The Birdcage

by Tatsushu

"When a bird does not sing, what should you do to make it sing? Nobunaga says, 'I will kill this stupid bird.' Hideyoshi answers, 'I will make it sing.' Ieyasu replies, 'I will wait until it sings.'"

-trad. saying

Excitement filled the young warrior as he raised a hand to his eyes and gazed at the massive gate to Heikyo, the capital city of Yamato. The bright orange-red paint that decorated the thick walls was cracked in places, but still resplendent in glory. The color was accentuated by green and white highlights which stood boldly apart under the summer sun. That glowing orb shown brightly through the sparse clouds, glinting off of the concave ceramic tiles that covered the large, sloping roof of the gate.

Katou Isaburou had never before seen anything quite like it. His own family's castle was a relatively small structure, and the buildings were far from extravagant. This gate, however, seemed large enough for a giant; the door was almost a meter thick and at least six meters high. Above the doors was a small balcony that ran the circumference of the 30 meter wide structure. Archers paced the balcony, watching the multitudes entering below them. Inside, Isaburou had little doubt there were men ready to sound the alarm should anything threaten the great city beyond.

Working his way through the crowd, Isaburou lowered his gaze as he came under the shadow of the gate. Two fearsome guards glared at him from wooden eyes. The four-meter tall statues presented an intimidating aura that washed over Isaburou as he passed through. Around him, other people hurried through the gates seemingly oblivious to the gaze of the spiritual guardians. Isaburou felt the back of his neck burn as he realized how much he must seem like a back country hick to the people around him, despite the lack of conspicuous attention.

Gathering what was left of his pride, Isaburou drew himself up and thrust out his shoulders in a manner more fitting to a samurai. If the human counterparts to the wooden guardians noticed this absurd display, they gave no indication. Their faces remained as sharp and impassive as the naginata they held.

Past the imposing gate, the crowd thinned as people spread out into the streets. The straight, dusty roads were as wide as the gate--at least 30 meters--which was more than enough room for two ox carts to easily pass one another. Both sides of the street were continuous walls of wood and paper doors. Dyed hemp cloth signs fluttered in the slight breeze that blew through the city. The signs bore the names of various shops, inns, and other businesses.

Walking down the street, the smells of hot noodles and roasted meat assaulted the young samurai's stomach, reminding him of the sparse breakfast he had eaten much too long ago. He tried to ignore his growling gizzard for a little longer, however, as his purse was too light for such extravagances.

His current poverty was emphasized by the tolling of a great bell that rumbled through the city. It came from a large, stone walled enclosure that was marked as the Western Head Temple of the Pure Land Path of Enlightenment. The austere stone walls made the structure seem like a minor castle, fortified against riots and other religious sects. Inside, the temple compound took up the entire city block, and the tops of the various buildings peered over the thick, high walls.

A small ditch, filled with water and ornamental carp, surrounded the walls. The main street entrance had three gates, the largest being the center gate, which stood almost as tall as the gate to the city itself. Acolytes patiently swept the granite stone entryway, which gave a glimpse into the massive courtyard beyond. The spicy scent of incense wafted out from the open gates and into the busy streets.

Knowing that the Merciful One's gaze was upon him, Isaburou felt a calming peace descend upon him. With a suffering spirit he pushed his hunger off into the recesses of his consciousness.

Remembering his instructions, Isaburou made his way along the main street of the city. The wide, straight roads made navigation seem uncomfortably easy. Several blocks in, however, he suddenly found himself losing track of just how many streets he had passed, and every direction he looked seemed the same. Without much effort at all he quickly found himself turned around, unsure of where to go next. Wondering if the last road he had passed was 6th or 5th avenue, Isaburou stopped for a minute, panic creeping up his spine.

Palms sweating, yet too embarrassed to ask for directions just yet, Isaburou continued to swagger through the streets, trying to project an air of self-confidence that was the exact opposite of his inner turmoil. Yet, as long as he continued forward, he would eventually end up at the Imperial Palace. From there, he told himself, it would be easy to turn around and count backwards from 1st avenue.

