Mistress of the Ishi School of Archery
Bright sunshine poured down on the archery range. The sweet scent of flowering trees filled the air, the blossoms just starting to fall -- scattering a last snow before the green of mid spring overcame the island Kingdom of the Dawning Sun.
Among the white flowers were a rainbow of parasols and canopies shielding spectators, come to the Ishi School to watch an archery competition.
Every spring, archers at the School and from the countryside around competed to show their prowess. Traditionally, the mistress of the school won -- so that the winner of the competition and the mistress of the school were synonymous positions. Most attributed this to both Lady Yuna’s great prowess and to the exceptional loyalty of the Ishi School students -- who would not defeat their mistress in front of an audience, especially the noble Lord Oshiro Akio.
Neither explanation was correct.
Nearby, and watching Lady Yuna prepare for this competition -- which was not really a competition -- the young archer Katsume adjusted the fit of the guard on her fingers. Her hair was done up carefully with a simple chrysanthemum comb, and her robes were not so fine as the noble women who were students. She was dressed like the commoners come to join in the first few rounds, before their betters beat them. Standing with Katsume was Tokuma, a slim young man in an indigo and white robe. He was a noble, and no archer, but he stood as close as he properly could to Katsume and followed her gaze.
“Is that the bow?” asked Tokuma.
“It is,” said Katsume.
Tokuma clicked his tongue.
“Bold,” he said, critical.
“Boldness has served her well,” said Katsume, demuring.
The bow that Lady Yuna used was made of polished black wood, enchanted so that it would never miss. A decade before she’d used it to win this very competition -- and the honor of leading the archery school.
Tokoma turned his attention to Katsume, admiring her as subtly as he could.
“I’m looking forward to seeing you do well,” he said.
Katsume allowed herself a small smile.
“Are you?” she asked. Playful, she didn’t look at him. The longer she didn’t look, the longer he could watch her without being embarrassed. Besides which, she didn’t need her own eyes in order to see him. She knew the expression she’d see in his face. Knew his eyes would follow her hands as she checked to make sure no stray hair escaped its twist. Knew he’d already noticed that she’d fixed that twist in place with the comb he’d given her at the autumn equinox. Knew that the longer she kept her attention elsewhere, the longer the moment would last.
“I’m the only one who knows what a performance we will have today,” said Tokuma.
“Let us hope so,” she said, keeping her eyes downcast and proper. She looked the part of a country girl, all signs of her years spent in Lord Oshiro’s archery corps carefully hidden.
“Your mother would be proud,” said Tokuma.
“Not yet,” said Katsume, glancing over to Lady Yuna. “But soon enough.”
The archers began to step up to the line, ready to take the first shots of the day. Now Katsume looked at Tokuma. She wished she could kiss him -- but it would be highly improper here, scandalous given their disparate ranks. And it would draw far too much attention to her too early.
He looked away first, a touch of color in his cheeks, his mind clearly on a similar subject. He touched her hand lightly.
“Do your best today, Katsume,” he said. “Please.”
They stood frozen for a second. Such a small request. Simple, compared to the hundreds of requests unspoken between them.
“I will,” she said, startled by how much it meant to say so aloud.
Tokuma released her hand and walked to the spectors, taking a place in the crowd near Lord Oshiro and resettling his gaze on Katsume. If he could have kept from blinking, he would have done so.
Surrounded by retainers, and shielded by an awning, Lord Oshiro Akio prepared to open the day. He wore red and gold, and his handsome face was framed by straight black hair. At his nod, an attendant raised their hands for silence. When all was quiet on the grounds and all eyes were on Oshiro, the lord clapped his big hands together once.
The archers responded with a short sharp shout and deep bows in his direction. He barked, “Begin!” and the marshals for the day took over. In moments, the first arrows flew -- feathers flashing white as the flowers in the spring sunshine.
Katsume released her missile with an exhale, her arrow easily flying true -- finding the center of the target. Her form was precise, exactly the way her mother had taught her the art of the bow.
Lazily, Lady Yuna made her first shot, a satisfied smile twisting her lips. So easy for her.
