The land of Yuzuku had lapsed into despair. The shattering of the Morning Star had left only the most organized groups standing: the crime syndicates, or clans—each led by an unassailable figure called the Old Man.
Otsumo Motonaga prepared himself to receive a great honor. It was rare for a young officer from a branch family—those households not in line for succession—to be invited at the Lacquered Table.
I hope I have not displeased uncle Goro in any way, he thought.
He gulped, then entered the dark room in the belly of Motonaga Keep. He bowed deeply.
“Nephew, come in!” the Old Man said boisterously.
Goro Motonaga had grown plump in his forty years of running the clan. He sat at the head of a low, black table buffed to a shine. All decisions, audiences and bloody apologies were made here, with Goro sitting on the Lavender Seat. Spreading outward from him, the cushions grew darker in hue.
Not even the Old Man got to sit on pristine white, though. That cushion was reserved for his deceased predecessors and displayed on a dais surrounded by burning sticks of incense.
“Take the seat next to me.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“How is your bride-to-be?” the Old Man asked. “Kirina is quite the catch! A genuine beauty and from another branch altogether. A solid alliance.”
“I am blessed with Kirina,” Otsumo answered truthfully, wondering what sparked this interest in his love life.
“Good! It wouldn’t do for anyone of my blood to have disappointing unions. Have you performed the Twin Dragons, Encoiled with her yet?”
The young man’s cheeks flushed. “N-no, uncle. We’ve only met in formal occasions, with Kirina’s chaperon present.”
“Ah, but what a shame! Young fruit loses its freshness so soon.”
“I apologize if I’ve been too prudent.”
Goro slapped him on his back. “It’s fine, nephew, in fact I’m glad you’re so duteous. That’ll make this a lot easier.”
“The clan needs you. No doubt you’ve learned of our troubles at securing the pass running between Heaven’s Roof and the western glacier.”
“I saw what returned from those expeditions, yes.”
“The fact of the matter is, our land of Yuzuku is growing too small. The Ng and Katsuie are competing with us over the same scraps. If only we could break through the natural barriers that surround us, we could harvest the world beyond! But that damned pass...”
“How can I be of service, my lord?”
“You will lead a force into its deepest part and wipe out whatever’s lurking in it. The blight is thick there, so you’ll need masks.”
Venture into extreme danger with but a handful of troops? Otsumo bowed his head. “Uncle... Surely we have people in our ranks more skilled than me? The captains would jump at such an opportunity.”
“And yet, I have chosen you for this task.”
“Then I humbly accept this commission, my lord.”
And with a nod of his uncle, the young branch family officer rose and showed his respects, first to the Old Man and then to the white cushion behind him.
“It’s a profound honor,” Kirina said, dressed in traditional Yuzuku robe. “But I can’t help but wonder why your uncle chose you, specifically, for this.”
The two betrothed sat in an alcove, with Kirina’s chaperon embroidering nearby.
“I wondered the same.” Otsumo enjoyed the warmth of her soft hands and, perhaps spurred by Goro’s lecherous words, craved to ravish her. “I assume he knows how well I handle knives.”
“That is certainly true, but you were trained to provide administrative services. Why not send in others who devoted their time to the teachings of Zerrish?”
“Perhaps he wants me to better my position. What better way than to gain his personal favor? The time is now, in any case. One generation from now,” and he almost said our children, “our household won’t be considered part of the ruling family anymore. Regardless, the Old Man has decided I will lead the charge and honor dictates I obey.”
Kirina suddenly squeezed his hands. “I’m so sorry for saying this, but I am worried about your wellbeing. What good is honor or family status if I lose you?”
She had spoken a forbidden thing. He pulled loose from her.
“You will cease this train of thought right away. Honor is why we survived when everything else ended. I will perform my duties.”
But even while saying this, within his heart of hearts, Otsumo felt the same. Sending him on a suicidal mission weeks before he was to wed!
Allowing himself this one transgression of all good manners, he embraced Kirina passionately. They kissed, their first kiss, and it was warm and sweet. From the comfort of her cushion, the chaperon raised an eyebrow, but pretended not to notice.
Death came for Otsumo as a field of squirming tentacles—flowering into noxious fireworks or stabbing his team with rusted blades.
Reaching the cleft, communication had gone by hand signals.
“Behind you!” Otsumo flashed.
The blight’s thickness wasn’t what obscured their vision most. They wore sealed leather helmets, with a pig’s intestine running into twin bladders filled with fresh air. It was an old contraption, used in the before-times to sneak into enemy moats. The oxygen supply was limited, but the clan’s poison experts had fashioned a filtration system to allow—relatively—blightless air into the bladder.
