“Gaijin kusai,” said Sergeant Hiroki Tsukino, who the rest of the platoon knew as Moon. With a sneer and a snort, he looked across the table for moral support.
Takeishi Kano, who occasionally let his sergeants call him Tak, glanced at Emily sitting a few seats away, hoping she hadn’t heard, since he knew she’d understand. The third time club-hopping with their American guests in the Roppongi neighborhood of Tokyo had taken a toll on him, too. But he had other concerns.
“Shut it, Sergeant,” he growled in Japanese.
“C’mon, Captain. How many more hakujin bars do we have to take these guys to?”
“At least it’s not a karaoke bar this time,” Sgt Daisuke Ishikawa offered.
“Tenno, what are they going on about?” Captain Oleschenko asked.
“And do they have to call her that?” Moon said, loud enough to be heard the length of the table. “I mean, what the hell is she playing at with a name like that anyway?”
“Sergeant Tsukino thinks we smell bad, sir,” Emily said.
“We smell bad?” Sgt Durant chuckled. “What the hell does he think he smells like?”
“It’s an old prejudice, from the second world war,” she said. “Japanese didn’t eat much meat in those days, and they thought the GI’s smelled strange, you know, like old butter.”
Kano glowered at his men as she spoke. As irritating as he found her presence, having to guard against offending her made it so much worse. She wasn’t responsible for his father’s death, but she damn well reminded him of the infernal code of honor that propelled him to his end. His father had sacrificed himself to protect her, and he’d done it at the behest of the Crown Princess, even though it required accepting a pretended disgrace in order to go undercover… and even now, three years later, the Imperial Household still refused to acknowledge his sacrifice, or to restore his good name.
“Moon, you eat enough meat to smell like a slaughterhouse,” Sgt Ishikawa roared.
“What do you know about it, Dice?” Sgt Tsukino replied.
“What are they saying now?” Durant asked, and then stood up abruptly, sending his chair clattering behind him. “Because if they’re trying to pick a fight…”
“Take it easy, Sarge,” Oleschenko said. “We’re supposed to be cooperating, remember?”
“Oh, and Sergeant Ishikawa doesn’t care for your singing,” Emily added.
Oleschenko glowered at her, and Durant tilted his head as he digested this new information.
“If he thinks he can do any better…” Durant growled, eyes fixed on Ishikawa, and then paused to consider his sentiment. “I seem to recall hearing singing at a bar around the corner on the way over here.”
Both sides stared at each other in cool silence, until Durant turned to Emily and made a face.
“Well, Sensei, are you gonna translate, or what?”
“Karaoke bar is not needed,” Ishikawa said, in broken English, before Emily had finished relaying Durant’s challenge. “We can sing right here. Do you know El Paso by the magnificent Marty Robbins?”
Ishikawa and Durant howled through three choruses before Kano and Oleschenko managed to pay the bill and push them all out into the street. Well-heeled tourists gaped at the caterwauling, and US Embassy staffers tried to ignore the entire scene as they made their way back to the Embassy housing complex a few blocks away. Kano glanced at a cctv camera on a nearby lamppost and laughed at the thought of how this evening might impact his service record.
“Do you think he even knows where West Texas is?” Oleschenko asked.
Kano waited for Emily to translate, and wondered if her reluctance reflected respect or indifference.
“No, probably not,” he said, once she’d explained the question. “He’s otaku for all things American, especially westerns and gangster movies. That’s why he likes to be called Dice.”
Speaking through her irritated him, but he also understood the importance of developing some sort of rapport with the other gaijin, and maybe some of them seemed worthy of his respect, even Durant-u.
Later, back at the Camp Narashino barracks, where each of them had more or less private quarters, the two sergeants made themselves comfortable in his, with Moon sitting on the floor, back against the wall and both legs stretched across the area next to the bed, making passage difficult, and Dice perched cross-legged on the desk like a Buddha, a hand resting on each knee, the picture of serene meditation, but for the cigarette clinging to his lower lip.
“I don’t understand why she’s even part of their team,” Moon said. “What can she contribute to a deep-recon platoon?”
“Just don’t let Lieutenant Otani hear you talk like that,” Kano said.
“Yeah, next thing you know, she’ll ask to come along, too.”
“I thought she made her value pretty clear this evening,” Ishikawa said. “I mean, there you were, smoldering at the end of the table about old prejudices, and she caught you out.”
“So she speaks a bit of Nihon-go, so what?”
“And Mandarin, and probably Tagalog for all I know. She may turn out to be the indispensable person, once we hook up with the Chinese. And she’s got flight skills. You saw how she handled that CH-46 last week… I mean, after that little rough patch.”
