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The Time Masters

Lucie Lukačovičová: The Time Masters - Teki no shujin (Vládci času)
Cover: Jana Šouflová
Published by: KJV - Poutník, 2007  
(Club of Jules Verne – Pilgrim 2007)
309 pages,  240 Kč, hard cover
ISBN 80-85892-95-6


Japan, 13th century.

The country is plagued by war between the Taira and Minamoto clans, where human life is considered cheap. Two main characters stand out amidst all the palace intrigue, cold-blooded murders, suicide with honor, and slaughter on the battlefield. Ario, a spy working for the Minamotos, is convinced he is supporting the right cause as he attempts to protect the clan that took him under their wing. Shikyaku is a former courtesan trained as an assassin by the Taira, now a burned-out, hollow shell. They meet on the streets of the imperial city but are quickly separated by the turn of events and end up on opposite sides of the remorseless conflict.

The war between the clans is about both power and the special gifts which most of them have inherited. The Taira know how to rob people of their lifespan. They steal part of a person’s life to become younger or to enable them to move faster or cure someone who’s dying. For their part, the Minamotos know how to thwart this time-snatching ability, thus allowing everyone around them to live exactly as long as they were meant to. Which clan members have the right to be called Time Masters? Who are the good ones, the bad ones? Neither compromise nor consensus is possible here, for the warring sides intend to fight it out until one of them has been completely annihilated.

People of all types, with dissimilar moral values, virtues, vices and aims, are drawn into the whirlwind of events, sometimes cast in against their will: there’s the cunning intriguer Teono with the Jaded Eyes; the lame squire Kiso, fated to become a field commander; the celebrated Japanese hero Yoshitsune Minamoto and his faithful sidekick Benkei; the empress, who struggles to protect her child; the inscrutable Chinese time-snatcher An Bo and her sworn adversary, the mage Tung-fang Shuo.During the course of action, many of these characters realize their mistakes, others simply dig in their heels, but the two main heroes undergo the biggest change in their never ending quest for each other. Ario comes to lose everything he cares about, including restraint and ideals. He rises to the position held by his father and becomes a master spy, cynical and cold-blooded. Opposite of him is the tormented Shikyaku, determined to resist the Taira, who are only using her, and find the courage inside her to feel something, give meaning to her existence.

The novel is based on a thourough study of historical sources, visits to the described locations and consultations with renowned authorities on Japan. Medieval Japanese culture is played out here – warrior monks, belief in foxes blessed with magical powers, writing poems before death, mixing Buddhism and Shintoism, the meaning of honor and obligation – in a form that is both natural and understandable for unfamiliar readers.With the exception of Shikyaku and Teono, all characters are actual historical personages.The story concludes with the famous naval battle of Dan-no-ura, where the two main characters finally meet up again.

Photos from "baptism" of the book in Krakatit bookstore:


Czech Review 12th  July 2007 in neviditelnypes.lidovky


Translation of the review into English:

Japan of the 12th century, the magic and two irreconcilable families vying for power over the entire state. Power is the strongest  drug – the person who tasted it would never want to give it up.  The Power  destroys such a person in the same way as he destroys the others who are against him – or could have been against him.  Wherever  the company of soldiers passes, the grass does not  grow, wherever the desire for Power passes, it  destroys everything. And when the  desire for Power is doubled, only scorched earth remains behind.  And a lot of graves.

A complicated story was inspired by old Japanese narrative about the struggle of two ruling families and it is peppered by magic of Time. There are people there who are able to stop Time, and there are people there who know how to steal Time. Others are just toys in their hands. It is easy for them to lend to someone years of life, as simple as to take it away from somebody else.  

We are accompanied through the story by two inconspicuous heroes, a young boy Ario  and the murderess Shykiaku who stand on the opposite poles of the Power, but their motivation is similar.  From time to time they meet – that they only meet is most fortunate for both of them.  Thanks to those two we can see the whole story from the  human perspective, it is not just the story of the follies of the powerful, but also - and more - about ordinary people who learn to survive in their vicinity.  

