Kuranosuke decided he was beyond hope when the resort manager discreetly gave him a glimpse of ivory flesh through a convenient fold in her kimono, and his body refused to stir. The long journey back from the battlefields over the Pacific was not long enough to thaw a heart gone cold with grief and doubt.
The despair Kuranosuke had felt when he'd first seen the firebombed remains of Tokyo welled up again in his throat. No beauty in the world existed that could erase that horror. During the war, death had been for the glory of the Emperor-God, and Kuranosuke had watched his pilot friends achieve immortality through the cleansing blaze of their suicide missions. Then Hirohito made that devastating announcement of his own mortality, showing Kuranosuke the rotting, grisly truth about death. Now he existed in a dark place where the creamy curves of this Kyoto beauty seemed nothing more than pale meat.
Hideo's lifeless eyes, staring at him in agonized surprise from the bloody grass, imposed themselves over the immaculate whiteness of the woman's face. Kuranosuke reached up to his forehead in agitation, the ghost memory of his own wounds making cold sweat trickle down his back. Why did that terrible dream haunt him now? He couldn't afford the break in his concentration; General Yanagisawa was counting on him.
"Shall I call for some water, Lieutenant?" said a pair of crimson arcs framed in a haze of black. Kuranosuke refocused with an effort and found himself staring at the woman's heavily painted face. He wondered for a moment which high official was her patron. No one had money enough for cosmetics in the hard times since the surrender.
"No, thank you, Miss Otsuka. I will be fine. Now, we must get down to business. Can you tell me when you last saw the gaijin marine?"
"I served sake to the American around five o'clock." Red-tipped fingernails plucked at the gold-embroidered obi around her waist, drawing Kuranosuke's eyes to the attractive slenderness of her form. He wished that he could let himself be ensnared by this woman tonight and damn the consequences. She so obviously was offering herself to him in exchange for protection for her and for the resort.
Don't cause trouble for the resort, don't call attention to us, said her eyes. If you do this for me, life can be very pleasant for you, said the arch of her neck and the two artfully curled strands of glossy blackness in disarray there.
"I escorted him afterwards to the outdoor baths, at his request," she added. Now she looked at him from underneath lowered lashes. A chill flash that passed for desire arched through him. It was closely followed by the now familiar bile of anger rising from Kuranosuke's stomach.
He hated what he had become. He couldn't walk down the street without feeling sick from the sight of little boys running at the heels of American soldiers to beg for candy. Begging from the very enemies Hideo and countless others gave their lives to destroy at the Emperor's command.
Kuranosuke wanted to slide, to descend into the black hole he'd glimpsed ahead of him since returning to his father's empty apartment. Unfortunately, he'd been pulled from the comfort of the five-tatami apartment by the General.
This was his last chance. Returning alone from that final, botched suicide mission, he found a nation in defeat. If he failed to settle this grisly murder tonight, it would truly be the end. Little by little the world where Kuranosuke knew he was doing right for God and country had crumbled. He looked in his heart to find the man who had wanted to rain fire down on the vicious Americans in the name of a sacred Emperor, and found only ashes instead. There was no more room or hope in him any more to respond to simple, luxurious emotions like lust.
"I left him at ten-thirty and did not see him again after that."
"So you did not discover his body this morning?" he said, returning her teasing glance with a cold stare.
"No, I did not." The maple leaf pattern of her kimono glinted dark red in the moonlight shining through the rice paper panels. It was rare to see the matronly leaf pattern on a woman with Hana Otsuka's vitality. It gave her an air of wisdom, as if she knew things, had done things, he was too young to understand. She arose, obviously conceding his disinterest in her not-so-subtle hints. "I will be happy to send you the maid who discovered him drowned."
Now her eyes flashed a different message at him. You will be sorry if you find the marine's murderer here, said the tightening of her fingers around the fragile tea cup.
