by Daniel Braum
“Yume wo miru toki, yume wo miruno wa wakateimasu.”
When I am dreaming, I will know I am seeing a dream.
—Pre-tournament Sumo meditation.
Japan. 200 A.E.
(After the theft of the Emperor)
Asashoryu proudly marched out of the dressing room with the rest of the Sumotori as they began their descent along the path snaking to the ring in the center of the open-air stadium. Like a procession of overgrown children, the bulky wrestlers, wearing only their mawashi belts, walked two by two, careful to stay safely between the flapping red flags warning them every few meters not to misstep into oblivion. Beyond the flags the world between worlds beckoned — the nether — the ethereal sea purple and sparkling, ready to re-swallow the path forged open by their sensei, Prince Shimotori, who was running the tournament for the good of all of Japan.
Tiny white lights danced in the purple like the sunlight sparkling on the lapping surf of Tokyo Bay. Asashoryu quickly turned away. These were not benign souls, like the tranquil fireflies illuminating his memories of home that they resembled, but glowing will-o’-the-wisp forms of the Lost Ones, those who had died or lost their way while traveling between worlds.
Focus, Asashoryu told himself. He pictured a white crane — centered and balanced. Day fourteen of the tournament without a loss. One more match. One more victory and I will be Sumo21 and able to join the fight to reclaim the Emperor.
Asashoryu pictured the Emperor’s ancient and withered form perched in his throne back in the waking world. The memory of his brief look at one of the bundles of tubes and wires keeping him alive sent a shudder through Asashoryu’s body. The thought of the Emperor’s soul prisoner in a body not his, somewhere in Japan 187531, was almost too much to bear.
“Yume wo miru toki, yume wo miruno wa wakateimasu,” the wrestler next to him muttered, not aware they had already passed though into the dreamtime.
Asashoryu pictured his own teen-aged and relatively small body back in the heya, sleeping. Here, he was strong as he felt and big as he believed, every aspect of his appearance a representation of his years of training, every muscle, every inch of fat a manifestation of his will.
The path took its final curve into the stadium. Hulking spaceships, shaped like dragons, floated outside, tethered to the upper tiers: the old weapons of war. The dreamships, as Asashoryu thought of them, had been long idle. The battle with Japan 187531 had been taken to the tournaments, yet still the ships remained even though the generals and armies who dreamed them into being were just memories in the lives of their descendants.
The crowd in the box seats circling the fighting ring applauded as Asashoryu walked into view. He saw their faces. The Generals. The Emperor’s court and top officials. Rich corporate heads. The two living Yokuzuna, grandmaster wrestlers in their braided belts of white linen. Their hopes were that the winner of this match would become the hero who would break the stalemate with Japan 187531 and bring back the Emperor.
Both he and his opponent Takanasuro were undefeated; the time had come for them to face each other. The gyoji stepped over the ankle-high straw marking the fighting area and into the clay ring. Gold-inlaid patterns of squares within circles sparkled on his full-length black robe. A red hat held in place with a chinstrap and a red bow at his neck accentuated the elegant garb, but Asashoryu focused only on his gunbai, the red-and-gold paddle with which he would proclaim the victor.
Asashoryu stepped into the ring, and Takanasuro entered from the opposite side. Out of habit — as there were no smells in the dreamtime — he imagined the smell of the chamomile from the other wrestler’s ginkgo leaf-shaped topknot.
“Face each other,” the gyoji commanded.
The two huge wrestlers obeyed.
Asashoryu and Takanasuro bowed simultaneously.
“May you have the honor of fighting for the soul of the emperor,” they said together.
“O great Emperor,” the gyoji said, continuing the ritual, “These two honorable warriors cannot agree who will step aside and who will join the sacred battle to return you to us. We would gladly send all our sons, but the Council of Infinite Japans says there may be only twenty-one. So now they must fight to decide.”
“May the best warrior join the fight,” the crowd answered in unison with the gyoji.
The gyoji stepped back. Asashoryu stared into Takanasuro’s expressionless brown eyes. The match would begin upon a tacit agreement between them. He kept Takanasuro’s midsection in his field of vision while focusing on keeping his own face blank. He knew the beginner’s lesson as if it were part of him; faces deceive and betray, but all movement starts at the hips.
The two wrestlers crouched at their marks, motionless in a moment of quiet like the tranquility before a cloudburst. Then, Takanasuro’s arm quivered; just the slightest hint of movement; but like the ripples from a fallen cherry blossom disturbing the calm surface of a lake, it was movement enough.
