled her head about, letting her wandering eye look at the iron-ringed stopper. After a moment of head-rolling and ring-gazing, she pursed her lips in a hag-faced moue of surprise.
“Oh, my bunny, this is not glass. This is ice. An ice-and-iron conceit to trap an imp!”
“Truly?!” Joanna said.
“Aye. Created by the conjoint efforts of a pyromancer and a hydromancer. Perhaps many such wizards. There are runes on the iron, you see, and this ice was imbued with an everlasting cold. Dear me, were you to drop it in a molten floe it might yet freeze the whole vein and stop the heart of the Mumbling Mountain itself.”
“So they used it to imprison the imp,” Joanna reasoned, “but does that mean I might use it to free Blake?”
“Imprison him or kill him,” the widow said. “But I fear it may be too late to free him. I have seen him, you know. I have seen his eyes, and his soul. The imp is as much a part of him as himself now.”
“I will find a way…”
“This will not end happily if you fight it. Perhaps it would be best to give way to the winds. Move elsewhere. Start a new life without him. Marry again. Have children. Be happy.”
“But he is my husband,” Joanna said.
“Love, the willow bends with the winds. The oak falls.”
Joanna stood, her face hardening. “Then I shall have to aim for my husband as I come down.”

The War Merchant queried his concubines on the man known as Black Blake and what they had gleaned from their nocturnal encounters.
“He is insatiable,” the one said, swooning.
“He is an animal,” the other said, sighing.
“Good,” the War Merchant said, smiling. “Animals may be brought to heel, and so too may a man with desires.”
He left their tent and went to the head of the caravan.
“I believe we will be leaving at dawn,” he told his men. “And we will have company.”
“Yes, my lord,” they said in unison.
The War Merchant gazed upon the village of Kilne, with its Ashen Creek and ugly mountains, and pondered how such a barbarian place could produce a forging genius like Black Blake.
“It is a mystery,” he said. “And a miracle.”
Standing atop the foothill, he suddenly saw a woman walking through the village. Any other barbarian woman would have not have merited his notice, but he knew that look in her eyes by glance, however fleeting. It was the look that earned him his wealth. It was the look of war.
“It is too bad she is not a rich barbarian like Lord Gildread,” he remarked. “Or else I might be able to sell to her an army’s worth of spears and shields right now.”

Entering the cottage, Joanna’s eye caught a flash in the corner, and she looked to the mantel where Blake’s bottle sat. A burning glow radiated from that amber gold liquid. She saw again that grotesque face— like a twisted cherubim— leering back at her with its diabolic smirk.
She cursed it, then she acted. Sheathing her hand in her cooking mitt, she hurried across the room and took the bottle down. It fought her as she carried it, its remainder sloshing about with the force of a tidal wave and knocking her about as a man in his drink might his wife when his temper was fully fueled. It tried to tear itself away from her grasp, and it tried burning her with its flaming glow. But Joanna was a stubborn woman, and more importantly she had been hardened over the years by her marriage to Blake, so while she was meek to any eye catching her, she had a spine of iron that could not break. Just as importantly, she had an iron-bellied stove.
Yanking the little door open, she flung the bottle hard into the fireless pot belly. It shattered and then the stove’s belly flared to life. Before the imp could escape, she threw the ice-and-iron ring inside. She then shut the stove door. There came a horrible scream of vengeful rage followed by the great pounding of what sounded like fists against the iron flanks of the stove. Soon the pounding became desperate clawing, then a wail that was heard by the War Merchant and the smiths of the Grumbles, and even far away to the castle of Lord Gildread. The wail ended in a whimpering moan and a crackling, then a smoke-breathing silence.
Joanna—tired and heat-flashed—sank down into the chair beside the table and stared emptily at the stove, thinking, with disbelief, at what she had just done. And she thought of the stopper on the bottle, with its iron ring. She fetched it out of the stove, a cold mist drifting lazily out of that blackened iron belly. And she looked at the iron pan that sat atop the iron stove and she had an idea as to how to save her perfidious husband.