Trudging onwards, the immensity of the Imperial City finally began to dawn on young Katou Isaburou. He'd been walking straight for what seemed an eternity--at least half an hour, he was sure--and the palace gates were still painfully distant. He had noticed a change in the atmosphere, however. While the buildings farthest from the palace were mostly common shops and stores, the streets now seemed to be walled by the low, roofed walls of private villas and other small complexes. Occasionally a shop could be seen, but they were definitely of a higher caliber than those in the lower quarters of the city.

As he went on, Isaburou caught glimpses through the gates at the villas beyond them. The brief, fractured images were filled with lush greenery that seemed to clash with the dusty road outside. The closer to the palace, the larger the villas, as the rank of the occupants increased. The higher one's rank, the greater their physical proximity to the Imperial presence.

Somewhere nearby, Isaburou guessed, would be the palace of the shogun, supreme military commander of Yamato's armies. He was the humble servant of the Emperor and took upon himself the burden of many weighty decisions on the governance of the nation. This left the Emperor free to contemplate more spiritual matters.

The shogun kept a castle in the city, Isaburou had heard. It was the most heavily fortified complex in the city, housing the local militia and the city's armoury for times of trouble. Though it was of limited size, being confined to the space of a single block of the city, it served its purpose well. Behind the walls was the palace of the shogun, Tekage Yoshikatsu, where he kept himself. Isaburou had heard that the floors of the castle were made with a magic that caused them to sing out if any intruder should approach them with an intent to harm the occupants inside. No doubt, such a marvelous work would alert those inside to the danger before it was too late.

Isaburou's musings were cut off, then, but the high, nasal chant of a priest's sho--a vertical flute made up of 17 bamboo pipes. The instrument created a chanting drone that would, to foreign ears, perhaps sound harsh and discordant. It was mainly used for religious ceremonies and harmonies in certain courtly compositions. The drone was soon joined by the rhythmic thumping of large drums. As the sounds grew nearer, the crowd parted, and Isaburou was pushed off to the side of the road.

Finding a small stool set outside one of the uptown restaurants, Isaburou climbed up to where he could get a better look at the oncoming procession. Gazing over the crowd, he could see the large, paper pom, stuck on top of a tall, lacquered wood pole and carried by a young novice priestess dressed in white with red hakama trousers. Behind her came 18 priests, all droning through the reedy instrument held in their cupped hands. They were dressed in the traditional priests garb: white, flowing naoshi jacket over white, silk sashinuki. Each had on the elliptical hat of their priestly office, and they carried a still-green branch in the folds of their jackets.

Behind these came four men dressed in little more than headbands and loincloths, pulling a large, wooden cart on which sat the drums Isaburou had been hearing. Sweat dripped from the taut, muscular taiko drummers who pounded on the drums with violent abandon.

Next in the long line was another priest, who salted the ground and shouted out blessings to the assembled crowd. Behind him trailed a column of priestesses. Their heads bowed slightly, they walked along in respective silence with only the slight jingle of their pearl headdresses to mark their passing.

Trailing the red hakama clad priestesses came the omikoshi, a palanquin-like mobile shrine. It was carried on the shoulders of a cadre of faithful worshippers, who enthusiastically shouted out 'wa-shoi!' with each step they took. Isaburou watched the icons as they marched past. As the last of the gold-decorated omikoshi passed by, the crowds spread out once more into the streets, resuming their hustle.

"Quite the show, eh kid?" An irreverent voice said. The suddenness of the statement and its implications of recognition caused Isaburou to jump, falling off of the stool he'd been standing on. "Careful, you wouldn't want to break anything."

Isaburou turned around to see the source of these unusual--almost rude--casual utterances. Standing behind him, leaning against a wall in the shadow of the low-hanging eves was a rough, maroon-clad figure. His face was rugged and in need of a clean shave, while his clothes had holes and was hemmed in tatters. A straw hat was affixed to his head and drawn low over his slanted eyes.

The mysterious stranger went on, "It won't be the last you see, I'm sure. This city's so full of shrines and temples that I pity the demon that shows its head here, eh? There's probably a festival every day of the year. And if there aren't, then its only because the temples are in the streets jostling for their own gain in the spiritual and temporal community."

