“WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM…”
by Jacob Smith
The anthology that you’re reading now has a long and checkered history.
It was supposed to celebrate the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Authors were invited to submit stories on two themes; one was speculative fiction set in Japan, the 2020 host country, or featuring Japanese people as main characters. The second theme was stories set during real Olympic games in history (1924, 1976, 2012 etc.) or fictional Olympics – Steampunk Olympics, Lunar Olympics, Post-Apocalyptic games, etc.
Well, that was the plan.
You all know what happened next.
So now, what you’re holding in your hands is not just a book. It’s… well, we’re not quite sure what it is. Do you remember the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times?” Well, Albert Camus had some choice words about that. In 1957, Camus gave his interpretation of the old saying during a speech entitled “Resistance, Rebellion and Death”, which he delivered at Uppsala University in Sweden: “An oriental wise man always used to ask the divinity in his prayers to be so kind as to spare him from living in an interesting era. As we are not wise, the divinity has not spared us and we are living in an interesting era. In any case, our era forces us to take an interest in it. The writers of today know this. If they speak up, they are criticized and attacked. If they become modest and keep silent, they are vociferously blamed for their silence.”
I think that expresses what I’ve been thinking about for the past few months.
So, with the Tokyo Games postponed to 2021, Excalibur Books presents our version of the second Tokyo 2020 games – released on October 10th 2020, to mark the first Tokyo games that started on the same date, in 1964.
So turn the page…
Enter the Arena…
And let the Phantom Games begin.
This anthology is dedicated to
November 29, 1976 – August 28, 2020.
Introduction: Deconstructing Sports by Regina Glei______________________ 1
PART ONE – Japan: the Host Country__________________________________ 5
The Red Bird by Douglas Smith____________________________________ 7
Fox Fire by Gerri Leen__________________________________________ 25
The God Symbiote by Donald L. Flynn_____________________________ 46
America Alone 2020 by Paul Genesse (USA)________________________ 63
After Act by Stephen Mansfield (UK/Japan)_________________________ 67
PART TWO – Classic and Modern____________________________________ 71
Olympia Nights by Barbara G. Tarn________________________________ 73
The Ice Dream of the Crow by Willow Croft_________________________ 84
The Wildfire Next Time by Fiona_________________________________ 92
Vanishing Point by John Dougill__________________________________ 97
PART THREE – The Road to 2020___________________________________ 101
The Tofu Maker by Shogo Oketani_______________________________ 103
Lockdown by Clemence Lasme (France)___________________________ 110
Marathon Blues by Suzanne Kamata (USA/Japan)___________________ 115
Games Without Frontiers by Flora McGowan (UK)__________________ 118
PART FOUR – Japan: the Host Country_______________________________ 123
Kuriko by Stewart C Baker_____________________________________ 124
The Palace of the Dragon God by Charles Kowalski (USA/Japan)_______ 149
A Beast in Hiroshima by Cody L Martin (USA/Japan)_________________ 160
Be Happy by C W Hawes (USA)__________________________________ 181
If… by Hugh Ashton (UK/Japan)_________________________________ 184
You Might Be Dead and Not Know It by Baye McNeil (USA/Japan)______ 188
PART FIVE – Future Fears, Future Friends____________________________ 195
Running by Bruce Golden______________________________________ 196
Guest Athletes by Jennifer R. Povey______________________________ 206
Wild in the Streets by Cody L Martin (USA/Japan)___________________ 217
Not so Fast, Not so High, Not so Strong by Charles Kowalski __________ 220
PART SIX – The Road to 2020 II____________________________________ 223
Just Add Water by Flora McGowan______________________________ 224
The Hungriest Man on the Hill by Flora McGowan__________________ 240
The Arakawa Meat Wagon by Ross Baxter_________________________ 265
…anything’s possible, Sunday… by Michele Baron.__________________ 295
Shrill of Cicada by Meyari McFarland_____________________________ 309
Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi by Ian Priestley (UK/Japan)_____ 319
Buttons to Bookcases by Eugene Tarshis (USA/Japan)________________ 321
Storytelling in the Time of COVID by Joan D. Bailey (USA/Japan)_______ 326
AFTERWORD “…And Now, a Word from our Sponsor!” by Jacob Smith (UK/Japan) 329
Introduction: Deconstructing Sports
by Regina Glei
Many things will be said about the year 2020, but most certainly it has become the year of “would have”. For example, 2020 is the year in which the second Tokyo Olympics would have taken place. On a smaller scale, every single one of us has surely experienced one or another “would have” in 2020.
