1. The Healer's Sister
1. The Healer's Sister
Once, in a land unknown to the civilised and dreary world, there lived a young maiden. She was of age twenty; and she lived alone. Her habitat had not always been lonesome. She had had an elder brother. Oh, what a man he was! Having taken an orphaned girl-child under his care, he had devoted his entire life to her and the kingdom's service. He held the most honourable yet the most responsible title in the peasantry. He was the Healer. After his untimely and much mourned death, the title and the job fell on her nimble shoulders. She was the Healer's sister before; and soon to become the Healer herself.
The girl, for she was far too young to be deemed a woman, was difficult. She had known so; the village had known so. The outbursts of her scathing temper and the tremors that followed were common to the villagers. They called her the "red-headed snippet". She loathed that name and she loathed whoever referred to her by the same. Undisputedly, she had a dollop of thick red hair on her head. She was fierce when provoked, true. But she was a person. She was Kaori. Why couldn't they simply call her Kaori? It was a beautiful name! Did they have to refer to her temper, to her naivety, to her sex, to her loss, to her solitude and to her shortcomings all in one phrase – the red-headed snippet? Oh, bother. She would ignore them; make them believe that their insults had no effect on her. However, she failed miserably at that. It was just a matter of time after she had been called or taunted by the use of her more popular name that she would swing someone by their leg or bash a barrel on their head. Her brother would intervene then. He would ask her to be more tolerant, to ignore them in action and not just thoughts.
She had learned to live with "red-headed snippet" though it hurt her. Would she ever be able to live with those pitying stares? Would her ears ever turn deaf to the hushed murmuring filled with scorn and relief? And would her head, set on a graceful neck of which she was proud, ever raise itself again and turn her eyes towards the people who had made a mockery of her all these years? She walked on. Her head was bent. Her steps were timid but quick. No one dared call her a red-headed snippet then. They were preoccupied lamenting over her fate and being grateful for their own.
In such times of peril as she had never been a witness to before, Kaori sought the shelter of her friend – Kazue, daughter of the village librarian. Kazue's father had been pushing daisies for ten and two years now, and the girl had undertaken the care of the archives and the whole of the library when she was ten and four years old. Yet no one had ever referred to her as the librarian. She was a woman who could read! Was that not preposterous enough that further she be given an individual title?
Kazue looked up from the large roll of papers she was reading. She said plainly,
"Kaori. Do come and sit close to me"
Kaori sat opposite her across the large oak counter which the librarian had made by hand in his days. She shifted once to adjust the hem of her dress having forgotten to hold it before sitting down.
(Red-headed boyish snippet!)
Kaori thanked Kazue and said,
"How are you?"
Kazue lifted her eyes off her friend's black dress and said,
"I am quite well, thank you"
She added after a pause,
Kaori smiled a little,
"I have been better before"
"I...", Kazue changed the course of her sentence, "I do not wish to hurt you by discussing the tragic event again, Kaori, but it has only been a week. You are still in mourning. Why did you step out of the house?"
Kaori answered feebly,
"I was lonesome"
"Oh dear", Kazue said, "I was going to visit you in the evening. Have I not done that the past seven days?"
"You have and I am grateful. But I...", Kaori fumbled for the right words, "I feel rather queer to-day. It seems to me that something is going to happen"
"You are tired and depressed, love. I am sure it is nothing significant"
"Do you think the King will make me the Healer?"
Kazue let go off the sheet of paper in her hand. The only other person in the library, a lad studying to be a vet, glanced at the girls with suspicion. Kazue said to Kaori, her voice smaller than before,
"Well, you could ask him to reconsider it. You could plea on the grounds of your sex. If he takes pity on you, he might refrain from making you..."
The last two words never left her mouth. She rolled the sheets of paper absently and stacked them in one of the wooden cylinders next to her chair. A sharp pang of dread hit her behind the ears when she heard Kaori say,
"But I want to be the Healer"
Kazue bent forward towards her friend and whispered sharply,
"Have you lost your mind?"
Kaori looked up in trepidation,
"I have not. Is it not right that I, being the rightful heiress, get to succeed to my brother's position?"
