mithen: (Blossom Bird)
[personal profile] mithen
Title: Mask of the Bat
Author name: [personal profile] mithen
Beta name: [personal profile] damos
Characters: Hana (girl!Bruce)/Hoshi (Clark); Various medieval Japanese versions of different DCU characters.
Fandom/Universe: A happy-ending continuation of "Shogun of Steel," an Elseworld in which Bruce is a female ninja and in love with Clark, a warrior from beyond the stars. You can see scans of the Elseworld here (it's a wonderful story!)
Rating: PG-13
Word count: 12,800
Warnings: Descriptions of murders; a child in danger
Summary: In a medieval Japan that never was, a fierce female ninja named Hana and a warrior from the stars named Hoshi fight as part of a team of powerful beings. However, when Hana receives a letter from her loyal family retainer begging her to return to the capital to investigate a mysterious serial killer, she finds herself back in the elaborate and formal court she rejected as a child. Bringing with them the silent orphan girl they have named after the first bird of spring, Hoshi and Hana must negotiate the complicated world of noble Japan, with all of its strictures on class and gender, while trying to track down a killer who strikes in the form of a laughing demon.
A note on names: Hana means "flower" in Japanese; Hoshi means "star."



Her scars ached.

Hana considered the pain, distinguishing and labeling each separate sensation: the muscle-deep twinge of a slashed calf that had never healed well; the delicate itch of a recent cut to the sole of her foot; the pulling tightness of an old arrow-wound to the shoulder. And of course, the line of almost-healed burn marks trailing down her spine like ghostly fingers, the mementos of her suicidal plunge to save the life of her otherworldly teammate.

She contemplated each pain, experienced it, and then set it aside.

Her legs were crossed in the lotus position, hands resting on her knees, gaze turned toward the wind-gnarled pines clinging to the rocky slopes. They were survivors, unadorned and plain: both the twisted pines and the ninja in her rough black clothes. She had come here every day since she was able to pull herself from her sickbed, to meditate and center herself.

To contemplate how her life had strayed so very far from her plans for it.

Things had been simple, before. Everything had been simple since the day she saw her family slaughtered at the hands of Zunō, the strange artificial brain from the stars. She had lived to end his reign, had trained and worked toward nothing but that goal. She had shaped and pruned her life until any trace of the flower she had been named for was gone, and all that had remained were the sharp angles and shadows of Kōmori, the Bat.

And then he had come, with his gentle words and gentler eyes, a mad star from another world. Together they had ended Zunō, and now Hana found herself alive when she had never intended to be, without a goal, without her hatred to drive her.

She huffed an exasperated sigh when she realized that once again she had lost track of her breathing. Thinking of Hoshi tended to do that to her. It was an annoyance. She shifted her aching knees and put her thoughts aside again, concentrating on the sights and sounds around her, on the rhythms of her own body.

She was almost centered once more when she heard light footsteps stir the pine needles behind her.

"Have I not made myself clear?" Hana snapped. "I am not to be interrupted when I am--" The words broke off as she turned to glare and saw that Hoshi was not alone. Riding on his shoulders was the little girl the two of them had rescued from the massacre of her village a month ago, her wide and solemn eyes focused on Hana. "Forgive me," Hana said, managing a smile at the child through her irritation. "How are you, Uguisu?"

Uguisu held out her arms to Hana with a smile and allowed herself to be swung down from Hoshi's broad shoulders. Once on the ground, she burst into a dance as if her joy could no longer contain her, spinning as if in sync with the motes of pollen floating in the sunlit air. The child was always dancing, always in motion, always smiling, and yet Hana felt her hands clenching as she watched.

A warm hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry so much."

She resisted the temptation to shrug the hand off, mostly because she knew she would be further annoyed when he let her shrug it off. She sighed instead, letting the tension drain out of her once more. "Does it show?"

"Not to her." Hoshi's voice was a low rumble near her ear. "But I know you better."

Hana shook her head. "How ironic that we named her after the first birdsong of the spring," she whispered, and the hand on her shoulder tightened slightly, a reassuring touch.

Uguisu lifted her arms to the sun, her face alight with joy, her mouth open with wonder. Open but silent, silent, always silent.

The child hadn't spoken a word since they had snatched her from certain death as she wept over the body of her parents.

: : :

The cave was filled with the murmur of dripping water and the distant whisper of bats. At the edge of the underground pool, a man was whispering to three albino fish, their heads lifted from the water as if to catch his words better. He gestured, and they disappeared beneath the water. "A message to my Queen," he explained as Hoshi and Hana approached. Hana almost succeeded at keeping her skepticism from her face: she might think Tarō's tale of being a humble fisherman who became Emperor of an undersea kingdom was moonshine and nonsense, but there was no doubting that his strength and powers had been a welcome addition after the deaths of their compatriots in battle.

Besides, as a woman who had taken a flying god from the stars to her bed, it was hardly her place to judge the wild tales of others.

Dokuya, the archer, was fletching an arrow with bright feathers; Uguisu ran over to him and he put a scarlet feather in her hair, smiling at her rapturous reaction. "We have a guest," he said to Hana. "I ran into him when I was down in the village. He said he was looking for the Man of Steel and the Bat."

Hana glared at him. "And you just brought him here?"

"Relax, I blindfolded him first. He agreed to it. He's waiting in the north room. Rikichi's keeping an eye on him."

"Oh, that's great security," Hana grumbled, but she and Hoshi made their way through the narrow passage to the larger room near the entrance. Uguisu danced behind them, holding her new feather up to the flickering shadows from the torches.

Hana could hear the snores echoing down the corridor long before they reached the room. She grimaced at Hoshi, who shrugged back at her. Indeed, Rikichi was sound asleep, his mouth hanging open. The young man he was supposed to be guarding looked up as they entered, rising from his crosslegged position with a graceful bow. He was wearing Chinese robes, his hair braided into a long pigtail, and when he spoke Hana could hear the trace of an accent under his Japanese. "It is my pleasure to meet the living legends," he said. If he was startled or shocked to be faced with a woman dressed as a ninja, he didn't show it.

"Huh? Wha?" Rikichi snapped awake, his bleary eyes going from the newcomer to Hana. "Oh, damn," he groaned.

"Who are you?" said Hana, ignoring Rikichi entirely.

"A traveler from the Middle Kingdom who has heard of your deeds and wishes to join you. I feel that my particular skills would be an asset to your group."

"Skills?" Hoshi asked from behind her shoulder.

The man nodded, then put his hands to the curiously knotted belt at his waist. Uguisu clapped her hands as he shrank to about the size of Hana's finger. "Issun-bōshi," gasped Rikichi, his eyes nearly bugging out. "The Inch-Tall Hero of legend!"

"Impressive," said Hoshi, as Hana crossed her arms and tried to look unimpressed. "Admit it, Hana," he said, "That could be really useful when gathering information."

"We don't really need anything that subtle now that Zunō is gone and we're just fighting bandits in the woods."

The tiny young man touched his waist again and grew back to normal size. "'The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come.' There will be future trials for this island, I suspect."

"Don't quote Confucius at me," grumbled Hana, feeling Hoshi's chest shake with silent laughter behind her.

"Besides which, I have additional skills that may be useful to you," he continued, pulling out a small black bag. "I am...something of a physician, and I hear rumors you have a young charge in need of assistance?" He flicked an angular eyebrow at Uguisu, and Hana felt her shoulders stiffen.

After a moment, she nodded. "What is your name, then?"

He traced a Chinese character in the air with deft fingers.

"Sai-sensei, it is a pleasure to meet you," Hoshi said with a deep bow, using the Japanese pronunciation of the character.

"In my home land, it is pronounced 'Choi,'" said the doctor. He winked at Uguisu, who giggled. "But here, I think Issun-bōshi will suit me well."

: : :

"So you can find nothing physically wrong with her?" Hoshi took a sip of his tea, the delicate cup incongruous in his large hands.

Issun-bōshi inhaled the steam wafting from his teacup and sighed with pleasure. "It's been so long since I've had a nice hot cup of tea." He sipped appreciatively, then met Hoshi's eyes, shaking his head. "I can find no medical problem with the child. I'm afraid the answer lies in her spirit instead. And there is nothing I can do for that."

