??? - Old Legends Return

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Pasonia
Posts: 174
Joined: Wed Jan 13, 2010 12:43 am

??? - Old Legends Return

Post by Pasonia » Tue Dec 18, 2012 3:14 am

Note: This deviates from the original Romance of Three Kingdoms and is essentially my rendition of the legend of Zhang Fei.

"You've got to be kidding me, right?"

This, Zhang Fei said at the end of spewing his wine all over an irate subordinate. Though, the shock of the news was mixed with some comedy about the situation as a whole.

"So... What's going on? Second Brother's got a date with that Hua Tuo, and I'm his distraction tool? Seriously?"

"That would appear to be the case, General. Please make haste, sir; his operation is to begin in the hour of shen. Your horse is ready."

Having already drank a few jars of nuerhong strong wines, Zhang Fei did not feel like acceding to the request, had it not been for Guan Yu personally summoning him to the medical hall.

"...what's an operation, anyway?"
"I have no clue, General."
"Augh. Hell. Get me some water; I'll fix myself on the way."

Since the ambush on their encampment near Fancheng, he'd been wary about fighting in a drunken state. That the constant sounds of warfare were beginning to irritate him just a little bit was enough reason for him to swamp himself in vats of strong wine. He knew it would be best not to let Liu Bei hear this, or he'll have no end of it. Zhang Fei shuddered at the thought, but shook it aside as he rode astride to meet his brother at the medical tents.

---

The gallops were beginning to sound loud enough. It was customary that his otherworldly partner would only speak to him while he was riding.

"What's the big deal, young man?"
"I don't know, Yanren," replied Zhang Fei. "I figure that playing weiqi with me must be a stressful enough matter that could double up as distraction."
"Perhaps..."

Zhang Fei took on a glum grin. "Any signs of enemy activity?"
"... I'm seeing one up the trees. Seems like two enemy archers perched up there. Thank goodness for Premier Zhuge's advice, or else I wouldn't have been able to use the moonlight effectively."
"You ready?"
"Whenever you are."

Without warning, Zhang Fei suddenly leapt off his horse, causing the men and horses following him to bank rough; some of them fell off their horses, unceremoniously trodden over by their own steeds, unable to react to their General's sudden act.

All Zhang Fei cared about, though, were the two archers that threatened his entire forces. Without due regard for his own safety, he took a wild swing at the trunks of the tree. Empowered by his Stray's ability to become a blade enhancer that cuts through most things, the tree that housed the archers stood no chance, as it began an abrupt crash into the forest floor, sending yet more of Zhang Fei's own men scrambling for their lives as the tree crashed with a dramatic boom, pinning an unfortunate horse-bound archer underneath the wood.

The two archers were in no better shape either; losing the comfort of the tree's balance, they crash-landed onto hard forest floor limbs-first, so they were effectively immobilized by injury.

It did not matter eventually; their heads were cleanly sliced off, causing blood to spurt onto the forest floor before the headless bodies, bereft of their controllers, slumped and spurted more blood into the forest floor.

Yanren was only too happy to lap the crimson liquid up; to others it may as well looked like the forest floor was absorbing all the blood.

"Mm... tasty blood."
"You go have it on your own time. I'm not looking."
"Thanks. You're such a chum," cooed the Stray uncharacteristically.
"You only get as much time as my steed hears my whistle, though. Do it fast, Yanren."

---

"You're half an hour late, Little Brother."

As Zhang Fei crashed into the medical tent, it was in plain sight of both himself and the second person present the blood traces that nagged and dragged at his footwear. Zhang Fei did not need a second glance to identify Hua Tuo - practically everyone in Shu Han recognizes the legendary doctor.

"It would seem you took care of an ambush along the way."
"Yes, Second Brother Guan. I'm really sorry about that."

Guan Yu waved his apology away; the legendary general did not pay much mind to it.

"It's fine, to receive treatment and play a game with you to dispel the pain is already a luxury."
"Really now? Is it so stressful to play with me, now? Wahaha!" Zhang Fei chortled aloud with his scythe settled beside him; it wouldn't do to have the weapon too far from him.
"I would be joking if I said it wasn't," replied Guan Yu cheerily. "Sir, please begin your work."

The physician nodded his head, and thus began peeling open a blackened patch on Guan Yu's right arm with what seemed like concentrated fire. But the bearded man paid no heed, as he picked up a stone from the weiqi bowl and placed a black stone on the board nearby.

