Hiyori Lighthouse was on fire.
The flames first swelled with the darkening night, heralded by a deafening blast that quaked the lighthouse island. Through thickening plumes of smoke, alarms blared and the stampede began.
Yet the gears turned and the lamps burned on.
Reports indicated the woman held in the deepest jail of Hiyori Lighthouse had started the fire. She’d laughed, completely undeterred by her special handcuffs, and blasted away the bars of her cage. Her shiji ran through her just fine—and furiously.
Another blast shook the island but not the Chief Warden’s step. He marched on, ignoring the whip of his coat, his tied hair, the saber at his waist and the citation cord at his shoulder. Following the perimeter of the island, he tugged down the bill of his cap. How surreal, he thought, that these explosive flames had once kindled the lights rotating above.
Even so, the Warden had no interest in pursuing reason with the Witch. Never wont to explain herself, she blazed along her own path of logic. For this, officers called her a madwoman and the inmates considered her a riot, but the Warden, witness to the gleam in her eye, judged her cunning and capable. Case in point, neither ember or spark fell on the lighthouse’s rear dock, her sole escape point.
The Warden set a hand around the grip of his saber. By the glory of the Great Sun of Yamato, he would stop the Witch’s escape.
“The Witch.” It felt strange to mouth. The name carried too many legends and represented too many epithets: the Scourge of Flames, the Dancing Sunbeam, the Blazing Mirth, the Witch of the Setting Sun, and—the name spat by the Great Sun—the Magatsu-hi of Obotsu Kagura. An odious name that only made the Witch cackle. “Watch them write it,” she once said. “I promise you’ll laugh just as much!”
Wind rattled the medals and ribbons on the Warden’s coat as the smoke and fire parted from the lighthouse’s back entrance. Out emerged the Witch, grinning and carefree, as ever a loud shimmer of scarlet, gold, and flames. Wayward embers caressed but never burned her, while her black hair rolled and curled like the smoke above. A bottle of amber liquid sloshed about in the Witch’s hand as she raised it for a swig. Behind her, another inferno erupted in a swell of heat and reddened smoke.
The beams of Hiyori Lighthouse spun on.
The Warden, blocking the Witch’s path to the dock, kneaded the grip of his sword. “So it was all a farce.” The bill of his cap nearly snapped between his fingers. “All for one drink. Were all your efforts worth it, Witch?”
The Witch snorted. “Oh please. Your deputies’ habushu is just a consolation prize.” She held the bottle against the firelight. “No habu in here though, huh? I would have appreciated such a friend in this trying time.”
She gave the bottle a testing shake and winked. “Perhaps you’d be my friend instead, sir. Drink with me!”
“Your whims burned down this lighthouse. I’m not here to indulge you.”
“My whims?” She raised a brow but pressed the bottle to her lip. After a moment, she shrugged, swigged, then gave a dismissive wave toward the top of the lighthouse. “Piss-poor job of ‘burning down’ the lighthouse, isn’t it? ‘Whimsy’ does explain it.”
For a moment, the Warden’s grip relaxed. “Did some ounce of integrity stop you?”
She shooed away a lick of flame. “You know I don’t half-ass my decisions.”
“Then what was your decision this time? You’ve destroyed your one path to redemption.”
“Take that back.” Her faint drawl sharpened her snarl. “My ‘redemption’ was never part of our agreement.” Though the lip of the bottle hovered again near her mouth, the Warden felt the Witch’s eyes not on the liquor, but on him. So pointed and heated her gaze, he tightened his grip again as she went on. “And neither did I want the ‘rehabilitation’ you suggested. So I cut you a deal—I give you three months of my freedom. You figure out what I want, else I break out.”
He winced with the recollection. The Witch had used those exact words when she first settled in to her cell, adding, “Investigation’s the responsibility of you lawful types.” Every fiber of the Warden’s conscience rattled at the Witch’s blithe dismissal of her incarceration, but the chance to report her capture to the Great Sun had been too tempting of a prize. So for three months, the Warden had dutifully investigated—interrogated?—questioned? Interviewed her.
The Witch, however, responded only in jokes. Free food, she said. Nice view. Cool weather. Rumored treasure. Sometimes she told stories, of sugarcane fields against the sea breeze, of the shisa and ocean spray stenciled across her cotton top, of the black bands and dots tattooed across her hands, of the melody of the snakeskin lute. Other times, she elaborated on her magic—her spiritual power, her shiji—and its origins in Obotsu Kagura, how those heavens were practically neighbors to those of Yamato’s Great Sun.