Asashoryu braced himself, hoping to use Takanasuro’s force against him and send him out of the ring for a quick win. Takanasuro charged, as expected, his hands striking everywhere in a wild frenzy of slapping attacks. Asashoryu dodged, stepping back to evade yet trying to stay close enough to grab Takanasuro’s arm and pull him forward and out of control. Takanasuro turned to face him, striking at his neck with vicious open-hand thrusts.
Asashoryu sidestepped the strikes and caught Takanasuro’s arm. Takanasuro grabbed him back and the two, belly to belly, frantically vied for grip. Asashoryu slid his hands down, grabbed Takanasuro’s belt, and lifted in an attempt to jar him off balance. Takanasuro matched his move and the two held each other, deadlocked.
The gyoji jumped closer and yelled encouragements and ring position to them both in a sharp rhythm that punctuated the roar of the crowd.
Asashoryu wedged his upper thigh just beneath Takanasuro’s hip and pushed. The groaning wall of fat and muscle skidded back. With all his weight, Asashoryu slammed his shoulder against Takanasuro’s chest, knocking him back further. He then quickly got his hands under Takanasuro’s leg and lifted up to try and topple him. Takanasuro stumbled back to the lip of the ring and teetered there, his heels against the raised rope edge of the fighting circle, grunting and pushing back.
Slick with sweat, and fearing he might slip and land facedown outside of the ring, Asashoryu pushed with all his might. Takanasuro lifted his left leg up in a display of strength and balance that miraculously kept him in the ring.
Fall. Fall. Fall, Asashoryu thought with all his will. Takanasuro grabbed him by the belt and with amazing speed and strength managed to spin around. In the instant Takanasuro’s back was toward him, Asashoryu pushed. He pushed so hard they both stumbled out of the ring, Takanasuro first. The wrestlers fell, Asashoryu on top.
The gyoji yelled, swinging the paddle in the direction Asashoryu had entered the ring, his black sleeve following with a satisfying swish.
I won! I am Sumo21!
As he struggled to compose himself and return to the ring for the ending ritual, Asashoryu could see the three official judges readying the celebratory cup of sake and the bright green, orange, and yellow banners of the corporate sponsors unfurling from the upper tiers.
The great dreamships fired their weapons, lighting the dark purple ethereal sky with great flashes of glowing dragonfire. The wrestlers returned to their feet and squatted across from each other at their starting marks inside the ring. For an instant, instead of disappointment and resignation, Asashoryu saw a look of relief on Takanasuro’s face.
Then the judges and officials swarmed into the ring and ushered Asashoryu back on the path to the dressing room, where they all would return to their waking lives. He marched at the lead of the procession, surrounded by VIPs toasting him and frantic attendants holding up corporate banners on sticks. They all sang the waking mantra with him for luck. The purple ethereal sea around them seemed almost white with sparkling will-o’-the-wisps, as if every Lost One had come to watch. The white lights followed eerily as he walked the path, and Asashoryu wondered if all the Sumo he had defeated were indeed the luckier ones.
“Tatakaite kudasai. Nihon-no-tameni dewanaku.
Kaku Nihon-no-tameni tatakaitekuasai.”
Fight. Not just for this Japan,
but for the sake of every Japan.
The War for the Emperor
Asashoryu wiggled his fingers and his toes then opened his eyes. He didn’t spend much time awake, and when he did, he always carried a gnawing anxiety from knowing that for every minute awake he could be spending eight in the dreamtime training. Today, however, in a broadcast from the Emperor’s chambers, the head trainer and Sumo1, Prince Kaiho, would be announcing his ascension to the ranks of the sacred Twenty-One tournament Sumo.
Asashoryu dressed in his red silk robe. Soon he would be trading it for one of the simple white garments of the Twenty-One. He opened his door to depart for the Emperor’s palace and found a white-faced woman in a gossamer white robe, a geisha, standing outside in the hallway. Although all geishas looked the same, Asashoryu recognized Geisha73 from her thin red-painted upper lip and the slight variation in the thickness of her night-black hair. Geisha were not permitted in the Sumo heya, not officially at least. He wondered what Prince Kaiho’s companion could want with him, but her dark brown eyes, like a windowless room in the dark, betrayed no clue to her purpose.
Perhaps he was still dreaming and a Lost One had enchanted him. Asashoryu recited the traveling mantra, just to make sure, but the walls were still the red brick and polished wood of his heya, with no purple-tinged glow of the nether.
“You are not dreaming,” Geisha73 said, her voice clear as a monastery’s morning gong. Dressed in white, he wondered if she were an omen of ill fate, until he realized all would be dressed in white for the passing of the Sumo who made place for him. Still, he worried. He did not want to start with his new life by invoking the rage of the Prince.
