by Esther Davis
“Can I see your scar?”
Makoto’s slender fingers brushed his palm. Outwardly, Ichirou remained calm, gaze still fixed on the white and orange coy fish drifting in the shallow pond below. But Ichirou’s breath caught in his throat. Electricity built on the flesh of his excited heart. This energy could’ve cast a dangerous spell in battle.
Ichirou turned to face her while his free hand fell in his pocket. His fingers grasped the cold ring hidden inside. “I call it a scar, but it’s a bit more than that.”
Makoto blushed then turned away, letting black hair fall in front of her face. “If it’s too personal…”
Ichirou hesitated. Ever since scratching the final stroke into his own shoulder, Ichirou had sworn himself to secrecy. But if he must share the burden with someone, he could trust Makoto.
He grasped Makoto’s hand. She jolted. Ichirou smiled. “You can see. But first, I must show you something else. Come.” He took off sprinting down the dirt path. Makoto laughed and followed.
Their sandals clopped over wooden planks of a red bridge. Undergrowth brushed the skirt of his dark kimono. A monkey screeched from the surrounding bamboo forest. A crane splashed into the pond.
Ichirou stopped in a patch of dirt, Makoto just a few paces behind. He rolled a stone to the center of the clearing and sat Makoto on it. As he clasped her shoulders, the static inside his ribcage told him of more sparks growing across his heart. Meeting her smiling, brown eyes made it pound faster. Yes, this would be a potent one.
“Have you heard of the Spell Casters?” he asked.
“You mean the Witches? In the west countries?”
“No, not the herb brewers. The Spell Casters come from another breed of mage. One that can infuse power into their writing.”
Makoto’s eyes closed a moment, processing. “Maybe rumors.”
“They live in the southern regions. Most folks here don’t believe in them.” Which was why he came north.
Ichirou released her shoulders and stepped into the ferns for a stick. Near the edge of the bamboo, the greenery shook from the movement of some large animal. Ichirou squinted at it. He waited, listening for snapping stems.
After a moment of silence, he returned to the bare dirt. “Have you heard of Tora Oosama?”
Makoto flinched. “The tyrant? Why?”
Ichirou’s heart faltered, electrical sparks flickering out. The sudden venom in her voice made him doubt his resolve to share.
He stabbed the stick into the dirt, then dragged it with him as he drew a large circle around Makoto and her rock, silent.
The stick came full circle. Ichirou finally found courage to speak. “What do you know?”
“Tora overthrew the southern kingdoms in history’s bloodiest war. That’s why my family fled north. Right after Tora’s soldiers killed my mother.”
All but the smallest flecks of electrical buoyancy sank from Ichirou’s heart. Even if he still wanted to cast the spell, it wouldn’t have much flare. He clutched his stick and stared into the pond.
Ichirou didn’t speak, didn’t even turn. His eyes remained fixed on the crane as it speared fish swimming between its feet, but his mind didn’t register the picture.
He couldn’t tell Makoto. Not now. She’d hate him.
Makoto’s voice—full of panic, not accusation.
Ichirou spun. Makoto leapt from her seat.
A bear burst from the forest, white foam dripping from its mouth.
Ichirou grasped Makoto with one arm and wielded the stick with the other. Without thought his slashed four strokes into the ground. 火 Hi. Fire.
His stick-drawn circle flared to life, scarlet flames sprang from the dead earth. The bounding bear reared, showing the white crest on its underside. Makato screamed.
The bear fell back on all fours, glowering. It paced the along the edge of the flames. Froth dripped from its jaw.
The fire could keep the bear at bay, maybe. But no sane creature walked that close to fire. The foaming mouth, the wild eyes—all pointed to a diseased mind.
The bear paused, then inched a paw towards the flames. It winced at the heat but didn’t pull away.
Ichirou clenched his jaw.
A singed paw planted itself inside the fiery circle. Claws dug into the dirt. The bear roar.
Tendons tightened up and down its leg. The bear charged through the curtain of fire.
Ichirou planted the stick in the ground, stepped forward, and hid Makoto behind him in one swoop. His sword whistled as it left its sheath.