The author embarked on a very difficult task to build an intertwined story with the background which is very exotic for us, although  much popular already  since the days of Jan Hloucha (japanologist, oriental art collector and author of the famous book Sakura in the Gale, 1905) or Joe Havlasa  (his popular novels and spiritual stories from Japan were published in the thirties).  Two clans are fighting for power outside and within the clan as well, the betrayal being the most frequent  weapon just after the cruelty.  The drug of Power is more powerful than anything else and causes that temples and palaces turn into ashes and ruins and  treasures hidden in them  are sprayed by the wind across the landscape. The earth is not capable to consume all the dead any more.  

After a series of short stories Lucie Lukačovičová embarked on  a complex novel with a complex plot, and made use of some of  the  knowledge of the literary form  which she  also explains  in her courses  in creative writing.  She managed to keep this emotionally charged story within  limits and made a follow up of its twists and turns  still possible. Also motives of the characters of the story are outlined clearly  and early enough so that the story had  despite its complexity quite clear contours. As Lucie explains in her epilogue, original stories were used  as a repository of themes and characters, some motives were adapted, simplified or supplemented. Her novel is echoing,  not  simply  retelling  the original sources.  

However, what she has selected from the Japanese history and culture, are  only the parts necessary for fast progress of her story without large detours and explanations - do not expect any Japanese oasis of calm. The whole book is very nicely readable and suggests that Lucy may in the future reach the level of guru of this genre Mrs. Františka Vrbenská and others.

The book was published  in hardcover with illustrations by Jane Šouflová, who created  a very impressive stylization of traditional Japanese paintings and drawings. Jana demonstrated   artistic quality and proved that she did not fall  into a trap of routine and repetition of the same workmanship. Her illustrations  effectively help the readers to immerse themselves in the environment of old Japan.  

For further reading ...

 Chapter XII.

Oh, fisherman’s campfire,
I am like your shadow –
abandoned, alone at night:

Therefore I smolder without a flicker
Until my light goes out for good.

Unknown author


“Where did Master Tung-fang disappear to?”

There was silence, broken only by the sounds of blows striking the earth. The novice wasn’t put off by his companion’s apparent indifference. “Mizuo? Did you hear me? Do you know where the master wizard has gone off to?”

“I heard that demons bore him off somewhere,” the older monk muttered.

“Do you think the monks from Hi’ei Mountain will come to our aid in battle? Huh? Mizuo?”

The older monk looked at the younger one, then went back to digging the ditch. What should I tell Chiso? That the loudest and most militant calls for an attack on the Miidera are coming from Hi’ei Mountain itself? We are now enemies of the empire... Buddha Maitreya, pray be with us.

 “I don’t know,” he finally replied. “It has nothing to do with the teachings of Buddha anymore, Chiso. It’s only about politics. I wouldn’t put too much hope in them giving us support.”

 “Where to put our hope in then?” the younger one asked anxiously.

 “In almighty Buddha,” Mizuo mumbled. How can I hold it against him for being so scared? He’s still practically a child. He’s had no opportunity to discover the world or the wisdom of Buddha.

 Darkness fell around the finished earthworks. The warriors looked down from behind the bundled logs and their wall of shields. An uneasy silence hung over Miidera.

It was past midnight, the Hour of the Hare could be seen in the stars. The silence was broken by the call to arms. The first arrow whizzed by, striking wood. Somebody tossed a torch down from the ramparts. The light from it illuminated the silhouettes of the advancing soldiers of Taira.


Another thud of bowstrings. The cries of the wounded, several bodies falling from the wall. The monks drew back their bows and let loose a hail of arrows.

Chiso crouched to take cover, a prayer on his lips. His companion and protector had disappeared, swallowed up into the tumult of battle. Gripped by fear, the images around him kept blurring and sharpening until suddenly everything seemed so unreal. Chiso couldn’t help but hear the hollow snap of the bamboo ladder just half a step away from him. His body straightened up sharply.

“Chiso! Nooo!”

He heard nothing, noticed nothing. He had struck the ladder with his wooden staff before the enemy had had a chance to properly balance it. The bamboo slid off the rampart, causing somebody down below to curse and one of the soldiers to lose his footing and fall into the ditch.

Chiso felt something jab him in the chest. The world around him began to blur and shudder. The youthful monk instinctively felt for the feathered end of the shaft sticking out of his body and tried to pull it out. He staggered for a moment on the edge of the wall, then plunged headlong, without a sound, into the ditch below.

