Koyuki’s Red Pinwheel
[The events in the following story come after the 25-episode Saber Marionette J series, and contain innumerable spoilers for those who haven’t seen it. I’ve tried to put in enough background to make the story intelligible for those who haven’t, and want to read on anyway. Of course, if you can possibly see the series beforehand, it helps; and you should, because it’s well worth seeing.
(Almost) all the characters in my story are the creation of anime artist Akahori Satoru (NG Knight Lamune, Bakuretsu Hunter, Bakuen Campus Guardress.) and feature character concepts by Kotobuki Tsukasa (Toshinden). These characters are justly copyrighted, and my use of them is completely unauthorized and utterly illegal. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, I write not to rip off Akahori-san, but to praise him, and the following tale is neither copyrighted nor intended to make a profit – merely to offer a casual tribute to Akahori-san’s fascinating creation. If you like the story, go to the video shop and snap up better ones, ie as much of Akahori’s SMJ and other creations as possible.
Non-Japanese readers should note that when Japanese speakers refer to other Japanese, it is traditional to affix some tail-end syllables to the addressee’s names as an indication of how the speaker regards that person. The ending Joe-‘sama’ means you hold Joe in the highest respect; Joe-‘san’ is polite, respectful, and normal; Joe-‘kun’ is how one addresses a classmate or teammate or student; Joe-‘sensei’ is how you refer to a teacher; just ‘Joe’ is considered extremely personal and even intimate; Joe-‘chan’ is how you address a child and/or can be used as an affectionate or mock-affectionate nickname.]
"Koyuki’s Red Pinwheel"
Bloodberry ducked her tall body and wild red hair under the last branch of the last wild apple tree in the valley, and began walking the winding path back into town. Some ridges high up the ravine-like hills offered a short cut. She looked at the apples she’d picked and put in the barrel she was carrying, and wondered if she could make it. Of course, she thought: she was Bloodberry, wasn’t she? She bent and sprang and caught a ridge forty feet up with one foot, and sprang again to another ridge, and then tried for a third – which crumbled under her heel the moment she reached it. She couldn’t let herself drop the apples: they were the only important thing,– they were for Otaru! Instantly shifting the barrel to one arm, she tossed a punch with the other into the hill itself. Her mechanical arm drove itself in the hill up past the elbow. She stopped falling. She looked around. Hmmm. Far off but not too far (maybe), she saw another ridge. She placed her legs carefully, relaxed her arm and sprang again. She made the other ridge and bounded off it to a spot near a fork on the path home, right atop the hill — and fell on her butt. Several apples went sprawling.
‘Baaaa-ka,’ she mumbled, rubbing her cybernetic backside. But then she smiled. She’d made it, after all. Ha! She slapped the side of a nearby stone on the ground with her palm. It leapt up and she caught it in her fist and squeezed. Stone dust puffed out between her fingers. Being Bloodberry was all right! She began to whistle and gather the apples up. She took a bite out of one. They were all right too. They were funny Terra II apples: big bitter round red boy apples and golden incredibly sweet almost turnip-shaped girl apples. Each one contained the seeds of the other and if you planted either a crimson and gold field of both would eventually grow out of each stocky birch-like white trunk.
She put them in the barrel and looked at them as she began walking back to the town. She thought of the trees in the field she’d picked. How beautiful they’d looked, all bright strokes and dabs of gold and red and emerald against the vast blue canvas of the sky. She looked around her. How beautiful things were – everything, all of it, the afternoon blue sky clear of clouds of plasma, the forests stretching out forever, the careful patches of farmland, the long blue ribbon of the river. She could watch it forever – except that Otaru needed these apples to sell in the street tomorrow so they could make enough money to pay for their apartment, and for sukiyaki, and (yes!) sake. She thought about eating herself fat, and drinking herself silly, and marrying Otaru, and had several very happy minutes strolling and daydreaming before she noticed that she was lost. She’d taken the wrong branch of the fork. Well, so what? The right way had to be off to the side, distantly, through the trees. She took a short cut that way through the forest.
And midway through it she heard a faraway rhythmic striking sound. Thok! Thok! Thok!
She crouched, instantly. Too mechanical to be an animal. Another saber marionette, like herself? A spy -- an enemy?
She moved swiftly and soundlessly closer to it, pausing momentarily in the trees’ shadows. The sound came from an area of sunlight beyond the forest. She slunk to the edge and, crouching, peered out.
In a clearing below, she saw a small but elegantly constructed Japoness home beside a long glittering pond. Beside the house, Bloodberry saw the back of a man. He had very long black hair and wore a long white Japoness yukata shirt of elegant cut. The sash that bounded his waist was the obi of a man of rank. High rank. Nonetheless he was chopping wood -- and quite well. His long ax cut a perfect sword-like arc into the log and split it in two for firewood. The man wiped sweat away from his forehead with the sleeve of his yukata, and turned around. His face was thin and serious, and exceptionally handsome. It --
It was Soemon.
Bloodberry pulled herself further back. Soemon – what should she do? Obiichi Soemon had been Otaru’s teacher and mentor. Otaru never failed to speak of him with respect. And yet – and yet – Bloodberry’s teeth ground -- the man had been a spy for Gartlant when it had nearly destroyed all of Japoness. Worse, he had stolen Lime’s otome kairo – her maiden circuit. The otome kairo was the only thing that gave a marionette like Lime – like Bloodberry – feelings, awareness: a heart. Without it, Bloodberry would be no different than an animated mannequin. She would be unable to love or protect Otaru, or experience his kindness, or speak or move or smile. Lime had sat slumped at their table or in the corner for days like a dead thing till Otaru found Soemon and had taken the circuit back. They had fought – this man had tried to kill Otaru! She felt sudden hate breaking over heart like cold waves of sea over sharp crags. So this is where he had run! She wanted to go down and -- .
"Koyuki!" he called.
At the door of the house Bloodberry saw a figure in a red kimono emerge. It was a marionette, like herself. No – different. The figure in the kimono moved slowly and awkwardly down a few steps carrying a little tray with two chawan, traditional cups, holding some beverage. When she reached the bottom her head turned and by chance she stared directly at Bloodberry. And then…simply turned away. Koyuki was like all marionettes without a maiden circuit – unable to shout a warning, or fend off an attack. All she could do is what such marionettes were programmed to do – simple domestic tasks. Bowing, serving, and quietly sitting in the corner. Crude servomechanisms. Lime would always talk to them like persons, but Lime would talk to anything. They made Bloodberry feel uncomfortable.
This marionette was quite beautiful, in a way, with chestnut hair, and large peaceful brown eyes. Soemon must have spent a tiny fortune when it came to her kimono, a beautiful red silk Shiyanese garment woven with subtle yellow and silver flowers. Bloodberry felt envious. But that was silly. This Koyuki was only a simple marionette – a jointed puppet, like so many others on Terra II. Bloodberry watched it walk toward Soemon. Koyuki suddenly slipped and fell – a frog on the path had gotten beneath her foot and she hadn’t had the intelligence to avoid it or to compensate. Baka, thought Bloodberry: idiot.
Soemon shouted "Koyuki" and dropped his ax and ran to her at once. He knelt over her. "Koyuki? Koyuki-chan? Are you all right?" He looked her over and took her in his arms. Bloodberry looked on -- amazed. She could see tears form in his eyes. Tears!
Soemon whispered a passionate curse and got control of himself. "I thought you’d hurt herself," he said.
"Kon-nichi-wa," said Koyuki.
"I thought you were hurt."
Bloodberry’s body was not a human body, but it had been designed to act and feel like a human body. As she watched the couple look at each other in the grass, her heart began beating. Hard. Harder. Why? What was she seeing? Soemon’s face had always seemed to her to be distant and arrogant. But now it looked at Koyuki with an expression that made Bloodberry melt. He kissed her, and brushed back her hair!
"Kon-nichi-wa," said Koyuki.
Soemon smiled at her, beautifully and sadly. "Konichi wa, Ko-chan," he said.
His hand reached down and he looked at her ankle and examined it. Beside it was the tray that she had brought the cups on. Soemon looked at it with an expression of sudden utter fury and hatred and drove the side of his hand into it. It flew apart in two splintered pieces into the grass. He slid his arms under Koyuki and took lifted her up in his arms and took her into the house.
Bloodberry sat there in the dry leaves and watched it for nearly an hour. And then she stood up and returned to her barrel of apples, and headed back toward the road to Japoness.
Dinner at Maison Otaru was (as always) chaos.
"Try my cooking, Otaru! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!" squeeled Lime. The floppy wings of her huge bandana-cap bobbing, she shoved a dish of – something – forward at a cringing Otaru, seated at the low-slung chubadai dining table.
"Lime! What sort of – er -- are you trying to feed to Master Otaru?" said Cherry, rushing out of the kitchen and coming between them, wielding a skillet.
"It’s yummy! Yummy yum!"
"What is it?"
"What is it?"
"What is it!"
"It’s – it’s – it’s yummy!"
Between grit teeth, Cherry said, "But how do you know it’s yummy?"
"Huh? Because the dogs in the street were fighting over it REAL HARD, Cherry-san! I had to pull HARD to get it away from their teeth!" She rummaged in one of her pockets and pulled out several dog fangs. "See?"
"You want Master Otaru to eat something dogs were chewing?"
Lime put one foot on the toe of the other and held her hands behind her back, and began twisting from side to side, like a two-year-old. She pouted. "They wouldn’t be fighting over it if it wasn’t good…" she whined.
Bloodberry, sitting across from Otaru, moodily stirred the rice in her bowl with her chopsticks.
"I think it’s a boot," said Otaru, eyeing the leathery fuming lump on Lime’s plate. He poked it with a chopstick.
A singed mouse covered in soy sauce leapt out, sneezed, and ran for its life.
Cherry screamed and fainted in a swirl of pink-purple kimono, her long purple hair wafting to the floor.
"Hi mousie!" yelled Lime and scampered after it on all fours in her bulbous clumping shoes.
Bloodberry began stirring the rice in her bowl the other way.
Hanagata their neighbor appeared out of nowhere next to Otaru and placed his breathless lips one-tenth of a centimeter from Otaru’s ear. "I’ve got something you can chew on, Otaru-kun…"
Cherry sprang from the floor and slammed her skillet into Hanagata’s cheek with a thunderous ringing bongggggg! He flew through the wall into the street.
"Pervert!" shouted Cherry through the hole in the wall. "Ecchi! Hentai! Sukube!"
The mouse and Lime ran onto the table and chased each other in circles.
Bloodberry looked at Lime’s happy face going round and round atop the table, going squeek squeek and giggling and laughing.
Bloodberry put her chopsticks down.
She slammed both her palms down on the table. Hard. Lime, mouse, and everything else on the table flew straight up and smacked into the ceiling. Then they fell back down. Little revolving circles replaced the eyes of Lime and the mouse as they lay there arm-in-arm, smiling.
Bloodberry stood up and grabbed Otaru by the lapel of his yukata and dragged him into the other room.
"We have to talk," she said.
"Urk?" he replied.
She slammed the sliding door behind them.
She stood in front of him, hands on hips, breathing deeply.
Otaru stared at Bloodberry. Or rather, since Bloodberry was taller than Otaru, into the bursting grapefruits that were Bloodberry’s breasts. A bead of sweat appeared on his forehead. A big bead.
"Uhhh…." He said.
She fell to her knees before him and bowed her head.
"Otaru-sama!" she said. "Please hear my request!"
"Request? Um, sure," he said, scratching his sandy hair. " -- What request?"
"Please – please do something for Master Soemon and Koyuki!"
"Soemon? Bloodbury, you found him?"
Bloodberry’s forehead remained pressed to the ground. Otaru could see her trembling.
"Otaru-sama," she said, "today, when I was walking in the forest, I got lost. I found a house. Soemon and Koyuki live there. And – I watched them."
"Is he all right? Did something happen?"
"No. Yes. No. I mean -- what I mean is – ." She raised her head and looked at him. "Do you love me?"
Otaru took an involuntary step back. Whenever a marionette said something like that to him, life always seemed to get much more complicated quick.