"Thank you for your effort," Hoshi said, with a pointed glance at Hana, but she continued to scowl down at her tea cup. "Thank you for--"

"--She should be somewhere safe. Somewhere where she can live a normal life, and be a normal girl." The words burst from her with a bitterness that seemed to surprise everyone in the room, including herself. "Not holed up in a cave with a crew of vigilantes. How can she be expected to heal when she lives in constant peril among rough warriors?"

Hoshi looked stricken. "But she loves us," he said. "She loves you."

Involuntarily, Hana glanced over to where Uguisu slept in Rikichi's plump arms, her long eyelashes a dark veil against nightmares. "She deserves a normal life," she repeated stubbornly.

"It is clear she is happy here," said Issun-bōshi. "In time, you will hear her song. Be patient, Lady Kōmori."

That made Hana smile slightly. "Just Kōmori will do," she said, glad that he wasn't going to insist on calling her "Hana." Only Hoshi was allowed to have that lost name touch his lips.

"Kōmori." Tarō entered the room; as always he spoke without any pleasantries. "I found a man wandering the beach. He said he had a missive for the Bat. I took it from him to give to you." He held out a heavy envelope with a deep crimson seal on it.

The paper rattled slightly in Hana's hands; she made no move to open it, but instead touched the seal gently.

"What is it, Hana?" Hoshi was frowning and she realized everyone was watching her. Even Uguisu had woken up and was blinking at her sleepily.

"It is a letter from...Arifusu," Hana said, blinking at the sound of the name she had not uttered for more than ten years. "The steward of my family, writing me from the capital." She opened the letter gently, almost smiling at the sight of the elegant handwriting. Memories came flooding back: Arifusa's long fingers showing her the proper way to hold a brush, his tsking over her first poor examples of calligraphy, and the day when at last her brushwork was deemed worthy to adorn the family tea room. The scent of tea and rain-damp wisteria mixing with the incense burned for the dead...

She pushed the memories aside and focused on the letter. It began with the obligatory allusion to a Chinese poem (The grass grows thick / Along this untrodden road to home) and conventional inquires to his lady's health. But after that--

She read it through twice, then lifted her eyes from the letter to the waiting faces of her compatriots. "He begs me to return to the capital, for the love I bear him.

"He says that a killer stalks the streets, slaying the innocent, and that I must return and put an end to its thirst for blood."

: : :

The firelight caught in Hana's hair as she stretched; Hoshi could hear joints pop and crack as she flexed her shoulders. There were faint sounds of singing coming from the main hall of the inn, but their wing was quiet. "This was my last day in these clothes," she said, touching the dust-streaked black cloth. "Tomorrow I'll have to change into a kimono. And probably rent a palanquin for Uguisu and myself. Can't shock people by just walking into Kyōtō."

"Why not?" asked Hoshi, and she shot him an edged smile.

"Hard to conduct a murder investigation when everyone's staring at you. No, as far as the court is concerned, I've been holed up in a remote temple for the last ten years, grieving and praying for my family's souls. You're my bodyguard--" She chuckled as Hoshi sketched a bow in her direction. "--and Uguisu is a foundling I've adopted as my own." She nodded at the screen the little girl was sleeping behind. "We'll set up quietly at my family home, settle in, get the lay of the land."

She pulled her shirt over her head and tossed it on their luggage, then started to strip out of her black trousers as well. Her movements were neat and economical, free of self-consciousness or flirtatiousness. She undressed as she spoke and fought and loved: directly, efficiently, and to devastating effect. "For all Arifusa's poetic words, I don't believe for a moment some demon is culling the people of Kyōtō." She kicked the trousers off, scooped them up, and folded them loosely, putting them on top of the shirt. "We need to find the pattern in the killings. Then we can deduce the motivation. And that will lead us straight to the killer." She paused, staring into the fire, her hands on her hips and her dark hair pouring like shadows down her back. "Have you ever seen the capital?" she said, turning to look at him.

"Never. My father did once, and told me tales of its splendor."

"I have not been there since I was a child. Not since Zunō came, and brought with him a decade of war. But I remember it well. The graceful buildings, the quiet gardens, the cherry blossoms in spring." She looked back at the fire in silence for a time, then shrugged as if putting aside unwelcome thoughts. The muscles of her shoulders and back bunched with the motion, long pale scars glinting from under the cascading hair. She tossed a look back at him from under dark, level brows. "What are you staring at?"

She was a woman impatient with compliments, scornful of poetic allusions to her beauty. So Hoshi merely smiled at her. "I was thinking I look forward to seeing the capital with you." He felt the smile turn somewhat wistful. "I look forward to every day with you." He still woke mornings from nightmares of her broken, bleeding body, visions in which the tremulous heartbeat under his fingers stuttered to a stop--every morning he thanked the very sunlight which touched her sleeping face.

She gave him a sharp, sardonic smile. "Let's make the most of them," she murmured, and came to his arms.

Skin warmed by fire, hands like cool flame.

: : :

The shutters of the palanquin trembled as Hoshi walked alongside it. He had wanted to take a turn carrying it, but Hana had insisted that only laborers could be seen bearing a litter. She had lifted the wide-eyed Uguisu into the little box, grimacing at her long robes, then climbed in herself. Knowing that she was cramped and jostled inside the narrow litter didn't make Hoshi feel any better at all. He wished they'd asked more of the League to come with them, but he knew they were needed to guard the pass.

From inside the litter he could hear Hana's voice, telling Uguisu stories of her childhood in the capital: the temples and mansions, the streets bustling with merchants hawking their wares. The litter-bearers stared straight ahead, their feet clopping steadily on road, raising small clouds of dust.

They came over a rise and Hoshi could see Kyōtō before them.

He stopped, blinking, and the litter moved on without him for a moment. He hurried to catch up with it. The shutters slid open and Hana's eyes glinted from the darkness. "Are we almost there?"

She couldn't see ahead of them, could only see to the sides. Hoshi cleared his throat. "Yes," he said. "Hana, the last ten years have...not been kind."

He saw alarm flash across her expression, a quick motion in the shadows as if she bit her lip. She sat in silence as the litter jogged onward, as they entered the outskirts of the city.

There was a sharp intake of breath from inside the palanquin as they passed the first charred ruins of some once-proud estate. There were beggars squatting beside the road, pitifully thin arms outstretched above alms bowls.

Soon there were bodies beside the road as well. Some were emaciated, others mutilated, piled into untidy stacks. The buzzing of flies was a steady drone in the air.

"No, sweetheart, sit back down. Play with the dolly Rikichi made you, there's nothing interesting out there," he heard Hana murmur to Uguisu. Hoshi looked ahead of them, to the burned remains of what had once been a vast city of delicate paper-and-wood structures. Here and there a lonely building remained untouched, or a huddle of makeshift shelters crouched together. Incurious rats peeked from piles of rubble. The reek of death and smoke clung to everything. The porters trudged on, stone-faced. Hoshi could see Hana's eyes in the darkness of the palanquin, set and dry in the pale oval of her face.

After winding through the skeleton of a city, the litter at last came to an estate on the far side of town. It had seen better days--there were scorch marks on the roof and shingles missing, the gardens were tended but not elegant--but it was intact and tidy. The stylized image of a bat was carved into the doors. Hoshi tried to imagine Hana playing there as a young girl, laughing and smiling with her family, but the image refused to stay in his mind.

A man appeared in the doorway as Hana and Uguisu climbed out of the palanquin. Tall and slender, his white hair shone in the sunlight, his sober gray robes modest and impeccable. Hana hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, and he bowed deeply.

"Lady Hana, welcome home," he said.

"Arifusa." Hana's voice seemed caught between laughter and tears for a moment, but she swallowed and bowed in turn. "I thank you for caring for the estate in my long and neglectful absence," she murmured. "This is my adopted child, Uguisu," she said. Uguisu smiled up him and Hoshi could see the austere planes of the man's face soften like ice in the sun. "This is Arifusa," said Hana to the little girl. "Can you say his name? Arifusa."

Uguisu giggled and hid her face in Hana's kimono, but said nothing.

"And this is my bodyguard, Hoshi," Hana said as Arifusa's gaze went beyond her to where Hoshi was paying the porters with a small purse of coins each.