Asashoryu bowed. Even though he was smaller and lighter here, he felt the sensation of weight shifting more than in the nether.
“Get up,” she said, and ushered him around the corner where it would be harder for them to be seen. Perfume rode the air in the wake of her flowing robe. He could almost see pink and orange flowers swirling behind her. “Have you asked yourself if you have what it takes?” she said.
For a second he thought she could read his mind and had looked within to his fear of failure. But she was a geisha and couldn’t read his mind; she was reading the situation.
“I am ready to serve my Japan and my Emperor,” Asashoryu said, giving the proper answer. “I will study and train and fight my way to the top of the tournament.”
Geisha73’s red lips parted, letting a brief giggle escape. The smile broke the stoic mask of her face, and he realized how lucky Prince Kaiho was.
“You really are as they say,” she said. “A Sumo through and through. Do you think training and fighting is enough? Even if you are the best, as they say you are.”
“You are too kind,” Asashoryu said.
“I’m not kind. I’m here to serve Japan by warning you. You are being set up to fail before you even begin. The Generals have had enough with the tournament. They want to go back to the military way and return to the endless war.
“But what of the Council of Infinite Japans?” Asashoryu said. “Prince Kaiho will never allow this.”
“Prince Kaiho is engineering it,” she said. Asashoryu looked at her shadow on the hardwood floor; there were no shadows in the dreamtime. For a fleeting instant, he thought he saw a corona of golden sparks around the pleasing black shape.
“Prince Kaiho is an honest prince,” Asashoryu said. He figured this was a test of his loyalty, for what else could it be? He should say the correct answers, the official state answers. “Kaiho’s Grandfather and Father united the planet,” he continued, “extending the rule of Japan to every ocean and every shore.”
“Oh, you are as simple as they say, but simplicity speaks of a pure heart,” said the geisha. “Kaiho will never defeat Japan 187531, and there is no frontier on Earth left for him to conquer. He gathers a great army in the nether to move against other Japans, and to repeat the crimes of 187531.”
The real number string was too long to remember or even recite without a computer, so everyone shortened it to six digits in conversation.
“But I begin my training after the ceremony,” Asashoryu said.
“Kaiho will train you to keep up appearances, but he wants the tournament to remain in a stalemate. He is conspiring with himself, with his other selves against us. What will be asked of you is not easy. Ask yourself if you are ready to fight for Japan, to fight for every Japan,” she answered.
She turned the corner and was gone, only the scent of her perfume leaving any trace of her presence. Probably slipped through the same secret passage she used to get here, Asashoryu thought. But he didn’t think long; he had to hurry to arrive at the Emperor’s palace for the ceremony.
“Sakura. Kirei, kirenina Nihon-no-mukashi haritta Hana degozaimasu.”
Cherry blossom. A beautiful flower that once grew in Japan.
—Display placard. National Museum, Tokyo
(After the theft of the Emperor)
The throne room bustled with camera crews, reading equipment, and reporters scrambling for position in the press area. Asashoryu stood on the marble floor shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the Sumo of his Upper House. On the wall next to him, tapestries of dragons and silver-horned, lion-like kirin — their backgrounds splashed with vibrant blues, brilliant reds and regal purples — stretched from the floor to the high ceiling fifty feet above. A tired, dirty light filtered in through the full wall windows across from them. It was as if the sun would not shine bright without the Emperor. Outside, skeletal cherry trees crowded the shores of the river, showing off only a thin scattering of sickly green leaves. The firework display of their blossoms had not been seen since the Emperor’s theft, but all could see the spaceport in the distance due to the trees’ lack of foliage.
On the raised podium housing the throne, the Emperor’s attendants were carefully concealing the life-support and feeding tubes, as they did before all state functions. They artfully hid the red and blue wires and clear tubes — which now and then filled with an almost fluorescent green liquid — under the silken red sleeves and folds of the ancient man’s robes. No cameras were allowed to his right, where wires trailed visibly to the mass of equipment behind the throne keeping the ancient body alive.
With the task of concealment done, the attendants spread salt around the throne and lit candles for protection. But the Emperor is gone, Asashoryu thought. Lost in the sky as he travels the heavens. He repeated the official answer to himself, the one he had learned in the history books. Asashoryu knew it was more dignified than saying the spirit that once dwelled in the body of our ruler is now captive to Japan 187531; a Japan who lost their own Emperor and reached out through the world between worlds and plucked Emperor Tokji from his body.