"Uh – well – sure – I mean, I love all of you; I guess. Lime, Cherry, you’re – like – my best friends, my family – uhh -- ."
Bloodberry’s face contorted into a look of such pain and grief that it left Otaru more moved than puzzled. He knelt down and took her by the shoulders. He swallowed. "Yes," he said, "I – of course I love you. Very much."
Bloodberry turned her face away. "Soemon loves Koyuki very much. She’s all – simple and crippled. But he loves her anyway. That’s why he tried to steal Lime’s maiden circuit. To put it in Koyuki. To give her feelings, like us. A heart."
"I know," said Otaru. ‘I want to see her smile just once.’ That’s what he said."
"I thought of how Lime was when her maiden circuit was removed. Just sitting there. Not smiling. Not talking. Not moving. And how you fed her and talked to her anyway and kept her at the table with us. What if we never got her maiden circuit back? Would you live with Lime like that forever? Would you look after her – or Cherry, or me – like that, if it had been us? Always?"
"Yes," said Otaru, simply.
"Would you like having to do that? Would it make you happy?"
He tilted his head and smiled at Bloodberry. "My heart would break every day of my life."
She suddenly grabbed his hand and kissed it. He felt something physical that made him blush.
"I walked home," said Bloodberry, "and I thought and I thought – and I realized -- Soemon lives like that every day of his life. He loves Koyuki, but she can’t smile or laugh or do anything. I’m – very sorry for him, Otaru-sama."
Otaru smiled and stroked her head gently. "You’ve grown, Bloodberry."
"I want to help him."
Otaru nodded. "I do too," said Otaru. He smiled. "I’ve known Master Soemon since I was a boy. He took me into his dojo. I was an orphan. No place to go. He gave me food and shelter. He taught me kendo, aikido, everything. I owe him a lot. I miss him – despite everything."
He stroked Bloodberry’s hair.
"But what can we do, Bloodberry? I can’t give him Lime’s maiden circuit. Or Cherry’s, or yours. I can’t destroy one person’s heart to wake up another’s."
"Make a new heart. A new maiden circuit."
"Bloodberry -- I can’t. I don’t know how!"
"Faust-san knows. Doesn’t he? He made the maiden circuits."
"Yes, with Ieyesu-sama. But that was long ago, and Ieyesu-sama is dead now. The technology’s lost…"
" ‘Lost’? What’s ‘lost’, what does ‘lost’ mean? Humans figured out to do it once. Why can’t they figure out how to do it again? What about Lorelei?"
"She built the Mesapotomia’s ship’s computer. Maybe Faust-san and Ieyesu-sama built the maiden circuits, but Lorelei designed them in the first place, didn’t she? She’s here, in Japoness. Why can’t she do it again, for Koyuki?"
Otaru said nothing. He’d never thought to ask.
"Please, Otaru-sama. Would it hurt to ask?" pleaded Bloodberry.
Otaru lifted her head up. He smiled at her. He laughed.
"No. No, it wouldn’t hurt to ask. It wouldn’t hurt at all. I will, I’ll ask her!"
Bloodberry’s face broke into the widest possible smile. And then it became deadly serious. "Otaru…" she said, huskily, putting her arms around him and drawing him closer for a kiss.
Peering behind a crack at the sliding paper door, Cherry screamed and Hanagata screamed, and Cherry ran in and pulled Bloodberry to the left, and Hanagata ran in and pulled Otaru to the right, and Cherry called Bloodberry a tramp and Hanagata called Otaru a tramp, and Otaru socked Hanagata in the nose and Cherry dragged Bloodberry away by her left leg. And Bloodberry nonetheless continued to smile.
Lime walked in. "Desert time! Desert time! Look, Otaru: chocolate mousse!"
A puzzled looking mouse stuck his whiskers out of a glass of chocolate ice cream and burped.
Lorelei turned away from the gleaming screens and switches and indicators on the bank of computer consoles she was adjusting, and looked at Otaru. She broke into that vivid wonderful smile that always caused Otaru such great – confusion. Bordering on panic. He’d been barely old enough to walk when he first looked up at the portrait of Lorelei in the Japoness History Museum. And looking at that portrait, even then, he felt he was looking not at one woman but at all women concentrated into one. At the entire world, the entire way of life, that the men of Terra II had somehow misplaced. Everything he obscurely sensed and missed and needed had been wistfully focused in that one long-lost face on its sacred public canvas.
And now – here she was. Short and bright, in a lumpy lab coat and goggles, holding a screwdriver, hunched over dials like a scruffy mechanic. Her nose was smudged! Sometimes Otaru thought she looked more like a boy than a marionette. But usually he simply thought: this is the only woman in the world. And once he’d thought it, he could never quite figure out what to say and do next.
"Otaru, oh it’s so good to see you! Did you bring your friends?" She pulled off her goggles and walked up to him. Strands of her soft orange hair strayed over her nose and she puckered and blew at them. "How’s Lime? And Bloodberry? Did Cherry cook something for me again, like last time? Oh I hope it’s pickles. Her pickles are really the most delic -- ."
Otaru fell to the floor on his knees and drove his forehead down onto the lab floor. There was an audible smack. It was concrete. It hurt. Baka! he thought.
"Lorelei-sama!" he half-shouted.
"I…if you could…if…please…"
He looked up at her. She was blushing. Why was she blushing? Arrr..he’d figure it out later.
"Please! Please…make a maiden circuit for my master, Obiichi Soemon!"
He ducked his head onto to the floor again, too hard again, and cursed himself for looking like a jackass. It had worked so much better when Bloodberry did it!
"Lorelei-sama – Soemon-sensei has a marionette. Like Lime. He loves her, like I – well – but she’s, just, you know – she doesn’t have a maiden circuit, and she can’t do things for herself, or feel things, and – and – he’s my oldest friend -- !"
He was making a fool of himself, and knew it. But, he had said what he had to say, sort of. So he looked up. Lorelei would say yes she could or no she couldn’t. And that would be that. But -- she said nothing, merely looked down at him, seriously and sadly.
Her head turned up and she looked behind him.
"Baiko?" she said. Otaru was suddenly aware that Baiko and Tamasaburo, the grimly beautiful saber marionettes guarding Lorelei, had soundlessly materialized behind him, longswords drawn, probably the moment Otaru fell on his knees toward Lorelei.
"Hai," rumbled all seven majestic feet of Baiko.
"I would like to have some tea with Mr. Otaru for a few moments, after I clean myself up. Privately. Could you arrange it?"
"Hai," said Baiko. She and Tamasaburo vanished in a swift blur.
"I have to take just one more reading, Otaru. All right? One of the guards outside will take you to my rooms. We’ll talk there."
"Thank you, Lorel -- ."
She turned away without a word.
Lorelei and Otaru sat at the low table near the wide window balcony of her apartment, both looking through the six-inch-thick bulletproof glass shielding it into the brilliant blue late afternoon sky smiling over the thatched roofs and tiny rickshaws, the streets and the shops, the flowers and the forests and the rivers of Japoness. No building there was as tall as Castle Japoness where the late Emperor and now Lorelei lived. From the Castle you could see the world as birds and angels saw it, nearly from the clouds, or even the stars. Otaru looked at the stars, just beginning to become visible. Lorelei had come from one of them. Which one? He looked at the world and the sky, and wanted to say ‘beautiful’ – but it was a word he could never bring himself to pronounce in front of Lorelei. The only woman in the world is by definition the most beautiful woman in the world, and in that woman’s presence, Otaru didn’t dare exacerbate the forever-mingled sense of comfort and discomfort, rightness and unease, that always mildly paralyzed him. Something inside him felt that it was absolutely natural and right for a man to be with a woman, and yet – she was so…strange. She was like a man, but not a man; and like a marionette, but not a marionette. She had long eyelashes and hair and – and breasts! -- how could she have these things and not have batteries, or buttons, or be made of metal and plastic, or serve a master? It was creepy. He had been so much at ease worshipping her portrait than sitting here watching her long orange hair sway as she leaned over to pour him more tea.
"Enough?" she said.
God, he prayed. Kami-sama! Don’t let me look down her blouse!
"Great. Fine! Wonderful. Enough!"
Lorelei smiled, and poured herself some as well.
She sat cross-legged in a casual pale green kimono over her T-shirt, across from Otaru on a pillow. Not on her knees: cross-legged! That was weird too. So much about Lorelei was weird, un-Japonaise. Sitting cross-legged was, well, brazen -- . And she always called him just ‘Otaru’ and not ‘Otaru-san’: ‘Otaru’ was too – intimate. Didn’t she realize that? And her kimono! She’d folded it right across left! Only corpses wore kimonos with the right side crossed over the left. Everyone Japonaise knew that.
But then Lorelei wasn’t Japonaise. Not Japonaise, or Romanan, or a Gartlanter, or like any other human being. He wondered about her country on Earth. About her home. Did Earth have rivers too, and kimonos, and plasma clouds? Lorelei had left it three centuries of frozen cryostasis ago. Long ago. What did she think when she thought of it, he wondered?
"That was a touching story, Otaru," said Lorelei. She looked out at the sky too, where, pinwheel-like, a distant plasma cloud was forming itself out of purplish stray stormy wisps.
Otaru didn’t see what was ‘touching’ about of it. He’d told Lorelei how Soemon had taken Lime’s maiden circuit under orders from Gartlant, but had disobeyed Faust, and tried to erase its data and put it into Koyuki. Otaru arrived in time to stop it. They fought, as they had fought in the dojo so many hundreds of times. And Soemon would certainly have won, as always, and killed him. But a saber sent from Gartlant had also come, to kill Soemon for his treason. First it struck down Koyuki instead, and Soemon’s fight ended instantly. Bloodberry then crushed the Gartlant saber like a large roach, and Soemon, dropping even his sword, paying no attention to anything, ran to Koyuki and knelt over her silent snapped form. His whole heart, his whole life, seemed be draining out of his face and bones. He knelt there and cried – Soemon! The Master! – and then took the maiden circuit, and held it out to Otaru. Then he stood up, cradling Koyuki in his arms, and walked away, the pinwheel he’d bought her earlier slowly revolving in her pale jointed hand. Neither Otaru nor anyone in Japoness had seen nor heard from him since.
"This is an interesting land," said Lorelei. Otaru had no comment.
Lorelei said, "Can I ask you something, Otaru?"
‘Otaru’ again. When she said ‘Otaru’ he felt warm – and scared. And hid both feelings as best he could. Did all real women have this effect? Even now clones of Lorelei were being prepared. What in the world must it be like for men living among millions of such beings?
"Oh! Uh. Sure. Yes, anything, Lorelei-sama. Ask."
"Why are you making this request? I mean – Soemon hurt Lime. He betrayed Japoness – and Gartlant too. He would have killed you in the fight you had. Isn’t that so?"
Otaru loooked into the tea in his cup. The grass-colored water still seemed to swirl slightly from the heat. "I understand why he did it. His feelings. Not completely, but -- what it must have been like for him. I remember when Lime didn’t have a circuit. She was like a doll. A puppet. She couldn’t move or talk. I had to feed her and wash her face and – seeing her just sit there, staring, crippled -- it broke my heart. I’d have given my life to see her back the way she was. I heard that when their masters die or get really injured, marionettes with maiden circuit go almost crazy with pain. I don’t know if that’s true for marionettes, but it was true for me. If I had had some other marionette’s maiden circuit in my hand, and Lime just sitting there that way, looking at me, empty and blank – I don’t know. Maybe I’d do the same thing Soemon did."
"If – if I got sad enough – maybe I would."
"You really care for your marionettes."
"I like them. I like all of them. A lot."
"You love them."
"Well – I wouldn’t say -- ."
Lorelei laughed. He had never seen a woman laugh before. It was a high-pitched trill, not like a man’s laugh at all! How bizarre.
"Even a million light years from earth, men are still afraid to say the word, ‘love’," she said. She looked suddenly sad and beautiful.
Did all real women laugh like this at men, and look suddenly sad and beautiful? How did the men on old Earth keep from going nuts? Otaru pushed this line of speculation out of his mind.