"It might be right in terms of formality, but it is madness. I won't let you indulge in madness"
She was frowning,
"I do not understand why you are against this, Kazue! It is my responsibility. I am Hideyuki Makimura's sister. And it befalls on me to ensure that the occupation my brother possessed is not tarnished by the appointment of someone who is not fit to do the job"
"And you fancy that YOU are fit to do the job? Oh, confound it!", Kazue heard herself swear and regretted it earnestly. She walked away from the counter, appeared from behind one of the bookshelves and walked towards Kaori. She said to her,
Kaori did. Kazue grabbed her arm and walked her to the backdoor. She said,
"God forbid me from saying so, Kaori, but it will be a cold day in Hell before I let you do anything as stupid and reckless as taking the appointment. You are to stay with Miki for an hour and I will join you for supper. Stay there, do you understand?"
"No", Kazue's face was cold and stern, "Do not argue with me, young lady. Now go over to Miki's alehouse and stay there. Help her with something until I get there. Go on now"
"This is unfair"
Kaori kicked a pebble near her feet. It tossed and landed a good ten feet away on the path.
"I just want to do what is right. Why is that such a sin all of a sudden? I hate this!"
She still had the frown on her brow when she approached Miki's alehouse. There was a hullabaloo of loud noises and yapping from within. Miki's alehouse was always crowded and bustling. Most of her customers were there to see her rather than lose themselves in the deliciousness of her pudding and the chatter in the boozer. Perhaps, those noises would help in drowning out the ones in her head. Kaori stepped into the alehouse. The room grew quiet within a minute. The silence reached its arms across the whole room and reigned. Sentences were left unfinished. Morsels were held in the air. There was no tapping of lager mugs on the tables. All the pairs of eyes, and the single eye of the man in the farthest corner, were on her. Kaori's chest heaved and she strained to control her rapid breathing. Before the churning dread in her stomach could turn to foam, Miki rushed to her, whispered,
Even she didn't dare speak the name aloud.
Kaori was escorted into the kitchen. The cook looked back from her stove and pressed a hand to her chest. She exclaimed,
"She is in mourning, for God's sakes!"
Miki scolded her in a hoarse tone,
"Go on about your business now, Gertrude"
Gertrude shook her head and stirred the stew. Kaori said to Miki,
"I did not mean to disturb your customers... or your servants, Miki, forgive me. Kazue asked me to wait here for her"
"She was right in doing that. Do not fret, girl. You can stay here for as long as you want. I will make sure no one bothers ye"
The foreign ‘ye’ escaped from Miki's mouth on occasion; she had grown up in a village far into the west of the kingdom. She passed her hands over her thighs, smoothing the rumpled dress, and stood up. Kaori thanked her and watched her turn to the door. The chatter which had resumed in the alehouse died again and Miki instinctively halted. A shadow expanded over the small room and Kaori saw Miki smile like a spirit.
A tall and large – nay, a giant of a – man lowered his frame from the shoulders to enter the kitchen. His magnificence became impressionable when his shadow alone kept the light from the candles from touching another part of the tiny kitchen. Terror gripped Kaori's heart. She instinctively rose, and stood behind her chair, her back pressed against the damp wall. Before she could ask Miki to step away from the dark, gigantic man, Miki said in a voice Kaori had never heard before.
It was too dark for Kaori to see the man's face but the glint from his armour caught her eye. He was a soldier. It took Kaori a moment to realise that the heavy and sharp voice of the man was addressing her.
"Kaori Makimura, sister of Hideyuki Makimura, you are summoned to the Royal Court by order of the King, Lord bless him, to-day on the 7th day of the fourth month in another prosperous year of His Majesty".
Miki said to him,
"You are not here to see me?"
The soldier seemed to ignore her and waited for Kaori to speak. All she could say was,
"Me, you say?"
He grunted and for a moment, Kaori believed he would kill her in that very cold little room. Miki protested,
"Ye cannot! Y-you cannot take her, Falcon. You know what it means"
He did not make any remark or reply. Kaori heard him say,
"Follow me, Kaori Makimura"
Miki took a step forward and touched the man's hand. The soft glow of the stove-fire from Gertrude's corner of the kitchen weakly illuminated Miki's little white hand on the man's dark and grotesquely large one. Despite of her distress, Kaori blushed at the sight and averted her eyes. Miki pleaded with him,
"Falcon, please. She is just a child. You know she can't..."
Kaori looked again precisely in the moment when Falcon's thumb lightly brushed Miki's palm and Miki ceased to speak. His tone was much softer this time, as he said,
"I am under the order of the King himself. My hands are cuffed... Miki"
Miki released his hand with a sigh and turned to look at Kaori.
The alehouse was cold and grave when the knight in his shining armour strode out and Kaori Makimura followed close behind. All in the alehouse witnessed the soldier leading the Healer's sister to a dreaded fate. Or say, a guillotine.