Fascination had since ruled the Warden. The Witch was a woman who knew what she wanted, what she carried and cast off, her place in the world—a place she returned to when she told her stories or turned toward the sunrise. When she closed her eyes and the sea perfumed the morning breeze, the content slant of her lip had always choked the rest of the Warden’s questions. Why ask further when he could see her answer?
Without wording that answer himself, however, the Witch’s jailbreak was as inevitable as the lengthening night. The Warden unsheathed his saber and raised the hilt to his eyes. Sure of nothing else but his duty, he snapped his blade toward the Witch.
A smoldering amber glow illuminated the drunken rosiness in the Witch’s cheek. Her otherwise hawkish eyes softened. A final swig, then the empty bottle spun over her shoulder and into the ruins behind her. The thick glass rang against the wall like a mourning bell as sparks crackled in her hand.
“Move aside, Warden. You had your chance.”
“You don’t have my authorization.”
“That so?” The Witch sighed. “You’ll have to make me your first exception, then.”
First exception. If only she knew, “You already are.”
She kicked up a pillar of sand as she leaped forward, palms ablaze like molten iron. He answered, slamming back with an arc of cold steel. The parry blasted her into the air but she spun down again, her heel a fiery sledgehammer. Flames wreathed the Warden and seared his eyes, his skin, the hems of his coat and the breath in his throat. He threw an arm over his nose and mouth, but desperation danced on in his nerves—Stop her. I must stop her!
Or else, what?
Something gnawed up his chest, clawing high like the pillars of smoke over the lighthouse. Flashes of fire and sword lit the night, the frothy marine, and the Warden’s memories:
The Witch had been his first exception, his first surrender, every moment sour whenever the Warden recalled that encounter. After their charged bout had scarred the shores of the mainland, a heated gale of her shiji had blown off his cap. He leaped, closed the gap, pivoted, and locked his blade against the white-hot force of her palm.
They had seen each other’s faces for the first time. Sunlight glittered in her wide, golden eyes as a sigh—a faintly breathed “Oh...”—spilled from her lips.
Then she smiled, breezy and gentle like a field of flowers.
He hated that moment, that sudden quake at the root of his soul. Questions splintered through him. Was she truly a “witch?” Could a “disciple of the false sun” smile with such warmth? He countered her step. She whirled him into a dance of white flames and sparks; his heart raced with her frenetic rhythm.
Out of breath but detestably enraptured, the Warden demanded the Witch to renounce her kami. “There’s only one Sun.”
“And tell me,” she had replied, her challenge a song, “how many faces does the Sun have?” She must have heard his throat knot. “Mine is as true as yours, Warden.” She blew his stance wide open, seized his tie and wrenched him close, then brushed a whisper against his ear:
You may be the brilliance of Order, but I am the divinity of Joy.
Then this was judgment. Hiyori Lighthouse burned on, leaning. The Witch twisted out of another lock and drew a line through the sand. Flames and glittering shrapnel erupted. The wall of heat forced the Warden’s head down as he shielded his eyes—and then she blasted past him, her heel landing on the dock.
She was free.
His chest thudded like a cannonball to the stomach.
She was leaving.
Protest tore through the Warden, though the Witch had simply made good on her word. Her actions were as certain as when water inevitably spilled from its confines. As when fire climbed to the height of its potential. As when night gave way to day.
But for three months, he had imprisoned the Witch and defied her certain escape. How?
Not that he could ask her anymore. She was a streak of color, blurry like a dream. Hiyori Lighthouse bellowed, its cracks and squeals rending the night, while the sea and wind whispered then stilled—wordless narrations, the Warden thought, of a free, powerful woman. Only now did he want to listen to more.
The dock groaned under the Witch’s step. Time slowed to the heave and exhale of the Warden’s breath. Behind and beyond, panicked shouts punched against the long blare of the alarm. Still more flames burst into the night, as mortar cascaded and wood spit. The island shook. The lights teetered. The Warden lifted his face and held his breath.
Hiyori Lighthouse fell.
Chills crawled down his spine and drained his nerves. His blade dropped and sunk into the damp sand. Staring was all he could do as the bricks rained and the answer roiled through him, though he never asked his question. This was retribution. Punishment, for doubting the Great Sun of Yamato, for entertaining the Sun of Obotsu Kagura.