"You're seriously thinking of playing with me in this condition, Brother?" Zhang Fei was a little sceptical that anyone could play weiqi with this sort of injury.
"No problems, Little Brother. I'm even going to have to warn you that you'll lose!"

I'd lose? If you can't beat me normally, I doubt you could do it with that severe an injury! Despite thinking that, Zhang Fei felt that he had no choice but to entertain Guan Yu a little, even though to him the outcome was already obvious.

---

At the end of two hours, Zhang Fei noticed two things of interest. One, that the doctor had begun to employ bandages around his brother's right arm, which means the treatment is already over. Two, that Guan Yu was left laughing at himself as he threw stones onto the stone-filled board - a common signal for conceding defeat, leaving the uneven clangs of stones to indicate his resignation.

"You got me there again, Little Brother."
"I thought you did, Brother Guan. You just failed to see the variation, that's all."

Guan Yu smirked a little. "I thought it wouldn't have been possible considering that there were at least two more other problems to solve before you could begin the attack, anyway. Even the pain in my arm could not force me to perform better. That is truly tragic. I shall take my leave then, little brother."

Guan Yu picked up his crescent scythe, and grinned - in exasperation and admiration simultaneously - as he left the tent and harked for his steed.

It was then that Hua Tuo, himself an occasional player, peered at the board as he packed his belongings, and was left slightly surprised.

"Sirs, I've never seen such a variation of attacks... How did this develop?"

Zhang Fei tapped at his forehead, used to the questions. "It's a little hard for me to explain in a few words, doc. Let's just say I'm good, alright?"

Hua Tuo smiled a little. "Well, in that case, let me have my most talented apprentice engage you in a round before you leave? I am afraid I cannot understand this intricate game that well."

That got Zhang Fei's interested piqued, as Yanren stared on.

"Well, bring that apprentice out, then."

Hua Tuo heeded the command. "Yue Ji, come o'er here."

Upon hearing that, Zhang Fei was astounded to see a soot-faced lass emerging from the kitchen behind. As Hua Tuo berated the lass for her tardy appearance, Zhang Fei intervened.

"But General Zhang, how can---"
"It's fine. We don't need appearances to judge strength. Lass, how many stones would you like me to give you?"

The lass said nothing, preferring to sit at the bench where Guan Yu was seated earlier, picking the white stones.

Zhang Fei took the signal, and without a word he clanged his first stone on one of the grid intersections with resounding force. Hua Tuo's eyes widened at the sheer intimidation, but the girl calmly placed her piece before Zhang Fei could break into a chortle.

---

After another two hours, it was Zhang Fei's turn to throw a palm's worth of stones off the board.

"...I can't believe it... I must've been dead drunk."

The young girl appearing no more than sixteen, though dirty and tired, bowed respectfully at the General upon his concession.

"Thank you, General."

"The Physician called you Yue Ji, right?"
"That is right, General Zhang. My name is Xiahou Yueji."

That brought alarm to his senses. "Xiahou... of Wei?"

Sensing the General's alarm, the already busy Hua Tuo left his stove and quickly stuck himself in between the General and his apprentice.

"Ah, General, please be at ease! She was no more than an illegitimate child of the Xiahou family, though she bears their surname!"

Zhang Fei had other ideas, however, as he relaxed his death grip on his weapon.

"...I've had a most interesting game with Yue Ji today. I won't kill somebody who is more proficient at weiqi than myself. Can I ask that she become my apprentice instead, Physician Hua?"

"Well..."

Yue Ji did not need a second to sidle aside the General when the chance presented itself.

"Why, you little rascal... Ugh. Fine. The lass never had her heart on the medicines. Maybe she would be better if she were a warrior..."

Upon hearing that, it was said that even the enemies that night could hear Zhang Fei's most rapturous of laughter.

---

Several years later...

"Your lord is at his deathbed, young man," Yanren observed as he, Yue Ji, and Zhang Fei stood before Zhuge Liang, whose body was so weak that he had to employ both teacher and apprentice to right himself before their presence.

"I prefer not to mention any of that at this time, Yanren," answered Zhang Fei solemnly as Zhuge Liang nodded respectfully to the presences of everyone.

