The new calendar called it September, but to Azuki, the girl who became a toki, it was the time of the Descent of White Dew, one of the 24 seasonal subdivisions of Japan. Even on the south-western Japanese island of Kyushu, the temperature had dropped, going from the suffocating heat and humidity of summer to just a little cooler, just a little drier, giving just a hint of the pleasant fall days to come.
In her mountain home, Azuki sniffed the clear, cool air and rejoiced. While a typhoon or two might still rumble through, depending on the whims of the Dragon King, the hot and steamy days of summer were definitely on their way out.
Wind grabbed and tugged at the edges of the scarf she wore to cover the feathers she grew on her head instead of hair. She set her broom against a pillar that supported the gallery surrounding the main house to tend to it before the wind blew her scarf away entirely,
When Azuki was small, so was the house. She remembered it as being just right for herself, her parents and her brother. Now, with her parents dead, her brother rich, and their uncle and guardian in charge, they’d expanded the house and built a school. Now, the house accommodated Azuki, her Sparrow-boy brother, Shota, and their uncle, Yuta, plus their housekeeper, Hanako. Azuki and Shota’s friend, Renko, the Dragon Princess, was a student at Uncle’s school and also a member of the household. There was even room for other guests and friends who might visit.
The school was in a separate building, connected to the house by a gallery and accessed from the outside by a separate door in the compound wall, itself new. Azuki was glad the wall was not so high that it obscured her view of the village in the narrow river valley. She could see the farmlands and even the horses, grazing peacefully in a field good for little other than the wild herbs the horses enjoyed. She noticed that Red Wind’s belly had grown yet again. Soon, she would decline to be ridden due to her increasing size, and, close to the New Year, she would have a foal, sired by Blackie, who was immensely proud of his contribution to that event.
Azuki smiled. She couldn’t wait to see the foal!
After she and her friends had stood off the Umi-Bozu, the monster squid known as Kraken in the West, and Uncle had crafted a peace with the support of the dragons, Tsuruko, the fabled Crane-woman, left them to woo her estranged husband, who had been unable to accept her dual nature.
Azuki had a way to speak to Tsuruko, but felt strangely reluctant to use it. If Tsuruko had been successful in her quest, she was probably busy. She might even want to withdraw from their (mostly) dual-natured collective to devote herself to the human side of her life. If she had not won her husband back, she might turn up any day, for she always had a home here, or she might be wandering, alone and disconsolate, wanting no company. Cranes mated for life; Tsuruko couldn’t leave her husband as simply as a fully human woman might. Still, Tsuruko could communicate with any of them. For all Azuki knew, she might even now be talking to Uncle, who had previously helped her with her domestic difficulties.
A little whirlwind picked up, catching the first of the fallen leaves and sending them flying. Azuki laughed as the whirlwind strengthened. Then it grew, becoming serious, grabbing at trees, lifting the occasional laden bough. Across the yard Azuki spotted a broom, neatly bound of twigs and straw, of the type used for sweeping the gallery and courtyard. The broom acted as though by volition, leaning and bending and twisting. Close behind it ran Renko.
“Look at my broom!” the Dragon Princess called.
“It’s dancing!” Azuki cried, laughing. The broom swerved closer, so Azuki jumped out to grab it. It squirmed and twisted in her hands and she almost lost her scarf again. Renko joined her as the whirlwind increased once more then faded as it moved away from them. The broom became still.
“Here you are!” Azuki handed the broom to Renko. Sweeping the galleries was something the girls did together every morning, their contribution to the household chores, since Hanako, the cook- housekeeper, had repeatedly refused an assistant.
“That was exciting,” Renko commented dryly as Azuki retrieved her own broom. Surprisingly, the gallery was clean. The friends looked at each other quizzically.
“Did you see that?” Shota zoomed in on wings, becoming a boy on the fly just inches above the ground. “That’s better,” he muttered as he landed with just a little thump. He looked expectantly at his sister and his best friend, but they hadn’t noticed his growing skill. “What was it?”
“Did you see my broom dancing off by itself?” Renko asked him.
“That was so funny!” Shota stopped for a second and looked at Renko sharply. “Did you do that?” As an adult dragon, Renko would become responsible for some aspect of managing the winds and rain that nourished the lands. Creating a whirlwind was well within her scope.
“No,” she cried. “The whirlwind blew up all by itself, grabbed my broom and took it away.”
“If you didn’t do it,” Azuki mused, “and your father wouldn’t” —
“He’d burst it to bits, minimum,” Shota interjected.
“But why would he?” Renko asked, shaking her head. “Father would find this kind of prank beneath him.”
“Well, then,” Azuki continued, “If you didn’t, and your father didn’t, then who? Why?” Neither Renko nor Shota could come up with an answer.
“Oh, look, “ Shota cried, gesturing at the path leading to the compound’s main gate, “Here comes Mifune-sensei!”
A skinny young man in the white robes and black hat of a Shinto priest climbed the last segment of the hill.
“He’s got letters!” Shota never got mail, but he liked the idea.