Sensei Shimotori had told him that Japan 187531 thought of themselves as Japan prime, the only true Japan prime, but Asashoryu had thought this notion absurd. Everyone knew that there were infinite worlds, infinite Japans thinking of themselves as Japan prime — and they were all wrong. Still 187531 had managed to keep Emperor Tokji prisoner despite a hundred and thirty years of conflict.
The attendants scurried away from the Emperor as the broadcast producer entered through a red curtain below and to the right of the podium, heralding the royal court’s arrival. The royal guards, in black samurai armor, drew their blades. The corporate sponsors held up their banners, hoping for an advantageous cutaway shot.
The red curtain slid open again, and the Sumotori filed in, three by three, with one place at the end of the seventh row noticeably missing. Prince Kaiho, at the first position in the first of the three rows, led the wrestlers to their spot in front of Asashoryu and his heya. Then he took his place at the side of the Emperor. His face showed the wrinkles and grayness of age.
When all the Sumo were in place, the government officials entered: dozens of frail old men, most wearing robotic exoskeletons made to look like samurai armor over their arms and legs as motorized walking aids. As they took their seats before the throne, the curtain slid open again and a stream of geisha entered quietly and without fanfare.
The producer looked to Prince Kaiho and after receiving a nod he waved to the cameramen. Lights clicked on, flooding the room in a clean, white shadowless light. It was as if the room before was a fading dream and Asashoryu’s memory had just been jarred. Blemishes and wrinkles on the old officials’ faces seemed more pronounced, while the made-up geisha seemed even more flawless.
Prince Kaiho bowed to his Emperor and to the court, then stepped up and began his address.
“People of the land of the rising sun,” he began, his deep, gruff voice filling the chamber without amplification. Asashoryu wondered if it were a trick of the acoustics.
“Under the agreement brokered by the Council of Infinite Japans, we have forsaken the all-out war with 187531 which had drained us for a century. But the battle rages on. You have entrusted us, the sacred Twenty-One, to represent you in the tournament, the substitute battle, to determine where the Emperor belongs, by proving which Japan is more noble and deserving through the will of its warriors.
“To win, a Sumo must issue a challenge and defeat all twenty-one of the enemy’s Sumo. With both sides strong as ever, challenges have been few and far between, lest either side leave their defenses down and vulnerable to defeat. But today I bring news.
“Thirty days ago, my brother, Prince Musoyama — our Sumo2 — bravely issued such a challenge. He defeated their best twenty, losing only to their Sumo1, my counterpart in their world. Fifteen days ago we began a new tournament to see who among the Upper House would rise to fill the vacancy. And before you today a new sumo has risen to the challenge, I give you Asashoryu, Japan’s new Sumo21.”
Geisha73 and four others converged on Asashoryu to escort him to the empty spot. They took off his red robe and held the white robe for him to slip into. As the cameras bathed him in glaring white light Asashoryu thought he could feel the eyes of Japan upon him. He bowed to the camera and then the producer motioned for a cut to a commercial. The cameras turned toward one of the corporate banners, then the lights winked out.
“Follow us back to the heya,” Prince Kaiho said to Asashoryu over the noise of applause.
Without the lights the room seemed grayer and less defined. Asashoryu blinked and squinted, then looked to Tokji for any sign of life, but the Emperor’s eyes were glazed over, as always.
“Ai woinotte. Kaihou-sama to Kaihousama-no
kyoudai to onjii-no-Ai wo inorimasu.”
May you be loved, like Prince Kaiho loved his brother.
Prince Kaiho’s eyes betrayed no hint of how his body would move. Here in the dreamtime, the old prince looked as young and corpulent as any Sumo, but something about his demeanor exuded danger and experience. Asashoryu stood in ‘Y’ stance, across the practice ring from the prince.
Sumo2 acted as gyoji, while the eighteen others circled the ring to watch. I’m the new one, Asashoryu thought. He’s going to teach me a lesson.
“Begin,” Sumo2 said.
Kaiho feinted forward, then circled sideways. Asashoryu paced with him.
Takanasuro was worse than this, Asashoryu thought.
Kaiho feinted again, then charged. Asashoryu braced himself, eager to lock up in a pushing match to test his strength. In the instant before they touched, Kaiho’s charging form winked into that of a giant black-and-white bear. Reflexively, Asashoryu closed his eyes and backed up, right out of the ring into the Sumo behind him. The giant panda stood over him, its claws extended, and snarled, showing a mouthful of unnaturally large teeth. The bear swatted at Asashoryu’s shoulder, but in the instant before impact the bear and its meaty paw blinked into the form of Kaiho again.