Arifusa lifted one silver eyebrow as the porters marched off with the empty litter. "Lady Hana has not needed a bodyguard since she was twelve years old," he said. "What are you really?"

Taken aback by such blunt talk, Hoshi blinked. "I am her companion," he said at last.

"So the Bat travels with the Man of Steel," Arifusa murmured. "I have heard of you."

"I trust him with all that I am," Hana said, and he shot her a quick, surprised glance before nodding slowly.

"Be welcome," he said, bowing deeply to Hoshi. "Will you not all come in and have some tea and--" he bent to chuck Uguisu under the chin and make her squeal, "--maybe some sweets?"

: : :

Arifusa stirred the tea with a bamboo whisk, all of his movements economical and elegant. Hoshi watched Hana, her legs tucked underneath her and her eyes following her steward's hands. The three of them sat in silence on the worn tatami floor. Hoshi could hear the patter of Uguisu's bare feet as she explored the house; in the garden a single bird called sweetly and fell still. There had been almost no conversation between Hana and Arifusa, no effusive greetings or delight. There was a severe formality about all their interactions, a solemn reserve between them, and Hoshi couldn't help but wonder if there was an old conflict there, a buried wound.

Then Arifusa lifted a bowl of tea in his cupped hands and handed it to Hana. In that simple motion, in the way he presented the tea and the way Hana accepted it, somehow Hoshi could read a lifetime of tenderness and care. She breathed in the scented steam and took a reverent sip. Arifusa smiled, meeting her eyes, and Hoshi was suddenly almost ashamed that he had wondered if there was affection between them.

His own cup of tea was thick and bittersweet, fragrant and delicious. He drank in silence, then waited while Arifusa cleaned and put away the tea utensils and bowed deeply to them.

When Hana finally spoke, it came as almost a shock, a shattering of a peaceful sanctuary: "Tell me of these murders."

Arifusa frowned, smoothing his mustache. "They began two months ago. A lady-in-waiting to the Shōgun's wife. Her throat had been cut. A week later it was the son of a local daimyō, a young man, killed the same way. Then just last week a consort to the Emperor's son. That was when people started to panic. Lady Tomiko, the Shōgun's wife, has even moved back into his new villa for the improved security." A thin smile. "She and the Shōgun had separated last year, but it seems in the face of danger..."

"What has the Emperor done about this?" Arifusa and Hana looked amused at Hoshi's question. "Shouldn't he be doing something?"

"The Emperor has been nothing more than a figurehead for centuries," said Hana after a moment. "The Shōgun is the true power in Japan."

"Oh," said Hoshi, feeling foolish and a little nettled.

"But recently, even he has had little to do with politics," added Arifusa. "Lord Yoshimasa has retreated from the world to his villa in the mountains, where he spends his days and nights in the contemplation of beauty. Poetry, flower arranging, incense blending: the Shōgun has encouraged the perfection of all these arts and more in the last decade."

"While in the city he abandoned to chaos and civil war, the rats feast on the bodies of the starving and slain," Hana said fiercely.

"Zunō let him live because he seemed harmless, and he has protected much of beauty and worth," Arifusa said gently, but Hana shook her head, bringing her hands down on the tatami mat.

"He should have fought. Like my father..." Hana's voice broke off and she looked down, the dark curtain of her hair hiding her face. A moment passed in silence, and then she took a deep breath, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. "Are there any other clues in these murders? Any suspects?"

Arifusa hesitated. "The bodies were all carefully arranged after the murder, not left in their death throes. Generally they were left in some...almost artistic pose. One had a spray of cherry blossoms put into her hand, petals scattered aesthetically on the tatami. One was propped up over his favorite instrument. The latest had a calligraphy brush in her hand. There was a character painted in her own blood, the character for 'life.'"

The sharp crease in Hana's forehead when she was lost in thought always made Hoshi want to kiss it. "And suspects?"

"The alternate undersecretary of the Minister of Ceremonies claims he came across the murderer right after this latest crime. He was in the hall outside Lady Sukeko's rooms at the time, and he heard laughter coming from inside the room. Not the lady's, obviously. When he opened the door, he said he saw..." Arifusa paused again, frowning. "He claims he saw a demon bending over the lady's body."

Hana leaned forward, her eyes sharp. "A demon?"

"So he says. A black demon with a white, laughing face and mad eyes. It leapt at him and slashed at him with silver claws, and when he fell back it fled. His clothing was indeed cut."

"Anyone can cut their own clothes," Hana said. "And as there are no such things as demons, it seems more likely that he is lying."

"The court does not share your skepticism about the existence of demons," said Arifusa. "The astrologers and priests are of the opinion that it is the spirit of a jealous woman, wandering while she sleeps to vent its rage on the world."

Hana snorted. "That's horse dung."

Arifusa looked dubious. "I have heard strange tales recently, of people speaking to fish. Of people who can fly." He carefully did not look at Hoshi. "After that, are demons so difficult to accept?"

Hana crossed her arms, an annoyed and mulish expression on her face. "Women's jealous spirits do not do not leave their bodies as they sleep and search for people to kill." She opened her mouth as if to say more, but the door to the room slid open with a bang. Uguisu ran in, her hair wet above a flowered bath kimono, to fling her arms around Hana in a fierce hug.

"Sweetheart, you mustn't slam doors around like that," Hana chided, but Arifusa just laughed.

"She may bang any doors she likes. It does my heart good to hear the sound of running feet in the house again."

Uguisu stuck her tongue out at Hana with an impish grin, then ran over to hug Arifusa as well, adding one for Hoshi for good measure. Arifusa unfolded himself slowly from the tatami, smiling. "Will you be staying in your old rooms, my lady?" At her nod, he went on, "Then I shall prepare a room for Lord Hoshi as well."

"Please don't call me 'Lord,'" Hoshi said, embarrassed. "I'm just a fisherman's son."

Arifusa simply reached out and took Uguisu's chubby hand. "Let's show you the rooms," he said.

Uguisu was delighted to have her own room; she clapped her hands together at the birds drawn on the screens, then ran around the room flapping her arms in an impromptu bird-dance. Hoshi hid his disappointment at being given a separate room, but he couldn't help feeling crestfallen until he realized that only a sliding paper screen divided the two rooms.

"Your bath is ready when you wish," Arifusa said, bowing deeply and leaving them.

Later, scrubbed and warm and feeling drowsy, Hoshi was lying in the snug futon when he heard the paper screen slide open with the softest of hisses. He looked up to see Hana in her own futon, lying on her stomach with her chin propped up on her hands, looking into his room. "He likes you," she said.

"You think so?"

"I know it."

There were frogs in a pool outside, singing like a throbbing heart. "Come here," Hoshi whispered, but Hana shook her head with a small smile.

"We have to stay in our own rooms. It would be unseemly." Her smile deepened at Hoshi's expression. "Come closer," she murmured.

Hoshi scooted his futon over the to the side of the room until it was almost touching hers and kissed her across the line dividing the rooms. "Is it good to be home?" Hoshi asked a little breathlessly when the kiss ended.

Hana lay down, absently playing with a lock of Hoshi's hair which had fallen across her pillow. "Home," she said softly. "It was good to see Arifusa again," she added after a while. She yawned and pressed her lips to the lock of hair. "We'd better get some sleep," she said. "We have to be presented at the Shōgun's court tomorrow."

And with that piece of reassuring information she closed her eyes and was instantly asleep. The woman could fall asleep anywhere: in the fork of a tree, in a boat, on horseback. That night, however, Hoshi was not so lucky.

: : :

"You're nearly of an age to start blackening your teeth, Lady Hana," said a woman in a delicate kimono, holding up a small pot that smelled of hot metal with a smile.

"Oh, but that takes far too much time," murmured the chief lady-in-waiting to the shōgun's wife. "The effect would never be complete with just one application, and she goes before the shōgun this very night." She shook her head. "I'm afraid Lady Hana will just have to be careful to cover her mouth--that is, if she were to do anything so ill-bred as to laugh."

"Laughter will be the furthest thing from my mind," Hana said gravely, relieved that the odd-smelling concoction would stay far away from her mouth. Bad enough that the maids had unceremoniously whisked her out of her light kimono to re-dress her in a magnificent many-layered assortment of rose and lilac silk that made her feel more like a sculpture than a human being.