“Chiso... no... no...”

Mizu’s arms fell powerlessly to his sides. He bit down hard on his lips, until the sweet taste of blood was on his tongue. Where are you off to in such a hurry, you fool? You’re one step ahead of the moment, he laughed to himself. Why the rush? He grabbed another arrow from his quiver. For another leaf of the Eternal Lotus. He arched his back and drew his bow. Like death raining down from the heavens above.   


Loud voices and thumping feet permeated the castle in Tada.

 “Who could have known about my role in the uprising? Who would have the audacity to join forces with Yoshitsune?” growled Yukitsuna as he made his way to the courtyard. He had to do everything to keep his fury inside. Who found out that I betrayed the Minamotos? “Who? Who...! I want his head, whoever he is!”

The Taira would certainly not have deprived themselves of allies. Not like that. Teono... She had good reason to get involved in the conspiracy – everyone knows she was Korenaga’s mistress – but she had neither the time nor opportunity. Who else? No doubt those whose houses I ordered searched. Maybe my little dancer at home chatters more than what’s good for her. We shall see.

The answer was waiting for him in the courtyard. The guards were holding an elderly man. The captain of the watch handed Yukitsuna a bundle of letters.

“We found these sewn up in the sleeve of a discarded kimono.”

The Lord of Tada noticed the unmistakable, easy scrawl of Yoshitsune of the Minamotos.

 “Good plan,” he muttered. “What’ve you got to say about this?” he growled at the old man.

 “Sir, these letters are not mine. I don’t even know what’s in them. They are falsely accusing me. But I have no way of proving it to you. So the only thing I ask now is to let me die with honor, by my own hand.”

 “I think not,” hissed Yukitsuna.

At that moment the frail little dancer ran outside. News travels fast. Although she had her best kimono on, she flung herself at the feet of the lord of the castle.

“Have mercy, I beg of you! My father is innocent, I swear by the gods! He would never serve anyone except you! For our merciful Buddha...”

“Bind and silence her!” Yukitsuna ordered. “I’m in no mood for this, you little bitch.”

“Any other orders, Sir?” asked the captain as they grabbed the wailing girl.

“Take them to the river and chop their heads off! I don’t ever want to see them again,” Yukitsuna snapped. “Sound the call to arms at once! We don’t have much time. Yoshitsune’s men are on the move and know their way around the mountains!”

 “Will Lord Tomomori’s warriors come to our aid?”

 “Where do you think Tomomori’s divisions are deployed? He decided to cut off Yoshitsune from his allies. Tomomori’s going after Miidera.”

Yukitsuna whirled about on his heels and headed back to the castle interior. On the way he tossed the thin bundle of letters, the true beauty of which he could scarcely appreciate, into a bin of red-hot coals. The deftness used by Teono in making and fobbing off the forgeries was supposed to have remained hidden from him.


 “Retreat! Retreat! Abandon the ramparts!”

 He didn’t have to say it twice to the defenders. It was already too late for many of them.

 Mizuo ducked, just missing a blow from the side. From below he thrust his dagger upwards and found a gap in his foe’s plated armor. He withdrew the weapon from the warrior’s body, dragged himself along the ground, grabbed a nearby naginata and dashed for the monastery compound.

 “The ramparts have been breached! The ramparts have been breached!”

Moaning. Cries. Why all the screaming? Why do people scream like crazy when they’re dying? An arrow whizzed by him and pierced a wooden wall. Sparks flew off of it. Flaming arrows. No... Not that... He ran on.

 At the gate he could see that the defenses around Miidera had fallen. So many of us are too young or too old. We cannot hold out. The flames burn into the night.

Mizuo stopped in front of the main pagoda, which held the statue of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future Age.

The abbot was standing quietly at the threshold. There was silence all around him. Mizuo dropped the naginata and fell at the feet of his superior.

“We couldn’t defend the wall... Please, allow me to lead you to safety!”

“No. It was I who decided the fate of the monastery, when I refused to back down to the Taira and provided refuge for Prince Mochihito. All creatures and things of this ephemeral world have their time.”

“They will haul you to Rokuhara as a traitor.”

“No. They wouldn’t dare.”

 The abbot beckoned him to rise. Mizuo obeyed, grabbing his weapon.

 “Chiso is dead, Master.”

