BALANCE, part 1
by Tari Gwaemir
"I am waylaid by Beauty."
On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, at sunset, Hikaru ran off yet again to the riverbank--at that time, he was only eleven years of age--instead of finishing his chores. While the old master of acolytes was searching the temple grounds, muttering to himself about the joys of retirement and life away from overactive little brats, Hikaru was happily splashing in the water, heedless of his new, clean robes, hunting for frogs who leaped away in a panic from his quick and eager hands. It was the night of the harvest festival, and the other acolytes were gathered around the kitchens, hoping to steal a taste of the dishes being prepared in offering to ancestral spirits. But for the moment, Hikaru had forgotten all about the delicious heaps of rice cakes and fruits that awaited him at the temple; he was too preoccupied with chasing down a plump green bullfrog that croaked at him impudently as it leaped away from his hands.
The last rays of the sun illuminated the surface of the water, and Hikaru stopped for a moment to brush the bangs out of his eyes and notice the gleaming, rippling river, lit red like the wild poppies that grew at the edge of the temple gardens. He squinted at the moon, already risen at the opposite end of the horizon, a round golden coin in a deep blue sky. He wondered at the strangeness of the hour, when both sun and moon inhabited the heavens, like two generals at war sharing a meal at the same table. He walked further from the riverbank, out into the center, where the water reached his waist. The sun sank a little more, the moon climbed a little higher, and as he turned to look for the evening star, he tripped over a rock and fell back with a loud splash into the water.
What's this? A voice asked.
Hikaru shouted, or rather tried to shout, around the water filling his mouth and throat, "Help me!" as he thrashed about in a panic. The river was much deeper than he remembered; he could not reach the surface.
Who are you? Can you hear me?
A distinct and clear image of a young man with long black hair holding the blade of a sword against his stomach flashed into Hikaru's mind. He frantically kicked at the treacherous water that seemed bent on dragging him down to the bottom, and mentally screamed, "Help me, help me, help me! Whoever you are, whatever gods you pray to, help me, I'm going to die!"
His flailing hand latched onto a thin, long object. He grasped it tightly as he lost consciousness.
He opened his eyes to a dimly lit room. He sat up in shock and gazed wildly about him, patting the floor around him to make sure that he was indeed on dry land and breathing air not water.
"Oh, you're finally awake." He looked up and saw Akari peering down at him, holding a lamp in one hand.
"What happened to me?"
"We found you by the river, looking half-dead, with your robes all wet," she informed him. "Holding that." She pointed at his right hand.
He looked down. He was clutching the smooth lacquered scabbard of a long, curved sword. The guard was simple but inlaid with mother-of-pearl. He frowned. "What's this?"
"How am I supposed to know? But you wouldn't let go of it, even when the master of acolytes tried to pry your fingers off so he could look at it more carefully. Like someone glued your hand to it."
He lifted the sword. It felt surprisingly light. He was about to draw it from the scabbard, when Akari suddenly turned around and bowed. The abbot had entered the room.
"Your Reverence," they both exclaimed, and Hikaru attempted to scramble to his knees, but the abbot gestured at him to remain as he was.
"I see that you have recovered."
"Yes, Your Reverence."
"Do you remember what happened?"
"I was--I was playing in the river. I, um, tripped over a rock and fell. I thought I was drowning."
The abbot gave him a sharp look. "I thought you knew how to swim, Shindou."
"I do, but--" Hikaru bit his lip.
"Did you reach the bank on your own then? Did someone rescue you?"
Hikaru shook his head. "I don't remember anything after that, Your Reverence."
"I see. And what of that curious object in your hand?"
Hikaru glanced at the sword. He touched the hilt cautiously. "I don't know, Your Reverence. I think--I think I found it in the river."
"Hm. I see. That is no ordinary artifact you hold, Shindou. I suggest you hold onto it at all times."
Hikaru looked up, startled. "Yes, Your Reverence," he replied automatically.
"Well, I shall leave you to rest. Come, Fujisaki, back to your room." Akari bowed and hurriedly followed the abbot out of the room.
Hikaru stared at the sword in his hands. He turned it around and examined the strange geometric designs on the guard, the worn but polished surface of the scabbard. He took a deep breath, grasped the hilt and pulled out the blade.
"Finally," said a voice from behind him.
He jerked around. Sitting on his pillow was a young man dressed in many layers of fine-embroidered robes, with long black hair spilling over one shoulder. His face was very pale and his eyes were very dark. Hikaru gasped. "Who are you?!"
"My name is Fujiwara no Sai. That sword you're holding once belonged to me."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to take it," Hikaru babbled and held out the sword with both hands. "You can have it back."
The man laughed, a bright, light-hearted sound. "I'm afraid I can't. You see, I'm a ghost," he said and passed one incorporeal hand through the exposed blade.
Hikaru stared in astonishment. "A ghost?"
"You're taking this remarkably calmly. Much more calmly than Torajirou, I must say."
The man, or rather, ghost laughed again. "Yes, a ghost. I killed myself with that blade on the banks of the river where you nearly drowned over a thousand years ago."
Hikaru could only stare at him mutely with incredulous eyes.
