by Max Barry

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11

Memories [WIP]



"Swear you won't ever leave me, no matter what?"


"I promise I'll be by your side. Now and forever."



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Part One
Inferno


Never forget the most important person in your life.

1470年10月13日 (土)
13th of October 1470 (Saturday)

Night.

Typically, it's a time for rest, for relaxation, for dreaming and contemplating. And since the time we are children, we are taught that night is always dark. Perhaps on a clear, cloudless night, radiant moonlight may illuminate the clouds. Oil lamps provide warmth and heat inside, of which some escapes into the dark surroundings through paper windows, bringing some faint spots of brightness into the outside world. But after sunset, we all know that night envelops everything around us in its shadows and murkiness.

But today is different.

The typical pitch black of night interrupted by small circles of light has been completely replaced by flames, towering so high and burning with such ferocity as to reverse sunset. Instead of peaceful night, there is only blinding light all around me. Warm wetness comes from the corners of my eyes, and a tear falls down my face as I look at the damage I am standing in front of. Entire buildings have been destroyed, enveloped in an all consuming fire that shows no mercy to anything. Books, roofs, clothing, food- all have become fuel for this unending fire which rages across what's left of my city.

The crackle of wood burning and painful shouting of people nearby is all too painful, and I become acutely aware of a mellow saltiness in my mouth. Those tears I shed have finally reached my mouth. They feel like crystals of pure loss themselves, and I dwell on that for a while.

Suddenly, the shouting of a familiar voice brings my attention back to reality. I turn my head back, and see a girl of medium height and slim stature running towards me urgently: my older sister. Save for her dark hair, we are nearly identical in all aspects, mirror images of each other.

"Are you alright?" she asks me. I'm about to nod if only to reassure her, but decide against doing so halfway. Being so close to one another, she's too familiar with my every emotion to be fooled by my lies. Instead, I tell her the truth. "No," I reply. It takes all my effort to say this single word without crying, and even so I feel as I'm about to burst into tears again.

Something warm brushes on my face, and just when I'm about to wipe away what I think are tears I realise my face has already been dried. Elder sister has embraced me tightly, and she pulls me in towards her.

"I know, little sister," she tells me, her tone as gentle as possible. "We have both lost so much. And yet, we can rebuild." I remain silent, without the strength to speak or move while she holds me carefully. Another memory from years ago comes to the front of my mind, when we first lost our parents. Then, as now, she had comforted me in my devastation.

"But how?" I ask her. "We have lost everything. That which we treasured, it's gone, reduced to nothing in an instant. Our house. Our records, our books, our valuables, our clothes, our city. Do you not feel the same sorrow I do?"

"Almost everything," she corrects me. I do not understand what she means, and look at her questioningly. "What do you mean?" I barely manage to say between outbursts of tears that threaten to choke me. How can she remain calm in a situation like this? At first she said nothing, just pulling me even closer, patting my back gently like when we were young. Finally, she speaks, her voice soft. "I still have you, dear sister. And that's all I need anyways." Overwhelmed with emotion, I'm speechless. I reply the only way I can, crying even more, letting my river of tears fall onto elder sister's shoulder. I'm not sure if I hear correctly, but I think she is holding back tears too.

All I have left in this cruel world now is elder sister. The most important person in my life has become my everything.



Part Two
Moonlight


No matter where fate takes one, bonds will take the other.

1470年10月14日 (日)
14th of October 1470 (Sunday)

I am awakened by the sound of songbirds chirping in the branches of the cherry tree outside the ruins where we stayed last night. Peaking outside, I see much of the burning has already ended, replaced by smoldering ashes and darkest soot. I am also overwhelmed by the immense smell of something like charcoal: clearly, nothing made of wood remains intact in our city. Even the ancient bell tower and shrine, once prominent and proud in our city's landscape, are nowhere to be seen. No doubt our family residence has suffered the same fate as all the other buildings.

