Kanna knelt before the white wooden panel and breathed deeply to maintain her impassive façade. Her unfocused gaze rested on the junction between the tatami mat and panel as she strained to hear the discussions in the room beyond.
Her adoptive father rarely summoned her here to his formal meeting room, particularly with her guard, Tenjin, at her heel. Tenjin’s presence both settled and unnerved her. Tenjin would overhaul the elements to keep her safe, but his presence meant there was something to fear.
The voices beyond were too muffled to clasp onto more than sound.
Her father had summoned her. It would be the height of insult had she not come. Kanna reminded herself that she was grateful for every luxury he’d rained on her—she wanted for nothing. It was far more than others in Tenjou could claim.
The panel shushed and clapped open. Custom dictated that she keep her eyes down. Bending from the waist, Kanna placed her hands lightly on the mat and bowed low.
“Ah, Kanna,” her father’s voice greeted from her left. He would be on the dais. “Come in.”
Kanna knew better than to glance at her father’s face—it was forbidden. She stood, shuffled a few paces into the room, bowed and knelt once more, all the while keeping her eyes down and face blank. She tucked her tight skirts beneath.
By her shoulder, Tenjin copied her movements, though his were freer. Because he was a man, he had more allowance to peer about the room. She envied his freedom. Her nerves were screaming. If only she could peek through her lashes to understand the danger her instincts, in no uncertain terms, wailed was here. But her father would notice, and the insult would be unforgivable.
“Lord Shinagawa wishes to combine his army with ours against the rebels. Tell me, do you believe his reasons honourable enough for my agreement?”
So that was it.
Her father’s permission forgiving all impropriety, Kanna peered through her lashes at the man to her right—all that was permissible in the circumstances—at the shogun kneeling to her right, and almost started. A shadow marred his thin lips, another darkening stain surrounded his right hand. No shadow cast about his eyes, ears, or head. His long black hair was tied back, a hard band wrapped around his forehead.
The shadow around his lips meant this man had lied. The stain over his hand suggested that a quill or sword was the danger—or had he killed many in the past?
No, if he had, the shadow around his hand would be black as the ink she used for her calligraphy, and as thick as the strokes men used to write.
There weren’t any shadows around this man’s chest. He might lie, but he was honourable.
Kanna blinked and inwardly frowned. That was impossible. She focused on the shadow marring the shogun’s lips, a difficult task to accomplish with her fringe swinging forward from about her ears and acting as a veil.
Calling upon her magic, she delved into the shadows—and jolted back into her skin.
Inside the shadow, war and destruction had erupted. The castle had been a raging inferno. Swords clashed, bodies strewn all over the inner and outer compounds, the gates broken. Her family massacred. Bile rose in the back of Kanna’s throat.
The only answer whispered inside. This man and his army wished to ingratiate themselves with her father and his army and destroy the castle from within.
This man hoped to overthrow her father’s rule and take his place… for the betterment of the country.
The men waited, patient, silent, unmoving.
Kanna lifted her voice in the soft melody ladies of her class were expected to use. “Father, this man lies. He wishes to destroy the castle, overthrow you, and take your position.”
“Why you—” A sword rung out of the shogun’s scabbard.
Tenjin’s katana shushed. The swords crashed above Kanna’s head. She bunched her fists against the need to move and bit back her fright. She had a fan with a bladed edge, but before her father, and with Tenjin to protect her, she was forbidden to use it.
At every clash, she resisted the tug to raise her eyes and watch the fight—to assure herself that Tenjin wouldn’t come to harm. Crash!
Kanna bit down on her tongue. She had to retain her composure. If she so much as moved, she’d divide Tenjin’s attention. She must not move, though her entire core shook with terror.
Her father didn’t shift from his dais. She heard his chuckles and slurps of sake. He watched on in amusement, but she couldn’t look at him.
The swords clashed closer to her head. Kanna swallowed a shriek and stared at their shadows on the tatami mats. Tenjin shoved the shogun and attacked.
The lanterns in the room were insufficient. They kept flickering when she wished they would remain still.
Shouts called from behind the fusuma. Thudded footsteps raced towards the room, and a panel was shoved aside. Her father’s soldiers stormed into the room, captured the shogun and forced him to his knees. They held him there.
Her father’s voice was low and steady when he commanded, “Lock him and his people up. I want everyone there for their executions at dawn tomorrow.”
Kanna remained frozen. A public execution was the height of dishonour.
“Shinagawa and his people are no longer our allies but villains to the peace and stability of Tenjou. See that the word spreads.”
With that, her father rose and left via the fusuma behind the dais. The panel shushed and thumped shut. Kanna breathed.