Regular domestic correspondence was now handled by a new postal service with sorting offices, routes and home deliveries. This replaced a less efficient system of private messengers racing from post-station to post-station along the highways. Postal letters were mostly left at the shrine for Shota to pick up, so the mail carrier rarely needed to climb their hill. If Mifune-sensei was bringing letters rather than leaving them for Shota to collect, there was something he thought worth the trip.
What could bring the young Shinto priest out himself?
It was easy enough for Shota to pick up any mail for his household at the shrine. He didn’t mind. He just tucked it into his boy’s clothes before he flew home and it was in the same place when he changed back on arrival. The shrine boasted a classical school for boys only, where Shota reluctantly studied most mornings. Uncle’s school accommodated both boys and girls, and taught a wider, more comprehensive curriculum, like the schools of the West. Uncle and Rev. Mifune collaborated, so that children could attend both schools. Neither charged tuition as such. The schools were open; people sent their children, and paid what they could, when they could.
At this time of year, the storehouses overflowed with such of the harvest as was already in, and Hanako was busy every day drying, pickling and preserving food for the coming winter.
Shota ran to open the small pedestrian door for the Shinto priest. Bowing rapidly, he beckoned the priest to enter.
“Good morning, Shota-san. I have come to see Yuta-sensei. Is he available?”
“I’ll go see, Sensei,” Shota said courteously and ran off towards his uncle’s study.
“Would you care to come in?” Azuki asked, bowing politely. She was unsure of the best way to address the Shinto priest. She decided to use “Sensei,” like Shota did, for the young priest was Headmaster of the shrine school, and “Sensei” was the correct title for a teacher or master of a discipline or craft. “Please, Sensei, come in and have some tea.”
“No, no, thank you,” the priest responded, distracted as Shota ran back from the other side of the house to stand before him.
“Would you please come this way, Sensei?” He bowed and showed the priest toward Uncle’s study, which also had a door opening onto the gallery connecting the house to the school.
“He’s doing really well,” Renko commented, with a sidelong glance at Azuki.
“I know,” Azuki said with a small chuckle. “He’s almost civilized.”
“Mifune-sensei!” Uncle Yuta’s voice sounded from the other side of the gallery as he greeted his young counterpart. “Welcome! Please do come in!”
From the clatter in the kitchen, Azuki and Renko knew that Hanako had heard the priest arrive.
“Come on,” Shota urged as he suddenly reappeared. “We can listen from the cold pantry.”
Renko immediately followed, but Azuki hesitated. While privacy was hard to come by in buildings with sliding paper doors and screens rather than solid walls, deliberate eavesdropping was impolite, and one never “officially” heard private conversations one wasn’t meant to hear.
“Come on,” Renko whispered and grabbed Azuki’s hand, pulling her toward the pantry. Though its outer walls were stone, the wall that faced the corridor and the inner door to Uncle’s study were wood, so they could hear perfectly and be undetected if they remained quiet.
“Pssst,” Azuki hissed, now hauling the others deeper into the pantry after her. “Hanako-san!” she continued in mental speech. Few who were not dual-natured could follow it, but Uncle could. She hoped her control had become fine enough so he hadn’t heard her.
Hanako glided past, carrying a small table holding a tea service and snacks. She was middle- aged, perhaps ten or fifteen years older than Uncle, comfortably round with a pleasant demeanor, and an excellent cook. Azuki and Shota had first met her in an outcasts’ village hidden deep within the haunted Ocean of Trees. Chemical burns from adulterated tooth-blackening paste had rendered her mute, divorced and rejected by society.
Uncle had decided she would make a perfect housekeeper for his unusual ménage. No matter how strange things became, Hanako would never say anything to anyone. Of course, since she could read and write Hiragana, one of Japan’s three scripts, that wasn’t exactly a logical point, but the arrangement seemed to be working well.
Hanako herself was immensely grateful to have a place in the world again. So grateful was she that she simply ignored every oddity that appeared and kept busy doting on Sensei, adoring the children, and running the household impeccably. She refused to think of impossible things like the Tengu, shape- changing demons banished by the monstrous, amorphous Dragon King; about Umi-Bozu, the sea monsters who had attacked her dear Shota; about Renko’s horrifying mother, a Dragon Queen from the West who breathed fire, and the peace that was crafted in her garden, with Sensei waving his arms and importuning the air. If she didn’t think about them, somehow, they didn’t really exist.
“Good morning, Hanako-san,” Rev. Mifune said. Azuki could imagine Hanako smiling and bowing, setting up the tea service and pouring for both men. She heard the door slide open again and the shuffle of Hanako’s inside slippers gliding along the wood of the corridor floor. She poked Shota in the ribs and held her breath as Hanako passed. There was nothing at all wrong with the housekeeper’s hearing.
“Have you had one of these letters, too?” Uncle asked. Paper rattled. Letters were now often being written on flat sheets of paper in the Western style, rather than on scrolls. Sometimes they were even written horizontally, left to right, rather than vertically, in columns running from right to left.