"Good morning" I call to little sister, trying to remain as cheerful as I can. Her reply doesn't seem too energetic, so I walk over to the pile of timber under which she's sleeping and check on her. Her long green hair is dirtied with streaks of gray ash carried by wind, as is her face. "Wake up, dear" I tell her, and I'm rewarded with a tired mumble before she closes her eyes again. "Hurry, sister," I call with more urgency. "If we are not fast enough, our escape path may be cut off by those advancing armies. We wouldn't want to be in the middle of their battle." This time her reaction is still slow, but she makes an effort to stand up, still tired.

"I don't feel very well, sister," she tells me as she slides her hair back and wipes some of the ash from her face. I check her temperature with my palm and find nothing abnormal, and tell her the same. Coughing lightly, she looks at me before asking: "Where shall we go next, if we cannot stay here?"

"I do not know," I reply unsurely, even though I would have wanted to give her a more definite answer. "But we will find somewhere. This I am certain of." She accepts my answer, and follows a few steps behind me as we walk through the barren city, surveying the damage. At one point, we exit the old city gates. She looks back longingly for a moment, before pressing on, as if proving her resolve.

After leaving the city, we walk without exchanging a single word for some time, even after our feet begin to ache greatly and our bodies tired from lack of rest. When the sun at last disappears behind the horizon and leaves the evening sky grey, I stop and sit down under a tree. Sister does likewise near a tree opposite me, and we stretch our exhausted bodies, feeling the relief from being able to rest for just a moment.

"How far have we gone?" she questions me.

"About fifty ri north from Kyoto, I think" I reply, and she wordlessly acknowledges with a barely audible sigh. There is no time for us to talk now though. Once night takes over from daytime completely, we will not be able to hunt for food at all. "Stay here," I tell her, before listening closely to the forest around us. I detect the sound of running water a few minutes away, and walk towards there hurriedly.

Not long after, our meal of one large river fish is caught so I make my way back to camp. Sister has been busy gathering branches and kindle while I was fishing, and when she sees my return she lights up the fire with her magic before standing up to welcome me. "Welcome back," she tells me, visibly impressed by the fish I caught. She takes the fish and prepares it, and before long the lovely scent of roasting fish wafts through the air. We watch excitedly before the fish is fully cooked, and bring our palms together to express thanks before eating.

Taking a bite of the cooked fish, I find the taste is wonderful; though there's no salt the soft texture and natural flavours of fish are more than sufficient. Perhaps it's my tired body finally receiving nourishment that makes it seem to delicious, but I don't care the slightest. "I've always envied your cooking ability," I tell sister, to which she smiles embarrassedly, her cheeks flushed slightly with redness.

"And you are the best at hunting."

We laugh loudly, having forgotten our condition. We may be without somewhere to call home, but none of that even crosses our mind right now. The air is fresh, the water is clear, our stomachs are full, and we have one another.

"I love you, little sister," I tell her when we finally prepare to go to sleep.

"I love you too, elder sister," she replies.

Under the gentle glow of the full moon, we express our bond with one another in an exchange that has become habit over the past centuries.

A bond eternal, which I would never forsake. For we are sisters, now and forever.



Part Three
Descent


Live like life is a lie, hold me as if tonight is our last.

1471年4月5日 (金)
5th of April 1471 (Friday)

"Quickly now, Sakura," elder sister calls through the room's closed door as I make to grab the scrolls assigned as calligraphy practice yesterday by teacher. They're exactly where I remembered them to be: on top of my desk, their ink now completely dried. "Coming, sister!" I tell her, arranging my unruly hair one more time. I look in my mirror and mostly satisfied, stand up and slide my door open, greeting sister as I do so. She has an impatient expression on her face, and looks at me sternly when I step out from my room. "Let's go!" she says, and we both say "we're off now" to nobody in particular as we leave the room.

"You're still slow as ever," she tells me on our way to the academy. Without looking back, she continues: "After all these years, haven't you gained any sense of urgency or seriousness?"

"And why would I do such a thing?" I answer her rhetorically. "Isn't living life like this much more fulfilling? If you spend your every day without lightheartedness, then you're bound to become bored of living sooner or later. And what is living without the essence of life?"