"Indeed, these are perilous times," sighed the woman--Sayo, Hana thought her name was--putting away the little pot and producing, to Hana's startlement, a razor. "But at least we can do something about those barbarous eyebrows, my goodness. It's like there are black millipedes crawling on your forehead," she said, leaning forward.

Hana opened her mouth to protest, but closed it again, looking around at the powdered faces with their shaved and re-drawn eyebrows. She was going to stand out enough as it was; if she were to have any chance of fitting in long enough to unravel this mystery, she needed to look like any other court lady. So she held her tongue as the cold steel slid along her brows, alert and ready if the lady were to do anything untoward. But Sayo merely sat back on her heels and smiled when finished. "Oh, you'll be very pretty when this is done," she said approvingly.

As they applied white powder to her face Hana thought of Hoshi, waiting on the grounds outside. The chamberlain had reluctantly approved her bodyguard's presence at the meal tonight--"Provided he stay out of the way with the other servants, of course." Hana had opened her mouth to protest, but Hoshi had shaken his head a fraction, and she had subsided.

Sayo dipped a tiny brush in a lacquer cup and dabbed at her lips as the other ladies fussed with her hair, arranging it into elaborate loops that fell over her shoulders and to the floor. One of the other ladies pressed her thumbs into a pot of black liquid and pressed them to Hana's forehead, almost at the hairline, to create the illusion of thick, high eyebrows. "There," Sayo said with satisfaction. "You shall put all the other ladies to shame with your beauty, Lady Hana."

Hana was less convinced of this, but she stood up with the other ladies and made her way to the door with a thunderous rustling of silken skirts on the floor. The heavy, multi-layered skirts hampered her movement; she twitched at them impatiently and Sayo hissed at her.

As they made their way through the compound, they turned a corner to reveal a small garden of delicately-pruned pine trees and stones. Hana could see Hoshi's worn, dark-blue robes against the pale stone, and as the women walked by he turned his head to look at them.

Hana had prepared herself for him to laugh at her altered appearance, she had even prepared herself for the possibility--more painful, somehow--that he would think she looked more beautiful this way.

She was not prepared for his gaze to pass over her without any recognition at all.

He glanced at the doorway, as if waiting for her to still emerge, and Hana felt a strange twisting in her heart at finding herself invisible to him, one of a shining flock of powdered and polished ladies. She felt herself scowling, her denuded brows drawing together in a glare, and when Hoshi looked back in her direction again his face lit up in recognition. The surge of relief she felt was ridiculous, but it refused to go away even when he bowed politely to her and the other ladies, making them laugh behind their hands and whisper appreciative comments about his shoulders.

With Hoshi's watchful presence trailing behind them, they made their way to where the royal court of Japan awaited them.

: : :

"I remember your mother," Shōgun Yoshimasa, the most powerful man in all Japan, murmured as Hana knelt before him, her robes rustling. "You are as lovely as she was. Alas that all beauty is fleeting in this world of sorrows. We are pleased you have been able to return to Kyoto."

Hana risked a glance at the shōgun as she backed away from his august presence, and glimpsed a face with sorrowful eyes and a rather weak chin. He tapped his gilded fan impatiently against his glorious robes, looking past Hana already to the stage that had been prepared. Hana took her place next to Sayo, behind the shōgun's wife, and took in the austere wooden platform with pine trees drawn on the background. "This should be a treat. They're performing Dōjōji," Sayo whispered behind her hand, under the murmurs of the rest of the court. "With Jōami as the lead. Last time it was Sumidagawa--so boring, all that lamenting."

"Jōami?"

For once, the painted-on eyebrows of permanent surprise matched Sayo's actual expression. "You couldn't have lived in such a backwater you haven't heard of him." She tsked at Hana's blank face. "This is Kan'ami's greatest play, and none perform the main role better than Jōami." The murmurs swelled into outright chatter as assistants brought in a huge metal bell and hoisted it into the rafters until it hung above the stage. "Just watch."

A group of musicians took their places on the edge of the stage and began to play, an eerie skirling of a wooden flute that shuddered down Hana's spine. A figure came out on the stage, his motions slow, deliberate, turning with the beats of the flute and the drum to face the audience. With long, sententious phrasing he explained that women were forbidden to enter Dōjōji Temple, but that one day a woman of surpassing beauty came to the gates and demanded entrance. As he spoke another figure appeared at the left of the stage: dressed in a woman's robes, moving with a strange fluid grace in tiny steps.

The new figure turned to face the crowd, revealing a mask: a white oval of a smiling young girl's face, her lips slightly parted, frozen in perfect sweet stillness. This must be Jōami, the master of Nō theater, performing in the coveted role as the lead female character. The silken robes swayed with the actor's movements as he--it was almost impossible to think of the person beneath the mask as male, the illusion was so complete--chanted of the lady's love for a priest of the temple, that set her aflame with desire. The mask floated above the brocade and silk, serene and unchanging despite the fevered descriptions.

As Jōami danced with a golden fan and the flute swayed with his movements, the priest explained to the audience that this must be the ghost of the lady, come back to tell her tale once more: how she had crossed the wide river to come at night to the priest, but he had spurned her. The motions of the dance became spasmodic, the mask twitched from side to side: driven by desire and rage, the lady had transformed into a dragon and pursued the monk, who had taken refuge beneath the temple bell. This very bell! announced the priest, with a sweeping gesture: and as he did, Jōami leapt under the bell, which fell to the stage with a crash to cover him..

The crowd murmured in appreciation as the music paused. "Sometimes a dancer gets beheaded by the bell," Sayo whispered to Hana, her tone indicating slight disappointment at Jōami's skill. The music picked up again, the drumbeats ominous and foreboding as the chorus explained that on that fateful day, the dragon had wrapped its furnace-hot body around the bell, leaving only the ashes of the unfortunate young priest within. Now they must exorcise the spirit of the lustful dragon, sang the head priest and his assistant, positioning themselves near the bell.

After several false starts, the bell was hoisted high--and the crowd gasped in wonder. The delicate, beautiful maiden was gone, and in her place was a figure dressed in long scarlet robes, its face a crimson, horned mask frozen in a ghastly grin. The former girl lunged at the priests, spinning in a frenzied dance of abandoned fury, the leering mask glaring at them and the audience. The drums pounded in a panicked staccato, the flute shrilled defiance. Finally the dragon was brought to heel by the priests' chanting and retreated, cowed and defeated, with a final rebellious rush at the audience that made several court maidens shriek in terror.

The stage was cleared away as food and wine were brought out for the audience. "Now this is the best part," said Sayo with relish as she picked up her chopsticks. She nudged Hana. "Come on, aren't you going to eat?"

Hana slowly picked up the utensils and raised her eyes to find herself looking into the impassive smiling face of the maiden from the play. She started slightly, and the mask dipped in a polite nod. "I saw you in the audience, my lady," said Jōami from behind the mask. His voice was sweet and clear, the words carefully articulated. "Your beauty eclipses the new moon's."

Hana bowed slightly, smothering her annoyance: did people do nothing but flatter each other in court? "My Lord does me honor."

"Only your hands disturb the perfection of your image," Jōami went on, nodding at her fingers on the chopsticks. "Such callouses speak of a hard life in the far provinces."

Or a life spent with blades and shuriken, Hana thought, but simply smiled slightly. "I'm not ashamed of the work I've had to do to survive," she said.

"And did you enjoy my performance?"

"It was inspired," Hana said. "I truly felt myself in the presence of a dragon."

The mask tilted, birdlike, to the side. "High praise indeed."

"Will you not eat?" Hana said when its gaze didn't turn from her.

Sayo elbowed her. "Jōami never appears in public unmasked," she whispered under the chatter of conversation. "He attends banquets to show respect for the shōgun, but he remains masked throughout them."

The actor had turned away from Hana and was talking with another lord, only a glimmer within the empty eyesockets of the mask breaking their blankness. Frowning to herself, Hana cast her gaze up and down the rows of people, taking in their clothes, their mannerisms. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Hoshi standing near the doorway, doing the same, and resisted the urge to make eye contact with him. A man near the end of the rows, far from the shōgun, caught her eye: his round face looked suited to smiling, but tonight it was drawn with grief. A slender woman with a somewhat large nose sat beside him, clearly trying to engage him in conversation, but he remained withdrawn.