Kuranosuke knew Miss Otsuka was prepared to offer him anything to make this matter appear an accidental death. The publicity that would surround the quiet hot springs resort if he found differently could effectively ruin her business. Kuraitani Onsen, Valley of Darkness Hot Springs, was perfectly situated beneath an insignificant peak a day's journey by foot outside of Kyoto. Since the American occupation, it was even more important that the financial and political leaders have a place to relax and mend the relationships broken by war. This resort was one of the few that MacArthur's men did not frequent.
That's why it had surprised Kuranosuke when General Yanagisawa entrusted him with investigating the potentially explosive death of an American marine on leave inside Kuraitani's secret pools. The General had taken him to a popular teahouse inside Kyoto's former pleasure district. There they drank expensive ginjo sake and spoke of times before the war when Kuranosuke's father and the General sometimes fished Lake Biwa together.
"I have my eye on you, Kura-kun. You survived the war to return to a different Japan," said the General. "There are foreign winds blowing in Tokyo, and it is only those deep-rooted trees that can bend with the wind that survive." Kuranosuke remained silent, only nodding in agreement and refilling the General's sake cup. "Your father would have resisted and snapped had he lived," said the old man, searching for something in Kuranosuke's bland expression.
"Then I guess it was a blessing he was stationed in Hiroshima harbor."
The General's alcohol-reddened face turned on Kuranosuke in sudden anger. "Don't mistake me for one of those defeated goats hanging on to the Americans' General Headquarters! My own son lost his life at Nagasaki! The Americans may think they have defeated us, but Japan still has some fight left."
Kuranosuke bowed his head in apology; he did not wish to anger his only remaining friend. He was already under suspicion from the catastrophe at Iwo Jima. Kuranosuke quickly drowned the memory of bits of flesh and blood sprayed across his chest in the sweet bite of sake.
"Your father would have snapped, but I can see that you have learned bending from your mother. Maybe her roots run deeper in you than we imagined. . . ." Here the General paused, searching for something in Kuranosuke's face. "Now I will give you a chance to do something meaningful for Japan, more of a chance than you ever had over the Pacific."
Kuranosuke shook his head to clear the memory of the General's obvious pain. He felt curiously relaxed and languorous. The maid had entered while he was lost in his reverie and was now silently kneeling beside the door.
"You can come in -- Ohira, is it?"
"Yes, Lieutenant," she said in the lilting local dialect. The sweet fragrance of musk and baking spices emanated from her. Kuranosuke marveled at the gentle tracing of blue veins visible against the creamy paleness of her throat. He frowned.
"Were you the one to find the marine's body?"
"Yes, Lieutenant." The maid refused to meet his eyes.
The urgency of his mission began to filter through. He really had only one night and morning to solve this crime to the General's satisfaction and report before they would have to notify the Americans. The General had made it clear that the marine's presence at Kuraitani was sensitive and could not bear up under scrutiny. Kuranosuke suspected the black market was involved. Anxiety lent a harsh edge to his voice.
"Well, tell me how you found him."
Ohira shrank from him in fear, tears welling up and smearing the heavy dark lines applied to her eyes. The rapid thud of her heart became apparent in the flushed well nestled between her collarbones.
"Please -- I didn't touch anything!" The maid's lips quivered. Kuranosuke had to fight a sudden urge to touch her face.
"Tell me now. I don't have time to waste with your fears!" A hot, red mist coalesced at the corners of his eyes. He felt disdain for the sobbing girl and frustration that she did not simply tell him what happened. He rose up on one knee and covered the two tatami between them in an instant. Ohira cowered in fear, her hands convulsively pulling at a rosary in her obi. The repressed images of Hideo's death on that terrible day broke from their flimsy cage in Kuranosuke's mind. Blood swam before his eyes; the mingled taste of ashes and dirt pressed at his cheeks as urgency coursed through his body. He had to -- He wanted --
She was utterly irresistible. Her fear goaded his anger until he could only bend his face closer to the compelling movement of her heartbeat at the base of her throat. Without volition, his tongue flicked out to taste the salt his body craved. Ohira fainted in his arms. Then the exquisite warmth of blood was filling his mouth, melting into his throat, and he was swallowing and moaning against Ohira's skin. Hideo's betrayed expression was blissfully forgotten in the sweet tang of copper flooding his body.
