White as Bone. Red as Blood. The Fox Sorceress:
Chapter One: January, 1160
“Riders! Coming fast! Bearing the Taira Insignia!” A serving man runs down the aisle of columns into our house, shouting. The foxes I have been watching hunting mice in the snow vanish instantly. It is the foxes’ ability to become invisible which makes them sacred to Inari in her form as the Goddess of sorcery. That they eat the mice, which destroy the grain, makes foxes the servants of Inari, who is also protectress of the rice. Hearing the servant shout, I scurry to one of the stone foxes flanking our doorway and crouch beside it. The snow is falling softly, a veil of white feathers. A dozen soldiers barrel up the road, passing the main Inari shrine, turning onto the path to my mother’s house, a single flag bearing the butterfly clan symbol of the Taira flapping from an upraised spear. My mother, Fujiwara Fujuri is the High Priestess here at Fukushima Shrine, and everyone, from the highest courtiers to the humblest peasants comes to visit her for her cures and prayers. But my mother’s friends, the Taira, always come in neat processions, soldiers marching in orderly rows, Lord Kiyomori and his sons brilliant in their scarlet silks on horseback, the women and children in elegant carriages, clusters of servants bringing up the rear. Not like this. The tearing speed of the horses tells me this is no ordinary visit; the sight of my calm, graceful mother rushing out the doors towards the muddy road makes my mouth drop open.
I huddle closer to the stone fox, willing myself to be unseen as the soldiers, clothed in armor and lacings of every color thunder by my hiding place. The riders pull back hard on the reins, and I wince for the horses’ mouths as they rear up and come to a shuddering stop, white breath thick as dragon smoke pouring from their nostrils. The lead rider leaps to the ground, shakes her head, snow crystals fly from her long black hair like sparks of white fire. Her black eyes blaze and I inhale with sharp shock to see that it is Lady Kiyomori. I have seen my mother’s best friend here often, but always stepping regally from her carriage inlaid with jade butterflies, clothed in the richest fabrics. Today she is encased in armor the color of dried blood.
“I need to talk to you,” she says before my mother can step forward to greet her. “Yoshitomo and Nobuyori have taken advantage of my Lord’s pilgrimage to foment a rebellion in the Capitol.”
“Come inside,” my mother says, her voice soft as the wind chimes barely stirring beside her. “Where are the children?”
“I’ve left them in the care of my most loyal retainers in the hills between here and our mansions at Roduhara. I must get back to them soon. Shigemori and Munemori are with their father.”
My mother murmurs orders to a kneeling servant who immediately calls other men to rush forward, leading the horses to the stables and the men who have accompanied Lady Kiyomori to the kitchens to be fed.
As the adults disperse, I scuttle around the side of the house to press against the sliding doors of my mother’s room, the cold hand squeezing my heart making me forget the chill in my fingers and toes.
I stick my thumb in my mouth, use it as a moist awl to drill a small hole in the thick paper screen, press my eye to the opening. My mother’s maidservant, Midori, helps unlace Lady Kiyomori from her breastplate, fingers fumbling at the unfamiliar task. Other servants bring in a table with tea and a bottle of sake infused with my mother’s herbs. The chodai enclosing mother’s bed, piled high with padded peach silks where she and Lady Kiyomori often sleep together is ignored.
“Drink some of this before you say anything further, Tokiwa,” my mother says, pressing a cup into Lady Kiyomori’s hands. My mother sips politely at her cup of tea while Lady Kiyomori drains a second cup.
“Do the Emperor and Retired Emperor support Yoshitomo?” mother asks.
Lady Kiyomori finally replies, her bosom still heaving with the effort of the ride.
“They burned Go-Shirakawa’s mansion and locked him up in the Palace library. Emperor Nijo is imprisoned in the Kurodo chamber. Your brother, Shinzei–”
My mother gets up, goes to the door leading from her room to the hallway. “Kill a chicken, make a soup, put some ginseng, daikon and ginger in it,” she calls to a servant.