"That's the alternate undersecretary of the Minister of Ceremonies, Lord Michihisa," whispered Sayo when Hana asked. "Poor man, he was the one who found Lady Sukeko a fortnight ago. He hasn't been the same since." Sayo popped a piece of radish into her mouth. "That's the Lady Tahe next to him, trying to distract him. It won't work. Everyone knows Michihisa was crazy about Sukeko, no matter how much Tahe wishes it weren't true."

A love triangle? Interesting. Hana stored the information and names away. A body artfully arranged...the character for "life" painted in her own blood...it could fit a jealous lover--or a rejected one. Sukeko had been the consort of the Emperor's son, an unattainable ideal. And Michihisa was the one who claimed to have seen the demon bending over her body...

But it didn't explain the other deaths. Hana scowled at her sake cup and put it down after only a sip.

A patter of feet behind her warned her before she was seized from behind in a hug. She looked down to see Uguisu's glossy black head; the girl looked up and her mouth stretched in silent, delighted laughter at Hana's changed face. She put her hands over her mouth and sank to the straw mat, her whole body shaking with laughter, and it was all Hana could do to keep from joining in.

"I'm terribly sorry, my lady, she got away from me." Arifusa looked apologetic as he hurried into the banquet room, and Hana realized everyone was looking at her and Uguisu.

"She can be a handful," Hana said, smiling. "Here you go," she said to Uguisu, handing her a tangerine. "Would you share that with Arifusa?"

Uguisu bowed deeply, then took the tangerine from her with a twinkle in her eye and broke into a little dance. The court lords and ladies murmured appreciatively as she left the room, still dancing.

"Perfection," said Jōami, and Hana realized the moon-white girl's mask was still looking toward the door where Uguisu had exited. "Such a beautiful child. A flawless cherry blossom on the withered branch of the court." Others nodded and murmured in appreciation, and Hana frowned to herself once more: it had never occurred to her to describe the child in her care as "beautiful." Uguisu was just...Uguisu, always dancing even when she was standing still, all of her silenced voice expressed through her motion, making Hana's heart lighten just to see her. Once again she wondered if she was doing the child a terrible injustice, raising her far from the capital, far from the culture and comfort that she deserved, the appreciation she merited.

Jōami's frozen smile was still fixed on her, and Hana realized he was waiting for a response. "She is...very dear to me," Hana said. The words sounded bare and blunt, and for the first time Hana wished she had the soul of a poet to clothe her thoughts in charming words, but Jōami merely nodded as if it were answer enough.

Hana took another bite of rice, focused on the prickling feeling that something was wrong in the back of her mind. Her instincts were rarely wrong about these things: there was evil at the heart of the court.

Now she just had to figure out where...and why.

: : :

That evening, Hana lay on her stomach in front of the brazier, drinking tea with Arifusa and Hoshi. Her posture was undignified in the extreme, she knew, but she also knew neither of them would reproach her for it. She had scrubbed the white paint from her face as soon as she came home, but there was no restoring her eyebrows, and she couldn't help absently rubbing at the naked skin above her eyes with a fingertip. Uguisu was in the garden outside, chasing fireflies.

"I didn't like that play," Hoshi said. "I don't think lust can turn a woman into a demon."

Hana snorted and poked at the coals.

"Nonetheless, it is a recurring theme in the theater," Arifusa pointed out. "The beautiful woman who, thwarted or jealous, transforms into the vengeful spirit to punish those who have denied her."

"I admit it was amazing," Hoshi said. "When the bell lifted and she was totally transformed. Like magic."

"Not magic. Hooks on the inside of the bell," Hana said absently. "It does require some impressively fast changing in a tightly enclosed space, though."

"You can explain anything," Hoshi said, his gaze affectionate.

"Everything can be explained. It's just a matter of finding the pattern." Hana took a sip of her tea. "I can't find the pattern in the three murders. Two in two weeks, then none for over a month? We're missing information," she grumbled.

There was a discreet call from the entryway, and Arifusa rose to greet the messenger. When he returned, he was carrying a letter and and wearing an expression perhaps only Hana knew him well enough to Internet as intrigued.

"A missive from the Lady Tomiko," he said, handing it to Hana.

A message from the shogun's wife! Hana sat up and opened it, scanning the formal calligraphy to glean the meaning from it. "The Lady Tomiko appears to have been taken with my bearing this evening and invites me to join the court as one of her ladies. She includes my entourage in the invitation--apparently, my 'entourage' means both of you and Uguisu," she added wryly.

"This is quite an honor, my lady," said Arifusa.

"This is quite an opportunity to witness the court in detail," Hana said. "if I can see how people conduct themselves, ask a few well-chosen questions..."

"I shall retrieve your mother's finest kimonos from storage immediately." Arifusa bustled from the room, leaving Hana staring at the delicate glossy paper.

"I don't know if I'll fit in at court," said Hoshi abruptly. Hana looked up, surprised at his somber expression. "You seem so comfortable there, while I feel like a yokel."

Hana couldn't help a rueful chuckle. "My mother taught me well, and Arifusa after her. I know how to play the lady. It's a skill, like any other: no different from knowing how to throw a shuriken or swim. And notably less useful, barring circumstances such as these."

"But you do it so well." He reached out with one finger and traced an arc above her eye. "I hardly knew you today, without the dark wings crossing the sky of your perfect face."

Hana grimaced to hide her discomfort at the tone of Hoshi's voice. "Let's not get poetic about some unruly eyebrow hair. I'm still just your obstinate Bat under all the ridiculous silk and paint, and don't you forget it."

"My obstinate, reckless, arrogant Bat," Hoshi agreed blithely, causing Hana to elbow him sharply in the ribs. He mimed doubling over and came up smiling, and Hana felt a reserve she hadn't been consciously aware of melt away as she leaned forward to grab two handfuls of his long, glossy hair and drag him into a kiss that lasted until they heard Arifusa coming back with his silken treasures.

: : :

A bush warbler sang out in the trees near the shōgun's villa, a silvery waterfall of notes, and Hoshi stopped for a moment to listen to its voice. The girl who bore the bird's name paused in her attempts to climb a nearby pine to listen as well, then went back to clambering in the branches. Hoshi hid a smile as he went back to polishing the bit and tackle: Uguisu would get sap on today's clothing as well. Maybe after three days of torn and dirty kimonos the ladies of the court would give up trying to dress her like an exquisite doll, although he was sure she would remain the court favorite. The silent little girl's winning ways were the only thing that seemed able to lessen the atmosphere of dread and anticipation that hung over the court these days.

Three days in the royal pavilion, and he'd only seen Hana a handful of times as they both tried to gather information about the mysterious murders. Noble ladies and their retainers interacted rarely, and their communication was mostly limited to terse messages relayed through Arifusa. Hoshi had heard little gossip among the other retainers, beyond confirmation of the unrequited love triangle Hana had reported, but he kept his ears and eyes open, even as he seemed to be focused intently on his work.

"Oh dear, oh no, no!" Hoshi looked up as a young workman came around the corner with a teetering wheelbarrow that promptly tipped over and spilled its cargo on the ground. The workman glared at the fallen boulder, then aimed a savage kick at it.

"Do you need some help?" Hoshi said as the workman hopped up and down on one foot, cursing.

The workman swung around in surprise, almost falling down. He was much younger than Hoshi, with a freckled face and hair lightened to a dark reddish-brown by time in the sun. "Oh, the boss told me not to overload the barrow, but I thought maybe I could do it. Guess I was wrong," he added, crestfallen. "Now I have to figure out how to get this awful rock over into the corner of the garden."

Putting down the bit and tackle, Hoshi went over to the boulder and hoisted it to his shoulder. "Where does it need to go?"

The boy's jaw dropped. "Um, the--the boss told me to put it over here, on the right of the cherry tree." He ran across the garden to point to the spot.

"Are you sure? It would look a lot better on the left side," said Hoshi. He placed the stone to the left of the tree, as delicately as a falling petal. "See? It balances the line of the branches better there."

"I'm not going to argue with someone who can lug a rock that big," said the boy. "But the boss was very clear that--"

"--Jimmu!" A bellow broke the spring air and the bush warbler took off in a flurry of wings. A man with a chest like a barrel and short salt-and-pepper hair came around the corner. His eyes bugged out when he saw the stone and his face went a dusky red. "By the honorable ghost of Genji, boy, you've made a total mess of my garden! I told you to put it on the right, and you've...you've..."