“I did, but I cannot attend. We hoped you could,” Rev. Mifune replied. “As you know, my father has been ill. He’s recovering, but I must continue to perform his duties at the shrine.”
Unlike the Buddhist clergy who had only been allowed to do so recently, Shinto clergy had long been permitted to marry. The small local shrine had been in the hands of the Mifune family for generations. In time, the role of Chief Priest would pass to the junior Rev. Mifune, whose current job was to assist his father. The senior Rev. Mifune’s duties were primarily religious in nature, expressing appreciation for the local kami or spirits that were part of every area and material thing. These duties could not be omitted. The school was just a sideline.
“Of course,” Yuta-sensei acknowledged. “But it’s a very long trip. I do have a horse I can ride” — he usually rode Red Wind, though Blackie would carry him willingly enough — “but still, with the journey there and back and the conference itself, I would be gone for many weeks.”
“I will be happy to supervise your school,” Rev. Mifune said.
“Humph.” Yuta considered. The shrine school inculcated boys in Confucian precepts, mostly, and they were taught to read and write, mostly in Classical Chinese. Yuta’s school was comprehensive, following the Western educational pattern that was, after the Empress’s initial advocacy, the current rage. It also included girls, which the Empress particularly wanted. Previously, there was no systematic education for girls. They were educated at home, and might be noted scholars or utterly illiterate, depending on the views of their parents.
As a retired Buddhist monk, Yuta was well and widely educated by the temple where he trained while a novice and junior. He was not so sure about Rev. Mifune’s competence to teach science, history, Western literature and philosophy, especially when he often doubted his own.
“Father says it is a very important conference,” Rev. Mifune said. Azuki heard the lid of the teapot clatter as Uncle refreshed their cups, of course pouring for Rev. Mifune first, as was only proper. “We hear there will be discussions of merging our kinds of schools, of how many years of school should be required, of perhaps even setting up a unified system of education all over Japan! I do so wish you would go!”
“The event is set between the harvest and the winter solstice, I see,” Yuta pondered. “Clever of them. The trip will run into the winter, though, so there will be snow and ice on these higher roads.” He almost said, “I’ll have to ask Blackie what he thinks,” before remembering that not everyone could consult their horses and might think him mad for wanting to do so.
With few exceptions, only Samurai and the upper classes could legally ride, so perhaps Rev. Mifune might not think discussing matters with a horse unusual.
That, along with the other laws that specified what people could and could not do by social class, was changing rapidly. There was talk of abolishing the social classes entirely, and, shockingly, even reforming the aristocracy. During one of his hurried visits, Lord Eitaro had told Yuta that soon they might not even be able to wear their swords except for formal occasions. Since Yuta had of course not worn them as a monk, he’d have only a very short time to show them off, it seemed. He laughed to himself at his own vanity, especially the thought of him — him! — riding into the capital on the huge black war stallion, wearing his formal robes and swords. He almost laughed aloud.
“You must go,” Rev. Mifune urged. “We must know what the talk is in the capital! We have already heard that shrines will be nationalized. Instead of receiving large donations from individuals in the government, we will be controlled by the central government and might be salaried, like bureaucrats! You know there are rumors of land reform. You might lose your holdings here!”
Unlike most small farmers, Yuta’s family actually owned their land, which had something to do with an ancient Imperial land grant and certain illustrious ancestors. Peasants were almost invariably tenant farmers, bound to the land they worked and unable to move on — though they could be evicted if they didn’t produce to the landowner’s specifications.
“They can’t mean small holders like us,” Yuta objected. The land was technically Shota’s because the holding passed to the eldest son of each generation, but as his guardian, Yuta was obliged to protect and preserve it for him. Yuta had income from his school and Azuki earned from her textiles, but the farm was their family home. It was the failure of harvests that had led to the famine years when Yuta’s brother had taken up the weaving craft of his wife’s artisan family and Bodhisattva Jizo had brought them Azuki and Shota.
“We don’t know that! My father says you must go!” Rev. Mifune’s tone was adamant.
“I would like to go,” Yuta admitted, mostly to himself. As a mendicant Buddhist monk he had traveled all over Japan, even the wild, unsettled regions of the far north. The capital, which hadn’t even been the capital when he was last there, had certainly changed in many ways with all the modernization that was going on everywhere. He’d like to see for himself. There was much he could learn and maybe he could make a contribution regarding education in rural areas, he told himself. Surely most of the attendees would be from the cities lining the Tokaido and Tohoku Highways. But given the proclivities of the children, their friends, and Renko’s relatives, the idea of leaving for so long scared him.
“I will think about it,” Yuta said at last. “I will give you an answer in a few days.” He wanted to go. He wasn’t sure he should.
“Thank you for receiving me,” Rev. Mifune said. “I will leave you now.”
All three children heard the sound of the men rising. Quickly, with as silent a tread as they could manage, the eavesdroppers rushed back to the courtyard at the front of the house, where they all began furiously raking the gravel as Rev. Mifune and Uncle Yuta came around the side of the house, the former looking approvingly at their industry, the latter wondering what they were up to.