"Let's begin again. My name is Fujiwara no Sai, and despite my very real and very painful death many centuries ago, my spirit has been tied to that blade. You, having some latent sensitivity I imagine, had the good fortune to find the sword and hence me. You can see me, but no one else can."
"I was able to possess your body when you fell unconscious at the river. Which is how you are still alive to speak to me now."
"Oh," Hikaru said again. "Um, thank you."
"You're welcome," the ghost said, smiling. "In return, will you lend me your body?"
"I don't see what the problem is," Sai, that is, the ghost, whined as he followed Hikaru around the courtyard. "I don't need it all the time. Only long enough to achieve my goal."
"Which is to defeat a monster that killed the Fourteenth Emperor. Who's to say that it won't kill me too?!"
"I don't mean to be immodest, but I had some skill when I was alive. And when Torajirou found the sword, I had another lifetime to master the art. Hikaru--"
"No, no, no," Hikaru said, sweeping around the broom with unusually savage jerks. The sword, which was strapped to his back, clanked awkwardly at his legs. He stopped and sighed with exasperation.
"But you don't understand! I was a member of the Guild of the White Chrysanthemum. I disgraced myself when I failed to defend His Imperial Highness, I dishonored the Guild and the sword I carried. I committed suicide in despair, but my spirit could not rest. There is a balance to the universe, Hikaru, and I must serve it before I can--"
"The White Chrysanthemum is a legend, and there are no monsters, at least not anymore." Hikaru resumed his sweeping.
"You must be mistaken. Why, at the river--" A sudden scream interrupted Sai's litany.
"That sounds like--Akari!" Hikaru dropped the broom and started running. The sword banged uncomfortably against his legs.
Sai frowned in concentration and then called out to Hikaru, "To your left!"
Hikaru reached the source of the scream and came to an abrupt halt. Akari had one leg trapped in a sort of muddy whirlpool in the middle of the ground. It seemed to ooze and swirl and suck, as Akari attempted to scramble away and drag her foot out. But every struggle only pulled her closer to the strange vortex.
"Akari, don't move! You're making it worse!"
She looked up, with an expression so frantic that she seemed unable to recognize him. "Help me! Get it off! It's trying to pull me under!"
"Calm down," he shouted at her, although his own hands were shaking. He looked around frantically. There was no one in sight. He began unstrapping the sword from his back.
"Hikaru," Sai said quietly.
"Not now, Sai."
"Hikaru, I know how to fight this thing. You don't. If you let me take control, for just ten minutes, I can--"
"No, shut up, I'm not letting you possess me. If you don't be quiet, I'm going to go to the abbot and ask for an exorcism," Hikaru said savagely as he yanked at the sword. He held out one end of the scabbard to Akari. "Here, hold onto this."
She gripped the scabbard tightly, but when Hikaru tried to pull, her hands slid against its polished surface.
Hikaru stamped his foot in frustration. "Stupid thing. Stupid ghost."
"Help me," Akari cried, her face red and swollen.
At that very moment, someone sped past him in a blur and shouted, "By moon and water, I command you to take human form!"
The whirlpool in the ground stopped spinning and began to bubble. Akari freed her leg from the mud and scrambled away as quickly as she could. Hikaru stared at the boy who was now pointing a sword at the humanoid figure that was beginning to coalesce from the earth.
"Will you do me the honor of fighting me?" the boy asked politely.
The creature slowly finished taking shape, and a long spear appeared in its hands. It took a step back and held the spear aloft.
The boy bowed. He lifted his sword above his head. The creature feinted, and the boy stepped back, then brought his sword down in a swift, elegant strike. It missed his opponent, but he let the sword glide down and back up in a smooth circle, parrying another thrust of the spear and flicking it to the side. Before the creature could move, he leaped forward, and thrust his sword into its throat. It stepped back, staggered, and then disintegrated into dust.
The boy sheathed his sword and bent over, to catch his breath. Hikaru noticed that his hands were red and blistered and that his robes were drenched in sweat.
"Uh, excuse me," Hikaru said, but the boy did not seem to hear. Instead, he straightened, nodded curtly at Hikaru and Akari, and walked away without a word.
"Look," Sai exclaimed suddenly, "he's associated with the Guild!"
"What? How can you tell?" Hikaru asked.
"He sealed it with a chrysanthemum," said Sai, pointing at the ground, where indeed there was a small, many-petaled white flower.
Hikaru stared at the direction in which the boy had disappeared. "Oh."
Later that day, after he had helped a shaking Akari walk back to the temple, where she told her story again and again to unbelieving ears, he sat down in his room and placed the sword on the ground in front of him. He studied it intently for a long moment.
"Sai," he said finally.
"Can you teach me to do that? To be like that boy?"
"You want to learn the sword?" Sai asked in delighted surprise.
"Yes. You can possess my body, if you want. Just teach me how to move like that." Hikaru met Sai's eyes squarely with a determined set to his chin.
The ghost seemed taken aback, but replied, "Of course."
"Thank you." He carefully placed the sword by the side of his bed.
"It isn't easy, you know."
"Do you still want to learn?"
"I would do anything," Hikaru said quietly, "if it meant that I could shine like that."
"Ah. I see. Then I will teach you."