The stranger broke off to take a swig out of a gourd-shaped ceramic bottle around his wrist. Isaburou took the moment to interject a question, his own surprise offset by his curiosity. "Every day, you say?" He could hardly imagine the extravagance.

A wry smile crossed the man's face. "Just about, kid. Every street corner in this city has some deity protecting it. I even hear that there has been a special deity assigned to the Emperor's privy."

The uncouth rogue laughed at his own, tasteless joke, Isaburou found himself shocked and embarrassed. He half-expected someone from the crowd to object, saving the Imperial honor, but none stepped forward to challenge the remark. Shock showed on his youthful face.

"Hehe, don't sweat it, kid." The stranger said, "It's just this city--it does things to people, if you know what I mean. I'm glad to see its stain hasn't touched you yet. By the way, my name's Junousuke, what's yours?"

"Katou Isaburou Takanobu of Kurogi," Isaburou answered formally.

"Take it easy, relax!" Junousuke told him, "Kurogi, huh? That's north of here, isn't it? In Meikita? What brings you here?"

"I'm here as an uchi-deshi to Maruyama Masatsune." Isaburou answered, still maintaining his formal speech.

Junousuke's half-closed eyes opened slightly in surprise, but like a fleeting vision it was quickly gone. "I like you, kid. You've got--" Suddenly, Junousuke grabbed for a short sword, a side arm more commonly known as a wakizashi, and slashed towards Isaburou's neck in a lightning fast strike.

Isaburou's heard leapt into his throat as his hand fumbled too late for his own sword. His eyes widened and locked on Junousuke's face in expectation of death.

The cold, sharp steel stopped only centimeters from his exposed throat. Frozen in fear, the moments seemed like years. Junousuke's eyes were sharp, focussed, and deadly in a complete turnabout from his previous indolence. He spoke only three words: "Give it back." Inside, Isaburou's mind raced trying to figure out what this madman wanted from him, but he only drew up blanks.

He opened his mouth to speak: "-"

"Yes, yes, please don't hurt me, sir." a raspy voice sniveled. Carefully shifting his eyes to the left, along the sword's length, Isaburou saw a dirty, ragged peasant with the tip of the sword at his throat. Isaburou's money pouch sat in the peasants hands.

Quickly Isaburou pivoted and backed away from the thief towards Junousuke. Junousuke in turn put the slightest force on the handle of his sword, drawing a bed of blood on the man's throat. In a knee-jerk reaction, the would-be thief thrust out the pouch. Isaburou took it from the outstretched arms.

"And now the rest." Junousuke demanded.

With a downcast glance, the pickpocket shook out his tight sleeves. Isaburou was amazed as two gold, oblong coins slipped out of the tight cuffs and into the thief's upturned palms. He snatched the two coins, wondering just how they had been hid in the first place.

As he put the money away in the pockets of his sleeves, he caught an angry, defiant glance from the thief, directed towards Junousuke. However, the expression turned quickly to fear as the sword at his throat rose to an upper striking stance.

"No!" Isaburou yelled out, catching the sword at the hilt. Face to glaring face, Isaburou stared right into Junousuke's eyes. "Let him go." He requested, "It was only money; not like it was worth a man's life. Besides, he stole it from me, and therefore I should have the right to decide if he dies or not."

The rogue's eyes considered this, and then relaxed. As the tension flowed out of his face and muscles he yelled to the thief, "Get out of here! Before I change my mind!"

Hastily the peasant backed away and disappeared into the crowd. It was then that Isaburou noticed the people that had gathered around them. He knew that there would be no repercussions for the two samurai--even if they had meted out the ultimate punishment it was within the privilege of their rank. Still, their piercing gaze was uncomfortable, causing the back of his neck to burn. Fortunately, with the promise of death postponed, the crowd began to disperse back on its way.

Junousuke put a hand on Isaburou's shoulder as the other sheathed his sword. "You know, I like you, kid. If you ever need help in this town, just ask for me at the Kaiwa-kan inn. Now, where were you headed before those cacophonous priests interrupted?"

