Juneau awoke famished. Her limbs felt weighted down and moved only with much coaxing. Another flash of red caught her attention and she sat up like a spring-release toy.
Tachibana Rikka in all her youthful, radiant glory presented her with a bowl of miso soup. Hunger didn't give Juneau a choice. She brought the bowl to her mouth and sloshed its contents down to her gurgling stomach. The soup was salty, a tinge sweet, with tofu and thick squares of seaweed. The scent took her back to cold evenings at home when Kuni made miso to warm them up.
Even with hunger's dull blade removed from her gut, she didn't dare think of escape. She couldn't leave her mother and sisters in Rikka's hands; she'd just use them as leverage against her. Knowing this, the tyrant girl hadn't even bothered to bind her hands and feet.
Juneau avoided her eyes. She took a look around.
They were in a high room with small windows at regular intervals letting sunlight and a breeze in. She would've guessed they were on the top floor of the castle's main keep. The same stone walls, the same roofing visible through the windows--but also: a sweep of the landscape and town beyond, a great hill thick with trees, like a mushroom cloud over a cryptonite bomb.
Finally, she looked up at Rikka, who was kneeling before her, waiting patiently for her undivided attention.
"It was only a matter of time," the girl began," before we met meet again, Juneau. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Where's my mother?" Juneau demanded, ready to leap to her feet. But, though her hands and feet were unbound, another force pinioned her to her chair, and she couldn't move. When she stopped fighting, she felt Rikka's hold on her hold, much like a seatbelt reacts to a quick jerk, but not a slow, smooth movement. "Where is she?"
When she heard Juneau's voice, Claire strained against her binding and grunted helplessly. She was bound--and gagged, by the sound of it--in the corner with a cloth sack over her head and two more Rikka-doubles guarding her, each more amazing to behold than the last. Yuki was lying down in another corner, face up and frozen in time. Her eyes focused on nothing in particular, her mouth open in a gasp of surprise. Another pair of Rikkas guarded her. Juneau could tell by the intense concentration on one of their faces that they were taking turns freezing Yuki, just as she'd suspected.
"Oh, don't worry about her," Rikka replied, a trace of repugnance in her tone. "Kuni is fine. At least she is as long as you cooperate..."
"I ain't cooperating with you," Juneau cried and spat at their capturer.
Rikka caught the wad in time and sent it flying against Claire's hooded head with a final splat. Claire seized up and squirmed against it. "That's no way to treat your sister," the girl sneered.
"What do you want with us?"
The girl made up like a geisha doll slowly shook her head in disappointment. "Juneau, we so quickly forget our roles... You are the wish-maker," Rikka intoned, jabbing her long-nailed pointer finger into Juneau's chest, "and I am the wish-granter... You are the devoted follower; I am your goddess..."
"I'm an atheist."
"Come now; everyone believes something."
"Not all the time..."
"I see." Rikka left her for the open window, resting her frail hands on the windowsill. Juneau wondered how many lives those hands had taken.
Poor Claire, she thought then, regretting spitting at Rikka. She had redirected it, as if with telekinesis. It didn't seem a time-bend of any sort, or a mind-bend for that matter. That left matter-bending; could Yuki manipulate matter like that, too?
They needed to get out of Rikka's grasp, Juneau decided then. It was only a matter of how. A lightbulb went off in her head. "Thanks for the soup," she said, she hoped not too transparently. "I was really hungry."
"My sisters are hungry, too."
The beauty tilted her head to the right, thinking. "Yuki is fine. Her metabolism has been suspended."
Jūban smiled again, this time condescendingly. "How old do you think I am, Juneau?"
Juneau shrugged noncommittally. "Nineteen? Eighteen?"
"I am seventeen..."
"But my mind is five-hundred forty-eight years old, my dear." The way she said it, Juneau had to believe! Rikka may have inhabited the body of a teenager, but her gestures and eloquence were old-fashioned. So old, it was new again. "My name proves it."
