Chapter 0:

I seek forgiveness

Your Heart has Meaning.

To die amidst the gorgeous blankets of softened snowfall was a pleasure. To die amidst the silence of my home however, was a curse.

Winter was often described as bearing a roar, but I witnessed its gentle nature with each emerging instance. The cold air of my room touched quietly upon my skin, as if the sting of ice begged desperately to melt my warmth away, and my lungs waited patiently for respite from the nature of the mountain peak’s thinned air.

There was no sunlight in my darkened room, the only solace away from shadow-fall being the oil lamps that burnt a passionate dull-orange within their sconces. Silhouettes would dance upon the walls, a cacophony of silent movement messing about within my mind.

Crumpled sheets of parchment littered the room around me, a product of my indecisive nature. Ink the colour of midnight had soaked deep into the silk of my robes, a stain I imagined would never remove itself.

I could not decide what it was that I wanted to stand forever as my last written word.

A brush had been held gently by my fingers, which now shook both with impatience and illness. It was impossible to tell if I could not wait to die, or if I was fearful that I had no time to finish what I had started.

Biting at my tongue, I shot down hard the uprising of my apprehensions with a suppression of emotional rifle fire, and pressed the brush against the blank parchment before me.

‘Within an endless night,
O’ stars do I beg you,
For their sake, please shine.
I cannot see you anymore.
- Baron of Lilacs.’

Glancing over the stanza, my heart felt an inconsiderable ache. It was as if a single sewing-pin had been sunk into the flesh of my muscle, reaping blood from my chest to paint my emotions a dull-crimson.

I could not tell then why I could not simply write. I could not tell then why the idea of writing my final words had choked up my heart with blinding apprehension. Even that which sat before me was a work I could not be proud of. I did not offer it the full of my effort.

At the very least, I knew the words meant something simple to me. I believed with the full of my being that everyone apart from me deserved to gaze upon gorgeous starfall. I would pass where their glistening beauty chose not to shine, under a roof in a house where the windows had been blocked by thick, inconsolable parchment. I had commanded my vassals to do so.

It was the self-imposed punishment that would ease the guilt that tore into my heart.

I stared down at the harsh, scarred palms which sat against the table before me. Each line within them had been filled with a gentle mixture of swirling sweat and ink. They were not the ideal hands of a poet, nor of a nobleman. They belonged to one who had worn endless experience upon them like shoddy jewelry.

They were hands that belonged to me alone.

I had signed my name gently upon the soft parchment with apprehension. It was one I had grown to despise. It was a name filled with a guilt that all eyes saw in me.

My gentle words had been used carelessly, and for once they had hurt someone’s heart, one that I had cared for dearly.

That was the guilt that I needed to seek punishment for.

My calloused hands fell soft against my cheeks, and I tried desperately to pull them upwards into a smile. What sat upon my face was the parallel of my heart, which had chosen to beat desperate and quick out of anxious apprehension. It looked as if I was no more than a clown within the hung mirror that stood before me, gaudy in its milky silver reflection.

The joyous expression I held back with the full of my heart had been split in two, a large crack sitting as a divide upon the mirror’s surface. I remembered then why glass shards littered the floor underneath me, carving their way deep into the soles of my feet.

I remembered why guilt had clawed its way into my heart to nest.

The door to my room slid open suddenly. Its rails which had been devoid of oil creaked loudly, bathing the once dimly-lit room in the shadow of the hall. A short boy stood before me, dressed in thick linens to spite the frost of the weather.

“It’s time, my Lord.” The boy before me spoke. “Or, rather, that is what I have been told to tell you, but I have not been told where you’re going…”

He looked no older than thirteen, his long and curled hair falling past his paled cheeks.

“Far, most likely.” I spoke softly in response as I turned towards him.

A child should have been playing outside at his age, and yet he was spending his days working inside my estate. Despite the portraiture of his expression, he was a blankened face to me. He was someone I could not recognise.

“Why are you in my service, boy?” I spoke softly towards him. “I have forgotten already, I must apologise...”

“I offered the knowledge that my mother had grown ill after you asked of her well-being, and you offered me this position in order to make money to help her, my Lord.” The boy smiled. “You would not simply offer me the money. You gave me and my family face by allowing me to work for it. That was your kindness in that day.”

My expression turned towards surprise in that moment. More and more had I begun to forget names, faces, and memories as a whole. I had been left to paint a picture of myself through the words given to me by those around me. Without the mirror that sat before me, too had my own face begun to turn blank.

“I see...” I laughed softly in return. “Inform one of my Vassals. You are to be paid to play from this point forward. Spend your time in the sun, and make happy memories from now on.”

“But-” The boy tried to protest. “My Lord-”

I simply shook my head in response, the truth of a gleaming smile apparent on my face.

“These are my orders, boy.” I grinned softly. “You wouldn’t want to disappoint me, would you?”

“No Lord.” The boy spoke, trying desperately to wash over his joy with a reserved calm and respectful expression. “Thank you, my Lord.”