 “I know. You wouldn’t have left him by himself.”

For a moment the abbot stared off into the darkness, in the direction where, he suspected, the path led to Nara. That’s where those who still haven’t picked up arms or are no longer able to are hiding out. Buddha, give them time... to escape. That’s all that matters.

The fire was spreading among the wooden buildings, jumping from one shingled roof to the other. There was nobody to put it out. The defense was reduced to skirmishes, each pocket of resistance falling one after the other.

Mizuo clutched the grip of his naginata and turned to face the advancing warriors.

“Come on. Have at it, if you’re not so afraid!” he shouted at them.

At that moment the roof of the main pagoda burst into flames. Mizuo’s silhouette from the fire made him look more demon than human. The Taira hesitated for an instant.

“Get him!” cried out their leader and his men lunged forward without further ado. Mizuo slashed the first one across the face, causing the others to slow up and proceed cautiously. With his naginata, the monk kept them at bay, deflecting the blows and not allowing himself to be drawn out into an open space. Heat was scorching his back from behind.

 He parried several more blows, struck one of the enemy in the side. He smiled and continued swinging away with his naginata.

He saw it coming at the last second and tried to shield himself. Too late. A long spear ran him through. Mizuo tried to lift his weapon once more, but his arm wouldn’t heed. The naginata fell to the ground with a rattle. The monk remained standing, his back leaning against the wall of a pagoda, where the spear had firmly pinned him. He could taste blood in his mouth. The opened eyes of the dead warriors around him reflected the light of the raging fire.

Namu Amida Butsu...” whispered the abbot in prayer for the dead. At that moment the warriors saw him standing in the doorway like a statue.

“Hey, old man! Come on out! It’s time you paid for your treachery against the empire!” shouted their commander.

“If you would like to drag me before a tribunal of the Taira, whose pride insults the gods, then come for me. What’s stopping you?” the abbot quietly asked.

“Grab him! What are you waiting for?!” the commander barked at his men. Several of the warriors took a few uncertain steps towards the threshold.

The abbot leisurely turned around and walked into the burning building. He sat down before a statue of the Buddha Maitreya. At its feet lay one of the magic flutes of Prince Mochihito – Semiore, the snuggled cicada.

The roof caved in, flames surged forth from the pagoda. The warriors gaped in fear at the crumbling building, their feet rooted in place.

Not a one of them dared go inside.


Drums sounded throughout the village, echoing off the smooth rock of the surrounding valley.

It was the celebration of Bon, the feast of the dead.

She appeared among them, swiftly and unexpectedly, like a ghost, a girl with blank, lifeless eyes. There was silence all around. The people began stepping back to make way for her. The dead sometimes come back in order to dance the bon odori.

Shikyaku swooped down upon the villagers like a phantom. The kingdom of the dead had been marked in her face by a deep, searing pain. Exhausted not in body, but in will. She had come down from the mountains in a trancelike state, drawn by the firelight. When the dancers in the circle reached out to her, she offered them her icy hands.

One of the drummers lifted his drumsticks. The massive odaiko drum thundered like a storm over the mountains. Shikyaku took her first step in the dance, then another... finally the whole circle joined her.

Once, long ago... my birthplace, just like this village here... Bon odori!

This former assassin was dancing among strangers – just for a while, for this night only... To be somewhere, to belong somewhere! The fire was intense. Among strangers. She thought she had spotted somebody familiar. In a flash. She glanced around...

The lean face of Ike. She couldn’t thwart my gift... But she recognized me... Buddha, have mercy on her soul... Ike smiled. No trace of the ravages of smallpox had remained. She quickly disappeared among the villagers.

A silhouette of a mother holding a child in her arms appeared. The woman slowly turned her head to look, a familiar face... Shikyaku was dancing in circles. Another look and she no longer recognized the face. The fire and moonlight had played tricks on her.

The circle whirled around wildly, bodies trembled to their core under the din of the drums. Korenaga’s mantle was bloodstained. A young boy stood next to him, holding on to one of his escorts with both hands. A child’s head, this should have saved Shigemori... Dear gods, why must I be reminded so.