"I see he's still doing well, Zhang Fei... That strange man that wards you. He is right that I am at my deathbed now..."

Zhang Fei didn't want much of that, having just had to deal with news of troops abandoning posts due to lack of supplies. "Tell us what it is to be done and it shall be done. I'll leave questions of your health to later times..."

But the strategist Zhuge, the one known as the Crouching Dragon, would only smile at him, in a knowing manner.

"It is imperative that you hear of it. I need you to execute the Solution tonight. After almost five years, the Solution is finally ready; the remnants of the Yellow Scarves' sorcery complete."

"You what? You used Yellow Scarves sorcery to...?" 'Yellow Scarves', the single biggest supernatural / militia threat that they had dealt with years ago, showed up unexpectedly enough that Zhang Fei's attention was instantly taken.

"...their sorcery was not all bad. Zhang Jiao did indeed have the people's mind in place, and all I wanted to do was to extend that part of his magic... only, unto Wei, so as to force them into a merger. If this succeeds, Guan Yu's death by ambush at Fancheng will be avenged."

Zhang Fei would only nod solemnly. "So what should I do?"

---

As the pair stalked off, Yue Ji was more worried for Zhang Fei than ever before.

"...Yanren," she began, speaking to the usually stoic Yanren, "say something to dissuade Master already..."

"Women should stay out of men's affairs. I'd advise the same to you."
"In the same manner, as a ghost you should stay his hands away from indifference," retorted an annoyed Yue Ji as Zhang Fei's expression remained unmoved despite the argument. "Master, say something already."

It was then that Zhang Fei stopped, allowing the winds of the prairies to soothe his head as he abruptly pulled Yue Ji - in his eyes a picture of radiance and ravishing, resilient beauty - towards him.

"To think just a few years ago you were that quiet, reserved little girl who excelled in weiqi. Now, you're here, randomly telling me things I probably never should heed. What do, little lady?"

"What do? Just don't go ahead with the plan at all! You know the Solution is at best suicidal, don't you? Don't you?! With all due respect, Strategist Kongming is literally staking your head, Liao Hua's head, Zhao Yun's head - heck, even my head - and hoping for the best when even he don't know how the Solution will turn out! Are you that blind?!"

"It's not blindness. It's seeing matters to the very end," was Zhang Fei's calm reply. "Guan Yu's sacrificed allowed us to walk a few more years on this earth. We should at least honor him with bravery."

"I'm not questioning that, you idiot! Bravery and recklessness are but just a fine line between each other---"

It was at this moment that Zhang Fei caught Yue Ji unaware by placing his face to her eye-level. For reasons neither of them were quite sure of, both of them blushed beetroot, and Yanren could only silently stare - unable to comprehend the situation as it were - as man of thirty-seven and woman of twenty-one locked at each other's eyeballs for an unnaturally lengthy period.

"...everything will be alright in the end... trust me."
Pasonia
Posts: 174
Joined: Wed Jan 13, 2010 12:43 am

Re: ??? - Old Legends Return

Post by Pasonia » Fri Apr 26, 2013 9:26 pm

Against the winds that caressed his travel-hardened face, the merchant smiled, a strange curl of the lips that expressed neither arrogance nor affluence.

Business has always brought him to lands far and unknown, but this one wasn't too unfamiliar, at least within the family. The fabled easterly winds that harken the arrival of spring and the expulsion of bitter winters, the bustle of this mysterious northern country whose people speak a peculiar language yet writes in familiar characters, and the gorgeous scenery of sheer cliffs dotted with pink-colored petals he had never seen the likes of, all proved to be one of the most refreshing moments in his twelve years of travelling and selling merchandise of many sorts.

Within his carts are vats of spices, each worth many pieces of silver, with the best of them - the city of Ceylon's treasured cinnamon extract - overriding nearly all the smells, and precisely why people flock to his cart, in search of the great smells that their limited world views could never fathom; the rich often pay him a hundred times the price he bought it for, and that always spells good business.

As his carts made a cursory visit to one of the many stone-based castles that dot the beautiful seaside landscape, the animals of the woods greeted them as best as they could.

It was a good day, it would seem. A good day to raise an unusually loud ruckus to draw attention, the merchant noted, as he cleared his throat loudly and then began to cup his hands around his mouth.

---

"Good day, everybody!"

The noise that rang out from the serene silence of a good spring day brought her sleepy eyes to a rather rude opening.