His voice trailed off and his eyes narrowed as he looked at the cherry tree, the stone, the carefully raked pebbles around them. "You know," he said, "Now that I look at it, I think the left is a better place for the stone. Such a small difference, but it balances the composition, changes the flow of energy entirely. It's brilliant." He raised an eyebrow at Jimmu. "Was that deliberate? Have you been concealing a secret genius for design from me?"

Jimmu hesitated only a moment. Then he bit his lip and blurted out, "No, sir. It was this man who suggested it."

The man swung to fix his stare on Hoshi. "Did you, now? And I suppose you have an opinion on how the pebbles should be raked, too?"

Hoshi ignored the acerbic edge to his voice. "Actually, I think they'd look better in straight lines rather than the wavy ones you currently have."

A long, level look, and then the man's craggy face split with a laugh as he slapped his thigh with a heavy hand. "As it happens, I was on my way to tell Jimmu to re-rake them straight. You have the eye, stranger," he said. "What is your name?"

Hoshi bowed. "I'm known as Hoshi."

The man inclined his head. "I am Zen'ami, in charge of constructing the shōgun's gardens. Come with me, I want to talk about what I'm doing on the west side." He strode off without looking back to see if Hoshi was following, calling back: "And get that gravel re-raked!" to a pop-eyed Jimmu.

Hoshi spent the next two hours listening to Zen'ami talk about his beloved gardens. The shōgun's gardener examined moss, ran his hands over stones as if over living things, gestured at the trees and distant hills like a painter with his brush. Hoshi mostly listened, caught up in the other man's vision and the tranquility of the gardens, speaking only when Zen'ami asked his opinion on something. But eventually Zen'ami nodded with satisfaction, clapping him on the back. "With some training, a time of apprenticeship, I believe you could be almost as good at this as I am."

Hoshi bowed again, more deeply this time: the last hours had made clear he was in the presence of a master. "I am honored."

"Would you care to come to my place for dinner? I want your thoughts about some work I want done on the Silver Pavilion." Zen'ami's words were casual, but he watched Hoshi's face narrowly, as if there were some hidden meaning to his words.

"I'd love to. Where do you live?"

"Oh, my wife and I live on the riverbank with the other kawaramono. My sons have moved away--none of them willing to take up my work, I'm afraid."

"I would be honored to be your guest."

Zen'ami's eyes disappeared in a web of wrinkles as he smiled widely. "Ask Jimmu to show you the way this evening. I'm off to oversee some more of my lazy workers." He stumped off, waving back at Hoshi over his shoulder.

Frowning in thought, Hoshi finished polishing the bit and tackle, then pulled Uguisu down from the tree she was in and returned her to Arifusa still shaking blossoms out of her hair.

He was heading toward the stables when he was seized from behind and dragged into a room.

Strong hands pulled him down onto the floor, sinewy legs locked around his hips, and Hoshi found himself being soundly kissed. Beneath the silken robes, Hana's muscles were like iron, the curve of her back like a dragon's, all beauty and peril. "Missed you so much," she breathed against his chest, her cool hands pulling apart both of their robes. "Couldn't stand it anymore."

Her robes smelled of sandalwood and heliotrope, her skin of nothing but herself.

Later, his naked thighs marked with white and vermilion, Hoshi wrapped his legs around Hana and pulled her close. "I've been invited to Zen'ami's house for dinner," he said.

Hana propped her elbows on his chest to look at him. Her face was serious, a mesmerizing contrast with the lipstick smeared across one powdered cheek. "To the kawaramono settlement? Interesting."

"You knew?"

"Everyone knows that Zen'ami is kawaramono."

"How did an untouchable end up in charge of the shōgun's gardens?"

"The shōgun doesn't care about ritually unclean castes, an eye for beauty is all he cares about." Hana lifted her lip. "It's one of the few good qualities of the man." She settled her head on Hoshi's chest. "This could be useful. As a member of the royal court, I can't visit the settlement. Having you there could be helpful. Perhaps the untouchables know something valuable."

"Afraid of being defiled?" Hoshi meant to sound teasing, but there was a bitterness underneath the words that made Hana look swiftly at him.

"You know a lady of the court can't be seen there. Shōgun Yoshimasa's court is like a world of its own, a safe little haven of peace and beauty in a world of disease and war." Her lips thinned, and Hoshi remembered her expression on seeing the bodies alongside the road, the brazen rats. "A beautiful illusion that only works by having everyone ignore the rest of the world. But if we work together--" She laid a cool hand alongside his face, "--together we can unravel this mystery." She smiled a wicked smirk that he could see clearly even through the obscuring powder. "I think you know perfectly well I don't mind being defiled, star of my heart."

She bent over him once more with renewed vigor, leaving Hoshi to wonder with confused delight just who was the defiler and who the defiled.

: : :

Zen'ami's dwelling was small and shabby, one of a tumble of tiny houses that lined the flood plains of the river--worthless land that no one could use, thus given to the kawaramono. The inside, however, was harmonious and soothing, somehow more pleasant than many of the shōgun's ornate halls. Zen'ami's wife, a plump smiling woman, listened indulgently to the two of them discuss garden design for a while, then put bowls of rice topped with salted fish on the table.

Zen'ami looked sharply at the bowls. "This isn't our usual rice," he said.

"No, dear. The Shadow left a bag of it on Jiro's windowsill last night and he shared it with all of us."

Hoshi paused, chopsticks poised. "The Shadow?"

"Why yes, that's what we call it," she said with a chuckle. "In the last few days bags of food and jugs of sake have been appearing in the settlement late at night. Why, Aya's children have been eating well for the first time since their father died. Surely it is a gift from the Compassionate Buddha," she murmured, bowing her head.

Hoshi looked down at his little bowl of rice and felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. No, a royal lady couldn't visit a village of untouchables--but the Bat was another story altogether, apparently.

: : :

"You seem different, lately."

Hoshi was running a strand of Hana's long black hair through his fingers like water, watching the moonlight play across it as if he found it infinitely beautiful. For all Hana knew, he did. He was odd that way. "In what way?" he asked after a moment.

Unsure herself, she contemplated the question. "You seem...happy." He looked at her then, sudden pain in his eyes, and she added quickly, "No, that's not quite the right word. It's not that you seemed unhappy in the mountains. You seem satisfied, somehow."

"Perhaps I am," he said softly. "These last weeks working with Zen'ami, in the gardens...it's a skill that's unconnected to whether I can fly, or shoot fire from my eyes. It's about me as a person and the way I view the world. It's an ability to bring beauty to other peoples' lives. So yes, it's gratifying."

"What are the two of you working on next? I'd like to come see it." She felt his sudden reticence like a chilly mist. "What's the problem?"

"It's the Silver Pavilion. The Buddhist retreat for the shōgun. It's...forbidden for women to set foot on the grounds." He grimaced at her expression. "I know it's ridiculous."

She bit down her irritation. As a girl she had learned to keep her expression smooth and clear as an unruffled lake, never showing the emotions beneath it: a serene mask over roiling emotion. But with Hoshi, in private, she found it more difficult. "I understand," she said between her teeth. "We play by the rules until the mystery is solved."

As she said the words, for the first time a chill touched her spine: Hoshi was happy here, working in the gardens, crafting beauty with his mind and his hands. What right did she have to take him from this? No, like Uguisu he would be happier here, able to create loveliness for others, appreciated for more than his powers.

She stood, re-tying her sash firmly, ignoring the way it made her chest tighten and her breath catch. "I must get back to the shōgun's wife," she said. "There is a drinking party tonight and I must be there to applaud the best poems composed to the new irises."

She dropped a kiss on Hoshi's brow and swept from the room; as the door whispered shut she heard him murmur, "There is only one flower I value in the court."

She paused a moment, one hand on the door, then gathered up her robes and moved on.

: : :

Lady Tahe's poem to the irises met with a smattering of polite applause and a few condescending smiles hidden behind discreet sleeves: too obvious a reference to the unobtainable Lord Michihisa, just slightly too obvious. Shōgun Yoshimasa spoke next--for all his weakness as a military leader, he was scrupulously fair in poetry contests, neither dominating the proceedings nor expecting others to toady up to him. His poems tended to be austere and melancholy, yet even Hana had to admit that they were quite good.