"Lorelei-sama. Things went all wrong for him, but, still – I know Soemon-san. He’s a fine, an honorable person. He loves Koyuki. He’s spent his whole life caring for her and protecting her. He’s thrown away everything for her, his home, his country – his honor. And he’s my friend. He’s my friend! Lorelei-san – can’t you do something? I know the technology for making maiden circuits was lost, but – ."
Lorelei placed her hand beneath the wooden chawan cup holding her clear green tea and sipped it. She paused, and placed the cup gently on the table.
"The technology was never lost," said Lorelei.
"I can build a maiden circuit very easily. At least I think so."
"Then – then that’s great! That’s wonderful!"
"But I’m not sure that I will," she said. "Or that I should."
Otaru looked utterly puzzled. "You’re not sure? ‘Not sure’? Of what?"
Lorelei’s face, as it often did, looked careworn. She knew so many things; too many to be happy.
"Do you know what a maiden circuit is, Otaru? Do you even know what a ‘marionette’ is?"
"A marionette is a – well, a machine. With a heart!"
"A marionette is an android. An android is not exactly a machine, although it has mechanical components. An android is a cyborg, a combination of biological and machine elements, made in the image of man. Or woman."
"I don’t understand."
"Koyuki – and Lime and Gemini and every marionette, maiden circuit or not – have parts that are alive. Living tissue. Very little. Traces. But it’s there, and it has to be there because, so far as science knows, only biological entities can possess what we think of as subjective life – conscious self-awareness. Men made marionettes to be living beings. They didn’t want them to be puppets – fakes, objects, things. They wanted them to be as real as possible, at least as real as plants or birds or animals are real. They couldn’t actually make women, but they at least wanted them at least to be -- ."
A smile flickered across her lips. Would she laugh again?
"Beloved puppies," she said. "Helpers. Protectors. When the Mesapotamia’s ship crashed, the technology was crippled. The available data limited. The survivors could produce only male tissue from male tissue. They didn’t need to make male marionettes, or robots. They wanted females, not mirror images, or machines. But to produce female tissue, they.had to find some, and in that respect Terra II was rich. There were no female humans, but there were females of every other species -- ."
"You mean that -- ."
"We are immigrants, Otaru, but the marionettes are natives. Faust’s marionette Tiger was probably built partly from the tissue of a tiger of Terra II, and Panther from a panther, and Lime -- ."
"From a lime? That’s ridiculous!"
"Well it isn’t as though Faust screwed a bunch of limes together with lug nuts, Otaru," said Lorelei. "All that’s needed is barely a few initial grams of living tissue, to interact with an artificial intelligence device. Besides, here on Terra II the limes – and the cherry blossoms and the bloodberries – are sexually differentiated and cross-pollinate. Faust made the first maiden circuits, and he was plant biologist aboard the Mesapotamia, after all. Lime might have been the first marionette of all, perhaps," said Lorelei. "Almost old as me."
"But animals have brains! I mean – the only things fruits have are…pits -- ."
"It’s only a matter of having some trace of a biological substrate. When you were conceived, Otaru, you were a single cell. You didn’t have a brain. Or a nervous system. But you were alive. That single cell could and did develop into a brain. The original organic sample cells around which a marionette’s mental processing is made to develop interacts with an artificial intelligence network – information is input and the result is a brain that operates very much like your own. Or like my own, to be precise, since I was the model for the neural networks. But a marionette’s brain is not purely artificial, because it has a biological component -- something living, that reacts to the data with awareness. Heart."
Otaru looked so stupefied that Lorelei was grateful. She momentarily resisted the impulse to laugh.
"Lime, Cherry, Bloodberry – vegetables!" he wailed, and plunged his face into his hands.
She did laugh outright then. "No, Otaru. They’re no more plants for sharing certain cells with a plant than you are a fish because you eat a fish. The fish tissue you eat becomes a part of you. And you remain alive because the tissue you ate was alive in the first place. But that tissue develops into something much greater and more complex. That’s why marionettes eat: to replenish the supply of organic tissue in their makeup. Just like you do. If Lime did begin as a lime, well, she had a more complex origin than you did. But she’s not a lime now. Like you," said Lorelei with a smile, "she’s mostly rice and pickles and green tea at the moment."
Otaru was not consoled.
"Think of the poets, Otaru," said Lorelei. " ‘My love is like a red red rose’. In your case it’s a little truer than in most, that’s all."
"But – if they’re not machines -- ."
"They are machines -- for the most part. But with discrete crucial trace biological elements. Which gives them – not their intelligence or memory, but a certain fundamental sentience; an awareness. Life, rather than pure mechanical response."
"But then why do they need maiden circuits at all? Why aren’t all marionettes like Lime and Cherry?"
"The maiden circuit isn’t a ‘heart’, Otaru. It’s a brain. Or rather, ‘additional brain’, if I can put it that way. A normal marionette simply doesn’t have the brain capacity to experience a wide range of emotion or act independently, any more than a kitten has the brain capacity to feel irony or compose Hamlet. A maiden circuit gives a marionette more – how can I put it – gigabytes. Many many more. As much as a human requires to be able to do something complex as feel. Though it doesn’t give them feelings, exactly: only the capacity to feel, if their experiences encourage it. The experiences your three marionettes had with you, did encourage it."
"And you can make more -- ‘giggle bites’ -- ?"
She smiled, then frowned. "Yes."
"Well why don’t you? Why don’t you make ones for all the marionettes?"
Lorelei brought a napkin to her lips. She looked out at the houses of Japoness. The sun was setting, and the river took on a glittering hemoglobin look.
"Otaru – the men of Terra II wanted to have marionettes. They didn’t want marionettes to have them."
"I don’t understand."
"They’re a threat," she said simply. She laced her fingers tensely together in her lap and looked at him. "Don’t you understand? Marionettes… look like women. But they’re not women. They’re alive, but they’re not -- human."
She looked angry. Why? Otaru had never seen Lorelei even approach getting angry. He bowed his head, trying to be polite, but persisted. "Squirrels aren’t human either, Lorelei-sama. But we get along."
"The contents of a bowl of squirrel stew might not agree."
"I – I don’t understand what you’re saying."
"Squirrels and men ‘get along’ because squirrels are small and weak and not terribly bright. Marionettes are small and weak – at least in number -- and only a very few of them are bright. But look at what even those few have done. Your three marionettes destroyed Gartlant’s entire computer system. Gartlant’s killed the Shogun here and Hikozoemon. Four together freed me and stopped the entire Mesapotamia. The actions of squirrels? No, Otaru. They’re not squirrels. Squirrels die. Like we do. But marionettes don’t die. They don’t age. And they don’t hesitate to kill, when ordered. That’s what saber marionettes are designed to do. Yes, I could make Koyuki smart enough to smile – to feel. I could make a marionette stronger and smarter than any human being. I did. It was called the Mesapotamia. It killed everyone I -- ."
Lorelei bowed her head. Her hands were small fists, and they shook.
Otaru said, "Lime’s a marionette, and she would never hurt anyone."
"Tiger is a marionette, and she murdered Ieyasu in cold blood."
"She was ordered to do it!"
"Could she refuse?"
Otaru opened his mouth to reply, but stopped. "I don’t know."
"I do. She couldn’t – then. She hadn’t grown enough to go against her own programming. To make her own judgements and choices. She might be able to now. One day she will be able to. The ship’s computer on the Mesapotamia did. Tiger, Lime, Cherry, all of them. They’ll be able to make all her own decisions. Good or evil."
"And they’ll be good ones -- the right ones!"
"Why? Because they’ll be more intelligent then? Intelligence doesn’t put you beyond good and evil. The most intelligent marionette that ever existed was the first – the one inside the Mesapotamia. What did it choose? It chose to kill every human being aboard ship except me. This entire world is the result of one artificial intelligence’s decision to murder human beings. Its decision, and my arrogance. You were here when it sent down those beams destroying city after city here, Otaru. It could have obliterated the entire surface of this world. And it would have." She drew her kimono around her more tightly, with both hands. "Three marionettes with maiden circuits aren’t a threat, Otaru, and six aren’t a threat. But six thousand could level every city in Terra II overnight. Six million – six million could obliterate all the human beings like flies. Like the Mesapotamia tried to do."
Otaru looked out at the roofs and houses of Japoness. An angry expression crossed his face. He bowed his head.
"I’m sorry," she said.
"You’re wrong!" shouted Otaru, staring at her. He stood up on his feet. "You think the only way to keep some people safe is to keep other people stupid and crippled! What kind of answer is that? Why don’t you put everyone in Gartlant on an operating table and cut out a piece of their brain, so they’ll be too ‘dumb’ to bother us? If you could cure a retarded baby, you’d do it. And you wouldn’t ask if it grew up to be smarter or tougher than you. But ‘marionettes’, they’re different, they’re ‘not like us’. They are like us. They feel, they care, they’re living things, they’re people, like us. You want to save some people by reducing other people to – to brainless junk. Puppets. Slaves. And you’re doing this to save us? If we treat others that way, we don’t deserve to be saved. You – you make me sick!"
Otaru turned to storm out of the door and when he reached it, he thought of something else to shout and turned to shout it – and stopped.
Lorelei sat at the table with her face in her hands. In tears.
Otaru hesitated. Lorelei began shaking her head from side to side. Warm tears, wretched sounds, broke from between her fingers.
Otaru bit his lip, sneaked another look, swore quietly, placed his hands on his hips. Exasperation, anger, awe, pity, shame, exchanged seats behind his eyes. "Don’t cry," he finally growled.
She let her hands drop to her lap. Suddenly she looked – old. Otaru was startled. He had never seen a woman who was old. He found it moving and beautiful, and, confused again, looked away.
"I’m sorry," he said. "I lost my temper -- it’s my fault."
"You don’t understand. You don’t understand anything, Otaru. It’s my fault. Everything’s my fault. The maiden circuits, the ship’s computer, they’re all made out of the same thing – me. Their minds were all based on mine. The evil things they did came out of the evil things in here," she said, pressing a hand against her heart, "in here," she said placing a hand on her forehead. "They’re flawed because I am. I’m the one responsible for everything, the death of the people on the ship, the crash, the attacks from space – this whole awful world – ."
She broke into a second bitter tide of tears. Ashamed of himself, he remembered how she had tried to take her life that one time. He thought it had passed, but it hadn’t -- she still felt responsible. And – she was. He understood, and felt genuine pity. She was: she was responsible. The truth, the past, couldn’t be changed.
But the future could.
Otaru walked over to her and knelt down on one knee. He smiled, kindly.
"Listen, Lorelei. -- You know what Soemon taught me when I was a boy, when I made mistakes?"
"He taught me that if you want to make up for doing something bad, it’s not enough to be sorry about it, or feel bad about it. If you want to make up for doing something bad, you have to do something good to put in its place."
She brushed a tear away with the heel of her hand, nearly laughing. " ‘Something good’. What could ever make up for destroying so many lives?"
"Maybe – maybe creating new lives. For people like Koyuki."
"Otaru, she’s not a human being…"
"You’re a woman. Women give life. You could give them life. Life!"
" ‘Life…’ "
"Lives. Real lives. Real feelings."
"Feelings aren’t the blessing you think they are, Otaru. Awareness isn’t always a blessing either."
"Feelings are always a blessing, and awareness is always a blessing. Something is always better than nothing."
"I won’t – I refuse – to put anyone on this world at risk, ever again."
"Three marionettes aren’t a threat, and six aren’t a threat. Didn’t you say that?"
"Are seven a threat? To the whole human race? Are they?"
Lorelei said nothing.
"Lorelei-san, you made a personality circuit a long time ago for a ship’s computer system. But that’s not like a person, living out in the world with other people. I’m not surprised it went crazy, stuck in a wall with no arms and no legs and no sunshine. Lorelei…you spend all your time locked away in here. You don’t really know marionettes. You don’t live with them and see them every day, like I do. You know how they’re made, but you don’t know what they – really are. As people. They care about us. They help us, and protect us, me and you, Not because they’re made to but because – because they like us. That’s what feeling gives you. It lets you care. It lets you love. Not letting someone feel or love – that’s the real danger."