“Little rough patch,” Moon roared. “She almost clipped rotors with Tamaguchi. That was reckless.”
“She’s not timid, you have to give her that.”
“It just feels like the Americans are sticking the proverbial thumb in our eye,” Moon said. “I mean, what good can she really be on any mission? And you know they’re probably laughing about making us accept a hafu on the team… and that name, doesn’t it gall you that she calls herself Tenno?”
“Get over yourself, Moon,” Kano said. “Your hafu-talk has no place in this unit. We have to work with them, and that means working with her. And besides, we’re only doing keyhole-ops, which means she’ll be back on the helo-carrier the whole time.”
“Moon may have a point about one thing, though,” Ishikawa said. “Keyhole-ops have a way of turning noisy when you least expect it. That means we may need her to get us out of a tight situation now and again.”
“I am never addressing her as Tenno-san,” Moon said. “Pilot or linguist, I don’t care what anyone says.”
The growing vehemence of Sgt Tsukino’s remarks on the subject of Lt Tenno troubled Kano, since his own feelings ran parallel to Moon’s, though not for the same reasons. He also knew their duty to the Jietai, the Self Defense Force, demanded more self-control than his sergeant seemed capable of around her. Another, more corrosive thought ate away at his peace of mind, the notion that his loyalty to the Jietai resembled the code of loyalty to the Imperial Household that had gotten his father killed. And Tenno operated on his imagination like a sort of lightning rod, the point of convergence for all these dissonant trains of thought.
“Maybe you can address her as Sensei,” Ishikawa said.
“What the hell are you talking about, Dice?”
“I guess you didn’t notice how Durant-u speaks to her.”
“How’s that?” Moon asked.
“He calls her Sensei,” Kano said. “And that guy’s no paper soldier.”
“So what if he’s charmed by a pretty face?”
“You think she’s pretty?” Ishikawa said. Moon’s blush brought the first bit of levity to the entire evening. Dice rolled out of his lotus position on the desk and smacked him on the back of the head. “She’s too tall for you anyway. And what would your parents say?”
“Enough fooling around,” Kano barked through a smile he tried to squeeze back. He found her attractive, too, and absolutely didn’t want Dice and Moon to know. He could barely admit it to himself, though being taller than the others made his fantasy at least less preposterous.
“Maybe we’ll find out what sort of sensei Durant-u thinks she is at the karate competition tomorrow,” Ishikawa said.
“You mean because of their morning training sessions?” Moon asked. “I’d think that’d make him the sensei.”
“If you think he’s training her, you’re mistaken there,” Kano said.
“You’ve been keeping tabs on them, Tak?”
“I’m just saying he’s the one who does all the bowing.”
“Are you still up for fighting him, Dice,” Moon said, “I mean, knowing his trainer is a girl?”
“Obviously you’ve never heard the legend of wing chun,” Ishikawa said with a snort. “That style is supposed to have been invented by a girl.”
“The Chinese are such jokers.”
Emily crept into Lt Otani’s quarters, trying not to wake her, since she’d been gracious enough to accommodate her. The ride back from Roppongi had taken longer than she expected, and she just wanted to find her bed without making any noise. As it was, she might only get four hours of sleep, and even though she managed to steal a few winks in the back of the van, which she figured Tsukino would take to mean she’s a skank—fushidarana on na—she had no time to care about him or anything else that might keep her awake.
“Michi-san, is that you?” a groggy voice whispered out of the darkness.
“Just me, Kiku-san, don’t worry. Go back to sleep.”
“Too late, I’m awake now. I don’t think I was ever asleep. Why are you so late returning?”
Kiku flicked on a reading lamp, and Emily squinted and crouched down to set up her bed. The unfurled futon fit nicely in a nook behind the desk, with the pillow away from the wall so she could see her host as they talked.
“Ishikawa and Durant got into a singing contest. It took forever to herd them back into the van.”
“No trouble from the authorities, I hope.”
Emily slipped into synthetic running shorts and a light mesh shirt—pajamas for the humid climate; anything heavier would be oppressive, and this outfit streamlined getting up to run in the morning.
“We got away without alarming the police, though I’m not sure about the tourists who had to hear their street opera.”
“I envy you, Michi-san,” she said, out of the blue.
“You are not afraid to socialize with the men.”
“Are you trying to insult me, Kiku?”
“No. Please forgive me. It’s just that I could never do that, and that’s why they’ll never accept me as a soldier.”
“I’m pretty sure most of them won’t accept me either, at least not as a soldier.”
“I think Durant-u accepts you.”
“Perceptive,” Emily had to admit, under her breath, and wondered how dangerous Durant’s behavior might be. Would the others be able to understand how she’d earned his respect?
