Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hawk by Steven Brust

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Fiction

Ghost River Red

Ghost River Red by Aidan Doyle (illustration by Galen Dara)

Akamiko arrived three days before the anniversary of the Lady of All Colors’ death. The village held a small market filled with stalls selling fish and vegetables, and a bathhouse stood by the river. It was hard to imagine the Lady of All Colors growing up here.

It was still too early to perform the ceremony, but Akamiko wanted to make sure she could find the grave. She started along the path leading to the village’s hilltop cemetery. She had only taken a few steps when a chill wrapped itself around her. The sun was strong in the sky, but the air grew cold enough that she could see her breath. She drew her red sword, but the chill did not dissipate. Specks of ice appeared at the tip of her blade and she backed away in surprise. The cold air did not relinquish its grasp until she left the path.

She had to learn what was wrong with the cemetery.

The younger villagers would still be at work in the fields. The bathhouse would give Akamiko a chance to talk to some of the village’s seniors. Secrets were harder to hide when you were naked.

Some villages had mixed bathing, but she was pleased this one had separate baths. She unstrapped the wooden frame she carried on her back. It held her seven swords and the urn with the Lady of All Colors’ ashes. She missed her full palette, but swordwriters were permitted to travel with at most seven swords. Red, green, blue, yellow, purple, orange, and white. Even swordwriters needed special permission to travel with a black blade.

A young attendant helped her store the swords and frame. She gave the girl double the fee. “Take good care of my swords,” she instructed.

The girl hesitated and then asked, “Are you a swordwriter?”

“Yes.”

“Are you here to kill the ghost?”

She hadn’t even had to get naked to discover what was wrong. “It is in the cemetery?”

The girl nodded.

Akamiko was duty bound to scatter the ashes at the lady’s ancestral grave. Death was a more attractive option than failing to honor the memory of her teacher. She had to remove the ghost.

She took off her robes and hung them on a peg next to four kimonos. Red was her strong color, but her robes looked pale and insignificant compared to the other kimonos. The richness of the golds, crimsons, and purples put the dyes of the capital to shame. “Who dyes the clothes?” she asked.

“The ghost hunter’s son.”

The village was lucky enough to have a ghost hunter. Yet they still had a ghost.

The bathing room contained a stone bath big enough to hold around a dozen people. The four women immersed in the cloudy water fell silent when Akamiko entered the room. She bowed and washed herself using water from a bucket before climbing into the bath. She had walked a long way and the warm water soothed her tired muscles.

Travel was forbidden to most citizens and the women stared at her suspiciously. The women all looked older than Akamiko. She was sixty-two, but the Lady of All Colors had been more than thirty years her senior and Akamiko had never thought of herself as old. Her body had slowed in recent years, but she still practiced with her swords every morning and night.

She bowed her head and addressed the oldest woman. “I am Akamiko Iro. I am a swordwriter.”

The senior touched her ears and shook her head. She was deaf.

“Can you read?” Akamiko asked.

One of the other women nodded.

Akamiko leaned forward and stared intently at the senior, reading her color. “Please excuse me,” she said and climbed out of the bath. She returned to the changing room and instructed the attendant to fetch her green sword.

Akamiko removed the scabbard and marched past the startled girl into the bathing room. The women stared at the sword in shock. “Get out of the bath,” she commanded.

The women hurried to obey, leaving only the senior in the water. She did not look frightened. “I have seen swordwriting tricks before,” she said in a raspy voice.

Akamiko raised the blade. She summoned her colors and brought the sword down on the senior’s arm. The sword vanished.

A tiny tattoo of a green sword appeared on the senior’s arm.

“My name is Akamiko Iro,” Akamiko said. Bright green characters spelling the words, My name is Akamiko Iro, appeared on the senior’s arm.

The senior’s eyes widened in surprise.

“It is a poor excuse for hearing, but it is the best I can do,” Akamiko said. The first set of characters disappeared, replaced by her latest sentence. The sword had been buried at a moss temple for a year to acquire its color. Its worth had been incalculable, but Akamiko always found the seeds of generosity brought a welcome harvest.