"I didn't see you in the audience at my performance last week."

Hana turned to find the pale maiden's mask with its frozen smile looking at her. She bowed. "Lord Jōami. My apologies, I was indisposed that evening and could not attend."

"Ah, how regretful." The actor's voice didn't sound regretful; it sounded as remote and pale as the moon. "It was a retelling of Aoi no Ue, from the Tale of Genji."

Another tale of a jealous woman's rage: in this one the spirit of the jealous woman kills Genji's new lover. Hana felt her eyes narrowing. "You seem to like a theme, my lord."

A owl-like tilt of the head. "The power of a woman's spirit is a timeless motif, my lady." He raised a brocaded sleeve to his mouth as if to hide the mask's graceful, eternal smile. "No matter: we perform again tomorrow night. Another play taken from the Tale of Genji, Ukifune. I hope you will attend."

"A play about a beautiful woman who throws herself over a waterfall to escape a love triangle? Sounds enchanting," Hana said waspishly.

"Indeed," Jōami lilted. "Anyone who wears a mask in this floating world of sorrows will understand." He bowed slightly and turned away, his robes swaying with his steps.

Hana stared after him. After a moment, she realized the hairs of the nape of her neck were on end. She rubbed at her neck without thinking, then looked at her hand, obscured with white powder.

She dusted them off impatiently and focused once more on the poetry.

: : :

Uguisu was still asleep in the pale dawn light of the following day, her round face solemn and her mouth slightly open. Hana pulled the futon up to cover her shoulders and heard herself sighing. She spoke without turning around: "Will she ever speak, old friend?"

Arifusa handed her a cup of tea. "She will, my lady. When she has something she needs to say."

Hana sipped at it, her eyes still on the little girl. "I wonder if I shall ever hear it," she murmured.

"She would not want to be separated from you," Arifusa said.

Hana was about to ask how he knew she was considering leaving the child in Kyōtō, then simply shook her head. He had always known her too well. "She deserves a better life, a safer life."

"Sometimes those are not always the same thing," Arifusa said in that damnable enigmatic way of his, then rose and left the room.

Hana drank her tea and watched the morning sun creep across the mossy stones of the garden. Soon she would have to prepare for a day at the court, would have to apply paint and powder to her face, to sit in the audience for yet another tale about the tragedy of being a woman. Restless, she stood and walked along the stepping stones set in moss like islands in an ocean, pacing out her thoughts. Love triangles. Beauty. Death. Masks. The vengeful spirit.

She was gazing unseeing at the clouds when Hoshi descended from them, his blue robes swirling around him like the sky itself. He stopped, hovering in the air just above her, his face concerned. "I've just gotten some...disturbing information from the people in the kawaramono settlement. They hadn't wanted to tell me, but the most recent one was just last week, and Jimmu couldn't keep silent anymore."

Hana felt her fists tighten. "Tell me."

"They started about a week before the first murder in the court. A young woman named Toyome, the tanner's wife. She was found...arranged on a piece of driftwood, her throat cut. Since then there have been two more among the untouchables." He gave her the names and dates. "And also one among the merchants of the capital, a rice seller named Daiki fifteen days ago."

Hana ran through the dates in her mind, matching them up with the dates of the murders in the court. "That fills in our gaps. The murderer has been consistent, we just didn't realize it--"

"--Because no one in the royal court considered the murders outside to be worth noticing," Hoshi finished for her.

They stared at each other in appalled frustration for a moment. Then Hana sighed and felt her shoulders sag. "Go back to the kawaramono and try to keep them safe, love. I've failed them, but I'll find this killer and stop them."

Hoshi was still hovering in the air; he lifted her chin up and kissed her "You can't be everywhere," he murmured, but Hana just shook her head. "I'll be working overnight at the Silver Pavilion," he added. "I'll stand guard on all the workers there." He lifted slightly higher into the air. "I'd better return--Jimmu and Zen'ami are going to think I've fallen into the well while fetching them a drink of water." He flashed her a quick smile that she did not return and vanished into the clouds.

Hana's eyes dropped to her hands, calloused and scarred. Seven people had died in the capital, two since she had arrived here. Seven people dead and she was no closer to discovering the killer. She ran through their names like a mantra, committing her failure to memory: Toyome, Ikuko, Yukio, Mutsu, Sukeko, Daiki, Akinao. Their spirits cried out for justice, and she must become their avenger.

She was still repeating their names to herself, a thread of whisper in her mind, as she sat in the audience to watch the latest play, “Ukifune.”

She watched as Jōami sorrowfully chanted the role of the woman whose beauty inflamed two men, then changed from his maiden's mask into the twisted mask that represented madness to throw himself into the waterfall in final despair. Toyome, Ikuko, Yukio, Mutsu. The names echoed with the stamp of his dancing feet on the wooden stage. Sukeko, Daiki, Akinao.

As he bowed to the audience's appreciation, Hana stood and left the hall. There was a revelation curling at the corners of her mind. Those names. The rhythm. The dates.

She seized Sayo as the lady came out of the hall. "The three murders," she grated, not caring how Sayo's eyes widened. "They happened on nights when plays were performed, didn't they?"

Sayo looked confused, then cast her eyes up in thought. "Why, yes," she said after a moment. "But there have been many plays performed without murders, so I don't think--"

"--What were the dates of the last seven plays?"

Sayo bit her lip. With some help from the other lords and ladies milling around, she put the information together.

With the new information from Hoshi about the murders outside the court, the pattern was clear: each date matched the date of one of the murders.

"What were the names of the last seven plays?" Hana demanded.

Sayo looked torn between helping her friend and fleeing a lunatic. "Um...they were... Take no Yuki, Izutsu, Yamamba, Matsukaze, Sumidagawa, Dojōji, and Aoi no Ue."

Toyome, Ikuko, Yukio, Mutsu, Sukeko, Daiki, Akinao. Yes. "He chooses the play as a hint," Hana said, more to herself than the mystified Sayo. "To reveal the name of the next beautiful person to die. Mocking us."

Images, fragments of words flashed through her mind: masks. Beauty. Jealousy. Grace transformed into a destroying demon. Anyone who wears a mask would understand.

The last pieces fell into place in her mind and the chatter of the crowd seemed to fade away as she made the connection.

Tonight's play was Ukifune.

"Perfection," she heard once again Jōami's voice in her head, an admiring murmur. "A flawless cherry blossom on the withered branch of the court."

She was already running toward her quarters, in her voluminous robes like swimming through water, like a nightmare where you can't move. "Such a beautiful child," Jōami had said, looking at Uguisu.

Tonight's play was Ukifune.

She was tearing off her robes with one hand, silk thrown aside like a chrysalis, revealing the black ninja clothes beneath.

She ran, breathing a prayer to the Compassionate Buddha.

: : :

When she saw the blood smeared on the wood outside her rooms, she knew she was too late. With a cry, she flung open the door to find Arifusa crumpled against the wall, his silver hair stained scarlet. He had not given up the girl without a fight.

On the far side of the room, a laughing demon held Uguisu with a knife to her throat. Jōami's face was covered as always, this time with the white demon's mask, its mouth stretched in a grotesque leer of insanity.

Uguisu paid no attention to the monster holding her. She saw Hana, crouched in the doorway in her ninja clothes, and her eyes widened with fierce exaltation.

"You came!" she cried joyously, then twisted to glare at Jōami. "My Bat will save me!" With a fierce growl, she bit at the arm holding her. Jōami yelped with pain, but with a quick motion from his knife hand backhanded her, and she sagged in his arms.

"What a shame," he giggled, his gold-rimmed demon's eyes watching Hana. "Her silence perfected her beauty, and now it is broken. But no matter. Such an exquisite death I have planned for her, the pinnacle of my art."

"Your art?" Hana watched as he edged for the back door, calculating his motions.