Blake stood bolt upright, as if struck by lightning. He roared and the three nymphs huddled together in fear, cowering away from him. Blake forgot about them— forgot about Lord Gildread and the castle and the decadent splendor surrounding him. Those who witnessed his flight from the castle claimed he loped like a hunched, hunted beast fleeing in the moonlight. His face was twisted into a snarl of pain and rage and his eyes burned as if forges were flaring within them and devils were tending the fires. He slavered and he growled. The only intelligible words anyone could discern were “Burn ‘er backside, I will!”
An unnatural speed possessed him, like fire on oil, and he arrived in Kilne within an hour, exploding into the cottage to find his small wife waiting for him.

“Father always warned me to be practical in life,” Joanna said as he neared her. “And I was, except in the one thing that mattered most—the choosing of my husband.”
“I’m goin’ to eat yer flesh and yer bones!” Black Blake barked in an inhuman voice. “There’ll be nothin’ left of yer meager banquet but ashes!”
Though Joanna was a willowy slip of a woman there was a stubborn strength in her, too; a strength as enduring as the mountains. It had seen her through her marriage hitherto, despite her husband’s negligence, vagaries, and unkindness. And now the soft clay of her heart gradually loosened and fell away until the iron ore core remained: knotted, bitter, and unmelting. Her willowy slip of a spine straightened and hardened; her whole being hardened, like smelted iron in an icemelt bath.
She swung the heavy pan and struck Blake across the cheek. He reeled and wheeled around like a drunken man caught by a whirlwind. When he presented his snarling face again, and raised a fist, she struck him again. He spun around once more like an incensed dog chasing its tail. He tried to right himself up, raising both fists this time as if to smash her like a troll competing with a rival. She struck him again, and again. Left cheek, right cheek, left cheek, right cheek, Black Blake becoming Black-and-Blue Blake. She struck him in the stomach, and on his knees and elbows. She wacked him hard against his exposed genitals, making him double over, and then she whipped him on his behind like a child with the pan. For every misdeed and betrayal, she struck him. For every defiance of their wedding vows she took recompense.
Joanna may have been willowy of build, but her arms had a strength in them, as did her hands and her wrists, put there from years of cooking with that excessively heavy iron pan. She swung it as a knight would swing a battle ax, and gradually she chopped down the twisted tree that was her husband.
When he was sufficiently dizzied, and kneeling on the ground in near-defeat, she took the ice-and-iron ring and she shoved it into his mouth and down his throat. He tried to hack it up, but she struck him again, across the mouth with the flat of the pan, and sent the magical stopper down into the pit of his belly. He fell forward, hands and knees on the floor, gagged. Nor did she relent even then. She set to once more like a melee champion with a hornet in her helmet, smacking his back with the ugly pan. With each strike a gush of amber spewed from Blake’s mouth, spilling out, ounce by ounce, until the imp was dispossessed of its host and nothing remained of that perverse sunwater spirit but a wet stain upon the cottage floor.
And after she struck him once more, the orange flames extinguished in his gaze, and his green eyes shown true and handsome as they once did, though now crowded with puffy black knots that closed one eye and made the other squint in pain. He found his voice— his voice– and he wailed.
“Are ye daft, woman? Is the red tide upon ye? Why this fury?”
And she struck him again, across the jaw, sprawling him out like a knight knocked off his horse in a joust.
“Leave off, woman!” he cried, holding his arms up for protection, “‘afore ye’ kill meh!”
“Aw, you’ll be all right,” she said, striking him again. She gave him a few wore wacks with the crude frying pan and then let off.
She stood as tall as her short height could be and loomed over him— big and dark and fiery like the Mumbling Mountain with its inescapable shadow— and then she told him what amendment she desired to the compact of their marriage. She told him that he would bend himself to it lest she become a widow that very night.
“Ah promise ye,” he said, coiling in upon himself like a naked infant.
The tone of his answer lacked conviction, and so Joanna brandished the frying pan once again…

***

Marriage was Joanna’s revenge. She was as loving and devoted a wife as she ever was. Now, however, she exercised a love and devotion that were in equal measure to Blake’s foibles and infidelities. Tit for tat, he got away with nothing. Whenever she flipped his flapjacks with her iron pan, Blake flinched, and cowered, and never dared touch sunwater or moonwater nor beer again, lest he suffer an imprint of Joanna’s love across his humbled backside. She left his face alone, for she did so fancy him a pretty man and
After too many of these corrections, Blake faded a bit. He became docile and meek. His green eyes gleamed no more with their inherent knavishness, but were dim and dull. Perhaps he had taken one too many hits to the head. It had softened his head too much until his brains were like the beans and spuds she cooked for him. Nor did he ever complain of them again.

