“Toshi-san. It’s time to get up. Toshi-san.”
His heavy eyelids flickered open as he felt himself shaken by the shoulder. A bright silver kimono with glowing gold-and-red flowers filled his field of vision as Miko knelt at his side. Smiling slightly, glad she was there, he let his eyes close again.
“Toshi-san, it’s time to eat. Asaka-sama will be coming for you shortly.”
The demon’s name brought him awake. With a grimace, he opened his eyes and pushed himself up into a sitting position. Rubbing at his face, he gradually became more alert as the scent of freshly brewed tea wove around him.
“That’s much better,” the geisha said. “Now, come, let me serve you. We haven’t much time.”
He draped his blanket about himself and rose groggily to his feet before sidling over to the small table at the corner of the cabin.
Serving him tea, Miko also placed in front of him a plate filled with dried fish and rice cakes. To his delight, he also noted she’d brought him a couple of sweet cakes.
As he ate, he watched as the geisha rose from the table and headed to the door. Sitting beside it, propped against the wall, was a koto. He watched with awakening interest as she picked up the long, gently curving wooden instrument and set it on the floor before her.
Miko bowed to him then took up a pick after sliding small wooden blocks beneath each of the strings over the main body and setting them up in a specific pattern. Long, lonely notes filled the cabin as she wove her music for him.
Downing a second cup of hot tea as fast as his throat would tolerate, he listened. With a bit of surprise, he found himself caught up in the music as its sounds turned from sweet melancholy to a brash, more upbeat pace. He became fascinated just watching her play.
He slid his plate from the table to set it before him so he wouldn’t have to look away to eat. Miko’s movements were so fluid, so precise, her fleshless fingers handling the instrument almost as if it were a part of her.
While he sat there, he dared to try and imagine how the geisha might have looked in life. That a spirit could create such beauty dazzled him. He wondered if she were trying to imprison him in some sort of spell. He found that, at the moment, he didn’t care if she was.
He continued to eat, lost in the music, until a loud knock on the door reverberated through the cabin. Miko stopped playing. The door opened.
Toshi felt his throat go dry as the armored samurai filled the doorway. He swallowed hard as he forced his fear-frozen body to bow.
“Come, boy,” the samurai said.
He darted a glance at Miko and saw her nod. Hiding himself in his blanket, he stood up and shivered, wondering if he would feel the samurai’s cold touch tonight.
“Leave it.” A bony hand pointed at his blanket.
Toshi released a heavy sigh. He let the only warmth he had fall off behind him and continued to the door.
The samurai removed himself from the doorway and strode down the hall, leaving him to follow. Asaka stopped, blocking the way to the exterior door as splashing sounds came faintly from beyond it. They stood there for almost a full minute before the samurai reached to open the door.
A blast of cold night wind smashed into the boy’s shivering body as the door was momentarily ripped from Asaka’s grasp. The samurai stepped outside, and Toshi grabbed for the doorway as the ship abruptly rocked to the left. Nervously, he stared out at the wet, glowing deck. Two columns of skeletal men sat toward the bow of the ship, all holding long oars, which they were using to move the flat-bottomed vessel. He looked away from them and their fleshless bodies, a shudder crawling up his spine.
Stepping out onto the deck, he looked up at the overcast night sky. The wind slapped his face. The ship shifted back to the right, and he felt his filled stomach knot up inside him. Doing his best to ignore it, he carefully climbed the ladder next to the doorway, following Asaka.
The ship tilted again, but he held on, his stomach knotting up a little more. Reaching the top, he stood uneasily on the glowing deck and waited for the samurai to tell him what to do.
“You will now determine our present position. Do not attempt to lie, for I already know the answer.”
Hating the fear growing inside him, Toshi glanced behind the samurai as a stooped skeleton approached them at Asaka’s signal. Stopping before the boy, the retainer offered him the map Asaka had taken from Master Shun’s store and a number of gaijin instruments.
Struggling to keep his footing as the rocking of the ship grew worse, Toshi took the map, avoiding any contact with the skeleton’s hand. His vision swam for a moment. The map’s contents seemed to move with the tilting of the ship.
Attempting to ignore his dizziness, he returned the map and took a heavy coil of measuring rope with a weight at one end and a round cork on the other. Leaning against the rail, he dropped the weighted end into the rolling waves below. He dared not look at the moving water, which strove to make his dizziness worse, as he tried to get a depth measurement as quickly as possible.
The choppy water wouldn’t allow an accurate assessment, but he was sure the samurai wouldn’t care for the excuse.
As soon as he thought the bottom had been reached, he noted the marked depth of three fathoms where the cork bobbed and began to carefully coil the rope up again. He hurried as much as was prudent, his dizziness making his stomach knot up worse than before. Because of the roughness of the water, he decided he wouldn’t try for a speed reading.
Returning the coil of rope to the waiting skeleton, he next picked up a large compass. The small bowl-like contraption had a colorful card face showing all the major directions and was submerged in liquid to keep it still. Quickly looking it over to make sure it was in working order, he stood as still as possible to get a directional reading from the bulky instrument.
When he was done, he traded it for a cross-staff. With that, he looked up into the cloud-crowded sky, trying to catch sight of the North Star. Finally spotting it as a bank of clouds broke for a moment, he lifted the cross-staff in its direction. He felt his dizziness worsen as he put the long bar of the cross-staff against his eye, his gaze following the rod upward.
The ship kept shifting, making the star weave in and out of his sight. He stubbornly tried to keep it in view. He slid the crosspiece over the scale to align it against the star and the horizon to find the angle of their latitude, just as Captain Valez had taught him.