Juneau thought for a second. " 'Jūban Rikka'? As in 'Number Ten Rikka'?"
"The Tenth Rikka, actually. My predecessor is Kuban Rikka: Ninth Rikka." She smiled wanly, like light from a fingernail moon. With a twittering of her lashes, Rikka added, "Do not think your silly tricks will work on me."
Juneau's cheeks went hot for even thinking of trying. All the same, she said, "Claire is hungry. Her metabolism isn't suspended."
"You need not worry for her. You should worry for yourself, child." Jūban's eyes twinkled menacingly.
"You know why. You are no fool." Jūban's robes glinted in the sunlight, which caught on the phoenix's wings across her breast. The gash of milky-white skin cut between the gold embroidering was blinding. She turned and moved toward Yuki.
Juneau watched as Jūban kneeled over her Chinese sister and caressed her face. Yuki's wide eyes looked on, unregistering. She was vulnerable, and until Rikka was satisfied with Juneau's compliance, they were all in danger. Juneau bowed her head in acquiescence. Remembering Jūban's game, she said, "I want what you want."
Jūban applauded her, each beat muffled for one of her hands was wrapped in the silk sleeve of her kimono. "Finally... Very well. I want you to listen."
Surprised, Juneau looked up. "That's all?"
Jūban Rikka kneeled across from Juneau, placing her hands on her laps. "As you know, Shokadō has been in secret operation for a dozen generations--almost five and a half centuries. And for most of that time, they have had one goal: to kill me." She nodded to herself, a pained expression coming into her eyes. "But do you know why, Juneau?"
She thought she did, but she dared not anger Rikka.
"Hideyoshi and Mameha will have given you reasons, undoubtedly. But they are unfairly biased against me. Besides, they adhere to social concepts that hardly apply to me. Tell me, if you were immortal, would you have the same worries as the mortals surrounding you?"
Without even having to think, Juneau knew the answer was no, and she said so.
"You see, then, why Hideyoshi and Mameha fear me."
"They fear you because you kill people unnecessarily."
"Unnecessarily?" Jūban sounded unconvinced. "If you knew someone was out there trying to erase all trace of you, would you try to stop them--even if it meant killing someone to save yourself?"
"I guess," Juneau begrudgingly admitted.
"Put yourself in my position, Juneau. If Hide and Mameha were trying to kill you, would you fight back? Perhaps even fight dirty?"
Juneau said nothing, but she knew what Rikka was getting at.
She went on. "All this began many, many years ago, before Shokadō was founded. It began with Ogawa Tarō..."
"Ogawa Tarō came to Ikenobo a farm boy from Kamakura. He left a master ikebana arranger. But many changes had to occur--in the school, in ikebana, and in himself--before that came to pass. Ikenobo School's fragile secrecy had to be challenged. Ikebana had to fall from sacred rite to a way for aristocratic women to pass the time. Tarō had to adopt the ikebana discipline and develop the hanate arts.
During his time at Ikenobo, Tarō's main focus was martial arts, which he had learned from a Chinese tradesman who came to live on the Ogawa farm when Tarō was a kid. Master Ikenobo Senno--already a wizened monk set in his ways--was enthusiastic about Tarō's martial arts abilities, for the school was lacking that pillar of the popular ideology of the time: spirituality, meditation, and self-discipline. Master was devout follower of the Zen teachings and had also turned floral arrangement into a kind of deep meditation. Though he was quite good at disciplining himself, he still knew nothing of the kind of self-discipline that martial artists were renowned for, then as now.
I arrived at Ikenobo shortly after Tarō. We were students under Master Ikenobo together. I helped Tarō hone his fighting skills and absorbed much of the teachings myself. With my help, Tarō developed our beloved fighting style, hanate: the Flower Hand.
Despite helping to develop Tarō's skill and hone his teaching abilities, and all the money my father had poured into the Ikenobo School for allowing me--a mere girl--study there, Master never truly warmed up to me. It infuriated him that Tarō and I fell in love, though it was inevitable. We spent every waking moment together: chanting our prayers, meditating over ikebana, and practicing hanate. Master Ikenobo couldn't accept it.