The shogun, Lord Shinagawa, had remained silent throughout her father’s speech. Though he was subdued, through her lashes Kanna saw him studying her just as closely as she studied him, though his face was darkened by the insufficient lantern light.
His forelocks tumbled over his face, but his topknot remained in place.
The magical shadows of corruption she had seen around the man’s lips had lightened, though the one around his right hand remained. His head and chest remained clear.
Why weren’t there any around his head or heart? In her experience, people lied or deceived for a reason, and she could see that through shadows about their being. True corruption always shadowed the heart or head, a signal that a person acted for their own gain and in disregard for others.
In the most extreme cases, Kanna would see shadows about both heart and head, along with other parts of their body pertinent to the deception, but this man only had shadows around his hand. Even the one around his lips was dissipating as she studied him, which meant the lie he’d told to her father wasn’t for this man’s own gain.
But the future she’d seen in his shadows was of indiscriminate murder and destruction.
Who was he?
Tenjin appeared between her and the shogun. He must have finished organising her father’s orders with the soldiers.
“It’s time to go,” he said.
Kanna rose and led Tenjin from the room. She sensed the shogun’s eyes on her back until Tenjin shut the fusuma behind her.
Her hands that were already clasped, tightened. An ugly feeling had seeped inside her stomach.
An hour later, in the stables, Tenjin ran a brush through his horse’s mane. Each smooth tug soothed something inside him that had ripped free when the shogun rebel had drawn a blade on Kanna. He was the Chosen’s Protector. He usually foresaw dangers to Kanna in the Dawn mirror, yet there’d been nothing. His sword beat steadily, its magic rippling through it by his hip.
He ran the brush down in one long, slow stroke. Ryuu clapped his front hoof onto the dirt and leaned towards Tenjin in pure delight. Tenjin had already brushed the beast once over, yet had needed to go through the motions once more. Only now was his head starting to clear, but that didn’t mean he felt comfortable about the situation.
The sound of Kanna’s unique shuffle approached from the stable doorway. His motion almost slipped. He had no idea what to say to her. Nevertheless, he backed just a little so Kanna would have a clearer view of him.
When she was in sight, Tenjin halted the brush, turned and bowed to her, “Princess.”
“You know what I think about formalities between us, Tenjin,” she scolded.
“Nevertheless, there are others around who might take offence at our familiarity.”
Kanna stopped before the stall and placed her fists on her hips. The gesture bobbed her parted fringe around her heart-shaped face. “You’re family, not my servant.”
Tenjin hid his grin. “And yet, your servant, I will always humbly be.”
“Only when mother or father are around,” Kanna countered, eyes narrowing.
They shared mock severe expressions.
Kanna’s smooth lips kicked at the sides. She’d never been all that great at concealing her emotions—only the offence that would be taken at expressing her strongest emotions held them at bay. The fan in her obi was constantly in use to cover the worst of her emotional outbursts.
“I’m honoured you exerted enough control not to use that.” Tenjin nodded at the fan in her obi. The one that had a bladed edge. The one she could have pulled out to fight the shogun. Tenjin’s grip tightened. He turned to resume brushing Ryuu.
“You know I’m forbidden from using it before my father,” Kanna retorted. Her lips compressed in distaste. Tenjin didn’t have to wonder whether or not she’d use it if necessary.
It was his job to make sure that situation never eventuated.
“True, and I guess it’s one thing to know how to use it, and another to actually harm someone.”
Kanna’s expression softened. Her dark eyes unfocused in thought. “That shogun was no genuine threat to me.”
Tenjin almost choked on a scoff. Instead, he focused on the downward stroke of his brush, perhaps moving a little more vigorously than he intended. Ryuu didn’t seem to mind. “No threat? He brandished a katana at your neck.”
“But he wasn’t corrupt.” Creases formed between her brows. “His hand was shadowed, and his lips, but his head and heart were clear.”
“Well, that’s a relief.” He couldn’t hide his sarcasm. “What did you see in there?” If he’d had her type of magic, he wouldn’t have left her so vulnerable.
“I saw the castle on fire. Many would have been murdered at the hands of Shinagawa and his rebels.”
Tenjin’s hands faltered. “And you say he wasn’t corrupt?”
“That’s what I don’t understand.” That crease between her brow deepened. “I know to my soul that he isn’t corrupt.”
Tenjin couldn’t argue with that. That was Kanna’s incredible magic. She knew and could read deception, corruption, any form of dishonour or selfish greed.
“I need to figure out why.” The stubborn expression on her face made him grin again. She was such a curious little thing. It was one of the aspects of her character that he so adored, but he could never look at her as more than a sister or charge. When you lived by the sword, you died by the sword, there weren’t any compromises.