Although he still found him disconcertingly open, Isaburou found himself hard-pressed not to take a liking to this unconventional individual. With a resigned sigh he told Junousuke of his dilemma in finding his way to Maruyama-senei's dojo.

"That's right, let's see..." gazing out into the street, Junousuke found a rickshaw operator hauling his empty cart down the street. Catching the man's attention, he called the cab over. Taking some change from his sleeves, he handed it to the driver and instructed him, "Take my friend here to the home of Maruyama Masatsune, in Kamishinano just west of Tenryu Temple." The driver nodded his understanding, "There you go, kid. Take care of yourself. Remember, if there's ever anything you need, just find me."

Isaburou thanked his strange new friend and, with a final bow, climbed into the cart and rode off.

As Isaburou's carriage disappeared down the street, a shadow detached itself from the wall behind Junousuke. Still rubbing at his throat, the suspicious character spoke with a low, hushed whisper. "What's wrong? Are you getting soft, Ju?"

Without turning around, Junousuke replied, "You needn't worry about me..."

"Hmph, well I hope you don't make a habit of this. The boss wouldn't be too pleased." The rag-tattered man warned, "Now let's get going, he wants to talk to us and we're already late." Together, the two individuals fell back in the shadows and disappeared into the streets of Heikyo.

Maruyama Jirou Masatsune sat calmly before the ancient scroll, sipping slowly the warm tea that his loving wife had prepared. An observer, had there been one, might have noted that he was very fit for a man of sixty years. His sparse, gray hair was too thin and fragile to hold the samurai topknot of his earlier years, but the rest of his body was still strong and fit. He was no spring chicken, Jirou admitted to himself in a moment of self-indulgence, but years of training had sharpened both his mind and body. He could still whip most of the young swordsmen who came to train at his dojo these days, he thought with a smile.

Thought lost in his thoughts, he was still aware of the room about him. Despite that, he showed little concern as the wood frame of the door directly behind him scraped quietly open, letting in light from outside. Silk rustled softly against bamboo mats. "Excuse the interruption, my husband, but young Katou Saburou is here." The dulcet tones of Maruyama's wife, Shirobara, were cracked with age, but they retained the kind spirit that Jirou had come to love in his headstrong and impulsive youth.

"Good," Jirou replied, "I was wondering when he'd get here. Send him in and we'll take a look." As his wife left him, Jirou bowed to his ancestors' scroll and turned around to wait, cross-legged, for his new student.

Waiting at the entrance to the house, Isaburou rose and bowed as Shirobara returned. "My husband will see you now, follow me." She told him politely.

"Yes, Okugata-sama." he replied. Picking up his straw travelling hat he followed her into the house.

They traveled along a wooden floored corridor from the small reception area. The floorboards were finely polished, though worn some with age. On his left, Isaburou could see a garden through the open wooden doors that led to the outside. Outside was a small, stone shrine in the middle of a miniature forest. Three round, flat stones rose from the moss to give access to the diminutive icon. Straight, slender cedar trees rose around it and reached past the eaves of the house and into the sky.

Further down, Isaburou could see that the building appeared to form a horseshoe shape around the small garden. Towards the end was a small pond, in which five colorful carp drifted lazily in the afternoon sun.

Lady Shirobara stopped before two nondescript paper doors, kneeling beside them, and then pulling them open. With a bow, she gestured for him to enter. Isaburou returned the bow with one far less elegant and stepped into the room.

Inside, there seemed to be some 24 rectangular bamboo mats, each twice as long as it was wide and edge with green down its long side. Three of the four walls were white, unadorned paper doors. The fourth, directly across from where Isaburou entered, was made of wooden panels, and two of them were recessed and slightly raised from the floor.

The right-hand recess displayed two katana on a rack of carved antler. Black, lacquered scabbards reflected the flickering light of the candles that gave dim illumination to the room. Gold end caps likewise caught Isaburou's attention, and the bronze menuki sparkled from the sharkskin covered hilts. It was muted only slightly by the thick, braided silk cord that was woven around the hilts for a comfortable grip.