Even the Witch stopped and turned, her mouth agape. “But I controlled it!” she said. “I only burned the jail, not the lighthouse!”
“I know.” The Warden pulled off his cap and tossed it to the ground. “You worked those lamps. You know the mainland needed them.”
But did the Great Sun know? Or care?
He met the Witch’s gaze but read too many possibilities in her expression: a downward curve of her pursed lips, a furrowed brow, and hardly a blink. Pity? Regret? Judgment? After so long and so many interviews, he still knew nothing about her—except his continued fascination as, after a deep breath, the Witch extended an open hand. “Here,” she said. “Come with me!”
The waves churned, and a rush of the sea breeze dampened the sounds of torched night and crumbling rubble. He welcomed the cool caress against his grimy face and parched throat. “You asked me that before.” Before, he had sworn upon his sword, his medals and ribbons, his embroidered uniform and all the accolades of his station, to uphold the diamond brilliance of the Great Sun’s order. But the Witch and her breezy smile, her fire, her laugh, her life—her joy—burned through the vows the Warden had layered upon himself. Did such vows matter? Did any of his efforts matter? Did he matter anymore? Every curl of flame became doubt and then an answer, embers to light his soul anew.
The Witch huffed. “You arrested me instead.”
So how could he take her hand? He choked the words—yes, I’ll go—on their way up. Listlessness, he knew, would accompany his future recollections of this hesitation. Why, he wondered, did he choose to torment himself? “Then, ask me next time.”
“Next time?” He could hear her raised brow. “I kept—well, I tried—to keep the lights intact as a favor. Not because I appreciated the inmate life here.”
“Even with me as your Warden?” Though the Witch had her secrets, she never once lied. That she admonished him rather than say “no,” meant she at least considered his proposal, right? So he seized upon that chance. “I am the one person who’s ever managed to catch you.”
The Witch broke into gales of laughter. Behind them, the dying splinters of the lighthouse released the last tendrils of smoke into the approaching dawn. Slowly, order returned as calls echoed over the wreckage, for doctors. Water. Food. Help. Light. Warden.
Hell to them. This moment—the Witch laughing against the roll and spray of the sea—this sound and scene mattered to the Warden more than Order or responsibility.
Dawn ascended higher over the horizon. Voices searched louder and closer over the ruins. Inevitably, someone would witness this moment the Chief Warden of Hiyori Lighthouse let his greatest accomplishment go free.
The Witch wiped aside tears and stood to her full height, hands at her hips. Then with a huff, she marched back down the dock and stepped in, her face tantalizingly close. Alcohol stained but warmed her breath. “Look at you.” The morning sun shone a radiant facet of her grin. “Finally giving me what I wanted!”
“Still can’t say that I understand.” Was she cognizant of the heat of her skin? The sunsparks in her eyes? Did she know that her stories taught of solace from the weight of his burdens? How much he wished to take her hand and let her lead him past the dawn? “Not that I could keep you here, even if I did.”
“I might have considered staying, if you’d been faster about it.”
“I doubt that.” He chuckled, dry and derisive, at his wishful thoughts. “I take back everything I said. You never needed redemption or rehabilitation, and I never caught you.
“You were always a free woman.”
She nodded, her smile vixen yet soft as her voice. “Good man.” She reached up and pressed her palm against his face, her fingertips grazing his skin. “You truly are a good man. Tell you what—I’ll bring us a good awamori next time. Keep me in cuffs, if you’d like.”
“A sound plan. I can’t risk you burning down another of my facilities.”
“So you do know how to joke!” She curled her fingers over the line of his waistcoat and tugged as she skipped back, bringing the Warden stumbling after her. “I do so love your stoicism, Lord Warden, but I can say for sure now—I love your smile even more.”
Voice caught against the startled leap of his heart, the Warden nearly fell in after the Witch as she suddenly released him and twisted into the water. Currents swelled over her as she slid into the depths. The Warden crumbled onto the dock. This, he thought, is how we should be.
A sun flared in the sea, the Witch an ocean star shooting through the deep, sea foam her clouds across an abyssal sky. None could catch or quench her, that brilliant avatar of fire and freedom, joy and solace.
And she loved his smile.
A heavy sigh escaped him as the Warden laid on the ground. He understood—this was the bliss worth three months of freedom. This rapture, this divinity, this understanding. This acceptance.
“I see,” sighed the Warden. “So I was the prisoner all along.”