“I don’t have time to wait for soup,” Lady Kiyomori gasps. “Fujuri–Shinzei is dead.”
My mother slides abruptly to her haunches with an audible thump. My eyes widen. Uncle Michinori, often called Shinzei, is the most important man at court.
My mother’s hands fold protectively against her belly. “His sons?” she asks huskily, “His wife?”
“The sons have been captured and executed. Lady Kii survived.”
I never realized how brightly the light around my mother shines, until this moment, when I see it doused. Her eyes are closed. The way she keeps pressing her hands against her stomach, makes me wonder if she is going to be sick. She slumps back against a wall.
“Forgive me for being so abrupt,” Lady Kiyomori pants, “but some things, there is no good way to say them.”
Mother does not respond. Anxiously I watch the shallow rise and fall of her breath. Nothing upsets my mother. Not earthquakes, not trees crashing through the shoji screens during a storm, nothing.
Lady Kiyomori gestures with her chin towards the sake. A servant pours it for her. She stares off into the distance, as if she did not notice my mother’s state.
“You warned him. I remember. You told him that if he reinstated the death penalty, he himself would suffer it.” She places her hand on my mother’s thigh. “You are always right, Fujuri. I will always listen to you. I am sorry your family has been lost, but now I need your counsel, else my family shall soon follow.”
“Bring me the remedy for shock,” Mother whispers to her servant, who immediately opens the door to my mother’s workroom, lined with ceramic bottles. She pours a dark substance from a beige bottle into a spoon, which my mother takes directly into her mouth, though usually her remedies are mixed in sake or warm water.
“Give me a moment, Tokiwa,” mother requests. “When did you hear this?”
“About your brother, just this morning. I sent a page into Kyoto to hear what else might have transpired. Your brother’s residence was burned to the ground. He fled, but was captured and beheaded within the day.”
“Lord Kiyomori is still on pilgrimage?”
“Yes. Shigemori, our oldest, is with him. I sent messages yesterday to inform him of the rebellion. I trusted no one to come to you but myself. If ever you have helped my family with your talismans and potions, now is the time. Without the help of the invisible realms, we are lost. Can you tell if Kiyomori and Shigemori are well? Are they safe? Have they been betrayed?”
What about Tokushi? I want to scream. Tokushi, Lady Kiyomori’s youngest, is my best friend, though she is only six and I am eleven. Really, she is more like a younger sister. The first time Lady Kiyomori brought her here, as a baby, Tokushi looked up at me with a toothless grin, and I fell in love. Mother says Tokushi and I have a bond from another life. I know Amami, Tokushi’s nurse, would die for her, as my nurse, Tashi, would die for me. But the thought of Tokushi somewhere on a mountain in this falling snow without her mother, makes me feel frantic. Why didn’t Lady Kiyomori bring her here?
The snow slides its icy fingers down my neck, making me shiver.
“Bring me some mugwort tea,” mother whispers, and Midori rushes to fetch it. Mugwort is an herb used for visioning, but it is one of the milder herbs for that purpose. My mother gives it to me some nights to teach me prophetic dreaming.
“This is the battle you foresaw with Yoshitomo, isn’t it?” Lady Kiyomori questions urgently.
“I don’t know,” my mother murmurs. “Let me have some of the tea, then we will see.”
By the time my mother has drunk the tea I am shivering badly, but if I go inside I will never find out what this all means. I cup my hands over my face and exhale hotly, trying to warm the tip of my nose, which is quite frozen. I wipe my streaming nose on my sleeve and put my eye back to the hole.
My mother has her eyes closed. In her hands she is fingering the yarrow stalks used for divination. She lets the stalks fall, and holds her hand over them as if she were sensing rather than seeing their positions. “I smell oranges…” she says thoughtfully. “Now I smell yew–yes, they have visited the Kiribe Shrine, they have the yew tucked in their armor–they are riding…”
“Are his men loyal?” Lady Kiyomori asks, clenching her fists.