Tears rolled down the senior’s cheeks. “Thank you,” she whispered.

The other women rejoined them in the bath. They exchanged various pleasantries and Akamiko told them some of the things she had learned on her journey. Most of those allowed to travel were men—soldiers and merchants—and while they might bring tales of the shogun’s latest glorious battle and news that copper was in high demand in the capital, they seldom knew the stories the women were eager to hear. One of the women had been born in a neighboring village and listened with rapt attention as Akamiko relayed the names of the newborn children and their mothers she had met. Akamiko told them how the wife of another village’s headman had been banished for stealing rice and described the food at the headman’s second wedding. Normally she didn’t like to indulge in gossip, but the senior seemed to take such pleasure in following the conversation.

Finally the senior cleared her throat and the others fell silent. “I can guess why you are here,” she said. “We do not get much news from the outside world, but even we heard of the death of the Lady of All Colors. I was most blessed to have known her in my youth. Even then she had a special wisdom.”

“I have been traveling for almost a year,” Akamiko said. The pain of the lady’s death had not diminished and she tried to keep her voice calm. “Before her death, the Lady of All Colors granted me the honor of escorting her ashes on a final tour of the empire. On the anniversary of her death, I will scatter her ashes on her family grave.”

Even the steam could not hide the troubled looks on the others’ faces. “There is a ghost,” the senior said.

“What color?”

“Black.”

Of course. Akamiko had fought ghosts before, but never without a sword of matching color. In other circumstances, she would have returned to the capital and requested permission to use her black blade, but there was not enough time. If she missed the anniversary, the lady’s spirit would not be able to rest. “Can it be reasoned with?”

“It rejected our offerings,” the senior said.

“There is a ghost hunter?”

“Yes, but she won’t help. The ghost is the father of her child.”

***

Akamiko set a plate filled with sweet bean paste buns and a plate filled with burned paper money on the edge of the path to the cemetery. She held little hope it would work, but she had to at least try. She spent the night in the senior’s family home. The next morning the plates had been knocked aside, their contents scattered.

The ghost had been the village’s former ghost hunter and had haunted the cemetery for six years. Those who dealt in dark colors always ran the risk of an unsettled death.

The village had requested aide from two other ghost hunters, but even though they had wielded black swords, the ghost still slew them. There were no other ghost hunters within a week’s ride. Without a black sword, it would have been suicide to confront the ghost, even during the day.

Akamiko armed herself with her red and white swords and followed the river to beyond the village outskirts. The ghost hunter’s former apprentice, Kitamura, had assumed the position of ghost hunter after his death. She had taken ownership of his house, and more importantly, his black sword.

As Akamiko neared the house, a patch of purple water in the midst of the river caught her attention. The purple water assumed the form of a serpent and swept across the river’s surface to where a boy holding a brown kimono stood by the bank. The serpent leapt from the water and then disappeared, leaving the boy holding a purple kimono.

The boy looked to be about six years old and had wide, innocent eyes. “Hello,” he said.

“Hello,” Akamiko answered cautiously. “Is your mother here?” she asked.

“Your robes are the wrong color,” the boy answered.

“What do you mean?”

“Your red should be brighter.” He turned to face the river. A crimson serpent leapt from the water towards Akamiko.

She was taken by surprise and the water spattered against her robes. When she looked down, her robes were dyed a brilliant crimson. She used her white sword to inspect her robes. They appeared to be free from any ghostly enchantment and the red matched her color perfectly. “Thank you,” she said. She clutched her white sword and peered closer at the boy.

He looked normal enough on the surface, but a ghost heart beat beneath his chest. Kitamura had lain with the ghost hunter after he became a ghost. The boy would die if the ghost was destroyed.

“Toshi! Come here,” a voice shouted. Kitamura stood in the house’s doorway holding a black sword.

The boy smiled at Akamiko and ran inside.

Kitamura was a tall, slender woman in her early thirties. She glared at Akamiko. “What do you want?”