"I come from the mainland, and I would like to sell you some of the best spices you will ever come across!"

Her eyes still weary, it was almost automatic for the lady to spring out of bed and get into her guest-dress - a one-piece item she invented for herself that allows her to get dressed up in record time, a trait she learnt from being the laziest royal princess ever to exist in the Clan.

Speedy dress up for speedy guest expulsion.

"Who is it at this hour? Guests?"

The maidservant, rather slow in reacting, flapped the door open, nearly taking out the princess.

"Aieee!"
"Oh no! Sorry, princess!"
"For the last time, Ako! Don't be so hasty!"
"I... I know, princess, but there's a weird man wearing weird clothing shouting things in our language!"

A weird man... weird clothing... our language?
"Does he tow a cart with him?"
"Yes, Princess..."
"Merchant. I'll deal with him now. Don't alarm Father - he doesn't need to know this."
"But..."
"I'll be fine. My betrothal to Prince Hayahasa, I've not forgotten. I'm just doing my last duties as a Royal Princess before I marry off. Any objections?"

Ako had wanted to protest; The Royal Princess Fujiwara-no-Masako will never be denied of what she wants, but in that firm belief lies a deep trust that she had always had of the Princess, despite being at least ten years older.

"...No objections, milady."
"Then see to it that he is attended to. I intend to finish this before the goat hour*."
"Yes, milady..."

---

As the gates to the regal residence opened, the first reaction of the merchant was one of absolute awe.

"Really now? Wow..."

Before him was a lady, probably of his age, and whose demeanor exceeded that that he had imagined the ladies to have been - gentle and demure, with rather tiny gestures that made his heart flutter and beat about like a blinded deer. As the lady approached, the merchant was careful not to be rude, even though his bated breathing was hard to keep out of sight.

"Pleased to welcome you, good sir," Princess Masako greeted; as per royal customs, her status means that she does not bow to the merchant's presence. "I am the Royal Daughter, Princess Fujiwara-no-Masako."

"Ah, yes." The merchant bowed deeply but quickly, rising into a leap as he tried to contain his rather nervous reactions. "I... I am Zhang Yun, of the mainland."

Princess Masako did not respond outwardly, but Zhang Yun's flawless utility with the language had her flustered for a little bit; merchants from the mainland had never grasped the language properly, and she had been rather prepared to deal with the contingency, but Yun's responses had negated any of that need.

"I seek your purchase of my exquisite spices, they, uh, be valuable items that cannot be peddled by most other merchants, yes."

Yun's stutter surprised the man himself. Was the Princess so ravishing as to make his confidence desert him so abruptly? Perhaps, but business remains business.

Hopefully.

"They are of the highest quality of fragrances, and it would be, shall I say, a real pity not to be able to procure these treasures that are rarer than gold, princess!"

Princess Masako was, observant as she had ever been, very acutely aware of the stutter - truthfully, not one man had stopped stuttering upon her face, one she recognized as being blessed - but the man before her handled his mistakes so much more gracefully and gentlemanly than any other male before.

She feared that no other man would be this graceful after. Whether it was a calculated risk or her following her own heart, she did not know, and will not claim to ever know.

"So... please let me take a look at this spice that you proclaim to be of excellent quality, Mister... Zhang."
"Certainly, dear princess!"

---

"The princess is slow... it's near the end of the monkey hour*, yet she had been chattering away with the merchant... oh dear..."

Ako had been rather nervous about the princess's no-show, but as soon as the seed of doubt was planted in Ako's head they were just as quickly nibbed, as the princess suddenly appeared before her, at the doors to her room that she had been so anxiously awaiting.

The dusk light shining upon the Princess revealed, to Ako's intuition, a woman who had been happy. The significance was not lost - for months after the betrothal had been announced, nobody in the family had smiled as wide as Princess Masako had. Yet, as to why the smile was as such, it remained a curious mystery.

"Princess, are you alright?"
"Uh? Um, yes, I am excellent... heh."

Ako raised her eyebrow. "Did you... buy anything?"

"Ako, are you silly? Of course not!"

Ako heaved a sigh of relief. It did come too soon though, as the princess continued.

