"Wait! What do you mean 'face the past'?" Juneau leaped on the fox spirit.
"What's that sound?" Kato asked suddenly. The air was alive and moving out the window like steam through a kettle, and the whistle--the keening he could hear seemed to be getting closer all the time. The room stank with the smell of doom. "Yuki's right, Juneau. We gotta get out of here."
Juneau was too distracted. She'd thrown herself on the man-sized fox and was trying to wrestle Kuban's leatherbound body from his immense maw. Kitsune was huge, his eyes glinting in the oncoming sunset. In the periphery of her vision, Juneau saw that Kuban's hold on the illusions of the room had given way. The top of the layer-cake keep was as small as she'd thought, and a wintry gale came tearing in, carrying Kitsune's rank fox-breath to each corner of the room and making her gag.
She wanted to be done with it, but she didn't want it to end like this--not without first finding out how to split realities. She'd heard the keening, too, but she had too many questions for Kuban. She tried to pull on the woman, but her hands were slippery with blood. It gushed from where Kitsune's dagger-teeth had torn through the bark-dry, liver-spotted skin. Between his tremendous mandibles, Kuban was groaning.
Juneau heard a scream. Jūban and Yuki had slipped back into the room and came running toward them. "What's going on?" cried the first. "Why is Kitsune eating Kuban?"
"There's no time!" Yuki cried.
Jūban ignored her and came to Juneau's aid. Neither could get a handhold. They pulled with all their might, trying to dislodge the teeth, which had found new purchase in Kuban's wrists, gut and lower back. Juneau told Jūban to try bending his matter--or hers--but it wouldn't work. Kitsune was too strong and immune to their magics.
Finally, he leapt backwards and tore Kuban's slack body out of their grip. In one fell gulp, Kuban was gone, swallowed into the fox spirit's bloated gut.
Meanwhile, Claire was asking Yuki, "Why is there no time?"
"It's a missile!" Yuki screamed. "China's bombing Japan, starting with this castle!"
Suddenly, the world was bathed in a bright white blaze. Juneau saw the explosion as if from afar, through a haze. Time came to halt. Everyone around her had been spared the time-lock--and the whitewash of the nuclear blast.
Yuki grabbed Jūban and Kato by the hand and wrestled her sisters into a hug--just in time. Kitsune leaped toward Jūban, who screamed at his oncoming jaws. Yuki used her own body to shield her from him. Undeterred, the fox spirit chomped into Yuki's exposed thigh as a consolation prize. Juneau did what came to mind first: she rose her foot in the air and brought her heel barreling down on Kitsune's head. Stunned, he let go of Yuki, and Kato beat him back with a fist to the nose.
Yuki limped through the wormhole. Just as the portal closed and Juneau relinquished her hold on time, the blast caught up with them and washed them in hot, white light.
But they were already racing through formless space. Juneau also applied herself. As Yuki hobbled them along the space axis toward Kamakura, Juneau focused on sailing them back along the time axis to the present.
Yuki was having difficulty. She managed better by transferring her weight off her injured leg and onto Kato. Yet they were plunged in dark senselessness for longer than expected. But before long, they were pouring through the aperture, back in Kamakura and back in the present.
Mameha heard the commotion and came running. She saw the blood on Juneau and Jūban Rikka and how Kato was holding a fiercely bleeding Yuki up. While Kato seated Yuki on a chair, Mameha ran for help. Moments later, she came back, Hideyoshi, Kuni, and a number of monks on her heels. Two servants fetched some warm water and strips of cloth, while another pair ran for more supplies. Mameha took a clean rag from the servants to Yuki's wound and staunched the blood's flow. She wound a wide triangular bandage around the girl's bloody thigh.
Meanwhile, Kato tended to Juneau with Kuni's help. Mameha glanced over at Juneau and, though she was worried, she soon learned that none of it was Juneau's blood. "It's Kuban's," Juneau said. Then she remembered. "Himeji!"
"Blown to smithereens," Yuki said, grimacing at the pain in her leg.
"Not necessarily," Jūban said as she moved to kneel beside her, took her hand. "The castle is destroyed in the future. You still have several months before China mobilizes."
"Thank goodness for that," Claire muttered.
First Mother was preoccupied by another development. She glanced sidewise at Jūban, then back at the Ieyasu girls. "Why is she here?"
Yuki winced and glanced at Juneau. "Juneau had questions for Kuban. I figured this was a consolation, since it's obvious Jūban didn't tell us the whole truth before. Maybe she will now."
Juneau didn't like how Yuki was staring at her. She did have questions, but Yuki seemed to be availing herself of the geisha girl's presence more than any of them. Addressing Jūban Rikka finally, she asked, "Is it true? Are you Mameha's mother?"
First Mother's face blanched and her mouth fell open into a crooked gape. "Juneau...?"
Jūban said nothing, her face grave. Instead of answering, she looked up at Mameha. "Would it be okay if we went inside for a bite while I explain?"
Her mouth pursed tight, Mameha nodded stiffly. They repaired to the dining room where food had been laid out. With her sisters' aid, Yuki limped over to the chair by the door and plopped herself down with a grunt and a wince. Servants brought cool green tea and plum wine around to drink. They nibbled politely on the fair, no one very hungry. Even Yuki, whose only manner of eating was scarfing, picked at her plate.
After she had pecked at her food and sipped some tea, Jūban Rikka sighed. "Well, I guess it makes sense to start at the top, huh? Give you a better idea of your lineage..." She looked straight at Mameha, who seemed unable to meet that angelic gaze.