Get ahold of yourself. Trust in the cleverness of your fellow clansmen.
In truth, Otsumo felt clumsy in comparison to the lithe operatives that flitted forward. They seemed unburdened by their gear. It was all Otsumo could do to keep up with his senses smothered.
“Take point,” he gestured to a dart thrower.
They were in bad shape. One garroter and two smoke lobbers had already been slaughtered by the strange enemies. Suddenly, the advance jerked and slid down, revealing the bloody stick upon which she was impaled.
Otsumo raged: “Reveal yourself!” and to his compatriots he motioned: “Take cover. Retaliate when possible.”
The others dispersed through the terrain, finding boulders to hide behind.
Then the tendrils started mushing together into an unsightly pile. A garroter charged it, flinging his razor sharp wire—but from his blind side an axe embedded itself into his skull. The guilty feeler slithered back. What emerged finally, hovering above the valley floor, was a glob of pulsating flesh, adorned with shields and cuirass halves, as if the creature had grown from the pulped leftovers of many a warrior. From its jellyfish body protruded a giant skull’s face.
Otsumo flung himself forward, knives in hand, hoping to reach the face and slice it and—
A splitting pain hit the side of his head and he saw, to his utter astonishment, a corroded cutlass lodged in the cheek of his helmet. The limb holding it flexed. Otsumo was cast to the side and his breathing apparatus split open. The smell of burning paper reached his nose.
“Argh!” he shivered and felt his lungs contract.
A few paces ahead, shrouded by fog, he saw the others fall. Sometimes he heard the noise of a scuffle or a swinging blade—inexorably followed by a yelp and mortal silence.
Otsumo, gagging for air, crawled backwards to an uprooted tree.
I can’t die here!
The pass had grown quiet and he didn’t dare move.
Perhaps it hasn’t noticed me. If I just wait it out, I might escape. But then I’ll suffocate before that happens!
Already he couldn’t help but wheeze, his lungs dying with each breath. As if to punish him for even considering fleeing, a shadow fell over him. Otsumo froze. From all sides the slithering tentacles encroached.
“Please... I want to live...”
The amalgamation’s eyes gazed at him coldly and all of a sudden—
“I am Byrinth.”
It spoke. In his head. Against everything they knew about the monsters in the blight—presumed brainless—this horror communicated telepathically.
“I see your dreams,” he continued. “I see ambition. You would like to sit on the Lavender Seat.”
“I wouldn’t,” he gasped, “blemish my honor so.”
“What if I could give you safe passage through this valley?”
“I will vouchsafe not only your return, but the integrity of any caravan you send through. All I require is a simple matter of transportation in return.”
Otsumo rubbed his chest. “Of what?”
“You want us to...”
“Transport blight to every human settlement you can reach. You may start with your enemies. The benefit to you will be significant.”
“I will do it. You have my word.”
As if to seal the pact, Byrinth touched Otsumo’s chest with the tip of one of his tentacles. The young man felt a surge of capacity in his lungs.
“The blight will no longer disease you as before.”
And with that, their deal gained a sense of finality. Otsumo bowed and started the lonely march back home. True to Byrinth’s prediction, he didn’t need his helmet anymore.
Only when he reached the entrance to the pass, did he allow himself to feel relieved—and quite pleased. He had no intention of keeping his end of the bargain. The lie had purchased a new lease on his life. With a bit of luck, he’d be able to pull the same with uncle Goro and, newly disgraced but very much alive, pursue his marriage to his beloved Kirina!
The ceremony was wonderful. A million blossom petals danced in the great hall of Motonaga Keep, two hundred guards stood to attention and a crowd hurrah’d their lungs out. On a brilliantly festooned dais sat blushing Kirina—dressed in bridal gown. Beside her, kneeling, her new husband: Goro Motonaga.
It wasn’t every day the Old Man chose a new concubine.
Otsumo looked on in silence.
He had arrived a week earlier, but much to his dismay had been detained in the courtyard stockade for two days, before finally being processed. The Old Man had been unavailable to him. More upsetting had been Kirina’s disappearance.
“Please, I’ve returned from a dangerous mission,” Otsumo had pleaded with her mother at her family’s chambers.
“Kirina isn’t here. I’m so sorry.”
“She has to know I made it. We can start arrangements for our wedding.”
“I’m so terribly sorry.”
No earthly pleas could persuade Kirina’s mother, so Otsumo had left and sought out her chaperon instead. The woman had been aghast.
“I don’t know where the lady is,” she had stammered. “I was relieved of my duties.”