Electricity once again danced across Ichirou’s heart, this time produced by fear. He sliced his blade through the air. Powerful, precise strokes. 雷 Kaminari. Thunder.
Blue sparks gathered on Ichirou’s blade and sizzled the air. A blinding sphere of light grew on the sword’s tip. Ichirou thrust. Lightning shot across the clearing, through the flames, and into the bear’s heart. The bear collapsed.
Ichirou panted. Sweat dripped from his scalp. The scar on his shoulder throbbed.
The flames died to a circle of embers. Ichirou lowered himself onto Makoto’s rock.
“I see,” she said.
Ichirou leaned forward, trying to slow his breath. He couldn’t make out the emotion in Makoto’s voice, but he’d lost the energy to care anymore.
“Tora Oosama, he was a Spell Caster too,” Ichirou said.
Makoto stood next to him, crouched. “So, you fought against him?” she whispered.
Ichirou shook his head. Tear’s gathered in his eyes. “Every learner has a teacher. Every apprentice, a master. I called Tora my sensei.”
“I was young. I wanted power and prestige. Tora Sensei offered both.”
Ichirou’s shoulders shook with sobs. Salty streams ran down his cheeks and slipped between his lips. His heart clenched and sparked inside.
“You asked about the scar?” Ichirou paused to dry his face with his kimono sleeve. “Every Spell Caster needs a relic, a source of their power. Traditionally, they choose a stone, a crystal buried into the heart of a mountain, a boulder buried at the bottom of the lake. But Tora was greedy. He didn’t want his apprentices ever drawing more power than him. So, while his relic of power rested hidden in some distant mountain, he taught his apprentices to draw power from their sensei—Tora Oosama—The Great Tiger King.”
Ichirou licked salt from his lips. “So that we’d always stay bound to him, Tora tattooed the spell right into our skin.”
He pulled back his kimono’s black fabric from his shoulder, revealing four violet characters—the first two swirling and beautiful, the last pair crooked and ugly with a web of red scars. 虎使反対 Tora-shi-han-tai.
“Tora-shi,” Ichirou said. “Servant of the Tiger.”
Makoto ran her finger along the scared tattoos. Ichirou struggled not to wince.
“Hantai,” she read. “Anti. It looks different than the others.”
“I traced that one in myself. When I realized Tora’s wickedness, I fled. But that meant ripping away my relic of power. I drew a new spell into my own skin. For weeks, I struggled casting even the simplest of spells.”
“But now you can do… magic, again?”
“You found a new relic?”
“I used to feel power flow through my master into my own frame, coursing up and down my spine, bring my whole body to life,” Ichirou said. “But now I only feel magic in one place. My heart.” He paused, feeling minuscule sparks gather in that very spot. “And my magic flows from you.”
Ichirou found his strength again. Taking Makoto’s hand, they stood together. He forced himself to meet her eyes. “I hope you can forgive a servant of the Tiger.”
Makoto shook her head and smiled. “Tora-shi-hantai. You are no longer his servant.”
Energy swelled in Ichirou’s heart, more powerful than he’d ever felt. It seemed to light his whole frame, invigorate every fiber of his being.
Ichirou’s hand slipped into his pocket and removed the golden ring he’d prepared from tonight—for the woman he loved. “For you, Makoto Fukumoto. A charm of protection and strength.”
Ichirou slipped the golden band onto his wife’s finger and read the lettering that ran along the outside. “That you may always travel the road that leads to blessings’ origin.” He folded her in an embrace and whispered in her ear. “You healed me long before today’s wedding. My magic, and my heart.”
This romance sketch was inspired by my time in Japan. I love the beautiful Japanese culture, especially their kanji, which Ichirou uses to cast spells. Japanese kanji–sometimes called picture writing–represents a large array of ideas and emotions. A perfect formula for magic, if you ask me.
“Servant of the Tiger” and 19 other short stories will appear in my coming book, A Dog, 3 Cats, and a Dragon, which publishes August 1st this year. Make sure to check it out!
読んでくれたありがとうございます！Thanks for reading!