The evening meal, as it turned out, was less a somber affair than Ko would’ve thought; the monks were smiling, even chatty, after grace was said.
They passed the plates along with good natured jokes about round stomachs and big appetites.
The servants, probably neophytes, hung around behind the monks, waiting with refills, smiles of amusement on their faces; Ko took notice of that too, and thought it a good thing they weren’t being reprimanded.
She sat next to Koji, who did have a round stomach and big appetite, and didn’t seem to care what the others thought of it, and he served her from the platters of food that came his way.
Her stomach growled, and she had to force herself to exercise control.
The scents of the cooking here were different, more smoky and pungent; in her home it had always been tangy, with some sort of orange spice her mother liked to use. It was peasant fare to be sure, but it was filling, and Ko couldn’t remember ever going to bed hungry.
Her diet had consisted largely of fish and the things that preyed on fish; her mother grew her own vegetables, and was fast in the kitchen after long years of arduous experience in her own mother’s small kitchen.
But the monks here seemed to eat well, despite the seeming indolence of their calling.
She noticed Akira watching her, and gave him a small smile to assure him she knew what was going to happen, and she was prepared: he was ready to introduce her to the rest of the monks.
The servants cleared away the dishes and utensils, and Akira stood and signaled for silence, which came as abruptly as the chatter had after grace.
“Brothers, I have news.”
They gave him their full attention.
“We have, in our midst, a young lady that we have taken from her homeland, and her parents’ side, to train in the path of Rei, thunder and lightning, for reasons she does not, as yet, know, but will in time.
“Brothers, I give you Ko of Iwai.”
Ko stood, stepped back from the table, and bowed low.
Murmurs of approval at her manners and training buzzed briefly through the assembly, and when Ko straightened, Akira had sat down, and they were all watching her.
A thrill of nervousness coursed through her, as her eyes fastened on the man at the head of the table, the one whose eyes now bore into her as if they would have her soul or know the reason.
He was tall and broad, with a silver mane and full whiskers, luxurious and immaculate, handsome in a long, dark blue hakama with a white wolf head sewn over his heart.
“Welcome, Ko, to Dosojin Monastery.”
Ko thought his eyes could pierce granite, but she decided not to be cowed; it wasn’t an easy decision, since she couldn’t stop her knees from shaking.
“Welcome? It was not my choosing; my father sold me for reasons I don’t know. Akira has tried his best, but to be honest, elder, I am not a little angry.”
The table buzzed again at her forthrightness.
“I know that I’m here because you feel you need me; how I can deliver you from whatever it is men such as yourselves are threatened by, you will have to reveal to me sooner rather than later.
“For all that I’ve been kidnapped, since I cannot return to Iwai, it seems I must do what I can.
She turned to Brother Koji.
“Thank you, Brother Koji, for taking care of me. If you will excuse me, Brothers, I slept through most of the afternoon, and I need to make a list of belongings that I, as a female, will need.”
Hakurou and Akira remained expressionless, but the looks around the table ranged from surprised affront to amusement.
“May I be excused, elder?”
“You may, Leiko.”
“With respect, my name is Ko, elder.”
“I am changing it for the duration of your time here; you are Leiko now.”
She seethed, but bowed in resigned acquiescence.
She left, her mind swirling with emotions: surprise at her boldness, bordering on disrespect, and a slight flush of pleasure at the reaction she got.
Her name, Ko, meant dutiful daughter.
The name he’d given to her, loosely translated, meant ‘sarcastic one.’
Given her behavior, she supposed she earned it.
She was smiling in spite of herself.
Leiko. Thunder and lightning indeed.
Hakurou roared with laughter, and the monks themselves, not quite knowing what to make of things, laughed too, albeit nervously.
“Akira,” he sputtered, “you’ve grabbed a tigress by the tail.”
“It would seem so. I will go speak with her.”
Hakurou waved his hand. “Bah, leave her be. She said nothing untrue, and slighted no brothers. Think on it a moment, and if what happened to her happened to you,” he looked around the table, “any one of you, you’d be inclined to be ill-mannered too.
“Send for a village girl to get the supplies our female will need.”
He sat down, the gaiety leaving his eyes, and as he regained his breath, he addressed them.
“The threat from across the sea grows, gentlemen. The witches play their pipes, and light their fires, and mate to sacrifice the offspring, and the isle mist has a scarlet cast to it, and it is darkening despite the resplendent dawns we enjoy here.
“It is a real and distinct possibility that they could be lost to sight, if the mist gets thick and dark enough.
“I know they’re beginning to conscript an army, wielders of steel, to slay us outright, so their magic can be saved for the extraction of their treasures from our soil.
“You know the history of our battle, and our victory came dear.
“Now we have a weapon, one girl against an army, and the path of Rei has been forbidden us for centuries, if not millennia. It is a dark and terrible practice, but we have weakened ourselves, and there is no time for us to catch up to them.
“We needed a woman to fight against women, for a man trained in the way of Rei will not be effective. The battle is aligned by gender; male for male, female for female.
“This is the way the Rei have always done it.
“Leiko is that weapon. Her feistiness could prove to be a two-edged sword.”
He cast a sidelong glance at Akira, and grinned, briefly, “Akira, I trust that you are up to the task.”
There was light laughter.
Akira didn’t share in it, only nodded.
Brother Koji spoke. “As her attendant, I too, will do what I can to aid Akira.”
“Thank you, Brother,” Akira said.
“Yes, Koji, that would be appreciated,” Hakurou said.
“Hakurou?” one of the other monks asked, “If she invokes Rei, will it not destroy us too?”
“It could. But we have ever known that it is better for both to die, than for one to be unleashed, unchecked, across the world.
“In the taking of their lives, we may be sacrificing our own; the path of Rei has been untrammeled for longer than men can remember, and in its dormancy, it gathers power.”
He leaned forward across the table and looked at each man until they were newly focused on him.
“That means that when she destroys the island, it may be too much for her to control, and we will die as well in the ensuing destruction, by tsunami, by earthquake, by fire, and there will be no escape.”
He sat back.
“Consider carefully what lies ahead, and if any one of you wishes to leave, see me no later than midnight tonight, and be on your way by first light.
“Leiko’s training starts tomorrow.”