The people of Kilne all agreed that Blake’s sudden fire of inspiration had burnt him out. His genius, they said, had undone itself through its own unnatural rigors, and when it had undone itself it had undone part of him also. They said he was soft in his head, like a web-fingered idiot born of cradle-sharing parents. He was now quiet where he once was boisterous, timid where he was once boastful, full of lukewarm blood where he once was a surging magma spout of pride and lust.
Yet, though his mad genius had unmade him, he could now forge very serviceable ironware, and so his wife enjoyed a comfortable life, going so far as growing plump in the contentedness of her quiet, orderly cottage; plump enough for her grandmother to have been proud.
And if sometimes there could be heard the ringing thud of hard, flat iron slapping on a softening pumpkin, no one paid it any mind.

Naturally, the War Merchant was furious. He had expected Blake’s acceptance to move to the Southerlands. Moreover, he had expected his ornamental chest to be completed before his caravan returned to the Southerlands. Now Joanna had to explain to him that her husband had ben “spoilt in his head” by too much work. She returned to him the ruby and the silver coins he had paid him. As for the concubines, their services rendered were paid in the rendering of such services, for they said they would have done it for free had they been asked, for it was quite different lovemaking than they were used to. The War Merchant reddened at this slight.

Lord Gildread did not seem at all surprised by the outcome. He invited Blake once more to his castle. His wife accompanied the dullard to the castle, since his conversational skills had diminished, and, after a brief inspection, Lord Gildread bid the couple to be on their way.
But as Joanna was joining Blake in the coach, Lord Gildread summoned her to him.
“A genius one day and an imbecile the next,” he said to her. “I have no doubt the spirit that possessed him must have worn out its welcome. Such a shame.”
Joanna knew not what to say to that, but curtseyed— as her grandmother taught her to do— and thanked Lord Gildread for his patronage of her husband before his spoilage.
“Indeed,” he said.
He held out his hand, and she offered him hers, which he took and kissed very politely. But he did not let go of it. He smiled at her with what may have been humor, but which could have been a dark humor involving axes and chopping blocks.
“But do tell me, Mrs. Blackholme, if you ever happen to find that ice-and-iron stopper. You see, it belongs to me, as does everything that comes from the Grumbles. And, in truth, it belonged to me long before the Grumbles came into my possession. Everything here belongs to me. Everything and everyone. Your husband. You. I own it all, even if you should have pretenses otherwise.” He waited another moment, then kissed her hand once more. “Enjoy your simple life, Joanna, and your simple man.”
Lord Gildread released her hand and gestured for her departure. His eyes never left her, though, nor Blake. His eyes were like flames behind glass, and his mouth was wide, even in his thin-lipped smile. When he smiled his mouth widened even more and Joanna feared he might devour the world. Being in his presence was like being a maiden fettered to a post as the shadow of a dragon descended from above. She was glad to be returning to home, even if she knew she was not escaping his wide-winged shadow. No one in Kilne would.

As for Olga and her fancy for Blake— and, indeed, her fancy for all men with a woman waiting at home— she soon abandoned those errant ways. During her private visits to the Matharist priest she learned that all Matharist priests (and priestesses) are said to be married to that venerable dragon goddess, and to that goddess alone. Olga was immediately smitten by the old man. After all, what rivalry between herself and a mortal wife could compare as esteem like that of a rivalry between herself and a goddess? Naturally, the priest happily obliged Olga’s spiritual expression. Being a man who loved gold above all else, he adored the gold fleck-freckles on Olga’s bosom more than any man in Kilne could have.
And since it happened in the village of Kilne, everyone spoke about it, but none protested it. Some husbands and wives even envied them. They were a perfect match, for Olga loved gold, which the priest, being a priest, hoarded in ample amounts; and the priest loved gold, too, which Olga’s flecked bosom also hoarded in ample amounts.