"I told him to show up at the Prince's to peddle the items. You know our situation best, Ako."
"Yeah, I know. we won't have the money to buy Ceylon fragrances... wait, what?"
"Yet, be that as it may, we still need face... the best way out is to get the Itou family to foot the bill, right?"
"Certainly... right you are," Ako responded rather hesitantly. "But you have been out for unusually long, Princess..."

"Ako... Since when do servants get elevated to the level of nannies and caretakers?"

The tone in Princess Masako's voice suggested she had been upset by the persistent Ako.

"Oh, your Highness, I'm so sorry! So sorry!"
"You better be!"

But none of those cursory apologies would remove Ako's doubt about the mysterious merchant; alas, by the time Ako went outside quickly in an attempt to catch a glimpse of said man, the merchant had long left, only leaving behind the unmistakable, enlightening fragrances of cinnamon he had brought along.

"...a merchant, indeed...? I fear that the merchant might bring about terrible tidings..."

---

"I assure you sire, you have never seen spices this nice, and the fragrance this distinct!"

As agreed, the merchant did show up at the Itou's several days, in full view of Princess Masako and Ako as they strolled past the sakura-petals-filled pavilion that had long been turned into a scene of beauty past that that may come from the ink and brush of mere mortals.

However, the rather stubbornly astute Ako had noticed a slight twinge of happiness that made its way across the Princess's lips; her face pursed just a moment after that smile, as though jealous that the merchant had showered his attention on her fiancé, rather than herself.

It was as though, rather than the beauty of spring that comes only twice every spring, the beauty before Princess Masako's eyes were not that of the magical spring, but of the spice merchant.

The spice trader is rather bad news indeed.

"Princess, be as it may, I do remember I have some business to attend to with the dowry."
"Oh, you do?" Princess Masako's eyes darted right into Ako's, momentarily stunning the maidservant.

"Y-yes, Your Highness."
"Hmm... well, okay, then. Do attend to business. I just wish all this riff-raff would be over with, soon."

"I hope the Princess is calm," Ako worried inwardly as she excused herself in a huff, and off she went to trail the merchant, who had just concluded his business with the rather exuberant Prince; though everyone might be calm now, if word ever got out that the Prince had been made a cuckold by spending money on a man who would take the Princess away and shame the entire family...

"Oh dear Amaterasu, please watch over your daughter and stay her hand from straying away...!"

As Ako arrived at the northern end of the fabled Dead Men's Woods - so named because a mysterious, monkey-like monster had been allegedly behind the killings of many an adventurer and the occasional hapless local in its wooden graves - her steps were curtailed, her fright upon seeing the entrance sign a rather hasty give away.

"Aieee--- oh no, better get away! He must have noticed..."

But it was not to be; Ako's actions only managed to go so far as to trigger a hidden trap that caused her to crash into the forest floor, and way down a tunnel of sorts.

---

"... No one has seen Ako?"
"Poor lady... she's probably taken away by the Monster..."
"You sure about that?!"
"It's been around for a long time..."

The chatter grew noisier and noisier, but the Itou family cared not for the disappearance of a mere maidservant, and, despite Princess Masako's protests, had decided that no tragedy will impede the marriage ceremony of the Prince and Princess.

Presumably, Princess Masako noted sadly, this was supposed to be an event so great it was poised to rival that of the marriage of the Toyotomi's Prince to the Date's Princess, some hundreds of miles away.

"I wished I hadn't made the terrible joke of her being my nanny," sighed the Princess sadly. "Now I have no more maiden's company to speak to..."

As the Prince and Princess were done and dusted with the public-showing portion of the wedding - a ceremony that had been for all intents and purposes, been designed for privacy - the Prince, followed by the Princess, entered the private room that the Itou had specifically designed for this wedding to take place.

The betrothal may have been mere months, but for the Itou their Prince's wedding must have been decades in the making, noted the Princess as she knelt gingerly onto the futon, having recently suffered from foot blisters and not wanting to injure her feet any further. The Shinto priest had remained mysterious; his face bowed down, neither the Prince nor the Princess were able to get a clear view of the Priest's face.

"Sire... we cannot see your face," complained the Prince.
"It is a marriage between royalty; as but a member of the priestly order, I am but a mere mortal, forbidden to intrude."

That made sense, I suppose...

But before the Prince could sit himself down in as calm a manner as he would have liked to, a sudden madness came over the Prince, who suddenly grew vocal with his complaints.

"The room... this is absolutely too hot, milady... do you not think so?!"