As in every summer, I would have gone to Europe, Olympics or not, to visit friends and family and to escape the heat of the Japanese summer for a short while. Then, as a substitute for the cancelled Europe plans, I would have gone to Okinawa, but that was also cancelled at the last minute when the governor of Okinawa announced a second state of emergency for his prefecture on the 31st of July 2020, due to a sharp increase of new infections with the coronavirus.
So, with two days prior notice, I went to the city of Kanazawa instead to spend parts of my precious summer holidays there.
One of the “must-do” activities in Kanazawa is to visit the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and they just had an exhibition running with a real mouthful of a title – “de-sport: The Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Sports through Art”. Some of the installments also dealt with the Olympics. There were, for example, portraits of diversity amongst the uniformity of a Russian synchronized swimming team. All of them were wearing the same clothes and makeup and yet their faces were so different.
I especially liked the group of Polish weightlifters. A video depicted them somewhere in Poland, trying to lift monuments which were hundreds of kilos heavy, with a silly reporter commenting on their efforts (in Polish, with English and Japanese subtitles). Another video installation showed an event in the US. They had an upside-down tank whose chains were running noisily, and above one set of chains was a gym treadmill with runners jogging on that treadmill wearing USA Olympic team shirts. People around the tank gawked and took pictures and videos of the action with their iPhones. A lot of symbolism and various possible messages could be read behind this idea, depending on your interpretation. Sports as war, the military as a treadmill, the US running over the rest of the world like a tank… and many more possibilities.
The next installation offered a redesigned ping pong table with three table-tennis halves arranged around a lotus pond in the middle. This would enable three players to play a kind of three-dimensional ping pong with balls coming also from the left and right, not only the front. For me the message here was: change the rules and sports won’t work anymore, it becomes chaos, but it might also say – are all those rules in sports really necessary?
My favorite installment of the exhibition showed the fake, nonsensical Xijing Olympics of 2008 conducted by three artists from Japan, Korea, and China, stressing that sports should be fun. They practiced disciplines like “massage boxing”, “bread throwing” and “brush tickling”, and were critical of the “faster, wider, stronger” mania that has much of sports in its grip. The objects, including old bread that was almost as hard as stone, were exhibited as well as nicely designed posters of the Xijing 2008 Olympics and a video showing the artists at work.
You might ask now, what does this exhibition have to do with the book you hold in your hands? Well, it has also been deconstructed: by the coronavirus. The publishing process is a longish one and the stories in this anthology were selected in 2019, when there was no disruption of our lives by a pandemic on anybody’s horizon. All the stories in this book were written expecting the Tokyo Olympic Games of 2020 to take place as planned in all their glory.
The “would have” of 2020 has thus deconstructed this book, but pandemic or not, life is going on and offers reconstruction as well at every corner. Were it not for the pandemic, I would not have traveled to Kanazawa and seen that interesting exhibition, and the other beautiful places that the city of Kanazawa has to offer.
So, in the spirit of reconstruction, let’s turn from “would have” to “what if”. Let’s enjoy the stories in this book, imagining what it would have been like, had the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 happened as planned. Let’s reconstruct the spirit of the Games with these stories, since after all, the little phrase “what if” is one of the most powerful tools of human imagination.
7th of August 2020, on the Shinkansen from Kanazawa to Yokohama.
Regina Glei has been living in Japan since September 2000. She writes science fiction and fantasy novels under her own name and also the pseudonym Julius R. Jones. “The Holy Void”, the fifth installment of Regina’s Sci-Fi far-future series “Dome of Souls”, has just been released.
www.juka-productions.com (for Regina Glei)
Japan: the Host Country
Japan. In the public consciousness, the name of the country evokes images of advanced technology, diligent salarymen, the cultural powerhouses of anime and manga. Japanese history conjures up images of the samurai, unstoppable armored warriors carrying swords with mystical properties, bound by an unbreakable code of honor and following the cryptic tenets of Zen Buddhism.