Beside Katsume, a younger girl was shaking -- nervous about competing in front of so many people and in front of Lord Oshiro. As her arrow jittered away from its place against the bow, Katsume whispered: “Take a breath, and hold it.”
The girl obeyed, focusing on her breathing so that her hands could obey their training without the interference of her mind. She fired her arrow, coming close to the black dot in the center of her target. Katsume gave her a small nod of encouragement and was rewarded by a fragile, surprised smile.
The competition continued -- arrows flew and the marshals inspected the targets to see just how close the archers had gotten to the center of the target. Soon, the younger girls and newer archers left the line, leaving behind the best students of the School, a few highborn ladies. And Katsume.
She stood out among the brightly dressed women, with their ornate glittering hair ornaments, and the bright overlay of their skirts.
As it became clear that the competition would not be decided simply, by hitting the targets, the marshals proceeded to erect a more difficult challenge for those remaining.
They removed the immobile targets and replaced them with gently swaying disks.
The ladies drew arrows and nocked them. Sighting along the shaft, Katsume watched the gentle spin of her target, exhaled, and put her bolt right in the middle of the black circle. The shot drew a gasp from the audience. Katsume turned to see the others try to do the same. Some of their slim arms shook, sending arrows wide. Others miscalculated when they were faced with the spinning targets. Lady Yuna saw Katsume watching and -- still with her feigned casualness -- she drew and loosed an arrow. Her form was not perfect and she took less time to see the target than she ought to. Katsume bit her tongue to keep the corrections in. Besides, it did not matter. Yuna’s arrow flew true from the black bow, striking the center of the target.
Mutters arose from the watchers. The marshals called more ladies out, sending them to the sidelines. Only Katsume and Yuna remained. The marshals called a respite -- letting the women rest a moment while they prepared the next test.
“You’re quite good,” said Yuna, as they stepped away from the line. Her voice filled with the deliberate condescension of a noble to her inferior. “What was your name?”
“Katsume, lady,” replied Katsume.
Yuna’s face creased briefly, disturbed. She recovered quickly.
“I’m surprised I haven’t seen you before,” said Yuna, still falsely friendly. “Who are your people?”
“Ishi,” said Katsume, taking a sip of water.
Lady Yuna’s face closed, become austere and distant. “Is that meant to be a joke? I would know your parents,” she said. “I know even my distant cousins. You are not my family.”
“I am Akane’s daughter, lady,” said Katsume, taking some satisfaction in the way the woman’s face finally lost its brittle composure.
“You cannot be,” said Yuna.
“Why do you say so?” asked Katsume, gentle and properly respectful in her posture and tone, and defiant in her words.
“Akane killed herself when she lost her place as mistress of the Ishi School. Her daughter fled to the mountains and died there,” said Yuna.
“You are certain?” asked Katsume.
The question hung in the air between the women, both of them remembering a certain night ten years ago from very different perspectives. Each, though, recalled Ishi Akane standing with the black bow in her hand, and a dozen arrows clustered at the center of a target.
“Magic,” Akane had said to Yuna. “I did not believe you would cheat, Yuna, but Katsume insisted I test the bow.”
“The School should be run by the noblest branch of our family,” said Yuna, calm. “Your father married beneath himself, Akane. And you wed lower still. There are consequences for such things.”
“True. As there will be consequences for this,” said Akane, hefting the enchanted bow.
“Naturally,” Yuna had said. Neither Akane nor Katsume had expected the knife. It haunted Katsume still that she hadn’t seen the knife.
Their reverie was broken when the marshals called them back. Lady Yuna turned on her heel, marching back to the line mustering all her dignity. Still respectful, Katsume walked behind Lady Yuna. She snuck a glance at Tokuma as she went. He was watching her still, eyes unwavering, as clearly cheering for her as though he had flags in both hands.
The two archers lined up next to each other. The marshals had set a series of rings swinging in opposite directions. The archers had to shoot through all three with one arrow in order to get full marks.
Katsume considered the challenge, and then, with steady deliberation, she drew her bow, exhaled, and let the arrow go. Her arrow sang through the air and sailed easily through all three rings. This time, the audience could not help but cheer.
