Chapter 38:

A Memory of Happier Times

A Tour of the World Between Worlds


A voice spoke through darkness. It was strong but with gentle tones that would make it suitable for reading aloud. “Kiko.” Again, the voice said my name. I groaned and slowly sat up. My eyes flicked open, and I took in the scene.

I lay in a patch of green grass under a beautiful blooming cherry blossom. The pink contrasted intensely with a clear blue sky, and a gentle breeze created a soft rustle. I gawked at the beauty before it occurred to me that someone had been talking.

My hands wrapped around the handles of my daggers as my head snapped to the source of the words.

Emperor Akimitsu stood before me with a grin stretched from ear to ear.

“Awake now, I see?” he said as he tried to suppress a slight chuckle. “You looked so photogenic; I almost had a royal painter run out to capture the scene.”

I frowned and brushed my black clothes off as I stood up.

“I find your humor to be unpleasant, Your Majesty.” My tone should have contained a hiss, but the emperor either didn’t notice or didn’t care. He simply laughed infectiously. My face remained stone cold; it was a good thing my training prepared me for encountering all kinds of toxins and diseases.

The once boy emperor had grown into a fully-fledged man over the last couple of years. His face had become slender, and his frame wider so rapidly that I could hardly imagine he was the same boy I knew when I first arrived. Still, his carefree attitude was the one thing that never changed and the one thing I couldn’t stand.

“Come, Kiko! We have to prepare for the visit!” he said as he walked away. I had to dart across the grass before letting him get too far. The emperor tended to walk around alone; he was confident in his own, admittedly impressive, strength.

“Your Majesty, you should not be walking around without a guard, especially with our neighbors coming to visit,” I sharply stated. The nation to the north of us had agreed to a peace settlement after two years of war.

“Not to worry! I have you here after all,” Emperor Akimitsu replied with a trusting smile. It was the type of expression that stabbed more than any knife could—considering that my mother was getting close to ordering his assassination.

“With all due respect, I was asle– on a break moments ago.”

“I know; I had no idea that your face could look so peaceful!”

One of my daggers slid from its sheath, and the point pressed close to the emperor's neck. He did not slow down his pace but only laughed at my aggression. I clicked my tongue and put the blade back.

Initially, I figured it was best to let the emperor get used to my blade being close to him; the assassination could come easier if needed. From the outset, however, not only was he unfazed, but he seemed to find the whole thing amusing. A year after we first met, he gave me two larger blades to use primarily, possibly as a joke, for all my threats. At this point, I could not be sure if my continued aggression was conditioning or from a desire to throw him off at least once in his life. The emperor always seemed to have his head in the clouds, like he was in another world, and any threats to his life were mere amusements to pass the time.

“I would ask that you scrub that image from your mind immediately.”

“Oh no, you need to face the consequences of sleeping out in the open,” he replied with a smile.

“From this day forward, I will not rest in front of another person.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Emperor Akimitsu chuckled as he reached the castle door. It was a small building near the border for meetings like the one we waited for, hardly anything when comparing it to the massive palace we normally resided in. “Then, after the peace talks, would you be willing to sit under the tree again? I really think a painter would capture something beautiful!”

I rolled my eyes as I watched the doors suddenly flung open.

“My liege, where have you been?” a guard asked through heavy breaths. He was clearly the one who was supposed to walk around with the emperor.

“Oh, here and there, and I found Kiko too!”

“My apologies Miss Kiko! He was gone before I knew it- and- and….”

I held a hand so the guard knew he should quiet down, and he immediately clammed up.

“I understand how slippery our Emperor can be; please be more attentive the next time.”

Somehow, I had become the head of all the royal guards. It was not official, but everyone seemed to agree unanimously I was the only one who could keep up with Emperor Akimitsu. It was a bit annoying, but it did let me keep good tabs on him—for the most part. The guard was relieved by my words and saluted us as we walked through.

Inside the castle, a table had been set up for us to discuss. Standing next to it, in bulky armor, stood the samurai Nobuyuki. As always, he wore an Oni mask with a smiling face. Though I had known him my whole life, I had never seen what lay underneath.

The Oni samurai slid a massive sword on his back as we approached; he had a habit of cleaning it to pass the time.

“Your Majesty! We were waiting for you!” he cried as he finished fitting the sword into its sheath.

“Apologies, Nobuyuki. Kiko wanted to go on a scenic walk!”

“I did nothing of the sort,” I replied dryly.

Nobuyuki sighed and shook his head. His hand scratched on the forehead of his mask.

“Let’s just get back on track.”

“Right!” Emperor Akimitsu chirped. “They should be here in several hours. We will set up the table on the west side, by the cliff where we can overlook the forest, and Nobuyuki will stand behind me. Kiko will hide in the cherry blossom trees, and everyone else will remain by the castle walls.”

With his words alone, it would be possible to believe that the emperor was serious, if only for a small moment, but his intonation and expression displayed a carefree attitude. It was as if nothing could go wrong in his eyes.

“One problem,” I objected. “They will be able to see me in the tree.” My black armor did little to help hide in a pink tree against a blue backdrop.

If it was possible for his smile to get wider, I think it might have. He was waiting for me to say something like that—I had walked into a trap.

From under the table, Emperor Akimitsu pulled out a box that had been wrapped with paper. He held it to me. Usually, I would have refused with the claim that it might be a bomb, but such excuses didn’t work on him.

I accepted and opened the package. A beautiful cherry blossom patterned kimono greeted me. I sighed.

“It’s the perfect camouflage for hiding!” the Emperor said.

I shook my head and began to wrap the clothes around me; putting it on properly would take some time, so I settled for simply draping it over my shoulder and putting my arms through the sleeves. The words ‘how is it’ might have been appropriate, but I resisted saying them. There was no need.

“It’s lovely,” Nobuyuki said. I’d like to have imagined there was a smile that matched the one on his mask, but the cover made it impossible to tell. Given his comments, I suspect he gave some input on the new clothes. I sighed. The samurai was always one to treat me like a child.

“Indeed! The color looks great! Maybe we should call you Pinky from now on!” Emperor Akimitsu added.

If we didn’t have anyone else around, I might have threatened him with my daggers, but I resisted the urge and simply looked away.

He began to cover what would be discussed for the coming meeting. I zoned it out; I didn’t need to know anything about the political details; this discussion was doomed to fail anyway. Mother had made sure that nothing the emperor said would be of concern to the neighbors.

Once our meeting was over, I slipped to the side and began to properly put the kimono on over my black armor. As I fastened the cloth, Nobuyuki came over to me.

“If this peace talk doesn’t go the way we would like, I fear the young emperor’s life will be in danger,” he whispered.

“Not to worry, Mother has already seen to everything,” I replied in an equally hushed tone.

“The mistress may be underestimating his abilities...” Nobuyuki paused a moment to give me a chance to reply. When I didn’t, he sighed. “If the time of his death comes, I will take care of it. No need for you….”

“Are you doubting my ability?” my voice was hushed but stern.

“Not at all.”

“Mother entrusted me with this mission.”

Nobuyuki sighed.

“You don’t yet know the pain of killing someone you’ve spent years with. I’d rather you never have to. Leave it to me.”

The masked samurai didn’t wait around for my reply. He walked to some other guards and began to make small talk. I was impressed at how quickly he could switch from a hardened killer to a friendly companion.

I sighed. He technically was my superior, but he must be going senile as he aged. I would have to express some concerns in my next report.

The emperor called my from name across the room, and I followed him out the door. Then, everything went black. My eyes slowly opened and focused on the grey roof of my cabin.