"I was born in 1461 to Tachibana Masayo and Ishigi Atsuko. I lived in Nara all my life in my father's beautiful house. He was a rich man who could afford to send his only daughter to a monastery to study. I became educated, which was not the way it worked for most young girls in that time. But I was spoiled. After my initial instruction in reading, calligraphy, and arithmetic, I took to the Zen teachings, which was unheard of. My father, a devout Shinto follower, certainly wouldn't hear it. So I convinced him to let me attend the Ikenobo School of Ikebana to study the mystic floral arranging that Master Ikenobo had only recently founded. I was seventeen. I found studying the art of ikebana to be boring though interesting too, as were the actual Zen teachings. The koan were and still are very frustrating. What does one hand clapping sound like?
Ogawa Tarō was just another student at the Ikenobo School, though among the first. We studied the Zen teachings and the Way of Flowers together. He had also been interested in martial arts even before I arrived. Bands of traveling Chinese monks spreading their gospel and demonstrating their abilities were common at the time. When Tarō brought this to Master Ikenobo Senno's attention, he gave Tarō his blessing to learn all he could from the traveling martial artists. Master knew nothing about my interest in the matter, but he paid little attention to me to begin with. I loved watching the monks practice their stances and movements and forms. I wanted to be like them. I guess I was more physical than other girls my age.
It was only natural, I suppose, that I fell in love with Tarō. He seemed to be the only man around who understood me. Indeed, there were few men next to him who possessed that promise of future success that my father had taught me to seek out. In addition, Tarō was handsome and strong, body like a prized stallion: all lean muscle. He couldn't resist me any more than I could him.
You know all of this naturally, but what you may not know is that it was my idea to open Shokadō. As men are wont to do, Tarō went to Master Ikenobo and told him my idea without mentioning me. The Master was greatly moved by his consideration and dedication to the principles and gave Tarō his blessing--and the first funds with which to establish Shokadō. Since the school was rather poor, I have no doubt that the funds were the money my father sent regularly to Ikenobo.
Then Master expelled me from the school. I went home to my father's house and cried to him. I asked him to found a school to rival Tarō's, but he thought I was simply being foolish, and that I would get over it and move on to something else. But I never did. I secretly sought out Nara's greatest ikebana artist, Hara Nobuo, with whom Master Ikenobo had discovered the art of ikebana. After the scandal with Tarō, Ayumi, and Kitsune, I returned once more to Nara and Master Hara. Under his tutelage, I soon mastered all three elements of time, space, and mind.
Here is where my history is uncertain with regard to Shokadō, for though I have haunted you for more than five hundred years, I have managed to keep myself private.
I have lived many lives. In one of them, Kuban Rikka's, I gave birth to a daughter from a man named Terashima Akira. She was not the only child I bore, but she is the only one alive today.
The worst thing about it is that I could have left her her father. But I couldn't suffer him to live--to move on and love another. In his final moments, Akira saw--as the fathers of all of my other children had seen before him--that I was a monster."
Rikka's features softened and she tore her eyes away from Mameha presently. "Kitsune has kept a guarding eye on Shokadō for me, but particularly you, Mameha. He has been protecting you from me all these years, because I don't have the strength to fight against my own programming." Though her story was through, Jūban did not say what they all knew to be true: her appetite for pain had briefly been satisfied when she murdered Mameha's father.
Juneau felt so strange listening to this teenager talk about past lives, hearts she'd broken, children she'd borne. She was brought back to Kitsune's ruminations on life and death, his hunger and flippancy toward time and space. Maybe these last centuries had turned Rikka into a kind of goddess. She certainly had the requisite appetite. Juneau could see that very little differed between Rikka and the god that would soon be her undoing, for he, too, garnered pleasure from the pain of others.
Jūban smiled weakly, looking softly on Yuki, her eyes then drifting over to Claire. Her eyes caught sight of something behind them, and they all turned to see their guest at the door.
"My love." The fox spirit's face was gaunt but steady. Patience beyond human capacity emanated from him, and it soothed Juneau. She would not stand in his way this time. "You are the last one in all time and space," he said simply.
Jūban nodded, whatever sorrow and malice she'd clutched to her chest gone from her. "I know. I feel the void closing around me."
She looked seventeen going on seventy-two. The age in her eyes belied the youth of her skin. Though no crow's feet crinkled at their corners, the iris and the pupils, and the mind they gave onto, had seen more than anyone else in human history. She stood and straightened her back. "I shall keep my promise to you, my darling daughter Mameha. I was responsible for destroying the Three Gorges Dam. I implanted in the Chinese Prime Minister the idea of declaring war on the United States and, further, bombing Japan and Himeji Castle, her greatest treasure. I betrayed you, and for it, I offer my life."
In a weak whimper, Yuki begged, "No."
Jūban looked at her again, the look of a friend, of a lover. She said nothing, but drew everyone's attention away from Kitsune. So when, in a great leap over them, he came down, jaws wide to consume her, the family gasped in communion. There was no tug-of-war, no wrangling with the body, and no awkwardness--for Kitsune himself had disappeared in a flash of light. Where Jūban Rikka stood, there was nothing, not even the memory of her sweet scent like lavender honey bubbling warm in a stainless steel pot.
The chair left behind sat patiently.
Juneau turned to see tears in every eye. She blinked back her own, wondering in awe how they could ever feel sorry for the loss of such a wretched soul. But it was that wretchedness that made it all the more poignant. She touched Yuki's cheek in an unabashed gesture of compassion, and it surprised the girl. Yuki hugged her, tight, tighter, burying her tear-stricken face in Juneau's shoulder. Juneau struggled for breath but didn't let go. She felt Claire come up beside them, wrap her arms around them and rest her cheek on Juneau's shoulder. It was soon wet.
The servants looked on from afar with reserved curiosity as the family came together in a loving embrace. Mother and daughter, father and sister: they were family.
It wasn't a moment later that Juneau remembered her own family. She reached for Kuni from the tangle of arms encasing her head and, finding her hand, clung tight to it.