“You are a ghost hunter. There is a ghost in the cemetery,” she said.

“What is this to you?”

“I have my duty to my teacher. I must enter the cemetery.”

“It is the villagers’ fault. If they hadn’t sent the other ghost hunters, he never would have hurt anyone.”

“Ghosts always show their colors,” Akamiko said. There was little point in scolding the woman. In Akamiko’s experience, the colors of love were rarely without a shade of foolishness.

“I will not help you,” Kitamura answered.

“I am sorry about your boy, but the ghost must be destroyed. I must have your black sword.”

Kitamura retreated inside the house.

Akamiko readied her swords. A ghost hunter with a black sword was a dangerous opponent, but swordwriters spent years learning how to fight beautifully.

Kitamura returned holding the boy in front of her. “Toshi, thank our visitor for coming to see us. She is leaving now.”

“Thank you,” Toshi said.

The boy was only six years old. “Thank you for the color,” Akamiko said. She returned to the village.

***

If there had been more time, perhaps she could have thought of a way of dislodging the ghost without destroying it. Toshi was innocent, but she could not risk missing the anniversary of the lady’s death.

Akamiko knew the pain of losing loved ones. Many years ago, her two girls and husband had died in a fire. She had gone to the river to throw herself in. That was when she met the Lady of All Colors. The leader of the swordwriters convinced Akamiko she had a future.

Akamiko had given the ghost the chance to stand aside. She had given Kitamura a chance to help. Now she had no choice. She needed the black sword.

She waited until dark and then armed herself with her red and white swords. She used her red sword to bring fire into her eyes so she could see in the darkness. Then she made her way to Kitamura’s house.

The window was the most obvious entry point for someone wishing to enter undetected. Akamiko was sure Kitamura would be expecting her to come that way. She undid the window’s shutters and softly called, “I will wait for you outside.”

The front door opened and Kitamura stepped out. She held the black sword. She bowed . . .

. . . and then attacked.

Kitamura was stronger, but Akamiko was the quicker and more experienced fighter. The Lady of All Colors had taught Akamiko to wield her swords as though they were brushes, painting the demise of anyone foolish enough to challenge her. She disarmed Kitamura and struck her across the head with the hilt of her red sword. Kitamura dropped to the ground unconscious.

The black sword felt heavy in Akamiko’s hand and a melancholy seized her heart. Dark tools were never lightly used.

She left as quickly as she could. She heard the sound of a boy crying in the distance.

***

Akamiko strapped her white sword to her back and hurried to the cemetery. It would have been safer to wait for dawn, but Kitamura might complicate things once she woke. She had stored the lady’s ashes in the senior’s house and planned to fetch them after she defeated the ghost.

She thought she heard the sound of someone following her, but couldn’t see anyone. Kitamura or the boy couldn’t have caught up yet. She held the black and red swords in front of her and stepped onto the path leading up the hill. Cold air immediately wrapped itself around her. She summoned fire and wreathed her red sword in flames.

She struggled up the path till she reached the top of the hill. Hundreds of stone grave markers surrounded her. The air shimmered and a spectral figure coalesced into existence. The ghost of the former ghost hunter resembled a tall, lanky man with a thick beard. He wielded a black sword.

“If there are colors left in you, I ask that you stand aside,” Akamiko said.

The ghost lunged forward. She parried, but the ghost was quick and she was tired. Their black blades clashed again and she struck at it with her red sword. The blade passed straight through its ghostly form.

They traded blows and then it dodged to the side, letting her stumble forward. Its blade swept out, slicing into her thigh. She cried out and staggered backwards. The ghost pressed forward its advantage, forcing her to retreat. It took all of her strength just to keep standing.

She stared at the blood staining her robes. Her blood had unlocked an enchantment hidden in Toshi’s crimson dye. She couldn’t be sure what the enchantment would do, but it was her only hope.

She ran to the edge of the cemetery. The pain in her leg was unbearable, but it gave her a moment free from the ghost. She dropped her red sword and used her black blade to cut a square patch from the edge of her robes.