"Naive,"she responds."Your way of thinking hasn't changed at all from two hundred years ago, never mind three months ago when we first started attending this academy" "That which is perfect need not change," I reply, and she is consumed in thought. Elder sister and I don't say much on the rest of our walk towards school, and instead look at the scenery together: the steep mountain pass between our home and academy gives us a lovely view of the valley below. Soft sunlight of early springtime bathes us in warmth, while gentle winds scatter both flower petals and their blossom's scent in all directions. Not longer after, we arrive at the academy uneventfully though barely on time and separate at the entrance before going our separate ways to our classes. Though there is only one level for all students, the number of pupils means we must be divided into smaller groups. As I walk into the classroom, I notice Mizuki Rieko sitting on the mat furthest back from the classroom, and she smiles and waves at me.

"Good morning, Sakura!"she says cheerfully. "Did you stay up until late completing those scrolls due today?"

"Good morning, Rieko," I respond. "I didn't spent too much time yesterday on it, since I had already composed my poems earlier on."

"No fair! Teacher always likes your poems, you're talented at writing them, and you spend so much less time than everyone else." I laugh lightly at her compliment, though I wonder if she'd still think I was purely talented if she knew I had nearly 300 years of practice. "I suppose I might," I reply at last, and we chat for a while until teacher comes into the room at last. With a bow from us students, class has begun.

Class today is public presentation for one of our poems, and one by one we are called upon by teacher to read aloud our writing.

"Taniuchi"

"Kawahigashi"

"Kumugi"

Thirty minutes left, only two students at the last row are left: Rieko and I.

"Mizuki," the low, strict voice of teacher calls.

Rieko seems a bit nervous to be called on, so I give her an encouraging smile and light pat on her back before she stands up.

When she's finished, I'm the last student who hasn't presented yet.

"Ōmiya," teacher finally says. I grab my scroll and stand up, before beginning to read my work.

"Flower petals dance about,
Their motions guided by the spring wind's will.
Much like them, we must follow nature's path-
Then, surely auspicious happenings shall begin soon."

"Excellent," teacher says in response, giving me some of his rare praise. There is some light clapping in the classroom, and Rieko looks at me proudly as I acknowledge them and sit back down. Not long after, bells announce lunch's arrival, their sound echoing clearly within our school courtyard. Rieko and elder sister are already under the central trees when I walk over there, holding my bento box with my hands.

"I hope you've made something delicious," Sayuri says as she opens her own bento box and peeking inside. Within is the lunch I've prepared for today: some seared salmon, steamed chicken with light sauce, baked onigiri, and some sweet potato covered with syrup. Almost immediately, her expression changes to one of great enthusiasm. "Ah, it all looks so delicious! Thank you so much, Sakura!" she cries happily and without warning gives me a tight hug that threatens to bury me. "You're squeezing me too tight, sister!" I manage to gasp before she finally lets go to my relief.

"Sorry," she admits, rubbing my head lightly in apology. "You're just too cute, after all." she finishes.

"I'm not a child!" I reply, but my attempts seem to have fallen on deaf ears when Rieko too joins in.

"Sakura's hair is so lovely," Rieko says, running her fingers through slowly before giving me an approving look. "So soft and luscious! I wish my hair could have volume like yours."

"I'm not...!" I start to repeat my words, but decide against doing so in the end. Even if I say something, I'm sure they'll pay me no heed. When they're finally done admiring my hair, we switch to the more important thing to be done: lunch. I open up the lid of my bento box, and Rieko does so too, though she looks considerably less excited than Sayuri and I.

"What's wrong, Rieko?" I ask her, concerned.

"Well, our family's servant is returning to their hometown for some time, so this week's bento is being made by my mother," she explains while frowning slightly. "That wouldn't usually be a problem, but you see my mother's cooking depends entirely on her shop's sales that day, and yesterday we only had half of our usual customers coming, so..." she trails off before showing me the contents of her bento box. Though her box is undeniably beautiful and made of expensive looking red-black lacquer the contents within are slightly less appealing. There's rice, of course, but everything else has become an odd mix of rather unappetising something.

"That's alright," I tell her. "You can have some of my lunch, if you'd like."

"Are you sure?" she asks, her tone unsure. "It's your lunch after all, and I wouldn't want you to be hungry because of me."