Our first tale takes place in the early Muromachi period, when the Ashikaga Shogunate had overthrown the reigning Emperor and were attempting to enforce their own iron rule across the land. The Shogun and the territorial warlords who served him did not expect opposition… until they faced the warriors from the Temple of the Hidden Light.
The Red Bird
by Douglas Smith
Asai first saw the Red Bird the night the soldiers burnt his village. Fleeing in terror through rain and flames and killing, his parents dead in the mud behind him, the boy heard his name called above the screams of the dying. Called from on high.
He looked up. Aflame against the black sky, a hawk of burning plumage hovered over the forest entrance. A voice cried in his mind. Asai! To me, to me, Asai!
Asai ran toward the trees. A mounted rider, gleaming katana raised, burst from a smoking house to block his path. A ruby light flashed from the hawk, striking the sword and swordsman. Exploding into flames, the soldier fell screaming to the ground. Oblivious, the man’s horse bent a leg for the child to mount.
Ride, Asai! Fly with me! the hawk called.
Once in the saddle, the boy clung with bleeding fingers as the horse thundered through the streets, past soldiers and the dead. At the forest edge, Asai dared a last look back. The village priest stood before the burning shrine. A rider bore down on him, spear lowered. Hands crossed on his chest, the priest closed his eyes. The look of peace on his face burnt into Asai’s memory. The boy turned away, blinded by tears.
They rode on through black woods lit only by the hawk’s bloody glow. Trees surrendered to scrub grass then to sand and crashing surf. Just as Asai felt he would fall from the saddle, the horse stopped before the Temple of the Hidden Light.
At the base of steps rising into the darkness of the sea-cliff waited the Warrior of the Red Bird. His gaze from beneath his visor was both warm and chill. His armor began to glow with a ruby light from above. A flutter of wings came, and the Red Bird settled with the grace of beasts onto his shoulder.
The Warrior spoke to the hawk. “Is this the one, Master?”
The Warrior lifted the child from the horse as easily as a bird carrying a leaf and bore him into the Temple. Servants tended his wounds then bathed and fed him. That night, alone on silken sheets and feathered bed, Asai dreamt of the Red Bird and the look on the face of the priest.
The next day, Ikada, Warrior of the Red Bird, Defender of the Temple of the Hidden Light, began to teach Asai the bushido, the Way of the Warrior, and of the Hundred Deaths.
Each day, as the sun first set fire to the cliffs above the white Temple walls, the man and boy would rise and enter the Chamber of the Silver Blade. There, sitting on cushions of carmine silk on a floor whose mosaic tiles told of generations of Warriors, Ikada taught Asai. In those first mornings, Asai had many questions.
“Who is the Red Bird?”
Ikada looked around before answering. “The scarlet hawk is the spirit of this place. It is He that we serve.”
“What is this place?”
“The Temple of the Hidden Light.” Ikada spoke the words as if they might frighten something away.
“What is the Hidden Light?”
Ikada looked away. “That which we defend.”
“But what is it?” the boy persisted.
Ikada turned back. Asai first saw the sadness that he would come to realize lived in Ikada always. “I do not know,” he said.
When the sun was high, they sparred on the Thousand Steps, where each stone riser but the two topmost bore a Warrior’s name.
“Are there other warriors of the Red Bird?” Asai asked, avoiding a foot sweep as he had learned just that morning.
Ikada paused a step below Asai, leaning on his sword. His long braids danced as he shook his head. “The Red One’s warriors have been many, but at any time only one wears the name.”
“How many have there been?”
“You, Asai, will be the thousandth defender of the Temple.” Ikada looked at Asai, a sad light in his eyes. “And the last.”
“Why must there be a last?”
With a solemn expression, Ikada leaned very close to Asai. “We’ve run out of steps,” he whispered.
Asai stared back dumbly until Ikada threw back his head, roaring with laughter. “A small joke on my small hawk,” he said when he could control his merriment. The tears streamed from his eyes, but Asai could still see the sadness.
“But why?” the boy asked again.
Ikada shook his head. “One day, but not yet.”
As the sun kissed the sea at dusk, they sparred on the sand, weaving their kumite among rusted weapons and bleached bones.
“Who were these men?” Asai asked as he moved back from an attack, stepping over a gleaming rib cage poking from the sand.
“Soldiers of war lords who thought to plunder the Temple.” Ikada lifted a skull, a tarnished circlet still on its brow. “And some war lords themselves. Eh, Kiyomori?” He grinned. “You came to kill Ikada, didn’t you, Shogun? Well, many have come.” He dropped the skull. “And many have died.”
