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From My Throne

Shindara glanced around as he was joined by several more armed escorts. They were in no mood to indulge his questions. Instead, they ferried him across one end of the city to the other. Each of them carried a sword and had several tanto daggers secured at their belts. Gauntlets, shrouds, and body wrap-style armor made up their leathery disguises, removing any trace of their identities. Only Nakatomi seemed confident enough to show his face on the streets. 

Shindara continued to study his new companions and wonder about their carefully concealed identities. They were determined, emotionless, and they moved as if they shared one mind. That was the only thing he could conclude about this extraordinary unit. They would remain a mystery to him until they arrived at their destination, which appeared to be the docks. 

“I assume no one is telling me where we’re going?”

No one replied. He turned his attention to the ports in search of a temporary distraction. The sun was rising in gilded tones against the storm clouds. It struck a brilliant contrast over the City of Knives and sparkled against the docks. They continued to walk along a street that breasted the edge of the sea.

The tides were locked in a vivacious dance, sometimes heaving against the docks and sloshing over their boots. Shindara couldn’t pause to admire its golden vistas because a shroud was promptly yanked over his head. 

He knew better than to protest. Besides, he had one consolation that these men surrounding him didn’t pose a threat. He squeezed the handle of the Obsidian Blade, searching for a sign of their intentions. To his relief, the sentient weapon didn’t try to warn him. These men couldn’t be entirely evil.

Suddenly, the ground dropped away, and his boots were beginning to soak and fill with water. He panicked for a moment and wondered if they were leading him into the sea, but why the blindfold then? His concerns were eased as the water stayed below ankle level.

The ambience of the city was fading away, and the air grew noticeably danker. The thud of their footsteps carried an echo to them, almost reminiscent of an underground tunnel… or perhaps a cave. 

The sack was yanked from his head, but the return of his sight made little difference. He may as well be blind and wandering through an ancient cellar. One of the soldiers, presumably Nakatomi, reassured him with a gentle push and ushered him forward. The walls were made of stone and the corridor stretched on for what felt like an eternity. Shindara’s boot scuffed against a stone, but it also sounded like two silver coins clinking together. At the same time, he thought he caught the faintest smell of incense.  

Shindara could see a glow around the bend of the tunnel, furthering his sense of intrigue.

 “What is this place?”

He emerged from the darkness and into a bath of torchlight. His next breath came out in a half-formed gasp when he saw the treasures awaiting him. Jaw-dropping decadence was practically leaping off the walls. Torches glistened overhead, highlighting a collection of silk paintings. 

There were lacquered ebony wood furnishings. Suits of armor were displayed in naturally formed alcoves, bedizened with weapons that belonged in the hands of feudal lords. These luxuries would be more at home in the Imperial Court, not a subterranean maze. He stole a quick glance inside a room that appeared to be stocked with shelves of parchment and calligraphy brushes. If this was their attempt at a library, it was almost more impressive than most of the temples he’d seen. 

Hand-painted scrolls, lavish books of poetry, and historical texts sat waiting and ready to be explored. Shindara almost stumbled inside. In fact, he did. 

“How did you acquire all of this?” He picked up a dusty tome and rifled through its pages. He skipped ahead to a passage about imperial bloodlines. He could hardly believe what he was seeing, even though he felt the faded pages rasping between his fingers. Was this one of the original copies of the Tale of Genji, the first written novel? Shindara was so visibly excited that he was practically shaking.

“We call this place Ukiyo Court.” Snapping out of his reverie, he turned around to find Nakatomi smiling at him. “If you choose to stay with us, you’ll have access to all of these books and more.”

“But how…?” 

Nakatomi smiled at his sputtering questions and bid him to follow. When Shindara finally emerged from the library, he realized his armed escorts had vanished. He crossed paths with a few soldiers wandering the tunnels, but these ones weren’t covering their faces. Instead of acknowledging Shindara, they busily walked past him as if he didn’t exist. 

He watched one of those men disappear down a dimly lit corridor. 

“How far do these tunnels go? All the way to the other end of the city?” 

“We have many hidden routes beneath Sakai. The Silk District, the Candle-Making District, the East Market… Once we accidentally found ourselves under the governor’s mansion.” 

As he described all of this, Shindara took careful note of the cavern’s layout. It was impossible to count the number of rooms and meandering hallways. This so-called Ukiyo Court made excellent use of the cave’s natural design. He was quickly able to determine which rooms were living quarters and which corridor led to the soldiers’ “barracks.” 

“It seems as if you’ve been down here for quite some time.”

Shindara had no doubt their network was extensive beneath the city. He tried not to wonder about the yōkai they might be disturbing down here with their clamor.

“I’ve spent more days than nights living under the city,” Nakatomi replied. “Usually, we come out at dark to conduct our business. Stay close now, you don’t want to wander off into the feast hall. Not yet, anyway.”

Curious, Shindara peeked inside the chamber set aside for meals and spending time with good company. He was greeted by an assortment of aromas, including grilled salmon and simmering soups. The mouth-watering smells made him realize how much he hungered for a hot meal. With the number of decorations, one might have forgotten this banquet hall was below the city. It looked like any other feast room, except for the overturned tables and the wine splashed across the floor. A biwa used for serenading one’s evening meal had also been smashed and left among the debris.

“Someone did a little too much celebrating last night,” Nakatomi heartily chuckled.  

Leaving the rest of that story untold, he beckoned Shindara down a sparse corridor. They seemed to be approaching the heart of the cavern. Shindara was losing track of the distance they covered with the various twists and turns.

Frankly, he wondered if he was hallucinating half of what he saw. Surely, he wasn’t imagining the ornate pair of doors set off to the side. 

“The throne room awaits.” Past those double doors, Shindara found a level of elegance that he didn’t think could exist underground. It shouldn’t have been possible to convert a subterranean chamber into a palace, but the magnificent throne was proving him wrong. It looked as if it had been chiseled out an immeasurable chunk of crystal. That included an elevated dais with hand-carved steps. The fires of a dozen torches glittered across the blackened gems. 

This throne room was the epitome of self-importance. Towers of limestone had been smoothed over and fashioned down into decorative columns. The entire chamber was practically dripping in red and gold furnishings. It consisted of regal-looking paintings, mirrors, and pillows perfumed with incense. In the blush of the candlelight, it would have made a tempting spot for romancing a lover.

The ambience landed somewhere between decadence and outright attention-seeking. It seemed to work because Shindara turned his attention to the throne again and the silhouette sitting on top of it. Whoever occupied that chair must have felt like an emperor among men down here. 

But instead of a man stepping down from the dais, a tall, graceful woman was coming forward to greet him. The breath stuck in Shindara’s chest as he watched her theatrical entrance. Her eyes were a smoky black and her vermillion lips were pursed in a smile, almost voracious in the way she was eyeing her guest.

Her hair was swept up and held together by gemstones, letting the rest of it spill lavishly down her back. She was lithe and dripping in excess from head to toe. Quite literally, her feet were encased in a pair of ceremonial slippers. 

The robes she wore were among the smoothest he’d ever seen. Images were woven onto its shiny, black surface, and underneath she was wearing at least ten or twelve more layers of silk. 

Shindara marveled at the spectacle she made. Until he didn’t. He took an involuntary step backward when he finally saw past the gold, the opulence, and the rings glinting on her fingers. There was no mistaking the supreme confidence in her eyes or the way she carried herself like a seasoned warrior.

“Shindara…” Even though she was savoring his shock, she was just as happy to see him after nearly four years of absence. A woman who looked a lot like Mikoto was smiling back at him—and there was danger and intrigue hiding behind her painted lips.

“Welcome to my city.”


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