The Reverse Side Also Has a Reverse Side

Characters: Klevetati Yoshino

Yoshino stepped into her quarters with her thoughts far away on the planet below. In a few hours, she would be going back down there, to meet a man she hadn’t seen in years.

A smith specializing in antique-type weapons, Yoshino was certain it was he who had made the blowgun darts the Llort had been killed for. In the past, he had done work for Yoshino’s old yakuza clan. How he had come to be on Abbai was still a mystery, one she hoped he would solve.

“I will answer anything you ask of me, Yoshino-san,” he’d told her over the com. “But you must grant me one request in return.”

“I will try. What is your request?”

“Bring your swords with you, and let me look at them. For that, I will tell you everything.”

More than a little bemused, Yoshino had agreed, and set up a meeting. She was still trying to understand why the weaponsmith would risk his life simply to see her swords. They were antiques, to be sure, but surely not worth getting his skull smashed in, if the ones he’d made the darts for found out he’d talked to the Anla-shok.

Yoshino startled as the door closed, and she saw a man playing with her cats. Then she startled again — there were two cats there. Joining Kuri at the game of chase-the-feather was a big black bobtailed cat, whose golden eyes flashed as he beat Kuri to a leap. Yoshino recognized him at once.

“Kumo,” she murmured, even as she looked slowly up to take in the man holding the feathers, and felt her jaw drop open completely.

“Isamu-sama,” she finally managed to whisper as she slipped to her knees and bowed, her head brushing the floor.

“Oh please,” he said, “that’s not necessary.” When Yoshino didn’t move, he knelt and lifted her shoulder, drawing her head up with it. “You’ve never had to do that before,” he said. “Not with me.”

“I’ve never … met a shiryo before,” she answered. It wasn’t seemly to be staring into his face, but now Yoshino couldn’t look away.

His dark eyes, set deep and lined with wrinkles from a lifetime’s peering at fine detail, twinkled. “I’m not a ghost.”

“But you’re dead. What else can you be?”

He returned the peacock feathers to their place above the door, then came back to Yoshino, sitting easily on his heels. She sat facing him. “I don’t know exactly what to call it,” he said. “It’s true I’m dead, but I haven’t been haunting anybody. I came back for you. I was lucky — Kumo could come with me. He’s missed you too, Marina-chan.”

“I changed my name,” Yoshino said automatically, reaching out to stroke Kumo’s thick sable fur. He purred loudly.

“What does ‘Klevetati’ mean, anyway? It’s not Japanese.”

“It’s Croatian. It means to slander, to destroy with words.”

Isamu Miyazaki sighed, untying and retying the knot of his long greying hair as he thought. Yoshino watched him in silence. “Ah Marina,” he said at last. “How can you do that to yourself?”

“I don’t understand.”

He peered into her eyes. Yoshino remembered the look well — it gazed down deep, as if Isamu wanted to extract some unspoken truth from her soul before rendering it in ink under her skin. A ripple of long-forgotten pain flowed across one shoulder. Finally, he spoke again.

“You ran away, and that was both understandable and necessary. You’d be as dead as I, otherwise. Even changing your name is understandable. But to give yourself a name like that — why remind yourself constantly of what you’ve run from?” He leaned forward and caught up her left hand, holding it up so she could see the maimed finger. “Isn’t that reminder enough?”

She looked away, refusing to answer. “Why did you come back for me? I’m not worth it.”

“You are, and that’s why. There are some things you must know, and you listen to me. Most of the time, anyway.”

Yoshino flushed, and Miyazaki lowered his head. “Forgive me, I’m being rude,” he said. “There isn’t much time, but while we talk, I can give you something to remember me by. Have you an ink stone and some antiseptic?”

Yoshino nodded, going wordlessly to fetch them as Miyazaki settled himself comfortably on the mat. “Where did these come from?”

“The Minbari. They seem to like such things. Simple but functional.”

“How civilized,” he mused. “I missed being able to go into space. It’s a pity. I think I would have liked it.”

“You would have.” Yoshino set down the ink stone and antiseptic bottle in front of him, and went to get some cloths and water.

“Have you?”

She stopped, turning around in front of the small sink. “I –” she hesitated, finally saying, “I suppose I have.”

“It was only recently that you’ve begun to figure out why you’re here at all, wasn’t it?”

She flushed, coming back to him and sitting down slowly. “Yes,” she said. Even dead, Miyazaki knew her better than anyone else had ever done.