“Why do you serve the Temple?” Asai asked.
Ikada blinked. “Why, because I was chosen. There is but one chosen in each generation. The honor is great.”
“How are the Warriors chosen? How were you chosen?”
Ikada smiled down at the boy, the wind off the sea whipping his braids behind him. “As you were. By the Red Bird.”
“But why was I chosen?” Asai now had a home, and Ikada was like a father, yet Asai felt a fear he could not explain.
Ikada again shook his head. “Only the Red Bird knows.”
Somehow, the answer disturbed Asai more than the question.
Asai looked forward to the evenings, when he put aside martial arts for other studies. The temple library was a huge domed room tiled in blue ceramics. Towering wooden racks jammed with parchment scrolls lined the walls. Asai would sit at a low table while Ikada read or taught from diagrams and maps.
Once Asai learned to read, he devoured every text he could find. He spent every spare hour in the library and had servants bring scrolls to his room to read before sleeping.
Ikada worried at this. “Asai, you have fought hard today and studied long. Take time to relax, to dream.”
Asai smiled. “For me, to read is to relax, and these…” he said, sweeping his arm past the scrolls, “these feed my dreams.”
Not all days were so. On some, the temple bell thundered its call through the halls and down the steps. Then Ikada stopped whatever he was doing and called, “Asai! The Blade!”
Asai would run to the Chamber of the Silver Blade to take down the weapon from the wall. Made by a sword master to the first Shogun Yoritomo, its steel was folded a hundred times, polished to a silvery sheen. When Asai returned, Ikada would be dressed in his battle armor, a red sash around his waist.
Ikada would sheathe the blade on his back and stride to the crest of the Thousand Steps to survey the sand below. Most days brought but a solitary challenger or a small band.
On this day, Asai stood beside Ikada, staring down at rank after rank of soldiers arrayed on the beach. Asai had never seen so many people. Ikada grinned. “Daimyo Antoku seeks to impress us.” He descended the steps, humming a tune, Asai at his side.
“What is happening, Sensei?” the child asked. Daimyo were local warlords, servants to the Shogun.
“Antoku seeks entrance, but the Red Bird finds him unworthy. This Daimyo is famed for his cruelty. I will fight his champion, Harata, the tall one in front—a great swordsman.”
“What of the army? Why does Antoku not just attack?”
Ikada only smiled and looked up to where the Red Bird circled the beach. No other answer came, and Asai fell silent. They reached the bottom step, and Ikada walked out to Harata.
The two warriors bowed and stepped back, drawing their blades. Harata lunged. Holding his stance, Ikada raised the Silver Blade, handle high and point angled low, as Harata’s sword stabbed at his throat. Harata’s blade slid off Ikada’s, missing its mark. Ikada thrust, and the Silver Blade’s point pierced Harata’s chest armor. Before the man’s body hit the sand, Ikada had turned to walk back to the steps, his sword sheathed again.
A gasp escaped the ranks of men. Mounted on a gray mare, Daimyo Antoku raised his sword, screaming “Attack!” Twenty cavalry warriors broke from the larger body. Asai cried a warning, but Ikada only smiled and kept walking. As the riders neared Ikada, the beach erupted in fire, and Asai choked on smoke and heated air. When his dazzled eyes could see again, Asai gazed out on the charred bodies of twenty men and horses. Overhead, the Red Bird circled, its outline still glowing against the sky.
“Only one may challenge,” Ikada said, as they climbed back.
“What if another wishes to fight you now?”
Ikada looked hurt. “Asai! Even Ikada needs his rest. One challenge a day is all the Red Bird allows.”
They were not alone in the Temple. Ikada granted access to the library to visiting Jodo Shin priests. In return, the holy men gave the dharma or recited sutras for the dead. The Temple also housed servants who tended to chores and the two warriors’ needs. As Asai grew, he became aware of a new need of his own.
The Temple servants included the Warrior’s concubines. Although his father had told Asai of the ways of the flesh, knowing of it was far removed from feeling it. Ikada was not blind to the change. On the night Asai turned fourteen, Ikada sent his favorite concubine to the boy’s bedchamber.
