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Yumi: A Flame in the Mist Short Story by Renée Ahdieh (1)


The letter arrived at dawn.

Even from a distance, Yumi recognized her brother’s seal. The sight caused her heart to leap from her chest. Tsuneoki never sent messages to her okiya in Hanami. Since the day she first came to Inako, his favorite thing to say to her was this: It’s too much of a risk. Tsuneoki did not want anyone associating Yumi with any member of the Black Clan. Years ago, they’d devised an intricate way of communicating through symbols. Small letters marked with a specific seal, left in specific places to convey specific meanings.

But this morning Tsuneoki had written to her directly.

As soon as her trusted maidservant, Kirin, took hold of the folded piece of washi, Yumi hurried to the young woman’s side. Kirin’s nose was wrinkled, the freckles sprinkled across it distinct.

“My lady?” she said under her breath. “Why would Lord Tsune—”

Yumi held a finger to her lips. Without a word, she took the letter from Kirin’s hands and made her way toward her private chambers, so that she could read Tsuneoki’s message without the chance of anyone seeing its contents. Inako had always been a city that traded on secrets, and it was foolish to take any risks. Just as her brother always said.

As the thought crossed Yumi’s mind, bitter amusement curled in her throat. Tsuneoki’s words had found purchase, despite her many attempts to disregard them. It was true her brother had been successful in some ways.

Yumi’s gaze hardened. But not in all.

She tore through the seal securing the folded washi. The image of overlapped bear claws split in two beneath her fingers. The letter within was short, the scrawl hurried. Dismay crossed her features first. Then fear, followed by fury.

Her brother and his men had been discovered. Their safe haven had been put to flame, and a third of their ranks had perished in the ensuing onslaught. Ōkami had sacrificed himself to spare the rest of the Black Clan. At this moment, he was bound in chains, being led toward the imperial city by Prince Raiden and the Dragon of Kai.

Yumi’s eyes narrowed, a renewed flare of anger cutting deeply through her chest.

Only two days ago, she’d learned disturbing things about Hattori Kenshin. Whispers passing among the nobility. A missive—signed with the symbol of a fox—suggesting he was responsible for the deaths of innocents in Jukai forest. Of people Yumi had laughed alongside and known since childhood. Since . . . before she and her family had lost everything.

Her eyes passed over Tsuneoki’s scrawl again.

Prince Raiden and Lord Kenshin were bringing Ōkami to Inako. Undoubtedly this was for the purpose of putting the son of Takeda Shingen on display. Yumi would not have been surprised to learn they intended to make a spectacle of his death. Such a show of might would hold even more meaning now.

For Inako had become an imperial city in mourning.

Yesterday the word had spread through the streets like a fire through an oil slick. The emperor had died, under suspicious circumstances. His wife had found his lifeless body floating in a pond beside the moon-viewing pavilion.

In the next breath, Minamoto Roku ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Yumi breathed deeply. She crumpled Tsuneoki’s letter in her fist. Blinked hard to clear her thoughts. Too much had taken place recently. There were so many things with which to worry herself. So many things that could go wrong and upend the life her brother had painstakingly constructed for her. A life apart from violence.

As a celebrated maiko, Yumi had been granted many opportunities—the kind most women at the highest echelons of the imperial court would long to have. Freedoms were afforded to the girls in her situation.

But Yumi lived in a nothing but a gilded cage. Even if she was allowed access to books and knowledge forbidden to most women—even if she was allowed to laugh and speak and comport herself in venues most women were never granted the opportunity to see—it did not change the painful truth: once her feet left the vaunted ground of Hanami, she was nothing more than a pretty girl, to be used and discarded at a man’s whim.

Even in Hanami, there were times she knew she could not escape this fact. The highest goal of any geiko was to find a wealthy benefactor. In the end—even with all her freedoms—Yumi would always be beholden to a man.

Anger simmered behind her heart.

She needed a way to take meaningful action, however small. If Yumi were to ask her brother how she could help, Tsuneoki would smile as though he were indulging her. He did not wish to involve Yumi in most of his undertakings, beyond the risks she already took. Her position as one of the most sought-after maiko in all of Hanami afforded her a way to obtain valuable information. Perhaps it was even one of the reasons Tsuneoki had first brought her to Hanami. For the last two years, she’d quietly passed along any news of note. Which advisor met with which warlord in secret. Which lady of the court dawdled near the barracks of the imperial guard. Which daimyo paid for information on happenings far beyond his purview.

But it was not enough for Yumi. Not anymore.

She was tired of living like a sheltered bird, unable to truly soar.

Behind her, Kirin drew the sliding doors shut with a snick. Yumi turned to meet her maidservant’s steady appraisal.

“My lady?” Kirin frowned. “Your face has lost all color.”

Yumi sighed. A glance in the mirror nearby indicated the truth of Kirin’s words. “I know.”

“May I bring you something? Tea, perhaps? A bowl of broth?”

Yumi shook her head. “Thank you, but no.”

A tentative expression passed across Kirin’s features. “It pains me to see you so troubled, my lady. What can I do?”

“I wish I knew.”

Kirin nodded. Without a word, the maidservant made her way toward the small tansu chest positioned in the corner of Yumi’s personal chamber. From its confines, she unearthed a set of folded garments and brought them to her mistress.