On the opposite side stood an ancient suit of armour. Its boxy, laced cuirass of lacquered leather was an early ancestor to the more comfortable, modern styles. It spoke, however, of an ancient lineage of warriors. Its battle-scarred appearance was no doubt a reminder of the glory of its youth. The colourful carapace demanded respect from the viewer.

Between these artifacts hung a scroll, which read "Ever along the mountain path...", and signed by the founder of the school of Shintenken swordsmanship. Beneath this, a cup of tea steaming on the mat beside him, sat the man Isaburou had traveled so far to see.

Isaburou dropped to his knees and bowed before him. "Master Maruyama Jirou Masatsune," Isaburou began, "I am humbly called Katou Isaburou Takanobu of Kurogi, the third son of Katou Miyamono Tarou Takamatsu. I humbly come to beg instruction in the Shintenken school of swordsmanship, as was discussed." With the last, he rose partially to draw a scroll from his sleeve, and placed it before Maruyama-sensei.

Maruyama took the scroll and deliberately moved it to his side without reading it. He already knew what his cousin's husband had written, as they had agreed upon, and he trusted the man as an honorable warrior.

Isaburou, for his part, realized the honour that was implied by this simple gesture of acceptance. He had never met his mother's cousin, but he had heard of his deeds. When he was told of the plans to have him move to Heikyo and serve with Maruyama as a live-in student, he was overwhelmed. Such a chance was rare, especially for the third son of a small house like the Katous of Kurogi.

Maruyama looked at the young, eager face and read in it the hopes and anticipations of youth. He had to suppress his own feelings; this boy was just like any other that came to him. If he proved himself then he would be truly accepted. Otherwise he would be sent back to his home in Meikita.

"Your petition is accepted, young Katou. My wife will show you to your room. We will being your instruction immediately." Although he tried not to show it, Isaburou's eyes lit up at the words. Maruyama kept his face straight, but inside he secretly hoped this one would prove worthy.

In the dark of the night, Isaburou laid himself carefully down on the soft futon that was his sleeping pad. His body ached in places he didn't think could from a day of practice. Combined with the travel sores he had acquired through weeks of travel, there wasn't a centimeter of his body that didn't ache to some degree or another. He winced as he rose to blow out the candle that was his only light. Laying a throbbing head down on a wooden pillow, Isaburou quickly fell into exhausted unconsciousness.

The grueling training continued all through the next week. Every mistake was painfully rebuked by Maruyama-sensei, while even his best work was not up to his teacher's strict standards. Though old, Maruyama-sensei had an inner strength that could punch through a wall over 20 meters away and stun an opponent into immobility. "I ask for a student and they send me a monkey with a stick." He would admonish when Isaburou managed to fail particularly well.

At the end of the week, Maruyama-sensei told Isaburou to meet him by the kitchen after his nightly bath. Bruised and battered--but clean--Isaburou made his way into the small room late that evening. There, a small, low table was prepared, and on it sat two shallow bowls and a large bottle of sake. At a gesture from Maruyama-sensei, Isaburou took a seat across from his master.

Without saying a word, Isaburou took the bottle and poured some of the clear liquid into his master's bowl. Maruyama-sensei simply nodded, taking the bottle and filling the bowl of his pupil in return. Raising his bowl to his lips, Maruyama-sensei offered a toast: "May the Emperor reign for 10,000 years to come."

"Kampai!" Isaburou offered in response, and together they drank.

As soon as the first bowls were polished off, Maruyama began to talk, launching into a story of his younger days in the service of Ogata of Hosoyubi. While he spoke, Isaburou filled his bowl with sake, and Maruyama would return the favor. It continued on like that into the night.

Liquor loosened tongues and hearts, and for a moment rank was laid aside. Together, Isaburou and Jirou talked of life, living, and philosophy from the safety of the cups. When the bottle ran dry, Shirobara was there with another, ready to serve up. Working on their fifth bottle, Jirou finally crashed.

With the help of Shirobara, Isaburou took his inebriated master off to bed. Then, he stumbled off himself; first to the lavatory, and then to his mattress. Barely conscious, he felt the floor heave and throw him onto the soft-mattress. Above the covers, Isaburou let the rolling waves of the bamboo mats lull him to sleep.

