Across the Nightingale Floor

by Lian Hearn

[Our hero, Takeo, is traveling with the escort party of Lady Shirakawa, Kaede, who is being taken to wed as part of an alliance. He is accompanied by two who are more than they seem, his “teacher,” Kenji, and Lady Shirakawa’s “maid,” Shizuka.–DS]

“What else do you plan to do all day,” he demanded, “sit around and drink tea? Shizuka can teach you a lot. We might as well make the most of being stuck here.”

So I obediently finished eating and followed my teacher, running through the rain to the fighting school. I could hear the thump and clash of the sticks from outside. Inside, two young men were fighting. After a moment I realized one was not a boy but Shizuka: She was more skillful than her opponent, but the other, taller and with greater determination, was making it quite a good match. At our appearance, though, Shizuka easily got beneath the guard. It wasn’t until the other took off the mask that I realized it was Kaede.

“Oh,” she said angrily, wiping her face on her sleeve, “they distracted me.”

“Nothing must distract you, lady,” Shizuka said. “It’s your main weakness. You lack concentration. There must be nothing but you, your foe, and the swords.”

She turned to greet us. “Good morning, Uncle! Good morning, Cousin!”

We returned the greeting and bowed more respectfully to Kaede. Then there was a short silence. I was feeling awkward: I had never seen women in a fighting hall before–never seen them dressed in practice clothes. Their presence unnerved me. I thought there was probably something unseemly about it. I should not be here with Shigeru’s betrothed wife.

“We should come back another time,” I said, “when you have finished.”

“No, I want you to fight with Shizuka,” Kenji said. “Lady Shirakawa can hardly return to the inn alone. It will profit her to watch.”

“It would be good for the lady to practice against a man,” Shizuka said, “since if it comes to battle, she will not be able to choose her opponents.”

I glanced at Kaede and saw her eyes widen slightly, but she said nothing.

“Well, she should be able to beat Takeo,” Kenji said sourly. I thought he must have a headache from the wine, and indeed, I myself felt a little the worse for wear.

Kaede sat on the floor, cross-legged like a man. She untied the ties that held back her hair and it fell around her, reaching the ground. I tried not to look at her.

Shizuka gave me a pole and took up her first stance.

We sparred a bit, neither of us giving anything away. I’d never fought with a woman before, and I was reluctant to go all out in case I hurt her. Then, to my surprise, when I feinted one way she was already there, and a twisting upwards blow sent the pole out of my hands. If I’d been fighting Masahiro’s son, I’d have been dead.

“Cousin,” she said reprovingly. “Don’t insult me, please.”

I tried harder after that, but she was skillful and amazingly strong. It was only after the second bout that I began to get the upper hand, and then only after her instruction. She conceded the fourth bout, saying, “I have already fought all morning with Lady Kaede. You are fresh, Cousin, as well as being half my age.”

“A little more than half, I think!” I panted. Sweat was pouring off me. I took a towel from Kenji and wiped myself down.

Kaede said, “Why do you call Lord Takeo ‘Cousin’?”

“Believe it or not, we are related, on my mother’s side,” Shizuka said. “Lord Takeo was not born an Otori, but adopted.”

Kaede looked seriously at the three of us. “There is a likeness between you. It’s hard to place exactly. But there is something mysterious, as though none of you is what you seem to be.”

“The world being what it is, that is wisdom, lady,” Kenji said, rather piously, I thought. I imagined he did not want Kaede to know the true nature of our relationship: that we were all from the Tribe. I did not want her to know, either. I much preferred her to think of me as one of the Otori.

Shizuka took up the cords and tied back Kaede’s hair. “Now you should try against Takeo.”

“No,” I said immediately. “I should go now. I have to see to the horses. I must see if Lord Otori needs me.”

Kaede stood. I was aware of her trembling slightly, and acutely aware of her scent, a flowery fragrance with her sweat beneath it.

“Just one bout,” Kenji said. “It can’t do any harm.”

Shizuka went to put on Kaede’s mask, but she waved her away.

“If I am to fight men, I must fight without a mask,” she said.

I took up the pole reluctantly. The rain was pouring down even more heavily. The room was dim, the light greenish. We seemed to be in a world within a world, isolated from the real one, bewitched.

It started like an ordinary practice bout, both of us trying to unsettle the other, but I was afraid of hitting her face, and her eyes never left mine. We were both tentative, embarking on something utterly strange to us whose rules we did not know. Then, at some point I was hardly aware of, the fight turned into a kind of dance. Step, strike, parry, step. Kaede’s breath came more strongly, echoed by mine, until we were breathing in unison, and her eyes became brighter and her face more glowing, each blow became stronger, and the rhythm of our steps fiercer. For a while I would dominate, then she, but neither of us could get the upper hand. Did either of us want to?

Finally, almost by mistake, I got around her guard and, to avoid hitting her face, let the pole fall to the ground. Immediately, Kaede lowered her own pole and said, “I concede.”

“You did well,” Shizuka said, “but I think Takeo could have tried a little harder.”

Copyright ©2002 Lian Hearn. All rights reserved.

This excerpt is from Across the Nightingale Floor, 2002.

Lian Hearn (a pseudonym) studied modern languages at Oxford University and work as a film critic and arts editor in London before settling in Australia. A lifelong interest in Japan led to the study of the Japanese language and many trips to Japan, and has culminated in the writing of Across the Nightingale Floor. For more information on the Tales of the Otori, visit