Matters became terribly entangled before long. We three parties were at odds with each other, each wanting very different things from each other and ourselves. When Master Ikenobo saw how much attention ikebana had come to receive, he was incensed. The Way of Flowers was purposefully hard to find, hard to follow. But it was quickly moving into the public realm and out of the shadows. Thus, Master wanted his teachings to be hidden away from the encroaching populace. Unfortunately, his disappearance would be too conspicuous. The only option he could see was for his brightest pupil, Ogawa Tarō, to leave Kyoto and take with him the true teachings.
Tarō wanted above all to please Master. However strong his feelings for me were, his obligation to the school and its founder was that much stronger. Ogawa Tarō changed his name to Ieyasu Tarō and erected your precious School in Kamakura.
Meanwhile, I wanted to live in harmony with my love Tarō and with my master.
Neither of them wanted me anymore. When Tarō left Ikenobo, I wanted to go with him. But Master would hear none of it--and not because he wanted to teach me or shape me into a better arranger. He wanted me to stay away from Tarō at all costs.
He expelled me from the school.
I left Ikenobo--how could I not? But I was spurned, and I hated Tarō for leaving me so lightly--tossing me aside like a faded flower. How could he? I had yet to fully bloom! I steeped in the vile juices of betrayal, hatred, scorn. Naturally, I found other ways to meddle. For a time, I pretended to be someone else, just to be with him. But it was too late; I hated him.
I returned to my father's house in Nara. I found another master arranger named Hara Nobuo--and with a little luck--I came to absorb all three ikebana elements of time, space, and mind. Later, I fell in with another kind of character, one with a mischievous streak--and he taught me things, ways of looking at the world that I had never considered before. Really, you should be angry with him, for he's the reason I'm here today."
"None of that tells me why we're here," Juneau said steadily.
"Then you haven't been listening. I fell for a man, but he spurned me. I fell for another. He too abandoned me, but not before he taught me what to do with my time, how to make it stretch on, how to use my powers for whatever I deem fit. It comes down to power. Those who have it, use it. Those who don't hate those who do. Which are you?"
"Is that was what this was about?" Juneau asked with incredulity. "Are you honestly trying to compare me to you?"
"You are powerful, Juneau--whether you know it yet or not. With time at your disposal, you can do great things--like me!"
"Like you?! I'm nothing like you. I have a soul!"
Jūban laughed right in her face. "And you think your soul is pure, that it will keep you from doing horrible things? Think again, girl!" And she backhanded Juneau with such force that she knocked girl and chair over.
Claire started at the crash and strained harder than ever to get loose.
"This is all just a game to you, isn't it?" Juneau cried, wriggling in her restraints. "This is your sick and twisted way of getting back at Ogawa Tarō."
"Do you have any idea the kind of pain and suffering I've endured for that man?" She dragged Juneau off the floor by the collar and back into her chair. Juneau was surprised by her strength, but it was hard for her to stay surprised as Jūban wrung her like a wet rag. She twisted away from Jūban's ghost-white face. The girl looked less beautiful than menacing at the moment, mere inches away from her face.
"I loved him!" she cried, shaking Juneau again, then shoving her back and slinking away.
"I didn't know him! How can you punish me for something someone did forever ago?"
"You are him!"
"Fine! So, kill me! Or else why am I here? You've been wreaking havoc on the world all this time, too. It isn't just Mameha and Hideyoshi you want to hurt. You don't need an army of doubles to take care of them--or us. I know you're planning something!"
Jūban's smile sent an icy dagger through Juneau's heart. "So what if I am?" she asked then.
Jūban laughed, and a ripple of echoes went around the room as the doubles joined in. She hid her teeth behind her hand like a veil. She left Juneau to her guards. But--Juneau couldn't tell--had Jūban's laughter turned to tears?