“This castle isn’t large enough to hide her.”
“Please, I can’t be seen with you.”
And the once-chaperon had picked up her embroideries and rushed out.
That had been days ago. Since then, the crushing truth had revealed itself to Otsumo. He had only set eyes on Kirina and uncle Goro again at the ceremony binding her to him.
After the priest had performed the rite, the festivities ended and the hall emptied. Only Otsumo found his body too weary to get up. Mortified, he continued to sit on a cushion in the back.
The Old Man, striding out with Kirina following in his wake and high-ranking family members trailing, gave him a single glance.
Otsumo’s blood boiled.
The clan leader stopped his ceremonial departure and turned to his nephew.
“What claim to my time does a coward have? You return alive and without results.”
“Kirina and I were betrothed.”
Goro grabbed the hilt of his sword. “You’re way out of line, cretin. You come demanding explanations?”
Otsumo shook and looked at Kirina, who stood silent behind her new husband, eyes cast downward.
“Then I demand the right to plunge a knife in my throat in full view of the clan.”
Ritual suicide was a powerful way to protest one’s lot—not even the Old Man could ignore it. Goro seemed unfazed, however.
“You failed at the one task I set before you. I forbid you from harming yourself. I also strip you of your privileges. You are no longer part of the Motonaga and will be stationed on the outer gate as captain instead. Begone, dishonorable dog!”
His words were law. Goro exited the hall and his retinue followed, Kirina up front, her footfalls inaudible on the petal-covered floor.
It had never occurred to Otsumo how cold the keep’s extremities were. He had traveled to a minor gate in the wall, where he hoped to die on duty soon.
The events had drained him of his spirit. The guards soon learned they had little to fear from their new captain and started treating him like a vagrant.
“Disgusting,” they whispered to each other as Otsumo passed.
He didn’t care.
What good is hygiene or duty, he thought, when you can be stripped of everything at the whim of your master?
So he spent his days, feeding into weeks, leaning on the cold windowsill, shivering but not feeling, surveying their blight-stricken domain. He frequently lapsed into dreamless sleep—until one time he dreamed after all. The darkness flooded with a sea of flesh and a voice spoke to him:
“You did not forget our agreement, did you now?”
“This is a bad idea,” Otsumo’s only friend among the rank and file said. “We should head back. There’s every chance they haven’t noticed we’re missing yet.”
“A little further, Gojin. Is your mask comfortable?”
The two had snuck away from the parapet they should’ve been guarding together and were already deep in the blight. Gojin had been concerned enough about his captain that he had gone along.
It should be around here, Otsumo ventured, scanning the site through his visor. Truth was, he didn’t need to wear the breathing helmet anymore, but he didn’t want to upset his friend.
Gojin was terrified. The respiratory bladders on his back showed him all but hyperventilating. Otsumo, on the other hand, felt more alive than ever. Gone was his despondency—in its place had come something hopeful, something greedy.
“Byrinth! I’ve come to honor our deal!”
“Captain,” Gojin cautioned, “the harmony of this place is all wrong.”
“If we succeed here, I promise to rise you to the rank of personal retainer.”
Even one so non-avaricious as Gojin couldn’t help but salivate.
That’s when the blight started dancing. Otsumo steadied himself and unclasped his helmet. With a smile he breathed in the noxious air.
“All is prepared,” a voice whispered in his head.
“Where is the merchandise?”
As before, Byrinth emerged from the stacks of rusted equipment strewn across the valley. Gojin drew back a few steps. The monster hovered to a recess in the rock face, holding dozens of ceramic urns bundled together and sealed with iron clamps.
“Am I to carry these on my back?” Otsumo asked with calculated insolence.
The horror merely drifted out of the way and revealed a simple cart constructed out of timber and metal scraps.
“Load the urns onto this. I will summon wretches to bring it back to your keep. You may continue to use them afterwards. Your castle will be the staging ground for spreading the blight beyond your lands.”
“You have no preference as to a target?”
“Human settlements,” Byrinth repeated. “Any will do.”
Otsumo slowly dared to look into his own heart and admit how sweetly the Lavender Seat called for him.
The contrast to poor Gojin couldn’t be greater. Enticed as he was at the prospect of rising to power, this was altogether too much, and he’d rather never learn what was in those cursed urns.
“Gojin,” Otsumo gestured. “Let’s get these ready for transport.”
Since that day, captain Otsumo would always be accompanied by four strange guards, clad from head to toe in cloaks, faces veiled. They unnerved all who saw them—but none more than Gojin, who knew what they were.