“It always did take you a while to figure things out,” he said, frowning. “Too long, often as not. Usually because you were too busy feeling sorry for yourself to think for yourself.”

“Please, don’t start –”

“Don’t start the old tirade?” he said, his dark eyes boring deep into her heart. “Like I always did when I warned you about joining the yakuza?”

“Yes,” she said, using all her will to keep her shoulders down and her head up. Her decision to join the clan had been the only wedge between them — but it had been sufficient to drive them apart, never to see each other again while Isamu was alive. “What’s done is done, there’s no point in fighting over it now.”

“But if you hadn’t joined those fools, you’d still have all your fingers. You’d still have your dignity. And I would still be alive.”

Yoshino’s eyes narrowed and she drew in a breath through flared nostrils. “That’s not true, and you know it. I made my choices, and I’ll live with them. I’ll pay my debts. But what happened to you had nothing to do with me. No one — not even you, sensei — is going to tell me otherwise.”

To her surprise, Miyazaki laughed, leaning back on his heels and clapping his hands together like a child. “Good! Oh my dear, you can be so slow, but at last you understand. The gods be thanked.”

She didn’t feel like she understood anything. “What are you talking about?”

“I wanted to see if you really meant it, when you said you’d begun to figure out why you were here. If that was true, you would have had to learn that you can’t be held to blame for everything. And I don’t want my death on your conscience.”

“So you don’t blame me?”

“No, Marina-chan, no. As you said a moment ago, what’s done is done. And I too made my own choices.”

Yoshino blew a long breath out through her mouth, finally settling back. “You were testing me!”

“Yes.” He took the water and poured several drops onto Yoshino’s ink stone, stirring with the brush. “And you have grown, Marina-chan. This makes me very proud. When you ran away to space, I thought you might forget about me.”

“I could never forget you, Isamu-sama. I carry you with me always, how could I possibly forget?” She smiled. “They’re all very impressed, you know, those who have seen your work.”

“What have they seen?” Miyazaki took Yoshino’s left hand, turning it palm up and resting it across his knee.

She shifted slightly so that she would be able to sit comfortably without moving. “The phoenix and the dragon. And the Musashi-Yoshino tapestry.”

He smiled, and pulled a small bamboo handle from his pocket. At the end, a cluster of needles gleamed. He wiped the needles and Yoshino’s wrist with the antiseptic, then dipped the needles into the ink. “But not my Yukionna?”

Yoshino kept still with an effort, not so much from the pain of the needles piercing her skin, but from what he had said. She had to settle for a violent blush. “No,” she said after several minutes of silence. “No one has seen that since …” she let her voice trail into silence, wondering if somehow, Isamu would know.

Apparently he did, for he said a long “Ah,” before turning his attention back to Yoshino’s wrist and saying nothing more for a while.

Yoshino, for once, chose to focus on the pain. It was easier than thinking.

Then he spoke again. “Sasaki didn’t see it, you know.”

Again, Yoshino held herself still with an effort. “What?”

“He wasn’t looking at you, Marina-chan. What he wanted — what he took — had nothing to do with you, the person Marina Takezo. He cared nothing for you. So I say again, he never saw the Yukionna. Or Amaterasu-no-kami upon the other side.”

He was silent again, leaving Yoshino’s mind to absorb the thought as her body absorbed the ink. And perhaps, she considered, he was right in what he was implying — that what Sasaki had done to her body need not touch her, her inner true self. And if that was true, if she could bring herself to believe that it was true, then it was safe to leave those memories — and the fear that went with them — behind, after all.

As she continued to think, the thoughts became wordless, moving into the realm of feelings, and in time moving beyond into silence and stillness. At last she spoke, though the words sounded faint and distant at first.

“Thank you, sensei,” she said. “I feel as if I know who I truly am, for the first time.”

“Are you Marina, or are you Yoshino, then?”

“The name isn’t important,” she said.

He grinned again. “Good! That is what I had hoped you would say. Again I say, you have grown so much. I am proud of you.”

She smiled, lowering her head to bow without moving her arm. When she looked up, Miyazaki paused in his work, looking into her eyes. “There’s something else you need to know, Marina-chan.” He resumed the tattooing, faster than before. His speech came faster as well. “Sasaki’s friends weren’t as loyal to him as you thought. It wasn’t for his sake that they tried to have you killed, after you killed him.”