He couldn’t make those sorts of close connections. He couldn’t force that level of sadness on another. And Kanna was the princess. Completely out of his reach. He couldn’t touch her.
Tenjin concentrated on the movement of his brush. He was so focused it took moments to realise Kanna had gone silent. He peeked at her out of the corner of his eye and found her studying his wrists and neck.
“Stop it.” He knew she saw shadows there.
“How can I stop it when you won’t tell me why they are there, nor allow me to look into them?”
He should be grateful she’d maintained her vow to never seek more from those marks than need be. If she learnt… she couldn’t learn. Naïve, she was safe.
“Never mind,” Kanna relented. “Mother will wish to see me soon. I’d better not keep her waiting.”
Kanna shuffled away. Tenjin allowed himself a glance as she paused beside the torch near the doorway. She didn’t look back. Her raven hair swept straight and long down her back, as pure as the heart inside the body.
He watched her shoulders rise and drop in a sigh. Then she moved on out of sight.
He didn’t care what the cost; he would protect Kanna, the Gods’ Chosen, with his life if need be.
She’d lied to Tenjin.
Kanna crept down the stairs to the wooden dungeon. It was late. The moon had almost sunk beneath the horizon, but the sun wouldn’t rise for hours to come.
Tenjin had been teeming with unease—every muscle around his shoulders had been bunched and his movements had been slow and far too controlled. She wasn’t about to further fuel that flame by asking him to follow her down to the dungeon and meet the perpetrator for his unease.
Her mother and minders wouldn’t notice her absence. She was forbidden to venture out of the Castle. Inside, everyone assumed she and her sisters were protected.
The stairs creaked a melody. The small torches in the sconces along the wall provided minimal light, but left no corner along the hallway undimmed. Soldiers stationed at the entrance had looked at her in askance but couldn’t stop her unless her father explicitly told them to.
There were more soldiers at the bottom of the stairs, but she quickly dismissed them to join their colleagues above ground. Under the same predicament as those at the entrance, they bowed and left, if a little hesitant.
The thick rows of crossed wooden bars, thicker than her neck, lined the dungeon. At the worst times, these rooms would hoard hundreds of criminals. At present there was only one caged in the first cell, others of his men were spread in cells further along. They would experience the same punishment as their leader.
Kanna approached the first cell. Its small wooden door reached up to her waist. She walked just beyond it.
The shogun’s eyes shone in the torchlight, but he was otherwise in shadow.
“That’s brave of you,” Lord Shinagawa said. “Approaching a villain you condemned without a guard.”
“And what of you?” Kanna countered, taking a step closer to the thick wood to get a better view of the Lord. The torches lit the passages, but not the prisons. “You enter our castle with designs to destroy my father and his people from within, yet from what I can see, you deem your actions honourable.”
The shogun leaned forward, frowning in a way that showed he was trying to understand, but struggling. Kanna’s eyes caught on a small silver glow resonating from the Lord’s heart. Frowning, she stepped closer to the bars, so close she could touch them.
A mirroring warmth pulsed near her own heart. That warmth tugged her with an assurance that she could implicitly trust this man.
The Lord was speaking—Kanna shook the sensation aside. There was no point confusing herself in fresh revelations. Her Chosen’s magic would do what it will; she needed answers, and if she wanted answers, she needed to appear strong.
“—but that’s something I have to ask you,” Lord Shinagawa said. “How did you learn my intentions?”
“I’m good at detecting lies,” Kanna replied. “Your hand…”—Kanna looked at the offending hand—“did you kill someone, or have you been writing lies that caused others to do heinous acts?”
The man contemplated her, then said, “I’ve killed, but so too would have your guard.”
Neither questioned that his words related to Tenjin. Hair spiked on Kanna’s arms. Trust this man? Something had to be perilously wrong with her Chosen magic.
The shogun’s eyes studied her with keen interest. “If you can see lies, Princess, then have you not looked at Lord Ookami?”
“You know custom forbids me from setting eyes on my father.”
Shinagawa leaned forward into the lamplight. His features glowed with a strangely harsh seriousness.
“I came here because your father is ruthlessly massacring the people of this country. If even one person in a village is suspected of defiance, Lord Ookami sends in his mercenaries to murder everyone there and kidnap those that could prove useful to him. He extorts every drop of wealth from those who cannot afford it and flourishes those riches on his closest conspirators. He has no care for the people of this country, only his own coffers and safety.”
No shadows clouded his lips. Lord Shinagawa spoke the truth.
What a fantastic concept!
What a fantastic concept!
A great read!
This is such a powerful and well-written first chapter! What an interesting concept and beautiful worldbuilding. 🥰
Thank you! It's encouraging to hear people enjoying the story!