“Will you back away like that in a match with Japan 187531?” Kaiho said.
“No sir,” Asashoryu answered, confused as to what had happened.
“Then why do you disrespect me and do so here?”
“You didn’t follow the rules,” Asashoryu said, figuring Kaiho had used the dreamtime to manipulate his form, much as the way all of them appeared as hulking Sumo. “That is not a way a Sumo fights.”
“Who taught you the rules, Sumo21?”
“My Sensei, Prince Shimotori. A Sumo fights with his honor. His strength, a manifestation of his will and honor, is his weapon. No tricks.”
“My will was to get you out of the ring. Do you think Japan 187531 will treat you with honor and not trick you? Get up and try again.”
Asashoryu took his place in the ring and Sumo2 yelled, “Begin.”
This time Asashoryu charged. Kaiho stood, palms open. A long bo stick materialized in his hands. With lightening speed, he swung the long stick down in a graceful arc, sweeping Asashoryu off his feet.
“And will you go unarmed when your enemy raises weapons against you?”
Asashoryu said nothing.
“Since you are at a loss for words, Sumo21, we shall start your training over at the beginning. What are the first five animals of our school?”
“Tiger, leopard, crane, dragon, and snake,” Asashoryu answered.
“What are their lessons?”
“Power, speed, balance, range, and agility.”
“You’ll need those, and more. Shimotori was remiss if he thought your honor alone would raise you to the top. Sumo2, what are the five animals of our heya?”
“Bear. Rhino. Elephant. Kirin, and spider.”
“Sumo21, at the end of practice you will tell me the lessons of these creatures. Pair off. Sumo2, work with Sumo21. Begin.”
The room expanded. Nine more practice rings appeared. The Sumo filed into them two by two. Prince Kaiho caught Asashoryu by the shoulder.
“I am hard on you because you are better than them all. You almost look like my brother,” he whispered in his ear. Kaiho surveyed him with a look that resembled affection. “You will be the one to issue the next challenge. Train hard.”
Kaiho turned and walked to the practice ring where Sumo3 and Sumo19 were facing off. A small, almost transparent butterfly hovered above his head. It flew straight at Asashoryu then disappeared. A faint trace of floral blossoms lingered for an instant, then all hint of it was gone.
Asashoryu faced off with Sumo2, still thinking of the butterfly. He had never smelled anything at all in the dreamtime before.
Asashoryu placed his open left hand over his right fist, peace over war, and bowed.
Sumo2 laughed. “No, try again. Even your bow is wrong.” He placed his two fists side by side. “Like this,” he said, and bowed.
What perversion is this? Asashoryu thought, but he did as he was told.
“Good,” Sumo2 said. “Bear is easiest. We’ll start with bear first. Then tiger claws.”
Sumo2’s hands, up to his forearms, winked into orange and black striped tiger paws. “If you know bear, you can get tiger.”
Asashoryu listened to, wrestled with, and learned from Sumo2. When he could he watched the other rings, which were filled with wrestlers shifting form, sprouting dragon wings, and flinging webs. It made him long for Sensei Shimotori.
Sixty-four hours later, Prince Kaiho clapped his hands, the signal to stop. The Sumo lined up and bowed to the Japanese flag, then to Prince Kaiho, and last to each other.
“A good first day with our new warrior,” Kaiho said. “What did you learn, Sumo21?”
“Anger. Rage. Overkill. Magic, and Entrapment,” Asashoryu answered.
“Correct. Back to the waking world for dinner.”
Prince Kaiho exited the dojo, bowing before he passed through the curtain. The other Sumo followed, Asashoryu last in line. Above the curtained exit, Asashoryu noticed the ghostly butterfly flitting about. After Sumo20 passed through the curtain, it dove to the floor and Geisha73 appeared. She waved her hand and a silvery curtain appeared next to the one he was about to enter.
“Hurry, this way,” she said and passed through the curtain.
Asashoryu followed and found himself in another practice dojo. Where Kaiho’s dojo was dull and austere, this room was warm and bright. Geisha73’s robe appeared to be hundreds of butterflies stitched together in a brilliant multicolored weave.
“You have seen the Prince’s ways for yourself. Now do you believe?” she asked him.
“Do not wait until you see the great weapons of war in the nether. It is time to arm yourself now.”
“But my training with Prince Kaiho?”
“That is how your enemy fights, and it is good to learn. But you will train with me, like a true warrior, and you will turn out stronger than them all.”
Geisha73 spun her arms and traced the opening patterns of a fight with an imaginary opponent. Her movements were circular and graceful; her strategies reactive, punishing her attacker by using his own force against him. Geisha73 ended the pattern and bowed to Asashoryu.