A change had come over Otsumo. The disgraced officer was focused, and in the week since their excursion had begun to plan an act of usurpation.
“It’ll happen during the Hour of Observance, six days from now. Goro will hold a full audience with all the key members of his family.”
Gojin swallowed. “Your family.”
“I am no longer part of it.”
“Kirina will be present too, you know.”
“All those at the Lacquered Table will die, but Kirina won’t be there. I’ll bribe a servant to slip her a harmless poison, one that’ll make her too sick to attend.”
Though the lure of the Lavender Seat was all-consuming, Otsumo’s stomach still roiled at the thought of her.
The Hour of Observance was a yearly ritual in which the Motonaga clan paid respects to the Old Men of the past. The proceedings lasted one hour exactly, during which the Lacquered Table hall was closed off hermetically.
Goro waited for his brothers and sisters, nieces and aunts, cousins once-removed and sons-in-law to trickle in. Snakes one and all.
“Old Man,” they whispered before bowing low and taking their seat. Behind them their entourages filtered in and lining the back of the room—the many aides for the ceremony.
The Hour of Observance necessitated a great deal of decorum. For the occasion, the dais carrying the white cushion had been laden with all manner of trinkets: copper bells and flutes, streamers, glassware, puzzle boxes.
“Hm,” Goro remarked.
Four servants—outfitted in black livery and masks so as to blend into the background—were heaving two heavy urns onto the dais.
A new element, Goro thought. Perhaps this will be the first Hour in forty years to surprise me. I’ll have to scold the chamberlain afterwards.
As boringly predictable as the ritual was, it was not to be altered on a major-domo’s caprice.
The servants finished their work and took place next to the dais, kneeling.
“My dear family,” Goro said. “Thank you for coming to the Hour of Observance, where we pay homage to the leaders of yore. First among them is Jinnai Motonaga, gone a thousand years...”
Right on cue a wooden cup was given to him from the collection, which he pretended to drink from before moving down the ancestral tree, and thus began the ceremony.
Otsumo had locked himself away in the captain’s quarters, feeling vulnerable now that his personal guard of wretches was gone. He had sent Gojin to oversee the operation, not being welcome anywhere near the heart of the keep himself.
“Control yourself. You committed yourself to this path and you’ll see it through.”
But when someone slammed the door open—Gojin, of course, he was the only one with a spare set of keys—Otsumo startled nonetheless.
“Sir!” his underling said, sweating from what must have been a mad dash through twenty corridors, three gates and up two spiral staircases.
“Is it done?”
“No! Sir, it’s—it’s Kirina.”
Otsumo rose in alarm. “What?! Did the maid fail to administer the poison?”
“No, Kirina fell ill, alright!” Gojin caught himself against the doorpost. “But Goro forced her to come! She had already sent her formal apologies, but his personal retainers came to collect her at the last moment.”
“My Kirina is at the Lacquered Table. We have to stop the ceremony.”
“Sir, it’s too late!”
Otsumo, however, had already begun his sprint to the forbidden inner chambers. He had never run as hard in his life as now.
If Kirina dies...!
It took precious minutes to traverse the fortress’s labyrinthine innards. Passing the checkpoints in between was as easy as an imperious handwave at first, but by the third Otsumo knew he had no business going through and—screw them all, he just careened past them, leaving bewildered sentries in his wake.
The Hour of Observance was ticking away. He might already be too late, but that was one reality Otsumo refused to accept.
“Twelve sons later, the family split,” Goro forcefully snapped a prepared twig, “and Katsunai Motonaga forced his brother into exile.”
He knew the full lineage of Motonaga heirs by heart and it took only a fraction of his concentration to perform the ritual. The rest of his mind was occupied—as an Old Man’s should—with scanning his family’s faces for hints of sedition. A guilty twitch of an eyebrow. A surreptitious glance. What hooked Goro’s attention instead was Kirina.
She looks dreadful. Her illness wasn’t faked. Still, her duty is to me, today.
Kirina held herself in a formal sitting position, but that was all she could manage.
Goro continued with the thirteenth successor, and the fourteenth, and that was the moment he noticed the veiled servants tensing.
It was only a small movement, but he caught it—despite it happening in his most peripheral vision.
“Interlopers!” he shouted, but even then it was too late.
The four wretches rushed onto the dais and pulled the stoppers out of the twin urns. Instantly those started spewing toxic fumes into the room. Their contents seemed never-ending.
Goro was hit first, but with the sprightliness of a man used to surviving treachery he jumped to his feet and charged over the table. All other guests remained seated and allowed the blight to spill over them, gagging.