Lorelei’s head hung down and away from Otaru. She’d stopped crying, but the former tears formed a growing drop along the bottom of her chin
"Try it once. Give Koyuki a heart – a maiden circuit. And then see what happens."
Lorelei looked away into the clear green tea in her cup for a long moment.
"Just this one time. – Please."
Lorelei looked out at the sky again, now a deep dark blue.
"Just once," she murmured. She pressed a hand to her forehead. "Oh Otaru…all…all right. We’ll try it. Once." She looked out at the deepening twilight settling onto the view of Japoness and forced a hopeful smile, and nodded. "An – an experiment. Just an experiment. We’ll try it, and we’ll see what happens."
Otaru’s face lit up like a fireworks. "Lorelei-sama! Thank you!" said Otaru, and stood up and reached over and clapped his hands on her shoulders.
She looked at them, shocked, eyes wide, and jerked away. She cast her eyes down.
"Gomen!" said Otaru. "I -- I’m sorry," he said. He leaned forward to bow in apology and she pulled further back from him. Otaru’s brow wrinkled. Now what had he done?
She looked at the floor, and half-blushed, half-smiled. He waited, unsure whether to stay or go. She looked up with a laugh. "No man has actually -- touched me -- in 307 years," she said.
"Oh," said Otaru. "No? Ah. Well…uh, sorry! I won’t – uh – I mean -- Good night Lorelei-sama!" he said, bowing rapidly and wondering how quickest to get out of there.
"Good night, Otaru."
He walked to the door, and when he reached it, he stopped and turned and, without hurrying, bowed deeply from the waist. His hair swung for a moment, and he said, "Arigato," with great sincerity. And then he turned and left and shut the door behind him.
"Sleep well!" she called after him. The door shut. "Otaru."
She looked at the door. The wood and was immaculate and the paper bright. And silent.
Lorelei sat at the table for a few more moments and then took the sleeve of her kimono and brushed beneath her eyes with it. She stood up and looked at the floor and pulled thoughtfully at her hair. Then she turned again to the window and looked out at the world of Japoness, gilded and edged with young moonlight. She looked up at the faraway stars all glittering and, pointlessly, wanted to reach her hands out to them. But she held her hands at her side. And she looked down at the houses and the river, which also glittered.
‘Fuhrer’ Goddel watched Lorelei’s face on the black and white video screen in his bunker.
On the tree outside the bulletproof glass window of Lorelei’s balcony was a sparrow. Or rather what looked like a sparrow. Inside the sparrow was a miniaturized spy apparatus consisting of a camera and a microphone and a transmitting device that transmitted Lorelei’s image and her conversation with Otaru to the burnt-out guerilla headquarters of Seigmund Goddel and his followers. Goddel looked at her and pulled on the end of his long drooping pencil-thin moustache. He felt what he usually felt for people -- disgust. What stupid creatures women must have been. To think that Gartlant and even Faust-sama had destroyed themselves purely in order to salvage this snivelling thing with its fatty breasts and short legs and broad hips. Goddel had struggled and connived and betrayed and organized and killed to gather some remnants of Faust’s glorious shock troops together, to form the seed for a stronger and greater Reich. And now this silly little beast was going to endanger all of Terra II all over again. And not merely Terra II, but even Seigmund Goddel, its future Fuhrer.
"Idiocy," he said, looking at the screen with infinite and infinitely composed contempt.
He pressed a switch.
"Get me Hess."
A full three minutes passed. He sighed. He would have to remember to purge the communications department. Again.
Hess’ bald smiling sunglassed face appeared on the screen. Hess raised one limp hand, and smirked. ‘Heil Goddel’, he said, clearly trying not to laugh.
Goddel barely restrained himself. But he did. He would purge Hess too, but all in good time. All in good time.
"Lorelei is going to build more maiden circuits," said Goddel.
Hess stopped smiling. And then started again. "I see. Well -- goodbye mankind, eh?"
Goddel’s closed his hand over his riding crop with exasperated fury.
"Is that your only reaction?"
Hess shrugged. "Amusing developments are amusing."
"Don’t you know what this means?"
"Better than you, ‘mein fuhrer’. Marionettes are stronger than we are. And numerous even now. Every man wants one, eh? When they become as smart or smarter than we are, we’re finished. Of course, I expect any number of highly diverting wars along the way – whole armies of one nation’s maiden-circuited Valkyries against the other’s. But eventually machines that feel will feel what you and I do. Pride. Resentment. Ego. And they’ll turn and crush us and dominate us. As we now do them."
"And this doesn’t bother you?"
Hess shrugged. "The strong eat the weak. That is life. As for our personal fates, pff -- I imagine you and I will surely be assassinated long before then, don’t you think?"
Goddel swore beneath his breath at the man. "Marionettes are not strong enough to eat us up yet. And as for ‘Life’, it will cease to be a problem -- once we strangle it out of them."
" ‘We’? -- ‘mein fuhrer’?"
"One day I will be your fuhrer, Hess. And everyone’s. You would be well advised to keep that in mind."
"Faust was my fuhrer, Goddel. I was actually proud to serve him. He had a strange sort of…honor. A genuine measure of vision and greatness. You, I’m afraid, completely lack this distinction. I believe the residents of New Texas would refer to as a ‘punk’."
"You are an ass, Hess. Fortunately, you are also a pimp. And I need the services of a procurer, for a particular assignment."
"I’m afraid I must decline, ‘fuhrer’. I am in the employ of New Texas at the moment. They have me under an exclusive contract."
"I expect they will terminate that contract one day. And you with it. Unless you have sizable savings to ensure a more pleasant departure. I believe I could induced to make a contribution."
Hess said nothing.
"I need an assassin in Japoness," said Goddel. "Can you arrange it?"
"I can arrange anything. For a price."
Hess smiled. "Well -- perhaps I’ll put out a few feelers. For old times sake. But -- ."
"One can always find a killer, ‘mein fuhrer.’ But a marionette with a heart is hard to kill. Very hard to kill."
"You just don’t know how to do it, Hess."
"I think so." Goddel shifted his long heavy back in his seat and smiled. "Yes, I think I know how to kill a marionette."
Goddel pressed a button and Hess’ image vanished. Goddel leaned back in his chair and watched Lorelei at the window for a few long moments.
"Gertrud!" called Goddel.
"Jawohl!" A marionette appeared behind him. She resembled Faust’s marionette Tiger, except that her face bore a number of cigarette burns and scars, and a Gartlant military medal had been pinned on her. On her cheek. She clicked her heels.
"Bend over the console, Gertrud. Here, in front of me."
She did so. Goddel looked at the marionette’s backside and then up at the wistful child-like expression of Lorelei on the screen. He was genuinely puzzled. Why in the world would someone want to give feelings and self-awareness to one of these marionettes? He reached out with his riding crop and pushed the marionette’s military skirt up over her waist. Really, there were so much more amusing things to do with them.
It was already dark when Otaru got home from the meeting with Lorelei. He stood in front of the door. He didn’t want to go in – he was afraid. He was angry because he was afraid. Afraid of what? he thought. Why am I standing out here by myself like a fool? The light inside shone dimly through bright yellow squares of paper in the door-frames. The smell of fish and saki was warm and keen, and though Otaru couldn’t hear words, he could hear the music of the marionettes’ voices – Lime’s high girlish laugh, Cherry’s melodious proper reprimands, Bloodberry’s curt mature bark. Just hearing their voices made him smile. This was his home, the family he’d always dreamed of as an orphan, and the people in it loved and cared for him, just as he loved and cared for them. And yet –
And yet – were they people? Were they people, after all? What had Lorelei called them – ‘not human’? Not human. What did ‘not-human’ mean? Otaru remembered the time Hanagata had stopped and argued with him on the street. How could Otaru care about machines, he'd whined, when he could have Hanagata instead? Easy! But…Hanagata’s point had lingered. Hanagata was a human being, and marionettes – those he’d seen up to then – weren’t. Yet Otaru had always obscurely cared about them, felt for them, even before Lime and the others. They had – something. They were desirable, yes, but what it was about them evoked that desire he couldn’t define. It was something more. Otaru didn’t know what it was, but he felt that without it he was incomplete.
But was he wrong?
Sexual behavior was not something much talked about on Terra II. There were people like Hanagata, of course, and that was – accepted, but, like Hanagata, not much respected. It was felt that somehow, someday, women would return and the old ways would return with them. Hanagata was a step beyond, a break with the old forms, a step into a place the majority of men on Terra II refused to venture, a place that irritated them for persistently reminding them of itself as an option. And of course the marionettes were often used for – things – apart from domestic service. That was not much talked about either. But also understood.
But to care for them – to feel for something not human -- that was not allowed. To do so was to turn one’s back on the old, profoundly rooted, human pattern of man and woman. Soemon had done it, and been driven out of Japoness. Otaru was able to do it, or at least to generally treat his marionettes as humans, because his marionettes had maiden circuits – they were ‘special’, they acted human. But even so it wasn’t a relation between a man and women. The feeling on Terra II was that if a man cared for something that was not really a woman, then in ways that were subtle and in ways not so subtle, he would no longer really be a man. And if men stopped being men, what would they become? What would Terra II be? The marionettes were substitutes, reminders, ways to keep men away from the deep well of horror they sensed waiting should they cut all their ties with the role their evolution, their ancestors, their parent world, had engrained into them. The marionettes were crutches that helped them to remain man.
But were they men any longer? Was Otaru really human himself? Were any of them? He looked at his hands. Where had they come from? A father and mother? A cloning laboratory, the same place every male on Terra II had come from. Was he really something less artificial, less planned and designed than Lime or the others? Was a clone really a man, or just the same thing as a marionette, really -- another temporary makeshift? A placeholder so some future generation could revert more swiftly into a pre-ordained design he had no part in making, the roles and dramas of male and female, of humanity. How much ‘humanity’ had even pure clones like Faust shown, invading Petersburg and bombing Japoness, or even the Shogun, befriending Lime and the others only to eventually throw them to the ship’s computer in exchange for Lorelei? Had they lost that humanity somehow, in the process of cloning? Did they have less humanity than the marionettes, not more?
What did it mean to be human? He looked down at his hands and fingers and for a moment they seemed to him twisted and different, different like hooves or tentacles. He felt suddenly, horribly – alien.
The door opened in a lightninglike slash.
"Otaruuuu!" squeeled Lime. She jumped smack on top of him like a two-year old on Papa. Otaru fell back flat on his back, kicking up a burst of dust, as Lime squatted on his navel, her big yellow shoes beside his ribs.
"Hi, Lime," he barely managed to wheeze.
"Hi, Otaru! You were gone SO LONG!"
"I had to sell the apples."
"All of them?"
"All of them."
"Yay! Yay, Otaru! Now we can eat tomorrow! I want sukiyaki! Sukiyaki sukiyaki!"
"Shut the hell up there," said a neighbor’s voice in the distance.
"YOU shut up," said Lime, pulling down one of her lower eyelids with a finger and sticking out her tongue and making a rude noise.
"He’s right, Lime. Lime, please -- be quiet," said Otaru.
"Huh?" She looked down at Otaru’s face. "What’s wrong, Otaru?"
Cherry and Bloodberry came to the door. Formal pink kimono all a-flutter, Cherry rushed over and grabbed Lime’s arm and began pulling her away from Otaru.
"Lime, get off Master Otaru!"
"Cherry!" whimpered Lime, sniffling.
"What?" said Cherry.
"Otaru’s not happy!"
Cherry looked at Otaru and immediately put a hand on his forehead and began to scan for his temperature reading. She looked into his eyeball and into his ear.
Cherry looked into his other ear.
"I know what Otaru needs!" said Lime. She took the arm of Cherry’s kimono and pulled her over and whispered in her ear. She smiled at Cherry, and nodded. Cherry looked at Otaru, and back at Lime, and put a finger to her chin and thought about it, and nodded and smiled. And then they both looked at Otaru.
And dove in, yelling, "Tickle tickle tickle tickle tickle -- !"
"No. NO! No, cut it out," said Otaru, squirming and starting to giggle. "Cherry, Lime – ha, h-ha – please stop it NO Lime STOP no not th-THERE – wh-wh-ha-ha ha --."