“Face me,” she said. “Your first lesson will be to remove me from the circle.”
“It will not be fair,” Asashoryu said.
“I promise I will not hurt you,” she replied. “On your word.”
Asashoryu took his place. He would make this fast. Come straight at her and gently remove her from the circle.
“Now,” Asashoryu said, and went for her.
Geisha73 opened her arms wide, her robe crawling with movement. The butterflies on her robe came to life and took to the air, swarming him in a blinding cloud of color.
Asashoryu swung his arms but he could not see. He felt a hard kick to his knees, then his legs buckled, and he was pushed out of the ring.
Geisha73 stood over him; the insects gone. “You will come here after every practice till the tournament. The great Dragons of war gather in the nether. You will do this for the good of every Japan.”
Asashoryu bowed. He would do as she told.
“Istsumademo jibun-no-kao wo sesnsouni attewa inorimasen.”
May you never face yourself in battle.
—Sumo good luck wish,
Also meaning “Know yourself.”
The members of the Council of Infinite Japans sat on a podium on the lower tier of the stadium. Dozens of Emperors, each representing a different Japan, would be watching the tournament. Asashoryu glanced at their avatar forms; bearded old men, floating Buddha-like children and one tiny red burning sun, before focusing on Japan 187531’s twenty-one Sumo lined up along a half-moat of turbulent purple liquid encircling the fighting area. Asashoryu swallowed hard. Each loser would be plunged into the nether, lost forever in the ethereal sea.
The banzuke board winked to life, displaying Asashoryu’s name across from 187531’s twenty-one; at the top the list the name Prince Kaiho — their Sumo1.
Asashoryu and the opposing Sumo21 stepped into the ring and faced each other. The gyoji, in a green silk robe decorated with a yellow trim bearing black suns, followed. Asashoryu spoke and heard the ritual words as if he were under water. He listened for the signal; there would be no starting on trust today.
“Begin,” the gyoji shouted.
187531’s Sumo21 charged, pummeling into Asashoryu. Asashoryu let himself be pushed back, almost out of the ring, then at the last second grabbed his opponent’s arm and turned sending him careening out of the ring into the moat for a quick win. A puddle of purple liquid from the splash he made dribbled like quicksilver and rejoined the moat.
“Ketaguri,” the gyoji called, announcing the technique Asashoryu had executed. “Win.” He thrust his gunbai to Asashoryu’s side.
The characters representing 187531’s Sumo21 disappeared from the board. Asashoryu stamped his legs up and down to stretch them as the next Sumo entered the ring.
“Begin,” the gyoji called.
The Sumo20 spread his fingers wide and changed into a wild-haired, clawed demon.
“Weakling,” it taunted from contorted blue lips beneath its long green nose. Asashoryu stood his ground. It’s only a Sumo, he told himself. The demon circled, its scraggily red hair changing color as it moved.
Asashoryu stepped in and grabbed the demon’s hairy arm, quickly locking it. The demon howled, raking him with its free claw. Asashoryu twisted his body, bringing the demon down outside the ring.
“Kimedashi. Win,” the gyoji called.
These Sumo are easy, Asashoryu thought. Prince Musoyama had done well, eliminating their best.
Asashoryu looked to the banduke screen. The word “Fusenhai” appeared next to the next eighteen opponents, indicating they would not fight, thus losing by default.
Asashoryu looked to the gyoji, who in turn looked up to the Council. Asashoryu knew the tactic was legal, though he had never seen such a display of confidence in one wrestler. All their hope was in their Sumo1. Asashoryu stopped his arm from shaking.
Japan 187531’s Sumo1, their Prince Kaiho, identical in appearance to the man he knew, stepped into the ring.
“Begin,” the gyoji said.
Kaiho rushed forward. Asashoryu dodged and caught Kaiho’s arm, hoping to throw him out of the ring with his own momentum. Kaiho skidded to a stop, grabbed Asashoryu’s wrist and pulled Asashoryu’s arm to his body, locking it.
Asashoryu twisted his arm free and backed up before Kaiho could throw him down. Kaiho moved in. With no time to evade, Asashoryu met him and pushed. He felt his body wanting to slide backwards, but he held his ground. They grappled for inside holds on each other’s mawashi belts.
Asashoryu folded his arms in Oshitaoshi position, and pushed out. Kaiho countered with Oomata, grabbing and lifting Asashoryu’s leg as he moved in.