Through the roaring flames she spotted the figure of someone she would recognize anywhere. He smiled at her, sadly, but with no regrets, no reproach. He lifted his hand, blood dribbled from the gash on his palm, but the wound was already beginning to heal itself. Bon. Bon. Bon. The drumming rumbled on. One of the dancers blocked her view for just a moment. When she looked again, the figure on the other side of the fire was gone. Bon!

Shikyaku danced and sang, her body burned with feverish ecstasy. She drank the sake they gave her, took everything they offered her, including one item they didn’t even know they were giving her. The whole village belonged to her. No one looked at the stars, no one cared about the time. Bon!

The half-naked drummers continued to pummel the night away with their crazed rhythm. Shikyaku noticed the muscles of one young man flexing with every beat of his drum, the beads of sweat rolling down his back. She stared at him and suddenly felt an urgent desire to fill some void inside her. I yearn... I yearn for desire. Not to take, but to give for once. Freely, only because I want to. Only... I have nothing to give.

“The life of a man is the life of a mayfly – throw him into the fire,” someone intoned.

“The life of a man is the life of a mayfly,” repeated the villagers.

I would like... to want something... Shikyaku eagerly took the cracked jar of sake that someone offered her and hurriedly drank from it to slake her thirst. She gulped down the rice wine together with the pulsating energy of the night air. Taking a deep breath, she drew her lips away from the jar and turned to the young drummer. I vow you shall have a long, long life! There was no need to touch him. With the jar still in hand, and intoxicated by her own power, she started dancing around the outer circle of the villagers.

All the houses were dark with the exception of the light in the dooryards – to help the dead find their way back to their families. She noticed that one house was still lit inside. She immediately walked in.

An impoverished place with but a few dying embers of light welcomed her. A woman with dark circles under her eyes, her face drawn and haggard, lay there sleeping. Next to her on the cot was a child, pale and wheezing,  its every effort to breathe a struggle. Neither heard the din of the drums or singing. Overcome by exhaustion, they lay deeply asleep in each other’s clasp.

Shikyaku stood there quietly. Mother? Older sister? Certainly among the poorest in the village. She looked at the little boy, covered up to his neck with a blanket, his mouth and eyes slightly open. A child’s head.

She slowly sat down. She glanced at a nearby bucket of water. She could see her face reflected in the surface. Who are you? Ko-no Shikyaku. Child killer.

The empty jar fell from her hand. She swiftly rose, causing her head to spin slightly. She leaned against the wall by the door, fixed her gaze on the child gasping for air. Live... Don’t die, stay alive... Just this one time – I bring with me life and breath.

The air suddenly grew thick. Shikyaku left the house and ran back to the fire. On the way she twirled around several times in a dancing motion. Don’t die! Tonight I will dance and be gone before dawn! Don’t die! Stay alive!


The roadside tavern was unusually quiet. Ario pushed his cup of tea to the side, took out some writing material from his traveling bag and prepared the ink. He was sitting there alone, save for a local street walker, dirty and disheveled, napping away in the corner. The ends of her well-worn slip, mended by patchwork, showed beneath her kimono. For a moment the spy stared pensively through the open terrace doors at the waning afternoon sun. He then took up his brush and began to write:

 “My Friend, your news has reached me later than we both had hoped. Father is dead. I’m preparing to cross over the mountains to offer my services to Yoshitsune of the Minamotos and again meet with Kiso. Lord Yoshitsune has reportedly left his castle and is heading for Tada. I think I know why. I hope to reach him before he gets there. May you find Tung-fang. The gods be with you. A.”

We need Tung-fang Shuo, we need the soothsayer, he thought as he laid his brush aside. Jomyo doesn’t think the sorcerer is dead – nor do I for that matter. But why did Meishu insist on looking for Master Shuo by himself? Why? I had hoped we would set out for the Island of the Devils together. On the other hand... there’s no time to spare and the trail is growing cold quickly.

He stood up as soon as the ink had sunk in and dried. He folded up the letter and handed it to the tavern keeper along with a handful of coins for his room and board. They said nothing, only quietly nodded to each other. How I would love to exchange a few words here, without fear, without looking over my shoulder. Just once, in a moment of peace... Only we have never known peace in our time.

He walked into the hallway and put on his shoes. Outside his horse was nervously stamping its hooves and jerking its head. The mountains, marked by trails, were clearly drawn against the backdrop of the sky. Silent, waiting. Timeless.