Neither spoke of it the next morning, but a smirk played on Ikada’s face throughout the day. After that, Asai took a woman most nights, sometimes just to avoid being alone. Other nights he did not, just to be alone. The boy was tender and gentle, much loved by many of the women, but he never chose a favorite. Nor did he talk with them of much beyond his studies and Temple life. He knew this bothered Ikada, but the Warrior said nothing.
So, through all the days of all the years, Ikada would teach and Asai would learn. The orphan learnt well. Asai turned eighteen as Master of the Hundred Deaths, save one.
One day as they sparred on the sand, Ikada stepped back, calling “Yamat!” sharply. Asai lowered his sword, glad for a break. The sky swirled in gray humor, and a wind off the waves stung his eyes. Ikada stared past him up the Thousand Steps.
Above the cliffs, brilliant against the bleak sky, circled the Red Bird. Asai felt a strange dread as the hawk spiraled lower. A ruby beam burst from the bird to dance on the top steps for two breaths. Rising, the Red Bird vanished into the clouds.
Asai turned to speak, but Ikada’s face choked off the words in Asai’s throat. Ikada walked past him, never taking his eyes from the summit. Reaching the steps, he climbed with the gait of a man going to his own execution. Asai followed in silence.
Near the summit, Ikada stopped. Asai came to stand beside him, staring at the next to last step of the Thousand. The name Ikada was burnt now in kana symbols into the stone.
“Sensei,” Asai began, but Ikada raised his hand. Turning his back on the step, Ikada gazed at the sand below. Asai looked down too. A sole rider sped along the surf’s edge, black armor, weapons and saddlery, a dragon’s tail of sand in his wake. Ikada watched for a breath then began his descent. Asai followed, unable to speak of the fear in his breast.
At the bottom, Ikada drew the Silver Blade from the sheath on his back. He raised it to his lips then laid it on the bottom step. “Asai, give me your sword,” he said quietly.
Asai glanced at the Silver Blade but said nothing. He handed Ikada his katana, a true but unremarkable weapon.
Ikada sheathed it. The black samurai now stood waiting. Ikada’s voice was soft. “Asai, today the Red Bird will know how well Ikada has taught you.” Grasping Asai’s shoulders in both hands, he smiled. “You have been a fine student and a better friend. I love you as I would my own son. Good-bye, Asai.”
Without another word, Ikada strode across the sand to his challenger. Both bowed, and in an eye-blink drew their blades and stepped back into fighting stance, swords vertical in a two-handed grip. The samurai moved in at once, feinting a head cut but shifting to slash across the ribs. Parrying, Ikada slid his blade along the other’s, nicking the samurai’s neck. The man retreated, but Ikada closed again, pressing his attack.
Many times, Ikada came within a hair’s breadth of ending the battle but could not deliver a death cut. Bleeding from a dozen places, the black samurai now fought with his blade in his left hand, right arm hanging limp at his side.
Then Ikada, blocked on a vicious downward cut, dropped into a crouch to execute a perfect reverse spin. His blade slashed under the man’s guard, slicing a thigh. Grunting, the samurai fell to a knee. Ikada closed, sword raised for the final blow.
And slipped—on something in the sand. Something round and white. His blade swung wide from its kamai position. Still kneeling, the black samurai thrust upwards. As the point entered Ikada’s throat, Asai’s own throat gave his scream life.
Asai ran onto the sand, Silver Blade over his head. The samurai stood and grinned, no doubt at the sight of a man-child warrior. The two engaged, and the grin vanished. Asai attacked with such fury that the samurai could only parry and retreat. The black warrior stumbled. Asai beat away a feeble slash, and the man’s sword flew from him.
“I beg mercy!” the samurai cried, on his knees before Asai.”Beg to the demons!” Asai spat. His sword sang across the neck of his foe. The helmeted head spun lazily in the air, drops of blood shining in the evening sun, to land in the sand.
Asai stared at the Silver Blade in his hand, unable to remember picking it up. He stumbled to Ikada, feeling for a pulse that he knew he would not find. Tears streaking his face, he picked up the object that had tripped the Warrior. A skull, a circlet of metal still attached, grinned back at him.
From above came the beat of wings. The Red Bird settled on Ikada’s chest. Lowering its head into the liquid pooling at the wound, it then touched its dripping beak to its feathers, repeating this until it glistened with blood. The hawk began to glow in the dim light. The glow died, and the bird’s plumage grew a deeper shade of red. The bird leapt into the air again.