The next day, Isaburou felt awful, but if Maruyama-sensei had any after effects they were not truly visible. Complaining about lazy students who can't hold their liquor, he ousted him from bed and forced him to begin practice. Though his head stung and he could still taste the alcohol in his sweat, Isaburou persevered through another day of practice. Despite the hard work, however, practice seemed easier. The criticism was tempered with mild encouragement, and there seemed to be a stronger bond between master and pupil.

His life at the dojo continued in this manner, and Isaburou found himself learning more than he had ever dreamed possible. In Kurogi he had been something of a natural with the sword, and he had already been beating older, more experienced opponents. Before Maruyama-sensei, however, he felt like a babe with a stick trying to fend off an angry wolf.

For weeks he would practice a single technique until Maruyama-sensei was convinced it was perfect. Then, he would learn a flurry of moves in a matter of days. Each day he awoke not knowing what to expect from the days training.

Meanwhile, he also took care of many of the chores around the house. He would sweep the floors, paint the gate posts, feed the carp, and clean the household shrine. When there was something they needed from the market, they would send Isaburou out to get it.

It was on one of these chores that Isaburou ran into Junousuke and a companion. He was on his way to purchase more sake and found Junousuke outside the brewery with a nervous looking partner. The two didn't seem to notice Isaburou at first, as he walked towards them.

"You're going to forget which is which one of these days." Junousuke was admonishing his friend, "And then you'll regret it."

The smaller man shook his head, "You have no faith in my abilities?" he asked incredulously, "Watch." two pouches appeared in his hand from what seemed to be nowhere, "I know my business, Ju'." The man smiled, showing off his yellowed, crooked teeth. There was something familiar about him, Isaburou thought, but he couldn't quite place it.

Junousuke just shook his head, "I don't even know why you carry all those around with you. The lord isn't going to be happy if you lose them."

"Do you want to carry them, then?" the man offered, holding the two out to Junousuke. The latter recoiled, a look of distaste on his face.

That's when Junousuke noticed Isaburou standing there. Recognizing him, his eyes lit up. "Hey kid! Long time no see, eh? It's young Katou I was telling you about, remember." He commented to his nervous friend. The man simply glared at Isaburou, the two pouches already gone. Junousuke turned to Isaburou, "So what are you up to this morning?"

"Shopping." Answered Isaburou, indicating the store the men stood before.

"At this place?" Junousuke said with more than a hint of incredulity, "No, my friend, I cannot let you do that to yourself." He approached Isaburou and took him by the shoulder, turning him back down the street. "Remember what I said when we first met? If you need anything, just come to me."

"Yes, but I--"

"Nonsense! I know this town like the back of my hand. If you buy sake from that place you may as well be dredging water from the Seto river. No, kid, you need to find the good stuff. Places like that will just rob you blind." Isaburou nodded as he listened and followed Junousuke down the street. He had just been stopping there because it was the only place in town he knew of. Perhaps there were better breweries around. The thought that there was more than one was rather a new concept for Isaburou who was used to life in the remote northern mountains.

Suddenly Isaburou noticed that the trio had dwindled to two. "Where'd your friend go?" He asked, looking around.

"Oh, he had some business to take care of. Not really someone I know, just an acquaintance I happened to bump into here in the capital." Junousuke replied with a non-committal shrug.

"Funny, I could have sworn I knew him from somewhere..." Isaburou muttered to himself.

"He gets that a lot, you know. His face is rather plain, and not very well-distinguished." Junousuke explained, "You probably saw a dozen like it in the crowds here at the capital."

"Maybe you're right." Isaburou resigned, unconvinced.

"Look, don't sweat it, kid. I know that he just got into town a few days ago, so I doubt you've seen him before then."

Isaburou nodded. That would seem to limit the chances of their having met before.

Changing the subject, Junousuke asked, "So, what have you been up to? Is your training coming along well?"

Isaburou nodded, "Maruyama-sensei is strict, but a good teacher. His wife makes a wonderful oden stew, and I think I'm improving. It is a great honor to have such a teacher."