Princess Masako did not feel any heat at all, and thus was thoroughly confused by the Prince's words. Before long, however, the Prince himself suddenly convulsed onto the straw mats beneath his knees, spewing white foam and shivering uncontrollably.

All while the priest watched on calmly.

It was not long before the shivering stopped, the foams stopped flowing, and the Prince, static, right before the eyes of a terrified Princess.

"... what just happened...?"

It was only then that the priest revealed himself to be none other than the spice merchant, who looked upon the dead corpse of the Prince with much disdain.

"...Revenge comes full circle," grunted the merchant, knowing the Princess sought answers. "Twenty years ago, the Itou wronged my father, had him executed in a foreign land so far away from the Central Plains. Now his son exacts revenge on the entire family by wiping out the last of their descendants. Simple story, ain't it?"

"... Don't tell me your entire setup..."

"Was to enact this revenge," was the merchant's soft, but broken smile. "On my way here, I have heard of stories of how your family landed in tough times, too, by the hands of the ruthless Itou. I guess this is really more than just two birds in one stone, right?"

"..." The Princess was clearly saddened. Her marriage now in shambles before it had been consummated, her reputation was sure to be tarnished if word ever got out.

"Princess, are you worried?"

The Princess could not nod any quicker.

"Please do not be. I have the perfect solution."

---

The rest of the story was, if lightly described, a rather queer story.

The Prince's body had been transformed by the "magic water" that the merchant had long had, such that it resembled that of the disguise the fake priest had entered the ceremony tent with; the Itou had no idea that their only torch-bearer had long since left the world, replaced by the former spice-merchant whose rather falsified travails and tragic end has since been well-documented and believed, and thus buried the Prince under blissfully ignorant circumstances.

The merchant, of course, assumed the responsibilities and identities of the Prince, and had, as Ako feared, consummated his "false" marriage with the Princess on the night his heinous act took place.

Ako was rescued shortly after the marriage was done, but for inexplicable reasons she had been rendered mute, forever silenced on her protests about the merchant - in fact, she had chanced upon the merchant's murderous preparations in the Woods, whose rumors the sympathetic Takeda clan had helped spread, and in turn he had been left with no choice but to quite literally silence the maidservant.

The Itou never knew the truth - but for an unremarkable oddity of the family head delegating the job of announcing royal matters to the Princess - and for them and the Fujiwara family, times could not have been any more merrier ever after.

No one ever suspected that a terrible crime had happened, and till this day it remains buried, only to be known by those in time to come, who would seek clairvoyance for all of past, present and future.

---
Paso's note:
For the Japanese time system I had been using please refer to the following link: Japanese Time System Link
Pasonia
Posts: 174
Joined: Wed Jan 13, 2010 12:43 am

Re: ??? - Old Legends Return

Post by Pasonia » Mon Jun 10, 2013 4:13 am

It was on a quiet morning, amidst the birds' fresh chatter and the woodland creatures' awakening, that Kuzuryuu River roared back into its life after an unusually bitter winter.

For the merchant's daughter, however, any sign that time is progressing is a terrible omen for her. You see, the sickly little lady, whose unusually pale skin and demure countenance belied her dazzling beauty, akin to a blooming flower that bursts open in the winter, is facing her own untimely wilting.

A terrible childhood cold had rendered the lady not being able to move a muscle since she had turned three and ten. At present she is one and twenty.

All she had looking forward was sadness. It pained her further that her father - one of the most well-off merchants in the region - despite having sought after the best physicians, shamans of the land, was not able to find a cure to her illness.

All she had by her side - which the lady was told sternly never to acknowledge - was a strange, middle-aged man, a man who had been serving her for many, many years. Despite her involuntarily needy, dependent nature, this man has served by her side ever since she first fell deathly sick many years ago, and had cared so much for her.

This sir has been very hardworking for so many years. If I recover one day, I must repay him properly.

If there was one thing her books taught her - a distant memory, yet she recalls with perfect clarity - it was that good men should be rewarded for their deeds. Despite being the manservant that he was - often ignored outright by the rest of her family members, being shoved aside, sometimes unfairly impeded by family instructions - he never failed his daily routine of gently wiping the girl's face, then her hands, of the dirt that had gathered during her sleep. An uncomfortable routine at first, the helplessly sick little lady gradually got used to his delicate touches.