“What do you mean?”

“If anything, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sasaki himself had been in on the whole business … no loyalty, not even to his uncle and boss.”

“Isamu-sensei –”

“But in any case, they’ve got on your trail again. And in the end, it’s my fault for giving you the things, so I have to make amends to you somehow.”

Yoshino drew a deep breath. Isamu only took a long time to come to the point when the matter was of the greatest import. And his manner now … it was almost as if he was frightened. What could the dead possibly be frightened of?

Finally, he said, “It’s about your parting gift.”

“The swords?” Her thoughts went back to the conversation she’d had before coming back here. That too … about her swords. She felt a deep chill, and it took all her will to keep her wrist from shaking with the rest of her body. “What about them?”

“They are far, far older than I realized when I gave them to you.”

“You never told me how old they were.”

“I had thought, perhaps late Edo Era. But they are far older than that. You’ll need an expert to say for certain, but I know now they are Kamakura Era blades. Possibly made by one of the Ten Brilliant Pupils of Masamune himself.”

The chill returned, even more forcefully than before. Miyazaki released her wrist quickly as Yoshino instinctively hugged herself, heedless of the blood and ink from her wrist seeping into her clothes. The swords of the Kamakura Era, a thousand years ago and more, had been considered beyond price — cultural treasures — for over two hundred years.

She looked over at Miyazaki again, her mouth working. “You … you could tell me I’m the Empress and I’d think that was just as likely.”

“Forgive me, Marina-chan,” he said, bowing to the floor. “Forgive me my ignorance, forgive me for placing this burden upon you, and forgive me for my testing you as I have. You understand now, perhaps, why.”

“I’m still not worthy to possess a Kamakura sword.”

“You’re far more worthy than those who would try to take them from you.”

She looked over at Miyazaki, who suddenly seemed much older. Kumo came up and nudged his master’s knee with a chirp that sounded like a query. Yoshino followed with one of her own.

Sensei … what do I do now?”

“Bear them with honor, and keep them safe from those who would dishonor them. What else is there to do, Marina-chan?”

She stretched out her wrist again, letting Miyazaki take it. Before he could resume the tattooing, she asked, “That’s why you’re dead, isn’t it? They found you had the swords and killed you when they learned you gave them to me.”

He wiped the skin clean, and set back to work. “Yes.”

She was silent then, remembering meditations Miyazaki had taught her, along with the ones she’d learned on Minbar. It took all of them to calm herself and bring her mind to emptiness.

It was Miyazaki’s humming that brought her back to consciousness of her surroundings. She recognized the tune.

“I know someone else who likes the Beatles,” she said. “All kinds of music from that time.”

“Is that so,” Miyazaki said. “What’s he like?”

She hesitated for a second before answering. “How do you know it’s a man?”

“You’re blushing, Marina-chan. So unless your desire has changed to favor women, it would have to be a man, wouldn’t you say?”

Yoshino lowered her head, acknowledging defeat. She’d never yet been able to best Isamu at verbal kendo, and it looked like she’d lost this chance, too. But there was no need for regret.

“He’s very kind,” she began, “both to me and Kuri. I think he wouldn’t mind being friends, although I’ve been so … messed up, it can’t have been easy for him. Now I’m not even sure how to speak to him again without embarrassing him.”

“Maybe you can show him this, and tell him about me,” Miyazaki said, putting down the needles and wiping blood and ink from Yoshino’s wrist, then holding it in a tight squeeze to stop the bleeding. “Maybe he’ll have a story of his own to tell you.”

When he let it go, Yoshino looked down at her wrist. The picture was about the size of her palm. Rendered in heavy blacks and simple lines, it depicted a man and young woman. They both had long, wild hair, and the woman wore an ankh around her neck.

“Who are they?”

“Characters from a western manga, from about three hundred years ago,” he said. Almost inaudibly he added, “She was still so young …”

“What?”

“Never mind.” He tucked the needles back into his pocket and called to Kumo. The black cat bounded up, draping itself over his outstretched arm. “We have to go.”

“So soon?”

“It is later than you think,” he said slowly, leaning in close. “Goodbye, Marina-chan. Don’t let the swords take Sasaki’s place, keeping you alone. Don’t let me be the last to see all of you, the sun and the snow. Please.”

Softly, he kissed her, and she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, he and Kumo were gone.


Copyright (c) 2000 Jamie Lawson. All rights reserved.