"It is at that." Junousuke agreed. Then his tone turned serious, "You are lucky to have such an opportunity. Listen to what he has to say, and learn from it. It might just prove useful some day." Junousuke's own eyes were narrowed, as though he were at a crossroads and making a difficult choice deciding which path to take.

For a couple of steps, the two walked on in silence. Then, like the light of the sun when it lifts from behind a heavy cloud, Junousuke's mood was back to its former, cheerful attitude.

The conversation of the two samurai covered a variety of topics as they traversed the streets and avenues of the capital city. Around them were the constant sounds of men going about their daily work. The sun shone out in unusual form for the season, and the weather was warmer than it might have been expected. The rainy season had ended weeks before, but it was still far from cold. Autumn was settling in slowly this year.

Eventually, the pair found themselves outside of a black-painted wood building sitting on the edge of the Seto River in southern Heikyo. It had taken the pair over an hour and a half to make there way here, over halfway across the city. Isaburou hoped that it was worth the trouble if he got back late.

Above the brewery door was a large ball of carefully pruned mistletoe. Silk noren, storefront banners, hung from the entryway and proclaimed the name of the establishment as Mitsuzakaya. Off to one side was a small shrine, with a stone gate. Off to one side of the main shrine was a smaller shrine with a series of red torii leading up to it, but it looked as though someone had tried to set fire to that shrine recently. The pillars nearest the shrine were blackened with soot. Not thinking much of this, Isaburou followed Junousuke inside.

As soon as they entered, a short, balding man waddled out from a back room, wiping his hands with a once-white towel. "Junousuke!" he exclaimed, "It's been a long time. What brings the dog of Chiba to my humble business."

"I just wanted to show this young kid where to get _real_ sake in this town." Junousuke said.

The brewer looked at Isaburou, "Is he...?" He began to ask. Junousuke cut him off.

"No, he's not family. My younger brother isn't due into town for another couple of weeks. At least not before the cranes return home. You know how it is."

"Yes, family matters can be a tiresome burden at times." The brewer agreed, "But where are my manners! Welcome, good sir. I am just the humble owner of this run down establishment. May I help you in some way?"

"Well, I was looking for some sake..." Isaburou began rather lamely.

"Two bottles of Ichinomiya-no-natsubana, if you wouldn't mind." Junousuke interrupted.

"Right away sirs, if you'll excuse me..." With a low, bow he returned to the back room. Soon, Isaburou could hear the clapping of hands and the moving of wood on sawdust covered floors.

"I hope you'll excuse my bluntness." Junousuke apologized. "I think you'll find that this is what you were looking for."

Soon, the brewer returned with two of his apprentices, each one holding a bottle marked with the brewer's seal. "Here you are sirs, and though I know it is troublesome to ask..."

"How much money did your master give you?" Junousuke asked.

Isaburou felt the back of his neck flush. Surely this would be more expensive than he had anticipated. In answer to Junousuke's question he took a handful of coins from the pouch in his sleeve. Junousuke simply took them and handed them to the brewer.

"If Katou Isaburou ever returns here, I want you to charge him this exact price for his sake. The difference will be covered by my account."

"Of course." The brewer replied, accepting the credit without even thinking about it, "Your money is always good here."

Junousuke nodded with satisfaction, then turned the conversation a different direction. "I noticed the shrine outside, what happened."

"Well, you'll never believe this, but..."

Once the brewer had finished with his tale, the two left. Isaburou had grown rather impatient, as he knew it was time to be getting back. Junousuke seemed to have no quarrel with the time, however. Eventually, Junousuke waved down a rickshaw and paid for Isaburou's trip back home.

As he rode back, he thought about the brewer's tale. He had claimed that a ghostly spirit had come to the shrine one night: he had been working late checking the rice malts and making sure the temperature was just right. Suddenly, a scream like that of a woman in trouble broke the night and he saw a flash of light through his window. He had wondered what sort of magic had been set off to cause such a flash, and when he got outside he saw the red torii of the smaller, inari shrine on fire. The two stone fox statues were ruined, and he only saved the torii and the rest of the shrine by the quick application of water.