I nod before replying. "Of course, Rieko. I wouldn't be able to say we're friends if I wasn't willing to do something as simple as save you from eating an inedible lunch." Saying this, I use my chopsticks- pure silver, one of the few precious items that didn't burn down with our house- and grab half of my box's seared salmon before placing them in her bento lid along with two of my onigiri. Immediately, her expression changes again to something of relief.

"You're the best, Sakura!" she excitedly tells me before jumping up and hugging me with such force my bento nearly flies out of my hands.

"Rieko! Didn't I just tell Sayuri not to hug me like that?" I reprimand, though I'm only half serious and not the least bit angry.

"Maybe you told Sayuri, but you never told me, did you?" she jests lightly in return.


The chime sounds again, and we realise our lunch break has been over. Except for the unfortunate contents of Rieko's bento box, everything else is clean and empty. "Thank you for the food," I say before closing the lid on my box carefully and wrapping it in cloth.

"Your cooking is excellent as always, Sakura" Rieko tells me, clearly in high spirits. "I'm impressed by how everything you make is so delicious. Whenever I try to make salmon it always ends up dry, and I can never control the stove well enough to make rice without burning it or adding too much water."

"I'd be happy to teach you, Rieko" I respond, and she considers for a moment. "Well, if you're willing to, I'd love to," she replies. Of course, both of us know that when she comes over to our house cooking is the last thing she'll do. Every time has always ended with me cooking, Sayuri on one side watching, and Rieko eating whatever we manage to make. But I don't mind the slightest, since Rieko's mother also makes excellent food on the days when her store does sell enough stock.



After school, we head together to Rieko's mother's store.

"Welcome to our shop!" her voice calls as we enter the store. "Oh, it's you three!" she says when she identifies Rieko along with Sakura and I, her voice much more enthusiastic at seeing us. "Would you like some tea, perhaps?" she asks kindly. "I know Sakura was quite fond of the Oolong from last week."

"That's alright, Miss Mizuki" I tell her. We're just here on our way back from academy, and we wouldn't want to intrude on your hospitality today."

"Are you sure? It wouldn't be any trouble at all, especially with how kindly the two of you have been treating my family's daughter. Honestly, she's so useless I don't even know why good students like you are even friends with someone like her."

"Mother!" Rieko calls in protest, and we laugh. Even Rieko seems to be unable to hold back her lips from forming a smile.

"At least take some of these extra monaka, then," she finally relents, before handing each of us a cloth-wrapped bag filled with the sweets.

"Thank you so much, Miss Mizuki," Sakura says, her eyes practically lighting up in happiness. I've only seen her so moved in rare occasions, most of which have to do with food.

"Take care, then!" Miss Mizuki says, and we leave her store, monaka in hand.


Sakura is lying on the tatami next to me, her hands playing with a ruby brooch while she stares at the ceiling aimlessly. Meanwhile I'm trying to finishing editing the next assignment of poem composition, with the most important word being trying. Unlike my sister, literature has never been my strong suit, and that's unfortunate given our academy is known for mostly literature not much else. I look at the paper below me, with four lines I have written with great difficulty:

"Though within the sky are clouds of good fortune,
And worries of old fade away-
Come the New Year, situations change,
Those accustomed to peace may face danger soon.
"

I prepare to call out to sister for her opinion on my writing so far. Unfortunately, the last of the oil lamp burns itself out right then, the flames disappearing before I have a chance to even read my writing one more time. Sighing, I use the dim moonlight to place my poem next to Sakura's, and prepare to go to sleep.

"I love you, little sister," I tell her, adjusting my covers slightly.

"I love you too, elder sister," she replies.

Outside, the clear light of the moon is obscured by clouds, and before long a light rain is falling. The sound of it tapping on our wooden roof is almost soothing, and I soon fall asleep.


I wake up to someone touching my back, and I open my eyes to see Sakura before me, her hands around me tightly as she shakes my shoulders gently.

"Good morning Sayuri,"she tells me. "The rice and soup are almost ready,"she continues before adding: "Come quickly! If you don't eat while it's hot, then all my hard work will be wasted,"

Perhaps oddly enough, her personality flips from easygoing to completely serious and dedicated exactly twice a day: when she's making our morning and evening meals, and when she's writing poetry. Her stern expression now, an unusual departure from her usual half-smile, reminds me breakfast is about to begin.