Yet she cannot acknowledge the man.

Uneventful days with her mysterious disability gradually turned less dull as spring days like this one rolled by - for all of six years now - and the manservant, in her stead, took up such activities as calligraphy writing, painting, and reading, in order to entertain the lady and keep her from being bored.

She often wondered, though, about the disappearance of the portraits he used to draw at length, and no one else in the family was even remotely aware that their manservant is a really well-versed man.

Yet this man is willingly staying back to take care of her.

And today, he brought about a new activity that she had never seen before; picking out a leaf from out of his pockets, the manservant began, first gently biting upon the leaves, then blowing into it; what she had expected nothing of transformed into music to her ears, quite literally, as the manservant gracefully applied technique to them to produce a heavenly quality about the spring air as the birds' chatter became fully complemented by the manservant's musical ability.

How calming...

The music touched her so; her memories of her carefree days as an active child danced about the music; her first interactions with the world, now a distant remembrance, became her accompaniment to the music.

Alas, we really are of very different lives. If the Shogun knows of you, you will be a wise man that will help our country... Such unfairness, for you to be by my unworthy side.

The manservant was absorbed in his music, as was the lady. For one full hour, the early morning air was filled with nothing but the very sounds of heaven brought closer to her by her most capable servant.

I want to rest so badly... but not in a manner that deprives me...

However, that was indeed what she got, as she found her eyes closing rather fast, even as she realized it a second too late.

---

"... wake up, milady."

The lady was sure that she had been on her bed, but the surface that had been kissing her back suggested a wildly different tale.

"... eh... why do I smell such a strong scent of mud..."

The lady turned her head around, but then she realized as she turned her head that her body moved along, too.

"... hm? Eh?"

The lady tried a few more gestures. First, she attempted to flex her toes. They gave off a curious sensation, a buzzing at her feet that she was very unaccustomed to.

Next, she tried to will her arms into action, and they acted, as though recently freed of an invisible pair of shackles, they actually flapped. The combined feeling was fantastic; the life that had previously been stripped of her mortal body was returned to her being, and it was invigorating, empowering, exhilarating.

"Milady, please stand up."

Even if her body had returned to life, one thing remained the same - that of the unwavering loyalty of her servant. Willing herself to calm down, she bore her eyes into those of the sir who had taken care of her for so long.

"...sir... th... thank..."

After having not spoken a word for so long, the words that came out of the girl's mouth were unusually soft, and they squeaked in such an incomprehensible manner, that soon the lady found herself stuttering awkwardly, like a baby who could not speak well.

"It is my pleasure, milady. I have finally found my peace after nursing you back to health. Alas, the day you become well..."

The servant could not speak further, his voice suddenly mellowing out.

The lady knows full well, however.

This is a page in her life's history she cannot escape; still, she did not want to choose escaping.

"Servant, please... bond. Forever. As I am your lady, so it shall be you who becomes my eternal servant."

The manservant's eyes lit up. "Milady...?"

"Even if I am this weak, you will be my sword and shield against the life that is to follow."

The lady could not speak fast, but each word was clear in purpose. The manservant bowed down at her knees.

"You will guide me in walking the path toward your brethren, connecting with the past of our lands so that we may make our way towards prosperity and happiness for all. Will you not?"

"Certainly, milady! I am glad to be by your side always!"

That instant the servant announced his intentions, the skies temporarily darkened, but soon an even bright bloom of colors came forth to her range of vision as her mouth opened up in absolute delight.

From within the colored lights, clothings of all varieties and colors emerged in rainbow-like fashion, glistened by the spring dew of the grassy plains that their garbs had touched. Not a single one of these people dressed shabbily, but ominously, the girl became aware that while the men and women emerged from colors, the colors were predominantly closer to white than of any darker shades.

"Silk clothing for all?"

"No, milady, you are a lady of the netherworldly powers they call "un-life". You have been entrusted with the responsibility since birth, but alas, you were too young to understand. Thus, when you had been robbed you of your energy, it was not because of a sickness; it is that these powers were unable to manifest. Today, milady, the energy of spring is unusually strong."

The little lady was confused. "That is to say...?"

"That, be it as it may that you have, for years, been utterly bereft of power, today I have fulfilled my duty by gathering enough energy to install you as a Lady of the Nether."