Bloodberry appeared on the porch and stood there watching them without a sound. When Otaru saw her face she placed one finger simply on her heart and looked at him in a way he had never seen her look before.
He looked at her face, and nodded. He smiled.
"Otaru’s HAPPY!" said Lime. "Look!" she said, pointing with delight at his face. "MORE TICKLE!"
"More tickle," said Bloodberry, delighted, laughing, joining the pile of bodies in the street, "More tickle. More tickle, more tickle!"
"No!" howled Otaru. "Please! No, no more tickle!"
"Shut the hell UP down there," shouted the neighbors.
"STOP IT!" hollared Otaru.
The three marionettes stopped instantly and looked at him with such startled expressions that -- he laughed. He lay on the ground with his arms straight out and, sighing, gave up.
"Oh all right," he said. "Start it."
All three leaped in, tickling away. And Otaru tickled back.
I am happy, he thought. I am happy.
Two months later Obiichi Soemon stood sword-in-hands beside the pond by his house in the wild woods, peforming the slow ballet-like movements of the kata form he had developed to perfect his swordsmanship. His arms and sword slit slices of mathematical precision into the air. Arc, parry, thrust, block, return; arc, parry, thrust, block, return. Every movement simple, even, exact, concise. The pond beyond him glittered like a mirror, and Otaru, hidden behind a tree, peered out and watched its light glitter on the length of the sword and around the exquisite motions of Soemon’s graceful figure. Soemon the master. Soemon -- his master.
The first time he had seen Soemon-sensei, Otaru had been a child – a child being beaten up by other children. Otaru fought back fiercely and stupidly and was thrashed to a pulp. Soemon merely stood there watching, gazing on with those always-averted eyes that nonetheless saw everything, the mask of his thin handsome features even then set in that eternal disapproving frown. He was samurai, radiating pride and scorn and aristocracy, and didn’t lift a finger to help. Otaru hated him instantly. A wealthy young samurai had deigned to notice him, and what he noticed was a scruffy, inferior, dirt-splattered orphan, slapped and cuffed with impunity. Otaru felt he was being judged and found worthless. Perhaps because he really was worthless. He wanted to break into tears, and refused to. And then – and then the noble samurai descended and approached, and suggested that perhaps Otaru might benefit from lessons. "Come."
Soemon turned, and Otaru followed him to his dojo. Soemon ordered one of the older students to feed him, and clothe him, and find room for him to sleep. Otaru ate more rice that day than he weighed; he had a warm bath and slept under a warm blanket for the first time since his poor father had died; and the next day he wore the white uniform of a student of the dojo of a Samurai who had had tea with the Shogun himself. Otaru sat on his knees with three dozen others, watching for the first time the Master demonstrate the same perfect motions he performed now. The way of the sword. The way of the Samurai -- strength and grace; loyalty and honor
Soemon carefully returned the sword to the hilt of its scabbard and slid it in to the hilt, with an audible click. He looked out onto the pond, his back turned to Otaru. The wind blew quietly through his long black hair.
"I hope you carefully observed the way the wrist is held, Otaru-kun," said Soemon. "You never did master that perfectly."
Otaru stood up. He walked out from behind the tree and approached the master.
He bowed from the waist, deeply. "Sensei."
Soemon said nothing.
Umm. "Nice place you have here," said Otaru, instantly wanting to kick himself.
"Why are you here, Otaru-kun?"
"I – I wish to invite you to the Archery Festival in town, Soemon-sama!"
A moment passed. Without turning, Soemon said, "I thank you for your invitation."
"May I assume you will favor us with your presence, sensei?"
Otaru sighed. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
"I’m – I’m pleased to see you’re maintaining your form, Sensei."
"To maintain one’s form is an obligation incumbent on all who practice the Way," said Soemon.
"Obligations are good things. Obligations like… hospitality?"
Soemon said nothing.
"It’s certainly a long walk way out here, Sensei. I’m a little thirsty."
Soemon turned, frowning.
"To be a good host, also is an obligation," said Soemon. "Come."
They walked through the medium-long grass to the steps of Soemon’s house. Could Soemon have have built it himself from the trees around here? It was like his swordsmanship, simple, flawless, immaculate.
Inside, the same spartan elegance. There were places on the wall for his swords and two bows and several arrows, a shelf of books (several in German), brushes for writing and calligraphy, a wall scroll bearing the ideogram-word ‘peace’. And in an exceptionally elegant red kimono with a wide yellow waistband, and a fresh pink flower in her hair, Koyuki sat on her knees by a window, looking out at a section of the field covered with flowers.
"We have a guest, Koyuki," said Soemon.
"Kon-nichi-wa," said Koyuki.
"Konichi-wa, Koyuki-san," said Otaru. He bowed.
"Could you prepare some tea for us, please?"
Koyuki stood up and went to a tea service in the corner and then walked unevenly to the small kitchen area and began warming tea. One arm seemed to move more stiffly than other. The damage from the Gartlant saber must not have been repaired entirely, thought Otaru.
Soemon went to a short-legged table, a polished wooden chubadai, by a window at the other side and drew his legs underneath him and looked out onto the woods. Their white trunks were already beginning to ripen into riots of warm autumnal colors. A soft wind rustled through them, and its refreshing coolness swept across Otaru as he sat down across from Soemon, strands of whose long black hair, now with a line or two or grey, would occasionally lift in the breeze, ghost-like. He was frowning, as always. He looked away from Otaru, as he always did from everyone.
"How have you been, Sensei?"
"We have a garden. Fruit is plentiful. I hunt. The wind and the trees live in peace with us."
"Your students miss you."
"And the pond here is stocked with several varieties of fish."
"Was – was this house recently built, sensei? It’s wonderfully kept."
"I built it a few years ago. For Koyuki and myself. While I was still living in Japoness. A place where we could be alone."
"Is it so good to be alone, sensei?"
Soemon squared his shoulders. "Nature is tolerant, Otaru-san. It accepts you for what you are. It never asks you to lie, or to pretend. It never sneers or persecutes, or judges or condemns."
Soemon said nothing.
"You never smile," said Otaru.
Soemon lifted one eyebrow. And then, to Otaru’s astonishment – he smiled. Faintly.
"Kindness was always your weakness, Otaru-kun. I said that to the Shogun once. Do you know what he replied?"
"He said that this weakness was your strength. He didn’t think compassion could be destructive. I wonder what he thought as his own finally destroyed him?"
Soemon waited for Otaru’s response.
"Come back to us, sensei. Come home to your people."
Soemon’s faint smile dissippated. "My ‘home.’ My ‘people’." He looked out upon the pond.
Koyuki placed a polished black wood tray with two cups of green tea between them, and a bowl of small cubes of gold-colored cheese. Otaru looked at her hands: the fingers were wood-like, jointed in distinct segments, not smooth and human like Lime’s. She bowed, and seated herself on her knees. Otaru could faintly hear her gears moving, clock-like. Quite lovely, she too stared out the window at the pond.
Soemon turned and lifted his cup and turned the cup and sipped.
He set it down again.
"I am a traitor, Otaru-kun," he said. "A liar. A thief." He looked at Koyuki and reached out and took her hand, and this time smiled fully and beautifully. "A pervert." He slowly let her hand go. "The people of Japoness do not want me back."
"I want you back. Lime and Bloodberry and Cherry and your students want you back. The war with Gartlant is over, sensei! There’s no need to live out here alone."
A sort of laugh came from Soemon. "Do you know why I abandoned the Japoness people for Gartlant, Otaru-kun?"
"No, sensei. Not all of it."
Soemon looked out the window at the sky, and the past.
"Years ago, I was a young martial arts student – like yourself. I dreamed of becoming Samurai, of serving the Shogun, of rising in the ranks of the elite troops of Japoness. The usual silly daydreams of spilling blood and dying gloriously. Then one day I walked by a closed second-hand shop, and there in the corner I saw a face. It was Koyuki. Someone had broken her and thrown her away. Broken her and thrown her away! I looked at her face. And there was…something…in it. I shook what I felt off and went home, pretending to go about my business. And in the middle of the night, I got up and ran to that shop, ran, because I had to be sure I was the first one there in the morning, so I could buy her. When I brought Koyuki home, there were moments when I’d simply sit there and look at her face. It was beautiful to me, Otaru-kun, in a way I couldn’t explain. I told myself it was merely the beauty of an object. Oh, a treasured object – treasured enough to be a part of me, like my sword. But eventually – eventually I began to feel that there was someone there -- someone within, looking back. A pearl within the shell, a -- self. I don’t know what gave me that conviction. I simply knew it to be true. I repaired her, and upgraded her, and spent all my money on dressing her in elegant clothes. She cooked and bowed and played the koto. One evening after dinner she played for me, and I watched her as she played, and I faced what I knew from the first moment I saw her – that I loved her. And so I made love to her." Soemon paused, and took a sip of tea. "Why, Otaru-kun, you’re blushing."
Otaru was in fact blushing deeply. His head was so bowed Soemon could see the back of his neck.
"Yes, we ‘men of Japoness’ never speak of that, do we? We do it, we just don’t speak of it. I did, however. I was a proud would-be Samurai, full of myself, and proud would-be Samurai never lie. So when I took Koyuki with me and people treated her the way they treat all the marionettes, as serfs or as garbage or as invisible non-entities, I rebuked them. I insisted they treat her with courtesy. And when they asked why, I told them how I felt about her. You know what happened, Otaru-kun? There were days when Koyuki and I would walk down the street and children would walk up to us and spit on us. Children. Grown men preferred to threw rocks at our backs in the streets or through our windows. Our home was burnt to the ground one night. I could not find employment – no one would hire me. No one would speak to me. When the last of my savings was gone, I took Koyuki and left Japoness, so I wouldn’t starve to death in its gutters. We made our way through the desert and somehow found ourselves in Gartlant. I collapsed on a sidewalk there, from hunger and exposure. I lay there dying – dying, and weeping, because my poor Koyuki was kneeling beside me. I would only die, you see, but my Koyuki would be sold like furniture and passed from hand to indifferent hand till some drunkard or delinquent finally had their fill and smashed her to pieces one night. And no one would notice or care."
Otaru’s head remained bowed.
"And then an automobile drove up. Long and black. The third and grandest that I had ever seen in my life. And Faust-sama, the Fuhrer of Gartlant, stepped out and looked down at me, lying there half-dead in the street. Three marionettes stepped out behind them, and one of them – Otaru-kun, one of them smiled! Like a human being smiles…"
A brace of ducks took off from the pond with a bright splash. Soemon ignored them. His hands now tight fists.
"Faust-sama fed me and clothed me. He gave me a home. Training. Rank. I was no longer a ronin, a masterless Samurai. I had found my master. A great, brave master to whom I owed my life, and Koyuki’s safety. I swore I would serve him forever, do anything for him. I even dared to think that if I served him faithfully enough, the day might come when I could have the magic that he had bestowed on his own marionettes. A heart. A heart for my Koyuki. And when the day came when he ordered me to serve him by returning to Japoness, as a spy, I did. And this time I was accepted everywhere. Of course: I had money now – Gartlant’s, though no one knew it. And I had learned to lie – to keep Koyuki at home, and never mention her, and look the other way when marionettes were beaten or abused. I had money enough for bribes and I knew how to kill expertly, and with these exemplary qualifications I became a ‘noble Samurai’ in no time at all. I lied and lied, and of course this world of lies in which we live welcomed me generously."
Soemon looked meditatively into his tea, turning the cup once in his hands. "A samurai places loyal service to his Lord above all things. Yet I betrayed Faust. For Koyuki’s sake. And I would again. What does that make me now? And yet," he said, the dark tea leaves in his swirling in a brief dance and settling, "I feel no regrets whatsoever. Not even shame. How odd. Despite appearances, loving Koyuki has not destroyed me, Otaru. Somehow it’s saved me. I don’t know why I feel that way. But I do."
He watched a pair of snow-breasted ducks squabble and wave their chestnut wings.
"Tell me, Otaru-kun," said Soemon, quietly. "When I stole Lime’s maiden circuit, what was it like? Not for you – for her. Did you ever ask her?"