"Coming," I tell her, and she relents her grip on me at last before heading back to the kitchen.

When I enter the kitchen, Sakura is sitting down before the stove stirring the rice slowly, placing some firewood into the chamber from time to time. She cooks the rice as well as everything else the two of us eat, not because I'm a bad cook or anything but just because she's so much better at almost every dish, soup, and even rice. I've always never had the patience to cook rice either, so I haven't made it in many years. Managing the flames for so long while preventing the rice from sticking to the pot, adding just enough water at the right times, knowing when to cover and uncover the rice.

And as Sakura always said, cooking rice is more about leaving everything to heaven than having any actual skill, even if it is extremely tedious work.

She interrupts my thoughts with an observation:

"Perhaps someday in the future making rice will be far easier," she offers, and I laugh.

"Don't be ridiculous. I find that no more likely than humans being able to fly like birds or you becoming Empress," I offer in return.

At last, she announces the rice is finally finished, and with skilled hands removes the pot from the fire, sliding it across the table where it joins the pot of miso soup she made using the same fire. Moments later, the fire goes out, flames dying out as the fuel is exhausted. As with anything she cooks, sister has timed everything exactly.

I reached my hand out towards the lid, and she shakes her head. "Not yet," she says, her tone slightly admonishing. "It needs to steam for just a little longer for the full flavour and correct amount of stickiness." The two of us stare diligently at constant wisps of steam coming out, and when they finally disappear, Sakura nods with satisfaction. "

"Ready!"she calls, and I reach forward eagerly, being careful not to burn myself while opening up the pot. Inside are thousands of rice kernels, cooked perfectly with just the right amount of stickiness and softness. The first spoon of rice goes into my bowl, the second into sisters', the third into mine, until all the rice is evenly distributed between the two of us.

While I'm arranging our bowls and plates, Sakura unties her cooking apron and folds it neatly next to the stove before coming to join me. Kneeling before the table, I view this morning's breakfast: two bowls of rice, two bowls of miso soup, and some pickled vegetables. Though it's hardly luxurious by any standards, I'm still looking forward to eating her cooking, which despite using only simple ingredients still manages to leave me desiring more every time.

Sakura looks at me as if worried about something.

"Are you alright?" I ask her.

"No..." she says, rather unconvincingly, although I'm sure I know exactly what she's thinking about. Everything in our once aristocratic life has been flipped upside down to something like middle class peasants. Our magnificent villa has been exchanged for a small house no larger than fifty tatami mats in area, our silk dresses replaced with hemp clothing, and of course our delicacy-filled breakfast reduced to simple soup and rice. When we fled Kyoto on that fateful day one year ago, Sakura had grabbed the wrong type of coins from our family's stash, taking the bags filled with copper and silver coins instead of the more valuable pure gold, and she still feels guilt for her mistake then. Four seasons later, she has yet to stop apologising.

"I'm sorry," she says simply. "If not for me..." Her voice breaks off, and she looks down at the table, as if about to cry.

I start to shake my head in refutation, but I realise she's no longer paying attention to me. Instead, I move to her side of the table before patting her back gently while hugging her, trying to calm her as best as I can.

If only you could feel my warmth, sister. If only you could know what you meant to me.

"I know many things have changed," I say, soothing her. "Yes, our house and clothing and food are much simpler than what we enjoyed back in Kyoto, but I have no complaints."

She doesn't say anything, so I stay there, continuing to embrace her in silence. Two sisters, alone in the room, alone in the world. After a long time, her breathing becomes softer and more measured, and she finally speaks again.

"Why?" she asks. Though she only said one word, I know what she means. Why are you like this? Why do you still love me?

"Because we're sisters," I reply, with such conviction that surprises even me. "Because you're not just anyone, you're my sister. Everything else in the world could be gone, but in the end, you are all that matters to me."

As I finish, a tear falls from my eyes, landing on her shoulder. Before I knew it, somehow I had started crying too.