“Master?” Kirina wheezed, looking up at barefoot Goro reaching the end. “Help...”
Her hands trembled and she coughed. Goro stood troubled for a second, then turned around in the face of the noxious mist approaching.
“Open the doors!” he roared.
But the doors remained closed. This room had been made absolutely soundproof, but even if the guards outside could have heard, his desperate commands would have amounted to nothing. During the Hour of Observance, not even the Old Man could break tradition.
“Open the doors!” Otsumo yelled.
The sentries looked at him first with amusement and then angrier when they noticed he was serious.
“Halt! Go back to your station, captain!”
“Fools! There’s a massacre going on inside! The Old Man’s in danger!”
But they crossed their spears and there was no time to explain the finer points of the threat. He simply drew his knives. Still mid-run, he ducked and sliced at the unprotected inner knee of the front-most guard. His cry was pitiable.
The second adopted a defensive stance used against wild animals biting at one’s ankles.
Still not taking me seriously, eh?
Otsumo would just show them how wild he was. His knives danced in the torchlight. The remaining men countered his flurry, parrying one of the blades out of his hands.
I’m losing precious time, sparring with these idiots. Kirina could be in there, choking on blight! It should’ve been just Goro...
Enraged by the imagined loss, he did the unthinkable. When one of the guards jabbed at him, Otsumo simply took it in his side. With the tip lodged in his own body, he was able to sweep the guard off his feet and dip the remaining knife in his throat. Retracting it quickly, he incapacitated the last one.
Bleeding but ignoring the pain, he pushed open the doors to the sacrosanct chamber.
Byrinth, what did you—?!
Instantly, a great volume of blight spilled over him. It blinded him, but he could breathe just fine.
Finding his way forward, he stumbled over various deceased acquaintances.
“Where are you, my love?”
The Lacquered Table suddenly materialized before him. He shoved two sitting cadavers away and suddenly found himself face to face with his nemesis: Goro Motonaga. Goro no more. Stone dead.
Normally, he’d have celebrated this great victory, but he thought only about Kirina now. He kicked the Old Man’s body away and—there she is!
She lay there, waning in the fumes. Otsumo was at her side in the blink of an eye and tried chasing away the blight. He could see at once, however, that she was nearly gone. She looked at him and tried to say something.
“Kirina...” Otsumo had wanted to profess his undying love for her, but now that she was in his arms... “Why did you abandon me?”
Still she couldn’t speak. His mind screamed that he should pick her up and carry her out. Instead, he cradled her head, allowing her to choke on the blight. In his loving embrace, Kirina passed away.
After half an hour, the blight had dissipated into the air enough for Gojin to enter.
“Sir, the whole keep has started to stink of corruption. Everyone’s opening windows.”
That’s when he noticed the banquet of dead people lining the Lacquered Table. He stood rooted to the ground, scanning the faces and ending on Kirina. Otsumo had laid her down and closed her eyes.
Gojin teared up. “You were too late.”
“She was alive when you found her? You could’ve taken her to safety!”
“And she could’ve fought becoming the Old Man’s whore. She could’ve committed suicide instead.”
Gojin drew back, not from the corpses but from the captain he thought he knew. He saw Otsumo rise—bigger, as if he’d taken on an otherworldly aspect—and realized he had become the next Old Man.
“Goro is dead and the main branch culled,” the new master of the Motonaga said. “We must act now to consolidate our hold on the clan. You will be my lieutenant.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“First, visit Goro’s private chambers. His youngest daughter was born two months ago, a girl named Bu. She should be there, attended by her wetnurse. I won’t suffer any challenger to the Lavender Seat.”
Gojin steeled his trembling voice, stifling a cough. “If I am your confidant, my lord, then I expect you will occasionally listen to my advice. Do not kill the infant. Please. It is... unseemly.”
Otsumo’s eyes flashed at the word, unseemly, and for a second Gojin thought his life was forfeit. But the young Old Man relaxed his posture.
“Very well. But I’ll hold you responsible for her development. Weave her a story about her ancestry. And know that if she ever finds out, I will be forced to kill her still.”
“I will take the greatest care, Otsumo. Thank you that she may be allowed to live.”
“Of course. She’s family, after all.”
From that day forward, the Motonaga clan found unhindered passage through the mountains—escaping their blessed realm of Yuzuku. Their caravans, brimming with forbidden riches, spread to neighboring lands. At the heart of those processions would always be a lonely carriage, windowless and sealed. No one knew what was in it, but the most curious among the traders would sometimes sneak a peek and discover, much to their confusion, only stacks of gently wafting urns.