When the brewer had talked to his priest about it, the priest seemed genuinely confused over the whole matter. He warned the brewer about inviting evil spirits into the brewery, and had performed a purification ritual on the grounds to chase away any evil influence. Finally, he had sealed the shrine with a spiritual ward that would keep any demons at bay. He had wanted to fix up the torii gates, but the brewer didn't have the money to fix it--or just didn't want to spend it, Isaburou thought.

Getting home, Isaburou rushed into the dojo and began practicing, stopping off at the kitchen only long enough to drop off the sake bottles. As he trained on the practice post, Maruyama-sensei opened the doors once. He watched him train for a brief time, and then left.

Dinner was silent until the sake was served. Maruyama-sensei took one sip and his eyes widened. "Not bad." he commented, taking another sip and giving an approving nod. The mood lightened some, and the dinner proceeded in a more normal fashion.

That night, Isaburou thought back on all he had seen and heard that day. Junousuke was being very helpful, but his friends worried Isaburou. As he drifted off to sleep, he found no comfort in his dreams.

He felt he was being chased by a bright flash of light down a series of red torii, like an endless hall. The gates behind him were exploding, sending shards of wood everywhere. Superimposed on it all was the image of a strange, crooked-toothed man whose face was broke open in a frightful laugh.

Suddenly, he came to a clearing, and he saw Junousuke sitting on a rock facing away from him. He approached, and Junousuke turned around, only it was no longer Junousuke, but the brewer. In his hands was a bottle of sake, which he poured into plates held by two small foxes at his sides. He lifted the plates to hand them over to Isaburou, but it was no longer the brewer.

Now, Isaburou stared into the face of the strange man he had met earlier with Junousuke. Looking back down, the bowls of sake were pouches, and as the man emptied the pouches on the ground, gold coins tumbled out.

Isaburou wasn't focused on the gold, however, but instead he saw the stone foxes, only now they were broken and pock-marked. One missed an ear, and the other an eye. Suddenly, they began to move and growl, jumping off of their stone pedestals. Isaburou began to run once more, into the forest of cedar trees.

Stone foxes nipped at his heels as he passed the thin, straight trees. The trees, meanwhile, seemed to grow straighter, and lined up in a row on either side of the path. The reddish bark became slick and shiny, and the branches met overhead, and Isaburou was back in the red hallway of torii. The foxes chased just behind him all the way, their yapping seeming to grow ever closer.

At one point the hallway forked into two paths. Isaburou charged blindly forward without thinking. Charging through the gates he ran as hard as he could, trying to get away, thinking about nothing but the danger behind him.

It took him a while in that dream state to realize that there was no longer any sound behind him. Looking back, he saw that he had somehow outdistanced the foxes. Still, he continued forward, fearing what would happen if he went back.

From up ahead came the feeling of mourning. Coming to the edge of the torii covered path, Isaburou looked out at the dream sequence before him. Men and women dressed in white were gathered about a stone altar before a large temple. Lying upon the altar was a woman of incomparable beauty, her eyes closed as though she were sleeping, but her chest did not rise or fall as it should, were she alive.

A priest was chanting over the body. In one hand he held a wilted bunch of rice, the ends blackened with rot. As he chanted, he raised his head slowly, and Isaburou knew that he would be spotted but couldn't move. He was caught in morbid fascination as the priests face rose to display a Noh mask. The wooden eyes pierced through Isaburou's soul and sent chills throughout his spine.

With a shout, the Noh mask suddenly transformed into a demon's face, and then the cords holding it snapped and fell away from the user as if in slow motion. As the wooden covering left, Isaburou's eyes beheld blackened flesh beneath it. The skin was burned down to the skull, and only the eyes remained untouched, staring at him from two deep, dark, burnt sockets.

Isaburou woke with a start. His palms were sweating and his heart raced. The face of the priest remained with him. Lips charred and pulled back from the face, while the eyes glared from their lifeless sockets. Lying on his futon in the dark of the early morning, Isaburou wondered what it could all mean.

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