The Coming of the Frost
Anubisu was the only one who marked the time.
He supposed the others might as well, in their own strange stilted way, as much as one could keep track of days in the endless golden twilight of the Youjakai. There were suns in the sky, and moons, and stars, all of them passing at once or in turn with no logic or reason that he ever saw, dancing a slow drunken kata across a sky as golden as a shogun's gilded screen. Anubisu did not look to the sky for the time, or the own shape of his face reflected in the blade of his sword. The passage of hours was not marked there.
No, Anubisu felt time by the hollowness in his own breast, by the thickening ruff of fur around the necks of his wolves. He yearned for the cold, and the kiss of snowflakes melting down the unforgiving line of his scar. But in the gardens of the Ma Sho, the only thing that brushed his face were white and pink petals, scattered from the cherry trees and smelling of Sh'ten's hair.
"It must be winter in the human world," Rajura's voice unraveled like spidersilk from the shadow of the gate. "Anubisu strains at his leash and lifts his nose to the mountains."
"What do you know of it?" Anubisu growled, stepping down from the neatly raked garden path. Soft grass yielded beneath his sandals, his feet sank in cherry blossoms to the ankle. "This cloying warmth seems to content you well enough."
"I yearn for my season no less than you, Yami Ma Sho." Rajura's steps crunched across the gravel and into the scattered flowers. The hem of his kimono ruffled the blossoms; he knelt and scooped them up in his hands. "But I cannot simply vanish into the mountains to find my contentment."
"Contentment," Anubisu shook his shaggy hair. "As distasteful as eternal springtime."
"This is Arago's doing," Rajura mused, spilling petals back and forth in his hands. "In other realms of the Youjakai, there are seasons as in the human world. Perhaps you should seek them out."
Anubisu's only answer was a disdainful snort.
"I see," Rajura said. He cupped his hands together around the blossoms. "You can no more leave our master than you can turn the seasons in your garden. But if you pleased, it could be made to snow. You need only ask Arago, and he will give you frost and warm sake enough to content you."
"A lie," Anubisu sank down in the lee of the bridge, watching the ripple of warm water, the dappled koi swimming in place. "A season on request, no more real than an actor's speech."
"Is it?" Rajura said, and breathed into his hands. The petals scattered, shining into a glittering swath of snowflakes that caught in Anubisu's eyelashes, melted on his lips. In a moment the garden was hung with icicles, bare branches groaned under the weight of snow. The stream became a pale blue ribbon of ice.
Anubisu was unmoved. "Do lies content you, Rajura? Or do you sit in your web, bloated on dreams, starving for a droplet of real blood?" He pushed himself up off the bridge, and crunched through the snow past the warlord of Illusion. Rajura heard him call for his horse to be saddled, and the paper door rattled closed in its track.
Rajura pressed his hand to the snow, and felt there the gentle warmth of spring blossoms and soft grass. Around him, his mirage melted almost as though it were made of real snow, and vanished into Arago's perpetual spring.
And Rajura was defeated.
The Mountains of the Youjakai were high and treacherous, and in them there was none of the finery or ordered perfection of Arago's city. Anubisu was forced early to leave his horse, knowing the beast-- no more a real creature of horse-blood and horse-breath than the stars were-- would wait patiently until the Warlord returned.
The climb had taken some time. A normal man, such as Anubisu had not been for centuries, would have been winded, if not thwarted entirely. But Anubisu lifted his head and the air that filled his lungs was cold and pure and frosted, and he would press on until he found its source.
There were no paths here, no easy way across the borders of Arago's domain. But he knew the way as clearly as if steps had been carved from the rock. When he reached the summit, he fell to his knees in snow that yielded to him like a lover, cradling him in frozen arms and scattering his scarred cheek with kisses.
For a moment he lay contented, listening to the howl of the wind and wolves in the distance. But then there was another sound that was not one of the mountain, and Anubisu was on his feet, the sword he wore when his armor was sleeping drawn and gleaming in his hand.
"Who dares step into my master's land?"
"I could ask you the same." The windblown snow became Rajura's frosted hair, the grey folds of his hakama like a raveled bit of the glowering sky.
Anubisu lowered his sword but did not sheathe it, and the tip made a sharp indentation in the pristine white surface by Anubisu's feet. "Have you a reason for following me here, Gen Masho? Or is it only your own interfering nature that sets you to dog my heels?"
Rajura did not immediately answer, stepping close enough that Anubisu could feel the human warmth sluicing off of him, to see the difference in color between the warlord's pale hair and the snowflakes caught in it. His expression was unreadable, blind side to cross-scar. "I wished to see some snow that was not made of petals, perhaps. The only eye that cannot be fooled by my art--" His hand brushed the patch of shadows and cobwebs over his face, "is my own."
"Arrogance," Anubisu said, his lip curling.
"Honesty." Rajura turned to him, his one violet eye amused and bitter. "Does that surprise you?"
"It makes me suspicious. Your words are better suited to our master's redhaired toy, and his fine honor. Or Perhaps Naaza's cold blood and sluggish heart. You might do better sitting with him in the sun, than to face the chill of my season." Anubisu took a deliberate step away, unhappy with the summertime presence of Rajura in his own private realm of ice. "There is no truth in you, in all your armor of deceit."
Rajura laughed, a sound that the wind took from him, until only his shoulders were shaking, as though he were chilled, or weeping. "Perhaps so. But I, too, tire of illusion, Anubisu."
"You?" Anubisu's words were not so scornful as he might have made them. "I would think you would as soon tire of life as of your lies."
Rajura's face went still. "And who is to say I have not?"
Anubisu's hand came up against Rajura's face, his palm cold on the other warlord's aristocratic cheekbone. "So you seek comfort and life from me? In my darkness and desolation? That is ill-advised, Rajura."
Rajura opened his mouth against Anubisu's fingers, and it was hot with his breath, his words. "Is it."
Heat that had little to do with season or clime made a sudden knot low in Anubisu's belly; his teeth were sharp in his wolfish grin. "I am no pretty thing of springtime, like your Sh'ten. You will not find me gentle."
Rajura's eye glittered. "I did not come seeking gentleness."
Anubisu's fist closed in the magenta silk of Rajura's haori and hauled the two of them together, mouths meeting, vying for supremacy. They were well matched to spar, and the snow was the only thing that could truly be said to surrender as they fell into it.
Rajura had in him all the unquenchable heat of a midsummer day, and Anubisu found he craved it for its own truth, not the empty promises of spring and the rotting regrets of autumn. They moved as the seasons turned in the human world, for they were human yet, enough for pleasure and pain and the broken noise from Rajura's throat, scattered against the wind.
Anubisu loved the cold for its honesty, but he knew it still lied, it covered, it froze things meant for motion. Summer was his antithesis, running wild and unchecked, life and light and heat. But for all that, he found them better matched than he might have thought, and not so simply opposite as hot and cold, balanced neatly on opposite ends of a scale. And if Anubisu's teeth and Rajura's nails brought blood that could not be coaxed from armor, it was welcome in the snow, and was not so quick to freeze.