The North Star wavered again in his vision, and his stomach rumbled. The swirling wind whipped his ponytail up into his face as he handed the cross-staff back. Taking the map again, a few of the other tools, and an empty logbook, he sat on the ice-cold deck. He tried to recall all the necessary computations and, although lightheaded, calculated them as best he could.
He was aware of Asaka’s green stare raking him.
After several minutes, Toshi came up with what might be a close answer. He was about to give it to Asaka when his tortured stomach gave up and heaved with all its might. Clamping his hands over his mouth, he tried to keep in the lumpy, burning mess that suddenly rose from inside him. Forgetting everything but his screaming stomach, he ran for the ship’s rail.
Almost falling overboard in his eagerness to get there, he clung to the railing as his stomach heaved again. Not able to hold back anymore, he opened his mouth and let the burning torrent empty from him to the sea. The acrid smell of vomit filled his nose as his throat burned. His stomach continued to heave long past the point at which it was empty.
Even in his present misery, he couldn’t help but notice the quiet, overbearing presence of the samurai, who came to stand by his side. It occurred to his tortured mind to wonder if Asaka was considering throwing him overboard. Perhaps it would prove to be a kindness if he did.
“Sir, I mean no disrespect, but I don’t think this ignorant boy is going to be of any use to us,” the steersman said. “It may take a long time, but I’m sure I can eventually–“
“Silence!” the samurai roared.
Toshi ignored it, still trying to stop his heaving stomach, inwardly grateful the shouting hadn’t been directed at him. After another minute, his stomach finally began to settle a little. He closed his eyes, letting the flowing wind cool his face as he tried to disregard the ship’s continuing movements.
“I asked you for our location, boy.” Asaka’s voice bore down on him.
Toshi turned his drawn, pale face away from the rail and stared at the map the samurai held out to him. Leaning against the bar, not trusting his wobbling legs to remain beneath him, he carefully took the map and then the other tools and sank back to the deck, his back against the railing.
He stared at the swaying map and rechecked his calculations. Getting the same answer, he moved an unsteady finger to point out their position, which lay near the coast. Trying not to glance at Asaka as the samurai looked over him, he held his finger in place.
Asaka took the map, his only acknowledgment of the information a barely audible humph. Not looking back, the samurai strode to the skeleton manning the ship’s tiller. Toshi tried hard not to care.
The bent skeleton came over to him. Although he had no liking for the fleshless grin that approached, he couldn’t find the strength to move from where he was. Never looking directly at him, the retainer took the instruments from Toshi’s unresisting hands and walked away.
Unable to swallow away the acrid taste still in his mouth, Toshi closed his eyes and sat as unmoving as possible on the rocking deck. He drew his knees up, trying not to moan in his undiminishing misery, and curled his arms around his legs, the cold seeping into him from the deck beneath.
He suddenly opened his eyes. He felt someone staring at him. He barely realized it was Asaka before the latter abruptly reached for his arm. He cringed at the unavoidable touch, a spear of fear shooting through him. Yet, when the fleshless fingers wrapped around his flesh, there was no trace of the paralyzing touch.
“Get up,” Asaka said.
Using the rail and the samurai’s grip on his arm for support, Toshi scrambled to his feet. He swayed with the ship’s movement, but Asaka’s firm hand kept him from falling.
Steering him toward the ladder, Asaka held on to his arm until he started to descend. Feeling a little steadier by the time he reached the main deck, the boy didn’t wait to be led but quickly stumbled to the door. He opened it and staggered inside as his stomach began knotting up again.
Moaning softly in despair, he shivered, feeling the cold radiating from the walls, assaulting his exposed skin from every angle. Hurrying to his assigned cabin, he careened toward the wall as the ship abruptly tilted to the left. A steady hand kept him from smacking into it, and he glanced behind him in surprise. It was the samurai.
Asaka’s firm grip back on his arm, he was led the rest of the way to his cabin.
His prison’s blank, glowing walls glared silently at him as he entered. Seasickness washed over him. A dead certainty came over him then, and although the unearthly cold of the ship mercilessly flowed into him, he didn’t run for his blanket when he was released. Instead, he turned around to face the departing samurai.
“Asaka-sama, please. I beg you!” He sank to his knees, his hands palm-down against the floor and his eyes closed in supplication. “Release me. Take me home. I can be of no use to you. Please, I don’t belong here!” His voice caught in his throat. “Please, Lord, I beg you!”
Toshi pressed his forehead against the floor’s glowing planks, shooting cold stabbing it as was already happening with his knees and hands. He shut his eyes tighter with a prayer, his heart quickening as he heard the sound most dreaded by his people everywhere. His acrid breath hung still in his raw throat as the soft click of a katana being slightly drawn from its sheath reverberated in the silence. He waited for the end.
“I will ignore your offense this once. I expect it never to be repeated.” Asaka’s voice was cold.
Toshi heard the katana click back into place.
“The only release you will find if you do is from your flesh,” the samurai told him. “I will have you, one way or another. If I must kill you and then trap your spirit from rising to its next plane, then so be it. It would mean nothing to me to have you join the ship’s crew permanently and find myself one who has the courage to endure what you do not.”
Asaka left, slamming the door behind him.
Horror and shame poured through Toshi, although he couldn’t explain the reason for the latter. Tears ran freely from his closed eyes to fall on the glowing floor as his mind’s eye cruelly provided him with a picture of himself as a fleshless, moving corpse.