Katsume stepped back, leaving room for Lady Yuna. The mistress of the Ishi School’s hands shook as she raised the enchanted black bow.
“Eventually, you’ll miss,” said Yuna, under her breathe to Katsume. “You have to.”
“Is that so?” asked Katsume, unperturbed.
Lady Yuna made more of a show of care now, watching the rings carefully. If she was casual now, she would give away the enchantment in the bow -- and be dishonored before Lord Oshiro. She loosed at almost the right moment -- her form better. It was a good shot, but not quite perfect.
It was nearly impossible to catch the slight hesitation as the arrow hung suspended by magic, waiting before it sped through all three rings.
Another cheer arose… but not from Lord Oshiro. He’d seen that hesitation, that bit of magic.
He raised a hand, gaining the attention of all. “Add two more rings,” he said, eyes narrowed.
The marshals bowed and obeyed, going about adding two more swinging rings to the target. This next shot would be next to impossible.
“You’ll regret this,” said Yuna, her expression pleasant. “You should have stayed dead with your mother.”
“I have done nothing to regret,” said Katsume, “Which is not true of you.”
Yuna whispered, “What of the the boy? The pretty one who can’t take his eyes off you. I recognize him -- he’s Lord Sato’s boy. The one who’s got a passion for pottery. I will destroy him, if you do not withdraw now.”
Katsume did not answer.
“Walk away now,” said Yuna, her elegant hands clenched around the black bow.
The marshals set the rings swinging.
Katsume stepped past Yuna to shoot again, without looking at the other woman. Instead her eyes were fixed on the path of the swinging rings, waiting for them to align.
Carefully, Katsume nocked an arrow. She drew and released in one smooth motion. Her arrow passed through the first four rings easily, and just barely through the fifth. The arrow was sent skittering sideways as the fletching caught the edge of that final ring.
It was as close to a perfect shot as a mortal could hope for without magical aid.
Katsume looked to Lady Yuna, her challenge in her quiet assurance.
The mistress of the Ishi School stood paralyzed, trapped. She could not make the shot without clearly exposing the magic of the bow -- dishonoring herself. She could not concede the match either, that way led questions and a different sort of dishonor.
Finally, venom in her smile, Lady Yuna said: “You should have left when you had the chance.” She did not step up to the line, but turned away from Katsume and raised her bow, training her arrow on Tokuma.
Katsume moved faster than thought, faster than the audience could gasp in horror. She sent one arrow into the lower end of Yuna’s bow, sending the weapon jerking up and Yuna’s arrow high. Katsume’s second bolt went squarely into Yuna’s back, piercing the woman’s heart.
The mistress of the Ishi School cried out and fell, blood from the fatal wound spreading like petals across her back.
Spectators screamed, attendants and students began to run to Yuna. The marshals hurried forward to take Katsume’s bow.
Once again, they stopped when Lord Oshiro slowly stood. With great ceremony, he clapped his hands rhythmically. The stunned spectators joined him, late, uncertain what this sign of approval meant.
Katsume bowed her head respectfully, keeping her eyes down.
Lord Oshiro approached Katsume and said, “You remind me of Mistress Ishi Akane,” he said, when they faced each other.
“She was my mother, my lord.”
“I remember,” said Lord Oshiro. “When she lost this contest.”
Katsume looked sharply up at Lord Oshiro and realized he was holding the enchanted black bow. He’d plucked it from Yuna’s cooling hand.
“Her spirit is at peace now,” said Katsume, resuming her demur posture.
“And yours?” Oshiro asked, and with that question an unspoken one: Having achieved revenge and the right to rule and teach the Ishi School, could Katsume be at peace?
Katsume glanced to Tokuma, standing with the others, waiting, eyes on her. He’d never been afraid for himself -- he’d known how this day would go. He was ready to stand at Katsume’s side, whatever happened next.
“Yes,” she said. “Perfectly at peace, my lord.”
Satisfied with her sincerity, Lord Oshiro nodded. He handed the black bow to Katsume.
“I do not think you need this,” he said.
“I do not, my lord,” she said. “But I am glad to have it all the same.”