Kuranosuke heard a harsh laugh and lifted his face from the terrible, ragged wound for an instant. Miss Otsuka, clothed in almost translucent black, stood at the sliding panel, her face an ivory mask.
A sudden, painful warmth against his thigh pulled Kuranosuke from his waking vision. He looked down, expecting to see bloodstains streaking the pristine gray of his uniform, but it was only green tea soaking into his trousers. Only a dream, he told himself firmly. Only a dream.
A discreet cough reached his ears. Kuranosuke flinched to see a living Ohira, sitting silently by the shoji door, as she had just a moment ago in his hallucination. There was no sign of Miss Otsuka. Kuranosuke tried to pull himself together.
"So, tell me how you found the marine."
Ohira trembled with the memory. "There was blood everywhere, Lieutenant. The whole bathing pool was stained pink. I ran to get Otsuka-san and we pulled the body out of the water."
"Did you see any sign of a struggle? Any blood outside the tub?"
"No, Lieutenant," she said.
As in his dream, Kuranosuke saw that as Ohira became more and more nervous the pulse of her heart became visible through the pale skin of her neck. He caught himself edging his zabuton cushion closer to Ohira. This was intolerable. He gestured for Ohira to leave; she scampered away.
He needed to see the bathing pool for himself. Kuranosuke followed sake-barrel signs to the outside of the resort, then down some roughly hewn stairs cut into the limestone cliff above the river. Another sake barrel outside a small cave marked the entrance to the pool where the American marine had so inconveniently lost his life.
As soon as Kuranosuke entered the cave, he heard the rhythmic sound of water lapping on wood. The steam from the underground springs inside was so thick that he had to trail a hand against the ancient rock wall to keep his bearings. His wool uniform stuck against his shoulders in irritating wet patches. With a grunt, Kuranosuke pulled the jacket from his shoulders, then froze.
"Lie very still, Uesugi-san. Let the warm water take you down, down, into a deep silence." The feminine voice spoke in the soft sh sh of the Kyoto geishas. It was the same voice he had heard laughing in his sick vision minutes before. Miss Otsuka's voice.
"Hana, you know exactly what to do," said the voice of a man.
Kuranosuke crept further along the passageway until he reached a pale circle of light emanating from his left. More sloppy wet sounds and soft sighs drifted through the steam. Kuranosuke could just make out the dark forms of two people coupled together at the far end of an irregular bean-shaped bathing pool. Steaming water overflowed the low enclosure of wooden slats placed around the natural depression in the floor of the cave.
The condensation on the ceiling formed into fat droplets that fell with rhythmical splatters, echoing strangely in the cavern's twisting veins of limestone. A drop fell on the tips of his eyelashes, smearing his eyes with a stinging blur for an instant. As Kuranosuke wiped his eye on the corner of his uniform jacket, a female voice breathed in his ear.
Kuranosuke's fear-sharpened reflexes took over. His hands were up and around her neck and forcing her to the ground in front of him before he realized that the soft flow of silk against his hands was Miss Otsuka's luxurious, unbound hair.
Their frozen tableau lasted an eternal heartbeat, then Miss Otsuka was somehow standing and he was face down on the cavern floor.
"Come," said the voice, slithering through the steam to caress his neck and ears, "you will see what must be done."
A bloated, heat-flushed foot emerged from the water as Miss Otsuka's naked form slipped back into the pool. Kuranosuke felt dizzy and disoriented from the heat, but somehow found his way to the edge of the mineral bath. Miss Otsuka knelt, naked, in the water, her lips caressing the knee of a man Kuranosuke recognized as the famous playboy son of Kyoto's leading industrialist. Her eyes held Kuranosuke captive, his repulsion and shock swept away by the encroaching red haze blurring his vision.
You are not afraid, said the obsidian depths of her eyes. Something in you understands this.