It was then that the lady immediately recognized what she was in for, even as she was happily peering at her new-found energies.

"...so, as it stands now... I am currently the lady of dead people, is that incorrect?"
"No, milady, that is wonderfully accurate... if a little too direct. These men and women would prefer the title 'Departed'. As it is, they have departed the Realm of Man; what you see are the remnants of energies that these men have imparted upon the land with their passing, hence "departing" with their consciousness. You are of a breed of ladies who can summon them."

The servant handed her a key.

"What is this...?"

The servant's lips lit with a little knowing grin; the world around them shifted back from grassy plains full of people to her own room.

She had stood up, and in full view of her merchant father, whose joy after many years of frustration over his daughter's health could not be contained; that joy spread throughout the household, like a happy, infectious plague that mirrored - yet countered - the plague of the year before where half the household was brought down in a regional tragedy, of a "wrath of the gods".

The girl's own recovery meant the world to the family. At last, their daughter has recovered.

Yet, even so, the father stopped to take a better look at his daughter. He realized, to a mixture of dismay and pride, that had he not been the father to his daughter, he would have been a smitten suitor, and the posture his daughter had found herself in was a hard-to-articulate, easy-to-admire form of beauty; the purest of pure, like a white crane dancing in the frigid, beautiful waters of Mount Fuji; a hard-to-reach-for woman of men's dream.

Her countenance quiet, her body fully functional, the air she exuded displaying nothing but her alluring beauty, she glided down the steps towards her father.

"...my daughter..."

The father had his daughter in an embrace.

"...I believe that your mum's best friend had been taking care of you all these years. I'm sorry I can do nothing for you over the years..."

The servant was nowhere to be found; the daughter did not know the full story.

"I know you tried, father... I don't blame you... You are still my dearest father."

The servant was left slightly surprised; ever since the departure of the former lady from the terrible famine of a decade ago, he had not seen the old master smile and cry the way he had, as he embraced his daughter in a hug that was so many years due.

"I only blame that we are not ever destined to see each other, kind sir," sighed the servant. "Miss, we shall be planning for a route towards the betterment of the town."

---

In A.D. 1436, Fujiwara-no-Ebina was stylized as Princess Ehime, one of several "foster princesses" of the time designed to quell the political troubles between the Shogunate and the rest of Japan through arranged clan marriages. Her rise in power was nothing short of a phenomenon; merely five years later, she had effectively become the ruler of Japan anywhere north of Hokkaido, operating and planning future routes to prosperity by the introduction of Zen Buddhism, using several regents at once to compliment and fulfil each other's roles.

At her deathbed, Princess Ehime, served by her ever-loyal servant, decreed that she would not have her body intact, instead returning her body to the deep waters of present-day Lake Mashu in Hokkaido.

It was said that when her passing finally came and the deed was done, the gods had declared an eternity of happiness for the people living in Mashu, a recognition of the great grace that Ehime's secret rule had over the many regents and warlords of the cold lands.

Ehime's great efforts, as the secret guardian of Northern Japan, resulted in a generally peaceful northern Japan for much of the fifty years prior, and after Ehime's passing. During this time, some of the most famous people of the time - including William Adams, Japan's only Western samurai, and many foreigners sought trade with Japan, an allure brought about by Ehime's most meticulous conduct of affairs both foreign and abroad; her knowledge of men and their minds was exalted among the few who ever knew the true Princess.

Among the scholars who were granted studies of her life, she is peerless; explicitly desiring never to be a queen, but exerting charisma on such a level that the only shame she would have had, if ever, is that she was of the wrong gender to lead feudal Japan.

Among the Lady of the Nether, she was the only one granted equivalent power to a Duchess on her initiation - the third rank in the Nether Ladies' Control Tiers. Her rank, at the time of her passing, was believed to be equivalent to the Supreme Mother Regent; no other lady had surpassed the feat since.

What of the servant, then?

Ether scholars have never really figured out the enigma surrounding her partner. The only thing they could conclude was that he was a very well-versed man and a loyal servant; the evidence was that Ehime, having reportedly been sick most of her life, was able to appreciate the arts, music and politics much sooner than most women of her generation, and at age thirty was displaying such a keen knowledge of Japan from Kyushu to Honshu to Hokkaido, that even the greatest men of her generation had been frightened by the prospect.

Such was the power of a mere Nether Lady.

What else is in sight?
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