But I hold back my tears for one more moment, to finish my solemn oath:

"Please don't ever blame yourself again, Sakura. Because no matter what, I would never leave your side."


Part Four
Abyssal Nothingness


Happiness and peace, like all else we cherish in life, must fade. Perhaps that's why we love it so.

1471年4月19日 (金)
19th of April 1471 (Friday)

I awake to dark surroundings. Sayuri is still sleeping in the futon next to me, the sound of her breathing faintly audible as she mutters something in her dreaming state. I think of waking her up, but decide against it. Our day ahead will be filled with activities, and she won't forgive me if she falls asleep out of fatigue and misses out on anything. Instead, I slide out of my covers carefully, folding them neatly on top of one another before walking over quietly to the kitchen.

We're going to run out of firewood soon, I realise as I check our remaining reserves. There are a few blocks of broadleaf maple and pine piled up, but only enough for another week or so. Making a mental note to ask Sayuri to help me cut some trees later, I place two smaller pine branches inside the stove first to light the fire. As the fire grows larger and hotter, I add some maple for improved aroma. At last, when the flames are almost leaping out towards me, I move the cooking pot on top, adding a spoonful of soybean oil followed by three large fillets of salmon.

Humming a light tune as I work, I cook each component of today's lunch, moving from salmon to apples to rice noodles. By the time I'm finished packing and cleaning, Sayuri's footsteps tell me she's awake as well.

"Good morning Sayuri," I tell her when she walks into the kitchen just as I've finished tying a butterfly bow on each bento box.

"Good morning Sakura," she replies leisurely. She looks as she always does right after waking up: as if she didn't have enough sleep. Her expression picks up when she sees the carefully wrapped lunches in front of her. "I'd almost forgotten we were going somewhere today," she remarks.

"How can you forget something so important?" I ask her. "We've been planning for today's cherry blossom viewing festival for nearly a month now." Indeed, the three of us- Sayuri, Rieko, and I- had, upon finding today would be the peak of the late bloom, decided to skip our usual classes at the academy.

She laughed before scratching her head absentmindedly. " Well, at least I remembered when you reminded me, right?"

"If someone has to remind you of something, you've already forgotten!" I tell her.

We continue our good-natured verbal duel on the way to Rieko's house, filling the valley and mountains with our conversation that had long left its original topic.

Rieko is already standing outside of her house when we arrive, and gives us a wave when she sees her.

"Good morning, Sakura, Sayuri," she says while running up to us and hugging each of us in turn.

We start the long walk to the site Sakura introduced to us, and listen to her explain the natural beauty there: rivers of clear water, cherry trees with luscious blossoms soft as silk and plentiful as grass, and rays of sunshine warm and brilliant enough to make us forget the cold winter we had left behind us.


After finally arriving at our destination with sore legs and tired spirits, one look at our surroundings convinces me everything was worth it. It is exactly as much of a paradise as Sakura had described: flowing water, clear air, warm sunlight, and lovely cherry trees filled with blossoms in full bloom.

Sitting down under the largest cherry tree's shade, I view the bento boxes Sakura has carried here with hungry eyes.

If it's anything like her usual cooking, I'll be totally ecstatic, I think to myself. To eat such a lovely meal while viewing spectacular scenery as this is something worthy of an inkbrush painting, or perhaps a poem or two.

I frown after a moment of consideration. Wait, that's totally something Sakura would say!

"Are you thinking of something, sister?"

Sakura's voice brings me back from my thoughts to reality, and I hurriedly shake my head to refute her.

"No, definitely not," I tell her, hoping my face isn't blushing too hard.

"Is that so?" she asked, not entirely convinced.


Part Five
Dream World


Nothingness. A fate perhaps worse than eternal pain.


Part Six
Long Awaited Spring


Spring comes, flowers bloom.

"Because no matter what, I would never leave your side."

She smiles at me, her eyes still watery, before saying:

"Neither will I, dear sister. And no matter what, I won't forget those days we spent together."


END


"Spring has come so many times while I've waited to tell you these words: good morning, sister."

To continue reading stories of Sakura and her sister, please visit the factbooks of Sanghyeok and Shin-Mutsu, respectively.

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