"Arms are instruments of ill omen . . . When one is compelled to use them, it is best to do so without relish. There is no glory in victory, and to glorify it despite this is to exult in the killing of men . . . When great numbers of people are killed, one should weep over them with sorrow. When victorious in war, one should observe mourning rites." —Lao Tzu
Chapter One: Death, Decay, and Destruction
"KEN'ICHI! KEN'ICHI! WHERE . . . where did you go!?"
Her voice . . . it sounds so familiar. Such a lovely melody she makes with her voice.
I feel this incredible warmth on my skin, as if sunbeams are radiating from inside of my body. This fragrance . . . I've smelled it before . . . white plum blossoms. It's her scent.
But where has she gone? I can hear her voice, but I can't see her.
Did I lose her?
He opened his eyes and a mountain of light poured into his view, stinging his vision. He found himself among a field of fresh, vibrant flowers. Blazing orange petals flew across the cloudless azure sky in the open field of bright reds, sad blues, and sunny yellows.
Painted in black.
The character for . . . sword.
Signed onto skin.
He wasn't sure why he was standing there, but he felt at peace, in harmony with the lustrous beauty of nature. He wanted to smile wide, because the multitudes of flowers warmed his soul and awakened his senses to the fragility of the dignified blossoms.
He spun around in a flash, hoping to find the voice that called out his name. He had to know the source of the echo across the plains.
Endless and endless, the sky and the field of flowers danced onward in his vision. There seemed to be no boundary to their magnificent splendor. He knew he was facing in the right direction, but he could only see more blue skies and tinted petals.
Did she . . . disappear? I didn't even get to see her yet.
Only silence welcomed him. There were no chirping song birds or even a single breeze, yet something carried the scattering petals across the air.
Time crawled to an agonizing halt and Ken'ichi remained in the center of nowhere, trying to understand what was happening; what was he supposed to do?
He turned around.
A blade clean and sharp.
Tainted deep red.
His ears heard a whisper in the shout this time. His mouth unfurled and his diaphragm bellowed, uncontrollable. His body moved in this dream world all on its own.
"Umeko!" he found himself answering back.
Her voice was closer now. No, not just her voice. Her spirit. I can feel her . . . My arms are already around her. I'm already holding her
He didn't even realize it, but he had closed his eyes for one second as her essence seemed to envelope him and when he opened them again, she was dashing towards him.
His eyes widened in astonishment, but his arms could not bear the wait of another minute, and so they reached out for her, forming an open circle, waiting for her to join him once more in an eternal union of embrace.
Sprinkles of tears glittered down her rosy face and illuminated her gentle, bright brown eyes in sparkling pools of water. Her mouth was half-open in a joyous cry.
Ken'ichi's feet stalked towards her, quickly closing the distance that separated them.
So close . . . they were falling towards each other.
"Ken'ichi . . ."
As he spoke her name, he caught her in his powerful arms and tightened his hands around her waist, securing her safely from descent.
They closed their eyes, shutting out the languid atmosphere, wishing that it would melt away and leave them in tranquil oblivion.
He could hear her soft breathing, which was so quiet it was a miracle he could hear it at all. She murmured against his chest, but he was afraid to let go. If he did, he might lose her again in the never-ending field.
"Kore wa . . . kore wa tsumarani mono desuga," she whispered lightly into the air. "This is not a worthwhile thing, but . . . I brought it for you anyway."
Ken'ichi smiled, pleased that she would be so thoughtful. He squeezed her firmly one more time before he released his hold around her and pulled apart so he could see what she had brought him.
Smeared onto the hands that opened generously before him now.
A gaping black hole opened where her life-giving womb should have been.
The kanji for sword burned into her face.
The flowers withered into blackness. A bitter taste in his mouth. Like blood and sorrow.
She held a white plum blossom in her hands, but its purity was stained with the beads of blood.
Death stole her from him. But he had sent her company.
Graves marked the ground where he once held her. The flowers had died a long, long time ago. Life, he finally understood, could never grow in a wasteland of such death, decay, and destruction.