I looked back towards my hands, which held various rings upon them to disguise their calloused nature. Gold, silver, and countless jewels encrusted the bare flesh of my fingers. It was all an attempt to hide the effort of my life that wasn’t befitting of a nobleman.

As I slipped a singular ring off of my hand, I didn’t feel as bare as I thought I would.

“Here, take this along with you.” I smiled, extending that same unmasked hand.

He took the ring from my grasp with an expression of awe on his face. It was bright-silver in its hue, with ornate etchings carved away from its pearled surface.

“You would give me your seal?” He asked of me with widened eyes.

“How else will the bank know you speak the truth, when I’m away without words to speak for you?” I winked.

“Thank you, my Lord.” He spoke ferverently. “I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay your kindness…”

While speaking, his tiny little head that had been washed over with long light-brown hair fell towards the ground as he bowed.

“Now go, run along, and only move forward on this path I have paved for you.” I smiled.

As soon as the boy had stepped out of my room, a man of taller stature walked through the doorway to take his place. He wore a happi over his outfit, one that bore the similarly pearled crest of my family’s name. His face was clean-shaven, and his hair was cut short to avoid the sweat of an emerging summer.

“What is your name again?” I asked him kindly.

“My family’s byname is Shirakawa, Lord.”

My eyes widened upon his words, for it was a name I knew well. All that I could manage to etch permanently within my mind had been singular words. It was the same in that moment’s fashion.

“Shirakawa? Is your family from the Hida Province?” I asked of him once again with an excited smile upon my face.

“Yes, my Lord.”

“I would travel there many times as a child. Its distance from the capital helped me and my parents greatly in escaping dishonour... the way the grass would wave gently underneath such a prim moon, I cannot believe anyone would wish to live elsewhere.” I smiled as if reminiscing fading memories that had long since passed me by. “I wonder... why are you so far from your home village?”

“I know, my lord. I work here to send money back home to my family, Lord. Your graciousness has saved the welfare of my wife and children many times.”

“I see.” I spoke simply in response. “I’m glad you’re able to do so, my friend.”

“As you’ve said before, almost every time we’ve had this conversation.”

The expression on his face was gentle. He was like an oak tree who had chosen to sprout from the floor, and offer his peaceful rain of petals underneath the height of the room’s roof.

I let out a sigh, my gaze unfocused and mellow.

I could not distract the endless tremor of my hands for even a moment. My mind felt hazy, as if a blanketed fog sat over the near-whole of my memories. Only in fragments could I begin to recall them, like an image in a shattered mirror. I had never been good at remembering things, more so in my ill, fatigued state.

I lifted my arm towards Shirakawa, and he took it gently in turn. To need assistance to make simple steps, I wondered then if my heart shared some room for bitterness in that regard. Unwashed and bloodied footprints littered the floor around me, apparent under the dull glow of the lamplight. It did not matter if it was cleaned, not truly.

It was a remembrance I chose to keep of the singular instance where I had forgotten the withdrawal of my emotion, and acted purely out of desperation.

“I’ve followed alongside you for a time, my Lord, even if you don’t remember as such. I’ve done many things for you, for they were all born of your heart’s kindness. But to stand by and act as witness, will you really ask this of me…?

“Are you unwilling to?” I asked of him. “Then, you are free to stay in this room, where the silence is unending and the floor is stained vermilion.”

My tone was bitter, and my words were harsh. I could only bite at my lip, and speak my words without thought.

“Do you really want to do this, my Lord…?”

“I want to do this.” I snapped at him suddenly.

I could feel the poison that lurked in my irises. It was a nauseating, burning pain underneath my eyes that threatened to never cease. Realising it, I forced calm into my gaze that felt red-hot.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that…”

“You’ve said that much too.” Shirakawa smiled. “And time and time again, I will always forgive you, my Lord.”

“It pleases me to know that I won’t have to carry that worry in my heart, then.” I joked.

“I know you will anyway.”

As I was practically carried through the halls of the estate that was bound to my family’s name, it all seemed to glimmer in a new light. Portraits of faces I had once considered a treasure were now wholly unfamiliar to me. I had been cursed. Moreover, in unison they seemed to mock me. Their hazy smiles twisted upwards into grins, and their eyes held callousness as they met my gaze.

I let out a soft sigh, and chose to counter the mood of the hall with a gentle smile.

Taking simple and fatigued steps through the silent halls of my estate, I knew well that this was a place I did not want to die within. I thought that was what made it all the more fitting.

I eventually came to a room that bore a deafening solemnity, sliding open the door that sat quietly against the patterned wall. It was the space where I would greet my final moments. A tantō sat apparent upon a table, having been wrapped around the blade in a white cloth. Too was my attire a blinding pearl colour, a white kimono — the Shiro-shōzoku.

Shirakawa stood like an unfelled oak beside me as I knelt down in front of the blade that had been set softly. My expression was gentle before the folded steel of the weapon, for I knew it had been sharpened as a friend to ease the pain.