The hideous face tilted in confusion. "I thought you of all people would understand," Jōami said, his voice disappointed. "The shōgun believes he has created an oasis of peace and order in a world of chaos and pain. But it is an illusion, only an illusion!" His voice cracked into a mad chuckle and he struggled to get it back under control. "My duty as an artist is to remind everyone that beneath that illusion, death is the beautiful reality that awaits us all." He sighed, the sound echoing hollow through the mask. "I thought that someone who hides her true self so beautifully would understand all this. But now it seems--"

He started to move back through the door and Hana launched herself at him. But he was faster than she expected, his movements fuelled by madness while hers were hindered by care for the unconscious girl in his arms. He dodged her blows, falling back before her assault like a waterfall before a sword, making his way along the wooden veranda.

A glimmer of light and Hana threw herself away from a shower of tiny throwing stars. One licked along her cheek and she felt warmth blooming there. "Alas, another imperfection to your beauty," sighed Jōami, still retreating before her like mist or the memory of loss. "You had too many already to be an ideal subject for my art. This one--" He shook Uguisu like a bundle of rags and Hana's vision went red at the edges. "I was going to spread this one's intestines out like a butterfly, like a fan of glory. But now I see I must improvise."

He leapt backwards in a sinuous movement and Hana realized that he was teetering on the edge of the ravine, the roaring waters far below.

The gloating mask stared at Hana. "Like Ukifune, I suppose this is the only way."

With a slight bow, he stepped gracefully back into the deadly height.

Hana was running forward even as he started to fall out of sight. She heard herself scream a single name as she leaped forward to catch at Uguisu's trailing robes, her line whipping through the spray-filled air to wrap around a gnarled pine clinging to the rocks. Jōami's long fingers clutched at the girl: there was a tearing of cloth drowned by the roar of water and he fell, the grinning demon's mask still gazing up at Hana until it was lost in the tumult.

She hung there, Uguisu's sash locked in her rigid fingers, the girl's unconscious body swaying limply at the end. The pine tree groaned and some of its roots tore loose, dropping the two hanging figures a lurching hand's-breath.

Hana closed her eyes and whispered the name again.

And then he was there, his long hair sparkling with the spray all around them, lifting them up out of death and into life once more.

"My star," she whispered as he gathered them both close.

"I heard you," he said as they soared upward into the dizzying sky.

"I knew you would."

: : :

Arifusa was nearly as pale as the bandage around his head, but his eyes were clear and there was a faint smile on his face as he watched Uguisu re-enacting the drama of her abduction, using her dolly as a prop.

"And then the demon grabbed the little girl and told her that it was going to kill her, but the little girl wasn't afraid at all, not at all! And then the Bat came through the door like this--" A fierce pounce, teeth bared, "--to save the little girl, and the demon laughed, but it was really afraid, because nothing is stronger or braver than the Bat!"

Hoshi watched as she danced through the confrontation between the demon and the Bat, chattering the whole time. "I fear you'll grow tired of her voice now, Arifusa," he said with a smile.

"I sincerely doubt that, my lord," said Arifusa.

The door slid open and Hana came into the room, dressed once more in her full court regalia. Uguisu ran to her and hugged her briefly before returning to her story: "And they were hanging there like this--" She leaped and swung from the door jamb to illustrate, "--And then Tetsujin, the Man of Steel came flying in to save them, whoosh!"

Hana turned from Uguisu to Hoshi. She was smiling, but looked sad and tired under the pale face powder. "They never found the body?"

Hoshi shook his head. "No sign of it. Just the mask, floating in the water."

She shuddered beneath her silken robes. "Well, there will be no way to return to the old identity, at least. With the mask as evidence and the testimony of Arifusa and myself, Jōami is revealed as the killer and will be a hunted man."

"And what will you do now, my lady?" Arifusa asked.

Hana's fists clenched and she looked down. "This world...is not mine," she said finally, her voice low. "I can't stay here, hemmed in on all sides, forced to play a role I left behind years ago. I must return to the mountains, the League, and the fight."

"How soon will we leave?" asked Hoshi. "I can be ready to go as early as tomorrow, but I might prefer to have a few days to wrap things up in the west garden with Zen'ami," he added as she turned to stare at him.

"A...few days?"

"That will be perfect," Hoshi said. Why did she look so bewildered? "With any luck Rikishi hasn't annoyed Issun-bōshi so much that he's gone back to China. It would be a difficult road for us to track him down," he grinned.

"...us?"

Hoshi frowned at her pale face. "Well, of course."

"You don't want to stay here?"

He chuckled, puzzled. "Why would I? My place is at your side, and this is not a place my beloved Bat can fly free."

"But your gardens." She looked down once more. "I thought that you and Uguisu would...be safe and happy here. You could create such beauty. She could grow up a normal girl."

Now he could hear the disbelief in his laughter. "Beauty? The wilderness holds more beauty for me than any carefully structured garden." He cupped her face in his hand and brushed a thumb across her cheek to reveal the shining skin beneath the blank white powder. "Freedom is more beautiful to me than any clipped flower." He smiled at the look of dawning hope in her eyes and nodded at Uguisu. "Uguisu, tell her how the story ends."

The little girl jumped up and down, waving her doll. "And then they all went back to the mountains together and the Bat taught the little girl to be swift as the wind and strong as an oak and wise as a dragon, and to fight injustice and serve the truth all her life, just like she did!"

Hana started to laugh, a slightly tremulous laugh, but was interrupted by Arifusa speaking from his bedding:

"And if you wait a few days I must insist on joining you, my lady. I may not be as spry as once I was, but I am more than capable of a hike in the mountains I sincerely doubt you are eating well enough, holed up in some cave in the wilderness, my goodness."

And then they were all laughing, and it sounded like wings against the sky to Hoshi.

: : :

A week later four figures left the capital and began to climb the steep mountain pass into the wilderness. The little girl danced ahead of the others, chasing leaves up the slope like a squirrel, and the broad-shouldered man helped the older man across rough spots in the path. The woman strode along in her dark and travel-stained clothes, her eyebrows stubbly but regrowing, and her bare face turned toward the sun.

They were going home.

---

End Notes:

--Shogun Yoshimasa is a historical figure; a man of the arts who cultivated poetry, music, and the arts as civil war razed his country to the ground.

--Joami is not a real Japanese name, but I wanted to keep it familiar, and many artists' names ended with -ami at the time.

--Jimmu is the name of a legendary Japanese emperor and would never be used by a member of the untouchable caste, but it just matched up too well to pass up.

--Zen'ami, the head of the shogun's gardens, is a historical figure (and was indeed a member of the untouchable caste) but I took the liberty of giving him a familiar personality.

Accompanying Fanworks

Fanworker name: Chibifukurou
Type of fanwork: Traditional art
Link to accompanying fanwork master post: http://chibifukurou.livejournal.com/59212.html

(no subject)

Date: 2012-11-02 07:02 pm (UTC)
glymr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] glymr
Oh, this is so clever! This Elseworlds is so wonderful. I love the dancing Uguisu and Arifusa as well. Following Hana's thought processes as she figured out the solution to the mystery was so cool! Thank you for writing and sharing. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-11-02 08:31 pm (UTC)
starsandsea: (Dreamer)
From: [personal profile] starsandsea
Oh, this was so wonderful! I loved all the history you wove into it, and the style of writing you used, it was perfect. There was so much about this that I loved - Hana/Bruce working out the mystery, Hoshi/Clark's... Clarkness, Uguisu/Dick's dancing and Arifusa/Alfred... *flails* This was really incredible, thank you so much for sharing it with us!

(Commenting here because I wasn't sure where to, lol!)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-11-02 10:31 pm (UTC)
jlvsclrk: (KalEl)
From: [personal profile] jlvsclrk
Absolutely and utterly brilliant. I was fascinated by the historical setting - such a fascinating time - and would love to read more of your stories of Hana and Hoshi. And the supporting cast was spectacular too.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-11-03 11:58 pm (UTC)
bradygirl_12: (Robin--Joy)
From: [personal profile] bradygirl_12
Ooh, this was marvelous! You did the Elseworlds justice, m'dear. :)

Uguisu was a delight! A wonderful bright spirit, as Dick always is. :) And Arifusu was pure joy. I enjoyed the mystery and the look at a royal Japanese court while Hana chafed at her restrictions and Hoshi learned his gift for garden design. When Jimmu and Zen'ami appeared I laughed and clapped delightedly! :)

Great job! And congrats on completing your first Big Bang! :)

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