"Puppets served as mediums in Shinto rituals to express the words and perform the actions of the gods, and puppet performances were presented as offerings to please and petition the deities; any humans who happened to be around could also enjoy the performances."
--Karen Brazell, Traditional Japanese Theater
Shaman, Chapter 8
released 26th September, 2004
Sakon's arm and chest felt like they were enclosed in ice. He choked, trying to find air to breathe. His ears rang and his eyes blurred. From somewhere very far away and just to his right he heard a gutteral voice grate out the name "Fujimiya." He turned his head. It was Ukon--no, not Ukon. It was someone else in Ukon's body, someone who gave the impression of glasses and gray sideburns, a stout body, a dark life, ruthless power-- Something squeezed inside Sakon's chest, hurting in a way that channeling spirits had never hurt before. He nearly doubled over.
"Takatori," the redhead whispered, staring at the possessed doll. Then his eyes narrowed in pale violet anger. "Takatori," he spat in rage, raising his sword.
Subaru caught his left arm easily, staying the strike. "He's already dead," the onmyouji reminded the assassin. "You can't kill him twice." Fujimiya fought for a moment against that hold before accepting the truth of the Sumeragi's words and relaxing again. "However," Subaru said thoughtfully, "he certainly also can't remain here. He needs to be sent on."
Sakon could see the cruel, feral smile that twisted Fujimiya's face. "To hell," the man agreed, "where he belongs."
The name and the half-formed images snapped together suddenly in Sakon's mind with newspaper and television reports. His eyes widened and he straightened back almost into proper seiza style, horrified. "You killed the Prime Minister," he accused.
"He deserved it," Fujimiya retorted, hand tightening on the grip of his katana. He and Sakon glared at one another, wisteria meeting violet, immovable object meeting irresistable force.
Subaru's mismatched eyes flickered back and forth between them, then came to rest on Sakon. "Which is more important?" the Sumeragi questioned quietly. "Your principles or Ukon?"
The answer didn't even take a heartbeat. "Ukon."
"Then you must dispossess Takatori-san of Ukon's body," the Sumeragi responded. "He can't be sent on while still clinging to a corporeal form."
The cold suddenly surged up Sakon's arm, intensifying as it crawled up his throat and down past his waist. "Ukon!" he gasped, and was startled to see his breath frosting in the air.
Subaru's eyes widened as he saw Takatori's power claw deeper into Sakon's. For a moment he felt a thrill of fear--if Takatori took over the puppeteer as well as his familiar, got hold of Tachibana's innate power--
It would be Sugawara no Michizane all over again, if the late Prime Minister could not be stopped.
Was Sakon trained enough?
"Stop him, Tachibana," Subaru said softly. "You have to."
Sakon looked at his teacher and saw himself reflected in jade and amber eyes. It was exactly the same feeling as looking at himself in his grandfather's eyes while he was receiving training from Saemon.
The form is everything, Saemon had said. Enact the form, and the meaning will come.
He tried to move his fingers, tried to control Ukon's body, failed. His fingers slipped from his grasp, Ukon's movement out of his control.
Even less than in bunraku training, in magic there was no room for errors of form.
Sakon forced his eyes closed and forced himself back to the beginning. When he'd been a child, first learning to manipulate dolls. When the first patterns of control, of movement, had been mastered. Ukon was a haunted puppet, capable of movement and speech beyond what his body should have been able to do. But it was through Sakon that Rinsuke's spirit was channeled.
Without Sakon, there was no Ukon, and the spirit in that body could neither move nor speak.
Without his free will....
Reaching past pain and numbness, Sakon forced fingers he could barely feel to work.
Ukon waited in cold darkness, angry. He didn't know exactly what had happened, but he remembered that ghost that the swordsman was dragging around leaping for him, and then he was here.
And Sakon wasn't, which was more worrisome.
"Hey, Sakon," he yelled out into the darkness, "I'm counting on you to get me out of here! Don't let me down!"
Ukon's left arm raised of its own volition. He looked at it, wide-eyed.
Amethyst fire twined around it.
Ukon grinned. "This is more like it," he said, and pushed to his feet. "If you're left, I'll be right." He raised his right arm and concentrated. A paler amethyst light began to glow around his other arm, then suddenly snapped into focus, a matching snaking line of fire.
Ukon held lightning in both hands.
"Ready, partner?" he asked.
"Yes," Sakon whispered, hearing Ukon in his mind. He'd found his partner.
Aya's eyes widened, then he had to shut them, throwing a hasty hand up before his eyes as the puppeteer and his puppet suddenly flared. It was like what he imagined a lightning strike might look like at a distance of ten feet--if lightning came in purple. But it was silent. All he could hear was Takatori's scream of rage, and somehow, oddly, beneath that, Tachibana's smooth, deep breathing. A rhythm like a pulse coming to rest.
Like that still place inside himself when Aya moved with a sword in his hand.... Then Takatori's cry was cut off and Aya opened his eyes, blinking. There was a wash of white-purple around everything, and the puppeteer was getting to his feet, he and his partner both surrounded by a halo of purple fire.
Takatori's spirit hovered before them.