Kuranosuke felt her damp fingers surround his left hand. Her lips, still at Uesugi's knee, drew back in a snarl, revealing pearl-white incisors in the dim light. Then she gripped Kuranosuke's hand painfully tight and sank her teeth into one of the veins tracing a dark pattern under Uesugi's pale skin. Kuranosuke felt himself pulled closer, then over the low wall and into the water, drawn by the convulsive movements of Miss Otsuka's throat. When she finally pulled back, there was only a slight red trickle marking the rapidly healing punctures in Uesugi's skin. She teased the man with her tongue, nipping and stroking at his thigh until he convulsed with pleasure once, and then was still.
"Ahhh, Hana--" Uesugi's voice was the only sign he still lived.
Miss Otsuka smeared her perfectly formed thumb with the man's blood, then, eyes never wavering from Kuranosuke's, placed the thumb against Kuranosuke's lips.
Kuranosuke tumbled down into the bitter pool of his memory.
He was in the air over Iwo Jima again. From the other plane, Hideo's voice on the radio urged him towards the greater glory of Japan. "Kura-kun, we will both hit the carrier at once. Our deaths will be a blaze of triumph!"
But at the last moment, something in Kuranosuke was a coward, would not let him find the sweet death of a hero. He pulled up -- and brushed Hideo's plane. Both planes fell away from the carrier and into the water.
Then he and Hideo were on the beach, their bodies and wreckage from their planes washed ashore under the power of the heedless sea. A sweet, salty smell invaded his nostrils before Kuranosuke even understood he was still alive.
His broken arm dragging in the sand, Kuranosuke half-crawled to his boyhood friend's body. Hideo's lifeless eyes shouted betrayal at him, but Kuranosuke could not control the overpowering need to get closer to the open wound staining Hideo's chest and arms crimson. That part of him, the part that wanted, needed, to live, that had moved his hands so that his plane missed the carrier, overpowered him now. He wanted life, and his body knew what it needed to heal itself.
He lost himself in an animal frenzy.
When he finally lifted his face, smeared with Hideo's lifeblood, Kuranosuke was pinned by the staring, accusing eyes.
No! I will not remember! Kuranosuke dug his fingers into the cracked wooden slat, concentrating on the sharp bite of splinters digging into his hands. He did not protest when Miss Otsuka pulled him dripping from the tub onto the dirt floor, to pillow his head against her damp breasts and pet his hair as if he were a hurt child.
Long moments passed before Kuranosuke could stop the ragged gasps spilling from his chest. Warmth from the woman holding him seeped into his skin, soothing his rapid pulse and clenched jaw.
"What is happening to me?" He sat up, withdrawing from the comfort of her flesh on his.
"I know you think you're surprised and appalled. It's a natural reaction. But look inside your heart, Kuranosuke. You will see that all of this is not so . . . unnatural . . . as you want to think."
It was true. A part of himself shut off since that terrible day on the beach savored the trace of the man's blood on his lips and clamored to return to Miss Otsuka's arms. He could not deny this strange new part of himself.
"What is happening here? Why have you done this to me?"
"I am dying, Kuranosuke." Miss Otsuka reached to arrange a towel under the neck of the man sleeping in the tub so that his head would remain above the water. "I spent my last years of strength convincing the Generals to accept defeat in order to save Japan from President Truman's atomic bombs. Now I have nothing to help our poor country rebuild. I need a successor."
"Yes." Miss Otsuka leaned very close, her breath tickling his eyelashes, the touch of her hands on his shoulders a comforting weight. "Uesugi-san must be convinced to cooperate with MacArthur's plans for rebuilding our railways, our hospitals, our schools. And there are others who need to be taught to swallow their pride."
Kuranosuke felt a stab of jealousy as Miss Otsuka stepped back into the pool and turned to Uesugi, placing both hands on his face. With her touch, the unconscious man's eyes opened, although Kuranosuke could not detect any sign of will or desire.
"Uesugi-san, please listen to me. You will not be angry when MacArthur sends his men to take over your factories. You will cooperate with him, and then you will reap the rewards when Uesugi products are the first to be exported from Japan." She released Uesugi gently back onto the towel and turned back to Kuranosuke, enfolding his hand in her warm palms.
"You see, they are very suggestible after we take blood from them. He will not remember any of this when he comes round in a few hours, but when the time comes, he will fight his hatred of the Americans. He will do as I say."
