IN THE BEGINNING, dark water flooded the earth.
Kita, the Goddess of Land and Rice, built a staircase out of lightning and stepped down from the sky.
She dipped her nimble fingers into the black oceans and sculpted from the rocky depths the lands of Honoku. From her body, she made the terrain. Her eyelashes became forests, dense with trees. Her tears of joy became the oceans, rough with salt. Her breath became the desert, hot with sand. And with her fingernails, she created an impassable mountain range, one of extraordinary danger and height.
Delighted by her cleverness, she bragged to her fellow gods and goddesses.
Sugita, her brother, God of Children, Fortune, and Love, perpetually prone to jealousy, refused to be overshadowed. From the land, he gathered clay and molded figures.
The first were yokai.
Sugita’s imagination ran wild, and he fashioned these spirits, monsters, and demons, these otherworldly creatures, with blue, white, and yellow skin. Some he fashioned with horns; some without. Some he locked forever in childhood. To others he gave two mouths or fifteen fingers, long necks, ten hundred eyes, or shriveled heads. The yokai were as limitless as the magic within them.
The second were human.
These he made in his own image, relatively uniform in appearance, with ten fingers and ten toes, each with a single mouth, and with hair upon their heads. Soon enough, Sugita recognized the weakness in his design. He had given yokai vast powers, whereas he had given the humans none. So he gifted the latter with a second language—curses that may be spoken or written to ward off the yokai, strip them of their powers. In this way, a balance might be established.
And to all—yokai and human alike—he bestowed a mortal heart.
Finally, he took the human that bore him the strongest resemblance and set him upon the most fertile land. He touched the human’s brow with his thumb and drew a smudge between his eyebrows. All would know that he was favored by the gods and goddesses. So it was.
The human was called Emperor.
Ruler of the land.
BREATHING IN THE DARK, and not her own.
Mari tilted her head. She couldn’t see in the pitch-black, but she closed her eyes. It helped her focus. She knew this space well, this room with no windows and an almost airtight door. Sometimes the musty smell invaded her dreams, morphed them into nightmares. The Killing Room, and Mari was executioner.
She inhaled, holding the stale air in her lungs. There, in the right corner, two feet away, someone waited. Afraid.
Mari stepped forward, the floorboards creaking under her weight.
“P-p-please,” a high-pitched male voice wailed.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, letting a note of reassurance enter her voice. Not yet, anyway. She probed the wall. Her fingers brushed against a wooden ledge, then paper pulled tight over a bamboo frame. Matches rested next to the lamp. She struck one and lit the cotton wick, illuminating the room in a soft glow. The scent of rapeseed oil crept through the air. When her eyes refocused, she saw that the man was dressed in hakama pants and a surcoat. Samurai garb. The uniform of the military elite.
“Gods and goddesses,” he said, mouth lifting into a sneer, “I thought you were one of them. Why, you’re no taller than a sapling! What happened, little girl, did you lose your mommy?”
Mari regretted her paltry effort to comfort him. That’s what you get for being nice. Men. They always underestimated her.
Opposite the man, a variety of weapons leaned in the corner: a sickle and chain, a bow and arrow, a nunchaku . . . Mari gestured toward them. “Choose.” She liked to give the men a fighting chance. I’m sporting that way.
The samurai huffed. “You don’t know what you ask, little girl. I trained at the Palace of Illusions with the shogun himself.”
Mari clenched her teeth. This was growing tedious. “I said, choose your weapon.”
The samurai strolled to the corner. He rifled through the weapons and selected a katana and a wakizashi.
Predictable. The long and short swords were samurai weapons. Her opponent brandished them, sharp-edged steel blades glittering in the lamplight.
Mari sauntered to the corner and quickly chose her own instrument. Always the same. The naginata. The reaping sword was a long bamboo pole culminating in a wicked curved blade. Thought to be a woman’s weapon, none of her opponents ever selected it. It was the only weapon Mari knew how to wield. “If you train on all weapons, you will master none,” her mother always said.
Mari stamped the naginata on the ground. Dust billowed around the hem of her navy kimono. “I’m very sorry, but from this moment, you’re dead,” she said, unsheathing the blade.
The samurai laughed, the sound robust and biting.
Mari cut his chortle short. She dipped into a crouch, letting the pole end of the naginata swing out in an arc, clipping the back of the samurai’s knees.
He collapsed with a loud thud. Mari winced. The big ones always fall the hardest.
“That was a mistake,” he said, clambering to his feet. He crossed the swords in front of him, a dangerous glint in his eye.
At least he’s taking me seriously now. “No,” Mari corrected. “That was intentional.”
The samurai rushed her, and she followed suit. The blade end of her naginata clashed against his big sword. Sparks flew.
The samurai jabbed with the smaller sword, and Mari dodged. A hairsbreadth from being impaled. That was too close. Her pulse quickened with fear and excitement. This samurai is well-trained. Before the samurai could pull back, Mari began twisting the naginata, catching both of his weapons in the windmill. Forced to let go, the samurai dropped his swords, which scattered to the ground, a few feet away. Well-trained, but not as well-trained as I.
She couldn’t allow him time to take a breath, to reach for his weapons. End this. She snap-kicked, her right foot connecting with his abdomen. The samurai grunted and doubled over. He clutched his stomach a...