“Yes. His men are loyal. The oranges must represent the sun,” mother muses. “So Amaterasu, Lady of the sunlight, is still strong for Lord Kiyomori, as is Inari.”
“What of Hachiman?” Lady Kiyomori presses, referring to the God of War.
“Kiyomori is beloved by Hachiman. And my brother’s spirit is still strong. He will help Kiyomori defeat Yoshitomo and avenge his death. I will send a message to the High Priestess of Ise,” mother says. “I will ask her to see to it that the members of your clan, the Heike, who dwell in that area intercept Kiyomori and join his forces. He must ride here to Fushimi. I will have talismans awaiting his arrival.”
“Will he survive, will our clan survive?”
It is hard to tell if the expression crossing my mother’s face is the ghost of a smile, or a grimace.
“Did I not tell you the Imperial line would pass through Tokushi’s womb? Have I not promised you this?”
“There is no ‘but’ that can cross the will of heaven. Look at how the stalks have fallen. Yes, this is the battle that I foresaw, and Yoshitomo will be defeated.”
My teeth chattering, I rise, stiff as an old woman and hobble back through the slush to my nurse. She quickly takes me to the bath house.
“What does Lady Kiyomori want with mother?” I ask Tashi.
“I have no idea.”
Mother was right. She said that if I watched the tiny movements of a person’s face, I could always tell if they were lying.
“I thought I heard her say something about a rebellion,” I say casually.
“May the gods protect us,” Tashi says.
I keep hoping mother and Lady Kiyomori will come back to the bathhouse. I stay in the tub until I am wrinkled as a tortoise’s neck, but they never appear.
By the time I am dressed and return to the main hall, Lady Kiyomori has already ridden away, and my mother has gone to the shrine to pray. Lying beside my nurse that night under our padded comforter, I watch the flames dancing in the brazier, imagining Uncle Michinori’s house burning. Remembering what Lady Kiyomori said about my uncle and cousins having been beheaded, I cup my hands protectively around my throat.
Throughout the next couple of days, shrine maidens and servants alike are put to work weaving rice straw talismans. I make so many my hands go into spasm and Tashi massages them with borage oil to make them uncramp.
When Lord Kiyomori arrives, he and his soldiers all enter the shrine to be purified and blessed by Inari, source of all abundance. They are only here for an hour before galloping off.
Mother sits with me that evening, sipping miso soup.
“Are you doing magic for Lord Kiyomori?”
“Yes, daughter. I am sorry I have been so busy over the last few days.”
“I can help. I’m old enough now to help.”
“No, not yet. Not until you are a woman. There is much training you need to go through yet before you can embark on work of this magnitude. Thank you for helping to make the talismans.” She smiles, warm brown eyes looking into mine. “Each of those men will be a thousand times more brave because of the talismans you made for them.”
A question seizes my mind. Does this mean I am responsible for the deaths of any men Kiyomori’s soldiers kill in battle? I am afraid to ask. I don’t want her to wrinkle her brow and look distant again.
“You know what would be helpful?”
“What? I can do anything.”
“You can pray for your uncle and your cousins.”
“Ask them to lend their help to Lord Kiyomori from the windy lands.”
“And try not to worry, Seiko. Everything I have seen indicates that Lord Kiyomori will be victorious.”
“And Tokushi will be the Empress?”
“Yes, one day. Unless the auguries change.”
She rises to leave for the shrine.
“Did you know this was going to happen?”
“Some of it. Divination, as you will learn, is an imperfect art. Sometimes the magic that we do can change an outcome; sometimes the gods will it otherwise. And we never understand why.”
I nod, though the idea that my mother could ever be uncertain about anything makes my insides feel like the thinnest of glass.
“I’ll pray hard,” I promise.