“Is this how you honor one that served you?” Asai shouted at the hawk circling above, the pain inside him overcoming his fear.
Such is the final test for each of my Warriors. Asai felt the misery in those words, a black pool of infinite depth. He looked into that pool and drew back in fear from its edge. Drew back from something he was not yet ready to face.
Asai watched the Red Bird disappear into the darkening sky. He then carried Ikada up the Thousand Steps. In the Vault of Heroes, he prepared the body. He opened the next-to-last sepulcher and laid Ikada on the bier. After reading from the bushido, he closed the sepulcher, snuffing out all candles but one. He left the vault, the Silver Blade on his back.
That night, Asai lay awake thinking of things left unsaid.
The Red Bird came the next day as Asai did kata before the waves. The sky was gray and the wind chill. The hawk landed on a skeletal hand grasping at the sky from the sand.
Ikada is dead. You are the Warrior now.
Asai felt anger again. “You could have saved him, bird.”
I could not.
It is not the way.
Fury erupted in Asai. “What is the way? Why must we die to serve you?” He flung the Silver Blade to stick in the still-red sand where Ikada had fallen. “Why am I here, you bloody crow?”
The Red Bird was silent, and fear tempered Asai’s anger. Then the hawk spoke. You must seek the Hidden Light. You are the last. The last hope for your people.
“Why am I the last?”
The sands run out.
“Where is the Hidden Light?”
The bird looked at him. It is here.
“But what is it?”
That which you must seek.
Asai’s anger built again. “And what if I fail, crow?”
A thousand years of misery for your kind.
His fear returned. “Why?”
War dogs gather. The light dims. You must pass the test.
A thought flew to him. “Who must? I or my people?”
Something in the hawk’s gaze recalled the look Ikada would wear when Asai had mastered the next Death.
Wisdom begins. Opening its wings, the bird leapt into the face of the sea breeze. Asai watched it vanish in the clouds.
She came to him on the anniversary of Ikada’s death. As the temple bell rang, Asai descended the steps to face a small figure clad in what seemed the castoff armor of a dozen warriors. A slim hand removed an ill-fitting helmet, and he first looked on her face. “My name is Sawako,” she said.
“I do not wish to kill you,” Asai replied, staring at her.
“Then we begin well, for I do not wish to be killed.” Taking off the rest of her armor and untying a sash at her waist, she pulled her dress off over her head to stand naked before him.
Asai stood transfixed for several breaths. Then sheathing the Silver Blade, he walked to her and pulled her to him in a long kiss. After what seemed a lifetime, he broke off the kiss, scooped her into his arms and carried her up the steps into the Temple. Overhead, the Red Bird cried unheeded.
That night after their lovemaking, Sawako told her story. “My village lies two days to the east. When news of Ikada-san’s death reached us, Antoku – the local Diamyo – promised to bring the Shogun the Temple’s secret. Two moons ago, he chose a swordsman of my village to challenge the Warrior. To challenge you.”
She looked away. “The man did not return. In his wrath, Antoku sentenced each first son in the village to die. I begged that we be given another chance to do Antoku honor, that I would bring him the secret. He laughed and was going to give me to his men. Then a Jodo Shin priest told him of my birth.”
“What of your birth?”
“The priest said that on the night I was born, an omen appeared in the sky above our village.”
Asai felt a coldness grip his belly. “What was this omen?”
Sawako turned back to him, snuggling her head into his chest. “A great red hawk, whose plumage glowed as if on fire.”
The next morning, Asai showed Sawako the Temple. As they walked, she told more of her bargain with Antoku. “I did not promise to defeat you, only to find the secret. Antoku has given me one year. If I fail, he will execute my entire village.” She laid a hand on the silken arm of his robe. “Show me the Light. You need not surrender the Temple, but you will save my people.”
Asai looked into her eyes. “Sawako, I cannot. I defend what I do not know. No Warrior has ever discovered the Hidden Light, and I am the last.” He told her of the prophecy, and Sawako seemed to fall into deep thought. They walked in silence.
Later they sparred on the beach with wooden bokken. The village samurai had taught her well. She was quick with fine form, but he had the reach, strength, and years of daily study.