Asashoryu let Kaiho get an inside hold and used his freed hands to thrust his palm heels at Kaiho’s chest. As the blows connected, pain shot through him. Kaiho’s skin had turned to stone. A small frozen smile was etched on his lips. Asashoryu seized the opportunity and grabbed him around the waist, but found him too heavy to lift. A hollow laughed escaped Kaiho as razor wire sprang into existence wrapping itself around his marbled skin. Still Asashoryu held on. No matter how sharp and heavy I will not let go, he thought.
Kaiho took a lumbering step forward and Asashoryu broke his hold, seizing the chance to grab Kaiho’s ankle. Kaiho struck with a deceptive speed, grabbing Asashoryu’s wrist and snaking his other arm under Asashoryu’s elbow. Kaiho began to twist to flip him over, but Asashoryu pulled his hand away with a painful snap and retreated to the center of the ring.
Asashoryu sucked in deep breaths and gracefully circled his hands over each other to calm himself. He imagined hundreds of feather-light legs crawling all over him. In an instant a brilliant robe of butterflies covered his skin. Kaiho took another heavy step forward, the crooked smile on his face slowly widening.
Asashoryu pictured the insects’ wings beating and opened his arms. The robe sprang to life in a burst of electric blues, oranges and yellows. With hundreds of fluttering wings behind him, Asashoryu appeared like a butterfly, until the cloud flew at Kaiho, engulfing him in a colored blur of legs and wings.
Asashoryu stepped in to deliver his final disabling blows but the cloud dispersed, butterflies and precious wing dust swirling away from Kaiho, who emerged as a wingless blue dragon, his lower half hidden in a spinning whirlwind of white clouds. Kaiho rose high above the ring, yet still within bounds. The wind blew Asashoryu’s hair and plastered an orange monarch onto his mouth. He focused, righting his hair and winking the insects out of existence.
Kaiho raced down, blinking into his hulking human form, feet-first, just before striking Asashoryu.
Asashoryu tried to roll and dodge, but Kaiho hit him in the back. Reeling with pain, Asashoryu reached around and grabbed Kaiho’s legs. Hundreds of red ants appeared on Kaiho’s legs, swarming Asashoryu’s hands and covering him in bites. But Asashoryu held on. He felt the rope edge of the ring against his heels.
If I fell backward now I could send him out of the ring.
More ants covered him, like a living robe, the pain everywhere.
But he might pull me with him.
Asashoryu thought of the nebulous, almost-human shapes that had followed him after his victory in the qualifier match.
I don’t want to become a Lost One. But this is my only chance.
Asashoryu lifted, bringing all of Kaiho’s crushing weight off the ring. He pictured himself marching with Sensei Shimotori and the Sumo of his old house, steering clear of the flags warning them away from the edge of the nether. His arms trembled, then he allowed himself to fall onto his bottom. As he did, he yanked on Kaiho’s belt, sending the Prince sailing over him. The momentum sent Asashoryu onto his back and tumbling, feet over his head, out of the ring, following the Prince into the nether.
Asashoryu felt a brief resistance, as if he had pushed up against a bubble or a thin membrane, then an ominous silence as he passed through.
He felt weightless, yet he sank, the moat he had passed through now a glowing circle of light growing steadily farther away. He spun and tried to swim, then saw Kaiho below, sinking in a cloud of ants that abandoned him like rats from a doomed ship.
Below Kaiho, a constellation of glowing lights rose from the purple depths. Hundreds of Lost Ones, glowing will-o’-the-wisp lights where their hearts once were, converged on Kaiho like hungry fish, their twisted and demonic faces all shouting at once.
Bring me candy. I’m thirsty. What was the score of the baseball game? This is unfair. Tell my husband I love him, they murmured.
A Lost One broke from the pack and floated up; jellyfish-like tentacles extended from its fingers, reaching for Asashoryu. As the first gossamer needle stung him, he felt pressure around his waist and looked down. A giant silver hand closed around him, then the sea disappeared.
Asashoryu found himself atop a mountain looking down through the clouds at lush forests. Mount Fuji, Asashoryu thought. The sun above burned red, its rays moving slow enough to see, giving the illusion of a Japanese flag in the sky. A silver flash exploded among the clouds, then a chariot appeared. A goldenhaired kirin with a single silver horn atop its head pulled it to Asashoryu, silver dust trailing in the air beneath its hooves. The chariot touched down on a rocky crag close to him. Emperor Tokji sat inside, looking young and regal as he did in pictures.
“Come,” the Emperor said. The red sun in the sky scintillated as he spoke. Where the kirin had been now stood Geisha73.
Asashoryu approached in a reverent crouch.
“Rise. You have won the tournament. I am free,” the Emperor said.