"She said it was -- as though she was seeing things from somewhere far away. She could hear what was going on, and see it. Sometimes she tried not to watch. Sometimes she wanted to do and say things, but couldn’t. She felt – frozen. Able to see, but not to speak, or act. Once she hugged me, she said – but like a ghost. She couldn’t move her real arms."
Soemon closed his eyes. "Arigato, Otaru-kun. You’ve made me happy."
"When most men take a marionette – not special marionettes like yours, but normal ones, like Koyuki – either they start thinking of them as so much furniture and ignore or abuse them, or they begin thinking of them as a bit human. Just a bit. Like pets. But they’re more. They’re aware. They feel. Only a little, but they feel. I always sensed that what Lime described was what it must be like for Koyuki. And so I always tried to speak to Koyuki and read to her and help her. To arrange things for her so that whatever reached her, from far away, had some tiny mark of beauty and kindness. I felt she knew it." He looked over at Koyuki, bathed in the light from the window. "Thanks to Lime, I now know she does."
Soemon then placed his tea on the table and put his hands on his upper thighs. He bowed.
"Gomen nasai, Otaru-san," he said with great sincerity. "Forgive me."
"For what, sensei?"
"For taking Lime’s maiden circuit. I gave it back. I never apologized."
"You gave it back. That was enough. Sensei, I can understand why you did what you did."
"When Faust told me to get the circuit, I did what my master told me to do. I could do nothing else. And yet, when it was actually there in my hand – a heart for Koyuki; joy, wonder, laughter -- I could not give it to Faust, or back to you. I could not. Do you understand?"
"Do you? Really?" asked Soemon.
"When I thought Lime had lost her maiden circuit I looked everywhere. I went on my hands and knees in the sewer in the rain while my friends watched, feeling with my hands for that circuit, for Lime’s sake. I’d have done anything to get it back. Anything."
Soemon nodded. "You understand."
"Can you understand then why I have no wish to go back to Japoness?"
"Yes. But you’re wrong." Otaru straightened. " Sensei – ‘You Are Gravely Mistaken!’ " Otaru said it in the exaggerated way Hanagata always did, to make Soemon smile. He failed, but he got his attention. "The war is over, sensei! Gartlant – most of what’s left of it – isn’ an enemy anymore. Times pass, and things change."
"Some things." He looked at Koyuki. "Some things remain the same. Day is bright. Night is dark. The river runs down to the sea. I love Koyuki. And that is unacceptable."
"Why? People accept me and my marionettes. Things have changed!"
"Your marionettes are special. They act like people. So they’re treated that way. Koyuki’s different."
But she won’t be, Otaru wanted to say. Once Lorelei places the new circuit into her at the Festival, she’ll be as awake, as happy, as lively, as Lime and Cherry and Bloodberry. Everyone will love her then, not just you. And when Lorelei sees that, there’ll be more and more. Thousands and thousands of living, feeling beings where now there are only mannequins and puppets. Don’t make me spoil the surprise. If you’ll only just come!
"Sensei – it’s just an archery festival," said Otaru. "A few people will be there. Your students. Mamoru, Tetsuo. Old Genmai – you should see how much greyer he’s gotten since you’ve left. Why not just stop by for an hour? An hour’s not very much."
"I am not interested, Otaru-kun."
"Lorelei will be there," said Otaru.
Soemon laughed. Yes, he had changed.
"Lorelei -- really? Well, yes, that perhaps would be interesting. I’ve never seen a real woman before. Much less a woman from the Mesapotamia itself. What is she like, Otaru-kun?"
Otaru had to think. "She’s -- different."
Soemon gave him a look of dry amusement. "You don’t say? In what way?"
"She’s – not like a man and not like a marionette."
"Rather more like a groundhog, then, would you say?" observed Soemon. He waited for more, mildly enjoying Otaru’s fumbling.
"She’s sad," said Otaru. "Moody. Not strong and cheerful, like marionettes. She misses Earth, I think. And the friends she lost on the Mesapotamia. She feels great guilt. She blames herself for the disaster with the ship. She’s super-intelligent. As intelligent as ten of me put together. She knows everything in the world about machines." He laughed. "And nothing about how to hold chopsticks, or bow, or wear slippers inside a home. She’s lonely," he concluded. "She’s just so completely alone."
"No – what was the word – ‘boyfriend’ yet?"
"She’s constantly guarded and protected. No one can really get near her, not without Baiko and Tamasaburo hovering nearby."
"Is she pretty?"
"Yes," said Otaru. "But – not as pretty as her portrait." He laughed, but didn’t know why.
"Poor creature," said Soemon.
The ducks returned to the pond in a rush of gray and brown beating wings. Soemon shook some cubes of cheese in the bowl Koyuki had brought them into his hand and stood up. "Let’s go outside," he said.
Soemon and then Otaru walked down the front steps. Soemon waited a moment and then the two walked side by side to the edge of the pond. Soemon bent down, squatting on his heels, and watched the ducks, which swam in precise rows then broke and turned in circles, looping and re-forming.
"Come back to town, sensei," said Otaru.
Soemon broke the cheese into smaller bits and tossed the bits to the ducks in the water. "No."
"What’s past has passed."
"I betrayed my country and the Shogun. I lied to my friends, and stole from them. And I love a marionette." He shook his head. "No one would welcome me back, Otaru-kun."
"You’re young. And foolish."
"Your pupils would. All of them. You’re the best teacher of the sword in Japoness. And the best archer!"
"You exaggerate. One or two might greet me, perhaps. The rest would treat me like a traitor. A ‘hentai’ – a pervert. Which is what I am."
"Love is not a crime."
"Yet punishment accompanies it."
"You think they all hate you. How do you know what they think? Why not go and really see for yourself?"
"I am happy here."
"Is this really happiness, sensei?" Otaru swallowed. "Or cowardice?"
Soemon almost smiled. "Clearly, you wish to receive a further lesson in swordsmanship, Otaru-kun."
"For you to live in the woods like an animal is a waste!" shouted Otaru.
"It is my life, and if I wish to waste it, it is my business. Don’t raise your voice, Otaru-‘chan’. You’ll scare the ducks."
"And what about Koyuki?"
Soemon’s face darkened. "What about her?"
"Maybe Koyuki would like to see something other than just these stupid trees around her all day. Such as her master surrounded by old friends. Or winning a competition again. Or have Lime and Cherry and Bloodberry just talk to her."
Soemon tossed out more cheese to the ducks. The large ones pushed the small ones out of the way and gulped the chunks down quickly as they could.
"You say you want to make life as happy for her as you can. You think she’s happy seeing you sit out here the forest like some old bear? Don’t you think, instead of watching you hide out here, she’d rather see you go back and live among people? Among your people? What do you think Koyuki would want?"
Soemon said nothing.
Otaru cursed himself. He didn’t want to argue. He only wanted to bring his master back, and get Koyuki to Lorelei for just one minute. Just one minute, and Soemon would see Koyuki smile. And never stop smiling. Otaru’s debt would be repaid.
"One day, sensei. One afternoon. An hour. Five minutes! Would five minutes hurt?"
Soemon placed the last bit of cheese in his palm, and closed his hand over it, till a small baby duck swam up warily, circling. Soemon held the last piece out, on the tips of his fingers. The little nut-colored duck slid cautiously from side to side, approaching, approaching, approaching. It thrust its beak forward suddenly and nipped the cheese from Soemon’s hand, wriggling instantly away back towards its siblings. Soemon laced his fingers together and watched it go.
The day of the festival was, unexpectedly, a beautiful day. The sky was as pure, clear, and infinite as the ring of a Shinto temple bell, and there was not the hint of a breeze. The arrows would fly straight to their target. Which would make them the only thing about this whole ‘festival’ that did go straight.
Otaru stood next to Cherry at the refreshment stand he’d set up, sweating over a rented gas range, burning noodles and ladling wasabi every which way. What a morning. What a week! He’d thought everyone who ever knew Soemon would be glad to welcome him back. He was wrong. Most didn’t really care one way or the other, some were ‘just too busy’, and some reacted just as Soemon had predicted – if not worse. No one would rent Otaru grounds in the city – they’d lose customers if it was known they’d welcomed ‘that bastard Obiichi Soemon’ there. Otaru had had to finally pick a clearing out of town, near where they’d all had that barbecue over a year ago.
He had to admit it was a good spot. Tall green trees shielded it from the wind on one side, and down a ways a wide brook nearby was ripe with fish. Between them, a long few hundred yards of clearing brushed with froths of tall grass, and a strip of stony shelf with large rocks you could sit on to eat. The targets were set up at the end farthest from the brook, along the shelf, and a stand for food and refreshments was at the other end, where crowd watching the archers would stand. The weather was warm and the food good. A hundred people would have turned up normally. Yet Otaru had had to twist arms and nag to get even the sparse two dozen he’d gotten. And he doubted even they would have shown up unless Otaru had promised to offer a free drink with the snacks. Even low-life yakuza like Mima Shuzaku would turn up for that, he’d thought, and sure enough, there was Mima now, stubble from jaw to adam’s apple, guzzling down the odd sweet beer made of Terrantoon hops, for which Otaru would be paying in installments for weeks to come.
Hanagata was there of course. The moment Otaru had announced an archery festival, Hanagata had trailed after him down the street all day, mewing ’Pull my bowstring, Otaru-kun!’, ‘Hit my bullseye, Otaru-kun!’ to universal laughter. When would someone come up with an ‘off’ switch for humans and not just marionettes, Otaru wondered? He knew just the place on Hanagata to stick it. Otaru’s marionettes were there too, and bubbling over with happiness. Cherry was in her element, cooking magnificent eels and fish steaks for Otaru’s drooling applauding friends while Otaru slid it onto their plates for seconds and thirds. Lime of course simply exploded whenever she had enough space to run and jump and cartwheel to her heart’s content. And Bloodberry – Otaru didn’t know what to say about Bloodberry. She had been overjoyed, glowing, all morning, and yet was quiet and kept to herself, just waiting for Soemon to turn up.
Would Soemon turn up at all? That’s what Otaru was thinking. He was nervous, excited, harried, depressed, all at once. Otaru’s ‘surprise’ seemed a dumber and dumber idea the closer the moment approached. How would Soemon react to his new Koyuki? What would she be like? Child-like like Lime, brash like Bloodberry, demure like Cherry? What if she became someone he hadn’t expected, the way Otaru had never expected Lime? What if Soemon didn’t like her at all? What if -- ?
Ah, you’re an idiot, thought Otaru. He pushed his cook’s hat back, and sliced out wedges of pickle to accompany wedges of fish. He sniffed. The gas range smelled funny. It was junk. What else, at the price Otaru could afford? He probably needed to pour some more gas into it from the extra tank he’d brought along.
"Come on, Otaru, when’s the contest going to start?" said Inicho Tetsuo, a singed-looking dojo classmate of Otaru’s who now worked all day in a kiln shop. He yawned.
"Yeah, Otaru," said another classmate, fat Hayao. "If we eat any more fish, we’ll have to have a swimming contest instead."
"Take it easy," said Otaru.
"Ah, you take it eashy," said Mima, already drunk. "I wanna kick the great Shoemon-shama’s ass and I can’t till he gets here."
Tetsuo laughed out loud. "Aim from behind. You’ll never get within a hundred yards from out front."
"Oh yeah? (-hick-)."
"Hey, look -- ."
Down by the side of the brook, a child was approaching, wearing lumpy green military-looking garments, and a very flat very wide cone of straw for a hat. At least, it looked like a child. But it looked that way because the towering military sabers, Tamasaburo and Baiko, accompanied it in their green and red kimonos, seeming to float alongside the lad like the vast sharks that they were.
"Oh, that’s some diplomat’s kid from Shiyan," said Otaru. "They’re having talks about cultural exchange or something at the Castle, and someone mentioned we were having an archery meet. Guess he must be the son of a big shot, if they won’t let him out without Baiko and Tamasaburo."
"Shend ‘em all back where they came from," said Mima. His eyes began to cross. "Otaru," he sniffled. "Eiiuuuuu…I don’ feel sho good…"
Bloodberry and Lime ran out to greet the boy.
Cherry looked up at Otaru, whose lips went ‘shhh…’ without a sound.
Tamasaburo’s hand went to her energy-enhanced sword the moment Bloodberry got within the circumscribed distance. Lorelei placed her green-garbed sleeve on its hilt. "It’s all right, Tama," she said. And a second after she said it Lime bounced atop her and gave her a hug that mashed her bones.
"Lorelei! You’re SO CUTE! I want a silly hat too! SILLY HAT! SILLY HAT!"
Bloodberry pulled her off, holding her up by the scruff of her lumpy white blouse, like a kitten. "It would have to be silly, to fit your silly head in it."
"Lemme go lemme go!" said Lime, kicking her legs like scissors in the air.
"Good day, Lorelei-sama," said Bloodberry, bowing deeply.
"Lemme go lemme go!"
Bloodberry looked at her. "You got it?"
Lorelei put her hand in her baggy left pocket and fumbled a moment and took out a gleaming silvery hi-tech disk, with a blue glow under a central crystal cornea. An otome kairo. A maiden circuit.
Bloodberry bowed again, nearly overcome. "Domo," she whispered.
Lorelei looked at her, tilting her head with its lampshade-like Shiyanese hat. "This is really important to you, isn’t it, Bloodberry?"
Lorelei wanted to ask why, and Bloodberry knew it. But Bloodberry only replied "Hai," – yes – and said no more. She couldn’t. Her dream all this time was for Otaru to see how Soemon loved Koyuki. Every marionette loved her master, loved him to the point of insanity. They had to. They were programmed to. But Soemon loved Koyuki back, in a way that Bloodberry had never seen. When Otaru saw it, saw Koyuki get well, saw Soemon and Koyuki get married – and they had to get married, people in love always got married, that’s what all the old books said – then Otaru would feel like that too, about Bloodberry, and they would get married too. And Bloodberry would have – everything, everything, everything, everything. He just needed to see someone else do it. She’d prayed all last night and all this morning to Kami-sama under her breath for him to see what she had seen in Soemon’s face, really see it. And now – he would. He would!
"LEMME GO, BLOODBERRRRYYYY!"
Bloodberry laughed. "You got it," she said, and whirled a screeching Lime off into the trees like a Frisbee.
"Was that – er – appropriate?" said Lorelei.
"Lime can hop from tree to tree better than a squirrel. And if she sees a squirrel, she’ll chase after it for an hour! She’ll be fine. Lorelei-san; Lorelei-sama," -- Bloodberry laughed, overcome – "let me bring you a blanket and some sake and pickles!"
She ran off back to the refreshment stand, and did three cartwheels in the process.
Lorelei watched her. A number of Soemon’s old students were already limbering up and shooting arrows at a homemade bull’s eye. Old Genmai had bitten into a hot pepper and was jumping around weeping and howling and gulping ice cola. And Mima was croaking the latest country karaoke imported from New Texas and tripping over his cheap shoes. Hanagata joined in. Animals listening to them in the woods howled piteously and scampered quickly away.
How many centuries, and how many millions of light years have I gone from Earth, to be here now, among these people, thought Lorelei.
Otaru walked up, his cook’s hat aslant. He carried a wooly blanket under his arm, and in his hands, a plate with fish and rice, and Cherry’s specially cooked sliced gherkins, with little purple flower bud at the side. He held the plate out to her. Lorelei took it, under Baiko’s basilisk glare, and remembered to bow. Otaru twirled a pair of chopsticks at her between his fingertips, like a baton, and held that out too. She took it and bowed again, and tried the rice, as Otaru flapped out the blanket and patted it down for Lorelei to sit on.
She sat. Cross-legged as always, facing the brook. But I guess I can get used to it, thought Otaru. He sat down beside her and tried to open her a flask of pop. A carp leapt up in the nearby water and disappeared again.
"My Gdd, y’know wht ths reminz me of?" mumbled Lorelei, her mouth full and her eyes wide, pointing to the fish with her chopsticks.
She swallowed. "The University of California at Berkeley had a little Chinese restaurant in my first year that served moo goo gai pan just like this!"
"The University of California!" said Otaru, nodding. "Gosh. Was he – like -- like the Fuhrer of Gartlant, Lorelei?"
She smiled at him a wonderfully broken-hearted way. "A little shorter."
"Otaru!" called Bloodberry in the distance, at the grill. "Otaru!"
He turned his head. She pointed at the ridge.
It was Soemon. Soemon and Koyuki.
Otaru stood up. He waved.
In the distance, Soemon slid his long bow over his waist-shirt. There was a stair of rocks down to the clearing. He picked up Koyuki in his arms and began to navigate the stones with careful judgement. Koyuki apparently couldn’t put her arms around him, but held them in her lap, like an ill child. One of her hands held a slowly twirling red pinwheel, Soemon’s gift.
"I gotta go," said Otaru and bowed quick and ran off in the direction of Soemon. He pulled the cook’s hat off his head and waved it. "Heyyy, sen-seiii -- !"
Soemon took the last hop onto a run of flat clearing a moment before Otaru arrived to greet him. He set Koyuki down, and put his hand to her cheek. "Are you happy to be here again, Ko-chan?"
"Kon-nichi-wa," she said.
"Sensei. You came," said Otaru. "Welcome," he said, breathing hard, and bowing repeatedly. "You won’t regret it. You won’t. I promise you."
"I already regret it," said Soemon. "Was that Hanagata and Mima I heard singing a moment ago? Or did all your old schoolmates step on broken glass?"
"Hanagata and Mima," said Otaru, with a laugh.
"Well," said Soemon, "I suppose if Japoness can tolerate that, it can tolerate me."
"I suppose it can," said Otaru. "Come on, sensei. Hey, you know what Lorelei said about my fish…?"
Bloodberry arrived in the conclusion of a long leap and instantly threw her arms around Koyuki.
"Koyuki-chan, Koyuki-chan!" she cried.
"Koyuki!" said Soemon, reaching out.
"It’s alright," said Bloodberry, waving him back and giving Koyuki a fresh hug. "We’re sisters, aren’t we, Soemon-sensei!"
"Kon-nichi-wa," said Koyuki.
Cherry ran softly up. "Koyuki-san," she said, beaming. "O-hai-o, O-hai-o!" She clapped her hands in delight, and hugged Koyuki too and began to cry. She knows, Otaru thought; Bloodberry told her.
"You want to see Tamasaburo and Baiko, Ko-chan? Huh? Eh?" said Bloodberry.
"Oh yes, let’s go see Tamasaburo and Baiko!" said Cherry.
Cherry and Bloodberry each took Koyuki by the hand and began to lead her away down to the tall saber marionettes and the baggy seated green figure by the brook.
"Wait!" he shouted. Soemon walked over and took Koyuki’s pinwheel, half-fallen out of her hand, and slid the stem just inside her waistband. "She’ll drop it."
He placed his hands on her waist, then on her cheeks for a moment, not wanting to remove them; not wanting to see her leave. "Koyuki -- ," said Soemon.
"Oh, she’ll be fine, sensei," said Bloodberry with a laugh. "Go do some dumb man stuff!"
The three walked off together down the grass, Koyuki and Cherry arm-in-arm and Bloodberry dancing in circles in front going, "Wheeeee!"
Soemon and Otaru watched them go.
"Have your marionettes gotten crazier since the last time I saw them. Otaru-kun?"
Otaru thought. "Yes," he said. "C’mon, let’s go do some dumb man stuff."
Otaru thought that at least one of his old students would come out and greet him. At least one. But no, every last weasel stood there with their noses in their rice bowls and glasses of beer pretending not to see them. Soemon looked them all over with a rich princely contempt, and looked down at Otaru with an almost pleased expression: you see?, it seemed to say. Otaru looked out with a different expression, which said, I’m going to kick their butts all over Japoness tomorrow.
Old Genmai, seated on an outcrop of boulder, picked the last chunk of fish into the half-toothless mouth nestled inside his massive bushy white beard, and chewed it and swallowed. He put his bowl and chopsticks down on a somewhat flat spot on the rock where he sat. He walked up to Soemon and Otaru. He cleared his throat. He bowed. He reached out and looked up through his bushy white eyebrows and clapped Soemon on the arms. "Ha!" he said. "Soemon-san, you son of a bitch! Long time no see."
"Genmai-san," said Soemon. He bowed. "You look well."
Genmai patted his bald head. "Old, but not dead yet," said Genmai.
"Fish rot from the head up," observed Soemon gallantly.
They both paused, then they both laughed.
"By God, it is good to see you," said Genmai. "How do you manage to stay looking that good, Soeman-san? Diet? Exercise? Faugghh, it’s not worth the price. And – how’s Koyuki-san?"
"She’s well. She’s with Cherry and the other marionettes."
"Good, good." Genmai poked Otaru. "Most beautiful marionette in Japoness, that Koyuki-san of his. Apart from my Gemini, of course."
"My three girls can beat both of yours," said Otaru, "any day of the -- ."
Genmai snorted. "Bad eyesight," said Genmai to Soemon. "That’s why you always managed to wallop the tar out of him at the dojo. Speaking of which -- ."
Genmai turned. "HEY! Tetsuo! Hayao! Yes, you, you two little turds, standing there with your face in the rice bowl! Get over here, and say hello to the man who taught you what very little you know. Yes, now!"
Tetsuo and Hayao put their plates down and shuffled up and bowed. And then Hayao genuinely bowed, falling to his knees. "Forgive me for my discourtesy, Master."
"Don’t worry about it, Hayao-kun," said Soemon. "And don’t call me master. I’m just a man, like every other."
"Can I – can I get you some fish and rice, Soemon-san," said Tetsuo.
"Later, perhaps. Thank you, Tetsuo-kun."
Mima Shuzaku sat back against a rock, cleaning his teeth with a blade of grass for a toothpick. He spit, and got up, a bit woozily. He walked over to Soemon.
"So," he said, "The great Soemon-‘chan’. Visiting the peasants?"
"Japoness offers such a broad selection," said Soemon, staring directly at him.
Mima wasn’t sure if that was a personal insult or not. As Soemon had decided to bring his sword, as well as his bow, Mima decided it was not.
"Still shoot straight?"
"If I have a target worth hitting," said Soemon, again staring directly at Mima.
Mima belched. "Damn sake," he mumbled. He jerked his thumb at the bull’s eye. "Let’s go."
"Koyuki, this is Lorelei," said Cherry.
"Kon-nichi-wa," said Koyuki.
Lorelei removed the otome kairo from her protective pocket. She held it up in her hand and looked at it. And at Koyuki’s blank eyes.
She reached over and opened Koyuki’s kimono. She pressed certain pressure points, and made certain adjustments, and made an insertion, and pressed the points again, and watched the pale warm almost-skin seal over her work. And then she folded Koyuki’s kimono back again, right over left. And waited.
Mima’s first arrow missed the bull’s eye entirely. Mima laughed, and stamped his foot, and slapped his butt. Some of the spectators laughed. He tried again and missed again. He laughed again. No one did, or paid much attention one way or the other. Then he looked up into Soemon’s eyes, and faced the target and stuck out his tongue and bit it and concentrated for a full two minutes, and let the arrow fly. Bull’s eye. Or just enough inside to be a bull’s eye, anyway. Mima slapped his chest. One or two claps and a "Go, Mima," floated over from the dining section.
"Beat that," he said.
When Soemon let the arrow fly, Otaru was clapping before it struck.
When it struck Mima’s arrow and split it down the middle, Tetsuo and Hayao and two more of Soemon’s old students joined in and clapped as well.
When Soemon’s second arrow split his first down the middle, three more students broke into applause and a cheer, and a crowd began to form.
When his third arrow split his second, the crowd clapped and shouted and Mima suddenly put his hand over his mouth, burped and turned green, and mumbled, "I think I’m gonna be a l’il sick," and ran off all the way past the marionettes down by the brook, one hand over his lips and the other holding his bow and arrow. The crowd and Soemon all laughed together.
And when Soemon’s fourth and last arrow split the third, the crowd exploded into applause. Soemon’s old students began clapping him on the back and thrusting glasses of sake into his hand. He laughed and downed a glass in one gulp. They cheered. He downed two glasses. They cheered again, and started chanting his name. "So-e-mon! So-e-mon!"
"Are you happy you came now?" shouted Otaru over the ruckus.
"Yes," said Soemon. He laughed.
"I guess you win. No one will beat that!" said Otaru
"No?" said Soemon, smiling despite himself at the cheering, stamping crowd. Was it true? Were they really cheering? He turned and faced the target again. "All of you – stand aside!"
Soemon shrugged off his shirt and pulled out the thin band of cloth that was used for a belt. With the band and the bow and one last arrow in one hand, he pointed at the target and cried, "Blindfolded!" and wrapped the white band tight around his eyes. The crowd exploded in applause and roars.
Koyuki’s blank eyes grew wider and wider and all at once – focused. Then pain cut into her eyes. She reached out with one hand, and her head twitched once and jerked. She shivered, and threw her hands up to hold her head. And then, she stopped, and slowly, she let her hands come down. She looked at the figures all around her.
And saw them for the first time.
She looked at Bloodberry, who was nodding and whispering "yes, yes," and at Cherry in her small pink kimono who smiled and placed her hands together and bowed to her quietly, and at Lorelei who looked back and said nothing. Koyuki took a weak step forward and looked up with utter shock and amazement at a flock of white cranes flying in a lazy V in the distant sky. At the brook nearby, at the carp willowing through the water. At the grass at her feet. At a small yellow butterfly, that landed at a sprig by her feet. She fell to her knees, staring at it. Amazed.
She turned, suddenly, staring at them all.
"Welcome," said Cherry.
Bloodberry nodded. "Welcome."
Lorelei smiled. She tilted her head to one side. "Welcome. Koyuki-chan."
Koyuki looked from one face to the other, and then beyond. Searching.
"Wh – whe – ss – mas --."
Bloodberry turned and pointed at the crowd of men up ahead laughing, chanting "So-e-mon", and facing the now porcupine-like bull’s-eye.
Koyuki stood and took a step forward, and saw Obiichi Soemon draw back his long bow. A slight breeze had been born, and fingered through his long black hair and the white tails of the blindfold.
Unevenly, she reached her hands out. They shook. "So-e-mon," she said. And she smiled. A delirious, an overjoyed, a crazy smile. " -- Soemon!"
She ran to him, calling to him through the grass, the pinwheel in her waistband spinning, the marionettes falling behind her in the waving grass.
Lorelei removed her hat and watched. Her long long copper hair fell out, twisting in the sudden wind.
And behind her, Mima Shuzaku, Goddel’s paid agent, discarded his drunk act and screamed "Hentai!" and let loose his assassin’s arrow.
It flew past Lorelei, and it flew past the marionettes, and it winged past the head of Koyuki, and then the hooked and sharpened steel-cast arrowhead slammed like a bullet into the back of Obiichi Soemon, splintering the spine, and slithering up and through the right lung into his heart, bringing tattered shreds and bits of it between the ribs and out of the front of his chest.
He staggered. His fingers relaxed and he released his final arrow of the festival, which flew weakly out six or seven feet and stuck itself at a strange angle into the ground. He raised his hand to his chest as though out of curiosity, touching the arrow with one finger. He fell to one knee, and tried to get up again, and fell again, onto his back. A great oval of red slithered like a vast melting rose across his chest.
Cherry was the first to scream. Soemon’s audience, some still clapping, stopped, looking on stupidly, then twisted in all directions, tripping one over another, shouting and scrambling for cover. Tamasaburo and Baiko instantly formed an impassable barrier around Lorelei. Mima had already reached the woods, the spot where the Gartlant escape pod was supposed to be waiting. But – it wasn’t there. Where was it? Where? Otaru stood in front of his refreshment stand, his mouth slightly open, holding two glasses of sake for himself and sensei.
Koyuki stopped in the soft, swaying grass, standing there, a dozen feet from Soemon. Then a breeze blew, and her pinwheel turned, and time began again, and she ran the last few steps to him, slowly, as in a dream. She looked at him, lying there, and got on her knees beside him and – just looked.
She held out a trembling hand and touched his blindfold, and then tilted her head and smiled and brushed her fingers through his hair. She lifted the blindfold. It fell away. He looked up at her, and blinked. And she at him. She ran her hand through his hair again. Tears began to roll down her cheek and along her chin, and she smiled.
He opened his mouth to speak. But instead of words only a bright pink bubble of arterial blood came out between his lips. He looked at Koyuki with a terribly puzzled expression. And died.
Koyuki ran her hand through his hair one more time. And then she sat there for a moment, looking into his face. And then she slammed both her hands, both her fists, stiffly against the side of her head, once, twice, and began to scream. And scream and scream. She stood up, and started stepping backwards, shaking her head from side to side, no no no, screaming, shrieking, so loudly the circuits in her throat began spitting blue-white sparks from her mouth and the scream turned to an alien numbing stream of metallic static. Her torso began to twist from side to side and her arms began flailing left and right like a propeller. Her kimono began tearing, and she backed up against the food stand and shattered it with the slash of one mechanical arm, and she fell against the gas range and picked it up with one hand and threw it into the staring crowd, where it exploded, spewing gas and flames over the howling, terrified watchers.
Otaru, on his knees, blinked and took a step up and said, "…no…Stop," and reached out to grab her arm, and it slashed at him crazily with fatal metallic strength and Cherry appeared out of nowhere and took the blow. A blue-white fireworks of sparks blew out where her arm was struck, and she and Otaru fell to the ground.
"Bloodberry!" shouted Otaru.
But Bloodbury was already winging after Mima, hurtling like a bullet, an animal growl breaking out of her throat. The bushes he’d run into swished and closed behind her with an instantaneous rustle. Beyond them, Mima was cursing, running, looking, looking for the Gartlant escape pod. Where was it? They’d promised him. They’d promised him! He heard a rushing sound, and turned and saw some red-haired thing whipping toward him like a bloody arrow and -- .
"Bloodberry!" shouted Otaru.
A high gurgling oink of a scream issued from beyond the bushes.
Koyuki fell to her knees and her arms slashed down again and again, clanging like iron, against the screaming Cherry.
"Tamasaburo!" said Baiko, She jerked her head in the direction of Koyuki.
"Hai!" said Tamasaburo, and spun toward Koyuki in a blur. Her sword, a crackling tongue of light, appeared out of nowhere, slashing furiously down.
"No don’t!" shouted Otaru.
Tamasaburo’s saber cut Koyuki’s body cleanly in half, between ribcage to hip, and severed Cherry’s hand underneath with it. Koyuki’s head and upper torso spiraled up among long loosening ribbons of her hair, and fell dully into the grass. The legs got up by themselves, and half the elegant red kimono slid down from the legs and hips, which stood there nude and puzzled for a moment. Lorelei broke away from Baiko, and ran toward the scene. The halved marionette’s knee bent outward, and then something inside the hips exploded. Flames and fragments blew in the direction of Lorelei, singeing her and cutting her cheek despite Baiko’s instantly interceding to take the brunt. Lorelei’s hair smoldered. She clutched it, and screamed.
Koyuki’s torso lay face down, shuddering rhythmically, over and over. Blue sparks burst erratically out of the stump of a tin-like spine. Grasping blades of grass between her fingers, she began pulling herself in the direction of Soemon.
"Sss – ," she said, in crackling radio-like wisps, crawling towards him in ever-slowing spasmodic jerks. "Soe – S – ss – ," she said. " -- sss*ss* -- ."
Her eyes, quieting now, rested on Soemon’s distant hand, and she reached toward it, her hand fluttering out, and she ceased to exist.
"Otaru," said old Genmai, "Otaru-san. Are you all right? Can you get up? Cherry-san -- ?"
Otaru looked into the aged frightened eyes of his neighbor Genmai. "Help me up," he whispered. "No. Cherry first. Help Cherry." Genmai put his arms around the slim marionette and sat her upright. She’d shut down. Otaru reached a bleeding arm around and pressed an area at the base of her spine. Her head fell back and her eyes opened. She mewed with pain.
"Cherry -- ?"
She looked at Otaru and then at the stump where her left hand had been and then threw her arms around Otaru and broke into loud tears.
"It’s all right, Cherry," said Otaru. "It’s all right. We can put your hand back. Lorelei will fix you up again. Lorelei can fix anything. Don’t worry. Don’t worry."
Electrical arcs pulsed in bursts along her arms.
Genmai petted her hair. "Otaru’s right, Cherry dear. Trust your master, Cherry. He knows."
"Otaru," wailed Cherry.
Otaru tried to turn his head. It hurt. "Genmai. What happened? How’s -- ?"
Genmai looked around. "Soemon-san’s dead. Some of the people got burned bad. Hayao’s running for a doctor. There wasn’t much here to smash up otherwise, but what there was is smashed up good."
"Lime, Bloodberry -- ."
"I don’t know."
"Lime!" shouted Otaru. "Bloodberry! -- Bloodberry!"
Cradling the stump of her severed wrist with her shattered arm, Cherry looked over Otaru’s shoulder and her eyes suddenly widened. "Oh -- God," she said, looking as though she were going to vomit.
Bloodberry stood behind Otaru. Bloodberry had returned from the forest. Her chest was completely steaked with a wild splash of bright red blood. Red pinprick-sprays of it dotted her excited, smiling face, dripped from the long lashes of her gleaming eyes. Both her forearms seemed entirely painted in blood, as though she’d stuck them to the elbows in a deep basin of red paint. She held out her right hand. Something like a fat tulip bulb, with warm limp roots, gleamed wetly in it. Something that had once been inside the chest of Mima the assassin.
She grinned. "I got him, Otaru. I got him. I got him." She laughed. "I got him!"
"Throw it away," whispered Otaru, cradling Cherry in his arms.
"The son of a bitch." She laughed. "I got him…"
"Throw it away!" he shouted.
Bloodberry looked at Otaru and Cherry, and the smoldering grass and the people cursing and moaning, and at Soemon and at what was left of Koyuki. She looked at the thing in her hand and then tossed Mima Shuzaku’s heart aside onto the grass by Koyuki’s twisted legs.
Otaru heard a humming sound and turned his head. Lorelei, sandwiched between Tamasaburo and Baiko, swords drawn, approached them – and passed by them, without a word.
They stopped at the Koyuki’s askew torso.
Lorelei reached under Koyuki’s collarbone and pressed something. She pulled out a silver disc, the otome kairo.
She limped stiffly up to Otaru without looking at him, and then stopped, and looked straight at him, very fiercely. Her cheek bled and her arm was dirty and burnt. She turned and threw the otome kairo as hard and far as she could.
"No!" said Otaru.
The otome kairo struck a rock by the side of the brook, and flipped into the water, and sank.
"This experiment," said Lorelei, through her teeth, "has not been a success."
She turned and left. Tamasaburo and Baiko followed beside her, humming with power, scanning every angle of possible attack.
Otaru looked over the smoking field and saw Lime. She stood there wide-eyed, looking small and frightened in her funny hat and her funny blouse and her funny shoes. A squirrel sat on her shoulder, and then dashed down into her sleeve, and back out, and then up onto her yellow bandana cap and looked around. She’d been playing with a squirrel throughout it all.
She looked at Oturu, her face full of grief.
"What happened, Otaru?" said Lime, running to Otaru, and stopping when she noticed Soemon lying in the grass
"Sensei?" said Lime. "Wake up, sensei." She poked at him. "Hey, sensei. Sensei? Wake up!" A look Otaru never saw before began to enter into her eyes. She looked around wildly and began to cry. "Otaru? Sensei won’t wake up!"
Genmai walked over to her and put his arm around the trembling marionette. He smiled.
"Let’s let him sleep, then, Lime-chan." said the old man. "Eh?"
The squirrel jumped from Lime’s cap to the ground and bounced onto the back of Koyuki’s head. There it stood up on its hind legs, back perfectly straight, and sniffed twice. It twisted and scuttled under her armpit and jerked at something with its teeth. A tug pulled out the head of Koyuki’s red pinwheel. The squirrel chewed at it happily for a moment, then ran away with it to the wood.