Like a child, she lay all bundled up next to the smoldering campfire. People have to sleep. Sleep purges the soul. Lets us forget, for a while anyway, who we are and what we did.

Instinctively she snapped awake from her dream and reached for her dagger. Too late. Broad, powerful hands had her wrists firmly in their grip.

“Hah, it’s only a girl!” a male voice cried out.

“Come on, give us the knife, little girl. You don’t want to hurt yourself,” chuckled another.

The two men dragged her away from the shadow of the rock face. Ragtag, scruffy, filthy. Shikyaku looked around. She counted seven other vagabonds in the group. They had to be drawn here by the campfire. Should I put up a fight? So many of them... I was too slow. But I was never so slow before...

“Who are you?” a deep, melodious voice called out, spoken by a man standing on a flat, rocky surface. The assassin had to tilt her head back quite far in order to get a clear look at him. He had a broad nose and face, chiseled lips, a high forehead, heavy eyebrows, a piercing look about him. He looked massive, even if most of it wasn’t muscle, but his height and size alone made him formidable in battle. The others, showing an obvious measure of respect for him, kept their distance.

Chills ran down Shikyaku’s spine. The leader of this band of brigands was huge, but that didn’t frighten her. Her training had counted on her clashing with opponents who were physically much more powerful than she was. But...there was something intense about his look... She sensed precision... Deadly precision... My speed would have no chance against him. Does he know it? Does he even know about me? Does he suspect that time is slipping away?

She timidly bowed and remained silent.

“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” one of the men ripped into her.

She shook her head. He who is unable to speak or think is of no danger.

She looked fearfully around, then lowered her head.

“Hey you! Are you deaf?!”

The man with her right wrist and kimono collar in his clutches started dragging her along the moonlit rocky surface.

“Leave her alone. Can’t you see the poor thing is gone?” snapped one of the onlookers. “What do you think, Benkei?” he asked, turning to the leader. slow

“Let her go,” Benkei ordered, still glaring at her with his deep, penetrating eyes. The whites had been practically absorbed by the irises.

Shikyaku winced. When they released her, she dropped to the knees of Benkei and begged, without uttering a word, for his protection.

“What should we do with her? Kill her?” someone asked aloud.

“What would be the point of that?” another voice called out. “It wouldn’t do us any good.”

A short, slender young man, moving with the adroitness of a weasel, suddenly appeared out of the dark outline of the rocks. He had long hair tied in a ponytail, a close-cropped beard on his chin and a pencil moustache. Before anyone could interrupt him, he added: “We depend on the surrounding villages for our survival during winter time. We can’t go around stealing their girls. The only way we keep the villagers on our side against the Taira is with threats and money. Applying too much pressure can be risky and their women is a major sticking point. Besides, we need somebody to keep us warm at night and cook for us in the day. Can you cook, girl?”

Shikyaku nodded.

“There, you see,” he said, raising his eyebrows. His countenance had an unmistakable impression about it.

“And the little filly is quite pretty,” the long-haired brigand continued. “She won’t spill our secrets anywhere. She looks like she can hold her own over the mountains, so she won’t be any burden. Nor does she look like she eats very much. Remember, we can always do away with her anytime we want to, even though I don’t think that’s the wisest thing to do.”

“Maybe he’s right...”

“Yeah, Kobuta’s right.”

“I agree.”

Everyone, including Kobuta, turned to Benkei. He only nodded, quietly. The brigands grabbed the silent girl, one of them collecting her blankets and traveling gear.

“Your pack is quite nice. Hey, girl, who gave you this stuff?” he asked Shikyaku.

The assassin looked at him confused.

“Did you forget she can’t talk? You can see for yourself she’s deaf and dumb, though maybe not so dumb,” cackled another member of the group. “I’ll wager you she knows how to take care of herself, knows how to use everything, but it would never occur to her what to pack.”

“Let’s get back. The moon is about to go down,” declared Benkei, ending the conversation. Everyone fell silent and they resumed their journey along the narrow path between the rocks.

Shikyaku obediently followed them, a resigned, uncomprehending look on her face. This band of brigands is a two-headed beast, she thought to herself. Benkei is the leader and Kobuta his deputy. A cunning pair. Kuma to itachi – bear and weasel.