Eyes narrowed, the puppeteer looked disdainfully at that ghost. Then, dismissing him, he looked at Aya. "Fujimiya-san," Tachibana said, and there was a note of finely tempered steel running though that voice, a backbone Aya hadn't guessed at, "I leave the rest to you."
Aya smiled thinly. "Takatori," he said, raising his sword, "go to hell."
A single cut through the ghost, with Aya's mind and heart concentrated on banishing the spirit of his enemy from this world, and Takatori dissolved screaming into nothingness.
Slowly the tableau changed. The power of their summoned energy faded away from Sakon and Ukon, Sakon swaying slightly on his feet before sitting down on the floor. Ukon placed a concerned hand on his partner's forehead. "I'm all right, Ukon," Sakon assured him.
"Funny, you could've fooled me," Ukon argued.
"It's called sakanagi," Subaru said, also sitting down. Fujimiya had sunk to the floor before even Sakon, clutching his sword, his face pale and sweating. "It's magical backlash."
"Oh?" Ukon looked curiously at Subaru.
"How--" Fujimiya stopped and gathered himself for another try. "How does one avoid it?" he asked, eyes meeting Subaru's.
He'd never thought to have one apprentice, and now it seemed he had two.
"When possible, onmyouji use mirrors," Subaru answered reflectively. "They can direct most of the backlash away. The less ethical direct the sakanagi onto other creatures. I'm not sure what the two of you might use." He smiled wryly. "Most of my experience has been with traditional magic, which does involve swords on occasion, but almost never puppetry. I'll have to do some research."
Aya closed the door behind the duo--trio--and turned to go upstairs.
Ken hung over the banister. Youji leaned against the wall at the landing half a flight up. Omi stood at the stairs' foot, waiting. Aya hadn't heard them coming. But, then, with his housemates he didn't expect to.
"So, Aya, how'd it go?" Youji drawled.
"Anything interesting happen?" Ken wanted to know.
"Are you going to be okay?" Omi asked.
Aya didn't even bother shaking his head, just walked up the stairs past them. "I'll tell you later."
He didn't return to the training salle, but instead to his room where he laid down on the bed and examined the ceiling, arms crossed behind his head. He stayed there for a long time, thinking.
Subaru felt that he had an obligation to see Sakon and Ukon safely home. When you weren't used to it, magical backlash could disorient you badly. Aya's housemates were there to take care of him, and Sakon's family could do the same once he was safely at home.
What Subaru didn't expect was that he, too, would be hustled inside and the both of them pounced upon by Kaoruko for details.
After explanations came dinner and before Subaru knew it Sakon had gone off to bed to sleep off the aftereffects of magic and it was he and Kaoruko being left surreptitiously alone by her family.
She winced as soon as she became aware of it. Subaru sipped at his tea. "They mean well," she said, burying her head in her hands. "They just...."
"They want to see you happily married," Subaru finished for her, setting his cup down. Kaoruko looked up at him. He smiled in sympathy. "I have a family too. They're not that much different in some respects."
"Why aren't you married?" she asked. "You're old enough, gorgeous, wealthy, old blood, clan head...."
Subaru's smile faded. "There was a man," he said softly.
Kaoruko's eyes widened. "You're gay?" she asked. A soft laugh followed. "There go my chances, I guess."
Subaru thought for a long moment, hiding his considerations behind a swallow of hot tea. "Not gay," he finally said, holding the cup in both hands. Heat burned through its porcelain, a good pain. "There was one man, and he influenced me greatly from a young age."
"A sempai crush?" Kaoruko ventured.
"Something like that," Subaru said, nodding. "It ended badly. He died around the time Rainbow Bridge fell. But in some ways he'll always be with me."
She stared at him for a moment, then sat back, looking off into nowhere for a while. Subaru respected that, let the pieces of himself in her mind reorder themselves without disturbance.
"You know," she said softly after a bit, "I have bad luck with men too."
"I was engaged for a while. He was a Noh performer. He also killed every other member of their drama school while I was visiting." She laughed, the sound a little bitter. "I never suspected a thing. If Sakon and Ukon hadn't figured things out, I would have married him."
"I'm sorry," Subaru said. It seemed like the only thing he could say.
"You live and you learn," Kaoruko said. "I'd still like to be married someday. He'd just have to be the right guy. No more omiais."
Subaru reflected for a moment, considering all the things traditional and modern society required of young men and young women and how many of those requirements he'd long ago thrown out of his life. And which of them he still wished to honor. "Tachibana-san," he asked eventually, "knowing what you know and knowing that there is still more you don't know... would you be interested in going out for coffee sometime?"
She straightened, looking at him. She seemed surprised again, and studied him for a long moment. Subaru didn't flinch back from her examination of him. If nothing else, the end of the world had let him simply be who he was, no longer crippled within his own life.
"Yes," Kaoruko said eventually, "I think I'd like that."
Caveat: Thanks to Jeanne, who told me to stop repeating myself. "Sempai crushes" are fairly common, and, well, you could describe Subaru and Seishirou's relationship that way. An omiai is a meeting arranged between two young people by their family, with marriage being the intended goal.Back to Chapter 7 On to Epilogue Tales From a Ramen Stall page Send comments to author