“They complied? They set you free?”
“It was the will of The Council of Infinite Japans.”
“This is a happy day, my Emperor. Your body awaits you at home in the palace,” said Asashoryu.
The emperor frowned, and the sun darkened.
“I have been imprisoned for too long. I do not wish to return to an ancient husk. You will return to my body in my place and execute my final orders. Put an end to Kaiho and the Generals, send the fleet into the nether, choose a worthy successor and then let my body die with dignity.”
“I will obey,” Asashoryu said.
“I will stay in the nether, forever the Emperor of the Lost Ones,” Tokji said. “We will patrol the world in between worlds and deal with any who dare cross their boundaries to commit such a crime as the one I have suffered.”
“When I die … when your body dies,” Asashoryu corrected himself, “What will happen to me?”
“I will send my chariot for you. You can serve with me, or forever be anywhere you wish.”
Asashoryu wished to be taken into the sun — to become the rays that fed the cherry trees and then to float in the world as a fleeting fragrance as beautiful as Giesha73.
Geisha73 smiled, and a corona of golden sparks surrounded her. The sparks engulfed her and changed her shape back into a golden kirin.
“Your deeds will not be forgotten,” the kirin said in Geisha73’s resonant voice, as it pulled the Emperor’s chariot into the air. The sky flashed silver, and then everything disappeared in a blinding spray of golden sparks.
Asashoryu’s eyes snapped open. He was now in the waking world and felt cold. Machinery whirred and hummed behind him. Pain ran up his spine, and he itched, deep inside where he could not scratch. He tried to speak, but his mouth was too dry. He moved his arm, barely lifting the silken royal robes.
A cheer resounded, and Asashoryu realized he was in the royal palace. He moved his arm, more this time, and the royal court let out another cheer. Asashoryu motioned stiffly to the royal attendants for something to write. They quickly produced paper and a pen, and he scribbled a few characters; gather Prince Kaiho, the Generals, the full court, then ready the palace for the funeral of Sumo21.
“Tennou wa Nihon degozaimasu. Tennou wa Innochi degozaimasu.”
The Emperor is Japan. The Emperor is life.
“We are here to honor the fallen Sumo21 and all who gave their life for my return,” Asashoryu said, with the Emperor’s scratchy voice.
Prince Kaiho and the Generals stood in front of the full royal court. Asashoryu’s former body lay before the royal podium in a simple open casket.
“Before we begin the procession,” Asashoryu said to Kaiho, “Send the fleet into the nether.”
“Yes, my Emperor,” Kaiho replied. He whispered to the general behind him, who sent a soldier running down the aisle, past the perimeter of guards and out of the throne room.
Outside, visible through the tall windows, an elegant wooden skiff floated in the river. The green had returned to the trees. Pregnant buds hung in the cherry branches ready to burst.
“I fear I do not have much time,” Asashoryu said to the court. “I will be leaving you. I name Prince Shimotori as my successor. He is a man of honor.”
Kaiho stepped forward. “My Emperor, as your eldest direct descendant I am next in line.”
“For conspiracy against this and every Japan, you and all the Generals are banished.”
The royal guards stepped forward. The Emperor’s attendants walked down from the podium with small round devices throwing purple sparks in their hands. “My attendants will see to it that you may never enter the world between worlds again.”
Kaiho looked as if he would run, but the guards surrounded him.
“A rocket is waiting at the spaceport downriver to carry you into the coldness of space, freeing Japan of your taint,” Asashoryu said. “Or you may end your lives with dignity.”
He opened the case on his lap, revealing the gleaming swords inside.
“I leave you to your fate.”
The attendants carried Asashoryu out through the curtains, through the palace, and to the boat on the river. Asashoryu pictured Emperor Tokji in the nether, quelling the voices of the Lost Ones with candy and answers, and organizing them and the great Dragon dreamships into an army of honor.
His duty done, Asashoryu ordered the ropes mooring the boat to be cut. He stared at his old body resting in its casket as the boat began to drift in the current. The cherry blossoms opened as the wooden ship drifted past, ever so slowly nearing the rocket at the launch platform, waiting obediently to take him and the Emperor’s body into the sun.
Daniel Braum lives and works in Long Island, New York. His fiction has appeared in Electric Velocipede #8, Full Unit Hook Up #5 and #6 and is forthcoming in Cemetery Dance. His story “The Yeti’s Hand” can be read in The Fortean Bureau #20 (March 2004). In 2005 he edited and published the anthology Spirits Unwrapped, which can be found at www.projectpulp.com and www.shocklines.com.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish