He approached the weeping human. “What ails you, son?” he asked, for he was at a loss. From the heavens, Sugita saw all the gifts he’d bestowed on the human: fertile fields that yielded enough rice for eternity, mines with iron and gold and precious gems, humans who worshiped at his feet, who praised him as a god. “I have given you so much,” Sugita remarked, unsettled by this human condition of wanting more.
His son’s lips trembled. “I have everything, and no one to share it with.”
Sugita’s mouth parted in surprise. He had not considered love as a human need. To love was divine. He thought only gods and goddesses capable of it. “You wish for a partner, a woman to share your life?” Sugita asked.
“Yes.” The human’s eyes lit up. “I want a woman,” he told Sugita. “But she must be worthy of me.”
Sugita nodded. So Sugita scooped up human women from every clan and placed them in the farthest corner of Honoku. He left them in a cave carved by water and wind in the middle of a desolate cliff. Among the women were two sisters, Makoto and Tsukiko, daughters of an umbrella merchant.
Armed with silk umbrellas, Makoto and Tsukiko fought the other women for pieces of rope discarded in the cave. Using the rope, they climbed from the cliff.
At the bottom of the cliff, Tsukiko moaned. “I want to go home.”
Makoto grasped Tsukiko’s hand, holding it to her cheek. “Little Bean, as your older sister, I vow I will see you home or die trying.”
The girls followed the Drum constellation, hoping it would lead to their small village. With the first heated wind of summer, they came to a mountain. “No way to go but up,” Makoto said. They climbed. At the summit, Honoku spread out before them. The sisters realized that they were no closer to home than the stars to Earth.
They journeyed onward. Fall kissed summer goodbye. Just as the first leaf fell, they came to an abandoned village. They didn’t question their good fortune. They raided the homes, stuffing their mouths with strips of wild boar meat, pickled beets, and mushrooms soaked in miso. But the village hadn’t been abandoned. And while the sisters slept, the inhabitants returned. Oni. Eight-foot-tall demons with four eyes and six black horns curling from the crowns of their heads. The strongest of the yōkai. Again, Makoto and Tsukiko used their umbrellas as weapons and fought their way out of the oni encampment.
But for every victory, a price must be paid.
Tsukiko was badly wounded. Makoto refused to leave her sister. As clever as she was fierce, Makoto built a sled from branches. Then she lifted Tsukiko onto the makeshift stretcher.
“Little Bean, I will see you home or die trying.” Makoto dragged the stretcher. Winter stripped fall. It began to snow. To keep Tsukiko distracted, Makoto sang to her. Tsukiko hummed along, and Makoto could just hear her over the howling wind. Soon, Makoto realized that Tsukiko’s voice had faded.
The stretcher was no longer behind her. The wind had bled the warmth from Makoto’s hands. She’d thought she’d been holding the stretcher, but she’d really been grasping air. Makoto wailed and backtracked. She found Tsukiko nearly buried in the snow. Her lips were blue and her eyes closed. Ice crystals had formed on her lashes. Tsukiko was gone.
Weeping, Makoto curled up next to her sister’s body. “Little Bean, I will see you home or die trying.” They were not home. Makoto resolved to perish next to her sister. She slept through the raging storms. Snow covered their bodies. But the winter would not take her. Nature protected her. When the snow melted, it pooled on her lips, forced her to drink. When the spring wind shook the trees, fir branches fell and covered her like the warmest quilt. And when the first apple dropped from a nearby tree, it rolled into her open hand. She would not die. Nature would not let her. By this time, Tsukiko’s body had sunk into the earth, only her delicate fingers still aboveground.
A man approached. Disoriented, Makoto grabbed her umbrella and pressed the tip against the man’s throat. Blood trickled down his neck.
The man knelt. “My bride, my equal!” he exclaimed.
At once she recognized the man. The emperor. “I want to go home,” she said, dropping the battered umbrella.
“You are home,” the emperor replied. His arm swept behind him where the palace rose, golden and glimmering in the spring light.
She cried. “I have failed my sister.”
The emperor smiled gently. “Success and failure are merely illusions. They are not yours to hold.” Then he whispered all she was and all she was meant to be. “A ruler,” he said. “Mine,” he said.
Beloved by nature.
Revered by her husband.
An Empress of All Seasons.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When Emiko is not writing, she is reading. Most of her friends are imaginary. Before she became a writer she was an entomologist (fancy name for bug catcher), a candle maker, a florist, and most recently a teacher. She lives in Washington with her husband and children (unruly twins). She loves the rain.
BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE
Tour organized by The Royal Polar Bear Reads and BookableReads