“That’s nothing,” she said, opting not to unfold their history for Lt Otani.
“He trains with you, and I’ve seen him bow to you out on the field. None of the men would ever bow to me like that. They would only bow because of protocol.”
“What makes you think Sergeant Durant was doing anything different with me?”
“Because Americans don’t bow, and even Japanese don’t bow like that.”
If Kiku had noticed, that meant others would, too, if they hadn’t already. She hoped it wasn’t too late to warn him to tone it down.
“Run with me in the morning, Kiku-san. Durant will probably join us, if he doesn’t have a hangover. Maybe he’ll bow to you, too.”
“I could never do what you do, Michi-san,” she said through reddening cheeks. “You practice karate with him.”
“You’ve had open-hand training. Come with us. Durant won’t mind, even if you show him a new kata.”
“I can’t imagine doing such a thing,” she said with a blush. “But you’re so confident and strong.”
“Kiku-san, that’s what practice does for you.”
Of course, Emily knew Kiku would never agree to train with them, and she didn’t wish to press too hard, or to embarrass her. But she did enjoy pressing a little bit, if it forced Kiku to admit that no one but herself stood in her way. Emily rolled onto her back and watched a patient spider work through the seemingly endless task of stringing a web from the overhead light-fixture to a nearby window frame. Spin out the filament, bind it to a transverse thread and stretch it across the gap. Swing and dangle from the trap, all the while pulling a sticky curtain across a dark corner. The next day would reveal what had been entangled, for good or ill, and show where the reweaving must begin.
Kiku switched off the light, and Emily waited for her eyes to adjust so she could find the spider’s handiwork again, now hiding in its natural element, the darkness. A sudden breeze brushed up against the windows, and Emily imagined the invisible web waving, like a tell-tale atop the mainmast of a corsair, or a sashimono fixed on a pole to a soldier’s back and fluttering above his head to declare the clan he serves. She followed it down the mountain, watching it pitch back and forth as he ran. Her bare feet found the cool dirt and the not-yet trampled grass in the interval between the standard-bearer and the dozens of soldiers who charged behind him. An enemy dug in on the hillside leveled their weapons in anticipation of the clash, and the men running behind Emily dodged as best they could the volley of arrows that whistled through the air. Still, many of the barbed shafts found a mark, though most were not fatal, glancing off the iron and leather piecework of their armor, or tearing idly at the flesh of elbow or shoulder joints. A few found the soft skin of the throat, ripping open an artery; others pierced the groin, where armor was thinner to make running possible, leaving victims to claw the ground in agony.
Another volley brought down a few more soldiers, but plenty of them made it through, the lowly ashigaru lunging in with sharpened yari, trusting the seven-foot pole to keep the enemy at a distance while they stabbed at them with the steel tip. Samurai crashed through the line after them, swinging from horseback with a long sword, the curve keeping the blade from catching on bone or muscle; they slashed at necks and shoulders, sprays of blood blossoming behind them as they went, bellowing a cry in honor of the emperor as their enemies shrieked out the same cry.
Calm amid the mayhem, Emily turned to step through the center of the battle, placing heel in front of toe, breathing slowly and feeling the grass crinkle under her feet and between her toes. Casting her eyes to one side or the other, a red mist collecting on her cheeks, she watched men kill, or be killed, and walked on by. Even as the sun warmed her face, she saw dark clouds rolling toward the battlefield, swirling around the combatants. In the center of a whirlwind dark as thunder, with rain pelting in all directions, she spied the little girl gazing down at her from on high, smiling serenely as she held out a hand as mighty as the wind.
With outstretched arm, Emily rose up on her toes to reach for the girl, and just before their fingers touched, a spark leapt across the gap. When she opened her eyes, she felt the warm sun on her face again, and insects with long, broad wings flitted over the grass, and she heard water babbling nearby. The voice of the Queen of Heaven hadn’t come to her in several years, and she didn’t expect to hear it now, but the little princess had haunted her dreams with increasing frequency of late, even though Emily was no longer permitted to visit the Togu Palace.
Before the first rays of the sun could peek under the window shade, she shook the last wisps of the dream out of her brain and rolled off the futon to find a pair of running shoes.
“C’mon, Kiku-san,” Emily whispered into Lt Otani’s ear. “The sun is up. Time to run.”
“Mrrmph,” Kiku groaned, and rolled over to the other side of her pillow.
Emily let the door click shut behind her, and jogged over to the main field, where the “Fast-Rope” chopper exercises were held. As expected, Durant waited for her there, in olive green shorts and a t-shirt.
“Sensei,” he grunted.
“No, it’ll cause trouble. Stick to protocol.”