“The Kaishakunin is here.” Shirakawa spoke simply, judgment lacking within his tone. “Once more, no one would fault you if you didn’t go through with this, my Lord.”

“I would fault myself if I didn’t go through with it.”

I let out a large sigh, trying desperately to do away with the aching of my chest. I could not tell if it was simple fear, or if my heart had grown ill alongside my mind.

“We will forgo the Jisei, the death poem.” I spoke softly. “I have already written my final work. I do not need to reminisce on this life that I have spent well.”

Staring up at the ceiling that did not bear the stars, I could feel my heart grow a little disappointed. Within the face of my own self-imposed punishment, I began to yearn for a glimmering night sky. I let out a sigh, and focused my gaze forward.

Lightly, like tapping rain against a rooftop, my heart had begun to flutter apprehensively. I knew then that if I started to reminisce, I would feel too anxious to continue.

“I wonder... where will my spirit be carried?”

Amidst my thoughts, the sliding door resounded with a dissonant creaking sound. A quiet figure stepped inside the room with footwork that echoed like the silent harmony of a faded spring wind. She was someone I had come to know well through the tales of her courage.

“Ah, so you will act as Kaishakunin?” I spoke with a smile, my gaze meeting a woman who stood as tall as me.

She had long black hair that she had tied behind her head. Her eyes were as dark as her silken kimono, which had been shaded like midnight to avoid the splashes of ruby-red that her blade would soon spill. Her gaze was simple and fair, matching a solemn and quieted expression that sat upon her face.

She was the twin-soul of her own portraiture, for she bore resemblance to the words of a tale bound to her.

“You traveled all the way from Gunma Prefecture, didn’t you?” I spoke, turning towards her. “Ms. Nakazawa Koto.”

“The travel from my hometown to the capital is not far, at least not by horse.” She replied simply, shaking her head.

Despite her age, her skin had not wilted, and she stood as fresh as a flower that had only just bloomed.

“Why did you come here?” I asked her. “You had not a need to travel so far at your age.”

“My days of wielding my blade to shed blood have long since faded. For you however, I have chosen to engrave my palms with the feeling of its hilt again.” Nakazawa replied.

“Why do so much for my sake?”

“Even with my days having been filled with kenbu, my sword dances, I have noticed that my aged muscles have begun to creak under the weight of movement. Even though my aesthetic has not grown old, it has not been the same for my body.” She spoke softly, gazing upon me with a hurt expression. “Drinking and reciting poetry has been my only pleasure within these times. Your kind words fit the snowy mountainscape best, Baron of Lilacs.”

“Then this is why you have traveled so far?”

“If it is to be anyone, then it is my hands that will offer you peace. Your words will have healed my old heart for a final time.” Nakazawa sighed.

She stepped closer toward me, her hand resting upon the hilt of her sheathed blade. Kneeling down to meet my gaze, she placed a wrinkled, calloused hand upon my softened cheek.

“To be so young, yet have your mind stand this steeled within the face of death... the will you hold is stronger than mine will ever hope to be.“ She said with a gentle smile. “If only you had been more skilled with the blade. Perhaps then I would have fallen in love with you.”

She was wrong. It only looked as if I was strong upon the surface. Within my heart, I was truly terrified. Yet, I still chose to smile despite that.

“I have grown ill. I would have died soon anyway. I cannot hold a sword in the same way that I can no longer wield a pen…” I spoke softly. “Do you think this detracts from my courage?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“Will you grieve for me?” I smiled. “It would be nice to know that someone has promised to do so.”

“I will not grieve you.” She spoke in turn, a fabricated stillness holding her voice afloat. “I will not cry for you.”

“Your eyes do not hold the same truthfulness as your tone.” I laughed softly. “Perhaps I will miss you most of all, Miss Nakazawa.”

“Despite this being our first meeting?”

“Despite it being our first meeting, you have made it a foremost happy memory.” I spoke, resigning myself to my final words. “Thank you.”

The Kaishakunin nodded, a gesture of her confirmed readiness. My vassal Shirakawa was present, which meant that I no longer needed to hesitate. I lifted up a thin-lipped vessel filled with a warm, clear liquid. It was the Sake I had never treasured. I too, handed one to Nakazawa, who had not yet unsheathed her weapon. With a final warmth in my eyes upon drinking the liquor, I felt calm within the chilled room around me.

“Let’s proceed.” I spoke softly, placing the cup down on the table, and grasping upon the wrapped length of the tantō set before me.

I settled my aching heart and spoke firmly, lifting the blade towards my exposed abdomen. My hands quivered against the steel, in a way that I could not tell if the shaking was borne of fear, or of my illness.

In parallel, Nazakawa unsheathed and raised her sword. Amidst my last breath, I realised then that the true final words of a poet would be reserved for my selfish disposition, and I couldn’t help but smile.

“With this, can I finally escape my own heart?”

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