Resting on the beach after, she spoke again of the Light. “You must find it, or misery will befall our land. I must learn of it, or my people die.” She turned to him. “Let me help you.”
Asai laughed, leaning on an elbow beside her. “So a woman-child will succeed where a thousand Warriors have failed?”
Sawako shrugged slim shoulders. “I can hardly do worse.”
Asai scowled. “How could you help me?”
“The priests taught me to read and write.” She pulled him close, and he felt her warm breath, smelt its sweetness. “And I can help you as I did last night. You are far too serious.”
Asai felt his face grow hot. “What if we fail? What if a year comes, and the Light remains hidden? What then?”
She stood with her bokken. “Then to me, you will again become the Warrior.” She turned away. “And I must kill you.”
Sawako stayed, and their lust grew to love. Each morning, they sat close together in the library, reading and discussing the great philosophers. Their hunger for the secret that remained hidden lived with them each minute.
Sometimes, Asai felt he had found a great truth and sought out the Red Bird. The hawk always knew of his need and came. Explaining what he had learned, Asai would wait for a reply.
When it came, it was always the same. You grow wise.
“Is this the Light?”
One such morning, when Sawako had been with him for about two months, Asai stood on the cliff edge, the hawk beside him. After receiving this answer again, Asai exploded in fury. “Why do you play this game? Where is the Light?”
You grow close. Closer than any other.
Asai hesitated. “You never speak of Sawako, never asked me of her. Did I do wrong? Have I violated my duty?”
You alone can judge that.
“What of her birth omen? Was that you, Red Bird?”
Spreading its wings, the hawk leapt off the cliff. Asai called after it, but the only answer was the cold wind. That night, Sawako told Asai she carried his child. The next day, he took her as his wife.
She named the boy Shirotori. It meant “White Bird.” When Asai asked her of it, she said “This world has seen enough of red. White is the color of peace.”
And the shrouds of the dead, Asai thought but said nothing.
Asai had never known the joy he felt with his wife and child. Yet, as the year wore on and the Light stayed hidden, he felt the sands of happiness slipping through his hands. On the first day of the twelfth month since Sawako had come, Asai found her dressed again in her armor, doing kata by the sea.
“Why do you do this?” he asked, his voice breaking.
“Because I must,” she said. Her face was wet—with tears or sea spray, he knew not which. She turned back to her kata, and he turned his back on her.
On the eve of the anniversary of Sawako’s arrival, Asai stood on the topmost Temple step, dripping with sweat, Silver Blade in his hand. The hawk settled onto a dragon statue beside him, glowing blood red in the night. You train hard.
“To kill the woman I love, the mother of my son.” No reply came. Asai turned to the hawk. “Why must she die, crow? What does it serve?” No answer. “Over two hundred in her village will die with her. Why? What good is in this?” His rage built. “Is it the blood you need, death bird?” Still no answer came, and Asai could hold his fury no longer. “Then I give you blood!”
He swung the sword, and the hawk sprang into the air. The bird was too fast, but the Silver Blade clipped a tail feather. As the hawk vanished into the dark sky, the feather floated to land on the top step, where it seemed to melt. Touching the sticky puddle, Asai drew his finger back. It dripped blood.
He drew a line on his forehead with the blood. “Is it not fitting that I wear this mark?” he asked the night. He slumped to the steps. “If I win, she dies and two hundred more. And with her dies my love, my reason for life. No, our son would live but with no mother. What do I know of raising a child?” He stood to gaze at where the moon silvered the surf below. “But if I die, no other dies. Only Asai. What loss is that?”
The wind whispered his name. He smiled sadly. “Asai, only Asai. No loss in that.” Turning from the sea, he entered the temple. That night he made love to Sawako for the last time.
They rose early and in silence. He watched her dress then walk to where he sat on the window ledge. She kissed him long and deeply. Then picking up a scroll from her table, she left, not looking back. He watched her go, her tears cool on his face.
Asai stayed at the window until he saw her descend the Steps. Then he dressed and broke fast lightly. He visited each servant, saying his good-byes without saying so. In the nursery, he held his son for a long time, singing in a low soft voice a song that Sawako sang to Shirotori each night. He left special instructions with the servant who cared for the child.