The ghost charged towards her and swung its sword at her head. She parried the blow and then reached out with the patch of cloth. The dyed cotton coiled like a serpent and wrapped itself around the ghost’s black blade. She flicked her wrist and the ghost’s sword spun away through the air.

The ghost looked astonished.

She thrust her black sword into its heart.

The ghost howled and disappeared. The night air grew warmer.

Her leg was still bleeding. She tried to summon fire to cauterize the wound, but she no longer had the strength. She hobbled down the path, her night vision growing dimmer.

She staggered through the darkness until she heard the sound of flowing water. In her confusion she had gone towards the river instead of the village.

Her leg gave way and she fell to the ground. Her blood trickled into the river. Even in the darkness she could tell it was a particularly beautiful shade of red.

***

Akamiko awoke in the senior’s bedroom. She lay on a thin mattress with a heavy blanket over her. Her thigh felt tender and was heavily bandaged. The senior sat beside her. “How did I get here?” Akamiko asked.

The senior consulted the characters on her arm. “I told my grandson to follow you. He brought you back here.”

“How long have I been here?”

“Three days.”

Tears came to Akamiko’s eyes. “I missed the anniversary.”

The senior shook her head. “I took the ashes to the cemetery and performed the ceremony. I knew the Lady of All Colors and guided her way. I am sure she will excuse your absence.”

Akamiko grasped the senior’s hand. “Thank you,” she said. She hoped the lady’s spirit was at peace. She said a prayer of thanks in Toshi’s name, but there was nothing else she could do for him. He had been ghost born.

Akamiko spent a week recovering her strength. She embedded her purple sword in her leg, using its energy to give her the strength to walk again. The senior wanted to give her a horse to ride back to the capital, but Akamiko insisted she would walk.

It rained the morning of her departure. She visited Kitamura’s house, but there was no sign of the ghost hunter. She bid the villagers farewell and set off down the road leading north. She was not surprised when Kitamura tried to ambush her.

“You killed my son,” Kitamura screamed, and attacked with a plain, gray sword.

Akamiko again disarmed her. She used her blue sword to turn the raindrops to rope and tied up Kitamura. “Spend a year mourning your son. Then come to the capital. I will train you as a swordwriter.”

“I’m going to kill you,” Kitamura screamed.

“Your thoughts should be with Toshi,” Akamiko insisted. “Then come to the capital.”

When Akamiko had thought all was lost, the Lady of All Colors had given her a new life. Akamiko would never have the lady’s gifts, but she had to at least try.

She had asked the senior’s grandson to follow behind her till she reached the edge of the village. She watched over Kitamura until he arrived. “Do not untie her until noon,” she instructed.

Kitamura struggled against the blue rope.

“Your boy was very brave,” Akamiko said. “I owe him my life. Come to the capital and I will try and repay that debt.” She thanked the senior’s grandson and set off down the road.

It had stopped raining by the time she reached the point where the road led away from the river. She had hoped to see a rainbow, but the sky was gray and overcast. So instead she pictured the brightest rainbow she had ever seen and continued on her journey.

© 2012 Aidan Doyle

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Aidan Doyle

Aidan DoyleAidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer who loves traveling. He has visited more than 70 countries and his experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories have been published in Fantasy, Strange Horizons and Weird Tales and has been shortlisted for the Aurealis Award.

4 Responses »

  1. Great story. Simply-written and fast-paced. Very enjoyable!

  2. In my opinion, this story has a looooong way to be a good story. The respect Akamiko has for her teacher is just about talking. It’s not making me believe it. Akamiko’s age is not real too. It’s just a number. So her tiredness after the fight and then her sadness because of missing the ritual does not give me anything. I can’t get sympathetic with the protagonist.
    But the idea of swordwriter and the colors was good.

    Thanks

  3. Never have I seen murder so grandly and foolishly emphsized as an honourable choice.

  4. I loved this story. I loved that the protagonist was not 22. I understand that she’s operating on mores and by a code that is not contemporary but which has its rules. I love the world building. I cannot wait to see the novel set in this world.

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