"But how -- what are you?"
"I am like you, a Kyuketsuki." She smiled, but her feral expression made him recoil slightly. Kuranosuke shuddered at the images of lurching, hideous monsters intent on consuming human flesh and blood that word evoked.
"I am nothing like you. I am not a monster!"
One perfectly drawn eyebrow lifted in mockery of his outburst.
"Our ancestors were in these islands before the Mongols even found the land bridge from Korea. Back then we learned to keep ourselves secret. Our numbers and our short life spans made us vulnerable to the newcomers." She paused. Kuranosuke couldn't keep from appreciating the natural grace of her body as she leaned forward against the edge of the bath. "We are the shadows of politicians, using our power to influence politics, diplomacy, whatever Japan needs most." Miss Otsuka laughed, but her eyes spoke only of defeat. "Despite all of our power, Kura-kun, we die. There are so few of us, and we die very young. And now it is my turn." Miss Otsuka emerged from the tub to pull Kuranosuke to his feet against her body.
The full power of her potent gaze drew Kuranosuke to her. Tendrils of black silk brushed his knuckles as he answered his heart's urgent need to touch her.
"I thought all was lost, until General Yanagisawa told me about you. Still I doubted. You were only half; would your ancient heritage manifest? This," she said, gesturing towards a now totally unconscious Uesugi-san, "was the final test. I felt the power and need in you, when I fed from Uesugi-san. Will you help me?" Miss Otsuka's voice was a sigh of hot breath along his cheek. Her final, pitiful plea cut straight to Kuranosuke's soul. Here was the promise of respite for the anger, the emptiness. Could this truly be a way to fight the Americans? He had failed his country as a pilot; now the possibility he still might have some important part to play tugged at him.
"You will report failure to General Yanagisawa." Miss Otsuka's smile was teasing. "But don't worry, his intention in sending you here has been fulfilled."
"How did he--"
"The General helps us of his own accord. He is one of the few trusted with our secret. When your father married one of us, the General promised to watch over any children -- even help them live normal lives. But he knew Iwo Jima had changed you, that you needed a Kyuketsuki to help you understand your true potential." Kuranosuke felt warmth spreading from his belly as realization hit. The heat traveled into his chest and out to the tips of his fingers, infusing him with a restless energy.
"The marine -- he was just bait in your plan."
"Soon the Americans will come to Kuraitani to investigate the death of that marine," Miss Otsuka murmured against Kuranosuke's neck. "We will help MacArthur's men to see that helping to rebuild Japan is better than punishing us -- one way or another."
"Yes," he said. Desire flamed across his body with her breath and he wanted more than anything to prolong this precious sensation he'd thought lost to him. Miss Otsuka pulled him to the floor.
"I will teach you what to do. You will be my successor."
"Yes," he breathed into her hair, and down her shoulder, and into the hollow of her vulnerable collarbones.
No longer did Kuranosuke fear the haze creeping across his vision. A new sensation was filling his soul. It pulled and tugged his broken and aching self into a bright-hot blaze where the visions of his dying comrades and the devastation left by the American bombers burned and burned until it revealed, among the ashes, a thirst for life.
With a strangled cry, Kuranosuke clasped Miss Otsuka against his body, feeling in her solid presence the power to fan a tiny spark of light beginning to glow inside him. Miss Otsuka put a hand to his face, the bloodstains on her fingers mixing with the tears streaming from his eyes. Kuranosuke was sobbing, gasping in the steam-filled air.
Despair dissipated. His eyes filled with the red haze of a fierce joy that he welcomed, opening himself to the feeling of power he had felt before only in a bomber's cockpit.
He would embrace this destiny as he now embraced the flesh and bone woman before him. He would make it his own, this place where blood and politics mixed to forge his country anew, this Valley of Darkness.
Illustration by Wolf A. Read
K. Bird Lincoln is an English as a Second Language teacher in San Francisco. Despite a happy marriage and dabblings in Spanish and Japanese, English remains her one true love. In the sparest of her spare time, she edits fiction for Nuketown Webzine. For more about her writing, see her Web site.