In the Chamber of the Silver Blade, Asai knelt at the low table where Ikada had taught him the Way. On it stood a vial of green liquid. His studies had brought knowledge of herbs and potions. Sawako was a fine swordswoman, but Asai knew she was no match for a Warrior. His reactions were too instinctive to trust the outcome to his intent alone. The poison would work slowly, at first to impede his movements, finally to stop his heart if her blade had not done so. He raised the vial—and drank.
He stared at the top step, still blank above Ikada’s name, and called to the hawk circling overhead. “Why is my name not written here, crow? You knew Ikada would die! Do you not know that I die today?” The hawk continued to circle. “So be it,” Asai cried and slashed at the stone with the Silver Blade. Again and again he swung, until his name stood carved above Ikada’s. With a last glance skyward, he descended the steps.
She knelt on the sand facing the sea and did not answer when he called her name. He stumbled over shifting sand, the poison burning in his muscles. He was about to call her name again when he saw the blood and the blade point protruding from her back.
His throat choked a cry that tore his heart as he ran to her. He wrenched the sword from where she had thrust it in her breast. Her face was cold as he took it in his hands. “Why?” he cried to the wind, knowing the answer even before he saw the scroll beside her, before he read the words she had written.
Dearest love, I will say do not grieve, yet know you will. Know that I loved you and was sure of your love. I saw no other way. The Light stays hidden. I failed my people and cannot live while they die. I could never harm you but feared you would work your death to save me. This is my answer to the question we lived with this joyous year. Raise our son with the love you gave me. Forever, your Sawako.
His sobs became spasms as he lay her on the sand. “We die for nothing, my love,” he cried. No, he thought, I can still save her people. Lifting her sword, he turned its point to his breast. “If I die by your sword, Sawako, you have won the Temple.” He threw himself on her blade, falling beside her. As he lay dying, her face recalled to him the doomed priest’s look of peace the night the Red Bird first came to him.
The Red Bird settled on the fallen Warrior’s chest and dipped its beak into the wound around the blade. Painting itself in the man’s blood, it hopped then to the woman’s body that lay beside him, adding her blood to its red sheen.
A glow touched its feathers then burst into brilliance as the hawk leapt into the air aflame. Fire burned away the scarlet coat, and from the center of a winged sun emerged a great eagle, with feathers of burnished gold. The eagle spread its wings.
From each wing, a feather fell to land on the two lovers. The feathers became white flames, and fire consumed the bodies. From the smoke flew two white doves who circled first each other and then the eagle as all three disappeared into the sky.
Daimyo Antoku and his army arrived at Sawako’s village to find it deserted. Traveling monks told of two white doves who led a band of people eastward. When Antoku reached the Temple of the Hidden Light, Sawako’s people were encamped on the sand. A shimmering wall of white light separated them and the Temple from Antoku and his men. Antoku ordered the villagers slain.
As the first soldiers touched the white wall, their bodies burst into flames and blew away, ashes on the wind. Those behind fled in terror, screaming of demons. Antoku cursed them as cowards but was left alone on the sand, his promise to the Shogun unfulfilled. He regarded the white wall for a long time, then drew and fell on his sword.
When he turned eighteen, Shirotori, son of Asai, son of Sawako, began to preach the Way of the Hidden Light. Villages fell under his protection and his teaching. His followers grew and the Way spread. Armies deserted any Daimyo who raised arms against him. Soon his reach extended to the Shogun’s palace.
On the anniversary of his parents’ deaths, Shirotori stood on the steps of that palace as the Shogun broke his sword and bent his knee to the boy.
Shirotori’s rule was just and kind. The people said that truth and love rode with him always, in the form of two white doves on each shoulder. He was known by many names. The Prophet. The Truth. The Loved.
But most called him Kashoku, which meant… Bright Light.
Douglas Smith is a multi-award-winning Canadian author described by Library Journal as “one of Canada’s most original writers of speculative fiction.” His fiction has been published in twenty-six languages and thirty-five countries, including Amazing Stories, InterZone, Weird Tales, Baen’s Universe, On Spec, and Cicada. His books include the novel The Wolf at the End of the World, the collections Chimerascope and Impossibilia, and the writer’s guide Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. Doug is a three-time winner of Canada’s Aurora Award and has been a finalist for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bookies Award, Canada’s juried Sunburst Award, and France’s juried Prix Masterton and Prix Bob Morane.
His website is www.smithwriter.com and he tweets at twitter.com/smithwritr