Taka had the covers ripped from her. She groaned, goose pimples running across her skin. Last night’s revelries hit her slowly, making her head pound. She heard people moving in a world she didn’t care about.
Taka’s eyes fluttered open, just in time for the water. Cold! She yowled, and kicked out. Odette stumbled and her empty bucket clattered to the floor. It rolled away on the bare floorboards and knocked against the screen blocking dawn’s approaching light. The screen was promptly moved to one side. Taka snarled uncertainly.
“A miserable excuse for a demon,”
Sibyl stood in the doorway. Tall and regal, she was dressed in winter finery, her face the colour of death. Taka wrung water from her hair and flicked it. A fan clicked open and deflected the droplets.
“Wash and dress her. They will be gone before the sun has finished waking,”
Sibyl said in her imperious tone. Then she was gone. Odette picked up another bucket.
Sibyl stood by the door. Situated furthest from the nobility the furnishings were sparse. Old mats littered the floor and battered oil lamps provided scarce heat. Still, it was alive this morning with the passage of servants. They carried packs and bundles, politely ignoring her. She returned their courtesy. Whenever a servant slid open the door, frigid air flooded in. By the time Taka appeared the corridor was freezing. Taka waved a parasol cheerfully. Sibyl was silently impressed. Odette had even managed to pin that untameable hair.
“You did not harm her I trust,” said Sibyl in greeting.
Taka made a face, flouncing around the corridor in her fur lined dress. “She’s gone to change out of her wet clothes,”
Sibyl gestured to the door. A servant opened it automatically, the morning breeze washed over them.
“Why do we have to be up this early?” complained Taka, lurching into the gathering dawn.
Sibyl lifted her dress off the ground and stepped after her. “Because, dear sister, we have failed,”
They made their way down the frost limned path to the house’s central yard. A great crowd, horses, men and servants milled in equal measure.
“So, can we die or what?” Taka opened the parasol and waved it in the air. Its shaft began to glow, like it was made from a stick of light.
Sibyl paused, fan pressed to her lips “What is that?”
“I found it,” Taka protested. The parasol stuck out like a sore thumb.
Sibyl’s tone did not change “Dispose of it.”
The glow shifted colour, slowly it suffused with aquamarine.
“If we get to start tomorrow morning how I want,” said Taka, one eye on the pretty colours.
There were shouts from the yard beyond. Time moved on without them.
“Your word is your bond,” Taka reminded Sibyl.
The fan clicked shut. Sibyl nodded.
An army gathered in the courtyard. Horses bucked beneath their armour. Flags fluttered, hanging off the backs of men. They were pretty, though something seemed missing. Servants hurried back and forth, presenting bundles. The warriors armed themselves with sword or spear and bow. A precious few bore matchlocks, revealed briefly from lacquer cases. Some men practiced, some chatted, some merely waited. It all seemed a bit pointless to Taka. If you wanted to kill someone go and do it. Waiting around dragged the whole thing out. She stood on the sidelines by Sibyl, parasol stabbed into the ground. They shivered, though Sibyl pretended not to. They were positioned far from the growing army yet a black warhorse rode by them. From its back glared Lord Hyun, decked out in armour. Taka thought him wearing a mask until his scowl twitched. Sibyl bowed to him. To Taka’s amazement he returned the acknowledgement. He rode out towards the centre and bellowed orders. Taka returned to scanning the crowd and spotted a reason for coming.
He was young, barely a man. He had no helmet leaving loose locks to spill over his shoulders. He practiced with a spear, testing its balance and heft. When done he held it to the naked sky. Then his eye caught hers. They stared at each other, transfixed. Taka searched for a ribbon and roughly pulled it free. Her hair spilled out to one side. The young warrior mounted his horse and rode towards them. Sibyl glanced between them.
“May I ask what you are doing?”
She was ignored.
The horse pranced before the women, unwilling to settle. Sibyl felt the eyes of others turn, especially Hyun, leaning forward to watch.
The warrior lowered his spear “My lady, I ride to battle, perhaps to death. I beg you to bestow your favour that I might live to return it,”
Taka shook her head, eyes unfocused. “Ride out in this battle, young lord, and you shall not return,”
Fear gripped the warrior’s heart “Is there no hope of victory?”
The woman smiled with a great sadness “Far from it. You alone will decide your clan’s fate, and your own,”
He hesitated only a moment. “May I make my ancestors proud,” He offered the tip of his spear, she bound her ribbon about it.
Sibyl gently brushed an eyebrow. Her fan opened and shut repeatedly, clicking each time.
“What was that?”
Taka smiled playfully “Now it’s pretty,”
Sibyl sighed “A little more warning perhaps. Indeed, any at all would be a marvel,”
Taka patted her on the shoulder “You do your thing, I do mine,”
A roar drowned Sibyl’s response. The soldiers thrust their spears to the sky. It was time for war.