“Perhaps you should take in the morning from above, my lady,” Kirin said. “A change in perspective can often bring about a measure of clarity.” The maidservant’s eyes sparkled in their centers, a cheeky light taking shape.

A slow smile curved across Yumi’s face. Kirin was right.

She needed to fly. To feel free, like the wind, if even for only a moment.

Yumi dashed across the curved tiled roof. The arches of her sandaled feet gripped the baked clay surfaces. She stopped once she reached the edge of the roofline. Then—before anyone could look up—she crouched atop the tile.

Her heart pounded against the smooth clay, exhilaration coursing through her veins. She took in the sight below of the crowd milling about in the main square of the market. Somber faces traipsed about the space. The air above them felt restrained. Hushed.

Yumi continued watching as the people of Inako went about their day, purchasing wares, selecting fruits, or stopping to admire a puppet show performed as a distraction for children. A part of her longed to join them. Of late, there had been several occasions when she wanted to be one among many, able to move about without judgment or notice. But if Yumi ventured into the square dressed as a maiko, she would catch unwanted stares. Whispers would follow in her wake. By design, women such as she were not afforded chances to move among the city’s denizens.

Yumi took a deep breath. Held it in her lungs until she thought they would burst. Then exhaled with care. As soon as a sense of calm descended on her, the contents of a new puppet show drew her attention.

It was meant to celebrate the life of Minamoto Masaru, the recently fallen emperor. Such performances were not unusual. There were likely to be many shows of all sorts intended to pay homage to their late heavenly sovereign. He had perished less than two days ago, and—true to form—already the people were being fed lies about him. Frustration barreled up Yumi’s throat as she considered the small children, their attention rapt, listening to tales of the emperor’s greatest achievements.

A part of Yumi wished to take action. Wished to splash water on the puppets or drop rotten food onto the men behind the stage, who fed these innocent minds such trash.

But it was likely not their fault. These men had likely been fed the same falsehoods for most of their lives. It was treasonous to see the emperor in anything but a godly light.

And today was not the day for Yumi to draw unnecessary attention.

Yumi braced herself for the inevitable moment when the puppet masters would recall how the great emperor routed traitors from his midst. Punished those who dared to challenge him.

Takeda Shingen and Asano Naganori.

Ōkami’s father. Yumi’s father.

Sorrow was a difficult emotion for Yumi to silence. It was getting harder for her to conjure images of her father’s face. Her mother—who now lived the life of a monk in a village far from the imperial city, tending to a garden outside a shrine—trembled whenever Yumi asked her to speak about him. Her mother had lost so much, and the stately woman’s temperament had frayed under the strain of all she’d had to endure. Her husband’s supposed treachery. A son who’d strayed from his intended path.

A daughter who served the same nobles who’d turned their backs on the Asano clan.

Yumi was distracted from her thoughts by a new puppet wandering from the shadows, clearly meant to depict Ōkami’s father, the crest of the Takeda clan flashing above its brow. The children laughed at his oafishness. Then they cackled more when the puppet representing Asano Naganori passed gas that fanned the entirety of the front row in attendance.

Yumi turned from the laughter. The sort of laughter that should have brought with it a smile. She’d always loved the sound of a child’s joy. It was the kind that remained pure and filled with wonder.

Today it felt like ash on her tongue.

Wishing to prevent herself from experiencing any further pain, Yumi stood and moved along the ridgeline. She started slowly, then ratcheted her movements to a sprint. When she neared the ledge, she leapt across the yawning space before tucking her body into a roll. Still she did not stop. Her hair came undone around her face, the tiles flew past her in a blur, but her heart and mind moved as one, spurred onward.

She ran over the rooftops—flying above the city—until she neared her intended destination.

When Yumi came to a halt, her feet almost slid from under her. The sudden wash of fear sent another spark of energy through her blood. This was as close as she’d ever dared to come to Heian Castle. Just across the way were the first of the barracks housing the imperial guards. In the distance—the sun beaming down on its seven gabled rooftops—stood the heart of the empire.

Briefly Yumi wondered if there had ever been a moment in the late emperor’s life in which he’d regretted the events of his past. Her father had been one of his closest friends from childhood. He, the emperor, and Takeda Shingen had all fought alongside each other. Did he ever regret bringing about the deaths of his friends?

Did he ever wonder what would have happened if he’d listened to their advice?

Her brow furrowed at the thought. It didn’t matter if he’d felt any remorse. These men—these friends—were all dead now. All before their times.

In the end, everyone would follow the same path.

The time Yumi had left was what mattered most. She was tired of being Tsuneoki’s messenger. Tired of being nothing more than a pretty face.

But mostly she was tired of being told what to do. A rational part of her knew there was little she could achieve on her own. But she’d watched the people of Inako for years, concealed high above them. She’d listened to what ailed them. She’d smiled at their hopes. She’d tucked away their fears. And even if Yumi knew she was a drop in an ocean, she also knew the smallest stone rolling down a mountain could bring about an avalanche.

Tomorrow, when the emperor’s funeral procession began its march through the city streets, Yumi would start making her own decisions.

She stood tall along the roofline. Glared at the golden rooftop of the imperial castle.

The men inside did not know who she was now. But soon they would never forget.

Her name was Asano Yumi.

And any man—or woman—who stood in her way did so at their own peril.



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